Friday, August 11, 2017

Peeper

Not many people like the movie Peeper (1975). Not its director Peter Hyams who was unemployable for three years after its release. Not its two lead actors Michael Caine and Natalie Wood. And certainly not the studio 20th Century Fox who let it sit on the shelf for a year under the original title Fat Chance, only to recut and rename it to the aforementioned Peeper. Well, I like it. While it may not be in the same league as other hard-boiled detective spoofs to come out of the 1970s, like Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam (1972), Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), or Neil Simon’s The Cheap Detective (1978), it remains a fascinating cinema oddity. I realize that I’m probably in the minority on this and that’s okay, too.

In a clever, self-reflexive bit, the movie opens with a Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade wannabe walking down a dirty, deserted city alleyway late at night. He proceeds to say the opening credits in an imitation of Bogart’s distinctive voice. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an opening credits sequence like that before or since. Sadly, the rest of Peeper isn’t as clever…or good.

Los Angeles, 1947. Leslie C. Tucker (Caine) is a British private detective trying to make a go of it in America but judging by the pile of bills he spends a night going through things aren’t going too well. One night, he’s visited by a man named Anglich (Michael Constantine) who wants Tucker to find his daughter Anya who he abandoned 29 years ago at an orphanage. The problem is that he’s being hunted by two hitmen from Tampa, Florida where he’s been living for some time. Intrigued, Tucker takes the case.

His first lead is something of a dead end but he does catch a tantalizing glimpse of Ellen Prendergast (Wood), who may or may not be Anya, and flashes him with her silk robe (and not much else underneath). He gets fleeting glimpses of her on the sprawling family estate. Her sister (Kitty Winn) tells him, “If you want her inside she’ll probably rape you,” to which he deadpans, “There’s no rush.” They soon meet properly and their exchange oddly lacks the sexual tension that W.D. Richter’s screenplay is obviously going for but instead it’s like Michael Caine and Natalie Wood are reciting dialogue from their own respective movies and not the one they’re actually in. It all feels a little flat and I don’t know if it’s the writing or the editing but it’s not a good way to start things.

What’s more surprising about the sometimes flat dialogue is that it’s written by Richter who would go on to pen such hilarious, insanely quotable films like Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and Home for the Holidays (1995). I can’t decide if it’s the script’s shortcomings or that Caine and Wood just aren’t delivering their lines correctly. A stylized film noir comedy is not easy to pull off with Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) being the gold standard.

Tucker has a suspicion that either Ellen or her sister is Anya but can’t be sure. As luck would have it, he runs into the former looking for the same man and instead they find his corpse! Tucker and Ellen also run afoul of two thugs, one of whom is played with imposing idiosyncrasy by none other than eccentric character actor Timothy Carey. While Tucker wrestles with one thug, Ellen smashes a bottle over the head of the other and the perplexed expression she gives afterwards – that was too easy – is priceless.

Caine and Wood play along gamely and their chemistry improves as the movie progresses. He tries to be the tough guy to her femme fatale but they are neither and that’s one of the things being parodied with the cliché archetypes turned on their head. The script, however, doesn’t go far enough with this conceit. Their snappy banter could have had a slightly faster, crisper rhythm to it. Caine starts off playing Tucker a bit like he’s anticipating the neurotic mess he would eventually play in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) but once his life is in jeopardy the actor veers closer to Get Carter (1971) territory, barking orders and threatening people. Tonally, his performance is a little all over the place. He should have maintained the light touch evident early on throughout the movie.

Filmed in an endless series of gorgeous soft focus shots, Wood looks stunning as always and seems to be having fun playing a sexually suggestive femme fatale with something of an enigmatic air about her. The actress seems to struggle a bit early on with some of the dialogue but her performance gets stronger as the movie progresses and her character’s true motivations are gradually revealed.

It also feels like director Peter Hyams is never allowed to cut loose like he does in Busting (1974), for example. Sure, there are the occasional flourishes, like the prowling Steadicam employed effectively during a chase sequence when Tucker and Ellen are pursued by the two thugs from Tampa. He does try to keep things interesting, like staging a car chase in a traffic jam, but one wonders if the workman-like direction is due more to studio meddling that resulted in the year of it being relegated to limbo.

Producer Irwin Winkler had helped Hyams get his start as a director and offered him a project called Fat Chance, a spoof of Raymond Chandler-type private detective movies. Hyams was a fan of the writer and agreed to do it. Natalie Wood just had a child and turned down lucrative offers to appear in The Towering Inferno (1974) and The Great Gatsby (1974) in favor of Peeper in 1974. She had wanted to work with Caine, one of her favorite actors, and many of her scenes would be shot on the former estate of silent film actor Harold Lloyd, only ten minutes away from her own home, convenient as she was taking care of two children. Having just had a child, Wood went on a strict diet, losing 50 pounds for the role. Director of photography Earl Rath, Jr. remembered, “She was getting a little older, so I used a little softer lens, just to enhance the quality of her face. Every shot, I’d glamorize I’d make her look beautiful, which was not hard to do.”

According to Hyams, Peeper did not preview well and the studio didn’t think it would do well commercially. They sat on it for a year, recut it and changed the title.

If it seems like I’m down on Peeper I don’t mean to be. It does have its own undeniable, low-key charm that I’m sometimes in the mood for late at night when there’s nothing else on. Perhaps I’m more receptive to its uneven rhythms. It’s one of those movies I keep coming back to as I feel like there’s a good movie in there somewhere trying to get out but we’ll probably never see the version Hyams intended as there isn’t enough interest on the studio end who could care less and maybe that’s the way it should be. That way those of us that see the movie it could be can continue to imagine their own version.


