Thursday, August 21, 2014

RADIO DAYS reviewed

RADIO DAYS (1987, Twilight Time)
Though not as high profile as ANNIE HALL or CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, this warmly nostalgic, episodic look back at the preeminence of radio in 1930s and '40s life is one of Woody Allen's finest achievements. Because the subject is radio, and because Woody's representative is a youngster (Seth Green), the fantastic side of radio programming is accentuated, but the whole film and each of its vignettes could furthermore be said to address the thin wall dividing fantasy from reality - the revelation that radio's "Masked Avenger" is played by Wallace Shawn, the squeaky voiced cigarette girl (Mia Farrow) who becomes a haughty-toned high society commentator, the woman spied undressing through her apartment window by a group of kids later being introduced as their new schoolteacher, and the haunting moment when a Nazi U-boat may or may not be spied off the coast of Rockaway Beach. Even the biggest names in the movie have the smallest parts. Best of all, while the film has its share of neurotic characters, the film itself doesn't feel remotely neurotic for a change, and while there is a discernible AMARCORD influence at work, it doesn't cop the operatic style of that influence. The period setting is impeccably well sustained, from the five-and-dime storefronts to the heavenly interior of Radio City Music Hall, and it all builds to what may be the finest closing shot in Allen's filmography. I could easily see this film becoming a New Year's Eve favorite, much like A CHRISTMAS STORY has become for Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, if more people were aware of it - even though it tells us that the technology that really brought people together is a thing of the past. A must-see, beautifully brought to BD by Twilight Time, with an isolated Music and Effects track.

This review (c) 2014 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.


THE LOST MOMENT (1947, Olive Films)
Lurking behind this bad title is a surprisingly grand, highly romantic gothic mystery based on Henry James' THE ASPERN PAPERS. Robert Cummings stars as a New York publisher determined to obtain the never-before-published love letters of a 19th century poet to his muse. To obtain them, he poses as a novelist and arranges to rent a room in the villa in Venice where the poet lived and died, and where his muse still lives at the age of 105 (Agnes Moorehead, giving an impressive performance in astounding makeup for its time), looked after by her icily prim niece (Susan Hayward). Shortly after he moves in, the sound of piano music lures Cummings to a closed section of the villa where he is astonished to find the poet's muse - as he knew and loved her, nearly a century before - has he really travelled back in time, or is she the muse's niece, reliving her aunt's famous love story to compensate for her own loveless life? Tragically, this was the only film ever directed by actor Martin Gabel, a member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theater who shows a tasteful yet economical command of the medium; it's doubtful that Welles himself could have done much better with the material, and it's very good material indeed, scripted by Leonardo Bercovici (PORTRAIT OF JENNIE, THE BISHOP'S WIFE). The film is slightly let down by Cummings' light-weight, possibly miscast presence, but Hayward is ravishing and Moorehead unforgettable. With memorable support from Joan Lorring, Eduardo Ciannelli and Minerva Urecal. 

This review (c) 2014 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Susan Oliver Documentary Now Available

This documentary by George Pappy is a most welcome profile of the late and unjustly forgotten actress Susan Oliver, who died in 1990 at the age of 58, but it's also - in many ways - the story of a profession with its own growing pains and related sacrifical victims. Though named in tribute to Oliver's best-remembered role, as the torrid dancer Vina on the pilot STAR TREK episode "The Cage" (which became the later two-part episode "The Menagerie"), the film doesn't dwell unduly on that one highlight; it correctly attends to Oliver's remarkably unique and diverse career as possibly the only "Guest Star" of the Golden Age of Television to have earned that distinction without first (or ever) becoming a top-billed star in films or television. She achieved that standing by bouncing from one outstanding one-shot performance to another. She did have a dozen or so film roles to her credit (the biggest being the second female lead, after Elizabeth Taylor, in BUTTERFIELD 8), and she held onto her blonde, blue-eyed good looks so long she was able to play a college student while in her late thirties. However, she did not play "the game"; Oliver rejected both a Warner Bros. feature contract and several offers of her own series, so determined was she to remain available to whatever best opportunities on stage or screen might come along - alienating moguls and agents alike, regardless of the outstanding performances she continued to give or how well-liked she was by her directors and fellow actors. Indeed, one of her last career-sabotaging decisions was to decline a friend's campaign to secure a star for her on the Hollywood Walk of Fame - because she didn't "believe" in stars, only in good work.

