Friday, April 28, 2017
Jonathan Demme, who fell to cancer this past Wednesday at age seventy-thee, worked for Roger Corman in the early to mid-70s. His credits included the women's prison flick CAGED HEAT and the Peter Fonda revenge pic FIGHTING MAD. Corman mandated a formula for success, mainly a certain amount of nude scenes, but otherwise let his directors (who also included Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, and Ron Howard) realize their specific visions. With limited budgets, this may have been difficult and those looking for Demme's later virtuosity in his first movies may have to work a bit. But each, especially CRAZY MAMA, had its eccentricities, its touches of humanity for which Demme was well known. And the director was respected and endeared to many of his casts and crews and peers.
The first Demme movie I saw was MELVIN AND HOWARD, the story of a loser named Melvin Dummar who claims to be a beneficiary to the will of Howard Hughes. It is a funny and wistful observant portrait of America, the one not characterized by tony suburbs and debutante balls. With many of his films, Demme chose to mine the plights of characters found in beauty parlors, trailer parks, truck stops, and factories, to tell their stories in a no nonsense yet stylish fashion (Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher are big fans). The director never pointed at or mocked his subjects. He celebrated them. Demme must have been great with actors. He viewed them as collaborators, not puppets.
Not every film was golden. While the MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE was a solid remake, I just found it unnecessary. Likewise with THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE. But the films for which the director is best known, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, SOMETHING WILD, PHILADELPHIA, MARRIED TO THE MOB, and RACHEL GETTING MARRIED are all classics in my book. I've reviewed some of Demme's films on this blog. I anticipate writing several more.
Jonathan Demme was also known for his fine documentaries. There were the concerts like STOP MAKING SENSE, very likely the best film of its type ever made. NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD captured the recovering singer in fine form, unobtrusively. As a friend pointed out, these documents also told stories. Listen to David Byrne's commentary on STOP sometime. I've yet to see NEIL YOUNG JOURNEYS. JIMMY CARTER MAN FROM PLAINS was a highly positive, yet never white washed look at this unfairly maligned former President. I plan to watch THE AGRONOMIST and COUSIN BOBBY, which details the director's Episcopalian minister cousin, who served in Harlem.
Demme employed signature quirk for some movies, fluid style for others. And he was a warm, caring individual to boot. There was none like him. R.I.P.
But even though my attention to Miss Moran was of a, ahem, prurient nature, I always recognized her endearing personality. When she started on the program she was so cute and perky, affectionately called "Shortcake" by Fonzie. Moran had actually been acting steadily since the 1960s, including an appearance on Daktari. She later grew into an attractive young woman, and even if she wasn't always the character who got the best lines, she lent more than able support and lit up the screen.
As with all too many child actors, adulthood would not greet her with open arms. Hollywood is unforgiving, and quite willing to cast aside yesterday's bright lights. Moran did a few television shows and B-movies here and there, but I always wondered why she didn't continue in film, or at least on another sitcom. I'm sure she tried. Even with her connections with her Days co-stars, some of whom who did go on to bigger and better, the roles were not there. I recall watching a latter day interview where she makes a brief pitch to Howard, to hire her. It was not pathetic groveling. What happened? I think the girl had talent.
You've seen the highly unflattering pictures from the last several years. Erin Moran lost her L.A. home and was reduced to living in a trailer park with her husband. She's seen appearing as if strung out on intoxicants, following a trajectory almost as tragic as that of Margot Kidder and some others. I always feel horribly for these people, even if they "brought it on themselves." I can't imagine the psychological tolls of childhood stardom. There are several names in that book: Dana Plato. Corey Haim. Macauley Culkin. You wonder if they had toxic parents (some did). I think they deserved better legacies than merely being punchlines.
But then you look at Ron Howard, famous from his very early years, and kept his success running to this day. He's always seemed incredibly, unusually well adjusted for someone who's been under the lights for so long. Howard had some nice words for his former T.V. sister, choosing to remember her from the "happy days." Good advice. R.I.P. Shortcake. Fifty-six is far too young for a passage.
