Is it Finally “Goodbye, Mr. Bond…?”

“Do you expect me to talk?” Sean Connery, the big screen’s first James Bond asks, strapped to an industrial table, about to be carved in half lengthwise by the silver screen’s first special effects laser beam.

Gert Fröbe, as Auric Goldfinger, looks at Bond with amusement and annoyance. “No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die.”

Fröbe’s heavily accented voice was dubbed, but no one knew that in 1964, when Goldfinger became perhaps the most popular entry in the impossibly long-running James Bond movie series. The scene is iconic. Virtually every Bond villain has had his (and occasionally her) “Goodbye Mr. Bond” moment, but Bond always escapes. He’s been nearly cremated in a coffin (Diamonds Are Forever), fed to sharks (several times, including Thunderball, Live and Let Die and For Your Eyes Only) crocodiles (Live and Let Die) and Komodo Dragons (Skyfall), and survived close encounters with venomous spiders (Dr. No) and snakes (Live and Let Die). He’s nearly been incinerated under a space shuttle lifting off (Moonraker) and handcuffed to an atom bomb (Goldfinger). (He’s been in very close quarters with atomic devices about to detonate at least four times, in Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me, Octopussy and The World is Not Enough.)

Daniel Craig in NO TIME TO DIE. Courtesy M-G-M 2020.

All that, and what might take out the world’s most successful film franchise is a virus.

As my longtime friend and colleague, Lights Camera Jackson Murphy has just reported, the release of the latest James Bond movie, said to be Daniel Craig’s swan song in the role, No Time to Die, has been delayed again. Originally scheduled for release in April 2020, the 25th official James Bond movie was delayed by the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic. It was subsequently shuffled between a couple of November 2020 release dates, and finally booted to April 2021. It’s now been rescheduled again, this to time to October 8th. Distributors M-G-M and United Artists clearly want this very expensive movie on big screens. Releasing a Bond movie directly to the home video market would be a staggering blow to the franchise’s prestige. But what if theaters aren’t open by this fall? Push the movie to 2022?

M-G-M has a potentially compelling reason to wait – reportedly the venerable studio wants to sell itself and its library, and Bond is a key asset in that library. A new Bond blockbuster (Skyfall hit the billion dollar worldwide gross mark, now the blockbuster benchmark) would certainly up the price.

The problem is whether audiences will still care. As it is, obviously No Time to Die is set in a pre-pandemic world. Will it seem dated, even quaint? Ian Fleming’s novels were set during the height of the Cold War, and that reality always informed the stories. One of the central selling points of the movies has always been that they were completely contemporary, and marched on relentlessly long after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. But Bond’s casual one-night stands may seem almost nostalgic in a world where facemasks and forehead thermometers are de rigeur. 9/11 changed literature and movies, and you can almost always tell when something was written before then – much the way shots of the World Trade Center in movies set in New York City tend to jump out at those of us old enough to remember it.

Pierce Brosnan and Michelle Yeoh in TOMORROW NEVER DIES. Courtesy Eon Productions.

But if the studio bites the bullet and releases No Time to Die directly a streaming service, it will almost certainly end the franchise for theatrical purposes. Bond has been a big screen property since Dr. No in 1962. Bond always plays in theaters and dominates its opening weekend (the lone exception in recent memory being probably Tomorrow Never Dies, not because the movie didn’t do well, but because it opened the same day as Titanic).

If a Bond movie goes to streaming either instead of a theatrical release or even concurrently with a theatrical release, it will likely cripple the theatrical prospects of any future Bond movies, at least for the near future. There are already concerns that Warner Bros.’ decision to release all of its product for the next year or so directly to HBO Max, may have a long-term damaging effect on theaters across the board.

The Bond movies have always been big in scale and scope, with exotic location shooting, large-scale stunt sequences, dazzling special effects and gorgeous women. The theme songs have often been hits. The songs for Skyfall and Spectre won Oscars.

