SXSW 2021 Day 3

March 19, 2021

SXSW 2021 Day 3

 This was my third and final day of movies at this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) virtual festival. I’ve watched and reviewed 16 movies in 60 hours, and remarkably, there wasn’t one clunker in the bunch.

 

Day 3 for me included a documentary, a comedy, two dramas, and a horror film. Here’s a recap:

 

 

WITHOUT GETTING KILLED OR CAUGHT (documentary)

 Jerry Jeff Walker made the lyrics famous: “If I can just get off of this L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught”, but it was Guy Clark who wrote ‘em. Co-directors Tamara Saviano and Paul Whitfield put together a profile of legendary songwriter Clark, but it’s also an intimate look at an era, the challenges of the music industry, Clark’s enigmatic wife Susanna, and at their friendship with the great Townes Van Zandt.

The film is based on Susanna’s diaries and the biography written by co-director Saviano entitled, “Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark”. Most documentaries that focus on a musician spend the vast majority of time on the songs, but this is something quite different. Sure, the music is crucial to the story, but this is the saga of struggling artists and poets, and the unconventional and complicated relationships they formed. It’s more of a psychological character study than a tribute to the beautiful music.

Background on Guy and Susanna go back to each of their childhoods. We see family photos and videos, and learn Guy was brought up west Texas tough, while Susanna had a large family. Brought together by tragedy, their 40+ year relationship was built on art and a free-wheeling nature not uncommon to the times. Guy became best friends with songwriter Townes Van Zandt, and an unconventional triumvirate was the result when Townes and Susanna became spiritual soul mates.

Vince Gill, Steve Earle, and Rodney Crowell fill in some details of those early years, and more importantly provide perspective on the commitment to a specific type of songwriting that Guy held precious. There are also clips of interviews with Townes, and we learn just how difficult it was for Guy to achieve success. It came much easier for Susanna, who wrote #1 hit songs AND was an accomplished artist – her painting served as the cover of Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” album.

Of course, Guy Clark ultimately achieved both admiration and success with his songs. Jerry Jeff put him on the map, but Grammy awards came later, as did lifetime achievement awards and best-selling albums. The film includes much of Susanna’s time with “TR”, which is what she called the tape recorder, so we eavesdrop on many conversations – both personal and musical. Clips of Guy’s appearances on Austin City Limits in 1977, 1981, and 1989 are a pleasure, but the later years are a bit more difficult. The most challenging part of the story is knowing that Susanna remained bedridden after Townes’ death in 1997. Guy passed a few years later: “Texas is callin’, callin’ me home.” With narration from Sissy Spacek (as Susanna), the film is a personal journey that we are privileged to take.

 

SWAN SONG (drama)

 It’s never too late. We’ve all heard the phrase, but is it accurate … at least mostly? Writer-director Todd Stephens met the real life Pat Pitsenbarger in a small town gay bar, and he turned that person into this engaging story by casting the great Udo Kier in the lead. When we first meet Pat, he’s living a life of daily drudgery in a nursing home. He’s a curmudgeon whose hobbies are folding (perfectly) the paper napkins he takes from the cafeteria, and sneaking a smoke when no one is looking. We also see how tenderly he treats an incapacitated neighbor. It’s not the last time we see his two sides.

Pat was once a renowned hairdresser in Sandusky, Ohio. When he is informed that a long-time former (wealthy) client has passed away, and her dying wish was for Pat to do her hair for the funeral, he sneaks out of the home and begins a road trip down memory lane. Despite Pat spending the time on foot, the film has the feel of a true road trip movie as he crosses paths with many folks – some new and some with ties to his previous life. One of his first stops is the graveyard to visit his life partner who died of AIDS. We realize Pat still grieves.

There is a hilarious stop at a convenience store as he tries to knock off the items on his shopping list for the project. Since he has no money, Pat depends on the kindness of others … and his own sticky fingers. As he makes his way through town, some folks remember him, while others remind him of how long he’s been gone and how much has changed. His house and business may be gone, but his memories remain.

Two folks from his past generate tremendous scenes. Pat confronts Dee Dee Dale (a reserved Jennifer Coolidge) who gets to tell her side of the story of their unpleasant business split so many years ago. Even better is a “conversation” in the park with his old friend Eunice (a superb Ira Hawkins). The two old friends toast the bygone days of their gay club, while also acknowledging the new world of the gay community. It’s a touching sequence.

But the most surprising portion of the film occurs at the funeral home, where Pat imagines a final chat with that recently deceased client, Rita Parker-Sloan. What a pleasant surprise (actually shock!) to see Linda Evans back on screen. She is terrific in her brief appearance and we’ve really missed her over the last 23 years. But this film belongs to Udo Kier, and he kills. Pat is known as “The Liberace of Sandusky” and Kier embraces all that entails. This is a sentimental story punctuated by a spirited performance – and a Shirley Bassey song!

 

HOW IT ENDS (comedy)

 We get glimpses of the meteor that’s speeding on a collision course with Earth, but no character ever points it out. In fact, most emit a chill vibe that corresponds to that of the film. The only exception is Liza. Played by Zoe Lister-Jones, Liza simply wants to get trashed and let the world end overnight … well after she finishes off her morning pancakes (at least a dozen) and glass of wine.  Liza’s only problem is Young Liza (Cailee Spaeny), her metaphysical younger self who pressures Liza to attend the Apocalypse Party being thrown by Mandy (Whitney Cummings).

In addition to attending the party, Young Liza persuades Liza to spend the day confronting her regrets. This includes meeting up separately with her divorced parents (Brad Whitford and Helen Hunt), as well as a former best friend (Olivia Wilde), and past boyfriends, including her one true love (Logan Marshall-Green). In fact, this trip down Regret Road provides a steady stream of stereotypical California flakes. This means none of the soul-searching ever goes very deep, but playing spot-the-funny-person is a win-win. None of the interactions seem to last more than 2-4 minutes, but it’s a blast seeing how many familiar faces pop up during Liza and Young Liza’s day of walking. I won’t name the others here so that you can enjoy each moment – some more than others.

The film is co-written and co-directed by Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein, and it’s one of the more entertaining ‘pandemic’ films so far. For me, the constant roll of quick vignettes never got old, but you should know that as good as the performances are from Lister-Jones and Spaeny, the soul-searching and self-discovery only skims the surface. Still, a chill End of the World party seems perfect, even if a 1980’s relic agreed to be a punchline.

 

VIOLET (drama)

 Justine Bateman’s first feature film as writer-director acts an education for men and a wake-up call for women. And it’s welcome and effective on both fronts. Olivia Munn (“The Newsroom”) stars as Violet, a film industry executive whose self-doubts and lack of confidence prevent her from every really feeling happiness. Her inner voice – she calls it “the committee” feeds her bad ju-ju and keeps her obsessed with safe decisions, rather than dynamic ones … both personally and professionally.

As an example, her inner voice (Justin Theroux) pushes her to date an older, boring film executive for the sake of her career, rather than her screenwriting life-long friend Red (Luke Bracey) who clearly thinks more highly of Violet than she does herself. Violet’s boss (Dennis Boutsikaris) purposefully belittles her which causes some of her staff to also show little respect. Violet does have some supporters who recognize the talent and strength within her, but of course, it’s Violet who must come to terms with the disconnect between achieving happiness and the way she makes choices.

We see flashbacks to Violet’s childhood and understand how the seeds of self-doubt were planted. The supporting cast is excellent and very deep, though some (Bonnie Bedelia for one) only appear briefly. Filmmaker Bateman uses on screen script to let us know what’s going on in Violet’s mind as it battles with her “committee”. It’s a trick that serves the purpose well. Some may recall the “Seinfeld” episode where George does “the opposite”. Well that sentiment serves Violet well and puts her on the road to recovery … and to silencing that darn committee. A terrific first feature from Ms. Bateman, and kudos for the closing credits which put the crew on camera.

 

VIOLATION (drama/horror)

 Not just another rape-revenge thriller, this film from co-writers and co-directors Dusty Manicinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer is one of the most brutal and unforgiving films I’ve seen in a while. Emotional pain, regret, bitterness, and compromise worm through every scene and every character.

It begins as a cabin in the woods story. Miriam (co-director Sims-Fewer) and Caleb (Obi Abili) have a strained relationship that appears headed towards a breaking point. They are meeting up with Miriam’s sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and her husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) at his family cabin. There is an underlying tension that prevents the four from every being at ease with each other, though we only get bits and pieces at a time. To further force our concentration, the story is told in non-linear fashion, making it important to focus on hairstyles and details.

One evening by the campfire turns into a turning point in the film and acts as the before and after point. A primal and brutally violent sequence takes up close to half of the film, and it’s unlike anything I’ve previously seen on screen. The practical effects are next level, and Ms. Sims-Fewer is absolutely terrific throughout. A chilling use of music accompanies an odd combination of wolf-rabbit-psychopath, and the filmmakers use shots of nature as connective tissue in a world where sometimes we are the wolf and sometimes the rabbit. Certainly not a film for mass audiences, but it will surely find an appreciative following.

