Friday, November 30, 2007

New Amplifier Article Posted

For my newest Amplifier article I decided to redo one I had here a while back that I thought I was a bit sloppy. So for anyone interested, my re-edited version of my look at THE SHUTTERED ROOM can be read at this link.
Comments are really appreciated over there, and I invite everyone to give it a look.

My original look at David Greene's undervalued chiller can be found here with pictures not available at the Amplifier version.

Christopher Walken: Seven Legendary Scenes

Since making his debut in the early seventies Christopher Walken has been one of the most versatile and iconic of all American actors. Adept in the heaviest of dramas, to the lightest of comedies, Walken is one of those actors that can do it all. To pay tribute to the man who has given us some of the most memorable performances of the past thirty years I have selected seven of my favorite scenes with Walken that show his extraordinary (and often undervalued) talents. There are many others, but I find these seven to be particularly memorable and great.

Walken turns in one of his strangest, and most effective, performances here in Abel Ferrara's savage 1995 film THE ADDICTION. This scene, featuring Walken with Lili Taylor, is among the best of either of their careers, and it is the kind of moment that only Ferrara could have delivered.

One of the funniest scenes in Woody Allen's vast filmography is this moment with Allen and Walken from 1977's ANNIE HALL. Watch Allen's terrified reaction to Walken's trademark deadpan delivery. Classic scene, and the payoff at the end is the stuff of legend.

Walken goes head to head with fellow legend Dennis Hopper in this, one of the great moments from Tarantino's pen. The scene is also nicely directed by Tony Scott, and the two actors are clearly getting a kick sparring off each other.

Walken would get a much deserved Academy Award for his heartbreaking performance in Michael Cimino's epic masterpiece. The Russian Roulette scene is the most talked about, but I think this scene outside of the hospital is the most crushing moment of the film.

I will never forget seeing this for the first time with a sold out audience back in 1994. The moment when Walken reveals where he kept that 'uncomfortable piece of metal' garnered some of the biggest laughs I have ever heard...and the scene still gives me chills because of how great Walken is in it.

Cronenberg's masterful film gave Walken one of the finest roles of his career, and he delivered a devastating performance in it. There are many great scenes in THE DEAD ZONE, but this one is particularly haunting. Just watch the look on Walken's face as he sees Brook Adams walking towards him.

The final shots of Ferrara's influential 1990 gangster epic remain some of my favorite ever filmed. Walken's performance as Frank White is electric, chilling, terrifying and finally moving. These final moments capturing White at the end are my favorite shots of Chris in any film. He is as good as in actor has ever been in these silent last shots...

There are many others, but frankly with over 100 films under his belt now it is hard to choose from all of them. Christopher Walken is one of our great actors and icons. I am looking forward to paying tribute to one of his key films later this weekend.

Soledad Miranda Sings

I just noticed that Amy, who runs the best Soledad Miranda site online, is offering a cd now of twelve of Soledad's ultra rare Spanish recordings. For those interested please visit this link to get details. I have only heard bits of these songs so I am looking forward to getting this new disc.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

There Will Be Blood Will Be Amazing

It is tricky keeping up with an eagerly awaited upcoming film in our spoiler heavy world, but so far I have managed to just gather enough information on Paul Thomas Anderson's THERE WILL BE BLOOD without having any of its secrets given away.
The film has been screened several times now and almost all of the reactions have been overwhelmingly positive.
To keep up with all the news concerning Anderson's newest film, please bookmark and visit the excellent Cigarettes And Red Vines.
THERE WILL BE BLOOD will have a limited release just before Christmas to qualify for the Oscars, and will go wide early next year. Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite young American filmmaker, and I frankly can't wait to see his newest work.
For more of my looks on Anderson please visit some of my older articles.

Amityville Horrors

The original 1979 production of AMITYVILLE HORROR is an interesting film to me, in the simple fact that even though it isn't an overwhelmingly good one it is a movie that I return to often. I think there are a lot of reasons for it, with nostalgia being the main one. Certainly the Amityville case is one of those seminal moments for many children from the seventies. For me the case of the maybe haunted house in Amityville is right up there with the Patterson footage of Bigfoot and Franco Harris' immaculate reception from 72 as something that sparked my young imagination and continues to do so. There are other elements as well that keeps bringing me back such as Margot Kidder, that great James Brolin melt-down scene, and that fantastic Lalo Schifrin score. Still, every time I revisit Stuart Rosenberg's THE AMITYVILLE HORROR I come away a little disappointed. I want so badly for it to be as great as the sum of its parts, but ultimately it isn't.
Recently I revisited the 2005 remake of one of my childhood favorites and despite it being a dreaded Michael Bay production, I must admit that I am quite fond of the newer AMITYVILLE HORROR. I saw it in its theatrical showing a couple of years ago, and found myself enjoying it much more than I had expected. I think it is the fact that it is a remake of a not so perfect film that distinguishes it from many of the other horror remakes that have been plaguing theaters in droves for the past several years.
Directed with some flair by former commercial and video director Andrew Douglas, the new THE AMITYVILLE HORROR falters in its last act, but for a good hour it is a really solid and effective little thriller. Bolstered by winning performances by Ryan Reynolds, Melissa George, Rachel Nichols (so smashing in the current P2), and the always reliable Philip Baker Hall, Douglas' film is a fast paced, visually interesting work that almost achieves greatness in a handful of scenes.

