Wednesday, September 28, 2016

SHIELD FOR MURDER (1954)



Image result for shield for murder


Sometimes a movie needs only one great scene for me to fall absolutely in love with it. In Shield for Murder (1954), it’s when Edmond O’Brien stops into an Italian restaurant  and finds himself at the bar sitting next to Carolyn Jones. She’s one of those types you see in the older movies, petite and blonde, but with fingers like claws. She’s a barfly; she tries to get him to buy her a drink, or at least talk to her. He has other things on his mind.

Most guys would love to rub up against Jones in a bar. But O’Brien is involved in some bad stuff. He’s Barney Nolan, a police detective; he’s killed a bookmaker’s stooge who happened to be carrying $25,000. Thinking no one was watching, Nolan took the money. He’s a mix of hardboiled cop who cares for nothing, and a normal, working-class guy who just wants to settle down in a house he can call his own.  But his reputation for violence has raised suspicion about him. He’s starting to sweat.

Jones, meanwhile, keeps working on him. “You aren’t so tough,” she says. She teases him, saying he doesn’t know how to look the part. She tells him to hold his cigarette a certain way, and to squint his eyes. In short, she’s telling him to look more like Humphrey Bogart, the blueprint for toughness in those days. Nolan plays along; he chuckles. A while later he notices a couple of gunmen who have been trailing him. They’re working for the bookie, and they’ve got balls enough to walk right into the restaurant. He walks over to them and, with the butt of his revolver, smashes them both into bloody heaps. Confronted by real toughness, Jones can only scream in horror.

O’Brien, who’d spent time on the New York stage in productions of Shakespeare, was one of the few actors who could pull off such a scene. He didn’t look particularly dangerous – he could’ve been a high school football coach, a bus driver, the owner of a butcher shop – but he was burly and looked like he could do some damage if riled. 

Shield for Murder was based on a novel by William P. McGivern, a pulp writer whose stories provided the basis for some excellent crime movies of the period (The Big Heat,  Odds Against Tomorrow). O’Brien shared the director’s credit alongside Howard Koch. According to press releases, O’Brien rehearsed the actors, while Koch took over once filming began. O’Brien said at the time that he hoped to become a full-time director, and that he’d prefer to be known as “a new director, rather than an old leading man.” 

The screenplay, credited to Richard Alan Simmons and John C. Higgins, is slick enough that an entire story could’ve been made of the deaf man who witnesses Nolan kill the bookie’s runner. Another movie could’ve been made of the character played by John Agar, a younger detective who idolizes Nolan but suspects he’s done something foul. That none of the film’s moving parts get in the way of each other is a testament to old-school moviemaking. And the dialogue? Superb. “You’ve had enough for one day,” Nolan tells one particularly abrasive cop. “Now go home and beat your wife.” Then there’s the older cop who grouses, “I’ve gotten old in this office, with a snail’s eye view of man’s inhumanity.” Good stuff.

And what of Carolyn Jones as the blond tootsie?  She’d been in features for about a year – she’d had roles in The Big Heat and House of Wax -  and in the next few years she’d work for such directors as Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock. She’s near brilliant here. Some actresses would play the barfly role for laughs, others would aim for pathos, others would go for sleaze. She hits all three. 

In the original trailer for the film, which is included in the excellent new DVD available from Kino Lorber, the ad campaign made it look as if Nolan left his fiancée for a fling with Jones. That’s not what the movie is about at all, but publicists probably wanted a clip of Jones in the trailer, just for some enticement. Why not? All is fair in marketing, especially when a cutie like Jones is concerned. 

Consider, too, the explosive shootout between Nolan and the gunman played by Claude Akins. Akins is one of the fellows Nolan clobbered in the restaurant; with his head bandaged, he tracks Nolan down at a YMCA swimming pool where they open fire on each other. It’s madness, as swimmers run for cover, hide under bleachers, or dive into the pool to avoid the rain of gunfire. This shows how far Nolan has fallen; he doesn’t even care if innocent people get hit. 

Contrast this to the way Nolan slouches around the police station, leaning on filing cabinets and listening to others talk with a look of thinly disguised disdain. He’s a veteran cop, he’s seen it all, and he doesn’t break a sweat for anything. 

