Friday, July 21, 2017

Paroling O.J. Simpson: The Juice is Again on the Loose

So O.J. Simpson is back in the news again. As viewers of a live coast-to-coast video stream of his parole hearing know full well,  the Juice will soon walk free after almost nine years behind bars in Lovelock, Nevada. He was convicted in 2008  of participating in a bizarre caper that involved breaking into a Las Vegas hotel room to steal sports memorabilia. Before long he’ll be at liberty to resume searching for his wife’s killer on golf courses around the world.

I first heard the name O.J. Simpson at college football games, when his USC Trojans regularly trounced my alma mater, UCLA. As a running back, he was unstoppable—and charismatic. It wasn’t surprising that he went on to a record-setting pro career, first with the Buffalo Bills and then the San Francisco 49ers. It was while he was still playing football that he began to go Hollywood. He had featured roles in a number of thrillers, including The Klansman, The Towering Inferno, and The Cassandra Crossing. This was not surprising: there’s a long tradition of football greats appearing in action flicks, as Jim Brown did in 1967’s The Dirty Dozen. During my Roger Corman days, we cast the 49ers’ Roger Craig as a cop in something called Naked Obsession, because Corman was convinced that moviegoers would pay to see him chase down a bad guy.

O.J.’s star power helped him find roles in comedies too, like the spoofy Naked Gun series (1988, 1891, 1894). And such was his personal charm that many advertisers sought him to be their spokesperson. Most memorably, he did several commercials for Hertz Rental Car: he was always pictured sprinting through airports, leaping over any hurdles in his way, in order to claim his vehicle. (In that era, Hertz billed itself as the Superstar in Rent-a-Car.) Once when I was passing through LAX, I was tickled to see Simpson as a fellow passenger on the concourse. Like me he was walking, not running—which gave me a good giggle. I was delighted to catch a glimpse of him, because even those of us who didn’t follow pro football were not immune to his amiable persona.

That’s why it was so startling to find him connected with a murder case. It disturbed me to think of this iconic man as a criminal. And yet he had a talent for capturing the public imagination: even that infamous slow-motion white Bronco chase became riveting viewing. And the long years (1994-95) when he was on trial for murdering wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman made for must-see TV.

 Of course that was all two decades ago. We’ve had lots of other gruesome stories to entertain us since. But a duo of 2016 films returned us to the grim days of yesteryear. American Crime Story’s Inside Look: The People v. O.J. Simpson  won a prestigious Emmy for Outstanding Short Form Non-Fiction or Reality Series. Though that show was a re-enactment of the Simpson story as a courtroom drama, the same year brought us a multipart (467 minute) documentary called O.J.: Made in America, which went on to win an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. The documentary raised some Academy hackles because of its length and its TV connection, but it had the virtue of probing in some depth why O.J. Simpson’s story continues to fascinate.  Why the “Made in America” subtitle? Because O.J.’s life somehow contains all the elements—not just money and murder but also race, class, gender, and celebrity culture—that make American life what it is today.  

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Martin Landau and George Romero: Two Movie Monuments We’ve Lost

In one fell swoop we’ve  lost George Romero and Martin Landau. Romero, of course, was the filmmaker who gave us the original zombie apocalypse, starting with the essential 1968 cheapie, The Night of the Living Dead. That flick, in lurid black and white, came out in an era when our minds were on political assassinations (Kennedy, Kennedy, King), blood in the streets of our cities (Watts, Newark, Detroit), and an incomprehensible war overseas. Some of us were ready for nonstop horror on the screen, and The Night of the Living Dead delivered like gangbusters. The fact—coincidental though it might have been—that the film’s black hero is disastrously misunderstood by the forces of law and order was a powerful reminder of all that was (and still is) wrong with our nation.

Though Romero’s zombie films (like Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead) gradually became more expensive and elaborate, he never lost his taste for horror that slips covertly into social commentary. This set him apart from his many imitators, and from the current TV smash, The Walking Dead. As a former Roger Corman person, I salute him. On the IMDB I just located a memorable Romero quote:  “I'm like my zombies. I won't stay dead!” As film fans, we can only hope.

