Lots of documentaries fall into the realm of the disposable: puff pieces, curios, lurid crime sideshows or lightweight infotainment. John Ridley's 'Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992' (2017) is not one of those. Indeed, 'Let It Fall' is one of the most important American docs in recent years. Ridley's brilliantly edited film delineates the decade-long run-up to the 1992 riots following the Rodney King verdicts that tore Los Angeles apart and shocked the nation. As 'Let It Fall' shows, 1982 to '92 marked a steep rise in street gangs, the further militarization of the police by LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, simmering tensions in the black community with Korean shop-owners and the cops. By the time of the Rodney King incident, South-Central LA was a tinderbox about to explode into flames. When the four cops who were involved in King's vicious, senseless beating - caught on video tape - were inexplicably acquitted by a Simi Valley jury, black LA went nuts and the results were catastrophic. The obvious take-way from 'Let It Fall' is that the city government and the cops were totally and unconscionably unprepared for the five days of rioting that ensued after the acquittals. Then-mayor Bradley comes off as weak but Daryl Gates and some of his subordinates in the LAPD come off as either grossly incompetent, indifferent, or malevolent - or all of the above. The LA riots were called an "uprising" but that doesn't seem quite accurate. The cops stood down and stayed uninvolved while the black ghetto and Koreatown burned (wealthy white sections like Beverly Hills were carefully guarded, of course). In other words, the horrendous damage was mostly inflicted on white working-class people (e.g., truck driver Reginald Denny) and Korean small business owners by African American working-class and poor people who were fed up by a long term diet of poverty and police repression. The '92 riots did not alter the rich, white power structure one iota - though Bradley and Gates soon lost their jobs.
'Holy Hell' is a fascinating look at sociopathy, gullibility, the essential vacuity of modern bourgeois American life - and what it means to surrender one's existential freedom to a charismatic grifter. The conman in question is a guy named Michel Rostand (and various other aliases). Michel is a homosexual would-be actor/dancer from Venezuela who came to L.A. in the late 1960s to break into the movies. He ended up in hardcore gay porno. But, lo and behold, by the mid-1980s he had installed himself as the leader of a dippy New Age cult (which he evidently still is today, in Hawaii). Michel is also a dyed-in-the-wool, card-carrying sociopath, utterly manipulative and without a shred of shame or conscience. A typical charlatan, he promises enlightenment to lost souls who follow him but delivers exploitation and emotional/sexual abuse. What is baffling, though, is Michel's appeal over his flock. He's effeminate, obviously self-absorbed, somewhat dimwitted, and speaks poor English - nothing prepossessing about him. Yet over the years he's been able to exert tremendous power over scores of acolytes. It just goes to show how poorly educated and poorly developed - emotionally and psychologically - lots of Americans really are. Anyone with a reasonably healthy ego and a scintilla of self-awareness would see through this simpering, malevolent flim-flam man in a New York minute.
On July 26, 2009 Diane Schuler drove a mini-van the wrong way on New York State's Taconic Parkway for 1.7 miles before her vehicle crashed head-on with another car, killing a total of eight people, four of whom were children. Autopsy toxicology reports showed that Diane Schuler (who was one of the fatalities) was both extremely drunk and very high on THC when she crashed. 'There's Something Wrong with Aunt Diane' explores the accident in detail and chronicles the efforts of Diane Schuler's husband and sister-in-law to clear her name after law enforcement and the media branded her as grossly negligent. Giving Diane the benefit of the doubt, 'There's Something Wrong...' formulates the hypothesis that Schuler was suffering form severe pain due to an abscessed tooth and - while driving - drank a large amount of vodka in a very short time an effort to quell the pain. Intoxication led to delirium and the accident. Plausible? Perhaps, but highly unlikely. What the film doesn't enunciate or even go near is a rather obvious and depressing conclusion that should have been floated from the get-go: that Diane Schuler was a secret alcoholic - and had been for a long time, no doubt. Her husband had no idea because she was so skilled at keeping her addiction under wraps.
Scott Tucker is an extremely loathsome specimen. As this episode of 'Dirty Money' ("Payday") recounts, Tucker and his two brothers (Blaine and Joel) founded an online business in 2001 that made payday loans (even in states where these super-high-interest, low-principal loans were restricted or illegal). Tucker's clientele were working-class Americans at the bottom of the social heap - vulnerable, desperate people who needed cash advances in order to stay afloat. Tucker set up usurious loans (with lots of strings attached) that would make mafia loan-sharks blush. He took ruthless advantage of millions of poor people to enrich himself, live a lavish lifestyle, and indulge his passion for amateur car racing. Happily, after about 12 years, the Feds eventually got wind of Tucker's shenanigans, busted him on RICO and other charges, slapped him with a $1.3 billion fine, and sent him to off to federal prison for 16 years (too short a sentence, actually). It's heartwarming to see this human piece of slime brought low but "Payday" is nonetheless a frustrating viewing experience. It spends far too much time with Tucker, his wife (who looks like an aging, Botox-ed Joey Heatherton), his naive daughter, and his sleazy lawyer-partner, Tim Muir (also convicted and now serving a 7 year sentence). Tucker and Muir are utterly unrepentant about their crimes. Quite naturally, they cast themselves as aggrieved victims of government overreach, never admitting that they were greedy thieves preying upon the weakest members of society. This TV doc should have spent more time with a number of Tucker's victims, to show in a vivid way the incredible misery he caused. Too bad hell is a myth; it's a pleasing image to imagine Scott Tucker burning in agony in its fiery furnaces forever.
