Friday, December 28, 2012



The story of Sir Gawain, the bravest knight of Camelot, and his encounter as a squire with the mysterious Green Knight is one of the best-known stories in Arthurian legend. While it appeared in various forms, its definitive version comes from an unknown 14th Century author (known among academics as the “Pearl Poet” due to North West Midland dialect idiosyncracies in the stanzas, or more familiarly “The Gawain Poet”--J.R.R. Tolkien was a big fan and contributor to the poem's preservation), who wrote a long-form poem depicting the young knight’s adventure.
Gawain, a brash and wide-eyed youth, was but a squire in Arthur’s court on the New Year’s Feast when the Green Knight burst through the hall’s doors and proposed a wager. Who among them would take the Knight’s mighty axe, strike a single blow and behead him. The catch? “Should the power remain in his body” he would deliver a blow in kind within a year and a day. Bewildered and suspicious of the challenge, the other knights were hesitant to take up the challenge, but young Gawain, seeing the others injuring the King’s honor, accepted. But once he delivered the blow, instead of dying the Knight simply picked up his head, waggled the bloody part at Queen Guineviere, and told Gawain he would see him at the Green Chamber, the Knight’s fortress, one year and a day from then.
Instead of mourning his last year, Gawain decides to seize his remaining time. Rewarded by Arthur of a knighthood, Gawain set off on grand adventures of chivalry, honor and chastity. At several points during his wanderings, he finds himself tempted by seductive women, particularly the wife of a lord who has given him shelter. He rebuffs her three times and on the last night, she rewards his honor with a gift of a magical green girdle (or shirt or sash, it varies) that will protect him from harm. Hedging his bets, Gawain meets with the Green Knight on the appointed time. However, he flinches before the Knight can deliver his killing blow. Laughing, the Green Knight reveals himself to be the Lord who gave him shelter, that he knows Gawain is cheating by wearing the girdle and instead gives the lad a mild cut on the back of his neck, a reminder of his last-minute cowardice and a lesson in gallantry to the end.
Ultimately, the whole ordeal is revealed to have been a trick of Morgan Le Fay, the enchantress and Arthur’s sister, who wanted to embaress the King and frighten Guineviere. Gawain was just a pawn and yet emerged a hero despite his failings.
Sword of the Valiant  is the cinematic retelling of this classic tale.
A pet project of British director Stephen Weeks, he’d already filmed the tale once before in 1973 with Murray Head as Gawain, but a dispute between producers and studios hampered production and the film was never given proper distribution. So when Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan, the Israeli equivalents of Dino DeLaurentis, offered Weeks the opportunity to redo the movie, Weeks leapt at the chance. He loaded his cast with a handful of heavy lifters in British entertainment including Raiders of the Lost Ark co-star John Rhys-Davies, Peter Cushing in a completely sitting-down role as the Senechal, veteran character actor Trevor Howard as the King, and for the coup de gras, superstar Sean Connery (who was filming Never Say Never Again simultaneously) as the Green Knight. (He’d even managed to bring back Rhys-Davies’ fellow Raiders allum Ronald Lacey to reprise his role as the villainous Oswald from the previous incarnation of the film.) And while he really wanted Mark Hamill to round out the cast as Gawain, Messers Golan and Globus insisted on another international superstar to play the hero: Miles O’Keeffe. After his impressive and acclaimed debut in Bo Derek’s Tarzan, the Ape Man, not to mention all those stellar Ator movies, he was an obvious slam-dunk to play the role of one of the greatest knights in mythology.
Following the success of John Boorman’s Excalibur, Sword of the Valiant probably seemed great on paper. And it starts quite well with Connery’s magnificent entrance astride a white horse, his horned crown and armor glittering green, he looks magical. Good timing too, since “The King” (the name “Arthur” is never uttered, nor are any of the be-bearded knights), has just finished bitching that all his nobles have gone soft after wretched peacetie has settled over the land. “The Old Year limps to its grave ashamed,” he says, and demands to see some proof that knightliness exists within his castle walls. 

Bathed in emerald light, the Green Bond uses his axe to cut through a helmet, proving its sharpness. “Let any of you take up my axe and hack the head from my shoulders. One blow only. And if the power be left in me, I demand the right to deliver a blow in the same manner.”
When no one steps up, the King is about to accept but squire Gawain leaps to the rescue. He’s knighted on the spot and the Green Knight laughs. “I ask for a knight but what do I get? A youth that has not yet earned his beard.”
So Gawain beheads the Knight, a headless Connery picks up the (lousy animatronic) head and reattachs it (both the beheading and reheading are achieved by pretty fancy invisible cuts and whip pans). The Knight grants Gawain his year and even grants him a loophole. Gawain keeps his head as long as he can solve a riddle:

Where life is emptiness, gladness
Where life is darkness, fire
Where life is golden, sorrow
Where life is lost, wisdom

(Connery’s horse does not want to stand still during this poem.) And he tells Gawain to seize his year, “Only fools and priests squander life by fearing death.”
So off goes Gawain, his new squire, Humphrey (Leigh Lawson), and his new armor—all of which once belonged to King Maybe-Not-Arthur and leaves Too-Small-for-Camelot to “seek his beard”.
And oh! The adventures. Ten minutes from the castle, he requires a church key to remove his codpiece and relieve himself. And Humphrey just happens to have one. Then he decides to eat a unicorn, since, being rare and magic, it’ll probably taste better. But that creature disappears, a tent appears in its place and an Enchantress sends them to Lyonesse, for no real particular reason.
Gawain defeats the “Guardian of Lyonesse”—a land in which no man has entered nor cannot leave—leading to a circular logic that comes from updating medieval texts for the mass market—but after taking the wounded man back to the town, the dying Guardian points at Gawain and calls him his murderer. He’s able to escape the angry mob because the beautiful Linnet (French actress Cyrielle Clair clumsily dubbed) gives him a magic ring that lets him disappear but reveals him to the Eye of Sauron… no, wait, it just makes him disappear.
Anyway, other things happen. He rescues Linnet, then loses her. Then the Green Knight tells him using magic is cheating and not part of the game. So he gives it up, meets two of the dwarves from Time Bandits (David Rappaport and Mike Edmonds), they send him somewhere else, he rescues Linnet again and then loses her again, this time to the lustful Lord Oswald and his Senechal father (who wishes to use her to bargain with a rival lord, played by Rhys-Davies doing a Brian Blessed impression).
Then more stuff happens. A lot of walking left, then right, particularly in extremely claustrophopic stone corridors and staircases, which could come from shooting on location in real castles in Wales and France. He’s involved in numerous uninspired fights, clunky sword duels and one of the worst-shot battle sequences in recent memory (involving a cast of dozens!).
Along the way, Gawain uncovers the mystery of the riddle save the last stanza, earns his spurs (or beard, once he can grow one) and meets the Knight on the appropriate day. Only this time, he’s wearing a sash of invincibility that Linnet gave him, which allows him to cheat again, battle the Knight and finally learn how wisdom is acquired through loss of life.
And credits.
Though I have not yet seen Weeks’ previous incarnation of the story, I’m told that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight resembles Monty Python and the Holy Grail in terms of production value. Sword of the Valiant also has much in common with the quotable Pythonian-Arthurian take, but mostly accidentally. Everyone in it seems to be having a good time, particularly Connery, but O’Keeffe is slightly better in motion and silent than he is when having to deliver lines like, to his torturer, “Does your mother know what you do for a living?” Much of his delivery is stiff and sore-thumb contemporary. When he’s not talking, he looks okay in a romance novel-cover type of way, even when he’s trying not to fall over in his clunky armor (borrowed from Royal National Theatre and the Old Vic). But even taking that aside—I mean, who goes “Miles O’Keeffe! What a thespian!”—there are many moments where he cuts an impressive, knightly figure.
Even the clumsy action and photography can be forgiven, particularly with a modern eye, as the staging and angles call to mind some of Robert Taylor’s bosoms-and-armor pics like Knights of the Round Table or even Ivanhoe. They’re costume dramas and at heart so is Sword of the Valiant. The lame attempts to modernize the dialogue aside, it’s an earnest attempt at a story of chivalry, even if most of the source material is jettisoned in favor of Gawain’s and Linnet’s love story.
If you drop all of the niggling faults, there’s an interesting allegory going on under the surface that actually does call to mind the endless interpretations of the original poem. Scholars over the years have called Gawain and the Green Knight a Christ analogy, an early work of feminist literature (due to Morgan Le Fay calling the shots and even in young Gawain’s passive nature), even an early look at queer literature (though given the time it was written, this has been determined to be quite a stretch), due to a subplot in which Gawain must deliver a kiss to the Lord harboring him. The Green Knight is usually interpreted as the Green Man of European folklore, the guardian of the woods and an embodiment of nature. Sword of the Valiant takes this course as well. While the climactic scene seems rushed (likely due to Connery’s schedule on the non-Bond Bond movie), as the Green Knight dies from his wound, his green fades to white and he starts to crumble like snow, leaving the idea that The Green Knight was Gawain’s entire borrowed year. It’s an interesting idea and it even allows for a rewatch (which does reveal little hints to this end throughout), but by this point, you may done the first time through.
But, wait Mike, if this movie isn’t all puppies and blowjobs, why bother seeking it out? Good question, particularly due to the controversy surrounding the domestic DVD release. For all its missteps, Sword of the Valiant was gorgeously shot in 2.35:1 widescreen and makes wonderful use of the real locations (in some scenes anyway). But since it did bupkis at the box office and is pretty much reviled, the only way to get it is to locate the out of print DVD which, of course, is in an ugly cable-adapted pan-and-scan version, leaving one to focus solely on faces and acting. There is a silver lining for collectors with multi-region players: a 2.35:1 DVD is available as a Polish import and sometimes that version shows up on YouTube.
So to answer my self-posed question: that’s my riddle for you. See you back here in a year and a day. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


