Saturday, November 17, 2018

THE GREAT MOONSHINE FILM FESTIVAL



Every so often the stars align in such a way as to allow a perfectly inert and “nonproductive” weekend spent in the company of four, or five, or maybe even six movies, the sort of cine-bliss-out designed to decompress the mind and spirit after a particularly insistent week of breadwinning. Back in the salad days, when all thoughts were ostensibly devoted to expanding one’s horizons, this sort of motion picture marathon was known as a typical college weekend. But similar opportunities come far less frequently 40 years later, and when they do, they’re usually accompanied by at least four or five loads of laundry (one per movie, maybe) demanding to be sorted and folded. Thanks to the largely unplumbed depths of my DVR queue, I stumbled into one such marathon last Friday night, and it was a doozy, an entirely unplanned, thematically linked four-picture blast that would have been a honest-to-God B-movie treasure trove if you’d stumbled upon it buried in the movie ads of the local paper. A drive-in all-nighter, perhaps, the likes of which were plenty common back when drive-ins and long theatrical shelf lives were themselves common, when spasms of second-and-third-run programming cropped up every Wednesday or Friday like unkillable weeds. Four big action hits! Show starts at dusk! $5.00 a carload! And I never left my recliner!




It all began innocently enough with a thirst to revisit an old favorite— Burt Reynolds as Gator McCluskey in the 1973 moonshine classic White Lightning. Hal Needham had been a stuntman and stunt coordinator for years before doing this picture—he’d even worked with Reynolds before, as his stunt double on several episodes of Gunsmoke and on his previous outing, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, and he did both duties on White Lightning. But this first of two Gator adventures (the second was Gator, from 1976) isn’t a lark like Smokey and the Bandit, the booze-running comedy Needham and Reynolds would make together four years later. Sure, it has banjo-scored car chases, vigilante revenge, and all the rest of the trimmings that helped make it a big hit in theaters and drive-ins 45 years ago. But under the guiding hand of director Joseph Sargent (whose next movie would be the greatest New York City movie ever made, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) White Lightning emphasizes humid, laconic Southern atmosphere and understated malevolence, beneath the culture and its institutions and often presented at a simmer instead of a boil, that eases the movie right under your skin. Reynolds’ Gator gets himself legally sprung from prison to infiltrate a corn whiskey-running operation when he finds out the fella heading it up, corrupt sheriff J.C. Connors (Ned Beatty), is the bastard who murdered his brother. 





That execution starts the movie, a brutal sequence in which Connors presides over the slow drowning of Gator’s kin. Sargent sets the tone with no comment, observing two canoes and four men gliding through the swamp, the sheriff’s deadpan countenance unmoved behind cheap wire-rimmed glasses as he blasts a hole in the hull of one boat and watches its bound-up occupants slowly sink. The setup and delivery of the scene are truly unnerving for the quiet alone, and Beatty, who with one exception barely raises his voice throughout the movie, is probably the scariest of any in a long and storied line of villainous Southern movie sheriffs because of his good-old-boy reserve—there’s no hospitality beneath the mask, only seething contempt and his conviction that his status within the law gives him the right to express it. White Lightning is a cut above the usual batch of drive-in firewater—it has the burn of excitement you’d expect from that title, but like its namesake, it doesn’t always go down easy.

I followed White Lightning with a movie I’d always wanted to see which had eluded me for decades, The Moonshine War (1970), and that blunt title that pretty much says it all. In 1932, a Northern federal treasury agent (Patrick McGoohan) decides to cash in before the imminent repeal of Prohibition and tries to muscle in on the Kentucky moonshine operation of an old army buddy (Alan Alda). But when his pal won’t cut him in, McGoohan incorporates the influence of another acquaintance, a glad-handing gangster (Richard Widmark) and his psychotic second-in-command (Lee Hazlewood), to press Alda into cooperation. When Alda and his very reluctant neighbors, who are in fact his competition, dig in… well, that title does imply a certain expectation of shoutin’ and shotgun fire on which the movie is happy to deliver. Directed by Richard Quine (whose previous pictures, like Bell, Book and Candle, The World of Suzie Wong and the marquee-strangling Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad seemed an unlikely lead-up to a tale of rotgut-fueled intrigue such as this), The Moonshine War goes about its business without a lot of stylish to-do, but it is, however, an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel which happens to have been adapted into screenplay form by Leonard himself, and therein lies the potent spirits which provide the perfectly legal pleasures the movie has to offer.
Widmark, in particular, thoroughly enjoys gnashing his choppers on Leonard’s blunt, snappy, occasionally florid turns of phrase. This creepily insinuating psycho is a great mid-to-late-period role for the wonderful actor, and Widmark feeds off the unexpected enthusiasm and facility of Hazlewood, the heralded songwriter and musician whose only significant appearance as an actor this is. The two make a blackly funny pair whose overarchingly friendly demeanor can and will, as Leonard would often have it, take a hard right turn into decidedly less welcoming territory. The Moonshine War is also a haven for earnest actors and their bad Southern accents, but the prime offender is not, as you might guess, Alda as a backwoods Kentucky moonshiner. His casting, given the 20-20 hindsight of his reign as Hawkeye Pierce, seems sublimely odd, though I thought he comported himself surprisingly well on the linguistic front. It’s the Irish, neutrally-accented McGoohan who you gotta watch out for—you haven’t lived until you’ve heard him wrap his Celtic tongue around a mouthful of Yankee R’s.
 


