Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Best in Film 2013

2013 didn't offer much to the weird movie buff. The wildly overrated and ridiculous The Conjuring was a cheesy ripoff of The Amityville Horror (itself a cheesy movie) and Don Coscarelli's John Dies at the End was an incomprensible bore. Fede Alvarez' remake of Evil Dead was better but didn't really bring anything new to the table. You're Next, with its intentionally outré plot and extreme violence, was the only breath of fresh air in the genre.

That said, it was a pretty solid year for the arthouse category. Newer directors continued to impress with their unique visions, and established filmmakers proved that they're still in the game with some outstanding entries. Here's a look at some of my favorites, presented in no particular order:

The Place Beyond the Pines. Derek Cianfrance's second collaboration with Ryan Gosling (after Blue Valentine) is an ambitious epic following two generations of fathers and sons and how the acts of one can influence the other. By all rights, this story shouldn't work, especially when presented at such a great length, but Cianfrance, his director of photography Sean Babbitt and composer Mike Patton put it all out there with insistent bravado, and the results are mesmerizing.

Pines boasts some of the most electrifyingly-shot chase scenes I've ever seen and a well-timed first-act shock (those who've seen it know what I mean). Gosling plays another of his social misfits, here trying to provide for a family that doesn't want him to, and Bradley Cooper steps away from his Hangover persona to play an ambitious cop whose morals are tested in a corrupt precinct. Dane De Haan, also memorable in Kill Your Darlings,  impresses as Gosling's teenage son, searching for the father he never knew.

Philomena. Director Stephen Frears has had a notable career, delivering such memorable films as My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Prick Up Your Ears (1987), The Grifters (1990) and The Queen (2006). I saw his latest at a DGA screening this week and was treated to a Q&A with the man himself afterwards.

He said that Helen Mirren and Judi Dench are the two greatest actresses we have today, and it's hard to argue with the assertion. Mirren's work in The Queen won her the Best Actress Oscar in 2007, and Dench almost certainly will be nominated as the title character of Frears' latest project. Based on true events, it's the story of a small-town Irishwoman who teams up with an English journalist to find the son she'd borne as an unwed teenager and who was taken away from her when he was still a toddler.

This is one of those films that you just know is going to provide a vigorous emotional workout, but I was delighted to find it even better than I'd anticipated. Dench is wonderful as always, and co-writer Steve Coogan, who's noted mostly for comedy, provides solid support as the journalist Martin Sixsmith, upon whose book the story is based. Alexandre Desplat's lush score and the gorgeous Irish locations also enhance the experience. Hell, even Washington, D.C. looks good, although Frears confessed that London had to stand in for some of the American footage.

Inside Llewyn Davis. I just reviewed this last week, so I'll be brief. This bleak comedy/drama about a struggling folkie in 1960s Greenwich Village is beautifully realized by the Coen Brothers, with knockout work from star Oscar Isaac and supporting players who look like they just stepped out of the pages of Life Magazine circa 1961. And the cat...

Gravity. Like last year's Life of Pi, this is an event movie, meant to be seen under specific circumstances — in 3D, in a real theater, on a big screen  (the bigger the better). A triumph of digital artistry, it's a two-character story driven by heart-stopping special effects. Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first mission into space, suffering all the panic attacks one surely would feel when stepping out into that infinite, freezing blackness for the first time.

George Clooney is Kowalski, the commander of the team on his final mission, and his nonchalant attitude helps put Stone at ease. But the Soviets have just exploded one of their defunct satellites, releasing a dangerous cloud of debris that is now hurtling toward them — and all hell breaks loose.

Their home base is destroyed, and as they make a tandem attempt to reach the nearby International Space Station, their parachute cords get tangled. Kowalski realizes that a choice must be made or they'll both die, so he cuts himself loose from the tether, offering her words of encouragement as he floats off into the darkness.

Thereafter, Gravity becomes Stone’s story of survival. Bullock, who is in virtually every frame of the film, rises to the occasion. I predict a nomination for sure — the Academy loves this type of heroine. But this is a passion project of director Alfonso Cuaron, who made both the terrific Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men. Cuaron's son, Jonas, co-wrote the screenplay. Along with Bullock’s nod, I predict a lot of tech nominations.

Her. Director/producer Spike Jonze has provided us with the best of lowbrow (Jackass) and highbrow (Being John Malkovich), but here's a project that's true to his style yet completely unique. Set in slightly-in-the-future Los Angeles, it stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly, a sad, lonely man mourning the dissolution of his marriage. When he installs a new, intuitive operating system on his computer, he develops a relationship with its voice (Scarlett Johannson).

This sounds like material better suited for a half-hour Twilight Zone episode, but Jonze, making his sole writing debut here, fills the story with bleak humor and good characters. As Theodore walks the streets in a depressed haze, he's surrounded by people who are likewise disengaged from real human contact, so involved are they with their devices.

Phoenix has never been more sympathetic — here's another Oscar nod. Johansson does lovely work as the voice of Samantha (as the OS names herself). Amy Adams is appealing as Theo's friend and neighbor, a game designer who also befriends her OS.

And visually it's a knockout. K.K. Barrett's production design, Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography, along with digitally-added Shanghai locations, give us a Los Angeles that's simultaneously familiar and strangely surreal. You can see my full review here.

Dallas Buyers Club. Matthew McConaughey's transformation from good ol' boy to serious actor is now complete. His strong and startling performance as the real-life Ron Woodruff, an electrician, rodeo cowboy and sex addict whose overindulgent lifestyle resulted in an AIDS diagnosis. It's the Reagan 80s, though, and medication is hard to come by, so he becomes an early activist, smuggling untested drugs in from other countries and setting up an ad hoc clinic.

It's not just McConaughey's physical transformation that's striking (he reportedly dropped nearly 40 pounds for the role) — it's also his performance. Vulgar, cruel and deeply homophobic, he's the antithesis of the likable, "aw shucks" characters that were the actor's prior stock in trade. But when his friends find out about his diagnosis, he finds himself on the receiving end of all that hate and begins to evolve. He takes as a business partner a transvestite, Rayon (a likewise slimmed-down Jared Leto) and even becomes a hero in the local gay community.

Director Jean-Marc Valeé sets the story in realitically gritty, run-down locations; you can practically feel the sleaze. Craig Borton and Melisa Wallack's screenplay is refreshingly unsentimental; although Woodruff begins to accept and understand the differences of others, he doesn't grow a heart of gold.

Among the rest, Disney's Saving Mr. Banks was a rather unusual entry for that studio, with good work from Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson.  The earnest 12 Years a Slave will certainly garner a nod for Chiwetel Ejiofor. Gosling's other art film of the year, Only God Forgives, was another insane roller coaster ride from Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn. And Daniel Radcliffe put on a different pair of glasses to play Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings.