SOURCES

“A Conversation with Peter Hyams.” Peeper DVD. 20th Century Fox. 2006.

Finstad, Suzanne. Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood. Three Rivers Press. 2002.


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Harris, Warren G. Natalie and R.J.: The Star-Crossed Love Affair with Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner. Doubleday. 1988.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Baby Driver

For years, Edgar Wright has been a cult filmmaker looking for a crowd-pleasing successful movie and he’s finally found it with Baby Driver (2017). He’s a film buff turned filmmaker, directing the kinds of movies that he’d like to see. This has resulted in a filmography that celebrates genre movies, from the zombie movie (Shaun of the Dead) to the buddy action movie (Hot Fuzz) to science fiction (The World’s End).

His movies were always well received critically but he was unable to break through into American multiplexes. Wright made a bid for mainstream exposure by agreeing to direct the adaptation of the Marvel Comics superhero Ant-Man but when he realized that his creative freedom would be compromised, dropped out and returned back to writing and directing his own material with Baby Driver, which was a critical darling, but also a surprise financial success. He finally cracked the coveted multiplexes that had always eluded him.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a young getaway driver that works for Doc (Kevin Spacey), a criminal mastermind that plans heists for crews that he never works with twice with the exception of Baby who is working off a debt he owes and is a couple of jobs away from paying it off. He meets and falls in love with a beautiful young waitress named Debora (Lily James) who has started working at a diner he frequents. In keeping with the tradition of most crime movies, Baby finds himself unable to break free of Doc’s control and this jeopardizes his relationship with Debora.

Wright expertly sets the movie’s tone right from the exciting prologue as he scores the initial heist and subsequent getaway to “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The editing rhythms of this sequence are expertly matched with that of the song to exhilarating effect. It also establishes his intensions for this movie – to create a musical under the guise of a crime movie. Baby Driver contains wall-to-wall music that isn’t there merely for effect but it gives us insight into Baby’s headspace as music is one of the most important things in his life. It helps him cope with his severe tinnitus while also acting as a way to express himself and provides a crucial link to his deceased mother.

The soundtrack is populated by a diverse collection of songs, ranging from “Harlem Shuffle” by Bob and Earl to “Neat Neat Neat” by The Damned to “Debra” by Beck. This isn’t some crass gimmick to sell songs on iTunes. Each song is important because they all mean something to Baby. They are the soundtrack to his life and Wright has a lot of fun scoring everything from chase sequences to a simple walk down the street to get coffee to a meet-cute between Baby and Debora in a Laundromat to music. It is a potent reminder of the power of music and how a specific song can capture just the right mood at just the right moment.

One of the criticisms of Baby Driver is that Baby himself is something a cipher as a character and this is reinforced by Ansel Elgort’s non-descript performance, however, I believe this is by design as Wright pays homage to equally enigmatic getaway drivers in Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011). As the movie progresses, however, Wright gradually peels back the layers to the character as we learn his backstory and what motivates him.

There are two important people in his life that humanize Baby. There’s Joseph (C.J. Jones), his deaf foster father whom the young man looks after. Their scenes together early on in the movie are the first indications that there’s more to Baby than being a getaway driver. Debora helps humanize Baby and brings him out of his shell. Their initial courting scenes have a welcome warmth to them as Wright shift gears into romantic comedy territory while never letting us forget the crime world that Baby also exists in and the inevitable conflict comes when his burgeoning relationship with Debora clashes with his getaway driver gig.

Initially, Baby Driver seems a little too proud of itself as Wright shows off a myriad of flashy camera techniques while also setting up a too-cutesy for its own good romance between Baby and Debora. Fortunately, he gradually introduces a real element of danger into the movie that threatens our hero. It helps that this genuine threat comes from veteran actors like Kevin Spacey and Jamie Foxx. They bring a distinctive gravitas to their respective roles. The former exudes calm menace with the latter is all sociopathic swagger.


Much has been made of the movie’s dazzling style and the flashy visual storytelling with some complaining that it distracts from what is ultimately a shallow movie, but so what? Baby Driver doesn’t pretend to be a deep film and has little else on its mind other than to tell an entertaining tale, which it does. It’s not hard to like this charming crowd-pleaser. There’s a lot to like about Baby Driver but it does lack the personal touch of his Three Flavours Cornetto film trilogy, co-written with Simon Pegg, which felt very much like an extension of Wright’s personal worldview whereas Baby Driver feels more like a bid for mainstream acceptance than anything else. This is a minor quibble at best and hardly takes away from the enjoyment of watching this entertaining piece of cinematic storytelling.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Larry Sanders Show



BLOGGERS NOTE: This post originally appeared on the Wonders in the Dark blog for their Top 80 Greatest Television Shows.

In the 1980s and 1990s, late night talk shows ruled the airwaves with the likes of Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Jay Leno making America laugh before bedtime. These shows would come on after the 11 o’clock news and start with the host delivering a monologue poking fun at the popular news topics of the day followed by a couple of celebrities pushing their movie or television show and ending with a musical act or a stand-up comedian. It’s a format that continues to this day as a new generation of talk show hosts vie for eyeballs in our increasingly fragmented popular culture.

