Friday, August 7, 2015

Movie Review: Irrational Man

By Pamela Zoslov

In 2008, Woody Allen said that he isn't an intellectual. “I'm basically a low-culture person,” he said to a group of film critics, including me. "I'm not saying I'm an insensitive Neanderthal. But basically, I'm the guy who's watching the playoffs and drinking a Beck's. I'm not at the opera. I've gotten a lot of mileage out of people thinking I'm an intellectual." Here is what I wrote at the time:

If fans have mistaken a beer-drinking, Knicks-watchings shlub for an intellectual, it's understandable: Allen's movies are studded with references to Kafka, Freud and Tolstoy, and his filmography includes homages to Bergman and Fellini. But beneath it all, he insists, beats the heart of a comedy writer. During his nightclub days, audiences assumed, based on his bookish appearance, that he was an academic type, and the persona stuck. When he wrote jokes, he says, it seemed funny to drop names like "Kierkegaard." "I learned to utilize the intellectual patois," he says. "It's just a skill. People think of me seriously than I really am.” (Sadly, many people — myself firmly excluded — now have darker opinions of Woody Allen.)

Allen's new film, his 50th by the way, is Irrational Man. It gives voice to Allen's lifelong philosophical questing, while also laughing at itself for doing so. The screenplay doesn't merely drop the names of Kierkegaard and Kant and Heidegger and Nietzsche, it wrestles extensively with issues of ethics, existence, morality and meaning.

The seeker is Abe Lucas, a philosophy professor played by Joaquin Phoenix. Lucas joins the faculty of Braylin, a liberal-arts college in Rhode Island, and his reputation precedes him. Dark, moody and handsome, Abe is said to be haunted by a divorce, or the death of his friend in Iraq, who was beheaded or, alternately, stepped on a land mine. Abe drinks to excess and broods ceaselessly. Jill (Emma Stone), a gifted undergraduate, is particularly taken with the troubled professor, to the annoyance of her boyfriend, Roy (Jamie Blackley). Roy predicts, accurately, that Jill will fall in love with Abe.

Jill, however, has competition for Abe's affections. Rita (Parker Posey), an unhappily married science professor, determines to get Abe into her bed. Rita also wants to run away with Abe to Spain, a destination she considers “romantic.”

Blocked as a writer and as a lover, Abe is too tormented to perform sexually with Rita, who offers to “unblock” him. For a while, Abe even resists becoming more than friends with his smitten student, Jill. The college community witnesses the depth of Abe's gloom when Jill and Roy take him to a party, where he plays a one-man game of Russian Roulette, spinning the cylinder and pulling the trigger not once, but twice.

His behavior is alarming, but it's catnip to Jill. “He's so self-destructive, but so brilliant,” she muses. “There's something about his pain that's exciting. He's truly an original thinker.” Allen winks at the romantic naïvete of young women, but also makes Jill the smartest person in the film, the only one who sees what's going on.

At a diner one day, Abe and Jill overhear a conversation that inspires Abe to consider something radical: committing a murder. With echoes of Crime and Punishment, Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors and Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, the plan to commit a seemingly motiveless murder rejuvenates Abe. Suddenly he has a zest for life and love and sex and hearty breakfasts. He even wins a prize for Jill at an amusement park (that setting also recalling Strangers on a Train). Like Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, Abe feels like an extraordinary man, one whose act of killing will make the world a better place. He's thrilled to be making transition from “man of thought” to “man of action.” He stalks his prey, feeling fully alive while planning to take a life. What seemed like genius now looks like madness.

“Murder comedy” is something Allen does well, notably in the Marshall Brickman collaboration Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993). This latest dark comedy is a little thinner, and a bit abrupt in its ending, but it's beautifully made, as always with Allen, whose basic filmmaking craftsmanship is often taken for granted. The plot is brisk and absorbing, the casting is perfection, and the music — classic mid-'60s jazz by the Ramsey Lewis Trio — could not be more apt. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

"He Didn't Have No Weapon"

On Friday afternoon, March 20, people slowly trickled by the Parkwood Grocery store in Cleveland's Glenville neighborhood, where Brandon Jones, 18, was shot and killed by police early Thursday morning after a reported theft. Standing next to a makeshift utility-pole memorial, his aunt, Michelle, talked of the pain of losing her nephew, and the shock of learning of his death. "My family were all screaming and crying, saying, 'It's him!'"

