Wednesday, April 29, 2015


            What a Lovely Way to Burn
New Bio Reveals the Talented, Tortured Character of Peggy Lee
by Don Stradley   

Show business history is rampant with stories of talented entertainers who were unbearable offstage. In James Gavin’s engrossing new book, Is That All There is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee, we get a detailed look at one of the most talented and unbearable of them all. But despite her disastrous personal life and prickly personality, Peggy Lee comes off as an impressive figure. While dealing with crumbling marriages, health problems, addictions, and the sort of paranoia that should have landed her in an asylum, she still managed the phenomenal accomplishment of recording hit songs in four different decades.

The challenge in writing a biography of Lee is that she was turning barmy before she was 40, which means most of Gavin’s 500-plus page bio is spent describing Lee in a kind of disturbed freefall. He opens the story in 1999, just a few years before Lee’s death at 81, when he interviewed her by phone. Lee, blissed out on tranquilizers, spoke to him as she did to most visitors: from a large, fluffy bed, like a giant porcelain doll surrounded by pillows. As someone mentions in the book, only a person from a very poor background would maintain such a Hollywood fantasy of success.

Lee's Depression era upbringing in North Dakota was compounded by losing her mother at age four. There was little love to be found in the company of her alcoholic father and brutal stepmother, but Lee (born Norma Deloris Egstrom) found comfort in performing. Even at a young age, she could cast a spell over her listeners. More than one person noted that Lee seemed to have an almost supernatural hold over people. "I saw what she could do to an audience," recalled a friend, Phoebe Jacobs. "That's not just talent. It's gotta come from something else."

Lee made a career out of bucking the odds and doing the unexpected. Her voice was small, yet she scored hits during the roaring big band era. She was a white woman from America's Great Plains region, yet found some of her greatest successes while singing to Latin flavored beats. When rock and roll threatened to make her irrelevant, she stepped into a studio at 40 and recorded 'Fever”' the sauciest hit of her career. In the early 1970s, when commercial radio offered upbeat pap to help America recover from the turbulent 1960s, she won a Grammy for 'Is That All There Is?' perhaps the most cynical song to ever top the charts.

Gavin balances Lee's creative highs with chapters about her troubled private life. She ached for the kind of love she sang about, but was given to quickie marriages to insubstantial men. Alleged affairs with Frank Sinatra and Quincy Jones amounted to nothing. She grew reliant on pills and alcohol, and was abusive to those around her. She was a control freak, known for telling great big lies. Lee's daughter Nicki seemed like a sad figure, too, enlisted in her adult years to look after her increasingly unstable mother.

In all, Gavin gives us a Peggy Lee who is slightly crazed, but always capable of one more great song or concert appearance. It’s as if the Bette Davis character in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane was, deep down, a brilliant actress. "Lee sang," Gavin writes, "and all was forgiven."

In her heyday, Lee was sometimes derided for her sexed-up persona, an image that distracted from her considerable talent. Not only could the woman swing like Billie Holiday, she was also a playful lyricist who wrote several songs for Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, and a good enough actress to earn rave reviews for her role in Pete Kelly’s Blues. She had a way of interpreting a song that made it seem incredibly personal, luring listeners in with her hushed, almost secretive delivery. As Gavin wrote, "Whether or not the story had happened to her, she could make an audience feel that it had."

Gavin tells more than Lee’s story. He also frames her life within the styles and trends of the time, presenting each of her triumphs as the work of a massive underdog struggling to be heard. Gavin obviously has a strong admiration for Lee's music, and is at his best when describing the sessions for her various albums. He pays special attention to people like Nelson Riddle, whose string arrangements rippled "like lilacs in a breeze," and Richard Rogers, who was outraged that Lee had "thrown away his lilting waltz meter and sang 'Lover' like a panther in heat." Gavin's description of the exhausting session for 'Is That All There Is?' is especially vivid, as Lee marches through take after take, even losing a perfect one due to a technician's error.

The only stumble on Gavin’s part is when he wallows in the cattiness of Lee’s entourage. When he recounts the time someone described the aging Lee as “an albino gorilla”, Gavin seems to be chuckling too.

Still, Gavin’s book is a fascinating look at a gifted woman who found love nowhere but in her music. It’s no wonder she sang until she was physically unable.

 Photo by Gaby Rona/CBS       

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


Al Pacino plays a has-been rock star from the Nixon years in Danny Collins.

