Monday, May 22, 2017

THE D TRAIN

The D Train Movie Review



I don't remember much about high school. People think I'm lying when I say that, but it's true. Grades one through six are more vivid to me. By high school I was twiddling my thumbs, in a hurry to get on with my life. I was never too concerned with who was popular and who who wasn't. Some people, like the ones portrayed in The D Train, find high school to be a kind of melting pot of anxieties, with many poor unfortunates tripping over themselves to gain entry in one elusive clique or another. As for high school reunions, I've never wanted to attend one  because I think I'd be bored. I do, however, enjoy movies about class reunions. There are some basic truths in them - most of us don't mature much beyond the age of 16, and even the best of us can be driven to distraction by petty shit. For some, high school is comparable to the measles or the mumps, a childhood illness with lingering effects in our adult years.

Jack Black plays Dan Landsman, a regular fellow who is part of his graduating class' 20-year-reunion committee. By most measuring sticks, he's done pretty well in life. He has a nice wife, a son, a home in the suburbs, and a good job. But Dan, deep down, is still plagued by the insecurities that made his high school years a nightmare. He even warns his son to not trust a girl who likes him in case it's a prank. Worse, Dan still talks in the kind of faux hip hop style of the 1990s, addressing everyone as "bro" and "dude" and "wassup dawg," which sounds ridiculous coming from a man 20 years out of high school. How he was able to marry and spawn is the movie's real mystery, but The D Train doesn't want to explore Dan Landsman; it wants to punish him a little. When he learns that the most popular kid in his class, Oliver Lawless (played by James Marsden in full James Franco mode), is now in Hollywood appearing in sunscreen commercials, he decides to lure Oliver to the reunion and become popular by association. 

It's also a bit of the old "be careful what you wish for" scenario, as Dan bluffs his way to Los Angeles, charms Lawless into attending the reunion, only to find himself quickly absorbed into Lawless' life of partying and reckless sex. It's not clear how Lawless went from being the star of his high school basketball team to a coke-snorting bisexual, but this movie doesn't care enough about its characters to investigate such a thing. It offers a few cheap jokes, plus one or two scenes that are meant to shock us, but little else. It exists solely to trumpet the sophomoric idea that male bonding is a front for homoerotic longing. By the end, Dan Landsman "lands his man," so to speak, but the lesson he learns, you can't be something you're not, dude, feels like something from a high school essay. It all ends happily, because high school reunion movies must. Call it the Romy and Michelle rule. 

Black is very fine as Dan, and as he showed in Bernie (2012), and intermittently throughout his career, he's brilliant as characters who walk the line between likable and not. Watching him struggle to lure Lawless to the reunion, and then swaggering at Lawless' side as they navigate through the L.A. nightlife, just about makes the movie worth watching. It also leaves one frustrated. So cocky is The D Train, so in love with its own cheap tricks and plot twists, that it never uses Black to his fullest, the way Richard Linklater used him in Bernie, where Black played a funeral director  who worked his way into the life of a wealthy widow.  Linklater, who directed Black in School of Rock many years ago, knows that Black is one of those comedic actors who, like Robin Williams or Jim Carrey, can shrug off the manic side to reveal something grim. Since Black's comic persona is wearing thin, it's comforting to know he can still be around for years to come, playing seedy guys, inept criminals, and Ponzi schemers. If Martin Scorsese can give Jonah Hill the role of a lifetime in The Wolf of Wall Street, there must be something similar out there for Jack Black. 


Thursday, May 18, 2017

HOUNDS OF LOVE


Hounds of Love Movie Review

Ian Brady, a very bad man, has died. Though his name doesn't mean much to Americans, the Brits certainly knew about him. He and his girlfriend Myra Hindley committed some terrible murders in the 1960s - their crimes involved the killing of five children, ages 10 to 17 - and they were as nationally reviled in Britain as any number of murderers you can name in America, perhaps more so. I've always suspected a small part of England's disdain for Brady and Hindley had to do with their looks - he was a ferret-faced git with sleepy eyes, she was a bottle blond with a jaw shaped like a shovel. Their mugshots howled degeneracy. She died in 2002. He died this week, just as Hounds of Love, an Australian picture about a couple similar to Brady and Hindley, was opening at my local art cinema. To my surprise, the tiny screening room was nearly half full on a sunny weekday in May. This had less to do, I imagine, with any advance word, and was more because people are fascinated by sex and violence. It sold newspapers in Brady's day, and it can sell some movie tickets now.

It isn't a horror movie, per se, any more than Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was a horror movie, though some of it is horrifying. It's a suspense thriller, really. It's about a married couple that abducts teen girls to torture, rape and kill. It could've been served up like The Last House on the Left, but writer/director Ben Young was aiming for something more. Hence, John, the husband (Stephen Curry) is shown as a bit of a weasel in the outside world, a schlep who owes money to some local thugs. Evelyn (Emma Booth) is his wife, a long suffering mom whose previous husband is keeping her separated from her own kids. She weeps a lot, and seems to live in fear of John, but she's also a bit psycho when she needs to be. Early on the pair lures teen Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) into their home with promises of good weed. (This, of course, is proof that marijuana leads to worse stuff!)

Vicki ends up drugged, and as "Knights in White Satin" plays on the stereo (the movie is set in the '80s, for some reason) she's dragged into the couple's spare room and chained to a bed. Then we watch her pissing and shitting herself, as well as being strangled, threatened with a knife, and slapped around. Vicki is resourceful - she tries to find Evelyn's weak spots in hopes of creating an ally against John. Meanwhile, John skulks around the house, being abusive and mean and kicking the dog. Mostly, there's a lot of crying and screaming. We also get a lot of Vicki's mother (Susie Porter), who cries and screams, too. The mother, a tough single mom - is there any other kind in the movies? - receives a sort of ransom note written by Vicki and from it deduces where the girl is being held. Then there's more screaming and crying, as if Young thinks this will elevate the movie above its sleazy pedigree.