"He was wrong," she says of the young man who was known by his middle name, David. "But they didn't have to kill him. He didn't have no weapon." Her children are missing their cousin. "How do I tell my kids? They keep asking, 'Where's Dave? Where's Dave?'"

(Photos and text by Pamela Zoslov)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Movie Review: The Wrecking Crew

Coming of age in the '60s meant experiencing a lot of disillusionment. Cigarettes, it turned out, weren't good for you. Leaders weren't murdered by lone gunmen. Nobody attacked our ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. A president, despite his denials, was a crook. And, your favorite bands did not all live together in a house, and they didn't play on their own records.

Anyone over the age of nine knew that the Monkees, the made-for-television group, didn't play the instruments they mimed on TV, but what about the Byrds, a group revered for its musicianship? Wasn't Dennis Wilson banging the drums on the Beach Boys' “Good Vibrations”? What about the Association, Jan and Dean, the Mamas and Papas, Simon and Garfunkel and Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass?

The truth is complicated, and has more to do with the record business in the '60s than with the bands. Time is money, and producers, rather than herding the squabbling, less experienced band members, would hire the top studio session players, who not only could play the music brilliantly, but could also improvise and arrange, adding that catchy bass line, for instance, that would ensure a hit song. (Think of “Windy” and “The Beat Goes On.”) The practice harmonized with the music business' migration from New York to L.A., the land of swaying palm trees and illusion.

The top players, an anonymous crew of about 20 versatile virtuosos, became known latterly as the Wrecking Crew, supposedly because it was said their rock-and-roll playing would “wreck” the music industry. The group included some future solo stars: guitarist Glen Campbell, who played on “everything,” and keyboardist Leon Russell, who says playing on demos earned him $10 a song, which meant “I got to eat that day.” The talented session players are the focus of The Wrecking Crew, a marvelously entertaining documentary by Denny Tedesco. The film was completed in 2008 but delayed from general release because of record companies' exorbitant fee demands for the song excerpts.

Tedesco is the son of the late guitarist Tommy Tedesco, and the film is in part a tribute to his father, a humble, affable fellow shown in home movies giving funny musical talks about his session-playing days. Tedesco, known as the “King of L.A. guitar soloists,” had a long career even after the Wrecking Crew days, playing music for innumerable TV shows and films. His son's film features illuminating interviews with the musicians (many who have since died), producers and recording artists. Like Dorothy's Toto, it pulls back the curtain on the cynical machinery behind popular music. It is a companion piece to the documentaries Standing in the Shadows of Motown,  about the Motown house band the Funk Brothers, and 20 Feet From Stardom, about backup singers.

No one should be surprised that singing groups like Sonny & Cher, the Righteous Brothers or the Fifth Dimension were backed by studio musicians on their records, but with rock bands, there was sometimes wounded pride. Cheery Micky Dolenz, an actor before being recruited for the Monkees, always recognized that the group was a TV act, but Peter Tork, a musician, was disillusioned when he showed up at a recording session with his guitar and was told to sit in the corner. He was naïve then, Tork admits, adding that now he would do exactly what those producers did. (The Monkees did eventually learn to play their own live dates.) The Beach Boys were a chimera that might be better described as “The Brian Wilson Project.” Wilson relished working with the Wrecking Crew players, who could execute his visionary arrangements. When he was just Jim, the Byrds' Roger McGuinn was a session player, and he loved playing with the facile Wrecking Crew on the Byrds albums. That's Glen Campbell, by the way, playing the distinctive solo on “Mr. Tambourine Man.” 

The film profiles the individual Wrecking Crew musicians, many of whom are on hand to reminisce. There is Carole Kaye, the ensemble's only woman,who is one of America's most talented, prolific and least known bassists. She started out as a bebop jazz musician and contributed her genius to scores of records by the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Joe Cocker, Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, Frank Zappa and many more. Think of her when you hear her distinctive bass line on “Wichita Lineman,” a song she says “meant a lot to me.”