“This is the story of the triumph of good over evil,” we are told by the opening titles. “Obviously it is a fantasy.”
It is said that Molière and La Fontaine used to frequent the Cafe de l'Alma in the Chaillot district of Paris. But today it is visted by a group of leaders, including The Chairman (Yul Brynner), The General (Paul Henreid), The Commissar (Oskar Homolka), and The Prospector (Donald Pleasence), who privately refers to them as, “Just faceless, ordinary monsters.” Together, they form the Board of Directors of International Substrate, and they have hatched a plan to dig up Paris in order to get to the oil that lies beneath the city.
Now, it is well known that all districts of Paris have their own dotty protectors, the Madwomen, if you will. The titular "Madwoman of Chaillot" is Countess Aurelia (Katharine Hepburn, in her best performance as far as I'm concerned), who prefers to live every day as one specific date. “First, the morning paper. Not these current sheets full of vulgar lies. I always read the Gaulois for March 22, 1919. It’s by far the best. Delightful scandal. Excellent fashion notes. And of course the last-minute bulletin on the death of Leonide Leblanc. She used to live next door. And when I learn of her death every morning it gives me quite a start. To recover from which, Chaillot calls. It is time to dress for my morning walk. That takes much longer without a maid . . .”
She’s not so mad as to imagine that life really is the same as that one March morning. Time is passing, of course, but it’s not like she has to acknowledge it. “Of course, in the morning it doesn’t always feel so gay. Not when you’re taking your hair out of the dresser and your teeth out of the glass. And particularly if you’ve been dreaming that you’re a little girl on a pony looking for strawberries in the woods. But then comes a letter in the morning mail. One you wrote to yourself, giving your schedule for the day. Then, when I have washed in rosewater and put on my pins, rings, brooches, pearls, necklaces, I’m ready to begin again.”
The Prospector’s son, a radical activist named Rodrick (Richard Chamberlain), brings the Board’s scheme to the attention of the genteel lady, as well as her cadre of peers, including the waitress Irma (Nanette Newman), the Folksinger (Gordon Heath) and her most confident of confidants, the Ragpicker (Danny Kaye). “The world is being taken over by the pimps,” says master Ragpicker.
The Countess is appalled, “The world is unhappy? Why wasn’t I told?”
So distraught is she by this news of scheming, of men living life as if it was disposable, Countess Aurelia gathers the other Madwomen of the districts—Josephine, the Madwoman of La Concorde (Edith Evans), Constance, the Madwoman of Passy (Margaret Leighton), (Josephine, the Madwoman of La Concorde (Edith Evans), and Gabrielle, the Madwoman of Sulpice (Giulietta Masina). Together with the street people, her people, she desides to hold a trial for these despoilers, in absentia. The rich men and their destructive ways are represented by The Ragpicker.
“Criminals are always represented by their opposites,” assured Josephine, who was to be the judge. The trial was absolutely necessary, for something had to be done.
“If you kill them, they’ll be missed,” protested Constance. “And we’ll be fined. They fine you for every little thing, you know?”
To which the Countess replies, “Do you miss a cold when it’s gone? They’ll never be missed.”
Thus, the Ragpicker prepares the case, defending against the charge that he and his ilk worship money.
“Worship money? Me?” says the Ragpicker. “I plead not guilty! I don’t worship money. It’s the other way around. Money worships me. It won’t let me alone. The first time money came to me, I was a mere boy. Untouched. Untainted. It came quite suddenly when I innocently picked a bar of gold bullion out of a garbage can while playing. As you can imagine, I was horrified. I tried swapping it for a little, rundown one-track railroad. To my childish amazement this immediately sold itself for a hundred times its value. I made desperate efforts to get rid of this unwanted wealth. I bought refineries, department stores, every munitions factory I could lay hands on. The rest is history. They stuck to me. They multiplied. And now I am powerless. Everyone knows the poor have no one but themselves to blame for their poverty. But how is it the fault of the rich if they’re rich? Oh, I don’t ask for your pity. All I ask for is a little human understanding.”
He continues, “Ah, without money nobody likes or trusts you. But to have money is to be virtuous, beautiful, honest and witty. To have none is to be ugly and boring and stupid and useless.”
“One last question,” asks the Countess. “Suppose you find this oil you’re looking for? What will you do with it?”
“I’ll make war! I’ll destroy what remains of the world!”
When the trial concludes the verdict is clear: guilty. But how to carry out the sentence, and what shall the sentence be?