He appears onscreen looking suntanned and bejeweled, his hair sprayed to a crispness that hairdressers warn you about. This effort to look young only draws attention to how old and haggard he is. Al Pacino has been playing a lot of these roles lately:  badly weathered men who seem slightly bemused at how time has taken them down.  As the title character in Danny Collins,  he's a rock star who is approaching 70, hasn't written a new song in 30 years, and performs in cavernous concert venues full of chubby old ladies who sway to the old hits. He appears to take his dead career in stride, but deep down he knows he's become a joke. His  young girlfriend cheats on him. "I'm home," he shouts every time he enters his empty mansion, and no one ever answers.  He knows a birthday party is being planned for him. He doesn't care.  While his guests fall flat on their faces drunk, he sits off to the side, bored.
In his day, Danny was a major star.  Now he's on a farewell tour, which his manager hopes will provide him with a nice nest egg so he can finally retire and get off the road. As a birthday gift, Danny receives a letter  written to him years earlier by his hero, John Lennon.  Danny had once mentioned in a magazine interview that he loved Lennon. Lennon wrote to him in care of the magazine, offering Danny advice, and giving his phone number in case Danny wanted to talk. But Danny never saw the letter. When he finally reads it 40 years later, the effect is profound.   
Danny believes his life might have been different had he received the letter when it was written. He could have been friends with Lennon, and might have avoided becoming a bloated has-been.  Motivated for the first time in years, Danny bids adieu to his cheating groupie, and heads for New Jersey. He books a room at the Hilton, tries to write some new music, and attempts to get in touch with a son he's never met. 
This is when the movie turns into mush.  Danny wanders through the hotel like a grinning elf, befriending the staff. In an effort to connect with someone close to his age, he starts hitting on the hotel manager (Annette Bening).  He finally meets his son (Bobby Cannavale) but as estranged sons always are in these movies, Danny's son has a chip on  his shoulder and wants no part of a reunion.  Fortunately,  Danny's daughter-in-law (Jennifer Garner) and granddaughter warm up to him.  Danny, meanwhile, lingers in his hotel room, writing maudlin songs.  He spends his nights getting loaded at the hotel bar with Bening, wondering if it's too late to get to know his son.
Danny's persistence, plus his rock star money, helps him to finally get on his son's good side. He enrolls his granddaughter into a special school, then he helps his son deal with an illness. Feeling confident, Danny sets up a little club gig for himself to play his new songs. But with his newfound family and friends in the audience, Danny embarrasses himself and ends up backstage snorting cocaine. It's the old story:  Man meets son, man loses son. Will man get his son in the end?
Danny Collins was directed by Dan Fogelman, who has written some films about men of a certain age who try to change their ways  (Stupid Crazy Love; Last Vegas)  He favors the sentimental and hammy, as if he secretly covets an audience of chubby old ladies like the ones who show up at Danny Collins concerts.  His missteps here include naming the granddaughter 'Hope', to give Pacino a chance to say "Goodbye Hope" over and over again.  The Lennon songs that spice up the soundtrack feel out of place in a schmaltzy Hollywood movie, and I suspect that Fogelman knows absolutely nothing about the rock and roll life. Yet, there are moments in Danny Collins that work remarkably well.  The cast, especially Pacino, rises above the sappy material. Christopher Plummer is very fine as Danny's straight-shooting manager. Garner is funny when she says Danny missed out on a "perfect daughter-in-law."   As Danny's attention starved granddaughter, Giselle Eisenberg looks like the new Shirley Temple.  I hope she doesn't grow up too quickly.  And watch the way Cannavale reaches out to hold Pacino's hand near the movie's end.  It'll make you forget some of the silly stuff that happens along the way.

- Don Stradley

Sunday, April 19, 2015


Big Eyes Movie Poster

Big Eyes is the story of Walter Keane and his wife Margaret and their eventual court battle over who really painted all of those big eyed waifs that were so popular in the 1960s and '70s. If you don't remember them, trust me, the Keane kids were everywhere. They had over-sized round heads, mops of long hair and enormous, sad eyes. How popular were they? My grandmother, an old woman who didn't even speak English, had a metal waste basket in her kitchen with images of those famous, melancholy Kean kids on the side.

When Walter met Margaret, they were both struggling to sell their art in 1950s San Francisco. She was shy, but had a talent for drawing sad children. He was a gregarious charmer, but had no talent at all. Walter was, as depicted in the movie, the sort of sleazy hustler always trying to talk his way into a good seat at an exclusive restaurant. Gallery owners hated him because he was constantly showing up to peddle his unwanted paintings. Women in the local art scene hated him
because he was such a rake.

Yet, Walter seemed to genuinely love Margaret. He encouraged her to paint, and told her not to sell herself short. Their life could have been a story of how a man put aside his own artistic aspirations to support his more talented wife. Instead, when Walter noticed Margaret's paintings were attracting attention, he took credit for them and never looked back.

Margaret was angry at first, but she knew Walter had a carny barker's knack for publicity. So the partnership was born: she would paint, and he would take the credit. They lived the high life for a while. They were featured in major magazines, given kudos by no less than Andy Warhol, and made sales that were the envy of all artists. Still, the secret ate away at Margaret. She would eventually break from Walter and prove in court that she was the painter, not him. A judge ordered that they both work on canvases in front of a jury. In short order, she knocked off a lovely little kid with saucer eyes. Walter complained of a sore shoulder and refused to paint. Case closed.

