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Queen Christina: Garbo’s Triumph!

28 Apr

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In 1933, prior to the release of Queen Christina, nobody outside of the MGM Studios executive offices knew whether Garbo, the Queen of the Silver Screen was ever going to return to film.

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The year before, Garbo and Louis B. Mayer had slugged it out in contract negotiations that changed forever the power structure of the Hollywood studio system. Afterward, Garbo left for Sweden on an extended vacation, while L.B. Mayer licked his wounds. The public knew nothing of the outcome, and MGM decided to keep it that way capitalizing on the public interest of their favorite movie star and the future of her career.

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Garbo left America in 1932 knowing she’d be back. She had scored a lucrative, 2-picture deal with her studio, and more important to her had creative control than ever before. Garbo could pick her next 2 projects, including the director and her co-stars. It was more power than any other star, male or female had ever had. It was either that, Garbo threatened Mayer, or her leaving Hollywood forever. The old Mogul blinked.

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Garbo was at the peak of her career. She had arranged for Mayer to create her own production company within the MGM studio system. It was a stroke of genius having her own team, who would do nothing but Garbo projects. And their very first production would be the ambitious historical biopic – Queen Christina of Sweden.

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Loose on historical fact, the lavish production was nonetheless a starring vehicle like none other. Garbo’s public persona was at the center of the saga about the solo Queen who abdicated her throne in order to live as a normal, average woman. Garbo embodied the role as a declaration of her own independence from the studio system. She even got to wear pants in the role, which was unheard of in 1933!

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Garbo insisted that her old, silent movie co-star John Gilbert play opposite her as the Spanish Envoy and love interest to Queen Christina. L.B. Mayer all but had a heart attack. He hated John Gilbert and had tried to destroy the actors career when he stumbled into sound film several years before: Mayer had Gilbert’s voice electronically raising 2 octaves – making him sound ludicrous. But Mayer knew there would be no getting around Garbo now. His female star had all the control, and with Garbo’s star ascending around the world – he had no choice but to sign Gilbert.

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Garbo got her way, and Mayer was able to capitalize on her return to the silver screen. The film was marketed as “Garbo’s Triumphant Return” to the movies. The film made back it’s money and more, grossing over $600,000 in it’s initial 1933 run. Although MGM would declare a loss by cooking their books, it would be discovered decades after Mayer’s death that the film was actually a financial success for the studio.

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Regarded as one of Garbo’s greatest roles, Queen Christina was a romantic vision of the Queen who valued life, art, music and creativity over war and domination. It would propel her dominance over the world cinema for the rest of the decade – and continue Garbo’s reign in Hollywood. Mayer and MGM would go on to make millions off its mercurial star, and allowed them to dominate film in Europe as well as America as can be seen by the foreign language one sheets and movie posters advertising the film:

Later regarded as Garbo’s signature role, Queen Christina was ahead of it’s time especially for the portrayal of women in film. Garbo had a female love interest at the beginning of the film (alluding to her rumored lesbianism). Her royal court wished her to marry in order to produce an heir, though she demurred (as did the real Queen Christina). Best of all, Garbo showed her contempt for men and their penchant for making war. This would become a re-occurring theme in her career and is at the center of my upcoming debut novel, Looking For Garboavailable now for pre-order and to be released on May 7, 2019.

High Sierra: Bogart’s Breakthrough Role

17 Mar

HIGHSIERRA_2Lead character Mad Dog Earle is a cold-blooded killer at the beginning of High Sierra (1941). But by the end he’s helped heal a disabled young woman and fallen hard for a cocktail dancer named Marie (Ida Lupino), in a rare noir western that would be the breakthrough film cementing Humphrey Bogart’s A-List Star status. Unlike Private Investigator Sam Spade, the main character in the Maltese Falcon, also made in 1941 and starring Bogart, Roy Earle is a hardened criminal. The character is the literal half-way point for Bogie’s evolution from B-movie gangster tough guy to screen preeminence as ultra-cool, bowtie and tuxedo wearing Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942).

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Bogart’s breakthrough-role involves the wide-ranging emotional landscape Bogart would dominate in from the early-40’s into the early-to-mid fifties. But in 1941, he was breaking into the mainstream as a tough guy with a heart. Bogart’s characters would still be tough and more than able to defend themselves, simultaneously someone you wouldn’t want to mess with while every woman in the world secretly wanted to be in love with – they would mellow over time like fine aged whiskey.

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High Sierra is known for being the movie where Bogart showed true range. He let’s himself fall in love with Marie – yet remains wildly unstable. And while the film may seem dated to some, unlike Falcon and Casablanca which seem to retain their style and freshness timelessly – High Sierra is well worth-watching to see the genesis of the Bogart character coming into it’s own. Mad Dog has a vulnerability that is meant to be ironic and against-type, and it’s exactly the role Bogart needs to test the romantic waters for Casablanca.