Tuesday, April 25, 2017
FEMME FATALE centers on a jewel thief named Laure Ash (Rebecca Romjin-Stamos) who double crosses her accomplices during a heist at the Cannes film festival. De Palma immediately establishes her character by opening his film with having her watch DOUBLE INDEMNITY in a hotel room. The heist sequence is typical of the director's long takes, slow tracking and nimble dollying. You will be reminded of several of his previous works. Also, De Palma's preoccupation with steamy liaisons is well represented by a lesbian encounter in a bathroom - though it does have plot integrity.
As in De Palma's idol Alfred Hitchcock's films, there will be mistaken identity, blonde/brunette doppelgangers, and European locations as Laure makes off with the loot. Through a series of circumstances for you to discover on your own, she will leave for America and then return to France years later, only to be recognized by her old co-conspirators when her picture is plastered around Paris. Behind the camera lens was paparazzo Nicolas Bardo (amiably played by Antonio Banderas), who will later find himself heavily involved (in every possible way) with the femme fatale. To his detriment?
When you reach a revelatory moment late in the movie, you'll realize that De Palma, like Hitch long before him, was playing you. His trick is cheap, and one you've seen before, but if you've enjoyed the ride you'll likely not mind. I just laughed. Then I recalled several earlier moments that gave clues. Pay attention, invisible audience! FEMME FATALE exists as a showcase for an artist who plys his trade with as wicked a smile as ever. His film pulses with life in ways that few do anymore. De Palma is a great modulator - he knows when to ramp up and down. His script is a funhouse of deception. Emotion, too. When things seem nihilistic he doubles back and even reveals a heart!
And his direction employs all the slow motion, 360 pans, split screens, split focus, and Dutch angles fans have come to love. There are a few moments of brutal violence and intense sex. FEMME FATALE can sometimes seem smug and aware, but if you buy into it early you should have a fine time. The film was not a box office success but does enjoy a cult following. And Rebecca? She's pretty good, suitably duplicitous and cunning most of the time. But perhaps Brian De Palma should've rather called Linda Fiorentino?
Sunday, April 23, 2017
In April 2015, a beautifully performed ceremony was conducted at David's church of many years, Mary Immaculate. Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication that prevented the Navy, in which David had served, from participating at that time. Since then, my mother-in-law has been attempting to correct this, to put together a follow up, which finally occurred this past Easter weekend. Three individuals, clad in naval whites, met at a park near Juno Beach Pier with David's remaining family (widow, sons, grandchildren, et al.) to perform a brief, yet moving tribute.
Two of the sailors performed the ritual of folding the American flag in thirteen steps, the meaning of which you can read about here
The third sailor played "Taps" on a muted ceremonial bugle.
The plan was send him off at the beach, to wander into the surf and give the departed his eternal rest, but the winds were awfully high that morning. The sons suggested we instead go to Sawfish Bay Park, a few miles away. We stood on a small fishing pier and released our friend along the Jupiter Waterway. Everyone, including David's young grandchildren, were quiet and reverent. I had never participated in such an act before. It was both solemn and jubilant.
A second ceremony, one which I could not attend, was performed a few days later at a military cemetery west of town. The remainder of David Roy's ashes were placed in a wooden box constructed by one of his sons (both are carpenters) and placed in a three foot deep plot. It was now complete.
See you later, fine sir.
Thursday, April 20, 2017
Lane Meyer (Cusack) has lost his girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss) to the captain of the ski team. He tortures himself with memories and sad songs on the radio. He also imagines that every other guy in the world wants to date her - including one of his teachers and even Barney Rubble from The Flintstones. Lane has weird parents and a brother who always seems to have something odd going on in his bedroom. His life is more surreal than that of most teenagers: Asian guys who talk like Howard Cosell over a loudspeaker mounted atop their car in repeated efforts to drag race and taunts by a determined paperboy to collect his two dollars are commonplace. But are they just musings, flights of fancy, like when he escapes his dreadful fast food gig by imagining the ground meat he works with turns into guitar strumming hamburgers that play Van Halen?