Big Eyes doesn't have much to say about why the Keane paintings were so popular, but when Walter finds out he can make more money by turning the paintings into posters, or post cards (or my grandma's waste basket), he's beside himself with nervous glee, astounded to discover yet another way to exploit his wife's talent. Meanwhile, Margaret sits in the attic of their luxurious house, secretly churning out more paintings. Why does she agree to keep up the charade for so long? Well, the money was nice, and as she says more than once in the movie, buyers weren't really interested in "lady artists".

The movie is good at showing a 1950s San Francisco where artists seem to bloom briefly on every corner. It's a dreamy version of San Francisco, a place where you could study Buddhism, or catch Cal Tjader playing the vibes at the Hungry I. The movie is told as a sort of reminiscence by a newspaper reporter who once interviewed the couple, a weak device that feels thrown in, but the reporter is usually in a clammy barroom, which provides a nice relief from the overly sunny exteriors that director Tim Burton shoots like he's recreating the cartoon suburbs of Edward Scissorhands.

The movie is not about painters, per se, though there are some rather routine questions about who should dictate what is or isn't art. It is really about a marriage between unequal but symbiotic partners. Walter and Margaret are like two small time criminals who would never dare pull off a big heist until they meet each other and spur each other on. She needed him in order for her work to succeed, which is largely why she grew to resent him. With her shy ways, she'd never push her way into the gallery scene. But as the years go by, she realizes that she's hitched herself to a petty, arrogant, and egotistical jerk. By the time Walter has a sort of breakdown and tries to burn their home down, she's had enough.

Big Eyes Movie Review
Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski must be the go-to guys for screen bios. They've previously written movies about Andy Kaufman, Larry Flynt, and another Burton film, Ed Wood. But this one feels uninspired. Except for the moment when Walter rants after one of Margaret's paintings is panned by The New York Times, it just pokes along without much humor or drama. Burton pulls off a few nice flourishes - I especially like how the waifs seem to be looking in on the couple, their huge eyes taking in the domestic drama. I also liked Christoph Waltz as Walter, even though he smiles to the point of looking like a Batman villain. And Amy Adams is sympathetic as a woman who isn't sure how to stand up for herself. Their early scenes together are charming. Unfortunately, of the two, Walter is far more interesting than Margaret, and I don't know if Burton intended it to be that way. She overcomes Walter's tyranny, but this is a case where the heel is more fascinating than the heroine. When we learn during the closing credits that Walter insisted until his death that he'd painted the waifs, it makes me wish the movie had been told from his perspective.

Burton's legion of fans may not know what to think of this fairly routine story. It feels more like a Lifetime network drama than one of Burton's usual offerings. But it does tie in with Burton's Ed Wood, in that it's about another untalented wannabe. The difference is that Ed was likeable and had a truckload of colorful friends. Walter is simply a borderline sociopath. He has a brief moment where he says, "I so wanted to be an artist, but it didn't turn out well." Unfortunately, Burton doesn't allow Walter Keane a chance to grow beyond that line. Burton wants him to be a creep.

Still, it's Walter's insane chuckle that has stayed with me since seeing this movie. His motto seems to be that people will buy anything, and he laughs harder every time his theory proves correct. It makes one wonder if behind every artist is a laughing huckster happily taking your money.

- Don Stradley

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: TENNESSEE WILLIAMS: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh

It's Probably Not the Last Word on America's Greatest Playwright, but  John Lahr's biography of Tennessee Williams does justice to a titan...
by Don Stradley

In the 1960s, Tennessee Williams, the playwright whose work in the previous decade had illuminated the American stage and earned two Pulitzer prizes, grew a beard to cover a swelling of his lymph nodes. He joked that his condition was “a psychosomatic reaction to being eclipsed by Albee.” Though Edward Albee was certainly the playwright of the ‘60s, Albee’s best work owed much to Williams. Somehow, the older writer’s influence wasn’t often acknowledged during those years, and Williams, who suffered from a kind of self-lambasting neurosis that could destroy whole armies, found himself knocked clear off the theatrical map into a quagmire of depression and fear. 
What had transpired during the years after World War 2, when Williams’ tales of lust and madness dazzled Broadway audiences, to the early 1960s, when he began a downward spiral that would last two decades? Morals loosened up, for one thing, and Williams’ hyperventilating characters suddenly seemed like caricatures. The American theater no longer craved the supercharged melodramas that Williams flushed out of his dank psyche, though Albee’s melodramas were no less overblown. Albee simply seemed more cosmopolitan, while Williams remained locked in a no longer fashionable South.
Even as he watched critics and ticket buyers turn away from him, Williams continued doling out deeply Southern characters, usually female, usually disturbed, as if he refused to give up on what had brought him to the dance. He admitted that he was jealous of the new writers coming up, but he also knew he couldn’t change his basic calling: Williams was a poet, a seeker of nightmares, a delicate soul looking for love, and not sure what to do with it once he’d found it; he was the chronicler of people too gentle to survive in this rough world. Unfortunately, one can only ride the razor’s edge for so long before an audience tires of you.