Young tries hard. He uses a lot of super slow motion, sometimes to great effect, but after a while it feels silly. Directors who use slow-mo are kind of like guys with weak chins who grow beards. They're not fooling anybody. Emma Booth, though, is quite good as Evelyn, snarling like Charlize Theron in Monster. She's also very moving in scenes where she's being told that she can't see her children, and when she's pleading with John to be kind to her. She does what she can with the part, and makes the movie watchable all by her self. Stephen Curry, too, is creepy and interesting as John. Ashleigh Cummings spends most of her time handcuffed to a bed, but she's quite remarkable in a scene where she's eyeball to eyeball with Booth, unable to speak, with a knife to her throat. It's a riveting moment in an otherwise forgettable movie. Hounds of Love wants so desperately to be appreciated as some sort of thinking person's sleazefest that it steps on its own foot. Perhaps it seemed like an interesting idea to portray psychopaths as being human, to show their tears, but it short circuits the story. There's no doubt that some truly despicable people can demonstrate a human side. I'm also sure Ian Brady would dismiss this movie as fluff.

Monday, May 15, 2017

PIT STOP (1968)








Bowman doesn't trust anybody, which in most movies would be his flaw to overcome. Even Jolene, his doting teen girlfriend, gets on his nerves after a while. He gets cranky the night before a big race and accuses her of latching onto him because she wanted to be with a winner. Jolene, played by Beverly Washburn - who with her pixie haircut and false eyelashes looks like she just stepped out of a Laugh-In party scene - was the only kind person in the movie; when Bowman yells at her, we know he's an ass.

And consider the scene where Bowman and Hawk first meet. Hawk goes on a rambling monologue about how the racing business takes a certain kind of crazy character to succeed, and Hawk, because he's the craziest of 'em all, always wins. "When they see me coming through that intersection," he says, "they just naturally back off, cos they know I ain't gonna stop for nobody!" When Hawk is done with his tirade, Bowman quietly asks, "Where can I get me a car?" Is Bowman stirred by the idea of competition? Or does he just want people to know he's crazy, too?

Sid Haig plays Hawk as a near sociopath, stealing the movie every time he's on the screen. Stalking through his scenes like a prehistoric bird of prey, he eventually takes an axe to Bowman's car, though Haig's teeth look big enough that he could've bitten Bowman's Fairlane 500 in half. If you only know Haig for more recent films like The Devil's Rejects, or for playing dirtbags in various Pam Grier movies, his performance in Pit Stop is a revelation. According to legend, Haig didn't even know how to drive, but Hill stuck with him. Smart choice.

Hill and cinematographer Austin McKinney make the figure 8 races, shot at the Ascot Park Speedway in Gardena, California, look nightmarish. In fact, this is one of the most stunning black and white movies to come out of the late '60s, with some scenes shimmering like the best film noir. The black and white caused difficulties with distribution since drive-ins at the time had adapted an all-color policy, but this is one sharp looking movie. A scene at an automobile graveyard, where broken car parts are stacked up like a mountain of bones, looks haunted and surreal, as does a parade of dune buggies shot at the Imperial Sand Dunes in Glamis. The dive bars, liquor stores, and seedy hotels where the drivers congregate look like glowing markers on the road to hell.

There's a sexual dysfunction in the movie, too, with the drivers often leaving their women adrift in order to focus on racing. Sure, Hawk is usually seen on the dance floor with one or two women, and he's bold enough to yank a go-go dancer right off the stage, but the ease with which Jolene leaves him for Bowman suggests there wasn't much in their private life worth preserving. And Bowman eventually leaves Jolene cold, too. The wife of a hotshot driver, played by a very young and lovely Ellen Burstyn, complains that racing has taken her husband "body and soul. And I emphasize body." Willard has no woman; he only has eyes for young men he can throw into the deadly figure 8 course.

Bowman eventually reveals himself to be as cold-hearted as Willard, and as demented as Hawk. All of the drivers working for Willard are simply addicts. They're addicted to action, they're addicted to danger, and they're addicted to winning. Willard, devious and manipulative, plays one against the other, until they're all out for blood.

Though Davalos plays Bowman with a punk's swagger and his hair swept up like James Dean's in Rebel Without a Cause - indeed, he'd played Dean's brother in East of Eden, and at certain angles he even bears a resemblance to Johnny Depp  - he was already 36 by the time of Pit Stop. Seasoned by years of television appearances, he walks a fine line between clean-cut leading man and jerk. When he befriends a much older driver with hopes of learning some tricks for survival, it looks like he may be a nice guy, after all. But it's not that sort of movie.

Hill purportedly saw figure 8 racing and thought it was so loony that he wanted to make a movie about it.
Years later he would tell Ultra FilmFax, "The action scenes were the real thing. Not staged. It was a real slice of Americana." His enthusiasm shows in the racing footage, which has the bluntness of bare-knuckle boxing. He'd go on to make several movies in many different genres - he's most revered for his two Pam Grier features, Foxy Brown and Coffee but Pit Stop may be his best feature. His other films are sometimes marred by corny jokes and slapstick. Here, he's dead serious.

I like that it's in black and white. The races take place at night, and the spotlights on the track make the proceedings seem ghostly. The men may or may not have death wishes, but like astronauts and bull-riders, they know their passion comes with a possibly fatal price. "Everybody I raced with is dead now," says one old timer. There's a sense of shame in his admission, as if to survive in this racing world is a kind of insult to those who don't.

Pit Stop moves like an old juvenile delinquent film of the '50s, as if filmed by a Godard wannabe. I haven't even mentioned the excellent musical score, all grinding guitar riffs by the remnants of a Seattle psychedelic outfit called The Daily Flash, or that the project was financed by Roger Corman, who was making a lot of hippie movies at that time to grab the youth  market. By not looking or acting like other films of its era, without a flower child or draft dodger in sight, Pit Stop feels more subversive than other movies that tried twice as hard.    