The Larry Sanders Show took a look behind-the-scenes at a fictional late night talk show featuring its vain, neurotic eponymous host (Garry Shandling), his weasely sidekick Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor), the gruff, ass-kissing producer Arthur (Rip Torn), and the other long-suffering staff members that cater to his selfish needs as they try to get a show on the air. Larry lives in constant fear, either worrying about if he’s funny every night or if the show’s getting good enough ratings to justify its existence, and do almost anything to achieve both.

The show was notable for being one of the first sitcoms to push the envelope in terms of truly uncomfortable moments mixed with laughs. Of course, this practice is commonplace now with shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and the short-lived Starved. These uncomfortable moments, like snide asides between Hank and guests in between commercial breaks, have a ring of honesty to them and make one wonder if that’s what it’s really like on these shows. Garry Shandling used to guest host for Johnny Carson, had appeared on all of the major late night talk shows, and must’ve had plenty of experiences to draw from and it shows as there is a real insider authenticity to how a show like this operates.

And there are certainly several classics, like “Everybody Loves Larry” where Larry is afraid that the network is going to replace him with Jon Stewart and fends off what he thinks is romantic advances from David Duchovny. This episode playfully toys with the notion of whether he is gay or not, which drives Larry crazy, of course. There is a funny bit where Larry asks Hank’s assistant (Scott Thompson) if he thinks Duchovny is gay. The final scene that they have together is priceless as Duchovny keeps poor Larry constantly guessing and on edge.

In “Another List,” network executives give Larry some ideas on how he could improve the show, like a more energetic opening like Jay Leno, a new part in his hair and a new theme song – all of which he duly ignores in favor of trying to date Winona Ryder. Of course, by the end of the episode, he has incorporated some of these ideas because at the end of the day, self-preservation is Larry’s strongest instinct.

“The Interview” starts off with Hank insulting guest star Vince Vaughn when he fails to pick up on the actor simply messing with him. This episode poses the question, how does a celebrity do damage control? Larry cries during an interview for Extra! and Artie tries to get the interviewer to edit it out with little success. This episode underlines the often-vain nature of celebrities. Their image lives or dies by how they are covered by the fickle media.

The Larry Sanders Show demonstrates what a fearless performer Garry Shandling was as he wasn’t afraid to play a thoroughly unlikable character. Larry is a vain coward that only loves himself and that’s on a good day. Shandling is also not afraid to use comedy to bring out the uncomfortable truths about Larry.

Jeffrey Tambor matches Shandling beat-for-beat with his portrayal of Hank, which is, at times, almost too painful to watch as he is such a pathetic, sad sack character. We never feel one iota of sympathy for him because he is his own worst enemy. He is obviously patterned after another famous show biz sidekick, Ed McMahon, swimming in Larry’s wake. Hank is petty and always trying to get out from under Larry’s shadow. During the course of the show, Tambor explores what it takes to play someone who is the sidekick. What kind of person is able to do that and how does it affect their personality over time?

Artie’s job is to build up Larry’s confidence. He’s an expert at catering to people’s egos, making them feel good about themselves. Larry and Artie have a funny, cantankerous relationship that sees the producer simultaneously appease and bust Larry’s balls. In many respects, Artie keeps Larry grounded and is one of the few people he can be honest with. They bicker like an old married couple but one senses that they truly are friends.

The Larry Sanders Show is a brilliant snapshot of what late night talk shows were like during the ‘80s and ‘90s when Leno and Letterman ruled the airwaves. It takes us behind the curtain to show that Larry is a selfish narcissist, Hank is a pathetic loser, and Artie has mastered the art of kissing ass while savaging people behind their backs.

The Larry Sanders Show was ahead of its time, pushing the envelope in mining comedy out of awkward and uncomfortable situations, anticipating shows like The Office by many years. It showed the messiness of life intruding on a bunch of show biz types trying to put on a T.V. show. It makes you wonder if this is what it actually takes to do one of these shows and if so it is amazing that new episodes air as often as they do.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

“Ladies and Gentlemen – Welcome to violence,” are the words heard via voiceover narration as the narrator links the act of violence with sex. He then goes on to espouse the virtues of women before offering a warning:

“Handle with care and don’t drop your guard. This rapacious new breed prowls both alone and in packs, operating at any level, anytime, anywhere and with anybody. Who are they? One might be your secretary, your doctor’s receptionist, or a dancer in a go-go club!”

Smash cut to the movie’s three protagonists strutting their stuff to a bunch of desperate-looking slobs urging them on while the catchy theme song by the Bostweeds plays over the soundtrack. Welcome to the wild world of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965). Welcome to the world of Russ Meyer.

Meyer was a filmmaker that made a name for himself in the 1960s by directing a series of modestly budgeted, financially successful sexploitation movies rife with campy humor, satire of traditional American values, and featuring his number one obsession: big-breasted women. The last motif was featured prominently in every movie with at least one if not several voluptuous women. His most well-known movie remains Faster, Pussycat!, a pulpy tale of three go-go dancers that partake in a deadly crime spree in the California desert. It was not a financial success at the time but went on to develop a sizable cult following and proved to be a significant influence on popular culture, from music (White Zombie) to comic books (Daniel Clowes) to cinema (Quentin Tarantino).

We’re only two minutes into the movie and already Meyer has given us a lot to think about with the voiceover narration that is sexist and yet intentionally melodramatic in tone as the filmmaker slyly pokes fun at the attitudes of the times where men were expected to work while their wives stayed at home and raised the children. Meyer skewers the notion of male panic where they might feel threatened if women actually had some power thereby setting up the battle of the sexes struggle that dominates the movie. The three go-go dancers are shot from a low angle so that they appear larger than life while the men that slobber over them are shot from a high angle so that we are looking down on them, which only reinforces how pathetic they are – pretty heady stuff for an exploitation movie.

