Jun 042014
 

Let’s dole out the superlatives early. Five Came Back is an essential for students of Hollywood and history, easily the best book I’ve read so far this year. In recounting the role of studio filmmakers in the Allied war effort, it represents the rare combination of a story that demands to be told and a writer who is more than up to the challenge.

The directors who chronicled World War II would not only shape how that conflict would be perceived by future generations, but how combat itself would be portrayed thereafter. Mark Harris (Pictures at a Revolution) wisely keeps the focus on a quintet of individuals, weaving their narratives together as he follows them before, during and immediately after the war. It’s still an epic tale, touching on all branches of the service and every theater of operations. It helps that each of the five men is a larger-than-life figure, entering the military with, as Harris notes, the experience of a private but the attitude of a general.

Frank Capra, who won three Best Director Oscars in the 1930s, didn’t go to war so much as to Washington, his stint as a bureaucrat only underscoring the muddiness of his personal politics. John Ford, who joined the Navy and led the photographic unit of the OSS, would do some of the best work of his career in the heat of battle only to be sent back to Hollywood in disgrace. John Huston had scored his first triumph with The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and initially regarded the war as an inconvenience to his rapid ascent. He blithely staged recreations for his “documentary” The Battle of San Pietro to get the footage he wanted, but the truths he told about the psychological traumas suffered by veterans in his long-censored Let There Be Light proved too hard for the government to hear. William Wyler welcomed these years as “an escape into reality.” His insistence on putting himself in harm’s way to follow aviators on their missions led to permanent injury, material he would then mine for the greatest film about the post-war period The Best Years of Our Lives. And the urbane George Stevens would be unable to return to his métier of comedy after being one of the first American officers to provide an eyewitness account of Nazi atrocities in the wake of the liberation of Dachau; he would go on to compile photograph evidence for the Nuremberg trials.

If the book has a hero it’s Lowell Mellett, the ex-newspaperman appointed as liaison between Washington and Hollywood for the Office of War Information. He played a long game, concerned about maintaining accuracy in what he acknowledged to be propaganda films and bearing the Allies’ eventual victory in mind when addressing issues of racism in how the Japanese were depicted.

Harris strips away any “Greatest Generation” sanctimony, honoring the accomplishments of these individuals while reveling in their humanity, their cantankerousness and foibles. American filmmakers coerced their British counterparts into a lopsided collaboration because U.K. efforts like Desert Victory far surpassed their own. Some things never change: audiences spurned most of these films in favor of newsreels because they craved immediacy and quickly grew bored with a steady diet of war dramas, craving the lighter fare no one felt comfortable making. While the directors lobbied to have their government-bankrolled productions considered for Academy Awards, fearful their careers would be in jeopardy once hostilities ended.

An astonishing array of talent participated in the propaganda campaign, names like Irwin Shaw and Eric Ambler popping up with regularity. Capra’s greatest contribution was an afterthought, approving the “Private Snafu” cartoons spearheaded by Chuck Jones and Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel. I knew Louis Hayward as a serviceable player in lesser noirs like Repeat Performance and Walk a Crooked Mile; I had no inkling he won an Academy Award and the Bronze Star for making the harrowing With the Marines at Tarawa.

But the focus remains on these five men and their films. Even under extreme conditions, they brought their personalities to bear on their work. Ford captured riveting footage for 1942’s The Battle of Midway, but couldn’t resist adding a folksy voiceover by his Grapes of Wrath stars Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell. Wyler’s instinct for drama compelled him to shape The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress around a single B-17’s crew. The impact of those years transformed each of the directors, altering their subsequent films. Capra lost his way in the industry, Ford retreated to westerns, Huston gave vent to his innate cynicism. Five Came Back is a sprawling yet fleet book, compulsively readable and endlessly fascinating.
 Posted by at 11:06 pm
Apr 302014
 

At the heart of this mammoth biography lies a simple piece of psychology that explains what may be the greatest career in movie history. John Wayne, born Marion Morrison, insisted that everybody call him Duke for a reason. Here’s the man himself making the point:

“I know (John Wayne) well. I’m one of his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him.”

And here’s Scott Eyman’s version: “In Wayne’s own mind, he was Duke Morrison. John Wayne was to him what the Tramp was to Charlie Chaplin – a character that overlapped his own personality, but not to the point of subsuming it.”

That tension animates Eyman’s opus, almost elevating it to the level of case study. Duke wasn’t merely a nickname, it was a boundary. Or, in the Duke’s parlance, a frontier. He was forever conscious of crossing it, and patrolled it rigorously. It chafed when other actors didn’t do likewise; he was disturbed by Robert Montgomery’s acclaimed turn as a killer in Night Must Fall (1937), feeling Montgomery betrayed the audience’s trust, and told Kirk Douglas (who goaded Wayne by insisting on calling him “John”) after a screening of Lust for Life, “We got to play strong, tough characters. Not these weak queers.” But like a veteran scout Duke knew every inch of that frontier’s terrain, sensing where the shadows were darkest and tapping into them to enrich performances like Red River and The Searchers. (If only he’d taken that offer to co-star with Clint Eastwood in a western written by my hero Larry Cohen.)

