Monday, August 21, 2017

BOOKS: STING-RAY AFTERNOONS


DUCK...DUCK...DUCK...GOOSE...
Warning: Too much nostalgia can lead to dizziness and nausea
by Don Stradley


I grew up in a rather strange household by American  standards. Things like Little League baseball, Schwinn bikes, and television game shows were considered the obsessions of people who had nothing better to do, people with empty heads and empty lives. Me, I was taught how to cast bullets for a .45 automatic, and how to tuck a rifle deep into my shoulder so it wouldn't knock me down when I pulled the trigger. By age 10 I'd visited the Farmers' Museum in upstate New York, and could name every heavyweight boxing champion going backwards to Paddy Ryan, the "Troy Giant." I'd occasionally see kids in their locally sponsored baseball uniforms, and I'd think, "Those poor simpletons. They've been brainwashed." I was pretty sure I wasn't missing anything, though I was slightly envious that the neighborhood coaches would bring the teams to Dog & Suds, a highway stand that served nothing but root beer and hotdogs. Delicious! Fortunately, Steve Rushin's new book, Sting-Ray Afternoons: A Memoir, is here to fill me in on what I missed. Perhaps I wasn't part of the standard U.S.A. family unit, but from what he describes, I didn't miss much.  

We know from the introduction what sort of book this will be. Rushin is going to start from the minute he was born, and he's going to tell us about every damned household item and brand name that came into the Rushin home in Bloomington, Minnesota. Not only does he fetishize such objects as BIC pens, but he will stop mid chapter and give us a mini-bio of Marcel Bich, the founder of the BIC company. This is mildly amusing at first, and Rushin's a good enough writer to keep the story puffing along, but a little of this would go a long way. One hundred pages in, after an ode to Pink Pearl erasers, I was exhausted and ready to cry uncle. I didn't give a damn what brand of soap this family used, or what they had for dinner on Tuesdays, or where Rushin and his shithead siblings shopped for their school clothes. Rushin, who has written for Sports Illustrated, fills a few pages with Minnesota hockey lore,  and I remember some of the players he mentions, like Jude Drouin, whose massive sideburns were like "two shag carpet samples that ripple in the breeze," but then it's back to the minutia. He writes as if he expects us to applaud every stinkin' cereal and toy he mentions. (Hey everybody! Remember Count Chocula? Yay!)

 The inspiration here is probably Jean Shepard, who wrote about his own childhood in a way that was funny and ridiculous. Shepard wrote short pieces - you have probably seen A Christmas Story, which was based on Shepard's writing -  because he knew nostalgia is flimsy stuff and  works best in a short blast. Shepard's characters were also larger than life, almost cartoonish, which made them entertaining. Rushin's characters are smaller than life. The closest he comes to a character we'd like to know more about is a mysterious grammar school janitor who showed up to a Christmas gathering to sing "Silent Night" and brought the house down. Everyone else in the book is a stick figure. Perhaps Rushin was too worn out from writing such purple prose as "TV is a security blanket, not altogether different from the Sears Orlon blanket on my bed - warm, fuzzy, narcotizing, vividly colored, and crackling with static electricity." 

Oh, fuck off.

 The problem with nostalgia is that it's cheap. No matter how much you loved that first pair of Adidas, they were still just a pair of shoes. Rushin also wants to rhapsodize about the fall of Bloomington as a major city, but in his hands the city of his childhood is reduced to stats and dates. (Do sports writers see the world only through statistics?) We're clobbered with such long stretches of brand name dropping - he even inserts an entire page from the old Sears Wish Book, which in truth is only slightly more monotonous than the rest of this toy store flashback - that  we hardly notice the shift when he tries to get serious. He potshots us in the last chapter with the death of his mother, a kindly woman, but after 300 pages of Topps baseball cards and wedgies, it feels like a late effort to give his book some heft. Of course, any one of the chapters in Sting-Ray Afternoons would make a nice piece in the Sunday supplement. Maybe the best way to read it is one chapter per month, spread out over several years. Otherwise, Rushin and his family of squares is hard to take in one gulp. I kept hoping Scut Farkus would run in from a Jean Shepard story and kick one of Rushin's brothers in the balls, anything to break up these reveries about The Brady Bunch and Marie Osmond and those damned BIC pens.




Tuesday, August 15, 2017

ORION: THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING...





Elvis Presley's drugged up body had barely been hoisted out of his Memphis mansion that sad day in August 1977 when a bizarre new genre sprouted up. It took place in the seedy environs of Las Vegas and on the pages of the National Enquirer. It was time for Elvis sightings, Elvis impersonators, and Elvis tributes. Elvis was being seen everywhere. The murder of John Lennon may have been sadder, and the death of Michael Jackson just as unexpected, but nothing compares to the loopy frenzy that happened when Presley died. It was as if Elvis' adoring public simply couldn't part with him. So saddened were fans by his death that it may have actually brought them momentary comfort to think he'd staged the whole thing and was secretly living in Mexico in a spaceship, or working at a Chevron, his face altered by surgery. One of the strangest offshoots of the phenomenon was a recording artist known as Orion, a fellow who performed behind a sequined Lone Ranger mask and sounded a lot like Elvis. As we see in Orion: The Man Who Would be King,  a well-made documentary by Jeanie Finlay, Elvis had some mighty big shoes to fill. A guy could die trying.

His name was Jimmy Ellis,  and he was a towering horse rancher out of Alabama. He was a shower singer, a guy who secretly wanted to be in show business, but coming from a background of rural types who had never traveled beyond their zip code,  he wouldn't try to live his dreams until he was in his 30s. The problem was that he sounded so much like Elvis that he couldn't get a break. He wasn't trying to imitate Elvis, it's just that when he opened his mouth, Elvis came out. Ellis went to L.A., got some gigs, did what he could. As he struggled, a novel called Orion by Gail Brewer Giorgio hit the bookstalls and became a subject of fascination for the Elvis cult. It chronicled the life of a fictionalized pop singer, one very much like Elvis. In the novel, this Orion fellow staged his death to get away from the stifling music business. One night Giorgio happened to see Ellis performing in a small roadhouse. It occurred to her that Ellis could be her Orion. She gave him the book, and he brought it to sleazeball music producer and president of Sun Records, Shelby Singleton.

There's some debate as to who actually came up with the idea, but in time Singleton had convinced Ellis to start dressing like Elvis and to wear a mask. He would go on the road as Orion, while the maniacal Singleton began planting tongue in cheek "Elvis is Alive!" advertisements in the press. For a while, it worked pretty well. As Orion, Ellis was suddenly playing to full houses throughout the southern states, and even in Europe. He recorded seven albums in two years, a couple of them placing high on the country music charts. Under contract to keep the mask on at all  times, Ellis grew to hate the Orion image and eventually came to blows with Singleton. Still, Ellis couldn't deny that he had, in a weird way, become a star. He had no shortage of groupies, that's for sure. Strangely, in what he probably thought was typical rock star behavior, Ellis kept Polaroid snaps of their vaginas.

In Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, Ellis comes off as stubborn, moody, and a bit of a goofball. Those who knew him speak well of him, but he was clueless. He, and others in the movie, try to paint the music business as the bad guys, but I'm not so sure. Ellis was both gullible and greedy. When the Orion gimmick wore out, Ellis hired a new group of "semi-Mafia" advisors who tried to relaunch him as a teen idol in the Rick Springfield mold. It was laughable, and he soon turned back into Orion. The footage of him onstage shows a tall, 40-ish man lumbering around as if trying to recall some hastily taught dance steps; he's like the aging jock who tries to get laughs by doing 'The Twist.' The singing varies. There are moments when he roars, like Elvis in his "How Great Thou Art" period, and others when he sounds like a talented amateur, heaving and hiccuping just like the gosh-darn King.

There's a fascinating bit in the movie where it's suggested Ellis may have been related to Elvis - as he aged, he bore an eerie resemblance to Elvis' father, Vernon - but ultimately, the story is a sad, showbiz fable, the likes of which could only happen in America. Ellis came to a bad end, and I won't spoil it for you. Could Ellis have made it if he chose a different route, or was he just too much of a hick to understand the music business? Should a guy get by on talent alone, or does he need a gimmick? What is talent, anyway? Oh well, he met a lot of nasty ladies out there in those Holiday Inns along the highway. If Jimmy Ellis wasn't the king of rock 'n' roll, he was certainly the king of something.




