Sunday, November 4, 2018

THE, YEAH (SOMETIMES), MAGIC OF *WHERE* YOU SEE A FILM - by CEJ



________________________________________________

VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!

The Boyd Theater (1930s) / The SamEric Theater (1980s)


     Hmmm? While that VAULTED TREASURES subtitle above always says "Movies you never knew about, you forgot, or you forgot to love more the first time around", this one will be a slight (let's call it) "Electric Slide" sidestep or two to the left by maybe replacing the word "movies" with "theaters".  I'm gonna try not to be all "age-i-fied" on this one. Y'know, try not to make this one of those postings which begins with "You may have to be over 30 to appreciate this". But the truth is, ehhh ... you kinda just may have to be! Jeez, sorry! But hear me out before you get that look on your face, oh "Dear Person Younger-Than-Me", because I'd be willing to bet next month's rent that you've got one of these too somewhere in your past. Maybe not the exact same kind of "one of these". I mean, I've spoken to those who had a particular video store which became the creative "trysting place" of their formative youths. Or a record shop, or book store, or comics shop, or long defunct arcade, etc. which sparked their interest in some form of the creative arts. But you've got one. And I defy you not to get nostalgic and corny and all when flashing back to it and the (no exaggeration to say) maybe life defining times you had during your "back in the day" there.

Mostly no-longer-existent 1980s - 90s era "Trysting places of the arts" as
depicted in film (top to bottom): The record store - HIGH FIDELITY (2000) /
comic book shop - UNBREAKABLE (2000) / video store - BE KIND REWIND (2008)

    At any rate I posted something on Facebook yesterday about noticing increasing gray hairs on my head. And perhaps this is just another rendition of the same thing - the much smaller scale written version of how Terry Gilliam's wife once playfully accused him of making the same movie over and over and over again. And if you really think about it, she's right. Look closely enough at BRAZIL, BARON MUNCHAUSEN, THE FISHER KING, 12 MONKEYS and others, and there's a very striking (I wouldn't call it "sameness", but) thematic similarity running through the central nervous system of them all. And I guess this is kind of along the same part and parcel lines as the "reflecting back and noticing things as you get older" nature of the "gray hairs" thing. In fact like the "gray thing" this too started as a social media posting - just one which got way too damned long, so it was placed here. People will tend to click away from a long social media posting but will often be more inclined to read a short blog, ... even if that blog posting is in actuality longer than the social media one. Go figure, huh? But I've digressed enough. On to it ...

One more movie stills digression with "three according to Gilliam" (L to R) BRAZIL (1985),
THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988),12 MONKEYS (1995).
Okay, now we can continue ... 

     A Facebook friend in Chicago made comment this weekend about the love of Windy City fans for The Uptown Theater, and how they hope it can be saved from the wrecking ball. And it brought memories flooding back ... . Well, "flooding back" isn't really accurate as the memories are still vivid, and a very important part of my life (creative and personal) to this day. We had a magnificent theater like that in Philadelphia - a gorgeous art deco palace at 19th & Chestnut Streets in Center City. When it opened in 1928 it was called The Boyd Theater. Films like GONE WITH THE WIND, THE WIZARD OF OZ and others had their premiere runs there; it was one of the original 3-strip Cinerama theaters in the nation; and it was the premier tri-state area (Philadelphia, South Jersey, Delaware) 70mm Roadshow palace as well - with BEN-HUR (Chuck Heston showed up in person on opening night), DR. ZHIVAGO and others running there in their original formats.

(top) THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956) - 70mm screen grab,
(bottom) STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) - 70mm cell scan

     In 1971 The Boyd was taken over by a local chain called SamEric Theaters, which has since been taken over by The Regal Entertainment Group - the owners of Regal Cinemas, Edwards Theaters and United Artist Theaters. And that's where and when my personal love of the place grew as it was the largest screen in three states for quite some time while I was growing up. To this day I've been to IMAX theaters which couldn't hold a candle to a great 70mm print at the SamEric. Even when I lived in South Jersey, and a film was playing at the local mall not far away, I'd take the bus or (later when I got my license) drive 20 to 30 miles to see it at "The Eric" (that's what the locals called it) or "At 19th & Chestnut" (it's former pre-GPS film fan designation) just because of that screen and that ohhhh-so-immersive wraparound sound.

The Boyd (later SamEric) lobby

     To this day I've fond memories of seeing THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, RAIDERS, TEMPLE OF DOOM, A VIEW TO A KILL, THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, an awesome all day STAR TREK film marathon and more at the Eric. And I always regretted not being able to see SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE or TRON in their original 70mm runs there. And, oh yeah, films like Jonathan Demme's 1993 drama PHILADELPHIA had their world premieres there too.

     When multiple screens became all the rage (and an economic necessity), instead of chopping up it's gorgeous main theater, the SamEric group actually sprung the mega bucks to knock down a lobby wall and add a new annex onto the existing building with three smaller screens. Hell yeah! But of course as such when something like RETURN OF THE JEDI, OCTOPUSSY or INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE opened and was playing on the main mega-screen and one or two of the other screens (and back then it was the same admission price for all of them) it was incumbent upon you to know which times were for which of the four theaters.

     One of the things I most loved about The Eric / The Boyd (but not everyone did) was what a "chameleon"-like theater it was in the 1980s - 90s. Depending on what was playing (and what day and / or time of day you went) The Eric was the place for a night out with family or with a date, or it was the slightly grander scale version of a grindhouse theater in all it's heyday glory, but with a seven or so hundred (rather than two or three hundred) strong crowd hurling comments at the screen, ... and sometimes in unison.


     I remember how on the Friday night I saw COMING TO AMERICA there with a date it was more a multi-ethnic / multi-age "family night out" kind of crowd - with everyone lined up at the ice cream shop across the street before and after each show. And how on other Friday nights or Saturday afternoons films like THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, CHILD'S PLAY, THEY LIVE, FATAL ATTRACTION, SCREAM and others turned it into the biggest "interactive shout at the screen" fest outside of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW and Times Square New York of the 1980s. As said, some patrons didn't dig the (at times) schizoprenic nature of The Eric. But if you loved EVERY KIND of film (and I always did) it was a stone cold blast. And yeah, sometimes "stoned" was the operative word as many in the audience were unequivocally convinced that was the only state to be in in order to watch certain kinds of films. Hey, life in big city, huh?