Thursday, May 11, 2017

BOOKS: EVERY NIGHT'S A SATURDAY NIGHT

COUNTRY HONK
Shitting in tall cotton with Bobby Keys
By Don Stradley

Bobby Keys gets the nod. He's the official "unofficial" Rolling Stone. His saxophone  can be heard on some of their best albums - Let it Bleed, Get Yer Ya Yas Out, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, Goats Head Soup, Emotional Rescue - and he was a regular on their tours since 1972 or thereabouts. You might not recognize him in a police lineup (and he was in a few, I'd guess) but you'd know him on the stage. He was the husky guy with the lank blond hair, the one who looked the least like a Rolling Stone, the one who was born in Texas and brought to the band a bit of that larger than life American recklessness, not that they needed any help in that department, and not that other "unofficial" Stones like Nicky Hopkins or Ian McLagan or Ian Stewart weren't sufficiently rebellious or capable of causing trouble. Still, when filmmakers were looking for some "rock 'n' roll action" during the '72 tour, it was Keys who helped Keith Richards throw a TV set out a hotel window. As we learn in his earthy 2012 memoir Every Night's A Saturday Night, Keys regretted that the Stones' rowdy reputation often overshadowed their music. Keys died in 2014 at 70 from liver cancer but he'll always be remembered for his tough sound, and for showing a generation of horn players that there was a place for them in rock 'n' roll. The business with the TV set will probably get a mention, too.

Keys was a typical kid from Slaton, Texas, born just after the war years, growing up with rock 'n' roll on the radio and in the atmosphere. The Slaton High School band provided him with a saxophone; his musical beginnings were no more complicated than that. The idea was to get into a band and hit the road and never look back. He played little gigs locally, mingled with older musicians, and before you know it he was appearing on sessions for Elvis Presley, and touring with Buddy Knox. He weaseled his way into studios and seemed able to get work without much effort. He must've been one hell of a likeable guy. The tone is one of the lucky hick, the guy who spent some nights sleeping in a Mexican jail, but ended up playing with the Stones and enough rock royalty to sink an ocean liner, including various Beatles, Joe Cocker, and Eric Clapton. He portrays himself as a jolly primitive ("I just stuck my horn in my face and started to  blow.") and is fond of down home doggerel like, "I'm shittin' in tall cotton, and fartin' in silk sheets."

Still, few books of this sort can be written without becoming a cautionary tale, and Keys' life wasn't without some horrifying moments. He became "handy with a syringe," and one particular overdose had a disastrous effect on his short term memory. He often forgot where he lived and, sometimes, wasn't sure if he was married or not. That he somehow was able to keep playing sessions and touring during the '80s and '90s is amazing. The real gems in the book are the small observations about the musicians he knew, like how John Lennon once sat with him in a stairwell and patiently coached him on how to play "Whatever Gets You Through The Night," or how Charlie Watts was "a man who folds his socks," or how Delaney and Bonnie and Friends were, according to Keys, "better than the Stones, man for man." It's also interesting to learn that Keys started out as Mick Jagger's pal and roommate - he was best man when Jagger married Bianca - but ended up as Richard's running buddy.

The underlying story, though, is how Keys managed to stay in the Stones even after a period where he'd made a botch of things. During the band's twilight years, Richards made sure that Keys remained in the lineup, even if it meant paying him out of his own pocket. Jagger, Keys writes, would go through entire tours without saying a word to him. Still, Keys never stops reminding the reader of how lucky he was to be with the world's greatest rock band, comparing the first tour with the Stones to "entering the gates of rock 'n' roll heaven." It wasn't so much the women and the drugs, though he did his share of imbibing, but the kid from Slaton was walking among the kings of entertainment, traveling the world with unique, brilliant men he genuinely admired. An encounter with Hugh Hefner not only illustrates how it felt to be in the Stones' powerful presence, but provides the book with perhaps the ultimate line in any rock 'n' roll memoir: "He loaned us his jet even after we'd burned down his bathroom."


Thursday, May 4, 2017

BOOKS: INFINITE TUESDAY

Never Complain About the Air-Conditioning on a Private Jet
Pleasant Valley Sunday, my ass
By Don Stradley 




Michael Nesmith was the cool kid's favorite Monkee. He had the playful wit, the slight Texas drawl, and a stance that assured you he was smarter than the people around him. While The Monkees were decidedly locked in a kind of teeny bopper vortex, he sang his country-tinged songs in a distinct voice that bordered on a Hank Williams yodel of lament. The Monkees' other hits were fine, delicious pop confections, but Nesmith's songs were weird and unique, hillbilly music howled down from another planet. Add to this what was perceived as his indifference about the old show, and Nesmith became the Monkee we loved most, the crafty one, the introspective one, the one who invented MTV, the Internet, Repo Man, and Garry Shandling. I'm not sure if Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff is the memoir I've always wanted from Nesmith, but when has he ever given us exactly what we'd wanted? Besides, it's nice to hear from him.

Nez fills us in on some important early experiences, such as his struggles at school, and seeing Bo Diddley at a small club in Dallas. When Bo cut loose, Nesmith tells us, "the rhythm roared like a wind-driven rainstorm on water." Then there was the time in 1964 after The Beatles  performed for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show. Nesmith was in Corpus Christie, taking a break from his collapsed career as a folk singer, and noticed people were staring. They were convinced he was George Harrison. One girl broke out in tears. "The world," he writes, "had gone crazy." By then, Nesmith was already married with a child, and trying to make a buck as a Bob Dylan wannabe. This was hardly the raw material for pop stardom, but through a series of seemingly haphazard connections he was invited to audition for a new NBC show about some unemployed musicians. The program was an unexpected  success and made Nesmith the unlikeliest of teen idols. Still, the show's two year run interrupted his progress as a singer and songwriter, and left him with only a fragile sense of how he might fit into the whole music business.