The next serving in my intoxicating run of movies devoted (at least in part) to the desperate glories of running illegal liquor came from revisiting an old favorite-- Michael Schultz’s Greased Lightning (1977), a high-spirited take on the story of Wendell Scott, the first African-American stock car racer to ever win a NASCAR race, with Richard Pryor in the starring role. If anything, this movie has just gotten better with age (much like Schultz’s previous picture, Car Wash). It captures Pryor just as his status as a full-on movie star was consolidating, before bad choices, in movie projects and certain other lifestyle options, would begin to take their toll—he’s genuinely magnetic. My friend Odie Henderson, film critic for RogerEbert.com, recently marveled to me that in 1974 Warner Brothers wouldn’t insure Pryor to get on a horse for Blazing Saddles, yet here they were four years later sticking him behind all manner of high-speed vehicles, fleeing the police and later in pursuit of glory on the race track—that’s Hollywood. (You can read more of Odie on Greased Lightning and the career of Michael Schultz at his blog, Big Media Vandalism.) 
 
Schultz marks Scott’s achievements with a customary stylistic modesty, but within that modesty he serves the material well, with dignity, spark, good humor, and gravity enough for the audience to register its social significance without being beaten severely with the good-for-you club of history. And though the pendulum has lately swung back toward inclusion and representation in American movies, it’s still kind of thrilling to see a movie given over to a cast populated by the likes of Pryor, Cleavon Little (a de facto Blazing Saddles reunion!), Richie Havens (yet another musician in a supporting role who, unfortunately, doesn’t make the mark here that Hazlewood did in The Moonshine War), Beau Bridges (The Landlord himself!), and memorable, if brief turns from Bill Cobbs, Vincent Gardenia and, in a nod to the politics of the day, SNCC founder and Georgia senator Julian Bond and Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson. But the movie’s real revelation is Pam Grier, at the tail end of her reign as the queen of blaxploitation and just about to hit the streets of Fort Apache the Bronx. Grier’s role as Scott’s patient, supportive wife Mary, isn’t distinctive on paper, but loosed from the sexy, leather-clad, tough-as-nails Foxy Brown persona Grier positively glows, and the part gives her a brief chance to expand as an actress in ways which she couldn’t be perceived in the movies that made her an icon. In Greased Lightning she allows us a glimpse of the star that would find her way to glory through Elmore Leonard and Quentin Tarantino as Jackie Brown. Of course, she’s still subservient to Wendell Scott’s story, and Pryor’s pleasurable dominance as an actor, but in this delightful movie Grier provides an electrical charge of lightning that’s all her own.

I saw Lolly-Madonna XXX (1973) in a theater when I was about 13 years old, and its harsh view of humanity and the futility of violence really knocked me for a loop. Before last weekend, I hadn’t seen it since, and as the fourth part of my impromptu firewater foursome I approached revisiting it with eager anticipation, but also with a bit of trepidation, wondering whether my perceptions of it as an adult would reveal it to be less than the movie squirreled away in my memory. Turns out Lolly-Madonna XXX is another adaptation of a well-known novelist—Sue Grafton wrote The Lolly-Madonna War (as the movie was known in some markets) in 1969, years before embarking on the Alphabet series of crime novels that would secure her fame and fortune, and like Leonard with The Moonshine War, she also wrote the movie’s screenplay (with Rodney Carr-Smith). 

The X’s in the film’s title don’t refer to the markings on a moonshine jug. In fact, the illegal production of corn liquor is, like in Greased Lightning, only the incidental catalyst to the events the movie is really interested in—the destruction of two mountain families, the Feathers and the Gutshalls, by their own hands. Instead, the alphabetical markings are kisses attached to the signature on a note from a fictitious nymphet, Lolly-Madonna, which is delivered as a prank by the rambunctious Gutshall boys to distract the Feathers from the tending of their still, the better for them to move in and bust it up. But when some of the Feathers run across a young woman at a bus stop, they assume her to be the nonexistent Lolly-Madonna and kidnap her, intending to use her as a bargaining chip in the escalating Feather-Gutshall war over claims to an assuming meadow that sits between their properties. The furious decay in relations between the two clans can’t help but carry echoes of the confusion of conflict in Vietnam, one that was raging full on when the novel was written and when the film was made. But as directed by the significantly underrated Richard C. Sarafian (whose previously film was the inadvertent counterculture touchstone Vanishing Point), Vietnam is never pressed into the foreground, and it certainly doesn’t work as an extended metaphor; yet its presence in Lolly-Madonna XXX feels organic, inevitable, unavoidable, and it lends the film its sense of tragedy without ever becoming an overt ingredient in its dramatic strategy. 
Lolly-Madonna XXX also boasts, like Greased Lightning before it, a dream cast of established veterans and up-and-comers that would, if there were any justice in Hollywood history, warrant placing it in the vicinity of legend—the Feathers are comprised of no less than a remarkably restrained, yet seething Rod Steiger as the doomed Feather patriarch, besotted by tragedy, and the horror that he loved his son’s dead wife maybe even more than his son did; plus Jeff Bridges, Scott Wilson, Katherine Squire, Tim Scott, Ed Lauter and a pre-The Las Detail Randy Quaid. Over on the Gutshall side of the holler, there’s Robert Ryan as the timid father figure, torn by a sense of morals and his ineffectual ability to fulfill them—this was the great actor’s penultimate appearance, followed by his grand embodiment of Larry Slade in John Frankenheimer’s adaptation of The Iceman Cometh, also in 1973, and his Pap Gutshall is a worthy warm-up to that glorious performance. But there’s also Tresa Hughes, Kiel Martin, Paul Koslo and Joan Goodfellow as the rest of Gutshall family, and newcomer Season Hubley as the unfortunate traveler, the would-be Lolly-Madonna, who ends up with a front-row seat to the destruction of two families. 

