“It Made Me Angry, But Good Angry”: Gee Malik Linton’s Restored DAUGHTER OF GOD

By James Kenney

 “The movie confused me up until the last ten minutes, and at that point, when it was all explained, I felt so dumb. You tell yourself, why couldn’t I think of that? Then desperately hit rewind to see what else you missed.” — A City University of New York student’s response to Daughter of God, Gee Malik Linton’s unreleased version of Exposed, November, 2022.

Gee Malik Linton, director of Daughter of God, wearing a black turtleneck and black winter jacket, sits on a terrace in Brooklyn, sirens regularly cutting in from below, forcing him to pause. 

“I hope Daughter of God affects you some way, good or bad. Both are good reactions,” Linton says to my students via Zoom, answering their questions regarding his film, shot seven years earlier on the streets of Washington Heights. God focuses on the Dominican population that makes up both that vibrant community and a large part of my Bronx Community College student population a bit east who viewed his unreleased film, along with fellow students of mine at Queensborough Community College and at St. John’s University.

The story of how he came to speak with my students in late Fall 2022, and how Daughter of God starring Ana De Armas, Keanu Reeves and Mira Sorvino, will be having its theatrical premiere this April at the 2023 Wisconsin Film Festival, is a byzantine, challenging story that matches the byzantine, challenging plot of the film itself, which was taken out of his hands, reedited, and released with his name removed in 2016 as Exposed.

A “Really Bad Movie”?

Glenn Kenny in the New York Times described Exposed as “a heartfelt but ineptly crafted story.” The L.A. Times review by Michael Rechtstaffen led with the headline “Keanu’s latest is Exposed as a really bad movie,” referring to star Keanu Reeves, who encouraged director Linton to make the movie and later also encouraged him to restore it to his original vision. As Rechstaffen continued, “it’s hard to imagine how anything salvageable could have been made out of [Linton’s] comically pretentious script with its heavily religious overtones and plotting that grows more ridiculous by the minute.” It’s not that they’re wrong: the version released to an unsuspecting public in 2016, Exposed, is a disaster.

Kenny noted a specific moment from the film that made him wary of what Linton’s original might be like (both reviewers were aware that Exposed was not the film’s original cut): “When the supporting player Christopher MacDonald asks Mr. Reeves, “You ever seen one of those ant farms?” with precisely the intonation Peter Graves used to inquire about “gladiator movies” in “Airplane!,” my own interest in viewing a director’s cut plummeted even further.” 

“The edit is the most important thing”

While undeniably sometimes a desperation cut-down can be the result of producers rightfully diagnosing a disaster, the fact that Linton was able to boldly remove his name from his first film, a process that involved arbitration involving the Director’s Guild of America, should signal that whatever he initially came up with was very, very, severely different from what Lionsgate unleashed with little fanfare to a minimal theatrical run and Video on Demand release, credited to one “Declan Dale” (the name was one offered on a list to Linton by the D.G.A.)

And while Kenny couldn’t know this, the line he singled out as an example of what made him distrustful of any alternative cut is in fact not in Linton’s version of the film, put together with Oscar-nominated editor Herve de Luze, in Paris.  It is from a scene involving Reeves, whose part was highlighted in the released cut to the detriment of all else in the film; to do this, the producers reinstated bits and pieces involving Reeves that Linton had decided not to use.

“Most people don’t get a chance to see what happens in the editing room.  You can turn a movie into a totally different thing. The edit is the most important thing,” Linton explained to my students, who had just viewed both Linton’s director’s cut and the disemboweled release cut.

Despite a different structure, a reinstated, wholly developed depiction of Dominican life in the Heights, and the restoration of the predominantly Spanish dialogue that was removed or redubbed into English for the Lionsgate release, perhaps the greatest aspect of Daughter of God that is restored in Linton’s cut is the heart of the film, then-unknown actress Ana De Armas’ performance as Isabel, the troubled protagonist.

The producers clearly intended to emphasize the idea that this film wasn’t a deliberately paced, increasingly surreal drama with supernatural overtones about faith, guilt, and repressed memories, featuring in support an abusive cop who regains his humanity while investigating the murder of his corrupt partner. Instead, this was a Keanu Reeves thriller focused on a cop who doesn’t regain much of anything in Exposeds 90-plus minutes of running time, including credits.

Linton’s cut is 128 minutes sans credits.

The major delinquency committed by those who took the film over from Linton is the violation of De Armas’ brave and delicate performance, one that builds to an astonishing  multiple-minute single-take close-up that climaxes the film. If the film was handled properly, it might have sewn-up an Oscar nomination in 2016 for De Armas. Instead, the take, and her overall performance, was ruinously abbreviated in the release cut.

Below, the trailer for Exposed, which barely features De Armas and sells the film as a typical cop thriller:

In Linton’s cut, De Armas’ Isabel is the heart and soul of her Heights community, which makes the trials she goes through more bewildering and disquieting, as the community that professes its love for her mostly turns against her.  The studio hack job executed on the film turns Isabel from a complex, engaged member of her community into a rather isolated religious eccentric whom everyone thinks is nuts as she starts experiencing visitations from disturbing albino angels whose significance she keeps misinterpreting (and whose role is largely marginalized in Exposed, though they do make a few truncated appearances, literally revoiced with different dialogue than what Linton had intended).

How did I get involved? In my burgeoning, unofficial role as champeener of lost director’s cuts, I spent the better part of the last year getting word out about Peter Bogdanovich’s brilliant original version of She’s Funny That Way titled Squirrels to the Nuts, and then exhibited  it everywhere from the Museum of Modern Art in New York last March to the Melbourne, Australia Cinematheque this coming June.

It was probably summer of last year when I simply thought “whatever happened to that Exposed director’s cut I had heard about back in 2016?”  There was some discussion of it at the time, both in published reviews such as Kenny’s, and in blogs. Linton held some “underground screenings” but any interest in it had seemingly faded in the following half-decade. As happens, his cut had leaked onto the internet, where I tracked it down. 

I watched it and was astonished; it is a challenging work, an imperfect thing of beauty that demands patience as it gradually pulls back the veil on how Isabel’s angelic visions, her efforts to protect a local abused child, and Reeves’ struggle to understand his partner’s murder relate. Many films have a surprise ending, such as The Sixth Sense, that recontextualize much of what you’ve seen before, forcing you to rethink the entire film. Most of them, however, are clearly defined genre films so that surprise and shock are part and parcel with their dramatic archetypes, whether Sense, Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, or James Mangold’s Identity.

Daughter of God is something different, as it ambitiously plays as a kind of “kitchen-sink ” drama about the Heights, focusing on the minute-to-minute details of how the day unfolds in an area where religion is at the forefront but not all truly believe, where a tight-knit community means mistakes of the past can never truly be escaped, where the cop and the criminal both act to degrade the human personality of those trying to build a reasonable future despite a marginalized status. 

What confuses  audiences who are out of practice at being genuinely challenged is that the film plays like a straight “kitchen-sink realism” drama akin to Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey for much of its running time, when De Armas’ tortured protagonist Isabel is in the end more akin to Laura Palmer in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, a victim of imperishable forces she doesn’t understand and can’t control. Unlike Laura, Isabel is able to fight back, but at what cost? Reeves’ initially troubling Detective takes on more and more of an “Agent Cooper” role as his concern for Isabel’s well-being forces him to come out of a self-imposed exile engendered by his wife’s death. Both initially avoiding his own son and treating the Heights’ residents with increasing callousness and brutality, Reeves’ Detective becomes an ironic light in the darkness, the one person on Isabel’s side as events unfold, even when he doesn’t understand why.

All of that is gone from Exposed to give one example, an early scene of Reeves’ Detective taking Isabel’s wedding ring from a crime evidence bag and wearing it on his hand, representing his growing concern for her, has been repurposed in Exposed to signify he’s returning his own wedding band to his finger after having removed it following his wife’s death. The more eccentric and poetic meaning of Linton’s scene is wholly changed into a more cliched act on Reeves’ part by the editing hands behind Exposed.

Is it any wonder that Linton reports that director Christopher Nolan, who was then the chairperson at the D.G.A. of credit arbitration cases such as Linton went through with Daughter of God/Exposed, sent Linton a note after the case was settled that he loved Linton’s version, hated the recut, and looked forward to whatever Linton would make next?

What is going on in cinema? Having seen firsthand what can happen to a legendary director’s final feature with Peter Bogdanovich’s Squirrels to the Nuts and now what can happen to a first-time director’s simultaneously precise and large-scale vision, even with an actor of Keanu Reeves’ stature in his corner, I wonder if any film escapes post-production today without nervous producers with unsound instincts ripping it to shreds, all that much easier with digital editing. 

Little more elucidation is needed as to why Exposed was mangled than Linton’s disclosure that “During the first edit of the film, a producer came to me and said, two months after finishing shooting, “I finally read the script last night on the plane from L.A.”  This is the guy who sold the movie! It got sold as a “Keanu thriller” by someone who didn’t even know what I was shooting, what the actors had signed up for.”

So my involvement?  Well, having gotten hold of Linton’s vastly superior cut online, I reached out and asked if he’d be up for my screening it for my students for a project, particularly as my Bronx Community College class was largely made up of Dominicans, who, while not quite in the Heights, were within walking distance. I also did think in the back of my mind that this is the time for Linton’s vision to reemerge, as indeed the “unknown actress,” Ana De Armas, whose part was sacrificed to re-engineer the film into a cop thriller, was now justifiably one of the hottest actresses on Earth, having received acclaim for her work in Knives Out, Blade Runner 2049, No Time to Die, and her difficult lead role as Marilyn Monroe in the controversial Blonde which ultimately lead to her 2023 Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

I knew this film, Gee Malik Linton’s Daughter of God, not “Declan Dale”’s Exposed, had to be seen, had to become the film of record.

For better or worse!

No doubt some will absolutely dislike Linton’s version of God with its deliberate pace and unusual construction. It led to a St. John’s student arguing “Daughter of God was an absolute mess. Firstly, there are many scenes where strange things happen, without any explanation. The plot is extremely hard to follow, as we are constantly flipping between two different plot lines. I personally think there is too much subtlety, to the point where the film is confusing. Also, the film is far too long, there is simply too much information to process.”  

A Bronx Community College student also rejected it, arguing “I just couldn’t follow what was going on…. The film… was constantly jumping between different storylines that made it very difficult to follow …there wasn’t enough urgency to continue pushing forwards the main plot, and it made the movie somewhat annoying to watch.

And yet. And yet…as I continued reading student responses, a different narrative took hold.

“Every scene and misdirection was calculated and intentional…”

A fellow St John’s student offered a sensitive reaction I believe many might have to the film: “Daughter of God by Gee Malik Linton seems incoherent, sloppy, and intriguing. It is difficult for the viewer to piece together a coherent storyline throughout most of the film. The director, Linton, chose to cut the film in seemingly random spots and scenes, almost as if he was half asleep while directing the film. In reality, every scene and misdirection was calculated and intentional, and pieced together, I see Linton curated a phenomenal storyline.

Besides the exciting cuts, many scenes incorporate strange characters and elements. These scenes add to the film’s mystery, not allowing the viewer to put together the pieces until the very end. In the last sequence, after we run out of guesses about the film, Linton clarifies the plot….

Daughter of God… is a beautiful mess. However, Declan Dale’s Exposed comes off as artificial….[and] downgraded the movie by removing multiple strategic scenes and seemingly “sloppy cuts” in the initial film. Instead, alternate cuts were incorporated to make the plot unambiguous for the viewer. These differences affected the movie to the same degree that adding water to a fabulous bottle of wine would affect your night; it is ruined. This is the case because to an extent, the updated cuts decreased the intimacy between the characters and the viewer. Consequently, the plot becomes more distant. This is strongly exemplified in Exposed, where many Spanish-spoken scenes are removed, adding to the unnaturalness.