Much like the original, the main thing that keeps THE AMITYVILLE HORROR above the usual modern CGI driven American nightmares are the fact that we are allowed some time with the characters before the horror starts. In what is becoming an almost novel idea, Douglas allows characterization and not effects to fuel the first part of his film. So, while it can be argued that both Reynolds and George seem to young for their roles, in just a few scenes I come to really like and believe them as a couple. Add on the excellent performances by Jesse James, Jimmy Bennett and Chloe Moretz as their children and, for a surprising first half, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR works as much as a family drama as it does a horror film.
Of course it finally has to work as a horror film and for a while it does so very well. Douglas builds a decent amount of tension in the first half with several creepy set pieces, including an eerie rooftop sequence featuring Moretz. The nice cinematography of HALLOWEEN 4 dp Peter Lyons Collister doesn't hurt either, and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR is never less than a pleasing visual experience. A major highlight, along with the rooftop sequence, is a superbly lit closet sequence featuring Nichols giving the first of what I hope is a series of truly memorable horror performances. I can't think of another young American actor right now who seems so adept to the genre than Nichols.
It's not a great film though, as it is let down by a slightly disappointing score, and an unsatisfying final act that forgoes the strong characters that have been built for the usual Bay inspired pyrotechnics that have more in common with modern action films rather than works of horror. I must say though that I find its faults more forgivable than most modern horror films. The score by Steve Jablonsky is fine really, it is just hard to think of that house without the brilliant work of Schifrin, and if the final act isn't as strong as the first parts it is at least nowhere near as bad as Bay's artistically bankrupt TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE reworking that probably helped finance this film.

THE AMITYVILLE HORROR opened up to good business and the usual critical pounding just over two years ago. Still a few critics came to its defense including The Los Angeles Times writer Kevin Thomas who wrote an excellent critique of it where he called it "Superior to the original" and that it is a film "anchored in strong characterizations, and its plot develops with chilling psychological suspense. It's such a skillfully made entertainment that its plunge into the supernatural is persuasive even for the skeptical." I agree with him, even though few of his peers did.
The DVD is a fairly good edition. It hit right before the wave of 'uncut' versions on disc so it is as it was in the theaters. The extras include a fun commentary with Reynolds and Douglas, as well as some deleted scenes and featurettes. I hope that another edition will arrive someday as I suspect the film was trimmed for an R, and there are plenty of interesting behind the scenes issues that could be discussed (including a law suit from the real life George Lutz before he passed away).
I would rank the remake of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR as one of the best of the dozens we have had this decade. It doesn't have the impact of Aja's THE HILLS HAVE EYES re imagining but it is miles above the new TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE debacle, or the bland remake of THE OMEN from last year. Like the original, it is flawed and not totally satisfactory, but its well worth a first or even second look for those interested.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Amplifier Article #4: Paul Schrader's Patty Hearst

The original version of this article can be found here. This is my slightly re-edited version for Moon In The Gutter.

Chances are if you were around in the seventies you probably have an opinion on Patricia Campbell Hearst. Her kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), her imprisonment, and her eventually joining the terrorist group in 1974 became one of the biggest and strangest media stories of the decade, and to this day people are still divided over what actually happened to Patricia Hearst in that fateful year of 1974.
Writer and director Paul Schrader was twenty seven years old when Hearst was forcibly taken at gunpoint from her San Francisco home in that particularly cold January of 1974. He had just recently sold his first script, for THE YAZUKA, and was working on the work that would make him a legend, 1976’s TAXI DRIVER. Schrader, like most of the country, watched intently throughout the mid to late seventies as Patty Hearst went from kidnap victim to fugitive to finally convicted felon. By the time President Carter had her released from prison in 1979, most Americans, including Schrader, had all but forgotten who Patricia Hearst had been and could only see the gun toting “Tania” that the SLA had made her into.
Schrader hadn’t thought about Hearst for years until one night in the mid eighties when he ran into her at a social gathering. The two immediately hit it off and Schrader was impressed by the down to earth and fragile person he encountered. After that fateful meeting Schrader began looking closely at her case and realized that the real story of Patty Hearst wasn’t the bank robbing counterculture icon that had been ingrained in so many peoples heads, but instead the nineteen year old college student who had her life and spirit completely and suddenly stripped away from her.

Working from a script by Nicholas Kazan and adapted from Hearst’s own searing memoirs, EVERY SECRET THING, Paul Schrader began shooting his PATTY HEARST in and around San Francisco and Los Angeles in early 1988. Schrader, still reeling from the failure of his last film LIGHT OF DAY (1987), felt suddenly reinvigorated working on location, with a low budget and a relatively unknown cast. The resulting film would be a triumph for the fallen director as well for his lead actress, and a work that would restore the humanity that had been stripped away from Hearst a decade before.
The opening shot of PATTY HEARST is one of the most memorable from the eighties, and quickly identifies this as a major work by a director stylistically shooting on all cylinders. Featuring an ambitious 360 overhead crane shot that manages to finally pull into a tight close up of the film’s star, Natasha Richardson; the opening shot of PATTY HEARST is one of the more audacious moments of Schrader’s controversial career and one of his greatest. Add on that thematically it is one of the only shots in the film that doesn’t feel totally claustrophobic and you have a striking reminder of how quickly freedom can be stripped away.
The film quickly moves straight into the kidnapping in just the second sequence, and the open air spaciousness of the first scene is suddenly transformed into thirty of the most frightening and claustrophobic sequences in American film history. With Hearst’s own words providing bracing narration, Schrader’s camera first puts us inside a car trunk with her and then immediately into the closet where the SLA kept her for weeks in the first stages of her imprisonment.

