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Posts Tagged ‘murder’

Bully

Well, I watched this thing because Michael Pitt is in it. But it’s a movie that really didn’t need to be made. Apparently the whole story is in a book by investigative reporter Jim Schutze. Why anybody thought it belonged on the screen, except as a vehicle for some crude camera angles featuring crotches and butts, is a puzzling question. It’s based on a real event, the murder of Bobby Kent by what came to be called the Broward County Seven, with an amount of verisimilitude that is debated by critics. (Actually, the most unbelievable thing about this film is that it won a couple of awards.)

Basically, it’s the story of two friends, Marty the surfer and Bobby the bully, who has kept Marty in sado-masochistic crypto-homosexual thrall, brutalizing and humiliating him, since they were kids. The director said in a print interview, “Bobby and Marty were such a couple of knuckleheads, they had all these things going on. They posed as a gay couple and they would go to a gay club and hustle gays.”

There’s no doubt that kids do this kind of stuff. I once knew a Vietnam vet, from a typical middle-class “good” family, who as a teenager used to hang out at the Alamo and charge grown men $100 for the privilege of sucking him off. One of his johns even bought him a motorbike. (My friend, of course, denied being anything other than a genuine heterosexual who just needed some walking-around money.) And it wasn’t only the boys who were up to no good. Another of the numerous articles about the film says that the real Ali and Heather, in their first year of high school, were hookers working for a pimp/cop.

A reviewer named Wesley says, “…the parents of these teens were completely non-responsive to all the warning signs of their children’s behavior. This murder could have been completely avoided if just one of them acted but most of them were completely blind to how bad things were getting with their children.” Bullshit. Spoken by a non-parent, for sure. These kids all have Eddie Haskell syndrome, showing saccharine mildness toward the grownups. Having been both a teenager and a parent, I know how easy it is for kids to keep their families clueless. The bully Bobby, especially, is a lamb around his father, who is so supportive he wants to buy his son a stereo equipment business. This kid has everything, and he’s an evil psychopath.

Some small attempt is made to explain how the kids in this crowd got so screwed up. Heather relates how her grandpa killed her grandma and locked himself in the bedroom for two days, drinking and performing necrophiliac acts. That messed up Heather’s mother, and thus, Heather and her brother. But by and large, what we see is kids with an enormous sense of entitlement and plenty of all the allegedly right stuff, including intact families with caring parents who try to do the right thing.

In the most violent scenes, rap music always plays on the sound track. But it would never occur to me to blame or illegalize the ugliest music in the world, just because these assholes love it. What really pisses me off is that these kids are shown constantly smoking pot and dropping acid, as if those are the causative factors that turn them into moral imbeciles. But the film doesn’t mention the steroids that the real Bobby and Marty are both said to have used, and which probably had a much greater effect on their warped personalities. It’s a true insult to the thousands and thousands of marijuana smokers who never did a violent deed in their lives, and to the seekers of spiritual enlightenment through entheogens. Taking LSD isn’t the problem; taking LSD to do stupid stuff like play Mortal Kombat is the problem. Therein lies the true drug abuse.

The trouble starts when Marty acquires a girlfriend, Lisa, who immediately gets pregnant and threatens to break the Marty/Bobby bond. Feeling ornery, Bobby hooks up with Lisa’s best friend Ali. They start off all sweet and nice, but he makes her watch gay porn and punches her, insisting that she say he’s the best she ever had. Lisa later remarks, “He’s too weird even for Ali, and she’s into everything.” Next thing we know, Lisa recruits a whole cabal into her plan to kill Bobby. Two of the kids have never even met him, but hey, whatever.

Michael Pitt shows up as Donny, who likes to have hot wax dripped onto his chest while in flagrante delicto. He also French-kisses a dog. Donny has one of the few comic lines. He’s been sitting around watching TV with clothespins attached to his nipples. When they others start talking about the planned murder he leaves the room saying, “You people need professional help.” Donny gets to vomit, too. In fact, just about everybody gets to vomit in this masterpiece. Marty gets to cry and drool copiously while confessing to Lisa his abject servitude to Bobby. Then she kisses him passionately. Let’s hear it for true love.

The stunningly attractive Kelli Garner, who plays Heather, has crooked teeth and I like it that she hasn’t gotten them fixed. There’s kind of an interesting bit where Marty suggests to his parents that they relocate, not telling them it’s because he badly needs to escape Bobby. But they aren’t interested in moving. Ironically, Bobby’s father thinks Marty is the bad influence on his precious son, and he threatens to move his family to a different neighborhood.

So anyway, the plan to kill Bobby gets underway, and one of the girls has another funny line: “The hit man needs a ride.” The hit man is a supposedly super-tough kid who they bring in as a consultant and backup. Haranguing the little group of deadly clowns, he tells them, “You gotta understand some shit,” and it sounds so bogus. Real, authentic swearers don’t emphasize the swear word itself, they just slip it into the sentence. A real, authentic swearer would say, “You gotta understand some shit.”

Lisa is a total flake, first the cheerleader and chief instigator of the murder, then she immediately falls apart, has olfactory hallucinations, thinking she smells blood; gets all hysterical; and goes around compulsively confessing. Although confessing isn’t the right word, since it’s not remorse she feels, but anxiety lest the body was not adequately hidden. What she’s trying to do is drag yet another girlfriend into it, asking her for a ride to the murder scene to check on things.

Reviewers vary widely in their opinions about how much “exploitation” is involved in Bully. The answer is: lots. For these kids, life is one big orgy. They’re always lying around, minimally clothed or naked, entwined with each other like a nest of rattlesnakes. Some viewers object because Lisa conducts a long telephone conversation, gratuitously topless. It’s hard to understand what the problem is, since her bosom is virtually nonexistent. The guy who plays her cousin has bigger tits, and nobody complains about him being topless in one scene.