Daughter of God is genius”

The reviews from both students from the Bronx who live in circumstances very close to those represented in God, and St. John’s, where many (not all) of the students come from more suburban backgrounds, proved largely rapturous in their response to God, especially as seen in the light of Exposed, viewed the week after. Some choice comments:

  • “It is an amazing, disturbing, haunting female-centered drama exploring cultural and religious aspects of Latino & black families & dealing with extreme pain & trying to cope…this harrowing movie has so much to offer…
  • “One big factor was the amount of cultural realness that Linton brought with the Spanish dialogue and English subtitles. By taking many Spanish-language scenes out and redubbing others into English, the recut Exposed didn’t give the realistic immersion into the Hispanic-dominant neighborhood of the Heights, where 95% of the film took place. A considerable amount of Ana De Armas’ character’s domestic life was taken out in Exposed, leaving viewers to think she should be booted into a psych ward. The simple act of the cultural life being cut gives a completely different panorama of the community and of Isabella, who plays a much bigger, richer role in her community in Exposed.”
  • “A spiritual, suspenseful, and mysterious story”
  • “A psychological drama with a deeper meaning”
  • Daughter of God is genius, it has a tremendous amount of detail which engages the audience, and even when rewatching it you feel like you’re still noticing new things.” 
  •  “Linton’s original cut has this feeling of purity and authenticity. I absolutely love [its] complexity, authenticity, and suspense”
  • “This drastic change makes the released version have a completely different feel, and the authenticity and realness that Daughter Of God provides is totally gone.  It feels like Lionsgate, who changed and released Exposed, wanted to make this film feel more “Hollywood” and have less of the natural feel of the original version.”
  • “This movie takes us along the journey of a range of emotions from relating, to confusion, to sadness, to shock, but all leads up to an ending you may be completely blindsided by.”
  • Daughter of God was interesting because Isabel reminded me of myself being so connected to my faith. My whole life I was told by my parents or other elders of my faith that I was always  surrounded by god and his angels. For example, my abuelita would tell us stories on how the devil can overcome you. The Exposed version was one of the choppiest films I have ever seen…the plot was not explained properly because of the missing scenes throughout”
  • “My confusion kept me almost obsessed with this movie…I was angry at [this movie] but good angry.” 

The Interview

My students generated questions for Linton to answer they would incorporate into their assignment (you didn’t think I’d show it to them just for fun, did you? This was an MLA citation project!)  

Asked about his inspiration for Daughter of God, he disclosed that the project was built out of three previous projects, which he termed “urban poems”: one called Razor and was meant to star Danny Glover, but it fell through. Another was titled Warrior, about a little girl in Brooklyn, who reads the Art of War and becomes a kind of urban warrior; the final project that inspired Daughter of God was Fantasy, which sprung out of a moment when Linton was on the subway and imagined someone floating, which indeed is a key inciting incident in God.  He had worked as a personal trainer for a while with Toby McGuire, and after discussing a cool image he thought would be good for a Spiderman film, he repurposed it for his own “angel story.”

But the key inspiration for Daughter of God, it turns out, was partially based on a personal story: “I was the child of rape – my mom was fourteen when it happened.  How she handled it is similar to Isabelle’s story in God.” 

Another autobiographical element was how Washington Heights made quite an impression on Linton when he lived there for a period:

“When I was in college I lived for a period up in Washington Heights. I’m Jamaican, and we’re very low-key, quiet. I was blown away by the Dominicans. It was the most unbelievable experience of my life up to that point. Everybody stayed up until four in the morning. Nobody went to sleep. You have this whole hodgepodge of interrelated cultures, and everyone sort of fits in. You have the banker, the doctor, the lawyer, the priest, the drug dealer, all in the neighborhood and there’s nevertheless this communal, family vibe, and I had never seen that, and I really wanted to bring that world to the screen, how Isabel is not only connected to her family, but she’s connected to the community, and what happens when those connections are tested by the “miracles” she’s witnessing and the tests of faith she undergoes.”

“I wanted to have the film being authentic, a dual-language film. In New York, in certain communities, you won’t even hear English spoken. So I wanted a realistic portrayal of one of our most vibrant communities, not a Hollywood version.”

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of God, that while not wholly removed from Exposed, is heavily edited and neutered: the visions of angels that haunt Isabel throughout.

Linton explains  “when it first came to me, my image of the angels were more traditional. But when I was writing it, I wanted to make it a more spectacular representation, to craft something completely subjective, with an otherworldly character. I wanted to initially have the mouth covered, since Isabelle is unable to speak about what has triggered the angel’s appearance, and chose to have an Asian actor to portray the role, as it would feel especially alien for a Dominican in the Heights, throwing her off.  The colors of the angels represent various stages of the angel, what it means to her. The white angel with its purity is more personal to her, the red symbolizes the violence that has been unfolding as the story progresses, and then the angel is seen in black as reality and her visions come ever-closer to colliding.”

The students asked about how it was as a first-time director handling such delicate subject matter and working with actors of stature such as Reeves and De Armas.


“The actors sell it,” Linton told them. “When I met Ana, who was suggested to me by Keanu as they had worked on Knock, Knock together, the story’s most difficult aspects is what she connected to. We’re doing a film a year before the #metoo movement took center stage, but ostensibly it’s a “girl power” story.  As for the climactic, one-take rape scene shot all in close-up on De Armas’ face, he explains “it was very sensitive. We discussed it extensively. I wanted to be able to show this rape without even the possibility of, no scintilla of, eroticism to it. I had written it as a long scene, and Ana is just the most marvelous actress. She is just fantastic. The scene came out as how I imagined it, thanks to Ana’s commitment.”


As for how he got  Keanu Reeves for the project, Linton explained that Reeves was set to star in an action film Linton wrote, an “Asian Triad mafia kung-fu thing” that Chuck Russell was going to direct. Reeves ultimately decided that he didn’t want to do that, but he liked Linton’s writing and said “let’s just make your little Spanish film.” Linton wasn’t even thinking of that film, which was Daughter of God, after Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away, cancelling the initial production: “It wasn’t even on my radar at that point, but Keanu encouraged me.”

Directing the actors wasn’t hard, because “actors are amazing.”  As for De Armas, Linton enthused “We met and had the most beautiful sibling-like relationship that happened immediately. She is a marvelous talent, sickeningly talented! Acting is all about casting. You bring in the best of everybody. Everyone went way beyond what I wrote. The actors, the department heads, the film becomes theirs, and they do it far better than I would have conceived.”

One anecdote Linton shared with the aspiring filmmakers amongst my students was that “one of my producers told me ‘Listen, enjoy the night before shooting, because starting the next day, you do not understand the level of ‘busy” you will be. I had been working on a lot of movies up to that, but actually directing it – we shot for 33 days, started on a Wednesday, started at 6 am, it was quiet and chill, they were putting everything together for a 730 start. Right before 7:30 and for the next 33 days, all I heard was “Gee! Gee!! Gee!! Where should the blue car go? Where should this and that? It never ended.”

“It’s an Impossible Movie”

As for the recutting, Linton is surprisingly sanguine about it.  The forced recut is because of producers wanting to produce a Keanu Reeves film, but not actually paying attention to what Keanu Reeves film they were making.

“Making a movie with Keanu, it’s being sold and being moved without anyone reading anything. When you have a well-known actor like Keanu, he wants a guaranteed greenlight. So he had money set up at Lionsgate, but it turns out they wanted to work with him so much, they didn’t read the script. It got sold as a “Keanu thriller” – it’s not Lionsgate’s fault ,they didn’t know what they had, honestly.  Lionsgate gave me an opportunity to buy the movie back for $12 million dollars, for the budget and to pay for ancillary rights. They gave me 5 days to have 12 million in the bank, assuming that I couldn’t do it.”

“However, I had a French investor who came up with the money in four days.  There’s a lot of moving parts to this story, but Lionsgate was happy, they wanted to get out of releasing the movie, but at the last minute, the producer had sold it in ways that made it impossible to sell it back to me. Lionsgate didn’t actually own the movie. It taught me a lot. I look at that story, I learned so many valuable lessons and met so many fantastic people. It’s an impossible movie, I don’t blame anyone for Exposed – but I learned so many lessons and met so many lovely people, and have done so many wonderful things since as a result of the battle over Daughter of God.”

“The cut that I have – the director’s cut – we weren’t able to completely polish it, with the right music, etc.. But honestly, I really kind of like it as this weird, outsider art that has created its own little niche from those who seek it out. Honestly, I love how it’s sort of grown into this unique beast with a story connected to it.”

Reeves broached with Linton the idea of restoring his version of the film and encouraged him to do so, and through this Linton learned what he feels is the key lesson of filmmaking he took from God: “The single biggest lesson is the most important person on a movie is the editor. When I went to Paris to do my reedit, and I want to thank Keanu for encouraging that, I called Herve de Luze, Oscar-nominated for Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, and he said he couldn’t help, he had holiday for his family.  I called him ten times a day for a week to get him to work!”

“de Luze called back and said “ok, I’ll do the movie. Send me the film.”  When I got out to Paris, and I had this elaborate suite, a team of editors, so I brought my wife and two kids, we were going to be there for four months. Herve is wonderful fatherly figure, sweet man, who had done a first, rough edit in the three weeks before I came. So I came to the editing suite the next morning, and they editing techs looked at me like I was crazy. Herve is looking at me like I have three heads.

So I went out of the editing suite and asked the tech guys “Do you think I shouldn’t be here?” And they said “No you shouldn’t be there. Let the maestro do this by himself, do his magic.” And it was literally the best advice I ever had. I’m not an editor, let the editor do his magic! If you look at my script, he significantly changed it. I had done a previous edit exactly like my script, and it was horrible. He did an edit that was changed around, and it was more like the script even though it wasn’t like my script.”

In April, the 2023 Wisconsin film festival hosts the official U.S. theatrical premiere of this “unique beast,” Daughter of God, restoring Linton’s wholly superior cut and De Armas’ multilayered performance in the year of her Oscar nomination for Marilyn. As for my next director’s cut to unearth and support? Well, I’ll leave Welles’ Ambersons for someone else to unearth, but here’s hoping I can track down Blake Edwards’ A Fine Mess with its piano-moving sequence restored!


Art and Commerce: Michelangelo Antonioni’s BLOW-UP

By James Kenney

“Michelangelo Arnonioni’s camera never flinches: at love without meaning…at murder without guilt…at the dazzle and the madness of London today!” (from Premier Productions marketing materials for Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up)

Blow Up was declared the Best Picture of its year, by the National Society of Film Critics, which was a heady crew: Stanley Kauffman, Hollis Alpert, Arthur Knight, Brad Darrach, Philip T. Hartung, Brendan Gill, Pauline Kael (who actively disliked the film), Andrew Sarris, John Simon, Joseph Morgenstern and Richard Schickel.

“You’ll hold your breath when you see Antonioni’s Daring “Blow-Up,” set against dazzle, madness of today’s London!”

Director Michelangelo Antonioni, already established on the art-house set for his previous, deliberate Italian masterpieces, provides an underlay of existential dread beneath the exhilarating photography of (literally) hand-painted London scenery peopled by good-looking young and already jaded individuals. He seems hostile to the whole thing, perhaps because he knows the jazzed-up “empty” energy, color and sex of the Swingin’ 60s London scene will bring vitality to his intellectual moralizing despite his best efforts to expose its vacuity.

I sound too hostile to Antonioni here, but I don’t think I’m far wrong; the film indeed was the biggest international hit of his career, more due to the lively trappings, good looking half-clothed women, and indelible David Hemmings performance than for Antonioni’s (not uninteresting) pretensions– though much time was spent hand-wringing trying to decipher Antonion’s “meaning” at the time. The uneasy mood is established beautifully by Antonioni and then stretched out voluptuously as David Hemmings, playing a trendy but talented London photographer based on the real-life cause celebre of swinging London, David Bailey, realizes he has accidentally photographed a murder in a park yet can’t quite stitch together what happened.

Antonioni sustains this mood for so long you feel psychologically girdled by creeping paranoia despite the altogether detached presentation of the material. We really don’t even know if there is a murder by the end of the film, or if Hemmings’ well-appointed ennui and fixation with images have schemed together like naughty British school boys to fabricate one.  Antonioni controls the landscapes, the pretty marionettes (his characters), and the audience. But because of Hemmings, mostly, the damn thing takes on a life of its own that Antonioni can’t quite control.

