We are honored to present our latest conversation in our Actor’s Spotlight series. With this episode, Frank and Raymond Benson have a conversation with poet and actor Harry Northup who is living film history. Harry was featured in Martin Scorsese’s first six films WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR, BOXCAR BERTHA, MEAN STREETS, ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, TAXI DRIVER, and NEW YORK NEW YORK. Harry was also a frequent collaborator with maverick filmmakers Jonathan Demme and Jonathan Kaplan. Harry has been featured in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, TOM HORN, and OVER THE EDGE amongst many others. Harry recounts his very rich filmography, along with stories of working with actors Harvey Keitel, Richard Farnsworth, Billy Green Bush, Peter Boyle, and Steve McQueen.
Welcome everyone to a very special episode of Podcasting Them Softly’s For Your Ears Only series. Today we are going to discuss Martin Campbell’s return to the Bond franchise with CASINO ROYALE. Released in 2006 this was Daniel Craig’s debut as James Bond, based on Ian Flemings’s first Bond novel of the same name. Featuring an amazing cast coupled with Chris Cornell’s show-stopping title song, CASINO ROYALE had a worldwide box office total of 600 million and went on to win a bounty of BAFTA awards and Daniel Craig became the first actor to be nominated for a BAFTA for portraying James Bond.
What makes this episode so very special, is that we are joined with returning guest and one of our favorite filmmakers Wayne Kramer and actress Ivana Milicevic who co-starred in both CASINO ROYALE as Valenka – Mads Mikkelson’s girlfriend, and Wayne’s neo-noir masterpiece, RUNNING SCARED.
With pages that zoom ahead at the pace of a well-crafted screenplay; the further I was pulled along by what seemed like a rope around the neck, deeper into Eric Red’s(Body Parts, Bad Moon) latest action spectacle-in-print, I found myself thinking of that old story of a script called Simon Says. Of course, by the time Simon came to a theater near you…the title of the picture had changed to Die Hard: With a Vengeance.
If you carry on and research that story…you’ll stumble across another little tale about another spec script titled: Troubleshooter. This also would eventually find its way before eager, action-seeking audiences. Though, they weren’t so eager when they came out of Speed 2: Cruise Control.
But let us not dwell on the frailties of ego and hubris, I’m here because, although I haven’t podcasted them softly from a distance in some time, all-of-sudden, there came the opportunity to have a powwow with a filmmaker/novelist whose work I’ve long admired. It sounded like a hot ticket. And I was flattered beyond belief when, being accustomed to the ever-convenient PDF, I not only received a copy of STOPPING POWER, but two other of Eric’s newest efforts, including one headed for our screens in the form of WHITE KNUCKLE.
So now, as my veracity may be in question, you’re wondering why I would begin writing about Mr. Red’s new book talking about how someone else’s idea was transformed into franchise fodder? The answer isn’t simple. It’s kinda just where my head went to as the story unfolded. I kept thinking, “If Eric Red wasn’t ERIC RED…they would totally reconfigure this into like a Speed 3.” And as Stephanie Power’s problems start to look like the tidal waves the James Cameron’s NTI’s were going to use to wash the pestilence that is humanity from the face of the Earth in his ABYSS, my head kept spinning like the wheels of so many vehicles in, HANDS DOWN, the best car chases I’ve thus encountered on the printed page.
STOPPING POWER will make an equally incredible film. And should WHITE KNUCKLE’s transition prove successful, I dare say, then it shall not be long before this mother/daughter/action/heist/thriller; with an ensemble of such surprising, terrifyingly and delightfully depraved villains that play cat and mouse and Russian Roulette with the lives Stephanie Power and her daughter. There’s 60 million dollars in bearer bonds as well as every cop in Texas on the hunt for this woman who is Power by name, but powerful by nature. I’ve already spoke on the blinding action that awaits you here, but the character work is not to be underestimated. Mr. Red, you can tell is a screenwriter as the pages decline. He knows that if you don’t give a damn about the people in peril…then he’s gonna lose you.
Lucky for you, dear reader, there are enough twists and turns and further secrets unearthed as the story snakes around the highways like the frantic mother behind the wheel, a puppet being pulled by evil strings as her daughter sits at the end of the barrel of a loaded, automatic weapon. She’s a bomb on the bus, only the bus is an RV. There’s a shitty ex-Husband, there’s an unlikely hero. There are moments that’ll you wish were up there on a screen in front of you as the roads are lashed with Mad Max fury; all culminating in a climax that’s as good as they come. Heck, if the whole thing was set around Christmas time…it could also work as a Die Hard movie too, I guess.
Point is STOPPING POWER works! It works damn well. And if you’re not completely satisfied with some really tight storytelling, involving and emotion human components, all dressed to the nines with scintillating mechanical carnage, explosions…all part of your complete breakfast really.
I really loved this book, and as I mentioned earlier, a chat with Mr. Red was on the cards. So, here it is. He’s taken the time out from his busy schedule to field a fistful of questions from yours truly. Ladies and Gentlemen…Eric Red…
KH: So, Mr. Red, like WHITE KNUCKLE, I believe it won’t be long before we’ll be hearing that STOPPING POWER is headed for the Big Silver. I see it clearly as SPEED meets DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE; what was the genesis of the story?