 Next week: The Best in Television 2013

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Movie Review: 'Inside Llewyn Davis'

It’s the winter of 1961. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a struggling folk musician, is grabbing one-night gigs where he can, sleeping on friends’ couches and hoping for that big break.
Llewyn is a traditional folkie. He scoffs at the new style of folk just coming into vogue as performed by the likes of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. Consequently, he finds himself regarded more and more as a pariah by booking agents and fellow musicians alike, but remains arrogantly oblivious of the changing times.
He’d had his shot. He was once part of a duo that had cut a somewhat successful album, but his partner jumped off the George Washington bridge, leaving a hole in his soul. His subsequent solo effort, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is moribund. Still, it’s tough for us to feel compassion for him. Admittedly, he’s in a tough spot, but he’s also an arrogant jerk who leeches off his ever-shrinking circle of friends, including Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan). Jean confronts him with the news that she’s pregnant and is fairly sure the child is his. His only acknowledgment of responsibility is to offer to pay for the abortion.
And when good-hearted Jim, unaware of their dalliance, gets him a gig as a backup singer for a recording of his atrocious novelty song called “Please Mr. Kennedy” that sounds more like Allan Sherman than Phil Ochs, he signs away any royalties for an immediate $200 payment. Even his manager, Mel Novikoff (Jerry Grayson), has nothing to offer him but the coat off his back.
He hears about a potential gig at a club in Chicago and shares a ride with friends of friends, junkie jazz musician Roland Turner (an obscenely hilarious John Goodman) and hipster actor Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). The drive is awful, coming to an abrupt conclusion, and he is forced to hitch the rest of the way to town, only to be faced with more rejection.
The chill inherent in the story is enhanced by the production. Bruno Debonnel’s desaturated cinematography is affectingly icy. In my mind’s eye, I keep remembering the film as having been shot in black-and-white, even though I know it’s not. Jess Gonchor’s production design nicely recreates the feel of the ’60s Village, aided by Mary Zophres’ evocative costuming. The songs, produced by T Bone Burnett, are well-chosen and more than competently performed by the cast, including an unseen Marcus Mumford as Llewyn’s late partner.
Isaac is just sensational as the antihero Llewyn. The Coens explained in interviews that they were looking for either a great actor who could sing or a singer who could really act. They found their man here. Llewyn is so unattractive a person, yet when he picks up his guitar and begins to sing, you can’t help but fall for him (which is obviously what happened to Jean and the other women he impregnated).
Throughout the film, cats serve as a metaphor for his life (one is even named Ulysses). They run away, he rescues them; they become inconvenient, he abandons them. That’s the way it goes.
A beautifully surreal cat-centric scene occurs when Llewyn, taking his turn driving through the snowy nighttime Illinois wilderness, accidentally hits one. He rushes out to see if it’s all right. There’s blood on the fender, and he spots it limping into the woods. For a moment he stands there, helplessly watching it disappear into the darkness before getting back in the car.
Davis’ character is based on real-life Village folkie Dave Van Ronk, but this strange, downbeat milieu is strictly Coen Brothers. And it really sticks with you.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Movie Review: 'Saving Mr. Banks'

Walt Disney was a man at the crossroads at the beginning of the 1960s. He’d spent the previous three decades making major innovations in family entertainment.

He created beloved, iconic characters (Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, to name a few); added sound and color to animated films; released the first commercial film in stereophonic sound (Fantasia); and topped it all off by opening a triumphantly successful theme park celebrating his creations. He conquered television, too — but it was time for another “big one” — and there was one project that had eluded him for 20 years.

Disney’s daughters adored P.L. Travers’ book Mary Poppins, about a stern but magical nanny who helps a family in its time of need. Travers had regularly turned down all of Disney’s offers to make a film of it, fearful that he’d transform her character into just another one of his “silly” cartoons. In 1961, in need of money, she finally acquiesced, provided she could maintain complete creative control.

Saving Mr. Banks takes place during this developmental period, when Disney (Tom Hanks) flies Travers (Emma Thompson) out to his Burbank lot to work with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak). Of course, she hates everything, from the California sun to the Sherman Brothers’ music to the — God forbid — suggestion that there should be some animation in the film.

This story is told in parallel with flashbacks to the author’s difficult childhood in 1900s Australia and her relationship with her beloved but hopelessly alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). In him — and especially in her Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), who arrives with a carpetbag to straighten the family up — we see the origins of the characters in her books and her reasons for protecting them from “Disneyfication.”

SAVING MR. BANKS - TRAILER NO. 1 -- Pictured: Tom Hanks (Screengrab)Thompson’s Travers is the very definition of imperious — so buttoned up it’s a wonder she can even breathe. There’s an amusing scene early on in the film when she arrives at the Beverly Hills Hotel and is confronted by stuffed replicas of the Disney characters. Scoffing, she jams them all into a closet.

Hanks’ Disney is pretty much the man America knew as everyone’s beloved “Uncle Walt,” although the filmmakers do allow a couple of his quirks to slip in. In one scene, he furtively extinguishes a cigarette when Travers rushes into his office (he never let the public see him smoke, although it was lung cancer that killed him at age 65). And when he takes her on a tour of Disneyland, when throngs rush to him for autographs, he pulls pre-signed cards out of his pocket and hands them out.

Among the supporting characters, Whitford is fun as the much-put-upon DaGradi, as are Schwartzman and Novak as the singing Shermans. Kathy Baker is amusing as Walt’s wry assistant, and Paul Giamatti has a nice role as Travers’ driver, taking her to and from the studio and offering her advice on how to survive in Hollywood. Actually, he’s her Jiminy Cricket.

Yes, Saving Mr. Banks is manipulative and over-the-top, but in a good way. And it’s admirable that the studio would take the risky step of taking on a project that involves holding a mirror up to itself, its legendary founder and one of its most beloved films.

It’s certainly not a “warts and all” exposé — nor do we want it to be. Instead, it makes gentle fun of the clichés everyone knows and leaves the intense drama to the Australia scenes (featuring a heartbreakingly charming Farrell), which earned the film its PG-13 rating. And just to satisfy us that the film is not all made-up hooey, an actual recording of one of Travers’ script editing session with DaGradi and the Shermans is played over the end credits. It’s a smart and affecting punctuation point — and one worth staying for.

Most of the film was shot on the Disney lot, which needs no dressing to take it back to the ‘60s. It looks good, too. DP John Schwartzman gives the Burbank scenes a golden hue, and the Australian sequences are appropriately sunscorched. Director John Lee Hancock, himself a Disney vet, knows how to pluck the heartstrings.

Is Saving Mr. Banks Disney’s Sunset Boulevard? Not really — in fact, quite the opposite. It’s a reaffirmation of the magical spell that the Disney name continues to cast over children of all ages. And that’s the way it should be.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Guest Post: The Movies, Lillian Gish and Me


By Russell Adams

I did not get back to NYC to try and see Ms. Gish, but over the next few years, we swapped cards, notes and gifts. I was working at Universal Studios at that time and arranged to make a cassette for her of an “Alfred Hitchcock Hour” in which she’d guest starred in 1963. 

I got back a sweet note telling how much she enjoyed seeing the program – which she had not remembered – and was pleased to see that it was good! I told her about seeing “True Heart Susie” at a screening in Los Angeles, which was attended by her cousin Arthur, and she was very happy about that, as it was one of her favorite silent films.

Ms. Gish was also kind enough to sign various items for me and respond to my many questions. Jim Frasher once told me that she enjoyed my queries, because I did not ask the same things, and she actually had to think about her responses.

She had retired from film after The Whales of August. Jim Frasher told me he was on the Maine location with her during production and Bette Davis’s treatment of her was atrocious, shocking even the veteran members of the crew and director Lindsay Anderson. After that experience, Ms. Gish said, “If working in the movie industry today means dealing with persons like Ms. Davis, I don’t want any part of it!” Instead she devoted her time to speaking tours on behalf of film preservation for the American Film Institute. She also was an advocate for women in film and was an inspiration to many.

According to Jim Frasher, an annual tradition in the Gish household was watching the local NYC news on her birthday, as they never failed to mention it in their broadcasts. Together Jim and Ms. Gish would channel surf as one after another station wished her a happy birthday…and got her age wrong! One would report her 98th birthday, while another noted that she was 96. One year when the ABC affiliate said that she was only 93, she gleefully exclaimed, “That’s settles it. I’m watching ABC from now on!” Sadly, Lillian Gish passed away on February 27, 1993, nine months short of her 100th birthday, which was her final goal. She had done everything else. As Jim said, “She just went quietly in her own bed. It was very peaceful.”

Services were held at her beloved St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in NYC, and her life was remembered in comments by her godson James MacArthur (adopted son of Helen Hayes), and she was interred there alongside her mother and sister Dorothy. In her lifetime, Lillian Gish received an Oscar, AFI Life Achievement Award and Kennedy Center Honors, among many others.

Her will provided for an award, The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, one of the most remunerative of its kind, which is presented annually to an individual, who in Ms. Gish’s words “has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” (Anna Devere Smith was the 2012 recipient.) Always proud of being a ‘Buckeye’ – she was born in Springfield, Ohio – Ms. Gish was a generous benefactor of Bowling Green University, home to the Gish Film Theatre and Gallery.