Critic Michael Atkinson wrote eloquently about the film and its unenviably precarious position in the marketplace of the early ‘70s for TCM.com, and he notes:

The end product is earnestly doom-laden, and inescapably an artifact of its era, a time when movies were freshly subject to a grungy grain-alcohol cocktail of social protest, youth culture empowerment, international cinephilia, low-culture realism, and prole restlessness. Which is to say, Lolly-Madonna XXX, as with so many films of the Nixon-'Nam days, could never be made today…”
Which might also be why it is so little-known today. But the movie retains the power it had for me when I was a kid, and then some. It is as grungy and mean as Atkinson suggests, but also sensitive to moments of beauty—when one character waxes about how he never wants to leave his mountain home, Sarafian and cinematographer Philp Lathrop provide ample evidence to justify that sentiment, and like that character the movie stays put on the Feather and Gutshall land for the duration because, you sense, it believes this place is the world.
Unfortunately, the movie would never really make its mark, caught as it was in the distribution limbo of an MGM headed by notorious casino builder James Aubrey, who presided over the studio’s erosion in the early ‘70s, and hobbled by a passel of negative reviews. If ever an unheralded early ‘70s film were ripe for rediscovery, Lolly-Madonna XXX would seem to be one, and its availability on disc from the Warner Archives and streaming on Amazon Prime (where I saw it, in it a surprisingly well-preserved wide-screen transfer) is all the encouragement you should need to make it the cornerstone of your very own moonshine-centric film festival. 

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Saturday, October 27, 2018

FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED: TERENCE FISHER AND THE GREATEST HAMMER HORROR OF THEM ALL




The cry came forth from a dark corner of my living room as it usually does this time of year, as it does sometimes during other parts of the year too. It was my wife, shrieking from the depths of her soul, articulating a cry of despair and disbelief: “You’re watching this again??!!” As the familiar strains of James Bernard’s magnificent score rose from beneath the blood-red Warner Bros.-Seven Arts insignia and the subsequent and equally scarlet opening credits, my wife didn’t even need to look up from her book to realize what was happening. It was the week before Halloween, and therefore time for my in-the-neighborhood-of-annual dose of Terence Fisher’s masterful, terrifying Hammer classic, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), the fifth in a line of gloriously lurid reiterations of the Frankenstein myth, the pinnacle of the series for the studio, and a movie I’ve long considered to be my favorite horror film and certainly one of my favorite movies, period.

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is a high point not only for Hammer, but also for the great movie star and Hammer icon Peter Cushing, who wrings maximum effect from this most acidic and horrifying interpretation of the good Dr. Frankenstein, all vestiges of “good” having been leeched out of him in the years narratively separating FMBD from the previous installment, Frankenstein Created Woman (1967). And it’s also a career peak, one of many, for the film’s director, the estimable and often under-appreciated director Terence Fisher, whose tenure in the Frankenstein series produced at least two, perhaps three inarguable classics, of which Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is certainly the most brilliantly sustained, downright scary and, of all things, the most unexpectedly moving.

This year’s viewing came courtesy of a nifty Warners Blu-ray issued in 2015 which shows the movie off in a spiffy and revelatory way, and I highly recommend it to the movie’s legion of fans as well as to those who may as yet be unfamiliar with the particular pleasures this movie serves up. In celebration of both the Halloween season and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, I offer this assessment of the achievements of Fisher, and Cushing, of composer James Bernard, Freddie Jones, Simon Ward, Veronica Carlson, screenwriters Bert Batt and Anthony Nelson Keys, and everyone else involved in bringing this brutal extension of Mary Shelley’s legacy to the screen. The following piece originally appeared on my blog, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, in 2007, and it is resurrected here, in much the same fashion as the unfortunate doctor who becomes the subject of Baron Frankenstein’s hubristic pursuit of pioneering brain transplant surgery, in a form only slightly altered...

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Director Terence Fisher began his 21-year run at Hammer Films in 1952 with a film noir entitled The Last Page (aka Man Bait), but in 1957 he kicked off a fruitful 17-year stretch by doing nothing less than fleshing out the template for the studio’s greatest financial and artistic successes, which would send them all on an impressive run of lurid yet stately horror films whose budgets were rarely betrayed by their production values. Hammer began life in the mid-30’s, the inspiration of two father-son pairs, James and Enrique Carreras and Will and Anthony Hinds. These were filmmakers/businessmen who specialized in under-the-radar low-budget fare which touched on all tones and subject matter, but they would find the greatest success since the studio’s inception when they released 1955’s science fiction thriller The Quatermass X-periment (known in the U.S. as The Creeping Unknown). In the wake of a successful sequel, Quatermass II (aka Enemy from Space), Hammer wisely decided to focus more or less solely on horror and science fiction output, and thus the legendary eye of a genre hurricane was truly born. The studio embarked upon what would ultimately turn out to be a reinvention of the Universal horror film stable-- their first four efforts, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) and The Mummy (1959) were all directed by Fisher, and all four starred the venerable team of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. And Fisher would turn out to be the director whose style and career would become the most closely synonymous with Hammer horror.

By the time he made Frankenstein Created Woman in 1967, Fisher had revisited the well of the vampire twice (1960’s highly-regarded The Brides of Dracula, with Cushing’s Van Helsing battling David Peel’s incarnation of the blood-sucker, and 1966’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness which brought Lee’s sophistication back to Bram Stoker’s vampire, this time sans Cushing), and the director seemed ready to do something different with the Frankenstein formula. He and screenwriter Anthony Hinds delivered a brilliant genre-twisting and gender-bending idea: Frankenstein, still up to his usual existentially inspired hijinks, has a body—that of a beautiful young woman—whose skull ends up housing the brain of a wrongly executed man. But the brain is loath to cede its identity, and soon the woman begins a campaign of vengeful murder visited upon those who caused the young man’s fate. There’s some rather neat (for its time) consideration of crossed-gender behavior thrown in the mix as well, and the absence of an actual monster provided exactly the right downbeat note to keep the level of inspiration in Hammer’s now four-film-old series running high. 