Does it matter? BETTER OFF DEAD is a fairly consistent string of at least smile inducing gags that holds up until the last act, when a plot involving a ski race takes over. Honestly, Savage Steve, nobody who sticks with this movie will give a tinker's damn about the plot, but I guess it's necessary to have one in an American film. The collection of off the wall moments is what makes this film memorable. I don't want to give them all away. The cast is quite good, with graduates of many other '80s teen films and T.V. shows in support of Cusack, who admittedly doesn't get to show his chops here but does cement his uniquely likeable persona that's been visible ever since. This movie is not one to be ashamed of, John. Now, some of your more recent films.......
My favorite bits in BETTER OFF DEAD? Ricky and his mom. The sanitation worker's quip. The hamburger video. Also, Lane's brother's special guests in his bedroom and his final exit, the last image we see before the credits.
Monday, April 17, 2017
I first became aware of this picture after seeing Siskel and Ebert review it on their program in the late 1980s. Something about their descriptions, and the clip they showed, stayed with me. There have been many films with which I've become intrigued, only to feel the mystique evaporate when finally seeing it. Not this time.
Computer expert/inventor Hiller (Bernard Hill) is first viewed on the run with his son, identified in the credits merely as "The Boy" (Kieran O'Brien), fleeing criminals who seek inside info on the security system of a bank at which Hiller once worked. Salto (Richard Hope) had hired Hiller to steal a disc with such info. some time back, but it proved to be unreadable code. Not too much later, Salto and associates apprehend and hold Hiller and his boy hostage in an abandoned house, demanding the info be translated. Salto is a bad guy, but he's written to not be without a certain charm and polish. He repeatedly calls Hiller "dear heart".
Salto also repeatedly assures Hiller that he'll release him as soon as the job is completed. But then he realizes he needs the poor guy, whose wife has just left him, to help the team recruited to pull off a twelve million pound heist at said bank. In what is probably my favorite scene in the movie, Hiller explains to the "bellman", slang for an expert in alarm systems, what sort of counter measures are necessary to beat this most elaborate of security stables. The scene reveals not only the characters' (and screenwriter Desmond Lowden, adapting his novel) intelligence, but also treats viewers like informed co-conspirators, sharp enough to follow the minitiuae.
Hiller's skills render him the new bellman, and a nail biting heist, beautifully directed from start to finish by Richard Loncraine, will follow. It's quite ingenious and suspenseful, a worthy heir to everything from RIFFIFI to THIEF. But BELLMAN AND TRUE is more than just its centerpiece. There are many quiet scenes of dialogue, each entirely compelling that advance the plot while likewise creating strong portraits. Hill is mighty fine in his role. Even though some characters are seen briefly, they are quite vivid, including a prostitute named Anna (Frances Tomelty) given to watch out for the boy. Loncraine's film, with its great use of locations throughout London, is also commendably unpredictable, though I was a wee bit disappointed by the climax, which seemed somewhat standard compared to what came before - including a raucous getaway involving a doomed vintage Jaguar.
BELLMAN AND TRUE is one of several efforts produced by Handmade Films, founded by George Harrison and Denis O'Brien. Some of their other films include WITHNAIL AND I, TIME BANDITS, LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS, and Loncraine's THE MISSIONARY. As with the others the mark of quality and patient craft is in just about every frame. Cheers!
P.S. The closing credits are quite lovely.
Thursday, April 13, 2017
The Easter Homily of St. John ChrysostomIf any man be devout and loveth God,
Let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast!
If any man be a wise servant,
Let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord.
If any have laboured long in fasting,
Let him how receive his recompense.
If any have wrought from the first hour,
Let him today receive his just reward.
If any have come at the third hour,
Let him with thankfulness keep the feast.
If any have arrived at the sixth hour,
Let him have no misgivings;
Because he shall in nowise be deprived therefore.
If any have delayed until the ninth hour,
Let him draw near, fearing nothing.
And if any have tarried even until the eleventh hour,
Let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness.
For the Lord, who is jealous of his honour,
Will accept the last even as the first.
He giveth rest unto him who cometh at the eleventh hour,
Even as unto him who hath wrought from the first hour.
And He showeth mercy upon the last,
And careth for the first;
And to the one He giveth,
And upon the other He bestoweth gifts.