Saxophonist Plas Johnson, a New Orleans-based jazz player, was recruited by Capitol Records in the mid-'50s after backing B.B. King and Johnny Otis, and played on countless records and movie soundtracks (that's him on the “Pink Panther Theme” and “The Odd Couple”). Guitarist Bill Pitman, now 95, a session man discovered and brought into rock and roll by Phil Spector. Pitman is known for the distinctive ukulele on “Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head” as well as his work on numerous rock albums, TV shows and movies. Drummer Earl Palmer, an influential New Orleans jazz musician with a low regard for rock and roll, backed Fats Domino, Little Richard and other NOLA artists before joining the Wrecking Crew, playing and recording nonstop during the ensemble's heyday and going on to work continuously in film and TV. (Palmer died in 2008.)

Life on the Wrecking Crew had its  benefits, including steady work and high pay; Carole Kaye recalls that at one time, “I was making more money than the president of the United States.” But the nonstop session work also wreaked havoc on family life, leading to divorces and children rarely seen. Then there was the record companies' cupidity. A great many instrumental albums of the Wrecking Crews' music were released, bearing the names of fictional groups like The Marketts. The session musicians received no liner credit, and the album jackets featured photos of clean-cut young men purported to be the artists.

The revelations of studio legerdemain might be surprising, but the essence of the hit song is the song -- the gorgeous lyrics of the Byrds' Gene Clark, Jimmy Webb's transcendental poetry, Brian Wilson's aching yearnings for eternal summer. The studio polish just enhanced their expression. Many of the bands of the era were accomplished players -- just not up to the one-take perfection producers demanded.

The early '70s were more artist-driven, and such fakery was no longer acceptable. Musicians began bringing their own sidemen to recording sessions. The golden decade of the Wrecking Crew came to a close. “It was never meant to last, this magical bubble,” songwriter Jimmy Webb says wistfully. -- Pamela Zoslov 2015

Friday, March 28, 2014

Back Issues: The Hustler Magazine Story

Michael Lee Nirenberg says he had no idea his dad, Bill Nirenberg, had been “a pornographer.” The senior Nirenberg worked for many years as art director of Hustler magazine, and is one of the sources for Michael's excellent documentary, Back Issues: The Hustler Magazine Story, playing this weekend as part of the Cleveland International Film Festival. The film provides a riveting history of Hustler's raunchy empire, from a four-page black-and-white newsletter to a multimillion-dollar media enterprise, and an insiders' view of what it was like to work for the mercurial, volatile and very shrewd Larry Flynt.

Nirenberg has asssembled many of the prominent players in the skin-mag trade to reflect on Hustler and Flynt, including porn star/mogul Ron Jeremy, photographer Suze Randall, friendly competitor and collaborator Al Goldstein of Screw magazine, a slew of former staff artists, writers and editors, even the Cincinnati prosecutor who brought Flynt to trial on obscenity charges in 1976 and still thinks the 25-year sentence Flynt received – since overturned – was fair. A news clip of anchorman Tom Brokaw contemptuously pronouncing Flynt a “smut peddler” is retrospectively amusing.

The speakers provide interesting insight into what made Hustler, the unreservedly crude, calculatedly tasteless magazine, unique. Ron Jeremy provides this assessment: Playboy models represented “the girl next door,” who the average male reader considered unattainable; Bob Guccione's Penthouse featured the “rich bitch” fashion model, also unattainable; and Hustler proffered a “raunchy, horny,” more down-market girl, who might be at home on the back of a motorcycle. “I got a shot with this girl,” thinks Joe Average, the one-handed reader.

The magazine built its notoriety on “pink,” the spread-legged, gynecological photos the “classier” magazines wouldn't run, as well as the tasteless but admittedly funny cartoons. (A former staffer aptly describes Hustler as “National Lampoon with more titties.”) One reason Hustler could publish these pictures, as well as bold political exposés, gross and violent imagery, nude pictures of Jackie O., and scabrous features like “Asshole of the Month,” was that Flynt eschewed mainstream advertising, relying almost entirely on adult ads and newsstand sales. He also refused cigarette ads, so was free to print sharp ad parodies like the one that read “Welcome to Marlboro Country” over a photo of patients in a cancer ward.