These shots from the closet represent Paul Schrader at his most brilliant and most humane. There is never a moment when he lets us completely leave Patty Hearst’s viewpoint, and I have never talked to anyone who has seen these degrading and dehumanizing sequences that questions why Hearst would have done absolutely anything to get out. Schrader’s film is less about brainwashing and more about sheer survival, and everything Patty experiences helps us understand just what was finally going through her mind months later when she re-appeared as the angry and crazed “Tania”.
These early sequences also show, even more than his MISHIMA, Schrader’s dedication to Ozu and Japan’s more presentational style cinema. With his camera seemingly sitting, unmoving, on the floor next to Patty in total darkness, and the only light being provided by the light just behind the SLA member’s looking down at her from the hallway; Schrader’s PATTY HEARST is an astonishingly composed and well designed film that recalls many of the European directors he had written about so intelligently in the seventies. More so than most of his contemporaries, Schrader was actually able to take some of his Bressonian like tendencies and translate them into something very much his own, and PATTY HEARST is the greatest example of this.

The stunning first section of the film finally gives way to the second act, where Patty is finally let out of closet to find that in place of an actual army, is just a small group of confused and angry kids who had chosen the only path they could see in front of them. It is the handling of the SLA that is among the biggest attributes to PATTY HEARST. Instead of presenting them as monsters, Schrader treats them instead as humans and the second half of the film is ultimately about their shattered lives as much as Hearst. Schrader never offer excuses for their actions but he does allow a window into their lives and it is finally this that distinguishes PATTY HEARST from being just another true crime film.
Some critics have pointed to the very last act, which includes Patty’s capture and trial, as being a let down. But to me the stylistic change in tone in this section was very necessary. Gone is the claustrophobia of the first act, the character development of the second, and all we are left with is the fragmented shattered shell of a woman and a judicial system that lets her down. Patty Hearst’s last line of the film, which I won’t give away here, is one of the most subtle and powerfully simple indictments of hypocrisy in America that I have ever heard; it is also probably the greatest moment Paul Schrader has ever shot.

Of course PATTY HEARST wouldn’t have worked without the right actress in the title role. Twenty-four year old British born Natasha Richardson might have seemed an odd choice but here the young actress delivers a seamless and terrifyingly real performance that channels the real Hearst in a very complete and profound way. Mostly known in that period as just one of Vanessa Redgrave’s daughters, Richardson is simply astonishing in the role and it is impossible to imagine anyone else in the part. Schrader was so impressed by the young actress that he would give her the lead in his next film, 1989’s THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS. Also noteworthy is a young and unknown Ving Rhames giving a haunting portrayal as the angry and damaged SLA leader Cinque. William Forsythe, Frances Fisher and Dana Delany also provide fine support in the film.
Yugoslavian cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, in one of his first major assignments, gives PATTY HEARST its memorable washed out grainy look and his work is particularly noteworthy in the, near impossible to light, first section of the film. Minimalist composer Scott Johnson delivers an outstanding score and the rather rare soundtrack album is a real aural treat.
Schrader’s film still resonates, possibly more than it did in 1988, as our current political and media crazed climate feels much more like 1974 than it did twenty years ago. One suspects that this is one reason PATTY HEARST came and went so quickly in the fall of 88. Despite mostly positive reviews and a Golden Palm nomination at the Cannes Film Festival, PATTY HEARST bombed at theaters and barely cracked a one million dollar take. It faired slightly better on Video but it has been out of print in America for well over a decade now and no DVD is currently planned. Used VHS and laserdisc copies can be found and a region two DVD is on the market, but otherwise one of the bravest and most perfectly realized films of the eighties remains missing in action.
Patricia Campbell Hearst was given a full pardon by President Clinton in 2001 and works today as an actress, mostly for director John Waters. She remains one of the most controversial figures of the seventies as some view her as more a master manipulator and less a tragic victim. Paul Schrader’s brilliant and moving film stands as a reminder though of the one fact that everyone should agree on, that on a Winter’s day in 1974 a young woman’s promising life was irreversibly altered and corrupted beyond repair.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I Adore Amy Adams

I haven't seen ENCHANTED but Out 1's recent post on it makes me want to. I can say though that I absolutely adore Amy Adams. Her performance in JUNEBUG a few years back gave me the same kind of feeling I had when I first saw Irene Jacob in THREE COLORS RED in the early nineties. It is the warmness that Adams projects in everything that she is in that separates her from pretty much any young American actress on the scene right now.
After making her debut in DROP DEAD GORGEOUS in 1999, the lovely Adams began popping up in various television series and films, and she seemed to immediately leap off the screen even when the role she was playing was clearly not as good as she was. The first time though that I knew that there was something really special about Adams was in Spielberg's CATCH ME IF YOU CAN in 2002, where she was so incredibly touching in the role of Brenda. Then it was almost like she vanished for a couple of years until the role of Ashley in JUNEBUG came along, surely one of the great parts and performances of the decade.
I've loved her in everything since, from her brief stint on the American version of THE OFFICE to Will Ferrell's love interest in TALLADEGA NIGHTS. Honestly, ENCHANTED isn't typically the type of film I would think to see, but I am so mesmerized by this young actress that I will very soon.
Adam's will next appear in the new Mike Nichols film, CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR, and has several more on the horizon. I look forward to all of them...

