"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, April 16, 2021


In 1992 alone,
My Cousin Vinny, Lethal Weapon 3, and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, featuring Joe Pesci in some capacity, were all released. Needless to say, it was a very good year for the actor. One film that was sadly overlooked during this blitzkrieg of Pesci cinema was The Public Eye, a modesty-budgeted homage to classic film noir that also acted as a tribute to famed New York Daily News photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig who worked in Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the 1930s and 1940s capturing the honest and sometimes tragic elements of life on the streets.
This is established over the opening credits with a montage of photographs, some of them Fellig’s, capturing people from all walks of life – in agony, bored, under arrest, and so on. We meet Leon “Bernzy” Bernstein (Pesci) taking photos at the scene of a crime before the police even show up and, more importantly, before his competition arrives. He will go to any lengths to get a shot – even if it means impersonating a priest to get a shot of a dead man with a meat cleaver stuck in his head. Bernzy even has a mobile dark room in the trunk of his car where he can develop his photos quickly.
He’s dedicated, always out there, wandering the streets in his car, listening to the police band radio, looking for the next photo opportunity. We see a few shots from his point-of-view and they are in black-and-white, suggesting that everyone is a potential photo for the man. He’s not married and doesn’t have time for anybody else as he is devoted to his work. That’s what makes him the best. It is an empty existence in a way as he is too busy capturing other people’s lives to have one of his own.

Bernzy hopes one day to have a book of his photos published and even has a meeting with an esteemed publisher (played with snooty relish by Del Close) who tells him, “This is, instead, a most admirable picture book about New York,” dismissing them as “too sensational” and “too vulgar,” which is kind of the point – they capture the beauty and the ugliness of life.
Like many film noirs, Bernzy is summoned to the lofty heights of high society by a beautiful woman – Kay Levitz (Barbara Hershey) who asks him for a favor. She wants him to check out a man claiming to be her recently deceased husband’s partner and now co-partner of his nightclub that she inherited. He agrees, of course, partly because it allows him a foot in rarefied atmosphere and he is attracted to Kay, a rich, beautiful woman who wouldn’t normally give him the time of day. He tracks down the mysterious man only to find him dead.
Naturally, doing a favor for Kay forces Bernzy to break his code of neutrality, complicating his life as he takes sides for the first time, not just with cops, but the FBI who lean on him hard, painting him as a Communist sympathizer, and crooks, entangling him in beef between rival mobsters Frank Farinelli (Richard Foronjy) and Spoleto (Dominic Chianese).

Around the time he made The Public Eye, Joe Pesci was delivering broad performances in movies like Lethal Weapon 3 and Home Alone 2. The Public Eye saw him dial it back and deliver a more nuanced performance as evident in a scene where Bernzy comforts Kay about not being forthcoming about the dead man’s ties to the mob. He’s understandably upset but when she’s apologetic and explains that she picked him because her husband believed in his book of photos, Bernzy softens and Pesci shows a vulnerable side to his character.
Pesci also does an excellent job of showing how Bernzy channels his inner pain, his loneliness into his art, like when Kay snubs him in her club for some high society type and when she realizes what she’s done chases after him only to find the shutterbug outside in the rain taking a photo of some rich slob passed out in an alley.
Barbara Hershey is an atypical femme fatale. Initially, it seems like she is simply using Bernzy to further her own goals – wrest control of her late husband’s nightclub from mobsters – but then we see her defend Bernzy when she’s alone with her cynical doorman (played to jaded perfection by Jared Harris) and it appears that she really does have affection for him. She is in cahoots, however, with Spoleto, a mob boss who controls the west side of Manhattan. Hershey has an expressive face and she gives Bernzy a look that we see but he doesn’t that suggests Kay is falling in love with him. She actually looks at his book of photos in a wonderful moment and not just a quick flip through but studies them, lingers over each one and is visibly moved.

The film is populated with a bevy of wonderful character actors that make an immediate impact with the limited screen time they are given. Richard Foronjy (Midnight Run) and Dominic Chianese (The Sopranos) play the rival mob bosses that force Bernzy to take sides. Jerry Adler (Manhattan Murder Mystery) plays a columnist turned playwright who is also Bernzy’s closest confidante. Stanley Tucci, however, makes the greatest impact as Sal, a pivotal figure in the mob war. Initially, his relationship with Bernzy is an antagonistic one but then he tells the shutterbug about the beef between the two warring mob families in a powerful scene that Tucci delivers so well.
Howard Franklin, who has unfortunately directed far too few films, does a great job immersing us in 1940s New York City, getting the period details just right, from the yellow cabs to the vintage watch Bernzy wears to the Art Deco nightclub Kay owns, but without overwhelming us with it. With the help of David Cronenberg’s long-time cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, he pays tribute to classic film noirs but doesn’t lay it on too thick, doing just enough to capture the vibe of that era. The two men shot the film in very high contrast: “we wanted a crisp look with an edge” that tried to capture Fellig’s photos and avoid a “nostalgic feeling,” Franklin said in an interview.
Franklin first became interested in photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig when he saw an exhibit of tabloid photographs in 1982 at the International Center for Photography in New York City. Fellig was born in Poland in 1899, the son of Jewish refugees that emigrated to the United States in 1909, settling in New York’s Lower East Side. Growing up, he held every lousy job imaginable before discovering photography in his twenties when he started working as a freelance news photographer. He got a jump on the competition by obtaining his own police radio, which allowed him to be the first on a crime scene. According to Franklin, “When I saw Weegee’s photographs at the ICP, I was really fascinated and immediately began thinking about his images in terms of a movie.”

