Monday, September 21, 2015

BLACK MASS...


Black Mass Movie Review










While going to see Black Mass this weekend, I was reminded of a strange episode that took place many years ago in a Boston bookstore.  I overheard a customer asking a clerk if the store had other great books like the one he’d just read, which was ‘Black Mass’, about James ‘Whitey’ Bulger and his crooked alliance with the FBI, a  big seller in these parts by  Globe writers Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. The clerk suggested one about a New York mob boss, and the customer, who was a local sort with a bulbous red nose and a beer gut, raised his voice. “It has to be Boston,” he said. “I don’t want to read about no New York shit.”  I may have imagined it, but I think the guy’s lip was quivering.  That was Boston, for you: bookish, provincial, and slightly mental.   People here loved their local crime lords with the same reverence they had for the Red Sox. Local is local, after all.  Granted,  I don’t think Bulger means much to Boston these days.  Crime figures have gone the way of bookstores in this city. The store I’m remembering is long gone, replaced by one of those giant super pharmacies with a sushi bar next to the makeup counter.  As for Bulger, the last we saw of him was in a courtroom, where he was now a powerless old man in shackles. 

Johnny Depp stars in Black Mass as Bulger. He’s done a lot of press in recent weeks, and we’ve heard all about the 50 wigs he had to wear to achieve Whitey’s bulging forehead, and how he picked up the Boston accent by listening to his pal Joe Perry of Aerosmith.  Never mind that Perry is actually from Hopedale, and that the people in Boston movies all end up sounding like Elmer Fudd.  Depp was being a good soldier. Ever since those silly pirate movies he’s been drawing big paychecks as a MOVIE STAR, but after a series of stinkers the movie studios aren’t so sure about him. The truth is that Depp  isn’t a movie star, but rather, a weird little character actor who likes to play dress up.  That the pirate movies were financial sensations was a bit of a fluke, but somebody keeps shoving him out there like he's Will Smith. Seeing him on a recent talk show was an eye opener. He looked terrible; he was bloated, maybe missing a few teeth, as if the stardom game was wearing on him.  Still and all, he’s very good as Bulger, though the movie is mostly forgettable.  Sadly, if the movie dumps it at the box office, Depp gets the blame, which is unfair.

The story of Bulger, a small time South Boston hood who became an FBI informant and then, feeling untouchable because he had locked arms with FBI agent John Connolly, went on to kill several people and become Boston’s top crime boss, is such a tangle of subterfuge and rottenness that it took two screenwriters to strip it down to the essentials. But so much paring has gone on that that the movie feels like the Classic Comics version of Bulger’s life.  What is it ultimately about? I guess it shows what happens when a sociopath goes unchecked and unaccountable.  It’s also about how fame can corrupt. Connolly, working on a tip from Bulger, brings down a small time Mafia operator named Angiulo.  The movie, by the way, makes much more of Angiulo than he was in real life; the guy was a mob peon in the North End, not exactly Al Capone. Anyway, Connolly becomes an FBI golden boy.  He becomes a real jerk, too, talking back to his supervisors, the whole bit, stomping around the FBI offices like King Kong. “You’ve changed,” Connolly’s wife says. “You walk different. You’re getting manicures.” What actually happened was that Connolly, another Southie boy, became a sloppy imitation of Bulger. Connolly’s wife is shown in bed reading 'The Exorcist', which makes sense; her husband was possessed by a devil named Whitey.

For more than two hours we see people beaten to a pulp, shot in the head, strangled, tortured. Bulger’s knuckles are always red and torn from pounding on his enemies. Yet, it’s all surprisingly non-dramatic. Someone gets whacked, and then everyone sits down to eat a nice steak. The cavalier nature of these killers is supposed to shock us, but it all feels like stuff we’ve seen, with far more panache, in Martin Scorsese movies.  The only real tension comes when Connolly starts to realize that he’s protecting a full-on psycho. It’s fun to watch Connolly sweat and squirm when people grow suspicious of his relationship to Bulger.  But when he’s finally busted, he gives up without much fuss.  This, from Warner Bros., the same movie studio that gave us all of those great gangster movies with Cagney and Bogart, right up to Bonnie and Clyde and Goodfellas, feels anticlimactic.  Connolly shows more angst when another FBI agent suggests he and Bulger are gay lovers. He roars, turns blood red, and nearly brings the roof down.  Some of this energy could've been used in the movie's final 20 minutes, where the whole thing starts to sag.

Director Scott Cooper is competent but not adventurous enough to make Black Mass into the great movie it could have been. He likes static shots of Boston at night, and follows the same worn path of every other director to shoot a film in Boston, namely, shooting key scenes in front of famous Boston landmarks. Some of the choices struck me as utterly ridiculous,  especially when Bulger and Connolly get into a heated argument at, of all places, the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in Southie. I doubt that Boston’s most famous crook and FBI agent would put on such a display where all of Southie could see them. It made for an arresting visual, that with the band marching by as Bulger and Connolly hissed at each other, but it defied logic. Later, when the two are having a discussion at what looked like Boston Harbor, I began to wonder why the entire movie wasn’t filmed at The New England Aquarium, or the men’s room at the Boston Public Library.