For some reason, and I rarely do this, I checked out some of the extra stuff piled onto the DVD. I’d read somewhere that director Larry Clark is a former heroin addict who has done time for shooting someone, so figured I’d see what he had to say, in the attached interview. Forget it! Clark is one of those excruciatingly boring talkers who can’t enunciate two words in a row without interjecting “uh” in between. To hell with that.

Also, there’s a collection of the mug shots or prison photos of the real Broward County Seven. Ho-hum. But here it is, finally, the best thing on the whole disk, a little feature called “How the Actors Landed Their Roles.” Each one of them in turn explains deadpan and matter-of-factly that he or she got the part by sleeping with Larry. Now, that’s funny.

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After Innocence

by Pat Hartman

Generally speaking, law-abiding folk who wind up in prison face a much worse time than the career criminals. We know this. But imagine, first, being accused and convicted of a heinous crime you didn’t commit. Then, for the rest of your life as an inmate, imagine being hounded, under the guise of rehabilitation, to make a confession. For the innocent, one of the worst ordeals is that the staff won’t let you just do the time, they’ve got to mess with your head. When the administration regards you as its number one challenge, and years of “therapy” are aimed at making you admit that you did something you didn’t do, that pretty much qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment.

When I get that I’ve-lived-my-life-all-wrong feeling, and think about untrodden paths, the one that inspires the most regret is that I didn’t go to law school. It takes a village-equivalent of attorneys to spring an innocent person from prison. I should have been one of those pain-in-the-ass lawyers.

Of course, documentation doesn’t hurt, either. Jessica Sanders wrote, directed, and produced this film; Marc Simon wrote and produced it. These stories are only a few from the 150 people the Innocence Project had helped to free, when After Innocence was made. Apparently, the exonerees are a very lucky subclass, because at least their cases did involve some kind of biological evidence, whereas many cases don’t. If I understand this correctly, only a fraction of those who want to contest a wrongful conviction are able to, because DNA evidence would be their only hope, only no DNA samples were taken. Then, it seems they are a fortunate subgroup again, because the DNA evidence was actually preserved long enough, and conscientiously enough, to be still useful. In many jurisdictions, the survival rate of evidence is not good.

One guy reacquaints himself with the world only to find that, after 23 years of breathing a recycled processed atmosphere, he’s allergic to fresh air. One told the judge that the administration of justice in their state is a crock of shit. One says he had “the worst lawyer on the planet.” There’s a guy whose father, a highway patrolman, wouldn’t visit him in prison. Another is a former police officer, and he believes thousands of people are incarcerated who should not be. In one case, the guy’s freedom literally hung by a hair. Another says, “I’m one of the strongest human beings ever created. I know that now.” One guy amazingly keeps a sense of humor, joking about reporters who ask, “Are you angry?”

Well, they have every reason to be angry. They would be serving life sentences, or dead by execution, if not for the Innocence Project, founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. The men whose stories are told here were cleared, or at least freed, by DNA evidence. A lot of times, exonerees can’t even get their records expunged. That’s one of the problems with life after innocence – there’s always residual trauma.

The system’s refusal to back up and correct its mistakes is only one of the many ugly offshoots of the basic problem, namely, too many wrongful convictions. I mean, one is too many, but this is getting ridiculous. The system is so recalcitrant, even people who have been proven innocent can’t get out.

And why should the establishment be so damn stubborn? After all, who benefits when the wrong person is convicted of a crime? Certainly not the victim of that crime, whose rapist or killer goes unpunished. Not the other, future victims of that criminal. And it creates another whole group of victims, the innocent person who is put away, and the family, and anybody else who depended on them. The only benefactor is the corporation that gets paid by the taxpayers to keep this person locked up. What kind of a way is that to run a justice system?

In this film we see parents who thought they would never hug their sons again, which is always nice. We see drawers full of letters from those the Innocence Project is unable to help. You say to yourself, “How could there be that many wrongly convicted people?” But, knowing that DNA is considered infallible, why would any convict with certain knowledge of his own guilt, bother to request DNA testing? We see clips from the Phil Donahue show, and an interview. His huge fanbase helped a lot in raising public awareness of this problem. Publicity is important not only to help the imprisoned innocent, but to spread the word about the possibility and consequences of wrongful conviction to potential jurors, which includes just about everybody.

Anger is only one of many emotions felt by exonerees. Some try to understand the greater purpose behind so much pain. I would imagine that for someone freed after a couple of decades, there would be a very strong impulse to create distance from the experience and try to move on. Even so, for many victims of the system, to move on is to take up the cause and become activists. When they were inside, they hoped someone outside would take an interest. Now that they’re outside, they do take an interest in the wrongfully convicted who have, so far, been left behind.

Here’s a scary fact: the single leading cause of wrongful conviction is good old eyewitness identification. In a film which overflows with human interest stories, one of the oddest and most heartening is of the woman who apologized to the man imprisoned by her testimony. They got to be friends, and she became an activist too. She tells an audience, “Change one person’s life and you change the world.”

We need to get back to where “presumption of innocence” meant something, say the proponents of what some call the “new Civil Rights Movement.” We need legislation to make states submit the DNA they have, to the national database for comparison, which could find the real rapists and killers.

The truly guilty, having paid their debt to society, are released on parole, and society then performs its obligations to them. They’re entitled to a whole range of social services to help them get back on their feet. The exonerees get don’t even get that much.

One of the things they fight for is compensation, for themselves and others like them, who have had big chunks bitten out of their lives. It would be nice to just break even, to be able to pay back the $150,000 your parents took out of their retirement fund to finance your defense, for instance. You’d think someone in this situation would at least be owed the back pay for the jobs they were removed from.

There are some bright spots in the movie: a prosecutor asks for forgiveness from the guy he put away, and a judge smiles as he signs the order to vacate a sentence. A district attorney apologizes. A Department of Corrections director realizes that his regime has been part of the problem, and needs to take on some accountability. A governor commutes the sentences of all death row inmates.