This is the story, though not all of it, told in John Lahr’s excellent new biography Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. Williams, who died in 1983 at age 71 after holing up in New York’s Elysee Hotel for three days and overdosing on Seconal, is not a significant presence now. His best works – The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof Etc. – must feel like dusty museum pieces to new audiences. Yet, no playwright since Williams has given us characters quite as memorable as Stanley and Blanche, or Brick and Maggie, characters that America once knew on a first name basis.

Lahr, who has blessed The New Yorker for many years with his profiles of various show business figures, doesn’t set out to defend Williams’ position as the top dog of the American stage. Though Lahr convincingly appraises Williams’ work, he seems more interested in telling what it might have been like to be in Williams’ presence.

He was born Thomas Lanier Williams III in Columbus, Mississippi, into a family once known for Southern political clout. The Williams tribe was also awash in mental illness and alcoholism. Williams father C.C. was a violent drunk, frequently away on business. His sister Rose suffered from paralyzing delusions and endured one of America’s first frontal lobotomy procedures. Brother Dakin, like Tennessee, was gay. Lahr suggests Williams’ grandfather may have been gay, too. Overseeing the family as it floundered was Williams’ mother Edwina, a puritanical terror who had once dreamed of being an opera singer. A mean, often ridiculous woman, Edwina may have passed along to Williams her facility with language. “Edwina wasn’t just a talker,” Lahr writes. “She was a narrative event, a torrent of vivid, cadenced, florid, and confounding speech that could not be denied. Eloquence was a show of power amid her powerlessness.”

Rather than stay in a family buttressed by secrets and hostility, Williams hit the road young, attending various colleges and then living in several bohemian enclaves, most notably in a raucous New Orleans rooming house that helped fuel much of his work. Though he experimented with short stories and poems, his goal was to write for the theater. His first major production bombed, but he persisted under the guidance of superstar agent Audrey Wood. But even with Wood behind him, Williams had a hard road ahead. The “serious” theater of the early 1940s was highly political. Williams, who wanted to stage dreamlike renderings of his inner being, was dismissed as indulgent.

The dropping of bombs on Japan seemed to do something to the American audience. With the war and the Depression out of the way, Williams’ highly emotional work was suddenly embraced. On the strength of Menagerie and Streetcar, he went from being a scruffy, unemployed bum to a titan. Unfortunately, Williams wasn’t entirely comfortable being hailed as “America’s greatest living playwright.” Fame bludgeoned him.

The 1950s saw Williams endure a series of embarrassing setbacks and colossal comebacks. A symbiotic relationship with Elia Kazan, the director who best served Williams’ work, was the single most important element of Williams’ career during that time. Like a jockey lashing at the legs of his horse, Kazan always demanded more from Williams, and like a thoroughbred, Williams responded, revving his plots until they detonated from the stage. But Williams secretly resented Kazan’s input, and would sometimes publish his work without Kazan’s additions, as if to say "Here is the play as I meant it to be.” Kazan, too, drifted away from Williams and began writing his own material. They stopped working together after 1960; neither found “greatness” again.

Temperamental and insecure, Williams was not an easy collaborator. That he accomplished anything during these years of success and tumult was a small miracle. When he and Kazan split, Williams probably should’ve walked away from theater and written novels, but, as Kazan said, Williams was a playwright “the way a lion is a lion.”

The political climate of the 1960s made Williams seem irrelevant and old fashioned. He was even shunned by gay audiences, which must have puzzled him. In the 1970s, as the country sprawled out into ever more diverse segments, Williams occasionally wrote things worth preserving. Yet, he was so deeply into his drug addictions and self-loathing that he could hardly convince people that he still mattered, not even when his bestselling Memoirs made him, albeit briefly, a cause célèbre.

Not surprisingly, Williams’ personal life was just as stormy as his professional life. If it was difficult to work with him, it was doubly tough to be his friend or romantic partner. Yet, this drug-addled, dangerously paranoid man was known to visit his asylum bound sister every year on her birthday, and was also painfully loyal to his always judgmental mama. It was as if he couldn’t stop eating from the trough that had poisoned him at the start.

Some Williams biographers have harped almost exclusively on Williams’ homosexual exploits, while others have focused intensely on how his writing style evolved over the years. Though Lahr touches on both topics, he’s more concerned with the belly of Williams’ life, the enormous middle part that found him attaining success, losing it, and then futilely trying to reclaim it. In fiction, Williams would’ve had a final moment where he rose to the top again; in real life, he simply unraveled.