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Bogart was not at all sure audiences would buy him as a romantic lead in 1942. It was the experience of shooting High Sierra that gave him the initial confidence to take the Casablanca role. And while Sam Spade was toying with Brigette O’Shaunessy (Mary Astor), through most of Maltese Falcon, Rick is truly smitten with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in Casablanca. The vulnerability Bogart is able to show and still remain manly and tough in Casablanca began in High Sierra. I won’t spoil the ending, but just watch for the moment when Bogart’s Roy Earle decides maybe love is worth sacrificing for, if not the greater good.

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Bogart with his trademark Mad Dog Earle haircut yukking it up with his High Sierra director, Raoul Walsh.

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Garbo: Oscar-Winning Real Life Heroine

24 Feb

Greta Garbo is considered the Queen of the Hollywood Golden Age, from her silent films to her sound film classics. She was nominated four times for an Oscar for Best Actress award: In 1929, Garbo received two nominations for films Anne Christie and Romance, losing to Norma Shearer in the Oscar’s inaugural year. Then again for Camille in 1937, and finally Ninotchka in 1939. She would later receive an honorary Oscar in 1955, at the 27th Academy Awards (of course, which she refused to attend) for her “luminous and unforgettable screen performances.”

Garbo was the biggest star in Hollywood in 1939. Her Oscar-nominated star turn in comedy Ninotchka with the tag-line GARBO LAUGHS was atop a crowded box office landscape in a year that would see film classics Gone with The Wind, Wuthering Heights, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the Wizard of Oz in their first run glory. But it was an off-screen role Garbo was preparing for that might be considered the greatest role of her lifetime.

It’s almost hard to comprehend being on the brink of world war today – but the average American citizen, circa 1939 had a lot of things on her mind. And if you happened to be the greatest movie star ever to grace the earth, the one the Guinness Book of World Records declared the most “beautiful woman that ever lived”  – you were apparently thinking of assassination in 1939. Not only thinking about it but preparing for it with the help of a foreign spy agency.

It was all part of a secret plot to do nothing short of save the planet from another devastating world war. Of intelligence officers from the British MI6 instructing the consummate actress in how to prepare to do the unthinkable: to shoot a man in cold blood. A man who was arguably your biggest fan. A man who wrote you fan letters begging you to be his country’s Aryan Goddess. Become the woman who would embody the epitome of his master race.

Adolf Hitler was goofy over Garbo. He obsessed over the black and white image of her dying in Camille. Watched her die over and over again in his own private screening room every night. It was true, no one died like Garbo. In the final moments of portraying the famous Camille the Parisian Courtesan, Hitler watched Garbo cross over from life into afterlife. Fascinated with the Occult, Hitler fantasized her a goddess come to life, only to die on screen for the world’s sins. He wanted to gaze upon her close up and in color. So much so that Hitler formally invited her to come to Nazi Germany under the grandest of circumstances.

But Garbo would have none of it. If she agreed to come, it would be under cover, and on orders of her spy handlers at MI6. Her cover story would be supplied by another undercover agent working for the Allied cause, Hungarian-born British producer Alexander Korda. Garbo and Korda had worked together several times during WWII. He had introduced her to William Stephenson, aka Intrepid, the British secret agency’s senior representative for the entire Western world during the war. Intrepid was thought to be the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s master spy: James Bond. And he would help Garbo prepare for the “Big One” – the plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

Ideally, Garbo would travel to Germany, meet with Heir Hitler, and murder him before the war even began. Garbo later told her close friend Sam Green: “Mr Hitler was big on me. He kept writing and inviting me to come to Germany, and if the war hadn’t started when it did I would have gone and I would have taken a gun out of my purse and shot him because I’m the only person who would not have been searched.”

Garbo planned her trip to England (enroute to Nazi Germany) under the guise of shooting a feature film about one of her personal favorite heroines. With the help of Hedda Hopper, the biggest gossip columnist of 1939, a snippet from her popular Los Angeles Times column declared: “Great Garbo has finally got the role she’s been waiting for. She’ll sail sometime in September (1939) for England to play Joan of Arc in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan under the direction of Clarence Brown.

Sure enough, the British Press picked up and published the ruse, complete with the film to be produced by Rank at Pinewood Studios in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire – 17 miles outside London, England.

The war in Europe began on September 3, 1939. But what if Garbo had embarked on her journey, on the eve of World War II? Made her way via ocean liner to a fateful meeting with the madman of Europe. Even to save the world, would the most glamorous movie star in the world have been able to take a gun out of her purse and pulled the trigger. Killed Hitler in cold blood? Play the heroine, like she did in Mata Hari, and Queen Christina for real? And what would the world look like today if she had succeeded?