(The previous entry, The Evil of Frankenstein, was director Freddie Francis' first contribution to the Hammer monster cycle-- he had previously directed Paranoiac (1963) starring Oliver Reed and Nightmare (1964) for the studio. Evil holds up well enough, but it was largely content to rehash the familiar motif of the monster lumbering through the countryside, and as a result the movie is considered to be a more minor entry in the series, though it marks perhaps Cushing’s most benign interpretation of one of his two signature Hammer characters.)

 
 
 

Fisher returned for the fourth time to the continuing saga of Dr. Frankenstein in 1969. But something about staging the battle of the sexes within a body at war with itself seemed to have rather unhinged the good doctor. In previous episodes it was fairly well understood that Cushing’s Frankenstein, as misguided as his methods were, as blind as his God complex may have made him, had intentions that were almost always good, regardless of how much death and destruction were their result. But all that has changed by the time we first see Cushing in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969). Here, Fisher and scenarists Bert Batt and Anthony Nelson Keys waste absolutely no time putting whatever remains of Frankenstein’s altruistic tendencies to their final rest. If it was to be understood that Colin Clive’s obsessions to bring Karloff’s monster to life were put into perspective by the monster’s inability to control the impulses his damaged brain was sending to his stitched-together body, then Clive’s characterization of Frankenstein, even into the narratives of the first two sequels, at least retains some measure of sympathy due in large part to his own empathy for his creation. This was true of Cushing’s Frankenstein too, despite the more graphic stylization of the violence perpetuated by the monster, reflected in the violence with which Cushing's Frankenstein had pieced together his creation’s visage. But Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed opens with a memorable sequence that makes audience identification with the titular surgeon unlikely right from the start—Frankenstein, wearing a frightening rubber mask that looks like a Captain Company version of Dustin Hoffman’s old-man makeup in Little Big Man, stalks and decapitates a colleague with a spray of the brightest Technicolor red, then threatens to do the same to a wino who stumbles upon his storefront laboratory. Luckily, the wino ends up only with the victim’s head in his lap—he gets to keep his own—and it’s not long before Dr. Frankenstein must dump his current project and find other, more shadowy digs.



Cushing occupies Frankenstein here with an actor’s supreme confidence in his own ability to hold an audience. He knows the direction the character is headed is in one of irredeemable megalomania and condescension for those less intelligent than he, but he never winks or otherwise elicits anything resembling a plea for understanding. Instead, Cushing grabs the character by the throat and steers the ride to hell through some truly harrowing territory. His icy stare and vaguely regal air of superiority, mixed with a cunningly choreographed charm that morphs out of his sharp, angular features whenever the need arises, have rarely been put to better use than they were here. And few were better, in either timing or timbre, with the kind of florid speeches, here laced with seething anger and potential violence that were hallmarks of Hammer film dialogue, than was Cushing.



Frankenstein eventually checks in and lays low, under an assumed name, at a boarding house run by Anna Spengler (Hammer siren Veronica Carlson), where he berates the other residents for their dismissive attitude toward progressive science and his own experiments, conducted in concert with another like-minded surgical maverick, a Dr. George Brandt. He soon discovers that Anna’s boyfriend Karl (Simon Ward) is a doctor at the mental asylum where Brandt, gone crazy before he could reveal to Frankenstein the secret of successful brain transplantation, is being caged. Karl is also involved in procuring illegal drugs for Anna’s ailing mother, and Frankenstein uses that information to blackmail the couple into facilitating, and taking part in, the continuation of his shrouded surgical experimentation. It’s soon clear that Frankenstein’s motives go far beyond simple advances of science for the benefit of mankind. This mad doctor truly is drunk on the idea of pursuing success for his own name’s sake, but also in exercising that power in rougher, more salacious and sinister ways. Already acknowledging that murder is but a messy fly on his moral windshield, he also takes time out to assert his dominance over Anna (and Karl) by humiliating her as often as possible and finally, for no reason other than that he can, raping her. (This sequence, now restored to the recent DVD and Blu-ray  releases, was cut from the theatrical prints released in the U.S.) And he eventually forces Karl to help kidnap the dying Dr. Brandt from his cell and transplant Brandt’s brain into yet another body, that of one of the asylum’s directors (Freddie Jones).




Frankenstein Must be Destroyed was, of course, notable for the increased level of violence of its tale, an appeasement to clamoring Hammer fans made possible by the concurrent loosening of content standards both in the U.K. and in the U.S. at the time. (The MPAA had only recently adopted its rating system, which tagged FMBD with an “M”-- suggested for mature audiences—and later re-rated it the perplexing yet somehow equivalent “GP,” while it garnered an “18” certificate in Britain, limiting attendance to those over 18 years of age, the equivalent of an “X” in America.) I was ten years old when I saw FMBD in a theater, in 1970, and it marked the first time, I’m sure, that I’d ever seen a decapitation (implied) on screen before, followed soon after by a generous display of the bloody head. (Most horror fans my age probably witnessed their first full-on separation of noggin from shoulders courtesy of The Omen in 1976.) 

Upon seeing the film again as an adult, what its violence seems most notable for now is as another piece of evidence in the case for Terence Fisher as perhaps the genre’s most efficient, underrated and under-regarded director. Fisher’s style was lurid as the subject matter demanded—he took advantage of every rich color splashed onto the sets by Hammer art director Bernard Robinson and knew exactly how to maximize the erotic appeal of heaving bosoms traversed by a trickle of blood. But his hand as a director had a measure of stateliness, which is assuredly not a backhanded way of suggesting his camera was static or unresponsive. He knew, as the well-trained and observant directors of his time all knew, where to place the camera to emphasize the story and the effect that the actor was going after. His films are quickly, expertly paced without being over-edited or stuffed full of tricks meant to distract from the director’s lack of confidence. 