ER: One day was watching a TV news report showing a high-speed chase of a bank robbery suspect on an L.A. freeway with all the news helicopters filming it. Wondered what would happen if the bank robber switched their getaway car with someone else’s car and used them as a decoy. They might get away with it. Everybody would be watching the other car. But how would you make another driver drive the getaway car? Then I thought what if the escaping bank robber carjacked a parent and child, kidnapped the kid, switched cars and blackmailed the parent into doing the driving the bank robber’s car as a decoy leading the police in the wrong direction. It would be a perfect crime, a clean getaway. That was the seed of the story.
The characters of the mother, daughter and kidnapper sprang from the idea. Here’s this mother suddenly in this extraordinary situation where everybody thinks she’s a bank robber and nobody believes her daughter has been kidnapped. It’s up to her not only to elude a citywide police dragnet but also somehow catch up to the kidnapper and get her daughter back. And the kidnapper is watching the high-speed chase on the TV news and has eyes on her every minute. She is all alone. Out of this impossible situation, the ultimate predicament for a mother, the fun for us is how she figures it out. Because of course she will.
In a book, it seemed like the kind of thing people would believe could really happen and happen to anyone. In thriller terms it was preposterous yet plausible. My favorite suspense stories are the kind of in-the-wrong place-at-the-wrong time situations that could happen to regular people like us. I love Alfred Hitchcock and this appealed to me as a classic Hitchcock mistaken identity set up where an innocent individual is framed for a crime he didn’t commit, as if Alfred Hitchcock had done a car chase thriller.
KH: When you sit down to write is it a book idea, a script idea, or simply…I have to get this story out?
ER: Some ideas I have are for novels and others for scripts. I often get an idea for a screenplay and sit down and write it in two weeks. Novels involve much more material on every level, and on those will usually make notes for months or even years until I have enough notes that the book is ready to write. Author Tom McGuane phrased that stage perfectly calling it “building up the cabin pressure.” In the end, the ones that get written are the ideas I can’t stop thinking about, for purely subjective reasons.
KH: Having recently seen and enjoyed The Last Duel, appreciating the Rashomon quality, what made you choose the shifting POV from first person to third person storytelling…or did the story dictate that
ER: Maximizing reader identification with the characters meant telling the story from multiple voices. The novel has two first person narratives with the mother Stephanie and her kidnapped daughter Libby, so we see the same events from their contrasting different perspectives, giving us the whole picture. First person gets the reader right inside the character’s heads. We needed to be outside of the villainess Ilsa, so I wrote her third person so we never truly know what she’s thinking, keeping her unpredictable because we never know what she’ll do next. What I love about Rashomon is the truth is the whole of the sum of the parts of all of the characters’ perspectives!
KH: You’ve spoken in other interviews about liking in movies “what you don’t see.” Can a writer get away with that when writing novels, or is that best left to the screenplay?
ER: “Keeping it off-screen” is a storytelling technique that works equally well in films and books. In a movie we would describe that as “not how you show it but how you don’t show it” or in a novel we might say something is described “between the lines,” but either way it means handling a scene in such a way that people fill in the blanks. Then they use their imagination picturing things you just suggest instead of explicitly showing or describing graphically. There’s a place for both.
KH: Christopher Isherwood was quoted as saying writing for Hollywood made him a better novelist in the sense that it showed him greater economy of language; do you feel the same?
ER: Yes, writing screenplays you cut everything out that doesn’t move the story forwards. You “load” words because you use as few as possible. It’s a strong background to have as a novelist because for screenwriters “when in doubt, cut it out.” Also, scriptwriters are story wonks and we bring that narrative skill-set to novels. When we write them. Most screenwriters can’t write a novel even though they try, or write just one. I’ve written eleven. And honestly many novelists can’t write a script to save their life. Screenplays and books are very different animals.
For instance, in a novel you have many more tools in your storytelling toolbox. In a script, you have just action and dialogue. You have those in a novel, too, but also first second and third person narratives, different voices, and much more ordinance to weaponize your prose. The thing I love about doing both is that when a script is made into a movie, we give you the pictures so everyone sees the same film, but in a novel, we bring their own pictures to the prose, based on our mental images and memories, so it’s more personal.
KH: I love the tension in the early scenes with Ilsa and Libby, before their dialogue kicks in later. It was for me, reminiscent of what you did in the scenes involving Michael Pare and the dog in Bad Moon.
ER: There’s a lot of stare-downs, that’s for sure! At first, Ilsa and Libby deal with each another in a silent primal animal level, sniffing each other out. Not unlike Pare and Thor in Bad Moon, as you say.
KH: Stephanie’s thought as she makes a dynamic and daring rooftop evasion from the police is that “it’s like being in a car commercial from Hell.” Does the Fury Road adrenaline you capture come from the novelistic glee that says, “Gee, I’m glad I don’t have to do this on a budget with a schedule?”
ER: Sure, writing a novel obviously the only limits are the limits of one’s imagination. The only thing to worry about is fully imagining the scene in enough detail so it’s believable. But the rooftop car chase certainly could be viably filmed with first-class precision vehicular stunt driving and standard mechanical special effects.
KH: Dan Crockett turned out to have more moxy than I gave in through the early stages. You pay off characters well, and as much as this is a book about “hot minutes” and high-octane mechanical carnage; what makes it all work is the people?