Order Looking For Garbo: A Novel (Amphorae Publishing) coming on May 7 and find out what might have happened on Garbo’s fateful trip into history:

 

Live Long and Prosper: My Ben Cooper Spock Halloween Costume

8 Sep

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It seems like only yesterday that my older brother Tom and I watched Star Trek on the family’s old Sony 15-inch color television set. I wasn’t sure whether the technicolor of the original show was reduced even more by our tiny set (our oldest brother watched the first moon-landing on it – that’s how old this TV was) but every show came across as if drenched in vibrant, primary colors. So, it wasn’t much of a stretch when September came around and we made our traditional pilgrimage to the Bantam or Woolworth Five N’ Dime to make the most important decision a kid had to make: What Ben Cooper Halloween costume, with their larger than life masks and uber-bright costume fronts displaying your favorite character – would you get?

Like everything else in life (I would learn this the hard way later on) what I ended up being for Halloween came down to timing. Specifically, how long it took to convince Mom that you had to get your Halloween costume NOW because if you waited too long, you’d end up as something stupid (i.e. all that was left on the shelf). The high-ticket items like Spider-Man, Superman, Batman or Spock would be long gone if you procrastinated about such an important decision. It happened every year. We’d wait too long to go to Woolworth’s, I’d have to “settle” for some inferior pop-culture iconic costume character meant for a little kid like “tweety-bird”, then suffer the indignity of seeing some wretched neighbor’s kid on my street wearing the exact costume I should be wearing on Halloween night. Such was the case with Spock from Star Trek.

Spock was the best character on the original show, hands down. He was smart, strong, logical in an illogical universe, and had those awesome ears. He had the added benefit of being tall and skinny, which I was for my age, too. He projected such a commanding presence, in fact, that I felt I would be “in charge” on Halloween night if I went out as him. No Captain Kirk for me. Spock was the real brains behind the operation, and with my other props – a tricorder, communicator, and phaser set on stun – I could explore my neighborhood as if an alien world full of exotic and dangerous creatures; all dressed up in Halloween costumes so you couldn’t easily identify what they were behind those brightly-colored, deceptive masks.

Alas, we never made it to the five-n-dime on time to get Spock. It might have been that our local Woolworth’s didn’t rate more than one or two of him, or, more likely that Spock wasn’t as popular in other households as he was in ours and they may never have ordered a Ben Cooper Spock costume in the first place. So, I would have to go out as Spider-Man again, or, god forbid wear the same Batman costume I’d worn the previous year. That’s why I always kept my mouth shut and never complained to my Mom. Because in a kid’s world back then, going out in the same costume on two consecutive Halloweens was a fate almost as bad a the kid whose Mom kept him home that night because he had something stupid like walking pneumonia. After all, Halloween was all about the action. And the action was walking around in your neighborhood in the pitch black behind a Ben Cooper mask – a new one that smelled like vinyl and made you sweat no matter how cold it was outside. And in that dark abyss of the imagination, whoever said I couldn’t “act” like I was Spock, even if I wasn’t wearing the costume?

But then a wonderful thing happened. Thirty years after the fact, I was finally able to purchase my Ben Cooper Spock costume on ebay. I’m a little embarrassed to say how excited I was when I opened the brown box that it came in the mail and from the first second I laid eyes on Spock’s mask staring up at me (from within the famous cellophane window all Ben Cooper costumes came in) I was beamed back in time. Spock brought me right back to those days I spent watching the original show with my brother Tom. He brought me back to those chilly Halloween nights I’d wished I’d been dressed as TV’s favorite Vulcan. But most of all, that Spock costume with it’s bright mask and tableau on the front, transported me back to when our neighborhood transformed for a precious few hours into a dark and wondrous galaxy, populated by strange yet familiar colorful characters, all running around together under a blanket of stars.

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Nancy Allen: I Want To Hold Her Hand

15 May

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Anyone who is a fanatical film fan will instantly recognize Nancy Allen from one of several iconic roles she portrayed in over 40 years in the business. What amazes me, however, is so many of those roles I had forgotten about over the years. It’s kind of like growing up with someone you went to school with and then losing touch when you graduate. There are so many memories you share that are triggered when you see each other again that come back in a flood. That’s what happened to me recently when I caught sight of Nancy in Carrie (1976).

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Nancy played Chris Hargensen, the most popular girl in high school opposite the least popular, Carrie, played by Sissy Spacek. Nancy did a phenomenal mean girl, defining the archetype for decades to come. It was a monumentous movie for many reasons – Stephen King’s beloved book was successfully translated to film by director Brian DePalma (who would end up marrying Nancy!), it was John Travolta’s breakout movie role, and, the film would usher in the teenage horror genre like none before it.