The ghost of The Boyd / SamEric after shuttering its doors in 2002

     To this day I believe part of the "group psychology of enjoyment" inherent and at work at The Eric was that - not unlike with an old school Vegas magic act before it begins - the theater had these huge heavy dark red velvet curtains which would open (and once or twice done so manually by two guys on stage when the motor was on the fritz) as the theater lights dimmed. There was something magical about that. You could feel the rise in expectation within the audience, especially when they all started cheering and clapping and hootin' and hollering when it did. Then if the film itself had some kind of recurring, recognizable and beloved cinematic opening - like the James Bond gun barrel or the STAR WARS "A Long Time Ago In A Galaxy Far Far Away" prologue - ohhh, Mama! - there was a deafening cheer as the audience went 100% total and complete absolute bonkers apesh*t. And that was more infectious than the ebola virus.


     Hell, the truth is that some films (CHILD'S PLAY 2 anyone?) were made 10 times more enjoyable by just seeing them in that particular theater and with a particular audience - one which was just "into it". And to this day when I'm writing a script, and looking for a "vibe", or if I'm attempting to describe what "kind" of a film I'm envisioning to someone, I'll often refer to it as a "19th & Chestnut movie", then I'll explain why, and they totally get it.

     The last film I saw at The Eric / The Boyd before it closed was 1998's X-FILES: FIGHT THE FUTURE. And after it brought those velvet curtains together for the last time there was a fifteen + year effort by many to have the theater designated an historical site in order to save and preserve it. But to no avail.

     I truly hope Chicago's beloved Uptown Theater can be saved from the ball and preserved - as I hear Joliet's The Rialto (about an hour outside of town) managed to be - because, as much as I truly love today's IMAX venues and digital sound and all, there's still nothing quite like watching a movie in a grand ol' cinemadrome like The SamEric / The Boyd. Tom Hanks was even blown away by the place during the Philadelphia World Premiere of the movie PHILADELPHIA in 1993 - surprised and excitedly exclaiming, "Wow! A real movie palace!".

     Hell, in places like that even going to the bathroom, or stepping out into the lobby to get a refill of popcorn, was a hell of a theater-going experience.

     See 'ya in the balcony. And, hey, no hanky panky up there.  The ushers with the flashlights are watching.  ;)


                                                                                                                  CEJ

More on The Boyd / SamEric Theater @

* CINEMA TREASURES.ORG: http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/1209

* CURBED PHILADELPHIA: https://philly.curbed.com/2015/3/16/9980704/lets-take-one-last-look-back-at-phillys-art-deco-palace

* MENTAL FLOSS.COM - "15 Eerily Beautiful Photos Of Abandoned Movie Houses": http://mentalfloss.com/photos/91024/15-eerily-beautiful-photos-abandoned-movie-theaters?fbclid=IwAR3jtHbJXh3p27UhSmzoykNLE-K8xnfQR0uNu_ixJ2ltoxha06ZNpjPwkWI

Friday, October 26, 2018

TWO LAYNES TO HELL: REVIEWS - "FETISH FACTORY" / "VALENTINE DAYz" - by CEJ



________________________________________________

VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!



FETISH FACTORY (2018)
GullCottage rating
(***½ on a scale of 1-5)
   
     With less than a week to go before … c’mon, admit it … what's really everyone’s favorite holiday - good ‘ol Halloween - we at the Cottage wanted to toss a couple of streaming possibilities into the ring for this upcoming weekend and that final stretch of days leading up to the 31st. 

     I’ll admit it. I’m pretty damned tired of zombie movies. This year marks the 50th anniversary of George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (still among the best of ‘em all), and in it’s undead wake - especially over the last ten or so of those years - the genre has been soooo played out it’s knees are shot far worse than my own. Sure, there have been a few bright spots like Garland & Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER, Henry Hobson’s genuinely moving MAGGIE (featuring a surprisingly heartrending performance by Arnold Schwarzenegger - yeah, seriously!) and a few others. But I even checked out of THE WALKING DEAD after Frank Darabont got shafted by AMC. As such (and if you couldn’t tell by the way that handful of films above were described) my creative interest and loyalty tends to land more with a filmmaker rather than with the specific genre in which he or she may happen to be plying their cine-artistic trade. That’s why, in spite of my recent garlic to vampire-like aversion to zombie flicks, I actually looked forward to not just one, but count 'em two new such themed films from writer / director / producer Staci Layne Wilson - FETISH FACTORY (aka CABARET OF THE DEAD) and VALENTINE DAYz.  

Staci Layne Wilson at Shriekfest Los Angeles 2017

     If Staci's name sounds familiar it’s no surprise. You may have seen her over the years as an interviewer on SyFy Channel or Dread Central, or Yahoo! Movies or other places. Her short films such as PSYCHO THERAPY and NOT WITH MY DAUGHTER have been hits on the festival circuit. She’s written a shelf-load of books - among them CITY OF DEVILS, the fiendishly clever THE TRAGEDY MAN (which we did a review of a little while back), the non-fiction 50 YEARS OF GHOST MOVIES, and the up-close-and-personal SO L.A.: A HOLLYWOOD MEMOIR. Lots to talk about in that last one as she’s the offspring of rock musician Don Wilson and 60s pinup icon Nancy Bacon. And oh yeah, she’s presently finishing up a documentary-of-the-heart centered around her dad’s legendary band The Ventures. So, yeah, if you do movies or you've got a TV you’ve probably heard the name somewhere around these parts. 