ER: It’s always all about the people. Action or suspense scenes are empty exercises in mechanics unless you care about the characters involved, even the bad guys. It’s not about sympathetic characters—we become involved with flawed characters we don’t morally approve of all the time in what we read and watch—audience and reader involvement is the apt phrase. I’d say it’s an even split with the mother and kidnapper in STOPPING POWER as far as who interests us the most. Stephanie is a mother tiger protecting her cub, hard not to root for. We don’t root for Ilsa, quite the opposite, but we do get to understand the kidnapper and become involved with her. Many readers tell me she is the most interesting character in the book. We all know villains are often the most compelling characters, like in Shakespeare. Lots of reasons for that.
A big part of the drama in Stopping Power deals with the Stockholm syndrome dynamics of the kidnapper Ilsa and her teenage captive Libby. Each needs to keep the other talking for survival reasons, forcing this unlikely pair to engage and form an unusual if not friendly bond. Ilsa, a completely emotionally detached human being, finds herself experiencing younger sister feelings for the teenage girl, and because Ilsa has no experience with feelings she becomes unstable, which could have consequences for both her and Libby. It’s an instance in the book where the drama between the characters ups the jeopardy. Those are some of my favorite chapters in the novel.
KH: In light of the recent tragedy on the set of RUST, it made Stephanie’s backstory, primarily her relationship with her father extremely poignant?
ER: Sam Power took reckless safety risks as a stuntman like his generation of stunt people did making movies during those days, but Stephanie’s dad was a seasoned professional and the only lives he risked were his own and unfortunately hers that one time. Ironically, if her father Sam had not taken those risks with Stephanie teaching her how to stunt drive, she would not have survived the ordeal in the novel when Ilsa puts her to the test.
KH: $64,000 question. Did Jack Stevens crap his pants when the boys from SWAT came calling. I only ask ’cause the Sheriff said things got messy?
ER: Let’s say it’s an example of “between-the-lines!”
About The Author: Eric Red is a Los Angeles-based novelist, screenwriter, and film director. His films include The Hitcher, Near Dark, Cohen and Tate, Body Parts, Bad Moon, 100 Feet and The Last Outlaw. He has written nine novels, including Don’t Stand So Close, It Waits Below, White Knuckle, The Guns of Santa Sangre, The Wolves of El Diablo, Noose, Hanging Fire and Branded. Red divides his time between California and Wyoming with his wife and two dogs. Find out more about Eric Red and his books and films on his official website EricRed.com, on Facebook at OfficialEricRed, and on Twitter @ericred.
“There isn’t another novel this year that cuts as quickly to the chase as Stopping Power. Eric Red’s new thriller is tense, tough and tenacious. Once the story evolves from its simple but highly effective premise there’s no exit for the reader: a psychologically clever described mother-and-daughter relationship and a vicious villainess sure make for a hell of a ride – a purist genre narration encased in a very contemporary almost all-female action firework.”
Marco Siedelmann, Publisher and Editor, Seidelman & Company.
I love old live action flicks from the Disney vault, I grew up with stuff like their Escape To Witch Mountain and Swiss Family Robinson as some of the most formative cinematic experiences of my childhood, so the swash, buckle, whimsy and warm-heartedness of these entries have always spoken to me. Robert Stevenson’s In Search Of The Castaways, based on a book by Jules Verne, is a rollicking, frequently invigorating, occasionally silly and quite enjoyable globetrotting adventure starring Hayley Mills, who I had only seen in Pollyanna and the original Parent Trap prior to this but damn is she ever an engaging, winning star presence onscreen. She plays a young girl who is searching for her missing sea captain father along with her brother (Keith Hamshere) and a consistently eccentric French Renaissance man played by Maurice Chevalier, who I’ve never seen in anything before but is the textbook definition of scene stealer here. They embark on a hectic voyage to Australian oceans bankrolled by a Lord (Wilfred Hyde-White) complete with wild jaguars, natives both helpful and threatening and not shortage of derring-do. Now, it is a musical but it almost feels like it wasn’t really intended to be and they just sort of hastily wrote a few quick ditties in post production to throw up onscreen, numbers that are pretty schmaltzy and aren’t handled with any real sense of vocal authentic aside from Mills herself, who is wonderful whether singing, talking or debating the Lord’s pampered kid (Michael Anderson Jr) on his stuffy ideas about a woman’s place on a navy vessel. It’s a fun time for the most part, the highlight being this brazenly bizarre, hilarious sequence where they all ride a giant shard of busted rock down a series of alps like a big boulder sled, it’s a wonderfully implausible bit of effects laden pandemonium as they careen down icy crags, through gorgeous subterranean snow tunnels and although it doesn’t feel believable for three seconds (their hair blows as if by one modest ceiling fan, never-mind the furious blizzard wind of a mountain range), is nothing short of a show stopping set piece on sheer Indiana Jones audacity alone. It’s good times, and fits the 60’s lovingly retro live action Disney niche quite nicely.