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The film owes much to Nancy’s role as antagonist. She is such a bitch in the film that sympathy is consistently thrown to Carrie, making the climactic ending all the more satisfying. Nancy played the role to perfection and it would launch her A-List status in Hollywood for the next two decades. But it is the film Nancy made two years later that would really cement her status in film actress history: director Robert Zemeckis’s film debut “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”

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I Want To Hold Your Hand is a wonderful movie, full of nostalgia for Beatlemania told on a human scale in the form of Beatles maniacs who will stop at nothing to meet their idols. Nancy is luminous in her obsessive-determined fan role and her performance is worth renting the often-overlooked film.

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As far as music-themed fan-based films, I Want To Hold Your Hand is right up there with That Thing You Do, Starstruck and Backbeat. And if you haven’t heard of those films, you need to stop reading this blog and immediately rent them now.

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Nancy’s next big role was in the thwarted comedy by Steven Spielberg called “1941” (Speilberg had produced I Want To Hold Your Hand). By any standard, 1941 is a hot mess of a movie but it does have it’s moments – one of them being to watch Nancy Allen. It’s almost impossible for me to recommend this movie for any other reason – maybe to watch John Belushi – then again, just stick with watching Nancy and turn it off immediately after.

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Nancy would go on to shine in several movies in 1980, the greatest among them being husband Brian DePalma’s “Dressed To Kill.” This movie is a hot mess too but in a very different and much more entertaining way. For me, Nancy is the emotional center of this movie, scenery-eating portrayals by Micheal Caine and Angie Dickinson notwithstanding. Maybe even because of the camp factor in this splashy, glamour-lit murder/horror show, Nancy looms largest in her portrayal of a call girl who dabbles in the stock market. Also, it is one of the few times in film history when an audience can tell that a director is totally in-love with an actress. Just compare it with any Hitchcock movie and you’ll see what I mean.

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A particularly saucy shot of Nancy seducing the audience from Dressed To Kill.

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At this point in the movie, we don’t know Micheal Caine is a killer. All we know is that Nancy slays in black lingerie.

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After Dressed To Kill, Nancy followed her director-husband’s lead and did “Blow Out” a 1980 thriller starring John Travolta at the height of his initial fame. It bears mentioning that DePalma is the biggest Hitchcock fan on the planet and really took what old Alfred did best and kind of bastardized it in his own films. Please don’t get me wrong, DePalma is a gifted director and made one of my all-time favorite films – The Untouchables. That said, the single-biggest reason to watch Blow Out today is Nancy Allen. She’s smart, she’s sassy and she’s a hell of a lot better actress that young Travolta is in this cross between The Conversation and Blow Up. I’ll let you Google those titles, but they are yet more cinema classics that deserve your attention.

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And now we come to Nancy’s most iconic role: Police Officer Anne Lewis in the seminal sci-fi classic “RoboCop.” The 1987 film was the Hollywood debut of Dutch directorPaul Verhoeven, and did extremely well at the box office. This is by far one of the most intelligent, violent and flat-out balls-to-the wall crowd-pleasers that came out of the 1980s. It would spawn two sequels and become a highly-lucrative franchise for fanboys who couldn’t get enough of Peter Weller’s RoboCop and his sexy, loyal partner, Anne. Again, I think Nancy brings so much heart to the proceedings that it keeps the otherwise over the top movie grounded in an almost romantic realism. I just love everything about her here and believe Nancy was at the at the top of her game.

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Nancy’s evolution from starlet to movie star is one worth revisiting. From her early 1970’s work…

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…to her breakout in Carrie…

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…how much fun does this look like! To her marriage to DePalma and rubbing shoulders with Hollywood heavyweights…

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You know DePalma is in heaven here nestled between two gorgeous and famous blondes…

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To her sexy, smart turn in Dressed To Kill…

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To her cameo in Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight” (1998) opposite George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez…

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Nancy Allen held her own and portrayed sensitive, often vulnerable no less formidable females on the silver screen.

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Maybe that’s what prepared her for her biggest roles later on in life…

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As an advocate for the environment and activist for breast cancer. Now retired from film, Nancy spends all her time as the executive director of WeSPARK Cancer Support Center. Founded by her longtime friend and I Wanna Hold Your Hand co-star, actress Wendie Jo Sperber, Nancy is an inspiration for breast cancer survivors everywhere. It’s the perfect role for an actress who has made an indelible mark through her beauty, poise and intelligence. Check out http://www.wespark.org/nancy-allen/ and let Nancy know how much you appreciate everything she’s done. It’s one way a fan can give back to a beloved actress whose not only touched there lives through art, but continues to move people through her devotion to a truly-important cause!

