Saturday 17 February 2024

Article – A Little Ramble about George Armitage's Cult Killers – Miami Blues

I like directors when they’re allowed to be weird little guys. When their odd visions are allowed to flourish on the screen. I rewatched George Armitage’s Grosse Point Blank (1997) for a podcast and took so much more from it than past viewings. This is most likely down to age. Its effective pop needle drops, offbeat charm, and crafted cynicism towards encroaching adulthood in the ever-ironic 90s certainly made a mark this time. I do feel the film would be a tougher sell to the IP junky executives of today.

Grosse Point Blank was a minor hit for director George Armitage, who struck out the last time he tried to put together an off-kilter tale about a violent sociopath. Miami Blues, released in 1990, is a bold and bizarre crime comedy that throws Alec Baldwin, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Fred Ward into a blender before adding tonal shifts to the mix and switching everything up to full blitz.

Fredrick (Baldwin) is a violent ex-con who flies to Miami after being released from prison in California. After unintentionally killing a Hari Krishna member, he checks into a hotel and arranges an encounter with a call girl. Said sex worker is Susie Waggoner (Leigh), whose sweetness is only overshadowed by her naivety. What starts off as a typical sexual transaction swiftly becomes an unlikely coupling. Susie’s dreams of living happily ever after soon cloud over Fredrick’s sociopathic tendencies. Meanwhile, a dim-witted cop named Hoke Moseley (Ward) finds his investigation of the murdered Krishna disciple leads towards the unconventional couple. Chaos soon ensues when Fred manages to steal Moseley’s badge and gun.

Grosse Point Blank would be a hard sell today. I believe Miami Blues would be borderline impossible now. This is a world of violent, insensitive characters set against a Miami backdrop far from what you’d see in a more populist production. Frederick’s cynicism and selfishness make Susie’s blind interest in him feel questionable. While Moseley is unheroic and callous and seemingly over the hill. All three characters are unmistakably unlikable.

But Miami Blues does a remarkable job of mining the humanism out of these people that would have been lost in a different movie. Then again, when Jonathan Demme, a fellow Corman colleague, shows up producer credit, it suddenly makes a lot of sense. Halfway through the film, Fredrick and Susie move to a house in the suburbs. For Fredrick, it's a good cover for him to hide out. As Susie wanders from the front garden into the house, the camera slowly captures the mundane environment. For Susie, the two sharing the home stirs an assorted range of emotions. An idyllic, yet idealistic view of suburban life.

In a film that indulges in images and situations of mirroring, facades and imitation, moments of introspection suddenly jump out at Fredrick unexpectedly. By stealing Moseley’s credentials, Fredrick has no trouble committing more robberies. However, the theft also allows him to play the hero. Something that he gains a taste for. His selfishness plays a huge part in his enjoyment. But a modicum of curiosity also sets in. Blink and you possibly miss Fredrick considering this the successful conclusion he cynically jokes to Susie over.

Miami Blues becomes a strangely engaging artefact to observe. The humour is dark in a way that many modern films would try to avoid. Fredrick causing the death of a Hari Krisha by merely breaking his hand is the sort of absurd, cartoony gag that some people may feel bad laughing at. And that’s understandable. The same goes for when Fredrick witnesses a restaurant robbery and shoots the thief first before asking him to stop. A macabre goofiness runs through the film that may only appeal to a niche crowd. Yet Miami Blues dovetails with its Armitage’s own Gross Point Blank by humanising its strange characters in unexpected ways. Like Martin Blank in Grosse Point Blank, Fredrick is an antisocial square who doesn’t fit into society's round hole. His pessimistic viewpoint bubbles to the surface more than once in exchanges with Susie. In one scene, he cruelly mocks Susie’s desire to open a franchise restaurant. He has little understanding of her small, mundane dreams. Yet by exclaiming that they should “skip straight to the happily ever after” it suggests that he sees a future with the two of them together. Most likely a criminal one. However, in the short timeframe of knowing each other, Fred really seems to dig all the meals Susie cooks for him. Maybe he could tune into the frequency of domestic life. This aspect serves to be part of the core of Gross Point Blank’s appeal. Something Armitage enjoys. Mining humour out of at the start and end of the 90s.