This constant tending to his alter ego led to a lot of lousy movies, and Eyman watched them all. (He even made it the end of both The Alamo and The Green Berets.) He pays particular attention to the run of middling Poverty Row oaters Wayne made following the failure of 1930’s The Big Trail, those low-budget years honing his chops, forging his persona – and building an audience in what’s now dismissed as flyover country. His return to prominence in John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach surprised only the critical establishment; as Eyman notes, “Wayne may not have been a star in New York, but he was assuredly a star in Waco and Rockville and Atlanta.” Ron Howard, who appeared in Wayne’s final film The Shootist, said the actor “respected the fact that I had come out of TV. Early on, he said to me, ‘I came out of cheap westerns, and that was the TV of our time.’ He liked the unpretentious work ethic of television, where you have to finish it by Friday.”

Wayne is still remembered and even caricatured for his conservative politics. As he did with his previous book on Cecil B. DeMille, Eyman humanizes an imposing, almost monolithic figure without pulling punches. Wayne was a member of the John Birch Society (although he didn’t buy their fears about fluoridation and the “horseshit” charge Ike was a Red) who uttered cringe-worthy comments about race in a notorious 1971 Playboy interview. But the same man who offered that unwanted advice to Kirk Douglas also said of Rock Hudson’s sexual orientation, “It never bothered me. Life’s too short. Who the hell cares if he’s queer? The man plays great chess.” His Rooster Cogburn co-star Katherine Hepburn had the poor-boy-made-good’s number when she said, “He suffers from a point of view based entirely on his own experience.”

Duke Morrison was generous and loyal to a fault, famously democratic to cast and crew. He relished debate while respecting others’ opinions. Before work started on In Harm’s Way, Otto Preminger told Wayne anyone over thirty has their mind made up about politics and suggested they not try to convert each other. Wayne happily agreed, and the director found him “the most cooperative actor.” Eyman spends considerable time on a series of elegiac commercials Wayne made at the end of his career with the staunchly liberal Haskell Wexler – the man made Medium Cool, for Christ’s sake – recounting how some retrograde views the actor voiced early in production upset a female crew member. Wayne was crushed to have hurt her feelings and eventually won her over; decades later she calls him “a charming chauvinist” while Wexler dubs him “a principled reactionary.” French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier tweaks his leftist friends by praising Wayne over the more politically simpatico Marlon Brando, saying Wayne was the more intelligent film actor and while Brando at his apex “specialized in terrible movies and ridiculous accents,” Wayne used his power to make the best work of his career.

Much of Wayne’s legacy is based on the films he made with John Ford, and Eyman digs deep into the truly perverse collaboration between the actor and the director he called “Coach.” Ford regularly humiliated the actor in front of the company, even after they’d worked together for decades, and Wayne gamely took it. But the results of that tortured relationship played out on TCM all of last week. You may disagree with John Wayne’s views, but by the end of Eyman’s book you’ll like Duke Morrison. (Ward Bond, on the other hand? Total shitheel.)

In 1970, Wayne produced and hosted a TV special called Swing Out, Sweet Land. Eyman calls this vaudeville-style history of America “a time capsule of a special kind of show business hell.” With Dean Martin as Eli Whitney, and the Doodletown Pipers singing the entire Declaration of Independence. Naturally, the whole thing’s on YouTube.

 Posted by at 11:56 pm
Apr 302014
 
Syndrome E
by Franck Thilliez
translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti
Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0-147-50971-0
370 pp. $16.00
April 29, 2014

There is a certain type of crime novel that wants to be everything. It wants to comment on the nature of evil and the predilection for violence, criticize government abuse with satiric jibes, entertain with quirky characters, and scare the pants off of you with scenes of grisly crimes that outdo anything in the latest torture porn flick. Syndrome E is one of those books. I should’ve hated it, but I found it to be one of the most guilty pleasures I’ve read in a long time.

Franck Thilliez has written a contemporary horror novel with elements of the detective novel that entertains as much as it repulses and disgusts. Any attempt to make the book a cautionary tale about the abuse of corrupt governments or a stab at educating people about such past disgraces like the Duplessis orphan tragedy and the experiments of the CIA on unsuspecting citizens is lost in his sea of information. Syndrome E is a potboiler thriller with all the usual ingredients in abundant display -- labyrinthine plot, globe trotting scenery, forgotten historical tidbits, arcane lore and legends, and a Pandora’s trunkful of bizarre murders and body mutilations. It does exactly what it should do –- jolt you with a few shocking surprises, terrify you with its indulgent and grotesquely executed murders, and in the intervening scenes calm and assuage you with a perfunctory romance between the two lead characters.

Film lovers more than anyone will find much to enjoy. Thilliez is clearly a movie fan. The cause of all the mass slaughter (there are a lot of bodies) and paranoia found in Syndrome E is a 16mm movie so disturbing it leads one man to suffer hysterical blindness and haunts the memory banks of everyone else who is foolish enough to watch the movie. From it’s jarring opening scene –- that any true cineaste will instantly recognize from Dali’s Un Chien Andalou -- to its ostensibly innocuous images of a little girl cuddling a kitten the movie leaves each viewer with feelings of unease and disquiet without really understanding why. That’s because the movie made in 1955 is an early and very perverse example of subliminal filmmaking. Examination of the film uncovers a second film buried beneath all the primary images the viewer takes in. And that second film rivals any horror movie ever made.

Investigating the many murders linked to the ownership and eventual theft of the 16mm movie are two policeman. Appearing as solo lead characters in Thilliez’ other books (still untranslated into English) they meet for the first time in Syndrome E. Lucie Henebelle is a single mother doing her best to raise her twin daughters. Lucie lives for her job as police officer often abandoning her family and leaving her admonishing mother Marie to take on the role of primary caretaker.