The Madwoman of Challot began life as the play, La Folle de Chaillot, written by acclaimed writer Jean Giraudoux and was first performed in Paris in 1945, a year after his death. In 1949, fellow playwright Maurice Valency adapted the story into English and it was warmly received in the United States. Subsequently, the play was reworked by Inherit the Wind authors Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman) into the musical Dear World, which won star Angela Lansbury a Tony Award. That same year, 1969, screenwriter, producer and pulp writer (with wife Edith), Edward Anhalt (The Boston Strangler), adapted the Valency script for the big screen, which was directed by Bryan Forbes (Séance on a Wet Afternoon). The film premiered in October, was met with favorable reviews from critics and not-too-shabby attendence, then quietly bowed out of the limelight, fading away with the final breaths of the “Summer (and Autumn) of Love”.
Anhalt’s screenplay adheres closely to Giraudoux’s play and embellishes only where he needs to. Just the same, spending the first act with the odious Board members gets a little tedious. While it is indeed fun to watch Brynner rail against the indignities he must suffer every day when exposed to the world’s rabble, the sequence becomes a slog. After about ten minutes, you’ll catch yourself saying, “I get it. They’re evil, cruel capitalists. What else is new?” But if you can stick with the movie until Hepburn’s marvelous Countess is introduced, the movie becomes a delightful ride from there. Until it slows down again with the introduction of the other Madwomen. Their first scene together unfortunately drags as well, mirroring the Board’s callousness with their own fractured-mirror outlooks on life. But the reward for coming this far is without question Danny Kaye’s moment as the Ragpicker during the trial. Assuming the collective persona of all cruel overseers and misers, the Ragpicker seems to shock himself by the end with the imperious self-righteousness he finds within. It’s a chilling moment of black comedy and the centerpiece of the film (as, I’m sure, it was the centerpiece of the play) and Kaye left me breathless, at least. 
The particulars of The Madwoman of Chaillot are, unfortunately, timeless. The rich will always run roughshod over the poor and life is wasted on the forward-thinkers, only appreciated by the young and the mad. And while the underlying themes are also universal, this particular movie seems more appropriate today than it might have in the post-war Paris of the ‘40s or mid-war America of the late ‘60s. The Madwomen and the street people, including the idealistic Irma and Roderick, could easily fit the mold of the modern “Occupy” movement; the Board of Directors are an easy surrogate for Wall Street and Corporate Culture. As the opening title card points out, almost bitterly, the results are pure fantasy.
While Anhalt invented scenes involving The Prospector and his son inside their home (where Pleasance’s character collects and displays old bathroom doors, hanging them on the wall as modern art), they wisely resisted the temptation to update the play for modern times. The Café and the Countess’s domiciles exist in stasis, the first eternally quaint and the latter decaying along with its owner’s mental stability, yet still retaining its dignity. Certainly Roderick and the Board members are given a more modern cut of suit, no hippies or swinging Londoners lurk in the background of the frame. The story stays put in its fantasy time period and could be easily trotted out for any generation.
Unfortunately, it really could be applied to any generation, as class warfare is less cyclical than it is a never-ending hypno-spiral. But how lovely would it be if we could just round up our ruthless rulers, bankers, despoilers and pimps and just march them off the end of the Earth? It’s of course an insurmountable solution. The best we can do is get up, dress up in our best, and pick a personal time from our past where life was perfect, without the simple evil of reality shattering our illusions of happiness.
For therein lies the true tragedy of The Madwoman of Challot: in the end, the Countess’s world has been intruded. Tomorrow may again be March 22, 1919, but it won’t change the fact that yesterday was quite gloomy, cold and hard.
Again, we must bow our head in silent prayer to the Warner Brothers Archives for preserving this handsome oil painting brought to life (thanks to the photography of Burnett Guffey and Claude Renoir). At the moment, it’s available as one of their movie-only standalone DVD-Rs, but it’s better than nothing at all. Amazon also has made it available on their Instant Video Service.
For another take on the story, be sure to check out the novelization on Richard Chamberlain’s website.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