Paris, Texas at Nostalgia Kinky

My tribute to one of my favorite films is up and running at my Nastassja Kinski blog if anyone would like to come over and check it out. Wim Wender's PARIS, TEXAS is one of three films I typically name as my favorite when asked (Roeg's THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH and Figgis' LEAVING LAS VEGAS are the other two), and it is a work that never ceases to amaze me no matter how many times I have seen it.
My tribute is already a few postings in, and over the next week or so I will be writing on many different aspects of the film, and its creators. I hope everyone will stop by over there, and give a look. Regular postings will of course continue here as usual...thanks for reading.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Dust Off Those Grooves (Chapter Seventeen) Paris, Texas By Ry Cooder

Also posted at my Nastassja Kinski blog

Ry Cooder’s PARIS, TEXAS is one of the great memory albums. It is perfect for a late night of drinking while remembering someone you’ve lost. It is also equally fitting for the next foggy hung over morning when all you can think about is that you live in the past too much.
Not just one of the best soundtracks of the eighties, Cooder’s work for Wim Wender’s loneliest masterpiece is one of the essential albums of the period. Like Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis, the wounded traveler surveying the ruins of his life in Wender’s film, Cooder’s music is mysterious, haunting and crushing in just how genuine it is.
Produced and recorded by Cooder at the famed Ocean Way Recording studio in Los Angeles with the help of famed musicians Jim Dickinson and David Lindley, PARIS, TEXAS is a deceptively simple work that becomes more and more resonate and complex with each listen.

Cooder’s celebrated slide guitar work dominates the album, but it is the touches in the background that resonate long after the needle has lifted off the groove. Whispers of acoustic guitars, fiddles, voices and tinkling pianos appear throughout, all seeming to offer Cooder’s remarkably lonely sounding guitar some company. Like Travis in the film, there always seems to be something or someone just off in the distance offering help, or at the very least…some layer of solace in the solitude.
The Los Angeles born Cooder was born in the early part of 1947, and began to make a name for himself in the sixties with some guitar work for Taj Mahal. Later recordings with the legendary Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band helped push Cooder into the ranks of the most respected guitarists of the sixties. He soon found himself working with The Rolling Stones on some of their best late sixties work, and he began his influential solo career in the early part of the seventies.
Cooder has worked with everyone from Van Morrison to Van Dyke Parks, and his music has remained invigorating and necessary for over forty years now. PARIS, TEXAS is widely considered one of his great statements, and it has had several different releases worldwide since its first release in the mid eighties.
Jim Dickinson is one of rock’s most respected and influential players. He has been had his hand in everything from the Rolling Stones WILD HORSES to Big Star’s numbing THIRD/SISTER LOVERS masterpiece. Guitarist David Lindley has worked with Cooder many times, and his great fretwork can be heard on many recordings from artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Linda Ronstadt. The team of Cooder, Dickinson and Lindley on the PARIS, TEXAS sessions is an absolute dream, and all of them should be commended for their masterful playing.

The album itself is mostly made of short, but powerful instrumental pieces. There are two exceptions: one being a lovely traditional Spanish number called CANCION MIXTECA, and I KNEW THESE PEOPLE, featuring the famed Sam Shepard monologue that Stanton says to Nastassja Kinski towards the end of the film.
Cooder is credited as writer on all the tracks with the exception of the traditional number and the devastating final track, Blind Willie Johnson’s DARK WAS THE NIGHT. Cooder’s playing on this last song represents some of the finest slide guitar playing ever recorded. The sound of Cooder’s strong and bold hands working their way up and down the neck of his instrument is spine tingling stuff, and it is damn near impossible to shake.
PARIS, TEXAS is currently in print domestically and can be found fairly easily. However the most essential version is an out of print remastered version from England, which featured improved sound, photos and liner notes. It is the ideal one to find, but all versions are rewarding and essential.
Much like the performances of Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski in Wender’s majestic film, the music that Ry Cooder recorded for it will live on as long as people still have the capacity to search their memories for something they have lost…and perhaps even to find it…

"Something is About to Happen, Something Final": Jose Larraz's Symptoms

My original version of this article can be found at this link. The following is a slightly revamped version for Moon In The Gutter.