And then there’s an official who insists that an exoneree’s innocence is irrelevant, because “the system worked exactly like it’s supposed to.” Well, duh! That’s what we’re saying – this is how the system is supposed to work, the very thing that’s wrong with it. When a violent crime has taken place, as long as the outcome is a that a body occupies a cell, it too often doesn’t matter which body. That’s a system which needs to be fixed!

Of course, as we now know, not every aspect of every DNA test is infallible, due to methodology and interpretation and one thing and another. At least, not every instance of DNA testing can infallibly prove what somebody wants it to prove or claims that it proves. But I appreciate the spirit behind what one of the exonerees says:

“DNA is God’s signature… never a forgery, and his checks don’t bounce.”

Related:
Free Tim Masters Because
Lights…Camera…Freedom?
The Innocence Project

Note: The After Innocence DVD includes “Pearl Jam performing with exonerees Wilton Dedge and Vincent Moto,” and footage from the film’s Sundance premiere.

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dance-hall

Apparently, this film was at some point titled Shame Shanty, and it’s kind of a shame that it was changed. The story and screenplay are by Lenny Bruce

There are evocative scenes of taxi dancers picking the pockets of the men who pay them to shuffle around the dance floor. There’s a girl-on-girl brawl. One of the girls hustles a mark for the last $70 she needs for her mother’s surgery. Vaudevillian Sally Marr (in real life, Lenny Bruce’s mom) dances the Charleston in a scene that should be included in the material sent out to intergalactic sentient beings.

One of the club boss’s henchmen is Joe Piro, who may or may not be the same guy who became disco king “Killer Joe.” Rose, the hooker, is Honey Harlow (in real life, married to Lenny Bruce). She tries to steal a mark’s wallet. He objects, and Vinnie (that’s Lenny) kills him. They have to get the body out of there undetected. Federal authorities are interested in the dance hall owner, who is suspected of smuggling diamonds. An undercover agent, posing as a sailor, is sent in.

A gangster, whose tongue was cut out, gets out of prison, and has a quarter million dollars worth of gold hidden away. The dance hall boss throws a party for him and gives him Rose for a welcome-back present. Uh-oh! Vinnie swings into action, kills the boss, seizes the gangster, shoots it out with the undercover agent, and gets killed.
dance-hall-racket

Related:
Dry Hustle

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bad-timing

Under the credits, a man and a woman wander through a museum in Vienna, comporting themselves like lovers. We get close-up views of luscious romantic Klimt paintings and then – a Schiele canvas, in which a man desperately holds onto a woman who looks very much like she wants to get away.

He is American research psychologist Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) and she’s an American too, Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell), who comes and goes across Austria’s border and has a husband over there in Czechoslovakia. Russell is beyond superb. While directing the movie, Nicholas Roeg fell in love with her, and you can sorta tell from the way the whole thing is a showcase to display her. She deserves it. (They got married, had a couple of kids, and divorced.) Her eyes seem to change color in different scenes – there’s one in particular where they are the palest icy blue, yet seem a minute later to be dark.

The first question you have to ask about Milena is, what does she live on? When she moves, she only takes along one small bag. Yet she has fabulous clothes and an apartment full of stuff. Is she a trust fund baby, or does she hold onto the Czech husband because he’s rich, or what? There’s no indication of her ever doing any kind of work. She can get away with being drunk, having irresponsible, impulsive adventures, and so forth. Her source of income isn’t relevant to the plot, but geez.

Along with his research and teaching, Alex Linden does occasional jobs for the US intelligence services. For instance, a spook hands him two files, and tells him to find out if either of the subjects “sniffs cocaine or plays with little girls or boys.” Linden, who should know better, is a poor security risk. He brings files home. He brings home a file on Milena’s husband, which includes her photo and biographical information.

We learn the story of Milena and Linden in flashbacks. In fact there’s probably more cutting back and forth in time than in any movie ever made. It’s pretty disorienting. So go ahead and watch it twice.

In the present, an ambulance takes the overdosed Milena to the hospital. Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel) extracts the story from Linden. Milena had called him up and said “I’ll be dead in a minute, I wanted to say goodbye” and of course he went right over. It was no big deal, she’d overdosed before. Linden paints her as a wild woman who denies herself nothing, a woman to whom something dreadful was bound to happen sooner or later.

But the inspector sees a few discrepancies. Linden says he talked on the phone with Milena long after she would have already been comatose. And his car radio is tuned to a station that doesn’t start broadcasting until midnight. And so on. In other words, Netusil suspects exactly what happened. Far from rushing to Milena’s side and summoning help immediately, Linden waited to make sure she would die, and “ravished” her in the meantime.

We see how it went down. When Linden first arrived, Milena was still semi-coherent. Collapsed on the floor, with almost no motor skills left, she managed to get the telephone. Linden pulled the jack from the wall and replaced it later, after it was too late. Looking around the apartment, Netusil somehow intuits all of this. He even seems to have psychic visions that tell him what happened.

Linden puts Milena on her bed, saying “We don’t need anybody else. Just you and me.” While waiting for her to die, “It’s better this way, believe me, there was no other way.” After pacing around for a while, he cuts her clothes off and rapes her inert body, saying “I love you.”

At the beginning of their affair, Milena had pursued Alex, who hung back at first. We see them in happier times. He reads to her from the poetry of William Blake, the verse

What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
What is it women do in men require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire. *

A scene where Milena’s in bed with her husband implies that she isn’t getting sexual satisfaction from him, although that’s not the only reason she goes out in search of adventure. He’s 30 years older, for one thing. Once when Milena goes missing for a week, Linden calls her husband, who is bored, dismissive, and contemptuous of this weak American, who can’t muster the necessary intestinal fortitude to deal with such a woman. The husband tells Linden that a man has to love Milena even more than his own dignity. And, as Linden learns, more than he loves being told the truth. She persists in lying about her marital status, and Linden crosses over to Czechoslovakia and bothers some hostile bureaucrats to try and find out if she’s divorced or what.