Then there’s a surprisingly light scene where Nolan brings his bride to be (Marla English) to the new tract home he plans to buy. He’s like a big kid as he proudly shows her all of the fixtures. The life he plans for them, complete with modern kitchen appliances and a two-car garage, sounds delightful; he’s invented it in his mind, perhaps to occlude the grotesque reality of his life as a crooked cop. 

Is this the real Nolan? A gentle, friendly guy who happily tells his girlfriend to kick her shoes off and take a nap on the new couch? Granted, he uses this moment to sneak out and bury his stolen money in the backyard, but his glee at showing off his new home is infectious. For a moment, you almost wish the guy’s dream of a normal home life could come true.

Everyone respects Edmund O’Brien as an actor, but is he truly appreciated for all of his great work? Shield For Murder takes place during his peak years, shortly after his turns in movies like White Heat,  D.O.A., and The Hitch-Hiker, but before his great comic performance as Marty ‘Fats’ Murdock in The Girl Can’t Help It. The same year he played Barney Nolan, he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in The Barefoot Contessa. By the 1960s he was still working regularly, but was slipping down to sixth or seventh billing. He’d become one of those reliable types, the kind of actor who could deliver a solid performance, but wouldn’t steal the spotlight from the bigger stars. Director Don Siegal claimed  O’Brien’s eyesight and memory were troubling him as early as China Venture (1953), when he was not yet 40. This was perhaps a harbinger of the Alzheimer’s disease that would ultimately kill him at 69, and might explain why O’Brien contented himself with smaller parts. His plan to become a director wasn’t to be, either. At his best, though, O’Brien was a sort of genius.  

In Shield For Murder, he’s surrounded by capable performers, including Jones, Akins, Agar, Richard Deacon, Vito Scotti, William Schallert, and in the role of the mute, a very touching Ernst Sternmuller. Yet, it’s O’Brien who owns this one. When he meets his grisly end outside of his beloved dream home, collapsing from a bullet wound onto the unplanted lawn, you’d be forgiven if you felt some sympathy for him.

“No actor who plays himself is a happy person,” O’Brien once said. If so, the man who could sing ‘Rock Around The Rockpile’ in The Girl Can’t Help It, as well as play the tortured, murderous cop in Shield For Murder, must have been happy for a while, indeed. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT...