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Thanks for all the movie memories and everything you do, Nancy!!

 

Blondie: Rock Goddess with a Heart of Glass

3 Oct

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Debbie Harry was one of my first crushes. A beautiful and talented rock goddess who was essentially a supermodel when she hit the stateside music scene in 1977 with her band, Blondie.

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My older brother had a poster of Debbie up in his room but I never made the connection of who she was until I heard “Hearts Of Glass”, the band’s first hit single in 1977. Debbie was not just a pretty face, but a full-throated lead singer about to explode.

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I wasn’t old enough to go to any of her concerts over the next several years as she dominated the airwaves with singles “Call Me”, “Atomic”, and the aforementioned “Hearts of Glass.” But thanks to MTV, I got to marvel at how beautiful and artistic she was live on stage, in music videos and movie cameos.

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Debbie had a raw, fearless sexuality on stage. She wasn’t afraid to do anything her creative urges told her to do. She was about as glamorous as it got back in the early 80’s before big hair, stone-washed jeans and shoulder-pads began to cover the landscape.

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Debbie had a style all her own. Of course, she would eventually succumb to the big hair phenomenon like everyone else. But she did it while retaining her own style. One that no one else could quite pull off.

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Blondie broke up in 1982 (they would get back together off and on over the years) and Debbie would pursue a solo career with success. I always found her fascinating to watch and would now and again check in with her career over the years.

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What I find fascinating now that I’m older, is how you become so nostalgic for the interests of your youth. Some fade and become idle curiosities – namely, why did I ever like so-and-so in the first place. But that has never been the case with Debbie. I’m still as fascinated by her today as I was way back when. A true sign of a class act if ever there was one.

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I think the reason Debbie Harry has retained her mystic over the years is because she never followed trends. She was a true original back when that not only was tolerated in the music industry, but lauded. Her fan base was broad and she had fans young and old, not just because of her music but also her beauty and screen presence.

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And like every other aging fanboy, the older I get I inevitably delve deeper into the past looking for connections to it. Debbie is no exception. I’ve only recently found out that before her musical career, she was a model and, incredibly, a playboy bunny at one point. Interesting how her photos are so tame compared to today. I love their artistic aesthetic, in addition to Debbie’s raw beauty.

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Debbie is still fearless today, posing topless. She is still a very hot momma, in my humble opinion.

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It’s a testament to Debbie’s artistic leanings that none of these images are gratuitous. They all have some intrinsic value in addition to capturing Debbie’s physical beauty back when she was truly in her rock goddess prime.

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Debbie has always been a flirt both on and off stage, as evidenced by this great candid below. Proving that blondes do have more fun.

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I’ll always love this Blonde bombshell. The Rock Goddess with a Heart of Glass captured mine a long, long time ago.

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She survived disco, after all, coming through it unscathed. No easy task for a time when so many lost their artistic souls.

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This is how I’ll always remember Blondie when I first met her, up on my brother’s wall…

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And this is how the Rock Goddess looks today: formidable while still beautiful, and ready to kick some ass!

Kelly Reilly: Best Thing About True Detective, Season 2

6 Sep

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Kelly Reilly is the most amazing actress you’ve never heard of. And she is easily the best thing out of the second season of True Detective. Don’t get me wrong, Rachel McAdams did an amazing star-turn and turned her acting career around as a result. But the true star turn for me was bringing Kelly to a broader audience.

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Kelly has been around for years now, lighting up the screen in such films as FLIGHT (2012) playing opposite drug-addled commercial pilot Denzel Washington. Kelly’s portrayal of a vulnerable and fragile recovering drug-addict-cum-love interest is the best thing about that film as well.

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Kelly is an English Rose, having begun her career in the theater. Her performance in After Miss Julie at the Donmar Warehouse made her a star of the London stage and earned her a nomination for a Laurence Olivier Theatre Award for Best Actress of 2003.

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Kelly’s gutsy on-screen performances are matched by her tenacity off-screen. As a young actress in England, Kelly wrote the producers of the television drama Prime Suspect to ask for work, and 6 months later she auditioned for a role in an episode Prime Suspect 4: Inner Circle which aired in 1995. Six years later, she appeared alongside Helen Mirren in the film Last Orders

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Kelly continued doing legitimate theater in England honing her acting chops for her big shot at the screen. That came in the guise of an Englishman, rather one of the most famous fictional Englishman ever, as Mary Watson opposite Jude Law and Robert Downey, Jr. in Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011).