Nobody in Hollywood is what they are; they’re always something else.
Waitstaff are actors, security guards are screenwriters, guys who set up shop in diner booths aren’t oddballs, they’re agents. The street dancers, the buskers, the living statues, all living on “donations” from passers-by, they’re all in the business. “You have to remember that show business is all a show and it’s all business,” says Sal-the-Agent (Clu Gulager) to one of his many fresh-off-the-bus prospects. “It’s both a show and a business. I tell all my clients that. I’m an agent but I’m also a professional communicator.”
All across the world, people have that famous HOLLYWOOD sign in their eyes, and the sign is surrounded by stars, literally and figuratively. The Muppets called it “The Magic Store”. It’s where dreams come true. Where beautiful girls are discovered at soda fountains. But the further down the hill you get from those famous white letters, more litter is visible, and those names on the stars on the Walk of Fame become less-familiar as you go. The most-devoted can be found hosing condoms off of Ann Sheridan’s star. And, in an image that sums up the primary theme of the film, our title hero brushes cigarette butts of the star belonging to Elvis Presley. Where once were legends, today nobody gives a damn. It’s worse for the has-beens, but not as bad as the never-weres have it. At street level, that dream Hollywood’s been pitching for a hundred years—that anyone with talent and heart can be a star—is as faded and tattered as its namesake boulevard. It’s a town of dreamers and ghosts. 
Eddie Presley (Duane Whitaker) is not just a down-on-his-luck security guard living out of a van parked behind the Frederick’s of Hollywood building. He’s lounge star waiting for his comeback: an Elvis impersonator who got into that game before there was even a demand for it. He played all the big rooms. “Okay,” he amends. “Maybe not the big rooms, but small-to-medium rooms all over the country. All over the country!”
In recent days, he pumps his breakfast money into a pay phone to check an empty answering service, stuffs the junk mail in his PO Box into the holes in his shoes. Whatever’s left, he gives to a homeless guy, out of kindness and sympathy, only to have the bum throw it back at him in outrage: “What am I supposed to do with a fucking quarter?”
Eddie’s girlfriend (Stacie Randall billed here as Stacie Bourgeois), who goes by the stage name of Tyranny, works double and triple-shifts as a diner waitress. Everyday she dodges the regular human debris—a goggle-eyed maybe-biker, maybe-skin head named Ace; Sal the Agent set up in his office in his regular booth, taking calls on the diner’s payphone. On her breaks, she sits with a lesbian friend (Julie Rhode-Browne ) who is trying to convince her to “make her start” in porn. “A lot of actresses do it that way,” she insists. 
To make ends get slightly closer every month, Eddie works graveyard security shifts at a warehouse, but the supervisor has it in for him. He’s already on probation for taking a shower on the job at 2am. For the most part, his co-workers like him, particularly female guard Becky, who practically throws herself at him, though he barely notices. Eddie’s too preoccupied with a call that never seems to come, something that will usher in his comeback Elvis act. 
Eddie’s dying for that call, a little more every day. His old friend owns a club called “Doc’s Back Door”, and he’s always looking for new acts. Doc spends his days auditioning an endless parade of hopefuls alongside his even more critical Mexican bartender, Smokey. First there’s the horrible ventriloquist who berates the dummy when the lines don’t come out right. There’s the performance artist whose schtick involves a cockroach representing Iraq and a knock-off brand of RAID representing U.S. involvement. (Doc: “You get out of here, you commie bastard! We kicked ass in the Gulf!”) The only act Smokey likes is a shock comic (played by Tim Thomerson—“I went to a very sexually-liberated college. It was called ‘Fuck U’!” (“Hey, I do some clean material, too. I once opened for the Cowsills.”) The only act Doc likes is a smarmy cruise liner agent named “Keystone the Magnificent” (played by Daniel Roebuck)—“I taught Doug Henning my best stuff. He stole ‘em, that bastard!”  
Meanwhile, Tyranny’s own bitter frustration—“Serving shit food to shit people all day long!”—is sucking him dry. “My life is out of synch,” she tells him. Becky shows her interest in him by trying to relate to his act: “I’m a singer. Kind of an easy-listening type,” she says. “Maybe I could be your… backup singer?” At the end of a long day, Eddie doses off at work and Supervisor West (Lawrence Tierney) captures the moment on Polaroid. And why the cruelty from him? “Because I don’t like you, Presley! You’re one of those wanna-be Hollywood faggots. You’re a loser and you’ll always be a loser.” Maybe West had a dream deferred himself some time ago, so he does his best to revenge it by stomping upon the dreams of everyone around him, even those just trying to get by.
When Eddie finally gets that call from Doc (the wonderful Roscoe Lee Browne), his security guard buddies couldn’t be more supportive. Nick and Scooter (Willard Pugh and Ted Raimi) raise money to get him a stretch limo for the big night. Becky plans to get all dolled up for the occasion. The humiliation continues to pile up, though. He hands Sid his mock-up flier, invites him to the show, only to have to ask for it back so he can make copies. Tyranny can’t get off work and won’t be there. His dry cleaner agrees to come so long as he can get in for free. Worst of all, he’s billed beneath Keystone on the slap-dash marquee.
Then comes the big night and out comes Eddie Presley—King of the Kings—opening with a Southern medley and killing. Then the club’s cassette player eats his back-up music tape. At a loss, on the verge of panic, Eddie sits down with his accoustic guitar and opens up to his dwindling single-digit audience, and he lays bare the story that up until now we’ve only gotten glimpses of: a son he never sees, a business he no longer owns, a nightmare asylum where he lived after hearing the news that his hero—his Messiah—died in 1977. On stage, Eddie Presley becomes who he really is.
And anyone who has ever undertaken some sort of public art—musical performance, art installation, stand-up, film screening, play premiere—will for a few minutes share that space with Eddie. Anyone who has ever given voice to their art to a near-empty room, leaning solely on the support of the handful of family or friends who have come out of whatever—respect, love, pity—you’ll recognize that lonely spotlight and the agony of never giving up and never knowing why.
Whitaker opened up his original one-man play with director Jeff Burr to create this tone poem ode to disappointment. Described by The Quentin Tarantino Archives as “the story of a man who didn't make it back up after he fell down”, Eddie Presley is about the potential danger of following your dreams without a plan. By his own admission, Eddie gave up his family and lucrative career because he “wasn’t happy”, and took that unhappiness to its most illogical of conclusions. But since Hollywood is filled with the shattered remains of ill-conceived dreams, he’s lonely but never alone. His tunnel-vision is no different from anyone elses “out there”, which is why he focuses on his distant girlfriend with “attainable beauty” and cannot see the genuine affection his plain “friend” Becky has for him. He sees just how empty Doc’s room is during his act, but doesn’t really see the standing ovation he gets from two friends. Raimi and Pugh give beautiful if wordless performances as they watch Eddie on stage—in their eyes, he is living a dream they don’t dare pursue.  So many people around Eddie call him a loser behind his back but who are they to judge? Who is Sid the Agent who “handled them all” (from Freddie Bartholomew to Anne Francis)? Who is Keystone the Magnificent who sets his glove on fire on stage and gets savaged by the rabbit within his hat? Who is Smokey the bartender to have such disdain towards those, in his vast esteem, “suck”? Indeed, who are any of us to judge anyone following their dreams, however misguided they may be? The irony in the film is that Eddie, like Rupert Pupkin or Mickey One, is actually a pretty good performer, but the fates are not on his side. Kim Kardashian has never done one thing of note during her entirety of her existence, but she stands far above this broken dreamer alone on a dive-bar stage. 
You don’t need a Ph.D. in Jeff Burr to be able to see Eddie Presley for the personal project that it is. First came Whitaker’s play, where he poured out his own personal pain. Then Burr’s adaptation, which came on the heels of a creatively-disappointing string of franchise sequels—The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Stepfather 2—where he had no control over the final cut nor the wishes of those “suits” above him. “[The Offspring, Straight into Darkness and Eddie Presley] are more representative of what I want to do and am capable of doing,” Burr told Icons of Fright. “The frustration for me is to not be able to be allowed to put the creativity you know you have on the screen, for various reasons. That’s the frustration.”
But with all the pathos and desperation in the movie, you can tell from the cast how much the principal creators were and are. Browne, Tierney, Gulagher, Thomerson, Roebuck, Raimi, Kitten Natividad—even very brief cameos by Bruce Campbell and soon-to-be-legend Quentin Tarantino—all appeared for very little money. Michael Varrati (Master of the Massacre: An Interview with Filmmaker Jeff Burr ) asserts that Burr “somehow managed to put together this “Ocean’s 11 of cult” ensemble”, to help Burr and Whitaker get their 16mm epic off the ground. and at no point does the story take the easy way out. you know very well that at the end of his performance, Eddie’s existence will probably not change. there won’t be a rush of agents or even a steady gig to come of it all. But that time in the spotlight may very well have been worth it all in the long run.      
Bill Gibron, a critic I respect immensely, wrote in his review, “Eddie never really gets a transcendent moment, a chance for the film to combine its incredible elements to lift you out of the story and into something more special. We keep waiting for it to come and it never quite does. The movie pushes it, though. It comes awful goddamn close, so close in fact that you could get confused and claim to experience the inspirational, when in reality it was all a ruse, a cinematic sham caused with jumpsuits and jokes. Indeed, what Eddie Presley may need is more proof of our hero's music and mimicry.”
It’s a valid criticism, but it’s not one that I share. To tip its hand and show Eddie as a competent Elvis would have undercut the film’s third act punch (and just because I’ve told you about it won’t lessen the squeeze upon your heart during viewing) With Eddie Presley you have a movie that, like the dead talent on the Walk of Fame, you don’t see much of these days. And to give Eddie’s story a moment of inspiration would be grossly disingenuous. This isn’t a larger-than-life story; it’s one that’s actual size, far too intimate for gross grandeur. It’s a story that’s sensitive without sentiment; cynical without cruelty. Even though it’s set in Hollywood, don’t expect a Hollywood ending. 

[Special note for Pittsburghers: Eddie Presley is playing on a double-bill with Henrique Couto's Depression: The Movie, Friday, December 7 starting at 7pm at the Hollywood Theater in Dormont.] 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

DUST UP (2012)