Interviewing Oliver's surviving relatives, fellow actors, friends and lovers, as well as some critics, Pappy delineates the special person she was: spontaneous, adventurous, courageous, creative, but above all, willful and determined to live by her own rules - though, ironically, she would only briefly outlive her even more dominant, controlling mother, the astrologist Ruth Oliver, who raised her as a single mother from the age of three. The film packs an overwhelming legacy of work (represented by numerous film and TV clips) into its first 30 minutes, with the balance exploring her personal life and secondary lives as an aviator and feminist, and she comes across vividly in all her splendor and faults. Though the film is complimentary about her few efforts as a director, the clips don't really support the commentators' enthusiasm, and while the film industry is often blamed for not being more flexible in accommodating her, it's apparent that many of her problems originated (as one friend bashfully admits) with "Susan just being Susan." That said, whatever her personal angels and demons may have been, they were also the raw materials she brought into play as an exceptional and memorable actress, whose talent played a large part - more than 130 guest appearances on different series! - in making the 1960s the first great decade of television drama.

If you already remember Susan Oliver's work fondly, I don't have to sell this; you already want it. But I'll go the extra mile to say that, if you're a working actor, you can't really say you know your profession unless you are familiar with this woman and her story. Available on DVD-R directly from this link for $19.99.

(c) 2014 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Remembering Dick Smith (1922-2014)

Dick Smith - the cinema's most important makeup artist since the immortal Lon Chaney - has passed away at the age of 92, leaving behind him a treasure trove of character and horror makeups whose imagination and scientific detail were truly indistinguishable from magic: LITTLE BIG MAN, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, THE GODFATHER, THE EXORCIST, ALTERED STATES, THE SENTINEL, GHOST STORY... and so many more. As many of the stories being repeated today confirm, he was also one of the great gentlemen of the business. This - I'm happy to say - I got to experience, a few times, by telephone.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dick a couple of times, back in the 1980s and 1990s - first in relation to an uncredited favor he did for his protégé Rick Baker in relation to David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME (in the basement of his home, he and Steve Johnson took a full body cast of Deborah Harry for a scene that was ultimately not filmed), and then again as Donna and I were preparing VIDEO WATCHDOG's sixth issue, devoted to THE EXORCIST - an issue whose impact directly led to the publication of Mark Kermode's BFI Modern Classics books on the film, his documentary on the making of the film (which appears on the DVD and Blu-ray of the film, and William Friedkin's own "The Version You Thought You'd Never See" recut.

While interviewing Dick for a VW piece about the film's subliminal imagery, I asked him about this now-famous facial makeup done for THE EXORCIST. At that time (in 1990), he had - or, I briefly suspected, pretended that he had - no recollection of it, because the moment had the aura of a secret that wanted to be kept, and no one had really explored this aspect of the film in it's nearly 20 years of release. I explained that it was a subliminal image, something I had first seen pop out at me in a darkened theater the day before the film officially opened in December of 1973; I promised to send him a copy of the image to examine and comment on. To get one, I had to freeze-frame my VHS of the film, sit in front of my analog television set, and shoot a whole reel of film of the image, hoping to get just one that wouldn't have "roll bars" interfering with it - this was long before digital frame grabs. It worked - and I was later also able to pull some other shots of the makeup (not in the film) from a rare 16mm reel of withdrawn TV spots.

When Dick saw the images, he remembered doing the makeup and - something I'll never forget - he congratulated me on the acuity of my vision, one of the nicest compliments I've ever received, considering from whom it came. William Friedkin separately had identified the actor wearing the makeup to my co-author Mark Kermode as Eileen Dietz - this was something not previously known, though Eileen's participation elsewhere in the film was well-known at the time; Friedkin said that the "Apparition" image, as he called it (which I dubbed "Captain Howdy" because this is how Regan identifies the voice inside her elsewhere in the picture), was actually that of a demon test makeup that "didn't work" in its intended use on Linda Blair, but which he later decided might have power if used onscreen briefly.

Mark and I were not at all sure, given its crude, high-school theatrics look, that Dick had done the makeup, but he did admit to doing it, explaining that it was something done in relative haste and not really agonized over. It wasn't anything meant to be seen clearly. He remembered it appearing in the film only once, in a brief scene where the Apparition was double-exposed onto the face of the rotating head model, giving it the brief appearance of literal possession as Regan's room was shaking and quaking - which he considered "probably the most terrifying image in the picture." He was genuinely surprised to learn that it had appeared elsewhere in the movie.

We published the Captain Howdy image for the first time anywhere back in June 1991, and it has since gone on to be paused on countless VCRs and DVD players, to appear on T-shirts and even album covers. But seeing it linger in a still frame is quite different to having it flash out of you in the dark of a big-screened theater. Though it was a makeup that Dick Smith had literally done so quickly that it was instantly forgotten as he pursued some other on-set challenge, it has gone on to become one of the most famous horror images of all time, and I'm sure - in retrospect, and rightfully so - one of his proudest accomplishments.