     We interviewed her around this time last year too on THE MOVIE SNEAK PODCAST (anyone wants to cue it up she comes in at the 10:45 mark) where she gave a nifty heads-up on what was then the upcoming ultimate strippers vs. zombies throwdown flick FETISH FACTORY. And with a premise and a title like that, how could one not want to see it? - hell, out of curiosity if nothing else, right? Pleased to say though that FETISH FACTORY is a heckuva lot more than a nifty title or premise in search of a movie. In fact while those are what will probably attract audiences at first, what will keep them entertained, and I believe coming back again and again till this one becomes a bonafied old fashioned cult film, is it’s “vibe”, … it‘s “personality”, … it’s clever, smart (and smart-assed) sense of wit which is an extension of that of its filmmaker. 

The undead legacy of George A. Romero

     Written and directed by Layne the plot of  FETISH FACTORY is bare bones simple, straight-forward and blissfully unpretentious. Run by the tantalizing Miss Irma (Diane Ayala Goldner of Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN II, … and who wonderfully steals every single scene she’s in here!), a “pop up” cabaret catering to clients with code names like “Footman”, “Lipstick” and “Whipping Boy” becomes the devil’s playground version of The Alamo when a phenomenon begins turning men into zombies ... who feed only upon women. SURPRISE, SURPRISE! That's right, subtext! Go figure, huh? Now do that thing like in the cartoons where you shake your head back and forth real fast and blurry to clear it. See, and some of you were thinking “What more brains could a flick with a title like that have other than the ones splattered across the walls?”. 


     But that’s what I mean about a film being an extension of the filmmaker’s personality and world view. While it’s certainly not sermonizing, one can’t watch the mayhem of FETISH FACTORY and not pick up on it’s thinly veiled analogy between the “clients” and their “hostesses” running parallel with that of the flesh eating male zombies and their female prey, especially in light of such high profile news stories of late involving Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and others. 

     Passion is contagious. So is fun. And the cast of FETISH FACTORY all toss themselves headlong with abandon into the cinematic equivalent of not so much a carnival funhouse ride as much as it is the small budget independent horror movie equivalent of a monster truck rally. Layne’s more than game cast includes Carrie Keegan (of BRAVO AFTER HOURS and REEL JUNKIE), Jennifer Blanc-Biehn (whom you may remember from tv’s PARTY OF FIVE and DARK ANGEL), Emma Julia Jacobs (HITCHCOCK, RUBY SPARKS), Chase Williamson (JOHN DIES AT THE END), Tristan Risk (DARK WEB), and Ruben Pla, Jesse Merlin and the late Daniel Quinn (to whom the film is dedicated) as the clients with “those names”.  

(L to R) Carrie Keegan, Jennifer Blanc-Biehn, Staci Layne Wilson, Tristan Risk

     One interesting thing to also take away from FETISH FACTORY - while the film certainly makes no pretense at being P.C., in light of today’s #meToo sensibilities one may wonder before entering it's doors how exploitative (or not) things may get there. After all it’s a movie about exotic dancers and not Sunday School teachers. However, while the old adage (especially with film) is that “sex sells”, that’s really not on the menu here. 


     Sorry guys. Yeah, I’m saying that while the women do look damned good in this one, you don’t see any “t” or “a”, or even any of that (actually laughable) late night Showtime pretend sex. If that’s what you’re after you might wanna keep scrollin’ down that Amazon Prime queue because humor, wit and old fashioned “hair ’em,  scare ’em and make ’em laugh” sensibilities of the old grindhouse sort are the fetishes this one’s got on it’s mind. 

     If there’s one minor caveat (and it’s an entirely subjective one on my part), I wish the film looked a little (for lack of a better term) “grungier”. There’s a part of me used to watching this kind of movie in a gum-sticky floored inner city theater with pot smoke wafting into the air, and with streaks, skips and pops riddling the film stock itself. That kind of "dirty it up and age it" post digital manipulation is expensive however. And Ms. Layne and her cast and crew were functioning with minimal resources. Considering that, the technical dexterity and visual bravado on display here is a wonder to behold with the writer / director accomplishing a helluva lot with very little. And, oh yeah, while I wouldn't call it a "twist ending" there is also a nifty coda which leaves the film with actually more of a TWILIGHT ZONE / OUTER LIMITS feel than a straight-up horror one.

     One can only imagine what Layne will do when she gets her hands on a sizable budget in the near future. And if the sheer joy which tears through FETISH FACTORY is any indication then I’m fairly certain that future's just around the corner. A wise studio exec would be a fool not to toss her the keys to the cinematic Jag.

________________________________________________




VALENTINE DAYz (2018)
GullCottage rating
(**** on a scale of 1-5)

     While triple-threating as writer, producer and director on FETISH FACTORY, Ms. Layne wears the producer’s hat (along with Sarah Craig, Kate Rees Davies and Griffin Gmelich) on VALENTINE DAYz. While written & directed by Mark Allen Michaels, VALENTINE is from the (let’s call ‘em) modern L.A. equivalent of that legendary pool of Texas filmmaker friends and cohorts from back in the day which included the Cohen Bros. and Sam Raimi. Remember how they worked on and pitched in with each other’s early projects, and how they collaborated on 1985’s CRIMEWAVE? Another contemporary equivalent would be the years long personal and artistic brotherhood between Mexican born film makers Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro G. Iñárritu. The same exact thing here as many of FETISH FACTORY’s cast and crew - among them Carrie Keegan, Diane Ayala Goldner, Aaron Kai and more - are all involved with VALENTINE DAYz as well. 

     In fact Mr. Kai (Ms. Layne’s significant other in life) not only appears in both films, he also serves triple duty behind the scenes on both in the art and camera departments. This he also did on director Michaels’ previous feature, the “Sasquatch thriller with a twist” THE FIANCE (2016) - that one of which also starred VALENTINE DAYz’s Carrie Keegan and Dallas Valdez. Whew! See what we’re talking about here - that close knit kind of film making community? Anyway …



      After the rollicking nature of FETISH FACTORY I was stunningly caught off guard by the more subdued dramatic tone of VALENTINE DAYz. Not unlike FETISH it’s plot is bare bones straight-ahead. Or at least it begins that way. And in a sense VALENTINE cleverly does what Stephen King will often do, which is to set a smaller more intimate story tangentially within the same universe as a more sprawling one. In the same way say in which King’s short stories “Jerusalem’s Lot” and “One For The Road” function as a prequel and sequel respectively (but with different characters) to the 1975 novel ’SALEMS LOT, so does writer / director Micheals’ VALENTINE DAYz seem to be a smaller scale, more personal "taking-place-over-in-the-corner-there" story set within the apocalyptic zombie disease infected landscape of Max Brooks’ WORLD WAR Z.  


