Saturday, April 29, 2017

"THE DEVIL’S CANDY" IS HORROR THAT ROCKS


How many metalheads have been warned in their youth by their worrywart parents that nothing good can come from listening to blasphemous tunes that mock authority and defy deities? I once knew one such fretful mother that she warned her children that if they listened to any songs by Alice Cooper, Metallica or Ozzy Osborne, they were inviting evil into their lives through Satan’s "siren songs.” There are legitimate satanic metal bands, but it seemed to me that most heavy metal I heard was merely rock n’ roll pushed to one end of the extreme. Nonetheless, when such music is heard today, it’s hard for most ears to disassociate it with angry, anti-establishment leanings, overt calls for hedonism, or even the suggestion of something wicked this way comes. 

Thus, it is with how music is used in the new horror film THE DEVIL’S CANDY and what it means in all kinds of ways to the lead character of Jesse Hellman. He's not a youth in revolt exactly, but much of his character arc resembles such a storyline. In the film, his struggle is between not only good and evil, but youthful irresponsibility and mature parenting. Jesse may be in his late 30's, a man with a mortgage, and a father with a family to take care of, but that doesn’t mean he wants to readily conform to societal norms. Quite the opposite. He does his damnedest to avoid becoming too staid and respectable, and in doing so, he leaves his ego open to a susceptibility from no other than that dastardly Beelzebub himself.

Jesse (Ethan Embry) makes a living as a painter, and he's finishing up a big commission from a bank. He's embarrassed that he's required to paint butterflies and other commercially minded claptrap on the canvas, but it pays the bills and allowed him to purchase a new home. Still, despite his own misgivings, as well as teasing from his wife Astrid (Shirt Appleby) and teen daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco), Jesse refuses to wholly grow up. He still wears his hair long, along with a scruffy beard, and his Bohemian look comes off as one part Jesus, one part Charlie Manson, and two parts Matthew McConaughey from his bongo playing, nude in public days. Most evident of his rocker past and inclinations is the elaborate tattoos all over his torso which is fit and youthful, and he clearly likes to show them off as he parades around shirtless for much of the movie.

It gets dangerous when he treats his daughter more like a peer, and gives her too much rope to exert her independence.  Worse yet, is his self-absorption which leads him to forget the time and fail to pick up his daughter one night from her new school. She's quietly furious, and he kowtows to her. He blames it on the new painting he's started since they moved into their new home, and indeed, it is preoccupying him in more than a few dangerous ways.  

The painting is a huge, six-feet-tall, blood red collage of exploding evil that he's slashing away on his canvas. Without realizing it, he's painting the faces of screaming children that suggest murder and terror. Worst of all, he's unwittingly painted one of the faces to resemble his own daughter. What's led him to do so? Is it is some evil in the house that somehow is inspiring him, or is it the influence of his narcissistic rocknroller lifestyle that is manifesting itself in such a satanic way? 

Indeed, it is both. The house does have a specific horror vibe to it as the devil seems to be dwelling in it. That would explain not only the painting, but also why there was a horrific murder there before the Hellman's moved in. The real estate agent fudged the truth when he sold Jesse the house for a song, but Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vance), its previous resident, killed his wife and blamed it on the influence of Satan. That confession landed him in an asylum, but now Smilie is out and is being called back to the house by Satanic whisperings in his ear once again. 

When the devilish gibberish overwhelmed Smilie before, he'd crank up the rock tunes or grind on his electric guitar to try and drown them out, but it would seem that the heavy metal vibrations only served to increase the satanic power pulsing through the house. It would seem that Mr. Smilie did not have a worrywart mother warning him about dancing with the devil to such music.

Ethan Embry in THE DEVIL'S CANDY
With the threat of this warped killer, Jesse has even more to worry about. Will he conquer his own devilish disturbances, or will they push him to the same type of violence that led Smilie to attack his loved one? In particular danger is daughter Zooey. Not only does her death seem foretold in Jesse's painting, but Smilie brags about the work he's doing for the devil and how the master of the underworld has instructed him to concentrate on killing children. They are like candy to the devil, he declares, as such innocence being sacrificed is sweeter than any other victim. 

The first two acts of this movie concentrate on Jesse's inward struggle. Will he rise to the occasion and become more of a mature and functioning adult? Are his insecurities leaving him open to being led by the evil aura in the house? As his painting consumes him more and more, it appears he's losing the battle. But then in the third act, Smilie's story converges wholly with the Hellman's, and Zooey is snatched. Now, Jesse must man up and put away his childish things, and become a stronger parent and a hero or else his daughter will become another morsel in that devilish Whitman sampler. 