Strangely, the movie doesn’t bother approximating the squalor of Boston in the 1970s. Black Mass seems to take place in an airbrushed Boston, the streets and homes looking far too clean to produce vermin like Bulger and his cronies. There’s a bit where Bulger walks down an alley to blackjack a rival, and the alley looks pristine. I don’t get it. Where’s the garbage? Where are the empty Chinese food cartons? Did Cooper and his team not take a moment to research the time and place they were supposed to reconstruct? Or were they satisfied with Depp’s connection to Aerosmith?

Depp undoubtedly had a great time playing Bulger.  He struts like a bantam rooster, looks as gaunt as Nosferatu, and pulls some good crazy faces.  His eyes are icy blue, like he borrowed Ray Liotta’s.  He’s so tightly coiled that we believe him when he tells a future victim, “Take your best shot, because then I’m gonna eat ya.”  The problem is that Black Mass has a split focus. It’s about Bulger, but it’s also about Connolly. And it turns out that Connolly is not only more interesting than Bulger, but the actor playing him, Joel Edgerton, is just as good, if not better, than Depp. I left the theater thinking about Connolly, and I’m not sure if that was Warner Bros’ plan. There are other good performances. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bulger's brother Billy, a powerful political presence in Boston, as a tightlipped man caught in the middle of his brother's dirty life. Rory Cochrane plays Bulger henchman Stephen Flemmi as if the weight of his actions are crushing him. I also liked Jesse Plemons as Bulger goon Kevin Weeks. Weeks has gone on record saying that he hated the movie. Too much swearing, he said, and too many facts were fudged. He also complained that Plemons played him “like I had Down syndrome.”  Only in America can you do five years in prison for taking part in murders, and then complain that the movie about you stinks. Actually, I think Plemons was a convincing Southie dirtbag.  Kevin Bacon, though, as an FBI suit, sounded like he was doing a bad impression of Alex Rocco.

A lot of money was put into Black Mass, and Warner Bros is hoping that audiences of 2015 still want, as they did in the 1930s, to look at gangsters in action, to stare up at the evil on the screen and live vicariously through the bad guy’s swagger and toughness, but to eventually go home with the message that crime doesn’t pay. Like an old Warners’ drama, Bulger is even shown being kind to his mother and old ladies. He even has some funny lines. It’s as if Cooper, Depp, and Warner Bros hope that, deep down, we might find Bulger charming. Depp, in one of his appearances to hype the movie, said that he tried to play Bulger as a human being, not a monster. He needn’t have worried, because we’re still a country that loves a maddog killer. Our bookstores may be vanishing, but not much else has changed since The Public Enemy.

 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: RECKLESS, Chrissie Hynde


Prior to Chrissie Hynde, women in rock came in two shades, either frilly earth mama, or sex kitten. Patti Smith? Too literary. Joan Jett? Bubblegum. Heart? Deborah Harry? Janis Joplin? Grace Slick? All excellent, but all strongly feminine. Hynde was different. She wanted to strut like the male rock gods of the 1960s. She didn’t want to be Carly Simon; she wanted to be Keith Richards. 

A third of the way into her compelling new memoir, Reckless: My Life As A Pretender, Hynde interrupts her swift narrative to remind readers that the rock life doesn’t come without peril, and that her formative years were spent under the influence of hard drugs.

“I was well and truly fucked up most of the time, or at best, reeling from the effects of the day before. I don’t like how much this story is influenced by them, but they were the defining characteristic of my generation. And all our heroes. And in the end, this story is a story of drug abuse.”

By turns cynical and playful, humorous  and gloomy,  Hynde, now 64, writes with candor about the years leading up to the formation of The Pretenders, one of the great bands to come out of the late 1970s. The result is an almost Forrest Gumpian story about a young woman always landing  in the lap of history. There she is, a 16-year-old watching David Bowie at the Cleveland Music Hall, and then, inexplicably, she’s in Bowie’s limousine. Then she’s at Kent State when the National Guard lets loose with gunfire. Mexico, Toronto, Paris, London, she’s everywhere, on a dime, sleeping on floors, prowling, observing. It’s not all fun, though. There’s a major generation gap between Hynde and her parents, there’s a foul encounter with a biker gang that leaves her humiliated and frightened, and financial struggles that force her to develop the survival instincts of a cockroach. Yet, there she is, plucked from obscurity to write for England’s New Musical Express. There she is on the fringes of early punk, mingling with The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Damned. She offers quickie snapshots of the various people she meets, the numerous guitar heroes, scene makers, and drifters, but her most vivid recollections are saved for the band members who helped Hynde realize her rock and roll ascendancy.

Reckless, which Hynde wrote without the aid of a ghost writer, is not just a music diary. It’s also a time capsule,  looking back at the days when the Pill allowed casual sex to explode along with the music that was dominating the radio waves. And it’s the story of one woman’s strange, often painful journey through two decades, a journey that seems punctuated by death and wretchedness, to start a band that would kiss fame on the mouth but not get to go all the way, told without the self-importance that usually infects most rock star memoirs.

Pretenders fans, of course, may wish for more detailed discussion of Hynde’s talent, but she doesn’t hold herself up as a great artist, claiming only that the punk era allowed primitives like her to be heard. Any “elation” she felt after writing a song quickly turned into “anxiety”, for she feared she’d never write another one. Hynde’s humility is touching, but a bit more insider stuff would’ve been welcome. Then again, maybe she was too high to remember what happened.