Franck Thilliez, bestselling crime writer throughout Europe.
Syndrome E is his first book translated into English
In direct contrast to Lucie, the go-getter law enforcer addicted to the thrill of the chase, is the intense and morose Franck Sharko, probably the most original character in the book. He's a throwback to the eccentric amateur sleuth of the Golden Age, too. What makes him so eccentric? Franck is suffering from schizophrenic hallucinations after suffering a mental breakdown following the death of his wife and daughter. Even though he regularly medicates himself with Zyprexa he is enslaved to a phantom girl named Eugenie with whom he has frequent arguments. Eugenie goads and taunts him, hampering his decision making while also blackmailing him into buying her jars of cocktail sauce and candied chestnuts. If he gives her the foods she craves, she'll leave him alone...for a while. Of course she’s not real so she can’t eat any of it leaving Sharko with a stockpile of jars in his home and at work that make for raised eyebrows and prying questions from his friends and co-workers.

Lucie and Shark (“No first name, no titles, please.”) become partners through a combination of chance and Lucie’s desire to work with the man. Shark is a world class criminal profiler and has been called upon to use his skills on a case that appears to be the work of a serial killer. Five bodies have been unearthed in rural France, most of them now nothing but skeletons, but all of them with the tops of their skulls sawed off with surgical precision.

As the mystery of the film’s creation and meaning plays out it eventually intersects with the story of the killer responsible for the five murders and many other deaths throughout the world. Is it the movie itself that has created this monster of serial killer? Or is the killer only trying to recover the film for some private purpose? The trail will take Lucie and Shark from France to Egypt to Canada and back to France again. As the bodies pile up the two police discover that the terrible subliminal messages are part of a much larger global conspiracy involving the CIA, the Foreign Legion and the disgraceful past of 1950s era Quebec.

The novel's structure of finding an expert, interviewing the expert, having the expert "info dump" loads of technological or historical data gets to be very predictable. Among the varied topics lectured on are the latest trends in neuroscience, the use of neuromarketing in advertising, the recruitment process of the Foreign Legion, the methods of hiding subliminal images on film, how to splice and edit 16mm celluloid, and the shameful nightmare undergone by the Duplessis orphans in Canada. But at nearly 400 pages you do get your money’s worth in arcane educational moments.

Nicolas Cage can't believe what he sees in 8mm
Like Seven and 8mm (a movie that shares many ideas with Thilliez' novel) the images of violence perpetrated on film and in life are relentless and gut wrenching. A sex scene between Shark and Lucie that basically cures Shark of his schizoid hallucination is absurdly unbelievable. And often the language and sentence structure is inappropriate or awkward. I have no idea if this is the fault of the translator or Thilliez’ original French or a combination of both. But given all these caveats I still found myself turning the pages with abandon. No matter how much I wanted to find fault with this book I will concede that Thilliez sure knows how to tell a good story. He does a fairly good job, too, of creating suspenseful scenes that make the reader want to know what happens next. Plain and simple: a thriller is meant to thrill. Syndrome E lives up to that promise and then some. It may not be for the faint of heart, but any reader daring enough to take on its horrors and thrills will get way more than they expect.

According to Deadline.com Syndrome E has been purchased for the movies. As of February 2013 the screenwriter adapting the novel is Mark Heyman who wrote the very disturbing, surrealistic nightmare movie Black Swan about a ballet dancer losing her mind which won an Oscar for actress Natalie Portman. It’s a daunting project and I wish the entire production team a lot of luck transferring an imagined horror film into a real film. Often the real horror that goes on in the reader’s imagination is completely lost in the adaptation process.
 Posted by at 7:34 pm
Apr 262014
 
It's all about Frances.

Gillian Freeman has taken Richard Miles' character of Madame and a handful of key scenes as a springboard for an exploration of an oppressive and claustrophobic kind of loneliness. The kind of loneliness that will drive Frances (Sandy Dennis in a mesmerizing, bravura performance) to things she had barely dreamed about. Living in a cluttered apartment with all sorts of anachronistic and "old people's" furnishings (she has a harmonium!), cared for by an indifferent bustling housekeeper she also "inherited" from her dead mother Frances seems to have become her own prisoner. But one night at the end of a dinner party for her ancient friends -- most of whom are also inherited from her mother and all of whom are twice her age or more -- she drifts away from their idle chatter to glance out her apartment window. Outside in the pouring rain she sees a young man (Michael Burns) sitting on a park bench, apparently just as lonely as she is, getting drenched. With no umbrella and no real coat he curls up on the bench and lets the rain come down. We see her watch him with a sly smile on her face as she begins to plot. Once her guests have left Frances goes outside to the boy and invites him into her house. Just for a while. Until the rain stops. He can warm up, take a bath, have some food. Then when the rain stops, be on his way.

And so begins That Cold Day in the Park (1969), Robert Altman's second feature film and one of his least known movies. The combination of Altman's love of improvisational dialogue and Freeman's artful and cultivated speeches give the movie an air of timelessness and spontaneity. The movie opens with what seems like banter and chatter among Frances' dinner guests. A similar improvisational feel occurs when we see the boy with his sister and her boyfriend and much later in a visit to a doctor's office. The purpose of the visit and type of doctor are revealed only to us through the seemingly random conversation of three women in a waiting room. Meanwhile the camera follows Frances as she wanders about nervously or fidgets in her seat. This is one of the most clever sequences in the movie, a kind of scene we rarely see on film any more, a scene you need to pay attention to. Only rarely does the dialog betray its 1960s era as in the slangy phrases tossed around by the Boy, his sister and her boyfriend.