Thursday, August 10, 2017

BEING EVEL...


 Being Evel Movie Review
 
Even if you know nothing about Evel Knievel, you probably know his name. In this 2015 documentary, we learn about the real fellow,  a motorcycle daredevil who became the most unlikely of 1970s icons, helped in no small way by a windup action figure that was beloved by kids, a cheapo movie bio starring George Hamilton, endless coverage on ABC's Wide World of Sports, and Viva Knievel, where Knievel starred as himself.  The real Evel was a somewhat psychotic stunt-rider and attention addict from Montana who once attempted to jump the fountains at Caesar's Palace. He nearly died, but the shocking footage of him bumping around like a rag doll became his calling card. He'd present it on late night talk shows and people would gasp. Each gasp fed his ego, until he became unbearable.

There are familiar faces in the documentary. We hear from various riders and stunt lovers like Tony Hawk and Johnny Knoxville (who served as a producer) and they can't hide their admiration for Evel. They are kids again, just thinking of him. Evel's own sons, Robbie and Kelly, speak of their father from a distance, as if describing a legend, a suicidal Paul Bunyon for the Watergate years.

It is a tribute, yes. Being Evel, is an undoubted gift for the cult of followers who adored this mental case who destroyed his body for the sake of entertainment. What I hadn't realized, until seeing this movie, was that Evel spent much of his adult life walking around in a state of fear. His eyes look wary, and his body language before every jump is of a man walking gamely to the gallows. He presented himself as a fearless badass, and insinuated that he simply had bigger balls than the rest of us, but he looks shaky. "If you were about to do what I'm about to do,"  he tells one reporter before a big jump, "you'd be nervous, too."

Robert "Evel" Knievel comes across as a duel personality. At first, he was just a thrill seeker, a good ol' boy who kept seeking bigger and bigger challenges.  Gradually, he started believing his own hype. When  Hamilton played him in Evel Knievel, a schlocky '70s drive-in flick, Knievel underwent a change. In fact, Knievel started acting more like a movie character, and less like himself. He may have been the first guy who lived and behaved like a rock star without being a rock star. By the time of his last few jumps, he was paranoid, drugged up, and violent, but still a showman, still shoving the Evel image at us. "He kept trying to sell and resell something he'd already sold," Hamilton says. 

The filmmakers don't hide Knievel's awful side. He was a womanizer - groupies threw themselves at him - and he was a bully. When he didn't like a book that was written about him, he attacked the author with a baseball bat. He did some time in prison for that one, but it only added to his myth. There's an incredible piece of footage that shows a couple of Hell's Angels attacking him after a jump, and people running out of the audience to beat back the angels. A badly dazed angel is dragged off by security, shaken by the the fury of Knievel's rabid followers. It's no wonder Knievel felt indestructible.

But he wasn't. At times it seemed his famous red, white and blue  jumpsuit was all that held his broken body together. He walked stiffly from leg injuries, underwent numerous operations, and shattered his pelvis more than once. After one particularly horrific stunt in London, which ended with the motorcycle on top of him, he demanded to be helped to a standing position so he could address the audience and announce his retirement. He jumped again a year later. 

Perhaps the secret to Knievel's success  was best summed up by the man himself. "People don't want to see me die," he once said. "But they don't want to miss it if I do."  Granted, there are riders now who routinely do what he did - his own son Robbie broke most of the old records, and even beat the fountain at Caesar's Palace -  and thanks to much lighter bikes and better technology, they can do what Evel did without crashing all the time. But who cares if some faceless 18 year-old can soar higher in 2017? Evel was the Charles Lindbergh of his era - he did it first, and not only flirted with self-annihilation, but seemed wedded to it.

Being Evel isn't a perfect documentary; there's a monotony in the talking heads who keep harping on how Knievel let fame get to him. It's also a bloody shame that Leigh Montville, author of Evel (an exquisite bio) wasn't involved. But there's a great sense of doom about it, especially leading up to Knievel's attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in 1974. Snake River was his Altamont, with hippies and bikers going nuts on the site, a flimsy rocket failing in midair, and Knievel, defeated again, waving to us from the bottom of the canyon.

As I watched, it occurred to me that the real key to Knievel was that each terrible crash was preceded by a flight into the heavens. In a small, 1970s way, Knievel was a modern Icarus, edging too close to the sun. He struck such an important cord within us that we invented a toy of him, so we could do it, too.



Monday, August 7, 2017

THE FOUNDER...

The Founder Movie Review

The Founder is perhaps the most troubling version of the American dream ever captured in a movie. Its message is clear: Ambition is great, but what really helps is ruthless megalomania. And guess what? You can screw the people who helped you get to the top, and nothing bad will happen to you. There's no such thing as karma, baby! Ray Kroc, founder of the McDonald's Corporation, stole ideas and stepped on toes until he got to the top of the fast food mountain. Maybe you can find some inspiration in the story of a failed 52-year-old salesman who, when it seemed his life had hit a Willy Lomanish skid, talked a couple of goodhearted brothers in California into franchising their friendly little burger restaurant. They reluctantly agreed, and by the time a McDonald's opened  in Minnesota, Kroc was taking credit for the entire concept. Burger fumes had gone to his head. By the time he suggested the company could save money by using powdered milk in their shakes, the damage was done. Kroc not only bit the hand that fed him, he put two pickles on it and washed it down with a crap shake.

Kroc had a vision. He imagined McDonald's as a kind of instant Americana in a bag. After World War 2, the country was thriving, and speed was key. Why wait a half hour for your meal? Why not get your sammich in 30 seconds? But Kroc's real passion was for the name: McDonald's. As in 'Old McDonald had a farm.' It sounded as big as the open road, and as sturdy as Eisenhower's jaw. "You couldn't call the place 'Kroc's'," he says. "Its too Slavic." Would he have been so in love with the burgers  if the brothers had been named McCarthy, or Sullivan, or Dempsey? Funnily enough, when he first goes to McDonald's to deliver a bunch of milk shake spinners, he doesn't know what to make of it. There are no plates. The stuff comes in a paper sack. But he likes the food - they used real government standard beef in those days, kids, not the mysterious rubber discs they serve now - and he's soon learning the inner workings of the joint. The brothers had created something amazing, a tight little collection of workers who built burgers like they were building Fords. It was, says one brother, like "a burger ballet."

Director John Lee Hancock creates a luscious looking movie. The 1950s automobiles, finned behemoths with gas guzzling V8 engines, are gorgeous (It is strange that none of them need to be washed. Didn't cars get dirty in those days?), as are the long stretches of highway and the clear blue skies, and the billboards that advertise cigs and shaving cream. As Kroc travels the country, we start to feel that our greatest contribution to cinema is not the Western, or the crime flick, or the horror film, but the road movie. America's highways have rarely seemed as beautiful as they do in The Founder. As the brothers explain how they built their restaurant, one might get teary-eyed at how they stuck together, and how they were about to give up when one little boy showed up to buy a burger, the same boy who used to appear in Norman Rockwell paintings and Disney movies about brave dogs. It's mush, but it's great mush. When Kroc enlists his buddies from the country club to help out with his franchising dream, and then fires them because they put fried chicken on the menu, you want to pat Kroc on the back and say "Keep going, buddy! I'm with you."

As Kroc, Michael Keaton continues to impress during this late stretch of his career. He's a venal salesman, a guy who talks to mirrors and can pitch a line of bull, and though we may root for him at first, he eventually becomes the villain of the piece. If this was fiction, he'd get his comeuppance. But it's not, so he ends up rubbing elbows with Ronald Reagan. He insists that he's not a bad person, merely ambitious, with big ideas. He even trades in his scowling wife (Laura Dern) for the much saucier spouse (Linda Cardilini) of a business associate. He'll take another man's business, and another man's wife, all because of, you know, ambition. And he'll live happily ever after, unlike us less ambitious plebeians. The movie drags in the second half, when we get the idea that Kroc can't be stopped. It's also disappointing that there's no mention of Ronald McDonald or Mayor McCheese. What keeps it interesting is Keaton, as well as Nick Offerman, who plays the pragmatic Dick McDonald, and John Carroll Lynch as Mac, the more jovial of the brothers. Sadly, I kept thinking of the McDonald's in my area. The shake machine never works, the place is a friggin' pigsty, and last year a junkie was caught shooting up in the restroom. What would Kroc think?





