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


"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 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.

Friday, June 16, 2017


I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore Movie Review

I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore is the sort of movie the Coen brothers used to make, back in the heyday of Blood Simple and Fargo and The Big Lebowski, back when the Coens were trying to take moviegoers by the neck and slam them into a wall, making them pay attention, keeping them dazzled with plot twists and odd characters, to such a point that you didn't dare take a bathroom break.  It's been a while since the Coens have made one of those - nowadays the Coens are like grizzled old uncles telling the same jokes they'd told years ago, hoping they're still funny.  Lucky for us, Macon Blair's  new movie is almost in the Coen's tradition, not quite as good as the brothers at their best, but damned close. Blair directs his film like he's a pickpocket moving through a crowded dance floor, bobbing and weaving, getting in close, doing his business, and then ducking out in a direction you wouldn't have anticipated. Then he moves back in, hitting us again with a striking image or weird music or a bit of violence. You wait for a misstep; it doesn't happen.

Melanie Lynskey plays Ruth, a nursing assistant whose home was robbed. When the police show little interest, she enlists the help of her neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood). He's one of those nerdy loners who reads about weapons and martial arts and imagines himself as a soldier of fortune type, even though he's probably never been in a fight. Ruth and Tony manage to retrieve her stolen laptop, which is quite an achievement, but when the rest of her missing items lead them to a ring of dangerous criminals, they find that their adventure is getting them into some deep, murky waters. "I just want people to stop being assholes," Ruth says. Who can argue with that? Tony, though his background includes working at Starbucks and reading a lot of sword and sorcery novels, is a good sidekick for Ruth. We suspect he'd like to get closer to her, if only because she's given him the chance to live out  his vigilante fantasies. Who else but Ruth would encourage this disenfranchised dude to use his nunchucks?

Of course, it's a tale we've seen before, that of the goodhearted soul who wants to combat evildoers, but finds it to be a rather nasty business. How close do you get to evil without becoming evil yourself? But Blair, working from his own screenplay, keeps finding ways to jar us. Sometimes it's with unexpected brutality - this is a movie full of broken bones, snake bites, and people being run down by trucks - but on top of that is the way people respond to the violence. When Ruth, for instance, sees someone get their hand blown off, she can't stop vomiting. Bullets are flying everywhere, but Ruth is spared only because she's bent over puking her guts up. Tony, too, seems surprised at how his stash of medieval weapons can actually actually come in handy. The bad guys, too, are just weird enough to keep you unsure of their next step. It's almost a relief when they turn out to be just as bad as they appear to be.

Lynskey first came to our attention in Peter Jackson's Academy Award nominated crime drama Heavenly Creatures opposite Kate Winslet. She's been a dependable performer ever since, and is quite moving here as the well-meaning Ruth. Wood, exceptional as Tony, continues his good luck streak in offbeat projects. Blair made his directing debut here - he's acted in quite a few movies, and served as a producer on a couple of grim features (Blue Ruin, Green Room) - and was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for a dramatic feature at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.  Granted, that means something different than it did 10 or 20 years ago, but in an era where most smaller budgeted movies by novice directors usually feel like insipid film school exercises, this one reaches for the throat and isn't afraid to squeeze. Along with cinematographer Larkin Seiple, Blair gives the Portland Oregon backdrop a swampy, gravelly feel, while the music selection includes slashes of country, gospel, and even a bit of "Surrender" by  Suicide. Watching I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore is akin to listening to some feisty young guitarist peel out on his Fender, playing licks that may sound familiar, but leaving you satisfied nonetheless. It's nice to know someone out there is still trying.

Thursday, June 15, 2017


Tallulah Movie Review

Tallulah bangs out of the gate with enough starting points to fill a half dozen movies, including a stolen baby, unhappy wives, wayward sons, gay husbands, and a scruffy urchin at the center of it all who, I guess, is supposed to tell everybody how to loosen up and live a little. Despite the avenues that could be explored, none of it adds up to much, unless you count the flimsy message about female bonding that weaves through, or the stranger notion that biological motherhood is no match for just a couple of gals hanging out and stroking each other's hair. Then again, who can blame these women in a movie where the males are either unreliable or eventually become homosexuals? The feature was written and directed by Sian Heder, best known as a writer for Orange is the New Black, a television show about a women's prison to which many have attached importance. Tallulah feels like television, a routine melodrama served up in small chunks without much art to it. Maybe it should've been a six part HBO series. It'd win awards.