I’ve never seen New Zealand cast in a dark or menacing cinematic light, having been used to stuff like the fantastical dazzle of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth and the quaint, quirky whimsy of Taika Waititi’s fare. Not being that well versed in films coming from the country, I was fairly blown away and left in a kiln-fired state of deep shock by James Ashcroft’s Coming Home In The Dark, a vicious, unrelenting captivity thriller that wields a smouldering philosophical ember beneath a slick smokescreen of unbearable suspense, soul shaking acts of violence and stark, jagged cinematography that has as little visual mercy for the viewer as the two main antagonists do for their prey, a suburban family on a road trip through rural NZ who are stalked, terrorized and psychologically tortured endlessly. The villains, if you can called them that, are an interesting pair of spooky sociopathic drifters, led by the verbose, mercurial and terrifyingly dangerous Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and his mostly silent, hauntingly observant sidekick Tubs (Matthias Luafutu). They seem to materialize out of the windswept ether just beyond a patch of swaying long grass where this family is peacefully picnicking. Toting a rifle, an impossibly misanthropic attitude and the volatile outbursts to back it up, Mandrake makes it his personal mission to hurt, toy with and mentally break down these people, particularly the dad (Erik Thomsen). But why? Are these two just wayward sick souls that target anyone out there, or is there some hidden, decades old resentment towards this middle aged family man, some personal grudge that lodges itself into Mandrake’s very essence and keeps him on this bloody, seemingly personal crusade of violence and ill-will? That’s the film’s central secret and one that blasts open the narrative from simplistic “family held captive by psychos” motif into something far deeper, darker and more ponderous. Gillies is an actor I never much paid attention to in Hollywood, he always got lobbed the forgettable pretty boy stuff and to be honest I didn’t even clock him as a Kiwi back then. Here he’s a little more aged, time-worn and haggard, and he gives what must be the performance of a lifetime, certainly one of the most effective and chilling villains I’ve ever seen, something like John Ryder from The Hitcher meets Dick Hickock from In Cold Blood. He’s like an elemental force of unflinching, ruthless resolve, made so by a horrific past that still glimmers on a low burn just behind his tangled bramble beard in deep set, searching eyes that harbour a potent malice shielding the last gasp of a broken child beneath. This is not a film for anyone who is even remotely squeamish; it doesn’t play by the usual rules of taboo and what you aren’t supposed to show in North American stuff and as such, it’s a fucking exhausting experience. But it’s also utterly captivating in every area from score to atmosphere to performances and, best of all, it has the kind of rich, sinewy, impossibly challenging thematic material that will have you thinking, processing, digesting for a long while after as this wicked story leaves a brand upon the soul. Excellent film.
Opening on an image that links fashion with death (“Poison”) and the purchase of two gaudy Christian Dior ties, an acerbic tone is immediately set for Robert Altman’s Ready to Wear (initially titled Prêt-á-Porter, which it retains in its opening credits). After all, a film that promises to take a gander at the world of the vacuous fashion industry through the eyes of Altman, one of filmmaking’s keenest observers of human nature no matter how ridiculous, comes front-loaded with delicious possibilities. Unfortunately, everyone (Altman included) looks like they’re having too much fun and in too good of spirit for any of it to land with much weight. Ultimately, this is a movie where looking good is primary. The inability to match any piece of clothing with the stupid tie at the beginning of the movie is the catalyst of the perpetual conflict in the film which is also its greatest flaw. Nothing matches and nothing fits. In the end, clothes become meaningless. Yeah, the world of fashion is all stupid and gouache but, honestly, who gives a fuck when time is short and life is so much fun? Fair enough. But if everything is such a trifle, why should I care about any of Ready to Wear and devote 132 minutes to it if it doesn’t say anything beyond the obvious?
Ready to Wear, like many other Altman films, is an ensemble, wide-canvassed affair in which a multitude of characters mill around a central location and we traverse the course of their lives over a fixed amount of time. In this instance, we find ourselves in France during Paris Fashion Week where armies of journalists, designers, models, photographers, and schmoozers will crawl all over each other and a bunch of dog shit to get the front row seat for a glimpse at the germination of what will be the style for next season. If the financially hectic and cacophonous world of commodity futures seems baffling but fascinating, the world of fashion seems eerily similar, just pitched on the other side of the spectrum. Instead of utilizing information and guesswork to set monetary benchmarks for certain products, what we wear today was based off of something high-end yesterday which got its idea from something ultimately unwearable and ridiculous that was salivated over and ambulated across a catwalk during Paris Fashion Week.
Like Nashville (1975) and HealtH (1980), Ready to Wear builds towards a Big Event conclusion. Unlike those two films, the road to that conclusion is fun but entirely inessential. Beginning with the choking death of the tremendously disliked fashion mogul, Olivier de la Fontaine (Jean-Pierre Cassel), and ending with the unveiling of Simone Lowenthal’s (Anouk Aimée) newest clothing line, the creme filling of Ready to Wear is sometimes rich and sometimes delicious but also messy beyond the point of charming and, curiously, not very filling. For Ready to Wear is a tapestry of various vacuums lacking a feeling of true integration for all of its parts. As bickering newspaper reporters full of as much piss and vinegar as they are devoid of professional or personal integrity, the two (Julia Roberts from the Houston Chronicle and Tim Robbins from the Washington Post) end up falling into a French mini-comedy that sticks them in the same hotel room they cannot seem to ever leave as drinking and fucking become the primary activities that rule supreme in their orbit. As cute as this bit is, it feels completely disconnected from the rest of the film.
And this is double ditto for the thread involving Teri Garr and Danny Aielllo which is only worthwhile for the appearance of both actors appearing in the same frame. In this thread, Garr is set up as a secret paramour to Aiello but the punchline that eventually arrives lands like a big “so what?” while trying to get more mileage out of a (better) visual gag from 1974 with Bert Remsen in California Split. In the instances of these two character couples, I can’t help but feel like both stories are loose strands that would have been better off cut from the whole picture which may have also tightened up the narrative, created more focus, and put this in the company of Altman’s sharp and unjustly maligned, aforementioned HealtH. As they stand, both give the game away and tip Ready to Wear more in the direction of a grand party on the edge of the end of the century and less a wickedly biting satire on the fashion industry. And, consequentiallly, their pieces bloat the project and dilute it of its venom.