 


SXSW 2021 Day 2

March 18, 2021

SXSW 2021 Day 2

 This year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) festival is being held completely online, and of course a virtual festival lacks the oh-so-enjoyable elements of long lines, rude people, bad weather, and rushed fast food. Sure the excitement and energy of an audience is missing, but at least there is no hotel expense!

Day 2 for me included two documentaries, two thrillers, and two dramas. Here’s a recap:

 

WeWORK: OR THE MAKING AND BREAKING OF A $47 MILLION UNICORN (documentary)

 It’s quite possible that many scams originally begin with someone’s good intentions. However it’s just as likely, and maybe even more so, that many scams begin with only the intention of raking in millions or billions for the founder. The dream of becoming the next Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or Mark Zuckerberg is simply too enticing for some. Filmmaker Jed Rothstein profiles the rise and fall of WeWork, or more accurately, its charismatic commander, Adam Neumann.

Offering a nice overview for those unfamiliar, the film uses multiple clips of Neumann speaking so that we get a real feel for how so many fell under his spell. Neumann was an immigrant from Israel, and certainly bought into the ideal of living the American Dream. Labeled a visionary, and always full of ideas, Neumann co-founded WeWork with Miguel McKelvey. They were known affectionately as Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside, respectively, due to McKelvey’s focus on operations and infrastructure and Neumann’s ability as a salesman and the (and hair) of the company.

The idea of co-working space was not new, but it had never been pitched or marketed the way that Neumann did. He appealed to the rebellious nature of millennials, who couldn’t picture themselves in the traditional corporate office environment of the establishment. Neumann capitalized on their FOMO, and rammed home the message of “Do what you love.” He preached to the choir with his promise of the next revolution being the “We revolution.”

Journalists from Forbes, The Atlantic, and The Wall Street Journal are interviewed, as are former We staff members and clients. Mr. Rothstein does a nice job of tracking the progression of the company via graphics showing valuation each year beginning with a few million in 2012 through a peak of $47 billion in 2018. He also explores how, within a 6 week period, the company went from that peak to near bankrupt.

A business model based on “community” with the goal of changing the way people work and live, turns out to be smoke and mirrors if legitimate business practices aren’t followed. That’s not to say his communal approach doesn’t work, but as so often happens, greed and the lust for power, create the downfall. Rothstein points out that the company’s own S-1 filed prior to the planned IPO was the red flag that had previously gone undetected.

This is as much a psychological study of Neumann as it is a business case study. Every time Neumann bristled at being called a “real estate company”, we should have known. With his cash infusion from Japan’s SoftBank still not leading to traditional profitability, we should have known. When his bizarre actress wife, Rebekah, became more involved with decisions and publicity, we should have known. Hindsight is crystal clear, and by the end, we realize Neumann has more in common with the notorious Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos than with Steve Jobs. The Jesus Complex seems obvious, but as humans we want so much to believe the words of an idealist … especially a cool one. There is a lot to unpack in this documentary, and it’s worth it – even if it helps us learn our lesson yet again.

 

HERE BEFORE (drama/thriller)

 Grief can be the most powerful and dangerous emotion we experience as humans. Anger and joy come and go, but real grief seeps into our marrow and becomes part of our being. Writer-director Stacey Gregg wisely tackles the topic with the assistance of the always excellent Andrea Riseborough (a resume loaded with strong projects) as Laura, a mother who begins to believe that her deceased daughter Josie has been reincarnated as the new neighbors’ daughter, Megan (Niamh Dornan).

Ms. Gregg expertly builds tension and doubt through the film’s first half, and throws a terrific curve ball in the final act … one I kick myself and applaud the filmmaker for not seeing it coming. There is an awkwardness between the two families forced together by a shared dwelling wall. That awkwardness only builds as Laura continually oversteps boundaries when it comes to Megan, who seems to know entirely too many details when it comes to Josie’s death.

Megan’s parents, Marie (Eileen O’Higgins) and Chris (Martin McCann), are from a different socio-economic class than their neighbors, and the uncomfortable connection extends to Laura’s husband, Brendon (Jonjo O’Neill) and son, Tadhg (Lewis McAkie). Whether it’s in the front yard, at school, or the grocery story, each time these families cross paths leaves us with weird vibes and feeling more confused. Is something supernatural at play here?

The cinematography from Chloe Thomson is superb, and composer Adam Janota Bzowski is pitch perfect is giving us just enough at the right moments. Set in Belfast, this is a gripping thriller with terrific performances throughout. Stacey Gregg makes it look all too easy with her first feature film.

 

LANGUAGE LESSONS (drama)

 The use of video chats as a plot device might have been a bit more adventurous 18 months ago, but oddly, the pandemic and our familiarity with this type of communication (out of necessity) actually works to strengthen this interesting film. It’s the feature film directorial debut of Natalie Morales, who co-wrote the script with Mark Duplass, and the two co-star as the only characters we see on screen.

Ms. Morales plays Carino, a Costa Rica-based Spanish teacher hired by Adam’s (Duplass) husband Will (an unseen DeSean Terry). An awkward first lesson – Lesson #1 of 100 in the package – includes Adam’s morning routine of hot/cold dips in the pool and spa in the backyard of his luxurious home. Director Morales labels the lessons throughout, and no, we thankfully don’t see all 100. After a personal tragedy occurs, the teacher-student dynamic shifts and becomes more therapy before settling into a strange friendship.

Between lessons, Adam and Carino exchange many personal messages, many littered with entirely too many “I’m sorry” lines in an attempt to avoid overstepping boundaries. Adam is forthcoming with his personal feelings, while Carino bounces between trying to stay professional and wanting to bond. It’s clear she is hiding details of her personal life, while rarely discouraging Adam from over-sharing. The frequent personal messages reveal more about each character than the scheduled meetings, but combined they work very well.

The charisma of Duplass and especially Morales allow us to care very much about this relationship. They are both charming, and Morales has the most fun in the drunk birthday song scene. She is to be commended for taking such a simple structure and creating an interesting movie that proves people need connection – whether in person, through masks, or via Zoom.

 

THE FALLOUT (drama)

 Megan Park is an established actress with some memorable roles (WHAT IF, 2013), and although she has directed some short films, this is her first feature film as writer-director. Her subject matter revolves around a school shooting and how it impacts students in so many ways. Rather than creating a project focusing on gun control, Ms. Park instead takes on the various emotions that occur after such a horrific event.

Vada (Jenna Ortega, young Jane in “Jane the Virgin”) is a 16 year old high school student who is in the restroom when gunfire is heard. We don’t see the shooter, and instead director Park sticks with Vada and Mia Reed (Maddie Ziegler) as they hide in the stall, terrified of what’s happening. Mia is the school beauty, and one that Vada and her best friend Will (Nick Ropp) would typically make fun of behind her back. While in the stall, a bloody Quinton (Niles Fitch) joins them.

The three students form an unlikely bond after the shooting, as Will finds a new mission in life as an activist and spokesperson. Vada’s parents are played by a skittish Julie Bowen and the always dependable John Ortiz. Vada and Mia both struggle with their emotions, and start to depend on each other. Quinton has serious fallout to deal with, though he and Vada get closer as well. Though she is unable to talk to her parents or deal with her younger sister, Vada does see a therapist played by Shailene Woodley.

It’s painful to see anyone have to deal with such a horrific event, but it’s so much worse when it’s kids who simply aren’t mature enough or experienced enough to handle such a burden. Wine, sex, and pot all make up the attempts at self-healing by the students, and the film doesn’t shy away from the difficulties they face in returning to school – or returning to anything resembling normalcy after attending memorial services for numerous classmates. Filmmaker Park allows us to experience Vada’s slow recovery, and then throws in a gut-punch of an ending that is likely to stun many. A terrific performance from Ms. Ortega and strong filmmaking from Ms. Park makes this one stick with us.

 

TOM PETTY SOMEWHERE YOU FEEL FREE (documentary)

 Adria Petty, daughter of the late rock legend, Tom Petty, discovered a stash of 16mm film shot by photographer Martyn Akins between 1993 and 1995. The footage chronicles Petty’s recording of his 1994 triple platinum album, “Wildflowers” – the album he considered his best and most personal. The found footage, along with insight and perspective from many who were there, allows us to understand why he felt that way.

Mary Wharton directed multiple episodes of “VH1 Legends”, and her expertise with musicians elevates this to must-see for any Tom Petty fan … or even any songwriter who wants to witness the crafting of songs, and the crafting of a sound. See, this was Petty’s first time to work with famed rap producer and co-founder of Def Jam Recordings, Rick Rubin. Adria explains what was happening in her father’s personal life during this time, and how he wanted something new and different from his work with The Heartbreakers – although most of them worked on this album as well.