THE DEVIL'S CANDY is thick with mood and dread, another terrific horror movie to grace screens in 2017. Still, at the end of it all, it might really be more of a character study. The narrative is really about the arc of a struggling man to meet his responsibilities as a husband, father and grown-up. It's also wonderfully witty of director/writer Sean Byrne to suggest that parenting is literally hellish, even though most parents may never have to battle with the devil for the preservation of their family. 

Pruitt Taylor Vance and Kiara Glasco in THE DEVIL'S CANDY
Ethan Embry gives a great performance here and is one of the better character actors working today. He’s found quite a niche in indie horror and other genre pieces, and his work here is one of his most accomplished efforts yet. In fact, I think he's as good as he was in the 2013 horror/comedy CHEAP THRILLS (2013). Here, Embry manages to be terrifying, vulnerable, sympathetic and roguish, sometimes all in the same scene. His big eyes can convey uncertainty and confidence with equal aplomb, often changing on a dime, and the only criticism I can find in what he does as Jesse is that the wig he’s wearing occasionally dips too low making for an inconsistent hairline from scene to scene.

The two female leads here are terrific as well. Appleby and Glasco add real grit to their scenes battling Smilie. And Vance does a marvelous job of keeping his villain terrifying, even though he's costumed in a bright red track suit that is almost too funny to be ironic. The production values are all top-notch, and even the poster (shown at the top of this blog) is a stunner. 

Filmmaker Sean Byrne directs Ethan Embry in THE DEVIL'S CANDY.
Is it a bit too on the nose to have Jesse's surname be Hellman, as he is literally and figuratively a man here battling the devil in his home? Sure, but it's also witty as hell to give him that moniker. This whole film is clever like that; it's a very shrewd frightener, full of twists, turns, and characters we care about. It's a sweet thrill ride for genre fans and general moviegoers alike.   

(THE DEVIL'S CANDY opened Friday, April 29th at The Music Box Theater in Chicago, and across the country at other theaters. It is also available for VOD in various places as well. )

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

DEAR ACADEMY, GIVE DAVID LYNCH AN HONORARY OSCAR

Original caricature by Jeff York of filmmaker David Lynch (copyright 2017)
Dear Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences,

Now that the Oscars are over, it’s time to concentrate on the current year in film and its award-worthy entrees. And to get the taint of the Best Picture envelope debacle as much in the rearview mirror as possible, it would behoove the Academy to announce its selections for the 2017 honorary Academy Awards, AKA the Governors Awards, as soon as possible.

This is the first of five open letters I’m sending the Academy’s way to submit my thoughts on nominees they should honor sooner than later. I have always believed that the honorary Oscar, now deemed the Governors Award, is one of the world’s most prestigious, and to my mind it is one that should be bestowed upon those who have yet to receive Oscar gold. It was lovely for the Academy to honor Elia Kazan in 1999, or Anne V. Coates this past year, but both recipients had won Oscars in competition. The Governors award truly should go to the overlooked.

Thus, the filmmaker I’d like to put forth first is one who has not won yet - director/writer/producer David Lynch. He was nominated four times, first for Best Director and Adapted Screenplay for 1980's THE ELEPHANT MAN, then again as Best Director for 1986's BLUE VELVET, and finally for directing 2001's MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Lynch is a truly visionary filmmaker and his work is easily recognizable to even the untrained eye. His style has been imitated left and right by too many writers and directors to even list. Nonetheless, Lynch remains one-of-a-kind, a true artist in every sense of the word. It is high time that he be recognized fully by the Academy.

Lynch has been enticing, enthralling, and challenging audiences since his surrealist horror film ERASERHEAD caused a sensation with its debut in 1977. Since then, his unique ability to mix the disturbing with the sentimental, the ugly with the beautiful, and the everyday with the fantastical, has made any project done by Lynch distinct and memorable. His motifs were many: corruption in small town America, duality in one’s identity, and the ugly underbelly beneath the smiling surface of respectability. His films are never preachy, but they still manage to serve as important social commentaries with such themes. He's entertaining and profound.

Lynch had more than enough great films to warrant the Governors honor, despite having only made ten of them thus far. And few filmmakers have made films so utterly personal and yet found worldwide appeal with them. His impressive resume is full of arthouse films that found wide audiences and garnered the respect of critics across the globe. THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) was nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director. BLUE VELVET (1986) not only netted Lynch his second nod for Best Director from the Academy, but it was listed by Sight & Sound magazine in 1992 as the fifth best film of the previous 25 years. His rock & roll thrill ride WILD AT HEART took the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1990. THE STRAIGHT STORY, his quietest and most poignant film, was also recognized in Cannes as a Palme d’Or nominee in 1999, and that character study garnered star Richard Farnsworth a Best Actor Oscar nomination as well.

