Sunday, May 25, 2014

2014'S BEST HORROR? ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE


Do you think that a good vampire movie requires buckets of blood and stakes through hearts? If so, you should broaden your expectations and see Jim Jarmusch’s sublimely beautiful new film “Only Lovers Left Alive”. It is a subtle piece of horror that emphasizes character over action, and mood over dread. It’s haunting, but not in the ways you’d expect. And it’s easily one of the best horror movies of the year.

If you’re a Jim Jarmusch fan, you know that he is not a filmmaker inclined towards ginormous tentpole Hollywood thinking. He's not even a big believer in story structure. Quite the contrary, he’s always been more interested in how people relate to each other and the emotions they are experiencing. And even when his films have typical Hollywood movie elements to them, he resists the well-worn clichés of their genres. “Down By Law” may have been about escaped prisoners, but it was hardly “The Great Escape”. And his samurai character in “Ghost Dog” bore little resemblance to any sword slinger in 'chop sake' B-movies.


Thus, as he turns his attention to the world of horror, he's managed to make an eccentric and uniquely Jarmusch tale of terror. His film is not filled with hissing Nosferatu’s and gory castles. Heck, it’s not even filled with star-crossed teenagers who shimmer like disco balls in the sunlight. Instead, the vampires in his movies are serious adults who’ve seen a lot in their centuries on earth and have learned to be more human than monster to survive. What's he's done is make an incredibly unique love story about a lasting relationship, and this moving film ranks with his best work (http://bit.ly/1tCZDJG).


Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a musical genius who’s grown bored with life in Detroit after living so many lifetimes in so many places. He’s seen classical, blues, jazz, and rock all born first-hand, and he’s contributed greatly to their births. He’s still dabbling with writing, though mostly underground, and living in hiding has taken a toll on him. He's grown depressed with the arrogant and selfish humans around him who don't appreciate art or have the same sense of nostalgia that he has. In fact, Adam calls them “zombies” and reckons that mankind is in an unending decline. Thus, he’s had a wooden bullet crafted in case he decides to chuck it all.

He wears his weariness as easily as he does his dark clothing and pitch black, metal band hair, but his wife is his opposite. Eve (Tilda Swinton) is upbeat and sunny, swathed in the colors of the daylight. Her hair is honey blonde and her leather and suede are soft, sunny yellow and gentle to the touch. She wants him to spend more time with her and enjoy all that is still good in the world, but she's willing to give him his space as an artist and lives apart from him for months at a time in Tangier. It's a complex and richly rewarding relationship. They're husband and wife, faithful lovers, and best friends. We should all be so fortunate.


Despite being undead, theirs is one loving relationship, alive and well. They have a wonderfully droll banter together, practically finishing each other’s sentences. And these two lovers still have mad passion for each other. Adam and Eve are also on the same page about many important matters too, like avoiding undue attention and unnecessary drama from the outside world. They've got money to buy blood on the black market so they don't have to hunt for food. They keep a low profile. And the prefer a teeny circle of acquaintances and friends, knowing that the more they let in, they more they could be outed. 

Halfway through the movie, their comfortable existence is challenged by the arrival of Eve’s wayward sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska). She’s sixteen going on seven hundred years or so. Adam and Eve end up having to ‘parent’ hedonistic sis as she's driven by her lusts. 

Jarmusch resists the clichés that could occur with such an interloper. There are no cataclysmic fight scenes or jump-out-of-your seat scares with the problems Ava creates. Instead, her selfish actions create complicated consequences that challenge Adam and Eve and force them to question their safety and surroundings. She may be 'the snake' that drives them out of their 'garden of Eden', but she's hardly a viperous villain.

In Jarmusch’s story, it’s the outside world that is much more intimidating than the vampires. Adam's home of Detroit is portrayed as a desolate, abandoned shell, a once-great city reeling from decades of business and population exodus'. Danger can occur in any public place and expose their secrets, so they're always on their guard. And of course, the winding streets of Tangier are a dangerous place for anyone, especially one such as the tall and strikingly blonde Eve. 