And Fisher, given that somewhat classic style, was never one to condescend to his material, even when, on occasion, it deserved derision. (Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, Hammer’s last Frankenstein, was a lesser effort, an inauspicious way for such an elegant director to end his career, but you’d never know it from the way he visually signed the film.) Fisher was unafraid of seeming callous and brutal due of the behavior of his characters. Yet he more often carried with on the violation of a cranium by hand drill or surgical saw just under the frame, without plunging the camera headlong into open cavities and gushing wounds, thus freeing the imagination to do its worst while the camera kept its sturdy gaze on the determination of the demented Frankenstein, or on the revulsion of his reluctant assistants. He combined and balanced directorial economy and lightning reflexes with the grand, velvety, bloody flourishes that were the bread and butter of the Hammer film in a way that other directors at the studio could occasionally approach but never truly match. 

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed carries on with the downbeat, nihilistic horrors that were amplified and expanded in Woman, itself yet another instance, like its predecessor, of a Hammer Frankenstein film absent the iconographic lumbering monster so often misidentified by its creator’s name. Freddie Jones, not typically an actor associated with subtlety, is allowed to paint a portrait of exceptional pain as “the creature,” whose brain (that of Dr. Brandt) cannot process or accept the reflection of another man’s body, shaved bald and sporting a ragged stitch to hold his skull cap tight, in his mirror. And neither can Brandt’s wife, to whom he returns one night, unable to reveal himself for fear of her inability to understand what he is telling her about who he is. (He hides behind a changing partition as he speaks to her, and his pessimistic presumption turns out to be agonizingly accurate.) Jones draws us in deep, through his eyes welling with tears, into the tormented state of this doctor, once Frankenstein’s colleague, now a victim of the same arrogance he once perpetuated. This portrait, seething with confusion, rage and newfound empathy for those in his own past whom he subjected to callous experimentation in the name of a greater good, is among the finest in the entirety of the Hammer Films catalogue, a catalogue already not unfamiliar with good actors who choose to rise to the occasion instead of bend down to pat it on the head. It is Brandt’s helpless anger, illuminated by Jones’ heartfelt and committed portrayal, and Fisher’s sensitivity toward the character’s plight, that finally lifts Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, despite its rather clipped finish, above the usual fare and into the realm of the finest treatments and variations of the Frankenstein legend ever filmed.


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Saturday, October 13, 2018

FACES I LOVE #565: BEAUTY, LIFE, HOPE


It's been a while...



Míriam Colón


Jessica Harper


Diana Sands


Mary Wickes


Elaine May


Karen Gillan


Elizabeth Patterson


Tiffany Haddish


Anya Taylor-Joy


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

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FACES I LOVE #564: THE MEN'S ROOM


It's been a while...


Robert Forster


Fred Rogers


Herbert Lom


Kenneth MacMillan


Hiroyuki Sanada


Tom Pedi


Tom Hardy


Michael Ripper


Ned Sparks


José Altuve

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GAME NIGHT (2018)



Game Night is as high concept a comedy as they come—a group of very competitive friends who do a weekly game night together find themselves entangled in a kidnapping-smuggling-murder situation which they initially believe is part of an elaborate role-playing extension of their usual easygoing, harmless suburban fun—and as I punched it up on HBO GO my expectations were well in check. I didn't remember that anyone got all that excited about this movie when it was released this past spring— its very existence came into and went from my memory with barely a ripple-- but the lineup of good reviews on Metacritic that I discovered only after finishing it proved my memory insufficient. Nor do I recall the last time a contemporary comedy made me laugh because of the way it was specifically edited and directed, but Game Night did, consistently—the directors are John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the team responsible for the superfluous remake of Vacation (2015) and the nifty screenplay for last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming; the movie was written by Mark Perez.

It’s easy to imagine how in any other hands this could have been just a crass, cookie-cutter Hollywood comedy where style and timing are mere afterthoughts, if they’re thought of at all. But every joke, every perfectly timed side glance, is rooted in character, and the movie uses its considerable stylistic confidence to amplify its ideas, which only makes the laughs richer, and harder on your aching sides. I’ll indulge in just one gag spoiler out of a hundred possibilities here: I thought I was going to lose my mind when one of the gamers, a lovably blockheaded oaf played by Billy Magnussen, attempts to bribe the owner of a dinner-theater role-playing company ("Murder We Wrote")  for information by slowly pulling out a ten-dollar bill (his countenance betrays the fact that he thinks he’s making her an offer she couldn’t possibly refuse) and placing it on the desk. And then, when that's not good enough, a five. And then, even more slowly, a one. But it's the last one, which cleans his wallet out and brings the bribe up to an impressive $17, that completely slayed me, and it's because of the way the pay-off is directed. We’ve seen each bill deliberately laid out on the surface of the desk, and there they all are as the final dollar bill begins to creep slowly into the top edge of the frame, before the cutaway and the inevitable refusal.


This is a genuinely funny movie with a very tight, sharp script and a terrific cast who all get their highlight moments-- Magnussen, but also Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams as the couple who host the weekly gathering, Kyle Chandler as Bateman’s one-upping brother who gets them caught up in his shady dealings, Kylie Bunbury and Lamorne Harris as a couple whose sexual history is marred by a hilarious celebrity encounter, and Sharon Horgan as Magnussen’s date, who far surpasses him in the intelligence department and is continually nonplussed by what it is exactly that she’s doing with this doofus. But as good as these actors all are, the movie is stolen outright by Jesse Plemons (Bridge of Spies, The Post at the movies, Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights, Fargo and Black Mirror’s “USS Callister” on TV). Have I ever not liked this guy? I even thought he was good in the otherwise horrible Battleship. But he's next-level committed and hilarious here as the preternaturally even-keeled but obviously disturbed, freshly divorced next-door neighbor, who keeps angling, in his ominous way, for an invitation to game night and ends up taking things into his own hands. It's a brilliant comic performance, and though I know there's not a hope in hell of it happening, I do hope he's remembered when critics groups start tossing out their awards in a couple of months.