And the movie has such a mystery about it. The Boy indulging himself in his fraudulent mute world, toying with Frances, teasing her and Frances not really letting on what she's up to. This is more than a simple act of kindness, of taking a stranger in out of the pouring rain. There is a mind game of sorts going on between the two as well as other games. On his first night she gives him a bath, takes away his sodden clothes and lets him wander around her home clad only in a blanket. They listen to music. He coyly dances for her to gypsy music played on her hi-fi. He practically does a kind of strip tease. What is he up to? Why is Frances so willing to let a stranger run wild in her home? When he decides to stay for the night she locks him in his bedroom. She does it with such purpose we know that she has some kind of ulterior motive.

The Boy comes and goes as he pleases, but always returns to Frances' home. One day he returns with some "cookies" -- really brownies laced with pot. The two of them have a party that night with wine and the brownies. Frances becomes drunk and high and really lets her hair down. They play a game of blind man's buff, she flirts with him and continues her endless monologues about her life. He listens, returns the flirtations, but abandons her once again before the night is over. She's beginning to get a bit perturbed about his disappearances.





The crucial scene and the most poignant in the movie is the night when in a moment of utter honesty Frances bravely walks to his bedroom and delivers a speech about what her lonely life has become. She talks of Charles, a man old enough to be her father, who is attracted to her, who has propositioned her several times. "His immaculate shirts...he has a terrible habit of plucking at the creases in his trousers. He disgusts me." She talks about odd details of the first night she met the Boy. "You wore no socks with your shoes. No socks. That...it gave me such a peculiar feeling." She goes on becoming increasingly vulnerable, confessing her attraction for him, and getting the courage to slip into the bed next to him. What ends the scene is not only terrifying for Frances but heart-wrenching for the audience. We know that from this point on she will stop at nothing to keep the Boy in her home.



From that moment on there is an air of danger about the movie. As if her eccentricity weren't enough Frances becomes totally unpredictable. Her strangest and most desperate act is hiring a hooker by proxy and bringing her back to the Boy as a gift. As in the book this is the climax of the story. Whereas Miles had the third character of Yves enter at the eleventh hour, in the film there is no savior for the Boy. The movie has a very different ending, far more disturbing. For me because the story has always focused on Frances and her slow deterioration into a world of her own making Altman and Freeman's changed ending is much more satisfying. It also makes a lot more sense than Miles' somewhat ambiguous and flat ending in the novel.

That Cold Day in the Park is now available on DVD from that fine video company Olive Films, in both regular DVD and Blu-Ray formats. There's also the internet; I managed to watch the movie broken up into seven parts on YouTube (all seven parts together here). Not advisable for movie purists -- the color is washed out and a few scenes are too dark to see what's really going on. I'd suggest finding a DVD copy. Finally, this underrated movie is reaching a wider audience now as it so long deserved. There are several reviews on movie blogs all over the internet. One of the most knowledgeable and insightful critiques can be found at "Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For".
 Posted by at 3:47 pm
Apr 252014
 

Later US Paperback (Pyramid, 1974)
 I first came to know That Cold Day in the Park (1965) in its effectively creepy and sometimes heartbreaking movie adaptation starring Sandy Dennis in the lead role. Dennis plays an extremely lonely woman who takes the term "kept boy" to its literal extreme. I thought perhaps the book might be the female counterpart to John Fowles' first novel The Collector, also turned into a memorable film. While the movie shares its basic premise with its source and both include three key scenes, the story of Miles' original novel is remarkably different.

Madame (we never learn her real name) meets a young man in the Tuilleries, the famous public garden of Paris, befriends him in a short conversation and convinces him to come home with her. Throughout their brief meeting the young man, a stunningly gorgeous blond haired Adonis, never speaks. Madame thinks, as does the reader, that the boy is mute. That he can hear her is made very clear. Only in the second chapter titled "The Boy" do we realize he has chosen not to speak. He often plays the role of a mute in order to manipulate his targets. The boy goes by the nickname Mignon. He and his friend Yves are male hustlers roaming the streets and bars of Paris' less than touristy areas taking advantage of lonely, affection starved men and robbing them.

Mignon stays with Madame most of the time, but escapes his new home each night by climbing out the window and down the fire escape in order to visit Yves. As the book progresses we see that Mignon is both manipulator and manipulated. He is caught between two worlds -- his life of crime with Yves (who he is clearly sexually attracted to) and his freer, more creative life with Madame who is also controlling him and shaping him to become what she wants. She is a hostess, a housemaid, a mother and eventually his lover. The book takes on a sinister element when Madame learns of his nightly escapes. We begin to see the fragile state of Madame's mind when she imprisons Mignon in an attempt to possess him completely.

UK 1st ed (Souvenir, 1966 )
The novel explores this very strange ménage à trois of sorts and its inevitable deceit and betrayal through alternating chapters told in the first person by Madame and in the third person omniscient voice when it focuses on either the boy or Yves. There is a middle section entitled "Interlude" centering on a minor character's visit to a sex club. Here we see the kind of sex trade Yves engages in with both men and women. It's the first taste of what will become a more lurid, sexually graphic, and sensational story.