Thursday, August 3, 2017

I, OLGA HEPNAROVA



"I know I'm a psycho, but an enlightened one." That's the main character speaking in I, Olga Hepnarova, an offering from the Czech Republic about an alienated young woman who, when she had been bullied long enough, drove her truck onto a sidewalk in Prague and killed eight people, mowing them down like bowling pins. Her deed was a kind of political statement, a warning to society that if the victimization of defenseless people continued, there would be a lot more vans driving onto sidewalks. The victims of bullying, she claimed, could only take so much before they struck back. She also believed that society raised a certain amount of people to be victims, and that had to stop, too. I'm no expert on Olga, and though the credits say "Based on a true story," I can't vouch for the movie's accuracy. But it's an interesting portrait of a young woman's journey into madness, a woman who, by outward appearances, seemed relatively normal before turning herself into an instrument of terror.

We can see Olga's outlook warping from the beginning of the movie. When she tries to commit suicide by overdosing, she's told she doesn't have the guts to carry out such a thing. Later, when she tries to pursue a romance with another girl, she's told that she has no sense of fashion and smells odd. "I seem to be a lesbian," she tells a counselor. "I'd like a partner. Can you help me find one?" She's told, without irony, that her medical benefits don't cover such things. We also see her being beaten savagely in a reformatory shower by a bunch of other girls, and though she seems competent at her truck driving job, she soon loses that, too. Alienated from her family, Olga makes do by reading dark literature and having quick sex romps. Apparently Prague was crawling with lesbians in 1973, because Olga has no trouble finding pretty young women to sleep with. In fact, there's a rather lengthy cunnilingus scene that betrays Olga's description of herself as "sexually crippled."

The real Olga Hepnarova was a stocky, plain girl. Here, as played by  Michalina Olszanska, she's whippet thin and rather attractive. Olszanska affects a mannish, slope shouldered walk which grows more pronounced as the movie progresses, but most often is seen sitting still, staring vacantly into some unknown abyss. We hear her inner thoughts as she pens letters and notebook entries, all of which depict her as antisocial and self-pitying. "All parents should be executed," she says at one point. "And children put in institutions." She's a less rabid version of Valerie Solanas, the man-hating loon who shot Andy Warhol. The story is rolled out in a series of blackout scenes, many of them with only minimal dialog, shot in a rigid black and white by Adam Sikora, all the better to sense a sociopath's icy interior. Even the climactic truck ride is done in a matter of fact nature. It's all over in a few seconds. 

The movie has earned many awards on the international festival circuit, including several for Olszanska's performance. It may be a bit aloof and artsy for American viewers, but it has much to admire. I particularly liked how Olga seems so sure of herself prior to being sent to prison, and then, alone in her cell, comes undone. A court psychologist suggested she was schizophrenic, and sure enough we see her disintegrating as she awaits her execution, delivering a long, incoherent monologue about her innocence. Was she really starting to crack? Or was she merely pretending to be insane to hold off a trip to the gallows?  The movie also seems a bit mannered at times, with Olszanska shrugging around like a slacker goddess. It's as if the filmmakers want us to think of Olga as a kind of cool, misunderstood rebel character, a socialist republic version of Wynona Ryder. The fact that the broken bodies on the sidewalk are barely acknowledged is odd, too, as if the crime of running people down with a truck was  incidental to this poor girl's story. Such obtuse choices only muddy  the filmmakers' point.  Fortunately, Olga's  screams as she's being dragged to the hangman's noose are loud and clear and quite direct.




Monday, July 31, 2017

DOG EAT DOG...












When you peel back the violence and bloodshed of Paul Schrader's Dog Eat Dog, it's a movie about a bunch of geezers whose time has come and gone. Troy (Nicolas Cage), Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe) and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook) are three ex-cons who have spent so much time in prison that they're out of touch with the world. In between assignments for a Cleveland crime boss, which include kidnapping a rival gangster's baby, they engage in idle banter. They've never heard of Taylor Swift or Elliot Smith, and they're surprised at the way young black criminals all seem to act like characters from television. Troy, the smartest of the trio, only likes old movies, especially the vintage Warner Bros dramas with Bogart and Cagney. One of the big thrills of his prison term was when he ran into a Hollywood producer, also doing time, who told him, "You look like a stretched out Bogart." Diesel, a brutal powerhouse, is mad at life and has trouble relating to people. Mad Dog, a drug addled killer, likes to walk barefoot on carpeted floors because there were no carpets in prison. He'll also muse on life, asking if it's ever too late for a person to change his ways. If they'd stop the gun-play long enough, these three could have one intense conversation, and maybe learn something about themselves.

The out of touch quality shared by the three cons brings to mind the hard men of The Wild Bunch watching the world change before their eyes. Of course, The Wild Bunch is a classic, and Dog Eat Dog is just quickie entertainment, but Troy, I imagine, could be a stand-in for Schrader. He's a guy who doesn't quite fit with the new crowd, and wants to reclaim some of the old magic one last time. The bad news for Troy is that he can't do it, and can only dream of being Bogart, sneering as he prepares for one final showdown with the coppers. The good news for Schrader is that he can still reach into his bag of tricks - as a writer and director his resume includes some very fine films, from American Gigolo to Mishima to Affliction, plus his screenplay for Taxi Driver - and turn out a ballsy neo-noir like Dog Eat Dog. If a young, unknown director made this movie, he'd be hailed as a new talent to watch.

The opening scene is like a cyclone of favorite Schrader motifs. Mad Dog, sniveling and hallucinating after injecting himself with enough drugs to floor an elephant, is caught looking at internet porn by his obese girlfriend. Ashamed when she banishes him from the house, he promptly murders her with a knife. Then he kills her daughter. Sitting on the daughter's bed, he finds the only spot on his arm that isn't covered in gore and pours a bump of cocaine on it. He snorts it, probably inhaling somebody's blood along the way. What's most peculiar about the scene is that it's done in a kind of silly, surreal fashion with goofy music in the background, recalling Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. From there, Schrader keeps the viewer off balance, switching from color to black and white and back again, and piling on the unexpected plot twists.

Dog Eat Dog wasn't a picnic to make. Cage walked off the set early over money issues and had to be lured back; unable to find an actor to play the role of El Greco, the Cleveland boss, Schrader stepped in for his first time as an actor.  Its reception wasn't great, either. One effete critic wondered if Schrader had "lost touch with reality."  Others were turned off by its mean spirited tone, and by the hateful caricatures of women. True, the women in the movie are mostly high priced hookers. There's also a nameless female cop who gets punched in the mouth several times by Troy; his inability to knock her cold is a nightmare version of impotence. None of this caused me to lose any sleep -  I'm sure its part and parcel of the old Edward Bunker novel on which it was based - because I was too waylaid by Schrader's visual style. Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan create something dreamlike and dynamic here, perhaps Schrader's most cinematic piece of eyeball candy ever. Is the movie entirely satisfying? No. But Schrader is having a hell of time and, even at 71, he's better than most of the clowns in the movie racket today. But beware: This movie doesn't give a shit if you like it.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

I CALLED HIM MORGAN...


I Called Him Morgan Movie Review

Lee Morgan was a trumpet player of such skill that by age 16 he was not only part of Dizzie Gillespie's band, but was brash enough to step out to the lip of the stage and try to out blow his boss and mentor. A stint with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, plus his own sparkling solo career, made him one of the rising stars of '60s jazz. Morgan's reign came to a shocking end in February 1972, when his wife Helen walked into a New York club called Slugs and shot him in the chest. Morgan died later that night - a raging snowstorm made it difficult for an ambulance to get to Slugs and bring him to the nearest hospital. What made the incident especially horrible was that Lee Morgan had finally kicked a longtime heroin habit and had resurrected his career, thanks largely to Helen's love and patience. The problems started when she saw him in the company of a younger woman. Helen, her mind churning with jealousy and paranoia, happened to enter Slugs while Lee and his new friend were there. In her purse was a pistol, one that Lee had given her. The customers heard a single "pop," and the headliner was down, his life leaking out of him. Kasper Collin's remarkable documentary, I Called Him Morgan (now on Netflix), shows how this sordid tale unfolded. It is the stuff of the blues, and Chester Himes novels. 