In 2008, Roger Ebert wrote a piece for his SunTimes blog titled, “This is the dawning of the Age of Credulity”, in which he relates a conversation he had with Taxi Driver author Paul Schrader.  “He told me that after Pulp Fiction, we were leaving an existential age and entering an age of irony. ‘The existential dilemma,’ he said, ‘is, 'should I live?' And the ironic answer is, 'does it matter?' Everything in the ironic world has quotation marks around it. You don't actually kill somebody; you 'kill' them. It doesn't really matter if you put the baby in front of the runaway car because it's only a 'baby' and it's only a 'car'.’ In other words, the scene isn't about the baby. The scene is about scenes about babies.”
Which I feel was more than adequately boiled down by Rene Magritte in his painting, The Treachery of Images (La trahison des images, 1928–29), a painting of a pipe which he captions, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe": “This is not a pipe.” And it isn’t. It’s a painting of a pipe. “The famous pipe,” Magritte lamented. “How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it's just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture "This is a pipe," I'd have been lying!” (Torczyner, Harry. Magritte: Ideas and Images. p. 71.)
Taking this all further, Ebert noted about the cinematic culture around him, “We may be leaving an age of irony and entering an age of credulity. In a time of shortened attention spans and instant gratification, trained by web surfing and movies with an average shot length of seconds, we absorb rather than contemplate. We want to gobble all the food on the plate, instead of considering each bite. We accept rather than select.”
Modern movies, from this point of view, are neither self-contained nor created in a vaccuum. Every movie is made of particles from other movies. “Homage” has moved beyond the in-joke, background detail or set-piece and into literal and thematic presentation. So much of this is personified by Quentin Tarantino and his contemporaries. They’re not making movies, they’re making their versions of movies that had come before. “I told Robert [Rodriguez], ‘You made your Fistful of Dollars with El Mariachi, now’s the time to make your epic, your Once Upon a Time in the West”, sez the world’s most successful fanboy on the audio commentary for Once Upon a Time in Mexico. It’s like the self-referential humor of The Family Guy: “That’s funny because I get it.” The Inglorious Basterds was neither a remake of The Inglorious Bastards nor simply a World War II adventure, but it was Tarantino’s WWII movie. Coming up is Tarantino’s spaghetti western, Django Unchained
For better or worse, we’re slowly coming out of the age of irony and/or credulity because the most recent crop of movie-goers, including but not limited to the Twi-hards, are simply unaware of what came before, so every movie cliché is new to them. I remember a Twilight fan swooning over Edward because, “When he says cheesy stuff, it’s sincere because he doesn’t know it’s cheesy!” And thus we get Total Recall for this generation, Red Dawn for this generation. And this generation doesn’t know that they’re cheesy retreads, thus, they’re sincere. 
All of this is a backhanded way of introducing Ward Roberts new film, Dust Up, because it lands somewhere between ironic and post-ironic. Produced through his Drexel Box production house, Dust Up at first glance is a loving send-up of ‘70s exploitation, the “grindhouse” genre that is all the rage. Ironic because it takes the market-driven selling points of gratuitous sex, violence and mayhem and embraces them. Post-Ironic because it takes the most ludicrous of these elements to their logical conclusion. And post-credulous because it does it with sincerity, honesty and a passion for all of the sources that came before it. And in the end, Dust Up is not “Ward Roberts’ exploitation movie”; Dust Up is Ward Roberts’ Dust Up. It takes all the other-movie particles and molds them into something from his point of view and his sensibilities, and those of his collaborators, and makes something that’s both familiar and outrageous at the same time, but never seems derivative. It’s a balancing act to be sure, and on either side of the tightrope lies disaster. Fortunately, Roberts and company manage the middle walk very well. 
Dust Up is about the accidental—if not destined—collision of five people. New mom Ella and her junkie husband Herman, and two opposing forces: the stoic and enigmatic peaceful warrior Jack (Aaron Gaffney) and his Indian sidekick Mo (Devin Barry) on one end; the twisted and gleefully evil narcissistic personality Buzz on the other. Jack wears an eyepatch, a constant reminder of a tortured past as a violent soldier; Mo wears a Jay Silverheels outfit and yellow-striped tube socks, to both honor and mock his Native American forebears who have gotten rich and fat off of casino living. Buzz (Jeremiah Birkett) ingests chemicals, tortures people and declares everything to be his: “This is MY house. The House of Buzz. In the Land of Buzz. In the Time of Buzz.” 
Ella (Amber Benson) is a young mother living in a house with severe plumbing problems. Her husband Herman (fellow filmmaker Travis Betz), a roadie for Hoobastank (of all things), went a little loopy after the birth of their daughter, Lucy, and is now holed up at Buzz’s in a drug-induced, debt-heavy sabattacal. In need of clean water, Ella picks Jack’s name out of the phone book—the way of this peaceful warrior is that of the handyman. This is before Ella learns of her deadbeat spouse’s debt to psychopath, Buzz. Actually, Buzz is much more than a psychopath, more than a sociopath. He’s a charismatic, amoral, self-affirming bar owner-cum-cult leader who promises those he doesn’t like—or happens to notice—with death via dismantling at the hands of his chief thug, Mr. Lizard. What’s more amoral than a sociopath? An anthropath, perhaps? Whatever, you don’t want to owe money to Buzz. 
You know what annoys Buzz more than being owed money? Owing money to someone else. In this case, the corrupt, racist Sherriff Haggler (The Hills Have Eyes remake’s Ezra Buzzington), who wants his payoff and demands it in a most demeaning fashion. The laws of physics dictate that shit rolls downhill, to Buzz calls in poor Herman’s marker, gives him 24 hours to get the money and then has Mr. Lizard eject him from the bar in a most unfriendly fashion. 
Over the course of a few scenes, Jack becomes involved in Herman’s plight because it has become Ella’s plight. Jack is cut from the same cloth as most wayward heroes on the path of redemption—particularly Shane, according to an interview with Roberts at the Daily Grindhouse—so he isn’t likely to leave a damsel in distress. Before you jump to conclusions, he’s doing this out of pure spirit. Yes, Herman is a junkie, a bad husband, irresponsible, lazy, most likely unwashed and very much an ungrateful jerk, but these facts aren’t lost on anybody. The deeper he drags Jack (and Mo) into his pit of karmic despair, the more everyone—even Buzz!—questions why they’re bothering to help him out at all. The lesson to be taken away is if you’re going to be a selfish schlep of a person, you’d better have a pretty and capable wife and an adorable baby at home. Otherwise even Mother Theresa would be inclined to throw you to the wolves. 
As can be expected, things spiral out of control, epically and apocalyptically. Jack attempts to make good on Herman’s debt by lending him half of the money he owes Buzz in a show of good faith, but Buzz isn’t one to focus on problem-solving. In a matter of minutes, the casual morning meeting results in Buzz accidentally blowing up his bar—it’s a Rube Goldberg-esque chain of cause and effect, but the end result is that Buzz accidentally shoots one of his meth chemists mid-cook and, as we all know, meth is a most volatile and tempermental chemical potion. Emotionally, it’s the fourteen-year-old-girl of drugs.
The rest of the film could be titled “Buzz’s Bad Day”, as he punishes everyone in his path for his own misfortune. He and reason aren’t even in the same time zone, and if you’re wondering if depravity has a baseline, as far as Buzz goes, the answer is ‘no’. He does know how to whip up a freak frenzy. Unfortunately, he doesn’t choose his followers wisely. Drug-addled desert-scum aren’t known for their stamina, no matter how many barbecued human bodies they’re fed. This is best demonstrated when Buzz declares, “It’s orgy time!” and receives the same dismayed reaction as if he’d announced a pop quiz. 
Dust Up was obviously crafted to be a fun time for all, and it’s one of the rare movies, indie or otherwise, that is as much fun to watch as apparently it was to make. Behind it all are smart filmmakers who know which conventions to turn on their heads and which ones to embrace. As wacky as Dust Up is it never once tries to act like it’s better than either the genre or its audience. Unlike recent “grindhouse” movies like Hobo with a Shotgun, Dust Up wasn’t designed as a party tray of excess and nihilism. It asks you to care about its characters and then gives you characters to care about. Every one of the actors is pitch-perfect in their performances so it’s hard to single any one out. Gaffney’s a terrific hero archetype, violently opposed to violence lik Billy Jack, but with the smooth vocal tones of Joel McCrea. Barry brings just enough dry wit to Mo to comment on the insanity of things—even his own actions—without becoming hipster about it all. As Herman, Travis Betz—whose amazing allegorical demon cabaret, Lo (starring Birkett as the title character), introduced me to the majority of the versatile cast—gives the jerk of a catalyst an affability that earns a little bit of redemption at the end. Birkett doesn’t so much steal every scene he’s in as he attempts to corner the market on it. Buzz could all too easily be a cartoon villain, the word “Evil” given bushy eyebrows and pop eyeballs, but Birkett hints at a humanity buried deep beneath the viciousness and drug-induced paranoia. Both he and Jack project a loneliness and sense of loss, making them each other’s dark mirror. Perhaps the hardest job was placed on Benson’s shoulders. The filmmaker/author has the dubious honor of portraying the lone sane person in this sea of multi-colored insanity. Like Bob Newhart in all incarnations, she’s the only rational one in the room at any given time, and she does it with a sense of humor that anchors all the madness together. 
Roberts, Betz and Benson not only love film but understand it as well, as they’ve proven through this movie and previous offerings like Betz’s Joshua and Benson’s Drones (which she co-wrote and directed with Adam Busch). They’re not into the popular mash-ups of movie iconography and theme so much as they are into creating new forms from previously-used clay. As far as Dust Up goes, Roberts has taken the history of movies he loves and built upon it, rather than attempt to reflect it in some mirror he fractured himself. The result is both familiar to those who know the territory and unique at the same time. A ‘70s sex ‘n death-fest with an altruistic attitude taken from Howard Hawks westerns. A salute to what came before even as it moves forward. 
As the saying goes, “This is Dust Up. There are others like it, but this one is…” Roberts’, Drexel Box’s, and now ours. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


