Archive for Geoffrey Lewis

Dead Mann Running

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2015 by dcairns

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I was all set to see something called KAFKA’S THE BURROW, but first I saw BRAND NEW-U, a new science fiction arthouse thriller thing, which rather exhausted my will to live — not bad, exactly, but devoid of tension, which made it tiring. I wasn’t sure I could face Kafka after that, so I did a ticket swap and opted for THE JERICHO MILE, an early Michael Mann TV movie released in UK cinemas in 1979 and screened at Edinburgh as part of the retrospective of vintage TV movies. I figured that even though I usually don’t like Michael Mann, this would at least by basically engaging.

(My Michael Mann history: walked out of THIEF at school film society, aged 17 — been meaning to give it another try. I think THE KEEP tricked me into staying for the whole thing but then I felt cheated. Like quite a bit of MANHUNTER but it goes utterly wrong in the last third. THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS screws up its story and makes the wrong call on every single photographic decision. HEAT is extremely silly, the more so for being so serious. THE INSIDER has an appalling soundtrack assembled apparently at random. ALI is quite watchable but doesn’t quite add up. Skipped a couple, and then PUBLIC ENEMIES is a snooze.)

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Answering his critics.

But THE JERICHO MILE is now my favourite Michael Mann film. I could be all backhanded about it and argue that the stylistic constraints of the television format kept Mann from making erratic stylistic choices of the kind he loves, but actually by filming in Folsom with real inmates as supporting cast, he’s pushing the boat out about as far as any network would allow. His big stylistic idea this time is to interweave documentary footage into the melodrama, and it works like a charm. The movie looks and feels like a proper product of 70s New Hollywood, except the inmates don’t swear. And this doesn’t seem to matter — although the proceedings do get corny in places, quite a few places in fact, the story is compelling and the performances are mostly very fine — we get Brian Dennehy and Geoffrey Lewis and Ed Lauter and in the lead, Peter Strauss is excellent.

Strauss plays a man doing life for shooting his father (multiple times — but with extreme provocation). It turns out he can run a four-minute mile, and the prison authorities bend over backwards to get him to the Olympics. I hate films about sporting activity. Sporting activity is the worst kind of activity there is. But like all good sport films, this isn’t really about sport. The possibility of an inmate succeeding in something energizes and ultimately unites the prison populace, and then the straight world steps in to shut this down. The movie can’t allow itself to be quite as depressing as that sounds, but it still makes its point. And I like films with grim messages that don’t actually depress.

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Geoffrey Lewis turned up again after I’d seen part of MAGGIE (Arnold Schwartzenegger has a zombie daughter) — the 11pm film was SALEM’S LOT, in the chopped-down theatrical release version, which doesn’t entirely make sense but goes like a train. Lewis is magnificently creepy, as is everyone who gets vampirized. Found myself intrigued by David Soul’s acting — very much School of Shatner, which is both good and bad, I dug how SCARED Soul looks at the climax. Reggie Nalder, of course, is a brilliant living special effect, wearing more makeup than he actually needed. James Mason is delightful, especially sharing a scene with Kenneth McMillan. When Humbert met Harkonnen.

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This must be the gayest Stephen King adaptation ever. Most movies exist in order to partner up the hero and heroine — this one disposes of the heroine (a lovely, if bony, Bonnie Bedelia) offscreen (in this cut) so David Soul can drive off with a teenage boy. A teenage boy escapologst who keeps urging his dad to tie him up. And the whole plot is kickstarted by the arrival in a small town of two antiques dealers, Mason and his “partner” Nalder, who cause a plague of unusualness to strike down the citizenry. Mason flaunting his Very Queer Gentleman status in front of a baffled McMillan is a treat. There are no Chris Lee type scenes of vampiric male-female seduction, but lots of man-on-man and boy-on-boy action.

There was plenty of evidence that straight-up traditional vampires in a modern setting can’t be made to work — David Soul making a crucifix out of tongue depressors streteches the concept as far as it can safely go. But there was also surprising evidence that vampires are hardier creatures than you might think, despite their vulnerability to light, running water, wood, cruciform structures, garlic and rational analysis — a set of allergies that ought to land them all in oxygen tents.