In addition to the 27 year old footage, Ms. Wharton includes current day interviews with Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, and producer Rubin. Campbell seems mostly bored with the interviews, but Tench spills all his memories. It’s really Rubin who brings the most insight and perspective to what Petty was trying to do. The changing of drummers from Stan Lynch to Steve Ferrone is discussed, and we hear Petty explain that he still wants to sing with bassist Howie Epstein. So the songs may sound different, and have special meaning to Petty, many of the musicians are those he was most familiar and comfortable with.

We see rehearsals, recordings, sound checks, and live performances. There are also rare clips of Petty at home. Ms. Wharton provides a unique opportunity to watch an artist at work and how the pieces are assembled to create a masterpiece album that is as strong today as it was on its first release. Tom Petty died in 2017, but lives on in his music, and now in the footage of his musical process.

 

OFFSEASON (horror)

 Horror director and writer Mickey Keating adds to his oeuvre with a creative twist on the genre that mixes zombies, the depths of hell, and a powerful monster. Using title cards to take us through six chapters and an Epilogue, Mr. Keating has us experience the events through the eyes of Marie Aldrich (played by Jocelin Donahue). However, it’s Marie’s mother Ava, played by the always interesting Melora Walters (whose career dates back to DEAD POETS SOCIETY, 1989), whom we see and hear from first. She appears near death as she explains that she’s accepted that there is no way to run away from nightmares … they always find you.

Marie receives a letter informing her that her mother’s grave has been desecrated and it’s an urgent matter that must be handled promptly and without fanfare (do people usually go to the press on such matters?). Marie and her boyfriend George (Joe Swanberg) head to the island where Mom is buried. It’s a creepy place that shuts down for the winter. Marie’s mother had told her stories of the island and “The Man from the Sea”, and how the island residents sold their soul to the sea monster in order to survive the harsh conditions. Reluctantly, the Bridge Man (Richard Brake) allows them to cross the bridge onto the island.

Things immediately seem weird and off-center. Marie finds her mother’s damaged grave, but the caretaker is nowhere to be found. Under a time crunch, Marie and George make some bad decisions … of course, it wouldn’t be a horror movie without bad decisions! Not to give away any of the fun, but suffice to say the island is cursed, just as Marie’s mom had warned.

Keating creates some nice visuals, and has terrific placement of The Vogues’ “Turn Around, Look at Me”. One thing that I couldn’t help but notice is that Marie runs and runs. She runs a lot. I’m hoping Ms. Donahue agreed to the extra miles before arriving on set. There are enough chills here to keep us engaged, and Keating deserves credit for an original story within a genre that frequently re-treads.


SXSW 2021 Day One

March 16, 2021

SXSW 2021 Day 1

This year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) festival is being held completely online, and of course a virtual festival lacks the oh-so-enjoyable elements of long lines, rude people, bad weather, and rushed fast food. Sure the excitement and energy of an audience is missing, but at least there is no hotel expense!

Day 1 for me included four documentaries and one narrative. Here’s a recap:

 

HYSTERICAL (documentary)

 Stand-up comedy is certainly one of the toughest ways to make a living in the entertainment world. As if making others laugh isn’t difficult enough, convincing someone to give you mic time on stage takes a minor miracle when first starting out. Documentarian Andrea Blaugrund Nevins goes one step further as she focuses on the trials and tribulations facing female stand-up comedians. And she does so in a way that allows us to feel the struggle.

No matter your age, if you are reading this, then there were successful and funny female comedians working when you were growing up. Ms. Nevins includes clips of Moms Mabley from 1948, as well as Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, and other legends. But this documentary is about so much more than great jokes. We are privy to the personal stories behind the stage acts of many of the women working stand-up today. These women are honest and raw in recounting their journeys, and they are fascinating and informative.

Souls are bared, and no topic is off limits. Confidence, anger, self-doubt, childhood issues, and the desire for attention and acknowledgment are discussed. In what has traditionally been “a man’s world”, we are told that once onstage, “There is no one telling us what to do.” The dark side is also present. Pay discrepancies between the genders is well documented. We hear multiple stories of being subjected to inappropriate behavior, groping, and even assault. Included is the 2019 clip of Kelly Bachman rocking the room while Harvey Weinstein was present. On top of that, there is competition amongst the women due to the belief that there is only room for so many. Yet, despite this, a camaraderie exists among these brave women to prove the power of laughter. Terrific work from Ms. Nevins.

 

DEAR MR. BRODY (documentary)

 Filmmaker Keith Maitland is responsible for one of the best made and most interesting documentaries of all-time. His TOWER (2016) was a favorite on the festival run, as well as its numerous TV showings. The body count on his latest is reduced, and it plays like psychoanalysis of a young man who captured the nation’s attention for one brief moment in time.

If the title doesn’t ring a bell, you likely were either too young or not born when, in 1970, the heir to an Oleo Margarine fortune made headlines everywhere. Michael James Brody, Jr announced that he was going to give away his millions to anyone who asked. He even gave out his home address and phone number in Scarsdale, New York. The announcement even got him a spot on “The Ed Sullivan Show” to sing a song … which led to a recording contract.

At the time, Brody was 21 years old and married to Renee, who was kind enough to sit for interviews with Mr. Maitland for the film. Her (reluctant) insight paints a picture of a man who believed in “Peace” over “Money”, and started with the best intentions of helping people. Sadly, but not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for the cracks to show in Brody’s mission. His pronouncements of gift-giving had his wealth fluctuating from $25 million to $50 million, and even into the billions at times. His demeanor shifted drastically, sometimes within the same day.

The letters flowed in. And kept coming. We hear from authors, friends of Brody, and researchers. Producer Melissa Robyn Glassman located 12 boxes of unopened letters that movie Producer Edward Pressman had in storage from a movie project that never materialized. We also hear from Brody’s and Renee’s son Jamey, who not only collects items from the family “Good Luck” Margarine brand, but also has 40-50 boxes of unopened letters addressed to his dad … Dear Mr. Brody.

It’s those letters that provide the heart and soul of the story, the movie, and this moment in history. Maitland and Melissa track down some of the original letter writers, as well as some of the surviving family members. As they read the words from decades ago, emotions take over and instantly, we are observing an intimate memory. We may be intruding, but these are raw human emotions on display.

Brody’s mental state at the time is also discussed. Drugs clearly played a part in his behavior – specifically PCP, and this led to interest from the editor of “High Times” magazine. It also led to Brody being hospitalized for a time, and ultimately to tragedy. History is filled with odd characters, and Michael James Brody, Jr certainly had his Andy Warhol ’15 minutes of Fame’, but the real story here is that of those who wrote the letters of need/want more than 50 years ago.

**NOTE: it’s not surprising that Brody’s house at 31 Paddington Road in Scarsdale was long ago razed and replaced with a mansion more suitable to the area.

 

INTRODUCING, SELMA BLAIR (documentary)

 Whether it’s navigating the stairs on all fours, getting a boost up to the saddle of her beloved horse, or showing off her glittery turbans and walking canes, the showmanship of actress Selma Blair seems ever-present despite the severe effects of her Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Documentarian Rachel Fleit films the daily challenges faced by Ms. Blair as she comes to grips with the disease and its impact on her career, her life, and her ability to raise her son.

You likely recognize Selma Blair from her most popular movies, CRUEL INTENTIONS (1999) and LEGALLY BLONDE (2001). She admits to viewing herself as a supporting actor, rather than a star, but with 80 screen credits over 25 years, she’s certainly worked consistently. But here we see her daily physical and emotional struggles, though her sense of humor is present except for the darkest moments. Cracking wise about Kim Kardashian or Norma Desmond (SUNSET BLVD), and never hesitating to ensure her cane serves the dual purpose of fashion accessory, Ms. Blair keeps us constantly guessing as to whether she is serving up raw emotions or her best performance in the moment.

We can easily forgive her if a bit of her good humor is an act. It seems clear the film is designed to be a “gift” to her young son Arthur, should her life be cut short. Early on, we witness an MS episode when the stimulus gets to be too much. Her physical contortions and impaired speech are difficult to watch, but necessary for us to fully understand the brutality of the disease.

Half of the film is dedicated to her decision to seek stem cell treatment. The process is long and arduous, and we are spared much of the worst that she experiences. Still, it’s a weeks-long cycle followed by a two year recovery, with no guarantee of improvement. In fact, no miracle cure or recovery occurs, and Ms. Blair initially seems shocked that she has two years of recovery ahead. It’s difficult to believe she had not previously been informed.

Selma Blair’s slogan, “We have so much time to be dead”, is a terrific message and she’s to be commended and respected for opening up her challenges to the camera. It’s hopeful that her willingness to do so will help others, while also educating those unfamiliar with this disease. Mommy issues and extra drama aside, this film is quite something to experience.

 

THE END OF US (drama)

 Co-writers and co-directors Steven Kanter and Henry Loevner serve up one of the first COVID-19 relationship movies. It’s the kind of indie movie that plays well at festivals, but also one that nails what so many have experienced over the past year … well hopefully sans the break-up.

