Film Review: Emerson Heights (dir by Jennifer Hook)


Earlier tonight, on Prime, I watched a new film called Emerson Heights.  (Well, newish.  It came out in January.)

Emerson Heights tells the story of two people.

Cody McClain (played by Austin James, who also wrote the script and produced) is an aspiring actor who has recently moved out to Los Angeles with his mother and his little sister.  He’s handsome and he’s charming but he’s also dorky enough that he can’t put together a last minute pool party.  He’s only played a few small roles and is perhaps best known for appearing in a series of pretzel commercials.  At least he’s not having to work at Starbucks.

Briley (Gatlin Green) is an aspiring singer.  She does a killer version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow and she aspires to someday perform on Broadway.

Together …. THEY SOLVE CRIMES!

No, actually, they don’t.  Instead, they just meet one day and fall in love.  Unfortunately, Cody lives in Los Angeles while Briley lives in New York City but they’re determined to make it work.  They promise to write to each other often and, whenever Briley can make it out to California, she and Cody spend every moment together.  Briley fears that a long distance relationship won’t be able to survive but Cody promises her that it well.

However, can their relationship survive Cody suddenly becoming famous?  When Cody starts getting bigger roles and more fans, it all starts to go to his head.  While he’s shooting a spy film and hanging out with his seductive co-star, Haley Ryan (Amanda Grace Benitez), Briley is starring in a Broadway production of The Wizard of Oz and trying to figure out how to hold onto her job despite the fact that she’s just found out that she’s pregnant….

Emerson Heights is a pretty simple film.  From the minute that we meet Haley and Cody’s smarmy agent (Matt Singletary), we know that they’re both going to try to lead Cody astray.  We know that Cody’s going to struggle with temptation, just as surely as we know that Briley is going to be pressured to terminate her pregnancy.  It may occasionally be predictable but predictability is actually a strength when it comes to a film like this.  Emerson Heights is an unabashedly sentimental love story, a story about two people who belong together but who have to overcome 90-minutes worth of obstacles to reach each other.  When you’re having to deal with news of riots, pandemics, and threats of war on a daily basis, the predictable but likable romance featured in a movie like Emerson Heights is actually rather comforting.

And make no mistake about it, this is a very likable film.  Austin James and Gatlin Green are two appealing performers and they have a wonderful chemistry together.  (It didn’t surprise me to discover that they’re married in real life.)  They make for a sweet couple and they just seem as if they belong together.  I also liked the enjoyably snarky performance of Amanda Grace Benitez as Briley’s potential rival for Cody’s affection.  As played by Benitez, Haley seems to be having such a ball being bad that it’s fun to watch.  If you’re going to be a villain in a film like this, you might as well enjoy yourself!

Anyway, Emerson Heights is on Prime.  I enjoyed it.

Mainstream Comics Worth Paying Attention To : “Old Haunts”


Ryan C.'s Four Color Apocalypse

Making their publishing debut the last week Diamond was open for business before the COVID-19 shutdown hit was a rough break for AWA (short for Artists, Writers and Artisans) and their Upshot line, but they adjusted on the fly quickly, offering the first issues of their various and sundry titles online for free (albeit in this really annoying, one-panel-at-a-time format) and bumping their release dates down the schedule accordingly — and now that shops are back up and running, so is this new brainchild of former Marvel head honchos Bill Jemas and Axel Alonso. Their slate of offerings has been a mixed bag in terms of quality, no doubt about it, but their professionalism and ability to adjust on the fly — not to mention their comparably deep financial pockets — has shown them to be a resilient new presence in a still-crowded market, and by and large I’m interested…

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The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004, directed by Stephen Hopkins)


Peter Sellers was a brilliant actor and comedian while also being a childish and selfish human being who, because he was always performing, never really developed a personality of his own.