This is a horror movie where melancholy is the primary sense one feels watching it; not fear, not dread, but rather a sense of longing for a better world that was and may never be again. The haunting of this movie comes from the saddening realization that all of us may be living on borrowed time, even those who've survived for hundred of years. 

Even their friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), the great Elizabethan playwright, has a sense his time may be coming to an end. He's aged into an old man, and he's like Adam in that his nostalgia is clouding his vision. It's long been rumored that Marlowe wrote all of Shakespeare's plays and this movie has a lot of fun with that (http://bit.ly/1ojOHkm). It's another reason that Hurt's Marlowe is hurting. He's lived as a hermit, unknown and unheralded for too long, and it's all starting to catch up with him.


Hurt can do aging sage in his sleep, and he adds a lovely gravitas to this film too. Swinton and Hiddleston give clever, knowing performances, some of their best efforts ever on screen. And Swinton has never been more attractive in a movie either. She wears her fashion-forward hipster like it's a second skin here.

Wasikowska continues to prove that she’s one of her generation’s best actresses, and even though Ava's spoiled, she still remains a likable and funny character. There’s also a nice comic turn delivered here by Anton Yelchin. He plays Adam’s gopher Ian, a music industry wannabe who is the only real contact Adam has with the outside world.

If you think that there's nothing new to be mined in vampire lore, think again. “Only Lovers Left Alive” breathes new life into the horror genre as well as the romance genre. It reminds us that if you’ve got a loving partner in life, then you can not only get through a bad day, but a bad century or two as well.  

Monday, May 19, 2014

A SALUTE TO CINEMATOGRAPHER GORDON WILLIS

Gordon Willis, one of cinema’s greatest cinematographers, died Sunday night at 82 years old (http://bit.ly/1sLL3gC). To say that Willis changed film is an understatement. He was one of cinema’s most influential artists, as well as its most crucial. While most cinematography shot in the 1970’s tended to still carry an overlit, Universal Studios feel to it, Willis was shooting far more realistically, incorporating shadows and the natural light of the surroundings. He often filled his frame with foreground activity as well as background activity too, making the frame much more active. And yet, he could let his camera rest on a face or a setting too, unfettered, for long lengths of time. Willis was a technician and a poet, with few equals then or now. And his legacy can be found in some of the most important works of film ever made.


For starters, he’s the guy who shot THE GODFATHER saga. He photographed all Alan Pakula’s ‘paranoia trilogy’ from the 1970’s: THE PARALLAX VIEW, KLUTE and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. He shot most of Woody Allen’s best works including ANNIE HALL, MANHATTAN, BROADWAY DANNY ROSE and THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO. And he lensed many other important works too like THE PAPER CHASE, UP THE SANDBOX and PENNIES FROM HEAVEN.

And yet he never won an Oscar in competition, though he was awarded a special one in 2010. Because he was a member of the New York cinematographer’s union, the LA members snubbed him repeatedly in his career. Would you believe that he was not nominated for THE GODFATHER, THE GODFATHER PART II, ANNIE HALL or MANHATTAN? (http://imdb.to/1n9GSxS) That is not only an insult; it’s a tragedy.


Nonetheless, Academy Awards are not the end-all, be-all and Willis didn’t need one to underline his superior talent. In fact, the greatest reward of his work is that it has so clearly stood the test of time like few others have. Personally, he has always been my favorite cinematographer and shot so many of the films I love. Here then, as a tribute to the memory of this great man, are my 10 all-time favorite shots in the Willis canon.


THE GODFATHER (1972)
Willis’ last shot in this landmark movie is an audacious one, mostly in its simplicity as it shows quite literally, the door shutting Kay (Diane Keaton) out of the world of her husband Michael (Al Pacino). He’s now the mafia don, a murderer, and a liar. And Willis shows that she is no longer welcome as her access is literally closed off. 


ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)
In the year of our bicentennial, Alan J. Pakula directed this film noir version of the titular Woodward/Bernstein true crime saga about President Nixon and his dirty tricks. And Willis shot it to maximize every dark corner, suspicious voice and threat. Even the moments of brevity carried villainous overtones, as when Woodward (Robert Redford) is gathering information about shady CIA operative E. Howard Hunt. He casually scribbles a face on his notepad. And, as he finds out worse things about Hunt, he returns to the drawing and makes the visage more menacing.


BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984)
I love the melancholy minor masterpiece that this Woody Allen movie is. Here he plays Danny Rose, a third-rate agent of fourth-rate acts, who becomes entangled with a lounge singer connected to the mob. After he’s lost his client and his shot at the big time, Rose gathers all the remaining clients he has for Thanksgiving. It’s Swanson frozen dinner entrees and they’re all ecstatic to be fed and loved by Rose. And Willis frames the scene to show just how small and cramped their world is. But it’s still filled with a certain joy.


ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)
Another favorite image from one of the 70’s greatest films shows what the two young reporters are up against in challenging the Oval Office. They go to the Library of Congress to look up information from the card catalogue and Willis’ camera pulls back farther and farther, revealing them to be specks in the imposing corridors of D.C. power.


THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)
Mafia don Michael Corleone has vanquished all of his enemies, even his turncoat brother, by the end of the movie. He’s pushed everyone else away, including friends and family. Thus, he sits alone by the lake of his Nevada home, brooding and staring out at the vast lake. Even though he’s ‘won’, his face is frozen in acrimony. Willis pushes him almost out of the shot. Michael’s at the very edge of existence now, with nothing and no one left. You know why they didn’t need a third GODFATHER movie? Because Michael is essentially dead inside and to the world by the last shot of this amazing sequel. The third outing was, frankly, overkill.


THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974)
Willis was a master of putting character in context of their surroundings. In movies like ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and THE PARALLAX VIEW, he brilliantly illustrated the film’s theme of the little guy up against big forces by showing the breadth of their Goliath's. When Warren Beatty’s reporter is led to the campaign rally where he knows an assassination is going to take place, the vast room is decked out in the ol’ red, white & blue. He’s up against the powers of corruption behind the mammoth event and he's doomed. And it's all foreshadowed in the way Willis shoots the monolithic event hall.


THE PAPER CHASE (1973)
Sometimes how close the camera gets to an actor is as important as any decision a cinematographer and director can make together. And in THE PAPER CHASE, shooting the tyrannical Harvard law professor Kingsfield (John Houseman) a tad too close made him all the more imperious. His head loomed ridiculously large on the screen, but it worked spectacularly. Rarely were close-ups shot that close in film, certainly, not continuously, but Willis and his director James Bridges wanted to give Kingsfield the appearance of a looming, disapproving ‘god’. And boy, did they ever succeed.


KLUTE (1971)
Continuing with the Willis characteristics of natural lighting and danger in the darkness, the movie KLUTE tells the story of Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), a prostitute, whose life is being threatened by a dangerous john. When she answers an out call from an elderly haberdasher, she agrees to meet him in his cutting room. It’s after hours and dark, and seemingly innocent, but Willis lets the dark shadows and harsh fluorescents create a vibe that exudes the possibility that this could be the lair of her killer. Every second of KLUTE is fraught with fear like that. It's Willis’ understanding that the Bree character is always close to danger, no matter what the setting. 


THE GODFATHER (1972)
I submit one more to you from what I consider to be the greatest film of all time, and the greatest filmed movie of all time. It’s the death of Moe Green (Alex Rocco), and we all know how disturbing an image it is. What I find most incredible about it is that there is no cut. We see a close-up of Moe’s face as he reacts to someone entering the room. He’s in the middle of a massage, so he bends up slightly to put on his glasses. And just as he does, the shot comes. Right in the eye! And the blood pours of the wound seconds later. Now, a lot of cinematographers would not have been so confident to have it all happen in camera in one shot, but Willis knew it had to look utterly real to devastate. Cutting to a close-up of the blood pouring out after the glasses break might’ve helped the special effects team, but it would have robbed the scene of its impact. Willis remained on Green’s face the entire time, and thus, it remains forever seared in our minds.