     In VALENTINE two individuals approaching middle age, Max (Valdez) and Sara (Keegan), finally find true love with one another only to have it shattered as the world goes topsy-turvy apesh*t when it’s smitten with the aforementioned zombie infection. At the beginning it seems as if this will be sort of a non-humorous version of Edgar Wright’s SEAN OF THE DEAD (2004), or a non-nuclear nightmare rendition of Steve De Jarnatt’s MIRACLE MILE (1988) where a man braves an apocalyptic landscape in order to reunite with the woman he loves. But when Max’s criminal past - and certain abilities he possesses because of that past - are revealed, things take a turn into a tonal territory at times reminiscent of 80s era cult fave films such as Luc Besson’s SUBWAY (1985), Richard Stanley’s HARDWARE (1990) and, yeah, even Alex Cox’s REPO MAN (1984). That's a big compliment, by the way!


     VALENTINE DAYz isn’t what I’d call a “narratively complex” film, … or what George Lucas once referred to as a “narrative freight train” - y’know, one of those films where this happens, then this, and then this, and then the plot turns in on itself, etc. But it is best to view it with a clean slate, and to not know ahead of time where the plot is going to take you. As such I’m not going to reveal anything. I will say, however, that, hell, I would’ve been content to just stick with the Max and Sara “love story in a world gone mad” aspect alone. But the other threads which tendril out from that central one are admittedly fascinating roads down which to travel story-wise. And any one of them is worthy of an entire film itself.


     Viewing FETISH FACTORY and VALENTINE DAYz back-to-back very much returned me to the days of Philly’s late great TLA Theater when it was primarily a retro art movie house rather than the concert venue it is today. The TLA (Theater Of The Living Arts) frequently ran double-bills of films which kinda / sorta had a commonality - even if a strained one - between them. So, one week you could catch a double-bill of THE NAME OF THE ROSE playing with THE DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT, then the next week you’d do SUBWAY and DIVA, then the one after that you’d get REPO MAN with THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER, etc. There’s a reason these two films here remind me of that era, but I can’t quite at this time put my finger on the pulse of exactly why. 

     It could be that, while I wouldn’t necessarily call Ms. Layne a “retro” film maker ... . I mean, her thematic and visual sensibilities are every bit as modern (in the best sense of that word) as anyone else's. But, as stated earlier, the projects with which she involves herself aren’t just “a nifty title in search of a plot”. They may seem such to the casual eye briefly skimming over the titles in an Amazon, Netflix or whatever queue. But, as with those old TLA films, Layne's, while very much enjoyable on a pure fun level, sustain and carry themselves by having a few more layers of interest (and yes, a bit of intelligence) below the surface of the genre razzle dazzle. And if more zombie-themed films tended to lean in that direction I don't think I'd be so "been there, done that; no biggie" about so many in general.


     Give a look-see to either FETISH FACTORY or VALENTINE DAYz this Halloween season. Or better yet take both Laynes to their respective cinematic hellscapes. It’s a great ride.


                                                                                                                     CEJ
________________________________________________

More on Staci Layne Wilson @ https://www.stacilaynewilson.com/

Sunday, September 16, 2018

"I NEVER MET ANYONE WHO REALLY CHANGED THEIR LIFE" / MAMET TAKES MANHOOD TO "THE EDGE" - by CEJ


________________________________________________

VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!


THE EDGE (1997)

Dir.  by - Lee Tamahori
Written by - David Mamet
Music by  - Jerry Goldsmith
Director of Photography - 
Donald MacAlpine
Edited by - Neil Travis 
Production Designer - 
Wolf Kroeger
Costume Design - 
Julie Weiss

Running Time: 117 mins.
Release: Sept. 26, 1997 
20th Century Fox

GullCottage rating
(**** on a scale of 1-5)

__________________

 
     That whole "I never actually met anyone who ever really changed their life" thing is a bit of dialog Alec Baldwin says to Anthony Hopkins in 1997's THE EDGE. If you're a writer phrases tend to pinball around in your head and psyche the way lyric combinations do within those of songwriters, color fusions do for illustrators, and myriad possible light refractions and bendable optical effects are always tantalizingly dancing before the mind's eye of a photographer. That particular snippet of dialog from THE EDGE - courtesy screenwriter / playwright David Mamet - has been ricocheting and pinging around inside my noggin a lot over the last week or so I guess because I'm in the process of attempting that very thing right now. Regardless of how old you are I've always felt the phases of one's life are like a pair of pants which, just as when a child grows, one outgrows and thus finds the need for a bigger one - both pants and life.

     It's a generally accepted literary truism (and yes, I consider great plays and screenplays bonafied literature) that Pulitzer prize winning playwright, screenwriter, essayist, director and more ... oh hell! let's just call him "Renaissance man", shall we? ... David Mamet is a great writer. But I honestly don't think many who parrot back that sentiment realize just how truly great. His original screenplay THE EDGE is a perfect example of why I think this way. Many will say, "Yeah, THE EDGE is a great suspense actioner with some fantastic dialog, but it's no GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, SPEED THE PLOW, OLEANNA or even THE VERDICT or HOMICIDE". But, no, it actually really is.