He wrote a screenplay in 1982 about an artist that was autobiographical in nature and as he got older and worked on it more, “it evolved into a story about the sacrifices you have to make if you’re serious about your work.” He tried to sell the script but there was no interest. Several directors and actors tried to option it with no success and he finally decided to make it himself. Franklin knew he wanted Joe Pesci to play Bernzy as the character’s “style of photography is similar to Joe’s style of acting in that both are very naked – there’s nothing between the viewer and the image.”
Pesci knew nothing about Fellig before agreeing to do the film. He read all the books he could find about the man and learned how to use the vintage Speed Graphic camera that was the hallmark of 1940s news photographers. The actor also studied Fellig’s books of photos and “figured what he would be thinking when he took the pictures; how he felt. I tried to make myself feel like him and look like him and take pictures and learn how to do everything.”
Franklin wanted to shoot on location in New York but the film’s $15 million budget and the union situation there made it impossible. The 13-week shoot begin in Cincinnati’s “Over-the-Rhine” district which resembled ‘40s New York. The production then moved to Chicago for a few weeks before landing in Los Angeles to complete filming where they shot on a soundstage at Santa Clarita Studios.
The Public Eye received decidedly mixed reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, "Writer-director Howard Franklin is subtle and touching in the way he modulates the key passages between Pesci and Hershey. There is a lot that goes unsaid between them." In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "The Public Eye never quite takes off, either as romantic melodrama or as a consideration of one very eccentric man's means of self-expression. The facts are there, but they never add up to much. The psychology is rudimentary." The Washington Post's Desson Howe wrote, "Despite the usual quippy, perky performance from Pesci, as well as cinematographer Peter Suschitzky's moodily delineated images, the movie is superficial and unengaging. It's as if Life magazine decided to make an oldtime gangster movie."

In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Peter Rainer wrote, "And since the film’s production design is so arranged and studio-ish, with carefully placed shadows and spotlights, we seem to be wrenched into an anti-world every time we shift from Weegee’s caught-in-the-moment dramas to this movie’s studied blandness." Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman gave the film a "C-" rating and wrote, "Attempting to breathe life into this hopelessly naive vision of a sad-sack artist-saint, Pesci is forced to rein in just about everything that makes him likable: his manic energy, the leering delight he takes in his own shamelessness." Finally, in his review for Newsweek, David Ansen wrote, "Using all this artifice to illuminate the gritty world of a lonely shutterbug is an odd choice. Yet the tale's mournful B-movie romanticism-and Pesci's introspective, crablike performance-gets under your skin. In its moody, daffy way, The Public Eye gives off an authentic reek of artistic compulsion."

The Public Eye develops a fascinating character arc for Bernzy. For most of his career he chose not to take sides as it was good for business but finally he is faced with a dilemma that affects not only himself but people he cares about and this motivates him to take a side. He is tired of simply being an observer and is ready to get his hands dirty.
Having Robert Zemeckis as an executive producer I’m sure helped greatly in getting this film made but I wonder if Pesci used some of the juice from his Academy Award-winning turn in Goodfellas (1990) and his box office clout from Lethal Weapon 2 (1989) and Home Alone (1990) to help push this through the system. If so, I’m glad he did as this is the kind of off-kilter, personal passion project that is so excellently done.

Ebert, Roger. “Joe Pesci Moves Up from the Ranks of Supporting Players in Public Eye.” Rogerebert.com. October 11, 1992.
McKenna, Kristine. “Weegee’s Tabloid World: The very busy Joe Pesci finds a role he can’t refuse.” Los Angeles Times. December 8, 1991.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Zack Snyder's Justice League

When Zack Snyder was hired to launch the DC Extended Universe with Man of Steel (2013), his mandate was clear: to create a fully-realized world that would eventually be populated by a roster of superheroes starting with their most famous, Superman (Henry Cavill). The filmmaker would provide the stylistic template for other directors to follow and with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), he introduced Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) (along with brief cameos by the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg) into the DCEU and one could sense he was building to something even bigger, not just a larger threat for our heroes to face but a bigger response.


Justice League (2017) would see Batman recruit the Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Wonder Woman to stop an alien threat of unimaginable danger. Anticipation was high for the movie and then towards the end of production Snyder was confronted with terrible tragedy that forced him off the project. Without missing a beat, the studio brought in Joss Whedon to do significant work and complete it in time for its intended release date. This version pleased few and was savaged by critics, underperforming at the box office.


That should have been it. Rumors, however, persisted among Snyder’s dedicated fanbase that a cut of his version existed and support for it began to gradually gather traction over time until the studio finally took notice. They were launching a new streaming app and not only needed content but a big and splashy title that would garner a lot attention and, more importantly, subscribers. Negotiations began with Snyder and he was given enough time and money to complete his version of Justice League (2021), a massive, four-hour epic that concludes his DCEU trilogy.


The movie begins with an ending: Superman’s death that we saw at the climax of Batman v Superman only now seeing how the literal aftershocks of his demise are felt all over the world by other mighty beings such as himself. Fearing that Doomsday, the villain of that movie, was only the beginning, Bruce Wayne seeks out other powerful titans with little success, initially. People like Aquaman are content to protect their own pockets of the world until, that is, a portal appears in Themyscira, and hordes of aliens led by Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) appear seeking the Mother Box, an “indestructible living machine,” as Wonder Woman later puts it, that when united with two others, can manipulate great power.


This is only the tip of the iceberg for if Steppenwolf can unite the Mother Boxes and summon his master, Darkseid (Ray Porter), this will unleash a destructive power that universe has never seen. Only when it becomes personal do the heroes feel compelled to band together and stop this overwhelming threat.


After the Frankenstein-like pastiche that was Justice League, this new version feels and looks much more consistent with Snyder’s other DCEU movies, in particular, Batman v Superman. Given the creative freedom he was reportedly given, he really cuts loose as evident in the sequence were Wonder Woman recounts a story about how Darkseid and his minions arrived on Earth thousands of years ago to conquer it only to be repelled by an alliance of Gods, Amazons, Atlanteans, humans, and a Green Lantern. This allows Snyder to do what he does best – show powerful beings smiting each other in slow motion only on a much grander scale than he has ever done before. Imagine the epic battle scenes from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films with Snyder’s own 300 (2007). This battle is Zack Snyder at his most Zack Snyder-ist with almighty gods having it out with ancient aliens on a massive scale all to the strains of a vaguely operatic score.


Snyder certainly has a knack for staging action set pieces and where his trademark slow motion/speed up technique is used most effectively is the introduction of Barry Allen a.k.a. the Flash when he applies for a job only to save a woman from a deadly car accident that he locked eyes with moments before all to the strains “Songs of the Siren” (hauntingly covered by Rose Betts) that is hypnotically and as visually arresting a sequence as anything in the filmmaker’s canon.