"Last night I dreamed they had returned. They were here again, just like in other dreams, but this time it was more confused. I have a feeling that something is about to happen, something final in which I will be involved."
-Jose Larraz, SYMPTOMS-

Spanish writer and director Jose Ramon Larraz is best known in the United States for his brutally erotic, audacious and influential horror film, VAMPYRES (1974), but the fascinating Larraz has always been much more than just a typical horror filmmaker.
Born in Barcelona in 1929, Larraz made his directorial debut with 1970’s WHIRLPOOL, a wild and inventive low budget film that proved a minor success. WHIRLPOOL led to the equally compelling DEVIATION (1971) and finally to his financial and artistic breakthrough, VAMPYRES.
Larraz was expected to follow up VAMPYRES with another erotic and violent horror film, but instead he delivered a psychologically devastating and genuinely frightening work that was nominated for the Cannes Golden Palm in 1974 before disappearing shortly after.
SYMPTOMS (1974) is, along with Roman Polanski’s REPULSION (1965) and Richard Loncraine’s FULL CIRCLE (1977), probably the best film ever made about a woman slowly slipping completely into madness. Shot quickly in England on a relatively low budget in early 1974 and rushed to the Cannes film festival that summer, SYMPTOMS is one of the great-lost films of the seventies and warrants major reconsideration.
The plot of SYMPTOMS, featuring a woman lost in solitude, a creepy old house, a nosy groundskeeper and other often used genre elements, isn’t that noteworthy. What is noteworthy is Larraz’s unsettling style and his camera’s unshakable obsession with his leading lady, the very haunted looking and remarkably talented Angela Pleasence.
Pleasence is probably best known to American audiences as the daughter of the very well respected late British actor, Donald Pleasence. Angela began appearing on British television in her early twenties and made her big screen debut in the delightful HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH (1967). She would prove very memorable in the 1973 Amicus anthology film FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE but SYMPTOMS would give her the first lead role of her career, and one of the best parts she has ever gotten to play.

Joining Pleasence were a small group of notable British actors including Michael Brady, Lorna Heilbron, Peter Vaughan and Marie-Paule Mailleux, but it is Pleasence’s film all the way though. Much like Polanski and Loncraine used their leading actresses, respectively Catherine Deneuve and Mia Farrow, in nearly every scene of their great essays on madness, Angela Pleasence dominates almost every frame of Larraz’s film with an eerie near silent work that is among the best genre performances of the seventies.
Much of the credit for SYMPTOMS hypnotic power should go to Editor Brian Smedley-Aston who manages to match the obsessive and lingering directorial style of Larraz with a sharp and consistently inventive cutting technique. Aston had handled the legendary PERFORMANCE for Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg in 1970 and was a perfect choice for SYMPTOMS. Larraz’s film could have been overwhelming cold and near impossible to watch, but Aston manages to cut the scenes in a way that allows them to retain their voyeuristic nature but never allows them to outstay their welcome.
A relative novice, Trevor Warren, is credited with the film’s striking cinematography, but I suspect that Larraz was the one really responsible for the films unforgettable photography. The look of the film balances perfectly the languid and lovely British countryside shots with the terrifyingly dark and oppressive interior work. Where as REPULSION used black and white photography and shadows to highlight Deneuve’s increasingly paranoid state, Larraz lets the lovely color outdoor photography of the film become an impenetrable foil for Pleasence’s iced over interior landscape.
The prolific jazz oriented composer John Scott provides the near silent film with a lovely soundscape punctuated by a series of sharp and memorable musical cues. Also worth noting is that Larraz wisely hunted down STRAW DOGS art director Ken Bridgeman to design the lovely, but prison like, interiors of Pleasence’s house and the film does indeed resemble that Peckinpah masterpiece on several occasions.
When the film premiered at the Cannes film festival in 1973 it got some major word of mouth going, and Larraz was nominated for the Golden Palm but he failed to secure a substantial distribution deal. One especially outspoken admirer of it was Jack Nicholson who proclaimed it a masterpiece but even his strong vote of endorsement didn’t help. SYMPTOMS would encounter distribution problems immediately and wouldn’t get an American release until over two years later when it was retitled THE BLOOD VIRGIN, and put on the second half of a handful of drive in bills. It would seemingly disappear completely afterwards and has since only been seen in poor quality grey market prints.

Artistically the failure of SYMPTOMS affected Larraz in a great way, and it would take him over five years to make another film worthy of his best work, the surreal and bitter THE COMING OF SIN (1978). His filmography since has been filled with a series of interesting if under developed films. Despite being undeniably talented and innovative, Larraz has never again made a film as masterful as SYMPTOMS.
The time is right for SYMPTOMS to be rediscovered. Several of Larraz’s works have been made available on DVD in the past few years and a release of SYMPTOMS would serve as a sharp reminder of one of Spain’s great talents and individuals. The depth and subtlety present in SYMPTOMS might surprise film fans that have always thought of Larraz as just a filmmaker of brutality and extremes. SYMPTOMS is a truly inspired and fine piece of filmmaking that deserves the opportunity to be seen by more film lovers.

For more on Larraz and SYMPTOMS please seek out the amazing IMMORAL TALES by Cahal Tohill and Pete Tombs. It is one of the most indispensable film books in my collection, and their writing on Larraz and SYMPTOMS is extraordinary.

Also Horror Express has a look at the film here, and some of the above stills are taken from that piece.