Linden wants Milena to move in with him, he wants her to return to the States with him and marry him. We sit in on one of his lectures, where he speaks to the students about how we are all spies. He knows all about this, because he spies on Milena a lot, and suffers terribly from jealousy, while she relates to a lot of different men.

But that’s not all. She does heedless things, like burn his car’s upholstery with a cigarette. She can be an embarrassing drunk. In one horrendous scene she’s invited him over. Her place cleaned up as if by the world’s most dedicated housewife, and she’s wearing some kind of mock-sexy outfit and enough makeup to turn her from a flashy woman into a grotesque clown. She’s changed herself into what he seems to want her to be. He leaves, and from the balcony she hurls bottles into the street, yelling at him so the whole neighborhood is disturbed.

Soon their discourse is reduced to “What?” and “Why?” as brilliantly encapsulated in one scene. He wants to possess Milena, who can’t be possessed. “You don’t own me. I don’t own you,” she says. She enumerates some of her priorities – to get up when she wants to get up, and eat when she wants to eat, and not to be with people she doesn’t like. (These are core values I recognize, and I don’t think a person who holds them is necessarily a monster of selfishness.) They have a terrible argument on the stairs and she declares, “I just want to be allowed to give where I can – what I can – to who I can.” What she most likes to give, and there’s nothing wrong with this, either, are the Lineaments of Gratified Desire.

There’s a lot of cross-cutting to emphasize the twinship of sex and death. From Milena’s orgasm to her convulsions on the emergency room operating table. From the couple having sex, to the doctor spreading her legs and going in with a speculum to look for rape evidence. From Milena’s head hanging over the edge of the bed during sex, to the doctors doing the tracheotomy.

With unflagging persistence, the inspector interrogates Linden. He’s fully tuned in to the atmosphere of claustrophobic obsession and sexual pessimism reminiscent of certain Leonard Cohen lyrics. The intuitive genius detective is the role Harvey Keitel was born for, and this isn’t the first time he’s filled it, or the last. Anyway, he’s just about gotten Linden to confess when Milena’s husband appears at the door. More bad timing. She’s alive, and will recover.

I like how the art references in the film hang together. For instance, we see Milena reading The Sheltering Sky, and later we see her with Linden on vacation in Morocco, which apparently was their last happy time. This is where he made the mistake of talking about marriage, which left her completely unimpressed. As he waits for her to die, he plays a record of Moroccan music instantly recognizable as the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Which is ironic, because this is supposed to be healing music. Maybe that’s why Milena survives the drug-induced coma. You’d think the professor would be smart enough not to play the wrong kind of music to die by.

So Linden gets away with attempted murder, and loses Milena of course. There’s a flash-forward to a future scene, when they’re both back in their own country. She gets out of a cab, he gets into a cab. He had asked her to return to the States with him, as his wife. Instead, their only meeting is accidental and brief, and she looks at him with hatred.

*These lines, incidentally also figure in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, where the characters initials (like the author’s) are LGD (for Lineaments of Gratified Desire, of course.)

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celebration

This subtitled Danish film is described on the box as a “viciously funny satire.”  Well, okay, but I wouldn’t want anyone to watch it with the expectation of laughing.

It’s kind of in the same genre as The Exterminating Angel, and Savages – where a bunch of high-class people are prevented from leaving a social occasion. It just goes on and on and becomes the dinner party from hell. Same genre too as Jacob’s Ladder, The Business of Fancy Dancing (to name only two that come immediately to mind) – where a scene may or may not be part of the narrative, the “real” story.  It might also be a hallucination of how someone wishes things would be, or how they could have been or would have been, or how they were on some archetypal, mythical level.

It’s also a prime illustration of how European cinema is different.  This thing starts off slow, you get lots and lots of character delineation, but no real clue about what’s going on except it’s some tycoon’s 60th birthday and the whole family is in the process of gathering.  So far it all seems kind of pointless.  An American film would have begun with artistically morphed footage of the dad molesting the twin children, starting off with a bang, right under the credits.  “Put the fire up front” is more of an American concept – it works well, but this slow approach works great too, if you’re willing to invest some attention and patience.

Still, I almost gave up on it – I think what kept me hooked was Michael’s outrageous behavior.  Then after a while, Helene started to captivate me – not what the character did, so much as the actress herself.  Great face.

And it becomes clear that another sibling, Linda, has recently killed herself.  So everybody’s tiptoeing around that, and apprehensive about what this loose cannon Michael is going to do because, knowing him, he is sure to find a way to ruin things.

But as it turns out, quiet, mild, reasonable Christian is the one who drops the bomb.  Standing to give a speech at the birthday dinner, he asks Dad to pick – he has a speech in each hand.  (You gotta wonder what the other speech said.  If the father had chosen that one, were they both the same anyway?)  Christian accuses the father of sexually abusing him and his sister when they were young.

Helene clinches it by reading Linda’s suicide note to the group.

The house staff contributes to the trauma by stealing everybody’s car keys so they all have to stay and witness the trouble.

Most memorable line of dialogue:  Christian says to his father “I’ve never understood why you did it,” and the answer is, “It was all you were good for.”

Michael beats the crap out of father and finishes up by pissing on him.  It’s a relief to finally understand the anger of Michael.  He’s always known something was wrong in the family but could never get anybody to talk about it.  Maybe a little jealousy because he knows the twins were chosen for something he was left out of…..however, even he is not aware of this.

The final scene is a true work of art.  Everybody is gathered around the table for a sunny breakfast. Faces are soft and relaxed.   Helene is not a tortured, aging wild child, just a pretty lady.   Michael is still an obnoxious asshole, but not a truly hostile or violent one.  The father has one of the grandchildren on his knee.

All this is what Christian hallucinates when unconscious, or maybe a kind of group hallucination, shared among the siblings, of what their family life could have been. Here’s the way it should have been.