The story: Tallulah (Ellen Page) is a scrappy young woman who lives in a van with her boyfriend. When he abandons her, she traces him back to Manhattan, where she guesses he's returned to see his long estranged mother. Tallulah sneaks around the ritzy apartment building where the woman lives, and ends up being mistaken for a maid. A drunk floozy (played with slobby glamor by Tammy Blanchard) invites her in to watch her baby. Tallulah decides the floozy isn't mother material, so she takes off with the toddler. Then she decides to pretend the baby is her own, so she can visit her boyfriend's mom and hit her up for money. The mom (Allison Janney) is a stereotype right out of Frazier, the marriage expert and author who is in the middle of an ugly divorce. In the meantime, Tallulah becomes attached to the infant - a little girl, of course - and is soon making headlines in the daily papers as a baby snatcher.

So much happens during the movie's first half, with most of it coming at you in a breathless, zesty pace, that by the second half, even as the NYPD is closing in on Tallulah, you're not quite caring about the women, the baby, or anyone else you've met along the way. The problem is that Tallulah's adventure has no momentum - it could've been done with Tallulah rambling through an Ozlike Manhattan with the baby as Toto, the floozy as the wicked witch, creating some real power and fun here - but Heder wants to pause and ponder the warm fuzzies of womanhood. Worse, she trots out one predictable type after another, from the slacker boyfriend, to the sensitive black woman from the child protection services, to the horny Spanish doorman at the apartment building. They're all stock characters, delivering simple minded lines ("Gee, what would you do if gravity didn't exist and you floated away?"). The city of New York is barely part of the movie. We get a little scenery, and a subway ride, but Heder has no more feel for New York than she would for horse racing or Olympic cycling. 

The real trouble, though, is Page as the title character. Though Janney calls her "a feral beast" - she looks like she's wearing the same stuff she wore in those Canadian runaway dramas from her pre Juno days - she's just not quite alley cat enough for the role. She's simply too bright, with too much intelligence in the eyes and voice, too clear of skin and straight of teeth, to be this animal-like creature who has been living rough and only now has discovered her mother instinct. Page's charisma gets her through most scenes, but her bag of acting tricks is just about used up (ie. the wrinkled forehead, the looks of concern, the smirk, the tears). Heder's choice to go surreal doesn't help, either. There are dream sequences, hallucinations, and an ending that defies logic, all things that might work better on an HBO series so viewers could go to work the next day and debate what it all meant. That this movie was a Netflix original is strange, too. I remember seeing Page movies like Whip It and To Rome With Love in gigantic theaters in downtown Manhattan. Now she's on Netflix, where Adam Sandler has gone to leg out the end of his career.


Monday, June 12, 2017


Christine Movie Review

Christine Chubbuck's name may not immediately register with anyone, save for the most morbid of us - she was the mentally ill television news correspondent in Sarasota who sat down in front the WXLT-TV cameras one grim day in 1974 and punctuated the broadcast by blowing her brains out. The footage hasn't been seen since, but she became a kind of symbol of the times. When Paddy Chayefksy wrote Network, where Peter Finch played a disturbed news anchor who vowed to kill himself on TV,  many assumed Chayefski had been inspired by Chubbuck. He insisted otherwise. From what is generally known about Chubbuck, it seems Antonio Campos' Christine is reasonably close to the actual events. Rebecca Hall is spellbinding as the troubled woman, and Craig Shilowich's screenplay, written as a result of his own bout with depression in the wake of 9/11,  is a concise depiction of a tragedy. We don't want to reach out and help Chubbuck. We know her mind is made up. All we can do is watch.