Eli Roth's Thanksgiving: A New Holiday Classic

Eli Roth's THANKSGIVING trailer from GRINDHOUSE won my latest poll on great Thanksgiving films fairly easily. I haven't posted much on it here, but I loved GRINDHOUSE and I thought Roth's trailer might have been the best thing in it.
Shot in Prague while he was filming HOSTEL PART 2, the THANKSGIVING trailer is simultaneously funny, horrifying and brilliant. It also looks authentic, which is a credit to Roth and his crew as it isn't easy to really make a film look like something out of the late seventies/early eighties period.
For a great look at the making of this fantastic little film, I highly recommend
GRINDHOUSE: THE SLEAZE FILLED SAGA OF AN EXPLOITATION DOUBLE FEATURE, a book almost as eye popping and fun as the films that inspired it.
For more information and photos from THANKSGIVING, check out Eli's always fun and informative MySpace profile, and if you would like a T-Shirt celebrating the film check here.
I wish he would make a feature out of it....for those who haven't seen it, here it is. Be warned it does contain graphic violence, nudity and strong sexual content. So, if you don't like that kind of stuff, don't watch it.

Here are the final results from the poll:

2. THE ICE STORM: 15 Votes
7. PIECES OF APRIL: 10 Votes

Thanks to everyone who voted. My new poll for the week will be on Stephen King film adaptations, and I hope everyone will participate in that as well...

Moon In The Gutter Gets Another Very Nice Shout Out

Pete Emslie at the always great Cartoon Cave has written some very nice words concerning Moon In The Gutter that I wanted to thank him for. He has also posted a lovely caricature of Kim Novak in BELL BOOK AND CANDLE partially inspired by my posts on the film. Here is the link to his great rendition of Kim that everyone should stop by and see.
I greatly admire people with artistic talent, as I can barely draw a stick figure, so Pete's works and words are most appreciated.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Overlooked Classics: Bell Book And Candle (1958)

The names Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, and the year 1958, will always go together due to Alfred Hitchcock's legendary VERTIGO. VERTIGO has indeed cast such an imposing shadow, that it is often forgotten that it wasn't the only film the iconic pair made together that year. While not the cinematic milestone that VERTIGO is, Richard Quine's delightful BELL BOOK AND CANDLE has for too long been unrecognized as one of the fifties most essential, and enduring, films.
BELL BOOK AND CANDLE started out life as a stage play by John Van Druten. Written in the early part of the fifties, and probably inspired a bit by the Veronica Lake film I MARRIED A WITCH, Drutten's play ran for over a year on Broadway with Rex Harrison and Lili Palmer as its leads.
Optioned by Columbia in the mid fifties, Drutten's play was transformed into a gem of a screenplay by Daniel Taradash, who was on a bit of a roll with both FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953) and PICNIC (1955) recently under his belt. Columbia, excited about Taradash's script, gave the project to a prolific, if still young, director and the wheels began turning on the film in the mid part of 1957.
27 year old director Richard Quine had been making films since the late part of the forties, but he had yet to make a big name for himself in the industry by 1957. A one time child actor, the talented Quine was probably best known at this point for the noir PUSHOVER (1954) and the Judy Holliday vehicle THE SOLID GOLD CADILLAC (1956). Quine was the perfect choice for BELL BOOK AND CANDLE though as he was incredible skilled in comedy, romance and mystery, so Drutten's genre-bending play was tailor made for him to bring to the screen.
Casting began shortly after Quine was brought on, and the film was granted a relatively generous budget as Columbia felt they might have a hit. Rex Harrison was either unavailable, or not considered, and the great Jimmy Stewart was brought in to replace him as the literally beguiled male lead, Shep Henderson. With the much loved Stewart secured, the rest of the cast began falling into place with some of the best players of the day. Comedic hurricanes Ernie Kovacs and Hermione Gingold were hired, as was the always reliable Elsa Lanchester. A young television actress named Janice Rule was secured as Stewart's hapless fiancee Merle, and the soon to be legendary Jack Lemmon was brought in for one of the strangest roles of his career. All that was left for the studio and Quine was to find someone to play the lonely and trouble witch Gillian Holroyd, and the production could begin.

Viewed today, it is impossible to think of anyone other than Kim Novak as Gillian in BELL BOOK AND CANDLE. She fits the part so perfectly that it is hard to believe there was ever any question about the casting. Still, some other actresses were considered for the plum part but at Quine and Stewart's urging, Columbia finally gave the part to the then 24 year old studio player who had made such a big splash in the Taradash scripted PICNIC just two years earlier.
Cast in place, the cameras began rolling on location in New York City in February of 1958. Shot in some of the most beautiful color ever seen on the big screen through to April, by legendary James Wong Howe, BELL BOOK AND CANDLE is one of the great New York films of the fifties (and possibly ever) and one of the most distinctive looking films ever made.
Howe was already in his mid fifties when he shot Quine's great romance, but his work on BELL BOOK AND CANDLE is that of an excited and experimental young man firing on all creative cylinders. The film is a wonder to look at, with its brilliant bold brushstrokes of blue, lavender, purple and red, BELL BOOK AND CANDLE makes one yearn for the days of technicolor. I am actually disappointed every Christmas when the world doesn't turn out looking this way. Howe's photography is masterful throughout, whether it is in Gillian's Manhattan apartment (featuring inventive set design by Louis Diage) or in the film's snow covered outdoor shooting. One shot in particular of a hat falling off the Flat Iron Building on a freezing and quite early Manhattan morning is one of the most beautiful shots of New York City ever committed to celluloid. Perhaps the world never really looked like this, but it should have.