Hynde’s prose is like her songwriting. It bristles, it bops, it rarely keeps to a standard time signature. Just as The Pretenders could mix rough rockers with tender ballads, she turns in chapters that are energetic and wild, next to sections that are bittersweet and, in some cases, enigmatic. But she’s not the tough rocker chick we’ve always imagined. She’s a bit of an insecure bumbler; she actually waited for both of her parents to die before she sat down to write her story. The bad girl we thought we knew, despite dropping several F-bombs, is nowhere in sight.

Though life in The Pretenders was frustrating, it was initially joyful. When, after years of trying to form a band, Hynde finally meets James Honeyman-Scott, Martin Chambers, and Pete Farndon, it’s as if an orphan has finally found a home. Some of Hynde’s most enjoyable writing is when she winsomely recalls Honeyman-Scott’s guitar playing, how he “oozed melody,” and how he made her “more than I could have ever been on my own.” 

Hynde started out as a pensive child who enjoyed long solitary walks around Akron, and spent her time on the grammar school playground pretending to be a horse named Royal Miss, “carefully avoiding the area where the rest of the girls in our class were watching the boys play kickball.” From there, like most kids of the 1960s, she became entrenched in the groovy new sounds on the radio, an experience enhanced by growing up in Ohio, where the radio ruled. Concerts, too, were vital. Seeing Mitch Ryder perform gave her a peek at her own future.

“He was a mesmerizing showman in his blousy pirate shirt and dress pants, his belt buckle slung to the side, resting provocatively on his hip bone. Slinky.” Just like Hynde would look years later on an album cover.

She also was a girl who put off womanhood as long as possible, not having sex until she was 19, but quickly finding herself in and out of the clap clinic.

Her ideal man was the stereotypical scrawny English rocker, and she eventually linked up with one: Ray Davies of The Kinks. She recalls their stormy relationship as “a battle of wills,” but it gets no more coverage than the time Hynde tried to make a cup of tea for Brian Eno. A marriage, a cup of tea, an ugly scene in Memphis where she kicked out the windows of a cop car, none of this gets more than a page or two, as if Hynde  treats each event like a three minute single.

A recurring theme in the book is the idea of kismet. Coincidental run ins with people who would help her, from journalist Nick Kent to Motörhead’s Lemmy, all seem strangely preordained. Granted, London was a small town, but it seems odd that she kept falling in with people who turned out to be so important to her success. “How can we prove that anything is arbitrary?” she writes. 

Another frequent topic is Hynde’s ambivalence about female roles. “The idea of trying to be sexy was repellent to me, something I’d never deliberately do.” All her life she prided herself on being “like a guy,” with quick reflexes and street savvy, yet bass-playing boyfriend Farndon once bullied her into sharing a songwriting credit he didn’t deserve, and Hynde admits to not only crying over various men, but that in her younger days she wasn’t far removed from being a generic, man-hungry barfly fueled up on Mad Dog 20/20, “the wino’s tipple of choice.”

But what was it about being in a band? At one point she writes, “The funny thing about my unyielding desire to be in a band was that I really had no idea what I was going for. I just knew it had to be hard, not soft. I never liked soft things. Hard for me, every time: tea, strong; coffee, black; ice cream, frozen, not melty. Rock? Hard, not soft; aggressive, unapologetic, masculine – that was it.”

During the worst times, Hynde describes her bandmates as “depraved drug fiends,” and “sadistic little shits,” with every sound check becoming “a battle for dominance.” She describes herself as no less depraved, citing the time renowned degenerate Johnny Thunders, whom Hynde credits with bringing heroin into the UK music scene, once warned her to pull herself together. Meanwhile, photographers desperately doctored band photos to cover up Farndon’s “green pallor of smack.” 

Farndon’s decline was horrific. Dumped by Hynde as a lover, he continued as The Pretenders’ bassist but grew nasty, violent. Friction between Farndon and Honeyman-Scott increased, while Hynde tried to keep the peace. 

“Pete’s junkie persona had taken over and was inhabiting him,” Hynde writes, “like a demonic possession.”

Hynde’s descriptions of people in her circle are pinpoint. She describes Johnny Rotten, whom she almost married so she could stay in England, as “a real little bastard when he wanted to be.” Of Lemmy, she writes that he was “hip to the trip and didn’t touch anything except amphetamines, smoke, and Jack Daniel’s.” Iggy Pop, with whom Hynde had a brief dalliance, had eyes like “a sea of green with a bloodshot sun rising.” Her accounts of Honeyman-Scott farting on cue make us wish we’d known the guy.

Just as the band’s momentum was building, Honeyman-Scott died of a cocaine heart attack. Farndon died in a bathtub with a needle in his arm. “There’s your rock and roll ending,” Hynde writes. “I’d taken him into my reckless world and lost him there.” Though Hynde would continue performing and recording with various people backing her, the original Pretenders lineup was sui generis. That Hynde ends her story in 1984 says a lot.

Farndon’s death still weighs on Hynde, but the fun-loving and brilliant Honeyman-Scott is the book’s most haunting figure. Long before she knew him, Hynde heard Honeyman-Scott playing guitar in a house next door while she was staying in Wales. And that’s what gives this story its gloomy edge. Hynde claims that Honeyman-Scott had been hovering around her life for more than a year before they actually met. Though she never turns mawkish, Hynde still marvels at the kismet that brought them together.