Sotheby’s conducted an auction of Ms. Gish’s personal belongings. Among the items for bidding were a pair of doorstops. One was a golden fox, the other a cast-iron pug, which had been a birthday present from D.W. Griffith. I placed a bid on the pair, not at all certain I wouldn’t be outbid by some wealthy fan.

One day I received a call at my office and heard Jim Frasher excitedly exclaim, “Do you know what you’ve done? You outbid Steven Spielberg!” Spielberg, a noted collector of Gish and Griffith memorabilia, had underbid me by fifty dollars. Woo-hoo! Jim told me not to be discouraged by the condition of the little pug dog. He’d guarded the door between Ms. Gish’s kitchen and the dining room for decades – and was tripped over by all the greatest names of the twentieth century!

The next year Universal sent me to NYC for some business, so I called Jim for a lunch. We met at Sardi’s and had a delightful visit, during which he presented me with one final gift from our favorite silent film star. It was an ornate pillbox with Oriental design, a present from Helen Hayes that had sat on Ms. Gish’s coffee table for years. It was the perfect conclusion to my brush with a true immortal.

This post is written by Russell Adams, a Los Angeles-based entertainment professional, writer and film reviewer. He had the good fortune to correspond with Lillian Gish and her longtime manager, Jim Frasher, over the course of many years.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Guest Post: The Movies, Lillian Gish and Me

PART TWO: Visiting the Great Lady's Home

By Russell Adams

As luck would have it, I had already scheduled a trip to NYC to visit friends and see some shows. In light of my recent mail from Lillian Gish, I decided to move my trip up! I had to have a meeting with the great lady herself. First I needed to find her phone number. While I had the address, even I ruled out stalking as a possibility. (Remember this was the days before Google searches.) I put out the word to my friends, many of whom work in the entertainment biz in New York. 

On my last day in the Big Apple, I scored. With all the nervousness of a teen asking for a date to prom, I called. A man answered, and I went breathlessly into my spiel – about the letter and the picture, blah, blah, blah. The man, who turned out to be Ms. Gish’s manager, Jim Frasher, listened patiently (like he’s never heard all this before) and suggested that we meet that afternoon.

I went to the midtown address Mr. Frasher gave me. The place turned out to be a classy establishment that was heavy on atmosphere, with a bartender in a tux, and very woody. It was the perfect choice for an Irishman to enjoy some afternoon refreshment. As I waited, it occurred to me that meeting like this might be a subtle ruse to pre-clear those wishing access to Ms. Gish. Jim finally arrived and greeted me warmly. We chatted amiably from the start. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. 

Jim Frasher had come from a long theatrical background. He had been hired by Lillian Gish temporarily for five months to manage a speaking tour she was starting. That was twenty-five years ago, and Jim had been working for her since. After much laughter (and a few scotches), Jim finally said the magic words to me, “Let’s go see Lillian.”
A short cab ride later, we arrived at a Sutton Place address. It was one of those early twentieth-century apartment buildings common to the Eastside. Getting off the elevator at Ms. Gish’s floor, we were greeted with a fair amount of smoke pouring from her open apartment door. 

As I looked nervously around for the nearest fire exit, Jim entered the unit and began fanning the smoke around. I soon learned that this had become something of a ritual, as the cook, a sweet young Scandinavian woman, was prone to kitchen errors, and Ms. Gish was too kind-hearted to let her go!

After the smoke had cleared, literally, I got my first view of the living room. One doesn’t get to use the word elegant often, but it came at once to my mind. Every furnishing was antique and appeared to be carefully selected and positioned.  Very prominent in the room were two beautiful watercolor portraits of Lillian Gish and her sister, Dorothy. In the center of the room, before the fireplace, was the sitting area where Ms. Gish often entertained (there and the full dining room). I was told that every afternoon for years, her best friend Helen Hayes (also a neighbor) would stop there for tea. 

As Jim gave me the grand tour, I was aware of just how large the whole place was. Apartments that size in NYC, when they’re available, go for zillions of dollars. Off the main hallway was a small, crowded room that Jim told me Ms. Gish called her ‘junk room.’ Among the many treasures collected from her world tours found there, I spotted her Oscar! At one door, Jim peered in and quietly closed it back, holding one finger to his lips saying, “She’s napping.” Damn.

We returned to the living room to continue our talk. I felt a little awkward, as the furniture all seemed so small. Little chairs for petite, if giant, stars. All the while, my mind was on that room up the hall and the sweet lady dreaming there. Jim explained that for a person her age (94 at the time), Ms. Gish was in amazingly good health, her only chronic complaints being a bad back. She usually declined invitations to plays where she might be forced to leave early and risk offending her host. 

Also, she still suffered arthritic pain stemming from that iconic scene in Way Down East that required her to work on an ice floe for days. At last I felt that I was in danger of overstaying my welcome. Sensing my disappointment, Jim made a picture of me in the foyer holding Ms. Gish’s Oscar, and regretfully I departed. Perhaps there would be another time.


This post is written by Russell Adams, a Los Angeles-based entertainment professional, writer and film reviewer. He had the good fortune to correspond with Lillian Gish and her longtime manager, Jim Frasher, over the course of many years.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Guest Post: The Movies, Lillian Gish and Me

PART ONE: In Search of a Silent Screen Legend

By Russell Adams

For me the most eagerly awaited film of 1987 was Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August. I had long looked forward to the pairing of film greats Lillian Gish and Bette Davis, alongside horror favorite Vincent Price.

When the film, which received only a modest release, finally opened in Los Angeles, it played at the Rialto Theatre in Pasadena, an appropriately atmospheric venue designed in the style of old, with balconies and even a gargoyle! I was not disappointed; the picture was a total charmer.

In the days after seeing The Whales of August, a thought began to form, an obsession really. As mesmerized as I’d been seeing Davis and Price up on the big screen in their element, it was Lillian Gish who’d captured my imagination. She had been there in the very beginning of silent cinema, the Mother of the Movies and First Lady of Film, among other well-deserved appellations. After eight decades, she was still with us, a living connection to another time. I knew I had to make contact before the opportunity was lost forever.

Having spent a few decades working for the studios, I was no longer impressed by stars or celebrity, but I sat down to write only the second fan letter of my life. (The first one was to Captain Kangaroo, who never replied.) I spent much time trying to get my thoughts just right. I opened with my appreciation for The Whales of August, and I also explained to Miss Gish how I was a lifelong film lover and of silent movies, in particular. 

I wrote how I’d read everything I could check out from the library on the topic of silent movies, and since this was in the days before home video and classics were very difficult to see in Birmingham, Alabama, I used my paper route money to send away for super 8 prints from Blackhawk Films.

I closed, naturally, with an appeal for an autograph or signed photo. Nervously I sealed the envelope, and having found Miss Gish’s home address (easier than I’d thought), I dropped it in the mail. In doing so, I thought perhaps that would be the end of it, but another feeling inside me said not.

I didn’t have long to wait. After returning home from work one evening, I was going through my mail, and amidst the free pizza delivery and car wash coupons was a small manila envelope with a return address sticker reading, “Ms. L. Gish” and an NYC address. My heart leaped as I carefully opened it so as not to damage the contents. 

What I found inside was a 4x6 vintage black and white glamour photo of Lillian Gish with the inscription, “Dear Russell Adams, with every good wish, Lillian Gish,” written entirely in her own hand. Also enclosed was a note card thanking for my charming letter (!) and other gracious comments, closing with, “The picture comes to you with the hope that Hollywood will be good to you. Most gratefully, Lillian Gish.” My heart sang. I was determined that this would not be the end of the story.