MANHATTAN (1979)
Probably one of Willis’ most iconic images; so much in fact, it was used in the movie’s poster. Isaac (Woody Allen) woos Mary (Diane Keaton) throughout the city and ends up sitting on a park bench with the 59th Street Bridge in the background. Woody wanted to woo audiences too and make us fall in love with the New York that he adored so thoroughly. And through Gordon Willis’ arresting black and white images, moviegoers sure did.


What is your favorite image from a movie that Gordon Willis filmed? No matter what it is, I’m sure it's wonderful, as was his illustrious career. The movie world has truly lost a giant with his passing. Luckily for all of us, his images loom larger than life for eternity.

Friday, May 9, 2014

HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY FROM THE BADDEST, MEANEST MUTHA’S IN MOVIES!

Happy Mother’s Day, everyone! I could write about wonderful portrayals of mom onscreen, from Barbara Stanwyck in STELLA DALLAS to Cicely Tyson in SOUNDER to Holly Hunter in THE INCREDIBLES to Sandra Bullock in THE BLIND SIDE. But since others are writing blogs about that this week, I’m going to concentrate on some of the badass muthas out there. That’s right, my five favorite and baddest mother***kers on film. All women, of course, in keeping with the May 11th holiday.

The remains of Mrs. Bates make a chilling entrance at the climax of PSYCHO (1960)
MRS. BATES (PSYCHO)
Boy did ol’ Norma do a number on her impressionable son. In Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960), Mrs. Bates established herself as one of the greatest villains of all time. Even though she’s long dead, her horrible memory has turned Norman into a serial killer and the nearby swamp into a souvenir shop of horror. Her ‘appearance’ is still one of the most frightening images ever shown on screen.

Piper Laurie as Margaret White, a cut above the rest as a bad mother in CARRIE (1976)
MARGARET WHITE (CARRIE)
Another bad mom who turned her child into a monster, the mother of CARRIE (1976) is a real piece of work. Bastardizing scripture and the idea of salvation, this religious loon locked her daughter in the closet for the smallest of sins, denigrated her daughter’s puberty changes (“Your dirty pillows are showing!”), and even stabbed her when she thought the devil was behind her ESP talents. The real devil was Mrs. White (Piper Laurie, in an Oscar nominated performance), and her crucifixion by her daughter (Sissy Spacek) in the film’s climatic fight scene was one of the most just desserts ever served and severed onscreen.

The Queen Mother smiles for the camera in ALIENS (1986)
QUEEN MOTHER (ALIENS)
“Get away from her, you bitch!” is what Sigourney Weaver yelled at the monstrous queen creature from another planet in ALIENS (1986). When the alien mom threatened Ripley’s pseudo-child Newt, the human's motherly instincts went into overdrive. Some mom’s have acidic tongues, the scaly one spewed acidic blood. She and her brood were far more dangerous than that any chainsaw wielding clan from Texas. And when she bared her massive fangs, both sets of ‘em, the Queen Mother entered movie immortality as the 'biggest, mean, green mutha' of them all.

The haunting final visage of Anjelica Huston's mama Lilly in THE GRIFTERS (1990)
LILLY DILLON (THE GRIFTERS)
How bad was John Cusack’s con artist mom (Anjelica Huston) in THE GRIFTERS (1990)? Well, Lilly stole from the mob, ripped off her son, killed his girlfriend by blowing her face off at point blank range...oh, and she had been sexually molesting her boy for years. That’s the inference at the end of the film. It’s an amazingly evil character, played brilliantly by the never better Huston. And Lilly is one of my all-time faves, even though she gives me heebie jeebies.

The Other Mother only has eyes for CORALINE (2009)
OTHER MOTHER (CORALINE)
All kids wish someone else were their mom when being disciplined. Little CORALINE (2009) wished it and she’s transported into an alternate world where she got an Other Mother. Sure, at first things are great. Other Mother (voice of Teri Hatcher) is a wiz at decorating and whipping up delicious dinners of artistically prepared pancakes, but soon her real agenda is revealed.  She wants Coraline’s soul. And, yikes, her eyes! Her plan? Replace them with with buttons. I took my wife to see the movie and she said it was as scary as most adult horror movies are. I think it might've actually been scarier.