I can also say the above applies to Kim Basinger’s arch performance as hick reporter Kitty Wells. Forever out of her depth and highlighting the world of high fashion as steeped in all kinds of invented eruditeness, her “cultured” subjects always juxtapose with her ridiculous, bumpkin patois (both syllables of Dior are blasted out of her mouth like a shotgun and given equal weight). Cute, but she’s just Opal from the BBC in a hillbilly skin and adds nothing to the project other than giving the then-in-demand Basinger a chance to work with Altman again.
While excess is the name of the game in Ready to Wear, Altman seems downright undisciplined in parts. The MacGuffin of hunting for the “murderer” of Cassell’s character feels lazy and, like the threads mentioned above, it would be relatively easy to excise. After all, we still have quite a bit of structure left regarding some palace intrigue surrounding Simone’s business due to the machinations of her ambitious son (Rupert Everett) and a comedy of errors regarding three fashion editors (Sally Kellerman, Linda Hunt, and Tracey Ullman) trying to court a pretentious and self-satisfied photographer (Stephen Rea). In both cases, these two pieces of Ready to Wear are the ones that bring out some of the film’s richest and funniest characters, both primary and secondary. Of course, it’s entirely possible that there is more footage that exists that would go a long way better integrating some of these elements (Kellerman said as much in the press at the time of the film’s release). Given that this is a Miramax film of a certain vintage, it would shock me none to find out that Altman learned the lesson that most all learned when passing through the now-disgraced House of Weinstein and that creative control was all illusory. In the end, this was the only time he worked with the company, taking his action to other, smaller indies for the remainder of his career.
The 90’s were more or less as if the hedonistic 70’s had returned from a vacation in the money hungry 80’s and Ready to Wear ultimately finds Robert Altman caught up in the giant spectacle of colorful and loud vapidity that colored the decade. In fact, this movie is probably the closest in spirit to a celebration of the 90’s that there ever was. In highlighting the outlandish and garish nature of the world of fashion, Altman unveils a shallow culture that doesn’t give a shit about politics, gender, sex, or anything else. Everything is a hustle in the pursuit of a good time which, obviously, runs on money. This is a film that says those things with some elements of criticism but this is also a film that was also a multi-media product generator as it was released alongside its mass market screenplay book from Hyperion Press (almost a staple with any Miramax film released in the 90’s) and its uncommonly hip (for an Altman joint) soundtrack, the latter a crass idea satirized by Altman in the opening credits of Nashville all those years ago.
Not without its own certain charm, Ready to Wear is by no means a bad movie. It’s just a phenomenally inconsequential one. For all of its light callbacks to previous Altman films, its charming moments (mostly all belonging to Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroiannni), and is heavy emphasis on 90’s excess, the film feels like a soft confection wrapped up in opulent packaging. The end is explicitly articulated as the closing of a circle and Altman is a little ahead of the curve, but Ready to Wear’s denouement is a little more satisfyingly nihilistic than it is laugh-out-loud funny. If the idea of a clothing line that features no clothes seems like an unthinkable thing not worth considering, let me tell you about the vulgar game show host from Queens, New York who one day became the President of the United States.
Robert Altman’s Short Cuts is a mosaic of people who are perpetually faced with bad decisions and who constantly take the wrong path. So, basically it’s about you and me. A spiderweb crack of broken souls stitched together by geography, relationships, and happenstance, Altman takes his well-traveled formula of regular folks just doing regular folks things and applies them to the disconnected, minimalist tales of Raymond Carver, lyricist of the Pacific Northwestern middle class.
The intertwining tales of twenty-two main characters as they navigate a 48 hour stretch in Los Angeles, Short Cuts is the quintessential Robert Altman film and reflects just what a beautiful match his cinematic vision was with Carver’s literary one. And, remarkably, it’s not a straight adaptation at all. Where Carver’s characters existed in their own vacuums that were ripe with meaning in the nine stories that make up the bones of Altman’s film, the common thread afforded to the characters in Altman’s universe is one of miserable parental neglect and colossal personal failure, two themes later played in a similar key in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, itself an operatic ode to casual SoCal connectivity.
Altman also relocates Carver’s rainy and soggy world to Los Angeles of 1993 as it is just on the precipice of technological progress that will forever change the landscape of human interaction. There is no interconnectivity due to the internet but cell phones make an appearance in Short Cuts,though they are of the Zach Morris variety and look more like blunt instruments than tools of communication. In the world of Altman, people are linked together by television programs and natural disasters, both major and minor. In Carver, the only thing connecting the characters is the book binding and the author’s name at the top of each page.
Some of the stories Altman and co-screenwriter Frank Barhydt utilize for the film survive in a form resembling completion. “So Much Water So Close to Home,” the story that makes up the action involving Fred Ward, Huey Lewis, Buck Henry, and Annie Archer, is more or less intact. Other stories are stripped for parts; “Vitamins,” an epic tale about a man who carries on with his wife’s co-worker, only faintly exists in the club confrontation between Chris Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Darnell Williams.