This post is written by Russell Adams, a Los Angeles-based entertainment professional, writer and film reviewer. He had the good fortune to correspond with Lillian Gish and her longtime manager, Jim Frasher, over the course of many years.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Daniel Radcliffe howls in his new movie

Daniel Radcliffe takes another giant step away from Hogwarts with his portrayal of a young Allen Ginsberg drawn into a murderous love triangle at the dawn of the Beat Generation.

Kill Your Darlings opens in 1944, when young and socially-awkward Ginsberg, freshly graduated from high school in New Jersey, receives notice that he’s been accepted at New York’s Columbia University. He’s thrilled for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is to escape his tension-filled home life. His mother suffers from paranoid delusions which his uptight schoolteacher father has no tolerance for, and Allen is tired of playing the intermediary.

Dane DaHaan and Daniel RadcliffeAt school, he is at once drawn to the flashy young radical Lucien (“Lu”) Carr (Dane DeHaan), whose delight in upsetting the system appeals to Ginsberg–not to mention his blonde, pale-eyed beauty, which awakens hitherto unacknowledged desires.

Soon Allen is following Lu around like a puppy and being drawn into his odd circle of friends, which includes the nitrous oxide-huffing son of a wealthy family, William Burroughs (Ben Foster), and David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), a bearded bohemian who is also head-over-heels in love with young Lu, having followed him from city to city and resentful of Allen’s intrusion into their lives.

Lu is an expert at bending people to his will, and he wants Allen (whom he nicknames Ginsy) to join him, Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) in a radical literary movement which involves doing a lot of drugs and destroying the old to give rise to the new. Allen is putty in his hands, and soon they’re committing minor acts of rebellion like breaking into the university library to replace the first edition volumes under glass with pornography.

Scheming Lu also pits his rivals against each other to get what he wants from them both: high-minded manifestos from Allen and school papers from David. But when David’s obsession reaches frightening new heights, Lu kills him in a panic and sinks the body in the Hudson River. Then he does what he always does, turning to his circle of friends for help.

Radcliffe is impressive as Ginsberg, who is almost a bystander in the story were it not for the fact that his sexual and intellectual awakenings are key points of the story. DeHaan is ideally cast as the seductive Lu. Foster has Burroughs’ nervous, weedy voice down pat and Huston is a sprawling Kerouac. No stranger to obsessive roles, Hall’s portrayal of Kammerer is rather sympathetic; evidently Lu’s real-life stalker was much creepier.

Some may complain about the depiction of women in the film, but that’s really the point—this is a man’s world, sexually and otherwise. Here, females are burdensome or unnecessary. Jack’s girlfriend (Elizabeth Olsen) is easily brushed aside for his antics with the boys. Allen’s mother, Naomi (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is a shackle who is soon forgotten once he becomes enthralled by the lights of the city. Even the librarian who eagerly performs oral sex on Allen amongst the stacks is merely serving as a receptacle as he gazes at the true object of his desire—Lu, who watches across the corridor.

That this film is based on true incidents is surprising given the scenario is so eventful. Debuting director John Krokidas and co-writer Austin Bunn approach the material episodically, and the out-of-order sequencing and anachronistic soundtrack gives it the energy of a Richard Lester romp. And any departure from the truth on the part of the screenwriters is absolved when the imprisoned Lu rejects the deposition Allen had ghostwritten for him: “This is your story, not mine!” The film is attractively shot in sepiatones by director of photography Reed Morano. Stephen Carter’s production design and Christopher Peterson’s costumes, all gleaming wood and tweed suits, are also nicely evocative.

What makes Kill Your Darlings more successful than other beat generation-themed films is the fact that these characters are presented as real people—before they became myths—in a highly dramatic story made all the more riveting because its’s true.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Horror in 2013: The Year So Far

I must confess I haven't seen a lot of horror films this year — frankly because I will always take a firm stance (as opposed to a wide stance) against the girly-screamy Paranormal Activity franchise and its dumbass offspring Insidious (which has a sequel coming up, of course).

Sadly, the Hatchet and VHS films don't do anything for me either. Those franchises need to put a fresh spin on the Blair Witch, 80s slasher and torture porn genres to make me take notice, but it ain't happening.

So here are a few 2013 horrors I did see so far, for better or worse...

I missed Don Coscarelli's John Dies at the End during its theatrical release, so I was excited to be able to check out the veteran cult director's latest horror-comedy when it was available on netflix.

His 2002 Bubba Ho-Tep was such a sublime mixture of horror and strange comedy that I was sure this one would be a hoot, too. Alas, it was not. Where Bubba reached art-house heights of weirdness, this one tried too damn hard to be strange and devolved into a tedious runaround.

Like Cronenberg's 1999 Existenz, it makes abrupt leaps in time periods and situations, but unlike the earlier film, it doesn't add up to much, and the constant shifts become wearying rather than intriguing. Time shifting is fine if the puzzle pieces start to form a comprehensible whole, but in this case you really are quite ready for John to die about 65 minutes in.

Stitches is an English film made in 2012 that made its debut on these shores in April of this year. I attended the Los Angeles premiere at Cinespace in Hollywood, and it was a memorable evening with red-carpet appearances by such cult stars as Bai Ling and Danielle Harris.

The movie itself is a loving throwback to the slasher genre of the '80s, but unlike its American wannabe counterparts (Friday the 13th remake, anyone?) it's done very well. The effects are old school — paint and bladders — and the results are pretty hilarious.

Stitches (Ross Noble) is a burnt-out children's party clown who is accidentally killed at the sixth birthday party of little Tommy (Tommy Knight). Ten years later, he comes back from the dead to wreak revenge at the boy's sixteenth birthday party. Soon, many of the partygoers get snuffed, clown-style. It's refreshing that Noble plays Stitches as more put-out than satisfied when he kills. Unlike Freddy Kreuger, who became a ridiculously immortal wisecrack factory toward the end of his cycle, Stitches groans with exhaustion when he has to exert himself. Near the end of the film, when he has to get on a ridiculously tiny tricycle to chase down his last victims, he wearily mutters, "For fuck's sake..."

The horror comedy Warm Bodies offered a well-cast Nicholas Hoult (who looks so bizarre normally) as a zombie who finds himself coming back to life in a love story that carefully skirts any implication of necrophilia. Hoult plays R, a zombie who falls for human Julie (R and Julie, get it?) after he eats her boyfriend's brains and accesses memories of them as a couple.

Saving her from an undead horde, he takes her back to his man cave, an abandoned mobile home, and tries to make her return his affection — all without touching, of course, because that would be sick. It was too gentle for my taste, and the PG-13 rating prevented it from veering off into twisted territory, something it desperately needed.

Having enjoyed such revisualizations and remakes as Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, Marcus Nispel's Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Alexandre Aja's vast improvement of Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes, I was interested to see what Spanish director Fede Alvarez could do with Raimi's seminal first film, Evil Dead.

Alas, not much. Aside from some appealing casting, like Thumbsucker's Lou Taylor Pucci (who gets tortured a lot in this film) and Shameless nymphet Jane Levy (Lip's ba-a-a-d girlfriend), it's really just a trudge through the same backwoods with slicker special effects. I really found myself missing the DIY charm of Raimi's original — and Bruce Campbell. And unlike the previously mentioned remakes, which found ways to amp up the horror or turn familiar situations around in surprising ways, this one just dribbled a little more gore on the 1981 original. Oh, well. At least the Oldsmobile got its cameo.

I was intrigued when the critics were wetting themselves over The Conjuring, declaring it the absolutely most horrifying film of the summer. It's directed by James Wan, who made the first Saw and the okay Dead Silence. And, well, Insidious. I really hoped I was going to get the bejesus scared out of me. Plus the cast — Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Patrick Wilson and Ron Livingston? A-list horror!

Well, the bejesus was bored out of me. The Amityville Horror-style suspense lasted for about 40 minutes and when Farmiga and Wilson showed up as the real-life ghostbusters, I was longing for the stately presence of Beatrice Straight — those two gave me Jim and Tammy Bakker vibes. Even though they were supposed to be earnest and the real thing, they just came off like carnival hucksters.