Of course, having this kind of creative freedom allows Snyder to indulge in his some of his more indulgent tendencies that feel a tad out of place in a movie like this, such as moments of ultraviolence when Wonder Woman takes out a group of terrorists in a museum in London, England. She doesn’t just dispatch the baddies, Snyder makes sure we hear them slam hard against walls with a sickening thud and accompanying blood splatters. Wonder Woman straight up murders these guys, literally exploding the ringleader at the end and then, without missing a beat, turning around to a little girl and giving her some aspirational pearl of wisdom. It’s not like she hasn’t killed people before in other movies but it is the way they are depicted in Justice League, which is so disturbing.


Like a lot of contemporary CGI villains, both Steppenwolf and Darkseid lack personality and whose motives are the same old tired clichés we’ve seen a million times before. Marvel broke the mold with Thanos in the Avengers movies, coming the closest to almost making us forget he was a completely digital creation. The baddies in Justice League look exactly like they are and, as a result, we don’t really feel that tangible threat or sense of danger as we know these are purely digital beings. That being said, they aren’t really that important to the story beyond being a catalyst to get the heroes together.


The most significant change from the theatrical version is how Snyder’s version acts as a backdoor origin story for Cyborg, placing him and his relationship with his father (Joe Morton) at the movie’s emotional core. In Whedon’s version, his character was relegated to almost an afterthought. In fact, he plays a pivotal role in the movie’s climactic moment.


Snyder is an impressive visual stylist and before Justice League his movies often felt hampered by miscasting in pivotal roles and uneven screenplays with clunky dialogue that sometimes failed to understand their source material. This obscured his distinctive directorial vision. The script for Justice League, written by Chris Terrio, is the first one since James Gunn’s work on the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, that matches Snyder’s visual prowess. With Justice League, he wanted to make something grandiose and mythic – after all he’s dealing with both ancient gods and contemporary beings with god-like powers – and with the help of Terrio’s script he successfully achieved that goal.


DC didn’t want to copy the look of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and hiring Snyder made sense as he brought an epic, operatic feel to his entries in the DCEU. His movies are decidedly darker in tone and look, which divided comic book fans, especially those of Superman who felt that Snyder went too far in reinventing the character. Where the superheroes of the MCU are relatable to one degree or another, Snyder’s superheroes are god-like Übermensches wrestling with living among mortals and having to assume alter egos so that they aren’t persecuted by a public at large that either doesn’t understand or fears them.


The central thesis of Snyder’s DC movies has focused on the power that superheroes like Superman wield: how they choose to use it as opposed to how they use it to help the greatest number of people. In Justice League, Batman makes the decision to activate the remaining Mother Box, attempting to resurrect Superman thereby putting the entire planet at risk as it will bring Steppenwolf and his army to them. Fortunately, the gamble pays off but this strategy contains more than a whiff of Objectivism, Ayn Rand’s philosophical system where the most significant moral purpose of human life is to pursue happiness over everything else, even if it means disregarding the needs of others. Batman takes it upon himself to assume that he knows what is best for everyone and executes that plan consequences be damned.


If Batman v Superman posed the question, should these super-powered being be held accountable for their actions then Justice League was a resounding no. They are going to do whatever they think is right whether that aligns with the greater good or not. It certainly provides a fascinating spin on the superhero mythos and is one of the many things that makes Snyder’s DC movies stand out from others in the genre. If Justice League is to be his swan song for the studio and for the genre he certainly has done so in spectacular fashion.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Welcome Home, Soldier Boys

In the wake of the Vietnam War, many films were made that examined what happened to American soldiers returning home, from classy prestigious studio films such as
The Deer Hunter (1978) to B-movie action fare such as Rolling Thunder (1977). Some explored how soldiers tried to re-acclimate to “normal” life back home while others depicted how their friends and family reacted to their return. A common theme among these films is how the veteran’s war experiences affected them, be it emotionally, psychologically or physically. These films were an attempt for America to come to grips with a highly publicized war that they lost.

Welcome Home, Soldier Boys (1972), directed by Richard Compton and written by Guerdon Trueblood, is a small B-movie that one can imagine playing in some small, rural town on the bottom half of a double bill. It hardly did any business and was barely reviewed, quietly drifting into cinematic obscurity but remains a fascinating oddity nonetheless.

Four soldiers freshly discharged from the United States Army try to re-assimilate into civilian life after a tour in Vietnam with designs to go to California where one of them claims to have inherited a chunk of family-owned land that they can make their own. They’re a tight-knit group as evident in the short-hand between them and the way they banter back and forth.

The four men try to buy a car and are taken advantage of by a salesman. They proceed to “check out” the vehicle and strip it down, knocking down the price from $6200 to $5500. This scene is crucial in that it not only establishes that these guys aren’t pushovers but are also savvy enough to deal with someone in a creative fashion when they feel that they’re being exploited.

The film is a road movie that takes a decidedly dark turn early on when the men pick-up a stranded woman (Jennifer Billingsley) whose car broke down on the side of the road. The proceed to take turns having sex with her but when she demands $500 to get a car and drive home instead of $100 bus fare, things turn ugly and she is thrown out of the car while it was going 65 mph. They don’t stop to see if she’s okay or dead and this scene is an early indicator of what these men are capable of and where the film is going.

Apart from Danny (Joe Don Baker), we are given very little backstory to these men. What we know about them is strictly from their actions in the present. Danny returns home to see his folks and realizes that his experiences in the war has changed him, his parents have stayed the same, assuming he’ll pick up where he left off before he went overseas. They don’t understand he and his friends want to make a go of it in California. A somber mood hangs over this entire sequence and the whole experience leaves Danny and his friends crestfallen, proving the old saying, you can’t go home again.

When their car breaks down somewhere in Texas, they are towed into town and are met with all kinds of flak from the locals. They are overcharged by a mechanic, mocked by Korean War vets for not finishing the job in ‘Nam, and thrown in jail for the night by the Sheriff (Billy “Green” Bush). These incidents only deepen their feelings of alienation and resentment towards civilians.