But it might well be argued that the movie series has pretty much run its course. Of the four Daniel Craig Bond movies that have already been released, half are good, but those two are great. Casino Royale rebooted the series, putting Bond at the beginning of his career and ignoring the movies that came before it. It was a one-shot premise: the audience waited eagerly for familiar elements – the Aston Martin, ordering a vodka martini, shaken not stirred, finally saying “The name is Bond – James Bond.” Skyfall took it full circle. In between, Quantum of Solace was a watchable action movie with great cinematography, but it was a pale shadow. Spectre was big on brawn, short on brains, and made this critic at least wish they’d stopped with the brilliant Skyfall.

Linda Christian and Barry Nelson in CASINO ROYALE. Courtesy CBS Photo-Archive.

Ironically, the first James Bond adaptation was made for TV – a live TV drama of Casino Royale in 1954, only a year after the publication of Fleming’s first James Bond novel. Barry Nelson has the distinction of being the first actor to play James Bond (often called “Jimmy” in the play), and still the only American to play the part. (James Brolin came close in the eighties, but apparently couldn’t master a consistent, convincing English accent.) Peter Lorre was admirably cast as the villain Le Chiffre. The first Bond adaptation emphasized suspense over car chases, big ticket property damage and special effects.

This begs the question as to whether the iconic movie franchise, which is the longest-running and most successful movie series in history, has perhaps run its course. But the end of an era wouldn’t necessarily mean the end of Bond. Of all the Bond feature films, surprisingly few have been even reasonably faithful adaptations of the novels that gave them their titles. To varying degrees, Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service bear recognizable resemblances to the novels they’re based on. Thunderball was actually an original screenplay novelized by Fleming after the fact. The last two Connery vehicles in the Eon Productions/Albert R. Broccoli series, You Only Live Twice and Diamonds are Forever, pretty much throw the source material out the window. None of the Roger Moore movies have anything to do with the Fleming books, and in fact The Spy Who Loved Me, probably the best-loved Moore starrer, takes its title from a novel Fleming so disliked he only sold the movie rights on the condition that they use the title but nothing else. The Living Daylights, the first of two Bond movies starring Timothy Dalton, was also the last to use a Fleming title until the Daniel Craig movies. (Minor elements of the short story entitled “The Living Daylights” do creep up in the movie.)

George Lazenby in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. Courtesy UA.

The situation isn’t surprising. The Fleming novels and stories present James Bond as a World War II veteran and Cold Warrior. Many were dated by the times their titles were used. Moonraker is a damn good novel, but its Cold War story revolving around fifties rocketry, was completely outdated by the time the movie was made, and the producers wanted to make a special effects-laden, science fiction-themed product in the wake of the recent Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Superman.

Poster art for MOONRAKER. Courtesy Eon Productions/UA.

Which means there’s actually a wealth of James Bond stories familiar to fans of the novels that would be new to fans of the movies only. To adapt them faithfully, they’d have to be done as period pieces. That could actually be a very good, albeit expensive idea. But what? You think the Daniel Craig movies are cheap? These things run a couple of hundred million dollars to make. Recent productions on cable, HBO’s exquisitely produced Perry Mason reboot miniseries comes to mind, have featured period settings on a scale that put actually put some feature films to shame. Showtime’s Penny Dreadful: City of Angels also evocatively brought Los Angeles in the thirties to life. Epix’s Pennyworth is set in London during an alternate 1960s. None of these shows look cheap.

So the modest proposal is to film the entire series of James Bond novels, in order, and in their original Cold War settings. Some premium cable network or streaming service should be able to pick up the tab for this, and although the novels are short, the possibility of doing each one as a miniseries is tantalizing. As fans of any number of cable and streaming shows know, these shows frequently present graphic sex and violence that would make many R-rated movies look tame by comparison. A James Bond series shot for a streaming platform could be, and probably would be, far grittier than the the PG-13 features.

So while the Covid-19 pandemic has raised Holy Hell with theatrical distribution of motion pictures, it has if anything heightened demand for new scripted entertainment at home. The pandemic may achieve what no Bond villain has ever been able to do before, but the possibility of Bond rising from his own cinematic ashes in a new and exciting form is very possible. And it might just be time.