This isn't exactly a tale of how money-grabbing showbiz  types exploited a marvelous talent. Instead, it's the story of a guy who was never quite comfortable anywhere. When Nesmith found people who excited and inspired him, he often felt unable to establish permanent links. "I was almost desperate to land my little plane in their field and play whatever games they were thinking up," he writes of a fading friendship with the trio of  Jack Nicholson, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, "but some grace flagged me off. I flew away into my own countryside." The Monkees, too, seemed an awkward fit. "They broke into halfhearted, meaningless fistfights at the drop of an insult," he recalls of Peter, Micky, and Davy. "The set would turn into a playground of entitled eight-year-olds at a private school."

What we can gather from this thoughtful book is that Nesmith's life has been a protracted battle, not only with the movie and music industries  - even PBS turned out to be a bunch of snakes - but also with his own ego, his own "Celebrity Psychosis." Nesmith's mother is a major presence here. A  single mom who found herself wealthy after inventing Liquid Paper, she set the bar for him as far as tenacity and resourcefulness. Perhaps his obsession with technology and patents brings him closer to her in spirit. He's forthright about his infidelities and broken marriages, but some may question why Nesmith says more about the death of John Lennon than of his own bandmate Davy Jones (of which he says nothing). It's as if Nesmith's mind is so packed with  the teachings of Christian Science and his favorite yogis that there's no room for easy sentiment. He's candid, though, and not afraid to be heavy. You never thought a Monkee would write,"Buried within the life of all mortals is one resounding and echoing heartbreak after another - one despairing moment repeating and repeating - even if it is unrecognized." Don't misunderstand - the book isn't, as Nez might've said in the '60s, a "stone drag," but he doesn't even mention the wool hat.

Monday, May 1, 2017

NOTFILM





















For two weeks in 1964 Buster Keaton found himself in a strange little art film directed by Alan Schneider and written by, of all people, Samuel Becket. It was called, simply, Film, and had been conceived by Grove Press founder Barney Rossett as part of a showcase for Grove authors. As history would have it, Becket's was the only one that saw fruition. Depending on your point of view, it was either a tremendous way to bookend Keaton's legendary career, a shameless piece of existential fluff from Becket, or both. Notfilm, a 2015 "cinema essay" by Ross Lipman,  isn't likely to help you decide, though it is occasionally fascinating.

Keaton seemed ideal for Beckett, who was best known for Waiting for Godot, a groundbreaking theater piece that consisted of some people sitting around, waiting for something to happen. By the time Godot premiered in America in 1956, Keaton was scraping out a living by appearing in circuses and on television. The Keaton rediscovery of the 1960s was still a long way off.

Notfilm tells the story of how Keaton - in ill health and less than two years away from his death - was brought into the production (after Charlie Chaplin had bailed out), how Schneider the stage director fumbled his way into his first movie, and how Beckett stood by looking pensive and craggy. There's a rather academic dismantling of Film,  and some interesting footage that was thought to be lost, but a lot of Notfilm is static, and heavy. Lipman can make this documentary jump into life by showing a clip from one of Keaton's old silent films, particularly Sherlock Jr and The Cameraman, but those merciful breaks don't come often enough. Beckett, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1969, is dead weight here. Clips from his plays feel pretentious, and his fear of being photographed or recorded means we have to rely on the memories of others to describe him. Since most of the people interviewed are quite old and their memories are shot, we don't get much.

In a way, the faulty memories of the people questioned create a sort of Beckett play within a Beckett play. Instead of Waiting for Godot, we're waiting for a clear recollection. Fortunately, veteran character actor James Karen shares some poignant memories of an ailing Keaton suffering through the humid New York weather, while historian Kevin Brownlow and cinematographer Haskell Wexler offer some interesting asides. Lipman has artsy pretensions, and occasionally lets the narrative ramble, though he can usually bring it back with a striking image, Beckett's haggard face, for instance, or Keaton's, the stoic hangdog.

Lipman put extensive time and research into this project, and the idea of Keaton and Beckett working together is tantalizing and certainly worth a documentary. The downside is that both are men are deserving of ample coverage, which means the movie runs about 20 minutes too long. Lipman, ultimately, seems less interested in telling the story than in swimming in the middle of it. He's like a deep sea diver who went in search of treasure, but got sidetracked by a couple of squids.

Lipman makes a tactical error in narrating the movie himself - his voice isn't suited for the job. Beckett, too, comes off as rather weedy. His eyesight was beginning to trouble him, and his notorious shyness made him a less than colorful figure. Lipman spends time with actress Billie Whitelaw, but her vague digressions about acting in Beckett plays amount to little.

As for Film, it was a 20-minute short featuring Keaton as a mysterious figure walking through the backstreets of New York's Upper West Side and near the Brooklyn Bridge, trying to avoid being seen. A few people notice him and grimace in horror; he ends up alone in his shabby, empty apartment where he smashes old pictures from his past. Keaton, as always, makes it watchable. Film garnered attention at various international film festivals, and though many agreed with critic Andrew Sarris that it was "a dreary exercise," it was part of the big Keaton renaissance that included him appearing in a beach party movies and cheesy spectacles like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The impression we get from Notfilm is that Keaton wasn't impressed by Beckett or Film. It was a paid gig, no different than the detergent commercials he was doing in those days. According to Tom Dardis' Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down, Keaton made $5,000 for two weeks' work.

"It's one of those art things," Keaton says in a clip from a talk show of the time. He says it with disdain. He was a comedy genius, and an innovator in the early days of Hollywood, but at heart he was a simple guy who liked beer and baseball. He didn't like Film. I don't think he'd like Notfilm, either.