That’s the argument made by The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, which stars Geoffrey Rush as Sellers.  The film follows Sellers from his success with The Goon Show to his subsequent collaborations with Stanley Kubrick (Stanley Tucci) and Blake Edwards (John Lithgow).  Sellers becomes an international star but remains a deeply unhappy person, cheating on his wives, emotionally abusing his son, and being difficult on set.  The film makes the argument that that the only person that Sellers truly loved was his doting mother (played by Miriam Margoyles) and that, having been born into a show business family, performing was the only thing that he was capable of doing.  Even the few times when he’s shown to be a decent father, husband, or friend, it’s suggested that he’s just acting the role.  Rush plays Sellers as being someone who is incapable of understanding how other people think so, whenever he has to interact with them, he simply imitates what he’s seen others do.  Just look at the scene where he attempts to flirt with Sofia Loren by grinning up at her like a character in a romantic comedy.

The problem with a film like this is that, because he’s portrayed as being so selfish and immature, it’s hard to make Peter Sellers into a character that you would want to spend any time with.  The narrative goes from one Sellers tantrum to another.  Stephen Hopkins livens things up by including fantasy sequences where Sellers is taunted by some of his best-known characters, driving home the point that there wasn’t much to Sellers beyond the characters that he played and reminding us of both Sellers’s talent and Geoffrey Rush’s as well.  There are also frequent monologues from Rush, dressed up like the other characters in the movie and discussing their relationship with Peter Sellers.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  Rush does a good job playing Stanley Tucci playing Stanly Kubrick but when he’s made up to look like Miriam Margoyles, the conceit gets too ridiculous to work.

The main reason to see the film is for the performances, especially Emily Watson as Sellers’s first wife and Stephen Fry as Sellers’s “spiritual advisor.”  Stanley Tucci is an inscrutably brilliant Stanley Kubrick while John Lithgow is a hyperactive and crass Blake Edwards.  Finally, Geoffrey Rush is a marvel as Peter Sellers.  Rush has a difficult job, making an extremely unlikable character compelling but he succeeds despite not always being helped by the film’s script or direction.

Like the man it portrayed, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is flawed but filled with enough talent to watchable.

 

 

Mainstream Comics Worth Paying Attention To : “Tartarus”


Ryan C.'s Four Color Apocalypse

Granted, it’s early days yet, but at three issues in I’m already prepared to say that writer Johnnie Christmas and artist Jack T. Cole’s ambitious sci-fi/comedy epic Tartarus is my favorite thing coming out from Image Comics at the moment, and perhaps my favorite thing coming out of the mainstream in general. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s got everything you want : compelling characters, breakneck action, smart scripting, a solid premise — and, oh yeah, absolutely gorgeous art.

Cole first came across my radar screen via Boom! Studios’ The Unsound, where his stunning visuals elevated a rather derivative horror script from Cullen Bunn and turned the insane asylum of the book’s setting into a Dante-esque phantasmagoria of despair and delight, revenge and revelation, but to say he’s kicked it into another gear here is to sell his visionary work short — his design work and figure drawings belie…

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An Offer You Can’t Refuse #20: The Untouchables (dir by Brian DePalma)


“Let’s do some good!” Eliot Ness shouts as he and a platoon of Chicago cops raid what they believe is a bootlegger’s warehouse.

That line right there tells you everything that you need to know about the 1987 film, The Untouchables.  In real life, Eliot Ness was known to be an honest member of law enforcement (which did make him a bit of a rarity in 1920s Chicago) but he was also considered to be something of a self-promoter, someone who tried to leverage his momentary fame into an unsuccessful political career.  In the 50s, after Ness had lost most of his money due to a series of bad investments and his own alcoholism, Ness wrote a book about his efforts to take down Al Capone in Chicago.  That book was called The Untouchables and though Ness died of a heart attack shortly before it was published, it still proved popular enough to not only rehabilitate Ness’s heroic image but also to inspire both a television series and the movie that I’m currently reviewing.