We meet Helen first. She was a mysterious woman from the south who headed north with dreams of getting away from the gut bucket country life that had left her pregnant at 13.  She found her way to New York where she reinvented herself. Like a character conjured out of a Robert Johnson song, she wore tight dresses and threw dice on street corners. In her tiny apartment on 53rd Street, she entertained many of the local jazz players with home cooked meals and all night parties. She was street smart, a good sport, a friend to the friendless. No one ever had anything bad to say about her. In her mug shots she looked as bugged out and flippy as any pill-head busted in New York during the '70s, but in her prime she was a tough, sassy earth mama with an ear for jazz and a big heart. If anyone could've rescued Lee Morgan from personal oblivion, it would be her. 

By the time they met, Lee was hocking his shoes to buy smack and walking to gigs in his house slippers. He'd been a player who mixed melody with aggression and even scored a commercial hit, "The Sidewinder," at the height of Beatlemania. Playful, cocky, and bold, Lee Morgan had been on the edge of greatness - an old clip of the Jazz Messengers on the Steve Allen program shows Lee waiting to be introduced, prowling the stage like a '50s welterweight before the opening bell  - but rather than leap into the musical stratosphere, he became a junkie. He once nodded out with his head next to a radiator. The mishap burned his scalp and left him with a permanent bald spot. Helen, more than a dozen years older than Lee, embraced this damaged soul and somehow nursed him to health. She also became his manager and started booking his comeback. It should've been a happy story, but tragedy has a way of finding the target.

I Called Him Morgan is exceptional for a number of reasons. For one, we don't suffer through dreary jazz experts giving their opinions. Instead, Collin only interviews musicians that knew the Morgans. We hear from Wayne Shorter and Albert "Tootie" Heath and a dozen or so other players, all with vivid and insightful memories of Lee and Helen. Also, the movie is supercharged with incredible music, most of it the dark, powerful sounds of Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, music that sounds like it was born in an alley at midnight. Collin's instincts are sharp, too, such as in an early scene when he focuses on falling snow. As the flakes whirl around the camera, we notice they've became black and sooty, a harbinger of impending doom. Finally, thanks to Larry Reni Thomas, who interviewed her a month before she died, we hear Helen's voice on tape recounting the story from her perspective. She sounds tired, weak, filled with regret, but still relishing the liveliness of the '50s and '60s. There's happiness in her voice when she describes the joy of carving out a life for herself in the city, and poignancy when she tells of the first moment she saw Lee. He was like a little boy, she said, with no coat, and no place to go. "My heart just went out to him," she said. This, of course, was long before she killed the guy.


Monday, July 24, 2017

THE BRONX BULL...


Does anyone have bigger balls than the makers of The Bronx Bull? One must ask, "What was wrong with Raging Bull? Not good enough for ya? Did Robert De Niro not quite capture the essence of Jake LaMotta? Was Martin Scorsese not quite cinematic enough?" There was a scene in Albert Brooks' comedy The Muse where Scorsese appeared as himself, pitching an idea for a Raging Bull sequel, only this time LaMotta would be thin. "Thin, but angry," went the joke. The idea was absurd, and that's why it was funny. One imagines the team behind The Bronx Bull pitching their own absurd idea to investors. "Well, Scorsese's movie was OK, but he missed a lot. Go by Scorsese and De Niro's version, and you'd think Jake was just a violent prick." Will the story be factual? "No, we'll fuck around with the facts, but we'll have a good cast. Lots of familiar faces."  Who will play the Joe Pesci part? "We're cutting that character all together, so we can focus more on Jake's romantic life. Did you know Jane Russell wanted Jake's hog?"

Martin Guigui's The Bronx Bull (currently on Netflix) is based on a memoir LaMotta wrote in the 1980s, long after Raging Bull had dragged his name out of the dustbins. I vaguely remember reading that book, and thinking it was a calculated attempt to soften his image. In the book, smartly titled Raging Bull II,  LaMotta presented himself as a guy who had been kicked around and only wanted to be loved. The movie, which credits LaMotta as a "consultant," or something along those lines, starts with the teen LaMotta fighting in alleys against Irish bartenders to help his degenerate dad pay his bar tabs. The first half hour of The Bronx Bull seems to be one street fight after another, all staged to look something like Sylvester Stallone's Paradise Alley. The kid ends up in a home for wayward youths, where a priest teaches him the finer points of pugilism. We see Jake boxing a prison guard; the guard doesn't even take off his hat. I'm serious.

Things rocket ahead to Jake's life after boxing. He's haunted by nightmares about his old fights, which are shot in black and white, as if his dreams are directed by Martin Scorsese.  The movie almost gets interesting when some mob goons hire LaMotta to work at their club as a bouncer, but this is just an excuse to show him beating up a bunch of guys. In Raging Bull, Jake beat people up because he was crazy and stupid. In The Bronx Bull, he beats them up because, you know, they deserve a smack. Strangely, the story jumps to 1983 with absolutely no mention that a famous movie was made of LaMotta's life. Like I said, the crew behind The Bronx Bull had balls. As LaMotta, William Forsythe looks the part, but his voice is wrong. He sounds like a 1940s private eye. The rest of the cast includes Paul Sorvino, Joe Mantegna, Tom Sizemore, and other heavy types. Penelope Ann Miller plays a society babe who tells Jake he smells bad.

I had a chance to see Jake LaMotta a few years ago at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota. He took part in their annual summer motorcade, where dozens of cars haul famous fighters around town. Boxing fans line up on the sidewalk to pay homage. Jake was propped up in the back seat of a car, half awake underneath a cowboy hat. Sometimes he waved, or blew a kiss. He's  in his 90s, but like many old fighters, he wouldn't miss a chance to get a little attention.  As his car approached my section of the street, a smattering of applause went up for the old wife beater and ex-con. Someone shouted, "God bless you, Jake!" More applause. A few loyalists  kept the noise up, encouraging more cheers for LaMotta. He was, after all, the first guy to beat Sugar Ray Robinson, at a time when no man, unless armed  with a rifle, could bring Robinson down. So the applause rose to a level more befitting a legend. He slouched, exhausted in the boiling midday sun. There was more cheering, on and on down the street, as Jake's car crawled along, passing one group of well-wishers, then another. I'm convinced the cheers were only partly for Jake. They were mostly for Robert De Niro.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

DAVID BRENT: LIFE ON THE ROAD




There are few living comic performers whose latest project one would always be curious to see. Ricky Gervais is high on my list. At 55, he has strutted across various platforms, from  television shows to podcasts, from the stand up comedy stage to children's books and animation, with varying degrees of success. He never gives the impression that he's out to conquer the world, but rather, he's an inspired dabbler, as interested in form as content. David Brent: Life On The Road, currently on Netflix, is in some respects an exploration of everything he's learned along the way, and a showcase for his best and worst instincts.

Brent, of course, is the character Gervais created and played on The Office  years ago on the BBC - a character so ridiculous that he became a cult figure and inspired the American show of the same name, making Gervais incredibly wealthy - and Brent hasn't changed much since then. He was an obnoxious office manager who imagined himself an entertainer.  When his branch merged with another, he was so  jealous of the new people that he experienced a meltdown and lost his job, or, in British lingo, was made "redundant." Steve Carrell's version of the character for American television was not nearly as stupid. In fact, Carrell's Michael Scott was strangely competent, a goof  with good ol' American work ethic. Gervais kept Brent a buffoon throughout, and Life On The Road picks up the narrative many years later, with Brent now working as a salesman at a chemical company, but convinced he can be a rock 'n roll singer. By the end of the U.S. version of The Office, Carrell's character was married with kids and, we imagine, maturing. As if appalled by such a notion, Gervais sends his great comic creation into the maw of England's night life, letting him groove in all of his outdated glory. Brent, ever the optimist, thinks he can score a recording contract by dressing like David Essex and singing about Native Americans. ("Soar like an eagle, squat like a pelican.")

