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Monday, June 18, 2018

The People vs. Larry Flynt

Milos Forman's third and last Oscar nomination for Best Director came with 1996's The People vs. Larry Flynt. The script was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who have written many scripts about real-life oddball characters (and also wrote That Darn Cat). This time they take on the bilious pornographer, Larry Flynt, who seemed to be in court as much as anywhere.

Woody Harrelson plays Flynt, who began his empire owning strip clubs in Ohio. He began a newsletter, which turned into Hustler, a magazine that broke several taboos. The script gleefully recounts some of them, such as a cartoon with Santa Claus sporting a large erection, or a pictorial with Dorothy getting gang-banged by the Scarecrow, The Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion (I remember that one--it was pretty hot).

Of course, in a nation first settled by Puritans, that did not go over well with bluenoses. Flynt was tried for obscenity and convicted, with the case overturned. "All I'm guilty of is bad taste," he cries at one point. Eventually he would be paralyzed in an assassination attempt, and go all the way to the Supreme Court in a battle with evangelist Jerry Falwell, whom Hustler parodied in a Campari ad stating that his first time was with his mother in an outhouse.

The film rests on irreverence, as Harrelson as Flynt evolves into a kind of First Amendment hellion. But I think the film is really a love story. Courtney Love is Althea, a stripper he married and stayed with until the end of her life (she drowned in a bathtub after an overdose, and she also had AIDS). The film ends with him, after his Supreme Court victory, watching videotape of her in happier, better times.

This film is over twenty years old now and Flynt isn't so shocking anymore. You have to hand it to him, though, while Playboy and Penthouse are on their last legs as print magazines, Flynt's magazines are still going strong, and he's outlived Hefner and Guccione. The film paints him as a rival to those men, though he lives in similar gauche luxury.

The People vs. Larry Flynt is pretty much a straight-forward biopic with an affection for its subject, despite his outrageousness (at one trial, he wears a "Fuck This Court" t-shirt). The audience's stand-in is Edward Norton as his long-suffering attorney, who despite his misgivings sticks with him (and won the Supreme Court case). The prologue shows Flynt at about thirteen, selling moonshine to hillbillies--an old man buys a thimble-full of the stuff for two dollars--and Flynt isn't judgmental; he just wants to make an honest buck, and hits his father in the head with a jug for drinking up his profits.

Forman doesn't employ too many tricks here, as Flynt and Althea are larger than life as it is. He continues his use of amateurs as performers, starting with Love, who is really very good. It's a shame she didn't keep up with her acting career. In roles as judges or attorneys are James Carville, real-life civil liberties attorney Bert Neuborne, and Flynt himself as a judge who sentences the man playing him to 25 years in the penitentiary. Flynt's longtime friends and factotums at the magazine are played by Crispin Glover, Vincent Schiavelli (as Chester, whom  I suspect was the cartoonist behind "Chester the Molester") and Brett Harrelson, Woody's brother, as Flynt's brother, Jimmy.

Woody Harrelson received an Oscar nomination in what was the first part to really separate himself from the friendly, dim-witted bartender on Cheers. It is a tour de force as a man with no scruples and no taste who ends fighting for the American way. This film goes to show that the right to free speech is only as strong as we are willing to allow the most repellent people to use it.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Stagecoach

Before Stagecoach, Westerns were kid stuff, B-movies and serials that had simple plots and no complexity. But John Ford changed all that. Stagecoach, released in 1939, was something of a template for Westerns to come (many of them directed by Ford) which turned the Old West into a place of American myth, a metaphor the great experiment of democracy. The Western, like jazz or the musical comedy, is uniquely American. It also, not incidentally, was the first starring role for John Wayne, arguably the most American of all movie stars.

Stagecoach was based on a short story by Ernest Haycox, with a screenplay by Dudley Nichols. The plot is a basic structure that has been seen many times in many locations, such as Grand Hotel and Ship of Fools: a group of disparate people thrown together in one place. This one place happens to be the stagecoach across Arizona and to Lordsburg, New Mexico in the year 1880. On board are a cross-section of the Old West: a lawman, a soiled dove, a gambler, a dipsomaniacal doctor, a bloviating banker, a young woman traveling to see her husband in the army, a mild-mannered whiskey salesman, and an outlaw.