David Mamet

     It's not unlike that thing we mentioned before in that other chat. Y'know, what Stephen King called working with "bound feet"- where an artist is asked to create / be themselves / let it all hang out, sure, ...  BUT!!! within the strict confines of a particular medium or media. And how sometimes those constraints can ironically have the positive effect of funneling down, ... or more accurately "reducing" down that artist's thematic sensibilities until it's the most concentrated of elements like a great sauce prepared by a master chef. No time or luxury (especially with something like a screenplay) for self-aggrandizing "Look 'Ma, I'm a writer!"-type grandstanding. It's gotta be all about the characters and their struggle. And if you're a helluva writer, then within the 100 - 120 page confined arena of a script your voice is still going to come through loud and clear. In fact if you're that good, ... and Mamet certainly is, ... you can sometimes come through even more loud and clear for an audience who may otherwise not have been attuned to hear things under a different set of circumstances.  For me Mamet's THE EDGE is among the best examples of this "bound feet" / "concentrated sauce" scenario. The reason is simple, if not so easily achieved by us other mere mortals ...

Mamet's measure of a man: THE VERDICT (1982)

     If you look below the surface and to their core sooo damned many of Mamet's stories are about "the measure of manhood". There's usually a dual look at what society at large considers manhood (which is usually tethered to a certain kind of success), against a more internal / personal realization which, when you truly possess such, it doesn't matter a damn what the rest of the world sees or knows. It's what the man in the mirror sees and knows which compels you.

     I probably wouldn't engender too much opposition in saying the play / film GLENNGARY GLEN ROSS (1984 play/ 1992 film) is perhaps the all around epitome of this Mamet-esque concept while THE VERDICT (1982) might be the obvious filmic epitome. In GLENNGARY social / financial success becomes the manhood measure. And it becomes it to such a degree that normally (whom we'd consider) decent people are willing to stoop to the worst of lows to achieve it. The salesmen of GLENNGARY, while more socially respected than say the straight-up criminal hustlers of AMERICAN BUFFALO ('75 - play / '96 - film), HEIST (2001), THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987) or REDBELT (2008) are ... . Well, in Mamet-land their game is ultimately the same, and often for the very same reasons of prestige, power and respect as that of the more criminally cliched'.

     On the other hand you also have those Mamet men like Paul Newman's Frank Galvin in THE VERDICT, Kevin Costner's Elliot Ness, Chiwetel Ejiofor's Mike Terry from REDBELT, or Robert DeNiro's "Sam" in RONIN (1988) for whom the same kind of moral conflict into which Richie Roma, Shelly Levene, Al Capone and Teach & Donny are tossed causes these fellows to not only not want to gravitate towards the dark side of manhood, but - for very diverse personal reasons - ends up causing them to want to become a better man for their own sakes and no one else's.

Mamet's "measure of a man": GLENNGARY GLEN ROSS (1992)

     Now, yeah, I already hear the comments of "Well, y'know, THE VERDICT and RONIN weren't actually original Mamet scripts, they were adaptations - the former based on a 1980 novel by lawyer Barry Reed, and the later on an original screenplay by J.D. Zeik.". And yeah, yeah, I know. But both scripts quite legendarily very much became Mamet's own. With THE VERDICT Mamet wrote the original first script, which was so damned gritty and unglamorous in it's depiction of the turnaround of alcoholic ambulance chasing attorney Frank Galvin, it was despised and rejected by producer's Richard Zanuck & David Brown and original director Arthur Hiller. And numerous actors, directors and writers (among them Robert Redford, Jay Presson Allen, Sydney Pollack and James Bridges) came and went during the early stages of pre-production until Sidney Lumet and Paul Newman ultimately decided they preferred Mamet's take on the material best of all.

Mamet's measure of a man: THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987)

     In the case of RONIN, while the original script was by WITCHBLADE's J.D. Zeik, director John Frankenheimer always insisted that "not a line of Zak's script was shot" and that it was Mamet's stem to stern rewrite which added most of the memorable subtextual material to DeNiro's "Sam" character. While Frankenheimer always felt the credits should have read "Story by J.D. Zeik / Screenplay by David Mamet", on RONIN Mamet used the pseudonym "Richard Weisz" in keeping with his standard practice of only attaching his real name to projects where he was the single writer.

     At any rate Galvin, Elliot Ness, Terry and "Sam" are all men who - for those diverse personal reasons - seek to change their lives. They're tired of what they are. They've outgrown their former existence and they want, ... no, they need new ones. In Mamet's THE EDGE Hopkins' Charles Morse is the definitive version of the Galvin / Terry / "Sam" "Mamet-man", and Baldwin's Bob Green becomes the epitome of the opposite more negative Levene / Teach & Donny side of the manhood coin.

Mamet's measure of a man: THE EDGE (1997)

     Anthony Hopkins' is billionaire bookworm Charles Morse, who accompanies his fashion model wife Mickey (portrayed by fashion model legend Elle Macpherson) on a photo shoot to a remote Alaskan lodge. Also present are Mickey's photographer Bob Green (Baldwin) and a magazine crew entourage which includes Bob's assistant Stephen (Harold Perrineau). Upon coming across the striking photo of a local bear hunter legend named Jack Hawk (Gordon Tootoosis), Bob decides to find him in order to convince him to be in their shoot. He convinces Morse to join him and Stephen on the day-long adventure. And while on a short flight en route to Hawk's cabin their prop plane becomes the victim of bird strike and goes down in the wilderness, killing the pilot and leaving city boys Morse, Bob and Stephen to survive all on their lonesomes.


     Morse's book-wormish nature ends up being the trio's greatest asset as for awhile he's able to "MacGuyver" them sufficient food and shelter. But even his box of "Trivial Pursuit"-like survival factoids seem to meet their match when the three eventually become the stalked prey of a regional killer bear ('ol "Bart the Bear" from Jean-Jacques Annaud's THE BEAR - '88 and Ed Zwick's LEGENDS OF THE FALL - '94). To add to the mix, Morse has become convinced that Bob is having an affair with his wife, and that Bob may be planning on using their present predicament to stage an "accident" wherein Morse will be conveniently taken out of the picture.

     It's never explained how Hopkins character became a billionaire - through old money or the sweat of his incredibly resourceful mental brow. But right from the git-go of the film we realize he's a man who is absolutely not content with his present life. To this notion most of the audience of course says, "Are you kidding! He's got EVERYthing - money, power, a gorgeous wife!". But (and it's very much to Hopkins credit for being such a damned fine "internal" actor that) while this mental state of unrest is never explicitly verbalized, we, from the very first time we meet him, obviously understand that Morse is on edge. "On edge" about the possibility of his wife's infidelity, yes. But obviously about much more.


