Saturday, September 20, 2014
I've always remembered SALVADOR (1985) - now available as a limited edition Blu-ray disc from Twilight Time - as Oliver Stone's best film, but last night's revisit found it not aging so well. The early scenes set in San Francisco, introducing rogue journalist Richard Boyle (James Woods) as someone whose personal life is spiralling out of control, seemed so nakedly contrived and phony (in that special pastel way so many 1980s films seem to be) that it set up the question, "If the scenes shot in your own country seem unbelievable, how is this going to fare any better once we get to El Salvador?"
Well, I found much of the El Salvador material overly contrived as well. Stone can't be faulted for not warning us - we're told that the characters have been fictionalized up front - but there is fictionalizing that is done with delicacy to lure the viewer to truths underlying characterization, and then you have composited caricature, which is closer to what we have here. In the plus column, John Savage steals every scene as photojournalist John Cassady - by becoming his character rather than aspiring to a grand slam, and Cindy Gibb gives her role as an ill-fated American nun exactly what the film needs to make her eventual loss emotionally resonant and calculable. What I remembered as a strong, possibly career-best, performance by James Woods is basically James Woods giving us more James Woods than we need to decide for ourselves whether or not Boyle (Stone's co-screenwriter, incidentally) is an asshole; the whole movie seems pitched to confirm this, even in so many words, and his tendency to overshoot the mark draws more comic attention to himself than to the sober intentions of the movie. It can't be denied that SALVADOR contains some powerful scenes, but almost without exception what makes them powerful is the grim requiem music played over them and the viewer feels imposed upon by music that requires a rote response.
Toward the end of the picture, a lot of scenes start ending with dissolves all of a sudden, indicating a much more protracted fleeing from El Salvador in an earlier cut than we're given, which is grueling enough. The agony of these final scenes depend on the film having established the authenticity of Boyle's love for the Salvadoran woman Maria (Elpidia Carillo), which it takes pains to do, but having Boyle return to the Catholic church for the first time in 30 years, confessing his ruinous sins to a priest for a pittance of a penance, but Woods can't help playing these scenes for too much of a laugh, so the film is ultimately deprived of the unbearably heart-rending finale it was aiming for. As it is, it's what we might adequately term a downer.
There is a great film in here somewhere, and it resides in the Stone-Boyle script, which uses Boyle's self-destructive spiral and his self-serving retreat (with pal DJ Rock, played by Jim Belushi as a walking, talking, smoking, drinking, whining pig pinata of American consumption and greed) into El Salvador as one of several foregrounded metaphors for a corrupt America's contribution to El Salvador's violent instability. The implication with Boyle's character is specifically what the film says pointedly when the Sandanistas ride into town on horseback, overthrow the local military base and start performing executions in the public square - that the solution is no better than the problem. Boyle thinks he's making a difference by drawing attention to this conflict, but he's really looking for a second chance - not even that: another way out.
This release marks SALVADOR's Blu-ray debut, and high definition lends impressive depth and detail to the film's compositions, and the 5.1 audio is wildly directional when it counts. Limited to the usual 3000 copies, Twilight Time's Blu-ray disc includes the 62m making-of documentary and 25m of deleted scenes included with the previous 2001 "Special Edition" DVD release from Fox Searchlight. Exclusive to this release are an isolated track of Georges Delerue's score, and a new audio commentary by Stone. I've not yet dipped into these extras, but I am interested in doing so. The film may have dated into more of an argument than it used to be, but it's still an argument worth having - and this disc comes to the debate generously prepared.