***
Notfilm is currently playing on Fandor, and available on DVD and Blu-ray from Milestone Films.


Monday, April 24, 2017

INSANE




Insane (2010) is a wonderment. It borrows a lot from Psycho, but not like other films that have done the same thing. It uses  the template of Psycho with almost comical boldness; I imagined a bunch of teenagers sitting around a table, yelling out, "And then we'll have the girl's sister come in, just like in Psycho." And another would respond, "Yeah, and the killer will have had a tortured childhood, just like in Psycho." Granted, I've sat through a number of Psycho knockoffs, and a few were amusing. But I've never flat out enjoyed one as much as Insane. Part of the reason is that the filmmakers were simply unabashedly making their own version of Psycho, sort of like children putting on their parents' shoes and walking around the house, pretending to be adults, or holding their fork the way daddy does. It's as if the people behind Insane simply wanted to know how it felt to make Psycho. Once they decided to do it, off they went! I actually started looking forward to each little scene that might resemble Alfred Hitchcock's old thriller. When a chubby detective shows up at the hotel to investigate some missing persons, just like Martin Balsam in Psycho, I practically cheered.

The mystery to me is this: How do some movies borrow riffs and execute them so smoothly, while others just feel like stupid rip offs? Most would dismiss Insane for being too derivative, but I didn't mind. It's just like when I don't mind when Led Zeppelin riffjacks Willie Dixon. There is something mysterious about creativity, for as much as Insane borrows and steals from Psycho - and also from 1980s slasher movies - I consider it a very creative and idiosyncratic piece of work.  This could be because of the way it will subtly veer from its influences. The detective, for instance, is not quite as sly as Balsam's character. In fact, he's a bit of a pig, stuffing his face with sweets. He also seems too dumb to solve any crimes, whereas Balsam seemed smart and cagey.

And where Norman Bates was working in a cheap roadside motel, the villain of this film is working in a rather glitzy old hotel, something a notch below the hotel in The Shining. Unlike Psycho, there's no mystery about what's going on. We know he's a killer. Especially if we've seen Psycho. A pretty young woman arrives, he befriends her, and though she's not killed in a shower - which is just about the only thing the filmmakers didn't lift from Psycho -  she's gutted with something that looks like a samurai sword.

Then, just like in Psycho, her sister comes to investigate. Unlike Psycho, the killer is ready. It's as if the filmmakers had always wished Norman Bates had killed everybody and wasn't carted away to an asylum.

Lars Bethke plays David, the hotel keeper. When in the killing mode, he wears what appears to be a rubber trench coat and a gas mask. The mask is because he usually knocks his victims out with gas from a grenade. Why he needs to do this isn't clear, because he also appears to have superhuman strength. At various times we see him leaping over things, and lifting his victims in the air with one hand. The longer the movie goes on, he seems less like Norman Bates and more like Jason Voorhees.

There's a strangely fetishistic tone to the movie, which isn't unusual in slasher films. Along with David's rubber gear, we see lots of scantily clad women running barefoot, while David usually brings his victims to an underground lair where he chains them up in positions that will appeal to bondage enthusiasts. Anders Jacobsson, who co-directed, co-produced, had a hand in the screenplay, and served as the cinematographer, is probably the closest the film has to an auteur. I will say one thing: the movie looks tremendous, shiny and slick as a Wurlitzer jukebox. The hotel is impressive, too, a sort of acrylic dreamland.

Am I really praising this movie? Yes, I liked it. Insane may have shamelessly borrowed its story, but it has a look and an energy of its own. At the same time, I'm aware of how derivative it is, and I know I may have enjoyed it for reasons most would find unfathomable.

For instance, I'm fascinated that it was made in Sweden. Does that matter? No, but I like the idea that a bunch of Swedes are imitating Americans, and the Americans they've chosen to imitate are from American horror movies.

Somehow, even as David tore the jawbone out of one of his victims, I took it all as a sort of compliment. 


Friday, April 21, 2017

SOMERS TOWN



Somers Town (2008) is about friendship, both the real kind and the movie kind. It seems like it could be autobiographical, inspired perhaps by the life of writer Paul Fraser or director Shane Meadows, but also by the great childhood films of the past, especially those by European directors. The movie is realistic, gritty at times, but the point isn't how down and dirty it can get, but how childhood comes with a share of pain and anguish, and how some of it is eased by the people me meet.

The movie involves teenage boys Merek and Tomo, and their adventures in Somers Town, a rough, dreary section of London. (If Somers Town isn't actually dreary, Meadows' use of black and white certainly makes it look bleak; I was reminded of old British movies from the early '60s. Think A Taste of Honey, or The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.) Merek (Piotr Jagiello) is a Polish kid who lives with his father, a guy who works all day on construction sites and spends his nights drinking with his Polish buddies. Merek's father is well-meaning but crude; he gives the boy reading lessons out of a porn magazine, and laughs as Merek struggles with certain obscene words. Meanwhile, Merek likes photography, and has a crush on a local waitress. Like so many budding male photographers before him, he takes countless pictures of his romantic interest; he pours over them, searching for hidden signs of love.

Merek is tall, slightly stooped as if trying to stop himself from growing, and has the kind of long, greasy hair that I remember having as a teenager, the sort of lank mop that can't be saved by any amount of showering and shampooing. Tomo (Thomas Turgoose) is short, seemingly smaller and younger than his actual age - they were both about 15 or 16 at the time of filming - but has already developed an interest in alcohol. Tomo is in Somers Town because he ran away from his home in Scotland. His first night in the neighborhood sees him savagely beaten by three punks who steal his bag. Badly bruised, with no money, he quickly insinuates himself into Merek's life. He talks his way into staying at Merek's home, hiding under Merek's bed when the Polish boy's drunk father returns at night.

The early days of the friendship are amusing. When Tomo gets sick from eating too many Polish sausages, Merek is afraid to let Tomo use the bathroom in case the old man comes home. Also, Tomo develops a crush on the same waitress that Merek loves. "I think I'll make her my girlfriend," he says. "I won't be comfortable with you having so many pictures of her. You'll have to give those all to me." Later Tomo reassures his pal, "Let's not fall out over a girl, ok?" Such is the power of adolescent bonding.