“I remembered someone playing some sweet guitar and wondering who it was,” she writes of that strange day in Wales.  "I could hear his unique sound floating over the gardens and into my room; he had been near me all along.”

It’s enough to make you believe in destiny. That’s why The Pretenders’ saga is among the saddest of showbiz tragedies.


- Don Stradley

Monday, September 14, 2015

Arthouse Hopping: THE END OF THE TOUR...





I know very little about David Foster Wallace. I know he wrote some books and that I once tried to read one. I couldn’t finish it. Reading him was like being trapped in a room with someone who is fascinated by even his most trivial thoughts. Wallace fussed over his every single notion like a person with OCD fussing over whether or not they turned off the stove this morning. That he eventually hanged himself added weight to my sense that he was just a big, fat head case. Keep in mind, I was glad Wallace existed. At a time when there were no “important” writers around, he’d keep the seat warm until someone else came along. Yet, his fame worried me. It was as if the American reading public could only absorb childish tripe, cheap erotica, or the sort of Metamucil dished out by writers like Wallace. It was as if books were either written for meatheads or eggheads. 

The End of the Tour  stars Jason Segel as Wallace. I don’t know enough about Wallace to tell you if Segel does a fair impression of him, but I initially winced at the idea of Segel playing the role. This meant Wallace the depressed navel gazer would be coming to movie screens as a giant, lovable, Jewish teddy bear. This wasn’t as bad as the time in the 1980s when a story circulated that Stallone was all fired up to play Edgar Allen Poe, but it was close. From the trailer, which has been playing in art houses for several weeks as if trumpeting the arrival of the Colossus of Rhodes, Segel appeared to be playing Wallace as an insecure fellow who feels funny about being so smart, like one of those powerful cartoon hillbillies who can’t explain his super strength. This, combined with the fact that writers rarely make good subjects for films, was enough to chill me on the idea of a Wallace movie.

Yet, I liked it. Playwright Donald Margulies, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 2000, wrote the screenplay based on a memoir by David Lipsky, a Rolling Stone writer who interviewed Wallace in 1996 at the height of Wallace’s fame. The movie is what used to be called a “two hander,” with most of the screen time taken by Lipsky and Wallace as they discuss everything from the perils of success to the loneliness of the long-winded writer. The story moves along in a surprisingly high spirited manner,  the interviewer and his subject circling each other with nervous caution. They occasionally reveal something, then back away, like two spinning tops that have accidently clicked against each other. Wallace is uncomfortable carrying the weight of American letters  on his stooped shoulders, so he embraces his average guyness:  he loves dumb action movies, devours  junk food, and openly fantasizes about one day meeting Alanis Morissette. At first Lipsky is amused that this superstar egghead is actually a meathead, but he eventually grows suspicious and accuses Wallace of being a phony. Wallace mopes, struggles for words, grows surely. Around and ‘round they go: interviewer meets subject, interviewer loses subject, interviewer doesn’t quite get him in the end.

Throughout, Margulies’ theatrical sense keeps the dialogue from going fruity on us. He keeps us guessing. Is Wallace, as Lipsky suggests, a faker? Friction develops as Lipsky chips away to get his interview. When Lipsky accompanies Wallace on his way to a bookstore appearance, their closeness makes Wallace downright irritable. Lipsky,  enamored of his subject, pulls back when things get too prickly. Watching how close the two come to utter contempt for each other is part of what makes the movie fascinating. (The filmmakers were also smart to not include any of Wallace’s writing in the movie, for all it would take is one bum passage from Infinite Jest to leave us doubting the guy's greatness.) 

Lipsky has his agenda. His marching orders include prying into Wallace’s past, which allegedly includes a nervous breakdown, a suicide watch at a mental institution, and a rumored heroin addiction. As Lipsky, Jesse Eisenberg is the movie’s unsung hero. He has the less showy role, but he’s a perfect counterweight to the more mercurial Wallace/Segel. Eisenberg makes Lipsky a memorable character, not when he’s wiping tears away in memory of the dead author, but when he shows himself to be a bit of a snake, the sort of hack journalist who realizes he’ll never be one of the greats, but still feels within his rights to hit on one of Wallace’s ex-girlfriends. Eisenberg’s is a sly, nuanced performance. Segel, too, finds the right tone as Wallace. While he never seems like someone who will write a 1,000 page novel, Segel taps into Wallace’s vulnerability and fear. It was key to cast a likable actor as Wallace, otherwise his constant prattling would become annoying. Segel also has a talent, going all the way back to his days on Freaks and Geeks, for playing men who are bewildered by their circumstances, whether he’s surrounded by Muppets, or in Hawaii trying to woo Mila Kunis  There’s a great love of life in Segel’s characters, but there is melancholy, too, as if his great love isn’t entirely reciprocated. When cornered, he’ll fight back, only to be beaten. Has the cinema ever boasted such a magnetic loser?

Even more than just a keen dialog about success and genius, the movie works as an old fashioned road flick. The book tour brings the pair from Wallace’s snow covered home in Illinois to the wilds of Minneapolis. The Mitsubishi plant, the convenience stores, the cheap hotels, all provide a gummy undercoating for their highfaluting talk, while Minneapolis, with its Mall of America and the Mary Tyler Moore statue, turns out to be the most American of cities. As Wallace sheepishly says at one point, “It’s not un-fun.” This is the same Wallace who suspects too much internet porn will result in a kind of spiritual death. This seems to be Wallace’s conundrum: he’s guilty about enjoying himself on the way to oblivion. 

