Joan Crawford grabbed at life the only way she knew how—by the balls, baby. She fled a hard scrabble childhood full of the horrors to become the reigning queen of Hollywood. She defied so many odds put in front of her and she almost always came out on top. Joan was many different versions of herself throughout her life: gold digger, jazz baby, Pepsi hawker, perennial MGM shop girl, terrible, terrible mother, the greatest star the world has ever known, poster woman for mental illnesses, bizarre recipe creator, transgender identity pioneer, role model to the uneducated, black market baby taker, dubious advice giver, enemy of slovenly hippies, the world’s most famous neat freak, world class fashion don’t… she did it all. Her crazy life was her greatest work of art.
When people talk about Joan’s essential artifice (and likewise the supposedly superior talents of her chief star rival, Bette Davis) I don’t understand why they mean it in a bad way. Her artifice was the whole picture and it was riveting. It gave her a unique kind of depth. It set her apart. She didn’t want to be liked; she demanded to be worshiped. Whether in a black market stag film early in her career (as was rumored) or any number of MGM prestige pictures or in her obsessive assembling of her bizarre family set up, Joan’s way of life was to attack. Her ambition was her identity. This can be either repulsive or, if she was in the right film, it can be put to very compelling use.Continue Reading
Lady in White
A curious mix of autumn colored nostalgia for a small town early 1960s childhood and a supernatural fantasy with an icky child murderer sub plot to round it out, Lady in White is something of an anomaly. Released at a time when horror films were gorier than ever (think Freddy, Jason, et al.) this quietly creepy little movie made a virtue of suggestiveness rather than overkill and at least the hint of psychological complexity that works to the film’s favor even if the execution is a little clumsy. Still, the film has a couple of genuinely haunting moments that have some of the visual poetry of the classic Val Lewton horror films that he made for RKO (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie).
Little Frankie Scarlatti (Lukas Haas) is a sensitive kid and a budding writer who loves to scare people with his monster stories. After terrifying his classmates with a special story he wrote just for Halloween he is tricked by some of his bratty classmates into being locked in the school coatroom after everyone else has gone home. He falls asleep only to wake up hours later, trying not to panic in his little Dracula costume, with the glow of moonlight shining in the window. It’s this scene that stays with you—just a simple, almost completely still shot that speaks artfully of the very real childhood fear of being abandoned, of being lost in the darkness that you are too young to comprehend.Continue Reading
Written on the Wind
My description of Written on the Wind that I stuck onto a copy of the DVD in the “Employee Picks” section at Amoeba is that it is a candy colored fever dream of violence and ecstasy. Dave Kehr, writing for the Chicago Reader, wrote that Written on the Wind was a “screaming Brechtian essay on the shared impotence of the American family and business life.” I like both descriptions and I especially like the word “screaming” as it applies to what these desperate characters are really doing.
The first thing you might notice about the film is the colors. They overwhelm. Even if the action of the film centers on the downfall of one of those big oil family dynasties from Texas and the renegade pair of lovers caught in the middle, you might ignore the untamed passions exploding before you and instead fall into a hallucinatory stupor from all the cherry reds and periwinkle blues that flood the action of each meticulously constructed scene. The film is supremely pleasurable to look at. That quality of a luxurious surface of beauty is central to all of director Douglas Sirk’s best known works. The surface appearances—which are always gorgeous—are reflected back on themselves via mirrors used throughout his films and create a grotesquely ironic commentary on the desperate entrapment that materialism and expectations of conformity conspire to create in the lives of his characters. If we want to understand the 1950s in America and what they mean to us now we would do well to watch his films. They reveal a lot.Continue Reading
Charlie Wilson’s War
A smart and funny political biopic for grown ups from director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) and writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) about the likable Texas congressman whose influence led to U.S. involvement in the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s. Tom Hanks plays “(Good Time) Charlie Wilson” as a well meaning political hack who watches as his crusade for the U.S. to assist in helping the people of Afghanistan against their Soviet occupiers turns into a Cold War sideshow that inadvertently gives rise to Islamic Radicalism. The film manages to stay light on its feet without glossing over the sobering consequences of what was a complete mishandling of a volatile situation.
Glengarry Glen Ross
David Mamet’s pitch dark morality play about capitalism as a nihilistic force for poisoning the human spirit was turned into a film in 1992 with an all star cast featuring Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, and Alan Arkin. All of them play miserable salesmen both complicit and bitterly at odds with having their sense of identity wrapped up in their weekly sales figures. The actors work the odd time signatures of Mamet’s trademark dialogue and the lines are delivered with a seething intensity that leaves you a little shaken.
Prairie Home Companion
Robert Altman’s last film is an adaptation of NPR staple “A Prairie Home Companion,” Garrison Keillor’s liberal humanist weekly revue of folky Americana music, wry story telling, and gentle send ups of modern mores and it couldn’t be a more fitting film to go out on. Altman uses the big cast putting on their last show plot as a means of meditation on different kinds of death: the death of an old timer, the death of live radio as an art form and he creates something moving without being cloying, heartfelt without being sentimental....Continue Reading
Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism
The inside scoop on the “Fair and Balanced” news network and how its notorious enthusiasm for “truthiness” made it the perfect cable news counterpart to the Bush years. Outfoxed is a scathing indictment of Rupert Murdoch’s crappy idea of journalism put into 24 hour news cycle form. From former employees giving the lowdown on Fox’s shady way of skewing coverage to favor Republicans to the jaw dropping series of clips of world class blowhards Bill “Shut up!” O’Reilly and Sean Hannity turning journalism into a joke Outfoxed is a relentless assault on the dishonesty at the core of Murdoch’s failed experiment to control the message....Continue Reading
Small Town Gay Bar
Small Town Gay Bar is a sometimes sad, sometimes uplifting account of the collective efforts of a few every day small town Americans in red state U.S.A. to create a sense of community for GLBT people where they live. What ultimately resonates from this documentary is that there is something deeply heroic about their efforts to create a safe place for people to live openly where it’s needed most even if it’s just for a few precious hours before last call....Continue Reading
Director Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers) went back to his native Holland to make this stylish and subversive action adventure movie about a WW2-era Jewish spy who lives by her wits as a member of the Dutch resistance as she navigates a treacherous world of sympathetic enemies and dubious allies. As usual with Verhoeven there is a layer of social commentary to Black Book that lies beneath the glossy surface. This is old Hollywood spectacle with depth. Best movie of 2006!...Continue Reading
A modernized take on the sort of old Hollywood ancient Roman epic that updates the sword and sandal genre with plenty of ass kicking spectacle and a powerful central performance from Russell Crowe as a Roman general who seeks vengeance after losing his family at the hands of a corrupt prince and is forced to fight as a gladiator in Rome’s coliseum. The film’s populist hero and themes went over big with audiences turning Crowe into a mega star in the process.