To be sure, the boys aren't looking for anything resembling real love, or even sex. Maria, the waitress, is simply a kind older girl who smiles at them and ruffles their hair. The movie's charm is that it reminds us of the time when a smile was enough to set our wheels spinning.

As for Maria (Elisa Lasowski), she's where the movie becomes a "movie." She's all together too sweet to exist in real life. Not in my life, anyway. When the impish Tomo tells her he's a talented painter and wants her to model for him, she plays along, encouraging his fantasies. The waitresses I meet, most of them, are sourpusses. If I said I wanted to paint them, they'd call security.

Eventually, the boys have a drunken night together, which consists of jumping up and down on the furniture and throwing potato chips at each other. Just as their party gets rolling, Merek's father comes home. He loses his temper and throws Tomo out. Ever resourceful, Tomo moves next door with one of Merek's neighbors, an eccentric wheeler dealer who puts Tomo to work as a sort of houseboy. Tomo, who lost his clothing to the muggers earlier in the movie, is down to wearing some women's clothing he stole from a laundromat. We next see him polishing antiques, wearing a house dress. It's a testament to the movie's uniqueness that he seems absolutely content. He's like a rat, making a home for himself wherever he can find it.

The movie put me in a good mood. Tomo, a bit of an artful dodger, is a bad influence on Merek, but you get the feeling they'll be buddies for a long time. As Tomo, Turgoose is a funny, slippery character. Jagiello's Merek is a perfect foil, slightly exasperated by Tomo's restless energy. I liked both of these kids. Fittingly, they shared a Best Actor award at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival.

In its depiction of an adolescent male friendship, Somers Town hits on a perfect truth: many people aren't in a position to choose their friends, but if you're lucky you'll bump into someone suitable. The movie is filmed in black and white, though there's a color coda that follows the boys on a trip. The color bit felt cheesy, and didn't quite fit the rest of the movie. Yet, I know why the director did it. He liked Tomo and Merek as much as I did, and he wanted to give them a gift. An American director would've had the boys get revenge on the thieves who stole Tomo's things. Meadows, a Brit, decided it would be more fun to give the boys a colorful sendoff, rather than stick them in an alley fight. 


Monday, April 17, 2017

Dwight Frye and THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933)


The legend surrounding Dwight Frye was that he wanted to show his humorous side. As a young actor he'd appeared in several comedies on the Broadway stage, but as far as Hollywood was concerned, Frye was destined to be a second string bogeyman. In fact, the little actor known as "The Man with the Thousand Watt Stare" played some of the creepiest characters in movie history.

He got off to an impressive start in 1931 by playing the fly-eating Renfield in Dracula and the conniving hunchback Fritz in Frankenstein. This should've convinced Universal that a formidable new star had arrived, someone who could be a match for Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi. Instead, Frye toiled in secondary roles; he was usually killed off early. 

In the sort of unfortunate twist that has always prevailed in Hollywood, Frye was stuck playing madmen and degenerates. He made the best of it, though. He nearly outdid himself in 1933 when he appeared for Majestic Studios in The Vampire Bat. The movie has been restored recently by The Film Detective for a special issue DVD and Blu-ray; it gives us all a new reason to praise Frye.

By the time of The Vampire Bat, audiences knew Frye well from Dracula and Frankenstein. He'd also appeared in an early version of The Maltese Falcon as Wilmer, the twitchy gunman played in the more famous version of the film by Elisha Cook Jr. Portraying Herman Gleib, a nutty villager who lived in a house full of bats, cemented Frye as a screen wacko. In the decades to come, when vintage horror movies played regularly on late night television, Frye earned a growing cult of admirers. As author David J. Skal observed in Hollywood Gothic, Frye "became a sub-genre unto himself." The ultimate tribute may have come in 1973 when Alice Cooper recorded 'The Ballad of Dwight Frye," a surreal piece of heavy rock featuring the less than subtle lyric, "See my lonely mind explode/when I've gone insane."

Frye wasn't menacing, like Peter Lorre at his best, or threatening in the way Karloff could be. Frye's specialty was looking like he might at any moment sink into utter depravity. Writer Stefan Kanfer once described him as having "a stage whisper the size of Pasadena." But Frye's out-sized whispers hinted at the madness within his characters.

You can sense Herman's status in the village by the way he appears to slither in and out of scenes. He simply appears at the edge of the shot and, like a  midnight mist, works his way into the camera's focus. A woman who has apparently been bitten by a vampire bat and lays dying in her bed is surrounded by loved ones, but soon we see Herman, his large head offset by an asylum haircut, nuzzling his way into the circle. How does he know these people? Is he the village idiot? Tolerated but not accepted? 

When several people in the town are found dead, their necks showing needle-like teeth marks, Herman becomes a suspect. He keeps bats, after all. In one delicious scene, we see him petting a bat before gently slipping it into his coat pocket. When he notices a crowd of people watching him, he turns on them and hisses. Like all good lunatics, Herman knows the effect he has on people and enjoys putting a chill in them. But the locals don't like him; they're soon taken with the hysterical notion that he might be a vampire.

"Bats nice," Herman says, speaking in a kind of cracked English. "Soft, like cats." At one point he offers a woman a bat in exchange for an apple. 

Herman is eventually pursued into the mountains by angry villagers carrying torches. Frightened, he leaps to his doom so the movie's other stars, Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Melvyn Douglas, can get on with their business. As red herrings go, Frye's Herman is a tasty one.