Still, there are some misfires. Director James Ponsoldt tends to reach for the most heavy-handed visual metaphors available. We get a lot of scenes where people are shaving ice from windshields, a film class 101 ploy to show characters digging under facades, while Lipsky and Wallace are constantly lost, either in parking lots or at the mall, an unsophisticated stab at showing the confusion of their inner journeys. Ponsoldt also gives a little too much play to Wallace’s flabby black Labradors, as if Segel isn’t cuddly enough. The biggest groaner is when Lipsky beds down in Wallace’s guest room, the walls lined with hundreds of copies of Wallace’s own books, shot from below to appear sky high, as if Lipsky has inadvertently invaded Wallace’s mind and now the walls threaten to tumble down and crush him. We get that Lipsky is no mental match for Wallace, but did we need such an obvious symbol to smack it home?

It’s also unfortunate that in a movie where the two main characters are so perfectly drawn, the side characters seem like dull extras patched in from other movies. Joan Cusack, usually a treat, provides unneeded comic relief as a book tour chauffer, and the talented Ron Livingstone is wasted as Lipsky’s one-note, cliché’ d magazine editor. Mickey Sumner and Mamie Gummer are also insipid as a pair of Wallace’s friends who meet him in Minneapolis. But such hiccups are few and brief. The cinematography by Jakob Ihre is appropriately misty and cold, and the nineties music is well chosen and never obtrusive. The movie never overdoes the sentiment, and thankfully, Wallace isn’t portrayed as a misunderstood, tragic hero. Still, I was bugged when Wallace claimed to enjoy dancing, and cited the Frug as one of his specialties. We later see him lumbering around a dance floor like an idiot. Would it have killed him to do a proper Frug? 

Regardless,  I walked out of the theater feeling that I’d seen something special. Not only that, but now I’m ready for Stallone as Poe.

 

 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Arthouse hopping: AMY...DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL...
















All we have left of Amy Winehouse are two CDs worth of music and Amy, a new documentary by Asif Kapadia. We're better off with the CDs, because they give us her voice. It was a powerful, sultry thing,  that voice; she sang as if her very soul was dying of disappointment. The movie? It’s about a precocious kid who got rich, became a crackhead, and dropped dead.  

Yet, people seem to love this movie and are incredibly stirred by it. I think people simply miss Winehouse so much that they aren’t able to see that Amy is nothing but several miles of home movie clips artlessly strewn together. Watching it is like being forced to sit through someone’s collection of selfies. 

Stranger still, even the musical performances are drab. There’s footage of Winehouse singing at parties, auditioning, rehearsing, performing in small clubs, and at British award shows. We even see her on David Letterman's old program. None of the performance clips do her justice. She looks scared and clumsy in most of them, and her voice is so garbled that the lyrics are printed up on the screen like subtitles. Her legendary jazz phrasing, so revered during her brief lifetime, here sounds mannered and amateurish. A live version of 'Rehab' provides some momentary uplift, but even that great song sounds lifeless and draggy, like she's struggling to perform under water. 'Rehab', incidentally, was such a colossal hit in the UK that Winehouse apparently went mental. The next time we see her in the movie, she’s down to weighing 80 pounds, a bulimic stick figure with her hair piled into a Bride of Frankenstein do, shambling down a London street looking like one of those frightened lab monkeys just let out of its cage. There’s an uncomfortable moment where some British paparazzi corner her at an event and blast away with their cameras. She seems to be wilting in front of the flashes, as if the old Native American fear is true, that having your picture taken steals your spirit. 

There are times in the film when Winehouse seems bright and funny, but at other times she’s just a stereotypical dumb rock chick (“I’ve written your name on my tummy!”) . There are also moments when she seems like a lost, slightly depressed child who has been left to fend for herself. In those moments she can get your sympathy, but she was certainly no deep thinker, no genius. An anonymous music producer spews some rubbish about Winehouse being “an old soul”, but just because a girl listens to Sarah Vaughan doesn’t mean she’s an old soul. Another says that Winehouse had the unusual ability to make you feel important one moment, unimportant the next. I'd like to remind the fellow that this a trait is not unique to Winehouse, but is actually a power possessed by most women, especially around dumb guys. I wasn’t impressed by the people in Winehouse's life, either, especially the vapid, effete young men whose voices we hear in the film. They all seem to be named Richie or Nicky, and if you're not familiar with the Winehouse story, it may be difficult to tell if these guys were her boyfriends or just members of her band. Most annoying is how her old mates wax melancholy about Winehouse's fragile nature, but there’s no evidence in the film that they went out of their way to protect her. 

We’re to believe that fame killed Amy Winehouse, but I don’t think so. If she'd never opened her mouth to sing, she was still going to die young, probably of a drug overdose or an eating disorder. As far as I can tell from this movie, Amy Winehouse was traumatized by something in her teen years, perhaps her parents' divorce. If you draw comfort by thinking of Winehouse as an old soul, be my guest. To my eyes, she was mentally stranded at approximately age 14, or whatever age a girl is when she rebels by wearing mascara and smoking weed all day. 


