CHARLIE SAYS (2019)

May 9, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Author Joan Didion wrote “the 1960’s ended abruptly on August 9, 1969”, and as we approach the 50th anniversary of that tragic night … actually two tragic nights (August 8 and 9) … there is no shortage of recollections and reenactments through both print and visual media. For anyone who was alive at the time or has read the story since, the grisly murders and cult commune lorded over by Charles Manson remains nearly beyond belief. Unfortunately, it’s all too real.

Director Mary Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner previously collaborated on AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000) and THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE (2015), and here, “inspired by” books from Karlene Faith (“The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten: Life Beyond the Cult”, 2001) and Ed Sanders (“The Family”, 1972, also one of the film’s producers), we get a glimpse of the Manson cult through the eyes of the women, especially Leslie Van Houten. And let’s be honest, that’s where the real mystery is. A domineering, arrogant, white supremacist is not nearly as interesting as the story of how these women became so enchanted by him that they were willing (even anxious) to murder innocent people on his behalf.

Hannah Murray (“Game of Thrones”) stars as Leslie Van Houten, nicknamed “LuLu” by Manson not long after they meet for the first time. We see Van Houten, Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Marianne Rendon) and Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon, daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick) in an isolated cell block of a California Women’s Prison five years after the murders. They are going through therapy sessions with Karlene Faith (Merritt Weaver, “Godless”) whose goal is to remind them of who they were before meeting Manson.

During the prison therapy sessions, we get flashbacks to the Spahn Ranch where Manson ruled over his followers which also included Mary Brunner (Suki Waterhouse), Squeaky Fromme (Kayli Carter), Linda Kasabian (India Ennenga), and of course, Tex Watson (Chace Crawford), who initially comes off as quite aloof, but eventually buys in totally – in a most violent manner. It’s these flashbacks that are meant to help us understand the brainwashing which stuck with these women through the crimes, through their trial, and through years of incarceration. We hear the “garbage dump” song. We hear about money and ego. We learn that ‘the new rules are no rules’. We see Manson’s dream of becoming a rock star shattered by music producer Terry Melcher (the son of Doris Day) after his introduction from Dennis Wilson (The Beach Boys drummer), who hung around the ranch sometimes. And we hear Manson’s rantings about the correlations between The Beatles’ White Album and the Bible, and about how a race war is coming (and it’s named Helter Skelter).

Matt Smith plays Charles Manson, and oddly enough, this comes on the heels of his playing artist Robert Mapplethorpe in MAPPLETHORPE (2018). Smith seems to have fun with the role, but it’s these segments that feel underwritten. We want more of an explanation of how this could happen. On the other hand, the therapy sessions in the prison actually provide more insight to the lasting effects of the man and the cult that brainwashed them right into committing cold-blooded murder and a life behind bars. The thankless job of a prison therapist becomes clear as Ms. Faith realizes that if she breaks the Manson spell, these women will be forced to live with the unimaginable atrocities they committed. For a different perspective, track down the 1976 TV movie HELTER SKELTER that was based on prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s book. It starred Steve Railsback as a terrifying Charles Manson.

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MAPPLETHORPE (2018)

February 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Writer-director Ondi Timoner goes head on (so to speak) with the story of Robert Mapplethorpe, the immensely talented and endlessly controversial photographer whose work in the 70’s and 80’s was often considered scandalous, if not pornographic. Ms. Timoner and star Matt Smith (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES) are unflinching in this look at the artist, his personal life, and his work … although I personally flinched a few times.

The opening scene is quite unusual as Mapplethorpe is shown alone in his small dorm room, attired in full Pratt Institute uniform, just prior to dropping out. We next see his NYC meet with Patti Smith (Marianne Rendon), and watch the two oddball youngsters connect. Their relationship develops as Robert shifts from drawing to photography, stating, “I’m an artist. I would have been a painter, but the camera was invented”. The couple wriggles their way into the Chelsea Hotel and soon Mapplethorpe is focused on male nudes not just as artistic models, but also as personal pleasure. His interests send Patti Smith packing … and understandably so.

Mapplethorpe’s career takes off when Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey) becomes his benefactor and lover. Sam’s connections in the art world lead to gallery shows and work that Robert might never have attained. The film never shies away from Mapplethorpe’s daddy issues, his promiscuity, his drug use, or his intolerance of those who didn’t “get” his work. His fascination with male genitalia in both art and personal life is on full display, as many of his actual photographs are shown throughout.