None of that is to say that Ness didn’t play a role in Al Capone’s downfall.  He did, though it’s since been argued that Ness had little to do with actual tax evasion case that led to Capone going to prison.  It’s just that, in real life, Eliot Ness was a complicated human being, one who had his flaws.  In The Untouchables, Kevin Costner plays him as a beacon of midwestern integrity, a Gary Cooper-type who has found himself in the very corrupt city of Chicago in the very corrupt decade of the 1920s.  The film version of Eliot Ness has no flaws, beyond his naive belief that everyone is as determined to “do some good” as he is.

So, The Untouchables may not be historically accurate but it’s still an entertaining film.  It’s less concerned with the reality of Eliot Ness’s life and more about the mythology that has risen up around the roaring 20s.  Everything about the film is big and operatic.  In the role of Al Capone, Robert De Niro sneers through every scene with the self-satisfaction of a tyrant looking over the kingdom that he’s just conquered.  While Costner’s Ness tells everyone to do some good, De Niro’s Capone uses a baseball bat to keep his underlings in line.  He goes to the opera and cries until he’s told that one of Ness’s men has been killed.  Then a big grin spreads out across his face.  It’s not exactly a subtle performance but then again, The Untouchables is not exactly a subtle movie.  It’s not designed to be a film that makes you think about whether or not prohibition was a good law.  Instead, everything is bigger-than-life.  It’s a film that takes place in a dream world that appears to have sprung from mix of old movies and American mythology.

In real life, Ness had ten agents working under him.  They were all selected because they were considered to be honest lawmen and they were nicknamed The Untouchables after it was announced to the press that Ness had refused a bribe from one of Capone’s men.  In the film, Ness only has three men working underneath him and they’re all recognizable types.  Sean Connery won an Oscar for playing Jmmy Malone, the crusty old beat cop who teaches Ness about the Chicago Way.  A young and incredibly hot Andy Garcia plays George Stone, the youngest of the Untouchables.  Best of all is Charles Martin Smith, cast as Oscar Wallace, a mild-mannered accountant who first suggests that Capone must be cheating on his taxes.  There’s a great scene in which the Untouchables intercept a liquor shipment on the Canadian border, all while riding horses.  Sitting on the back of his galloping horse and trying not to fall off, both Oscar Wallace and the actor playing him appear to be having the time of their lives.  For Oscar (and probably for much of the audience), it’s a fantasy come to life, a chance to “do some good.”

The Untouchables was directed by Brian DePalma and his stylish approach to the material is perfect for the film’s story.  DePalma fills the film with references to other movies, some from the gangster genre and some not.  (In one of the film’s most famous sequence, DePalma reimagines Battleship Potemkin‘s massacre on The Odessa Steps as a shoot-out between Eliot Ness and Capone’s men.)  DePalma’s kinetic style reminds us that The Untouchables is less about history and more about how we imagine history.  In reality, Capone was succeeded by Frank Nitti and The Chicago Outfit continued to thrive even in Capone’s absence.  In the film, Nitti (played by Billy Drago) brags about killing one of the Untouchables and, as a result, is tossed off the roof of a courthouse by Eliot Ness.  It’s not historically accurate but it makes for a crowd-pleasing scene.

Big, operatic, and always entertaining, The Untouchables is an offer that you can’t refuse.

Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface (1932)
  3. The Purple Gang
  4. The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
  5. The Happening
  6. King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein 
  7. The Roaring Twenties
  8. Force of Evil
  9. Rob the Mob
  10. Gambling House
  11. Race Street
  12. Racket Girls
  13. Hoffa
  14. Contraband
  15. Bugsy Malone
  16. Love Me or Leave Me
  17. Murder, Inc.
  18. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
  19. Scarface (1983)

An Offer You Can’t Refuse #19: Scarface (dir by Brian DePalma)


“Hello to my little friend!”

Hi, little friend….

BOOM!