So what scared you? The mom in PRECIOUS? Joan Crawford in MOMMIE DEAREST? Audrey II in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS? There are plenty o’ muthas out there. And hopefully, they’re only onscreen for you this Sunday. Happy Mother’s Day, friends and followers!

Friday, May 2, 2014

ALL ABOUT THE BENJAMIN (RICHARD, THAT IS)


Original caricature of Richard Benjamin by Jeff York (copyright 2014)
Quick, name the best actors of the 1970’s. You know, the guys who were so talented they could play leading roles as well as supporting ones. The guys who could do comedy, drama, thrillers…you name it. Who’d you come up with? Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman or Robert Duvall? Of course. I’d also make the case for George Segal, Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, and one other amazing actor who doesn’t get nearly his due - Richard Benjamin.

If you don’t know his work that’s a real shame, because Benjamin was not only one of the best actors of the era, but his resume in the late 60’s and 70’s rivaled most of his contemporaries. And he was never less than wonderful in the roles he played. Yet because he took up directing and virtually stopped acting in the 80’s, he’s not given nearly the credit or stature as some others from his generation.
Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss in HE & SHE (1967).

Benjamin started out on television in 1967, playing husband to Paula Prentiss (his real life wife) in the CBS comedy HE & SHE. It was a show ahead of its time, presenting its two leads as a much more realistic couple than had ever been seen in a situation comedy before. And Benjamin had a lot to do with that. He wasn’t some oversized buffoon at the center of something like GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, BEWITCHED or other over-the-top sitcoms of the day. He was down-to-earth, sensible and relatable. And he made his normal character as interesting as larger-than-life ones.

One of his specialties was a subtle panic that was funnier than most pratfalls. He was able to make simple miscommunication with Prentiss’ character into something utterly hilarious. He made matrimony sexy and vital and modern. Soon, the film world would figure out that Benjamin’s special brand of realism and modernity was perfect for the big screen too. And in the next decade, he was cast in all sorts of notable films.
Richard Benjamin with Ali McGraw in GOODBYE, COLUMBUS (1969).
His first big role was a great one, and one that netted him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor. In 1969’s GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, he played Neil, a working class New Yorker who starts dating Brenda, a daddy’s girl (Ali McGraw) from a wealthy Jewish family. Benjamin certainly knew how to get the laughs in this droll comedy about the caste system, but he also brought components of resentment to his gatecrashing everyman. His moody performance elevated the film beyond its easy satirical targets. When Benjamin fended off queries from Brenda’s brusque father, he’d pause before answering and let his eyes answer before his tongue did. Those eyes continually spoke volumes about his distaste for her family’s nouveau riche gaudiness. And at the end, when Brenda sabotages their relationship by letting her dad discover her diaphragm, Neil walks away from the relationship disgusted at his own participation in it as much as her immaturity.  

From there, Benjamin was offered more plum roles and no matter what he played, be it a soldier in CATCH-22 (1970) or a lothario in PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT (1972), he always brought complexity to the part, even in the most obvious of roles or genre films. In DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE (1970), he portrayed an utter shit of a smug husband, putting Carrie Snodgrass’ beleaguered wife through the ringer with his petty demands and whining gripes. But he managed to wring a lot of laughs out of his bad guy role, even persuading the audience to understand precisely where his angst was coming from. It led to his second Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a comedy film in as many years. 
Richard Benjamin in THE LAST OF SHEILA (1973).
In THE LAST OF SHEILA (1973), Benjamin turned to genre, playing a murder suspect onboard a Mediterranean yacht in an Agatha Christie style mystery. Benjamin used his affability, intelligence and good looks to draw the audience over to his character’s side, only to pull the rug out from under them when it’s revealed that he is the killer. And when he attempts to strangle James Mason in the final scene, Benjamin is wearing puppets to hide his fingerprints. It’s a scene that could have come off as laughable and ludicrous, but Benjamin made those weapons utterly chilling because he was so utterly chilling.