The Lovers and the Despot Movie Review

The Lovers and the Despot is one of those documentaries where the subject is far more interesting than the resulting movie. One would think that the tale of a major political figure who kidnaps an actress and her director husband to help his country’s flagging film industry would be riveting and filled with intrigue and drama. And it is, sort of. But it’s told in such a dreamy manner that one starts to doze off. It's a gentle, sleeping pill of a documentary. Then again, some stories are so bizarre that they can overcome almost any flaw in execution.
The movie, written and directed by Ross Adam and Robert Cannan, sifts through a mountain of material to tell the story of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, who happened to be a movie lover, and his abduction of Choi Eun-hee, a woman who, for lack of a better comparison, was the South Korean Meryl Streep. She’d starred in several films for her husband, Shin Sang-ok, a major figure in the South Korean film business. We see the two at various red carpet events, and in clips of the movies they made. They were a cool couple, hobnobbing with Marilyn Monroe and looking incredibly stylish in their dark glasses; they were the epitome of 1950s South Korean swank. When Choi vanished, Shin followed. He, too, was taken into captivity. The dictator gave Shin an incredible opportunity: massive resources were his to make any sort of movie, provided it showed North Korea in a positive light. Not surprisingly, Shin grew to like the idea. After a couple of escape attempts, he understood that working for Kim Jong-Il wasn’t such a bad gig. Shin and Choi remained in North Korea for eight years, and made eight features.
There are some artful flourishes in the movie, and we get a fairly complete impression of the couple in captivity. She’s elegant, an actress who seems to come alive while working, but otherwise is rather meek and unassuming; he’s got enough swagger for two, squinting his eyes like Bob Mitchum after taking a drag off a Marlboro. We learn that Shin was a bit of a bum when it came to finances, which could explain why he enjoyed working for Kim Jong-Il, and we hear the dictator’s voice on tape, complaining about the sorry state of his country’s films. “Why so much crying?” he asks. I especially liked the South Korean intelligence agent involved in the case. He was tough but light, like an old weed that had survived several hard winters. He deserved his own television series.
Shin and Choi were already done as a married couple by the time they were relocated to North Korea – he’d had an affair with a lesser known actress that resulted in two children, which was, apparently, enough for Choi to get the message. “He never said he loved me,” Choi says at one point. Later, she adds, “He loved me more than people knew.” The pair was reunited while in captivity. This turned out to be what they’d needed to rekindle the old flame; they would stay together until Shin’s death in 2006, 20 years after making their daring escape from the clutches of Kim Jong-Il.
All of this should’ve been twice as romantic, and  twice as dramatic. I should’ve been weeping when they were reunited, I should’ve applauded wildly when they made their getaway, and I should’ve been hating Kim Jong-Il. Instead, Choi plays everything too quietly, as if she's still worn out by the eight years she spent in North Korea. And Kim Jong-Il, strangely enough, comes off as the star of the piece. He’s oddly charismatic. Trying to break the ice when he first meets Choi, he says “Don’t I look like a midget’s turd?”
As for Shin, aside from his dashing demeanor, we don’t get to know him very well. We certainly don’t learn much about his films. Clips are used throughout the documentary, but we can’t gather what sort of filmmaker he’d been in his South Korean heyday. He seemed to bounce from period pieces where Choi did evocative fan dances, to movies that looked like Korean versions of  spaghetti westerns. His black and white footage looks lovely, like clips from a Fellini movie, and I also liked the color footage from a later film – it reminded me of Bunny Yeager’s “stereo photography” of the ‘50s. Still, I couldn’t tell you shit about Shin as a director. Not from this documentary, anyway.
What comes across in the movie is that North Korea is a strange place, emotionally stunted until it’s time for a military parade or a dictator's funeral. Then, the tone becomes something akin to the Nuremburg rallies, with enough pomp and glitter to frighten anyone looking in for the first time. Was this, I wonder, the goal of the filmmakers? When we see footage of Kim Jong-Il’s 2011 funeral procession, with the loyal citizens practically apoplectic with emotion - obviously forced - it feels like we’re looking at another sort of propaganda film, one to make us think North Koreans are simply crazy. What does the average person know of North Korea? Not much. But, thanks to our media coverage, and constant mention of nuclear missiles, we’re supposed to be scared of the place. And this documentary, with its use of certain images, appears to be saying it’s OK to be scared.
A final shot of Kim Jong-un, the tubby son of Kim Jong-Il and the current leader of North Korea,  is meant to be ominous, like the pics of Adolph Hitler that pop up at the end of World War One documentaries, a note that something grim is yet to come. Hmm? I’ve heard that North Korea wants to enter the space race. Maybe they’ll kidnap Buzz Aldrin for some inspiration.


 

Monday, September 19, 2016

AUTHOR: THE JT LEROY STORY...