Perhaps his most important film is MULHOLLAND DRIVE. It won him more critics prizes than any other and managed to net him his fourth Oscar nomination for Best Director. It’s a poisoned Valentine to Hollywood, almost a companion piece to Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic SUNSET BOULEVARD, since both films rage at the Hollywood machine and its disposability of actresses. (Interestingly, in the former, Norma Desmond is considered washed-up at 50; in Lynch’s vision 40 years later, Diane Selwyn is out of favor by 30.) MULHOLLAND DRIVE has only grown in its reputation since then, as Lynch’s ninth major motion picture was named the best film of that decade by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Cahiers du Cinema, IndieWire, Slant Magazine, Reverse Shot, The Village Voice and Time Out New York, among others.

There have been countless film festival honors and Lynch retrospectives throughout the world over the decades too, including one at The Music Box in Chicago this week. (Notably, they'll show a unique documentary into his filmmaking, as well as his art there on May 5th towards the end of the retrospective.) Just look at the promotional materials and any screen shots from the films they're showing of Lynch's this week and you will recognize his iconic visual style that defines his work. The graphic design evident in his camera framing, and production design, his rich and bold color spectrum, the dreamlike passages that dot his narratives, and the brutal violence of words or actions designed to shock and come out of nowhere - they have all become hallmarks of the Lynch world. 

His impact on television may be the most crucial in recognizing his genius. When David Lynch entered the world of television in 1990 to create TWIN PEAKS, his sensibilities changed everything. It’s easy to think of TV as a golden age today, often eclipsing even the best of the film world, but it wasn’t that way 27 years ago. Television was still considered a ‘secondary’ medium, one that wasn’t as cinematic, complex, or nuanced as the fare shown on the big screen. David Lynch and TWIN PEAKS changed all that.

Lynch approached the show as if filming hour-long movies, and indeed the series looked as cinematic as anything being done in the Cineplex. Lynch never condescended to the medium, instead he raised it with complex storytelling, vivid and nuanced characters, A + production values, and a slower pace that never rushed its way to a commercial break. This was before premium cable networks like HBO and Showtime started making such things their standard fare. The fact that Lynch did it while on ABC makes it even more amazing of an accomplishment. Everything that has come to the tube since then owes TWIN PEAKS a debt of gratitude for doing it so well, so different, and so fantastically first.

TWIN PEAKS’s time on TV was short-lived, lasting only two seasons, as the network and audience grew frustrated with Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost’s unwillingness to follow television convention. But the two refused to conform to neat, pat storytelling as television told in those days. Instead, they kept adding more and more twists and turns to the lives of their characters and the strange interplay in their woodsy world. The thrill of TWIN PEAKS was less in following its procedural about just who killed Laura Palmer, and more in its complex examination of the goings-on in the lives of the town's incredibly strange residents. TWIN PEAKS blended comedy and drama, horror and farce, beauty and ugliness, and made it all feel part of a whole. It's too bad that television wasn't able to fully embrace Lynch's leanings those decades ago. He was a maverick, and everyone would eventually catch up with him.  

Even so, TWIN PEAKS became the talk of the industry, and led a new charge in the industry. Every show since then has aimed higher, been filmed to be more cinematic, and rivaled the complexity found in the best plays or movies. David Chase, J.J. Abrams, Vince Gilligan, you name it…their television shows could not have been done the way they were without Lynch blazing the trail for them. The same of filmmakers like M. Night Shyamalan or David Fincher, both who have clearly been influenced by the dark world of Lynch. 

The fact that Lynch started blurring the lines between mediums way back then, as TV became cinema in its way, certainly paved the way for the likes of YouTube, Amazon and Netflix too. Now, original content, movies and TV shows are part and parcel of even those mediums. The legacy of Lynch is in all of it, and even Showtime couldn’t resist bringing back the series that started it all as they ordered 18 episodes of TWIN PEAKS for a revival that starts airing next month.

One could also laud Lynch for the many major talents he brought to the screen like Naomi Watts, Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, and Isabella Rossellini, just to name a few actors he discovered or fostered. He also put composer Angelo Badalamenti on the map. Actors and crew who work with Lynch speak glowingly of his kindness as well as his art. Lynch is still a name director, one whose work is as much of an event as it was three decades ago. What else does the Governors board need?

Sadly, Lynch has never won an Oscar. Over the decades, the Academy Award has eluded many a worthy talent, and that’s why the honorary awards exist. The Academy can correct the fact that they’ve never given proper due to Mr. David Lynch by putting him first on their list of those to be honored at this year's Governors Awards.