At first at odds with each other, they have to come together as the territory they are crossing is active with Apaches, led by Geronimo. They also deal with the young woman having a baby. Stagecoach is a film about redemption, and also of people being misunderstood, and comes together for a fine ending.

Wayne is the Ringo Kid, who has busted out of the pen. He wants to get to Lordsburg to kill the man who killed his father and brother. Curly, (George Bancroft) the no-nonsense marshal, who believes that Ringo is a good man, but has to arrest him. Claire Trevor is Dallas, the prostitute who is forced out of town by the blue-nosed ladies, who are also giving the boot to Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), who is always drunk, but happily so. He's even more happy to make the acquaintance of Mr. Peacock (played by the appropriately-named Donald Meek), who has a satchel full of whiskey samples.

Also on board is John Carradine as a Southern gambler who acts the gentleman but is actually a scoundrel (he's probably based on Doc Holliday) and a banker (Benton Churchill) who has embezzled money and plans on getting to Lordsburg before the telegraph lines are fixed. Finally there's comic relief with Andy Devine as the driver, Buck.

Many familiar Western tropes are here, some of the first time. This was Ford's first time filming in Monument Valley, where he would make many more movies. We get the cavalry coming to save the day, and the classic shot of the stagecoach in long shot, with a pan left to reveal a bunch of Apache ready to attack (the film was not enlightened about Indians, but they wouldn't be until the 1960s). There's also a showdown in the street, a man holding the "dead man's hand" (aces and eights), and two spectacular stunts by Yakima Canutt, one of them so dangerous that Ford swore he would never do such a thing again (Canutt falls between the team of horses and the stagecoach rolls over him).

The cinematography is by Bert Glennon, and though in black and white, captures the beauty of the terrain. There is also Wayne's star-making intro, when he has just cocked his Winchester having fired it, the camera zooming in on him (it does go out of focus for about a quarter of a second, but this is forgiven). Another shot really captured my attention. Wayne is in the foreground, watching Trevor walk down a corridor shaded in darkness, with the light at the end, which made me think of the last shot of The Searchers.

The love story between Wayne and Trevor is sweet, and also a bit forward-thinking. He doesn't know she's a whore, so he's immediately smitten, and she likes him, too. The others, particularly the young woman (Louise Platt) disdain her. But Wayne doesn't care, and she proves herself valuable when Platt has the baby. So does Mitchell, who has to sober up to deliver the infant. Mitchell won the Oscar for the role (he had a great year--he was also O'Hara in Gone With the Wind). So this film has several characters who are not what they appear to be.

Stagecoach is one of the greatest of Westerns and one of the best American films, period. I've seen it several times and watched last night as if it were the first time. That's what a great movie can do.


Saturday, June 16, 2018

Woodstock

The winner of the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance Grammy this year was Portugal. The Man. Despite the pretentiously punctuated name, I found their album, Woodstock, their eighth studio effort, to be very pleasing, and difficult to categorize. They are in the rock world, but are not guitar driven, with very danceable music with a bit of hip-hop thrown in.

They were founded by John Gourley and Zach Carothers while in high school in Wasilla, Alaska. Hopefully some day they'll be the most famous people to have lived there, supplanting the current person, Sarah Palin.

Although there are no songs on this record that I would want to skip, I want to discuss two tracks that I find to be perfect pop songs. One of them is "Feel It Still," which I had actually heard before through the world around me and didn't know was them. Gourley sings in a falsetto, the bass line is tremendous, and the song is punctuated by brass and saxophone that gives it a special oomph.

The other is the closing track, "Noise Pollution," which is the kind of song I could put on repeat for about an hour. It's a complex recording, with multiple layers. Gourley raps the lyrics, which contain a lot of French. Featured on the track is actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, of all people. I can't listen to this song without moving my head.

Another great song is "Tidal Wave" which has a great hook, and "Number One" which samples Richie Havens' "Freedom," which was the opening song at the Woodstock concert (and perhaps a source for the name of the album).

Though not my standard cup of tea, which would have included guitar riffs, I found Woodstock a fine record and was glad to expand my horizons a little. This is definitely a band I would like to see live.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Lodger

FilmStruck is featuring some of Alfred Hitchcock's early, British films and I'm stoked, because I haven't seen any of them before. I started with The Lodger, which is not Hitchcock's first feature, but it is the first one he made that is not partially or completely lost.