Where the movie stumbles a little bit is in the way all movies do when showing us a true tale of suicide. It can never quite get inside the mind of Chubbuck, because such a feat would be impossible. We can only get a few small details and facts. We're told that WXLT is looking for more outlandish, blood and guts stories. "If it bleeds it leads," says the station manager, played by an ancient looking Tracy Letts. Chubbuck, who has been stuck doing dull human interest stories about strawberry season and chicken farmers, wants to do stronger stuff but thinks her boss is an idiot. She's also been told that a recurring stomach ache is an ovarian cyst, and removing it might ruin her chances to have children. She's about to turn 30, which is movie-slang for becoming obsolete, and lives with her hippie mother after a stint at a Boston mental hospital. She has  outbursts now and then, snits, really. She has no real friends, though she has an awkward crush on a male news anchor, a neurotic stud played by Michael C. Hall. Her co-workers, too, seem to be getting better opportunities in bigger markets. Meanwhile, Chubbuck remains behind as the bats of depression roost  in her skull.

In many ways, Christine is a typical independent film of the millennial era. It's tasteful and well executed, and cinematographer  Joe Anderson gives Sarasota a murky tint that works beautifully in the night scenes. Still, there are no big moments, no reaches for drama, as if all directors under 35 are afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves. Even the moment when Chubbuck kills herself is underplayed. I'm not surprised to learn that Campos served as producer on a couple of recent films, The Eyes of my Mother, and Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, and both could be described as interesting but lifeless. Campos isn't alone. Sometimes I think all indy filmmakers who grew up in the era of Tarantino and hip hop and terrorist attacks are afraid to stick their heads too far out, lest they be picked off. Get the right songs on the soundtrack - this one has a lot of Karen Carpenter and John Denver - but energy and angst are verboten. Why, I wonder, do these young moviemakers hold back? 

Strangest of all is the movie's ending, which involves the theme song from the old Mary Tyler Moore show. I get it - Moore played a young single woman working at a small market news station, but I can't tell if Campos is aiming for irony, dark humor, melancholy, or what. It's true that in 1974 when Chubbock killed herself Mary Tyler Moore was probably inspiring a lot of young women to go into news careers. I only know this because I heard Oprah Winfrey say as much when Moore died last winter. Imagine a generation of poor young women trying to follow in Mary's footsteps. Just a decade earlier they were supposed to be stay-at-home housewives, now they were supposed to be running a newsroom. It was probably a hell of a transition to make. It was certainly not as easy as Mary made it look. Many aspiring career women grew frustrated, and decided it was more fun to stay home and make a pot roast than to attend board meetings with a bunch of corporate jerks. There were many, I'm sure, who felt badly about giving up, and at least one who couldn't take it any more and shot herself. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

SECONDS (1966)

John Frankenheimer's chilling Seconds brings up a question: Would you scrap your life if you could start over again? Especially if a secret organization would help you do it, first by staging your death, then with plastic surgery, and then by creating a new identity for you? The redo also includes a new career in a different part of the country with new neighbors and friends. It's a bit like witness protection, as designed by Franz Kafka. We meet Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a middle-aged banker who has been receiving strange phone calls from a friend long thought to be dead. He's given instructions to visit an out of the way location where he's promptly drugged and blackmailed into going along with "the company's" plans for him. That is, to give him a new identity. No one tells him why, only that it's a good idea and that he shouldn't resist.

 He reluctantly goes along with the plan, enduring months of treatment that includes an adjustment to his vocal cords, so that even his speaking voice will be unrecognizable. The company's genial founder (Will Geer) oversees the project like he's waiting on a new Ford to come off the production line. By the time the process is over, Hamilton is  young and handsome - played now by 1950s heartthrob Rock Hudson - and will be sent to California where he'll live a lifelong dream of being an artist. The company has even created a series of paintings attributed to him and his new persona - "Antiochus Wilson" - which puts him in the position of being an established artist without ever having to master his craft.

His new life includes a mansion in Malibu, complete with a manservant to help his "transition." Wilson putters around, tries to paint, and wanders the beach in a funk. He befriends a woman, but when she brings him to a sort of faux pagan ritual involving a bunch of nature loving hippie types and a vat of grapes, he feels ridiculous. He may look young, but he's still a middle-aged fellow and not comfortable in his new surroundings.