And He both accepteth the deeds,
And welcometh the intention,
And honoureth the acts and praises the offering.
Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord;
Receive your reward,
Both the first, and likewise the second.
You rich and poor together, hold high festival!
You sober and you heedless, honour the day!
Rejoice today, both you who have fasted
And you who have disregarded the fast.
The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously.
The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith:
Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.
Let no one bewail his poverty,
For the universal Kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one weep for his iniquities,
For pardon has shown forth from the grave.
Let no one fear death,
For the Saviour's death has set us free.
He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it.
By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive.
He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
Hell, said he, was embittered
When it encountered Thee in the lower regions.
It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.
It took a body, and met God face to face.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.
O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead,
Is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages.
Monday, April 10, 2017
It doesn't happen often. Many of the films I would consider great have at least one flaw, even a wince worthy element in an otherwise stellar presentation. I think of the unfortunate narration in LITTLE CHILDREN. Quentin Tarantino's cameo in PULP FICTION. Some have a bad score, or an odd choice of tone. Maybe even a weak script that is nonetheless overcome by the actors and director.
CHINATOWN does not have a weak script. Robert Towne's work in fact is often cited as the screenplay to which all others should be measured. That word "perfect" is used to describe it. What is the standard of measure here? Syd Mead? Why is the blueprint for this landmark film "perfect"? Because it plays within the rules of film noir, the genre of years before that CHINATOWN emulates?
I believe it is perfect because in addition to its golden blueprint, it looks and feels right. John A. Alonzo's photography is sharp in L.A. sunlight as to almost X-ray the deception under every fascade. And it captures 1930s architecture and props in a very organic fashion. Nothing is out of place. The movie is also perfect for its exchanges between low rent private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and recent widow Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), dialogue that crackles with life and valuable info (if you're paying close attention). Staccato retorts are common among all of the wonderful players in CHINATOWN. It all plays like the sort of classic noir to which the film aspires, and possibly even surpasses.
The story line is complex. It involves crooked plots within the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to acquire land cheaply for later profitable development, all by depriving that land of irrigation. The story is inspired by turn of the century battles between L.A. and the Eastern Valleys in which aqueducts were constructed to feed the burgeoning city, while the outlying areas starved.
But CHINATOWN is a also a psychological play, with lurid family secrets to be revealed that are as important as any other plot detail. How does Evelyn's father, the malevolent tycoon Noah Cross (John Huston), figure into the nefarious plot, the familial tragedy? Quite significantly, left for you to discover. Both elements are woven beautifully by Towne and director Roman Polanski, whose work here is so amazing, never flashy, and so hard to articulate in a summary. I find that some of my favorite films are difficult to review because they touch me in ways that I don't even fully comprehend. There's so much to say about the movie, but it's as if words just can't quite get it across.
The final line in the movie, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown," refers to the hopeless jurisdictional woes the LAPD face when dealing with that Asian population, but also the complexity of human behavior, rarely to follow anything resembling logic. That sort of conundrum may also (in a good way) relate to my difficulty in expressing my admiration for what I consider to be one of the greatest films ever made.
Director David Fincher, a contemporary cinematic master, shares a commentary with Towne on the CHINATOWN Blu-ray. His enthusiasm is never hidden. I enjoyed one of his analyses, something to do with a repeated motif of duality, represented by pairs of objects. Towne says he has no recollection of any m.o. to that end. Art transcends the artist, yet again.
Thursday, April 6, 2017
Yes, the older I get the more sophomoric and juvenile HEAVY METAL seems. I've always, even in my widest eyed days, been able to understand why many people detest it. It's an anthology of graphically violent, vulgar, and sexist fantasies that clearly were born in the minds of horny geeks who jerked off to images of cartoon females and probably didn't know how to talk to a real woman. Well, maybe that isn't really true, but in some of the more salacious moments the film does seem that way.
For starters, every woman in this film is quite shapely, and shown naked, at least some of the time. All have breasts the size of basketballs. Until we reach reach the final episode, "Taarna", all are essentially sexual playthings for men (even for a robot in one segment!). Taarna herself is also shown in the buff a few times, but she's nobody's victim or mere bed mate. She's a heroine. In fact, spoiler alert, she sacrifices herself to save the universe from a mysterious green orb which is the essence of evil itself.