Manfred Blank's 'Pharos of Chaos' promises more than it delivers. The idea of a full-length interview documentary focusing on the legendary Sterling Hayden is intriguing, to say the least, but the actual film is a bit tedious for at least two reasons. When it was filmed, Hayden was 65, always drunk, and clearly addled by decades of alcohol abuse. Some of his anecdotes are interesting but too often Hayden merely rambles pointlessly. So that's one problem. The other, related problem is that Blank doesn't know how to rein in Hayden. (Conversely, Tom Snyder was able to keep Hayden engaged and focused; his interviews with Hayden on his TV show are brilliant and highly entertaining.) 'Pharos of Chaos' is still worth a look-see but could have been so much more-if Blank had entered into a real dialogue with Hayden and drawn him out on his incredible life in a more focused way.
I just watched 'L.A. Confidential' again, after a long hiatus. It still holds up as an expertly crafted and vastly entertaining (though ultra-violent) neo-noir. This time around I was struck by the thought that 'L.A. Confidential' is a kind of classic Freudian psychomachia, with its three principal characters - Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), and Bud White (Russell Crowe) - embodying the three parts of the human psyche, as outlined by Freud a century ago. Jack, a suave operator and publicity hound, is clearly the Ego. Ed, who is educated, cerebral, prudish, and ethical, is very much the Superego. Bud, who is full of pain, rage, and lust, is all Id. A conservative critique of the American celebrity culture of narcissism just beginning to emerge in the early 1950s, the movie depicts Jack Vincennes as cynical, venal, and corrupt-at least until he has a change of heart and casts his lot with Exley in a crusade against an evil Establishment. Jack's death (murdered by corrupt LAPD Capt. Dudley Smith) two-thirds of the way through the picture allegorically signals the falling away of selfish egotism just as the late-stage alliance of Ed (the Official Hero) and Bud (the Outlaw Hero) signals psychological resolution for both characters, who then converge into one powerful force for Good (Ed overcomes his emotional and psychological rigidities and Bud overcomes his rage and grief as both men commit to battle a common enemy). There's a social class allegory here, as well. Ed embodies bourgeois ambition while Bud embodies working-class angst and despair. Their coming together figures for a uniting of the professional managerial class (PMC) and the working-class against a corrupt ruling elite: an unlikely occurrence in real life but deeply satisfying as a cinematic imaginary. One could also invoke Karpman's Drama Triangle here, especially in regards to the Bud White character. Victimized by his brutal father, who murdered his mother, Bud has become a perennial persecutor of woman-abusers and rescuer of woman-victims: an obsession that keeps him immersed in self-consuming melodrama until he turns his attention to a different kind of evil, i.e., the corrupt alliance between Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) and the city's heroin peddling gangsters.
Just watched 'Grizzly Man' again, for the umpteenth time. It's such an odd and haunting film: fascinating but also skewed, fragmented, and excessively managed by Werner Herzog-who seems to dislike his subject, Timothy Dexter Treadwell. Critics are right to note the stagy awkwardness of Herzog's interviews with Treadwell's surviving friends. They're also correct in noting the film's lack of narrative flow. Nonetheless, enough truth shines through to get the sense that Treadwell was a deeply troubled individual, probably bipolar and-as manifested by his words, voice, mannerisms, and appearance-likely a repressed homosexual (not merely closeted, but repressed altogether). The pure product of a Fifties suburban blue-collar upbringing, Treadwell couldn't "come out" or even admit to himself that he was gay (or perhaps bisexual). Such self-repression took a heavy emotional toll in drinking and drug-taking: addictions that nearly killed Treadwell before he discovered the wild grizzly bears of Katmai National Park in Alaska and devoted the remainder of his life to their supposed defense and conservation. In point of fact, Alaska's 30,000+ grizzlies are not endangered at all and did not need Timothy Treadwell's help, protection, or advocacy. His self-appointed role as bear champion is better understood as a half-baked form of self-therapy. Here I invoke Karpman's Drama Triangle, a theory about interpersonal relation dynamics that posits the interesting notion that people (especially family members) in a dysfunctional situation revert to (and often cycle through) three common subject positions: persecutor, victim, and rescuer. Treadwell, who came to see himself as a victim of society and his own self-destructive urges, reverted to the role of rescuer (of the bears) as a means to recuperate and maintain self-esteem-but more fundamentally as an unconscious way to prolong drama and avoid any real psychological/existential self-confrontation. (Treadwell obviously shifted the victim role unto the bears and the persecutor role unto the Park Service, tourists, non-existent poachers, etc.) Sadly, the righteous rescuer guise ultimately got Treadwell (and his friend, Amie Huguenard) killed by a hungry bear (who evidently did not read the memo about Treadwell being his ally/rescuer). In a weird way, Karpman's theory can also be applied to Herzog-who seems not to know how to feel about Treadwell. Herzog rescues Treadwell's filmic legacy by making a film from Treadwell's surviving raw footage, but also becomes Treadwell's persecutor in showing his subject in a less than flattering light. The real victims? Treadwell's friend, Amie, and the bear who killed and ate Treadwell and Amie, killed by park rangers in the aftermath.