Blow-Up prospers despite (or is it due to?) its decided airs (most on exhibition at the peculiar musical interlude scene in the nightclub with the Yardbirds) because of the sinuous way Antonioni betrays audience expectations throughout and how he certainly keeps things gorgeous. But don’t give the auteurist all the credit, because Hemmings, as he did later in Dario Argento’s Deep Red, is so exceptional in drawing you into the mystery his character obsesses over despite having a director who perhaps only think in painterly terms. One imagines an Antonioni or Argento demanding the actors sort out by their lonesome some kind of credible psychological timbre as they carefully tramp over the hand-painted grass of Blow-Up or through the spattered gore of Red.

Hemmings is terrific: aloof, diffident, arrogant, disdainful, bemused, spontaneous and thoughtful all at once. He’s really sly, even when Antonioni demands something near silly self-consciousness. Vanessa Redgrave might be saddled with the least practical, most closed off character of the 1960s, her anxious vitality thankfully betraying the character’s portentous mindfulness.

She’s too chic, too abstracted,  yet captivating, enthralling even, but then maybe so is the film; it’s a cohesive, self-possessed masterpiece that sticks together in the way Antonioni’s U.S. based follow-up Zabriskie Point absolutely doesn’t.  Don’t get me wrong, Blow-Up wholly knocks me out, it’s extraordinary. It’s not clear (by design) that anything is really happening in this film other than a rich photographer’s bored afternoon of dealing with an unhappy wife, tiresome playthings, and his own imagination, but it remains altogether chilling and thrilling even when the vagrant hippies start playing tennis without a ball.


“Swinging”—Time Magazine.

“Civilized” – Esquire

“Sweenging” – Paris Match

The subject is not a smash-hit musical but a place – the city of London which, much to its surprise, has been rediscovered as the world’s trendsetting center.

Once it was the custom for male tourists to get off the plane at London Airport and ask “Where are the dames?” Today, they ask, “Where’s the action?” (I, as a tourist, have never done either. Did helpful airport staff point them towards “the dames”?).

For the social revolution which has swept the city like a new broom has been nothing if not well-publicized. Inevitably, someone had to film the revitalized British capital, where the boys’ hair is too long and the girls’ skirts too short….in directing [Blow-Up], Antonioni, an acute and stylized observer of the metropolitan scene, used the whole new-young London as the background for his story.

“Anyone who wants to see old London can always look at Christmas cards” he states in a tone which implies he hasn’t much time for the old and none at all for Christmas cards. “It’s the new that’s exciting in this city where the fashion industry alone, with its annual turnover of millions, is almost exclusively under the control of people in their twenties, where teen-age pop singers have their records sold in shops owned by people their own age, where photographers who have barely started shaving, drive Rolls-Royces with radio-telephones.”

“The new persuaders who have invented the new norms of beauty and with one inspired photograph can make the ugliest of ducklings into an international sensation.

(those are Antonioni’s words, not mine!)

Antonioni is quite happy to go along with the definition of David Bailey, unofficial spokesman for the group, who says: “We are young, short, muscular, of working class origin and totally devoid of complexes.” (Bailey is romanticizing himself, and the characters we see are almost all complexes, it’s a center they lack)

It is this lack of inhibition, Antonioni believes, which distinguishes the new breed of peaceful revolutionaries. “When I got to know them, I had the feeling of entering a world where the barriers are down between individuals.”

Pauline Kael, in her fairly negative review “Tourist in the City of Youth,” did touch on something I find irreconcilable about Blow-Up: Antonioni’s exposure of the “emptiness” of this modern world of jaded photographers and hyperactive model-bunnies is belied by his fascination with it. As Kael writes, “what would we think of a man who stopped at a newsstand to cluck at the cover girls of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar as tragic symbols of emptiness and sterility, as evidence that modern life isn’t “real,” and then went ahead and bought the magazines?”


As reported in the press materials, in researching London, Antonioni made a team of hand-picked observers and professional journalists who were asked to submit 5,000-word reports on varying aspects of the young London scene. There were tape-recordings with top fashion photographers, random thoughts jotted down in taxis by their models on their way to assignments, interviews with dolly girls, pop singers and antique shop owners, a profession which occupies a high percentage of the younger set.

From the resultant foot-high dossier, Antonioni and Tonino Guerra, Antonioni’s frequent collaborator, fleshed out the characters for the story.

Antonioni is described in the marketing as a “nervous and highly intense man” who can only “concentrate in cathedral-like quiet,” a lesson hard-learned by the “noisy” English technicians, who “despite their tradition of stiff-lipped reserve…can be as noisy as the Irish parliament” (!) (I thought it was generally the Italians who worked on noisy sets and then worked up a post-synch soundtrack, but any opportunity to insult the Irish, I guess!)

Vanessa Redgrave, quite busy at the time as the young can be, was appearing nightly on stage in London in the title role of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” while shooting both Fred Zinneman’s A Man for All Seasons and Antonioni’s Blow-Up during the day.

When not acting, we are told, she might be participating in one of the “midnight poetry readings” which were the “in-thing” with today’s young Londoners.

“My idea of fun is to go out to discotheque and dance and dance until the small hours.”  She explains that she can recharge her batteries with half-hour napes instead of proper night-sleep.

One of the most famous sights on the London locations for “Blow-Up” was apparently Redgrave’s “gorgeous long-frame stretched out asleep in the back seat of her car.”


A crowd of Cockneys who watched Italian director Antonioni work commented that it was “London’s biggest face-lift since the bombs fell.”

Three hundred gallons of black emulsion paint were used to paint the surfaces of two-hundred yards of intersecting roads leading to Maryon Park, where much of the movie was shot, as Antonioni decided the roads weren’t black enough. He needed a vista that matched the mood of his scene and made houses lining the road stand out in vivid relief.

One house-owner got a new coat of brilliant white paint, but another owner was asked, for a fee, to allow the new bricks of his edifice dirtied by a coat of removable water paint.

A shopkeeper gave permission for his 30-yard wall to be painted mail-box red, and building contractors working on a new apartment block were persuaded to hang a white shroud over the iron innards Antonioni found distasteful.

“Color in my films is now almost as important as the actors. I have an instinct that tells me which color to use behind which actor to suggest a certain mood. Other directors do the same thing in studio filming. I convert natural set-ups to my own advantage.”

The park, where David Hemmings first meets Vanessa Redgrave, had thirty square yards of its grass painted green. A 100-foot-high working neon sign was set atop a hill by the park to not only make a “pleasing Antonioni-type composition” (this phrase is in the press materials, indicating auteurism was in full effect and that the director had enough of a known personality he was recognized for his artful shots), but provide the lighting cameraman with a light source for two weeks of night shooting.

In one instance, Antonioni was turned down – the tenants of a terrace of 30 houses in the background of the park refused to permit their properties to be painted snow-white.  However, they gave permission for a 200-foot-long by 30-foot high scaffolding to be erected in their collective back gardens on which was built the facade of 30 snow-white houses.


David Hemmings was building quite the rep already as he’s described as having been “24 when shooting but looks older or younger depending on how it went the night before. His idea is that life is meant to be lived to the full and he makes no bones about loving the attention and rewards that success in show business can bring.”

“All those people who profess to detest the business would duck out of it quickly enough if they didn’t thrive on it” he asserts.

While a masterwork, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up is not necessarily an easy film to market, even to the progressively more open-minded audiences that were developing in the late 60s before shutting back up with Star Wars and the entirety of the Simpson/Bruckheimer catalog.  Still, Premier Productions, the releasing company, did yeoman work in striving to get it to cross over to more general audiences that were catching the buzz that this pompous Italian had come up with a mystery, in English, no less, that they might want to check out.

A look at Premier Picture’s marketing campaign only reveals that much of what we decry modern Hollywood for (cynical cross promotion and crass product placement within the film) was pretty much in full effect in the mid-20th century; nevertheless it does seem to have been a more agreeable, less cynical exertion of capitalist instincts than what has progressed in its wake. When they sell cameras and have radio contests in tandem with Blow-Up‘s release, Premier makes it feel like they’re agreeably letting everyone in on the capitalist fun, as opposed to a targeted, militaristic corporate attack on humanity’s overburdened senses.


From the pressbook: In the first dates of “Blow-Up,” we have found that the majority of the audience attending is predominantly of college-age (imagine that? All my college-students are going to see is Ant Man and Avatar). You should concert a major effort with all of your college contacts for this film….many colleges have film societies (do they still?) – they will want to now all you can tell them about Antonioni’s masterpiece. Invite an Antonioni expert to discuss the meaning of the film with the press – to represent the age group with which the film is involved.

“Blow-up” Blow-Ups

As Premier helpfully explains, theaters can order “blow-up” stills of common household objects, available from National Screen. “Use them as a basis for a “Blow-Up” contest run on heralds or with a newspaper.”  They also decided ‘a radio contest is also feasible, if you can find a central place to display this set of stills. It works like this: whoever can identify ALL of the objects should be given guest tickets, and a lottery should be held to decide first prize, being promoted cameras, a night on the town, or merchant donations.”

Images included the “End of a cigarette”; “Eyeglasses hinge”; and a “lipstick print.”

The Camera Contest

They also recommended Camera Contests, where whoever submits the best amateur photographs on a fashion scene could win, as long as the theater supplies a model for their efforts (!), with the winning still displayed in the theatre.

The Fishbowl Contest

A large glass bowl containing film negatives (or scraps from your projectionist’s cutting booth) is prominently displayed in the theatre lobby, and ask listeners to send post cards to a radio station guessing “how many BLOW-UPS are in the bowl.”

Product Placement!

It wasn’t just Bond! As the pressbook helpfully points out “The Hasselblad single lens reflex camera is used in the studio scenes of “Blow-Up” – “supply your local stores with stills and posters for window and in-store displays.”

“David Hemmings used the Nikon camera…throughout the picture. Although the Nikon home office does not do national film promotions, they have sent their sales staff letters announcing the local opportunities for promotion.”


Be sure to send some stills featuring mod clothing to the Carnaby Street shops in your town.

Every fashion editor in your city should receive a set of stills from “Blow-Up.”

A theatre fashion show was never more appropriate than for “Blow-Up.” Contact your area’s designers and fashion salons to see if they would be interested in previewing their mod spring line on your stage, say opening night!


The youngsters are wearing the wildest in eye and body make-up. Have a make-up artist promoted through your local beauty salon present at your opening (or a special ladies day).


Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles and David Hemmings each recorded open-end interviews for “Blow-Up.” Each 7 ½ minute included a script for an announcer to duplicate “live” proceedings.


The up-to-the minute, lively music composed, conducted and played by Herbie Hancock for “Bow-Up” has been recorded by MGM records.

We are told “The Yardbirds are an English pop music group on Epic Records that are doing well on the national charts. They appear in the film in the rock and roll night club sequence. Make sure local disc jockeys plug the film each time they play one of the group’s records. At the time of this writing, their single “Happenings Ten Time Years Ago” is at number 30 on the country’s record polls. I checked; the song rose no higher than that number 30 position, so I don’t know how many plugs theatres were able to squeeze out of local DJs playing it. Good idea, though.


As David Hemmings writes in his 21st-century autobiography, published after his death, “Antonioni’s earlier films…are deservedly regarded as masterpieces. But Blow-Up has humour…it stands in stark contrast to the mood of Fellini and Visconti and it’s not Italian in the sense that their films are…maybe its humour looks odd, often unfathomable, and, some might say, difficult to enjoy but there is something eternally haunting about it.”

Odd, unfathomable and eternally haunting. I’ll sign off on that David, and won’t even bring up your indifferent dismissal of the brilliant Deep Red in the same book as it would color (or, ahem, colour) the moment.


Fred Astaire Fights Back!

By James Kenney

Films in Review, a venerable not-for-profit publication founded in 1909 that physically published until 1997, still has a web presence due to contributor Roy Frumkes’ efforts (Frumkes is best known as the director of the Diary of the Dead, the documentary recording George Romero’s making of Dawn of the Dead, and for writing the Tom Berenger hit action film The Substitute). It offered capsule reviews of recent films, coverage of films on television and soundtracks, and generally anywhere from two to four more in-depth articles an issue where a writer would discuss Michael Curtiz’s filmography, say, or someone of note would be interviewed, such as Walter Hill or Charles Durning (to pick two examples from early 1980s issues I came across recently).