Low on gas and money, they finally roll into New Mexico and try to get gas in a small town but it is too early. They end up stealing what they need and for them this is the last straw. When they are meant with resistance from the locals, the four men unleash an orgy of violence that would make Sam Peckinpah proud. The ensuing bloodbath is shocking in its ruthless efficiency.

Welcome Home, Soldier Boys ends on a nihilistic note that pays homage to the ending of The Wild Bunch (1969) but while Peckinpah mythologized and had great affection for his characters, this film doesn’t sentimentalize its protagonists. It doesn’t make any excuses for the behavior of these men, presenting the things they do in matter-of-fact fashion. The filmmakers show these men for who they are and lets us judge them. Unlike Rolling Thunder or First Blood (1982), this film isn’t a rousing revenge tale as the protagonists strike back at those that misunderstand and try to keep them down. This is a massacre, plain and simple.

This deviates from the common coming home from war narrative that asks us to sympathize with the vets that return damaged in one way or another. Not so much with these characters who are unrepentant in who they are, escalating slights against them that doesn’t make them victims but aggressors in a way that is unsettling. Is the ending meant to evoke the infamous bloody 1968 Mỹ Lai massacre? Is it suggesting that these guys killed women and children in ‘Nam and are carrying on where they left off? Who is this film made for? It doesn’t quite get down ‘n’ dirty enough for the exploitation crowd and isn’t palatable for mainstream audiences, which may explain why it slipped through the cracks over the years.



Thursday, January 14, 2021

Dirty Little Billy

The 1970s was a great decade for revisionist takes on genre cinema with the likes of William Friedkin shaking up the cop movie with The French Connection (1971), George Lucas’ take on the coming-of-age movie with American Graffiti (1973), and Robert Altman’s idiosyncratic private detective movie with The Long Goodbye (1973). These films upended the conventions of their respective genres with anti-heroes, downbeat endings, and eschewed a black and white worldview for one that was morally murky.
The western was a particularly fertile genre for reinvention with Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), and Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972) offering bold takes. Among these films is the lesser-known Dirty Little Billy (1972), a grungy, no frills take on legendary outlaw Billy the Kid with Michael J. Pollard playing the titular character. The film came and went quickly and became so difficult to find that it wasn’t even able to develop its own cult following despite counting notable people like Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie among its admirers.
The film establishes its grungy aesthetic right away with an establishing shot of a muddy puddle and an equally muddy foot stepping in it. Billy (Pollard) and his family arrive by train to a small frontier town and he promptly slips and falls in the mud – his introduction to this dead-end burg. His parents buy a house that can be charitably called a shithole – it’s covered in dust, no glass in the windows and livestock occupy one of the bedrooms. Train tracks were just laid down and the realtor claims that this means cattle will soon arrive and that will provide a source of income causing the town to grow. Judging by how dismal things look that seems highly unlikely. Billy’s family moved away from New York City for this?

Billy’s stepfather Henry (Willard Sage) sets him to work on the land but between his soft hands and lazy approach to work he’s kicked out of the house after a heated confrontation. Billy soon crosses paths with two fellow outcasts, Goldie (Richard Evans) and Berle (Lee Purcell), when he witnesses the former killing a man. An understandably wary Goldie threatens to kill Billy and they form an uneasy partnership which allows Billy to learn how to be a criminal. The rest of the film follows their misadventures as they try to get enough money to leave town.
Billy’s sullen attitude acts in sharp contrast to Michael J. Pollard’s cherub-like face. He’s a more low-key crook as opposed to Emilio Estevez’s cocky psychotic in the Young Gun movies. Pollard plays Billy as someone unusually calm during intense situations. He spends a lot of time watching others, learning from them what to do and not to do in a given situation. What better place to develop your chops as an outlaw than a saloon where he is shown how to cheat, gamble and steal – not from the best but rather from people who are just as desperate to get out of town.
Richard Evans plays Goldie as a nasty sadist who treats Berle like a piece of property, slapping her around when she refuses to work as a prostitute. He is a mentor of sorts to Billy, telling him how things are in the world. The film presents prostitution as a dehumanizing profession as we see her eating while servicing a client to take her mind off the demeaning act. Lee Purcell plays Berle as a scrappy survivor, the only one to outlast her seven siblings. She is excellent in the role, especially in a scene where Berle recounts the hardships she and her family endured. It is a touching scene that highlights her vulnerable side as she and Billy get closer.
Dirty Little Billy turns many conventions of the western genre on its head. Everybody is covered in dirt and wears raggedy clothing that looks like they’ve never been washed. Even the gunfights are clumsy, chaotic affairs that are over quickly. There is nothing cool about them. People are scared, they miss their shots or their guns misfire. The violence is brutal and ugly as evident in a nasty knife fight between Berle and the girlfriend of a rival gambler.

Billy’s education as an outlaw is paralleled with the growth of the town, which sees a boost in population thanks to a neighboring town closing. Dirty Little Billy is an origin story with modest scope and stakes with most of the action taking place in a saloon in a small town as Billy and his new friends spend most of their time drinking, gambling and scheming to no end. Billy is content to do nothing until fate forces his hand and make an important life decision. It isn’t until the climactic showdown with three fellow hardened outlaws that we finally see the beginnings of the famous outlaw he’ll become. This is refreshing take on the legendary historical figure and a no-frills western that deglamorizes the genre with unflinching conviction, anchored by a committed performance from Pollard.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Me and Orson Welles

They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes as you’re liable to discover they have clay feet, rarely living up to one’s expectations. Me and Orson Welles (2008) explores the good and bad aspects of hero worship. Based on Robert Kaplow's novel of the same name, the Richard Linklater-directed film chronicles the eventful week in a life of teenager Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) who finds himself cast in a minor role in Orson Welles’ (Christian McKay) legendary stage adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in 1937. The aspiring, 22-year-old wunderkind set the play in modern times as a bare-stage production with comparisons to the rise of Fascism in Italy and Nazi Germany.
We meet the 17-year-old Richard when he arrives in New York City with dreams of becoming a working actor. In typical Linklater fashion, he meets Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan) in a record store and they break the ice over a mutual admiration they have for Richard Rodgers as “There’s a Small Hotel” plays in the store. The young woman says, “They’re like lullabies, aren’t they?” She’s in the city trying to make it as a playwright, hoping that one of her stories is published in The New Yorker.
The scene is a sweet, unassuming meet-cute that is vintage Linklater. “What I want is for one person on this earth to read something I wrote and say, ‘You’re terrific,’” Gretta says wistfully in a moment that echoes Jesse and Celine at the beginning of Before Sunrise (1995). Like that couple, Richard and Gretta are two young people that meet by chance and connect instantly over their respective aspirations. This opening scene could be a self-contained film unto itself and one almost wants to follow these two-young people getting to know each other in the Big Apple.