Released 48 years after the events it depicts, 'Chappaquiddick' (2017) will not garner a audience much beyond Baby Boomers now in their 60s and 70s who remember Ted Kennedy's scandalous downfall in the summer of 1969. Bruce Dern is great as stroke-paralyzed Joe Kennedy but the film has him speaking and writing--activities he incapable of after 1962. Jason Clarke kind of looks like Ted and is good in the lead role but the film remains vaguely unsatisfying, probably because it can't or won't answer questions about the incident that still remain utterly baffling. How did Kennedy get out of the submerged vehicle? Did he really try to save Mary Jo Kopechne, as he claimed he did? Why the hell did he wait 8 or 9 hours to report the accident? Authorities later estimated that Mary Jo remained alive in an air pocket for perhaps two hours before drowning--ample time to be rescued if Ted has sought help immediately. One can only imagine what she was going through, trapped in that car in those agonizingly long and desperate moments (the film glosses over this hideous reality a bit too quickly). One thing that does come through in the movie is Ted Kennedy's enormous and almost instinctual sense of entitlement--a taken-for-granted asset of the rich, famous, and powerful that is really an enormous liability, at least in Ted's case, because it renders him an abject fool and a pitiable coward. Some commentators have accused the film of being an anti-Liberal hit piece. I don't think so. In the final analysis, 'Chappaquiddick' is a parable about the existential rot that accrues around social class privilege, political affiliation notwithstanding. Because he was a Kennedy, Ted was slapped on the wrist with just two months probation for what should have been deemed vehicular manslaughter (had he been an ordinary working-class shmoe, Ted would likely have served time in prison). Yes, he was forgiven by Massachusetts voters and served another 40 years in the Senate, but Ted Kennedy will always be known as "The Chappaquiddick Kid": a far cry from his brother, Jack, who performed well in a crisis at sea. The film's best line is uttered by Andria Blackman, who plays Ted's long-suffering wife, Joan. On the way to Mary Jo's funeral, Ted thanks her for sticking by him. But Joan isn't in the mood for Ted's smarminess. She retorts, "Go f**k yourself!"--a sentiment probably approved by most viewers.
Many other reviewers have already spoken eloquently and in detail, in praise of this deeply moving, superlative film. I'd just like to offer an observation from a somewhat different angle. What struck me about 'I, Daniel Blake' was an aspect of subaltern powerlessness that pundits often overlook, i.e., that the poor and marginalized are almost never in control of their own time. In the USA dentists, doctors, therapists, lawyers, and all sorts of professionals get to maximize and monetize their time to the nth degree. As for govt. agencies like the DMV or employment or benefits offices--they are often (under-)staffed by bureaucrats who are in no hurry to accommodate John Q. Public. Patients/clients/supplicants wait (and wait and wait) in their spot on the usually stalled conveyor belt to get their allotted modicum of perfunctory attention. After all, they're just cogs in the revenue stream and THEIR time is deemed unimportant. Same thing with phone access to govt. agencies, bureaucracies, insurance companies, you name it. These corporate entities have complex and often confusing "phone trees," long wait times on hold (during which horrendous music plays), and customers reps who are often either obtuse, indifferent, mean-spirited, or confused themselves. For the poor seeking any sort of public assistance these nuisances and indignities are multiplied tenfold because--as 'I, Daniel Blake' dramatizes--the System doesn't really want to serve the so-called "disadvantaged"; it wants poor folk in need to get discouraged and go away (and hopefully die and decrease the surplus population).
There are no superlatives that can really do justice to Andrey Zvyagintsev's 'Leviathan.' It is an absolutely phenomenal film--unflinchingly honest, visually majestic, beautifully written and acted, stunning in its philosophical and moral implications. Hollywood routinely serves us predictable genre cartoons to turn a fast buck. This film stands as a towering repudiation of all that is meretricious, superficial, and phony in cinema as it grapples with the most profound questions of life: social oppression, injustice, love, betrayal, forgiveness, death, grief, and desolation. As other reviewers have noted, 'Leviathan' is a depressing film, even a harrowing one but there's a terrible beauty here.
Another conventional American dreamer gets his comeuppance
Interesting documentary on Marc Dreier, fraudster extraordinaire. His $10 million Manhattan penthouse apartment notwithstanding, Dreier was/is a lowlife, scamming over $400 million from clients between 2004 and 2008 so that he could live the fabled alpha-male high life so heavily advertised in 'New York Times Magazine', 'Vanity Fair' and other purveyors of pretentious upper-class nonsense. Dreier comes of as smart and tough (he never whines about his fate)but also sociopathic; he never displays any remorse about his crimes and the damage he's done. In the final analysis, this man is a thoroughly conventional fool, once rich in capital but always poor in soul and imagination.
After listening to a witty radio interview featuring Harold Krentz—a blind man mistakenly classified as "1-A" by his local draft board—screenwriter Leonard Gershe (the 1958 Oscar winner for 'Funny Face') was inspired to write 'Butterflies Are Free', a play about a young blind man who moves from Scarsdale to Greenwich Village to get away from his overprotective mother and establish his independence. Opening at the Booth Theatre on W. 45th Street on Oct. 21, 1969, 'Butterflies' starred Keir Dullea ('2001, A Space Odyssey') as Don Baker, the blind protagonist; Eileen Heckart as Baker's mother; Blythe Danner as Jill Tanner, Baker's next-door neighbor and love interest; and Paul Michael Glaser as Ralph Austin, a friend of Jill's. A surprise hit, the play ran for nearly three years (1,128 performances) and earned Danner a 1970 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play. In March 1970 producer Mike Frankovich ('Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice') paid Gershe $300,000 and a percentage of the film's future earnings for the screen rights to his play. Frankovich also hired Gershe to adapt his play to the screen and the play's director, Milton Katselas, to direct the film. Of the original cast, Eileen Heckart and Paul Michael Glaser were tapped to reprise their Broadway roles but television's favorite blonde hippie chick, Goldie Hawn ("Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In"), replaced the then relatively unknown Blythe Danner and 20-year-old Eddie Albert, Jr. supplanted 35-year-old Keir Dullea in an obvious bid to lend the film greater youth appeal. Likewise, the setting was switched from New York City to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, to marinade the story in hippie counterculture ambiance. Viewed now, decades after its initial release, 'Butterflies Are Free' can be regarded as a time capsule of a short-lived Aquarian Age, or more cynically, as a transparently slick exercise in sentimentality dressed up in hippie garb. Eileen Heckart's turn as Mrs. Baker earned her the 1973 Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. A final irony: although the title sounds like the quintessence of hippie philosophy, it was actually derived from Charles Dickens' 1853 novel, 'Bleak House'! VHS (1996) and DVD (2002).