The key scenes that I remembered from the movie -- Madame bathing the boy, her locking him in his bedroom and nailing the windows shut, and the climactic scene when she procures a prostitute for him -- all are present in the book. It is the story of Yves' relationship to Mignon that was removed in the movie adaptation.

In the novel the boy is conflicted between trying to change himself under the guidance of Madame, who seems to be the only person who doesn't desire him only for his body and good looks, and his life of adventure and crime with Yves -- his best friend, pseudo-brother and quite obviously a surrogate father. As the silent kept boy Mignon is at first a pet, then a student of painting, and finally a lover. With Madame the boy is more compassionate and pitying, emotions he does not feel for the men he robs when he is with Yves. There seems to be hope for both of them in their secret life together.  Yves doesn't want things to change. Mignon must make several decisions -- who is he really, who does he want to be with,  and perhaps most important of all who and what can he become.

In the final pages the book turns into a lurid thriller complete with embarrassingly written sex scenes that reminded me of the worst of 60s erotica ("throbbing rod" and "swelling member"). Madame's character transforms too quickly into yet another psycho-sexual lunatic bent on deadly violence. Miles nearly destroys the interesting contrast in characters that, up to the bloody climax, was the most fascinating part of the book. The story works best in the sections between Madame and Mignon and weakens in the too predictable sequences when Yves appears.

1st UK paperback (Corgi, 1967)
Richard Miles is the pseudonym for a former child actor turned writer and high school teacher named Gerald Perrau-Saussine. He first performed in movies under his slightly shortened, given name (Gerald Perreau) and later as "Peter Miles". His movie roles include Possessed w/ Joan Crawford, The Red Pony w/ Robert Mitchum and Myrna Loy, Heaven Only Knows and Quo Vadis . As a teenager and young adult he later appeared in a variety of TV shows such as Dragnet, The Lone Ranger, Maverick and Perry Mason. He had a long running role on The Betty Hutton Show where he played brother to his real life sister, actress Gigi Perreau.

That Cold Day in the Park is Miles' first novel. He followed up with Angel Loves Nobody (1967), a prize-winning novel about high school violence and The Moonbathers (1974), a revenge thriller featuring a Japanese secret society. One of his lesser works is the script for one of the worst movies ever made -- They Saved Hitler's Brain. But we all make mistakes, don't we? Don't judge him by that big one.

Turn in tomorrow when I examine Robert Altman's movie version of this book with a screenplay adaptation by Gillian Freeman. It's an example of taking the basic story of an intriguing novel and transforming it into a much improved and resonant character study.

*   *   *


Reading Challenge update:  Silver Age Bingo card, space  L2 - "Book Made into a Movie"
 Posted by at 8:16 am
Apr 232014
 
Ira Levin, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer all must be doing gymnastics in their graves.

A few nights ago I saw a trailer for the upcoming TV movie remake of one of my all time favorite novels and horror movies -- Rosemary's Baby. I screamed, "What? Are you kidding me?" at my television once again upsetting Joe who dislikes it intensely when I talk to the TV.

Jason Isaacs, so compelling as Jackson Brodie in the recent UK TV series based on Kate Atkinson's crime novels, has been cast as Roman Castevet. Way too young for the role. Minnie has been renamed Margaux and is played by French actress Carole Bouquet. Minnie is gone! Now I know this is going to suck. Clearly, the producers have decided to rejuvenate another classic and market it to a younger TV viewing audience with no memory of the original film.

Zoe Saldana, an actress I am not impressed with, is Rosemary. Mia Farrow IS Rosemary Woodhouse! To my mind only an immensely talented actress could surpass Farrow's performance. Certainly not someone as mediocre as Zoe Saldana.

Canadian actor Patrick J Adams is playing Rosemary's husband. He appeared on a cable TV series called Suits most recently. Never seen him in anything. Beats me if he has the stuff to even match Cassavetes' portrayal of the overly ambitious actor Guy Woodhouse who makes a diabolical pact in exchange for success on the Broadway stage. Looks like so many baby-faced young actors these days. He's got that trendy scruff to make him look older for this part.

I'm not impressed by the TV script adaptors credits either: Final Destination 3, Queen of the Damned, and that train wreck of a TV series American Horror Story. The only saving grace might be director Agnieszka Holland who made such memorable movies as Europa, Europa and The Secret Garden (w/ Maggie Smith) and who most recently has been making a career of directing cable TV shows like Treme, The Killing, and The Wire.

The movie -- a four hour, two parter -- will be broadcast in May on NBC. For more info see this webpage at NBC.com.

Anyone else think this is a horrid idea? Anyone planning to watch this? I'm not sure I'm even mildly curious about what they've done to update it. Some movies should never be remade. This, I think, is one of them.
 Posted by at 4:19 pm
Apr 152014
 

Reminder: As part of the blog’s gala tenth anniversary week, Down the Hatch is only 99 cents through midnight tonight, PST. Use your Amazon credit and pick up a copy while it’s cheap. And feel free to leave a review once you do.

Once upon a time this website was far more film-oriented, with lots of half-baked semi-recurring features like Remake Rematch (in which I watched multiple versions of a film and declared a winner) and Burt With A Badge (decades worth of Burt Reynolds as a cop, for absolutely no reason). The Operation Travolta pieces were easily my favorite. I did one on Sandra Bullock that, if I say so myself, was prescient. This one on Michael Keaton, which originally appeared on September 23, 2004, was the first. I still hold out hope for the actor, who has what promises to be his best role in years in the new film from Alejandro González Iñárritu; a 2009 post on The Merry Gentleman, Keaton’s directorial debut, would land me a mention on Canadian public radio. Ironically John Travolta, after whom the feature was named, is in need of another such procedure. Maybe it can be done more than once, like Tommy John surgery.