Sincerely,
Jeff York

Film critic for The Establishing Shot
Critic and host of the Page 2 Screen podcast for the International Screenwriters Association
Member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle

Friday, April 21, 2017

TWO FILMS I LIKED BUT SHOULD’VE LOVED


Maybe my expectations were too high. I’d seen the trailer for FREE FIRE months ago and it peaked my curiosity. After all, I’m a sucker for crime capers, it stars Brie Larson and she's one of my favorite actresses, and director Ben Wheatley greatly impressed me with his 2015 psychological thriller HIGH-RISE. So why did I like this new film that just opened today, but not love it?  

Sometimes expectations can confound a filmgoer. I’ve been led astray many times before by word-of-mouth, publicity materials, or even celebrity interviews that seemed to paint a picture of one thing when the film is very much another. That’s not the case here. What happened here is simply that the film didn’t quite live up to its potential. It is very good, but it should’ve been great.

It starts off as such though setting up its dark comic tone and criminal characters with an efficiency and vividness that thrills. FREE FIRE takes place at a dilapidated and abandoned Boston factory in 1978 where IRA members Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) have come to receive their order of arms they’ve bought to help fight the English back in Ireland. Frank is old and cynical, whereas Chris is idealistic. He wants things perfect in the deal, and he isn’t above even being romantic about her ideas of perfection. It’s certainly why he comes on to Justine (Larson), the comely American go-between who helped broker the deal. She’s smart, beautiful and doesn’t mind hanging out with low-life’s. What’s not for him to love? Then as he cements dinner plans with her for later, other vested parties show up for the deal. The suave and GQ-ready fixer Ord (Armie Hammer) strides in to ensure them all that the arms dealer he’s procured will deliver the goods and everyone will be happy. Famous last words, of course.

Such peace will be very short-lived as we will soon see due to the erratic nature of some of the other hoods who arrive to seal the deal. IRA henchmen and pals Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) arrive with a truck to haul off the goods but they’re on edge due to the former’s fracas at a bar the night that left Stevo bloodied and bruised. His ego got the worst of the beating. Then Vernon (Sharlto Copley) arrives and his insecurity doesn’t help things either. He’s a clotheshorse dandy who doesn’t like everyone teasing him about his threads, plus his South African accent becomes a point of ridicule amongst the den of thieves and he feels like an outsider who’s not getting the respect he deserves.

His calm colleague Martin (Babou Ceesay) is low-key and cool, but he doesn’t rein his partner in and the babbling Vernon starts making everyone tense. It doesn’t help that he’s come with guns that don’t make Chris’s specs. It also doesn’t help that Vernon has two suspicious assistants Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor), and one of them is the guy who beat Stevo to a pulp the previous evening. Stevo instantly recognizes Harry, and soon their fight from the night before spills into the proceedings. Harry tells everyone that he beat up Stevo because the hoodlum came on to his sister. She refused and Stevo walloped her badly enough that it sent her to the hospital. So, what do you think happens to our boys after that revelation?

Brie Larson down but not out in FREE FIRE.
Indeed, tensions rise, fisticuffs ensue, friends try to keep friends from fighting, and soon enough Harry’s gun is drawn and he grazes his enemy in the shoulder. Then all hell breaks loose. Everyone ducks for cover, bullets start flying like popcorn exploding out of a popper, various hoods are tagged here and there, everyone starts yelling in pain, and Vernon’s expensive threads get shredded. That’s a lot of characters and scenario to set up and Wheatley aces it. Unfortunately, once the guns come out, these rich characters and their multiple storylines get lost in the fray. Rather than deepen their stories, the remaining film becomes repetitious, mostly consisting of shooting and a lot of characters crawling through debris for cover. There is a ton of crawling in this movie. Worms would be jealous for how much time folks in this film spend scurrying about on their bellies.

Sure, watching these previously prideful men, and one woman, all kidding themselves that there is honor among thieves, rummage around on the ground and get shot in their butts, shoulders and thighs is darkly hilarious, but their B stories are shot to hell as well. The set-up of the attraction between Chris and Justine grinds to a halt as do too many of the other relationships amongst the characters. There’s too much gunplay, everyone’s a terrible shot, death comes way too slowly for most, and our interest waivers. It mostly becomes a guessing game of who’ll die next, but even Agatha Christie knew that such a premise needed something more enticing. That’s why she had the “10 Little Indians” rhyme as her benchmark. Here, everyone’s as guilty as her island of baddies, but there’s little real surprise in this one about how anyone is going to be dispensed, at least until we’re down to the major stars.