At 2:00 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 7, 1876, eight members of the infamous James-Younger Gang attempted to rob the First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota. The local citizenry got wind of the robbery while it was in progress and a fierce shoot-out erupted outside the bank. Two members of the gang—Clell Miller and Bill Chadwell—were killed and Jim and Bob Younger wounded (and later captured, along with brother Cole, the ringleader). A bank employee and a bystander were killed and another bank employee wounded. Frank and Jesse James managed to escape back to Tennessee but, after five years in operation, the James-Younger Gang ceased to exist: an outcome still celebrated in Northfield annually. 104 years after the bungled robbery writer-director Philip Kaufman brought out a film version of the famous raid that is not strictly accurate historically but entirely consistent with the anti-authority zeitgeist of the early Seventies. Paul Frees' sonorous opening voice-over sets the tone: "Even before the wounds of the Civil War had healed in Missouri, the railroads came swarming in to steal the land. Everywhere, men from the railroads were driving poor, defenseless families from their homes. And that's when a fresh wind suddenly began to blow. It was other Clay County farmers, the James and Younger boys, coming to the rescue. They tarred and feathered the railroad men and drove them from the land. From that moment onward, they were outlaws. But the people of Missouri would never forget what the boys had done for them." The laughable notion that Jesse James was a modern Robin Hood originated with James himself, an early adept at public relations, who characterized himself and his cohorts as aggrieved victims of a Radical Republican administration bent on unending persecution of those who had sided with the defeated Confederacy. The newspapers ratified Jesse James's version of himself, which soon passed into enduring myth. In reality James was apolitical and a criminal psychopath to boot. Also worth noting is the fact that the James-Younger gang mostly robbed banks; railroads were only an occasional target of opportunity. Kaufman's film correctly characterizes Jesse James (Robert Duvall) as mean and unstable and Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson) as the real brains of the outfit. Where the film most egregiously errs is in depicting the Northfield raid in Keystone Cops fashion and in characterizing the gang's victims and foes as generally corrupt, cruel, incompetent or cowardly. The outlaws look good by comparison and their enemies get to stand in for an emerging, oppressive corporate establishment (cf. 'Bonnie & Clyde' and 'The Wild Bunch'). VHS (1992) and DVD (2007).
After a weekend of emotionally charged encounter sessions at an Esalen- like retreat known as "The Institute," L.A.-based documentary filmmaker Bob Sanders (Robert Culp) and his wife Carol (Natalie Wood) become zealous acolytes of the late-Sixties, hippie-inspired cult of expressive individualism: an apolitical ideology of bourgeois hedonism that sanctifies joyful spontaneity, uninhibited candor, and guilt-free (extramarital) sex as the sine qua non of a fulfilling life. Adhering to the new openness, Bob confesses to Carol that he has had a "just physical" one-night stand with a 20-year-old blonde while on a business trip to San Francisco. Though seemingly sanguine about the news, Carol proceeds to have her own dalliance with Horst (Horst Ebersberg), her handsome tennis instructor, but is caught in the act when Bob comes home early from a trip to New York. After a bout with old-fashioned jealousy, Bob seems able to reconcile himself to Carol's infidelity. As for Bob and Carol's best friends—Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon)—this New Age ethos strikes them as suspiciously naive and self-indulgent until Ted succumbs to his own opportunity to cheat while on a trip to Miami. When he confesses his indiscretion to Alice while the foursome is on vacation in Las Vegas, Alice calls everyone's bluff by stripping down to her underwear and suggesting the two couples have a spouse-swapping orgy in their hotel suite before going to a Tony Bennett concert! Supposedly dutiful swingers all, the four climb into bed and commence foreplay with each other's spouse but come to find that they cannot go through with it; evidently, primal taboos surrounding conjugal intimacy are too strong to overcome. In the somewhat surreal denouement, a chastened Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice march out of their casino hotel, followed by a long string of other hand holding couples and promenade in the parking lot to the lilting strains of Jackie DeShannon singing Bert Bacharach's "What the World Needs Now is Love." The ending, and the movie as a whole, is tonally ambiguous. Are viewers meant to applaud or sneer at the triumph of conventional morality over revolutionary sexual-emotional mores? Probably more the former but the film still manages to raise questions about status quo hypocrisy that it cannot put to bed peacefully. Made for a mere $2 million, 'Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice' was a smash hit, earning $30 million at the box office. A watered-down TV series based on the film lasted only half a season in the autumn of 1973. VHS (1996) and DVD (2004).