Miami Blues is worth digging into if only to be reminded of a time when American genre films were happy to be so off-centre. Armitage refined his concept later in the 90s. Ensuring John Cusack strolled the echelon of cult classic cool. But it’s fascinating to see him show his workings here. Miami’s Blue’s pastel-toned world is dark and strange. It’s a little bit weird. But hopefully, viewers will take a look back and enjoy when filmmakers were allowed to indulge in their odd little visions.

Monday 29 January 2024

Article: The Desire and the Danger - A First Watch of Looking for Mr Goodbar

When I decided to write this, the film people of the internet had rolled into day three of complaining about Sight and Sound’s 100 Greatest Movie List. Instead of participating, I decided to get blown away by Diane Keaton in Looking for Mr Goodbar. A film that’s still M.I.A in terms of physical release. Not due to the subject matter, which is tough, but due to music distribution rights. The soundtrack features disco hits from the likes of Donna Summer and Thelma Houston. The upbeat tracks date the film historically, while the lyrics also foreshadow its troubling ending. Songs like Don’t Leave Me This Way flip from being well-known floor fillers into something deeply chilling. Looking for Mr Goodbar is not an easy watch. Not in the slightest. Yet the themes raised still hold a strong relevance, while the provocative nature of the film makes it difficult to forget.

Based on a bestselling book of the same name, Goodbar is a fictional account of a real-life tragedy of Roseann Quinn, A well-liked teacher who had led a double life in her spare time. Richard Brook's matter-of-fact feature is unlike modern true-crime entries. With so many current examples enjoying placing fetishist attention placed on the murderers of senseless violence, however, one could wonder if the film's availability on streaming has been able to grab the attention of true crime junkies who know of the original case but are new to the film.

In Looking for Mr Goodbar, Diane Keaton plays Thresa, a trainee teacher whose home life is suffocating by her domineering polish-catholic parents. She studies to be a teacher while her hot mess of a sister has escaped the family home and has delved into the dual pleasures of drugs and polygamy. Theresa, at first, finds herself sexually involved with her college professor. However, the relationship is cut short before her graduation. Thresa soon obtains a job as a teacher for deaf children and proves herself to be a thoughtful and nurturing guide for her students. Her work life is a marked difference from her spare time, however, as she finds herself frequenting dive bars, engaging in one-night stands and experimenting with drugs. She soon finds herself at the hands of manipulating and self-centred men. Soon, her nightlife slowly seeps into her day job. A feeling of risk begins to stem from her precarious behaviour. Tragedy strikes when Teresa while reconsidering her personal life, has a chance encounter that changes her fate for the worse.

Looking for Mr Goodbar has no surprising plot. Theresa's story may have viewers entering the film with an understanding of the tragic crime and controversial source novel. Despite this knowledge, Looking for Mr Goodbar remains a startling picture. Even though the film is over 40 years old, the film still holds a potent relevancy as the harrowing narrative will feel relatable to many women. Although the story sets itself against the backdrop of the women's revolution of the 70s, there's a feeling the modern world has moved as much as expected. While parts of the urban scene may have faded, the misogyny found within Goodbar feels no different from today. The opening photo montage, littered with glassy-eyed men ogling young women in bars, only needs an outfit change and a gloss of paint to feel pertinent to where we are now. Something about the aged, unchanging grimness and the sense of foreboding helps Looking for Mr Goodbar remain shocking.

Goodbar’s lack of substantial physical release gives the film an added mystique. Its subject matter and lack of typical availability only compound its notoriety. Critics who have sought the movie out remain just as divisive as the likes of Vincent Canby were back in the 70s. Reviews have been quick to claim the film muddles its execution. Claire Davidson is cold towards the film. In a piece focusing on the film's soundtrack for Little White Lies, she dismisses Goodbar as redundant. Despite praising the film, Jim Owen of We Are Cult questions the struggle for Goodbar to define itself. The film's release in 1977 has the powerful lead performance by Diane Keaton overshadowed by her more affectionate display in Annie Hall. It is a curious displacement, when in contrast to the sexual allegations that dogged Hall's director Woody Allen in his later years. A strange, tangential connection of abuse lies between the two films. Along with the limited availability of the film and the critical discourse, this mixture of elements almost keeps the tenacious display of Keaton overlooked.