Sharlto Copley plays Vernon, a comedic villain well-suited to his talents in FREE FIRE. 
Larson makes the most of her underwritten part, two-for-two now in conjuring 70’s era women perfectly. (She did the same earlier this month in the monster movie KONG: SKULL ISLAND.) In FREE FIRE, she rocks bell-bottomed pantsuit and Farrah wave, but I wish Wheatley and his co-screenwriter Amy Jump had given her just as good quips as flips. Larson is killer at delivering acidic barbs, as ROOM and TRAINWRECK proved, but mostly what’s she’s delivering here is the standard “girl” role one finds in actioners.

Wheatley misses more opportunities as well. He could’ve deepened some secondary characters like Gordon, especially when he’s cast noted character Noah Taylor, but instead gives the actor too little to play. The same goes for veteran actor Patrick Bergin. He shows up later in the story as a mysterious hit man sent to take out some of the players, but he doesn’t register much except for being a new body to get pierced. Wheatley didn’t have to go Quentin Tarantino deep here, but he could’ve at least continued to plumb the depths of his baddies the way Joe Corcoran did in 2006’s SMOKIN’ ACES. That similarly fun and nasty shoot ‘em up gave a dozen characters a lot of ripe dialogue and memorable scenes to play, and every actor shone from Ryan Reynolds to Tariji P. Henson to Nestor Carbonell. I really liked FREE FIRE, but Wheatley should’ve aimed a little higher.


I’d heard great things about THE LOVE WITCH but had missed its theatrical release last autumn. Many of my colleagues at the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle loved it so much that it figured in our year-end awards of 2016. So, with that kind of build-up, I was anxious to finally catch up with it when it became on VOD a week or so ago. I’m happy to say I was indeed impressed, though I found it to be another film that gets in its own way.

FREE FIRE eclipsed its fascinating characters by relegating them to become mostly just a line-up of casualties after the gun play begins. THE LOVE WITCH script, written by Anna Biller, is a timely tale with a strong feminist slant on gender politics and the sexuality of a strong woman, but director Anna Biller gets in the way with her stylized retro ways.

It’s easy to see why Biller chose to shoot her modern tale with a look that is a total throwback to the sexploitation B’s of the 1960’s. She’s using film to comment on how things are similar today as they were for women back then. They’re still discriminated by many factions of modern society for being too smart, too progressive, too sexual – and it can discombobulate men as much as it did back in the MAD MEN-esque 60’s. Biller is having her film look like that world to showcase the parallels. But it overtakes the film.

Elaine (Samantha Robinson), dressed devilishly in red, drives into a new town in THE LOVE WITCH.
Her story concerns Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a beautiful but deadly woman who happens to be a witch, and it informs both the men she picks to tryst with, as well as how she literally and figuratively casts her spells on them. This enchantress gets looks just by being a gorgeous brunette walking into the room with her sultry ways and inviting red lipstick. But as soon as men are drawn to her, they begin to have difficulty handling her. She’s simply too much for them. Too smart, too forward, too orgasmic. Men lose their sense of control, their sense of domination and soon, their hearts. Their hearts give out and to this wily Wicca and she moves onto the next lover/victim.

This is a sexual horror tale but it edges so close to satire at every turn because of Biller's obsessiveness with every detail of her on-the-nose retro design aesthetic. Because of that, it often seems like its a lost Meyers film or some sort of sequel to VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. (Quick question - was Robinson cast because of her uncanny resemblance to Barbara Parkins?) This film's look starts to swallow the film as every period frock, wig and prop becomes a distraction.  

Now, it’s one thing for Biller to make every detail of your film’s look scream “period piece” to underline her point about how struggles for women remain constant just as they did 50 years ago, but it’s a whole other thing to start directing your actors to deliver their lines as if they are in one of those cheaply made and stilted films from yesteryear. It adds an amateurish to the proceeding that enhance its shtick, but that also hurts the political diatribes written for Elaine and the other female characters onscreen. After a while, such a mannered and stiff delivery overwhelms the dialogue to the point where it could almost be interpreted as bad acting. I don’t believe that was Biller’s intent, but why not have the men speak that way and have the women sound more modern? Wouldn’t that kind of direction have helped her message?


Biller did practically everything on this picture, from the directing and writing to the production design, scoring, set decoration and costumes. She even edited her film personally and gives certain scenes abrupt cuts to create shocks in the same way that Hammer productions did during their cheesy British horror heyday. Such edits elicit laughs and contribute to the darkly comic hilarity here, but again, such techniques almost push it into parody the way that Michel Hazanavicius did with his French OSS 17 spy parodies starring Jean Dujardin back in 2006 and 2009.