Phantly Roy Bean (c.1825–1903), a West Texas saloon keeper, Justice of the Peace, and the self-proclaimed "Law West of the Pecos," was a colorful rogue whose tall tales and bizarre judicial antics became the stuff of Old West legend and folklore. Hollywood made two westerns about Bean before Huston's, one good, the other not so good: William Wyler's 'The Westerner' (1940), which earned Walter Brennan a Best Actor in a Supporting Role Oscar as Judge Bean, and Budd Boetticher's forgettable 'A Time for Dying' (1969). Screenwriter John Milius ('Jeremiah Johnson') has always subscribed to the advice tendered by the newspaper editor in John Ford's 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance' (1962): "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Unabashedly choosing myth over factual history, Milius created a surreal, broadly comical script that played up the apocryphal reputation of Bean (Paul Newman) as a remorseless and arbitrary "hangin' judge" (the real Roy Bean never hanged anyone). Milius also exercised great poetic license regarding chronology. Roy Bean arrived in Vinegaroon, Texas in 1882 (when he was already 57), founded the nearby town of Langtry in 1884, served as justice between 1882 and 1902 and died in 1903 at the age of 78. In the movie, Bean arrives in Vinegaroon eight years later, in 1890 (and is only 35 at the time), is driven out of Langtry c.1905, and returns in 1925 (age 70) to clear the town of miscreants one last time. Presumably, Milius pushed Bean's life ahead 25-30 years in order to contrast the exuberant lawlessness of the Old West with the more sinister, corporate criminality of the Prohibition era: a revisionist trope already well exercised by Peckinpah, Altman, and other advocates of the anti-western. Though John Milius was disappointed with the film realized from his screenplay—but not with the record $300,000 he was paid for it—John Huston liked the movie, and Paul Newman considered his understated rendition of Bean one of his better performances. Critics panned the film and box office was only mediocre at best. VHS (1999) and DVD (2003).
By the time she died of a heroin overdose at the age of 44 on July 17, 1959, Billie Holiday (real name: Eleanora Fagan Gough, a.k.a., "Lady Day") was already a show business legend: a singer of great talent and emotional power also notorious for a tragic, tortured personal life. Death transformed the legend into romantic myth and, sooner or later, a cinematic biopic was inevitable. Unfortunately, the biopic that did emerge thirteen years after Lady Day's demise proved to be a bad, bombastic film. Much that is wrong with 'Lady Sings the Blues' can be traced to Motown Records mogul Berry Gordy's heavy-handed involvement (including total financing to the tune of $3.5 million). His screen writing team—Chris Clark, Suzanne de Passe, and Terence McCloy—were all Gordy cronies but none of them had written a screenplay before. Also highly suspect was the film's primary source material: Billie Holiday's alleged autobiography, co-authored with hack writer William F. Dufty: 'Lady Sings the Blues' (Doubleday, 1956). Holiday's own account of her life was filled with fabrications that the screenwriters blithely took at face value. No matter; the intent of the movie all along was not to serve historical accuracy but to function as the ultimate prestige star vehicle for Gordy's protégé Diana Ross, former Supremes lead singer, who had just embarked on a solo recording and film career and demanded that Gordy give her the juicy part of Lady Day. The fact that Ross had very little acting experience and did not look or sound anything like Billie Holiday, prompted critics to wonder aloud if she could carry the film. Surprisingly, she could, and did—after a fashion. Purely as melodrama, 'Lady' is a powerful experience. Though graced by numerous artistic triumphs, Billie Holiday's life was, without question, a nightmare roller coaster of drug addiction and withdrawal, police troubles, racial victimization, and unending bouts of sexual and emotional abuse by the men in her life, both intimates and strangers. In its clumsy, single-minded zeal to capture all the suffering and angst, the film goes too far. When all is said and done Diana Ross's Billie Holiday is the consummate victim-martyr and little else. Indeed, her spiritual and emotional pain is so constant, loud, intense, and insistent that the viewer drifts from stunned empathy, to pity, to compassion fatigue, to something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. Striving with great earnestness for tragedy, 'Lady Sings the Blues' is finally nothing more than a protracted exercise in hysterical bathos. At first blush, the film was considered a great one in some quarters. Critics were politely wary but the public ate it up and the Motion Picture Academy—always attuned to popular sentiment—bestowed five 1973 Oscar nominations. The soundtrack album was a big hit as well. After 'Lady' failed to win any Oscars, it became apparent that the initial response had been overblown, much like the movie itself. Billy Dee Williams plays Holiday's husband, Louis McKay, and legendary comic Richard Pryer does a fine turn as Holiday's pianist but the show belongs almost entirely to Ross. VHS (1996) and DVD (2005).