The father apologizes, and says he understands that none of them is ever going to want to see him again.  He says, “You’ll always be my children – and I have loved you and love you, no matter where in the world you are or what you do.”  Just what everybody wants to hear from his parents.  Now we know for sure this scene is a fantasy.

The father addresses Christian: “You fought a good fight, my boy.” Even in Christian’s own fantasy there is ambiguity. This line from his dad seems to be a compliment, but carries two stings in its tail.  First, it implies that Christian has lost:  “Good game” is, after all, something a winner says to a loser.  Christian lost because, while he may not have had the will to kill his father himself, he knew that giving Michael the information would get the job done.  So Christian is not as righteous as maybe he likes to think.  Also, there’s the sexual double entendre, as in “My butt-boy.”

Michael suggests that the father leave so the rest of them can eat their breakfast. The old man asks his wife if she’s coming. “I’ll stay here,” she says. Two layers: indicates she’s on the side of the rest of the family, united in shunning him.  And, she’s not going to commit suicide or die of grief on his account.  Dad exits through the patio doors where the flood of illumination is coming from – he goes into the light, get it?

Their names, as are appropriate in this genre, are symbolic –
Linda – beautiful.  At least her twisted father found her so, and later her brother
Christian – the one who tries to be forgiving and good. One who has fought the good fight, as even his father finally recognizes, in his fantasy anyway.
Helene – a character who makes her mark on history
Michael – an archangel – didn’t he slay a dragon or a demon something? Is Michael associated with vengeance in church mythology?

We’re not sure if Christian might also have made it with Linda. If he did, it was obviously consensual. Still wrong, but at least not rape or exploitation. Maybe it was just a fantasy – either way, good old straight arrow Christian would feel just as guilty anyway.

Or maybe most of the movie was Christian’s hallucination or fantasy. Maybe he chickened out and never read the accusatory speech at all. Maybe he did read the other speech, and it was different. Maybe the whole thing never happened.

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Andy Garcia and Steve Buscemi and Christopher Walken – three of my “if he’s in it I’ll watch it” actors. Not to mention, great dialogue and a story line that never quits. This one is definitely a keeper.

The most interesting thing about it is the character of Jimmy (that’s Garcia). He’s a decent guy in a place and time where decency is a scarce commodity. He studied to be a priest, but lost the calling and became a gangster, but then he lost that calling, too, and turned “citizen” and started a business. His company is called Afterlife Advice, and the time frame of the story is back when videography was still done by professionals. The videos made by the dying people are one of the best things about this movie, and nobody who discusses it mentions them. One viewer grouches that the film’s title doesn’t make any sense, which seems kind of obtuse. Obviously, one thing to do in Denver when you’re dead is provide your relatives with guidance from beyond the grave. Half a dozen of these vignettes are interspersed throughout. It’s art within art, like the dancing plastic bag in American Beauty. Come to think of it, The Dreamers uses the same device, with clips from classic films that reflect the story, or complement it, or comment upon it.

At work, Jimmy has the gravitas of a funeral director. With friends, he’s demonstrative. I can’t remember a movie where so many straight guys hug so many other straight guys. For an example of his style, I like the conversation with a gay colleague who shows him an ad layout. Jimmy is not impressed. “Every fag in the world is good at this kind of shit, and I gotta wind up with one that’s klunky?”

In one conversation, there’s a reference to Jimmy’s boat fund. This establishes him as a man with hopes and dreams, a future with something in it that’s innocent and nice. What this means in filmic terms, of course, is that he doesn’t have a future. What he does have is integrity. When things go south in a big way, he does his best to look after the people who are in jeopardy because they trusted him. Everybody’s always telling him how different he is, like, how noble. (Being told such things must make life difficult for anybody who really is noble.) They call him Jimmy the Saint.

He’s a guy who, as Damian Cannon put it, “treats everyone without judgment and tries to be all things to all men.” Jimmy can function in any surroundings, and the way he does it is not by changing, but by being his same self everywhere, and it works. There are such people, and they’re fascinating. I imagine Duncan Grant having the same kind of low-key magnetism. He was a painter, related to Virginia Woolf. In all the millions of words written by and about the Bloomsbury Group, nobody ever went on record as disliking him. It’s so easy to envision Andy Garcia as Duncan. Grant was mostly gay, but that’s exactly the point about this kind of charisma. It can be found in anyone – straight male, straight female, gay male, gay female – and it envelops everyone. Even psychopaths will sometimes, though not always, respond to the aura of a person like Jimmy.

Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead became, from the first, one of my all-time uber-favorites. I’m gonna go on record that this is a great fuckin’ movie. After the third or fourth time I saw it, I went online and looked at comments by regular people and criticisms by critics. Taking note of their objections, I watched the movie again. Directed by Gary Fleder, it was written by Scott Rosenberg, supposedly in two weeks. Once that becomes public knowledge, some smarty-pants critic will always say “The script was written in two weeks, and it shows.” Actually, some incredible scripts have been swiftly written. John Byrum wrote Inserts over a weekend. The creation of one of these self-contained, self-referential worlds is best done in an intense burst. Philip K. Dick wrote that way, too.

Reviewers make fun of the home-brewed gangster slang, but I don’t see anything wrong with it. I went pretty far into the linguistics angle, far enough to write a whole separate piece about it. Another thing the opinionators like to say about Things is that it rides on the coattails of Reservoir Dogs, copying Tarentino’s mood, style, etc. And who is anybody to accuse Rosenberg’s script of being derivative, anyway, when Reservoir Dogs provided such a renowned example of plagiarism? And – here’s the interesting part – Things was written first. Take that, Reservoir Dogs.

So. Two toughs approach Jimmy with an invitation that can’t be refused. He’s been summoned by his old mentor, The Man with the Plan, a quadriplegic crime boss played by Christopher Walken, who has never been more menacing. Walken does put some strange emphases on words. But it doesn’t matter. He’s the creepiest. The Man is sentimental about his deceased wife, and that’s related to the old-time connection with Jimmy somehow.