Varla (Tura Satana), Rosie (Haji) and Billie (Lori Williams) are the aforementioned go-go dancers that head out on the open road in their speedy sports cars. Billie races off on her own much to Varla’s chagrin. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Varla is the leader, ordering Rosie to get Billie out of the lake she found and jumped in. This gives Meyer the opportunity to stage a fight between two soaking wet women, first in the water and then in the sand until Varla breaks it up. She settles the beef by playing a game of chicken with Rosie and Billie, which she, of course, wins. Varla has nerves of steel and the confidence to back it up.

The three women cross paths with a man named Tommy (Ray Barlow) and his girlfriend Linda (Susan Bernard). He also has a sports car and enjoys racing it in time trials. Billie challenges Tommy to race her, Varla and Rosie. He manages to beat them all until Varla cheats and nearly causes him to crash. She then proceeds to bully Linda and challenges Tommy to a fight. It’s a drag down, nasty brawl with Varla killing him with her bare hands. Varla kidnaps Linda, who has passed out from shock, and they all hightail it out of there.

While getting gas for their cars, the women hear about a local wheelchair-bound recluse known as the Old Man (Stuart Lancaster) that’s sitting on a bunch of money. Varla decides to check it out and see if she can get her hands on the money but she’ll have to get past his two sons – a simple-minded muscle-bound hulk referred to as the Vegetable (Dennis Busch), whom Billie works her charms on, and Kirk (Paul Trinka), a much smarter, savvier person whom Varla targets, using her considerable assets to captivate. The rest of the movie plays out a battle of wills between Varla and the Old Man.

There is an interesting dynamic between the three women. They aren’t friends per se and whatever their relationship is becomes strained after Varla kills Tommy and only gets worse when they arrive at the ranch, their uneasy alliance put to the test with Varla’s latest criminal scheme.

Varla is a cocky bully as evident in the way she relentlessly taunts Tommy and Linda, provoking him into a fight, and, a little later, making fun of a not-too bright gas station attendant. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, especially men. In her all-black outfit and leather gloves, Varla is quite a sight to behold and Tura Satana goes for it, diving into the role with gusto.

Billie is the sex kitten always looking for a good time. She is the rebellious one that sometimes doesn’t do what she’s told. Rosie is Varla’s enforcer and lover. She doesn’t have much in the way of a personality, basically doing whatever she’s told to do while also worrying about Varla’s schemes.

The Old Man is an odd duck gone crazy with a skewed view of women; bringing them up to his remote ranch only for the Vegetable to get too rough with them. “What they know about hurtin’ and pain?” he says at one point. “We’re paying them back, boy. Each woman a payment.” He’s a sexist pig that hates Hippies and Democrats, clashing with the liberated Varla.

The movie is riddled with fantastic, memorable pulpy dialogue, like when Varla tells Tommy, “I never try anything. I just do it. Like I don’t beat clocks just people.” There are also some hilarious exchanges between characters, like when Linda offers Rosie a soft drink and the replies, “Honey, we don’t like nothing soft. Everything we touch is hard!”

For an exploitation movie, Faster, Pussycat! is beautifully shot by Walter Schenk in richly textured black and white. For example, there is a scene where Billie seduces the Vegetable and Meyer’s camera lingers over his naked, muscular upper torso, objectifying him in a way that is normally done to women. The movie also features crackerjack editing by Meyer himself, especially during the action sequences. The editing adds to the kinetic nature of the chase sequences and fight scenes, each with their own specific rhythm.

The impetus for Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! was pretty simple for Russ Meyer: “I had men kicking the shit out of the women, so I thought, ‘Why don’t we do one where the women kick the shit out of the men?’” To bring this vision to life, he enlisted ex-child actor John E. “Jack” Moran, who had appeared in Gone With the Wind (1939) and others but had wasted away his money on alcohol. The two men met through a mutual army buddy and Moran told Meyer that in return for the screenplay he wanted Writers Guild minimum pay (paid in cash), a cheap motel room, and a bottle of booze. Four days later, he had completed a script entitled, The Leather Girls, but it wasn’t easy because of Moran’s alcoholism. Meyer would lock him in the room and not let him out until the end of the day where he’d be rewarded with a jug of alcohol.

When it came to casting, Meyer picked Lori Williams to play Billie, the sexpot go-go dancer. She was from Pittsburgh and at 18 had already been in beach-party and Elvis movies. Meyer initially didn’t want to hire her as he didn’t think her breasts were big enough, but told her, “we’ll pad you up and that’s how I got it.” She was also responsible for her character’s outfit. Haji was cast as Rosie, Varla’s lover, but Meyer didn’t tell her or Tura Satana that their characters were lesbians until deep into filming as it was a taboo topic back then.

Satana had already been in Billy Wilder’s Irma la Douce (1963) and wasn’t crazy about auditioning for Meyer as she knew his reputation. She also didn’t want to do any nudity. Satana read the script and told Meyer that Varla needed to “have a little more balls,” and it was then he knew he had found his Varla. The two clashed during filming, most notably when he told her about his no sex rule for cast and crew during filming. She balked at this, telling him, “I need it every day, and if I don’t get it I get very cranky. If you want me to give you a good performance, I need to be relaxed. And that relaxes me.” The director relented but demanded that the actress not tell anyone else. She picked the assistant cameraman to hook up with during the shoot.