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Kelly has a unique on screen chemistry with the camera. She is a gorgeous red-head with freckles from head-to-toe and a smoldering stare. But I think it’s the Irish ancestry in her that gives my heart a twitter. She is one of those actresses who looks like she could break but is tough as nails. I think that the buzz coming off True Detective will give her even more opportunities to spread her wings on the silver screen and for that I’m thankful.

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I think Kelly is so talented, in fact, that she could be her own lead in a drama or thriller. One that would give her center-stage and let her totally captivate the audience without having to split their attentions with other, lesser actors. I’m hoping she gets a shot at a lead role in the near future. I think she could be big if only given the chance. And according to her rep in Hollywood, many directors and producers want to work with the gifted actress.

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Here’s to Kelly’s tenacity and guts paying off very soon in a theater or tv screen near you. Look for her in True Detective, Season 2. I know the second installment was laughably bad in parts but seeing Kelly will make your day as it did mine when I watched the 6-part series on HBO. I only hope she’ll pop up again soon.

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To the English Rose with Irish Eyes. May she entrance Hollywood as much as she has this writer and give her the shot at the big-time she richly deserves!

The Maltese Falcon: The Flitcraft Parable

14 Jun

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If the stars suddenly aligned on an especially dark night and I was given the chance to remake the film of my choice, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell the movie gods I will do The Maltese Falcon. And if such a cinematic fate befell me, my adaptation would include one special passage in Dashiell Hammet’s novel that has never been translated to film even though at least three film Falcons have soared into movie theaters since the novel debuted in 1930.

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Noir fans call it the “Flitcraft Parable” found in Chapter 7: G in the Air — a short digression completely unrelated to the novel’s plot in which Sam Spade, tells Brigitte O’Shaunessy a little story about a man named Flitcraft.

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In the story, Spade explains how Flitcraft, a real estate agent and family man living in Tacoma goes to lunch one day never to return.  Five years go by and his wife comes to the detective agency where Spade is working with news: someone in Spokane has seen a man resembling her husband. She retains Spade to track him down only to discover that it is indeed Flitcraft.

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Flitcraft tells Spade the day he went to lunch, he had walked by an office building under construction and a huge beam fell from eight to ten stories up, impaling itself into the sidewalk right beside him. The experience of nearly being killed had a profound effect on Flitcraft, jarring him out of his very existence for a moment. As Spade explains:

“He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works,” says Spade. “The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things.”

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Flitcraft had left for Seattle that day without any provisions or extra cash. To his family, it was as if he had simply disappeared off the face of the earth. Flitcraft moved around a little bit before eventually coming back to Washington State where he married again – to a woman very much in appearance and temperament as his first wife – and started a new family. Spade concludes the story with a final thought:

“I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally in the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma,” says Spade. “But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

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I know why no filmmaker before me has ever seen the need to keep this digression in their movie version of The Maltese Falcon. It’s because on the surface of it, the Flitcraft Parable has nothing specifically to do with the larger plot of The Maltese Falcon. But if you think about it in terms of Spade’s character and, by extrapolation, author Hammett – you see that it has everything to do with how Spade is able to prevail in almost any situation put before him.

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Sam Spade is a master of observation.  A student of human behavior with the uncanny ability to boil life down to its barest and most basic essentials at any given moment. He’s able to see a situation by any given angle and point of view from whichever character he finds in the room. He knows that once you strip away love, desire, greed, lust, rage and romanticism from any equation – you are left with the truth: what we do with our lives is largely insignificant in the larger scheme of things.

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Who we love or hate, who we back and who we resist, will be most certainly be forgotten soon after we shed this mortal coil. That thought, whether delivered by steel beam from the heavens or a loved one’s untimely departure, whether by ugly divorce, chronic illness or natural catastrophe – is coming for each and every human who has ever lived. And when faced with our own mortality, we humans tend to react with varying forms of panic, fear, terror and desperation.

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What is less common, however, and what is so magical and I believe cinematic about Hammett’s Flitcraft Parable is not so much what the character of Flitcraft does – but how and why Sam Spade is telling the story in the first place. Spade is telling Brigitte that he (Spade) perceives life to be a game at best, a cosmic joke at worst. We’re lucky to even be alive, walking the earth so why take things so seriously? And at the same time, Spade plays the game well, better than anyone else and that includes her. And because of this high-powered perception, he knows that she is bad, playing him for a sap, a chump. He’ll play along as long as it amuses him, to see how it all ends up. Because what’s love when there’s a steel beam 30 stories up just waiting to fall with your number on it. Might as well enjoy life before it falls and that includes playing chess with the likes of a beautiful femme fatale.