One of the most difficult things to learn as a critic of any kind is objectivity. Most critics fall victim to their own preconceived notions at some point in their careers. In many cases, it’s because the movie they watched isn’t the movie they expected to see. The most blatant example I’ve ever seen was from a reviewer who gave the low-budget indie adventure Project:Valkyrie a lousy rating because he, for whatever reason, expected giant fighting robots in the movie, instead of the lone man-sized one that was actually in the film. (Above image found at
In a perfect world, all critics would approach every piece of art with an open mind, judging it only against itself in terms of success or failure. But since critics are human beings, and our knowledge is based on past experiences, that approach will never happen, so we have to rely on intellectual filters to avoid bias. If, as a critic, one can attain self-awareness and avoid self-righteousness, then your reviews will reflect fact and opinion honestly.
Obviously, this isn’t just the failing of critics. Everyone dislikes at least one movie for not being what they expected. I’m just as guilty as anyone. I did not review Cronenberg’s History of Violence when it was released, not because it departed so radically from the graphic novel it adapted, but because it went in a third direction I didn’t anticipate. I wasn’t expecting David Cronenberg, of all artists, to take the storyline into familiar action movie territory. Because the movie didn’t live up to my ill-conceived expectations, I felt resentful towards it for some time. (Maybe I should be proud of myself for not expressing those feelings in print, instead of the more-reasonable reaction of being disgusted with myself for setting my own trap.)
Fortunately, I knew going into it that I was going to be biased, both pro and con, towards Killer Joe. First, I was already pre-disposed to liking it because of director William Friedkin’s first adaptation of a grim Tracy Letts’ play, Bug. Bug was my intro to Letts’ surreal Southern Gothic gallows humor and Killer Joe is the only of his plays I’ve seen performed live. It’s a violent, crass and grotesquely funny slice-of-horror involving a white trash family and a hired killer. People are violently assaulted and bloodily murdered on stage throughout the course of the film (effects in this case courtesy of A Far Cry From Homes Benzy). There’s also a better-than-fair amount of nudity in the play, made much more graphic by my position in the front row, about a foot or so from the stage. Plus, these were local actors who I knew for the most part and, considering the play opens with the lead actress bare from the waist-down, again, a little over a foot from my face, it’s hard not to get involved. The second act opens with the titular character, a corrupt Dallas police detective, completely nude, feet from my face, and during which time seemed to slow down to eternity (again, small theater).
in background, from left) John Gresh, Lissa Brennan, John Steffanauer 
and Hayley Nielsen, and (foreground) Patrick Jordan in 
barebones productions' Killer Joe. Photo by Ilya Goldin.]
  I was blown away by Letts’ script, shocked by the violence (I dodged a flying chicken leg during the climax), and astounded by several of the performances. In particular, I was struck by Haley Nielsen, who played the family’s possibly brain damaged pseudo-Lolita, Dottie. Dottie sleepwalks and sleeptalks, says odd things at inopportune times and appears almost psychic at others. She’s damaged and fragile and is the audience’s anchor to the story—even if you couldn’t care about the other characters, doomed and damned by their own bad decisions, you want to see that Dottie is safe in the end. Nielsen, a local actress I wasn’t familiar and thus wasn’t saddled with any of my personal baggage, performed Dottie with a far-away, almost ethereal quality, fully aware of what was happening, yet at the same time far-removed and emotionally stunted. Dottie is the key character in Killer Joe, all of the action revolves around her to some degree, and I think any performance of the play would hinge on the actress playing her. 
So, as a fan of the play, I was simulataneously excited and trepidatious about a film adaptation. Given Friedkin as a director, I figured the story was in good hands, particularly with Letts adapting his own script for screen. Because Billy F. never struck me as a guy who particularly gave a shit about mainstream success, I figured all the violence and sex would remain intact. My biggest fear, though, was not who would play Joe but Dottie. Friedkin could stick Adam Sandler in the title role and still pull off a good movie. But Dottie… no Hollywood actress even came to mind. 
Just like the play, Killer Joe begins with Chris (Emile Hirsch) banging on his father’s trailer door, begging to be let in. He is answered by his stepmother, Sharla (Gina Gershon)—she’s naked from the waist-down and her crotch is in his direct line-of-sight. This is how both Letts and Friedkin establish the sophistication of the crowd. “You answer the door like that?” Chris demands. 
To which Sharla replies, “Shut up—I didn’t know it was you!”
“Class” is not an issue with these people. So it comes as no surprise that Chris is in debt to drug dealers and wants to hire someone to kill his birth mother for $50K worth of insurance money. It’s less of a surprise when his wet-brain father, Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church), less than a generation older than his son, puts up little argument against the plan. Somebody told Chris “about a guy” who does murder-for-hire, Dallas cop Joe Campbell (Matthew McConaughey), aka “Killer Joe”, and Chris figures that the guy might be charitable enough to do the job on spec and take a cut of the insurance money after. But Joe isn’t the kind of guy to give away murder services and demands twenty-five grand up front, non-negotiable. The story might have ended there, with the Smith family returning to their no-class hovel, if it weren’t for Dottie (Juno Temple). As a baby, Dottie’s mother tried to suffocate her with a pillow because “she was young and didn’t want to give up her life.” It didn’t work, obviously—Dottie just “wasn’t” for a short while—and returned to the land of the living as a constant disappointment. When Joe asks Dottie how she knows this happened, being an infant and all, Dottie replies, “I remember it.”
Dottie is part of the family without serving any specific function. Ansel treats her like a little girl; to Chris, she’s the only shred of anything good; to Sharla, she’s just around, to make dinner or run errands. Emotionally, Dottie is twelve and no one does anything to help her mature. The only giveaway that she’s older is her body and her unconsciously-hyper sexuality, which disturbs Chris’ dreams and enchants Joe. Joe agrees to do the job as long as Dottie is his “retainer”.
