Buck Henry, R.I.P.


I just heard that Buck Henry died tonight of a heart attack.  He was 89 years old.

It’s hard to know where to start with Buck Henry.  He did a little bit of everything.  He started out as a comedian in the 50s, appearing on talk shows and claiming to be G. Clifford Prout, the president of the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA).  SINA was an organization dedicated to clothing animals in order to prevent their “indecency.”  Buck Henry’s delivery was so deadpan that many people thought he actually was G. Clifford Prout and a some even tried to send him donations to help out his cause.  (The donations were always returned.)

Henry went on to work extensively in both television and film.  He wrote the script for The Graduate and played the helpful hotel clerk.  He co-created Get Smart with Mel Brooks.  With Warren Beatty, he co-directed Heaven Can Wait and received an Oscar nomination.  In Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, he had a rare serious role as the gay patent lawyer who helps alien Thomas Jerome Newton set up his corporation and who ultimately gets tossed out of a window by government agents.

During the first few season of Saturday Night Live, Buck Henry hosted a total of ten times.  By many, he was considered to be an unofficial member of the cast.  He was a frequent foil to John Belushi’s samurai character.  Henry’s button-down persona provided the perfect contrast to Belushi’s frenetic performance.  During the October 30th, 1976 episode, Henry was accidentally struck by Belushi’s katana and he ended up with a deep cut on his forehead.  Henry not only continued the skit but he also hosted the rest of the show with a bandage on his forehead.  All of the other members of the cast put bandages on their foreheads as a show of solidarity.

Buck Henry kept working into the new century, appearing on shows like Will and Grace, The Daily Show, and 30 Rock.  He will be missed.

Buck Henry, R.I.P.

 

The Visitors (1972, directed by Elia Kazan)


Haunted by his experiences in Vietnam, Bill Schmidt (James Woods) lives in an isolated farmhouse with his girlfriend, Martha (Patricia Joyce), their young son, and Martha’s tyrannical father, Harry Wayne (Patrick McVey).  Harry is a hard-drinking writer who is proud of his previous military experiences and who is frustrated by Bill’s reluctance to talk about his time in Vietnam.  Harry views Bill as being a wimp who lost a war that America should have won.

One wintry night, two visitors show up at the house.  Mike (Steve Railsback) and Tony (Chico Martinez) served in Bill’s platoon.  The three of them were once friends but then something happened in Vietnam that changed all that, something that Bill refuses to talk about.  Harry is happy to welcome Mike and Tony into the household and he enjoys hearing their war stories.  While the hapless Bill watches, Mike flirts with Martha.  However, as the night continues, it becomes obvious that Mike and Tony aren’t paying an innocent visit on a friend.  Instead, they’re looking for revenge.  Bill testified against Mike at a court-martial and, in the process, ruined both of their lives.

The idea of “bringing the war home” was a popular one in the late 60s and the early 70s.  Radical groups like the Weathermen justified their terroristic actions by saying that they were forcing complacent Americans to face what every day was like in Vietnam.  Books like David Morrell’s First Blood featured psychologically damaged vets waging war on an America that they felt had abandoned them while the new wave of counterculture filmmakers made films that were groundbreaking in their portrayal of death and violence.  The Visitors, which features one traumatized vet being victimized by two other angry vets, was one of those films that was meant to bring the war home.

Directed by Elia Kazan and written by Kazan’s son, Chris, The Visitors is a simple film that sometimes seems more like a stage play than a movie.  The script is talky and heavy-handed, the characters are thinly drawn, and the film’s portrayal of Martha comes close to being misogynistic.  Chris Kazan’s script is openly critical of the United States’s role in the Vietnam War but Elia Kazan is more concerned with presenting Bill as a martyr.  Elia was a former communist who infamously named names during the McCarthy era and, from On the Waterfront on, every film that he made was more or less an attempt to justify his actions.  Like Waterfront‘s Terry Malloy. Bill loses everything because he testifies.  Unlike Malloy, no one comes to Bill’s aid afterwards, which suggests Kazan’s bitterness only grew over the years following his testimony.