The 1983 film, Scarface, is a misunderstood film.  As we all know, it’s the story of Tony Montana (Al Pacino), who comes to Miami from Cuba along with his friend, Manny (Steven Bauer).  In return for murdering a former member of Castro’s government, Tony is given a job working for Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia).  When it becomes obvious that Tony is becoming too ambitious and might become a threat to him, Frank attempts to have Tony killed.  However, the assassination attempt fails, Tony murders Frank, and then Tony becomes Miami’s richest and most powerful crime lord.  Soon, Tony is burying his face in a mountain of cocaine while making deals with a sleazy Bolivian drug lord named Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar).  Tony also marries Frank’s mistress, Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfieffer), though it’s obvious from the start the the only person that Tony truly loves is his sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio).  Anyway, it all eventually leads to a lot of violence and a lot of death.  Even F. Murray Abraham ends up getting tossed out of a helicopter, which is unfortunate since his character was a lot of fun.

Scarface is a famous film, largely because of Oliver Stone’s quotable dialogue and the no holds barred direction of Brian DePalma.  However, I think that people get so caught up on the fact that this is a classic gangster film that they miss the fact that Scarface is also an extremely dark comedy.  It satirizes the excess of the 80s.  Once Tony reaches the top of the underworld, he becomes a parody of the nouveau riche.  He moves into a gigantic house and proceeds to decorate it in the most tasteless way possible and there’s something oddly charming about this crude, not particularly bright man getting excited over the fact that he can finally afford to buy a tiger.  Towards the end of the film, there’s a scene where Tony rants while lounging in an indoor hot tub while Elvira languidly snorts cocaine and complains about the crudeness of his language and, at that moment, Scarface becomes a bit of a domestic comedy.  Tony’s reached the top of his profession, just to discover that it takes more than a live-in tiger and a wardrobe of wide lapeled suits to achieve true happiness.  So, he ends up sitting glumly in his office with a mountain of cocaine rising up in front of him.  “The world is yours” may be Tony’s motto but it turns out that the world is extremely tacky.  For all of his attempts to recreate himself as a wealthy and sophisticated man, Tony is still just a barely literate criminal with a nasty scar and a sour disposition.  The only thing he’s gotten for all of his ruthless ambition is an order of ennui with a cocaine appetizer.

I’ve always found Brian DePalma to be an uneven director.  He has a very distinct style and sometimes that style is perfectly suited to the story that he’s telling (i.e., Carrie) and sometimes, all of that style just seems to get in the way (i.e. The Fury).  Scarface, however, is the ideal story for DePalma’s over-the-top aesthetic.  DePalma’s style may be excessive but Scarface is a film about excess so it’s a perfect fit.  For that matter, you could say the same thing about Oliver Stone’s screenplay.  Stone has since stated that he was using almost as much cocaine as Tony Montana while he wrote the script.  The end result of the combination of Stone’s script, DePalma’s hyperactive direction, Pacino’s overpowering lead performance, and Giorgio Moroder’s propulsive score is a film that feels as if every minute is fueled by cocaine.  It’s not just a film that’s about drugs.  It’s also a film that feels like a drug.

Scarface is a big movie.  It runs nearly three hours, following Tony from his arrival in the United States to his final moments in his mansion, taking hundreds of bullets while grandly announcing that he’s still standing.  (Even after all of the bad things that Tony has done — poor Manny! — it’s impossible not to admire his refusal to go down.)  It’s also a difficult movie to review, largely because almost everyone’s seen it and already has an opinion.  Personally, I think the film gets off to a strong start.  I think the scenes of Tony ruthlessly taking control of Frank’s empire are perfectly handled and I love the scenes where Pacino and Steven Bauer just bounce dialogue off of each other.  They’re like a comedy team who commits murder on the side.  I also loved the “Take it to the limit” montage, which belongs in the 80s Cinema Hall of Fame.  At the same time, I think the final third of the movie drags a bit and that Tony’s sudden crisis of conscience when he sees that a man that he’s supposed to murder has a family feels a bit forced.  It also bothers me that Elvira just vanishes from the film.  At the very least, the audience deserved more of an explanation as to where she disappeared to.

