Monday, July 31, 2017
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.