The Man confides to Jimmy that his son Bernard is “crazy as a shithouse rat” – and you’ve got to respect him for that. Not many parents can admit that their kid is a serious mess. Bernard has become especially deranged since his longtime girlfriend broke up with him. He expresses his grief through gratuitous violence against random victims, but The Man isn’t so much bothered by that, as by his son’s most recent indiscretion. Bernard hopped the fence of a schoolyard and interfered with a little girl, in full view of dozens of witnesses, which got him arrested. The Man has a plan for his boy’s rehabilitation, and wants Jimmy to recruit some muscle and make it happen. He presents Jimmy with the news that he’s bought the note on Afterlife Advice from some other gangster, so basically, Jimmy really doesn’t have a choice. The Man even sweetens the deal by offering $50,000, which Jimmy can split with his helpers as he sees fit.

The new boyfriend is on his way to Denver. This suitor is to be intercepted, convinced to quit the relationship, and turned around and pointed back to where he came from. “It’s just an action, not a piece of work.” They’re not to kill the orthodontist, only rough him up enough so he’ll go away and dump the woman. Bernard will then get her back, and be happy, and give up the egregious misbehavior. That’s the plan.

Jimmy can relate to Bernard’s problem, because he too is in love. He’s just met the very beautiful sweet innocent yet so sexy Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar). She is lovely and very slinky. Her thighs don’t touch when she walks. She looks like the mermaids painted by fairy tale illustrator Arthur Rackham. There is something fetchingly weird about her top lip, like collagen gone wrong. Dagney is made for candlelight or anyplace else where she can glow softly. The first question Jimmy asks her is, “Are you in love?” because if so he’ll back off. He smells her hair – it’s a fucking shampoo commercial now? But here, as in so much of what we call art, superficial things signify deeper truths. Even though we don’t like to admit it, scent plays a big part in attraction. Because of their relative heights, his nose happens to be in line with her hair, but it’s her he’s smelling.

Some viewers have complained about the rather goofy pickup dialogue sequence, but when people scope each other out as candidates for carnal interaction, the words don’t matter. I mean, you’ve got to say something. The real action is in the looks and the moves, the vibe. Later on he says to her, “You’re a thing to be amazed by,” which is not bad, as declarations of love go. One online critic complains about Dagney’s voice. Picky, picky.

So Jimmy goes to collect the helpers he needs. Franchise is an extensively tattooed biker type, who now has three kids and another one on the way. His wife doesn’t want him to have anything to do with it, but of course he needs the money.

One guy is called Pieces, although when they go see him, he insists “My name is Olin.” He doesn’t want to be called Pieces any more. He has a circulation problem that makes his fingers and toes fall off. But I don’t think the nickname came from the medical condition, I think that’s a grotesque coincidence. I bet he got the nickname way back, in prison, or long before. Olin Pieces is something even kids could think of. (If I misheard the name and it isn’t Olin, then, as Emily Litella would say, Never mind.)

The third recruit is a black guy called Easy Wind, and the fourth is Easy Wind’s natural antagonist, a headcase called Critical Bill, because critical is the condition in which he tends to leave his opponents. He works for an undertaker. Jimmy and Franchise arrive to find him in boxer training mode, using a corpse for a punching bag. Jimmy catches Franchise’s eye with that conspiratorial, slightly rueful, yet indulgent “whattaya gonna do” smile that one parent might flash to another when their kid does something typical, slightly reprehensible, but nonetheless cute. A Johnny Cash song blasts from the stereo, and Bill coordinates his punches with the rhythm as skillfully as any good percussionist who complements the beat of the band’s main drummer.

Bill explains to Jimmy that this new exercise program is actually healthy. Since he’s been on it, he hasn’t beat up any live people. “It keeps my powder dry,” he says. Which is actually a stupid analogy. Dry is the condition in which powder is supposed to be kept, so it can be ignited and explode at will. Wet powder is the kind that isn’t dangerous. So it doesn’t make sense, which is why it’s good dialogue for this character, who is basically dumb as a box of rocks. Here’s a real-life example. I once interviewed a conscientious apartment building manager, who wanted to emphasize how very much the place had improved since he took over. “I turned it around 360 degrees,” he said earnestly. No doubt he had heard of situations being turned around 180 degrees, and figured, if that was good, then 360 degrees must be twice as good. He was clueless in regard to the fact that if something rotates 360 degrees, it’s right back where it started. This is the kind of thing Critical Bill would doubtless also say.

They’re going to set up a roadblock, with two team members posing as police officers. Billy begs to be one of them, promising to behave himself and let Pieces do all the talking. Against his better judgment, Jimmy gives in. There’s that pesky decency again, wanting to give the guy a chance. Big mistake.

Jimmy spends a night with the beautiful Dagney, and then it’s time to rock’n’roll. The crew stakes out the road. Pieces and Critical Bill are in a squad car, Jimmy and Franchise are in a truck (which is where the “cops” are supposed to bring the victim to be beaten up.) Easy is in a car. They wait and wait, and then it’s night, and then it starts to rain. When the orthodontist finally shows up and gets stopped, he doesn’t believe they are cops, and smarts off to them. He won’t get out of his van, and of course Critical Bill loses patience and goes berserk. Jimmy can’t see any of this, he’s relying on Easy’s radio report from his vantage point. For some reason, Easy downplays the degree of resistance the victim is putting up, and the loss of control experienced by Pieces and Bill. When Billy threatens the victim with a knife, Pieces points his gun at Billy. The crazed paramilitary fanatic seems to back off, but the orthodontist is stupid enough to mouth off one more time, and Billy stabs him fatally. Suddenly, a woman appears and screams. It’s Bernard’s ladylove, who has been sleeping in the back of the vehicle. Totally startled, Pieces shoots her fatally.