Dark Star Pictures to Host FREE Virtual Film Festival

Los Angeles-based Dark Star Pictures and horror leader Bloody Disgusting will host a groundbreaking weekend event from Friday, January 22nd to Sunday, January 24th, 2021, celebrating the distributor’s most recent international genre offerings. The lineup will feature selections from Sundance, Fantasia, Nightstream, and Cinepocalypse, including PVT CHAT, Koko-Di Koko-Da, Jumbo, Attack of the Demons, Dirty God, and Climate of the Hunter.

PVT CHAT courtesy Meghan Mihalchick 2020

The festival will lead up to an announcement and special one-time-only secret screening of the latest acquisition from Dark Star Pictures and Bloody Disgusting new collaborative brand. The secret screening will be available on the screening portal on Saturday, January 23rd for 24 hours.

Tickets are available for free on a first come, first served basis and can be obtained by RSVPing through ticketing links on The films will be screened on Eventive, supporting many different web browsers and with dedicated apps available on Apple TV & Roku devices. The features can also be streamed directly to your television via Chromecast.

Dark Star Pictures and Bloody Disgusting recently partnered on their first acquisition on the backwoods horror film Honeydew starring Sawyer Spielberg in his feature acting debut. Described as an A24 film meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the slasher was written and directed by Devereux Milburn.  Dark Star and Bloody Disgusting plan to release the film in theaters March 2021, with a VOD/Digital release and DVD to follow in April.

RIP, Sir Sean Connery

The BBC and other international news outlets are reporting that Academy Award®-winning actor and screen icon Sir Sean Connery has died. He was 90. Connery, best-remembered as the big screen’s first James Bond, passed away at his home in the Bahamas after a recent period of ill-health.

The hallmark of a true movie star is that they never remind you of anyone else. People get compared to Gable, Wayne and Bogart, not the other way around. That’s true of Connery, too. He had a mammoth presence on the screen, and was one of the truly great stars of my lifetime. He wasn’t the first James Bond (that was Barry Nelson in a live TV production of Casino Royale), but most fans consider him the best, and that’s a Hell of a legacy in itself. But Bond was only one part of a career that would have been remarkable, even without it. Connery was an original, said to be as daunting a presence in real life as he was on the screen.

Connery was of Irish extraction, but was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on August 25, 1920, and adamantly considered himself Scottish. He was an outspoken advocate for Scottish independence, which may help account for his not being knighted until 2000, despite the millions of pounds his films pumped into the UK economy. He came from a working class family. His father was a factory worker and truck driver; his mother was a cleaning lady. Connery himself worked as a truck driver, milk man and coffin polisher before his success as an actor. He was married twice, to actress Diane Cilento, with whom he had one son, Jason Connery, and to Micheline Roquebrune, with whom he had three stepchildren.

Connery began acting professionally in the late fifties, largely in supporting roles in both American and British and television productions, followed by largely forgettable movies—Darby O’Gill and the Little People and Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (it wasn’t)—in which Connery played supporting roles. 1962 was a turning point. Connery appeared in Darryl F. Zanuck’s mammoth production The Longest Day, based on Cornelius Ryan’s bestselling non-fiction account of the D-Day invasion. He was also cast in the movie that change his life and create one of the screen’s most iconic pop culture characters—Dr. No, based on one of Ian Fleming’s novels about fictional British spy, James Bond.

Fleming reportedly wasn’t initially thrilled about Connery’s casting. And if you read the early James Bond novels, you might have to admit that the ruggedly handsome, extremely macho Connery didn’t fit Fleming’s description of a relatively non-descript man with dark hair and gray eyes with a small facial scar who somewhat resembles Hoagy Carmichael. No matter. From the first time Connery, clad in a conservative tux with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, introduced himself as “Bond—James Bond…,” he was Bond to a world that embraced the character, and Connery, enthusiastically.

Fleming changed his mind, and there are indications that Connery’s portrayal influenced the way he wrote Bond in the later novels. No other actor that ever played the part can make that claim.

Movies became more international during the sixties, and Bond was a worldwide sensation. Filming of the sequels that followed (based with varying degrees of fidelity on other Fleming novels) became international media events. Later Bond movies, particularly some of the more popular Roger Moore ones, like The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, had higher grosses, but if you account for inflation there’s little doubt that Goldfinger and Thunderball sold more tickets.

