"...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

THE PUBLIC EYE


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.
 

SOURCES
 
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.

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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.