Jimmy and his friends take the bodies to the funeral home to be slid into a trick coffin along with a legitimate corpse. Jimmy calls Dagney but there’s no answer. He goes to see The Man with the Plan, who is now attended by a corrupt cop, Lt. Atwater. The Man’s for-old-time’s-sake sentiment just barely allows him to spare Jimmy’s life. “We go back,” he says. He tells Jimmy to “put it in the wind” – accept banishment instead of death. He has 48 hours to get out of Denver. “It’s the milk of human kindness I’m giving you,” The Man says. But the other four fuckups are history. Like the standup guy he is, Jimmy says “It wasn’t their fault. They were following my orders. I take full responsibility.”

Personally, I think Easy should be assigned a large part of the blame. When the “action” went down, and he was the one who could see what was happening, he should have apprised Jimmy sooner. But he waited till the situation was catastrophic, then reported to Jimmy, “They fucked it.” Then he descended on Pieces and Critical Bill, throwing all the blame solidly on them.

Anyway, The Man sentences the four accomplices to “buckwheats,” this gang’s term for execution in the most painful way possible, generally with a hot lead suppository inserted at high velocity, if you get my drift. The victim takes fifteen or twenty minutes to expire, and it’s not pretty. Jimmy meets with his crew at the cemetery to give them the news, and they ask if he is also condemned to buckwheats. Jimmy the Saint is a guy who, generally, tries to be as honest as he can, but this is a dilemma. He lies and tells them the same fate awaits him. Or maybe he figures The Man lied to him and he’s dead meat too. Which may explain his reaction when Lucinda shows up on the street covered with bruises.

Lucinda is the junkie prostitute Jimmy is sort of a big brother to. In a typical interaction, she hits him up for money and he warns “You’d better stay clean.” Lucinda wants to get out of the life and find a straight job, but most of all she wants to have a baby, because that might keep her off heroin. This has the unmistakable ring of truth to it. It’s an unfortunate fact that people have babies for the most putrid reasons. Anyway, one of Lucinda’s regulars had beaten the shit out of her. Jimmy takes her to the office building where they guy works. They bust into a conference room where he roughs up the john in front of everybody and tells them why. Pure wish-fulfillment. Haven’t we all dreamed of such a magnificent act of revenge? Even as the security guards drag Jimmy away, he’s still holding onto the scumbag by the neck, dragging him along too. Would Jimmy have made this magnificent gesture in the normal course of events? Or is he extending himself because he’s under sentence? It’s the kind of thing somebody would do, knowing he only had a couple of days left to live. I know I have my list, and you probably do too.

To deal with the four marked men, an extremely skilled contract killer known as Mr. Shhh is called in. This is where it all starts to go a bit over the top, but then again, isn’t that what movies are for? This one does depict a strange moral universe. Even Mr. Shhh is not one-sided. He gratuitously breaks up a 4-on-1 alley fight – maybe because he has a shred of decency, maybe just to keep in practice.

In the latest viewing of Things, I paid more attention to such matters as composition, etc. Looking at it as a graphic novel, I really get it. Scenes are framed like the panels in a noir “comic” book that has nothing funny about it. The set decoration is expressive. In the funeral home, when the crew fight over whose fault it all was, the background is a window made up of many small squares, all red, backlit so you get the feeling of the flames of hell. In The Man with the Plan’s house, he and Jimmy talk against a similar backdrop, a window with numerous small panes, only this time there are red and white squares, like a chess board for the deadly game they’re playing. I was amazed, at the end, to see so many music credits flow by. I hadn’t realized I’d heard anywhere near all those songs. The selections in the sound track fit in seamlessly, always a propos and never obtrusive. And in the club, the live band is Buddy Guy. Excellent choice.

Jimmy knows a black crime boss who owes him a favor, so even though the gangster doesn’t like Easy, he agrees to protect him. Besides, this gangster likes The Man with the Plan even less, so there is the principle of, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Jimmy meets with Pieces, to pay him off, but he says no, keep the money – “You do something good with it.” This is quite a scene, actually. Pieces has no intention of running, and he explains why. It’s a great thing for a person to be ready to die because he feels like he really lived. How many of us can say the same? That’s the gist of the Pieces philosophy. Maybe this explains why, when Mr. Shhh shows up to execute Pieces, the contract killer complies with his request to “do it quickly.” No buckwheats here.

Jimmy’s in the diner when in comes Bernard, who doesn’t yet know that his ex-girlfriend is dead. He’s upset because he can’t get in touch with her. The softer side of Bernard shows, and he swears he doesn’t mean anybody any harm. He just wants to hear her say in her own voice that things are okay with her and the new guy. (Well, duh, you’d think it would be obvious.) “Her happiness is more important to me than my happiness,” he avers. Jimmy’s natural, instinctive compassion battles with disgust for this pervert, who is the cause of everything going to hell. He knows that Bernard is sincere in this moment, but also knows he’s full of shit, because he can’t help himself and will surely go on being more erratic. This conversation is one of the most fascinating scenes in the movie.

The person with no intention of going gently into that good night is Critical Bill, who turns his apartment into a fortress and, clad in jungle-commando drag, sustains himself on speed. He also pees in a gallon milk jug and keeps it on top of the refrigerator. Perhaps because going into the bathroom would require leaving his post, perhaps for some other reason. Regardless of the fact that he begged to wear a police uniform and take a more active part in the roadside “action,” he tells Jimmy, “It was irresponsible of you to put me out on point.” We all know people like this. Nothing’s ever their fault. Critical Bill also tells his side of the story concerning the rumor that he’s a fecal freak. Setting the record straight, he assures Jimmy that he actually only ate shit once, only a tiny little portion, and it was on a bet. For $500, who wouldn’t?

Mr. Shhh shoots up a whole nightclub full of people to get to Easy. Franchise packs up his family, ready to leave town. He accuses Jimmy of not being as nervous as a fellow buckwheats candidate ought to be, and naturally he’s pissed. Jimmy goes to see The Man with the Plan and asks him to spare Franchise’s life for the sake of his wife and kids, which is a mistake. Jimmy sees The Man’s corrupt police lieutenant talking to Dagney, confronts him in a parking lot and beats him with a bat. They end up back in the presence of The Man, and Jimmy berates him for having Franchise killed when he’d said he wouldn’t. Here comes one of the most-quoted lines of dialogue.