He tries to go along with his new life, but when he gets stinking drunk at a party and starts discussing his real past, a bunch of "reborns," as the company calls their experiments, swoop in on Wilson and bring him back to the lab for more treatments, more or less.

Wilson manages to sneak back to his old home where he arranges a visit with his wife, who thinks he died in a hotel fire. Pretending to be a friend of her late husband, Wilson sits down for a chat, perhaps to find out what his old wife really thought of him. What he hears is unpleasant, as she describes their marriage as a sad, loveless thing. He now knows his entire life was a sham, and it's even more of a sham with this new face and body. Perhaps the company can help him with yet another identity? Surely, they could do it all again, couldn't they?

Seconds was not a success in 1966, though it has the trappings of many movies that were successful in that era. There is a near psychedelic style to James Wong Howe's wide angle camera work, especially during the opening montage of distorted facial features - ears, lips, eyeballs, teeth - while a sinister organ peels on the soundtrack. Howe, whose career dated back to the silent era and earned two Oscars, received an Oscar nomination for his cinematography in Seconds, and deservedly so - his camera is right up this movie's nose the entire time. The disorienting closeups of heavily perspiring faces were trademarks of another Frankenheimer film, The Manchurian Candidate, made just a few years before.

If the movie couldn't pull in customers with its eerie visual effects, it also had a strong '60s message at its core, one where Wilson/Hamilton laments the failure and emptiness of his old materialistic life, a theme in line with other anti-establishment films like The Graduate. Indeed, many of the movie's early scenes play out in the well-manicured suburbia that was getting  lashed in those days by the counter culture. Hamilton sleepwalks through his day job, endures a dull commute, is picked up at the train station by his dutiful wife, and driven past a battery of lawn sprinkler systems to get to his sterile home full of his old tennis trophies. John Cheever couldn't have done a better job of portraying middle class ennui. Where the movie probably left viewers cold is in its bummer of a climax. Wilson, you see, wouldn't comply with the company's rules;  being a pain in the ass results in a final treatment not suitable for the age of Aquarius.

Still, the movie should've been notable, at least, for putting a great romantic movie idol like  Hudson through such torment. He's very fine in Seconds, as good as he'd ever been in his career, suitably bitter in his drunk scene - he allegedly stayed drunk for three days to film it -  and harrowing in the film's climax, his hysterical shrieks bringing the movie to its nasty end. He was 40 at the time, no longer a big draw, and was about to enter the prolonged sundown of his career. Frankenheimer hadn't wanted him in the role - the original idea was to cast Kirk Douglas, who'd purchased the rights to David Ely's novel, or Laurence Olivier - but agreed only after Hudson's agent talked him into it. Frankenheimer praised Hudson's work, but admitted casting him against type contributed to the movie's commercial failure.

"People who would go see Seconds would not go because Rock Hudson was in it," he said in 1977. "And people who would go to see a Rock Hudson movie would not go see a movie like Seconds."

Frankenheimer, who began his career during the golden age of television, is one of movie history's underrated directors.  Along with The Manchurian Candidate, his oeuvre includes heavy dramas (The Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in May, The Train, Black Sunday) crime flicks (52 Pick Up, The French Connection II). In 1998, at age 68, he could still turne out a solid action thriller, Ronin, starring Robert DeNiro. He's also responsible for  some of the loopiest horror movies you'll ever see, including Prophecy, and the '90s remake of The Island of Dr Moreau. I suppose Seconds goes into that category, too. 

Seconds is tough on a viewer because of its sadistic edge. We never really learn what "the company" is all about. I imagined it was a government operation, experimenting with ways to camouflage politicians and smuggle them in and out of the country. Who better to use as guinea pigs than sad, older men?  Perhaps the movie's most memorable scene is when Will Geer cozies up to Hamilton, who is reluctant to undergo the procedure. Geer, surprisingly creepy, grills him with questions. Who would miss you? he asks. What do you really mean to your wife anymore? Does your job mean anything? Hamilton, nicely played by Randolph, deflates a bit with each question. The scary part is that Geer probably poses these same questions to every potential client. He nods gently, confident that everyone reaches an age where they'd dump it all and let their loved ones go to hell. Maybe that's why the movie wasn't a hit. The truth of it was too ugly.