Ali Vingiano is Leah and Ben Coleman is Nick. They have been in a four year relationship that ends abruptly when Leah gets fed up with carrying an unbalanced load in regards to grown-up things like rent, food, and insurance. See, while Nick dreams of writing a screenplay and getting acting jobs (while taking few auditions), Leah is the grounded one who holds a real paying job. It’s easy for us to understand when Leah says ‘enough’.

The wrinkle here is that the break-up occurs in the early days of the pandemic. Knowledge is scarce and deaths are mounting. Businesses are closing and a stay-at-home order is issued in California, forcing this newly separated couple to … well … not be separated. Nick sleeps on the couch, but the two are together more now than … well … when they were together. Tension and stress is as prevalent as Zoom meetings.

It’s an unusual situation, and both Leah and Nick have friends they confide in, but moving on is pretty difficult when the proximity is closer than ever before. Petty emotions come into play, as do real ones. Apologies and quasi-apologies are rampant, but we see both change and grow despite the challenges. The lead actors are solid and the script is fresh and spot on. There are some uncomfortable moments, but relatability is the key here. Nice work from those involved.

 

DEMI LOVATO: DANCING WITH THE DEVIL (documentary)

 Opening Night Headliner at SXSW is a place of honor, and this year’s selection was the docuseries from Michael D Ratner (TV docuseries “Justin Bieber: Seasons”) highlighting Demi Lovato’s personal challenges, of which there are many. The 4-part series was shown straight-through with only chapter slides showing where each new episode begins. Initial scenes show Lovato during her 2018 tour, which was originally the purpose of a documentary. Filming ended abruptly when she overdosed on drugs and nearly died.

In 2020, Ms. Lovato had a new story to tell, and her personal struggles became the focus of the documentary. She promised transparency and honesty, and by all indications, she delivered. Very few celebrities have ever revealed so many personal challenges. By the end of the finale, we’ve heard about her addictions, the physical-emotional-sexual abuse she’s endured, her eating disorder, bi-polar diagnosis, depression, self-harm, and body issues. We also learn of her frequent lies to friends, family, and associates.

Not only does Lovato sit for many interviews, we also hear from her mother, sisters, friends, choreographer, Security Director, Business Manager, and former personal assistant. That’s right. One of the things that stands out most here is privilege. The former Disney child star and now global pop star has a support team and resources that most can only dream of. She went to rehab at one of the most exclusive facilities in the world, and after a near-death drug overdose, her famous new manager agrees to sign her, even after a relapse shortly after her rehab stint. Obviously addiction is something many struggle with, but it’s quite eye-opening to see the care wealth can attain.

One of the most interesting things to come from this is in the final episode where Lovato admits that “moderation” is her personal approach to dealing with addiction. Despite input from Elton John, Christina Aguilera, and Will Ferrell, Lovato believes she is better off with moderate alcohol consumption and pot smoking than stone cold sobriety. Only time will tell. One thing is for sure … her voice remains a true gift. Her “comeback” performance at the 2020 Grammy Awards and her singing of the National Anthem at the 2020 Super Bowl are unmistakable in proof of talent. However, we can’t help but wonder how the personal admissions will be received by the youngsters who look up to Demi Lovato.

 


OUT OF THE PAST (1947) revisited

February 7, 2021

***** This is an entry into my “Revisited” series where I re-watch a classic movie and then write about it – not with a traditional review, but rather a general discussion of the movie, those involved with it, and its impact or influence.

 Greetings again from the darkness. There are a few films that provide the perfect example of Film Noir, and this one from director Jacques Tourneur is unquestionably one of them. Tourneur is also known for CAT PEOPLE (1942) and he’s the son of prolific French director, Maurice Tourneur. Daniel Mainwaring, under his pen name Geoffrey Homes, adapted the screenplay from his own novel, “Build My Gallows High”.

Jeff is the owner of a small town gas station, and although relatively new to the town, he’s made a few local friends – in particular Ann, with whom he has a pretty serious, though not altogether honest, relationship. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before Jeff’s mysterious past catches up with him, and this happens pretty early in the story. He’s called back to the big city by one of the henchmen for mobster Whit, who wants Jeff to track down Whit’s mistress, Kathie, who absconded with $40,000. It’s an offer Jeff can’t refuse, and soon enough he’s in Acapulco entranced by the “dame” he’s paid to track down. What follows is a slew of twists and turns, double-crosses, dangerous close calls, and yes, yet another “dame” that can’t be trusted.

The noir hijinks are a blast to watch, thanks in no small part to the extraordinary cast. Robert Mitchum plays Jeff, and his dry, laconic approach allows him to walk that line between being an anti-hero and a good guy that we root for. Whit is played exceeding well by not-yet-a-star Kirk Douglas, whose pent-up energy and fast-talking nature are the perfect dueling partner for Mitchum. While the screen presence of Mitchum and Douglas can’t be denied, it’s Jane Greer who steals nearly every scene she’s in playing Kathie. Duplicitous is not a strong enough word for the character of Kathie. Ann is played beautifully by Virginia Huston, and Rhonda Fleming comes into the story as Meta Carson about halfway through, competing with Kathie for the title of least trustworthy woman you’ll likely come across. Other supporting performances come from Paul Valentine as Whit’s henchman Joe, Richard Webb as Ann’s protective and jealous suitor Jim, Steve Brodie as Fisher, and Dickie Moore as Jeff’s trusty employee known only as The Kid.

Director Tourneau was a master of creating atmosphere, and his career took him through many types of projects, formats, and genres: Short films, westerns, horror, adventure, war, mystery, and crime. The last few years of his career were spent directing TV movies and series. He passed away in 1977 at age 73, leaving behind two movies, OUT OF THE PAST and CAT PEOPLE that would be selected for the National Film Registry. Writer Daniel Mainwaring also passed in 1977 (age 74), and though he began as a journalist-turned-novelist, his greatest success was as a screenwriter. In addition to this film, he also wrote another noir classic, THE BIG STEAL (1949), in which director Don Siegel reunited Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer; and the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956), also directed by Siegel.

 Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas are both considered giants of Hollywood past. Mitchum is viewed as the consummate tough guy, and his characters often stood out due to the air of indifference in his acting style. He was only nominated for one Oscar in his career, but the memorable roles are many – including westerns, romance, and crime thrillers. Mitchum’s “bad boy” persona was only enhanced by his serving jail time for a marijuana offense in 1949, however in real life, he was married to his wife Dorothy for 57 years (although his extramarital affairs were well known). He also had some success as a singer-songwriter, and on screen, he is remembered for two of the best ever screen villains from CAPE FEAR (1962) and THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955). Fans of TOMBSTONE (1993) recognize Mitchum’s voice as the narrator, and his final screen appearance was in 1997, the same year he died at age 79.

Kirk Douglas was nominated for 3 Oscars, and very few actors were more proficient at stealing a scene, and even fewer duplicated his long-lasting screen presence. He was a showy performer who was hardly known when cast in OUT OF THE PAST, the movie that vaulted him towards stardom. His most iconic roles include Vincent Van Gogh in LUST FOR LIFE (1956), Doc Holliday in GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL (1957), and in two Stanley Kubrick films, PATHS OF GLORY (1957) and SPARTACUS (1960). Douglas is often given credit for virtually ending Hollywood’s “Blacklist” by hiring Dalton Trumbo to write for SPARTACUS. Douglas worked frequently in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and made eight films with Burt Lancaster, another industry legend. A stroke in 1996 made speaking very difficult for him, but therapy allowed him to get back on stage and on screen. In the early 1960s, Douglas starred on stage in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and he held on to the screen rights until his son, actor-producer Michael Douglas, turned it into a 1975 box office hit starring Jack Nicholson. Kirk Douglas was married to his second wife, Anne, for 65 years until his death in 2020 at age 103.

 Jane Greer was only 22 when she filmed OUT OF THE PAST, yet she had the aura to make us believe her Kathie could turn any man inside-out. She won beauty pageants as a baby, and sang with orchestras as a teenager, but the movie camera and big screen took her to a new level. As her career was just starting, she got caught in the infamous web of Howard Hughes, and only a quickie marriage to singer Rudy Vallee allowed her to escape. Her two best known films are this one and THE BIG STEAL two years later, in which she again co-starred with Mitchum. In 1984, she appeared in Taylor Hackford’s remake of OUT OF THE PAST, entitled AGAINST ALL ODDS. In the film, she plays Rachel Ward’s mother. After her second divorce in 1963, she had a long-term relationship with actor Frank London. They both passed away in 2001. She was 76.