One thing that does not get overlooked in Looking for Mr Goodbar is the stacked before-they-were-famous cast. The film is bursting with burgeoning talent from all corners. As previously mentioned, Diane Keaton is completely arresting as Theresa. She flitters easily between sweet and sensual in a display that is intelligent, sexual, and yet without judgment throughout the narrative. Meanwhile, the supporting cast is a heady brew of then up-and-coming performers. Richard Gere appears as the finger-drumming narcissist Tony. While his appearances are brief, he hums with dangerous sexual energy when on screen. Gere delivers a similar vibrancy in American Gigolo (1980) and Breathless (1983). And it's upsetting that a generation of filmgoers may only know him as the corporate silver fox who chased Julia Roberts around in Pretty Woman (1990), if at all. William Atherton, known more for his smug, cinema bastard roles in Ghostbusters (1984) and Die Hard (1988), finds realms of darkness as James, a Welfare Caseworker. A hapless Irish American man who makes nice with Theresa's Polish Catholic parents but soon becomes unhinged as his traditional desires infringe on her sexual freedom. LeVar Burton shows up as the tough older brother of one of the pupils Theresa teaches. His stoic, no-nonsense demeanour is light years from his role as Geordi in Star Trek. Tom Berenger appears late on as the homophobic final partner of Theresa. He is equally as unbalanced as those who came before him while still presenting a different sexual danger to Richard Gere’s Tony. 

An element of the film’s potency is that despite its cast of soon-to-be well-knowns when it stays focused on Theresa rather than the many men, the film shines. Many modern true crime stories have keenly leaned towards the suspects and killers. With fans posting online their unwholesome desires for these unstable criminals. The likes of Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffery Dahmer Story have had its admirers frame Evan Peter’s portrayal of the serial killer as a pin-up. A persuasive takeaway from Goodbar is that it maintains the dubious men within the narrative as pathetic while trying to maintain an amount of sympathy for Theresa. She may enjoy an element of manufactured risk in her exploits, but her liberation and sexual freedom shouldn't cost her life.

It is easy to find parts of Goodbar reductive. At times, the film stumbles on the central theme that such a woman with her sexual freedom should not have her wings clipped. Richard Brook's stagey direction of the material sometimes struggles to do enough to complicate the matter for the better. A viewing of the film could have it read as a moralist tract, with the film arriving just before the even more conservative sex = death slashers of the 80s. A meandering side plot involving Theresa's sister Katherine begins to drift halfway through the movie. At first, she is more sexually adventurous, yet soon Katherine looks towards Theresa as an emotional anchor and is unaware of her sister's antics. By the time we enter the final third, Katherine’s exploits have led to abortions and quickie divorces. She’s suddenly moving towards societal norms, an obvious contrast to Theresa, who only has second thoughts about her promiscuity when tragically too late.

However, something about Looking for Mr Goodbar remains compelling. There is something so illuminating about Keaton’s performance that ensures the film, while overlong, isn’t lazy in what it’s trying to say.

One can throw criticism at the frayed edges of the film, yet this only pinpoints the great tragedy that hangs in the narrative. Looking for Mr Goodbar manages to highlight a multitude of struggles from intergenerational, racial and gender standpoints. The film sets up various conflicts in which characters within them will never gain the chance to move on or gain strength due to a fateful act which ends things. The film doesn’t pin down everything easily. Begging the question: If Goodbar had tightened its loose ends, could it be as compelling? Possibly not.

True Crime fiction often asks how we can load ourselves with the knowledge to calm our anxieties while protecting ourselves so that the same fate of victims is not shared. Looking for Mr Goodbar is startling because slight stumbles aside, there is no easy, comforting answer to Theresa's journey.  She battles her stifling family unit against a backdrop of women's liberation, defining her independence by her standards. There is a sense that Theresa would struggle to find this liberty through traditional societal norms. Theresa does not look for a man who fits the requirements of her father, but her sexual exploration, while enjoyable at times, does not fulfil her either. If she were to follow her sister down the well-trodden path, this also betray her newfound freedom. A streak of self-destruction lies in Theresa's behaviour, but her decisions are not what set about her demise. It is the tragic swinging pendulum of fate. Theresa's fierce independence makes her a character to root for. It also makes her unknowable. And the chilling final moments, utilising a strobe effect, are disorientating. Leaving us in the knowledge that despite being a rock for her sister, championing the young, disadvantaged inner-city children she teaches, or her fight for her sexual freedom, we will never know what she was striving for and that her ending is even more wrongfully unjust.