BELL BOOK AND CANDLE works so wonderfully well as a lot of things. It is a romance but, with its many spells and incantations, it is also more than a bit spooky. It's also very funny, and one of the great undervalued Christmas movies ever. I can't imagine a December without it. It's also a wonderful snapshot of the beatnik period as Hollywood saw it, with the film's beautifully designed Zodiac Club filling in for every existential romantic fantasy one might have of the period nicely.
The cast all appear, with one exception, to be having the time of their lives. Novak and Stewart got on nicely during both this shoot and their time with Hitchcock, and they both deliver warm and touching performances. Quine and Novak were falling in love during this period, and that no doubt helped him shoot her in many of the film's longing and bewitching close ups of her face and eyes. Kovacs, Gingold and

Lanchester are all used to their maximum effect here as well, with special mention going to Kovacs very funny portrayal of a burned out writer who thinks he has the inside track to Manhattan's witch population. The great Lemmon, probably my all time favorite actor, is the one who doesn't seem totally engaged. It isn't surprising as later he would call his role as Gillian's brother one of the most disappointing of his career. He isn't bad here, but he just seems distant. His performance is the one dull spot on an otherwise remarkably shiny and near perfect work.

BELL BOOK AND CANDLE would open on Christmas day in 1958 to healthy business and fairly solid reviews. It would receive two Academy Award nominations for its set direction, and the wonderful Jean Louis outfits that Novak wore so well. Howe was somehow ignored for his brilliant work, as were the never nominated Quine and Novak. The film would also receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture but it failed to take home any awards.
Seven years after its release, a television series called BEWITCHED started and became an immediate sensation. Its tale of a lovely blond witch named Samantha, who marries a mortal, was clearly inspired by BELL BOOK AND CANDLE, and it gives the film an interesting cultural counterpoint that still resonates to this day.

BELL BOOK AND CANDLE has never really gone away, but it often seems to sit just under the radar of many film fans. Much has been read into the subtext of the film, but I prefer to view it with the same eyes I had when I first discovered it on early morning television back when I was in the earliest parts of my teens.
Available on VHS since the earliest days of the format, BELL BOOK AND CANDLE is currently available on an OK DVD that features a decent widescreen transfer but no extras. A truly restored print showing Howe's invigorating color photography would be quite mind blowing, and any extras afforded to the film would be most appreciated.
Richard Quine would take his life in 1989 and, like I have written here before, I don't think he has ever gotten his due. Innovative with talent to burn, Quine's best films show him as one of the the best directors that came out of Hollywood's most underrated period. BELL BOOK AND CANDLE is his best film, a cool Christmas Valentine that has never been matched for style, grace, and heart.

Information on the DVD of BELL BOOK AND CANDLE can be found here.

The film's extraordinary soundtrack by George Duning can occasionally be ordered from Dusty Groove and it is essential.

The original play is out of print, but used copies are available here.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Amplifier Article #2: Henry Jaglom's A Safe Place

The original version of this article can be found at this link. This is my slightly revamped version for Moon In The Gutter.

"A SAFE PLACE is an important milestone in the art from of the motion picture."

"Tuesday Weld changed the whole way I did films, she taught me to be true to myself."

"I may be self destructive, but I like taking chances with movies. I like challenges and I also like the particular position I've been in all these years, with people wanting to save me from all the awful films I've been in. I'm happy being a legend. I think the Tuesday Weld cult is a very nice thing."
-TUESDAY WELD on the eve of filming A SAFE PLACE-

"A SAFE PLACE is an essay on time and memory."

"The part was written for me and about me. I'm really that girl, Noah, except that I don't want to go anywhere near my past. I would like to develop amnesia about it...I feel misplaced everywhere."

The unexpected success of Dennis Hopper’s low budget EASY RIDER threw a major monkey wrench into an already struggling studio system machine in 1969. Suddenly, baffled movie executives desperately began searching for young talent to come in and create their own counter-culture success, in order to flip the bill for such big budget disasters like PAINT YOUR WAGON.
The two years following EASY RIDER is one of the most audacious and uncompromising periods in Hollywood history. Never before had so many young filmmakers been given Cart blanch in the Studio system. Films like Jack Nicholson’s DRIVE HE SAID, Peter Fonda’s THE HIRED HAND and Hopper’s own THE LAST MOVIE would have been unthinkable just a few years before, but Hollywood was in trouble. The studio heads knew it, and blank checks were being handed out to anyone with a vision.

No one had more of an uncompromising vision than 29-year-old actor and writer Henry Jaglom in 1970. British born and mainly known as a TV actor, Jaglom had struck up friendships with Hopper, Fonda and Nicholson in the sixties and had appeared in EASY RIDER with the three of them. On Hopper’s recommendation Columbia Pictures gave the go ahead to Jaglom’s first feature, A SAFE PLACE ( a work originally written as a stage play), in the hopes that it would find the same sort of massive success Hopper's film had secured.