Posted by Tim Lucas at 4:29 PM
Sunday, September 14, 2014
The book is divided into two "sides," like an album, each side documenting the slow and sometimes grueling climb toward an achievement of artistic expression which for that period redefined Viv - namely, the short reign of the Slits and her decision, after sixteen years of marriage to a not entirely supportive husband, to reclaim her identity as a musician - which she in fact improved upon, reinventing herself as a fairly unique (and still musically innovative) minstrel of the joys, sorrows, ironies and bitter absurdities of female middle age experience. Much of the book also details her quest for love, which - unusually for any book on the subject - differentiates between her experiences of men who generated in her feelings of sexual attraction, intoxication and/or tension; it also includes some heartbreaking descriptions of her debasement at the hands of men who abused her physically or emotionally (my characterization, not necessarily hers), beginning with an abusive father who may have predisposed her psychologically to be attracted to disrespectful men and outright nutters (ditto). Yet the book's most personal and powerful episodes are those about her determination to overcome terrible, graphically described physical ordeals to become a mother.
I've known women with similar backgrounds and must consider this book an absolute success because I closed it feeling as though I'd known Viv her whole life - as a child, as an idealistic and adventuring teenager, as an earnest guitar student and ever-striving recording artist with the Slits, as a dreamer, as a woman, wife and mother, and as the reborn artist - body and soul, partly because her writing is so acute and her self-exploration so thorough and unsparing, that she takes one not only into her confidence but into her self. Her documentation of what she experienced emotionally as the female lead in the film EXHIBITION is the most honest description of the acting process I've read by a contemporary actress. As for her coverage of the Slits, it's everything I wanted from the TYPICAL GIRLS biography (which I didn't feel fully delivered, though it covered more ground), though it does skimp a bit on Budgie's contribution/departure and the second album - which Viv describes as being an advance on the first in some ways, something I would have liked to hear more about.
In fact, if this book is lacking anything, it is descriptive appreciation of the music that inspired Viv and made her want to become a musician, and specifically a guitarist - and its value to her is made more mysterious when she claims that she didn't listen to music for 25 years after leaving the Slits. (Her husband preferred that she leave music behind, to focus on family, and she also says it reminded her too much of her foiled ambitions.) Perhaps her muse was more environmental than musical, aroused in her by a desire to make sense of the clothes and boys that attracted her in the first place, to belong to the excitement they generated in her, but Viv was certainly in the right place and in the right company to seize the opportunity and she used it to make a contribution that was significant then and continues to be.
Above all, CLOTHES/MUSIC/BOYS is a human document about a talented but unsure woman struggling with the voices and forces in her life that would prefer that she conform to them, rather than address (much less fulfill) her own potential, and finally finding the center of strength and larger network of support that begins to make this possible. In its telling, it exposes so much below the author's steely but tender surface as to expose most other musical autobiographies as so much show business.
Out now in the UK, with a US edition coming in November.
Posted by Tim Lucas at 7:19 PM
Thursday, September 04, 2014
|Joan Rivers, circa 1965.|
I imagine that Joan Rivers left this plane as she would have wished, fresh from making another audience laugh, without knowing what hit her, and looking considerably less - or at least considerably other than her 81 years. David Del Valle reminds me that Joan was a fellow talking head of ours on an episode of A&E's BIOGRAPHY devoted to Vincent Price, which aired the week he died - so there was a connection there, which I'd forgotten. I admired her when she started out, when her comedy was based in things she had in common with her audience, when half the battle was getting laughs from the shock of recognition and when she let her vulnerability show. But as comedy changed, in its determination to reflect the world around it, she changed too, and the rewards that should have come with her success and longevity were not always forthcoming. She became more manically aggressive in her comedy and there was something about the grating, in-your-face caricature she became that, to me, was ripe with bitterness and a determination to outlast all those other bastards out of sheer cussedness. There is a poignant arc to her story, which is the story of a qualified artist surviving in a traditionally alpha male business, and I imagine it will be told and examined from more than one angle in years to come. She was not always my cup of tea, but she had my respect. She was one strong lady.
Posted by Tim Lucas at 4:55 PM
Thursday, August 21, 2014
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.
Posted by Tim Lucas at 6:05 PM
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.
Posted by Tim Lucas at 6:03 PM
Saturday, August 02, 2014
THE GREEN GIRL (2014, thegreengirlmovie.com)
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.
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.
Posted by Tim Lucas at 10:22 PM
Thursday, July 31, 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.
Posted by Tim Lucas at 4:31 PM