There is much ground to cover in the story of Larry Flynt, and Nirenberg puts it together in a swift package, interspersing the revealing interviews with fast flips through Hustler's back pages, as well as the many headlines accrued by the notorious Mr. Flynt, Hustler's seemingly immortal clown prince. We hear about Flynt's conversion in 1978 to evangelical Christianity, under the auspices of Ruth Carter Stapleton, in 1977; he remained “born again” only briefly, later declaring himself an atheist. In the film, he says he has bipolar disorder.

There is his marriage to his much-loved fourth wife, Althea, a former stripper who ran Hustler with an iron fist while Flynt was recovering from injuries suffered from an attempted assassination, and died in 1987 of AIDS. Flynt, partially paralyzed, has required a wheelchair since the 1978 shooting. He was in almost constant pain for years, which caused him to become addicted to painkillers; multiple surgeries finally eliminated his pain, but medications caused him to suffer a stroke, which has made his speech slurred. There were insane, coke-fueled years at the magazine, vividly described by former staffers, insane, wildly extravagant photo shoots, explosive editors who threw things at employees. There was Flynt's short-lived run for President. And there are many more astonishing episodes in the life of Flynt, some only glancingly touched on in this film.

The most interesting chapter of Flynt's life concerns his emergence as an unlikely First Amendment champion. His high-profile legal battles made him the subject of famous Constitutional law cases. One argument resulting from the Cincinnati prosecution reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and became the subject of the movie The People vs. Larry Flynt, starring Woody Harrelson. Another legal triumph was Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, in which Jerry Falwell sued Hustler for libel over a parody ad that described the evangelist as having lost his virginity to his mother in an outhouse. Though the page was clearly labeled “ad parody,” Falwell sued, and the Court held that public figures cannot recover damages for emotional distress based on parodies, an important Constitutional precedent that is still, as Flynt points out, taught in law schools today. (Interestingly, Falwell and Flynt later became friends.)

There have been several films, fiction and non-fiction, about Flynt, but Back Issues provides a unique behind-the-scenes view of the stressful day-to-day workings at Hustler — not, save for the “pink” and the fake excrement, so different from other magazines. "It was a lot of fun and a lot of pressure," says Bill Nirenberg, who went on to do other things but, he says, "nothing as exciting."

Late in the film, the interviewees provide a wistful lament for the way things used to be, before the Internet made pornography so easily accessible, and people could still be shocked. “We were lucky,” says photographer Suze Randall, “to have taboos to break.”

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel


By Pamela Zoslov

“Love/hate relationship with Wes” and “Can't stand quirky for quirky's sake” are the titles of two contentious comment threads on the movie website Participants in these conversations vociferously debate the merits of director-writer Wes Anderson, who is known for his quirky, stylized films, the eighth of which is The Grand Budapest Hotel. Set in an aging, once-elegant hotel in the mythical Republic of Zubrowka, it is perhaps the apotheosis of Anderson's stagebound, confectionary style. And, like the Courtisane au Chocolate, the fancy pastry that figures in the movie's Byzantine plot, it may be too cloying for some.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Typecasting: "Populaire"

By Pamela Zoslov

The clack-clack-clack-ding! that punctuates Régis Roinsard's Populaire sets off pleasant waves of nostalgia, if, like me, you miss the satisfying sounds and feeling of a manual typewriter. A stylistic and thematic hommage to American romantic comedies of the late 1950s, the movie tells the story of Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François), a shy young woman from a Normandy village who, tired of working in her father's general store and unwilling to marry the son of the town mechanic, dreams of being a secretary. She practices tirelessly on a portable Triumph typewriter. According to Rose, “A secretary means being modern.”

Friday, September 13, 2013

Jane's Addiction

Movie Review: Austenland

By Pamela Zoslov

Keri Russell and her would-be suitors.