The journal also would annually review that year’s Academy Awards, not just the films but the broadcast itself; for a period, N.C. Chambers (who I can’t find anything about outside of his annual coverage of the awards for Films in Review, leading me to think it might be a pseudonym) was in charge of this coverage, and while his analysis was not without insight, he did have a catty, grandiloquent attitude towards the ceremony.

At the end of the 1971 Awards coverage, as a sample, he wrote “it’s a parade of ever less appetizing meat, for the women’s facial makeup is each year more dehumanizing, and the hispidity of the males less functional and esthetic.”

But, back in 1970, a half-century before instant trolling commentary of all live events became all the rage, Chambers wrote a snarky review of Fred Astaire’s appearance on the 1970 awards ceremony that was so disagreeable that Mr. Astaire personally wrote a letter to Films in Review to complain, in polite and reasonable language, in the August-September 1970 issue, costing 90 cents.

Here is the indelible (and yes, obviously aging) Astaire charmingly hoofing it up a bit at the 1970s Oscar ceremony:

A perfectly amiable performance by the 71-year old legend in the spirit of “once more” that pulls a genuine smile even from a hispid Jack Nicholson in the audience.

Yet Mr. Chambers found fault in it; in Astaire’s dancing, in his appearance, in his efforts to stay relevant. To which, Mr. Astaire, clearly perturbed but with great dignity, responded with the following:

“Your publication has been somewhat familiar to me for a number of years. Now one of your reviewers has overstepped his status with a grossly insulting commentary on me. The man’s opinion of me as an artist matters little. It his deliberate attack, and effort to describe me as a decrepit old ham trying to hang on by a thread or something, that I protest vehemently. I will not tolerate this presumptuous, patronizing attitude.

Those of us who are asked to appear on the Academy show volunteer because we feel it is a duty to try and help make it as entertaining as possible during the moments other than the more important reasons for the show — the Awards themselves. I was amazed and confused to read the scathing personal attack on me written by this man Chambers for what was designed merely as a moment of amusement, which it certainly proved itself to be. I think all professionals know what a difficult project the Oscarcast is.

Chambers attacked my appearance, my work, everything, to a shocking extent.

It is quite obvious of course, that the man missed the whole point of my idea, which was to have Bob Hope ‘put me on,’ so to speak, after I said I had never danced on an Oscar show in any of my numerous appearances in the past. Bob then said, “So you’re not going to dance tonight,” and I replied “No, I’m not.” To which Hope said “That’s what you think,” and cued the orchestra to play and I was ‘on.’ It was a most successful gag and caused a lot of talk.

Mr. Chambers’ reference to a “dyed wig” that disfigured me was most mystifying since I wore just exactly what I have always worn in all my recent tv specials and pictures. I saw it on the monitors and it was completely ok. Absolutely nobody, reviewers or audience, has expressed anything but enjoyment at my bit except Chambers, and I’m wondering if perhaps he viewed the show through a green shade, a faulty tv set, or something. It is simply incredible.

Anyway, I had a great deal of fun, and that is what I expect out of anything I chose to appear in.

Beverly Hills, Fred Astaire”

Discretion being the better part of valor, one would think Films in Review, having published the disparaging critique, would let a man of Astaire’s dignity and stature have his response and let it go, but no, Chambers is allowed to continue with what I agree is a rather “patronizing” attitude in a most unwelcome response that adds nothing but more insults at Mr. Astaire’ s expense, thinly veiled in backhanded compliments:

Astaire’s films gave me more happiness than I obtained from those of any other dancer. This made the fact that age has come upon him, as it does upon us all, the more poignant. In the case of the dancer no aspect of the human condition contains more pathos. This is what I tried to indicate, and this is what Astaire, naturally and humanly, resists. As for the wig, if it was the one he always uses, then its disfigurement of him was due to tv distortion.”

There were certain publications that would not have authors respond to letters to the editor except for most unusual circumstances: the authors had their say in their piece, now would be the reader’s turn. Allowing the (perhaps non-existent) N.H. Chambers to respond to Astaire’s letter so he can explain to the reader Astaire’s motivations and take one more dig at his toupee is beyond the pale.

Films in Review, August-September 1970 issue

Films In Review was an important part of film journalism history and is well worth seeking out (they still have an active twitter account, publish reviews on their site, and the internet archive has issues available). However, this fascinating letter from someone of Astaire’s stature is worthy of note, and from the evidence available, his aggravation at Chambers attack on a minor dance number played for laughs (which is actually quite stylish and memorable, I’m glad stumbling upon this little 52 year old brouhaha led me to seek it out) seems justified. “Chambers” would have done better to stick to complaints about the women’s makeup and the hispidity of the men.

Now start investigating those Films In Review archives while I watch Astaire’s performance again.


That’s Filmmaking: My Best Movies of 2022

By James Kenney

Squirrels to the Nuts – Director Peter Bogdanovich

Shot in 2014, Premiering at the Museum of Modern Art in March 2022, Pete Bogdanovich’s final theatrical film in its proper original form is a grand fête showcasing Bogdanovich’s untrammeled skill at movie-making; actors acting in extended, graceful takes that allow them to inhabit the characters and carry the drama; proper old-school credit sequences; old-school comedy of slamming doors; fate and destiny reminding all that we reap what we sow, and that God has a sense of humor; glorious New York City locales carried off sans CGI; and as Glenn Kenny presciently noted (I hadn’t thought about it until he pointed out), behind the laughs is a considered exploration of sexual obsession that no doubt was very personal to the director.  A fitting, narrative-altering sendoff to the well-known yet undervalued maestro.

Tar – Director Todd Field

Sorry to those who disagree, but I found this quite riveting, despite loathing Field’s first film (I’m not a fan of all those wallowing in misery films that were in vogue for a wild, Little Children, 21 Grams, all of that). Cate Blanchett, man.

Decision to Leave – Director Park Chan-Wook

Park Chan-wook for his latest film, Decision to Leave

I still haven’t seen Parasite!  But this is chilly, sophisticated, and unreasonably involving.

Boiling Point  — Director Phillip Barantini

Having loved Steven Knight’s  Locke, I’m apparently a sucker for one-take British films involving not wholly sympathetic protagonists. I’m not the only one who finds a fancy restaurant kitchen setting absolutely fascinating, right? Bravo.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy – Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi

I did see Drive My Car!  This is less self-consciously brilliant than that, but it’ll sneak up on you; I guess this came out in 2021 but I only saw it on its Blu-ray release in 2022, and I didn’t make a 2021 list anyway, but “attention must be paid!”

Parallel Mothers – Director Pedro Almodovar

You know I love the old masters, and Almodovar seldom makes anything less than utterly fabulous in my book. Brilliance at a human scale. I guess this came out in the last couple of days of 2021 as well, but I don’t care. Penelope Cruz, man.

Emily the Criminal – Director John Patton Ford

I’ve never seen a full episode of Parks and Recreation (it always seemed like such an Office rip-off), but I did appreciate Aubrey Plaza showing up in Ned Rifle, Hal Hartley’s final film in his Henry Fool trilogy; I’ve missed an awful lot of her other work, apparently.  This is an exceptional small-scale drama about a real and interesting current American subject, with a brilliant lead turn by Plaza.

Crimes of the Future – David Cronenberg

I’m not a huge fan of Cronenberg – for example, I thought his direction of Eastern Promises was undisputable  as quality while still feeling he wholly missed a key aspect of Steven Knight’s script (one of my favorite screenwriters, who wrote and directed the aforementioned Locke with Tom Hardy that you should see immediately if you haven’t and who wrote the indelible Dirty Pretty Things for Stephen Frears), its heart – heart isn’t Cronenberg’s thing– the nude knife battle in the steam bath is completely realized, but the distressing ending involving a kidnapped baby, with Naomi Watts and Viggo Mortensen pleading with tortued gangster Vincent Cassel for its life, is rote, because I don’t think Cronenberg felt it one bit. 

But I digress. Crimes of the Future is not only first-rate in its somewhat limited but beguiling terms, it’s a decided return to form after the appalling Maps to the Stars, a film I hate in every aspect save poor Julianne Moore’s fearless, and wasted, performance.  But Future? Admirable. Disturbing. Inscrutable. Striking. I didn’t think Cronenberg had it in him at this late date.

Kimi – Director Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh is still knocking them out like he’s Michael Ritchie in the 1970s,  dropping mid-budget pieces in a variety of genres at rapid rate as if there was still an actual market for these things. Some resonate with me more than others.  But Kimi is a shrewd, tough and witty genre excursion with an excellent performance from Zoe Kravitz, who I’ve liked ever since she supported Ethan Hawke in Good Kill, but haven’t seen in much otherwise.  I never said I was hip or current! From what I see here, though, she’s as good as I thought she was!

The Balcony Movie – Director Pawel Lozinski

This Polish documentary features conversations the filmmaker had with people passing by his balcony in Warsaw. This social experiment is hard to sell (not a lot happens other than some people avoid talking to him while others do not) but is a distinctive and compelling film that revealed to me something about both the individual and about society—while I liked the original Avatar well enough for its technical achievement, I do scratch my head at people, including social media friends, who seem to feel you can’t trust anyone who doesn’t like Avatar

I don’t find its archetypal script compelling, just functional, and, yes,  I find Cameron’s technical skill impressive; I saw it once in the theater in 3D and have no interest in returning to it (or seeing its sequel) unless my kids want to check it out. Yes he’s a real filmmaker with a vision, much superior to Marvel and DC nation; but I think I got all I need from him with Terminator and Aliens.  I can respect Cameron without caring what he’s up to, really. Me? I dig Lozinski sitting on a balcony recording people who walk by. That’s filmmaking!

Stuff I haven’t seen: EO, The Woman King, Nope, The Banshees of Insherin, Bones and All, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, Avatar 2, Babylon, lots of others

Stuff I saw that was good but not great: The Fablemans, Top Gun: Maverick. RRR, Armageddon Time

Stuff I saw that I didn’t like that others did: Everything Everywhere All at Once, Elvis, The Northman

Stuff I thought wasn’t as bad as others insist: Amsterdam, Blonde.

The Viking Sea Lord takes on the Big Screen: Tom Selleck IS Lassiter!

By James Kenney

Tom Selleck IS Lassiter, a romantic rogue with a taste for easy living and precious gems!

However, a fortune in uncut diamond is being funneled through the German Embassy by a nasty, Teutonic Countess, Lauren Hutton, who likes to occasionally murder sexual partners while she orgasms, to finance Hitler’s European and South American espionage network. The FBI and Scotland Yard lean on poor Lassiter; if he refuses to “intercept” the diamonds using his dishonorable skillset, they’ll frame him for an armed robbery he didn’t commit.

If he gets caught, those cynical Brit and American authorities will deny knowing him – and he’ll be executed as a spy!

Oh, and the relentlessly beautiful Jane Seymour (born Joyce Penelope Frankenberg in Middlesex, by the way) is hanging around, a nightclub hoofer/romantic interest who is also one of those cinematic scolds, trying to reform our Lassiter (it might be nice, liberating if nothing else, if the beautiful woman actually cheered on the bad behavior of the protagonist once in a while in these things).

Seymour’s beauty is supreme and I’d probably listen to her if I was Lassiter, but I must disclose I could be drawn to the kinky malevolent countess Hutton if it meant avoiding the persistent lectures about flying right. 

Nightclub Comedians and Steeplejacks: The Sturdy Supporting Cast of Lassiter

Good character actors abound in “Lassiter,” including the permanently reliable Ed Lauter (who despite all his tough guy parts started out as a stand-up comedian working Greenwich Village nightclubs), Bob Hoskins (who we’re told in the press materials worked as a road digger, porter and steeplejack in his youth before his time in the Royal Shakespeare Company), and Joe Regalbuto (most memorable to me as the smarmy D.A. who is told by Arnold Schwarzenneger “to resign or be prosecuted” at the end of John Irvin’s Raw Deal).