Author: The JT LeRoy Story Movie Review

It wasn’t enough for Laura Albert to write books under the pseudonym “JT LeRoy.” She had to create an entire charade, enlisting Savannah Knoop, her boyfriend’s half-sister, to pose in public as JT. That JT was supposed to be male was easy to get around; Albert had described the JT character as an androgynous little teenage boy, so Knoop had only to put on dark glasses and a wig and voila: a wispy little twink of an author, readymade to meet her fans, which included such literary pundits as Bono and Courtney Love. Not wanting to miss out on the action, Albert passed herself off as JT’s manager, complete with British accent. This may be hard to follow - and it gets even more complex - but it all makes sense in Jeff Feuerzeig’s Author: The JT LeRoy Story, a dynamic documentary about a strange blip in publishing history. It's breathlessly narrated by Albert like a criminal confessing a small crime; her tone, not surprisingly, is one of ‘What’s all the fuss about?” The books, she says rightly, are labeled "fiction." Anything else, she says, is extra. Agreed.
     Albert didn’t need a fake persona to sell books. For readers who prefer their authors to be on the damaged side, Albert’s own messy life would’ve worked just fine. She went from being an obese child to a phone-sex operator, which isn’t quite as exciting as the teen male prostitute that JT LeRoy was supposed to be, but it’s not bad.
    Of course, Albert makes the story a bit sticky when she insists that JT LeRoy really existed, deep inside her, like a ghost or something. It’s not a split personality, she insists, but rather, he came to life in her one day when she called a suicide hotline and took on a boy's persona in order to talk to a counselor. Hence, JT was born. (Albert had been doing this sort of thing for years, but JT was the first of her male alter egos to have literary aspirations.)
    Albert may come off as slightly creepy when she goes on about JT being real, but she’s no less creepy than Stephen Beachy, the New York magazine writer who uncovered the harmless sham as if he'd stumbled upon  the Watergate scandal, or the various rock stars who try to befriend the teenage hustler turned writer named JT. (Is Tom Waits so bored that he has to make personal calls to teen writers?)  Walter Werzowa’s score, which sounds more than a little like Lou Reed’s ‘Street Hassle,’ weaves ominously through the story as one gullible celeb after another becomes smitten with JT, played with growing confidence by Knoop. Halfway through the movie, when Knoop, as JT, reads in front of a massive audience in Italy, I found myself nodding appreciatively. When a ruse goes that far, and is executed with such flair, you have no choice but to tip your hat.
    There’s nothing here that made me want to read the JT LeRoy books – despite the original flush of publicity where buffoonish critics hailed JT LeRoy as the torchbearer of Genet and Burroughs, it sounds more like ersatz Southern gothic to me, with truckers and hookers and wayward children on the streets – and the fact that so many rock singers liked these books makes me guess Albert piled on the smut and used a lot of easy words. But I did come away liking Laura Albert. She’s grown into an attractive middle-aged woman, even if she has that nervous, unbreakable gaze seen in certain barflies, the ones who seem friendly but may get your wallet.
    Feuerzeig previously directed The Devil and Daniel Johnston, another documentary where rock stars rallied around an outsider figure. That film, made in 2006, had more depth and emotion than Author: The JT LeRoy Story. Ultimately, Johnston was a much more tortured soul, and more of a danger to himself. Albert will simply cash in her dime’s worth of celebrity and continue to write, though I think she’d give it all up to hang out with rock stars. Also, despite being fascinating, the movie ends too quickly. Albert mentions a nasty childhood incident, and then we learn that she paid a meaty fine for signing a book contract as Leroy; she now writes under her own name. And that’s it.
    Albert is inscrutable, though she talks a blue streak. I sensed a real vulnerability about her, which could explain why so many were drawn to her when she pretended to be JT on the phone. But why does it seem that every call she made was recorded on a cassette tape? Did she know they’d be useful in a future documentary? And where’s JT LeRoy nowadays? Is he still guiding Laura Albert’s stories, while she’s only signing them? Who’s driving the ship now?

Monday, September 12, 2016

DON'T THINK TWICE...



Don't Think Twice Movie Review

Full confession: I’ve never enjoyed improv comedy. There’s something repulsive about people who are so starved for love that they’ll take suggestions from an audience and try to create something funny. Part of my disdain stems from a night many years ago when I was dragged to a Cambridge bar where I endured 90 minutes of unfunny improvising from a group known as ‘The Kamikazes of Comedy.’ I vaguely remember the performers as a bunch of pudgy young males, bearded, probably from the theater department of a local college; I’m sure one of them was the roommate of one of my friends, which is why I got pulled into this painfully humorless evening in the first place. Granted, there wasn’t much the group could do based on the suggestions coming from the customers – when prodded for a location, the crowd could only shout  “public toilet” or “gonorrhea clinic” – but I assumed a top flight improvisation team would simply launch into a hysterical bit about gonorrhea. Instead, they flailed around the stage, trying to  bowl us over with pep squad energy instead of wit; by the time they were done, I was done, too. 

I understand that some of our funniest performers come from improv backgrounds, but I didn’t get a single laugh that night, a night I hadn’t thought about until seeing Don’t Think Twice, a reasonably amusing movie about a New York improv group on their last legs. Writer/director Mike Birbiglia has a background in stand-up comedy, and during his time at Georgetown College, he was part of an improv troupe. I don’t think he was in the Kamikazes of Comedy, but he seems cut from the same cloth. He’s pudgy and bearded, anyway.

The movie focuses on The Commune, a group of New York improv performers who can hear their comedy clocks ticking. One of them has been plucked from the team to be part of Weekend Live (a barely disguised version of SNL). The others, having lost their performance space, do gigs around the city for an ever diminishing audience. We also see them at their dull day jobs; they deliver sandwiches, hand out samples in a supermarket, and, of course, teach improv classes. We’re spared the old line about “Those can’t do, teach,” but the implication is there. At night, though, they still hit the stage and live out their improvisational dreams. One of the players even hauls out the famous quote from Del Close (the Stanislavsky of improvisational theater), about how watching a scene created on the fly is like watching people assemble a plane while it’s in the air. But for all of its crowing about the art and nobility of improv, the movie doesn’t get interesting until seeing one of their own make it to television brings out the group’s jealousy and bitterness. These comedians are bitter fucks, indeed.