Lahr gives us vivid portraits of people from Williams’ circle, especially Diana Barrymore, Maria Britneva, and the diabolical Maria St. Just, a trio of colorful women who, to one degree or another, yearned to be “Mrs. Williams.” We also get possibly the most satisfying portrait ever of Frank Merlo, Williams’ longtime companion. Merlo died at age 40 just as Williams’ theater career was beginning to capsize. The one-two punch of Merlo’s death and a dying livelihood sent Williams into freefall. There was an increasing dependence on drugs, a half-hearted lurch into psychotherapy, and even a harrowing moment where Williams attempted suicide by leaping from a hotel balcony.

Suspicious of the 1960s counter culture, and fearing that he simply had nothing left to say, Williams final years were a sort of prolonged death march. Ironically, during this period he was feted by one president and then another, earning various medals for his contributions to the arts. Yet, his newer works went unappreciated. It’s only in retrospect that a few of his plays from the late 1970s have been given their just accolades, and Lahr is especially convincing when praising Clothes for a Summer Hotel and A House Not Meant to Stand, two of Williams’ final projects.

Some biographers would hammer at Williams’ debauched side, reporting his pathetic finish in a hotel room with the sinister glee of an Albert Goldman crucifying Elvis Presley. Lahr, instead, pulls off a neater trick. He doesn’t shy away from Williams’ grisly end but somehow, because we’ve seen Williams heading in this direction, Williams’ demise isn’t as horrifying as it is sad. Lahr is one of the few writers who can make a reader feel the full weight of his subjects, and the Williams who emerges here is every bit as complex as the characters of his plays; death by overdose seems inevitable. The popular rumor that Williams choked to death on a bottle stopper is whisked away by Lahr and shouldn’t be mentioned again.

Lahr doesn’t hold Williams up as a relic from the past. But he does, understandably, acknowledge that Williams was certainly a man of his time. Lahr ignores the young, unformed Williams, and I do wish he’d spent just a few of these 600-plus pages on the Williams who wrote horror stories for Weird Tales magazine, but I’ll accept that the older Williams was simply a larger, tastier target. Lahr worked on this biography for 12 years, and it is something close to a masterpiece. The opening scene, taking place at the 1945 premiere of The Glass Menagerie, has the intensity and focus of a military account, with Williams’ first successful play spraying out over an unsuspecting audience like the opening volley of a new battle. 
In the end, as if worn out by the sheer bulk of Williams’ life, Lahr aims for simplicity, saying only that Williams "left a trail of beauty so that we could find him." Seventy years after  Williams shot to stardom, Lahr shines a strong light on that trail, even as it goes into some extremely unpleasant territory.

Monday, April 13, 2015


The Harvest Movie Review

Two Solid Horror Movies in the cinemas at the same time? A Rare Occurrence, indeed....