I can’t say “Lassiter” is all that great.  There are two types of period pieces, the ones that wholly convince you of their historical authenticity, Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” and Peter Bogdanovich’s “Nickelodeon” for example, and then the ones that don’t, that feel like dress-up.  Christian Slater’s “Mobsters” and, alas, “Lassiter” fall securely into this latter category.

“Lassiter” is handsomely appointed, and a lot of impressively accredited people were involved in its production, but it never really rings true; it feels like a likeable yet trying-too-hard vehicle for the massively agreeable and yet somewhat unpersuasive Tom Selleck, still smarting from not being able to do “Raiders of the Lost Ark” for Spielberg.

Nvertheless, the reason he didn’t, the hugely successful TV series “Magnum PI,” is the reason he was able to mount a second charge up the hill of film stardom with initially Brian G. Hutton’s “High Road to China” and then “Lassiter.” Both were produced with Hong Kong money from Golden Harvest, long known on these shores mostly for its production of Kung-Fu films.

Selleck, on this evidence, wasn’t really up to it at this point, frankly, or at least novice film director Roger Young lets him down here.  Selleck is excellent at light comedy, whether in his note-perfect early appearances as Lance White in “the Rockford Files” (seek these out if you haven’t seen them), “Three Men and a Baby,” and “In & Out.”  He’s agreeable as a “sensitive” hero in Michael Crichton’s daft but charming “Runaway,” where for much of the film the joke is on him. He keeps jumping on and being chased around by runaway futuristic electronic devices imperiling his life, and his good looks (borrowed from Burt Reynolds and due back the next day, he joked at the time) and his concern for his younger partner and romantic interest Cynthia Rhodes make us root for him.

But I’ve generally found even in those heady days he had a problem similar to what Edward Burns and Treat Williams have always had; there’s a lightweight, sometimes high-pitched characteristic to his voice that Selleck has trouble overcoming when he tries to play dead serious, whether in Peter Yates’ later, glum “An Innocent Man” or here in “Lassiter,” where he’s a “charming thief in the Cary Grant” mode scampering across rooftops in search of diamonds, only the film has much darker beats than anything Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief” offered up. While we always like Selleck, we’re not always convinced by him, and when he, well, whines to Seymour how the authorities are setting him up, he’s not seen to his strongest effect.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m writing about it now because “Lassiter,” like everything in the rearview mirror compared to contemporary Hollywood product, looks interesting, and in fact “Lassiter” is interesting, a “humpback success.” 

Seeing Selleck attempt (at the time ineffectively) to move beyond his iconic status as Magnum is involving.  Although I do feel there was a certain weightlessness that perhaps kept him from owning the parameters of anything larger than a TV screen at the time, I have no doubt Spielberg would have directed him to a fine performance in “Raiders.” Selleck had/has sufficient ability and the ability to make light of himself.  But when left with a weak director or malnourished script, I don’t find Selleck able to absorb the project’s blows and still command the screen the way Grant, Harrison Ford or even, I dunno, Jason Statham can. 

Selleck was and is amazingly handsome but still in danger of evaporating on screen, the same way other hunks such as Treat Williams, all dramatic gifts aside, were never able to quite maintain full movie star status. If you are the president of the Selleck or Williams fan club, I apologize, but I figure someone has to posit why they never quite broke through outside of television despite having so much going for them. The voice!

Albert S. Ruddy produced “Lassiter,” with Golden Harvest bigwig Raymond Chow and Andre Morgan listed as executive producers.  According to the film’s press materials, Selleck first read “Lassiter” and brought it to the attention of Golden Harvest, who as mentioned were apparently in the ongoing Selleck-movie business, having produced his first major film as a lead, “High Road to China.”  Ruddy is the kind of guy who would produce both “the Godfather” and “the Cannonball Run,” so why not “Lassiter,” which safely falls halfway between elegant period-piece and star vanity flick.

Producer Morgan certainly talked up Selleck at the time: “There are very few actors who could have played Lassiter. The industry is suffering, at present, from an acute shortage of leading men – who have both romantic appeal and a sense of humor.” A sense of humor is what “Lassiter” the film could use a bit more of; Hutton’s coital executions, some of the violence, and the overall predicament Selleck is in all play a little too dour for my tastes.

Tom Selleck: The Viking Sea Lord

Selleck, as always, had an attractive personality – I think all were rooting for him to have box-office success at the time, but all his early 80s efforts to break free of his television persona flopped.  The “Lassiter” press materials compare Selleck to Clark Gable, Paul Newman, and Burt Reynolds, and remind the reader that magazines like People and the Ladies Home Journal termed Selleck a “Viking sea lord” (!).

Selleck himself tried to temper such expectations: “It’s flattering, but for fourteen years before “Magnum” nobody compared me with anything but a hardworking actor – when I could find work.  There isn’t going to be another Newman or Reynolds. Their talent is unique. And if you buy that stuff about yourself, you’ve got a long way to fall when it changes…I don’t —and won’t—live up to some image of stardom that has nothing to do with me. On the other hand, I’m grateful to get a crack at colorful characters like Nick Lassiter, which wouldn’t have come my way before.”

“A Touch of Arrogance”

Selleck certainly was a hardworking actor and in describing Lassiter seems to understand the character well, pointing out what makes him less likeable than Magnum and also why he wasn’t a perfect fit for Selleck, whose amiability was his trump card: “As a character, Lassiter is a departure from most of what I’ve done before, including Magnum. He’s rougher around the edges and a compulsive winner. When he enters a room, there’s a touch of arrogance and gall.”

Selleck dutifully put in his research time, talking it up with a few retired “villains”: “I wanted to pick their brains about things like picking locks and breaking and entering. It wasn’t the technical side I was after, that’s easy. What concerned me was what goes through a man’s mind when…let’s say…he’s cracking a safe.”

However, like a good 1980s Reagan Republican, Selleck was only willing to go so far playing a scoundrel, pointing out that he gets caught up in Embassy mission because “deep down, it taps his sense of patriotism, though he’d sooner go to jail than admit it.”

Jane Seymour, in need of liniment

This oddly patriotic expatriate criminal is not above eschewing American women to instead bed down the luscious London chorus girl Seymour, who in the press materials curiously defined her character’s ambitions simply to “get off her feet” – “on the surface, her…job seems sexy and exciting, but dancing is harder on the legs than playing soccer. She comes home black and blue, decorated with sticking plaster. Fortunately, Lassiter is a skilled masseur with a large supply of the same liniment they use to treat the top horses at Ascot.”

It’s interesting, the stories actors come up with to help explicate their characters’ behaviors and choices, and good for them, yet I don’t recall much discussion of Lassiter’s choice of liniments in “Lassiter” – it does seem odd that such a skilled jewel thief couldn’t save up enough to keep his adored Seymour from coming home “black and blue, decorated with sticking plaster.” What’s the point in being a jewel thief if you’re not going to help your gal “get off her feet”???

One interesting thing I didn’t know was that Seymour, who had just finished a run on Broadway in “Amadeus,” was once an exceptional dancer, a teenage ballerina under the tutelage of famed choreographer Eleanor Fazan, who appeared with the London Festival Ballet and the Kirkov Ballet.  At 16, she had to bow out due to a knee injury, but Fazan choreographed her tap routine for “Lassiter,” which Seymour found “a lovely reunion.”

The Teutonic Black Widow Spider

A bit more fascinating of a character is Hutton’s Countess Kari von Fursten, who, as the press materials described, “is a devotee of the Marquis de Sade, by way of the Medicis, who takes exquisite pleasure in inflicting pain.”

Hutton saw the countess as “a black widow spider…or perhaps a coral snake,” with the press materials adding she was “an amateur naturalist” in case we were wondering where her metaphors came from. “Her colors are red and black, the colors of poison. There’s even a red and black butterfly in the jungle, which has a deadly sting. Any time you see those colors in nature, it’s a warning.”

Hutton found the countess a refreshing change from the “good little rich girls” she had recently played, and in one scene she tells Lassiter that what attracted her to Lassiter was “his scars.”  Hutton made sure her character, a predator was “always wear[ing] something dead – egret feathers, monkey fur or a bird of paradise.” 

Her character’s outré perversion is heightened by her superb bone structure and smiling eyes; she and gorgeous contemporary Barbara Carrera, equally adept at playing alluring malevolence, would have done well to team up as villainesses in some kind of project. “You get a good inkling of her character when she goes to the fights with Lassiter,” said Hutton. “It’s a very vicious bout and the ringsiders are splattered with blood. Even Lassiter cringes. But Kari merely licks her lips.

From Lou Grant to Lassiter: Roger Young

“Lassiter” is not bad, but I insist it’s not as good as I’m making it sound in this write-up (Hutton’s character is more fun in the mind than she is in the movie), and the fault mostly lies with Young, the director, who had only directed television to this point, principally “Lou Grant” and “Magnum PI” episodes, though he also directed several well-received television features.

He went back to television after “Lassiter” (did he jump or was he pushed?), and from the evidence it was a wise move, as “Lassiter” could’ve proven much stronger had a steady veteran hand had guided it. But, perhaps chosen by Selleck because of his “Magnum” work (Young directed the pilot), he didn’t work hard enough to get Selleck to do anything truly disturbing to his image or that would sell him as a theatrical leading man, and didn’t demonstrate a sense of how to pace or stage a theatrical feature.

It’s pretty good, but it’s never truly stimulating, and all the efforts to make this 40s noir an 80s movie, with the cursing, nudity and violence, just make it all the more dress-up than drama.

A Bloody Fanatic Copper!

Leave it to Hoskins to come up with some lively Brit-sounding quotes to describe his Inspector Becker, a cynical cop happy to use Lassiter and feel no guilt if Lassiter is caught and killed: he described “playing a copper, even a bloody fanatic like this one” as quite a turnaround from his star-making performance in John Mackenzie’s masterpiece “The Long Good Friday.”

By this point, Hoskins had still worked exclusively in England with British actors in projects such as the original “Pennies from Heaven,” in the role played by Steve Martin in the American film version. He touched upon what it was like working with Selleck and Hutton: “I enjoy working with American actors. The difference in technique is remarkable. Take a fight scene. A British actor will work himself slowly, gradually into a frenzy…But Americans plunge right in…WHAM….and you’d better be ready.”

He was impressed by what he called the “smoothness” of Selleck’s performance. “I’ve always envied that kind of nerveless charm. I one scene hen I corner Lassiter on the Orient Express to blackmail him into completing the embassy job, he’s as cool and witty as if we were old high school chums. If I tried to do that bit, I’d trip on the stairs or smoke the wrong end of the cigarette and burn my lips. Fortunately, there’s not much call for someone like me….5’6” and built like the back of the bus…to play suave, sophisticated types.”

The Orient Express Back in Action

The press materials credit American Railway buff James Sherwood for the filming on the actual Orient Express, as Sherwood restored the legendary train at a cost of $17 ½ million after it had initially been scrapped in 1977. The train by 1984, the year of the film’s release, was currently back in service between London and Venice (Iron Curtain restrictions at the time ruled out its original terminus in Bucharest).

In selling “Lassiter,” director Young discussed the many fictional thrillers by the likes of Graham Greene and Agatha Christie that utilized the Express as a backdrop, but for some reason also discussed how it had been the “speeding backdrop” for several “real mysteries,” such as the disappearance of a French prime minister who either jumped, fell, or was pushed from his private carriage.  (In case you were wondering, some quick internet research reveals the prime minister was Paul Deschanel, and he wasn’t killed by the fall from his window, and almost certainly wasn’t pushed, which makes it a little less mysterious by my count)

For “Lassiter,” Young took over one of the train’s most opulent coaches, dubbed “Minerva” (all the cars on the Orient Express had individual names).  Among the high spots in Minerva’s history was “serving as a section of the Royal Train during Queen Elizabeth’s coronation gala.”

So, remember that when you watch Hoskins try to strongarm Selleck during the Lassiter “Minerva” sequence, and also perhaps visualize how the scene would play if the roles were reversed and Hoskins put the wrong end of the cigarette in his mouth.