Biller has complained how some critics concentrated too much on the kitsch in their reviews, but frankly, it’s there in every frame. I think it is a counter to her modern arguments, yes, but combined with the stilted acting it may have thrown off too many viewers. And her feminist lecturing becomes too on-the-nose too as well, sounding like a screenplay that's trying too hard, and it sounds mostly unconvincing from the less than stellar deliveries by some of her cast. One can see what Biller was going for here, but she isn't wholly successful. Did she get distracted by the many tasks she took on in making this movie? Just because she can do so many aspects of the film’s below-the-line requirements doesn’t mean she should have done them, especially when they form one overwhelming pastiche of a parody which robs some of its larger meaning. And that script needed another pass through the laptop to iron out some of its blatant lecturing.

Finally, one area that she whiffs wholly, and I’d criticize this no matter what period she was emulating, is in how she portrays sexuality. For a movie that wants to be so liberating about the female take on sexuality and carnal power, Biller's surprisingly prudish about showing nudity and truly honest representations of sex. This film plays coy with star Robinson’s body in the same way that SEX AND THE CITY refused to show Sarah Jessica Parker naked on that HBO series. It became ridiculous after a while seeing Carrie, the progressive woman and writer of a sex column, constantly wearing a bra while making love. Here, Biller goes out of her way to shield Robinson and it too becomes laughable. For a character like Elaine to have hair glued down to cover her boobs is just silly. My God, Katherine Turner showed more in BODY HEAT over 35 years ago. A movie about sex should be more open about showing sex. Elaine might as well drag the sheet from the bed to wrap around her when she gets up after coitus here, that's how many punches are pulled in that area. 
THE LOVE WITCH should be anything but modest.

Because Biller grounds her film in the tapestry of the past, from the gowns to the wallpaper to the synth tracks, it often keeps her message from coming through. Her talent is obvious though, and her movie is a lot of fun in its weird, retro way. Biller’s political “Nonetheless, she persisted” message struggles to hold as strong a focus as it should, but in a modern world that still took a decade too long to oust the piggish Bill O’Reilly off the airwaves, any message of such a nature gets my applause. And it gets me excited to see just what this very talented filmmaker will attempt next.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

THE TRUE FIGHT IN “FEUD” IS THE BATTLE OF BETTE AND JOAN AGAINST SEXISM

Original caricature by Jeff York of Judy Davis, Alfred Molina, Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange in FEUD.
(copyright 2017) 
Despite a superb list of actresses nominated for the Best Actress Oscar in February of this year - Emma Stone, Natalie Portman, Isabelle Huppert, Ruth Negga, and Meryl Streep - and at least another eight on the short list - Amy Adams, Annette Bening, Tarija P. Henson, Hailee Steinfeld, Sandra Huller, Jessica Chastain, Emma Suarez and Adriana Ugarte - Hollywood is hardly a cake-walk for women onscreen. It’s worse behind the scenes if the Academy Awards nominations are any indication as female nominees were down 2% from the previous year.  

The continuing problems that women face in Hollywood are currently being portrayed on FX Network with its new miniseries FEUD. Its freshman season tells the story of the famous battle onscreen and off between classic movie stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, played by Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange respectively, with the focus on their time making WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? together back in 1962. They competed all their lives for the sparse good roles afforded women, even during the Golden Age of Hollywood when many stars had illustrious studio contracts, and their struggle to matter became even more frantic when they chose to make a darkly comic horror movie together. 

The fact that the script they chose was also about a rivalry between two aging actresses in Hollywood only added to the vividness of their daily battles. Of course, what they were really fighting against was a lot bigger than each other. They were taking aim at an industry that all but turned their backs on them once they turned 50. When director Robert Aldrich approached them with a starring vehicle, they both jumped at the chance because neither had been offered anything close to such a prominent role or project in some time.

Yet, this film was hardly GONE WITH THE WIND. It was not even close to a prestige picture. In reality, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? was a B picture, one that was placed in the low-class genre of horror no less. Granted, horror movies made a move towards the big time when top filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock plumbed the genre to make his smash film PSYCHO two years earlier, but by and large, horror remained the domain of secondary talents. It certainly wasn't the place for Oscar winning actresses like Davis and Crawford. Still, if they ever hoped to get back on the A list, they needed a hit, and even a successful B picture was better than no picture at all. 

The series focuses on the horrors of the project, but mostly during the backstage treachery. The two women came into the project with a frostiness towards each other, and as they competed for screen time, attention from director Aldrich (Alfred Molina), and good press, they turned into vicious and antagonists rivals. They fought, argued, carped at each other constantly, and helped stir up vicious gossip about each other during the entire filming. The truly scary things weren't onscreen, no matter how many rats were to be served as lunch by the lead character. They were in the desperation and duplicity behind the scenes.  