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Thursday, October 11, 2018

VENOM IS MORE FUN THAN YOU'VE HEARD



Back in the summer of 2008, I absorbed all the terrible advance notices that the Wachowski’s Speed Racer was racking up, saw it on opening night, and was delighted to discover that I loved it. I became somewhat evangelistic about the movie, telling everyone I knew that the cranky critics and indifferent audiences were wrong, seeing it several more times before it disappeared from theaters during what was also the inaugural summer of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ten years later, the world seems finally to be catching up with Speed Racer, and every time I see another article about how the movie is being rediscovered or how ahead of its time it was I try not to shout, “I told you so!”

Venom is not a movie hill to die on, like Speed Racer, but you may decide not to see it based on what you’ve heard from the aggregate opinions on Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, and if you remember Speed Racer fondly (or insist that it's a masterpiece, like I do), then passing on this new picture could be a similar mistake. Some of the bad reviews this new Marvel creation has been getting may be due, in part, to simple Marvel/superhero burnout, which admittedly some of us (me) are more inclined to than others. And if Marvel burnout is not understandable, then what would be? But whatever the reason may be, Venom is an odd duck, a rousing, rude, crude, at times flat-out dumb blockbuster that at times feels constrained by the mandate of its PG-13 rating, and one that also feels truncated on the story level, but maintains a perhaps unlikely level of fun nonetheless.

Crusading TV reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) gets wind of sinister goings-on involving a corporation devoted to space exploration that is in fact experimenting with matching alien “symbiotes” to human hosts in order to create the perfect interstellar pioneers. The somewhat reasonable-sounding but inevitably sinister and megalomaniacal company CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) doesn’t have a problem using societal outliers, like the homeless or the mentally deranged, as his guinea pigs, while the strain of symbiote invaders have a decidedly more Earthly plan of decimation as their ultimate goal. Eddie breaks into the facility one night and ends up merged with a symbiote himself, one who goes by the moniker Venom. (No movie if he doesn’t, folks, so no spoiler alert necessary.) Once symbiotically enhanced, Eddie turns out to be what Drake has been shooting for all along—the perfect human host, a physical and psychological match, one whose organs are not consumed from within by the invader, who can coexist with the symbiote’s unusual strength and transformative powers. It’s an interesting tightrope walk for a Marvel movie to attempt—just how much of is Eddie/Venom is hero, and how much villain. Eddie’s main conflict, besides saving Earth, is walking down the street, having a conversation with a deadly creature that no one else can hear and struggling to fend off the desire to bite the heads off innocent bystanders. (The PG-13 disappointingly ensures that things don’t get all Deadpool-graphic in this department.) 



The movie at time feels like it’s missing some crucial connective tissue, like it’s been cut down considerably-- Tom Hardy has claimed that 40 minutes of his best stuff, presumably character material relating to Eddie and Eddie/Venom, ended up on the cutting room floor, and if that’s true it’s a shame, because Hardy is the main attraction here. On top of his usual magnetism, the versatile actor proves himself to be a limber physical and verbal comedian, and the first 45 minutes or so, before the picture is overtaken by its B-movie CGI aesthetic, are its strongest. But Eddie’s interior monologues when Venom literally gets inside his head are a hoot too, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and for as clunky as it sometimes is, Venom does the balance between gruesome DC-style darkness and Marvel lightness better than could have ever been expected, given the claims of its worst reviews.

Venom’s story wobbles most when Venom himself does an about-face on the  genetic alien imperative to decimate the human race and decides instead to take up resistance against other less sympathetic symbiotes, all on what seems on a dime’s turn, because he sees in Eddie something worth saving in the human race as a whole-- perhaps those missing 40 minutes might have shored up this crucial story point as well. But that gap of logic isn’t a deal-breaker. The movie is just too much fun to get hobbled by common sense, and it never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously, despite dealing in all-too-real planetary consequences and dropping hints of its timely political awareness. (At one point, Drake refers to rumors of nefarious dealings within his organization as “fake news.”) 



In addition to Hardy’s playful charm (and that hilariously enhanced Venom voice) and Ahmed’s seductive unctuousness , Venom sports an appealing and surprisingly well-used supporting cast as well. There’s Michelle Williams playing for real in what could have been a dull stand-by-female role as Eddie’s wronged ex-fiancée, a corporate lawyer who ends up as his closest crusading ally; Melora Walters in a small but crucial role as a homeless woman who ends up on Drake’s list of doomed test subjects; and Jenny Slate as a scientist whose moral code causes her to reach out to  Eddie and, unfortunately, seal her own fate. Slate, it should be noted, does nothing funny in the movie, leading some to conclude that she’s been wasted in her appearance here. But she’s a good dramatic actress too and, as she was in Hotel Artemis earlier this year, she’s solidly believable, and presuming she didn’t show up on the set for free, she has no more reason than anyone else in the cast to be ashamed about appearing in a somewhat cheesy, completely enjoyable Marvel movie.