In fact, most of the dialogue felt really phony. The only truly scary moment happened when a couple of the daughters were in their beds at night and one of them kept insisting that something was behind the door. That was good, but the filmmakers couldn't resist over playing their hand in the style of the girl-screamy genre.

By the time the black-haired J-horror apparitions started hopping around, I would've quoted Stitches and said "For fuck's sake!" but I was at an industry screening. And poor Lily — one of our best indie actors (Dogfight, I Shot Andy Warhol, Pecker) was forced to do another dumbass possession scene in another crap movie (the other one, of course, being Jan De Bont's ill-advised 1999 remake of the classic The Haunting).

This one probably made me the angriest. It promised so much — even the opening credits more-or-less say, "We guarantee you're going to pee yourself!" — and fell back on the stupid-ass  "jumping-spectre-accompanied-by-soundtrack-jolt" trope. Oh, please — Wan, indeed.

Finally — at last! — a breath of fresh air appeared on the horizon. The trailers for You're Next promised that it was "really fucking scary," and certainly the jolts worked (which was refreshing), but the best aspect of the film for me was its strangeness.

It's a familiar home invasion-style story that can trace its history all the way back to Bergman's 1960 Academy Award-winner The Virgin Spring (which is, after all, the film that the notorious Last House on the Left is based on).

A well-to-do family gathers at its country estate to celebrate Mom and Dad's wedding anniversary. When they sit down to dinner, they're attacked by mysterious, unseen assassins and the celebration quickly transforms into a fight for survival.What makes the film fresh are the aspects director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett bring to the table.

At first you think it's going to be bad. The acting seems subpar, the action routine — but that's what the filmmakers intended. It starts like the third feature at the drive-in, when your eyelids are drooping but you're hoping to be electrified by a twist you haven't seen before. And it happens! Hilarious interfamily battles, surprise deaths and a whodunnit that takes a while to figure out — the works.

You're Next has some significant cult star appearances, including Larry Fessenden (Thirst) and Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator), but they're just the icing on this amusing cake. Ridiculously, this film sat on the shelf for two years before it finally got its well-deserved theatrical release in August.

The only horror film remaining on the schedule of interest to me whatsoever is Kimberly Peirce's Carrie reboot. Chloe Grace Moretz already killed it as the undead Abby in Let Me In, and it'll be interesting to see a version with the kids actually played! No offense to the Brian De Palma classic, but those were some mighty old teenagers. And Julianne Moore as Margaret White. the mother from hell, is an inspired choice.

One drawback is that it looks like this one may get "carrie"-d away with the digital effects. But at least it's not in 3D!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Memories of Karen Black

It was with a heavy heart that I heard of the passing of the ultra-idiosyncratic, independent-minded actor, singer and playwright Karen Black this week. From counterculture emblem to '70s TV star and finally cult phenomenon, she had a truly remarkable career. Even when she was appearing in pretty miserable direct-to-video dross, she gave it her all. Sometimes too much -- which is what made her so wonderful.

Karen had been in and out of my life since I was a teenager. She's one of the reasons I started Weird Movie Village four years ago. I've seen her in concert, in plays, even at the grocery store. I participated in the crowd funding of her experimental cancer treatment, and I was thrilled to see the outpouring of support and love she received from her fans. I'm sure she was touched too. Unfortunately, she couldn't gain back enough strength to make the arduous trip to Europe, and she lost her valiant battle on Thursday, August 8.

Born Karen Ziegler in Park Ridge, Illinois, she attended Northwestern University at age 15 (!) and left two years later. Show business beckoned -- at 20 she appeared in a small role in future goremeister Herschell Gordon Lewis' "The Prime Time." In the late 1960s and early 70s, she was the toast of the independent film scene. She appeared in "Easy Rider," "Five Easy Pieces" and "Portnoy's Complaint," which led to more mainstream roles in films like "Day of the Locust" (which she says sabotaged her A-list career) and "Airport 1975" (as the cross-eyed flight attendant who is forced to land the plane).

She made almost 200 movies, including Hitchcock's last, "Family Plot." She worked with Robert Altman in two of his best films, "Nashville" and "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean." In the former, she showed off her singing abilities (and was nominated for a Grammy!) as Connie White, the second-tier country singer seeking to dethrone mentally collapsing superstar Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley).

In the latter, a filmed version of the Broadway production that also starred Cher, Sandy Dennis and a career-beginning Kathy Bates, she played a transsexual who comes back to her tiny hometown in Texas to attend the reunion of the "Disciples of James Dean" and get closure with Dennis' Mona, who'd given birth to his/her child but fantasizes that the boy was the byproduct of a one-night stand with James Dean while she served as an extra on "Giant," filmed in Marfa, a few hundred miles from their dried-up, forgotten town. When Black's Joanne forces Dennis' Mona to admit that the boy, Jimmy Dean, is theirs, it's a beautifully sad moment. Karen delivers big time, and Dennis also rises to the occasion.

Other career highlights include appearing with Bette Davis and Oliver Reed in "Burnt Offerings," a 1976 Dan Curtis film that should've been so much better. She also costarred with Divine (in a rare out-of-drag role) in the sleazy and fun 1989 murder mystery "Out of the Dark." She worked in movies by such diverse filmmakers as Henry Jaglom, Ruggero Deodato, Rob Zombie…the list goes on and on. And a band was named after her...The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black.

Even people who don't recognize her name (for shame) have an "aha" moment when you mention the 1975 TV movie "Trilogy of Terror" and that damned Zuni fetish warrior doll. By the mid-1970s, she was bouncing between roles in mainstream U.S. television and often bizarre foreign and independent features, a pattern she would continue for the rest of her career, but it kept her working all the time. "Law and Order SVU"? Fine. "Plan 10 from Outer Space?" I'll be there. She even has a film in post production as I write this. And, yes, it sounds really strange.

I first saw her in person in concert at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in the late 1980s, performing an evening of some of her original songs mixed with standards. Her version of "Eleanor Rigby" was wild. If there are angels, there certainly must be crazy ones, and now she can join their choir. Here she is performing it in February of last year:

Anyhow, the Roosevelt show was supposed to open with her asleep in bed. The lights would rise, the bed would be wheeled out onto the stage, and she would sit up and begin to sing. The tech team blew the cues, though -- the lights didn't come up and she had to lay back down and start all over again. Cruel audience members came to jeer, which pissed me off, so I applauded as loud as I could to counteract their idiocy. I understood what she was doing -- it was a Karen Black performance piece, strange and funny and beautiful.

She had an unusual singing voice. How can I best explain it? Let's say she sang the way she lived; she allowed her octaves complete freedom to go wherever they wanted.

My next Black encounter was the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors when she was on a panel promoting "House of 1000 Corpses" with Bill Moseley, Sid Haig and director Rob Zombie. Zombie was still embroiled in a battle with Universal to release the film unrated rather than cutting it for an R. Everyone was having a good time talking about the making of the film, including Karen.

In 2004 I was shopping at my neighborhood Pavilions grocery store in Sherman Oaks. As I walked through the store, I was stunned to see someone who looked so much like her. I did a double-take and realized it was indeed her. Later, standing in line at the checkout, I saw her heading directly toward me, crossed eyes and all. My heart beat faster -- was she going to say something significant to me? Alas, at the last moment, she turned her attention to the cashier and sharply inquired, "Where's the aluminum foil?" Oh, well -- at least I got my close-up.

Then, in 2007, I saw her in "The Missouri Waltz," her play writing debut, a "drama with music" set in the 1970s about a young woman who returns to her family home, pregnant and unmarried and unsure what to do with the baby. She is guided by her two ghostly aunts (Black and Dana Peterson) who'd died in a car wreck a few years before and now haunt the house. Black wrote some good monologues but the second act collapses into a running-in-and-out-of-doors sequence. The songs by Harriett Schock were pretty poor, but Karen enthusiastically trilled them out with her free-range voice.