Some other opportunities came his way while Bondmania was at its height. He made Marnie  for Alfred Hitchcock, but Hitchcock and leading lady Tippi Hedren were barely speaking during filming, and the movie was an artistic and commercial failure. Connery felt hemmed in by Bond, despite the international celebrity it gave him, and after You Only Live Twice, he left the series. He did several other movies, including The Hill (directed by Sidney Lumet), A Fine Madness with Joanne Woodward and Jean Seberg and The Molly Maguires with Richard Harris. The first non-Connery Bond movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, had underperformed (George Lazenby took the rap for that, although the truth probably had more to with the movie’s downbeat ending), and Connery returned for one more go-around, in Diamonds Are Forever, directed by Guy Hamiltion, who had directed the mammothly successful Goldfinger. With a Las Vegas setting that seemed perfect for a Bond movie, huge action sequences and a title song with vocals by Shirley Bassey, who sang the iconic “Goldfinger,” the movie really couldn’t fail. Nonetheless, Connery, noticeably heavier than in previous Bond outings, took some ribbing in the press for his weight (even in Mad Magazine) and Diamonds didn’t quite gather the respect of earlier Connery Bonds. Connery walked away from the series again, this time vowing he was done with the part for good.

Connery in A BRIDGE TOO FAR (Courtesy United Artists)

That vow gave his apocryphal, one-off comeback as Bond in 1983 its title—Never Say Never Again. In between, Connery had starred in a decade’s worth of remarkable and diverse movies with notable directors and some of the biggest stars in the world: John Boorman’s genuinely bizarre science fiction movie Zardoz (1974); Sidney Lumet’s definitive Agatha Christie adaptation, Murder on the Orient Express (1974) with Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark and Michael York; John Milius’ spectacular The Wind and the Lion, John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975) opposite Michael Caine; Richard Lester’s elegiac Robin and Marian (1975) with Audrey Hepburn, Nicole Williamson and Robert Shaw; Richard Attenborough’s underrated WWII epic A Bridge Too Far (1977) based on Cornelius Ryan’s book and featuring one of the most impressive casts ever assembled in a single picture (including Dirk Bogarde, James Caan, Michael Caine, Edward Fox, Elliott Gould, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Hardy Kruger, Laurence Olivier, Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford, Maximillian Schell and Liv Ullman); Michael Crichton’s period caper movie The Great Train Robbery (1978) with Lesley-Anne Down and Donald Sutherland; Richard Lester’s Cuba (1979) with Brooke Adams and Peter Hyams’ perfectly executed science fiction thriller Outland (1981), is only a partial list.

Bond purists are split on Never Say Never Again—producer Albert Broccoli, who had produced the entire movie series up until then certainly spent enough money on lawyers trying to keep it from happening. Connery ditched his by then trademark facial hair for Never Say Never Again, and looked in better shape than he had in Diamonds Are Forever. The movie didn’t have the familiar Bond supporting cast—Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell and Desmond Llewelyn—or the signature Monty Norman Bond leitmotif theme. It did have veteran director Irvin Kershner, a big budget and a sparkling supporting cast of its own, including Kim Basinger, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Bernie Casey, Barbara Carrera, Rowan Atkinson and Edward Fox stepping in as “M” and Max von Sydow as Blofeld. Broccoli needn’t have worried. Never Say Never Again was released the same year as the Roger Moore Bond movie Octopussy, and both movies made boatloads of money.

Connery with Christopher Lambert in HIGHLANDER.

Connery didn’t make quite as many movies in the eighties as he did the seventies, though not because he wasn’t in demand. And he made some memorable ones then, too. He took a supporting role in 1986’s swashbuckling fantasy Highlander, about immortals engaged in a centuries-long battle for supremacy. The Scottish hero was played by French actor Christopher Lambert, while the Scottish Connery played his mentor, an Egyptian named Ramirez. You had to love it for that alone. He won an Oscar for playing a tough Chicago cop in Brian DePalma’s feature film reboot of the TV show The Untouchables in 1987. Two years later he played Indiana Jones’ father in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He didn’t look or sound anything like star Harrison Ford, but no one cared. Audiences loved the movie and loved him in it. He still wowed moviegoers in The Hunt for Red October and The Rock. He showed unexpected vulnerability in Finding Forrester, which he also produced.