By chance, Richard stumbles across Welles attempting to put on a production of Julius Caesar and impresses him with his drumming and singing (a jingle for Wheaties no less). He appeals to his vanity while also showing his knowledge of theater. Richard soon finds himself immersed in the sights and sounds of the Mercury Theater with Sonja Jones (Claire Danes) putting him to work immediately, answering phones. He finds himself drawn to her only to find out that every man in the company is pursuing her with little success. Claire Danes is fine in the role and Sonja is nice enough but the actor does little to suggest why all the men in the Mercury Theater lust after her.
Welles casts Richard as Lucius but soon finds that “the principal occupation of the Mercury Theater is waiting for Orson,” as fellow actor Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill) puts it. Me and Orson Welles goes on to chronicle the tumultuous production of Caesar, from the rough rehearsals to the problematic previews to its eventual triumph juxtaposed with Richard’s coming-of-age story.

Zac Efron captures Richard’s earnest romanticism that comes with youth and a lack of worldly experience. This lack of knowledge gives him the courage to approach Welles in the first place as he has nothing to lose. He’s hardly an innocent, though, as he goes in on a bet with two other actors to see who can bed Sonja first and, later, sets off the theater sprinkler system, sabotaging the play and then refusing to admit he did it when Welles confronts him. Richard is a rebellious teenager that doesn’t know any better.

His wholesome aspects come out in Gretta’s presence. Zoe Kazan’s natural charisma and her character’s playful zest for life are infinitely more interesting than Sonja’s seen-it-all attitude. It is obvious right away that Richard and she don’t have the same kind of easy-going connection that he has with Gretta. While Richard is physically attracted to Sonja, it is with Gretta that he connects with on a more meaningful level.
Christian McKay and Eddie Marsan are perfectly cast as the arrogant Welles and his long-suffering business partner John Houseman respectively. The former plays Welles as a pompous ass who doubles as a genius. He does an excellent job approximating the man’s distinctive voice and affectations. The latter matches him as the one person in the group willing to stand up to the him as he tries to keep the lights on while Welles follows his muse. McKay’s layered performance goes deeper than mere impersonation with moments that show his humanity, the strain of carrying the entire production on his back, and his ability to take credit for every aspect of the production in one moment and make someone feel like they are the most important person in the company in the next.
Linklater immerses us in Welles lore, such as how he would take an ambulance from the theater to his radio gigs so he could run red lights and make better time. We also see his famous affinity for magic and he even reads from The Magnificent Ambersons, a book that he would adapt into a one-hour radio play in 1939 and a film in 1942. The filmmaker also presents several examples of fascinating behind-the-scenes drama, such as one actor (Ben Chaplin) experiencing paralyzing stage fright minutes before going on stage until Welles talks him down through sheer force of will. We see the fragile egos of some actors and others that brim with confidence. They may have all sorts of weaknesses and inadequacies as people do but when they are on stage, radio or film they are brilliant artists that make art come vividly to life. The reward is the adulation from the audience, which is a unique high that some actors chase their entire career.

Me and Orson Welles
started out as a young-adult novel by Robert Kaplow. He had been inspired of a photograph he had seen of 15-year-old Arthur Anderson playing a lute, cast as Lucius in Welles’ production of Julius Caesar. Kaplow sought out Anderson, found out that he was still alive and living New York City, and based much of the novel on the man’s recollections from that time. Richard Linklater was so taken with Kaplow’s book that he paid for the rights and made it independently. Linklater identified with Welles as a fellow indie filmmaker: “He was doing in the 40s and 50s what everyone else was doing in the 80s and 90s.”
Linklater was faced with the daunting task of casting someone to play the iconic Welles. Kaplow told him about a one-man show entitled, Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles, written by Mark Jenkins and starring Christian McKay, that was arriving in New York City for Off Broadway run after rave reviews at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He saw the play and was so impressed by the actor’s portrayal of Welles, from a young genius to an old man filled with regrets, that he cast him in the role. To prepare for the part, McKay listened to hundreds of hours of interviews and recalled his own arrogant youth. Linklater worked with the actor for months on portraying Welles.
Principal photography began in the Isle of Man in February 2008, shooting the Mercury Theater scenes in an old theater before moving on to Pinewood Studios in England where the exterior scenes of 1930s New York City were shot. According to Linklater, “We built one little street in Pinewood with a greenscreen at the end and every single exterior was shot on it, from different angles, dressed a different way.” The film crew went to New York City to shoot some photographs and a small amount of footage for digital effects.

“You know, sometimes you remember a week for the rest of your life,” Richard says partway through the film. In his brief tenure with the Mercury Theater, he does a lot of growing up, learning important lessons in life courtesy of Welles. Some of Richard’s mistakes can be attributed to his young age and his lack of life experiences as well as immaturity. He’s a hormonal teenager ruled by his libido. It is Gretta that keeps him grounded and the film ends on a wonderfully optimistic note as she and Richard are reunited. What will happen to them? Who knows but as she tells him, “It’s all ahead of us.”
Brooks, Xan. “Richard Linklater: ‘I’m not like Orson Welles. I’m a quiet director.’’ The Guardian. November 30, 2009.

Byrnes, Paul. “Me and Orson Welles.” The Sydney Morning Herald. July 31, 2010.