     His young trophy wife is almost the literal definition of a trophy or a totem in the most obvious sense. But she's not all. A totem or trophy is all that his wealth in general seems to mean to him at this point. There's the fleeting hint that Charles has always been a lonely and otherwise unpopular individual save for his wealth. And that he aches for the chance to know of his own value as a person period apart from his fame and fortune in the same way a "trust fund baby" might want to change their last name, move into a tiny apartment and "start from scratch" in order to prove a sense of worth to themselves. But however Morse reached this life point of discontentedness (through his own fault over time or not, we just don't know) all of that around him has become mere totems - mere artifacts which once maybe meant something, but have since become near idolic and meaningless in the same way a national flag or the Lord's Prayer can for some lose all meaning, ... if there was any there to begin with.


      Director Lee Tamahori's film of Mamet's script is rife with totemic subtext and images. The very first image we see after the film's initial fade in is that of the tail of a private jet owned by Morse. This is the first totem / trophy we become aware of concerning his success in the eyes of the world. As Morse's wife Mickey frolics (and maybe flirts) with friends, the plane's mechanic makes comment about how much he'd love to get his hands on her. Then after Hopkins inquires what the hell he's referring to, the mechanic responds "The plane of course. What'd you think I was talkin' about?". At this point we come to realize Mickey is another totem / trophy in Morse's life. And that, hey, he may just be unduly worried and insecure about her love and faithfulness. Hell, maybe he even married her in the first place to placate that feeling of "outsider-ness", thinking that she would give him entree' into the world of the genuinely popular and loved. There's an intriguing litany of possibilities Mamet allows us to read into Charles Morse. But when all is said and done for whatever reason he is not happy in his life regardless of what the rest of the world sees or thinks it may know about him.


     The opening credit sequence - accompanied by a lush, gorgeously ballsy big-skyish, Jerry Goldsmith Main Title piece- takes us on a flight (in that prop plane which will go down later in the film) to the remote Alaskan lodge owned by Styles - portrayed by Peckinpah stock company fave L.Q. Jones of THE WILD BUNCH, THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE and PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID. Then as the plane lands - it's pontoons skidding the river before the lodge - director Tamahori, who earlier proved his understanding of dichotomous interpretations of modern manhood with his 1994 breakthrough film ONCE WERE WARRIORS, explicitly proves his understanding of Mamet's version of the same with a set of two camera moves which set the visual thematic for the remainder of the film.

Jake's (Temuera Morrison) twisted notion of "the measure of a man"
in director LeeTamahori's brutal yet insightful ONCE WERE WARRIORS (1994)

     THE FIRST is as the camera pans from the landing plane to the grizzled face of lodge owner Jones. As it does so it dramatically pivots around him - signalling that we've just shifted / crossed into another world, another realm, another life arena where the rules, criteria and yardstick determining "the measure of a man" are vastly different from the one in which we just left. It's kind of / sort of the hairy-chested, spinach eating version of "We're not in Kansas anymore", but that we're now in a place where that which made you slick, successful, a titan of industry and / or a hit with the chicks "back there where you come from" no longer matters a damn in this primal survival-of-the-fittest landscape ready, willing and eager to cleanly strip away - in the heartbeat of a proverbial "New York minute" - your outer veneer of b.s. to revel what truly lay beneath.



     THE SECOND camera move (following immediately on the heels of that first pivot) is as the camera lovingly descends the length of an actual Native American totem pole in front of the lodge in the same way it longingly caressed the tail of Morse's jet but a few filmic moments earlier at the airport. With these two opening images the dichotomous definitions of "success" and "true manhood" are cleanly delineated, and the contest to determine both are about to begin in an inhospitable and unforgivingly feral arena - a mashup of one of the most brutal regions of mother nature combined with the most primal inclinations of human nature when plunged into a kill-or-be-killed scenario. With all of this in place, and with our guys finally stranded in the wild, it is then approximately halfway into the film's 117 min. running time where / when that most Mamet of pivot points occurs in the aforementioned conversation between Hopkins and Baldwin. That bit I've always considered among the most heartbreaking dialog exchanges in all of 90s cinema, ... if not in modern film period: Baldwin's existential admission that  "I never actually met anyone who ever really changed their life".


Tamahori (top), Baldwin and Hopkins on THE EDGE

     With all stripped away Hopkins' Morse decides to no longer be a slave to popular conception and expectation - to that of society's or to his own. When he determines that he's had enough running in place and frantically hanging on and paddling just to survive, and he says that line featured so prominently in the film's original trailer, " ... 'cause today I'm gonna kill the mother f**ker!", he's not just talking about the stalking bear any more than Andy Dufresne's escape from SHAWSHANK was about getting out of prison. Yeah, it was about escaping a "life sentence", but not just that of four physical walls.

     Interestingly I've always seen the gender flip side of men like Morse and Dufrense in women like THELMA & LOUISE (1991) - as Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis enter into the harsh near biblical wilderness / arena of the American Southwest and find their outer definitions and conceptions of "womanhood" (both that of society's and their own) burned away. We see this as little by little they choose to lose the totems which earlier in the film meant so much to them - things such as jewelry, makeup and mirrors. This is perhaps most poignantly driven home in the scene (right before we enter the beginning of the film's 3rd Act) where at a desert gas station Sarandon's Louise exchanges the last of that which reminds her of her previous life - her bracelet - for the most practical of human necessities, a hat to protect her from the desert sun.

     On a very personal level of artistic admiration (and more than a little writer-ly envy) if there was ever someone I'd tout as being "another Mamet", ... . And I hate to use that phrase as it kind of demeans a person into not being an original self, ... but for the sake of verbal shorthand, I'll do it, ... it would be writer Callie Khouri.