In this world, people meet randomly at concerts, bump into each other in parking lots, and otherwise drift in and out of clustered orbits due to their professions. Class is separated by a phone line as sisters gab with each other amid the chaos of their spouses leaving for work, one a doctor and the other a motorcycle cop. Race is bisected by hospital rooms, with two different kids’ lives hanging in the balance, one is black and one is white; both are victims of the dumbest luck imaginable. People invade each other’s space and engage in transference of energy, creating and destroying as they go oftentimes so absorbed in themselves that they’re oblivious to the wreckage they leave behind.
In Short Cuts, the children are either over-coddled or dysfunctionally adrift. Parents hold dark, wounded secrets and keep their offspring distant by design lest they have to reckon with the damage their choices have caused. Jack Lemmon’s estranged father is one of his most painfully realized characters of his entire career. When he wanders into the film at the halfway mark, he’s treated as if he is a stranger who has been lost for thirty years. We soon learn that he’s been living in Riverside which, despite being about an hour’s drive from his son’s house, might as well be on the other side of the world. When Annie Ross’s adult daughter shows up at the club in which Ross works, the owner is stunned to learn she even exists even though she lives with Ross nearby.
Pursuits are futile. The fish, the symbol of an event that creates a schism between a fisherman and his wife, goes up in smoke before it can be eaten. The cake, the center of the film’s nastiest (and cruelly hilarious) passages and a representation of the last vestige of a grieving mother’s dead son, ends up in the goddamn trash before she can even see it. Death is dealt with in a stark, unsentimental way. These things happen and this is what it looks like. A woman who is raped and killed creates a moral and practical quandary for a group of fishermen but it emotionally waylays another character. A deadly attack on a young girl, generated from emasculated sexual insecurity, is misidentified as an earthquake accident. Things shake up, people fall down, but everyone seems to survive and move forward.
I realize that the descriptions above make Short Cuts sound like a depressing slog or a funeral dirge but nothing could be further from the truth. Altman’s precision-oriented focus on character causes every single line of dialogue (often, in true Altman fashion, overlapping with other lines of dialogue) has a breath of life and even when they go wrong, the characters’ actions seem as familiar as muscle memory. Unless you’re an uptight, humorless bore, human foibles are only no fun when they’re yours but they’re highly entertaining when they’re being displayed by someone else. Short Cuts is literally like people-watching a cross section of American society without any of the voyeuristic guilt. And with the film’s impossibly perfect cast giving some of the best performances of their individual careers (Tom Waits has entered the chat), the film should be seen as downright irresistible to anyone interested in the craft of giving an understated performance lacking in all pretense.
Like California Split, the Los Angeles landscape is almost gone its own character, steeped in the functional ordinariness from the pavement-up instead of the Hollywood sign-down. And, just as the previous year’s The Player existed on the edge of change, Short Cuts is a snapshot of an America in rapid flux. Those cell phones will get smaller, our worlds will grow and shrink simultaneously and, parking lot photo huts, the location of the film’s best gags and once as ubiquitous and recognizable as the red roof of a PIzza Hut, will soon be replaced with drive-up ATM’s.
Stylistically graceful, threading the stories of randomness and chance with clever match cuts and seamless transitions, the canvas may be as busy as any Altman film but it’s never not a clear view of humanity at its most mediocre while attempting to be just good enough. A celebration of remarkable ordinariness that uncannily matches Raymond Carver’s triumphs in minimalism, if not for Nashville, Short Cuts would be Robert Altman’s crowning achievement.
I’m not sure how to quite adequately describe Christian Neuman’s Skin Walker as I’m still not completely sure what I saw, even over a week after watching it. Some horror films not only have all their gore, atmosphere and acting bases covered to draw you in but go so far over the wall of coherency and conventional storytelling they sort of, burn a brand into your perception, never to be lost in the mental catalogue. This film tells the story of Regine (Amber Anderson), a disturbed young girl girl living a grungy nocturnal life in Luxembourg who is called home to her childhood house in the country when her grandmother passes away. She journeys back to the small rural town and massive, creaky manor she grew up in to find her cold, distant grandfather (Udo Kier) inhabiting an empty house full of sour, nasty memories. Her grandmother was a highly unpleasant person, as we see in unflinching flashbacks, but she also has hazy memories of her mother giving birth to a hideously deformed baby brother who may or may not still be wandering the forests on the edge of the property and seems to show up in her dreams and waking perception with unnerving regularity. I loved this film for a great number of reasons, beginning with the score, ambience and ethereal casting choices. Amber Anderson has these angular, dark elf features that are transfixing and somehow vulnerable yet vaguely eerie. Kier, well, Kier is king of the weird but strangely enough he plays a very human character here, where he often is just a spectral or allegorical presence. He’s got a ton of screen time and imbues his bitter old patriarch with a mental decay and resentment that hangs entrenched in the foggy air. The score is creepy, billowing and emotional especially in an early scene where Regine arrives back at her family estate and pours over it with worried doe eyes from a darkened car window as the vehicle ominously winds up the entrance road. The production design is lush, full of deep meditate browns, pale milky skin, cloudy skies, slick crimson blood and late autumn auburn detritus, a visual palette of stunning folk horror sensibility and startling eye candy that’s both gorgeous and gruesome to look at, like an orgy featuring Tim Burton, Guillermo Del Toro and Lars Von Trier (I’m terribly sorry for that mental image but I promise this film has more shocking ones). The issue with this film is that at a certain point it goes off the map of a logical, linear story and becomes a flailing arthouse caterwaul, a trippy psychological bedlam of noise, twisted memories, unreliable perceptions, so many subplot revelations and horrific, shuddering reveals that it becomes tough to view it as anything other than a story whose meaning and outcome was meant to be decided by the viewer themselves, and not spelled out for by the filmmakers. Now this isn’t an issue for me at all, I love stories like this, but the approach doesn’t always go over well with audiences, hence the mostly confounded and puzzled reviews for this that border on abject hostility. It’s fucking weirder than your most troubling nightmares, I won’t gloss over that, and if the narrative begins with a host of unanswered questions it ends with even more. But if you like bizarre stuff that doesn’t play by any sort of rules but it’s own, are into deep, dark folk horror with psychological overtones and appreciate a visual feast of colour, grotesquerie and unconventional beauty, you’ll love it. It’s a new hidden gem favourite for me.