Looking for Mr Goodbar’s poignancy still hits hard because society doesn’t feel like it’s moved on from its talking points, despite Looking for Mr Goodbar approaching 45 years old. The disco-glazed city may not appear as dangerous as they do in this film. The dive bars that populate Goodbar would be hard to find now. Yet the fragile men who inhabit the dark corners still move among us. The type of man who can only exhibit control over independent, young women in aggressive, manipulative, or cowardly ways. Be it a gutless teacher who carries on an affair to feed his desires, a condescending potential suitor with a dated, traditional vision of relationships, or even a homophobic murderer who takes misinterpretation as a mocking dig at his own sexually. You can find these characters easily in movies today. While certain films have attempted to capture the anger and sadness within Looking for Mr Goodbar, they don’t hold a similar impact. The non-judgemental viewpoint sometimes exhibited by the lead character almost feels alien in the realm of girlboss representation that exists now. Whether Looking for Mr Goodbar will ever gain a solid physical re-issue in the UK or America, now that streaming dominates, remains to be seen. But while it finds itself on streaming channels with no sign of disappearing currently, that alone sends the message that it deserves to be discovered by a new audience and evaluated.

Looking for Mr Goodbar is currently on Paramount Plus and Amazon Prime at the time of writing.

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Wednesday 3 January 2024

Article: Ugly Enlightenment - A Quick Look Back at Happiness

January is often the month of reinvention. A month for folk to assess their unpleasant habits. With many looking towards ways of revitalising themselves for the future ahead of them. Be it career, relationships or health, January is the time for people to search introspectively about their past and present choices before looking forward to a new enlightened path of self-improvement. 

Todd Solondz is the kind of guy who scoffs at self-improvement.   

The shocking thing about Solondz’s 1998 feature Happiness is how unsettling it still is to this day. Watching the film in the era of social media only seems to highlight how much Solondz gets away with. Please note I am not mentioning too much of what happens in the film. You must see it to believe it. The film’s ironic and cynical jabs at suburbia could draw a concentrated amount of outrage. To those whom some would consider “over-sensitive.” In his four-star review of the film, Roger Ebert notes that it is “not a film for most people.” He hits the nail squarely on the head. 

Solondz’s dark satire is a medley of interlocking stories involving three sisters and the immediate connections surrounding them. The film’s painful cold open is a superb litmus test for first-time viewers. The overly sensitive Joy (Jane Adams) decides to break things off with Andy (Jon Lovitz) while on a date with him to avoid complicating things. The exchange that occurs is what the younger generations would now call cringe and suggests why ghosting is now so popular among the single. If a viewer can stand to watch this conversation without wincing, then the viewer may be in good stead for the next two hours.   

Happiness is uncompromising indie cinema that is tremendously comfortable when the viewer is uneasy. Revelling in hostility like a pig in shit Happiness is a grimly comic look at suburbia that landed a year before American Beauty (1999) but holds a cuttingness that lingers past the latter film’s pomposity. Solondz mines empathy out of the repulsive, finding an affinity for those who embrace the appalling. The women are shallow, while the men are pathetic. And this is before you realise that Happiness runs the gauntlet of the dark and upsetting. From obscene phone calls to full-blown paedophilia, the film challenges the viewer with the ability to dig out twigs of compassion from the unspeakable.   

What makes Solondz’s movie so compelling is how it states that even the perverse may be seeking contentment. He finds the darkest humour in the absurdities and constrictions which inhabit his misanthropic characters. Rewatching Happiness was invigorating. Particularly in our current climate of self-described wellness gurus and influencers shilling false promises and dubious misinformation via their social media feeds and channels. So much time they spend dropping life lessons as if they have found the key to enlightenment. One wonders what a few of the most obnoxious types would make of a film like this. Genuine hostility? Maybe. And that is what makes Happiness funny.