The Vampire Bat featured one of Frye's last significant roles. He'd continue working (he had nice turns in The Bride of Frankenstein and The Crime of Doctor Crespi, both 1935), but the jobs became smaller. Now and then he'd have a decent part in some Poverty Row feature - he was 10th billed in Monogram's Sky Bandits (1940), and fourth billed in PRC's Dead Men Walk (1943),  - but even when he was back at Universal for more horror films  - Son of Frankenstein (1939), Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) - his screen-time diminished. Sometimes his part was cut entirely. In 1941 he returned to the role of Renfield in a Los Angeles stage production of Dracula. To make ends meet, Frye worked in a tool factory for Lockhead Aircraft.

"If God is good," Frye said in a press release for The Vampire Bat, "I will be able to play comedy, in which I was featured on Broadway for eight seasons and in which no producer of motion pictures will give me a chance! And please God, may it be before I go screwy playing idiots, half-wits and lunatics on the talking screen!" 

It looked like Frye's luck was about to change in 1943 when he was cast in Wilson, a film that would go on to win five Academy Awards. It wasn't a comedy, and he may well have gone unnoticed in the enormous cast, but it was step away from the crazy roles for which he was known. Unfortunately, before filming began, Frye died of a heart attack on a city bus at age 44. The coroner's certificate listed his occupation as "tool designer." It was as if, even in death, Frye couldn't get recognition as an actor.

So we'll recognize him here. There's a scene in The Vampire Bat where the locals have gathered after another murder. Looking especially frazzled and wild-eyed, Herman works his way through the crowd. By now they've practically accepted him as a murderer, perhaps one of supernatural origin, and they slowly move back to make room for him. What Frye does in this scene is remarkable;  he doesn't make any grand gestures, but with nothing more than his manic eyes, and fatigued, shuffling walk, he gives the locals a haunted visage to remember. They'll recall to their dying days the time a man thought to be vampire walked among them, close enough to touch.

The Vampire Bat follows the horror movie rules of its day. There's the nondescript European village that harbors secret laboratories, little old ladies who can break a night sky in half with their screams, and the required appearance of a doddering burgermeister. It was directed by Frank R. Strayer, a B movie workhorse who labored in all genres. He wasn't picky about assignments - he even directed a series based on the popular Blondie cartoon strip - but you could put together a nice boxed set of Strayer's horror features, including The Vampire Bat, The Monster Walks (1932), The Ghost Walks (1934) and Condemned to Live (1935). Phil Hardy's excellent The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies (1986) refers to The Vampire Bat as "One of the best of the independent films churned out to meet the new vogue for horror," and praises the "clever camerawork" of Ira Morgan (who would go on to film Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, 1936). Horror scholar and Frye biographer Gregory Mank called it a "Poverty Row gem."

The cast is impeccable, its major stars at pivotal points in their careers. Two months after The Vampire Bat premiered at Broadway's Winter Garden Theater in January, 1933,  Fay Wray would appear in King Kong and earn fame that would last decades; Melvyn Douglas, who plays the cynical police inspector, was at the dawn of a career that would see him win two Best Supporting Oscars; and Lionel Atwill, the mad scientist of the tale, was becoming a favorite movie villain; he'd be busted a few years later for throwing kinky parties at his home.

The sets, too, are outstanding - the fly-by-night Majestic smartly leased the still-standing Universal sets for Frankenstein and The Old Dark House (1932). Watching Frye skulk along the old castle walls is like seeing Fritz again, which makes The Vampire Bat seem like the impoverished cousin of a James Whale picture.

But the fun of the movie exists mostly in the performance by Frye. Remove him from the production, and it would play like any other mystery thriller set in Europe, with a lot of actors harrumphing around saying, "Surely, you don't believe in vampires!" It's standard issue -- except for Frye's otherworldly presence. 

He doesn't act so much as give off a vibration; he doesn't even need lines, because his appearance is so striking. When in a scene with the other actors, Frye seems real, if somewhat alien, while they seem like performers of the period, speaking in stagy, clipped accents; he's like an actual insane person who has crept into the movie. When he's in full strut, petting a bat or giving someone the evil eye, you wonder why Hollywood didn't do more with this superb, offbeat actor.


***

The Vampire Bat DVD and Blu-ray release from The Film Detective  includes a pair of interesting extras: a short documentary featuring Melvin Douglas' son, and an audio commentary by filmmaker and historian Sam Sherman.



Tuesday, April 11, 2017

BOOKS: ETERNAL TROUBADOUR, TINY TIM

Old Songs, Young Girls
New Bio Portrays Tiny Tim's Life as a Strange Showbiz Fable
By Don Stradley





Tiny Tim is usually written off as a one-hit wonder, but "Tip Toe Thru' the Tulips" could've been followed by any number of songs from his brilliant debut album, including "The Old Front Porch," or "Livin' in the Sunlight, Lovin' in the Moonlight." His volcanic version of "Earth Angel," which he performed on The Ed Sullivan Show with an all-girl backing band called The Enchanted Forest, should've been a hit, too. Still, having only the one success, and the fact that it was the final song he performed before his death at 64, gives Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim, a touch of melancholy. 

There's plenty of detail in Justin Martell's chronicle of Tiny Tim's life, though the reader is advised to seek out the music and give it a listen; this impressive chronicle assumes we know what Tiny Tim sounded like.  Martell, described on the flyleaf as "one of the world's foremost experts on Tiny Tim," seems more interested in Tiny's premature ejaculations and his fear of the dark, than why "Tip Toe" connected with listeners in the first place.  Still, Tiny Tim's rise and fall is a kind of showbiz fable, and well deserving of a full scale exploration.

 Tiny Tim (real name: Herbert Khaury) was a curiosity from the start, standing out in his northern Manhattan neighborhood as a weird boy with a predilection for old-time songs and Shirley Temple movies. His musical interests did little to brighten the days of his overworked, occasionally violent parents. His Lebanese-Catholic father, Butros, once smashed a guitar across Tiny's back. His Polish-Jewish mother, Tillie, called her peculiar son a sissy and said he'd never amount to much.