But no matter!  Flaws and all, Scarface is a violent satire that holds up surprisingly well.  Al Pacino’s unhinged performance as Tony Montana is rightly considered to be iconic.  Pacino’s gives such a powerhouse performance that it’s easy to forget that the rest of the cast is pretty impressive as well.  I particularly liked the wonderfully sleazy work of F. Murray Abraham and Paul Shenar.  That said, my favorite character in the film remains Elvira, if just because her clothes were to die for and she just seemed so incredibly bored with all of the violent men in her life.  She goes from being bored with Frank to being bored with Tony and how can you not admire someone who, even when surrounded by all Scarface’s excess, just refuse to care?

Scarface is an offer that you can’t refuse.

Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface (1932)
  3. The Purple Gang
  4. The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
  5. The Happening
  6. King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein 
  7. The Roaring Twenties
  8. Force of Evil
  9. Rob the Mob
  10. Gambling House
  11. Race Street
  12. Racket Girls
  13. Hoffa
  14. Contraband
  15. Bugsy Malone
  16. Love Me or Leave Me
  17. Murder, Inc.
  18. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

Song of the Day: Il Grande Silenzio by Ennio Morricone


Today’s song of the day comes from Ennio Morricone’s score for the 1968 spaghetti western, The Great Silence.  Directed by Sergio Corbucci and featuring Jean-Louis Trintigant as a mute bounty hunter and Klaus Kinski as a savage outlaw, The Great Silence is one the darkest of the Italian westerns and Morricone’s elegiac score compliments the mood perfectly.

Previous Entries In Our Tribute To Morricone:

  1. Deborah’s Theme (Once Upon A Time In America)
  2. Violaznioe Violenza (Hitch-Hike)
  3. Come Un Madrigale (Four Flies on Grey Velvet)

Music Video of the Day: The Steps by HAIM (2020, dir by Paul Thomas Anderson)


I’m the youngest of four sisters and everyday, I’m thankful for that because I would seriously be so lost without them in my life.  I think that’s one reason why I like HAIM.  The Haim sisters remind me of my older sisters and that’s especially true in the video for The Steps.

The song, of course, is about a relationship that, if it hasn’t ended yet, is coming to an end.  The messiness of Haim’s morning routine perfectly mirrors the lyrics of the song, in which the narrator says that every time she tries to move forward, her lover gets mad at her for “making a mess.”  There’s something very liberating about HAIM’s messiness in this video.  It’s not just the fact that they’re throwing stuff all over the apartment and stumbling out of bed (which is the way I think most of us wake up but it’s something you rarely see in movies or music videos, where everyone wakes up refreshed and ready for a photo shoot) but it’s also the fact that there’s none of the fake glamour that you might expect to see in a music video like this.  It’s a song about freedom and being yourself and if that means making a mess then make a mess.  It’s a liberating song and a liberating video.  It’s not a video where HAIM tries to live up to some pop princess archetype.  This is a video that says, “This is who we are and fuck you if you can’t handle it.”

That said, I have to admit that I’m a compulsive cleaner and my natural instinct is to usually tidy up so my room has never looked as messy as my life.  I guess I should be happy about that because otherwise, I don’t think I’d ever be able to find anything.  And that’s okay.  It’s okay to be messy.  It’s okay to be neat.  What matters is that you’re being yourself and not allowing anyone to force you to try to be someone else.

This video, like most of HAIM’s recent videos, was directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.  The film critic Armond White has argued that Anderson’s work with HAIM is actually superior to most of his recent films and I think White might have a point.  (Before anyone starts yelling at me, I don’t care whether or not you like Armond White.  He’s a consistently interesting writer and someone has to be willing to be a contrarian.)  There’s a definitely naturalness to Anderson’s videos with HAIM, as if anything could happen at any moment.

Enjoy!