To sum up, a less exotic location featured in “Lassiter” was an embankment on the Thames River, from which Selleck and Regalbuto tumble into the murky waters to escape a fiery death. The actors were required to take tetanus (!) and typhoid (!!) shots “just in case….” As usual, Selleck showed good humor about it

“I’ve gone months filming in Hawaii without going near the water. But the I’m sent on location to downtown London…and take a swim.”

Was “Lassiter” worth the tetanus shot?  Not exactly, but on the whole we’re all soft touches for international WW II intrigue, train rides fraught with danger, beautiful femme fatales and girl Fridays, and Selleck himself (not to mention Bob Hoskins). I can’t say “Lassiter” works, but I can say if you think it’s up you’re alley, it’s probably up your alley. Selleck is a most likeable, self-effacing Viking Sea Lord, after all.


Sherlock in Wonderland: A look at Chuck Suffel’s new Sherlock Holmes adventure (and an interview with the Author)

By James Kenney

Sherlock Holmes is arguably the best investigative mind of all time, but will the world of Alice’s Wonderland be too much for even his brilliant intellect to handle?

When a mysterious man interrupts Holmes’ experimentation with a new “tobacco” he is thrown into a whirlwind of ludicrous characters, a London he barely recognizes, and a seemingly unsolvable case. Taking place in just one day the great detective may be forever changed by what he witnesses, if even he can believe it in the end.

“Sherlock Holmes & The Wonderland Conundrum,” a new Sherlock Holmes adventure, written by Chuck Suffel with art by J. Schiek, is an almost exhilarating independent comic book adventure, popular yarn-spinning at its most dashing, a handsome evocation of the late 1800s with Schiek utilizing mysterious greys and blacks with effective, potent uses of color here and there to animate Suffel’s dexterous, intriguing story. A story told with wit and control, and even a little action here and there– though not in the almost-insulting fashion of the recent Robert Downey Jr. Holmes-on-steroids hodgepodges. This is the Holmes we recognize, even if his current adventure takes him to the edge of insanity and credulity.

Suffel is a writer first published under the pseudonym Daniel Charles in the Harvey Award Nominated 27 Club Comic Anthology from Red Stylo Media. Since then he has appeared in several anthology projects from several indie publishers, most recently penning two stories in The Rockabilly Rambler anthology & currently awaiting the publication of “SOAR” in Fugitive Poems’ Anthology Containment Breach, Volume 4. Schiek is an artist, writer and college professor whose work has appeared in numerous anthologies including the Ringo Award nominated Yule from Grant Stoye, and The Toddler-pocalypse from Comix Tribe. His own original comic, a samurai fantasy epic titled Hush Ronin, is scheduled for publication by Band of Bards in January 2023.

I spoke with Suffel about this ambitious, appealing work, which is the first publication by his own Whatcha’Reading Press:

I know the Baker Street Irregulars are out there, creating almost instant interest in a Sherlock Holmes project and also creating an audience ready to judge and reprove if they’re not happy.  What made you decide to take on one of the most famous characters in the world?

Sherlock Holmes is, by far, my favorite character in all of literature. Doyle created such a wonderful flawed genius, a misanthropic man of science who also has a soft spot for the pure of heart. He was a hero of mine growing up, full of qualities to aspire to, and foibles to avoid. As you say Holmes is one of the most popular characters in all of literature, a quick google search of Sherlock Holmes gives about 78,100,000 results (in 0.93 seconds). And still with all the works, pastiches, homages, straight-up rip-offs, people still love him. 

So several years ago when I came across an open call for an anthology asking for “a crossover between two public domain characters” I looked around and realized that the original Holmes’ stories and characters were entering the public domain, I had to take a shot at it. My original thought was to bring Alice herself into Holmes universe but as I worked through the outline I began to think that it wasn’t her but the Wonderland characters that would work well as foils to Holmes’ stoicism and intellect. Writing characters like Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dumm in conversation with Holmes was way too much fun, I really hope that comes through on the page. 

How do you know when a story is right for a comic book, as opposed to a novel or short story or screenplay? How did you know or feel that THIS was a “comic book story”?

Writing a comic book script is a very interesting thing. It’s a collection of static images and each one has to convey precisely what you want the reader to come away with. It’s a wonderfully limiting and at the same time freeing format to write in. TV and film writers will tell you that often when a script is being produced they lose all input into the way it will be filmed, the director tends to have full control. And in a novel or short story you are relying on the reader to interpret what you are describing. Comics are a very collaborative process, more often than not the writer and artist communicate back and forth or through an editor to make sure the book looks, feels, and reads the way it was intended. That’s not to say it always works that way, there were a few anthologies where I submitted my script and never heard another word until the book was finished but I find that to be a rarity. 

Why was this a comic book story? Honestly because I set out to write it as one. I have also rewritten it as a short story (coming soon) and I would be happy to adapt it into a screenplay at any time! 

At some point, when you’re writing, you must be generating images in your head as you’re writing for a visual medium?  How did you react when you saw the actual, tangible art your artist was sending your way?

That is the scariest and most exciting part of making comics! When the script had gone through an edit or two and I was starting to stall my editor pushed me along by sending me a list of artists to check out. As soon as I saw J Schiek’s work I knew I wanted to work with him. He had a few pages from an early version of his book “Hush Ronin” on his site that just pulled me right in. His style was exactly what I was looking for. But even knowing that, and having spoken to him about the book and what I was hoping to see I was still so nervous. I hadn’t needed to be, he completely got what I was trying to do and when he had questions he was quick to ask, it was really a joy to work with him on this project. 

This is (I think) the first publication of Whatchareading Press. What is your vision for this press?

Whatchareading Press came about as a convenience. I needed to publish this comic and I wanted to do it myself. There was a steep learning curve but I hired the right people and got it done. I could definitely do it again and would love to but I’m also (very) open to working with another publisher. This is a proof of concept realized, where it goes from here is anybody’s guess.

What was the most difficult part of the process from your first inspiration to doing this to seeing it on shelves?

Convincing myself that it was good enough to go all the way with. And even when I was confident in the script there was still the fact that I had never brought a book all the way to print. Imposter syndrome is real and if it wasn’t for my production editor (thank you Erica Schultz!) this project would have gone off the rails numerous times.

I know you don’t just write indie comics, you read them. What are some of your favorites from past and present?

Independent comics are such a huge part of the industry it’s easy to point to great stuff. Boston Metaphysical Society by Madeline Holly-Rosing is an excellent series. Bob Salley is a writer who hasn’t missed a beat, Ogre, Salvagers, Broken Gargoyles, Shelter Division to name a few. There’s also Eric Grissom who’s latest work with artist Will Perkins Goblin is a great YA graphic novel though I’ve loved his stuff since Deadhorse in 2013. Honestly I could go on and on, there are just too many to mention. 

Any projects coming up in the future?

Three scripts currently in different stages but nothing with an artist yet. Soon, very soon. 

Where can someone grab your comic?

The book is available online at https://whatchareading-press.storenvy.com and at a few select comic shops including my local shop Royal Collectibles in Forest Hills. I’m in the process of getting it on more store shelves so it should wind up in a comic shop in “your” area soon. To find out more and to see what projects will be coming out next follow me on twitter @chuck_suffel. And whether or not you check out Sherlock Holmes & The Wonderland Conundrum be sure to find and follow artist J Schiek @schiekapedia, our cover artist @Robbertopoli who is currently drawing the latest Dr Who series for Titan Comics, and Erica Schultz @EricaSchultz42 who is a phenomenal writer with numerous titles ranging from indie books to Marvel. 


The Man in Black: John Cusack in BLOOD MONEY and SINGULARITY

By James Kenney (Adapted from a review originally appearing on whatchareading.com)


John Cusack, long seemingly disinterested in acting since his solid performances in ADULT WORLD and LOVE & MERCY a near-decade ago, disengaged briefly in 2017 from his lively, political and sometimes funny twitter feed to bring some of his long-dormant thespian good humor and timing intact to director Lucky Mckee’s BLOOD MONEY, which, taking place entirely in a forest of browns and grays and featuring only 4 characters, three of them “young,” sounds like it might be the quickest way to catch up on 90 minutes of sleep.

Instead, it ends up being an involving cat & mouse thriller that keeps you on your toes notwithstanding its scanty budget, with director McKee, a guy I’d been hearing about for years without actually seeing a damn thing of his, exhibiting an ability to craft some offbeat character development and reasonable suspense despite the film’s familiar trappings. 

Cusack, for a reason he’ll perhaps explain on one day, has been dressing almost exclusively in black for several years now in his genre-driven low-budget exercises, but at least in this one he smokes real cigarettes rather than vapes as he did so conspicuously as the bad guy in RECLAIM,  the not-so-bad guy in DRIVE HARD, and the sort-of-reformed bad guy in THE PRINCE .  In BLOOD MONEY he is a comparatively humanistic thief who drops his ill-gotten gains from a small aircraft he then parachutes from, faking his own death, I presume (the film never actually explains his plan). He doesn’t count on the money plopping down in a river and drifting far from where he lands.  So he starts off aggravated, then grows rather bemused as he witnesses the dysfunction of the three rafter “friends” he comes across who apparently know more about the stolen money then they’re letting on. 

Cusack gives (basically correct) relationship advice to one and by and large feels bad when he wounds/kills people, and when he finally gets the chance to get into it conversationally with Willa Fitzgerald, the girl from the group who has a convoluted (and intriguing) agenda driving the choices she makes, I wished the scene developed further than it actually does, a good sign from an impoverished people-trying-to-kill-each-other-in-a-forest flick.  So kudos to Cusack, Fitzgerald, who is especially good in a tricky role, and McKee, who doesn’t rise above his budget, but does create a sound entertainment with a few memorable bits, and a theme that (inadvertently?) resonates in this #MeToo moment in history.


Well, they can’t all be winners.

Cusack grabs a paycheck playing a rather taciturn genius madman-designer-of-the-earth’s-doom-I-don’t –know-what-he-is-really who unleashes  a robot, Kronos, who instantly attack and kill off most of mankind.  However a few humans are left, and Cusack also unleashes a young man (actually another humanoid robot, or something) in the hopes he/it will ingratiate itself with the Hunger-Games like heroine who is making her way to the last oasis of mankind on earth. 

Or something like that. 

SINGULARITY doesn’t make any damn sense, it’s naked ambition to cross HUNGER GAMES with TWILIGHT,  with some TERMINATOR thrown in, a totally uninvolving jumble.  One review I found does help clarify what went on here, as apparently the film was finished a couple of years ago by very young filmmaker Robert Kouba, and featured the two young leads wandering around Czech forests but no Cusack; the sequences with Cusack were added long after the fact to make it sellable, I suppose. 

Some of the low-budget effects are OK, the leads (Julian Schaffner and Jeannine Wacker) aren’t hopeless, but Cusack (still dressed all in black, although this time a suit) really doesn’t seem to have any sense of what to do with this character so, like many accomplished performers before him, he underplays to the point of catatonia rather than risk humiliation giving his all for what is clearly a quick hit-the-marks-and-take-the-check job.  If our talented hero is going to stay in the low-budget realm, I’d recommend more BLOOD MONEYs and less of this nonsense, as it does “devalue” his brand; I simply can’t envisage a soul on earth liking SINGULARITY.

Put That Damn Phone Down! Stephen King’s De Facto Sequel to MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE…CELL!

By James Kenney (revised version of article published at whatchareading.com in 2016

Long delayed (filming ended in early 2014), Tod Williams’ adaptation of Stephen King’s 2006 novel CELL isn’t a catastrophe, nor is it a disentombed gem. It re-teams the stars of the pretty decent 1408 (theatrical cut only, the fashionably nihilistic “director’s cut” is best sidestepped) in another Stephen King adaptation that suffers because of the very reason it exists: King. 

The justifiably legendary King has certainly done better work than this rehash, providing a thankfully fast-paced script (co-written by Adam Alleca) that nevertheless doesn’t offer anything truly fresh.  Luckily, capable director Williams, best known commercially for PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 and artistically for the well-received Jeff Bridges drama DOOR IN THE FLOOR, does a pretty solid job of keeping things moving, so that CELL ultimately proves an up-to-code if perhaps unnecessary 90 minutes of horror.

Talented artists curiously can get hung up repeating their worst ideas. 