Dawtrey, Adam. “Director P.O.V.: Richard Linklater.” Variety. October 16, 2008.
Express. “Very Wellesian: Richard Linklater Discusses His New Film, Me and Orson Welles.” Washington Post. December 9, 2009.

Lim, Dennis. “Citizen Welles as Myth in the Making.” The New York Times. November 20, 2009.

Richards, Olly. “Claire Danes, Me and Orson Welles. Empire. February 1, 2008.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Grifters

“They probably had grifter parents and grifter grandparents and someday they’ll each spawn little grifter kids.” – Miller’s Crossing (1990)

This quote always makes me think of The Grifters (1990), a film that presents a world of confidence artists – people who gain the trust of their targets only to then fleece them of something valuable. Essentially there are two kinds of people in this world: the grifters and the people they con. The film takes it one step further and has the grifters con each other but muddies the waters with notions of family and love. Who can you trust? The answer is simple and yet hard-earned: no one.
Roy Dillon (John Cusack) is a small-time operator working the short con, scamming bartenders and hapless patrons out of chump change. His estranged mother Lilly (Anjelica Huston) is a mid-level grifter, working for a powerful mobster (Pat Hingle) at race tracks, betting on certain horses to lower the odds. Roy’s girlfriend Myra (Annette Bening) is a high-end grifter who works the long con – ambitious schemes that swindle wealthy marks. All three have their established methods that work for them except when they don’t as evident when Roy tries to scam a savvy bartender who proceeds to hit him so hard with a club that he suffers serious internal injuries.

When Myra can’t get what she wants from a local jeweler (Steve Tobolowsky) she attempts to use her feminine wiles with no success. When Lilly fails to lower the odds more than she should have, her boss punishes her by stubbing out a lit cigar on her hand in an ugly display of power. Their lives all get complicated when Lilly decides to visit her son while on business in Los Angeles. There’s visible tension between them that goes way back. When Myra finds out that Lilly is a fellow grifter she sets her sights on the elder Dillon unbeknownst to Roy who is unaware that his girlfriend is in the game.

For years John Cusack had done a series of successful teen comedies and by 1988 was looking for more mature roles in films made by auteurs like Roland Joffe (Fat Man and Little Boy), John Sayles (Eight Men Out) and with The Grifters, British director Stephen Frears. Back then there was an innate likability to Cusack that audiences identified with but on this film, he dials it back in a much more controlled performance as a grifter that thinks he’s in control and can walk away from the life whenever he wants only to find out it’s not that easy.
Annette Bening plays Myra like a vivacious sex kitten who knows how to use her body to get what she wants but under the façade is a ruthless professional con artist. The flashback scene where we see her in action with her ex-partner (a superbly cast J.T. Walsh) as they play their target (Charles Napier) is a wonder to behold as they expertly massage their mark to pull off a sizable payday.
It is Anjelica Huston that is the film’s M.V.P. as the veteran grifter that has been in the game long enough to know her limitations. Lilly spots Myra right away and the scenes between Huston and Bening crackle with playful intensity as they trade verbal barbs. Huston also shows why Lilly has survived for this long, whether it’s how she deals with her ruthless boss or a creep hitting on her at a diner. Yet for all her cold logic, she shows a vulnerable side when it comes to Roy as her long-buried maternal instincts surface and she finds herself wanting to reconnect with him. Huston does an excellent job of showing both sides of Lilly and how, ultimately, she’ll do anything to survive.

Director Stephen Frears gives the film a timeless look. Even though it is set in 1990, it could easily be the 1940s as all three main characters do not wear any trendy clothing that would date them instantly. Even the dialogue treads the line between classic grifter lingo and contemporary speak courtesy of legendary crime writer Donald E. Westlake (The Hunter), who does a brilliant job of adapting Jim Thompson’s 1963 novel. He populates the film with snappy dialogue, such as Lilly and Myra’s first meeting when the latter says, “I’m Roy’s friend,” to which the former responds, “Yes, I imagine you’re lots of people’s friends.” He immediately establishes an antagonistic relationship between the two characters that starts off as playful verbal sparring but escalates when Myra finds out that Lilly is also a grifter.
The entire film has a low-key classic feel to it with wonderful bits of detail, like the old school switchboard in Ray’s building. This also applies to the minor yet colorful characters that are sprinkled throughout The Grifters, such as the annoying older man (Henry Jones) who works the front desk of Roy’s apartment building. Every time someone comes in we are subjected to his personal philosophy on women, how to properly fold a towel and so on. There’s also the scene where we get Roy’s backstory on how he became a con artist when he meets a veteran grifter (the wonderfully cast Eddie Jones) who teaches him the nuts and bolts of the business: “But to take another pro, even your partner, who knows you and has his eye on you, that’s a score.” This key line of dialogue could be the film’s thesis.
Filmmaker Martin Scorsese wanted to know what was the best crime novel that had not been made into a film and was told it was The Grifters by Jim Thompson. He and executive producer Barbara De Fina were given a spec screenplay by Robert A. Harris and another man. Scorsese was too busy and called British filmmaker Stephen Frears in 1987. He asked if he had heard of the novel. Scorsese was a fan of the latter’s My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and felt that Frears was the right person to direct The Grifters as he felt that he had an affinity for unusual characters. Frears read the novel and agreed to direct.