Every scare came with its own bad laugh, but Tobe Hooper clearly knew how to SOME stuff really well, so that there were more alarming moments and stylish scenes that were ever the case in other US shows. A man jumping out to surprise David Soul in his bedroom made Fiona squeak in terror. She reports that when this screened in the UK in 1980, kids at her school were so freaked they took to wearing crosses round their necks.

Now we have to watch the full-length version to find out what the hell happened to Bonnie Bedelia.

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I’m pretty sure whatever it was, wasn’t good.

 

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The Sunday Panty-Title: “…And That Girl Had a Wooden Foot”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2014 by dcairns

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I wanted to call my thoughts on Michael Ritchie and Jerry Belson’s SMILE (1975) by the title SMARM, in honour of one of the great essays of recent times, but Fiona insisted I use the inspirational anecdote delivered by Michael Kidd. Also, the movie is structured around the days of the week, as announced by what turn out to be Annette O’Toole’s panties.

Somehow I’d never seen this film until last week. Did I have some kind of trepidation about it? Maybe because it seemed like it would be an Altman copy. And though I love a good Altman, a bad Altman can wear out the will to live faster than a bad almost anything. Fortunately, the aspects of this which are Altmanesque (and the girl with the braces smiling at the start seems like something Altman himself lifted for A WEDDING) are really cool — the movie knows what it’s aiming at, and is scathing without being unwarrantedly vicious, altogether misanthropic, or self-important. When your subject is a beauty pageant, how outraged can you get? And even if you use that for a kind of state of the nation address, a bit of gentleness is warranted.

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Also, much of the film doesn’t play quite like Altman at all — much of the footage has a sly, caught-on-the-hop quality, as if Ritchie really did set up a scenario, leave it to play out naturally, and capture it documentary-style. But I don’t think the dialogues is  improvised — we have people like the great and insanely hot Annette O’Toole who ALWAYS seems to be behaving rather than acting, in anything she appears in. Anybody who can seem like they stepped off the street and into CAT PEOPLE or SUPERMAN III must have an in-built sense of truth, justice and the American way, a kind of faultless naturalism compass. And she smiles like Veronica Lake… sigh.

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The film’s star is Bruce Dern, in a performance that supplies the centre of his career and screen personality, something I now realize I was missing all these years I loved him. (In Telluride, I nearly got handed his luggage by mistake, suggesting a potentially awesome alternative reality where I go on to live his life and collect an Oscar nomination for NEBRASKA while he slinks back to a tenement in Leith and a pitiful existence ranting on the internet about unbelievably obscure movies.) He plays a sort of happy idiot, a used car salesman who’s SINCERE, I suppose a guy who believes all the lies, and likes it. He’s unable to help his depressed friend (Nicholas Pryor, also great) except by making him laugh occasionally, and in fact the friend manages to chisel a chink in Dern’s armour of sunshine, and the poor man nearly withers on the vine as he suddenly sees beyond the veil of acceptable optimism and into an existential abyss. Being indefatigable and all-American, he soon slams the door on THAT unwelcome insight.

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Michael Kidd plays the pageant’s choreographer — a great dancer and choreographer himself, he made intermittent movie appearances, including a star turn in the superb IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER, and so this is a relatively rare chance to see him act. Great face, great voice, and the greatest portrait of a hard-bitten, essentially decent, dogged professional in any profession that I can think of right now. Just superb work. You don’t get near-heroes like that in Altman.

Oh, and Geoffrey Lewis practically doing a Pangborn, something I never expected to see.

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I think the other reason I never hurried to see this was that I got to know Michael Ritchie’s work via FLETCH (inoffensive but very minor) and THE GOLDEN CHILD (whaaaa?). One can’t judge a filmmaker by their worst projects, but it seemed from that perspective that Ritchie was minor, and already washed-up, a flash-in-the-pan kind of guy. But now I’m of a mind to try THE BAD NEWS BEARS, PRIME CUT, THE CANDIDATE, SEMI-TOUGH. From this fresh perspective, it may be that Ritchie enjoyed quite a nice little run.