Made in 1927 and a silent film, The Lodger is about a serial killer on the loose in London. He calls himself "The Avenger" and snuffs the lives of golden-haired women. He always kills them on Tuesday. Blonde women are wearing hats or wigs.

A boarding house near the latest killing is home to a couple and their daughter, Daisy (June Tripp), who is a blonde. She is being courted by a police detective, Malcolm Keen, but she isn't having it. Then a stranger knocks on the door, looking for a room to let. He's creepy, with a scarf wrapped across his face and a weird look in his eye. This is Ivor Novello, who was a huge star in England during the '20s and '30s.

Keen doesn't like Novello, but Daisy and the lodger start to form an affectionate bond. Daisy's parents start to wonder if Novello isn't the Avenger, and despair at him taking her out on a date. Keen finds them sitting under a lamppost in an embrace, and he warns him not to touch his girl.

I'll leave it there, because I didn't know how it would end and even though the film is over 90 years old I don't want to spoil it. What I will say is that if has some of the same themes of future Hitchcock films, notably Shadow of a Doubt, when a kindly uncle visiting might be a murderer. It also has Hitchcock's most prevalent theme, the wronged man. A visceral image late in the film has a man dangling from a fence, the handcuffs on his wrist looped around a spike, with a mob coming after him.

Hitchcock was also influenced by German expressionism, with many distorted shots and shadows. There are some features that seem totally modern, such as the intermittent shots of a burlesque show marquee; "Golden Girls Tonight."

Incidentally, this film featured Hitchcock's first cameo. He is sitting at a desk in a newspaper office, his back to the camera. He took the place of a missing actor and a tradition was born.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Black Legion

I mentioned in my review of Terror in the City of Champions that even though I grew up in Michigan, I had never of the Black Legion, a Klan-like group that held sway for a few years during the '30s. It was a big deal back then, but no one remembers them now. Well, they made a movie about it, and it was also a big deal--it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay and won the National Board of Review's Best Film of 1937. But it too has faded from memory.

It is most notable for being the first starring role for Humphrey Bogart. He had made a splash the year before in a supporting role in The Petrified Forest as Duke Mantee, a brutish criminal. That film was directed by Archie Mayo, who also directs here. This time Bogart plays a family man who works in a machine shop. He is sure he's going to get a promotion, but it goes to a man named Dombrowski. Enraged, Bogart is inducted into the Black Legion, a secret society that wants America to be "One hundred percent Americans" only.

The Legion burns down Dombrowski's house and put him on a freight train out of town. They create mayhem everywhere, but do not kill anyone, unlike the real Black Legion. Also, "foreigners" in this film are white Catholics from Ireland or Eastern Europe--there is no mention or sight of blacks or Jews. I guess 1937 was too soon to bring up those issues.

Warner Brothers, who made the film, put out a lot of message films in those days, and it was one of many that were anti-fascist. Bogart ends up killing someone and while on the witness stand confesses, pointing out the other members in the courtroom, a dramatic moment. At the end, a wise judge instructs us on the meaning of the Constitution. We still need that judge.

Black Legion also, whether intentionally or not, points out how silly these societies are. When Bogart goes to his first meeting the man taking him in has a secret knock. Bogart chuckles at this. The men wear robes (they have to buy them, as well as buying a gun for $14.95). There's a scene in which the leaders go over the money they've made, and we can see that it's a financial opportunity for them as much as a political one. The robes remind me of Woody Allen's joke about meeting the Grand Wizard of the Klan: "You could tell he was the leader. He was wearing a contour sheet."

Bogart, as always, is terrific, as is Erin O'Brien-Moore as his wife, who sees the changes in him as he  becomes embittered by hate. It's a powerful film.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Hereditary

A recent article in The New York Times talks about a renaissance in horror films--never have their been so many character driven, adult-oriented horror films. Get Out, The Quiet Place, and now Hereditary are all getting adults into the theaters for horror, which was once the province of teenagers.

I've read more than one article by someone who states that Hereditary is the scariest movie they've ever seen. I can't go that far (I think I still have to go with The Exorcist) but it is one of the most disturbing films I've ever seen, and two days later it's still sticking with me. The ending, which everyone will be talking about (go see it before it's spoiled) is borderline silly, but director Ari Aster turns what could have caused giggles into gasps.