Look fast in the ads for the Katie Holmes comedy First Daughter and you’ll see Michael Keaton as the President of the United States. From the gonzo heights of Beetlejuice to playing the dad (albeit the First Dad) in a teen comedy. Keaton deserves better. So I’m issuing a challenge to filmmakers: give the actor a role worthy of his talents, the way Quentin Tarantino revived John Travolta’s career. (Hence the name of this occasional feature.)

Keaton has a special flair for conveying all-American guy-ness. Genial and decent, with a wariness underneath. He has a uniquely hyper way of moving, like a one-time athlete who still hasn’t figured out what to do with his excess energy. It’s a live-wire quality that charges the screen.

It’s obvious that the man has great comic chops, which come through even in sitcom-style fare like Mr. Mom. (Here’s where I confess my affection for the 1984 gangster parody Johnny Dangerously. I even like Joe Piscopo in it, for God’s sake.) Ron Howard made good use of Keaton in Night Shift, Gung Ho and the underrated The Paper. But it’s really in his collaboration with Tim Burton that the actor bloomed. His fearless performance in Beetlejuice is as potent today as it was in 1988. And he remains the only actor to have brought anything to the role of Batman, which as the screenwriter William Goldman points out is “and always has been a horrible part.”

1988 was also the year of Keaton’s greatest dramatic triumph, playing a drug addict in Clean and Sober. There’s a scene in that film – he calls his elderly parents and tells them he’s doing great while trying to persuade them to mortgage their house so he can have the money – that captures the essence of the addict’s psychology better than any other. The whole movie is Keaton’s show.

The ‘90s weren’t so good to him. But neither were his films. (Speechless? Multiplicity? Did anybody like those movies?) There were hints of a comeback when Keaton played Elmore Leonard’s cocky DEA agent Ray Nicolette in two movies, Jackie Brown and Out of Sight. Rumors circulated that Ray would get his own feature. I’m glad that didn’t pan out, because the character can’t sustain an entire story. But Keaton was perfectly cast, as he was in the recent HBO film Live From Baghdad.

So what’s on tap for the actor? Playing opposite Lindsay Lohan in the remodeled Herbie, The Love Bug. That ain’t right, people, and you know it. Where’s Wes Anderson or Dylan Kidd (Roger Dodger) when you need them?
 Posted by at 6:11 pm
Mar 262014
 

You Must Remember This: Life and Style in Hollywood’s Golden Age, by Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman (2014). You know you’re getting a true inside Hollywood perspective when your guide ends an appreciation of the home owned by longtime friend Harold Lloyd by remarking “I shot episodes of Switch and Hart to Hart there.”

Robert Wagner has lived in Los Angeles for 75 years. His new book (co-written with Eyman, whose biography of John Wayne is out next week) represents an attempt “to document a way of life that has vanished as surely as birch bark canoes. And I want to do this before the colors fade.” The colors aren’t fading for Wagner yet; he can still recall what he paid for his cocktails at a host of now-shuttered Tinseltown night spots, including an exorbitant dollar fifty for a French 75 at the Trocadero, and conjures up his first meeting with Judy Garland, singing at a party at Clifton Webb’s house, with immediacy.

Wagner keeps the book light but also laments the press’s current adversarial relationship with their celebrity subjects and how, with the emphasis on the bottom line, “the movie business has been converted from a long game to a short game.” But there’s little room for grousing when there are parties to attend and polo matches to play. The names from a bygone era he casually reels off – Chasen’s, Ciro’s, the Brown Derby – are still, for some of us, an incantation charged with magic, and Wagner knows how to cast the spell. He has a gentleman’s eye for refinement and strikes an effortlessly rueful tone, a pleasing combination. The book is like uncorking a bottle of wine and having one of TV’s most debonair presences regale you with stories.

Sorcerer (1977). Director William Friedkin’s adaptation of the novel that inspired Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear had the misfortune to open a few weeks after Star Wars and never recouped its budget. It fared no better critically at first, but its reputation improved over the decades; I know plenty of people who prefer it to the Clouzot film. This change of fortune came about in spite of the fact that for years Sorcerer was essentially out of circulation, with no decent print available.

Thanks largely to legal action by Friedkin against the studios involved, the situation has improved. A 4K digital restoration of Sorcerer is in limited release prior to its Blu-Ray debut. Seeing the film on the big screen confirms that Friedkin’s take on the tale of four outcasts forced to ferry volatile explosives overland is one of the most intense films ever made, with the justly-celebrated rope bridge sequence easily a masterpiece of action. It’s almost unfair to compare Sorcerer to Wages as the two are so different, but if pressed I’d give the nod to Wages – with the proviso that Sorcerer has a much, much better ending.

Stranger by the Lake (U.S. 2014). Henceforth, whenever I’m asked to provide an example of Aristotle’s unity of time, place and action – it happens more than you think – I’m pointing to this film, which won the Un Certain Regard directing prize for Alain Guiraudie at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Unless my interlocutor objects to repeated shots of the male orgasm, in which case we’re going to have a problem. Every scene unfolds along an isolated stretch of beach where gay men come to cruise. Franck (César award winner Pierre Deladonchamps) is drawn to the spoken-for Michel, lingering to watch him – and witnessing him murdering his lover. But knowing Michel’s secret only heightens the attraction. Guiraudie turns the limited locations into an advantage, using the arrangement of parked cars not only to convey exposition but heighten suspense. Highsmith meets Camus with copious male nudity in a thriller that mesmerizes down to the calculatedly oblique ending. Here’s the trailer.