The screenplay was initially developed at Disney where Scorsese had a deal and Donald E. Westlake went to work adapting the novel but the studio eventually decided not to back it. Originally, Westlake didn’t want the job but Frears told him the think about it terms of Lilly’s story as opposed to Roy’s and the writer agreed to do it. Cineplex Odeon agreed to finance the film but over the course of the production the budget gradually shrunk as the backers were going bankrupt.
Originally, Melanie Griffith was cast as Lilly, Geena Davis as Myra and Cusack as Roy, who had read the novel in 1985 and was so taken with it that he had wanted to make it into a film himself. Frears had also briefly considered Robert Downey Jr. and Tim Robbins for Roy but when Cusack heard that Scorsese and Frears were attached to the project, he active pursued the role and got it. Anjelica Huston was cast towards the end of pre-production, just beating out Sissy Spacek. She had been contacted by Frears in 1989 while making Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) but after reading the script she was unsure about the part, shocked by the scene where Lilly is beaten by her boss. Ricky Jay was hired as a consultant and helped Cusack prepare for his role by arranging for the actor to meet actual con artists. Cusack saw Roy as “a wonderfully twisted role to dive into.”
The Grifters received glowing reviews from most mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out four stars and wrote, "One of the strengths of The Grifters is how everything adds up, and it all points toward the conclusion of the film, when all secrets will be revealed and all debts collected." In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby praised Anjelica Huston's performance: "Miss Huston is again spectacular. Not since The Dead has she had a role of such eerie complexity, nor given a performance that was so haunting. Though Lily is a sly, unpleasant woman, out always for the main chance, Miss Huston discovers the sadness within that comes close to true tragedy." Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman gave it a "A" rating and wrote, "It’s Anjelica Huston who gives the film its emotional gravity. There’s almost nothing likable about Lilly. She’s callused over; she perseveres, period. But Huston, looking weirdly like a drag queen in her puffy, bleached-blond hair, plays her with such indomitable negative charisma that in the end the character doesn’t win your affection so much as your respect."
In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, "The line Westlake and Frears walk skirts the edge of parody; it's the most puckish of film noirs. Their characters are scoundrels, but they have a hipster's arrogance; they play the sucker for nobody, and the sneaky thrill here comes from watching them work the angles for the upper hand." Finally, Newsweek's David Ansen wrote, "Huston dominates the film, but Bening, an effervescent sex kitten with the soul of a snake, and Cusack, with his brittle self-protectiveness, are spectacular in their own ways. These doomed grifters deserve instant admission into the film noir pantheon."

When The Grifters concludes, we are left with a world of con artists that aren’t all that attractive. It can be a brutal and ugly world where people go insane, get killed on a deal gone bad, or go on the run, always looking over their shoulder. There’s a reason why Lilly has survived for this long. Years of experience of making mistakes and learning from them has toughened her up as evident from the final scene where she accidentally (or was it?) causes the demise of another character that ends the film on a decidedly dark note. The Grifters isn’t a cute, we-all-got-away-with-it ending like Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies, just people surviving any way they can even if it means killing in order to do it.
“Seduction, Betrayal, Murder: The Making of The Grifters.” The Grifters Blu-Ray. 441 Films and 101 Films. May 21, 2018.
Sharkey, Betsy. “Anjelica Huston Seeks the Soul of a Con Artist.” The New York Times. December 2, 1990.
“The Making of The Grifters.” The Grifters DVD. Miramax. September 24, 2002.

Van Gelder, Lawrence. “At the Movies.” The New York Times. August 31, 1990.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Dust Devil

As far back as when he was a teenager, filmmaker Richard Stanley dreamed of the image of “the dark man, his face hidden, his hat pulled low, his coat gathered around him, standing alone in the wasteland.” For years, he dreamt of this man while the town of Bethanie, Namibia was during a years-long drought with several locals murdered in gruesome fashion that some attributed to local superstition of a black magician known as the “Nagloper.” Stanley incorporated this mythology with his dreams of “the dark man” into a student film that ran out of money before it could be completed but was ultimately fully realized in Dust Devil (1993), his feature film follow-up to Hardware (1990).

The Dust Devil (Robert John Burke) emerges from the hazy desert like a cross between Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name gunslinger and Rutger Hauer’s nightmarish hitchhiker in The Hitcher (1986). With his piercing eyes he hitches a ride with a woman (Terri Norton) driving alone and seduces her into taking him home with her where they have sex, killing her at the moment of climax. Wendy Robinson (Chelsea Field) leaves a dysfunctional marriage by traveling from Johannesburg, South Africa to the small town of Bethany, Namibia, encountering the Dust Devil, a serial killer that ritualistically dismembers his victims and takes their fingers as trophies.

Sergeant Ben Mukurob (Zakes Mokae) is the police detective investigating these murders and discovers that they go back decades before their suspect would’ve been born! Realizing that he is out of his depth, he enlists the help of Joe Niemand (John Matshikiza), the local witch doctor, to track down the Dust Devil. Unaware of his true nature, Wendy travels with this enigmatic hitchhiker to a town ravaged by drought and decimated by the closure of the local uranium mine. It might as well be the end of the world and it is this unlikely place where she confronts the Dust Devil with Ben in hot pursuit.

“You got to keep your eyes open when you deal with magic.” – Joe

Neither Wendy or Ben believe in magic. She believes in nothing, her grief over her increasing estrangement from her husband (Rufus Swart) causes her to nearly commit suicide. He, on the other hand, is in a profession that deals in facts and believes only in what he can prove, He experiences a dream within a dream that shakes his belief system while she encounters the Dust Devil who speaks of magic, myths and legends. At one point, they have a fascinating conversation about the belief in a higher power. When he tells her about God, the Devil or the idea of a soul, she says, “I don’t believe in that any more than I believe in magic or Peter Pan.” This is rather amusing as her name is Wendy and she is very much a “lost boy” with an emphasis on the lost. Both she and Ben have dreams that hint at their checkered pasts and continue to haunt their subconscious. They are both adrift in life. She is so down in it that at one point she nearly slashes her wrists. He wakes up every day with very little purpose in life, given garbage assignments by his superior and enduring thinly-veiled racism by his fellow co-workers.

The Dust Devil is a shape shifter that practices black magic and seduces Wendy by preying on her weaknesses and vulnerability. He feeds on pain and such people as Wendy who have nothing. He takes people’s souls but is trapped in the material world, bound by flesh until he can perform enough ceremonial murders to build up his power and return to his realm. He pushes Wendy to her mental and physical limits as he pursues her across the desert, threatening her physically and manipulating the environment by summoning a sandstorm to torment her.

The Dust Devil arrives in Bethany on an old fashion train like a gunslinger straight out of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) as the narrator intones, “He can smell a town waiting to die.” With his intense stare, Robert John Burke requires little dialogue to convey a commanding presence and this only enhances the character’s mystique. He is a very physical actor and lets his actions define his character. The Dust Devil is a wonderfully low-key boogeyman and a far cry from the chatty Freddy Krueger and much cleverer than the lumbering Jason Voorhees.