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Public Anomie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2014 by dcairns

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“You’ve got to have a good beginning,” Roger Corman told Scorsese as he prepared to shoot BOXCAR BERTHA, “because the audience wants to know what it’s about, and you’ve got to have a good ending, because they want to know how it all turned out. Nothing in between really matters.”

Scorsese would later call this, “The best sense I ever heard in pictures,” but at that time he was only able to fulfil the latter half of the success formula. BB opens with a really pathetic biplane crash (obviously an AIP feature could afford to crash a plane for real, so Scorsese cuts to horrified onlookers – he would make up for this in THE AVIATOR), but it ends with a cattle car crucifixion and a really dynamic shotgun massacre which has clearly been storyboarded and then executed faithfully – the wildest shot is the trackback POV of a guy who’s just been blasted off his feet by the shotgun. Compared to the bloodbath that climaxes TAXI DRIVER, it’s very cartoony, but effective. (And during the shoot, Barbara Hershey gave him a copy of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ.)

Scorsese’s struggle to maintain quality in his low-budget period romp is interesting to bear in mind when watching DILLINGER, which proved to be the best John Milius film I’ve ever seen. It never feels like they didn’t have enough time or money to do what they wanted to do, there are spectacular sequences (gun battles to beat HEAT) and beautiful shots, and not a bad performance in it – a considerable feet for a movie with scores of speaking parts, an inexperienced director, and a limited budget.

The very first shot (top) made Fiona cheer, and packs in more excitement and movie-star charisma than the whole ninety hours of Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES – and it’s all done with Warren Oates’ expressive kisser and impactful comicbook composition. The Oates countenance: a kind of tapioca mudslide, like the bags under his eyes decided to strike out and form a face of their own. Everything is yielding to gravity, as if only loosely fastened to the crumbly skull beneath, and yet there’s a contradictory sense of hardness and permanence that stops you from thinking he’s about to disintegrate and pool on the floor this instant. The impression is of a real tough guy who can kill everyone in the joint between cigar puffs, but who carries his own eventual dissolution wrapped up inside that bullish carcass.vlcsnap-2014-04-29-00h04m44s149

Milius/Oates’ Dillinger is amoral, charming and forceful, just as he should be. I did feel the lack of a real love story — what’s missing is an intro scene to the relationship with Billie Frechette (Michelle Philips — the plain one from the Mamas and the Papas — who has a great rake-thin 1930s shape and a great 1970s slouch) — Milius admitted not being too great at writing women, I believe. Here the couple just slap each other and he tears her dress off, and it’s rather hard to read this as the beginning of a great love story or anything other than plain brutality. As with most Milius films, there’s greater interest in bromance.

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The real passion is between Dillinger and Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson), the G-man who was sworn to smoke a cigar over his bullet-ridden corpse. The balance between twin protagonists — a device Milius tried again in THE WIND AND THE LION — works well here because it helps stop the story being purely a glorification of Dillinger. Despite the horror of the shoot-outs, JM probably IS in love with his outlaw protag (going on his form elsewhere) but we get to opt out if we want. It’s necessary, I think, to like Conan, but it’s not necessary to like Dillinger — you can get away with just finding him interesting, a compelling problem for society to solve.

In one nice, mythic scene, Melvin Purvis fails to impress a small boy at a shoeshine, demonstrating that being a G-man is nowhere near as cool (or lucrative) as being an outlaw. Especially if the outlaw is called Dillinger and the G-man is called Melvin Purves. This isn’t enough to motivate the man’s later suicide, but it’s one note of unease more than Michael Mann thought to supply — in his movie, it’s a complete mystery why he chose to disclose this fact about Purves (a very minor nonentity in his film).

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Bonus Richard Dreyfuss, Harry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis (that moustache actually normalizes his weird Hanna-Barbera head!), Cloris Leachman.

Kurosawa influence (see also CONAN) very much in view — Johnson walks into a house where a bandit is staked out, we hear screams and shots, and the bloodied perp staggers out and dies — NOT in slomo, however. Milius evidently felt there was a limit to what he could steal. That’s what makes him different from his hero, I guess.

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