Friday, July 28, 2017

The Promise to Never Forget the Armenian Genocide

This year’s Toronto Film Festival will showcase the latest film by Angelina Jolie, First They Killed My Father. It’s based on the memoir of Loung Ung, who described in harrowing detail the decimation of her family by Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge regime. Jolie’s strong personal connection with the birthplace of her son led her to use an all-Cambodian cast, and then to premiere the film in Cambodia’s Siem Reap. 

Movies can be a powerful way of reminding viewers of injustices far beyond their shores. And it’s always invaluable when a filmmaker at the top of his (or her) game takes on the story of a genocide that the world would rather ignore. Think of the power of Holocaust movies, going all the way back to Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), the first Hollywood film to incorporate actual footage of emaciated Jews in Nazi concentration camps. Soon after came Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964) and other Holocaust-themed films, culminating in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 production, Schindler’s List. Sixteen years later, the persecution of Jewish civilians by Nazi Germany was still being explored, via Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

Which brings me to the plight of Turkey’s Armenians, whose years of suffering during World War I have still not been acknowledged as a genocide by the world’s political leaders. Armenians had lived in Turkey for centuries, but their Christian faith in a largely Muslim nation made them suspect, especially during the upheaval surrounding the Great War. Most Turks dispute what happened in 1915, but there’s plenty of evidence that under the Ottoman Turks, Armenians were rooted out of their ancestral homes and sent on a death march into the desert of neighboring Syria, where those who hadn’t fallen by the wayside were coldly massacred. It’s a terrible story, and one that the movie industry has barely acknowledged.

All that seemed about to change with the release of The Promise, a 2016 feature starring such major Hollywood names as Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale. This story of a tragic love triangle is set against the backdrop of the Armenian genocide, and several big-name celebrities of Armenian descent (Cher, for one) have given it their support. Mogul Kirk Kerkorian went so far, apparently, as to donate the entire production budget. Despite all this good will, The Promise was lambasted by many critics, and flopped at the box office, with some activists accusing Turkish genocide deniers of tipping the scales against it.

I didn’t see the film, but I’ve just finished reading the fascinating The Hundred-Year Walk by fellow journalist Dawn Anahid MacKeen. When Dawn discovered her grandfather’s meticulous journals of his fight for survival in the face of constant oppression, she knew she had to fly to Turkey and follow in his footsteps. She was well aware her journey was easy compared to his painful, stumbling path into the Syrian desert, where so many of his people were dying by the side of the road. But part of her goal was to search out, against all odds, the family of the Muslim tribal leader, Sheikh Hammud al-Aekleh, who’d given her grandfather safe harbor when he needed it most. Ultimately, this is a story of unexpected but well-earned salvation, but  Dawn’s last chapter brings us into the precarious present, wherein Syria’s civil war now threatens a clan that were once remarkably kind to a young man in need.    

Yet another message is Never Forget. In her opening, Dawn quotes Adolf Hitler, who told his followers in 1939, “Kill without pity or mercy. Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?”

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Driving Mr. Baby: The Paul Simon Connection

Midsummer seems the right time for a good old-fashioned car chase movie, and Edgar Wright’s gorgeously gas-guzzling Baby Driver more than fills the bill. With its driving scenes scored to the tunes throbbing out of the leading man’s iPod, Baby Driver can even be considered a musical, La La Land for the behind-the-wheel set. (It’s fascinating to contemplate what would happen if La La Land’s “Another Day of Sun” opening scene were transported to Baby Driver’s Atlanta. Ansel Elgort as Baby would never let a little thing like freeway gridlock stop him from getting--very quickly--where he needs to go.)

Baby is the getaway driver for an exceedingly rotten egg (Kevin Spacey), who rules with iron fist over a squad of ruthless criminals. Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm (as a very different kind of Mad Man) play thugs with varying degrees of smarts but lots of anger issues in common. Needless to say, Baby has a backstory that explains what he’s doing in such loathsome company. Though he loves to drive, loves the thrill of being in motion, he’s by no means a hardened criminal type. He also loves his deaf foster father, and he’s starting to love the pretty little waitress (Lily James) who believes in him, and who wants nothing more than to drive into the sunset with her tunes blasting from the car stereo.

This is a movie that’s much dependent on its soundtrack. I didn’t recognize most of Baby’s music, though it’s fun to hear him crank up a golden oldie, “Tequila.” The use of familiar pop songs to score a film is not the newest of ideas. But it was very new in 1967 when director Mike Nichols decreed that The Graduate should be cut to such existing Simon and Garfunkel tunes as “The Sound of Silence” and “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme.” The original idea was for Paul Simon to devise some brand-new musical cuts for the film. Simon tried, but nothing seemed particularly promising, although Nichols thought there was something to be said for a scrap of a Simon ditty about Mrs. Roosevelt. (A simple shift to Mrs. Robinson, and music history was made.)

The financial backer of The Graduate, Joseph E. Levine, was irked in 1967 that Nichols wanted to score his film with songs written all the way back in 1964. Referring to the singing duo as “Simon and Schuster,” he bellowed at Nichols, “Every kid in America knows these old songs. You’ll be laughed off the screen.” Somehow that’s not what happened. The nostalgia built into “The Sound of Silence” and “Parsley, Sage” made them all the more poignant to the young audience. And this new approach to film scoring—using existing tunes to evoke the feeling of an era—would persist. Cut to 1973 when George Lucas chose  classic fifties oldies like Fats Domino’s  “Ain’t That a Shame,” Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day,” and the Clovers’ “Love Potion Number Nine” to establish the 1962 mood in American Graffiti.

Paul Simon also helped inspire Edgar Wright (a lover of genre films and the late George Romero) to write and direct Baby Driver. The film’s title is a steal from a bouncy Simon and Garfunkel track released back in 1970 on the duo’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters LP. Happily, it’s used over the movie’s end credits, certainly a jaunty way to wrap up the story. There was a time, following The Graduate, when Simon tried writing and starring in his own movie, One-Trick Pony. It didn’t work. Simon may be a musical genius, but a filmmaker he is not.  

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.