Though Gervais has succeeded in many areas - sometimes I think there's nothing he wouldn't try - he's still struggling with directing a movie. He's not a natural at it. He tends to think in bits (here's Brent making a fool of himself at work, here's Brent getting a tattoo, here's Brent watching in horror as a piggish woman devours the contents of his hotel mini-bar), but the arc of the story and its ultimate payoff isn't much different than what we've seen in various Gervais projects,  as if Brent lives in the world of television programs, and can only grow a tiny bit each time out, only to quickly return to his old mannerisms. The big difference between the Brent of 2016 and the one we used to see on The Office is that Gervais mines this current version for more pathos. As if the embarrassing schmaltz from Derek somehow dripped into this movie, Gervais is relentless in depicting Brent as a friendless misfit. When Brent, gambling his savings on a band, a tour bus, and a camera crew, toddles out of his office to go on a self-booked tour, the melancholy old theme of The Office - "Handbags and Glad Rags" - plays him out in a manner that is self consciously Chaplinesque. Worse, a few of Brent's more sensitive co-workers step up to say things like, "Gee, he's not such a bad guy. Sometimes I feel a bit sorry for him." Did Gervais feel the morons at home needed a Greek chorus to remind them that Brent is a pitiable figure? Gervais is a good enough actor to have made that point on his own.

Much of the movie involves Brent at odds with his band. In short, they treat him with an offhand cruelty, making no room for him on the bus, and not joining him for a drink unless they're paid for their time. Again, anything to make Brent seem pathetic.

The band, Foregone Conclusion, is made up of guys much younger than Brent, and they're mostly there to complain about the quality of his songs.  Strange, though, the tunes are catchy, and Gervais isn't a bad singer. He's on key, anyway. If we're supposed to laugh at Brent's lack of talent, it doesn't quite work. There are worse singers and bands playing in clubs all over the world every night. In fact, when Brent prowls the stage with his maracas, he actually has a bit of rock star flair. Is it Gervais' vanity that keeps him from playing Brent as entirely without talent? The band as a whole is an indistinct lot, making one wonder if Gervais missed something by not collaborating with his longtime writing partner Stephen Merchant. On The Office, where Merchant was co-writer and co-director, the entire cast was given individual quirks and personalities. Here, it's Brent and only Brent, and though that makes some sense in that he's a selfish character, it weakens the movie. (Conversely, Merchant's solo project, Hello Ladies, lacked Gervais' silliness.) Had Merchant been involved here, one guesses, the band would've been more interesting, more developed. It's not hard to imagine Merchant and Gervais tackling this story from the point of view of a band on the road, exploring the grind of traveling and playing in clubs, while Brent looned about at the center. It might've worked better.

Brent is funniest when he's clueless, such as when he spews his offensive jokes without knowing the effect he has on people. He's less funny when Gervais relies on cheap bits, like a recurring gag about constipation, or a photo shoot where Brent models to the tune of Bowie's "Fashion." There's a moment near the end where Brent, with a bittersweet flourish typical of Gervais, laments coming back to his job after being on the road. He may be a failure, he says, but at least he tried. Besides, there's a woman at this office who seems to like him, and he has a buddy there who laughs at his jokes. If Gervais never allows Brent a victory, here's hoping Gervais gives the guy a nice place to land.




Saturday, July 15, 2017

BOOKS: THIS BLOODY MARY IS THE LAST THING I OWN

Boxing Brings Out The Best And Worst In Writers
The late Jonathan Rendall almost got it right
by Don Stradley





The 1990s may go down as a golden era for the hard-hitting boxing memoir. Many of these books came from England, and they almost always followed the same template - novice writer befriends a fighter, gets to know him as a human being, and then watches helplessly as the guy gets smashed into a bloody stupor by his next opponent - which may stem from W.C. Heinz' '50s classic, The Professional, a book that came dressed as a novel but was allegedly based on real incidents. I don't blame anyone for aping Heinz' plot. It's a good one, stacked with pathos, and if you show some of the real horrors of boxing along the way (dementia, busted up hands, bleeding brains, empty bank accounts, senile fighters sleeping next to piles of human feces) you're bound to set the critics buzzing. This Bloody Mary is the Last Thing I Own did exactly that 20 years ago, making Jonathan Rendall, for a brief time, England's boxing writer du jour. A reviewer from the Financial Times was so fired up by Rendall's memoir that he used "elegiac" and "fin de siecle" in one sentence.

Early on Rendall is told by a fighter, "you can talk about boxing all you like, but at the end of the day it's a fight. That's all it is." This idea echoes throughout the story, as Rendall goes from writing about boxing to actually serving as an advisor for Colin McMillan,  a talented fighter who briefly owned a version of the featherweight title. McMillan's problem was keeping his right arm attached to the shoulder. It kept popping out during fights like a limb on a cheaply made action figure. Rendall's style is dry wit, with a fondness for obscure British ringside characters like Ernie the Whip and Harry the Growler, fringe types who couldn't figure out why they never got rich. It's the era of Herol "Bomber" Graham, Michael Nunn, and Donald Curry; Frank Warren getting shot outside an arena; the young Lennox Lewis showing promise before being crushed by Oliver McCall; and the retired Ali  making an appearance at Planet Hollywood, struggling to eat a bowl of soup. Everything Rendall sees reminds him that the most important thing about boxing is to get out in time.

Rendall liked to depict himself as a loser - he's constantly being insulted, ripped off, and bullied. The last straw  is when he's roughed up in a hotel lobby by Frank Bruno. Rendall supplies no details; his method is to allude to things without dwelling on them. That is, unless it's to show us the downside of boxing. When he visits Kid Chocolate in Havana, he spares no detail about the Kid's squalid life, and his adventures with Jack Kid Berg (though amusing) are mostly about how Berg's memory has disintegrated. In a way, it's a young man's book, with Rendall seeing the future in the eyes of broken down pugs and fearing what he sees.

Not surprisingly, Rendall became a sort of boxing muckraker, writing investigative pieces.  Like the ex-smoker, he was determined to make things miserable for those who still enjoyed a puff. He'd eventually forsake boxing and its "tuxedoed junketeers" for other subjects, including a well-received book about the search for his biological parents. In recent years he was best known for his 'Last Chance Saloon' column in The Observer. He developed a cultish following among British readers, amusing them with tales of drinking and gambling.

The trick Rendall accomplished with This Bloody Mary is the Last Thing I Own, aside from  a title that sounds like a Charles Bukowski poem, is that he convinced critics that he wasn't covering the usual boxing clichés. In truth, he was hitting each tired old bit as if he'd consulted a manual. How he fooled them was with his delivery - he wasn't, as many of his admirers claimed, "Runyonesque" (I imagine the people who called him that had never actually read Damon Runyon), but rather, was carrying on the tradition of the acerbic monologist, the stranger in a strange land. The lightness of his style - Rendall's chapters are like those neatly organized plates at exclusive restaurants, where the cilantro is placed carefully on the side of the dish, and everyone is accorded exactly 11 green beans -  keeps one from realizing that he's simply tilling the usual ground about boxing's brutality.

Of course, the people in the business are well ahead ahead of Rendall. "Being the champ is no great shakes,"  Nunn tells him at one point, interviewed during his prime. "In another four years there'll be another young guy." "Boxing is always the same," says Detroit promoter Don Gutz. "It's only the fucking names that change." The fatalistic attitudes of his boxing pals leave Rendall puzzled. It takes several years before he realizes the hard work in the gym is really nothing to do with the superstructure above boxing, which includes promoters and television and general myth making. When Kid Akeem Anifowoshe, a feisty flyweight from Nigeria, comes to a tragic end, Rendall starts working in waltz time. "Boxing had been leading me to a truth after all," he writes, "but only to the truth about boxing. And the truth was just the story itself, the first addictive dance under the chandelier, and then the doomed roller coaster ride on thousands of blue curves."

Like I said, it's a young man's book.