Callie Khouri (left) and THELMA & LOUISE (1991)

     Her scripts to THELMA & LOUISE, the underrated SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT (1995) and even DIVINE SECRETS OF THE YA-YA SISTERHOOD (2002) (written for the screen and directed by Khouri, based on the novel by Rebecca Wells, and which some critics found to be a bit of a hot mess) are all ultimately about taking responsibility for one's own sense of "womanhood" and sense of self regardless of society-at-large's definition. From there her characters then begin the often not-simplistic-or-easy-but-ultimately-rewarding course of changing their lives.

     Pulp material can be a powerful container with which to carry and deliver subtextually loaded material. Check out the novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Stephen King for proof of this. Or socially trenchant films like the original PLANET OF THE APES, Marvel's recent BLACK PANTHER or the more subtextually heavy pulp novelish scripts and films of Philip Kaufman - like 1974s arctic adventure THE WHITE DAWN, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976) and his 1978 redo of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Hell, his 1983 film version of Tom Wolfe's THE RIGHT STUFF even carries the exact same Mamet-like conundrum / query under it's celluloid skin of "What is it which truly determines the measure of a man - is it outward success (represented by the media fame and hero-making of the Mercury astronauts) or inward personal achievement (encapsulated by Chuck Yeager's continued - mostly unknown - attempts to 'find where that demon in the sky lives on the Mach meter')?". 


     Anthony Hopkins' Charles Morse has always been the epitome of this for me. He knows because David Mamet knows and Lee Tamahori knows. And, if we're listening to that inner "voice" we too know. In the end it's all about facing down and conquering the beasts of one's own fears and / or own stagnant existence

     In THE EDGE, ... in the end ... Morse's code comes down to the fact that ...

     Life doesn't change the man. The man changes his life.

     Now, let's go out there, set the trap, and kill the mother f**ker!



                                                                                                                    CEJ     

Monday, August 27, 2018

NEIL SIMON TRIBUTE: "THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE" (1975) - IT AIN'T CAPRA, BUT IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE ... WELL, NOT REALLY, BUT YEAH, KINDA - by CEJ



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VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!



THE PRISONER OF 
SECOND AVENUE (1975)

Dir. & Prod. by - Melvin Frank
Screenplay by - Neil Simon,
Based Upon His Play 
Music by  - Marvin Hamlisch
Director of Photography - 
Philip Lathrop
Edited by - Bob Wyman 
Art Director. - E. Preston Ames
Costume Design - 
Joel Schumacher

Running Time: 98 mins.
Release: March 1975 
Warner Bros. Pictures

GullCottage rating
(***** on a scale of 1-5)

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     Okay, oddball analogy ahead! If there was ever a "George Gershwin" or "Miles Davis" of American theater, I always felt it was Neil Simon. You know, someone who approached theater - that which many for so long considered the members-only purview of the high falutin' "learned aficionado", then (in Simon's case, like a bespectacled, Depression-era-born-in-the-Bronx, Jewish Prometheus), swiped it's artistic fire from Olympus ... . I mean, from The Great White Way, ... and brought it down to the shirt-stained, concrete-and-parking-meter world of the Great Unwashed. For that I'll be eternally grateful as I honestly don't think today we'd have a Steppenwolf Theater, Groundlings, Upright Citizen's Brigade or numerous other companies had we not first had a Neil Simon. I guess his passing hit me more personally and poignantly than I figured it would because I was (and still am) one of those concrete-and-parking-meter-raised "Unwashed" who in his younger years didn't know (or give) a damn about theater until Neil Simon's wit regarding, and compassion for, the human condition tickled my funny bone, scratched my brain, and goosed my gluteus literarius into making me want to know, do and be more within a creative existence of my own.

Neil Simon (1927 - 2018)

     Why something becomes a personal favorite "whatever" is an extremely subjective psychological, emotional, part nature / part nurture, ... and hell, maybe even part spiritual ... mumbo-jumbo mashup. And as such, while I too love Mr. Simon's more popular plays and films like THE ODD COUPLE, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS and BILOXI BLUES as much as the next fan, my all time favorite remains THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE. Essentially it's a hilarious story about a guy who has a nervous breakdown. And what the hell's funny about that, right? Well, more accurately (as if that first description wasn't dark enough) it's about a man who feels as though he's losing his manhood - his sense of purpose for being - and he doesn't know what to do about it.

     Simon wrote THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE back in the "suck it up and man it out" days before clinical depression was accepted by the general public as a genuine mental disorder with psychological, genetic and environmental causes. And while it first debuted as a very successful play in 1971 (starring Peter Falk & Lee Grant, and directed by Mike Nichols - Wow, what a trio!), it was the 1975 film version - directed by Melvin Frank, and starring Jack Lemmon & Anne Bancroft - which proved to be my gateway drug into Simon's den. Then as the years passed, that patented uncut bag of canny dialog, uber-perceptive characterizations and more I first sampled on SECOND AVENUE would, in other stories spooled from the typewriter of the Bronx Bard, become my own personal stash of SuperFly TNT. Oh, what the hell! I figure as long as we're talking about the era of the 70s, why not? Haha! But I digress.


     Anyway, Lemmon and Bancroft are slightly upper middle class couple Mel & Edna Edison - who live comfortably enough on the Upper East Side "until" Mel loses his job during the 70s recession, finds that at his age he's unqualified for any other kind of work, then gets caught up in a discombobulating emotional centrifuge of trying to maintain his dignity as a husband and as a man while finding himself for the first time needing to reach out to others for help, including his older brother Harry - portrayed by Broadway actor / director Gene Saks.


     "Until" is in quotations above because the fact is even before Mel loses his job there are indications that he is (in his own words) "slipping" and becoming mentally and emotionally "afraid" in life in general. During one earlier fateful evening when unable to sleep he confesses to Edna how he feels the world is closing in on him.  And it is in this retrospective light it dawns on us that the action of Mel's firm kicking him to the curb after 22 years was merely the catalyst which ignited / brought screaming to the surface the condition Mel had been so good at hiding for so long.