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THE MALTESE FALCON, Elisha Cook, Jr., Sydney Greenstreet, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, 1941

In the end of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade’s greatest fear is not death but being made a fool. And he’ll resist being her fool because as he tells her, “all of me wants to.” Spade could give Gandhi a run for his money when it comes to resisting an urge. He’s a professional, after all, with a job to do. And when death does come for him as it will all of us , you better believe he’ll stare into the Grim Reaper’s eye-sockets and grin back at him. Now that’s dark, people. It’s why I love Noir because it doesn’t hold back on the reality of the human condition – but pushes it kicking and screaming into the center of the spotlight.

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We’re all going to die, so we might as well enjoy ourselves and have a little fun. That’s why Noir as a genre is more than alive as well. Why Hammett’s Flitcraft Parable would be right at home in recent existential fare such as TRUE DETECTIVE (can’t you see Matthew McConaughey’s character regaling The Flitcraft Parable to an annoyed Woody Harrelson?) or even THE DARK KNIGHT’s JOKER character played by the late, great Heath ledger.  That’s the power of classic Noir, to strike a chord in every human’s fibrous, meaty core and question why each one of us are here and why the hell we take everything so damn seriously.

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Take Hammett and Spade’s word for it. Life is a game so enjoy it for what it’s worth and remember to play the game well while you have the time. Because you better believe the competition are playing for keeps – and no one likes to be made a fool of.

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Brooke Adams: Days of Heaven

12 Apr

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Brooke Adams was one of the most beautiful and versatile actresses of the late 1970’s and early 80’s. Her big break was playing opposite Richard Gere in director Terence Malick’s seminal drama DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978). The film is visually arresting, capturing the landscape of the Texas Panhandle in 1916 when lovers Bill and Abby conspire to defraud a dying farmer out of his land. Of course, the most beautiful thing about this movie, in my mind, is Brooke Adams and once you see the movie I believe you’ll agree.

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Brooke is a revelation in the role of Abby, coerced into seducing the farmer into marrying her by her real lover Bill (Gere). Adam’s face is one of innocence slowly corrupted by the power of love and then redeemed. The power of her inner beauty is only matched by the incredible cinematography, for which the film was nominated for an Oscar. Malick won at Cannes for his direction, though the film was a financial failure when it was initial released. Since then I’m happy to say it has become a classic.

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Brooke is a natural beauty and she was perfect casting for this tale of would be extortion. She is conflicted throughout much of the movie and her instincts are right on for the role of Abby. Brooke would enjoy other signature roles in the late 70’s and early 80’s such as in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (remake; 1978) and THE DEAD ZONE (1983) but it is very much DAYS OF HEAVEN that has made her mark in film history.

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The film is one of the arresting visual experiences since Sir David Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962). The film was almost entirely shot during the magic hours of dawn and dusk, giving it a truly ethereal and timeless quality. Malick’s approach was to use as much natural light as possible for the tale, to give it’s characters and tragic story a mythic background and earthly color pallet. Maybe this is why Brooke Adams comes across as an earthly angel reminiscent of many silent film stars, even with a dirty face. This is a very hard thing to pull off in color vs. black & white and the desaturated nature of Malick’s framing gives the actress her own mystical quality – as if we’re perceiving her through a looking glass.

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There is one famous scene in the modestly-budgeted film where all the farm-hands are besieged by locusts. This effect was achieved by the filmmaker having his entire cast walk backward while thousands of peanut shells are dropped by helicopter. Of course, the action was filmed in reverse, so when projected normally it appears as if the locust are rising in swarms and the cast are walking forward in awe. A practical effect like this is rare to see today in film with CGI being used for everything. I believe the resulting effect is one that cannot be replicated with CGI today, and therefore is all the more magical to behold – especially because it worked so well.

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The other magical quality of this film is that, yet again, the perfect leading lady came along to elevate the material to another level. Brooke’s face is so expressive, so luminous and so young that she is captivating without eating the scenery. Indeed, her understated performance and Malick’s brilliant direction make this film timeless in a way that has stood the test of time. It is intended to be a historical picture, but not one from 1978 or from 1916 (when the story was set); DAYS OF HEAVEN possesses it’s own time period if that makes any sense. A time when America was still a frontier and people roamed it searching for their destinies besides wanting to become a movie or singing star. When we were still bound to the earth as if it were a part of us. When nature was largely still in control of the ebb and flow of people’s lives and people looked old by their early 40’s, if they made it to that ripe old age.

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And maybe that’s what sticks in the mind so much about DAYS OF HEAVEN for me. It’s a movie that works without any pretense, the storyline being almost incidental to the imagery and portrayal of characters who occupy physical space before us the way so few of us occupy it in our own lives today. It’s so hard to fathom the America in this movie because we are so far removed from nature in our daily lives. So when we see it projected in such a heightened state of reality, something deep within us (our collective humanity) tugs at our souls, telling us we’ve lost something. Nature is a character in DAYS OF HEAVEN as much as Adams, Gere or Sam Shepherd (the farmer). And for a few glorious hours, one can still get lost in the beauty of the natural world around us, albeit from a screen.