And I did enjoy Venom, a lot more, in fact, than something like the overstuffed Avengers: Infinity War, a movie which got much better notices than certainly I thought it deserved. Some critics seemed to defer too easily to that movie’s bloated self-importance, as if to resist the movie, and its fan base, would have been a bridge too far. Biting the head off of Venom’s relatively meager ambitions and its clunkier filmmaking, however, was apparently irresistible. So, don’t listen to the symbiote inside you who may be telling you you’re too good for it. Thanks largely (but not entirely) to Tom Hardy, Venom is a violent, absorbing, even charming hoot. See it, and then perhaps you’ll join me and the rest of the yahoos who were there in force this past Saturday night in the hope of eventually seeing those extra 40 minutes somewhere down the line.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

MICHAEL MOORE'S FAHRENHEIT 11/9



This past weekend Michael Moore’s new movie Fahrenheit 11/9, about how the world as we know it in the Trump age came to be, didn’t set the box office on fire in the manner of his previous incendiary screed against the Bush administration, Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). And speaking as someone who doesn’t watch box-office predictions like a hungry hawk, I didn’t really expect it to. A report I heard on NPR Monday morning said that it ranked #8 with US ticket-buyers with $3.3 million, which was, as they spun it, “one of the highest debuts for a political documentary ever,” though far short of the $23.9 raked in by Fahrenheit 11/9 on its opening weekend, and projecting far less than the $58 million take registered by Moore’s Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine (2002). In assessing the underwhelming weekend for Moore’s newest film, the Hollywood Reporter pointed out that “While it's true Fahrenheit 11/9 posted one of the biggest bows ever for a political doc, it is only the fourth political doc to launch nationwide, making comparisons tough.” (One of those “doc”s, Dinesh D’Souza’s logically impaired, dishwater-dull position paper Death of a Nation, met a similar financial fate.)

Obviously, the performance of Fahrenheit 11/9 is a disappointment in terms of expectations for the weekend box office, and particularly in comparison to the way Moore was able to capture much more of the public’s attention with some off his previous films. But should the paying public’s apparent indifference to Fahrenheit 11/9 be interpreted as a surprise or, worse, as a shrug directed toward the ongoing shitstorm of governmental corruption, greed, and institutional failure, all of which predated and laid the groundwork for the Trump administration? 

I think the answer to both questions is “no.” It may just be that the perception of Moore as a jokey op-ed muckraker means that he now, in a way that he didn’t in 2004, must coexist with a legion of late-night TV hosts and cable news operatives who are more than willing to take up the middle finger toward Trump and other atrocities of democracy, and who may all have contributed to Moore’s MO becoming overly familiar. Many folks in my liberal circle have made no bones about having had it up to here with Moore’s brand of self-aggrandizing propaganda, no matter how neatly his conclusions mesh with their own. So it may just be that, apart from any distaste for Moore himself, even those most likely to be aligned with Moore’s perspective, intuitively sensing that the new movie was not positioned as an astonishing tell-all dutifully bullet-pointing the outrages that anyone who has been half-awake for the past four years is already keenly aware, may have decided that gorging on more depressing news, however artfully packaged, was not the way to spend a Saturday night. It was however, the way I spent my Saturday night, and I found the movie to be terrifying, of course, but also far more compelling, moving, stirring, and dare I say hopeful, than my reservations about Moore’s previous films, particularly Bowling for Columbine, ever allowed me to suspect it would be as I went in.


More important than the movie’s status as a hit or a bomb, in my humble opinion, is the fact that the movie is out there in the mix at all. Of course, Moore is a blowhard, but as critic David Edelstein put it, he’s blowing hard in the right direction. And Sam Adams, in his perceptive review of the movie for Slate, suggests that the movie is a rousing piece of propaganda built precisely for these fearful times:

“(Moore’s) movies aren’t pretty, and they don’t play by the rules; they’re full of exaggerations and half-truths, slippery logic and jury-rigged timelines. But there are moments when half a truth feels like a generous helping, and Moore’s overarching points hit home with such force that sweating the details would be like picking fleas off a charging grizzly. We’re in such a moment now, and Moore knows it.”

As Adams suggests, there’s an urgency to Moore’s purpose here, and to his work as a filmmaker, which may mean the audience who will be most affected by the arguments and the exegeses he’s managed to coalesce in this new polemic will find their way to it, even if they don’t charge right out to lay down $17 for the privilege. Fahrenheit 11/9 isn’t designed to change anyone’s mind. And Moore understands that the $3.3 million shelled out this weekend to see his movie (it’s not, in any traditional sense, a documentary) came largely from the wallets of the choir to whom he’s preaching. Which is fine because the movie isn’t even primarily an anti-Trump screed. It’s not simply a movie about how Trump got elected, about Trump soundbites and tweets and rallies, about complacent Democrats and an arrogant media who couldn’t conceive of Trump getting elected, about porn actresses and pee tapes and the candidate’s hard-on for despots around the world whom he seeks to emulate. Some of that, plus the devastating reminder of what it was like to experience Election Night 2016 if you didn’t own a MAGA hat, is all in the first ten minutes. 

Instead, the movie is a well-argued, devastating polemic, not without its asides, distractions and arguable truths, all of which are manipulated brilliantly by Moore’s admirable, artful skill as an editor and filmmaker, which suggests the roots of what brought Trump to power can be laid at least partially at the feet of an ineffectual Democratic Party establishment who misrepresented primary election results themselves and refused to respond to the arrogant, out-in-the-open malfeasance in which the Trump campaign indulged. (Moore doesn’t hide his support for Bernie Sanders, but neither does he wield it like a self-righteous club.) Blame even belongs as Moore tells it, at the feet of Barack Obama himself, whose curiously glib response to the escalating water crisis in Flint, Michigan, alienated African-American voters in the state and inspired millions of other voters to throw up their hands in the defeated belief that their vote no longer mattered. All of which, of course, laid the groundwork for Trump’s narrow margin of victory in Michigan and many of the other states he ended up carrying. (Moore reserves an eloquently-expressed well of outrage for the notion that a candidate could win the popular vote and yet, due to an antiquated and irrelevant chestnut like the Electoral College, could not win the election itself, and we in the audience on Saturday night responded audibly in kind.)