In 1969 William H. Armstrong, a white 9th grade history teacher at Kent School in Connecticut, published 'Sounder', a short but deeply moving children's novel about the struggles of black sharecroppers in Louisiana during the depths of the Great Depression. Instantly recognized as a classic, 'Sounder' was awarded the John Newberry Medal and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1970. The book also attracted the attention of Martin Ritt, the once-blacklisted producer-director of 'Hud', 'The Molly Maguires', 'The Great White Hope' and a host of other socially committed movies. Ritt recognized that 'Sounder' transcended its coming-of-age theme by providing a powerful depiction of the Jim Crow South at its most oppressive: a part of history that had never been adequately represented in American cinema (though the story of white poverty in the Great Depression had been told in John Ford's 'The Grapes of Wrath', 1939). Ritt bought the film rights, sold Fox producer Robert B. Radnitz on the project, and hired African-American screenwriter Lonne Elder III to work with Armstrong in adapting 'Sounder' to the screen. Shot on location in East Feliciana and St. Helena parishes (just north of Baton Rouge), 'Sounder' stars Paul Winfield as Nathan Lee Morgan, Cicely Tyson as his wife, Rebecca Morgan, and Kevin Hooks as David Lee Morgan, their 13-year-old son who must assume the role of paterfamilias after his father is sentenced to a year in a work camp for stealing a ham to feed his starving family. (The title of book and film derive from the name of David's beloved dog, Sounder.) Beautifully photographed by John Alonzo ('Vanishing Point'; 'Harold and Maude'), 'Sounder' boasts a pitch-perfect script that avoids bathos; terrific acting; a great period blues soundtrack by Taj Mahal (who also has a small role in the film); and an uplifting message of black pride, determination, and endurance. Nominated for a Golden Globe and four Academy Awards (including Best Picture), 'Sounder' garnered excellent reviews—although some critics found the film too safely "liberal" because it was a family-oriented period piece. VHS (1998) and DVD (2002).
Adapted from Wally Ferris's 'Across 110th' (Harper & Row, 1970) by playwright-screenwriter Luther Davis ('Lady in a Cage'), 'Across 110th Street' is often lumped into the blaxploitation genre but is atypical in several respects. Created by white filmmakers, 'Across 110th Street' does not cater to black audiences by featuring the requisite black-urban-outlaw-superhero wreaking vengeance on the white power structure through acts of stylized mayhem. A cross-town street, 110th in Manhattan skirts the northern edge of Central Park and divides Harlem to the north from the upper East and West Sides, i.e., the then-mostly poor black and Hispanic ghetto from the mostly affluent white districts. More than a street, 110th is the city's dividing line between the haves from the have nots. Three black working-class Harlemites—Joe Logart (Ed Barnard), Jim Harris (Paul Benjamin), and Henry J. Jackson (Antonio Fargas)—figuratively cross the line when they rob a mafia counting house in Harlem of $300,000 and, in the process, kill seven people including two cops. The robbery and mass murder naturally trigger parallel pursuits by the NYPD and the mafia; the former determined to bring the trio to justice, the latter bent on exacting vengeance and recovering the stolen loot. Because the crimes took place in Harlem, Lt. Pope (Yaphet Kotto), a young, by-the-book black detective, is put in charge of the investigation, much to the chagrin of Capt. Mattelli (Anthony Quinn), a brutal, racist 55-year-old cop strictly "old school" in his methods and beliefs: the kind of match-up already made archetypal by Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in 'In the Heat of the Night' (1967). On the mafia side, Nick D'Salvio (Anthony Franciosa), the grinning, psychopathic son-in-law of a mafia don, is assigned the task of catching the three killer-crooks. Further complicating the situation is the menacing power of Mr. Jessup (Joe Attles), a gruff black crime boss who maintains an uneasy alliance with the mafia and crooked cops (including Capt. Mattelli) over the rackets in Harlem. Across 110th Street fails to generate much suspense because the mafia easily bests the cops in getting to each of the fugitives first. On the upside, Barry Shears' direction is surefooted, the film is graced by an evocative soundtrack by Bobby Womack and J.J. Johnson, and features solid acting, relentless action, suitably grotesque violence, and an aura of gritty authenticity that could only be had by filming on location in New York City at one of the lowest points in its modern history. Blaxploitation fan Quentin Tarantino incorporated a version of Bobby Womack's title track, "Across 110th Street," into his third film, 'Jackie Brown' (1997). VHS (1998) and DVD (2001).
New Jersey-born John Garrison, a.k.a., John Johns(t)on (c.1824–1900) joined the Union Army in St. Louis, Missouri in 1864 and served with Company H, 2nd Colorado Cavalry. Honorably discharged in 1865, Johnson migrated further west and became a notoriously tough and ruthless trapper, Indian fighter, and lawman. In the 1880s he served as Deputy Sheriff in Coulson, Montana and later became Town Marshall in Red Lodge, Montana. He died of old age at a veteran's home in Los Angeles. Such are the rather prosaic facts of the real John Johnson. Then there is the myth. An associate of Wild Bill Hickock named Joseph (John) "White Eye" Anderson (1853–1946) seems to be the main source for the fantastic legends that accrued around Johnson in the second half of the 20th century. In 1941 Anderson regaled western writer Raymond W. Thorp with tall tales of "Crow Killer" or "Liver Eating Johnson," so named because Johnson allegedly slew between 300 and 400 (!) Crow warriors and ate their livers, raw, to avenge the murder of his pregnant wife in 1847 by a Crow hunting party—20 years before John Johnson moved West. Seventeen years after meeting Anderson, Raymond Thorp joined Robert Manson Bunker in writing 'Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson' (Indiana UP, 1958), a highly speculative "biography" that turned Anderson's wild fabrications into uncorroborated "fact." Noted western author Vardis Fisher further burnished the Johnson legend with his novel, 'Mountain Man' (Morrow, 1965). Building myth upon myths, screenwriter John Milius ('The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean') used Crow Killer and Mountain Man as his sources for Jeremiah Johnson, a movie that more realistically chooses to portray Johnson (Robert Redford) as a ascetic, romantic loner, not the vengeful, brutal monster recounted by White Eye Anderson. (Rather than waging a vendetta on the Crow, Redford's Johnson is constantly attacked by them.) Further enhancing Jeremiah Johnson's nobility and the film's lyricism are breathtaking vistas of the rugged Utah Rockies shot by Duke Callaghan (promoted to DP after serving as one of Sydney Pollack's cameramen on his previous film, 'They Shoot Horses, Don't They?'). If that were not enough, a lush musical score by John Rubenstein and Tim McIntire completes the picture. Yet, when the movie premiered at the 26th Cannes Film Festival on May 4, 1972, Robert Redford somewhat disingenuously told 'New York Times' interviewer Cynthia Grenier: "I wanted this film to be an antidote to the general feeling in the States today that getting away from civilization is such a terrific thing and is so romantic. I wanted to show the kids what it is really like going it on your own in the wilderness..." 'Jeremiah Johnson' might well have been the gritty western that Redford imagined it to be if producer Joe Wizan had gone with Clint Eastwood as Johnson and Sam Peckinpah as director, as was originally planned. The estimable (and once-blacklisted) Will Geer (best known as Grandpa on "The Waltons") plays Johnson's wilderness survival mentor, Bear Claw Chris Lapp. VHS (1997)and DVD (1997).