Despite the studios bafflement at the young Jaglom’s ideas about making a film dealing with childhood as a mystical place of magic and memories; they were thrilled when he quickly secured not only friend Jack Nicholson for the film but also legendary Orson Welles as well. The key to the film though lay in the casting of the female lead who would be known at different points as Susan and Noah.
Tuesday Weld was already something of an underground legend by 1970. Thought by many to be the greatest actress of her generation, the intense Weld seemed to take great delight in continually sabotaging her career, and by 1969 had turned down everything from BONNIE AND CLYDE to ROSEMARY'S BABY. After finishing up work on John Frankenheimer’s underrated WALK THE LINE in 1970, Henry Jaglom offered Weld the complicated lead role in his film. She quickly signed on for it and set into motion one of the most baffling and moving performances in American film history.
With his cast in place and MIDNIGHT COWBOY camera operator Richard C. Kratina along for the ride, Jaglom began shooting his partially scripted, largely improvised first feature in early 1971.

Any attempt at detailing the plot of A SAFE PLACE is futile at best. Think of a special childhood memory that is so vague that you can’t be sure if it actually happened, and you might get a feeling of how A SAFE PLACE feels. Unlike Hopper, Fonda and Nicholson, Jaglom didn’t seem to be a filmmaker concerned with the day’s politics or the youth movement, which he seemed to accept as only an idealistic gesture destined to fail. His film, scored mostly with songs from his youth in the place of the expected popular music that had helped sell EASY RIDER, was a strange and at times deliberately absurd valentine to childhood slipping away.

A SAFE PLACE feels authentically dreamlike and, viewing it today, it also feels very much like a film divided between two ideals. Tuesday Weld’s Susan/Noah is a woman literally split between becoming the person the blossoming women’s movement was asking her to be, and the child she wanted to hold onto so tightly. Nicholson, who later said he improvised his whole part, as an old free-spirited boyfriend, and Welles, as a wise old magician, seem to be the two catalysts pulling Weld in these very different directions. There are other characters that randomly wander in and out of the thin storyline, but it all centers on Weld’s struggle with her identity, a struggle that many young women were going through in 1971.

Welles and Nicholson are both fine in the film. Welles is certainly featured a lot more, and he floats in and out of the film like some wise old ghost with the ability to see just past where everyone else’s vision stops. His scenes with Weld are some of the most effective of his later career, and the monumental Welles surely must have felt some kinship with the idea frenzied Jaglom. Welles unfortunately remained mostly silent on the film in later years though, so it is hard to accurately know exactly what he was feeling.

Tuesday Weld is simply astonishing in the film, and very strange. Perhaps only Marlon Brando in Bertolucci’s LAST TANGO IN PARIS would seemingly give so much of his own memories and inner turmoil to a role. Weld invests her fragmenting character with a mystifying childlike intensity that is hypnotic at times, and extremely troubling at others. No other American actress could have played a role like this, and seemed anything other than ridiculous. Tuesday Weld is very much all of our lost childhoods in this film, and the work's final haunting disappearing act is a total triumph, even if it is one of the puzzling endings in all of American cinema.

Henry Jaglom confidently delivered A SAFE PLACE to Columbia studios in the summer of 1971, and it completely alienated and baffled the studio’s executives. With no idea what to do with the film, the Studio decided to take a chance and premiere it at the New York Film Festival in October of 1971. The film received such a divided and hostile reaction that screaming matches were said to have broken out in theatre between people who thought it was nonsense, and those proclaimed it a masterpiece.
The film had some brief European showings, and it received a handful of rave reviews in Paris and Britain and then, much like its lead character, it totally disappeared.
The film was pulled from circulation from Columbia and outside of a handful of Festivals, private screenings and gray market copies; A SAFE PLACE has virtually vanished.
By 1972 the Studios started to get a handle on the new Hollywood, and many of the periods most maverick artists would find their original works harder and harder to get made. Few directors were hit as hard as Henry Jaglom, and it would be five years before he was able to get another project off the ground, with the intense TRACKS crash landing in 1976. He has managed to get more than a dozen made since, but they have all been hard fights and he has never again been backed by a major studio again.
Jack Nicholson would of course go in to become one of the most respected actors and stars in the business, and he has thankfully still never completely let go the ghost of his independent days. Ironically his brave and brilliant 1971 directorial debut DRIVE HE SAID remains just as hard to see as A SAFE PLACE.
Tuesday Weld would have just one more leading role, that of the fragmented and destroyed Maria in Frank Perry’s masterful 1972 film PLAY IT AS IT LAYS, and has spent the rest of her career playing supporting roles in films almost exclusively not good enough for her. She remains one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets, the sad and complicated sex kitten who turned out to be the best actress of her generation , even if very few realized it.

The stage version of A SAFE PLACE is still occasionally performed, but the film remains one of Hollywood’s most hidden treasures. It is a near lost reminder of when, for a very brief shining time, the movie business was almost took over by authentic, and very sincere, visionaries; mavericks controlled by their imaginations and not a company’s pocketbook. A film like A SAFE PLACE should be being celebrated and not lying dormant in a studio vault somewhere.

For more on Tuesday Weld, I highly recommend the out of print PRETTY POISON: THE TUESDAY WELD STORY by Floyd Conner. The quotes at the beginning of this piece are taken from it.