Next time you see that "Airport 1975" is coming on, set your DVR. It's Karen at her best, being herself in a cheesy Hollywood disaster flick. Watch for the actor's decision she makes to stick out her tongue when she's trying to pull Charlton Heston by the legs into the cockpit from the hole in the ceiling. It's genius.

And the other important Weird Movie Village denizen Linda Blair is in the film, too, playing the kid who needs a transplant and is serenaded by nun Helen Reddy!

Goodbye, Karen. You were enjoyed.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Movie Review: 'Only God Forgives'

As the end credits roll on the new collaboration between Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling (2011's Drive being the first), a title acknowledges a debt to Alejandro Jodorowsky, and with good reason. Reminiscent of the midnight master's 1989 Santa Sangre with its twisted mother-son relationship and emphasis on mutilation, Only God Forgives is a fetishistic fever dream.

Gone are the neon blues and oranges of the earlier film's nighttime Los Angeles, replaced by the saturated crimsons of Bangkok's seamy underworld. And released from the burden of a complex plot, Refn is free to create a hyperstylized mood piece that's certainly striking if not for all tastes.

Gosling plays Julian, an American expatriate in Bangkok who, with his brother, Billy (Tom Burke), runs an underground fight club and traffics drugs for their monstrous mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). These men are damaged goods: Julian spends his time hanging out in gentlemen's clubs, sexlessly watching the prostitutes perform, while Billy has sunk to deeper and deeper levels of depravity, finally raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl.

Enter Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a mysterious authority figure, who orders the girl's father to do what must be done. And he does, literally bashing Billy's brains out. Upon receiving the news, Crystal comes roaring into town with blood in her eyes. Knowing she can't turn to ineffectual Julian for help, she hires a hitman to eliminate Chang. When that fails, she realizes her own life is at stake and has no recourse but to beg her son to man up and save her life. Julian tries to obey, but whatever resolve he might have had was long ago drained from him, leading to the inevitable confrontation.
Gosling's Julian is even more of a cipher than Drive's unnamed antihero. Completely under the control of his domineering mother, he seems to be drifting through life, placidly accepting his fate, whether being humiliated by Crystal or beaten to a pulp by Chang.

Thomas is a sight to behold here, especially for those accustomed to seeing her in period pieces. With her long, streaked hair and abundant eye makeup, she's a maternal nightmare, hurling obscenities while puffing on skinny cigarettes. It's easy to see where her sons acquired their nihilism -- when Julian tells her that Billy was killed because he murdered a young girl, she shrugs him off, snapping "I'm sure he had his reasons."

Pansringarm's Chang is the strangest character in the piece. A retired cop, he's a self-appointed judge, jury and executioner, holding the entire Bangkok police force in his sway. He also considers himself to be God, something that Julian, too, comes to believe.

Technically, the film delivers on its obsessions. Director of Photographer Larry Scott, shooting with an Arri Alexa, is perfectly in sync with Refn in bringing the director's vision to life. People and objects are arranged in deliberate tableaux; the pronounced violence is almost lovingly staged; and the saturated nighttime reds give way to naturally-lit outdoor scenes that are startling in contrast, as if for a brief moment the film has awakened back to reality.

The score by Cliff Martinez (who also provided the music for Drive) contributes immeasurably to the mood of the piece. It's always there, whether it's a major or minor player, adding to the tension; a musique concréte that would do David Lynch proud. Beth Mickle's production design also plays a major part in this visually-driven story, whether arranging a multitude of red lanterns across the ceiling of the karaoke bar Chang performs in or a variety of different-sized glasses on the restaurant table at which Crystal awaits the arrival of her weakling son.

Strong stuff, but rewarding for those prepared for the subject matter, Only God Forgives opens Friday, July 19th, in selected theaters.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Son of Great Performances

This is the third installment in an irregular series of posts recognizing good acting, not necessarily in recent work but also those performances that have stood the test of time. I guess you could consider this one the TV edition.

Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore in "Bates Motel."

A&E seems to be on its third life. Beginning as an arts network, it actually had some good programming before it became one of the leading purveyors of garbage television. Now, with shows like "The Glades" and "Longmire," it's seems to be trying to make amends by following the agreeable trend of programming original longform scripted television.

Joining the ranks of AMC's "Walking Dead" and "Breaking Bad," the series "Bates Motel" is one of the network's best new shows, especially considering it shouldn't work at all. I mean, a contemporary prequel to "Psycho"? But Highmore and Farmiga, as Mama's Boy Norman and manipulative Mom Norma, inhabit their characters so well.

Farmiga's incredibly expressive face is always fascinating to watch. And she plays Norma subtly, not as an out-and-out nutjob but a desperate single woman always angling to improve her condition. Of course, she's not without her secrets, and she's a lousy liar, acting increasingly offended when people get to close to the truth about something.

Highmore matches her almost note for note. Norman tries to maintain a façade of bland normalcy, but the monster inside him keeps rearing its ugly head. And it doesn't help that Norma has him emotionally debilitated. Then, of course, there was the whole Dad thing. Highmore has strange eyes that can look lifeless, which he uses to great advantage when Norman is trying to conceal his real feelings. The final episode of this season was a killer. I can't wait for it to return.

Jennifer Carpenter in "Dexter."

Poor Deb. After the promotion to lieutenant, she's hit what we might consider an extended rough patch.
First the failed relationship with Quinn; then she comes to the realization that she's in love with her own brother; then she sees him kill a man; and finally she kills LaGuerta herself to protect him.

Carpenter has done some Emmy-worthy work showing us the agony Debra is going through. First, she comes to terms with her inappropriate feelings for Dexter, only to have them dashed when she discovered his monstrous secret last year.

We're only one episode in to the final season, but she's still on a downward spiral, having left the police department and working for a private investigating firm. But she's sleeping with the guy she's supposed to be investigating and doing lots of drugs.

I've always appreciated Michael C. Hall's understated performance, but Dexter looks positively sedated next to Carpenter's fiery, obscenity-spouting performance as his broken sibling. It'll be sad to see this show go. Even in its weakest season (the one with Edward James Olmos and Colin Hanks), it was still more entertaining than "True Blood," which has been on life support ever since the second season ended.

Edie Falco in "Nurse Jackie."

Talk about a mess. Jackie's addiction and lies have cost her both her marriage and the love of her eldest child, Grace, who blames her mother for the breakup and is on a serious rebellious streak. Falco, with her large, expressive eyes, brings the troubled but tough character to life.

It's a convincing performance and one filled with wry humor. I loved the episode last season when, faced with having to enter a treatment program, she imagines herself addressing an AA crowd, only to snap out of her reverie, stare directly at herself in the mirror, and defiantly say "Blow me."

The first episode this season worried me. It was flat-footed and sitcommy, and even her hairstyle was weird. But the producers must have realized how far they'd strayed because it was back on track the very next week.

Jackie's got a new relationship with a sweet-natured cop, but her family troubles keep crashing in on their intimacy. And she's got to keep on her toes with fifteen-year-old Grace, who keeps rushing off to Manhattan to see her older boyfriend, a street musician. Naturally, Jackie's on edge, and Falco keeps the character believable, even when she celebrates one year of sobriety by taking a pill in this season's finale.

Emmy Rossum in "Shameless."

Another actor with incredibly expressive eyes, Rossum, as eldest Gallagher daughter Fiona, is the glue that holds her dysfunctional family together. She's tough as nails, but also vulnerable, as when she found out that her boyfriend had been lying about himself to her.

And her siblings all need care: Lip, the enormously intelligent underachiever, needs constant motivation; Debbie, her little sister, is entering an awkward stage. Frank has become an out-and-out sociopath, so much so that in this season's finale Fiona took him to court to make him forfeit his parental rights.

Rossum's Fiona is a character you can care about. Never intentionally cruel (except to Frank, who deserves it), she keeps everyone pulling in unison, even when it involves a liberal interpretation of the law. And the awful jobs she takes to pay the monthly bills — Fiona always stands firm no matter how challenging the adversity, and Rossum does such a good job with the role.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Behind the Candelabra: Campy but Affecting

Michael Douglas as Liberace
Article first published as TV Review: Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra on Blogcritics.