“You gave me your word,” the outraged Jimmy says.

“Jimmy, don’t you see? I’m a criminal. My word doesn’t mean dick.”

The Man humiliates Jimmy and directs the thugs to kick the shit out of him. Dagney is threatened with dire consequences if Jimmy doesn’t get out of town for real this time. Yes, he still has the option to escape, but he’s now sentenced to live in constant fear, knowing that The Man might change his mind any day and have him killed either quickly or slowly. And he’s not to take the woman he loves with him, or he will definitely be killed, after watching her die in some gruesome way. This is another similarity with Inserts, where the director who has failed to please his criminal overlord is punished by having his film released in a form he loathes. He’ll have to live on knowing, as the boss says, “It wasn’t what you wanted.” The Man with the Plan is going to make Jimmy live on in circumstances where he doesn’t dare include Dagney in his life.

Knowing that his days are numbered anyway, Jimmy decides to do the worst thing he can to The Man. He kills Bernard. I have to say I didn’t see this coming. I never thought Jimmy the Saint would do such a thing. There may be a continuity problem. After killing Bernard, Jimmy dragged him out of the car and threw his cap after him. But a bit later, he drives past the goons who are still waiting for Bernard outside the bowling alley, and frisbee-flings the cap at them. Maybe he went back and got it.

Meanwhile, Mr. Shhh nails Critical Bill, and it’s spectacular. As he approaches Bill, the knife slides down his sleeve and into his hand like a burgeoning erection. Here’s a neat parallel – Bill winds up being killed by Mr. Shhh because he can’t resist mouthing off one last time, which is the same way the orthodontist got himself killed by Bill. Neither of them can keep their mouth shut when appropriate. Then it’s Jimmy’s turn to die – but not before he knocks up Lucinda and makes an Afterlife Advice video for his kid.

This film popularized, though it didn’t invent, the term “boat drinks.” It’s kind of an all-purpose expression of camaraderie, a salute to a utopian future, like “Next year in Jerusalem.” At the end, there’s a heartbreaking scene where Jimmy and his crew of four are out sailing on a beautiful day in a tropical climate, enjoying “boat drinks.” The film started with a scene of blissful innocence, the little girls jumping rope on the playground. It concludes with a scene of blissful innocence, the friends in their floating Valhalla. Even in heaven, Critical Bill has a knife in his hand.

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NOTE: Michael Oppermann quotes an interview in Melody Maker which isn’t online: Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg said, “I lost my father after a three-year battle with cancer. Rather than writing directly about that experience, I decided Denver would be a metaphor for terminal disease. It’s like, 30 minutes in, these guys have seen a ‘doctor’, and he’s told them they’ve got days to live”
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A satisfactory thriller with lots of deep psychology. Set in the boonies of Alaska, with a rather nice expert/novice thing going on between the local she-cop and the visiting LA he-cop. Dormer (Al Pacino) and his partner have been imported to help investigate the murder of a teenage girl.

Dormer is a basically good cop, but with a Fuhrman-esque tendency to operate outside the rulebook. He accidentally (or not) kills his partner, who just happens to have been scheduled to testify against him to Internal Affairs. But Dormer needs to pretend Hap was shot by the guy they were chasing. So he lies to the local cops, and who could do it better?

Dormer calls up his wife and tells her about it; his revisionist version, of course. She completely flips and tells Dormer, when he finds whoever killed Hap, “don’t arrest him.” In other words, Dormer is under orders to execute himself. There’s a gun involved, which Dormer hides under the floorboards of his own motel room. This guy has the worst case of jetlag ever!

A whole lot of complicated stuff happens with the gun and various shell casings and a dead dog. A mystery man calls Dormer, and says he saw him kill his partner. There’s a chase scene across a river filled with logs. The mystery man turns out to be Finch, the novelist who actually killed the girl. Finch is Robin Williams, who does very well as an evil, violent character. He wants Dormer to help him frame a teenage boy, in return for which he will keep quiet about what he knows.

When Dormer thinks Finch is putting on airs, he says, “You’re about as mysterious to me as a blocked toilet is to a fuckin’ plumber.” But that’s the irony he doesn’t see. That’s exactly what Finch is saying, that he and Dormer are in the same situation, both accidentally killed somebody, both don’t want to fry for it.

Anyway, by the end, Dormer has been awake for 6 days and nights, which is clever when you consider that in French, dormir is “to sleep”. After an exhausting battle where Finch is finally gotten rid of, Dormer confesses to the idealistic young woman officer that he doesn’t know any more if he killed Hap on purpose, or not. His last noble act, as he dies, is to tell her not to get rid of the evidence of his guilt. “Don’t lose your way,” he says.

If this movie is a realistic portrayal of the law-enforcement mindset, the prognosis is not good. When they go to search the teenage boy’s apartment, Dormer says, “Turn the place over.” The cops are like clumsy bears wrecking a vacation cabin. It’s as if they’re so busy being intentionally destructive, throwing stuff around and making the biggest possible mess, it would be easy to miss something important. But then, why bother? Carefully searching a citizen’s domicile is a drag. It’s so much easier to just trash the place, and “find” the evidence you brought along.

Dormer’s creed, incidentally, is one of zero personal responsibility for cops. No matter what a cop does, it’s all the fault of the criminal whose evil deed set the cops in motion, in the first place. This sounds all cool and noble, coming from Al Pacino, but in real life, it leads to a regime where small armies of cops carry out home invasions and kill innocent people. Yes, innocent, even the ones who actually do have some pot on the premises. They don’t deserve to die either.

In the midst of his insomniac weirdness, Dormer tells a total stranger the deepest secret from his past and asks for her take on it. She says, “It’s about what you thought was right at the time, and what you’re willing to live with.” Words to live by.

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