Joe and Dottie’s “first date” starts off uncomfortable enough. She rebels at wearing a cocktail dress and is sobbing when Joe arrives. He speaks kindly to her, but matter-of-factly, without condescension, without walking on egg shells around her. Midway through their meal, he puts an end to her incessant absent-minded and skittish babbling by having her stand up, remove her clothes and put on the dress for him. As in the play, this is an electrically creepy moment but for completely different reasons. On stage, Nielsen stripped in front of Joe and, thus, in front of the entire audience, rendering herself completely vulnerable and not just to him, but to the audience. It’s meant to draw forth instinctual protectiveness from everyone watching, accentuating that Joe is a predator. But in the film, Friedkin stages the action in a single shot where Joe stands with his back to Dottie as she changes. The camera doesn’t focus on her nudity but it doesn’t shy from it either. What we focus on, then, is a similar transition in Joe’s character, but one with far more menace. Never once does he face her, and barely looks at her even when he moves her in front of him, and instead keeps his eyes on some faraway spot on the ceiling. “How old are you right now?” he asks. 
“So am I.”
By now if you’re expecting any kind of happy ending, I wish I could live a day inside your mind. 
The underlying violence begins to ripple forth at this point, as Joe installs himself in the family’s trailer and their life. Chris’s sense of morality keeps butting up with his instinct for survival and he continually flip-flops over the plan—kill her, Joe; don’t kill her, Joe—and then he focusses purely on rescuing Dottie, who at this point may not even need to be rescued. But since Chris hasn’t made a single winning move since the film started, the outcome, to quote the Magic 8 Ball, “is doubtful”. 
Friedkin plays Letts for all its worth, squeezing every drop of amorality and depravity onto the screen. Even if you know all the beats of the story, the violent beats are still shocks of cold water. And everyone in the film holds their own. Matthew McConaughy is a stand-out as the cold-blooded Joe, who is sweapt out to sea by the dotty Dottie. There is a moment, after Sharla has been beaten and humiliated, where the camera stays in tight close-up on Gina Gershon’s face and you know she’s never been better. Emile Hirsch as Chris and Thomas Hayden Church as Ansel keep our sympathies in the air like a heated game of volleyball. None of the Smiths are remotely bright; their desperation drives their mundane existences and there’s no real loyalty lost between them. It’s almost too easy for a reptile like Joe to slide in and dominate them all, especially when they think they can use chest-beating to gain the upper hand. 
So it all comes down to Juno Temple as Dottie. Not an illogical choice, given her impressive performance in Atonement. (Hey, it got her into four collective minutes of The Dark Knight Rises.) In Killer Joe, she is uninhibited and unashamed, her vulnerability is communicated by her big doe eyes and post-pubescent movements. And it’s here that my objective dissonance took hold. It’s entirely unfair to compare Temple’s performance to an actress in a regional production of the play, but Hayley Nielsen was my introduction to the story and her performance defined the character to me. As Dottie, Nielsen was ephemeral and on another plane of existence than the rest of the characters. Most of her lines were delivered in a breathless and excited monotone, every line a declaration and, thus, a non-sequiter. For me—and only for me, obviously—Temple was too grounded in her portrayal of Dottie. Within tight close-ups her Dottie was never farther from me than Nielsen, spacially-speaking, and her fragile, damaged persona is in perfect service of the story and script. But she had a physical presence that Nielsen intentionally abandoned, and it drags the rest of the story, and all of its horror and grit and despair, down into the gutter where it began. Temple Dottie struck me as too real. The rest of the family you could meet at any Wal-Mart in the country. A physical realization of Dottie, even though she is a “pure” character, brings these low-lifes into too-sharp of a relief. 
But a real Dottie allows for a more believable Killer Joe. I have no real proof in my suspicion, but I think it would be an easy temptation for actors to play Joe as a bad-ass, smooth and over-the-top thug who is only in control because he’s slightly smarter than those around him. Everyone in the story is in danger of characature, just a few millimeters off in either direction will result in something balloony and lumpy from a Ralph Bakshi movie. But McConnaughy plays Joe as a well-oiled psychopathic watch, a mass of coiled springs contained by the exterior. His interaction with Dottie brings out a different man, a man used to control but unused to an unpredictable factor like Dottie. Though he does manage to possess her, there’s something of her at work on him beyond her childish sexuality. She mentions “pure love” several times throughout the film, and what Joe feels for her is obviously far from pure, but maybe to his mind it is. His interest in her may be a result of something human unlocked inside of him. As with Dottie’s nudity, Joe’s interaction with her allows for something vulnerable to shine out. It isn’t redemption, but it isn’t the revulsion you’re meant to feel during a live performance. 
It could be quibbling, but this leads to one point of genuine disappointment in the film. In the play, Joe’s dominance and subjugation of the family is presented at the beginning of the second act. Having been brutally beaten by the drug dealers, Chris collapses through the trailer’s front door. Instead of Sharla, he encounters a completely naked and gun-weilding Joe. Thinking Chris might be a burglar, Joe has lept out Dottie’s bed and onto Chris as the complete alpha male. On stage, it’s shocking, naturally, and awkwardly funny and uncomfortable, but it establishes Joe’s new position in the dynamic. Like Beowulf, he’ll face his greatest challenges with only a weapon and the skin he was born in. 
In the film, Friedkin declines to show McConaughey in his full-frontal glory. It’s obvious that he’s completely nude, but the reveal isn’t as strong. We stay on a neutral point of view as Chris crashes through the door and Joe is already waiting for him on the other side. Visually, it removes a great deal of dynamism from both the scene and Joe’s character. In the film, instead of a Grecian athlete or an unbridled predator, he’s simply a naked guy with a gun. An argument can be made for many things—that it cheapens Temple’s and Gershon’s nudity, that it was staged thusly to avoid further problems with censors (even though Friedkin allowed the film to go to theaters unrated, which waters down this latter argument). All it does is diminishes the ferocity of the scene. I’ve thought it over and come to the conclusion that this is a thematic mistake. My issues with Juno Temple’s performance are my own hang-up. 
With all the other fearless choices made with the material it’s disappointing that Friedkin and/or McConaughey--to quote an actor I’ve worked with who is accustomed to nude scenes--“pussied out on the dick shot”. 
Ultimately, a play isn’t a movie and a movie isn’t a play and critics should remember that before they waste time writing a review. Report on the art you saw, not the art you expected. And definitely don’t watch Killer Joe without a designated moral compass.
[Special blame goes to Eric Thornett (writer/director of A Sweet and Vicious Beauty) for originally dragging us to the play in 2009.