The bulk of Faster, Pussycat! was shot around Lake Isabella, Randsburg, and Johannesburg with the latter two being mining ghost towns near the Mojave Desert. The Old Man’s ranch was located just out of the town of Mojave. Filming out in the desert wasn’t easy as Satana recalled that on the first day it was 110 degrees in the shade. After three hours of filming she had a sunburn. This didn’t stop her from being involved in various aspects of the production. She helped choreograph Varla’s fight scene with Tommy and was less than thrilled with Ray Barlow, the actor that played him: “Oh God, was he a chickenshit. I had to literally carry him through all those fight scenes.”

Susan Bernard’s overprotective stage mother got on the cast and crew’s nerves, demanding that her daughter get more dialogue and screen-time. Satana finally lost it when the mother referred to the Pussycats as a “bunch of whores,” and demanded she leave the location or she’d quit. Meyer wasn’t impressed with Bernard’s acting skills and enlisted Satana to provoke a reaction out of her for a given scene, which she was only willing to oblige.

After these initial speed bumps, the rest of the shoot went fairly smoothly except for the scene where Varla tries to crush the Vegetable with her car, which Satana felt should have a close-up of the tires spinning. Meyer disagreed and Satana punched a wall in frustration, breaking her hand. She went to the hospital, got it looked at, and returned to filming without telling anyone. Meyer wasn’t happy with the shot he got and tried Satana’s suggestion, grudgingly agreeing that she was right.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is a fascinating B-movie where its villain is also its protagonist, played charismatically by Satana who clearly relishes her role as a larger than life character. No one or nothing seems to satisfy Varla. She wants more, leaving a destructive wake in her path. She and the Old Man are monsters that can’t be allowed to roam the countryside as they are too twisted to exist in our world and must be destroyed. It is not surprising, then, that the two most “normal” and moral characters survive. Ultimately, Faster, Pussycat! is a morality tale featuring a battle of good vs. evil told in an entertaining way by skilled showman Meyer.


SOURCES


McDonough, Jimmy. Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film. Crown Publishers. 2005.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Like Crazy

I can’t imagine how young people meet each other and fall in love in our modern world fragmented by technology. For all of the promise that things like Facebook and smart phones were supposed to make it easier to connect with others all over the world, they actually do just as good of a job keeping us physically apart. You can check up on a potential love interest by studying their FB page, Twitter feed and Instagram page all before meeting them in person and all of which can be nothing more than a carefully created persona that doesn’t represent the actual person. When people get tired of being in a relationship they can break things off with a text message or a tweet. How is this affecting the young people of today?

Filmmaker Drake Doremus addresses many of these notions with his bittersweet long-distance romance Like Crazy (2011), an independent film he shot on a still digital camera for $250,000. The end result is an emotionally affecting on again/off again romance between two people that can’t seem to let each other go despite all of the obstacles in their path depicted in authentically intimate fashion so that you really feel like you’ve gotten to know these people over the course of the film.

British exchange student Anna Gardner (Felicity Jones) and American student Jacob Helm (Anton Yelchin) meet at a college class they have together in Los Angeles. One day, after class, she leaves a handwritten note on his car. Impressed that she took the time and effort to write him a letter, he calls her and they meet for coffee. Their initial meeting is fused with the awkwardness of a first date, hoping you’ll say the right things and don’t act like an idiot. They broach the usual topics, like what they’re majoring in – journalism for her, furniture design for him – and their plans after school. There are self-conscious, pregnant pauses punctured by humor that is typical of a first date, but the way they look at each other you can tell there’s definitely a spark of attraction.

Anna and Jacob go back to her place where they stay up all night talking, bonding over their mutual love for Paul Simon’s music and he gets her to read some of her writing. At the end of the night, she sees him off and the silent yet intense looks they give each other tell us that these people are falling in love. Sure enough, we get one of those standard happy couples montages as we see them hanging out and getting close but done in a tastefully understated way. I like that they give each other very personal gifts – he makes his first ever chair for her and she gives him a book that chronicles their relationship through a combination of words and pictures.

Jacob meets Anna’s parents – Bernard (Oliver Muirhead) and Jackie (Alex Kingston) in an amusing scene over dinner where her mother is delightfully frank while her father is more diplomatic. Oliver Muirhead and Alex Kingston do an excellent job of quickly conveying two people that have been married for years by the way they play off each other and know how to embarrass their daughter. Naturally, the initial glow of Anna and Jacob’s budding romance becomes overshadowed by the looming expiration date of her student visa. It’s the cold splash of reality on their whirlwind romance.

Anna and Jacob throw caution to the wind and let their emotions govern their actions when she decides to stay the summer after her visa expires. When she goes back home for a family function and then tries to return to the United States she is detained by immigration and not allowed in. The rest of Like Crazy plays out how this decision affects their relationship, which they try to maintain over long distance.

Anton Yelchin brings a wonderful low-key quality to Jacob complete with a dry sense of humor that he uses to defuse a tense situation between him and Anna in a scene where, upset that she has to leave soon, buries herself in a book until he finally cracks her up by saying he once rescued a cat from a tree. Jacob is definitely the quieter of the two but that doesn’t mean he feels things as intensely as Anna does and Yelchin conveys that in his body language and facial expressions.