Yes indeed, “Baby Jane” Hudson, the protagonist of the piece, serves her sister Blanche a rat for lunch at one point in BABY JANE. That plot point is a reflection of her hate and animosity towards her sister. And it's based on the fact that Blanche became a bigger movie star than she was back in the day. Jane, once she reached adulthood, lost hold on the show biz community and interest in her by the studios dried up. The rejection turned her into a bitter woman who, slowly but surely, grew more insane with every passing year of being ignored. Then, well into her fifties, Jane had become a hard-drinking and delusional bully whose sole purpose in life now was to torment her unemployable star sister.

Blanche had been out of the game for decades due to an automobile  accident where Baby Jane ran her down back when they were both starlets in their 20's. Blanche was the toast of Tinsel Town, and Jane's resentment towards her sis's success drove her to act out. Or so Blanche would have us believe. Since that act, Blanche has been confined to a wheelchair, having lost the use of her legs. None of that creates any sympathy in Jane however as she still carries her toxic sibling resentment. The two has-beens are forced to live together and they live on the meager savings they have. WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? is a tale of hatred and betrayal, but it's also about their strange co-dependency. No matter how many carping comments fly about, or rodents get served with spring vegetables, there is still a bond there that each need. 

Davis played the bipolar aspects of the Jane role to the hilt, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes despicable, and conjured an outrageous character who became an instant screen classic. Crawford, on the other hand, had a role that required more subtly and she rose to the occasion giving a nuanced and equally complex performance. Her Blanche was the more reasonable one of course, but it was different from most of the roles Crawford had played in the past. The star made her career essaying tough broads onscreen, but this performance was miles away from the usual strong and even strident roles on her resume. Davis got most of the attention what with playing the title character and all, but Crawford was equally superb. Blanche may have lost the use of her legs, but she was still a fighter, huffing and puffing, dragging herself up and down staircases to try to phone authorities to come and take away her crackpot sibling. It's a very physical performance that Crawford exhibited and it was just as horrific seeing this grande dame drag her keister around the set, as much as it was viewing Davis in Jane's child-like curls, overt pancake makeup and heart-shaped beauty mark.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?  (copyright 2017)
Straddling the line between horror and dark comedy, the 1962 classic is really a chamber piece about the two women. Sure, an occasional interloper stops by, like Victor Buono's down-on-his-luck piano player character that Jane wants to employ to help her show biz comeback, but most of the two hour and 14 minute movie is the two women dominating the screen. Their scenes were consistently electric, both shocking in their acrimony and impressive in how committed the two actresses were to their roles, and audiences were mesmerized. 

The animosity that Davis and Crawford had for each other only intensified their onscreen fighting and the gossip surrounding the production greatly helped the film became even more of buzz worthy hit. The film, despite its B origins, was also expertly directed by Aldrich, shot by Ernest Haller, edited by Michael Luciano and scored by Frank De Vol. Norma Koch's memorably macabre costumes even won the Oscar that year for a black and white film. Mostly, the script was utterly superb in its complex examination of dementia, sibling rivalry, and the disposability of actresses in a town that eats them up young and spits them out at 40. WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? could easily stand with SUNSET BOULEVARD and ALL ABOUT EVE as a triptych about sexism in show business. That is the true horror at play in the film.   

The parallels couldn’t be more apparent to what both Davis and Crawford were dealing with as well, and the FEUD series is a bittersweet look at what it was like for these two superstars to be scrambling for crumbs in a town that had all but forgotten them. Creator Ryan Murphy and his team keep that the focus on that throughout and its mortifying to see how much abuse the two legends received from the studio and the trades. 

The two true villains of FEUD are Warner Bros. chief Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis). Every scene of theirs showcases one venal attempt after another to stir the pot. They promoted rancor and hostility between the two actresses at every turn. Warner calls Davis a c**t, and it's amazing that such words are now allowed on basic cable, but even more shocking is how the studio bigwig regards the two-time Academy Award winner. And Hopper was one of the first women in power to work actively against other women in the business as she played them off each other merely to create juice for her column.  

Of course, the two vulnerable actresses fall victim to the bait laid out for them and turned the shooting of BABY JANE into a true nightmare for all involved, mostly Aldrich. (The world-weary director is the other big victim in this story.) With all of Davis' and Crawford's on-set tantrums, delays and tensions, it's astounding that their film turned out to be so great. The film went on to break Warner Bros. box office records and even scored five Oscar nominations. Davis was nominated by the Academy, but Crawford was passed over. And Joan just couldn’t let it go. Ultimately, she worked behind the scenes with Hopper to sabotage Davis’ chances at the prize and even showed up on behalf of absent winner Anne Bancroft (THE MIRACLE WORKER) to accept the trophy. Again, nothing is quite as ugly as women with power using it to oppress other women.