Walter Hill returned after a ten-year layoff with the weary BULLET IN THE HEAD, which was an annoying rehash of his Schwarzenegger/Jim Belushi vehicle RED HEAT, of all things, certainly one of his worst films (which itself was an unfortunate rehash of the fine 48 HRS, which Hill later rehashed with the ridiculous ANOTHER 48. HRS).  King wrote and directed one film about mankind’s inventions turning against him, the amusingly bizarre but mostly godawful MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, which featured an evil ice cream truck (CELL features an ice cream truck too, but this one is working for the good guys).  CELL involves cell phones turning one fateful morning against humanity , transforming all using them (the majority of the population) into foaming-mouth WALKING DEAD-type zombies who get signals from phone towers and hibernate at night.  This allows the few survivors,  John Cusack and Samuel Jackson among them, to strategize and travel (although they never come up with much of a strategy, and the group all-too-readily consents to Cusack’s personal quest to locate his wife and son who are likely dead or zombified like the rest of the population.)

While the film claims a New York filming tax credit in its lengthy end credits, it takes place in Boston and according to the internet, was shot in Atlanta, Georgia.  For those who don’t watch WALKING DEAD weekly (I’m among them) the film offers enough gore and eerie imagery of entranced zombies to keep audiences involved for the better part of its running time. 

Whether or not it offers anything special enough to engage those who have gorged on zombie fiction for the better part of the 21st century is a question, as after the creepy opening sequence of Boston-Gone-Wild there are mostly scenes of humans huddled down in various locales ruminating and planning. 

The cast is sound, with every few minutes some new character actors adding spice, especially Erin Elizabeth Burns and Anthony Reynolds as humorously exaggerated New Englanders, working their  vowels to witty effect (although not much is done with their characters after an amusing introduction).    King downsizes his epic novel, which certainly seemed more topical in 06 when cell phones were first taking over society, replacing the ambitious Boston Common meltdown that opened the novel with more cost-effective, contained locations (airport, subway station), utilized judiciously enough.

What he doesn’t do is keep the plot going into its second hour, as stimulating characters are killed off and others are just largely forgotten about.  A “phoner” zombie in a red hoodie known  as “Mr. Internet”who apparently is key to all that’s going on,  appearing in multiple characters’ dreams, never satisfactorily develops, and the big finale at an overrun cell phone tower has a weird, fairly creepy ambiance but no clear dramatic logic, especially in how it ultimately plays out.

Cusack, who for some reason keeps putting on and taking off a skull-cap throughout, stays fairly engaged with the bizarre proceedings, while Jackson does his typically proficient and professional job, disappointingly not being directly involved in the film’s climax.  Isabelle Fuhrman has some nice moments as the young woman who comes along on the journey, and the cinematography by Michael Simmonds is skillful on a budget.

max overdrive

CELL is in the end minor, because it is neither timely nor dramatically fleshed out.  It IS creepy, and King’s screenplay works in some honest suspense that director Williams doesn’t flub.  The biggest problem is that King fashions an antagonist in Mr. Internet who neither proves engaging or scary enough to involve us in Cusack’s ultimate confrontation with him.  This, coupled with only passable CGI effects and sequences that don’t break new zombie ground, makes CELL an inconsequential footnote in modern horror.   CELL won’t horrify anyone into ditching their cell phones, but a few of its more creepy images may stick for a while, and is worth a look for King, Cusack and Jackson fans.

But it works as a de-facto sequel to MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, with mature 80s icon Cusack replacing youthful 80s icon Emilio Estevez as the po-faced lead, comparable gore effects, and an analogous lack of dramatic logic.  But it’s a better film – CELL is far too capably made to challenge OVERDRIVE as a loony cult-item, which I guess is a downfall of basic competency. 


Teaching The A,B,C’s of Real, Raw Living: Sidney Poiter’s To Sir, With Love!

By James Kenney

“The new Sidney Poitier picture has already won the acclaim of all who have seen it. Like A Patch of Blue and Lilies of the Field before it, To Sir, With Love has that something special in excitement, in heart, in fun and in meaning…that makes it a picture for all to enjoy.

It’s about today…about a teacher…and about the wild and turned-on teens of London who teach him the A, B, C’s of real law living.

It’s a motion picture you are going to hear a lot about from now on.”

-From a 1967 Columbia Pictures poster promoting To Sir, With Love

The above description is so accurate I don’t know why I’d add anything to it, but I’ll try.

James Clavell’s  1967 film To Sir, With Love, based loosely on the novel/memoir by E.R. Braithwaite, is about an unseasoned Guyanese teacher played by Sidney Poitier who takes a job he doesn’t want in a tough, fairly racist London school. It was a hugely successful film, but it is also a misunderstood humpback classic of a film.  No, it’s not a classic-classic like The Seventh Seal, Red River, Vertigo or Rashomon.  But “film-snobs” (whom I generally adore, just oversimplifying things a bit for provocation in my introductory paragraph) generally look down on Sir as another one of Poitier’s earnest, well-mannered efforts to raise the consciousness of the human race (which actually look all the more valuable in the face of racist “populists” all over the world trying to turn back the clock). But, no, man, it’s great. This movie will stick with you, like, forever. It’s funny, smart, a little-bit compromised, sure, but don’t confuse the issue. It’s great.

In a peculiar way, perhaps – self-censorship mutes some of the film’s potentially more incendiary edges, the story is episodic, Poitier’s Mark Thackeray is possibly too good to be true from a certain angle (I find him completely human and relatable myself).  Filmmaker James Clavell is an interesting guy, having directed this and one more unnoticed classic, the Last Valley, but he’s mostly famous for writing the novels Tai-Pan, King Rat and Shogun. His direction doesn’t have the flow or refinement of “natural directors” such as Spielberg, Hitchcock or Peter Bogdanovich, who took the To Sir With Love, 2 assignment in the mid-90s because he wanted to work with Poitier (and work in general), but who didn’t like the original at all, saying to Peter Tonguette in Tonguette’s first-rate book about him “I ran the first picture – I had seen it before – and I was pretty disappointed in it. It’s pretty dated, and I thought we could do better. Ours holds up better because it’s not dated.”

Well, Peter was wrong. The original Love is dated, sure, in all sorts of charming ways that make you long for a past when there was hope, miniskirts and Sidney Poitier as the number one movie star in America, but the themes and messages (and performances and pacing) are all A-grade and still spark audience response today, confirmed by my incessantly showing it to my Freshman classes at different colleges who all absolutely love it, whether the student body is inner-city community college students or relatively affluent Orthodox Jewish males.  In fact, while I’m glad Bogdanovich, my favorite filmmaker, got the chance to make a film with Poitier, I honestly wish it wasn’t To Sir, With Love 2 because he just doesn’t appreciate the original, so his sequel is really a missed opportunity; while agreeable and fairly sensitive in its handling of its subject matter, Love 2 is frankly much more contrived (and downbeat) than the original and simply isn’t as captivating.  The original To Sir, With Love might be an eccentric masterpiece, but masterpiece it is.

The film’s humanitarianism is most welcome, particularly as the story is told with humor and grace – the lack of truly histrionic developments (no guns are drawn, unlike in Bogdanovich’s sequel) and the film’s successfully modulated human-scale situations (a student has a crush on Poitier, another attempts to ask racially insensitive questions to rattle him, a fellow teacher treats the poor, crude students as beneath contempt) makes it an unequivocally pleasant film to watch as it nevertheless conveys some rather lofty and for the time cutting-edge themes. 

Viewed today, a sequence where the indelible Judy Geeson as student-with-a-crush Pamela Dare dances with Poitier, forcing the clumsy Thackeray to attempt some “modern” dancing is still charming if a bit drawn-out; but with a little creative imagination, remembering that this film was made at the height of the Civil Rights movement, with Martin Luther King’s assassination happening within the year, one is quickly reminded how even this whimsical sequences was a calculated, brave transgression – interracial dancing was still illegal in many states (and the London setting only helps the film covey its anti-racist world view to Americans who have proven awfully touchy on the subject of race).

What’s Up, Sir?!
Where’s the Action, Sir?!
Want to Swing, Sir?!

Poitier was on a mission, sure, and it was an ever-important one that he handled with elegance and seriousness, and in 1967 he proved the top movie star in the country with his one-two-three punch of films arguing for racial harmony, Sir, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, only one of which (Night) gets anywhere near the respect it deserves at this point.  All three films are sociologically valuable, historically fascinating, and, damn it, they are utterly entertaining.

“London town, which sent us the mods, the miniskirts, and “Twiggy,” has sent us a new motion picture.  It has sent us, with love, To Sir, With Love.”

Love’s subtlety may be a turn-off to more militant social justice warriors, but when Poitier, an obviously intelligent, capable Guyanese Engineer who can’t get a job in engineering due to (unspoken) racial factors is asked why he’s taking this unattractive teaching position, and answers quietly “Reasons,” it gets me every time.  A sign of how dangerous the simplest things were in 1967 is the pretty clear removal of a growing relationship between Thackeray and another new hire at the school, Gillian, who is clearly (and justifiably) ga ga for him, taking her glasses off when he enters a room, agreeing to help him take the young rabble-rousers to a museum as a chaperone when no one else thinks they should leave school premises, and looking a bit jealous when he dances with Geeson’s Dare.

Suzy Kendall, the former model who plays Gillian is indeed white, but nevertheless this chaste romance shouldn’t be particularly objectionable to any audienc; she is a lovely, educated equal match to Poitier, and as he is the only person of color in the community, it couldn’t be seen as he’s turning his back on his own or anything like that.  Yet one suspects in the name of Southern U.S. playdates all vestiges of their romantic relationship being consummated in any way are indeed absent from the released picture, but enough footage remains that it is clear something is going on that has been truncated.  The lobby card image below indicates a possibly romantic scene was filmed with Poitier and Geeson that does not appear in the released film:

In Love 2, Poitier does speak of finding a loving wife at the East End school in his retirement speech (she has died before the film begins), one of the moments that make a Love fan smile (he and Gillian did fall in love!), but which are also curiously muted in Love 2 because Bogdanovich apparently just wasn’t interested in the original film and doesn’t play the moment up. Geeson and Lulu return for the sequel too and are ill-used, Lulu not even getting a line of dialogue (!).  It’s a good film, but it’s not my To Sir, With Love sequel, that’s for sure.

It is about London’s young people…and a teacher, strong and hip enough to make them cool it and call him “Sir.”

Clavell does a fantastic job with the actors portraying the students; they are an interesting, spirited bunch, and you’llwell remember them for their distinctive personalities, idiosyncratic moments and sharp deliveries. Geeson is dazzling, able to communicate intellect, insecurity, immaturity and strength at the same time, but Lulu is funny and charming, Christian Roberts doesn’t overplay as the biggest troublemaker in the class, and all the rest convince as part of a larger community that has existed long before Poitier got there.

Thackeray’s fellow staff includes a young Patricia Keeping up Appearances Routledge in a go-getting, appealing early performance, doing a lot with just a few lines, but really, Clavell does a fine job with the ensemble, finding the right temperament for the material and making all the pieces fit, even if his staging is occasionally rudimentary (the initial teacher introductions have the teachers pretty much lined up in a row introducing themselves to Thackeray).

“A Story as Fresh as the Girls in Their Minis…as Cool as Their Teacher Had to Be!”

Oh, and “To Sir, With Love” the song! What an indefatigable tune (Hal Hartley has PJ Harvey’s Mary Magadelene sing it when Jesus returns to earth for the final reckoning in Book of Life), and the film rides it hard, using it in the opening credits and again when the group visit the London museum.  At this point, I should point out when I was showing the film to my cohort of Orthodox Jewish male students, I didn’t know that they really weren’t supposed to be hearing women sing. Luckily my students pointed out that it isn’t “so bad” if they only hear it but don’t see the woman perform, which was fine until the final minutes when Lulu comes on stage to sing it one more time at the school’s graduation dance.  Oops. It’s a sign of the film’s brilliance that the students didn’t try to get me fired but instead forgave my inadvertent faux pas and embraced the film, writing attentive papers about Thackeray’s unorthodox teaching methods.