When a boxing writer loses his love for the sport, he's a bit like a toddler who had always held his parents' hands, but now has to walk on his own. Most accept the business for what it is, the good and bad. Some, in fact, become better writers because they're no longer looking for heroes. Another type of writer, though, behaves like a jilted lover. He'll treat boxing like a bad woman who did him wrong. He'll expose all of her flaws for the world to see. But the joke is on the writer, because everyone else already knew she was a no good slut. Rendall died young - 48 - just a few years ago. He was a troubled guy, and by more than one account he was an irresponsible sort who couldn't meet a deadline. By the end of his life he was struggling to find writing gigs. He'd spent his final months failing to interest publishers in a proposed book about Mike Tyson. Funny, when he was out of options he'd gone back to the dark mistress: boxing. Unfortunately for Rendall, his Tyson book was not published during his lifetime. The old sweet science had dumped him on his ass again.


Monday, July 10, 2017

TAKE ME...

Take Me Movie Review



Pat Healy must love the idea of taking punishment. In Cheap Thrills (2013) he was subjected to all sorts of sickening violence, and in Take Me, (now on Netflix), which he directed, we watch him get stabbed, punched, locked in the trunk of a car, shot in the stomach with a pellet gun, and hit in the head with enough blunt instruments to fill your grandad's toolbox. At one point he's talking to some cops while a shard of glass sticks out of his back, blood leaking out of him and pooling under his feet. It's an odd scene, and we half expect him to collapse from blood loss. What makes Healy so interesting as an object for pummeling is that he seems to feel everything. Granted, as a young actor he earned his bones at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, an institution  known for rough and tumble productions, but few actors can match Healy's realness when it comes to projecting pain. Fewer still seem to specialize in roles where they become human piñatas. I like Healy's movies because I like to wince along with him.

In Take Me he plays Ray Moody, a down on his luck entrepreneur whose company, Kidnapping Solutions, is struggling. Clients hire Ray to create abduction scenarios - we see him early on grabbing a chubby guy who keeps straying from his diet, holding him hostage and teaching him a lesson by shoving burgers into his mouth  - and though some would scoff at the usefulness of such an enterprise, Ray genuinely thinks he's helping people. Unfortunately, he's not making enough money. He also suffers the wrath of a ball-busting sister who can't stand the route his life has taken. When a mysterious woman hires Ray for a complex scenario that will involve a lot of slapping (her request), he thinks his ship has come in.  When he finally nabs the woman (Taylor Schilling), she turns out to be a nightmare. Not only does she have the survival instinct of Chuck Norris, but we're not even sure if Ray has the right person.

The screenplay by Mike Morowski has the grim humor and twists of an old Donald Westlake novel, and Nathan Miller's cinematography is sharp. I also liked the score by Heather McIntosh, who incorporates a lot of ricky-tick piano to give an ironical touch to the violence and danger. Healy's a solid director - he was behind the camera for a couple of smaller projects in the past, but this is his first feature film - and though he and Schilling do most of the heavy lifting, he gets a lot out of the movie's minor characters. (By the way, TV buffs with good eyes will notice  actors from Seinfeld, The Office, and Parks and Recreation here. Send me a 3X5 card with the names of the performers and the characters they played on those shows. If you answer correctly, I'll be your huckleberry.)

Schilling is top billed, but it's Healy's movie from the get go. In fact, his best acting comes early when he's applying for a loan to help his failing business. Almost unrecognizable in a cheap brown wig, he unloads on a bank employee a line of salesman bluster that is as once smarmy and endearing. Maybe Healy has a future in a revival of Glengarry Glenn Ross.  I loved this scene because it gives us a break  before the mayhem, and allows us to see Ray Moody as nothing less than an all-American dreamer, someone who wants to help people, someone who thinks he's doing some good, someone who believes his own pitch. Seriously, Kevin Spacey or James Woods at their most unctuous couldn't have improved on what Healy does in the opening scene. At the end, when Ray is a gruesome mess, he spots an old client who appears to have benefited from Ray's work. Their eyes meet; Ray smiles meekly. It reminded me of Charlie Chaplin smiling at the blind girl at the end of City Lights, or Woody Allen smiling at the close of Manhattan. It's the look of someone who knows the world is hard but still dares to hope. Healy may take a beating in his movies, but in this one he's smiling through the blood.




For another great Pat Healy movie, read about Cheap Thrills:  http://donstradley.blogspot.com/2014/02/cheap-thrills.html

Friday, July 7, 2017

CATFIGHT...


Catfight Movie Review




There was a time when the most pressing issue on anyone's mind was Hollywood's depiction of violence against women. It seemed a movie couldn't be made without watchdog groups complaining about the way some female character was beaten up or killed by a drill. Those days seem to be gone - the fashionable new worries are all about fat shaming and making sure transvestites have a place to pee - but I wonder what the old anti-violence crusaders would think about Catfight, a movie where Anne Heche and Sandra Oh lay into each other with the passion of freightcar hobos fighting over a chicken bone. They don't just pull hair and wrestle around like in those seedy VHS tapes my buddy Owen used to order special from a company in New York. No, Heche and Oh are savage, with director Onur Tukel wallowing in every broken nose and split lip. Anyone tuning in because of the sleazy title in hopes of seeing some semi-erotic Jell-O wrestling would probably be disappointed. Or horrified. If they stick with it, though, Catfight is a strangely watchable movie.

Heche and Oh play two former college friends now in middle age. Oh has married a wealthy man and settled into the role of rich bitch wife and mother.  She drinks too much, though, and seems like a hostile, miserable sort. Heche plays a failed artist down to working as a caterer  with her girlfriend, played by Alicia Silverstone. One grim evening Heche is hired to cater a party for Oh's husband. The two former friends meet, engage in some testy conversation, and are soon fighting like Mickey Rourke and Frank Stallone in Barfly. Oh gets the worst of it and ends up in a coma for two years. When she comes out of it she learns, among other things, her money is gone. The tone is darkly comic, satirizing America in the time of war, the sort of loopy comedy Christopher Durang might've written in the '80s. It's not quite laugh-out-loud funny, but watching Oh struggle in her new life is intriguing.

Meanwhile, Heche goes on to become a famous artist, her screwy paintings earning big bucks. Heche and Silverstone want a baby - Silverstone, by the way, is a treat here, playing a desperate mother wannabe, carrying around a doll so she can get used to carrying an infant - but Heche isn't mommy material anymore. She's become a neurotic, success crazed celebrity artist who subjects her young assistant, a hapless young woman who contents herself by drawing bunnies, to horrible verbal abuse. Oh, whose only living relative is a wacky aunt who sleeps all day while waiting for the end of the world, gets a job as a hotel maid. While making beds, she happens upon an art magazine with Heche on the cover. The two rivals will meet again, and fight again. There will be more shattered mouths, more comas. Stunt coordinator Balint Pinczehelyi deserves kudos for creating fights that exist in that murky borderland of movie-style brawling and realistic blood spilling. No cheesy martial arts crap here.

Heche and Oh throw themselves into this movie, and though the ending is anticlimactic - I'd hoped the two would end up like McTigue and his rival in Von Stroheim's Greed, handcuffed together in the scalding desert -  there's a lot here to like. Heche has always been one of the more peculiar performers in the movie business, something like Veronica Lake crossed with a ferret. She's elevated a lot of movies that were beneath her, and it's nice to see her in something that is actually worth her presence. As good as Heche is here, Oh may be even better, if only because she has a longer way to go, starting as an icy, unlikable Manhattan witch and evolving into a person we actually care about, one who has more in common with her rival than is readily apparent. The better fighter? It's a tough call. Oh throws a mean right hand, and she can take punishment all day, while Heche has surprising energy, fighting from a source powered entirely by hate. Tukel underscores the fight scenes with bits of classical music and patriotic marching tunes, but his attempt to lighten the mood is obliterated by the burning rage of the two actresses. Hell, I don't think Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine could've done any better.