by Don Stradley

One of the joys of It Follows is how it echoes many of the seminal moments in the history of horror movies. It's opening scene of a teenage girl running out of her suburban home, clad only in her underwear and  high heeled pumps,  feels like an homage to classic slasher films of the past.  But when we see her next, crumpled on a beach as if she'd been mangled by a trash compactor, we feel we're seeing something new and strange. And so it goes for much of the movie, as old riffs from the past are juxtaposed with bits that seem fresh, even jarring. The music, too, sounds like the great merciless score of John Carpenter's Halloween.  If movies were thinking, feeling entities, I would say that It Follows absolutely loves being a horror movie. 
The plot is beautiful in its simplicity:  Jay (Maika Monroe), a nice young woman, has sex with Hugh (Jake Weary), her new boyfriend. When they’ve finished, he warns her that he’s cursed, and has passed the curse on to her. Granted, teens having sex is always a risky bet in these movies, but this one takes the cake.  Hugh informs Jay that a strange being will start following her, and may even try to kill her.  He knows because it happened to him.    The being is a shape-shifter, sometimes taking the shape of an old woman, or a tall, lumbering man.  It's dangerous, and not to be taken lightly.  Hugh advises Jay to have sex with someone else and pass the curse on, though there's no guarantee that she'll be entirely rid of it.  Since Jay is attractive, she’ll have no trouble finding someone, but who will it be? Her hunky neighbor? Or the well-meaning nerd who has adored her since grammar school?
Since Jay can’t quickly decide on her next course of action, she finds herself haunted by this supernatural "follower," first at school, then at home.  She convinces her friends that some weird critter is stalking her,  and we're then treated to one of those all-night vigils that can work so well in a horror movie.  The creepy follower, who becomes uglier every time we see it, is persistent.  It breaks windows.  It gets inside her home.  But like all good horror movie monsters, it's not quick enough to get to her. "It's slow," Hugh told her. "But it's not dumb."
Director/writer David Robert Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis create a lush but lonely atmosphere in the suburbs of  Detroit, creating sinister tableaus out of the unlikeliest subjects: a lone car in a parking lot;  a swing-set in an empty park.  The tree-lined streets look as long and desolate as the streets Mike Meyers once stalked, many years ago. Jay's bedroom,  as pink and dreamy as a John Hughes set lighted by a lava lamp, feels absolutely sepulchral, a teen dream gone awry. When Mitchell's visual sense combines with Rich Vreeland's haunting music, It Follows becomes one of the most sumptuous horror movies of recent memory.
The movie doesn't succeed all the way, though.  Perhaps the thin storyline can only be stretched so far, or maybe the characters, stick figures for the most part, can't bear being looked at for more than an hour or so.  Or maybe there are just too many scenes of the cast waiting around for the next incarnation of Jay's bogie to show up.  Whatever the reason, the eerie mood gives way to tedium.  The ending is unsatisfying, though it doesn't mar the excellence of the movie's first half.
A recurring motif in the movie has Jay’s nerdy friend watching some old, low budget sci-fi movies on television.  This, too, harkens back to the scenes in Halloween, when the kids were watching the Howard Hawks version of The Thing while Michael Myers was lurking around the house.  Neither Halloween, or those old black and white horrors, would run out of gas or end on a vague note.  Mitchell should observe that those old classics (and non-classics) always went out with a bang.
The Harvest certainly reaches for the high notes, complete with a climactic fire and the screams of a mad woman. If It Follows is a sort of tribute to horror films of the 1980s,  The Harvest reaches back even further, to the Gothic horror of Hammer studios.
The story centers on a young girl who has moved in with her grandparents after her own parents were killed.  Friendless and alone, she befriends the sickly boy next door. He's confined to a wheelchair; his life consists of being home schooled, and occasionally bullied by his domineering mother (Samantha Morton). Mom, we learn, is a doctor, and appears to be preparing her ill son for some sort of clandestine, possibly illegal surgery. The sick boy's father (Michael Shannon) is doubly mysterious, making frequent trips into town to score drugs and meds for the boy.  The girl eventually realizes that her new friend’s parents are engaged in something truly bizarre.  It might not be the stuff of nightmares, but if you heard that a story like this went on in your own neighborhood, you'd be shocked.
Director John McNaughton (Wild Things; Mad Dog and Glory) hasn’t worked often enough in recent years.  He’s not trying to raise the bar here, but he’s given us a sturdy, highly competent thriller.  At times it’s even surprisingly touching. Though he’s aided by Natasha Calis and Charlie Tahan as the two kids of the tale, he gets a major boost from the adult leads.  Michael Shannon doesn’t appear to be doing much at first, but he gradually builds to another of his memorable performances.  As for Morton, I’ve liked her since I first saw her dancing with abandon to Tommy Roe’s ‘Sweet Pea’ in Jesus’ Son back in 1999.  That same year, she was wonderful as Sean Penn’s mute girlfriend in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown.  She’s been one of the most consistently watchable actresses in the movie business.  Here, she’s one hell of a bad mother, a screaming, neurotic harridan who only wants what is best for her boy.  I wouldn’t want her for a mother, but I’d probably still dance with her if Tommy Roe was on the radio.

Monday, April 6, 2015


Photo #0
A nervous bank teller is asked to identify the man who robbed her. She looks directly at him in a police lineup but doesn't see him. The man who robbed me, she says, looked like he had just stepped down from a movie screen.

This is the moment that probably attracted director/writer Tristan Patterson to the allegedly true story of Eddie Dodson, a Los Angeles furniture salesman who pulled off more than 60 bank robberies in 1983. Though he never made any major scores, he developed a reputation for the compliments he'd pay to the women he robbed. "Nice earrings," he'd say. Or, "Nice sweater." Sometimes he'd tell them they looked like Jackie Bissett. He was in the long tradition of 'gentleman bandits' who have fascinated us since the days of the Old West. That he tended to wear dark glasses and a red flower in his lapel added to his mystique. At heart, though, Dodson was a small timer. He owed money everywhere. That this little doufus eluded the LA police for so long was something short of a miracle, and just the sort of thing that appeals to moviemakers.

The problem with Electric Slide, a new film that purportedly tells Dodson's story, is that it doesn't dig very deep. The movie is content to show Eddie strutting around in a powder blue suit, occasionally groveling when he can't pay his debts, and as played by Jim Sturgess, drawling like Matthew McConaughey. I half-expected him to say 'Alright, alright, alright.' With his catfish whiskers and his slight physique, Sturgess cuts an interesting figure, but there's not much to him. Where's he from? Why is he so deeply in debt? We never find out.

The movie starts with Dodson watching the cheesy Richard Gere version of 'Breathless', and then hooking up with the mysterious Pauline (Isabel Lucas, looking like an emaciated Michelle Pfeiffer). She's a little neurotic, but as one might say about an unusual pet, she doesn't make much noise and doesn't eat much. He includes her in his bank jobs; she falls asleep in the getaway car. Gradually, the robberies become more risky, and the cops start closing in. When the cops finally catch up to him, Dodson fantasizes about being blown away. That it takes more than 30 cops to bring him in must have given him some sense of satisfaction, but it's hard to say. The last time we see Pauline, she's on a city bus, hustling a stranger for 20 bucks. It's all supposed to be tres bleak and existential, I guess.