Prior to Like Crazy, the only thing I had seen Felicity Jones in was Rogue One (2016) where she plays a tough resistance fighter. In this film, she plays a much more complex character with a wide range of emotions. There’s a superb moment where, back home, Anna goes out with some friends and is chatting with a guy about the usual small talk and then during a brief lull in the conversation she goes silent and adopts a far away look as she is obviously thinking about Jacob that Jones conveys so well. Anna is often ruled by her emotions and one gets the feeling that she is never able to let go of her feelings for Jacob, that her love for him has impacted her profoundly. With Anna, Jones has created a fully realized character that has virtues and flaws just like anybody else.

It goes without saying that with a film like this the chemistry between the two leads has to feel genuine or it won’t work. Fortunately, Yelchin and Jones have fantastic chemistry together and make for a believable couple. They do an exceptional job of depicting the emotional arc of their relationship, from the first blush of romance to the uncertainty of their future together. It is a testimony to Yelchin and Jones’ skills as actors that they get us to care about Jacob and Anna and we become invested in their relationship, rooting for them to make it work – even when they get involved with perfectly nice people in an attempt to move on with their respective lives. I like that Doremus doesn’t try to villainize the significant others of Anna and Jacob. Samantha (Jennifer Lawrence) and Simon (Charlie Bewley) are perfectly nice people in their own right but no matter how much they try to make it work they aren’t right for Anna and Jacob.

Drake Doremus realistically depicts the highs and lows of long distance relationships like someone who has experienced it himself. For example, she conveys how painful it is to spend chunks of time together only to have to go back home when all you want to do is spend every minute with the other person. He nails the heart-wrenching experience of seeing off a loved one at the airport and the euphoria of seeing them arrive. He also nails the frustration of dealing with government bureaucratic red tape that is sometimes necessary to be with someone from another country. It is a powerless feeling as you are at the mercy of some faceless government official that doesn’t care about your situation. Doremus also isn’t afraid to show the stupid decisions people make along the way and how that impacts a relationship.

There are some people in life that just get you. There’s no explaining it and you have to hold on to those people because they are rare in this world. I believe that’s why Anna and Jacob keep getting back together. They connected on a deeply profound level that no amount of geographic distance or achievements in their professional lives could touch. Doremus gets it and depicts it with unflinching honesty. He has made a deeply personal film that is also relatable as he is dealing with basic emotions and feelings that most of us have experienced in our lives.


Like Crazy is all about the messiness of life, right down to the intentionally ambiguous ending that serves as a litmus test for the viewer, leaving it up to them to continue the story in their imagination if they like. Ultimately, people that really love each other find a way to make it work. It takes effort and commitment but it is possible and this film shows two people figuring it out as they go along, making mistakes and hopefully learning from them, but not losing sight of what they mean to each other.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones

The first time I ever heard of Jim Jones and the tragic events of Jonestown was from the absolutely gripping episode of In Search Of…, a television series that investigated controversial and memorable historical figures, and paranormal phenomena, hosted by Leonard Nimoy from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. The eyewitness accounts and actual news footage taken before and after the mass murder of 909 people on November 18, 1978 at the direction of and orders from their leader, Jones, was disturbing, even more so because it actually happened.

It didn’t take long for a fictionalized account of what went down to be made, entitled, Guyana: Crime of the Century (1979), a Mexican exploitation movie starring Stuart Whitman, Gene Barry and Joseph Cotton. The next year, a classier, more fact-based docudrama was made. Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones was a T.V. miniseries based on Charles A. Krause’s book, Guyana Massacre: The Eyewitness Account and starred Powers Boothe as Jones. It chronicled the man’s journey from devoutly religious child growing up in Indiana to fanatical cult leader in Guyana.

The story begins with Jones (Boothe) testing his followers’ loyalty while Congressman Leo J. Ryan (Ned Beatty) plans to fly down to Guyana and investigate reports that some of his followers are being mistreated and others being held against their will. Jones is told of Ryan’s impending arrival and flashes back to his childhood. This miniseries attempts to dig deep and show his early adoption of The Bible as a way to live his life. It also provides salvation from a dysfunctional household where his strict father (Ed Lauter) abused his mother (Diane Ladd) until she took her son and left.

Jones grows up to be a preacher, standing up to a racist barber that refuses to cut the hair of a little African-American boy. He espouses that everyone is equal in the eyes of God. He is soon put in charge of a struggling congregation consisting mostly of a few elderly parishioners and literally going door-to-door asking people to come to his church. It works and Jones has a racially integrated congregation at a time and in a place where that was vehemently objected to by some.

He eventually forms the Peoples Temple, a venue where he can preach his progressive views. Boothe is excellent in these early scenes as a straight arrow that faithfully believes in religion and its ability to bring everyone together regardless of color. He’s also a great salesman, using his charisma to not only attract people to his church but also get them to contribute financially or donate items. Jones genuinely cares about people, feeding and educating them as well as the community at large.

Jones meets with Father Divine (James Earl Jones), a spiritual leader that believed he was God, and who is doing what he’s doing only much more successful at it. Their brief meeting is a revelation for Jones and shows him a way to build up his congregation: he must develop a bigger personality and be so charismatic that people are willing to do anything and give everything for him. It is the beginning of the Jim Jones cult of personality.