Less successful without a popular singer at its center is The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a plodding coming of age story about a 15-year-old girl growing up in 1970’s San Francisco. Aside from the main girl’s Mickey Rat t-shirt and a few references to Patty Hearst, the film doesn’t overdo the Seventies nostalgia. Then again, what was so friggin’ great about that decade anyway? Why do we keep revisiting that era?  There was an ugly war going on, the government was upside down, and the fashions were as if someone took the ridiculous hippie clothes of the Sixties and sanitized them for the Sears catalog. The ‘70s was just a bunch of people who were so worn out by the 1960s that they started listening to James Taylor. Fire and rain, my ass.

Diary is the story, chiefly, of Minnie, a young for her age teenager who starts up a heated affair with her mother’s boyfriend. Minnie’s mother is lightly buzzed most of the time, so she’s clueless;  the boyfriend is just a 35 year old lummox who can’t believe his good fortune.  Minnie starts the affair by playfully biting the guy’s finger;  I guess greater romances have started with much less.  In a short time, Minnie has become a screaming harpy,  upset at having to share her scruffy stud with her ditzy mother.  She’s soon sucking cocks in a public toilet, just to see what it’s like to be a hooker.  If you’re wondering, she feels rather gross about it.  From there, she takes part in a threesome, experiments with lesbianism, drops acid, and enjoys all sorts of other wacky, fun-loving teen stuff. She’s like Lolita with no rudder, just spinning out of control, sucking merrily at this or that.

I don’t know if this movie, which could’ve been called Cocksucker’s Progress, is awful or not.  There’s plenty of frank language and blunt depictions of sex, all of which is probably meant to bushwhack us with its rawness and realism. Minnie is also a fan of comic books, so a lot of scenes are punctuated by fruity animation, like flowers and butterflies popping out of her ears when she’s in a happy mood. This is already an old idea, and director Marielle Heller doesn’t do much new with it. Still, the blending of the crude and the cute might’ve worked if we didn’t have to stop every 10 minutes so Minnie could talk about being lonely and fat. There are, however, some winning performances. As Minnie, 23-year-old Bel Powley is quite believable as an immature girl overwhelmed by her spanking new horniness. Alexander Skarsgård is acceptable as the rooster in the henhouse, though any actor willing to grow a mustache could’ve played the role. Meanwhile, Kristen Wiig is highly watchable as Minnie’s chicken-brained mother. Credit Wiig for still searching out those delicious character parts that will showcase her intelligence and vulnerability. This one probably sounded right on paper, but in the end, her presence barely matters in a movie about greedy genitalia.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: EZZARD CHARLES, A BOXING LIFE


 

It’s one of the cornerstones of boxing lore: Ezzard Charles was unpopular because it was his bad luck to follow in the footsteps of the mighty Joe Louis. Not only that, but when Charles actually faced a faded Louis at Yankee Stadium, he had the nerve to punch out the great American hero. Never mind that Charles was only doing his job, which was to put on big gloves and hit another guy in the head. It’s just that the press and the public had ordained Louis as a kind of saint. And you can’t beat up saints.

Charles, a Georgia born boy who began fighting for money in 1940 at age 19, was among the first fighters inducted into the newly formed International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, along with the likes of Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and of course, Louis. Not bad for a guy who heard more boos than any other champion in history.

Wladimir Klitschko isn’t popular in America? Floyd Mayweather gets jeered for being dull? 

That’s pussy stuff.

Charles was booed non-stop from the day he beat Louis in 1950, to his final bout in 1959. Even the kids in Charles’ Cincinnati hometown hated him for beating Louis. 

I used to think these stories were exaggerated, but after reading William Dettloff’s Ezzard Charles: A Boxing Life, it seems Charles’ most impressive feat was not that he beat Archie Moore three times, but that he had 121 pro fights and was booed for at least three quarters of them.  

In writing this book, which is superbly researched, Dettloff, for 15 years a senior writer at The Ring, has chosen a formidable project. For one thing, Charles had never been the subject of a biography, so there’s not much of a trail to follow. For another, Dettloff wanted to solve a little mystery: Why didn’t people realize Charles was a genius? Who the hell else goes 3-0 against a prime Moore? 

Of course, there has been a reappraisal of Charles in recent years, perhaps starting with Dettloff’s 2002 Ring article where he cited Charles as the greatest light heavyweight of all time, even though Charles never held a title in that weight class. This was a bold statement, akin to declaring Vanilla Fudge the greatest band of the 1960s. But Dettloff stood his ground, made his arguments (largely, the reasoning went, it was because Ezzy came out best in a roundelay of exceptional light heavies who fought each other in the 1940s) and may have inspired a sort of grass roots reevaluation of Charles. At times, it got a little goofy, such as in 2006 when Charles was named the 11th greatest fighter of all time by the IBRO (International Boxing Research Organization). The pendulum had swung too far in the other direction. In just a few years, Charles had gone from underrated to overrated.  

Dettloff does a convincing job of portraying Charles as a gallant professional who often fought men who outweighed him by 30 pounds, and as a kind of virtuoso who understood the techniques of boxing better than most. And he does this without glossing over the two main knocks against Charles: that he was overly cautious, occasionally letting fights get away from him by being too timid; and that he was  unpredictable, the sort of boxer who sometimes stepped into the ring and simply looked as if he’d forgotten why he was there. Like the venerated trainer Ray Arcel once said, Charles was “like a good race horse who won’t run for you.” 