One should begin by saying, that the esteem in which one holds you in can in part be measured by the generosity shown. And generous it was indeed for one of the most splendid gentlemen I have thus encountered, during my adventures in the screen trade that is, to take time out whilst celebrating his birthday to have a chat about my favorite topic: the movies.
More specifically, the cinema of Joe Cornet, who knew about me before I contacted him whilst in the process of reviewing his now award-winning film PROMISE for The Daily Journal towards the start of this year. Our mutual mate, my superstar friend, Alex Nevsky had put in a good word for me, and talking to Joe felt like chatting with a guy I’d known for ever. We liked the same pictures, and I, in turn, appreciated the work he was doing. Thus it wasn’t long before this man who was being hailed as the new King of the Western was joining forces with Alex’s Hollywood Storm to take the Western to the wildest place imaginable. They united to make one of my most anticipated watches of 2022, ASSAULT ON RIO BRAVO. (And it’s sequel too….but that’s headed before the cameras soon)
But we are here to tease Joe and Alex’s first foray into the Horror genre with: NIGHT OF THE CAREGIVER. Having recently completed production in Hollywood, California, the picture was produced by the Russian Hulk and former Mr. Universe, Alexander Nevsky (Black Rose), and directed by Joe Cornet (Promise). CAREGIVER is an international co-production in between ETA Films, San Rafael Productions and Hollywood Storm; with executive producers in the form of Eric Brenner (Crazy Heart), Joe Cornet and Sean Murray (Call of Duty: Black Ops).
Legendary actress Eileen Dietz(who portrayed the demon “Pazuzu” in original “The Exorcist”) shares the screen along with Natalie Denise Sperl (Mank), Academy Award nominee, Eric Roberts (Dark Knight), Anna Oris (Assault on Rio Bravo) as well as Joe Cornet (’cause this talented cat acts as well people). The screenplay is safely under the professional fingers of the talented Craig Hamann (Boogie Boy), having worked on Assault on Rio Bravo, and prior to that, Nevsky’s SHOWDOWN IN MANILA. The man behind the camera is Joe’s praised Director of Photography is Sam Wilkerson (Paydirt), with all the falls created, no doubt, by the jump scares shall be handled safely by stunt coordinator is Robert Madrid (Half Past Dead 2). All we can tell you at this stage is CAREGIVER tells the dark and unsettling tale of a hospice nurse who is hired to look after an elderly woman, who just so happens to live in a creepy isolated residence in the middle of nowhere . Although she’s terminally ill, the elderly woman seems to be a cordial and sweet lady. However, as the night goes on, the nurse suspects someone else is also dwelling in the house. Meanwhile, a mysterious detective arrives in LA to investigate a chain of unsolved murders…
Sean Murray will create the musical score. Post production will take place in Los Angeles with editor Cody Miller (Maximum Impact). First trailer of NIGHT OF THE CAREGIVER will be presented at the European Film Market in Berlin next February.
So kick back and listen to a slice of the life of a director on the rise, as he teases the darkness of terror and the action from the age of the gunslinger; ladies and gentlemen…I give you…Joe Cornet.
Edgar Wright’s Last Night In Soho has been a surprisingly divisive film so far this year, and while I wouldn’t call it any sort of spectacular milestone or anything, it’s a beautifully atmospheric, lavishly detailed, very well acted mystery thriller that led me right into its world and entertained me thusly. Rising star Thomasin Mackenzie plays Eloise, a shy, reserved girl from a small village in the country who is excepted at London’s college of fashion design. She arrives with stars in her eyes only to be disappointed by less than accommodating classmates and a stern, odd landlady (the great Diana Rigg in her final film role). As if homesickness, displacement anxiety and loneliness aren’t enough, she finds herself whisked away back in time to a dazzling London of the 60’s every night when she goes to sleep, where she becomes the mirrored dream avatar of aspiring singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) whose life takes a dark, tragic trajectory in a series of events that Eloise has an unfortunately intimate, visceral backstage pass to observe. Who is Sandie, and why does she draw Eloise into her hazy nightmare that’s now decades gone by? Who is the dapper yet nasty lounge lizard Jack (Matt King) who encircles her life like a satin suited vulture? And who is the Silver Haired Gentleman played with devilish malevolence by the legendary Terence Stamp who appears to Eloise in the present like some kind of spectral Greek chorus? These are questions best left answered by the film’s twisty, macabre narrative that unfurls like a snake ready to strike. Mackenzie has an impossibly bright future and anchors the film in human vulnerability, while Joy’s gorgeous yet ever so slightly sinister features make a nice ghostly aura hovering over the story. London itself is lovingly and meticulously obsessed over by Wright and his creative team, and beautifully resurrected for the time travel to the 60’s, complete with lush smoke rooms, dank heroin soaked brothels and star spattered retro marquees. The story isn’t just an empty shock horror romp either that exists for cheap thrills or just to lead the audience on a blood soaked breadcrumb trail, there is actual emotional resonance and sorrowful tragedy here, especially in Sandie’s unfortunate, horrifying story arc. So I’m not really sure where the unimpressed reactions have come from, I mean it’s not a groundbreaking game changer for horror but it’s definitely a stunning gothic mystery full of chilly autumn atmosphere, detailed production design, a jaw dropping soundtrack and performances that are wall to wall scene stealers. A lot of spooky fun.