Guyana Tragedy takes the time to show why so many people believed so devoutly in Jones. Initially, he honestly wanted to and did help people but the bigger his congregation got, the tougher it became to do everything he wanted to do. He began to rely on drugs to keep his energy up but he also staged fake faith healings and cheated on his wife (Veronica Cartwright) only to rationalize away these things by saying that he was close to a “vision of life everlasting,” claiming that he was “The Chosen One.”

Anybody who knows anything about Jones’ story knows that everything that happens before Jonestown is prologue, anticipating the centerpiece of the miniseries when Jones and his people move to Guyana and make a go of it, building an agrarian society. It is a disturbing testimony to Jones’ hold on that many people that he was able to convince them to start a new life with him in a foreign country.

The last hour shows how things go from bad to worse in Jonestown. His followers work long, grueling hours while Jones tells them the “news” from around the world over a loudspeaker. The attractive young women are drugged and have sex with him. He then dissolves all marriages among his followers and pairs them up himself. Jones believes he has created a utopia but it’s actually hell on earth.

Powers Boothe excels at Jones’ fiery preaching style, delivering the man’s sermons with a conviction and intensity that is something to behold. During these sermons, the actor adopts a kind of seductive purr in his voice as he woos his congregation and then brings a powerful intensity when Jones gets worked up with his fire and brimstone rhetoric. It is fascinating to see how he works a room in such a dynamic fashion. The actor does a masterful job of showing Jones’ gradual shift in ideology, from idealistic symbol of change to an increasingly paranoid man with a messiah complex. He is absolutely riveting in his depiction of Jones’ descent into paranoid delusions, convinced that the CIA is plotting against and spying on him.

The cast is an embarrassment of riches featuring the likes of Brad Dourif as a junkie that is taken in by Jones and Diana Scarwid as his desperate wife that find salvation with the Peoples Temple. Veronica Cartwright plays Jones’ long-suffering wife that is first to recognize and call him on his changes in attitude and behavior but ultimately remains loyal to him. Meg Foster and Randy Quaid show up in minor roles as loyal employees of Jones’ day-to-day operations that have a change of heart when he keeps their child from them, claiming the boy to be his own. These talented actors enter and exit Boothe’s orbit throughout the show, playing well off of him, helping paint a portrait of a complex man.

Originally, director William A. Graham approached Tommy Lee Jones to play Jim Jones but he was busy filming Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) and was unable to do it. Someone recommended then-relatively unknown actor Powers Boothe who got the part. To research the role, the actor interviewed former Peoples Temple members and watched any footage of Jones that was available. He asked former followers, mostly women, why Jones attracted so many people to his cause: “The answer I heard most was that Jones had more sex appeal than any man they’d ever seen.” Boothe has said that he approached the role as if he was playing King Lear and with his portrayal, set out to avoid the cliché vision of Jones as “a maniacal ogre. Wrong. He was charming, sweet and a fabulous speaker. If someone chooses to take that power, he can lead a lot of lambs to slaughter.”

There was an infamous sign displayed prominently in Jonestown that said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is an important reminder that we cannot let mad men like Jones run rampant. One of the lessons to be learned from Jonestown is that we must be vigilant against cults that are harmful under the guise of helping people in the name of God.

The last few minutes of Jonestown are as harrowing as you’d expect, but ultimately nothing is as horrific as the real thing and that is the problem that all dramatizations of Jonestown face. No matter how faithful a recreation it will always pale to what actually happened as the chilling newsreel footage and photographs of what went down there in that In Search Of… episode powerfully demonstrate. Like any good historical biopic should do, it is a good jumping off point for one to do their own research and dig deeper into the subject if they are so inclined. That being said, this does nothing to diminish Boothe’s powerhouse performance as Jones. He commits completely to the role and brings the man vividly to life.


SOURCES

Patches, Matt. “Q&A: Powers Boothe on Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Deadwood, and His Heavy Career.” Grantland. August 22, 2014.

Scott, Vernon. “The Rev. Jim Jones Haunts Actor.” The Hollywood Reporter. May 27, 1987.


Sheff, David. “An Unknown Actor Re-Creates the Horror of Jonestown and Makes His Name: Powers Boothe.” People. April 20, 1980.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Night Moves

Some of the best American cinema from the 1970s reflected a sense of disillusionment and pessimism as a result of a series of shocking political assassinations in the 1960s and culminated with the Watergate scandal in the early ‘70s. There was a deep feeling of mistrust in authority and a sense that the United States was no longer the great country people perceived to be.

One of the best films that reflect these feelings to come out of this decade is Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), starring Gene Hackman as a down-on-his-luck private investigator. The actor had a great run of diverse roles around this time (including The French Connection, The Conversation, and Scarecrow) and this one is among his very best.

Early on, the film establishes Harry Moseby’s (Hackman) lone wolf credentials as his wife Ellen (Susan Clark) asks him why he doesn’t join his friend Nick’s agency, to which he replies, “That’s not an agency, that’s an information factory.” Hackman shows a deft touch at handling shifting tones as Harry goes from a serious discussion with his wife about his job to messing with her uptight boss at the high-end antiques store she works at: “When are we going bowling again?” he says with a straight face to which the annoyed man replies, “You seem to get some kind of weird satisfactions from this sort of thing, don’t you?”

Harry is thrown a job involving Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward), a veteran actress whose teenage daughter Delly (Melanie Griffith) has gone missing. Arlene comes across as a bit of a washed-up boozehound and Janet Ward has a lot of fun putting an emphasis on the word “Biblical” when mentioning that her film producer ex-husband wanted to make Biblical epics. She represents the sad side of Hollywood where once beautiful actresses are phased out when they are deemed too old by studio executives.