 Posted by at 6:49 pm
Mar 112014
 

A lot of irons in the fire these days, kids, so posts may be even more sporadic than usual. In the meantime, here’s an oldie but a goodie, an essay I wrote for Ray Banks’ late, lamented film site Norma Desmond’s Monkey in September 2011.

Now that the independent film cycle of the 1990s has receded into the mists of time, the truth can be told: the bulk of the movies it spawned simply don’t hold up. It’s true of any creative boom in which the inmates, however briefly, run the asylum. For all the splendors of the auteurist flowering of the 1970s, many of the films made during that period come across now as druggy and self-indulgent. The moral is don’t kick against the pricks, artsy types. A lot of you need a firm hand on the reins.

The Sundance craze of the ‘90s was ultimately co-opted by the studios with the result that the Coen Brothers stable of players turns up in the Transformers movies and the reward for demonstrating vision on a budget is being handed a superhero franchise. Independent film’s true legacy – intimate storytelling that isn’t afraid of dark places or protagonists – isn’t in theaters but on cable television. I will even posit that it was worth sitting through all of those grainy coming-of-age tales and different-drummer comedies so episodes of Louie could be pumped into millions of homes each week.

The truly interesting work in any movement is done in the margins, and no genre is more marginal than the crime comedy. Aside from the fact that Quentin Tarantino raised the form’s bar ridiculously high, there are too many opportunities for lazy transgression. Make the main character a hit man, as plenty of ‘90s filmmakers did, and you risk putting bigger fish in a smaller barrel.

Bringing us to Coldblooded. The movie wafted briefly into theaters in late summer 1995. The biggest name attached to the production was producer Michael J. Fox, who also surfaces in a cameo. It didn’t make much commercial impact, but I remember it with affection. A more recent film brought it to mind anew. Forget this year’s Jason Statham/Ben Foster update. Coldblooded is the actual remake of The Mechanic, replacing the original’s vaguely Mansonesque vibe with coffee shop quirkiness. And yet somehow it works.

The film was written and directed by M. Wallace Wolodarsky, who without the initial earned a place in comedy heaven for his work with partner Jay Kogen on the first four seasons of The Simpsons. (There’s a ‘90s staying power test. What would you rather rewatch, any Sundance prizewinner or “Lisa the Greek”?) Jason Priestley stars in an example of an indie film benefit I wouldn’t mind having back: the casting of recognizable TV actors in unlikely roles. One year later, Priestley’s Beverly Hills 90210 cohort Luke Perry would deliver the performance of his career opposite a sensational Ashley Judd in John McNaughton’s neglected low-budget true-crime tale Normal Life.

Priestley pushes deadpan to dangerous levels as Cosmo, a man-child who is essentially the ward of an unseen gangster. He’s perfectly content working as a bookie, seeing perfunctory prostitute Janeane Garofalo on the company dime, and living in the basement of a retirement home. (Cosmo’s dire digs are a triumph of production design, from the outdated appliances to the hideous mossy green stairs.) But when Cosmo’s benefactor dies, he’s forced into a new role in the organization: trigger man. The transition starts with an internship at the feet of the current holder of the position, the affable Steve (Peter Riegert).

Riegert is the rare actor who can mine humor out of being the voice of reason. Every few years he uses this gift to deliver a peerless comic turn. Local Hero will forever be the best known of these, but in Coldblooded he offers one of the great lost performances of the 1990s. His Steve is a cheerful tummler, eager to have a protégé to whom he can pass along his wisdom even though he knows it will mean his eventual replacement. He’s forthright about his profession, complete with little jokes he’s worked out – “Guns don’t kill people, we do,” followed by a used car salesman’s hearty chuckle – and helpful hints offered in front of victims. Riegert relishes the details of Steve’s middle class life: the procession of sports shirts that are a shade too gaudy, the petty grudges against the organization’s other men, the obsession with his car. To this day I recall Riegert’s precise pronunciation of “Cadillac Sedan de Ville” and his line about occasionally reading the newspaper behind the wheel in his driveway. But additional grace notes trace Steve’s slow unraveling, culminating in an authentically disturbing drunken late-night phone call with Cosmo that Steve can’t recall the following day.

Cosmo’s efforts to deal with the stresses of the position – including his natural aptitude for it – lead him to yoga and an instructor (Kimberly Williams) who needs to be rescued from loutish lover Josh Charles. Priestley plays his character as a down-market version of Peter Sellers in Being There in these scenes, Cosmo’s inexperience with women rendering him perfect boyfriend material. Case in point: his surrendering the TV remote to his paramour, the contemporary equivalent of a knight laying down his sword.

Coldblooded unfolds in a strangely depopulated Los Angeles reminiscent of a hipster hit man film from an earlier generation, Murder by Contract. The small cast, including Robert Loggia as the new capo, forces the plot to become somewhat mechanical. And no professional killer would use his own car on jobs, especially when, like Steve, he has everything in his ride set just the way he likes it. Coldblooded may ultimately seem like a slight film. But its easygoing charm and Priestley’s moving, minimalist performance coupled with Riegert’s richly nuanced one give it more heft than many of the trendy favorites of the era.
 Posted by at 10:28 pm
Feb 202014
 

A scant two weeks after the big top folded in San Francisco, the Noir City carnival rolled into Seattle. Much of the Bay Area’s company of players reassembled: ringmaster Eddie Muller, the redoubtable Daryl Sparks working her usual magic behind the scenes and at the swag table, Tokyo’s stylish noir aficionado supreme Etsuko Tamazawa, the missus and yours truly. Also on hand was this year’s program, a cherce complement of films from around the world attesting to the fact that film noir, even in the middle of the last century, was a truly global phenomenon.