Birbiglia gives each of the characters some reality to juggle. One’s father is dying. Another, played by Birbiglia, is nearing 40 and wondering if his comedy prime is over. The others suffer from a fear of moving forward; one gets her chance to audition for Weekend Live, and has a sort of meltdown in the lobby. Even the fellow who makes it onto the TV show has to struggle – his old pals at The Commune are nudging him to help with their careers, and Weekend Live itself is a bit of an embalmed institution. “Thank me if I don’t fire you at the end of the season,” says the stand-in for Lorne Michaels.

Ultimately, Don’t Think Twice is quite watchable. Even if the ending is corny, I like how Birbiglia shows in very clear terms that some people make it in the entertainment business, and some don’t, and it has to less do with talent than it does with timing and bluster. Where the movie flopped for me is due to it not being funny. Admittedly, I’m a tough crowd, but I couldn’t imagine any of these characters getting into network television, certainly not based on anything they do in the movie. The gamble a director takes when depicting the world of comedy is that the material had better be funny. Here, it’s not. 

Kate Miccui, who plays one of The Commune members and should’ve been used more (she plays a tired, unhappy version of herself, and I wish Birbiglia had allowed her to cut loose), has a good line about a character she sees on television. The bit, she says, sounds funny but it’s really not. That’s Don’t Think Twice in a nutshell. This might explain why two thirds of the audience walked out of the screening I attended. I stayed with it till the end, but I had to bite my tongue to keep from shouting, “Gonorrhea clinic!”


 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

MAX ROSE...


Max Rose Movie Review

Max Rose is one of those movies where a bunch of old geezers stop to reminisce about their favorite jazz music, and before you know it,  they’re all miming to a jazz recording. There should be an immediate moratorium regarding any sort of musical mime act in movies. It always looks dumb, and I can’t imagine anyone finds it amusing or funny, even if it gives us a chance to admire the still impressive mime skills of a near 90-year-old Jerry Lewis as the title character, a once semi-famous jazz pianist who, apparently, can still mime some. 
     Most of Lewis’ performance is worth watching, even if Max Rose is grossly sentimental. You may not find a better performance in a worse movie this year, or next year. Max Rose wants so badly to hit our heartstrings with bromides about aging and death and love, but it trips over its own good intentions. If only the movie had relaxed a little, as Lewis does in his performance, it might’ve succeeded. Instead, it wants to hit us over the head and remind us that this is sad stuff we’re watching, that life is filled with melancholy, and in the end we all croak, so we’d better start being nice to each other. The movie is like a big hug  from an unpleasant and dull family member.
     In the  beginning, we see Rose and his family outside a hospital where his wife of 67 years has just died.  We see him alone, wandering around their big old house, struggling with can openers.  Then he finds a series of clues that lead him to believe his wife once had an affair, decades ago, and he begins to crumble at the thought of such a thing. He drives his son (Kevin Pollak) and granddaughter (Kerry Bishé)   batty with his anger, and when he seems to be losing touch with reality, they ship him to an assisted living community. He amuses himself by making potholders and reading Sue Grafton novels, but the affair claws at him; through a series of unlikely circumstances, he’s able to meet the man who may have had a fling with his wife. But all ends well. Writer/director Daniel Noah wouldn’t send us away without making everyone happy.
     We’ve seen this movie before in various forms, and we know it by heart. To Noah’s credit, he allows Lewis to walk the landscape of the story in his own sweet time, and as has been his case since the 1940s, Lewis’ timing is flawless. And though his clown’s face has aged, Lewis can still, with just a slight downturn of an eye, indicate a world of sorrow.
     Lewis also manages to muscle his way through the flashback scenes, where we see him with his late wife (Claire Bloom); he even makes those scenes palatable. When she reads to him from a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, he looks at her with awe, with love; he conjures up feelings and shows them without saying a word. Actors of greater renown would fail at this very thing.
     The rest of the cast, unfortunately, appear to be acting in a television sitcom.
     An exception is Dean Stockwell as the man who tried to steal Rose’s wife. He gives his role hell, but even he’s a cliché; he’s an old Hollywood player, bedridden, surrounded by awards and mementoes, wearing himself out with epic coughing jags. A movie where Lewis and Stockwell went toe-to-toe for 90 minutes might’ve been interesting. Who knows what those two veterans would’ve pulled out?
     The movie, apparently, has been kicking around for a few years; it appeared at Cannes in 2013 to an indifferent reception,  and has been retooled for this 2016 release. Prior to that, it took Noah some time to finance the project. Lewis signed on early and stayed with it. Did he deserve better? Perhaps. But no one else has been willing to use Lewis in recent years, and this, perhaps, gives us one last glimpse of him.
     He has several moments where he steals the movie and shoves it into his pocket for a second. My favorite was when he was at the seniors’ home, sitting through an agonizing Sunday afternoon with his son and granddaughter. Then,  as if to break up the monotony, he reveals the potholders he’s made in a crafts class. “Look what I made,” he says, displaying them seemingly out of thin air. “They’re shaped like kidneys.” The moment is loaded: he’s playing the slightly addled grandpa who has given in to his surroundings, but he’s still Jerry Lewis; the timing, always the timing, is impeccable.