It could also be that in a country that believes strongly in second chances and reinvention, Seconds says there is no such thing as either. "Seconds," Frankenheimer said, "was an idea that I believe in very strongly, that is -  you are what you are and you can't erase your past." The irony is that Hudson couldn't erase his past as a romantic leading man, seemed out of place here, and therefore couldn't draw people to this weirdly beautiful movie.

 Still, Seconds has developed a small cult following over the years. Perhaps it took a while for audiences to catch up with its claustrophobia, its paranoia. Or maybe it took a while for new viewers to not know about Hudson's past image. At one point, Frankenheimer claimed it was "the only movie, really, that's ever gone from failure to classic without ever having been a success." Criterion re-released the film on Blu-ray in 2013, and in 2015 Seconds was selected for preservation by the National Film Industry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." Not bad for a movie that once made audiences sick because of the surgery sequences. Unfortunately, Seconds was such a failure in '66 that Frankenheimer reassessed his career and decided to be more mainstream. "I've got to do something," he said, "that's not a collector's item."

Frankenheimer was shaken by the movie's poor reception. When it showed at  at the Cannes Film Festival, Frankenheimer stayed in Monte Carlo where he was shooting Grand Prix rather than attend the press conference. He sent Hudson, instead. When the movie was shown at The Palace of Fine Arts, it was booed loudly, though the boos turned to polite applause when the M.C. introduced Hudson, who was in the balcony.

Though Hudson would eventually include Seconds as a personal favorite, he could only sit dumbfounded at the conference. The critics' angry line of questioning included talk about the Faust legend, and the deeper meanings of the film, but Hudson didn't know what to say in return.

He was out of place, not comfortable in these surroundings.

Monday, June 5, 2017


Are we secretly afraid of barbers? We put our heads in their hands and let them near us with scissors and razors: instruments of death. They're usually complete strangers to us, unless we're a regular customer. Still, that first time is a little bit odd, isn't it? A few have nipped my ear and accidentally drawn blood from my neck. That is, I hope it was an accident. (They always apologize, but how do I know they didn't do it on purpose?) The murderous barber has been a stock character for decades, from Sweeney Todd to Monty Python's Flying Circus. Scott Glenn recently starred in The Barber, where he was a serial killer who cut hair by day. Boston's longest running theatrical production (since 1979!) is Shear Madness, about a murder in a salon. Perhaps we harbor a primal fear of these mysterious people with their sharp implements, a fear that goes back to medieval times when barbers also served as surgeons. Barney Thomson (2015) directed by and starring Robert Carlyle, doesn't explain the mystique, but it's another one for the deadly barber canon.

In the first scene of Barney Thomson we see where Barney ranks among his fellow hair-cutters. "You hover over customers like a shitty cloud," he's told by a colleague. "You're like a haunted tree." Barney, as played by Carlyle, is a squirrely type who occasionally displays a temper. If you've ever wondered how barbers feel when their chair is free but you tell them you'll wait for the other guy, Carlyle lets us know. "Am I so bad?" he howls at one customer who'd rather not let dull old Barney cut his hair. Poor Barney. He's a bore and he can't help it. He has delusions of grandeur, though, and wishes he were some sort of legendary character. When he accidentally kills a co-worker during an after work scuffle, he's on his way. With some assistance from his haggard old mother (played with glee by Emma Thompson), we're soon awash in body parts, all wrapped neatly like sides of beef at the butcher's. 

It's routine stuff with slabs of grim humor and bodies stacking up. What makes it intriguing is the local color. Carlyle and cinematographer Fabian Wagner shot the entire movie around Glasgow, Scotland, creating an atmosphere that is at times cold and drab, and at others as vivid as a David Fincher horror scene. Is Glasgow really such a landscape of dingy shops, dog tracks, and carnivals? Are the elderly ladies really so keen on Engelbert Humperdinck and old Eddie Cochran hits? Could a pair of little fiends like Barney and his mum really get away with their macabre practices? A bitter cop (played by Ray Winstone, the U.K.'s Dennis Franz) calls Glasgow a "shithole," and delivers a memorable monologue about old-time Scottish flyweight, Benny Lynch. He could've been so much more had he only left Glasgow and the bloodsuckers behind, laments the cop. Well, at least they have bingo nights.