Rhonda Fleming was in her mid-20s during filming, and had already appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND (1945). Her career spanned more than 40 films, including Robert Siodmak’s THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946), Fritz Lang’s WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1956), and John Sturges’ GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL (1957). She worked with most every leading man of the era, including four films with Ronald Reagan. As a gifted singer, she performed in  Broadway musicals and was featured in her own concerts. Fleming spent most of the 1960’s and 1970’s doing TV work. She was married 6 times, and died in 2020 at age 97.  The third female star in the film was Virginia Huston as Jeff’s small town girlfriend. Ms. Huston’s acting career lasted less than a decade, and she also appeared in FLAMINGO ROAD (1949) with Joan Crawford, and as Jane opposite Lex Barker in TARZAN’S PERIL (1951). She passed away from cancer at age 55 in 1981.

Paul Valentine, who plays Whit’s smirking henchman Joe, also had a fairly limited career, although like Ms. Greer, he also appeared in the remake AGAINST ALL ODDS in 1984. It was one of his last screen appearances. Richard Webb, Anne’s intense and jealous protector Jim, was a hard-working character actor from the 1940s through the 1970s, and he authored some books on psychic phenomena. Dickie Moore plays the deaf-mute “Kid”, Jeff’s confidant, and was the epitome of a child star. Beginning at age 18 months, Moore appeared in 52 movies by age 10. If you are ever in a trivia contest and the question comes up about Shirley Temple’s first on screen kiss – you’ll rack up the points if you answer ‘Dickie Moore’. He appeared in five Best Picture nominees, but his acting career was over by age 30. While researching his book on child stars, he met actress Jane Powell. They had been married for 27 years at the time of his death in 2015.

The film stands the test of time and is right there with THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) and DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) and any others considered classic Film Noir. In fact, Humphrey Bogart was originally offered the role of Jeff, and while we can imagine him in the role, Mitchum was terrific in making it his own. No one has ever said, “Baby, I don’t care” any better, and it is also the name of Mitchum’s 2001 biography written by Lee Server. In addition to the great cast, Tourneur makes creative use of lighting and camera angles throughout, and all of that adds up to a fun movie-watching experience in spite of some of the confusion on how the story progresses. It’s a must see for anyone who enjoys classic movies or wants to experience a young actress stealing a film right out from under two screen legends.

*NOTE: I previously wrote about this movie in 2011, but I felt the urge to dig a bit deeper after re-watching it recently.

WATCH THE TRAILER

 


CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER (1929-2021)

February 5, 2021

 It was announced today that legendary actor Christopher Plummer passed away at age 91. Thanks to his more than 200 screen credits covering 8 decades, and especially for his role as Captain Von Trapp in the long-time family favorite, THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965), Plummer was one of the most recognized, most respected, and most beloved actors of our time.

Plummer was a three-time Oscar nominee: as Tolstoy in THE LAST STATION (2009); as J Paul Getty in ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (2017), and as a terminally ill man who surprises his family by taking a younger male lover in BEGINNERS (2010). It’s his terrific performance in that last movie that won him his only Oscar as he became the oldest actor to ever win a competitive Oscar. The “legendary” status I mentioned early stems not just from his work on the big screen. Plummer is renowned for his stage work, and was a two-time Tony winner, and he also won two Emmy’s for his TV performances.  Although he was nominated for a Grammy, the EGOT eluded him.

There are too many memorable performances to list, but it’s amazing that 73 of his acting credits came after he turned 70 years old.  In fact, one of his final appearances was in the excellent 2019 whodunit, KNIVES OUT.  Plummer released his autobiography, “In Spite of Myself” in 2008, and he was the great-grandson of former Canadian Prime Minister John Abbott.

He was married for 53 years to his third wife, British dancer-actress Elaine Taylor, and among his surviving family is his daughter, Emmy-winning actress Amanda Plummer, who was so memorable in Quentin Tarantino’s PULP FICTION.  Even if he hadn’t been such a talented stage and screen actor, Mr. Plummer likely could have had a nice career as a voice actor … such a smooth, sophisticated baritone.

May Captain Von Trapp “Bloom and Grow Forever”

In THE SOUND OF MUSIC, his singing voice was dubbed by singer Bill Lee, but here is a recording of Plummer’s actual voice singing EDELWEISS. Personally, I would have stuck with Plummer’s version for realism, but I’ll admit, Lee’s version brings a tear to my eye every time.

 

 


THE HAUNTING (1963) revisited

January 30, 2021

*** This is an entry into my “Revisited” series where I re-watch a classic movie and then write about it – not with a traditional review, but rather a general discussion of the movie, those involved with it, and its impact or influence.

 Greetings again from the darkness. Long ago, filmmakers figured out how to have fun with ‘things that go bump in the night’. Of course some do it better than others, and how scary or creepy you find a movie will depend on your personal phobias and preferences. For a combination of haunted house, ghost story, and psychological thriller, few are better than this 1963 gem from director Robert Wise. I’ve strategically planned this after the recent success of two limited series from Netflix: “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018) and “The Haunting of Bly Manor” (2020). Although the two series were marketed as being related, in fact only the 2018 series was based on the 1959 novel from Shirley Jackson … the same as Wise’s 1963 film.

The story begins with Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) being contracted to conduct a scientific study of psychic phenomena and paranormal activity in the now vacant Hill House mansion that has a 90 year history of strange and tragic endings for its past inhabitants. He will be joined by two hand-picked volunteers, Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) and Theodora (Claire Bloom), as well as Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), the young man who stands to inherit Hill House. Eleanor has a history of paranormal connection (as a child) and Theo is a clairvoyant with ESP tendencies. Luke is mostly an obnoxious rich kid hoping to cash in on his inheritance.

We get an early introduction to Eleanor’s home life, and in those days she would likely have been labeled a spinster. She has spent many years taking care of her recently deceased mother, and is now out of step with reality … and burdened with guilt from her sister, who not only treats her like a child, but also blames Eleanor for their mother’s death. Being selected for the Hill House research is a dream come true for her – a chance to do something for herself. Her arrival at the gates of the manor provide a glimpse of just how important this is to her. She refuses to heed the caretaker’s (Valentine Dyall) warning, and demands to be allowed in.

Our first view of Hill House is seen through Eleanor’s eyes and we hear her inner voice acknowledge the feeling of having the house “watch her” as she drives up. The exterior shots of the neo-Gothic mansion are truly awe-inspiring and intimidating. She is greeted at the door by the other caretaker (Rosalie Crutchley), who takes socially awkward to a new level with her zombie-like warnings of the night and the dark. Soon the others arrive, and the initial conversations allow us to understand the differing personalities and get our first look at the interior of Hill House.

The initial set-up is for a scientific, first hand analysis of supernatural occurrences inside the house … all led, of course, by Dr. Markham. Sexual tension plays a role here as Eleanor is attracted to Dr. Markham, who conveniently has not mentioned that he’s married. Simultaneously, Theodora teases and flirts with Eleanor, while only admitting to not being married, yet still cohabiting as an “us”. What is abundantly clear from the beginning is that Hill House itself is a featured character. Director Wise and cinematographer Davis Boulton utilize creative camera angles and specialized lighting, and capture the essence of the home through terrific set design. In a rare case for horror movies, very few special effects are present outside of sounds; although the spiral staircase in the library and the heaving wooden doors are quite memorable.

Director Robert Wise was a 4 time Oscar winner (THE SOUND OF MUSIC, 1965, WEST SIDE STORY, 1961) and was also Orson Welles’ film editor on CITIZEN KANE (1941). Wise directed such diverse films as STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979); the sci-fi classic THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951); SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME (1956), which turned Paul Newman into a star; RUN SILENT RUN DEEP (1959) a submarine movie starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster; THE SAND PEBBLES (1966), which was Steve McQueen’s only Oscar nomination; and another horror gem AUDREY ROSE (1977). Well-liked by actors and respected in the industry, Mr. Wise died in 2005 at age 91.

Screenwriter Nelson Gidding and director Wise both previously received their first Oscar nominations for I WANT TO LIVE (1958), and were frequent collaborators, including: ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959), THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971, adapted from Michael Crichton’s novel), and THE HINDENBURG (1975). Gidding adapted Shirley Jackson’s tremendous novel, “The Haunting of Hill House”, with some variations that turned it into more of a psychological cinematic experience. Mr. Gidding passed away in 2004 at age 84.

 Julie Harris received her Oscar nomination for EAST OF EDEN (1955), where many fell in love with her as Abra, the girl torn between two brothers, one of which was played by Oscar nominee James Dean in his star-making turn. Ms. Harris’ career spanned seven decades (1948-2009), and, as a 5-time Tony winner, she remains one of the most honored and respected stage performers of all-time. Much of her later career was on stage and television, including a long run on “Knot’s Landing”. She passed away in 2013 at age 87.

Claire Bloom, who plays Theodora, is still alive today and turns 90 the day after Valentine’s Day 2021. He acting career has spanned eight decades (1948-2019), and one more gig will get her to a remarkable nine! Never one to shy away from controversy, Ms. Bloom shines here as the lesbian with ESP, and she is also a renowned stage actress recognized for her Shakespearian work. She had marriages to Oscar winning actor Rod Steiger and Pulitzer Prize winning author Phillip Roth, and many will recall her role as Queen Mary in THE KING’S SPEECH (2010).