Harry also finds out that Helen is cheating on him with a man named Marty Heller (Harris Yulin). The scene after he finds out shows Hackman masterfully conveying the jumble of emotions that must be playing behind Harry’s sad eyes. His new case has barely started and he’s dealing with his wife’s infidelity. She finally comes home from the movies and he’s watching a football game (although, his facial expression suggests that he’s not really watching it). She asks him who’s winning and he replies, “Nobody. One side’s just losing slower than the other.” It’s such a great line and sums up Harry’s mood perfectly. He doesn’t say much and he doesn’t have to because Hackman’s facial expressions say it all.

Harry methodically picks up Delly’s trail and encounters a beaten-up mechanic (a motormouthed James Woods), a bitter stunt coordinator (Edward Binns), and a good-looking stuntman (Anthony Costello) with a memorable laugh who’ve all briefly entered and exited her orbit along the way. Director Arthur Penn does an excellent job fleshing out these minor characters with their limited screen-time. They provide the initial impressions we get of Delly as a wild child with quite the sexual appetite.

Harry’s investigation takes him to Florida where Delly’s stepfather Tom (John Crawford) is chartering seaplanes. He finds her and begins to figure out what’s going: Tom is messing around with Delly, much to his girlfriend Paula’s (Jennifer Warren) chagrin. Tom’s also part of the local smuggling scene. In addition, Harry finds himself attracted to Paula, which only complicates things.

Gene Hackman is excellent as a private investigator that thinks too much. Harry is a complex character, haunted by his past – a strained relationship with his estranged father – and tired of dealing with lousy divorce cases, sifting through people’s dirty laundry when he has plenty of his own. The actor is given a rich character to fully inhabit, which he does with his trademark commitment.

While Melanie Griffith plays the free-spirited sex kitten who’s acting out to get back at her mother, Jennifer Warren plays a fascinatingly, fully realized character. Paula’s been around the block a few times but isn’t ashamed of her past. Regretful, perhaps, but not ashamed. She’s smart, demonstrating an understanding of the chess game Harry’s obsessively recreates, and matches him in the witty banter department. Warren has a down-to-earth beauty that has an authenticity to it and it is easy to see why Harry is attracted to Paula. She’s a sad character that seems lost in life much like Harry. These are damaged people looking for solace, trying to outrun the baggage of their past.

Scottish novelist Alan Sharp was working on a detective story called An End of Wishing with producer Robert Sherman. The former asked the latter, “Should I make this a typical detective story about a guy trying to solve a crime or should I make this what I really would like it to be, which is about a guy trying to solve himself?” Sherman told him to go the latter route and when the screenplay was completed, sent it to John Calley, then-head of Warner Bros.

The studio agreed to make the film for $4 million and brought Arthur Penn on board to direct. He was drawn to the script because the political assassinations in the ‘60s had made him depressed and “felt we needed to give voice to our grief. It was a beat-up culture.” Sharp changed the name of the script to The Dark Tower, which Penn subsequently changed to Night Moves during production. The screenwriter was surprised that the director liked his script as he felt it wasn’t resolved. They started working on it together and Sharp was also surprised that someone of Penn’s stature and experience didn’t know more about the screenwriting process than he did. The writer did find the director affable and very smart.

Penn rehearsed with the cast for ten days before principal photography, which Hackman, with his improvisational theater background, enjoyed. Filming began in the latter half of 1973 at Sanibel and Captiva Islands in Florida and Los Angeles. Hackman, at the time, was dealing with personal issues and reportedly acted sullen during filming. Penn admitted that they didn’t pay much attention to plot and that it was “not going to be achievable, that you were never going to be able to delineate a mystery properly,” which may have hurt its commercial chances. Furthermore, he said, “We’re part of a generation which knows there are no solutions.” He and Sharp disagreed over how to end the film with the former wanting there to be hope that Harry would get back with his wife while the latter wanted Harry and Paula to go off together. They compromised on the ending that exists now.

Night Moves received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “Miss Warren creates a character so refreshingly eccentric, so sexy in such an unusual way, that it’s all the movie can do to get past her without stopping to admire. But it does.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Harry is much more interesting and truly complex than the mystery he sets out to solve.” The Los Angeles Times’ Doug List wrote, “Few actors can communicate that kind of inner struggle better than Hackman…doesn’t require a role with offbeat characteristics or an overcharged personality to create an unforgettable character.” In his review for Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum called it a “haunting psychological thriller ambitiously sets out to unpack post-Watergate burnout in American life.”


Damaged people populate Night Moves: Arlene, chewed up and spit out by Hollywood; Delly following in her footsteps; Paula, an ex-hooker using Florida as a temporary waystation, and Harry, an ex-football player turned small-time private investigator. Near the end of the film, Harry tells Paula, “I didn’t solve anything. Just fell in on top of it,” which sums up his journey. What does it all mean and does it have to mean anything? These are some of the questions Harry wrestles with during the course of the film. Ultimately, he’s driven by the truth no matter how ugly or fruitless as the last image so brilliantly conveys. Night Moves is a fascinating character study with a tangible, lived-in feel that places an emphasis on behavior, and serves as a snapshot of a battered and bruised era trying to recover from turbulent events that took place in the ‘60s.


SOURCES

Hunter, Allan. Gene Hackman. St. Martin's Press. 1987.

Segaloff, Nat. Arthur Penn: American Director. University of Kentucky Press. 2011.