Emma Thompson has played weird old ladies before- twice as the strangely magical Nanny McPhee - and she obviously likes to slap on the makeup and cackle like a crone. As Barney's  bitter and caustic mother, Thompson is swinging for the fences in every scene. It's a brilliant performance, larger than life, but also laced with nuance. I love the way she enters a bus full of other old ladies on the way to a bingo hall, waves them off with a flip of her hand, then slyly reaches into her purse to produce an oversized troll doll. Delightfully over the top, repulsive, and pushing for new ways to be reprehensible, it's as if Thompson decided to set a pace no one else could follow, and increased it throughout the movie. By the end, it's almost impossible to look at her. Barney Thomson didn't get much notice or distribution in America - my guess is the Scottish accents were too thick for distributors - but it earned several awards in Scotland and England and is now available on the Tribeca movie app. It's worth seeing if only for Thompson's inspired work. Does she overdo it? Some might think so, but I don't. After all, there's a line near the movie's end where Barney says, "I was born of a monster." Thompson is merely living up to what was written.

Thursday, June 1, 2017


Tightrope begins with a familiar scene. A young woman is walking home alone late at night. She senses someone is following her. We only see the stalker's feet, clad in dirty old running shoes. A police officer asks the woman if she needs help getting home. She talks to him a bit, and thanks him for his help. Then we see the cop's feet, and he's wearing dirty running shoes. The cunning aspect of the movie is that we can't recall the cop's face. We just saw it, but it didn't register. The woman ends up dead, and we're kicking ourselves because we didn't pay close attention.

Wes Block (Clint Eastwood) is the detective in charge of the homicide investigation. Women are being strangled to death all over the city, which happens to be New Orleans. Block is by no means old, but he's old school. That is, he's not impressed when he hears a lot from the police lab about red fibers being found at the murder scenes. He knows this case will involve a lot of ground work, meaning he'll have to hit some of the nastier corners of the city. The female victims are all in the local sex trade. Fortunately, Block knows the area. Knows it too well, in fact.

The movie plays out as so many cop dramas do, with Block venturing into the darkness to find the killer. He's a typical movie cop - his wife left him for a wealthier man, and he looks after his two daughters and a house full of dogs. He's basically a nice guy, if a bit depressed. This case, though, haunts him. Not only is he more than familiar with the New Orleans demimonde, but it appears he can't interview a prostitute without sampling the goods.

The duality in Block's nature is the engine that runs Tightrope, which starts out as a simple police procedural and then turns into a full-blown psychotic meltdown as he dives into the seamier side of life. For laughs, the wacko starts following Block and killing the women being questioned. Block sweats it out, fearing that he'll be mentioned as "the last to see them alive." He even has a nightmare where he's the strangler. He's such a cynic that he probably puts his own name on a list of suspects. After all, he wears sneakers, too.

He befriends a woman from the local rape crisis center (Genevieve Bujold), the usual feisty, no-nonsense woman who appeared in this sort of movie during the '80s. Block is as cynical about the rape center as he is everything else, but he likes the woman. Is he getting close to her as a way to repent for his unsavory activities? Or maybe it's because she knows how to defend herself. If the killer is picking on Block's women, at least this one will be able to kick him in the balls and blow a whistle.

Tightrope came at a transitional time for Eastwood. He'd gone from being a cult figure, to a movie star, to a sort of cartoonish super cop. It had grown difficult to take him seriously, for even his Dirty Harry movies had become silly. Some have called Tightrope a de facto Dirty Harry sequel, but that's not quite true. As Wes Block, Eastwood doesn't blow anybody away with his .44. In fact, there's little gun play at all. Besides, Harry Callahan didn't seem too interested in hookers. Block? Put him in a room with a whore and they'll both start perspiring like they're on the cover of an Ohio Players album. 