Penned by then-neophyte screenwriter Jeb Rosebrook and shot by Sam Peckinpah's best cinematographer, Lucien Ballard, on location in Prescott, Arizona, 'Junior Bonner' stars Steve McQueen in the title role as an aging, battered bull rider returning to his hometown to participate in Prescott's 4th of July "Frontier Days." (As the world's oldest rodeo, founded in 1888, Prescott's annual event epitomizes the mythic cowboy culture of the Old West). Expecting to find his family unchanged after many years, J.R. "Junior" Bonner discovers that his father, Ace (Robert Preston)—a former rodeo star gone to seed—and mother Elvira (Ida Lupino) have since separated and that his younger brother Curly (Joe Don Baker) has become a venal real estate tycoon selling off parcels of the family land holdings for a fast buck. A poignant look at the dissolution of the modern American family, Junior Bonner is also obviously another installment in Sam Peckinpah's long string of elegiac movies (e.g., 'Ride the High Country'; 'The Wild Bunch'; 'The Ballad of Cable Hogue') about the passing of a freer, tougher, and more independent America, superseded by domesticated, money-grubbing conformists. Concomitant with the demise of rugged individualism is the deterioration of the kind of stoical, circumspect, and physically courageous masculinity that Peckinpah and McQueen held dear. To recuperate said masculinity, Junior Bonner undertakes to ride "Sunshine," a fearsome bull he has never been able to master for the requisite eight seconds in order to achieve at least a symbolic kind of redemption for himself and all his ilk—and to win sufficient prize money to send his father to Australia to prospect for gold (a gesture toward a new frontier). Good natured by Peckinpah standards, 'Junior Bonner' is one of his finest and most underrated films and Steve McQueen's wry, understated rendition of Junior Bonner ranks among his best performances. The film also features the great character actors Ben Johnson and Dub Taylor, Barbara Leigh as Charmagne, Bonner's enigmatic love interest, and Peckinpah and two of his children in cameos. Similar in many ways to Cliff Robertson's rodeo movie, 'J.W. Coop', 'Junior Bonner' provides a more upbeat ending. VHS (1998) and DVD (1999).
First time producer Fouad Said, a former cameraman who worked on a number of episodes of the "I Spy" TV series (1965-68), joined forces with erstwhile associates Bill Cosby and Robert Culp to make 'Hickey & Boggs', a crime thriller written by neophyte screenwriter (later director-producer) Walter Hill ('48 Hours'). Viewers expecting a feature-length episode of "I Spy" were in for a surprise. The TV series was cool and jaunty: "Man from U.N.C.L.E." for hipsters. 'Hickey & Boggs' is grim, gritty, and downbeat with Cosby and Culp deliberately working against their glamorous TV star personae by playing Al Hickey and Frank Boggs as two world-weary, down-at-the-heels private investigators facing the moral wasteland of contemporary Los Angeles with a growing sense of powerlessness and despair. In its heyday (c.1940–1957), film noir typically espoused a bleak view of human nature and modern society but sometimes held out the possibility of the hero's redemption through honor and heroism. By the early Seventies such romantic notions of individual agency seemed quaint if not deluded. Accordingly, the movie's complicated plot, involving stolen money from a bank heist, vengeful mobsters, no-nonsense cops, and volatile revolutionaries, soon expands beyond the ability of the protagonists to control it, or even affect the situation to any discernible degree. After surviving an apocalyptic showdown, Hickey complains to Boggs: "Nobody came, nobody cares. It's still not about anything." Enfeebled by a world of intrigue that renders them mere adjuncts to the action, Hickey and Boggs are further emasculated in the war of the sexes. Neither is able to sustain a marriage, or even a healthy relationship. Hickey is to blame when his estranged wife, Nyona (Rosalind Cash) is murdered by the mob. Boggs, an alcoholic, frequents a bar where his ex- wife, Edith (Sheila Sullivan; Culp's actual wife at the time), works as a stripper and taunts him from the stage while revealing her assets. Cynical and nihilistic in the extreme, 'Hickey & Boggs' did poor box office; even by the pessimistic standards of its time, it was a bummer. Also featured is James Woods in an early film role. VHS (2003) and DVD (2004).