Friday, November 16, 2012

THE PHYNX (1970)

 (Image from Vintage
Let us bow our head in thanks to Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper, to Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and the late Davy Jones. For they resisted the temptation to make a two-hour Monkees episode and rather made the wonderous Head, effectively destroying the “Pre-Fab Five” for the betterment of all. Because if they’d given the fans what they’d expected, it would have been The Phynx.
Starting with a baffling sequence in which a man who is later revealed to be an American spy repeatedly hurls himself over a wall only to be captured by a foreign general played by Michael Ansara. He’s then summarily booted back over the wall. On the third attempt, the spy goes to a conveniently-located carnival and fires himself out of a cannon. But the wiley General Ansara—I mean, Col. Rostinov—is waiting with a team of men and a fireman’s catch. The spy bounces so hard, he soars into the animated title sequence. Like most animated title sequences, it’s the best part of the movie. 
What seems like days later, he finally identifies himself as “Agent Corrigan” (Lou Antonio). He enters the secret headquarters of the SSA (Super Secret Agency) via a super secret men’s room stall, complete with a pair of decoy feet showing behind the door to deter the … curious? Embladdered? Anyway, he drops a coin, the toilet and wall spin and he’s in the bowels of the agency. No pun intended.
Now make no mistake, the SSA is powerful. They have divisions for everything. SSA “Sock It To Me” Division, a “Bigotry Department” and a “Hooker Division”, a Bureau of Invisible Men,  Madison Avenue Undercover and the Underage Undercover Department (filled with boy scouts).
His superior is Mr. Bogey and is played by character actor Mike Kellin. His impression of Bogart more resembles Wallace Shawn doing George Raft but, you know, whatever. Their superior is “No. 1”, who wears a suit and a box on his head with a face drawn on it. His voice is provided by Rich Little doing an impression of Rich Little. There’s big trouble here in the God-fearing United States, great world leaders are going missing. “World Leaders” in this case being George Jessel, Dorothy Lamour, Butterfly McQueen, Charlie MacCarthy and Edgar Bergan, and “the one and only Col. Sanders”. Before you can say “No big loss”, the two non-boxed agents rush to MOTHA (“Mechanical Oracle That Helps Americans”) to manufacture a plan to rescue their missing leaders. Like Hitchhiker’s Guide’s “Deep Thought”, the computer spits out the strategy: “form a pop group and stage a concert in Albania.”
The SSA “recruits” the disparate young men by abducting them. Michael D. Miller is a student protester hoisting a sign reading “Space Available”; Ray Chippeway is a American Indian college graduate whose father declares “White man make son pansy”; Dennis Larden, college athlete, is working a barbell while his latest conquest is awaiting in bed to be conquested when he is literally sucked into a vent via a giant magnet; and then there’s Lonny Stevens, stutteringly referred to as the “Young Negro”, the “Colored Guy”, and finally the “Afro-American”. Lonny is a seemingly successful commercial actor, doing an ad for beer. When he’s wrapped, a white guy takes his place as the producer announces, “Now let’s shoot one for the southern states.” And that, dear friends, is the height of the satire. 
What follows is a series of gags that are either hysterical or painful depending on your state of consciousness while viewing. Clint Walker is their drill instructor, Richard Pryor serves them “soul food” (looking like he has no idea where he is or how he got there and surely pissed that he didn’t get the punchline), and after they’re thoroughly trained in the art of both military spy-stuff and music, they are given a seal of approval by Dick Clark. MOTHA provides the group name: “The Phynx”. …You know, like “finks”? A ‘60s word for “narc”? “Snitch”? “Stoolie”? Shut up, it’s funny (which I think was the movie’s tag line). 
To make them stars, the SSA hires “Philbaby”, a music guru played by Larry Hankin, best known as Larry David’s first choice to play Kramer on Seinfeld. He creates a wall of sound for their song, “What’s Your Sign?” The Phynx debut on Ed Sullivan (who is held at gunpoint in front of his live studio audience) and the fans go absolutely Beatlemania over their softboiled Rutles song. Their first record leaps to Gold in twenty minutes (awarded to them by James Brown, the Ambassador of the Record Industry of the United States). Soon they’re loved and lusted after all over the world. Which shows the absolute power of Ed Sullivan more than anything else.
Now that they’re pop sensations, now comes the spy stuff, right? The trip to Albania? Well, no. The next hitch in the geddy-up arrives by a staggering Martha Raye (literally staggering because she’s supposed to be dying of some sort of wound—the location of which changes depending on where she’s clutching). There’s something about a map to the palace of Albanian ruler Markevitch (veteran second-to-third banana, George Tobias)—to keep it secret, Foxy (Raye) tattooed a third of the map upon the stomachs of her three daughters, located in London, Copenhagen and Rome. Because she’s in such a hurry dying, Foxy doesn’t give the girl’s names, but does provide three pictures of the girls with their faces obscured.
So before you can say “PG-rated Get Charlie Tully”, The Phynx are off on a girl-filled scavenger hunt, filled with schemes to get endless girls out of their clothes (including a young Sally Struthers in her first big-screen role)—x-ray specs in Rome, a take-a-number bang-me line in Copenhagen (which hysterically leaves the three non-black guys drained of fluid and lividity by around girl 1000. Lonny appears with the right girl and just quietly calls for a medic). This eats up a good chunk of the second act.
Finally they get to Albania and learn that the conspiracy is even worse than they imagined! More world-leaders have been abducted—Joe Louis, Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey (the latter two the only reason I watched this in the first place, I’m not ashamed to say), Jay Silverheels and the replacement Lone Ranger, John Hart (identified only as their character names), Buzby Berkeley and his original Gold Diggers—and are being held inside the palace to… sorta hang out with the royal family, including Joan Blondell as the Mrs. Monarch, Ruby. It seems that the actual rulers of the government are being held captive by Col. Michael Ansara, and that it was his plan to bring in The Phynx to “give the proletariat what they want” while still ruling the country on whatever vague form of Communism is being utilized. Fortunately for every one, Huntz Hall himself comes up with the plan to escape: “Radishes!”, he proclaims as a very sick-looking Gorcey hits him with his hat. 
(Image from Age of
Then comes another song, the final escape and, proof that there is a God, the end credits. 

Now, many—okay, few, those who’ve actually seen this mess—have declared this overlong Monkees episode to be one of the worst movies ever made, but that’s not true by half. It’s simply a low-rent, no-budget “star-stravaganza” along the lines of future Love Boat and Fantasy Island. The music comes courtesy of Mike Stoller who, with his partner Jeff Leiber, wrote “Hound Dog”, “Jailhouse Rock”, “Is That All There Is?” and reams of other pop songs, to The Phynx’s sets are pleasantly familiar-sounding, with knowing little nods to Herman’s Hermets, the Beatles and the Monkees, and the Moody Blues.  (Poster courtesy of Unseen Films)

Veteran TV director Lee H. Katzan does the best with the borcht-belt gags and lame attempts at “hip” humor from writers Bob Booker, Stan Cornyn, George Foster, but much of it is still from hunger because it’s just not that funny. Amusing, yes, at times, if you dig this sort of thing. The biggest problem is with The Phynx themselves. Except for Lonny Stevens, who has actual charisma and was the only one of the four to make a go at a real acting career (near as I can tell), the three other guys are virtually indistinguishable from each other. A running gag has Chippaway bristling at casual “racist” remarks (When one girl leaps onto him with a cry of “Geronimo!”, he mutters, as if afraid he’ll be heard, “Is nothing sacred?”) then proceeds to speak Tonto-ese himself. Worst of all—he has no interplay with Silverheels (also speaking his trademark Tonto-ese) so the gag you figure they’re building toward never comes.

Depending on your affection for the guest stars, you’ll either be angered that their time is utterly wasted or you’ll just end up feeling sorry for them. For many, this was the plumbest role they’d landed in a while (Gorcey, at this point, was incurable alcoholic and was dead before the film was even released; many of the others would follow suit throughout the decade), and for the others you start to wonder if they really had been abducted for the film, being World Leaders and all. Not one of the “special guest stars” is given anything to do. It just seems as if the green room of Laugh-In had been tipped into a cart and carried off into the night.
At the end of the day, during the final tank and radish-cart chase as the end credits scroll, you’ll be no better nor worse off for having seen The Phynx. After many, many years of VHS bootlegs taken from a single television airing (complete with animated station bumpers every ten minutes, no matter who is talking or if they’re done), Warner Brothers Archive has restored the film in all its 1.85 glory and mono-to-stereo sound mix. Now, you too can have The Phynx play for you in your very own living room. 
Meanwhile, the Monkees have reunited for a world-reunion tour after never once doing anything remotely like this again. 
…Okay, 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee notwithstanding.