Harrison Ford and Sean Connery in INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (Courtesy Paramount Pictures)

The movies Connery didn’t make are almost as interesting as the ones he did. He admitted to turning down roles in both The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings. He accepted The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, an underrated movie that is nonetheless disliked by fans of the graphic novel it was based on. He retired after that, and he meant it. Spielberg tried to get him back for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but Connery said no, and you have to wonder if he’d ever heard the word before. Connery had a long retirement, lived privately, and his presence on the screen was missed. A fixture in movies for most of this critic’s life, it was hard to get used to the idea of no more Sean Connery movies. Harder still now.

ROOMMATE WANTED, Edgy Horror Comedy, Premieres at Salem Horror Film Festival

Just in time for Hallowe’en, writer/director Michael McCartney’s very contemporary new horror/comedy Roommate Wanted will premiere at the Salem Horror Film Festival October 2nd – 4th, 2020.

An edgy cocktail of shocks, suspense and satire, Roommate Wanted is a comedic thrill ride with a fresh and diverse cast. Angelique Sabrina White shines as Maria, a pre-law student who shares a rented house with some carefree college roommates. Unhappy with her academic direction, and struggling with her romantic feelings for another woman, Kate (MJ Garcia), Maria also has money issues. The group is cash-strapped, and the sudden death of their unofficial renter necessitates their finding a new tenant fast, and they find the seemingly perfect new tenant in Dean (Jack Shulruff), who seems almost too good to be true. Of course he is, and the movie rapidly takes to demonstrating the hazards of renting to homicidal maniacs with multiple personalities. Shulruff effectively slides between the disparate personalities inhabiting Dean’s disordered brain, and he and White have a fascinating on-screen anti-chemistry.

roommate wanted maria

The script is crisp, with witty, contemporary-sounding dialogue, and McCartney, a twenty year-plus veteran in front of and behind the camera, directs the blood-soaked festivities with a sure hand, balancing horror and social satire with seeming effortlessness. The movie’s solid production values, highlighted by Konstantin Frolov’s often dreamlike cinematography, belie its modest budget. character-driven thriller also features signature music and songs by acclaimed queer punk band GRLwood, who lend a distinctive musical voice to the film, marking their first cinematic collaboration.

“I’ve always loved horror films because they are the perfect combination of escape, artistry and subversion,” says McCartney. “I love the challenge of telling a story that has mixed tones, as well as delivering larger social themes masked with laughs and thrills.”

“We are so excited to unleash our film at Salem Horror Film Festival.” McCartney continues. “They completely understand and respect all genre fans. It’s the perfect fit and the perfect, inclusive audience for us. We just can’t wait for everyone to see it!”

roommate wanted maria and Kate

Virtual festival passes for online screenings of Roommate Wanted, which is showing during the fest’s October 2-4 “Weekend I” along with other films and events, can be purchased at:

Is GONE WITH THE WIND, Well, Gone With the Wind…?

My father said he’d seen Gone With the Wind in every decade of his life, and it had struck him differently every time. I have too, and I agree with him (he was seldom wrong, in any event). It’s not just the relationships between the characters that strikes me differently the older I get. The social attitudes in the movie become more problematic as well. And in the wake of recent events, the racial stereotypes and attitudes that unquestionably permeate the movie have become even more troubling.

He introduced me to Gone With the Wind when I was about eleven years old. He took me to a theatrical re-release, so my first experience of it was on a big screen. I was awed, and a little confused. What I knew about the Civil War was that the southerners were the bad guys who lost, and that they owned slaves. I knew that was bad. Watching the story through the eyes of the bad guys was initially disorienting. The movie worked its magic though, and I was soon lost in its sprawling spectacle of romance, war, violence—people caught up in huge events.