The two male leads in the film were played by Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn. Mr. Johnson is known as the actor who turned down the role of James Bond in 1962, setting the stage for Sean Connery’s historic run. Johnson was briefly married to Kim Novak (VERTIGO, 1958), and his career lasted seven decades (1950-2015), and he remained working until his death in 2015 at age 87.  Mr. Tamblyn was coming off his role as Jets’ leader Riff in Robert Wise’s WEST SIDE STORY (1961), and he had earlier appeared in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954). He was Oscar nominated for his role in PEYTON PLACE (1957), and during his 8 decade career (1948-2018), he appeared in 6 movies that were Oscar nominated for Best Picture. He is 86 years old and recently appeared in the 2018 limited series “The Haunting of Hill House”. He is the father of actor Amber Tamblyn.

For fans of James Bond movies, you’ll be pleased to see Lois Maxwell appear in this film as Dr. Markway’s wife. Of course, Ms. Maxwell is known to fans as Miss Moneypenny in 14 James Bond movies, second only to Desmond Llewelyn’s 17 appearances as Q. She passed away in 2007 at age 80.

 In the movie, Hill House is described as a 90 year old New England house with a history of psychic phenomena. However, the exterior shots are actually of a neo-Gothic mansion (hotel) in Ettington Park near Stratford-Upon-Avon. It’s an active hotel with a history tracks back to the 11th century. The interior shots were conducted on a UK studio set. In 1999 director Jan De Bont (SPEED, 1994) delivered a second adaptation (not a remake) of Jackson’s novel, starring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta Jones. A different house was used for Hill House.

Wise’s film is now nearly 60 years old, and it holds up today thanks to the house, the performances, the direction, and the decision to create a psychological thriller and character study. The power of suggestion is key, yet it never loses the core of being a haunted house story … a house that seems to want Eleanor (note the parallels to the origin story of Abigail told in one of the early scenes). There have been debates about whether that initial set-up takes too long, or if more attention should have been paid to why the house is drawn to Eleanor (and vice versa), but overall, it holds up very well as classic horror. On a separate note, no one could accuse the film of being cursed, as most everyone associated, enjoyed a long a fruitful career and life … even the house!

WATCH THE TRAILER

 


DELIVERANCE (1972) revisited

August 22, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the next entry in my “Revisited” series, where I re-watch and then write about (not a traditional review) a classic movie. “City Slickers” could have been an apt name for this 1972 film, though it would have forced a new title for Billy Crystal’s 1991 comedy. DELIVERANCE was directed by John Boorman, and the script was adapted from James Dickey’s 1970 novel by the writer himself. Many have referred to this as a man-against-nature film, and it certainly works as an adventure tale; however, I find the psychological elements just as fascinating – the primal instincts and the personal transformations.

Those nine notes are every bit as iconic as the JAWS theme. “Dueling Banjos” always sends a chill up my spine, as I recall certain scenes from the film that are forever etched into my memory. We don’t even have to wait long to hear the song. It’s the first real sequence after the opening credits which feature only the banter of four buddies animatedly discussing their weekend canoe trip down the Cahulawassee River before a dam is built and the area flooded for a hydro-electric plant. During the banter, in a bit of foreshadowing, we hear Ned Beatty’s character ask, “Are there any hillbillies” where they are headed. The first glimpse of the four men occurs as they stop for gas and interact with the locals.

The personalities of each are quickly established. Lewis (Burt Reynolds) is the alpha male, and the one pushing the group to take the trip. Ed (Jon Voight) is Lewis’ friend who wants to be like him, though he lacks the confidence. Bobby (Ned Beatty) is an insurance salesman, who looks down on the locals and would rather be playing golf. Drew (Ronny Cox) is a nice guy, and the one who connects musically for the guitar and banjo picking with the local boy (Billy Redden) perched on the porch. It’s a fun, yet unsettling, scene to watch as the two pick away on their instruments. Their smiles end abruptly when the boy turns away in disgust as Drew tries to shake his hand. It’s not the last time the outsiders will be rebuffed.

 These are suburban men, settled in life, being pushed outside their comfort zone by wannbe-adventurer Lewis, who is the epitome of 1970’s machismo. His angry proclamation that “they’re drowning a river” is followed up with “because it’s there”, as an answer to why they are taking the trip. Lewis’ life vest flaunting his arms and chest, and his aggressive oratory (including the ironic, “You can’t judge people by the way they look, Chubby”) contrast with the conservative dress and mannerisms of the other men: Ed smoking a pipe, Drew strumming a guitar, and Bobby’s squishy body. For the first half of the film, Reynolds mesmerizes as the cocky Lewis.

As the men make their way down the river, they experience the sudden adrenaline rush that Lewis promised. Shooting the rapids on the river is truly man-against-nature, and the adventure that director Boorman and writer Dickey want us to initially believe is at the heart of the story. One of the key exchanges occurs at the campsight that night as Lewis acknowledges Ed’s “nice life, nice job, nice wife, nice kids”, and then asks him directly, “Why do you come on these trips with me, Ed?” It’s clear Ed is happy with his life, but he desperately wants to feel the power of being a survivalist and “real man”. It’s because of this exchange, that we find Ed’s hunting trip and face-to-face with a deer the next morning so gut-wrenching.

The second day finds some truly peaceful times with nature, and some stunning camera work and shots of nature courtesy of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmund. It’s in these shots where we “get it” – the appeal of becoming one with nature. Of course, it’s once things seem so right, that things go so wrong. A drastic shift occurs. Ed and Bobby are confronted by local hillbillies in the most despicable way. Fear fills the screen and our minds. The menacing mountain men are played by Herbert “Cowboy” Coward (not really an actor) and Billy McKinney (whom you’ll recognize from FIRST BLOOD, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, and many other roles). Still today, the sequence is terrifying and difficult to watch, and it’s when “squeal like a pig” entered our lexicon, while “He got a real purdy mouth” became seared into our brain.

Immediately following the nightmare sequence with the hillbillies, comes one of those psychological exchanges that elevate the film to greatness. Four frantic and desperate men debating “the law”, when in actuality, they are debating self-preservation. The close-up of Ned Beatty’s face says as much as any line of dialogue, and, as is often the case, a moral dilemma is resolved by choosing the path of least resistance. The day presents more horror, as Lewis and Drew meet with disaster, while Ed’s transformation takes place. It should be noted that the film’s budget was so tight, the actors performed their own stunts – including Jon Voight’s tense (and impressive) climb up the face of the rock cliff.

Director John Boorman was a 5-time Oscar nominee, including HOPE AND GLORY (1987). He also helmed one of my sleeper favorites, THE EMERALD FOREST (1985), as well as coming right out of the gate with his first feature (and cult favorite) POINT BLANK (1967), starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson. Writer James Dickey wrote the 1970 novel and adapted his own novel for the screen. He was a novelist, poet, and college professor, as well as being named U.S. Poet Laureate. My favorite Dickey quote is, “The poet is one who, because he cannot love, imagines what it would be like if he could.”

For Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, it was their feature film debut. Mr. Beatty had a 40 year acting career (he retired in 2013), and notched an Oscar nomination for NETWORK (1976), while seemingly appearing in most every movie in the 1970’s and 1980’s. He may be best remembered as Lex Luthor’s bumbling henchman in SUPERMAN (1978) and SUPERMAN II (1978), and kids today would recognize his voice as Lotso in TOY STORY 3 (2010). He also became good friends with Burt Reynolds, and was cast in many of Reynolds’ later films. His career allowed him to play a widely diverse roster of characters, and one of his often-forgotten best was in THE BIG EASY (1986). Mr. Cox is approaching a 50 year acting career, and he is also a talented singer-songwriter. His best known roles are as the Police Lieutenant in BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984) and BEVERLY HILLS COP II (1987), and as a corporate executive in both ROBOCOP (1987) and TOTAL RECALL (1990). In addition to his many movie roles, Cox appeared in numerous TV series throughout the years, and one of my favorites was a small town family drama entitled “Apple’s Way”, which ran for two seasons, 1974-75.

Jon Voight is an actor every movie lover is familiar with. As he approaches his 60th year in the business, the highly decorated actor has been nominated for four Oscars, winning for COMING HOME (1978), starring opposite Jane Fonda. His other nominations were for playing a gigolo in MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969), a bad guy in the thriller RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985), and as Howard Cosell in ALI (2001). More recently he has been recognized for his stellar work in the superb cable TV series “Ray Donovan”. His daughter is Oscar winner Angelina Jolie, and Mr. Voight has had such memorable roles as boxer Billy Flynn in THE CHAMP (1979), Jim Phelps in MISSON: IMPOSSIBLE (1996), a sleazy hunter in ANACONDA (1997), and President Franklin Roosevelt in PEARL HARBOR (2001). And of course, we must mention the classic Jon (“John”) Voight episode of “Seinfeld.” JAWS fans might be surprised to know that he turned down the Hooper role that ultimately went to Richard Dreyfuss.