 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

DON'T BREATHE...


Don't Breathe Movie Review

I saw Don’t Breathe at the AMC Loews Boston Common, one of those gigantic 20-screen movie theater/amusement parks that shows a half hour of coming attractions.  Instead of sitting through advertisements for all of the upcoming remakes, I wandered around the enormous lobby and took in the selection of movie posters decorating the corridors. Eddie Murphy and Johnny Depp were well-represented, and I noticed plenty of Star Wars stuff, and a cheapo reprint of the original Rocky. To someone born, say, during the Bill Clinton era, I’m sure these all seem like old, quaint entertainments. I wondered how Don’t Breathe would be thought of in 40 years. After sitting through it, I don’t think it will be thought of at all.

As I made my way into the cavernous theater I noticed a PSA was on. It was the movie’s director, Fede Alvarez, thanking the audience for coming. There’s no better place to see a movie like this, he was saying, than on a big screen in a room surrounded by strangers. I agreed with him, but I couldn’t remember ever seeing such an announcement. Granted, the movie business claims to be on wobbly legs, what with streaming services and various other platforms treating your local Cineplex to a death by 1,000 cuts, but are things so dire that Alvarez has to appear onscreen to thank us for coming? 

The audience didn’t seem to need thanks. From what I could tell, they enjoyed this movie for what it was: a 90-minute thriller with lots of blood and violence, and enough twists and turns to keep them, if not on the edge of their seats, at least partly awake. Now and then a female customer would let out a squeal, but it was a generally polite crowd for a horror movie, not like the madness that used to go on during a typical 1980s splatter flick.  The plot: a trio of teenage burglars break into the home of a blind man. They think he’s sitting on a big pile of cash. What they don’t count on is that he’s a war veteran with a bad temper, and even without eyesight he can track them down in the dark and punish them. He also has an underground lair worthy of Hannibal Lecter, and is conducting some unsavory activities down there involving artificial insemination. He’s a hoss, too, bulging out of his t-shirt like the Toxic Avenger, and absorbing dozens of blows to the head with various crowbars and hammers, anything the plucky young intruders can throw at him. He’s Jason Voorhees with glaucoma.

After a fairly routine first act, with the trio of thieves trying to solve tricky alarm systems, Alvarez kicks the movie into a frenzy. His directing style is akin to an angry man who knocks the dinner dishes to the floor. He’s a loud director, not bothered with finesse, preferring instead to grab any cliché within reach and throttle it, up to and including: creaking floors, dark rooms, dark hallways, people stuck in enclosed spaces, people falling through glass, women held captive, gardening tools through the gut, gunshot wounds to the head, growling Rottweilers, weird sex stuff, and of course, the menacing blind dude stalking the underage burglars like the big bad wolf stalking the three little pigs. Alvarez, who co-wrote the screenplay,  gives each character a dollop of backstory – Roxanne (Jane Levy), for instance, is burgling so she can raise enough money to escape her horrid family and move to California with her little sister – but humanizing these characters feels arbitrary, like something learned in film school.  

Ultimately, the movie is no different than a bunch of others that have come out in the past 20 or 30 years. There are some teens, and a bad guy, and around and ‘round they go. Alvarez probably thinks he has done something unusual in that we’re supposed to be cheering for Roxanne to steal from a blind man; the joke is on him because I was rooting for the villain, played with gusto by Stephen Lang. 