Notorious for being the movie that was too "gay" for mainstream Hollywood studios to tackle, Steven Soderbergh's take on the tempestous relationship between Liberace and his young protege Scott Thorson is actually a remarkable achievement that manages to work on several levels. As camp, it's an over-the-top hoot, but it's also surprisingly affecting and features fine performances by its two leads.

Walter "Lee" Liberace was one of the strangest phenomenons in a strange business. Eccentric and flamboyant, he nevertheless managed to charm the pants off of millions of mature women who clutched him to their bosoms for decades and refused to believe any reports that their beloved might be a little light in the loafers. Liberace, meanwhile, kept giving them what they wanted even as his persona and stage performances became gayer and gayer. Quoting Mae West, he'd say "Too much of a good thing is wonderful."

Behind the Candelabra opens with one such performance, at the showroom in the Las Vegas Hilton where Lee (Michael Douglas) held court for ages, even broadcasting two CBS specials from the room in the late 1970s. Choreographer Bob Black (Scott Bakula, in '70s gay porn star drag), brings his newest conquest, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon, convincingly made up to look twenty years younger), to one of the pianist's flamboyant spectaculars. Transfixed by the action on the stage as well as the fawning adulation of the audience, Scott remarks, "Don't they know he's gay?", earning angry glances from the blue-hairs nearby.

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in "Behind the Candelabra"
After the show, Bob takes Scott backstage to meet the legend himself. The sight of this young, blond god sends Lee into a tizzy, and he invites them over for brunch the next day. While giving Scott a tour of the house, he pours his heart out, admitting that he's profoundly lonely and distrustful of his staff. He feels that Scott is someone he can confide in, and he begs him to take a job as his personal assistant. Looking for a way out of his mundane life with his adoptive parents, Scott accept the offer.

Of course, it takes no time at all for the relationship to become sexual, and Liberace lavishes Scott with gifts and manipulates him emotionally. Cut to a few years later, and we find a pot-bellied Scott and an aging Lee watching an old move on television together. Liberace decides that it's time for a "makeover," so he calls in his trusted plastic surgeon, Jack Startz (Rob Lowe). Lee wants a complete regeneration and, as an added bonus, he wants Scott's face reconstructed to resemble his younger self, "so you can be my son," he declares.

Startz also puts Scott on a special diet, which consists of a cocktail of addictive amphetamines. Now the young man is truly hooked, both physically and emotionally. But Scott's drug-fueled bouts of anger force Lee to find solace in the arms of other young men, and the relationship begins to crumble.

Mat Damon in "Behind the Candelabra"Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, working from Thorson's book, do a brilliant job of making us believe that there was an actual emotional relationship, and that Thorson was more than just a "kept boy." According to Emmy magazine, in an effort to maintain authenticity, costume designer Ellen Mirojnick painstakingly recreated Liberace's outrageous stage costumes and production designer Howard Cummings used or recreated locations, including tearing out the stadium seating in the actual Las Vegas Hilton showroom and replacing it with the leather-upholstered booths of the era.

Todd Kleitsch and Hiroshi Yada provided the effective makeup and prosthetics for Douglas and Damon, whose surgeries Soderbergh films like violent assaults. Cutting between one of Liberace's shows and the operating room, he gives us quick, brutal glimpses of bloody skin being peeled back and implants being jammed into chins.

Debbie Reynolds is almost unrecognizable as Lee's domineering mother, Frances. Dan Aykroyd does an effective, low-key job as Lee's loyal agent, Seymour Heller. In a film packed with bizarre sights, Lowe's Startz is easily the most bizarre creation. Wildly overlifted and perpetually underwhelmed, he camps it up for the camera with cat-eyed glee — and gets away with it. Lowe admitted to having migraines as a result of all the pulling, taping and spray painting, adding, "You know, Joan Crawford's whole career was this."

Douglas does an amusing impersonation of Liberace with a little Carol Channing thrown in, and he plays the piano convincingly. Though he's always "on" and flamboyant as hell, Douglas manages to gives us glimpses of a real, sensitive human being hiding behind the mink capes. Damon's role is even more challenging. He must make the transformation from sweet, naive young animal trainer to jealous, paranoid queen, and he does it very well. The fact that they're both so committed to their roles really puts the material across.

Behind the Candelabra premieres Sunday, May 26th, on HBO.

Friday, April 5, 2013

At the Stitches Premiere

Conor McMahon, Tommy Knight, Simon Barrett
Conor McMahon, Tommy Knight and moderator Simon Barrett
On April Fools night, I attended the American premiere of Stitches, an Irish horror spoof starring Ross Noble, an English comedian who has yet to be well-known in the States, but this film may help to start opening doors in America for him.

Noble wasn't present at the screening, but the film's director/co-writer, Conor McMahon (Dead Meat), and its young star, Tommy Knight, were. Also walking the red carpet at Cinespace in Hollywood were such genre notables as Danielle Harris (Halloween 4. Hatchet III), Bai Ling (The Crow) and — for you Angelenos out there — local broadcasting legend Shadoe Stevens. There were circus performers and malevolent clowns, in keeping with the film's theme, and they gave the affair a fun, twisted circus atmosphere.

Bai Ling at Stitches premiere
Bai Ling
The attendees, jacked up on popcorn and cotton candy, were ready to get into some serious gore, and they were amply rewarded with McMahon's tribute to the halcyon days of the slasher movie.

The director knows his stuff when it comes to spoofing the genre. Stitches' characters are almost all two-dimensional and obnoxious. We get the stereotypical fat kid, the slut, the jock, the bully, and so on. The murders are extremely violent, hilariously drawn-out and lovingly rendered with the old-school techniques of latex and gallons of fake blood rather than CGI.
Danielle Harris

The plot is stripped to the basics. Noble's Stitches is a drunken, burned-out clown on his last leg. Dragging himself to yet another kid's birthday party, he wearily goes through his bag of tricks but the little bastards just jeer and throw things at him. One of them sneaks up behind him and ties his shoelaces together, causing him to trip, fall face first into a dishwasher and impale himself on a butcher knife. Result: dead clown.

Six years later, the birthday boy, Tommy (Knight), now a nerdy adolescent still traumatized by the memory of Stitches' death, is getting ready to celebrate his 16th birthday with a few friends, but word about the party gets out on the social networks and soon everyone, including the kids who attended the fatal fete six years before, are crashing.

An erstwhile invitation is carried by the wind to the grave where Stitches has been buried (in a cemetery conveniently located next to Tommy's house), and of course he considers himself invited, rising from the dead to wreak his revenge. And what a revenge! This film is all about the killings, and they're hilariously over-the-top and lingering.

Ross Noble as StitchesA couple of examples: the fat kid, who'd been hiding in the pantry gorging himself on cans of fruit, gets his head opened with the can opener and his brains scooped out by Stitches. In a final shot, the kid's lifeless body is sprawled across him in a nasty recreation of Michelangelo's Pieta. Another kid, who'd insulted Stitches' balloon animal sculpting technique at the first party, gets his intestines yanked out by the killer clown who then proceeds to twist them into the shape of a doggie.

Noble's take on the character is refreshing. Unlike the manic Freddy Krueger, he's more fatigued than frightening, given to groaning "For fuck's sake" when he has to chase down a victim. And when Tommy and his girlfriend attempt to make their getaway on bikes, he frnatically pedals after them on a tiny tricycle. It's a riotous visual.

Stitches Pieta scene
Stitches has Halloween-style pop-up scares and Nightmare on Elm Street-inspired wisecracks, but unlike the Elm Street series, which uneasily balanced camp and horror as the sequels droned on, this film is completely clear in its direction. This attitude, along with the extreme gore, makes it more reminiscent of Peter Jackson's early splatter comedies like Dead Alive.