George Romero won fame by filling the screen with movie antagonists who aren’t ill-intended; they’re just hungry. And Martin Landau’s unusual features always gave him what I considered a lean and hungry look. But no one would mistake him for a zombie: in both bad-guy and good-guy roles he was much too smart (and too ALIVE) to ever be mistaken for a member of Romero’s undead posse. Growing up, I loved watching him play a master of disguises on TV’s Mission: Impossible. But what has really stayed with me is his evil sidekick role in Hitchcock’s 1959 classic, North by Northwest. (He’s the one who stomps on Cary Grant’s fingers as our hero is dangling from Mt. Rushmore.) And, of course, there’s his Oscar-winning performance as screen legend Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood. Anyone who watches his acceptance speech on YouTube will come away with a sense of his passion for this role he so vividly brought to life.

Following Landau’s death, journalists have been coming forward with his words of wisdom about the craft of acting. Here’s what he told Rebecca Keegan in 2012: “No one shows their feelings except bad actors No one tries to cry. You try not to cry. No one tries to laugh. You try not to laugh. In a well-written script, dialogue is what a character is willing to say to another character. The 90 percent he isn’t [saying] is what I do for a living.”

I’m thinking of Romero and Landau as “monuments” because in the aftermath of my European travels I finally watched George Clooney’s 2014 film, The Monuments Men. It’s based on a true episode from the waning days of World War II, in which a gaggle of American and European art experts sneak behind enemy lines to rescue priceless masterpieces that the Nazis have looted from museums and churches, whether to keep or to destroy. Two of the greatest are from Belgium: Jan Van Eyck’s 15th century altarpiece, known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, and Michelangelo’s gorgeous 16th century Madonna and Child. A movie about saving great art is always going to grab me, but Clooney’s approach to the story seems uncomfortably close to The Dirty Dozen: unlikely military guys enjoy banter and hijinks, but finally get the job done.  

The so-called Madonna of Bruges was the only Michelangelo work to leave Italy in the sculptor's lifetime. No zombies here!

Friday, July 14, 2017

A Healthy Admiration for “The Big Sick”

The Big Sick is not the most inviting of movie titles. Too many other films of varying quality have started out with the same two words. The Big Chill, a poignant 1983 ensemble drama about the reunion of some Sixties activists, immediately springs to mind. But my much-battered Leonard Maltin guide lists pages of others:  The Big Country (1958 Hollywood western extravaganza), The Big Doll House (sleazy 1971 women-in-prison exploitation flick from the Roger Corman film factory), The Big Easy (1987 crime yarn set in New Orleans), The Big Fisherman (1959 religious epic about the life of St. Peter), and so on. And let’s not forget classics like The Big Sleep and The Big Lebowski.

Whatever its title, though, The Big Sick is worth watching, both for its robust heart and for its keen eye for cultural differences. This film can be described as a romantic comedy in which an immigrant culture with strict matrimonial standards clashes against the far more casual American style of mating and marrying. This description, though, makes The Big Sick seem like a Pakistani version of the amiable but lightweight My Big Fat Greek Wedding. And Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s script has far more on its mind than a meet-cute at the start and lots of wedding hoopla at the end.

Yes, Kumail (the film’s star as well as its screenwriter) does have some lively culture clashes with his old-school Pakistani parents, who foist on him a steady stream of Pakistani-American lovelies in full expectation that he’ll choose one and settle down to matrimonial bliss. This part of the film, though hilarious, is somewhat caricatured, especially his lovely mama reacting with feigned surprise to each young lady who just happens to be passing by as dinner is served. Even amid all the laughs, there’s some poignancy here: young women desperate to be brides; a young man who can’t bring himself to tell his parents that he’s already fallen for someone of a different ethnicity altogether.

The Big Sick is Kumail and Emily’s actual love story, and it’s a doozy. They meet at a Chicago comedy club when she reacts loudly to his stand-up routine. They mesh, despite their radically different backgrounds, because of a similarly warped sense of humor. After they’ve hopped into the sack together, she turns him away, quipping, “I’m not the kind of girl who has sex twice on the first date.” He, accused by a heckler of sympathizing with Islamic terrorists, admits that 9/11 was a tragic day: “We lost 19 of our best.” Things go well; then things go badly; then they break up . . . and that’s when she’s rushed to the emergency room, and enters a medically-induced coma.

The beating heart of the film is Kumail’s growing devotion to the comatose Emily, while he also forges a complex relationship with her worried parents. Holly Hunter and (of all people!) Ray Romano are full of surprises in these roles: she feisty and frantic with fear; he simultaneously hopeful, sad, and wracked with guilt. In short, they’re completely believable as human beings trying to cope with the possible loss of the person they love most. Like every parent who’s sat at a hospital bedside, I felt their pain. And also, thank goodness, their joy. Because this is a movie that earns its happy ending.

I shouldn’t overlook Zoe Kazan, who triumphs as the screen’s version of Emily. The daughter of two much-lauded Hollywood writers, she wrote and starred with real-life boyfriend Paul Dano in Ruby Sparks, another offbeat romance that brings a summer smile to my face.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


With Spider-Man: Homecoming toppling all box office expectations in its debut weekend, superheroes with comic-book roots are once again showing their muscle. And, no surprise, the mega-big San Diego Comic-Con is just around the corner. As are a whole heap of smaller comic-cons in venues literally all over the world. (I happen to know that Ghent, Belgium, just finished up a two-day gathering of comic-book fans last weekend.)

I continue to marvel (sorry about that!) at the popularity of comic books and the movies they engender. Though I enjoy all the excitement, I admit that comic books have never played a big part in my own life. Blame it on my parents, who disdained the form, though they were avid readers of the Sunday “funnies” in our local newspaper. These days, though, I’m beginning to appreciate comic book aesthetics, which have given life to such remarkably vivid memoirs as Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. The graphic novel, after all, is a sophisticated interweaving of deft verbal language and the powerful visual style unique to the comic book.

I was thinking a lot about comic books while touring Belgium recently. As a first-time tourist, I visited many a cathedral and studied the religious paintings of many Old Flemish masters. How did medieval church fathers draw in parishioners who couldn’t read? They spelled out the tenets of the faith through images that glowed down from stained-glass windows and through paintings with a strong dramatic presence. I’ve seen early artwork in which – sometimes all on one canvas – a specific believer is born, grows to adulthood, embraces Christianity, fends off  minions of Satan, and suffers a spectacular martyrdom. Check out (below) the four-panel Bruges altarpiece showing the legend of St. Ursula. (It’s not especially gruesome, but it conveys the idea.) Aside from the religious angle, doesn’t it look like a comic book?

I keep bringing up Belgium because this is a nation with a long history of medieval artistry but also one that has embraced superheroes and comic books with passion. Brussels (once the home of Tintin’s creator, HervĂ©) can even boast a twenty-five year old museum called the Belgian Comic Strip Center. And I saw that ad for Ghent’s  Comic-Con when I poked my head inside the city’s Superhero CafĂ©, where Marvel and DC memorabilia abounds.

I was recently asked whom I’d invite if I were to plan my own dream Comic-Con. I know a five-year-old boy who’d invite Spider-Man in a heartbeat. Sorry, but for me superheroes don’t make the grade. Thinking back to my own misspent youth, sneaking comic books at my best friend’s house, I realize that Katy Keene (she of the fan-designed dresses) wouldn’t be on my invite list today. Maybe Betty and Veronica: they both had spunk, unlike the doltish Archie. Later, perhaps, a few select members of the Peanuts gang: in my teen years we all cherished copies of Happiness is a Warm Puppy. But—absolutely—I’d want to have Michael Doonesbury and his Walden U classmates. These young people, with their angst and their social awareness, formed a real backdrop for my college years. And in Joanie Caucus I found a role-model for a mature female who didn’t stop evolving when she became a wife and mother. For a poignant reminder of what childhood is like, I’d want the sorely missed Calvin and Hobbes. And in tribute to my late parents, perhaps some lovable Shmoos from Al Capp’s Li’l Abner. Before Capp turned reactionary in the Sixties, his was a bold voice, skewering fat-cat pomposity. Seems to me that today we need that more than ever.  

The Belgian passion for B-movies and bad jokes shows up in the poster above, which  I saw in the window of a Manga store just off the Grand-Place. Cribbing an image from Roger Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters logo, it promises the Invasion of the Brussels Sprouts. 

Altarpiece by the Master of the St. Ursula Legend, 15th century, Bruges

Superhero Cafe, Ghent, Belgium