Chloë Sevigny and Patricia Arquette are wasted in small roles. Patterson pumps the soundtrack with some Iggy Pop and Nick Lowe songs from the early 1980s, plus a lot of 1980s droning, which only draws attention to the thinness of that era's music. Patterson also uses the old Godard trick of numbering the scenes of his movie. When it reached "5", I breathed a sigh of relief knowing the thing was half-over. Patterson has some style, and is obviously a lover of cinema, but at this point in his young career he is more interested in mood and atmosphere than anything resembling human emotion. If he ever develops an interest in people to go along with his interest in images, he'll make a good movie someday.

Then again, some directors never grow. Larry Clark, for instance, is still making the same movie he was making 20 yeas ago. When I heard that Marfa Girl, a 2012 Clark feature was finally being released on VOD and in select theaters, I figured there'd be some skateboarders, some filthy kids having sex, some dangling male genitalia, and some unexpected violence. True enough, the first thing we see in the movie is a skateboard. After 20 minutes of Marfa Girl, you'll get the impression that Clark welded some bits and pieces from his other movies together, all in the hopes of hitting his favorite theme: ignorant teens humping in squalor.

The setting is new - the Tex-Mex border - and Clark throws in an ultra crazy border patrol guard (Jeremy St. James) to harass the kids, but the plot is predictable and most of the dialog is amateurish. Each character is given a chance to stop in the middle of the movie to offer some mundane bit of philosophy, or talk about some terrible event from their past. These scenes are clumsy, like what you'd hear in a beginner playwriting class. Babies are everywhere, too, crawling through every scene, while characters sleepily walk around them or over them. Children, the message seems to be, are just an unfortunate byproduct of all the screwing we have to do. There's also some painful gibberish about spirits, as if Clark had recently read a book on the subject and felt compelled to add it to his screenplay. It all adds up to nothing.

Give Clark credit for sticking to his fetishes. He still likes to focus his camera on hairy male asses, and he never tires of having characters engage in sexually explicit dialog. Of course, some people get a rise out of Clark's moviemaking. Marfa Girl won a prize at the Rome film festival, and was praised in Variety for being "vintage Clark." To some, it's vintage. To others, it's the same old shit.

- Don Stradley

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: MANSON The Life and Times of Charles Manson

New Book on Manson Lacks Bite, but Former Cult Leader Still Intrigues...
by Don Stradley 

Charles Manson has been the subject of enough books to fill the L.A. county morgue.   A couple of titles stand out, like Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s ‘Helter Skelter’, a feverish piece of pulp writing that still gives the most bang for the buck even if it dissolves into a  turgid court procedural.  Everybody read that one, or at least the best parts.  I still remember my mother and one of her friends whispering about those dirty kids in the desert with all of the drugs and the love-makin’.  Ed Sanders’ ‘The Family’ is also highly regarded by Manson buffs.  There was also ‘Manson in his Own Words,’ which came out during the late 1980s, a time that saw not only a boom in true crime books but the introduction of serial killer trading cards.  There was even a ponderous biography of Lynette ‘Squeaky” Fromme that managed to depict her as a sympathetic character.  Yet, since I’ve never been entirely satisfied by a book on Manson – they tend to be overly long and clunky - I’ve always felt there was room for one more.
Jeff Guinn’s recounting of Manson’s life is satisfying on some levels, but like the others I’ve read, it’s a near miss.  Guinn is thorough,  and unlike past biographers of Manson, he’s not compelled to pass judgment on his subject.  Where Guinn falters somewhat is in his dry tone.  When writing a 400 page bio of Manson, a writer ought to rev the engine once in a while.

Manson seemed to come out of the womb causing trouble.  His mother Kathleen was a naïve 15-year-old.  Manson’s biological father was a 23-year-old married millworker who had no intention of taking responsibility for what was obviously a quickie fling with an underage Kentucky girl.  Desperate for money, Kathleen took to a life of crime; her bumbling efforts landed her in prison, and left Charlie to be raised by his ultra-religious grandmother.  By the time Kathleen was released, little Charles was already showing signs of the conniving personality to come.  Soon he was committing crimes of his own.
Manson's antics resulted in a reform school stint at age 12. The aspiring pimp, thief, and check forger would be in and out of various correctional institutions for most of the next 20 years. But he made the best of his time behind bars, studying up on Dale Carnegie's famous book, 'How To Win Friends and Influence People'. Manson also picked up bits of Scientology, developed ways to psyche out the prison guards, and learned how to strum a guitar. By the time he was released from California’s Terminal Island in 1967 at age 32, Manson’s plan was to become a sort of super pimp, and to use his harem to gain power within the music industry. His dream was to become a rock star, and his jailbird mentality saw nothing wrong with pimping his way to stardom.