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It’s safe to say a movie like DAYS OF HEAVEN would not be made today. Then again, maybe some aspiring young director will take his or her cue from the master and bring back naturalism in all it’s bygone glory. I hope for them that they find an equally talented actress as Malick was able to find in Brooke Adams. A natural beauty whose ability to convey the world around her merely in her movement and the look in her eyes is as magical as the hours of dawn and dusk that still manage to take some people’s breath away. And when they do, I hope they use peanut shells instead of pixels to recreate the locust!

 

Maika Monroe: It Follows

29 Mar

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This weekend’s breakout movie hit is IT FOLLOWS, a slasher movie that begs, borrows and steals from many different genre classics that is surprisingly more than the some of its stolen parts. But more than anything that makes IT FOLLOWS work is its star, Maika Monroe. And boy does the director know it because a fair portion of the movie rests on this rising young star’s face in close-up. So much so that you not only know the movie lives or dies by its lead-actresses understated performance, but that the movie-makers are relying on the character’s point-of-view more than any other narrative device to suck you into this new twist on the seemingly inexhaustible zombie movie.

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Maika is perfectly cast in the role of the beleaguered heroine. Like so many horror movie scream queens before her, evil itself is going to pay for her having sex. The twist here is that once she has sex and is being stalked by evil (conveniently passed on by her lover to her) she has to have sex AGAIN to pass it on to the next person. I won’t spoil the twist to this ultra-simple device because that would be to take away from the enjoyment of seeing how Maika’s character is going to get away – or not – from her apparent fate in this moody, gloomy, often existential exercise in ultra-low (read: no) budget horror fare that is going to make a ton of money one it’s limited theatrical run is over and it haunts cable forever.

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Now here’s the good part: IT FOLLOWS works on a couple different levels because the filmmaker’s know their genre and know their audience. There is, in this order, the ever-popular loss of innocence, existential malaise of teenage ensemble cast followed by teenage angst like you wouldn’t believe, general fear of the unknown and, last but not least, distrust of anybody over 30. The genius is that the filmmaker’s STEAL from some unexpected, classic psychological thriller sources dating back to the 60’s – Michelangelo Antonioni’s BLOW UP (1966) being my favorite. In fact, they use the classic BLOW UP as a template for exuding dread – many, many moody POV shots of rustling trees, lakes and nature in all its glorious indifference to our collective human fate that for a minute I thought I was watching (or wanting, at least) to be watching the counter-culture classic.

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Now here’s the bad part: IT FOLLOWS is so self-aware of who their target audience is (tweens into early teens and maybe a sprinkling of college-age) that it misses the opportunity to become a true genre classic because of that narrow focus. I get it, of course. Not many people my age seem to go out to movies anymore, let alone will blow good money on a movie marketed at teenagers with the requisite scream-shots that have become so cliched after BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY have blazed a path for films shot on digital video with next to no production value. But there again, I think the filmmaker’s (either consciously or unconsciously) have sold themselves short. They obviously know their craft and have the sense to steal from the best, albeit with a twist here and their to merit the hype and attention their getting. What sucks to me is that they didn’t take it one more level up, and by that I mean do what LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008) filmmaker’s did and make this a story for the ages – all the ages.

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But back to the best part about IT FOLLOWS and that is it’s breakout star, Maika Monroe. She’s young, beautiful and virtuous in an age that is cynical, a generation that is predisposed to nihilism over optimism, and seem to know something that generations before her didn’t know until they got into their 40’s: that the burden of everyday life for some is incredibly hard and will never be understood by the majority. And therein lies the rub for both Maika’s character and the success or failure of IT FOLLOWS as an enduring classic in the psychological-horror genre that predominates our culture today. America, at least a strong minority, understand that things are not getting better but getting worse. Depression, paranoia and affliction (of whatever variety) plague our youngest citizens and the future, while forever uncertain, seems to become finite at a much younger age than to any generation before it. Not only does the dread of growing up and becoming a zombie (i.e. an adult with adult responsibilities) present clear and present danger in this movie (as it did in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN) it’s as if the characters are being preyed upon by time itself. Slow, creeping, inevitable time eating away your youth as it heads straight for you. And that’s the one, definitive universal theme at the end of the movie that took me by surprise and made IT FOLLOWS worth watching.

Because what’s worse than growing old (here considered an affliction) in this modern world? The filmmaker’s know. It’s growing old alone.