The Visitors is a lesser film in Kazan’s filmography but notably, it was the first film for both James Woods and Steve Railsback.  Railsback plays Mike as a charismatic brute, giving a performance that owes more than a little to Marlon Brando’s performance as Stanley Kowalski in Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire.  James Woods brings his nervous intensity to the role of Bill, making him a far more intelligent but no less victimized version of Brando’s Terry Malloy.  Though The Visitors was Kazan’s second-to-last film, both Woods and Railsback would go on to emerge as two of the most interesting character actors in Hollywood.

4 Shots From 4 Elvis Films: Love Me Tender, Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, King Creole


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking.

Today is not just David Bowie’s birthday.  It’s also Elvis’s!  If he was still with us, Elvis Presley would be 85 years old today.

During his lifetime, Elvis was as well-known for his movies as his music.  Elvis, who admired James Dean and Marlon Brando and wanted to be known as a serious actor, hated the majority of his films.  After 1960’s G.I. Blues, almost all of Elvis’s films were musical comedies that provided him with little opportunity to show off his dramatic skills.  Elvis preferred his first four films, Love Me Tender, Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, and King Creole, all of which gave him a chance to not just sing but to do some serious acting as well.

In honor Elvis’s birthday, here are 4 shots from those 4 films.

4 Shots From 4 Elvis Films

Love Me Tender (1956, directed by Robert D. Webb)

Loving You (1957, directed by Hal Kanter)

Jailhouse Rock (1957, directed by Richard Thorpe)

King Creole (1958, directed by Michael Curtiz)

The Covers of Startling Detective Adventures


How startling were the stories in Startling Detective Adventures Magazine?  They were startling enough to keep the magazine running for ten years, from 1930 to 1939.  As you can tell from looking at the covers below, Startling Detective offered up the usual stories of crime, gangsters, murder, prison, and guns.  Each cover promised readers “the truth from police records.”

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to discover who did the covers below.  Sadly, some of the best work of the pulp era went uncredited.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: Green Book (dir by Peter Farrelly)


Set in 1962, the 2018 film Green Book tells the story of two men.

Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a world-acclaimed pianist who lives a regal life.  How regal is Dr. Shirley’s life?  He’s got a throne in his living room!  Being both black and gay, Shirley knows that he’s destined to always be on the outside of American society but he refuses to allow anyone to take away his dignity or devalue his intelligence.  Shirley is scheduled to do a concert tour in the Midwest and the Deep South and his record company knows that he’s going to need protection during his trip.  For that matter, he’s also going to need a driver.

Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) is actually named Frank Vallelgona but everyone calls him Tony Lip because he can talk his way out of almost any situation.  He’s a casually prejudiced Italian who lives in the Bronx.  He’s a professional bouncer and he can drive a car too!  He’s in desperate need of money and he doesn’t want to have to go to work for the Mafia.  When Shirley’s record company contacts him about spending two months as Shirley’s driver and bodyguard, it could be the solution to all of his financial problems.

Soon, Tony is driving Shirley through the South.  Tony smokes in the car and Shirley snaps at him.  Shirley doesn’t appreciate fried chicken so Tony convinces him to try it.  Tony punches a cop and ends up in jail so Shirley calls his friend Bobby Kennedy.  Eventually, Tony and Shirley even become friends and together….

THEY SOLVE CRIMES!

No, not really.  Instead, Tony encourages Shirley to loosen up and enjoy life a little bit more.  Meanwhile, Shirley teaches Tony how to write a decent letter to his wife.  Tony introduces Shirley to rock and roll.  Shirley introduces Tony to high society.  At the end of the film, we’re told that, in real life, Shirley and Tony remained friends until the end of their days.

It’s a crowd-pleasing ending.  It’s also one that’s been described as being inaccurate.  While it is true that Tony Lip (who later had a career as a character actor in gangster films) did drive Don Shirley around the South during his 1962 concert tour, Shirley’s family maintained that Shirley never considered him to be a friend but instead just viewed him as being an employee.  At the time of the film’s initial release, it was also pointed out that, while the script was co-written by Tony Lip’s son, no one bothered to reach out to Don Shirley’s family during the production.

When Green Book was nominated for best picture, a lot of observers assumed that the controversy over its accuracy would keep the film from winning the top prize.  The fact that Peter Farrelly was not nominated for best director was also seen as an indicator that Green Book was not a serious contender.  Of course, to the shock (and, it must be said, anger) of many, Green Book did win the Oscar for Best Picture, defeating Roma, BlackKklansman, Black Panther, A Star is Born, The Favourite, Vice, and Bohemian Rhapsody.  During the days immediately after the Oscars, there was a definite feeling of embarrassment in the air.  No one, it seemed, could quite accept that — out of all the films released in 2018 — the Academy had declared Green Book to the best.