As with these recent sophisticated horror films, Hereditary has grander themes. You could call it Ordinary People with ghosts. A well-to-do family that lives somewhere in the mountains consists of mother Toni Collette, father Gabriel Byrne, older brother Alex Wolff, and little sister Milly Shapiro. Collette's mother has just died, and she has mixed feelings. They were estranged until mom moved into her daughter's house with dementia. At the funeral, Collette reads a eulogy that talks of her mother's "private rituals and private friends." And how.

I don't want to give too much away, but there is a gruesome accident that further unstrings Collette, She runs into someone at a grief group that shows her how to conduct seances. Pawing around in her mother's things she finds books on spiritualism and the occult. One page that's focused on is about King Paimon, one the kings of Hell. I think he'll become quite popular this summer.

The first half of Hereditary is somewhat slow, but not boring. Collette is an artist who makes miniatures, much like dollhouses. A sly edit in the opening credits suggests that the family lives in a dollhouse, which is open to all sorts of interpretations. The film also does not sentimentalize family attachments. Collette awakes from a dream where she tells Wolff that she never wanted him, and tried to have a miscarriage. Shapiro is an odd child that makes things out of cast-off objects. She finds a dead bird and calmly cuts its head off with scissors. That's only one of many decapitations, be warned.

Hereditary got a D+ from CinemaScore, which may mean it's too much for average audiences. But for those who pay attention and understand cinema, Hereditary should rank among the best horror films ever made. Collette deserves an Oscar nomination, and Alex Wolff is terrific. Shapiro is a very unusual looking child--I'm sure Aster probably saw a lot of children for the role and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw her.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Hair (1979)

Milos Forman, fresh off his Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, turned to another landmark work of the 1960s--Hair. The musical that had exploded on Broadway reached the screen, and most thought it wouldn't succeed, given that the musical itself was largely plotless, and the hippie era was over.

But Hair turned out to be a fine film. Granted, anyone who had seen and loved the stage show had to do some adjusting, as the movie was given a plot. The character of Claude Hooper Bukowski, who in the show was one of the hippies, is here transformed into a kid from Oklahoma arriving in New York to be join the army. He falls in with the hippies roaming through Central Park.

There are many other differences, with different characters singing songs ("Easy to Be Hard", which in the show was sung by Sheila to George Berger about his lack of affection, is in the film sung by Hud's fiancee, whom he abandoned, along with his son). But one must put all those things away and judge the film outside of the musical.

In that sense, Forman succeeds in capturing the nonconformist hippies, who ended up conforming to their own fashion and attitudes. Free love is apparent, as Jeannie (Annie Golden) is pregnant, but doesn't know who the father is. The only explicit drug use shown is an acid trip by Claude. In reality, kids were shooting up in parks in big cities all over the country.

The other great thing about the film is Forman's staging of the music, with choreography by Twyla Tharp. The opening, with Ren Woods singing "Age of Aquarius," the camera circling around her, is magnetic. In the film, Woof (Don Dacus) sings the title song, in a prison. Another highlight is "Ain't Got No," one of the fiercest songs in the show.

Where the film fails was felt by show creators Gerome Ragni and James Rado, who claimed that the film portrayed the hippies as aberrations, and not part of something larger (much is made of the contrast between them and rich people when they crash a party). Perhaps because Vietnam was a fading memory by 1979, there isn't too much about Vietnam, even though Claude is going to be shipped out there. Draft cards are burned, but the hippies are basically shown as kids who don't want to grow up, rather than serious or knowledgeable about world events.

The cast is great. John Savage is Claude, Dorsey Wright is Hud, Beverly D'Angelo is Sheila. But the true star of the film is Treat Williams as Berger. He has a lot to do in this film, singing most of Claude's songs from the stage show. He is charming and mischievous, and I would have fallen under his spell just like Claude did. Though he has steadily worked since then, I thought Williams would have become a bigger star.

Some songs didn't make the movie, such as "Air," "Frank Mills," "My Conviction," and the centerpiece of the stage show, "Happy Birthday, Abie Baby," which has a black Lincoln who is assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.