A remarkable 60 year career ended when Burt Reynolds passed away in 2018. Reynolds was a star running back for Florida State University before an injury ended his pro aspirations and caused him to pursue acting. For an extended period of time in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Reynolds was the biggest box office draw among actors. Some of his most popular films during the streak included: THE LONGEST YARD (1974), the SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT franchise (1977, 1980, 1983), SEMI-TOUGH (1977), SHARKY’S MACHINE (1981), THE CANNONBALL RUN (1981) and II (1984), and THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS (1982). Most of these films played off of Reynolds’ extraordinary charm and good looks (and iconic cackle), while he often strutted tongue-in-cheek as he worked extensively with a close group of friends. He later experienced some personal relationship issues, financial difficulties, and extreme health scares. Although he continued to work during the late 80s and early 90s, it was his excellent supporting work in STRIPTEASE (1996) and BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) that really vaulted him back into the Hollywood scene. The latter of those two movies nabbed him the only Oscar nomination of his career. Reynolds continued to work right up until the end of his life, spanning a career of almost 200 credits (TV and movies). Some of you fellow old-timers out there might recall Reynolds’ first recurring role was as Quint in “Gunsmoke”, the longest running TV series until eclipsed by “The Simpsons” (and by “Law and Order” in seasons, though it has about 150 fewer episodes). In DELIVERANCE, Reynolds’ Lewis is “a man’s man” – the kind of guy the other suburban dads aspired to. His on screen magnetism is obvious, and stardom followed. Reynolds spent most of his adult life in front of a camera – either movies, TV, paparazzi, or talk shows. And lest we forget, though he claimed to have tried, Reynolds became the first male centerfold for “Cosmopolitan” magazine in 1972, the same year this movie hit. That smirk, cigar and bear rug created quite a sensation at the time – brilliant marketing from editor Helen Gurley Brown.

While the Cahulawassee River is fictional, the filming location was most decidedly real. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmund captured the stunning beauty of Tallulah Gorge and the Chatooga River in northeastern Georgia. His camera work leaves no doubt as to nature’s double edge sword of beauty and danger. Mr. Zsigmund was a 4 time Oscar nominee, winning the award for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977). He was also responsible for THE DEER HUNTER (1978), HEAVEN’S GATE (1980), THE TWO JAKES (1990), and THE BLACK DAHLIA (2006). Editor Tom Priestley received his only Oscar nomination for his work on this film. Mr. Priestley also served as Editor on THE GREAT GATSBY (1974), TESS (1979), and 1984 (1984), and is the son of English writer John Boynton Priestley.

 Ned Beatty’s wife and John Boorman’s son have brief appearances as Ed’s family, and writer James Dickey has a small but key role as the hulking Sheriff of Aintry, who doesn’t buy the men’s recap of events. Reynolds dominates the screen for the first half of the movie, and Mr. Beatty shines in his degradation, but it’s Voight’s transformation into a semblance of Lewis that proves most remarkable. Rarely have primal instincts and survival mode been more effectively presented on the silver screen than in this film. This “guys’ weekend” turned nightmare received 3 Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editor), but this was the same year that CABARET beat out THE GODFATHER in a couple of categories, so DELIVERANCE took home no awards … although we will always have those 9 notes.

*Note: “Dueling Banjos” was credited to Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandel, but there was a lawsuit filed by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, who wrote “Feudin’ Banjos” in 1955.

As a bonus for reading this far, here is a short video of Steve Martin and Kermit the Frog performing “Dueling Banjos”:

 

And here is the original 1972 trailer:


CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) revisited

July 26, 2020

Greetings again from the darkness. This is another addition to my “revisited” series where I re-watch and then write about a classic movie. Why are “creature features” so appealing, and why was Universal so good at producing these movies that mesmerized me during childhood (and yes, still to this day)? The Universal Monsters of the 1930’s and 1940’s included such classics as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, and The Phantom of the Opera. Many cinematic iterations of these characters/creatures exist including sequels, remakes and contemporary re-boots, and there is something magical about the mystique and legend and lore behind each of the monsters. By the 1950’s, Universal was looking to revive the genre.

William Alland is credited with the idea for CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. It’s a twist on the 1740 fantasy classic “Beauty and the Beast” from French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Mr. Alland is the film’s Producer, and years earlier he played reporter Jerry Thompson in Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941). Maurice Zimm is credited with the story, and the screenplay was co-written by Harry Essex (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, a Ray Bradbury story) and Arthur A Ross (an Oscar winner for BRUBAKER, 1980).

Quite similar to KING KONG, the story from Edgar Wallace and Merian Cooper, this movie follows a scientific expedition down the Amazon River where a prehistoric “Gill-man” (half man, half amphibian) is discovered and captured. The creature seems enraptured by Kay, the fiancé of one of the scientists – much like Kong was drawn to Ann Darrow. There is the expected battle between science and commerce: the value of marine life research vs the chance to make a pot of money. The feuding scientists also have to remain focused on the ongoing concern for the safety of those on the expedition … especially Kay.

Jack Arnold is remembered today as one of the great sci-fi movie directors of the 50’s. His work included THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953) TARANTULA (1955), and the excellent Audie Murphy western NO NAME ON THE BULLET (1959). He also directed many episodes of some of the top TV shows of the1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. For this one, he deserves a great deal of credit for generating sympathy for the creature, by positioning him, not as the villain, but rather as the victim of a home invasion by the humans. Director Arnold also does a nice job early on of teasing us with footprints and fossils, and letting us hear about the legend, prior to actually seeing the creature.

 For a movie that spends most of its time on a small boat named Rita, the cast is deep and talented. Richard Carlson (LITTLE FOXES, 1941) plays David Reed, the scientist engaged to Kay. Mr. Carlson dreamed of being a playwright, and had many guest starring roles on TV; however, “I Led 3 Lives” was his only starring role in a successful series. It was reportedly Lee Harvey Oswald’s favorite show. Co-starring here was Julie Adams (billed as Julia at the time) as Kay Lawrence, personal favorite of both David and creature. In the film she is stalked by the creature, even while she’s out for a leisurely swim in the Amazon (not recommended). Ms. Adams was a favorite on the cult movie circuit, and she died in 2019 at age 92. Having been crowned Miss Little Rock at age 19, she acted regularly into her 80’s, and even had a role at age 91, the year before she passed.

Richard Denning plays Mark Williams, the money man behind the expedition, and David’s boss and nemesis. He’s the one who sees dollar signs while capturing the creature. Mr. Denning served on a submarine in the US Navy during WWII. He starred with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (1957), and then in the late 1960’s took an acting job as Governor on the original “Hawaii Five-0”, since he already lived in Hawaii. Mr. Denning’s wife, actress Evelyn Ankers, was known as “Queen of the Screamers” for her work as damsel in distress in many thrillers in the 1940’s (Wolfman, Frankenstein, Dracula movies).

Other cast members include familiar face Whit Bissell as Dr. Thompson. Mr. Bissell was a frequently working character actor from 1940 -1984 in TV and movies. He had over 300 credits, including I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1958) with Michael Landon. Nestor Paiva plays Lucas, the Captain of the Rita, as a kind of Walter Brennan type. Mr. Paiva also appeared in more than 300 projects, and his wife was once employed as personal secretary to Howard Hughes. Antonio Moreno plays Carl Maia. Mr. Moreno had a huge career from 1912 to 1959, and was a rival of Rudolph Valentino for many “Latin lover” roles. The film’s narrator, Art Gilmore, became known for his narration and voice acting in shows such as “Dragnet”, “The Waltons”, “Adam-12”, “The Red Skelton Hour”, “The Roy Rogers Show”, and many more.

Of course everyone who watches the movie wants to know more about the creature. Well, two actors were involved. Ben Chapman, who was a Marine during the Korean War, played the creature on land, while Ricou Browning played the Gill-man we see in the water. Mr. Browning was also the co-creator of the popular TV series “Flipper” (1964-67), and directed the iconic underwater scenes in the James Bond classic THUNDERBALL (1965). Also involved here were a young Henry Mancini as uncredited composer and cinematographer William E Snyder. Mr. Mancini was a 4 time Oscar winner best known for his iconic “Pink Panther” theme, and Mr. Snyder achieved 3 Oscar nominations

 Director Arnold insisted on shooting the film in 3-D, despite its low budget, and over the years, it became quite a cult classic (with its’ own festivals). There is even a scandal associated with the film. For many years, Hollywood make-up legend Bud Westmore took credit for the design of the creature. It took more than 50 years, but Mallory O’Meara’s book, “The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Millicent Patrick”, finally allowed Ms. Patrick (pictured, left) to receive due credit for her design work. Sequels to the film included: REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955), and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956), but it was perhaps director Guillermo del Toro’s stunning THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) winning the Oscar for Best Picture, that brought CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON back into prominence. This allowed a new generation of movie lovers to behold the classic sequence of the creature’s synchronized swimming just below Kay in the murky Amazon water. What a sight!

watch the original trailer:


Panel Discussion – Streaming, Theaters, and COVID-19

July 8, 2020

I participated in a panel discussion on the state of movies: the impact of streaming services, the challenges faced by movie theaters, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed so much in the movie industry.