I don’t know if there really are a bunch of creepy catacombs beneath Paris that you could get lost in, but if there are I definitely would not check them out, even if the fabled philosopher’s stone itself was buried somewhere down there as it is in John Patrick Dowdle’s As Above So Below, and extremely effective and sometimes downright terrifying horror film. It’s a found footage, which I’m usually not a fan of, but here the technique is employed in a less shaky, obnoxious and obtrusive way that it often is, and feels more fluid. The story tells of ambitious historian Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) who has figured out that far below Paris’s streets in an ancient cave system lies the grave of Nicholas Flamel, the infamous alchemist of old who also shows up in Harry Potter. She assembles a team of fellow scholars and guides and they all descend into these tunnels, where it soon becomes clear that Flamel’s grave isn’t the only place they lead to. The title is key, as they discover a strange metaphysical duality down there where no matter how deep they’ve gone, whenever they try to go back up, it only keeps getting deeper. Then they start seeing hellish visions, nightmarish ghosts and spirits of long dead demonic cult weirdos, and start dying one by one. This can of course be compared to Neil Marshall’s The Descent and it is similar in some scenes of claustrophobia and disorientation, but it’s a less vicious and hectic affair. There’s another film called Moscow Zero (that I’m pretty sure only I saw) with Val Kilmer which is pretty much the same idea but in Moscow instead of Paris and it feels a bit more akin to that in its esoteric nature and thick atmosphere. The visions they see and the resulting gory attacks are quite threatening, but for me the scariest scene comes early on when they first enter the catacombs, and are still quite near the surface. They hear spine chilling singing coming from one chamber, and as they look in and see impossibly eerie women standing still in unison choir dressed very strangely, their guide informs them nonchalantly “always weird people down here.” There’s a casual absurdity to that scenario that chilled me deeply and is a terrifically creepy aperitif to the more in depth horrors waiting for them farther below the earth. Aside from an ending that feels a bit too neat, this is an impressively doom and dread laced story that makes you feel genuinely lost and hopeless alongside its characters way down there, and tangibly threatened when they are hunted and preyed upon. Very effective stuff.
I was always kind of aware of Road To Paloma as ‘that biker flick passion project that Jason Momoa directed and stared in but didn’t really make a big splash’ so I never really got around to it until now. Well I think that there’s a reason it didn’t make a big splash, as it’s far more of a meditative, almost spiritual picture than any sort of action thriller type thing, an esoteric, atmospheric portrait of one Native American man meandering the southwest on the run from both the law and his past. But it’s a fantastic film, one that shows Momoa as a true visual poet in command of every frame, giving his story a loose, elegiac aura that’s not always so easy to capture authentically. He plays Robert Wolf, an indigenous wanderer who has a nasty, predatory federal agent (Timothy V. Murphy) on his tail at the behest of a gruff FBI section chief (the briefest of cameos from Lance Henriksen), guided by a conflicted sheriff (Chris Browning). That sounds like the setup for something fast paced and thrilling, but such is thankfully not really the case. There are some scenes of action and pursuit but most of the film is Wolf and his rambunctious buddy Cash (Robert Homer Mollohan) rambling from place to place on their bikes and carving out a path through the gorgeous, rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains and desolate plains below. They visit Robert’s friends and family, participate in a junkyard fight club for cash, hang out, drink, ponder existence and the unjust system that led to their predicament and really just… live. Many people have said this film is ‘dull’ and ‘nothing happens’ but I guess those people need constant gun battles and car chases pumped into them from an IV. If they slowed down to think a bit they’d see this film is anything but dull or nothing, it’s a heartbreaking, honest look at one man running from injustice after avenging the death of a loved one, and naturally being part of an indigenous tribe, he and his family experience the full weight of the racism, hate and evil that has bred in the area since time immemorial. Wolf feels less like martyr here and more like myth, a totem of the swiftly shrinking freedom human beings have in any given era or area, and a deliberate force of nature who lives moment to moment in utter clarity, possessive of an elemental restlessness that sees him never tarry in one space for long. He meets others including his tribal police chief father (the great Wes Studi), his sister (Sarah Shani) who has married an old friend of his (Michael Raymond-James), briefly entering and re-entering their lives before hitting the road again. He also meets a mysterious stranded girl called Magdalena, played by his real life wife Lisa Bonet. The two have a brief romantic encounter here that’s sweet, haunting, supported by their genuine love and chemistry and adds a heartfelt dynamic to Wolf’s story, even just for a few quick scenes. The story may be lilting and free form, simply a brief, tragic and melancholy glimpse into the life of a man who has spent most of it on the road, and is now nearing the end of it. But in that lyrical, shifting-sand narrative there’s a profundity and aching soul, a need to tell the story of great injustice and corruption, however far you need to read, and feel, between the lines. Great film.