As the body count increases, the strangler moves ever closer to Block. This culminates with the bad guy breaking into Block's home and tormenting Block's daughters. When it appears Block's filthy lifestyle has seeped into his home, he grimaces into his bedroom mirror, growls a few obscene words, and trashes the place. From here, we know Block and the strangler are going to tangle, and there can only be one winner.

Tightrope enjoyed some success upon its debut in '84, despite Pauline Kael describing it in her New Yorker column as a "seamy, gaudy melodrama," with Block being "the most inept police investigator of all time." She added, with some truth, that Tightrope was nothing more than "...Halloween taking itself seriously." Indeed, the previous decade's worth of slasher movies had softened up the audience for a film like Tightrope.  When Kael wrote that Tightrope was "the opposite of sophisticated moviemaking," one couldn't argue.

If the movie didn't seem like a work of genius, this is because it was from a first time director, Richard Tuggle. Tuggle had written a fine Eastwood movie a few years earlier (Escape from Alcatraz) and he also wrote Tightrope. Though there are some creative flourishes - the killer is usually wearing a mask of some kind, allowing him to slip in and out of the New Orleans nightlife like just another eccentric sidewalk character - there's a strong sense that Tuggle was simply trying to make a Clint Eastwood movie. Not only was Tightrope produced by Eastwood's company, but Eastwood's real life daughter Alison was cast as Block's eldest daughter (she steals most of her scenes, by the way), the cinematography was by longtime Eastwood collaborator Bruce Surtees, and the jazzy musical score is by another Eastwood regular, Lennie Niehaus.

Tuggle rarely worked in Hollywood after Tightrope, which is strange because the movie made money. He and Surtees did well together, especially in a scene where Block wanders into a warehouse in search of the killer, and finds himself surrounded by parade floats, including a giant Ronald Reagan head. Tuggle's choice to keep the killer from having much flair was also unusual for the time, since this was the era where movie characters had to have a catch phrase and a personality that could easily be transferred to a McDonald's cup.

Eastwood was 54 at the time of Tightrope, and though he was still lean and wolfish, there were murmurs that his days as a star were numbered. New guys were coming along, kickboxers and musclemen and boyishly handsome brats, and there was concern about how long the Eastwood mystique could carry on. Little did we know that he wasn't done yet, and would go on to win a bunch of Oscars. There was a time, believe it or not, when the idea of Eastwood winning an Oscar seemed as unlikely as the Red Sox winning the World Series. He's since won four. In fact, he's made so many great movies that Tightrope is barely remembered. If anyone else had made it, it might be enshrined as a classic of the '80s.  In the saga of Wes Block, Eastwood found "a throwback to the great cop movies of the '40s," wrote Roger Ebert, "when the hero wrestled with his conscience as much as with the killer."

Some of the movie feels formulaic. The woman are caricatures of sexuality - they're constantly sucking on popsicles, or mud wrestling, or playing with vibrators, or lounging in  hot tubs. The kinky stuff about bondage had crept out of the city sex shops and into the mainstream, to the point where a prostitute could tease Block about his handcuffs and the ticket buyers could titter knowingly. The strangler, too, seems less like the serial killers who exist in real life and more like a villain in a Batman movie. And Block, for all of his secrets, is often shown cuddling with his dogs and his daughters. Eastwood knew he couldn't make Block too much of a weirdo and still sell tickets.

There's also a ridiculous bit where Eastwood and Bujold work out together. This gym scene is so clumsy with sexual imagery that it almost undoes the rest of Tuggle's good work, as does the sophomoric psychobabble from a female shrink about how we're all walking a tightrope between good and evil. The New Orleans backdrop seems cheesy, too, as if the board of tourism had a stake in the production. Did we really need to see Eastwood and Bujold on a riverboat slurping down oysters?

Ultimately, the showdown between Block and the strangler is what makes or breaks the movie. By now, the killer is wearing a black ski mask, which is torn off during the struggle. Cop and killer face each other, Eastwood's face a map of rabid rage and hate, almost comically so. You could write a lot about how Block was trying to kill his dark side here. You could also say that Eastwood was trying to kill his old self, and move on with the rest of his career. Unforgiven, Bird, Million Dollar Baby, and many others were just beyond the horizon. But did he know?