In other words, Fahrenheit 11/9 isn’t simply an exercise in holding the feet of familiar demons to the fire. Among the roasted are Democrats and the Democratic Party, Republicans, rabid MAGA deplorables, mealy-mouthed, excuse-making senators, citizens who have abdicated their right to participate in the electoral process, newly empowered racists-- even Moore himself, who doesn’t exactly come off looking great during footage of himself and Trump on a long-forgotten Roseanne Barr talk show in which the filmmaker acquiesces to The Donald’s demands that the radical socialist loudmouth not go after the unrepentant capitalist con man on TV. (Moore makes nice and lives to regret it.) Nor does the movie reflect well on Moore within this context when it’s revealed that Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon once both invested money to produce and distribute previous Michael Moore films. In Moore’s view, we all need to wake up, and Fahrenheit 11/9 is the alarm bell. 



But it’s that examination of the Flint water crisis, and the tactics employed by Michigan governor Rick Snyder to reroute the city’s water supply via a newly constructed and entirely superfluous pipeline from Lake Huron, its previous resource, to the foul and brackish Flint River, that turns out to be the filmmaker’s ace in the hole. What seems at first like just another typically Moore-ish swerve away from the main issue, a self-aggrandizing attempt to solidify the director’s status as Our Main Man Flint—at one point he loads up a tanker full of Flint drinking water and douses the lawn of the governor’s mansion with it-- turns out instead to be a meticulously argued, painfully trenchant piece of reportage, in which the horrendously callous actions of Snyder and his administration are exposed to be a literally poisonous act of aggression toward an entire populace. It’s this angry, painstaking examination which illuminates the degree to which Snyder, a miniature Trump-in-waiting, emulates the deceptive and manipulative methodology of the current president, a microcosm of greed and corruption made routine and, judging by the indifference of governmental politics, acceptable. 

Later, Moore connects Trump with another despot, with less immediately satisfying results, opting to put Trump’s words literally into the mouth of Hitler in a poorly conceived “Bad Lipreading”-style segment which, against the expectation set by the audio stunt, leads into one of the film’s strongest sections. The joke smacks of unwarranted desperation, because the argument Moore builds, through the editorial testimony of newspapers, the eyewitness account of a 99-year-old lawyer who was at Nuremberg, and Hitler’s own recounted words and deeds, clarifies (almost) without hyperbole the importance of recognizing the terrifying parallels between Germany and the rise of Nazism and Trump’s ascendance to American power and is strong enough that the Trump-voiced Hitler bit registers only as a pointless distraction. (I say “almost” because the inference Moore draws between the Reichstag fire, set and used by Hitler to set up an emergency state that eventually consolidated Nazi power, and the attacks of September 11, 2001, is a familiar stretch that even the filmmaker is wise enough not to press too hard here.) 

Of course, Moore's work primarily addresses those who already accept his premise that the country is in a very, very bad place right now, and not just due to the slimy activities of the man who lost the popular vote yet was still elected president. His purpose it is not so much to confirm their (our) beliefs as to shake them (us) into action, because what’s at stake in Fahrenheit 11/9 is an understanding that Trump is not the end game, he's merely a symptom. Yet what’s perhaps most understandable about the way Fahrenheit 11/9 was perceived by the public, the choir as well as the unbelievers, before they ever saw the film can be found in the apocalyptic tone of its advertising, especially the TV ads showing the image of a newly-elected Trump projected onto the side of the Empire State Building, with Moore’s voiceover intoning ominously, “Ladies and gentlemen, the last president of the United States.” Moore has publicly, and certainly within the framework of this film, largely rejected hope as a fallback position in favor of insistence on activism, but I think that ad line crosses over into pessimism, and the director apparently recognized as much, because it’s nowhere to be heard in the film itself, pessimism and refusal to rest easy in hope being two quite different stances. 





Moore bolsters his own brand of hope by diminishing his own on-screen presence in the film and giving strong voice to progressive grassroots politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashia Tlaib and Michael Hepburn, as well as citizens like Flint mother LeeAnn Walters, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who heads up the medical effort to address dangerous levels of lead in Flint children as a result of the water crisis, and whistle-blower April Cook-Hawkins, who refused to fudge reports of hazardous lead levels to make them appear to be within an “acceptable” range. 




If these people embody the incensed willingness to resist the nation’s tilting-toward-Fascism which Moore so effectively argues, then his giving over the film’s final section to the ignited activism of the survivors of the Parkland high school massacre, and their collective eloquence to power, marks the foundation of Moore’s true hope. Again, there is nothing included here regarding this awful chapter in modern American horror that will surprise anyone who has been engaged and attentive over the last few years. But it’s the spirit of these young people, who took up their own cause and beliefs, organized marches and rallies, and confronted the political weasels who refuse to put the safety of American kids over their own rapacious desire for NRA money, which Moore leaves us with. 

The image of Emma Gonzalez, purposefully pausing during her famously impassioned and outraged speech immediately after the Parkland shootings, silent, waiting, looking directly into the camera, and the manner in which Moore cuts away, leaving the afterimage of her gaze, insistent, demanding answers, might just be the most powerful moment in a movie that itself is probably the best, most impassioned work this director has ever delivered. Fahrenheit 11/9 wants to rattle you, to move you, to bring you to tears, and it does. See it now, while it’s still in theaters, and get ready for the November midterm elections, or wait and see it at home-- given it’s diminished box-office take, who knows if a home video release might not be coming before November as well. However you end up seeing it, the film’s urgency demands an audience. 

For further reading, here are some reviews of Fahrenheit 11/9 from some critics who are far more eloquent on the subject than I am:

Sam Adams 
David Edelstein
Sophia A. McClennen
Stephen Whitty
And an interview with Michael Moore at Vulture.

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