Burke doesn’t play the Dust Devil as a stereotypical monster but rather as an old soul that has existed for countless years, still exhibiting human frailties such as the moment when he cries after making love with Wendy. He tries to articulate his internal pain and how it has tormented him for as long as he can remember. Joe sums up the character best when he says, “He seeks power over the material world. Through the ritual of murder…He feeds off our light. He preys upon the damned, the weak, the faithless – he draws them to him and he sucks them dry.”

Zakes Mokae and John Matshikiza are also excellent in their respective roles. Ben and Joe make for an unlikely yet compelling team – the believer and the non-believer. To succeed they must find common ground for, like Wendy, Ben is a lost soul and it takes Joe to awaken his faith by showing him what they are up against. Ben must tap into his dreams and pay attention to them if he has any chance of defeating the Dust Devil.

There are several things that make Dust Devil stand out from other horror films. There is the film’s exotic locale, the deliberate pacing, and the emphasis on spiritualism. It has a distinctly European sensibility with an importance on symbolism over gore – although, it does not shy away from the red stuff, it just doesn’t revel in it, such as a lingering close-up shot of a fly on a blood-splattered window instead of cutting away to the gruesome murder scene nearby. Stanley wisely opts for a low-key approach to the supernatural elements with most of the effects done in camera and with clever editing techniques.

Stanley immerses us in this world with stunning establishing shots of the vast, unforgiving deserts of Namibia and the burnt-out, nearly abandoned town of Bethany with African music playing on the soundtrack, which culminates in Wendy and the Dust Devil arriving at the “end of the world,” a Grand Canyon-esque place that is simply breathtaking in its scale and scope.

The idea for the story came from the most inexpensive, simplest film he could make at the time: two characters – a woman driving a car and a “crazy hitchhiker.” Some ideas came from his mother’s book, Myths and Legends of South Africa about the “Nagloper” and the urban legend of the Vanishing Hitchhiker, an often-told tale about people picking up hitchhikers only for them to disappear out of the passenger’s seat.

It was a strange case of kismet that Stanley’s recurring dreams of “the dark man” dovetailed with the “Nagloper.” Even stranger still, he found himself passing through Bethanie while the murders were occurring and was beaten by a paranoid railway policeman. In 1984, the 15-year-old aspiring filmmaker returned to the town with a 16mm camera, a homemade crane and five friends with a 45-page screenplay entitled Dust Devil. They spent two months shooting on the Skeleton Coast until it had to be abandoned when the money ran out and two of them were hospitalized after a freeway accident.

Stanley continued to dream about “the dark man” and seven years later he decided to flesh out the script, taking out many of the hitchhiker elements to avoid comparisons to The Hitcher and placing less emphasis on the killers, and gave it to Jo-Anne Sellar who had produced his previous film Hardware for Palm Pictures. Its success enabled the production company to pre-sell Dust Devil and secure a $2 million budget from Miramax. Palm mistakenly thought that Stanley was making a serial killer movie like The Silence of the Lambs (1991) but that was the farthest from his mind, thinking more along the lines of the films by Dario Argento or Andrei Tarkovsky.

Stanley originally considered Nicolas Cage for the Dust Devil but the budget wasn’t big enough for someone of the actor’s caliber and ultimately, he didn’t think he was right for the role. Stanley had seen Robert John Burke in Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth (1989), liked the actor’s intensity and felt he was right for the role. The filmmaker could return to Namibia and shoot on location thanks to elections in March 1990 when a socialist government was voted in. The production arrived in July 1991 but Stanley met with resistance from the financial backers over the casting of the female lead. Miramax executives Bob and Harvey Weinstein wanted Chelsea Field, who had just come off a part in The Last Boy Scout (1991), as they thought she had more star power than Stanley’s choice, Kerry Fox. They pushed hard for Field and Stanley relented but in retrospect felt that she didn’t play the character as mean as written and never quite got the South African accent. The studio also tried to convince him to set the film in Santa Fe, New Mexico and use American Indians instead of black South Africans.

The shoot was a challenging one as Stanley shot the film on the actual locations of the original murders, requiring the production to cover 1500 kilometers of road during the eight-week shoot. The pre-production period pushed the shooting schedule to the start of the windy season with gale force winds making it impossible to stand upright. Cars had to be weighed down with sandbags lest they be blown off the roads. Despite these setbacks, he enjoyed filming in Namibia, comparing it “shooting on the face of Mars. I like being in landscapes where humans have no sane reason to be there.”

Three quarters of the way through the production, Palm was gradually going bankrupt and Stanley only became aware of this when equipment they needed failed to show up and the crew began leaving. By the end of production there were only eight crew members left! In December 1991, Stanley delivered a 120-minute cut of the film that was subsequently edited down to 95 minutes and shown to a test audience in April 1992 to a not-surprisingly confused response. Palm went into liquidation and any further post-production was shut down. Polygram took over British distribution rights and promptly shelved the film. Miramax produced their own cut that gutted all the supernatural elements and restructured the narrative completely. In January 1993, Stanley managed to track down all the original elements of the film and spent 40,000 pounds of his own money reconstructing his edit of the film. He went bankrupt trying to complete Dust Devil, losing his apartment and living in a spare room above the ticket office of a movie theater.

“The moment you start dealing with God, the Devil, the big issues, you end up in the genre, whether you like it or not. So in some bizarre way the horror genre has become the last place where you can really deal with these things. If you’re trying to actually do something which is about those kinds of issues, that is where you end up.” – Richard Stanley

Was it all worth it? Stanley pushed himself to his physical and emotional limits making Dust Devil with the result being a fascinating struggle between the good and evil aspects of a woman’s soul filtered through the lens of the horror genre. He isn’t interested in making a straight up genre exercise but something else, something more deeply felt, something that resonates and stays with you long after the film ends.


Dust Devil liner notes. Subversive Cinema. 2006.

Rowlands, Paul. “Richard Stanley Talks to Paul Rowlands About Dust Devil.” Money into Light. July 2012.

Totaro, Donato. “Richard Stanley Interview: The Dust Devil.” Off Screen. August 1997.