Once diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, his sexual irresponsibility probably should have been emphasized, but other than that, filmmaker Timoner never tries to sugar coat the man. He seemed to crave attention, yet so many wanted love from him – Patti Smith, Sam Wagstaff, his father (Mark Moses, “Mad Men”), and his brother (who worked with him), all tried to establish that bond, but things just never quite clicked.

Other fine supporting work is provided by Hari Nef, Mickey O’Hagan (TANGERINE), Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Brandon Sklenar. Mapplethorpe’s story would likely be best handled via documentary, but Mr. Smith’s performance is worthy of attention. The film does a nice job of relaying the two sides to Mapplethorpe’s work – the provocative and the portraits. He took some iconic photos of celebrities including the cover of Patti Smith’s debut album “Horses”.

Ms. Smith’s 2010 memoir “Just Kids” paints a more complete picture of their relationship, and it’s interesting to note that although he died in 1989, Mapplethorpe’s work continues to generate emotional responses. In fact, his work inspired a national debate about whether the government should fund the arts. Ms. Timoner’s film has been well received at LGBTQ festivals, and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation is devoted to protecting and promoting his work, while raising millions of dollars for AIDS research. His legacy is much more than some black and white photographs of nude models.

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PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES (2016)

February 4, 2016

PPZ Greetings again from the darkness. For those high school Literature teachers struggling to get their students to embrace the classics from writers like Jane Austen, this movie won’t help much. However, chances are good that those same students will enjoy this blending of 19th century British class warfare with “The Walking Dead” – likely one of their favorite shows.  The zombie apocalypse has landed in the middle of Austen’s prim and proper story, including the repressed attraction between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy.

Anyone expecting the serious undertones of Ms. Austen’s1813 novel will be disappointed … but the title should have provided a pretty solid hint. While her characters and general story line act as a structure here, it’s really based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s YA hit novel … delivering zombie battles and often zany humor. Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) directs his own adapted screenplay and seems to really be having a great time – right along with his talented cast. The sets, costumes, dialogue and fight scenes work together to create an unusual movie experience that will generate plenty of laughs while not dwelling on the zombies or violence (it is PG-13). Expect most critics to destroy this one because it’s made simply for fun, not for art.

Of course, any Pride and Prejudice spin-off (even one with zombies) must pay particular attention to Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. It turns out that Elizabeth and her four sisters are highly trained warriors raised to survive against the undead. It’s even clearer for Mr. Darcy as he is billed as a zombie hunter and protector of Mr. Bingley, the rich bachelor hooked on Jane Bennett. Things get muddled by the devious Mr. Wickham, a focused Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and especially the flamboyant fop Parson Collins. The interactions between these characters bounce between loyalty, romantic attraction, emotional turmoil and hand-to-hand combat … with enough comedic elements that most viewers will find plenty of opportunities to laugh.

The talented cast is all in. They play it mostly straight (with one major exception) to achieve the balance between somber and silly. Lily James (“Downton Abbey”) and Sam Riley (On the Road, 2012) are both fun to watch as Elizabeth and Darcy. They are the film’s best fighters … both with swords and words. Bella Heathcoate (Dark Shadows, 2012) is “the pretty one” Jane, who is wooed by Douglas Booth (Noah, 2014) as Mr. Bingley. Lena Headey (“Game of Thrones”) makes an impression in her limited screen time as an eye-patched Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and Jack Huston (“Boardwalk Empire”) is well cast as Wickham. Screen veterans Charles Dance and Sally Phillips take on the role of parents to the five Bennett daughters, but it’s Matt Smith (“Dr Who”), who turns the film on its ear with his unconventional twist on the oddball Parson Collins, who pretty much steals each of his scenes. He had those in the theatre laughing out loud more than a few times.

Pity is the word that comes to mind for any young man who takes these Bennett girls to the prom … or more likely to one of the societal balls. The weapons hidden under their formal gowns offer fair warning to zombies and handsy suitors alike. It’s this element of strong women (physically and emotionally) that might even allow Ms. Austen to appreciate what’s happened to her characters … were she alive to see it.

Even though the film offers plenty of fun with laughs and action and romance, let’s hope it doesn’t kick off a new zombie-adaptation trend. Here are a few titles that we hope never see the big screen: Sense and Sensibilities and Zombies, War and Peace and Zombies, Crime and Punishment and Zombies, The Old Zombie and the Sea, Wuthering Zombies, Romeo and Juliet and Zombies, and Alice’s Adventure in Zombieland.

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