I’ve heard that horror movies are making a comeback. They can be produced cheaply, and there’s always an audience for them. Look at any streaming movie app, and you’ll find hundreds of them, most made in recent years. But the truth is that the horror movie now occupies the spot where the western stood in the 1960s;  the TV networks have a ton of horror programming, while the big studios spend their money on other things. In the meantime, the studios hope a guy like Alvarez can score while not running up the budget. It’s a fair strategy. Still, the preshow ‘thank you’ sounded a bit like an apology.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

BOOKS: ALTAMONT...


RAGE...MURDER...
Authors still getting mileage out of rock's darkest hour
by Don Stradley

Image result for mick jagger altamont

My favorite description of The Rolling Stones comes from Tom Wolfe in one of his early Esquire pieces, back before Esquire was dumbed down for the internet generation. “They’re modeled after The Beatles,” he wrote, “only more lower class – deformed.” Hundreds have tried, but few have pegged the Stones with Wolfe’s acid pithiness. Joel Selvin comes close in Altamont, his comprehensive examination of the disastrous free concert headlined by the Stones, where a local chapter of the Hells Angels motorcycle club was hired as security. The event is remembered solely because the Angels’ interpretation of crowd control was straight out of A Clockwork Orange; one audience member, a gun-wielding African-American male named Meredith Hunter, bled to death after learning his lime green suit was no match for an Angel’s blade. Since the show took place in the final month of 1969, the killing served as a bookend for the decade, “a stain,” Selvin writes, “that wouldn’t wash out of the fabric of the music.”

Though the band comes off as idiot savants who conjure riffs right out of the Mississippi Delta but are witless about anything else, they’re served well by Selvin. He puts the blame for the Altamont mess squarely on their bony shoulders, but not to where they come off as villains, just typically oblivious rock stars. For those of us who have seen Gimme Shelter, the grim documentary where Mick Jagger looked as if he thought he could control the Angels, or at least distract them, with his hyper dance moves  – watch him during ‘Sympathy for The Devil’; he’s on overdrive, and it’s not because he’s moved by Bill Wyman’s bass grooves – and took it as gospel, Selvin clears up a few things, namely, that the show wasn’t some kind of electrified witches’ Sabbath that went awry. Rather, it was a perfect confluence of forces not evil but inept.

The collection of maladroit characters is doled out with Dickensian detail – in the first chapter alone we meet a menacing drug-dealer with a hook hand known as “Goldfinger” – and in time we meet every low-rent hustler, hanger-on, and self-made businessman who thought he could turn a derelict speedway on the outer reaches of San Francisco Bay  into rock ‘n’ roll manna. As for the Stones, they’d missed out on Woodstock and, Jagger in particular, felt they’d lost some cachet. What better way to regain their standing in America than by aligning with the new hip bands of the day, the Airplane, the Dead, etc.? Jagger, surmises Selvin, thought the Stones could trump The Beatles, and Woodstock, if they could pull off a big free show for some California hippies. Why else would he hire a film crew to record the thing? The Stones wanted a movie chronicle of their American coronation. But instead of A Hard Day’s Night, they got the death of Meredith Hunter. How ironic that the Stones, those cheeky purveyors of all things black, would provide a soundtrack for the fatal knifing of a black man. 

By the book’s end, Selvin returns to where most of us started, solemnly declaring the Altamont concert as the hammer that crushed the sixties. He can’t help but be heavy-handed about it, even suggesting the Stones never again played so well,  an idea I don’t buy. Nor do I go along with his dismissal of the Angels’ favorite deterrent – the pool cue. I happen to think the cue is a great weapon – use it as a spear, or a bludgeon, and if it happens to break over somebody’s head, you still have the short end to use in close quarters. Selvin, who has covered the pop world for decades,  is damn near brilliant during the book’s first half, recounting the mangy crowd descending on the concert site as “a malodorous peasant army camping the night before the Battle of Agincourt,” or the aristocracy’s  view of Jagger as “a social novelty, an exotic beast tame enough to pet.” Even a new stash of sinsemilla is described with great care, its “fresh, fruity flavor, almost like tropical lawn clippings.” If only the book’s conclusion, which is as dry as a court summons, had such flair. I guess the road to damnation is a lot more interesting than actual damnation.