Charles wasn’t always so diffident. It was understandable that he was wary against heavyweights, because those bigger guys were dangerous. But as a young fighter against middleweights and 175-pounders, he was a terror. He’d been a mild mannered, Bible reading youngster who lived with his grandmother, but as Dettloff writes of those early days, the boxing ring was the one place where Charles “could go bad for a while.” And Dettloff’s book makes the case that Charles, now and then, was a legit bad ass. He  could foul like the dirtiest street fighter, and wasn’t averse to hitting a guy when he was down. His wins were often ultra-violent, where he’d knock his rival to the canvas many times before the contest was mercifully stopped. A right hand thrown at Moore’s head in their third bout landed “with such force that some in press row winced at the noise it created.”

If Charles occasionally flaked out, or turned in a dull performance, well, Dettloff makes it appear as if every other fighter of the time did the same thing. When you were fighting every three weeks, as they often did in those days, you were bound to have some weird nights, like the time Charles was dropped eight times in a bout with Lloyd Marshall, or the time a few months earlier when he was decked seven times by Jimmy Bivins. Charles whipped those guys in rematches, which brings to light the bipolar nature of Charles’ checkered career.

But if Dettloff is a mostly effective believer in Charles’ greatness, he’s savvy enough to know that Charles’ muted personality isn’t enough for a full length book. He smartly weaves in anecdotes about other fighters, glorious tidbits about heavyweight contender Elmer Ray wrestling alligators in carnivals, and Jersey Joe Walcott benefiting from his shady connections. The book is also well-stocked with side characters, such as Charles’ main mouthpiece, Jake Mintz, a colorful little prick who never met a word in the English language he couldn’t maul. Charles worked at a time when gangsters and fight fixers lurked at every corner, and ring deaths were just part of the business. The political side of boxing was even more venal than it is now, so it’s no wonder Charles just kept his head down and went about his job of fighting. He was no match for the world he lived in and he knew it. 

In several cases, Dettloff presents fights that Charles should’ve won but for one reason or another came up short. There were ringside judges who voted against Charles when he seemed to be a clear winner, and referees who apparently had something against Charles. Even former champ Jack Dempsey, who refereed a bout between Charles and Rex Layne, helped screw Charles out of a win by scoring seven rounds even! Yet, time and again, the root cause of these lousy decisions was Charles’ lack of aggression. Maybe he was brilliant, maybe he was undervalued, but he would still appear to be, in the final accounting, erratic.

The book isn’t just the raving of an advocate; it’s also a detailed recounting of Charles’ boxing career, the endless ups and downs he endured, and how he was constantly trying to make up for blown opportunities, all for an American public that, as Dettloff writes, didn’t know “there was more than one way to be great.”

All boxing stories have familiar plot points, and this one is no exception, from Charles’ poor upbringing in Lawrenceville Georgia, “where a young black boy couldn’t look a white man in the eye without permission,” to his championship years, where he lived large for a while. Charles occasionally lost his cool and growled at pressmen, but this was reasonable since most articles about him included the words “unimpressive” and “disappointing”. Then came the downfall, and Charles’ long decline. Indeed, it was a boxing life: poor, rich, poor, dead.

Dettloff has a meat and potatoes style, but can be elegant when he wants to be. He writes of Sam Baroudi, nearly dead from Charles’ blows and being carted out of Chicago Stadium, “splitting the crowd and then disappearing into a dark hallway like a broken raft floating out to sea.” Of Rocky Marciano’s prolonged beating of Charles in their second bout: “Rocky was like a novice farmhand struggling through slaughtering a prize hog.”

Charles remains a puzzle. As thoughtful as this biography is, he’s as unknown to us as ever. Charles’ personal life, which ended with him dying at 51 of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, may have been harder to reconstruct than his ring career because info was scarce. Yet, the author does a lot with a little, and there’s never a sense that anything is being skimmed over. We learn just enough about Charles’ family life, his occasional womanizing, his sketchy pals at the jazz clubs, to get the picture. Not surprisingly, it’s the dramatic build up and aftermath of the Charles-Louis bout that serves as the book’s centerpiece. Louis had been Charles’ hero at one time, then his rival, and ultimately, a co-star in what felt like a “long soap opera”, even helping to prop up Charles’ failing body at a fund-raising tribute in 1968.

As for why Charles didn’t get his due for beating Moore three times, here’s my own theory: Those bouts took place in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. Had they been in New York, there would’ve been more noise around them. New York was the biggest media horn in those days. Also, they weren’t title bouts, which means they weren’t destined for the history books. Finally, at the time Moore fought Charles, he’d already lost to Jimmy Bivins, Charlie Burley, and others; he wasn’t yet the media sensation he’d become in the 1950s, so beating him may not have been viewed as a major event. Yet, it’s interesting that in the only “authorized” biography of Moore, a 1991 book by Marilyn G. Douroux, Charles is scarcely mentioned. For Moore, Charles was like un ugly high school picture he didn’t want anyone to see.

That’s my two cents. I apologize for adding them to this review of Bill Dettloff’s highly readable book.

 
- Don Stradley



Wednesday, September 2, 2015

TFD PRESENTS: WAR ALL THE TIME!