“Into the wild world of today’s turned-on-teens…whirling legs, ready fists, pounding tempos and tensions…comes the new teacher – strong and hip enough to demand that they cool it…and call him “Sir!”

Columbia’s To Sir, With Love campaign book was filled with “hip, swinging” ideas of how to market the film.

“Start with the idea that the audience for To Sir, With Love consists of: Teen-Agers!; Children!; Parents!; Teachers!; The Mod Generation (18 to 25 years old!); The sophisticated art house patron!; The big commercial theatre patron!; In fact…EVERYBODY!”

Columbia presented a five “basic showmanship” step campaign plan:

Step One – An In-Depth Screening Program

Step Two: Go After Endorsements

“Your screenings should include virtually everyone who has access to a mimeograph machine or newspaper space or radio/television time, or other audience attention! These are the people who can say, to tens and hundreds and thousands of people. “I saw a great picture the other night – To Sir, With Love! Don’t Miss it!”’

Step Three: Sneak Preview

“Invite the whole town to attend your sneak preview of what truly is an important new movie!”

Step Four: The Music

“There is plenty of exploitation “muscle” in the music of To Sir, With Love!…

Step Five: Hand-Tailored Ads

There was a Pepsi promotion, where exhibitors could work with “local bottlers and distributors and [plug] the final scenes of the film, the graduating class dance where Pepsi is served.”

Apple Appeal!

Apple-growers’ associations, cognizant of the “apple for teacher” phrase and its appropriateness to To Sir, With Love, have tied in with the picture. A special cardboard mailing box, holding a single well—polished apple and information about the film, has been sent to key cities.

Go ‘Mod’!

Columbia suggested having a local department store “work for a ‘mod-style’ [fashion] show with teen-age models selected by the store…the store can help set newspapers and radio interviews with mini-skirt wearers, and with adults who express their opinions on the “mod” and “mini” styles.

“Curry, Steak and Milk!”

The marketing materials also tell us that the dynamic Lulu gets her energy from a diet of “curry, steak and milk” (!) Poitier talked about how he “became an actor in order to find expression. I did not become an actor by plan. It was the result, really, of having tried many things and failed. Had acting failed me, I would have gone on to seek espression in other fields.”  Suzy Kendall, a former model, confessed that she was terrified of the stage but not of movie cameras: “A camera is impersonal, comforting. It can’t say ‘I like you’ or ‘I hate you’ like a theater audience.”

But I digress! To Sir, With Love is a legitimate “feel-good” film, one that doesn’t leave you feeling cheap ticks after it ends.  So when my cherished Peter Bogdanovich and Pauline Kael both naysay it, I weep for them and trust myself and the response of the hundreds of students I’ve screened it for. Oh, and Marvel fans, Love is the forerunner of your catnip – you must stay through the final credits to get to a final bit of essential Poitier footage. But it won’t be hard to stay through the brief credits to get to this final bit—Lulu belts out “To Sir, With Love” one more time!


Jazz Noir: Mike Figgis’ Oddly Brilliant STORMY MONDAY

By James Kenney

“Every film should conform to the idea it’s a black comedy and science fiction. Doesn’t matter if it’s Hamlet or something.  Then you can work your way backwards and make it work.” — Mike Figgis, Stormy Monday Blu-ray commentary

1988’s Stormy Monday, about a ruthless American businessman intent on buying up the waterfront district of Newcastle, England, and the tough resistance he encounters from locals, is one of my all-time favorite films, a neon-drenched tough and funny film noir version of Bill Forsythe’s Local Hero, where an outsider (in this case Sean Bean) finds himself in an unfamiliar environ (in this case Newcastle) where eccentric locals offer plenty of color but are also willing to sell themselves out to an encroaching American looking to buy up land (in this case Tommy Lee Jones). But, these locals expect the American to be polite.  When he isn’t, they bite back.

Stormy Monday‘s original title was ‘Round Midnight. Figgis wanted Sting to play the Thelonius Monk piece on a stand-up bass in a key sequence, until someone mentioned that Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight was already in production, so he settled on Stormy Monday for a title—but as Figgis mentions on the Arrow Blu-ray release commentary, “you’ll search [the movie] in vein for a reference to Stormy Monday.” Still, it’s a good, evocative title– if any movie is a moody jazz piece at 24 frames per second, it’s this.

Figgis, subsequently best known for directing Leaving Las Vegas and Internal Affairs, throws a lot at the audience quickly, but it isn’t pretentious or mannered like some of his later work (the Loss of Sexual Innocence and Hotel come to mind); the film is, to borrow a term from Pauline Kael, “pleasantly bananas”; there is a bouncy, fizzy humor to the storytelling, and the film (shot by Roger Deakins) presents a poet’s imagined idea of Newcastle you’ll want to visit, if not live in, every corner an Edward Hopper diner or a smoky lively jazz club (Figgis cops to Hopper’s paintings of shared loneliness and WeeGee’s stark photography as key inspirations). While no doubt his muse led him to plumbing some deeper depths of humanity in Leaving Las Vegas, here in his feature debut is still the most inviting example of Figgis’s idiosyncratic filmmaking technique; Monday is much more lilting and offhand than anything he’s done since.

In fact the film is all idiosyncrasy, there are no minor details, even as it all feels like minor detail– Monday commences by bouncing around from a highway car accident outside Newcastle that two armed hoods drive past (which does relate to later plot developments), to Griffith’s waitress who is also apparently “kept” by steely American businessman Jones receiving a cryptic phone call, to the handsome “tough innocent’ Bean who earns the “dubious honor” of being a porter in Sting’s jazz club and ends up picking up a Polish free jazz band that is stuck at the airport. The film doesn’t play its cards early, and in fact Albert Finney passed on the role of the jazz club owner as he felt the script was “a little bit cutty to me” (Figgis ultimately named the character Finney!), but it does provide early on interesting, attractive faces, stunning cinematography and a sharp sense of malevolent humor and foreboding. To quote filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, “I hate to know what’s happening, I hate to know what kind of picture it is right away”; Figgis certainly has made a career out of designing films that expect you to stew, unsure what is going on, only with Monday you stew with a smile.

Figgis grew up as a jazz musician, and cites in the Arrow commentary as really being influenced by Quincy Jones’ score for In Cold Blood. As a filmmaker with Monday, he thought in terms of music and in avant-garde imagery — he admits on the commentary he didn’t know what a three-act structure was when he wrote Monday, or what coverage was, or where he planned to cut a scene (much of his “film-school learning” of these practicalities came at the hand of the difficult, unforgiving Jones on set, who nevertheless delivered the perfect gesture with a cigar for Figgis to indeed cut a scene on).

“Some Women are Trouble. This One is Worth It.” — from the trailer of Stormy Monday

Figgis had his hands full with his American leads on his first feature.  As he relays on the commentary, Griffith and Kim Cattrall were both considered for the lead; Griffith was not a slam dunk despite her excellent work in Brian De Palma’s Body Double, but as they were casting Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild came out and the people at Atlantic Releasing (an American company providing a good deal of the money) came around to the idea. Figgis discusses how Griffith was “a bit of a delicate flower and requires some nurturing…certain Americans just have this talent. She could be completely devastated about something [in her personal life] and then you turn the camera on and she does something magical”

As Figgis also said in the film’s press materials, “her performance as a romantic lead compares with the great American comediennes like Monroe. Her relationship with the camera and her understanding of film are certainly comparable with Monroe, it’s a very personalized style.”  Griffith is perfect casting as Kate, an expatriate American trapped in a life of luxuriant despair, working as a waitress trying to convince herself she isn’t a kept woman. Griffith can play deceptively smart, a woman both quietly and brazenly attractive at the same time, but also miserably starved of genuine affection. Because of her looks and somewhat uninhibited sexuality, she was underrated as an actress even when people seemed to recognize she was the best thing in movies such as Body Double and Cherry 2000. If she proved a bit emotional on set, well, sometimes high-strung thoroughbreds are worth the complications.

“We can’t be shooting people around here. We’re supposed to be improving the quality of life and create jobs. And make a LOT of money.” — Cosmo (Tommy Lee Jones)

Tommy Lee Jones, who provides the narcissistic malevolent reasonableness necessary for his part to come off, was cast after Figgis considered Harvey Keitel and Christopher Walken, and, as he shared on the commentary, “Tommy Lee Jones was a tricky guy to work with. But he’s an amazing actor.” As Figgis puts it, “[Jones] flew into Newcastle airport to start shooting, just as in the film he flies in, and he emerged through the doors and there was Cosmo. The part I’d previously only read on paper was standing before me. It’s a very difficult part, Cosmo must be frightening but attractive enough for Kate to find it hard to break away from him, and Tommy Lee made it work.”

“Sting was very receptive to the idea of doing a part set in Newcastle and in his own accent.” Mike Figgis on casting Sting in Stormy Monday

Sting, himself from Newcastle, understood the project immediately, playing with dry humor a kind of aspirational thug with taste who wears disheveled Armani and doesn’t always shave, but who loves quality jazz and will walk away from millions of dollars if he feels his friends have been disrespected. “Sting is the biggest revelation in the film,” Figgis explained in the film’s press materials. “The idea to cast him came to me out of the blue, originally we had been thinking of much older actors…[with Sting] a younger and more contemporary Finney suddenly suggested itself and the character came alive in a very human and interesting way.”

As the press materials explain, producer Nigel Stafford-Clark, who had produced Figgis’ 1984 television project “The House,” “wanted to make something in the style of films I admired such as Chinatown and Body Heat, films which have a great texture and eye for detail.”  Figgis thought back to his earlier days as a jazz musician and a particular street, The Side, in the dockside district of Newcastle. “It was a case of the physical location suggesting a theme and idea. For me to enjoy a film, it has to operate on about three or four different levels.”

“Newcastle was a unique opportunity which provided possibilities that would be unthinkable in a city like London.” — Mike Figgis on Newcastle

“Maybe I have a rather over-romanticized affection for Newcastle but first and foremost I find it a cinematically stunning city. It’s visual values…are inestimable…Newcastle has a strong American industrial feel to it not unlike Brooklyn or Chicago, largely due to the immense proportions of the old 19th Century architecture.…it’s also a city with a great musical tradition that has produced great rock stars such as Bryan Ferry, the Animals, and of course Sting.”

Newcastle was undergoing extensive redevelopment and the production was able to use vast dockland areas of the city – Figgis recounts on the commentary showing Griffith around on her first day on set and realizing it felt like he had their own Hollywood studio backlot as the sets were all so close to each other.

Stormy Monday is a film of stunning color, production designer Andrew McAlpine explaining “the emotion of that color was bruised – bruised purples, blues and greys.”  Variety gave the film an unfortunate early bad review, calling Figgis a “video director” although he had never shot a music video in his life; however Monday‘s prospects brightened when Janet Maslin gave it a justified rave in the New York Times (“[Figgis’] direction, which is intensely stylish without any effort or strain, has a way of prompting rather than forcing the audience’s interest, and a gift for arousing the viewer’s curiosity”).  Parts of Monday will spill over into your mind years after you see it – for me it’s Sting’s dry, surprising delivery of the line “Are you setting me up, Brandon?”; Prunella Gee’s one-scene performance as Sting’s wife; the Cracow Jazz Quartet’s earnest but inappropriate efforts to play the Star-Spangled Banner at an event where the local Margaret Thatcher stand-in celebrates America as “the most benevolent superpower in history”; Jones’ instant transformations from malevolent darkness to agreeable businessman and back without fuss or actor’s tricks.

Stormy Monday is an off-the-elbow success filled with quirky elements that stick with you—little elements of a scene steal it from previous little elements that have already captured your fancy. Monday is a film that will put you in a good mood, and you’ll stay in it for a fair while after it’s over. It’s a friendly, light, yet nasty piece of work that never once gets sentimental, despite the premium it places on friendship. Jones’ biggest flaw isn’t that he’s a criminal (the film suggests he and Sting are cut from the same cloth), it’s that he’s ultimately not friends with anybody, which Sting won’t abide.  Stormy Monday is not a deep work, it doesn’t have big set pieces, but everything in it works alongside everything else in it. Making a little less than two million dollars worldwide upon release, there’s fair chance you haven’t seen Stormy Monday. Seek it out.