Amidst the filmgoing, there were copious amounts of socializing and strategizing. The latter has heaped quite a bit more on my plate, so herewith are truncated highlights. There is a twist ending, though, because it just ain’t noir without a sting in the tail.

Death is a Caress (Norway, 1949). The first half of what is surely the most perverse Valentine’s Day double bill ever programmed. A Scandinavian riff on James M. Cain (note the note on the homme fatale’s doorbell to “ring twice”), directed by a woman (Edith Carlmar) and made in a country with no production code and a more tolerant attitude toward infidelity. Aimless young man takes up with sexually aggressive, wealthy older married woman. Murder is never plotted, yet doom hangs in the air. A bracing lesson in gender politics. It took a while to recover from the shock of seeing characters in a 1940s film speak openly about abortion.

Death of a Cyclist (Spain, 1955). Think working for the studios in the heyday of the Hays Office was a tricky proposition? Try making societal critiques under Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Part two of the Nobody’s Getting Laid This Valentine’s Day line-up, this film from director/co-writer Juan Antonio Bardem (uncle of Javier) is a scathing critique of bourgeois privilege. Returning from a tryst, a married woman and her ex-fiancé are involved in a hit and run accident. An oily hanger-on in their circle (the spectacular Carlos Casaravilla – think a sinister Oscar Levant) insinuates that he knows all. The film eventually gets bogged down in philosophizing en route to an ending at once predictable and brazen, but its opening forty-five minutes is supple, modern, and brimming with both style and righteous anger.

Hardly a Criminal (Argentina, 1949). Bank clerk José (Jorge Salcedo), addicted to gambling, isn’t above dipping into the till to cover his losses. When he realizes Argentine law means he’ll serve the same six-year sentence no matter how much he steals, he goes for broke and deliberately gets caught, planning to do his time then live high. What he doesn’t figure on is how his actions will affect his family – and how his fellow inmates will cotton to his clever crime. A blast of pure, straight-ahead noir that you could easily see being made Stateside. Little wonder the chops on display here brought director Hugo Fregonese to Hollywood.

The Murderers Are Among Us (Germany, 1946). A day of films shot from 1946 to 1948 as war clouds were dissipating began with a landmark, the first movie made in Germany after Berlin fell. (As Eddie said when introducing Japan’s Drunken Angel, contemplate what noir means in the countries that lost World War II.) A concentration camp prisoner (Hildegard Knef) returns to her ruined flat to find an alcoholic doctor squatting there. Even as her presence awakens something in him, it also leads to the discovery that his brutal former commanding officer is prospering as Germany starts to rebuild. An astonishing artifact filmed guerilla-style in the rubble, it’s only slightly compromised by its compelling history. (Production had to be backed by one of the city’s occupying powers. Only the Soviets stepped up, but they insisted on changes in the script. Later the Americans arrested lead actor Wilhelm Borchert for falsifying information on his papers, jeopardizing imposed reshoots.)

It Always Rains on Sunday (England, 1947). A movie I’d missed in repertory screenings for years, finally viewed on a Sunday – when it was raining! Kismet! The revelation of the festival, Sunday captures a day of supposed rest in London’s East End as the city copes with war’s aftermath. The script by director Robert Hamer, Hitchcock collaborator Angus MacPhail and Henry Cornelius weaves together a mosaic of stories all anchored by the tale of an escaped convict seeking temporary sanctuary at the home of his now-married former flame played by a magnificent Googie Withers. A powerhouse of a film.

I promised a twist, didn’t I? Turns out master of ceremonies Muller would not be available to present the President’s Day roster of French noir. Not wanting to disappoint the crowd, he asked Rosemarie and me to stand in for him. A tall order, considering he was just named a host on Turner Classic Movies, but who could deny the man who’s done so much to preserve film noir? We suited up – I put on a tie, people, I got my shoes shined – and set about our task in earnest.

What made it easier than expected was the quartet of movies we were fortunate enough to introduce. Pépé Le Moko (1937), with Jean Gabin incarnating the essence of la belle France as the gangster who yearns for home from his aerie in the Casbah of Algiers. Rififi (1955), perhaps the definitive heist film. Une si jolie petite plage (Such a Pretty Little Beach, aka Riptide, 1949) the wild card of the bunch, a bleak, elliptical story of a mysterious young man who haunts an off-season resort village with a memorable lead performance by Gérard Philipe, France’s James Dean. And finally, one of my personal favorites, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Quai des Orfévres or Jenny Lamour, a saucy tour of the demimonde of Paris music halls. This movie has everything: sex, love, suspense, humor, and an inspired ending. It was the perfect way to ring down the curtain. To have some small part in bringing this peerless gem to a new audience was an honor. But honestly, I don’t understand how Muller does this night in and night out. Rosemarie and I were exhausted at the end of our tour of duty, and we were sharing the workload. Still, we’d do it again.

Austin, you’re up next. Get ready.
 Posted by at 2:53 am