I'll be honest: I never really "got" the obsession with Jane Austen. I read the novels required in high school and college — Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, some others I've forgotten — and found nothing magical in their themes of love and courtship among the landed gentry and genteel poor in 18th-century England. I realize Austen's prose is prized for its ironic tone and wry commentary on marriage as a way of elevating a young woman's social standing, but if I want social satire, I'll take Anita Loos. I have never been a fan of costume drama, and the “Janeite” cult that has spawned innumerable Austen film adaptations and meta-books and movies about women obsessed with Austen, eludes me.

I can understand, though, why Jane Hayes, the heroine of Austenland, is fixated on Austen's novels, in particular the aloof romantic ideal of Mr. Darcy as portrayed by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Jane (charming Keri Russell of Waitress fame) is in her thirties, unmarried, and all her boyfriends have been disappointing. None of them, of course, can compare to the fictional Fitzwilliam Darcy, a life-size cardboard standup of whom — in the guise of the chin-challenged Colin Firth — stands proudly in Jane's frilly, Austen-bedecked bedroom. So frustrated by Jane's fixation is one suitor that he hauls off and punches Firth's smug paperboard face.

Austenland is adapted from Shannon Hale's novel of the same title, a breezy “chick lit” story that has Jane Hayes inheriting from her wealthy aunt a paid trip to Austenland, a kind of Jane Austen theme park offering an immersive “Austen experience” at an English country estate, complete with Regency gowns and manners, pheasant hunting, needlepoint, games of whist, and a simulated romantic happy ending with one of several hired actors. The movie was directed and co-scripted (with the book's author) by Jerusha Hess, creator with husband Jared Hess of Napoleon Dynamite, and the pairing of her absurdist sensibility with the novel's light premise is promising. Humorous energy pervades the opening, which dispenses with the story of Jane's aunt's bequest and has Jane, in romantic desperation, spending her last dollar on the Austenland adventure, with the help of a sleazy-looking travel agent reminiscent of Napoleon Dynamite's stuck-in-the-'70s uncle.

Hess' absurdist style surrenders all too quickly to bland silliness as we meet Jane's fellow Austenland visitor, a blowsy middle-aged doyenne calling herself “Miss Elizabeth Charming.” Elizabeth, who is looking for sexy fun rather than an Austen experience, is played by Jennifer Coolidge, whose outsize manner and looks have added amusing punctuation to several Christopher Guest comedies. Coolidge's character here, spouting witless lines in a stagy Eliza Doolittle accent, is cartoonish rather than funny, though I did laugh when she gushed, “Look, a car from the 1800s!”

Elizabeth and Jane are whisked off to the estate and Jane learns from the evil proprietess, Mrs. Wattelsbrook (Jane Seymour), that because she's paid only for the basic package, her accommodations are considerably more humble than the others guests'. Each client is given a scripted narrative, and Jane, owing to her lack of funds, is cruelly cast as “an orphan of no fortune.” She's dubbed “Miss Erstwhile” — another way of saying “has-been” — and relegated to sleeping in the servants' quarters and wearing drab gray gowns. Jane's experience, it seems, is to be more Jane Eyre than Jane Austen.

The gentlemen who populate this fantasy retreat are Col. Andrews (James Callis), Mr. Wattlesbrook (Rupert Vansittart), the proprietess' old, libidinous husband; and Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild), the supercilious “Mr. Darcy” type. Jane, ostracized by the other guests and players, takes her romantic fantasy where she finds it, in the arms of the stable hand, Martin (Bret McKenzie). Jane thinks she's having a defiant“off-plan” romance as Martin shares with her his love of Billy Ocean songs and enables her to witness the birth of a foal — “the miracle of life” he says in his New Zealand accent that Jane somehow mistakes for British. After enlisting Elizabeth to fancy up her hair and gowns, Jane becomes an object of desire, pursued by some of the other actors, including Mr. Nobley. Who is real and who is acting in what Nobley calls “a dangerous game”? In this story, the lines between fiction and reality are blurred.

The funny movie lurking in this premise, suggested by a goofy end-credits sequence set to Nelly's “Hot in Here,” is never quite realized. The film is wobbily paced and only fitfully amusing, relying too heavily on Coolidge's malapropisms and heaving bosom. And yet the movie has its charms – a likeable cast, a zesty spirit and a blithe optimism that's balm for the romantically wounded.