Wednesday, July 5, 2017

AMANDA KNOX on Netflix: Guilty of being weird


Amanda Knox Movie Review



I didn't follow the Amanda Knox case. From what I gleaned from the Yahoo news pages, she was some American brat who went to Perugia, Italy and hosted a drug-fueled orgy that resulted in the murder of her roommate, a young British woman named Meredith Kercher. It was all horrendous enough, but when you've rotted your brain with as much true crime junk as I have, not to mention watching 100 or so movies per week, plus trying to fulfill my dream of becoming a world class gaucho, it'll take more than  Amanda Knox to get my attention. In other parts of the world, however, she was big news, and I mean  O.J. Simpson big. She was "Foxy Knoxy," the seductress with a taste for kinky mayhem. After viewing Amanda Knox, a reasonably good documentary produced for Netflix, I'm hardly an expert on the story. Still, I think I know why the citizens of Perugia hated this perky 20-year-old. It's not her fault, but to them she probably looked like a typical privileged American tourist who thinks her shit doesn't stink. Sometimes it's that simple.


In a moment that is supposed to be filed with portent, Knox tells us early on, "Either I'm a psychopath in sheep's clothing, or I am you." More likely, she was every Italian mother's nightmare, luring one of their unsuspecting but horny sons into the scandal of the decade, which is probably why her accusers wanted to lynch her from the opening bell. (Later she says, "I think people love monsters...fear makes people crazy.") The filmmakers follow the Errol Morris template like obedient doggies, with the blaring headlines creating the fun, followed by various talking heads, dressed formally, seated in front of a charcoal grey backdrop, giving their thoughts. I especially liked an Italian lawyer who lambasted the American media for suggesting the Italian courts weren't up to handling the case. He assured us that Italy was practicing law when Americans were "still drawing buffaloes on cave walls."

To this documentary's credit, Knox isn't sugarcoated. She may not have been the sex crazed she-devil of the tabloids, but she was a strange duck. When her roommate was discovered with her throat cut, Knox was spotted cuddling with her boyfriend, which didn't endear her to those watching on Italian TV. She drew more suspicion by constantly changing her story and blaming other people. When asked about it now, Knox says she was merely a scared kid and that the Italian cops intimidated her. The merciless British tabloids, out to milk the death of Kercher, couldn't get enough of this odd American girl. It was, says Brit reporter Nick Pisa, "A fantastic buzz" to get your Amanda story on the front page, while pipe smoking investigators who looked like they'd just stumbled out of a Jules Maigret novel describe Knox as an "anarchist." She and her boyfriend were convicted, and then acquitted, more than once. Though DNA evidence linked Kercher's murder to a local creep with a history of burglaries, some still believe Knox was involved.

Knox now lives in Seattle, her days of villainy behind her. She notes with some frustration that people still recognize her when she goes to the supermarket, but appearing in this documentary guarantees at least another few years of recognition - maybe she thinks Netflix subscribers are too busy watching Family Guy reruns. The filmmakers work hard to make Knox look all alone in the world. We see a lot of staged footage designed to make her appear isolated - there she is chopping an onion, walking alone in the street, riding alone on a ferry boat - but nothing to make her seem, well, likable. I think part of the problem in Perugia was that she honestly didn't know how to react to the case. She'd known Kercher for only a few weeks, so there was no real bond there. That doesn't mean she's guilty of anything. I think she was an emotionally stunted young woman thrown into a big mess. Like the husband in Gone Girl, who felt nothing when he was accused of killing his wife and only made himself look bad by trying to show false emotions, Knox seemed unsure of how to act. She'd cry because she thought she was supposed to cry. Even now, in Amanda Knox, her tears seem like a performance. She's like a country club wife with the eyes of a Manson girl.

Monday, June 26, 2017

GLOW on Netflix: No Match for the Original

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GLOW was one of those oddball television phenoms out of the late 1980s - a visual snack that really hit the spot, a la Morton Downey Jr., Married with Children, Mike Tyson on HBO, Night Flight on the USA network, Pee Wee's Playhouse,  videos on MTV - and I'd be lying if I said I'd never watched it. I remember it was on Saturday nights on my local FOX affiliate, in between late infomercials for Santo Gold, some Mexican wrestler who sold costume jewelry and was eventually busted for mail fraud. GLOW - The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, was a smart move by a bunch of hustler types trying to cash in on the WWF's blossoming popularity. In a way, GLOW was to the WWF what The Monkees were to The Beatles. A new show on Netflix titled GLOW is a highly fictional account of the program, with Marc Maron as the seedy director-producer, and a collection of young actresses portraying variations of the old GLOW girls. Good intentions aside, it has no snap. The old show was fun and goofy, vaudeville in spandex; the new thing takes itself way too seriously. 

In the first episode we meet Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie), an unemployed young actress who  finds her way to an audition for a wrestling program. Before you know it, this drama class wimp is trying to make it in pro wrestling. The show's creators - Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch - have a lengthy history of revered cable dramas known for capable, quirky female leads (Nurse Jackie, Weeds, Orange is the New Black). Here, they're relying on the old fish out of water scenario, with Ruth trying to find her inner cavewoman so she can hang and bang with the bigger, meaner girls. It's not great comedy, nor is it especially dramatic. It's as farfetched as prim Diane Chambers from Cheers trying to be a wrestler. We're supposed to believe that Ruth, after being fired on her first day, simply goes home and watches Hulk Hogan on TV and takes notes, showing up at the gym the next day wearing a cape and talking trash, sprinkling her ring promos with bits from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Though I watched only four episodes, I know exactly how the rest will play out. Ruth will get tough, she'll befriend the other ladies, there's be all sorts of female camaraderie, and since it's set in the 1980s, we're sure to get a scene where the women trash a hotel room while Cyndi Lauper sings "Girls Just Want to have Fun." Maron, who looks like he's mailing his performance in until something else comes along, will eventually prove to be a goodhearted slob underneath his cynicism. There's also a lame subplot about a soap actress (Betty Gilpin) whose husband had an affair with Ruth, and now she's going to be a wrestler, too. There was a good scene where Maron imagined the two women in full wrestling garb, battling before a big arena crowd, and for a moment we could feel his urge to make something of this wrestling racket. Then it was back to hokey dramatic fare, ie miscarriages, divorces, etc.

The original GLOW was loaded with larger than life characters with names like "Matilda the Hun."  My favorite, "The Housewife," entered the ring with an arsenal of kitchen appliances, including an egg beater, to torture her opponents. Some reviewers have described the '80s GLOW as a melting pot of shameful racial stereotypes, and the Netflix show has some fun with that as the women try on their ring personas. Ironically, the new show has its own stereotypes, which include a smart-talking black chick who has seen it all, an Indian woman with a background in medicine, an Asian woman who complains about being stereotyped (which is a stereotype in itself), and enough young bitchy coke-snorting white women to remake Valley of the Dolls. Whether these are stereotypes or simply hack writing, I suggest you forego this Netflix show and seek out Brett Whitcomb's touching documentary, Glow: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (2012). Whitcomb portrays the women as hard workers, many of them now struggling with physical problems. They were all smart enough to know that wrestling in skimpy outfits for an audience of frat boys and dirty old men was less about sisterhood and more about making a buck. Flahive and Mensch have bent the real story of GLOW to create a Bad News Bears type of fable about female bonding. That's their prerogative, but they shouldn't have called it GLOW.





Thursday, June 22, 2017

BOOKS: COMMUNION



"The enigmatic presence of the human mind winks back from the dark..."
Communion Turns Thirty
by Don Stradley

 
In February 1987, Whitley Strieber’s Communion: A True Story hit bookstores with the subtlety of a metal sliver working its way under the skin. This peculiar item belongs on the roster of controversial confessionals – Gong Show host Chuck Barris writing in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind that he was a CIA assassin, for example. It also stands alongside the more memorable UFO and alien literature, such as Major Donald Keyhoe’s The Flying Saucers Are Real (1950) - which slipped onto newsstands as a cheapo Gold Medal paperback, but seriously explored the growing phenomenon of discs flying across our skies – or Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods? (1968), the launch of an ongoing fascination with “ancient astronauts.” Strieber's book sparked the usual derision, but it’s a small marvel. Most who write on this subject are enthusiastic clods, while Strieber used his background as a novelist to create a narrative that was both chilling and poetic.