The surprising thing about Manson was how close he came to living his fantasy. Within months of his release he'd gathered a dozen or so empty-headed young women, turned them into willing whores, and was camped out in the home of Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson. Manson had quickly picked up the vibe of the times and preached enough 'peace and love' jargon to go along with his Scientology/Carnegie rap. Soon, Manson had the ear of various music producers, and was mingling with young recording artists like Neil Young and Frank Zappa. No one paid much attention to this alley rat with his collection of dull-eyed girls, though Wilson took one of Manson’s songs, rewrote it, and put it on the Beach Boys’ 20/20 album. Manson received no credit.  

Manson was diligent, though. He was fascinated by The Beatles, and felt they were speaking to him through their songs. He started convincing his followers, which numbered well over 30 at one point, that a “race war” was coming. Manson told his group that they should follow him into the desert where they’d live in “a bottomless pit” for many years, and then, when the race war was over, Manson would rise up and take over the country, or something like that. He also promised the girls in his gang that they’d turn into winged elves while living under ground. Leslie Van Houten, one of the sadder cases in the Manson story, would later admit that she believed wings were actually sprouting out of her back. 

Guinn, who has written several best sellers about famous American criminals, scours the Manson story for all of its fabled events. When Manson associate Bobby Beausoleil was arrested for the murder of drug dealer Gary Hinman, Manson ordered a series of copycat killings to confuse the L.A. police, enlisting the most brainwashed of his followers to carry out the killing of actress Sharon Tate, famed hair dresser Jay Sebring, and five others over a two night terror spree north of Beverly Hills. Since Beausoleil had left a bloody print at Hinman’s, Manson told his team of killers to do the same: “Leave something witchy.”

And, of course, there was the nine month trial of Manson and several of his followers. The bloody headlines served as a marker for the end of the 1960s, the end of the love generation, and the beginning of a strange new era of mass murders. The genie was out of the bottle, and was apparently too fat to be stuffed back in.

Guinn tells the tale in a straightforward manner, but the task of wrangling the facts and putting them into a proper timeline seems to have drained him of energy. The story comes out flat, poking along to the well-known finish. Perhaps the story has been told so many times that it has been dulled by repetition. Guinn also shies away from interpreting Manson. All we get is the rather glib, artless conclusion that Manson was “the wrong man at the right place at the right time.”

To which Manson might reply, “You’ll never understand me, son. Your mind is too small.” 

Guinn also fails to describe Manson’s followers with any color. Surely, the likes of Squeaky, Tex, Clem, and Sadie Mae Glutz deserved more detail. Van Houten, who deserves her own case study, comes off as almost tragic, since she had a few opportunities to get away but remained under Manson’s spell and is still serving a life sentence for her part in the murders. And I’m still waiting for some writer, any writer, to explain how Manson made the cosmic mental leap from being a small time pimp to preaching about apocalyptic race wars.   

There are moments, though, when Guinn lets it rip and is quite satisfying, particularly when he’s describing the West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville where Manson’s mother did her time, a place where female prisoners "spent long days mopping floors frequently puddled with sweat, vomit, urine and blood,” and if they didn’t behave, "a hulking guard tore apart their bare backs with a water soaked leather whip until his arms grew too tired or his victim seemed near death.” Also, Guinn’s depiction of Manson’s childhood is occasionally touching – he was just a profoundly outcast kid who didn’t know how to get along with people. There’s a picture of Charlie at age five that is heartbreaking in its normalcy. Guinn also undoes some of the myths about Manson’s mother being a prostitute. Granted, Kathleen wasn’t very bright, but she wasn’t the low-life that Manson would make her out to be. When we read of her death in the 1970s, we see her as yet another tragic figure in Manson’s web. Still, there aren’t enough of these moments to keep Guinn’s book percolating.  

Stranger still, Guinn sheds very little light on what Manson has come to symbolize since 1969, and barely touches on Manson’s life in recent years. This is a shame, because Manson’s story stretches far beyond his incarceration. It was announced fairly recently (after Guinn’s book was published) that 80-year-old Manson, still serving a life sentence in Corcoran, CA., was engaged to a 26-year-old female admirer. The tale goes on and on. 

I remember being a small boy strolling through some woods with my mother. As we walked, we came upon a little man sitting on a log, playing a flute. He seemed harmless, but my mother quickly turned us around and started for home. “That guy looked like Manson,” she said. She even picked up a big stick, in case a bunch of crazy hippies jumped out at us. Would we have been scared had Manson not existed? Probably not. But Manson and his little family struck fear into the heart of America.

That’s why books are still being written about him nearly 50 years after his brief reign of terror. But the day may be near when the crazy old runt no longer means anything.