The orb, introduced early on as an astronaut unleashes it in his house (and quite unaware of its power), corners a young girl and then figures through all six stories in HEAVY METAL. It (known as Lok-Nar) also provides opening narration for each episode, explaining its pull, its dominion over a variety of humans and other life forms. Each tale features characters falling to the old vices of greed, lust, power. Some of the episodes have comedic (sometimes druggie) overtones, but the predominant air is of hopelessness, of doom. Sometimes the good guys win, but not always.
Can viewers (those not stoned) take away some sort of moral from HEAVY METAL? The messages are mixed. Every time you think you may discover something, um, decent about human nature another moment comes along to refute it. While the episode "Den" (about a scrawny kid who becomes a muscular hero) seems pretty optimistic, it's essentially a sleazy wish fulfillment saga about getting laid. "Harry Canyon" is also pretty cynical, but has an amiable hero. It is also sports the crappiest animation of the lot.
HEAVY METAL is a collection of several contrasting styles via artists from around the globe and overseen by director Gerald Potterton. The animation, much of it rotoscoped, gets better and better with each episode, culminating in the Moebious inspired "Taarna", which is worthy of comparison with the visions of H.R. Geiger.
Then there's the music. The only track that I would consider to be "heavy metal" is Black Sabbath's "The Mob Rules". The remainder features the likes of, in addition to obscure artists like Riggs and Trust, Cheap Trick, Devo, Journey, Nazareth, Don Felder, Sammy Hagar, Stevie Nicks, and even Donald Fagen! Many of these tunes rock if just a little, but some are downright mellow. Many can be considered throwaways, but all work well as placed within the movie. I listened to the heck out of that soundtrack.
HEAVY METAL played the midnight circuit for many years. I went to see it in the late '80s or early '90s at the Carefree Theater in West Palm Beach. The audience was very devoted, almost to a ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW level. People were cheering and hooting all through the movie. I found it kinda funny and weird that a guy was shouting "Alright HARRRRY!" to a cartoon figure.
Monday, April 3, 2017
Co-writer and director Shane Black, who wrote the original LETHAL WEAPON thirty years ago, helms this story of two slovenly, low rent private investigators who investigate the disappearance of a young woman named Amelia, whose absence is somehow related to the death of a porn star named Misty Mountains. Actually, Jackson (Russell Crowe, who's packed on the weight and reminds one of John Goodman) was originally hired by Amelia to put some muscle on Holland (Ryan Gosling) to keep his distance from her. Got that? This is because Holland was originally hired by the aunt of Misty Mountains to find her. Aunt Glenn (Lois Smith) is insistent that she saw her niece alive, even after her violent demise in a car wreck (which opens the movie). Holland sniffs around and realizes Amelia's connection. And here we are back at Point A.
Black does a generally good job of creating this off kilter vibe of both goofball and more oblique humor with a few big action scenes, but maybe there wasn't enough of either for summer audiences. The effort to combine LETHAL WEAPON with THE BIG LEBOWSKI only succeeds in individual moments, though some of the more slapstick ones (my favorite - Holland's overthrow of a gun to Jackson) work best. Black plays homage to himself occasionally, as when Holland falls several stories out of a hotel window into a swimming pool while trying to best a criminal (who also goes down).
One element of THE NICE GUYS that really doesn't work is the character of Holly (Angourie Rice), Holland's precocious young daughter. It's hard to say why Black makes her such an integral force in the plot. She's smart and funny, but also slightly annoying, and her exposure to the porn world and some serious violence will make more than a few viewers wince. I was also baffled by the inclusion of her heartfelt pleas to Jackson, on two occasions, not to finish off vicious bad guys as death hovers over them. Was Black trying to make Holly the one source of light in this cesspool? Not sure it fits with the rest of the picture's WTF attitude. And that Holly also exhibits some of her father's cunning just makes it inconsistent.
I also wish someone would've have done their homework and not included songs in this movie that were recorded after 1977. And that JAWS 2 billboard? Guys, that didn't open 'til '78! But I'm nerdy like that.....