FEUD could have ended its story there with Davis' humiliation at the Oscar ceremony but Murphy, et al. had more in mind. There is more to the story and the episode after that,“Hagsploitation”, may be the best in the bunch so far. It focuses on the projects the actresses were offered after their ginormous success in BABY JANE, and sadly, what they were offered was mostly shit. Hollywood now not only viewed them as old, but as hags worthy of contempt and malice. The roles they were offered post-JANE were not A list vehicles, but more B pictures asking them to play hags, kooks, and spinsters. 

Crawford got stuck playing an ax murderer in an exploitation flick in STRAIGHT-JACKET. Davis was so turned off by the film scripts she was offered, she started looking at work in television series, which was not done by legitimate movie stars in those days. Why, she was so beside herself, she was even willing to take on supporting roles in weekly series. Warner didn't do particularly well by Aldrich either as he was instructed by Warner to develop and direct more B's, including a virtual sequel to his biggest success called WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO COUSIN CHARLOTTE? Of course, Jack Warner wanted both actresses to play in it, as he proudly boasted of creating the new "hagsploitation" genre, and he wanted them as his poster children. 

Warner even brags to Aldrich in the FEUD series about how it's great to see the once glamorous and accomplished actresses taken down and humiliated. He has no real use for women who've lost their shelf life of ingenue attractiveness and it shows in every word he utters about the two. The film would eventually come to be called HUSH, HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE, but not before losing Crawford as costar, due to the degradation of it all. The film ended up cementing a new type for Davis to be cast as, that of the overwrought harpie, and she would play that role again and again in lesser films and TV appearances for the remainder of her acting years. (At least she had a worthy, big screen role as a murder suspect in the Agatha Christie thriller DEATH ON THE NILE in 1978.)

While Sarandon's performance as Davis could have stood to capture more of the legend's smoky crag, and the sing-song qualities in her delivery, she does captures the steeliness of the maverick woman. Lange, on the other hand, may have never given as great a performance as she does here. While not closely resembling Crawford in appearance - Lange is rounder and less brittle looking - she captures both her fragile ego and outsized vulnerability with a vividness that is heartbreaking. With each episode, Lange's Crawford becomes more and more of her own worst enemy. The MILDRED PIERCE Oscar winner couldn't get past the slights the biz forwarded her for over 30 years, and she let it ruin even her victories like BABY JANE. It's understandable especially, when in her 50's, she had to battle to keep youthful nude photos from hitting the gossip pages. 

Ultimately, Murphy has really hit on a big idea with FEUD, as it can easily tell the stories of famous public fights for a dozen seasons. And, as with all of his productions, the set direction, costumes, scoring, and performances are all top-notch. It should clean up at the Emmys come September, and Kyle Cooper can probably write his acceptance speech now for his sublime title sequence. Murphy is at his most disciplined here with the themes of Hollywood sexism fully in focus throughout each episode. Still, some critics have called his latest efforts here high camp, but that itself is an egregiously sexist critique. Yes, it’s a genuine howl at times, but the sadness is always there as well. This story is not a joke. It's actually a various serious work, despite its huge entertainment appeal.

And it serves as a scathing commentary about how little has changed today. Look no further than the recent interview Emma Thompson gave and she told stories about being intimidated into weight loss by a town that values youthful bodies over talent or brains. At least a backlash is starting against such outdated thinking. There's been quite an outcry in the past years about how studios and production company's still offer young actresses roles that are meant for older actresses. Case in point - despite winning an Oscar for her efforts, Jennifer Lawrence was still a decade too young to be playing the female lead in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. And she was 20 years too young to be playing the role she took in AMERICAN HUSTLE. Yes, she was great in both roles, but that doesn't change the fact that she was still miscast. The parts should've gone to women in their 30's or 40's.  

But in a show biz world that is still slow to change, and has taken  forever to call out the likes of serial predators like Bill Cosby and Bill O’Reilly, at least the tide is starting to shift. Cosby is reviled now, and Bill-O may not return to his show after his sudden "vacation announcement" following the story about he and Fox paying off women he's harassed. Also, A list stars are sharing their stories, and the sexual abuse testimony of those like Gwyneth Paltrow, Charlize Theron, Helen Mirren, Lady Gaga, Ashley Judd and Megyn Kelly at the hands of powerful entertainment execs, is getting a lot of ink. The white-hot lights of justice are finally being shone on the continuing plague and it seems that there is now a more urgent sense of propriety and moral obligation in Tinsel Town. It’s a tragedy that Hollywood treated Davis and Crawford so shabbily, but perhaps by telling their story in FEUD it will help fuel more to join the battle.