The other two panelists were movie critic Will Mann and screenwriter Tim Hodgin (@tim_hodgin). The discussion was moderated by the editor of International Policy Digest, (intpolicydigest.org) and you can read it here:

Streaming, Theaters and COVID: Three Cinephiles Weigh In


THE APARTMENT (1960) revisited

June 20, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the latest addition to my “revisited” series where I re-watch and then write about (not a review) a genuine classic movie. It’s been 60 years on this one, so please expect spoilers with no spoiler alerts. Appearing on most every legitimate list of greatest cinematic comedies, director Billy Wilder’s film actually defies categorization and is a terrific blend of comedy-romance-drama and commentary on societal gender roles of that era. Mr. Wilder co-wrote the razor-sharp script with I.A.L. “Iz” Diamond. The two were collaborators off and on for 15 years, including what many consider to be the best comedy of all-time, as well as one of Marilyn Monroe’s finest films, SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959).

Jack Lemmon stars as CC “Bud” Baxter, a clerk at Consolidated Life, a New York insurance company with 31,259 employees. Baxter is but a minor cog in the conglomerate wheel, save for one thing: he allows upper management to use his apartment for their extramarital affairs. He doesn’t much like the arrangement, but lacks the backbone to stand up to them – especially since they dangle the carrot of promotion. Although the neighbors think he is a womanizing Lothario, Baxter’s life is void of companionship. He’s on the outside (of his own apartment) while others are living it up. Elevator Operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) has caught Baxter’s eye, yet while she is courteous and friendly, she politely deflects his flirtations.

When that promotion finally comes through, Baxter finds himself with yet another executive requiring use of the apartment. Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) is the Human Resources Manager, and his demands lead to a most disheartening discovery. Baxter is crushed when a broken compact mirror and the office Christmas party allow him to figure out that Mr. Sheldrake is having an affair with Ms. Kubelik, and he himself has been providing the place.

 There are so many terrific scenes and performances, it’s not practical to go through each and every one. The early interactions between Baxter and Kubelik are quite fun – he’s so eager, and she’s so careful not to wound his pride. Kubelik and Sheldrake in the booth at the Chinese Restaurant is quite remarkable, and Baxter’s neighbors (Jack Kruschen and Naomi Stevens) are especially effective as the doctor and his quick-to-judge wife. Sheldrake’s secretary, Miss Olsen (Edie Adams), is a standout in her Christmas Party scene with Ms. Kubelik, and watching Baxter and Mrs. MacDougall (Hope Holiday) drunkenly dance the holiday hours away is comedic genius, although nothing can top Baxter deftly wielding a tennis racquet (wooden frame, of course) to strain pasta.

The film earned 10 Oscar nominations, and won in 5 categories: Best Picture, Best Director (Wilder), Best Screenplay (Wilder and Diamond), Best Art/Set Direction (Alexandre Trauner, Edward G Boyle), and Best Film Editing (Daniel Mandell, who also won Oscars for THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, 1946, and THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES, 1942, and who also started in showbiz as an acrobat for The Flying Mandells in Ringling Brothers Circus). The film’s other nominees were Best Actor (Lemmon, a 2-time Oscar winner for MISTER ROBERTS, 1955, and SAVE THE TIGER, 1973), Best Actress (MacLaine, Oscar winner for TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, 1983), Best Supporting Actor (Kruschen), Best Cinematographer (Joseph LaShelle, and Oscar winner for LAURA, 1944), and Best Sound (Gordon Sawyer). Somehow Adolph Deutsch’s film score got nominated for a Grammy, but not for an Oscar. He did win 3 other Oscars for ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (1950), SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954), and OKLAHOMA! (1955).

Writer-director Billy Wilder is truly one of cinema’s giants. In his career, he was nominated for 21 Oscars, winning 6 (THE LOST WEEKEND 1945, SUNSET BLVD 1951). This film was released one year after SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), a film that often tops the list of best all-time comedies. That film and this one, are also in the battle for best final line: “Nobody’s perfect” vs “Shut up and deal”. Wilder admitted that his idea for THE APARTMENT came from one scene in BRIEF ENCOUNTER, the excellent 1945 film from director David Lean, adapted from Noel Coward’s play.

Jack Lemmon’s “Bud” Baxter is just one of many memorable characters throughout his stellar career that featured 8 Oscar nominations, 2 Oscars, and roles in comedy and drama. He was a close friend of comedian Ernie Kovacs who was married to Edie Adams (Miss Olsen in this movie), and had a remarkable comedy partnership (10 movies) with Walter Matthau, the best known of which is THE ODD COUPLE (1968).  Lemmon appeared in 7 Billy Wilder movies, and was the first actor to win Oscars for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.

Shirley MacLaine was only 25 years old when she starred as Fran Kubelik. Like Mr. Lemmon, her (6) Oscar nominations were spread across four decades (50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s), finally winning for TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983). In real life she is Warren Beatty’s big sister, although they’ve never appeared in the same film. Ms. MacLaine is renowned as a film actress, stage performer, dancer, author (multiple books), and of course, New Age guru. She’s now 86 years old and still working.

Fred MacMurray plays the scoundrel Jeff Sheldrake. Mr. MacMurray is best known for his 12 seasons and 380 episodes as the most patient father on “My Three Sons”. His career spanned fifty years (1929-1978), and he made his mark as a serious actor in such films as the ultimate film noir classic DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) and THE CAINE MUTINY (1954). He sprinkled in some westerns, before shifting to comedy in the first Disney live action film THE SHAGGY DOG (1959), and then family fare like THE ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR (1961) and SON OF FLUBBER (1963). He was certainly an underrated, though never out-of-work actor. On an interesting side note, when he was age 22, he played saxophone in a band that featured Bing Crosby as the lead singer.

 Edie Adams plays Miss Olsen, secretary to MacMurray’s Sheldrake. Her screen time here is limited, but her role is crucial to the story and well-crafted by Ms. Adams. She was the wife of early TV comedy legend Ernie Kovacs, who died in a car accident in 1962 at age 42. Ms. Adams put together a multi-faceted career including time as a nightclub singer, and actress on TV, stage, and film. She is still remembered for her iconic cigar commercials:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7EbLIdE88Q

Baxter’s neighbors are played by Jack Kruschen as the understanding Dr. Dreyfuss and Naomi Stevens as the more direct Mrs. Dreyfuss. Mr. Kruschen’s 48 year career covered more than 220 credits in TV and film. Ms. Stevens is remembered for her role in VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) and a recurring role on “The Doris Day Show”. She passed away (age 92) just a couple of months before her 70th wedding anniversary.

Joyce Jameson plays “the blond” Marilyn Monroe lookalike. She is best known for her roles in Roger Corman horror films, and for a recurring role as bombshell Skippy on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Another link to that classic TV series comes from Hal Smith, who dons the Santa Claus costume in the bar. You might recall Mr. Smith as Otis, the town drunk in Mayberry. He was also the voice of Owl in numerous “Winnie the Pooh” cartoons and movies. Hope Holiday plays Mrs. MacDougall, Baxter’s dance partner on Christmas Eve. Ms. Holiday was known as “the voice”, and made frequent appearances in Billy Wilder films.

In addition to MacMurray’s Sheldrake, the other four managers to take advantage of Baxter and his apartment were played by David Lewis (a recurring role as the Warden on “Batman” TV series), Willard Waterman (well-known character actor in radio, TV, film), David White (Larry Tate on “Bewitched”), and Ray Walston. Mr. Walston had many memorable roles including teacher Joe Dobisch in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982), JJ Singleton in THE STING (1973), co-starring with Bill Bixby in “My Favorite Martian”, and as Judge Henry Bone in “Picket Fences.” He’s yet another in the cast whose career lasted nearly 50 years.

The film’s lasting impact comes courtesy of the fun and energy and comedy on the surface, supported by a sadness lurking underneath. It offers a brilliant balance between lightness and serious social issues, and provides quite a statement of the times. A glance at the era shows us what a typical office environment was like. Women were subjected to endless harassment and unsolicited offers from the men in charge. They either had to find a way to deal with it, or quit and find another job – one where they’d likely face the same culture. Still, despite the sadness, the film does offer a bit of hope … plus some truly classic lines (including that last one). Girl with the “wrong guy” is common theme in movies and literature (and life), but “that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.” And the next time you are debating with friends over a list of Christmas movies, don’t forget Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT. Hey, if DIE HARD qualifies, this one surely must!

watch the trailer: