Weekly Reading Round-Up : 04/15/2018 – 04/21/2018

Ryan C.'s Four Color Apocalypse

One book understandably sucked all the oxygen out of the room this week, and we’ll dive right into it first, but fear not, there are a few others worth talking about, as well —

So, look, let’s just call it like it is : Action Comics  #1000 is an eight-dollar victory lap. A “double milestone” book celebrating both the fact that it’s the first American comic to hit the four-digit-issue-number mark, as well as the 80th anniversary of Superman’s first appearance, you go in figuring you’re in for plenty of self-congratulation here, and yeah, it’s essentially 80 pages of DC’s top creators, past and present, paying tribute to the company’s number one character (sorry, Bat-fans). Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster get the “80-Page Giant” dedicated to them, as well they should, but don’t come in for much mention anywhere else within its pages, which feels like a bit of a…

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Cleaning Out The DVR: The Star Chamber (dir by Peter Hyams)

Here’s a good example of why I need to clean out my DVR more regularly:

I recorded the 1983 legal thriller, The Star Chamber, off of Starz on March 14th.  I know what you’re saying.  “Big deal!  That wasn’t that long ago.”  Well, did I mention that it was March 14th, 2017?

That’s right!  The Star Chamber sat on my DVR for over a year before I finally got around to watching it last night.  You’d be justified in asking why it took me so long and I’m afraid that I really couldn’t give you a definite answer.  I can, however, tell you the four main reasons why I recorded it in the first place:

  1. I’m always intrigued whenever I come across a movie of which I haven’t previously heard.
  2. The movie was described as being about a conflicted judge and I just happen to love legal films.
  3. I really, really liked the title.  The Star Chamber?  Did that mean it took place in a room full of stars?
  4. Before I recorded The Star Chamber, I only had 55 films on the DVR.  Since I don’t like odd numbers, recording The Star Chamber took care of that problem.

As for the film itself, The Star Chamber is another one of those movies where a group of vigilantes end up getting pissed off because liberal California judges are letting too many murderers go free because of pesky, constitutional technicalities.  The twist here is that the vigilantes are the same judges who keep tossing out evidence and ruling that confessions are inadmissible in court.  After spending their day setting free the dregs of society, the judges all gather in a nearby house and review the evidence before voting on whether or not they believe the accused was actually guilty.  If the verdict is guilty, the judges promptly hire a hit man who proceeds to clean up the streets.

The newest member of this tribunal is Judge Steven R. Hardin (Michael Douglas).  Hardin is haunted by the technicalities that forced him to toss out a case against two accused of child murderers.  (Making things even worse, the child’s father commits suicide afterward.)  Despite his initial reservations, Judge Hardin signs off on hiring an assassin to take the two men out.  But, when it becomes apparent that the two men actually were innocent, Judge Hardin is horrified to discover that there’s no way to call off the hit…

The Star Chamber is an oddly constructed movie.  When the movie starts, it feels like a typical police procedural.  From there, the movie turns into a rather talky examination of the U.S. legal system, with Judge Hardin trying to balance his idealism with the often frustrating reality of what it takes to uphold the law.  The movie then briefly turns into a conspiracy film, featuring middle-aged men in suits holding secret meetings and debating whether or not they’re serving the greater good.  And then, towards the end of the movie, it turns into an action film, with Judge Hardin being chased by two drug dealers, a contract killer, and a suspicious police detective (Yaphet Kotto).  Judge Hardin may start the movie as a conflicted liberal but he ends at someone who can blow up the entire second floor of a drug lab.  In many ways, The Star Chamber is a deeply silly film but, as directed and co-written by Peter Hyams, it’s also just pulpy enough to be entertaining.  The dialogue may be over-the-top but so is Michael Douglas’s performance so it all evens out in the end.

It may have taken me a while to get around to watching The Star Chamber but I’m glad that I finally did.  It’s a ludicrous film and all the more entertaining as a result.

Rockin’ in the Film World #16: Herman’s Hermits in HOLD ON! (MGM 1966)

cracked rear viewer

In yesterday’s  ‘One Hit Wonders’ post on the Blues Magoos, I told you Dear Readers my first concert was headlined by Herman’s Hermits, five non-threatening teens from Manchester, UK – Karl Greene, Barry Whitwam, Derek ‘Lek’ Leckenby, Keith Hopwood, and lead singer Peter Blair Denis Bernard Noone, known as Herman for his slight resemblance to cartoon character Sherman (of “Mr. Peabody and…’ fame). Their infectious, peppy pop rock and Herman’s toothy grin made the teenyboppers scream with delight, with hits like “I’m Into Something Good”, “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter”, and “I’m Henry the VIII, I Am”. Even parents liked The Hermits, and they seemed destined to follow in the cinematic footsteps of The Beatles. MGM, who released their records stateside, concocted a ball of fluff for Herman and the lads called HOLD ON!, and any resemblance between that title and The Fab Four’s HELP! is strictly not

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Film Review: Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (dir by Robert Stone)

“Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!”

— Patty “Tania” Hearst

2004’s Guerrilla is not the first movie that I’ve reviewed about the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst.  Previously, I took a look at Abduction, a grindhouse film that was released while Hearst was still missing, and 1988’s Patty Hearst, which was based on Hearst’s own book about her ordeal.  However, Guerrilla is different from those two films in that it’s a documentary and it features interviews with people who actually knew Patty and her kidnappers.

It’s a strange and complicated story, the type that you would probably be dismissed as implausible if not for the fact that it actually happened.  In 1973, Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster was gunned down in a parking lot.  Because Foster was the first black man to held the position of superintendent, it was originally assumed that he had been gunned down by a racist paramilitary group.  However, a neo-Marxist group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) soon took responsibility for the murder, claiming that Foster had been tried in a people’s court and sentenced to death for his crimes.  (Foster’s “crime” was apparently trying to introduce ID cards in Oakland schools.)

Who were the SLA?  They were a small group of self-styled revolutionaries.  Though their leader was a black, escaped convict named Donald DeFreeze, the other members of the SLA were white and largely middle class.  They enjoyed sending out portentous political announcements and they went out of their way to try to portray themselves as being a highly disciplined and regimented military organization.  Donald DeFreeze changed his name to “Field Marshal Cinque.”  According to the interviews in Guerrilla, most of their fellow radicals viewed the SLA as being a joke.  (One contemporary expresses his disappointment in meeting the SLA and discovering that they were all very boring and middle class.)  No one could understand the logic behind murdering Foster, who was viewed as being a progressive educator.

If not for what happened in the months after Foster’s murder, the SLA probably would have faded into the same obscurity that has swallowed up so many activist groups.  After two members of the group were arrested, the SLA retaliated by kidnapping Patty Hearst.

At the time that she was abducted, Patty Hearst was a nineteen year-old student at Berkeley.  She was also the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, the publishing magnate whose life famously inspired the film Citizen Kane.  With the entire world now watching, the SLA announced that Patty would be executed unless the Hearst family arranged for every poor person in California to receive $70 worth of food.  As is portrayed in cringe-inducing detail in the documentary, the Hearst family actually attempted to meet the SLA’s demands, just to watch the food distribution program descend into chaos.  As for the SLA, they were not impressed by the Hearst family’s effort.  Even more tellingly, Patty was not impressed.  In a recording sent to the press, Patty complained that her family hadn’t made enough of an effort and assured everyone that the SLA was treating her in accordance to international law.

Shortly afterwards, the SLA released another recording.  In this recording, Patty announced that she had been given the option of either returning to her family or joining the SLA.  She had decided to join the SLA and take the new name of Tania.  Soon, Patty Hearst was robbing banks and declaring “death to the fascist insect.”

Was Patty sincere in her conversion or was she brainwashed?  That’s the question that Guerrilla explores, while leaving it to the audience to decide for themselves what was actually going on in Patty’s mind.  Though Patty is not interviewed in the film, we do get to hear the recordings that she made during her time with the SLA.  We listen as she goes from being a sacred abductee to a self-declared “urban guerrilla.”  Listening to her dull, flat voice, you get the feeling that she didn’t have much of an individual identity before she was kidnapped and she had even less of one after she converts to the SLA cause.  When she talks about how much she loves the other members of the SLA, she sounds like an actress giving a bad audition.  Before she was kidnapped, she was a Hearst.  After she was kidnapped, she was a revolutionary.  At no point do you get the feeling that she was ever just Patty.

It’s an interesting story and Guerrilla is a fascinating documentary, one that explores how idealism can sometimes be just as dangerous as cynicism.  It’s also a film that explores how the kidnapping of an heiress received more attention than the murder of a teacher.  It’s interesting to note that, while the other members of the SLA eventually ended up either dead or in prison, Patty Hearst ended up getting a full pardon from Bill Clinton.  It’s hard not to feel that the story would have been much different if the SLA had kidnapped Jane Smith instead of Patty Hearst.

Film Review: Gimme Shelter (dir by Albert and David Mayles and Charlotte Zwerin)

After you watch Woodstock, you owe it to yourself to watch another documentary from 1970.  This one is called Gimme Shelter and it deals with the infamous Altamont Free Concert.  Taking place a few months after Woodstock, Altamont was originally envisioned as being Woodstock West but, as Gimme Shelter illustrates in disturbing detail, it ultimately became something far different.

Here are a few images from both Gimme Shelter and the Altamont Free Concert:

This is Mick Jagger, the lead singer of The Rolling Stones.  The Rolling Stones were the final act to perform at the Altamont Free Concert and their performance was meant to be the conclusion of their 1969 American tour.  Gimme Shelter was originally meant to be a documentary about the final days of the tour and clips of a confident and charismatic Jagger performing in Madison Square Garden are sprinkled throughout the first 40 minutes of the film.  They provide a striking contrast to the chaos of the second half of the film, in which Jagger finds himself ineffectually trying to maintain order as fights break out in front of the stage.

This is Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones’s drummer.  Though Gimme Shelter is usually referred to as being a documentary about the Rolling Stones, the film pretty much centers around Mick and Charlie.  Gimme Shelter‘s framing device involves Mick and Charlie watching a rough cut of the documentary itself.  While Mick always seems to maintain an air of deliberate detachment, Charlie seems to be visibly disturbed by what happened during their performance at Altamont.

(In another memorable scene, the group is shown listening to their latest recording.  While this rest of the group plays up to the filmmakers, Charlie quietly takes in the music and appears to be surprised when he notices that he’s being filmed.)

This is the Melvin Belli.  An attorney, Belli appears throughout the first half of Gimme Shelter, making the arrangements for the Altamont Free Concert and obviously having a great time showing off for the camera.  At one point, Belli makes a comment about opening for the Stones.  While Belli’s joking, it’s obvious from the tone of his voice that he’d love nothing more than to do so.  In fact, Belli is so busy being entertaining that he really doesn’t seem to notice that, even during the planning stages, the Altamont Free Concert doesn’t sound like a good idea.

This is Sonny Barger, a founding member of the Hell’s Angels.  He’s standing on the Altamont stage, watching Mick Jagger perform.  Why is Barger on stage?  He’s there because, for some reason, someone thought it would be a good idea to hire the Hell’s Angels to handle security at the concert.  (Barger is heard, in the film, saying that he was told that he could sit on the stage and drink beer and all he had to do was keep anyone else from approaching the musicians.)

What is Barger thinking as he watches Jagger perform?  This is a question that I think anyone who has ever watched Gimme Shelter has asked themselves.  Is he annoyed with or menacing Jagger or is he just doing his job and making sure that no one rushes the singer?  Perhaps it’s all of the above.

The man in green is Meredith Hunter.  This shot is the first time that Hunter appears in the film.  The second time is when he’s getting stabbed to death by a member of the Hell’s Angels security force.  Watching the documentary, Jagger asks to rewatch the scene of Hunter’s murder.  The filmmakers slow down the scene and show him both the knife being held by the Hell’s Angel and the gun being held by Hunter.

Even before Hunter’s death, Gimme Shelter has already shown us enough to convince us that the counter culture dream of Woodstock was the exception as opposed to the rule.  The final hour of Gimme Shelter takes place at the Altamont Free Concert and almost every scene feels like an angry rebuke to the positivity of Woodstock.  The crowds were angrier.  The scenery was far less aesthetically pleasing.  (Woodstock took place on a farm.  Altamont took place on a cement race track.)  Whereas Woodstock famously featured warnings about the “brown acid,” Gimme Shelter features one of the concert promoters reacting to concerns about the bad acid circulating in the crowd by saying, “Tough shit.”  Even the naked people at Altamont were far less attractive than the naked people at Woodstock.  Jefferson Airplane played at both festivals.  At Woodstock, they apparently had sound issues but otherwise, there were no problems.  At Altamont, as the cameras rolled, lead singer Marty Balin was knocked unconscious by a Hell’s Angel with a pool cue.

(“I’d like to mention that the Hell’s Angels just smashed Marty Balin in the face and knocked him out for a bit. I’d like to thank you for that,” one of the members of the band announced.)

A few more images from Altamont:

Before the concert starts, this man cheerfully yelled “LSD!  Mescaline!” at everyone walking by.  I’m not sure if that was his dog or not.  But speaking of dogs…

…this dog casually wandered across the stage during the Rolling Stones’s performance.  It’s never clear where he came from or where he went after he left the stage.

Even with the Hell’s Angels beating up everyone in sight, a few people still enjoyed the concert.  This is who I relate to in the film because she was determined to enjoy herself no matter how weird things got.

But then there’s this guy, who was standing only a few feet away from Jagger when he started to freak out:

If Woodstock is ultimately all about peace and life, Gimme Shelter is a film that is suffused with conflict and death.  If you’re going to watch one, you owe it to yourself to watch the other.  In the end, the two documentaries together provide us with a view of a counterculture that had so much potential but which couldn’t escape the darkness that hid behind the light.

(Interestingly enough, future director George Lucas was one of the cameramen at Altamont that day.  Just as how Altamont was often cited as the end of the 60s, the blockbuster success of Lucas’s Star Wars would often be cited as the beginning of the 80s.)

I’ll end this review with a quote from Grace Slick, one that is still relevant today.  As she said as she watched Altamont descend into chaos: “You don’t hassle with anybody in particular. You gotta keep your bodies off each other unless you intend love. People get weird, and you need people like the Angels to keep people in line. But the Angels also – you know, you don’t bust people in the head – for nothing. So both sides are fucking up temporarily; let’s not keep FUCKING UP!”

Film Review: Woodstock (dir by Michael Wadleigh)

A few nights ago, as I watched the 1970 documentary Woodstock, I thought to myself, “Goddamn, this is a long movie…”

Just how long Woodstock is depends on which version that you watch.  The original version, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary and which was also nominated for Best Editing (the first nomination ever for the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker), had a running time of little over three hours.  The version that I watched was the “director’s cut,” which clocks in at close to four hours.  Of course, since Woodstock was shot over the course of a three-day music festival, it could have been even longer.  32 acts performed at Woodstock but only 14 of them appeared in the original version of the film.  (By including footage of Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Canned Heat, the director’s cut increases that number to 17.)

As for the music that does appear in the film, your reaction is going to depend on how much you like the music of the late 60s.  Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, and Ten Years After are all brilliant but, at the same time, you also have to deal with Joan Baez rambling about her imprisoned husband and singing perhaps the smuggest version of Swing Low Sweet Chariot ever recorded.  Watching Crosby Stills & Nash perform, I was reminded of every boring grad student that I’ve ever known while John Sebastian’s stage patter sounded almost like a parody of hippie shallowness.  I would say that Woodstock was a perfect example of why the rockers are better remembered than the folk singers, except for the fact that my favorite musical performance in the film comes from Arlo Guthrie:

That said, Woodstock really isn’t about the music.  That may sound like a strange thing to say, considering that almost every concert film made since owes a debt to Woodstock but really, the most interesting parts of the film aren’t the performances.  Instead, it’s the interviews with the people involved, not only the concertgoers themselves but also the citizens of the nearby town of Bethel, New York.  Some of the people interviewed as very positive about the sudden hippie invasion.  Quite a few others are not.  One older man seems to be more concerned with working on his car than anything else.  Like any good documentary, Woodstock provides a record of the time when it was made.  As much as I like music, I absolutely love history and, to me, that’s the main appeal of Woodstock.  Watching the film is like getting a chance to step into a time machine and experience an age that I would otherwise never get a chance to know.

Whenever I watch Woodstock, I’m always struck by the fact that I probably would not have enjoyed it as much as some of the people who attended.  I have a feeling that I’d be like that poor girl who is spotted about halfway through the film, crying about how it’s too muddy and crowded.  I always cringe a little when I see everyone bathing in the same dirty pond.  (A young Martin Scorsese worked on the film and reportedly spent the entire festival wearing an immaculate white suit.  That’s something that I would have liked to have seen.)  And yet, at the same time, I just find the documentary fascinating to watch.  I always find myself wondering what became of the people who were interviewed in the film.  How many of the hippies are still hippies and how many of them eventually ended up working on Wall Street?  Did the cranky guy working on his car even bother to see the film?  (It wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t.  Movies, especially movies about a bunch of stoned hippies, really didn’t seem to be his thing.)  To me, questions like those are what makes a movie like this fascinating.

As an event, the original Woodstock is often cited as being the best moment of the 60s counterculture.  (30 years later, the 1999 Woodstock would be remembered as one of the worst moments in the history of both music and American popular culture.)  As a film, Woodstock is undeniably optimistic that the people who braved the rain and the mud so that they could see Joan Baez would somehow manage to build a new society.  Still, sharp-eyed viewers will note a hint of what was to come.  One of the first people interviewed in the documentary is a local shopkeeper.  As he speaks, a newspaper can be seen over his shoulder.

The headline reads: “Sharon’s Pals Balk At Probe,” a reference to the investigation into the murder of Sharon Tate by Charles Manson and his followers.  Seen today, that headline serves as a reminder that, even at the time it was occurring, the peaceful promise of the original Woodstock would be short lived.