Written by Bob Rafelson and former movie critic, Jacob Brackman, 'The King of Marvin Gardens' was the fourth film released by BBS Productions (i.e., Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner) during its all-too-brief existence (1970-74). King dwells on the vexed relationship between two brothers: David Staebler (Jack Nicholson), a depressive Philadelphia radio personality living with his grandfather, and Jason Staebler (Bruce Dern), an always-scheming hustler and petty crook who works as a front man for Lewis (Scatman Crothers), a black mobster in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Breaking a long spell of silence, an excited Jason phones David to summon him to Atlantic City to take part in a get-rich-quick scheme that involves buying an island resort near Hawaii—with Lewis's money. Jason is, of course, deluded but David lacks the moral clarity or ego strength necessary to challenge his older brother's venal fantasies. Further complicating the situation is the fact that Lewis has had Jason thrown in jail on trumped-up charges. David eventually succeeds in springing Jason from jail but Lewis won't drop the charges unless Jason abandons his island real estate scheme. Adding to the turmoil is the ambiguous, sexually fraught relationship that prevails between Jason, Sally (Ellen Burstyn) his aging, mentally unstable girlfriend, and Sally's nubile stepdaughter, Jessica (Julie Anne Robinson). David and Jason fall prey to Jessica's feminine wiles and disaster ensues. Short on plot, 'The King of Marvin Gardens' is primarily a character study/mood piece/acting tour de force shot on location in Atlantic City, especially at the huge, decaying Marlborough- Blenheim Hotel at Park Place and Boardwalk (which was torn down in 1979 to make way for Bally's Casino). References to the Monopoly game abound; unsurprising, given the film's setting and its implicit critique of American Dream ideology. VHS (1994) and DVD (2000).
'The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit' could have been a great film. Gregory Peck is always worth watching, the set design is exquisite (like a Douglas Sirk movie), and there's a decent story here, but Nunnally Johnson's direction is slack and plodding beyond belief--153 minutes of mostly unrelieved tedium. Almost every scene is glacially paced and runs on for way too long. Exacerbating matters is the incredibly static camera work (no close-ups, no shot-reverse shots, no tracking shots; no pans; no nothing--just lots of loosely framed two-shots of people in interminable conversation and cheesy process shots of folks in autos). Trimmed by 45 minutes or so and directed by a more dynamic director, 'Man' could have been an exciting melodrama instead of a snooze-fest.
Distinguished French New Wave writer-director Jacques Demy's first American film, 'Model Shop', is a belated sequel to 'Lola', his 1961 directorial debut. Both films feature Anouk Aimée as Lola, the sexy, somewhat mysterious love interest. In the earlier film Lola is a French "cabaret dancer" (prostitute) pursued by three romantic rivals. In the latter film Lola, now approaching middle age, works in a Los Angeles "model shop," i.e., a quasi-pornographic establishment that rents out cameras and beautiful pin-up models to amateur photographers. This time around Lola has only one ardent suitor: George Matthews (Gary Lockwood), a 26-year-old unemployed architect with a dimwitted 22-year-old girlfriend named Gloria (Alexandra Hay), a beloved Triumph TR3 about to be repossessed, and a newly arrived draft notice that might send him to Vietnam. After spotting Lola in traffic the usually blasé George is instantly smitten. He follows her back to the model shop and spends his last twelve dollars photographing her—and becoming more intensely infatuated. Lola submits to a one-night stand with George but will not allow the relationship to deepen: she only wants to return to her 14- year-old son in France as soon as she can afford the airfare. A desultory day-in-the-life saga, Model Shop beautifully evokes draft-era existential insecurity—and the desolate urban sprawl that is modern Los Angeles. The California rock band, Spirit, supplies the music. Trivia: Jacques Demy wanted Harrison Ford to play George Matthews but Columbia opted for Gary Lockwood, because of his starring role in Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey' (1968) he was a much more famous actor at the time. More trivia: Fred Willard has an uncredited cameo as a gas station attendant. Further trivia: In 2005 Sundazed Records released Spirit's previously unreleased soundtrack album, 'Model Shop'. The film was a commercial failure. DVD (Region 2 – France; 2008); DVD (2009).
Mid-December 1973 was writer Darryl Ponicson's shining moment. Over a period of six days two of his first four novels—'The Last Detail' (Dial Press, 1970) and 'Cinderella Liberty' (Harper & Row, 1973)—had their big screen debuts. Adapted by the estimable Robert Towne ('Chinatown') and directed by Hal Ashby ('Harold and Maude'), 'The Last Detail' stars Jack Nicholson as Billy "Bad Ass" Buddusky, a U.S. Navy petty officer and a "lifer," Otis Young as Gunners Mate 1st class "Mule" Mulhall, another Navy career man, and Randy Quaid as Seaman Larry Meadows. While stationed at Norfolk (Va.) Naval Base awaiting their next cruise, Buddusky and Mulhall are issued .45s and assigned to Navy Shore Patrol. Their mission or "detail" is to escort 19-year-old sailor Larry Meadows to Portsmouth Naval Prison on the southern Maine coast, where Meadows will serve an eight-year sentence for the attempted theft of $40 from a base charity box. The six hundred-mile train trip from Norfolk to Portsmouth can be done in two days but Buddusky insists that he and Mulhall show Meadows a good time before he begins his draconian prison term for such a petty offense. Overnight stops in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Boston stretch the detail to four days, during which the prisoner and his two guards get drunk together, get into various scrapes, get the virgin Meadows laid, and generally bond with each other—until Meadows tries to escape in Boston. A gritty, expletive-strewn character study of military life at the tail end of the Vietnam era, 'The Last Detail' has been praised by Navy veterans for its authenticity. More than an entertaining and memorable film about male camaraderie, 'The Last Detail' is also an unflinchingly poignant look at tragically stunted working-class lives.