In 1936, at age four, Tiny discovered the wonders of music when his parents bought a vintage Gramophone. He was mesmerized by a 78-RPM of Henry Burr singing "Beautiful Ohio." By his teens he was immersing himself in the pop songs of the day. "I used to buy four or five new releases a week," he once said. "I even loved the smell of shellac." But it was the music of the 1900s up to the 1920s that most fascinated him. Describing himself as "a vampire sucking the blood of the past," he developed a falsetto singing style, learned his way around a ukulele, memorized hundreds of songs, experimented with stage names ("Dary Dover," "Emmett Swink") and began entering talent shows. He was usually jeered off the stage, but by his late 20s he was performing regularly in Hubert's Museum and Flea Circus on 42nd Street, billed as Larry Love, The Human Canary. His first paid gig was at Page 3, a lesbian bar, where he cleared a measly $96.00 after playing nearly every night of the month.

He tried other jobs, failing at the simplest of them. He'd either be fired for incompetence, or  get himself canned by going to sing somewhere when he was supposed to be working. The call of the stage was too strong. He was born to entertain, and entertain he did, through several decades of troubled marriages and shady managers. By his mid thirties he was a Greenwich Village mascot, earning the admiration of such heavyweights as Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan. Then came the hit single, landmark appearances on Laugh-In, and then, in a moment of pop culture overkill, his marriage on The Tonight Show to a 17-year-old girl. The episode set a ratings record that would last nearly a quarter century. But Tiny Tim, prudish, chauvinistic, anti-abortion and pro-war, was nothing like the hippies and fringe characters who jumped on his bandwagon. It was only a matter of time before he was sniffed out.

Martell, an independent filmmaker and writer, does a marvelous job recreating the glory years of 1968-70, when Tiny Tim even appeared as the subject of a board game. The press glowered and grimaced, but at times Tiny Tim showed himself to be not just a novelty act, but a strangely charismatic performer with an encyclopedic knowledge of vintage songs. There was his debut album, God Bless Tiny Tim, compared favorably by some critics to The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, plus his memorable  appearance with Bing Crosby on Hollywood Palace where he stood his ground and swapped tunes with the master of crooning. There was his surprise performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival where, on a bill with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and The Doors, he provided a show highlight by using a megaphone to sing "There Will Always Be An England."

And, of course, there was the tumultuous marriage to the legendary Miss Vickie, a teenage girl he met at an autograph signing. Their wedding ceremony on The Tonight Show may have been the height of Tiny Tim's celebrity, but it was also the beginning of his downfall. Where he'd once seemed like a harmless curiosity, he now seemed like a guy willing to do anything for fame. A few years later, after Tiny's ridiculous performance of "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy," Johnny Carson stopped inviting him on the show. By then, Tiny was already old news.

Still, there were signs that Tiny Tim was always on the verge of a comeback, first as a sort of musical savant, entering the Guinness Book of World Records in 1979 with a marathon performance at Australia's Luna Park, then in the 1990s as a regular guest on The Howard Stern Show. There was also a surprising late career surge of creativity, including Prisoner of Love, a collection of old Russ Columbo tunes that he'd wanted to record for years. (If you need proof of Tiny's talent as an interpreter of songs, his version of "Sweet and Lovely" is an absolute killer.) There were down times, where Tiny Tim shuffled through endless tour dates, playing everywhere from circus tents to Spooky World, but even as his health faltered and audiences dwindled, he was living the troubadour's dream.

Martell gives us Tiny Tim in all of his moods and colors. He shows us a man who was strange in his habits, at times unpleasant, out of touch with reality; most psychologists would diagnose him as paranoid, and depressed. But Martell also sees Tiny Tim as a kind of heroic figure, one who showed us "the depths of exploitation inherit in the media, the exhausting and cutthroat world of entertainment, the pressures of fame, the struggles of marriage, and how lonely it can be to be different." Tiny Tim, he writes, "took the heat as the original freak."

"It used to give me some kind of pleasure when people got angry," Tiny once said of the abuse he endured during his early days, which included physical attacks. "It was thrilling to me to expose the underpinnings of their hearts."

Martell's research into Tiny's life was Herculean. Not only did he conduct hundreds of interviews, but he had access to Tiny Tim's diaries, which reveal an often morose man. A maniacally devout Christian, Tiny spoke daily to Jesus, thanking him for his successes, and shaming himself for his sinful acts, which at one time included a dalliance with a 14-year-old neighbor boy. Usually, Tiny wrote about the lovely young women he encountered, teens mostly; he handed out special trophies to his favorites, and dreamed of a special land where he could live with a beautiful princess and never grow old.   

Some of the best incites come from Tiny's third wife, the long suffering Miss Sue. Though a bit of a hypochondriac in her own right,  she was possibly the only decent, intelligent person in Tiny's life. She's especially compelling when she addresses the effeminate mannerisms that often baffled Tiny's critics, describing them as, not feminine, but childlike: "He simply found childlike mannerisms to be sexy. He was attracted to young, teenage girls, and his imitation of the personalities of the young girls he loved was reassuring to them, as he well knew."

Still, it's Tiny Tim who gives the most poignant line about the weight and brevity of his career, with a comment he gave to TV Guide at the height of his popularity: "If I fell down today," he said, "I could always say that at one time in my life, I stunned them all."

And when the madness stopped, he carried on, as if the fumes of the tulip song were powerful enough to guarantee another 27 years of gigs and recordings, until the sad day in 1996 when he was too sick to finish a show at a Minneapolis women's club, and the bum heart that had been failing for a while finally gave out. You can say he died doing what he loved, but he would've probably preferred to be playing on The Ed Sullivan Show, dying before the cameras, blowing a final kiss to the wonderful people out there, the people who still smile when they hear his name now, because they remember a unique entertainer, a hairy misfit who belted out the old tunes and gave them a last gasp of life in the most unlikely of eras: the surreal late '60s.

That's why, despite some minor flaws, this biography of Tiny Tim is one of the most useful publications of the past year, and well worth reading.