See also this earlier blog entry about the origins of Captain Howdy.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Per Mario

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Proust Questionnaire

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Those moments when I feel outside of time - when I'm engrossed in reading a book, watching a film, looking at a painting, or gazing at the ocean; when I feel lost (and found) in conversation, or kissing; when I'm caught up in the urgency of writing something beautiful and true.

What is your most marked characteristic?

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

What is your greatest fear?
Losing my wife. That, and being conscious during my cremation.

What historical figure do you most identify with?
Tim Lucas.

Which living person do you most admire?
Donna Lucas.

Who are your heroes in real life?
Writers and artists and filmmakers too numerous to mention; their fabulous muses; good mothers; people who care for animals and the aged.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

What is your favorite journey?
A correspondence.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Which word or phrases do you most overuse?
Hello. What?

What is your greatest regret?
Not believing enough in myself; not speaking French.

What is your current state of mind?

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
My parents... but this would also change me - and so, having already survived the hand I was dealt, maybe not.

What is your most treasured possession?
My manuscripts.    

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Unrequited love.

Where would you like to live?
A clean and spacious house, large enough to hold everything without a hint of clutter, conveniently located in a cheerful, interesting neighborhood, in a country with a good health care system.

What is your favorite occupation?

What is the quality you most like in a man?

What is the quality you most like in a woman?

What are your favourite names?
Van Neste Polglase, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Paul Vaguely, Dolores Haze.

What is your motto?
Never give up.


This new science fiction film from the UK was way oversold to me. There is quality here, a very watchable, occasionally engrossing technique of style and subtraction, but the serial monotony of the story - a female of extraterrestrial origin lures a series of men into an apartment that traps and absorbs them (think the scenes in Adjani's apartment in Zulawski's POSSESSION played out on black Astaire-Rogers studio floor) - should have more substance or purpose. The old saw about the alien who finds themselves becoming more human after prolonged wearing of their human skins also gets played again, and the film is basically reducible to an abstract remake of JAWS in which the shark ultimately gets eaten. Jonathan Glazer's directorial stance withdraws from the story to a point that initially seems godly but is ultimately atheistic. I've heard this described as Kubrickian, but there is absolutely none of the poker-faced humor that is Kubrick's hallmark. If anything, there are moments reminiscent of Lynch's ERASERHEAD and these are the moments that make this movie so pleasingly environmental and demanding of larger screen immersion. I did not think Scarlett Johansson was exceptional, but I've always found her competent. Worth a look, but hardly the Second Coming.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Monday, July 07, 2014

Scorsese's NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS Documentary

New York Review of Books editor Robert B. Silvers in his office, as seen in THE 50 YEAR OLD ARGUMENT.

I got to see Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi's documentary feature THE 50 YEAR OLD ARGUMENT (about THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS) last night - I had to go looking for it online, as it has so far aired only on the BBC. The film's onscreen commentators surprisingly favor the British and Irish contributors to the venerable newsprint journal, and it may well be too intellectual to qualify for broadcast on PBS here in the States - and where else would you find it? But it's a surprising, welcome and often engrossing study of the leading role played by one publication in a time when American life was more involved and stimulating, when our culture was being actively determined by books and writers, by intellectualism, literacy and worldliness - as well as revealing yet another facet of Scorsese's love for the New York of his own life and times. In the 1970s, I was a regular reader of the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS and probably a happier person for it; Scorsese and Tedeschi made me feel guilty for falling off the wagon. One speaker in particular reminded me of the importance of reading and responding to the work of one's own time, because literature is a dialogue; it is involvement and interaction that keeps literature vital and moving forward. No one should ever fear of writing the first book to be read by no one.

I found particularly engrossing a segment concerning Joan Didion's NYROB essay about four young black men arrested in connection with a series of Central Park rapes, and how they were subliminally pre-judged in the mainstream press by the introduction of the biasing term "wilding." So well did this word work on the fears of the city's influential white populace that the suspects were identified in the press with their full names - including that of one 14 year old later forensically proved innocent. Didion recalls that working with NYROB editor Robert B. Silvers increased the length of her essay by three-fold. I only vaguely recall the case, but I found this almost scary in its prescience, as our politicians now use similar tactics all the time in the press, against one another and against other countries, biasing the public with their loaded lingo. Didion is not only interviewed but shown reading from her essay.
When the film ends, you may feel appalled at the emptiness of our time, how our lives have become engulfed not only by ungrounded images, but images taken at face value in media that continually grows more tyrannical without context and without that grounding in an engaged and informed, conscious dialogue. Life should not be processed in clicks. 


According to VARIETY, THE 50 YEAR OLD ARGUMENT will debut on HBO on October 6. Not a likely outlet for this sort of programming, but bravo to them.

Also, reader John Seal writes:

"In light of your blogpost today, you may be interested to know the CP5 [Central Park 5] were finally (FINALLY!) exonerated...

"There's a very fine documentary about the case that I highly recommend: "