Part of what made Strieber’s account of being visited by strange beings was his reluctance to use terms like “UFO,” or “aliens.” He never comes out and says men took him aboard a spaceship from another planet. He maintains throughout the story that he doesn’t really know what happened. Through hypnosis, he belches forth a handful of murky memories, and eventually feels that some sort of recurring “strange event” has been going on since his childhood, and may have also involved members of his family. The biggest immediate difference between Communion and other books like it is Strieber’s suggestion, rather ahead of its time for 1987, that there may be many factors at work, everything from inter-dimensional time travel to folklore. We may know Communion as the book that kicked off the 1990s interest in UFOs, The X-Files, and government conspiracies  - Strieber doing for alien abduction what Elvis Presley did for sideburns - and we may scoff, but even a skeptic should agree that it’s a dazzling piece of work, heavy concepts floated across like notes from Chinese woodwinds.

To some degree, it’s understandable that Strieber came under such scrutiny. Communion centers on a pair of “visitations” Strieber experienced in his rural New York home in 1985, encounters that introduced him to several small, runty beings, and one large bug-like creature who seemed, to Strieber, to be the female head of a medical team. They were, he writes, “fierce little figures with eyes that seem to stare right into the core of being.” The female presence at the front takes on a special resonance for Strieber, in that he senses she’s trying to make him feel at ease. This was no easy feat as the visitors yanked him out of bed, probed him, and stuck things into his brain. Yet, this female presence becomes the star of the story by default; she’s the one who haunts Strieber, appearing in his mind’s eye during his waking hours, and seeming to communicate with him. She’s an intriguing character, with only minimal tinkering from Strieber.

Writers generally till the same ground throughout their careers, and Strieber had already written a series of horror novels involving ancient visitors, ancient vampires, and even a race of intelligent beings descended from wolves. There appear to be hints in his early work of themes that he’d touch on in Communion, as if his earlier writing had been informed by encounters that had taken place in his childhood and were buried, or replaced by “screen memories.” He writes that much of his adult life involved moving restlessly from place to place, which he discovers is common among people who have had experiences similar to his. The female presence is also common, as Strieber finds out. For Strieber, she’s as elusive as a woman you see at a party who gives you a secretive smile, only to disappear into the opaque night. Of course, he describes her as looking something like a preying mantis, but there’s a feeling of benevolence to her, friendliness; she's playful the way a rancher is when he gives a playful pat on the rump to a steer he’s just branded. If it’s not exactly love, it counts for something.

In Communion, she is the object of affection. Strieber doesn’t say as much, but he writes in a way to make her mysterious, vulnerable, mischievous, her company almost desirable. Though only appearing in a few sections of the book, she is the story’s biggest presence. I imagine she was the model for Ted Jacob’s beautiful cover portrait, which tantalized us from bookshop windows 30 years ago and was probably responsible for at least some of the book’s sales. That and, of course, Strieber’s writing. For instance: “…something very real had emerged from our own unconscious mind, taking actual, physical form and coming forth to haunt us. Maybe belief creates its own reality. It could be that the gods of the past were strong because the belief of their followers actually did give them life, and maybe that was happening again. We were creating drab, postindustrial gods in place of the glorious beings of the past. Instead of Apollo riding his fiery chariot across the sky, or the goddess of night spreading her cloak of stars, we had created little steel-grey gods with the souls of pirates and craft no more beautiful inside than the bilges of battleships.”

Though the final section of the book deals with Strieber’s philosophical outlook and the transcription of his meeting with others claiming to have been visited – which takes on the tone of a self-help encounter group meeting, and was probably more useful to the participants than the reader (though in ’87 I’m sure it was cutting edge stuff, with victims coming forward and all) - it’s in the first half where Strieber is like a jockey, pushing his horse to the limit, relying on his skills as a writer of horror novels to whip up the reader. The first line: “This is the story of one man’s attempt to deal with a shattering assault from the unknown.” He may as well be Edgar Allan Poe setting the tone for “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The first chapter begins with a lengthy hunk from Dante’s Inferno, and Strieber titles chapter three, “The Color of the Dark,” reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Color Out of Space. This doesn’t infer that  the author of The Wolfen perpetuated a fraud, but he knew which sauces to dip in.

The alien abduction phenomenon has become part of our culture’s fabric, and as such, is near the point of saturation. Like film noir, rockabilly, the Grateful Dead, fantasy baseball, and professional wrestling, it went from being an interesting niche market to a bloated, moneymaking, theme parkish gimmick. It's been overwhelmed by a frighteningly large group of people compelled to attend conventions dressed as saucer men. Strieber, meanwhile, has dedicated much of his life to the subject, and has written more books about it. His later work hasn’t matched Communion - not in impact, not in flair - but it would be impossible to recapture what he did in ’87. Now, he presides over a weekly podcast, and where he was once a lone voice in the wilderness, he's now one of many. But imagine him 30 years ago. Let’s say, for the sake of this article, his experiences were real. It's hard to imagine the loneliness Strieber felt as he set out to describe these figures that smelled of moldy cardboard, violated him in ways he never quite describes, and left him uncertain if it was all “a message from the stars, or the booming labyrinth of the mind…”


Monday, June 19, 2017

DARK HORSE


Dark Horse Movie Review


The arrested adolescent male has become a movie staple in the past two decades - think of the various 40-year-old virgins that have populated screens both big and small, with their collectable action figures and their comic books and their reluctance to leave home, even as they yearn for such grown up trappings as women and sex - without anyone understanding what lives at the root of such men. It could be an interesting theme paper; we can think of dozens of male movie characters stuck in adolescence, but few females. We've had plenty of neurotic or depressed female characters going back to the 1960s, but not many who are still at home playing with dolls or their Pokemon cards. This, I suppose, is the territory of males, wanting to stay as close to the womb as possible, to remain childlike and irresponsible, for fear of what might exist in the adult world. Dark Horse (2012, on Netflix and other platforms) not only gives us both the stunted male and the neurotic female, but tries to get them hitched.

We meet Abe and Miranda immediately. They're seated together at a wedding, and neither seems interested in the celebration. Sensing a kindred spirit, Abe asks Miranda for her phone number. On their first date, he asks her to marry him. This could be because Abe, despite being a 35-year-old who still lives with his parents and collects toys and movie memorabilia, has more guts than is readily apparent, or it could because writer/director Todd Solondz is not presenting a story that takes place in the real world. I suspect the latter. Abe is constantly weaving in and out of little fantasies, having conversations with people who turn out to not be there. Solondz has so much fun keeping viewers off balance that by the movie's end we're not sure if we've seen a comedy or a drama. Worse, Abe is such a mix of arrogance and laziness that he's almost entirely unlikable. Miranda is so heavily medicated that we don't know what she's really like. She appears to be on the verge of a coma.

There's not much to root for here. Solondz has always challenged audiences by creating characters and scenarios to make us a bit uncomfortable, and in Abe he gives us an unbearable man who swears constantly, is rude to his mother, and harbors bitterness over insignificant childhood incidents. Solondz also likes to play games with the characters - Miranda turns out to be harboring an unfortunate secret, and a nice lady at Abe's office turns out to be a callous type who preys on younger men. Abe stupidly wanders through this like one of those vacant characters in an old Nathanael West novel. In fact, he comes to an end that might've fit into one of West's darkly comic stories, except Solondz' movie isn't especially comic. It's as if Solondz happened to see Marty one night on TCM and rebooted the plot to make everyone into a cruel nut job.

Still, thanks to the cast, the movie possesses an  unexpected watchability. Jordan Gelber puts in a Herculean effort as Abe, a man so angry at life that he looks like he might bust at any moment, while Selma Blair plays the overly medicated Miranda in a way that  goes beyond the usual quirks. Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken play Abe's parents. Farrow, hard to recognize at first, is warm, Walken subdued, barely able to conceal his disappointment in Abe. Aasif Mandvi nearly steals the show as a friend from Miranda's past, and I wish there had been more of Donna Murphy as Abe's friend from work. Solondz, too, deserves credit for pushing through with his vision. He could've made a simple movie where a schlep was forced to confront his fears about maturing, and could've said something about how our consumer culture makes it comfortable for certain types of men to stay children forever. Instead, he stepped out on a ledge, as usual, and dared us to follow him out there. Would I have enjoyed the movie more if Abe had been more likable? Maybe, but when you're in Solondz' world you tend to meet a character at his or her low point. That's not the best way to make a buddy for  life.