     The play and film refer to Mel's malady by 70s era nomenclature - a "nervous breakdown'. But with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight we well recognize the unspoken opponent with which he "goes to the mats" as being what today would be diagnosed as depression. As such, given the delicacy of the subject matter (even terror of it as exemplified in one particular late night scene), and considering the era in which the film was made, the kindness, humor and intelligent social foresight with which Simon and director Frank treat the characters, narrative and said subject is nothing short of jaw-dropping. This is why the film continues to blow me away to this day.

     Unlike other more simplistic, if enjoyable, comedies about hard times falling upon the well-to-do (and FUN WITH DICK AND JANE - '77, TRADING PLACES - '83, and THE NEW AGE - '94 are the first which spring to mind, ... although Mel & Edna are no where near as well off as the characters in those films), THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE doesn't feature a pair of smug and selfish dilettantes, as do those others, who deservedly crash and burn because of a self- delusional sense of entitlement.


     Lemmon and Bancroft are decent hard-working people who take the bus, do their own laundry, manage to make ends meet, and every now and then can take a vacation. So, while fate seems to enjoy the sight of it's size 12 Doc Marten lodged firmly up Mel's ass, we absolutely do not. And as Murphy and his ever escalating law proves itself stubbornly in flux in the Edison's lives, we can kind of understand rather clearly and easily why - combined with the crumbling of Mel's mental and emotional building blocks - he, in an Ahab-like act of rebellion comes to declare an ultimately impotent war against the City of New York in particular, ... and the world and fate in general. Yeah, we get it!

Mel Edison (Jack Lemmon) declares war on the entire world
   
     Via watching THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE roughly 30 times in one month on HBO as a(n) (admittedly odd) kid, Simon's film would - along with Spielberg's THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS and Blake Edwards' THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER (both of them not only rife with, but dependent upon "snappy dialog") become among the first movies I memorized. It was certainly the first play, as I later discovered upon picking up the published version at the Willingboro Public Library. And as the film remained faithful to the text of the original work, that weird kid would also unexpectedly become the beneficiary of a nifty early lesson in the craft of visually adapting source material as he realized the movie version, while near verbatim dialog-wise, had "opened up" the story geographically by placing selected (and additional) sequences outside the limited logistics of a single apartment interior stage setting.


     My stepdad was an interstate trucker. And I'll never forget watching the relationship strain between him and my mother over a particularly harrowing span of time for our family when during a months-long Teamsters strike a) he literally risked death by taking non-Union hauls in order to keep from losing our home, and b) my mother went back to school then took crappy job after crappy job to keep the family financially together when even non-Union trucking gigs proved unavailable. I'd seen the film version of Shakespeare's THE TAMING OF A SHREW in school, and was amazed at how much the character interplay at times reminded me of my parents and their friends. But THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE was much more contemporary and specific in that regard.


   
     Whereas SHREW reminded me of real life, SECOND AVE was much more real life. And that was a huge revelation to a young and creatively hungry mind at the time familiar with little more than James Bond and Ray Harryhausen movies or the occasional Saturday afternoon Amicus or American International horror double bill. As I already knew of Simon's THE ODD COUPLE from the movie and TV series, I set out to learn more of him, then over time as a result ended up branching out and falling in love with other playwrights such as Sam Shepard, August Wilson and David Mamet. So, thanks, Neil, for escorting me into that world which, while still at a young age, made me want to strike out and try my own hand at spinning prose and doling out dialog.

     Those who are observant realize how an ever recurring theme within the work of Shepard, Wilson and Mamet is that whole "definition of manhood" thing - and the dichotomy between the real vs. illusionary concept which society at large tends to claim is real. This theme very much runs through the central nervous system of THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVE. But whereas with the other writers it tends to be examined in a dark, often profane and even spiritually broken manner, with SECOND AVE. it's done in a damned hilarious one. It may be cliche' to say "this one makes you laugh and cry". And yeah, I hate that hoary, overused P.R.-sounding, dusty horsesh*t verbiage too.  But in this case it's no dusty horsesh*t.


     Unexpected (and particularly heartbreaking) in this regard is how Bancroft's Edna becomes the family anchor as Lemmon's Mel looses his mental and emotional grip. Then later, as the mounting pressures on her (which includes not only keeping things financially afloat, but keeping Mel from slipping into crippling depression) begins to take their toll, it's Mel who begins to bounce back in time to keep her from falling.


     There's a wonderful story for grown ups here - stunningly written, performed and narratively braided within the lush, full and flowing locks of comedy and pathos. It's a masterclass in damned good writing for actors, and damned good actors performing damn well written material.

     If you've never seen THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE, I can't urge you enough to give it a look-see. I think you too will come away saying the same as did numerous critics during the time of the play's original debut: that the great "joke writer" Neil Simon had impressively come of age at a time when society at large needed his alchemical mix of belly laughs and sincerely earned crocodile tears more than ever. Don't let this PRISONER escape.

     Sorry, couldn't help it.  ;)

Urban "American Gothic" via Neil Simon

     And, oh yeah ..

*Nifty Trivia: THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE's costume designer is future BATMAN FOREVER, FLATLINERS, FALLING DOWN and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA director Joel Schumacher. The film also famously features two future Oscar winners in a couple of their earliest roles: Sylvester Stallone as the young "Street Punk" Jack Lemmon (kind of accidentally) mugs in Central Park, and F. Murray Abraham as Lemmon's cab driver in the opening title sequence.

     Gene Saks, who portrays Lemmon's brother, Harry, directed Simon's THE ODD COUPLE and BAREFOOT IN THE PARK on Broadway. And the voice of Lemmon and Bancroft's unseen upstairs neighbor (the inspiration for FRIENDS "Mr. Heckles"?) is character actor Joe Turkel - perhaps best known as "Bartender Lloyd" in THE SHINING and Dr. Eldon Tyrell in BLADE RUNNER.

     There was a theatrical revival of the play in 2010 starring Jeff Goldblum & Mercedes Ruehl.
Would have loved to have seen that one!

(Top) Lemmon's Mel mugs "Street Punk" Stallone,
(Bottom L to R) Peter Falk & Lee Grant - 1971 / Mercedes Ruehl & Jeff Goldblum - 2010

                                                                                                                                    CEJ
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