World War II spawned hundreds of movies, and five of the best are available from the folks at The Film Detective, a group dedicated to restoring vintage films... 


GUNG HO! (1943)
U.S. Marine Raiders in Action...Blasting Their Way To Tokyo!
HOT LEAD! COLD STEEL! YANKEE GUTS!
We're going back to World War II with an exciting feature called GUNG HO! This film is about how the newly formed 2nd Marine Raider Battalion faced a frightening first mission during the early days of the war. The assignment was  to smash the much larger Japanese garrison on Makin Island. The movie has a gritty, realistic feel, achieved by the use of actual combat footage, and a cast of reliable Hollywood tough guys, including Randolph Scott, and Noah Beery Jr. Also, keep an eye out for a young Robert Mitchum in one of his earliest roles as the swaggering 'Pig-Iron' Matthews! 

The film's title, "Gung Ho", is a Chinese expression that translates roughly as "to work together". Major Evans Carlson, who was the basis for the character played by Randolph Scott, picked up the phrase from a friend who had worked with some Chinese organizations. Carlson liked the expression, and introduced it to his troops. His men loved it, and the phrase became the motto of the 2nd Marine Battalion. The phrase became so popular that it worked its way into the English language. But chances are, the first time most Americans ever heard the expression was in this movie...


BLOOD ON THE SUN  (1945)
To know their secret is to court Death!
James Cagney fights his way through Tokyo in Blood on the Sun! As newsman  Nick Condon, Cagney battles Japanese spies in a story of double-dealing and intrigue during the second World War. The film also stars Sylvia Sidney and was directed by two-time Academy Award winner Frank Lloyd (perhaps best known for his 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty). Produced by Cagney’s own production company! (Look out for a bruising fight scene where Cagney and his Japanese rival engage in a martial arts slugfest, complete with torture holds rarely seen in movies of the time, suggested by combat buff Cagney!)

Blood on The Sun features a musical score by the great Miklós Rózsa (Spellbound, The Lost Weekend) and won an Academy Award for Art Direction…   


THE BIG LIFT (1950)
From the Ruins came Hope and Despair
Shot on location in Berlin, Germany, The Big Lift tells the story of "Operation Vittles", the 1948–1949 Berlin Airlift. We see it through the experiences of two U.S. Air Force sergeants, played by Montgomery Clift and Paul Douglas. Written and directed by George Seaton, the film provides a compelling look at a devastated city struggling in the aftermath of World War II. 

In many ways, The Big Lift is a kind of documentary. Along with being filmed in Berlin, all military roles in the movie, aside from those played by Clift and Douglas, were portrayed by actual military personnel stationed in Berlin. Also, the production crew for The Big Lift arrived in Berlin in May 1949 just as the blockade was lifted by the Russians. The crew shot actual airlift activity at both terminals. As for Clift, his scenes were shot early; he needed to return to America and begin filming “A Place in the Sun” with Elizabeth Taylor…

 

THREE CAME HOME (1950)
Three Came Home is the story of one woman's confinement in a World War  II Japanese prison camp. Adapted from Agnes Newton Keith's war-time prison memoir, the movie shows Keith courageously dealing with being separated from her husband, and then surviving with her young son in captivity until the end of the war. The film was directed by Oscar nominee Jean Negulesco,  and stars Claudette Colbert as Agnes Newton Keith. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote upon the film's release that it will “shock you, disturb you, and tear your heart out, but will fill you fully with a great respect for a heroic soul”.  

Colonel Suga was played by Japanese actor, Sessue Hayakawa.  You might know him best for  his Oscar nominated performance in Bridge on the River Kwai where he played another stern camp commandant.  Hayakawa had been a star in the silent film era, but his career suffered in relation to whatever anti-Asian sentiment was going on in America at the time.  He spent most of the 1930s and ‘40s acting in other parts of the world, but after World War II he gave Hollywood one last shot.  This turned out to be the best time of his career, for along with River Kwai and Three Came Back, he appeared in films like Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo, and Tokyo Joe with Humphrey Bogart. In 1960, Hayakawa received a well-deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame… 

 

GO FOR BROKE! (1951)
The amazing untold story - The heroes of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team!
Go For Broke! a 1951 MGM film starring Van Johnson, is the story of Japanese-American soldiers fighting in Europe during World War II. Johnson plays a platoon commander who shared the prejudices of the period, but put them aside when he saw the bravery of his Japanese-American troops. The screenplay by director Robert Pirosh was nominated for an Academy Award, and several of the main characters were played by actual members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team depicted in the film. 

Several years before this movie, Van Johnson’s career was on shaky ground. He'd just signed a long-term contract with MGM when a car accident left him badly scarred and with a metal plate in his head. Unable to serve in the war due to his injuries, he remained stateside. Ironically, this worked to his benefit. Many of MGM's top actors were away for the war effort, so Johnson found himself with plenty of roles to choose from. He became one of MGM’s most bankable stars. When the war ended and MGM's stars came home, many wondered if Johnson would lose his status. But Johnson proved his success wasn't a fluke. He remained a busy and popular actor for many years…

 
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 All of these movies are available through thefilmdetective.com, where vintage movies are restored, remastered, and reborn. Follow us on Twitter @FilmDetective



Or follow me at @DonStradley