Why was Green Book such an unpopular winner?  Setting aside the controversy over the film’s historical accuracy (or lack thereof), Green Book is just a painfully conventional movie.  At a time when many directors were testing the limits of narrative and taking cinema in new and different directions, Green Book was a film that was almost defiantly old-fashioned and predictable.  At a time when filmmakers were being praised for their willingness to keep audiences off-balance, Peter Farrelly crafted about as blatant a crowd pleaser as had ever been released.  Not since Alan Arkin shouted, “Argo fuck yourself!,” had a film been so obvious about its desire to be loved.  Even the film’s best scenes have a generic quality to them.  You never find yourself thinking, “Only a cinematic visionary like Peter Farrelly could have made a film like Green Book!”

Beyond that, Green Book is another film that deals with the issue of race in America in the safest and most anodyne way possible.  Tony Lip starts out as prejudiced.  Then he spends two months driving around a black man and suddenly, he’s not prejudiced anymore.  This the type of approach that may drive intersectional film critics crazy on twitter but audiences tend to like it because it leaves them feeling good about the state of the world.  “Yes,” the film says, “things aren’t perfect but all we have to do is spend two months in a car together and everything will be okay.”

The first time I watched Green Book, I thought it was blandly pleasant, predictable and a bit forgettable.  I also thought it was well-acted.  Last night, I rewatched the film for this review and …. well, my feelings pretty much remain the same.  Sometimes, a conventional film will benefit from the intimacy of the small screen but that’s not the case with Green Book.  If anything, watching this film in my living room (as opposed to in a theater with a gigantic screen) made me realize that, when I first saw Green Book, I was perhaps a bit too kind in my evaluation of the film’s lead performances.  Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are good, charismatic actors and that natural charisma serves them well in Green Book.  But neither one of them really gives that interesting of a performance.  Despite their roles being based on real people, they’re both playing cliches and, as a result, you never really go emotionally involved with either one of them.

I can understand why Green Book won best picture.  It’s competently made, conventionally liberal, and full of good intentions.  Given that the Academy uses rank-choiced voting, it’s probable that Green Book won not because it was everyone’s favorite movie but because it was everyone’s 2nd or 3rd choice.  Hopefully, this year, the Academy will pick something a little bit more interesting for its top prize.

 

Music Video of the Day: Space Oddity by David Bowie (1969, directed by Malcolm Thomson)


 “In England, it was always presumed that it was written about the space landing, because it kind of came to prominence around the same time. But it actually wasn’t. It was written because of going to see the film 2001, which I found amazing. I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it, several times, and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing. It was picked up by the British television, and used as the background music for the landing itself. I’m sure they really weren’t listening to the lyric at all. It wasn’t a pleasant thing to juxtapose against a moon landing. Of course, I was overjoyed that they did. Obviously, some BBC official said, ‘Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great.’ ‘Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.’ Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that.”

— David Bowie on Space Oddity

Today would have been David Bowie’s 73rd birthday so it only seems appropriate that he should be honored with our latest selection for music video of the day.

Though it may be hard to believe today, David Bowie was not an overnight success.  Bowie spent five years drifting from band to band and experimenting with different types of music before he finally released his first solo album, which failed to chart.  Space Oddity, which was the first single to be released off of his second album, was fortunate enough to come out at a time when the entire world was watching the moon landing.  It captured the public’s imagination and so, of course, did Bowie.  Space Oddity launched Bowie’s career and also made a legend out of an enigmatic astronaut named Major Tom.

This music video was Bowie’s first.  It was actually filmed as part of a 30-minute promotional film called Love You Till Tuesday.  The film was originally meant to feature Bowie singing seven of his songs.  It was only at the last minute that Bowie decided to add a performance of Space Oddity as well.  Bowie was only 22 when this was shot and, not surprisingly, the influence of Kubrick’s 2001 can be felt throughout the Space Oddity video.

Despite Bowie’s success and growing fame, Love You Til Tuesday failed to attract much interest from potential buyers and it sat on the shelf until 1984, when it was finally given a VHS release.

Enjoy!