McMahon makes the most of his modest budget, providing some nice atmopshere but of course saving the bulk of his resources for the all-important gore effects.

Stitches is rated R with a running time of 86 minutes. It's available on DVD and on demand on select cable services.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Harry Reems and the Death of the Sexual Revolution

NOTE: This post isn't particularly salacious, but the links may be, so click at your own discretion.

It may be difficult for today's generation, with its easy access to all manner of online pornography, to understand that there was a time when people had to get really creative when it came to their lustful cravings. Sears catalogues, National Geographic magazines and a glimpse of their second cousins all provided fantasy fodder.

Naturally, the birth of film gave birth to the pornographic film, and France, of course, was first to jump on the bandwagon. These films were made for brothels to help waiting customers pass the time, kind of like watching the video at the entrance of the old "Back to the Future" ride while waiting to get in.

The invention of the smaller and lighter 16mm format gave birth to "stag" films that became regular viewing at smoke-filled men's clubs and union lodges all around the country. And they became Americanized: by the 1930s, lookalikes of then-famous female stars were appearing in porno shorts, allowing lusty males to fantasize about what Jean Harlow would look like naked and in flagrante delicto. There were also "Tijuana bibles," crude comic books depicting the same.

Even though Hollywood was kind of naughty during the silent era and even for a couple of years in the '30s, it cleaned up its act after stories of scandals, addiction and the stars' dissolute lives spread across America. Fearing state-enforced censorship, the studio heads instituted the Hays Code, a forerunner to the MPAA film ratings of today, which assured that any film released by a major studio would provide wholesome (yawn) family entertainment.

As a result, "the 40 thieves," an opportunistic gang of theatrical showmen, many of whom started as carnival hucksters, sprang up and began traveling from town to town, setting up shop in individual (often abandoned) theaters and screening beat-up prints of films they'd acquired by legal and not-so-legal means, giving them such provocative titles as Sex Madness and She Shoulda Said No.

They promised graphic sex on the screen but instead delivered cheesy, low-budget VD tracts or puritanical warnings against sexual misbehavior. Instead of sex at 24 frames per second, audiences got a lot of blather. To keep the horny hayseeds in attendance from busting up the theaters, these slippery exhibitors would put on a "square-up" reel consisting of random footage of genitalia to quell the angry masses.

The '50s gave rise to American arthouse cinema, and I don't mean today's definition of highbrow imported or independent fare. I mean international films re-edited to emphasize the nudity and sex, however insignificant. Even the great Ingmar Bergman became fodder for exploitation when his early film, Summer with Monika, was re-edited for American drive-in theaters, cutting out most of the plot and emphasizing the frolicking.

And mainstream Hollywood took a couple of shots at freedom, too. Elia Kazan's Baby Doll, with a screenplay by Tennessee Williams, was denied a seal for its depiction of a child bride (Carroll Baker) romanced by a surly stranger (Eli Wallach). And Otto Preminger's The Moon is Blue dared to mention the word "virgin." Gasp!

By the 1960s, the Code was on its last legs. The changing times and the rise of the youth movement made the restrictive strictures ridiculously chaste for these new audiences. Frank Sinatra wanted to graphically depict heroin addiction in The Man with the Golden Arm. Walter Hill wanted to show Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway blasted to shit in Bonnie and Clyde. And, finally, old stalwart Harry Warner campaigned to allow Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to play George and Martha in the 1966 film adaptation of Edward Albee's notorious Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with all of the salty language more or less intact.

Then of course there were those goddamn hippies. Always protesting the war, taking drugs, getting nekkid. Hell, they were even nekkid onstage in New York in Hair. And they were changing people's minds. No longer was sex something to be marginalized or hidden away; it was now something that should be celebrated — and preferably have a sunflower painted on it.

So we're poised in this world of instability and change. By 1972, the Vietnam war was a never-ending meat grinder. Nixon was in the White House. Suburbanites were indulging in key parties and started to dabble in the same drugs the hippies are doing. And then came Deep Throat.

"Babe, we've already done the swapping...let's go see that movie." My Dad and his wife even went to see it. They never talked about it to us kids, of course, but I can imagine what they saw: a bunch of white, middle-class couples sitting in a theater, shocked by the coarse images being beamed on the screen, or maybe the sounds of masturbation around them.

And, good God, it's no masterpiece. Made for $25,000, it's grainy, ugly and certainly more repulsive than titillating. But it eventually racked up $600 million and became a cause celebre, stirring up a national debate about obscenity. Police raided movie theaters and seized prints. Even projectionists were arrested. All this did what make it more of a must-see than ever for mainstream adult audiences, and they went in droves.

Now let's focus on the two unlikely stars of that film. Harry Reems, who passed away this past Monday at the relatively young age of 65, always looked like a creepy guidance counselor to me with his giant moustache. And Linda Lovelace, gone since 2002, didn't exactly possess movie star looks either. But Deep Throat hit at just the right time, when America was at its most permissive, and porno chic became the order of the day.

Reems originally signed on as lighting director, but when the man hired to portray the doctor didn't show, well...

Reems actually got arrested and indicted for his involvement in Throat, but it was subsequently overturned. Amazingly, he continued to work in porn until 1989. Then, he entered a 12-step program, got religion, moved to Utah and started selling real estate!

Lovelace made a couple more films (if you don't count the one she made before Deep Throat, a silent short with a dog), the R-rated Deep Throat Part II (what's the point?) and Linda Lovelace for President, but she became an anti-pornography activist, even testifying before congress. She died in a car accident in 2002 at age 53.

Anther big star of the era was Marilyn Chambers, who ironically started out as a model for Ivory Snow soap powder. Her big breakthrough was 1972's Behind the Green Door, in which she engages in a lengthy bout with well-endowed African-American boxer Johnny Keyes. The notorious Mitchell Brothers, who made the film, paid her a then-unheard of salary and percentage of the profits because they realized her wholesome good looks contrasted with all the extreme sexual acts she was performing would make the film a sensation. And it was.

Chambers tried to move into mainstream, even starring in David Cronenberg's Rabid, and she's not bad in it at all, but porno called and she carried on into the 2000s. Interestingly, she was married to Lovelace's ex, Chuck Traynor, for ten years. She died in 2009 at age 56.

Probably the most remembered — and notorious — porn star of the era was John Holmes. Skinny and not particularly attractive, he nevertheless possessed an enormous penis and was very...productive (hence the nickname "Johnny Wadd"). He was the first of the 70s superstars to go, and it's his story that really drew the curtain on the era.

He made hundreds and hundreds of features and "loops" (eight-to-10-minute films shot silent and sold in adult bookstores). I saw him in action in The Erotic Adventures of Candy (1977) at a theater in Mishawaka, Indiana.

It was kind of sad; the theater had obviously been the town's Radio City Music Hall at one time but had been reduced to porn films and live shows as the new mall multiplexes lured customers to the suburbs. The strippers were so skanky; one of them snatched the glasses off a guy's head, rubbed them on her crotch and gave them back. Instead of putting the specs back on, he held them out in front of him as if hoping for some disinfectant!

But I digress. Holmes hit superstardom with a series of Johnny Wadd action pornos. But in 1981 he was arrested for the Wonderland murders, a drug deal gone bad. Finally acquitted in 1982, he served 100 days for contempt of court.

Porn, meanwhile, began a transformation. Gone were the shot-on-film epics with attempts at actual storylines. Now it was manufactured quickly on videotape and plots were jettisoned in favor of churning out tons of product to feed the VCRs that had suddenly become part of America's entertainment centers. Gone too were the hippie types with natural breasts and prodigious public hair, replaced by shaved, plucked and implanted porn queens with the sexual attractiveness of blow-up dolls.

Holmes managed to flourish in this new world, often in cameos or below the line, but the onslaught of AIDS changed the face of porn and sexuality in general. People became fearful as their friends and neighbors were taken by the disease and the government ignored it. AIDS took Holmes, too, in 1988, but by that time the Sexual Revolution was already a fading memory.


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