In many respects, Benjamin’s most significant performance on film came in the sci-fi thriller WESTWORLD (1973). He played a businessman vacationing at an ‘adults only’ theme park where robots satisfy your every desire in western, Roman or medieval fantasy lands. The role was similar to previous ones he’d played in that again, he was playing a smart, slightly neurotic New Yorker. But when the film takes an exceedingly dark turn in the third act, with the robots going haywire and killing guests, Benjamin had to morph into an action hero.
Richard Benjamin in WESTWORLD (1973).

And become one, he did. After his friend (James Brolin) is gunned down by the sinister gunslinger (Yul Brynner), Benjamin is next in his metallic sites. He goes on the run and has to figure out how to fight to survive. It showcased a new side of Benjamin’s screen persona and he was totally believable in the role. He used both his good guy appeal as well as the steeliness from some of his darker roles to become a true cowboy who ultimately took out the bad guy and became the last man standing in the theme park.

My favorite role of Benjamin’s is actually a supporting one, and one that I believe should have won him an Academy Award. Benjamin won a Golden Globe for his turn as the long-suffering theatrical agent to Walter Matthau’s aging vaudevillian in the film version of Neil Simon’s THE SUNSHINE BOYS (1975). Unfortunately, he wasn’t even nominated come Oscar time. George Burns got the nod, and the win, for his leading role in the film, even though he was placed in the supporting category. But watch the film again and note who is really the best supporting player to Matthau.
George Burns, Walter Matthau with Richard Benjamin in THE SUNSHINE BOYS (1975).
Benjamin got big laughs trading barbs with his cantankerous curmudgeon of a client, who also happens to be his uncle. But Benjamin handled the toughest dramatic scenes in the movie with equal aplomb. When Matthau’s character falls sick, his nephew finally yields the power in their relationship, but there is no joy in it. Benjamin’s character truly feels for the old geezer and their reckoning over where their relationship stands is filled with tears. The audience was crying too and helped make this film one of the biggest hits that year. It also showcases the very best work of Benjamin’s onscreen career. (Very likely Matthau’s too.)

There would be other strong roles to come Benjamin’s way after that. He played good supporting role in comedies like HOUSE CALLS (1978) and LOVE AT FIRST BITE (1979), but Benjamin was itching to move beyond acting and get into the director’s chair. And in 1982, he helmed his very first feature. The nostalgic comedy MY FAVORITE YEAR (1982) turned out to be an incredibly auspicious debut for him.
Richard Benjamin directing MY FAVORITE YEAR (1982).
The story of a washed-up, drunk matinee idol spending a week rehearsing for a 1950’s variety show netted Benjamin some of the best reviews of his career. And it garnered star Peter O’Toole his seventh Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Benjamin knew comedy inside and out, but here he also showed his great flair for getting the most from a film’s cinematography, production design and editing. Not surprisingly, he was masterful in extracting superb performances from his cast of veteran character actors. Joseph Bologna, Lanie Kazan, Cameron Mitchell, Adolph Green, Lou Jacobi and William Macy all shown as bright as they’d ever been onscreen. And newcomer Mark-Linn Baker made a punchy debut under the expert guidance of Benjamin.
Richard Benjamin today.
Richard Benjamin went on to direct 14 other major motion pictures, including the widely acclaimed THE MONEY PIT (1986) starring Tom Hanks, and MERMAIDS (1990) with Cher and Winona Ryder. Benjamin always made for a fun talk show guest too. But now, at 75, he’s virtually retired. He’s had a long and multi-faceted career. He’s still married to Paula Prentiss after 53 years, which has to be some kind of record in Hollywood. And like that amazing union, his screen work too has stood the test of time. If you haven’t ever seen any of Benjamin’s work, do check out the films I’ve highlighted here. I can assure you that you’ll be in for a real treat.