The Censors Worried About Language, Not Stereotypes

Even people who haven’t seen it have probably know the line “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” That line, one of the most famous in Hollywood movies, almost didn’t make it into Gone With the Wind. The Hays Office, created to ensure wholesomeness in motion pictures, had a thing about profanity, and back then, “damn” was a word you didn’t hear in movies. In fact, to cover their bets, they shot an alternate version, in which Clark Gable said “Frankly, my dear, I just don’t care.”

gwtw gable

What they worried about far less was presenting a set of racial stereotypes which were in fact always somewhat controversial, and have become downright incendiary in light of recent events. Ironically, Gone With the Wind is not the worst offender in this regard, but it is certainly the best-known, and the situation is compounded by the fact that the movie does, unquestionably, glamorize the old South and its Confederate heritage.

GWTW Pulled From the Lineup

HBO Max has temporarily pulled Gone With the Wind from its lineup, apparently to restore it at a later date with contextual material added. That’s probably not a bad thing, when you think about it—Turner Classic Movies usually has its on-air hosts do pretty much the same thing when it airs classic movies containing racial stereotypes offensive to modern audiences.

And the thing is, those stereotypes were probably offensive to African American audiences when those movies came out. Holiday Inn, which is famous for Bing Crosby’s rendition of “White Christmas,” also has a blackface number that’s pretty outrageous to modern audiences. I strongly suspect that African Americans never liked that scene, and although cutting the scene would be complete anathema to TCM’s mission to show classic movies uncut and commercial-free, people should know stuff like this is coming.

A move like this with Gone With the Wind is a big deal, though, and it bears noting. I have encountered many modern, and yes, that means younger, movie fans who have never seen Gone With the Wind, some who haven’t even heard of it. To those of us who have been around longer, Gone With the Wind is one of the biggest movies of all time, and in fact, it was the highest-grossing movie of all time until The Sound of Music. I suspect that due to its many theatrical rereleases over the decades, it’s probably sold more tickets than any other movie. It won eight Academy Awards®, including the first ever awarded to an African American. But those numbers do not tell the whole story.


A 1,300 Page Pulitzer Prize-Winning Bestseller

Gone With the Wind was based on a 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that was not only a bestseller, it was a publishing phenomenon. Written by Atlanta writer Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind is a sprawling, historical romance, following the life, loves and travails of antebellum southern belle Scarlett O’Hara from the days leading up to the Civil War, through the war itself and the eventual Reconstruction. Scarlett is a spoiled, willful child when the reader first meets her—unrealistic, spiteful and temperamental, but also tough, resilient, even ruthless when it comes to survival and hanging onto her family’s plantation. For 1,300 pages, Scarlett is convinced she’s in love with Ashley Wilkes, the aristocratic, intellectual and somewhat ineffectual son of a neighboring plantation-owner, while she’s pursued by the dashing and roguish Rhett Butler, who has more in common with her than she wants to admit.

America wanted a movie based on Gone With the Wind. Independent producer David O. Selznick, the son-in-law of M-G-M president Louis B. Mayer, acquired the rights with reservations. The movie wasn’t going to be cheap, casting presented issues, and the book was 1,300 pages long. There was no such thing as the TV miniseries at the time.

Searching for Scarlett and Burning Atlanta (By Way of Skull Island)

Casting was difficult. The movie-going public was invested in this property to an unprecedented degree, and really cared about who played the characters. It’s important to remember that movie stars actually existed in those days, and could sell a movie with their name alone. Every actress of even remotely appropriate age was considered for Scarlett, many of them screen tested. After screen testing everyone from the Susan Hayward to Joan Bennett to Lucille Ball (yes, seriously) and Paulette Goddard (who nearly got the part), and a nationwide talent search, the actress who got the part wasn’t even American. Laurence Olivier introduced David O. Selznick to British actress Vivien Leigh the night they shot much of the Burning of Atlanta scene on the Selznick lot. Old sets—including from King Kong (which Selznick had produced) and D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (which, ironically, Griffith had made as a rebuttal to his own Birth of a Nation, criticized even then for negative racial stereotypes and a glamorization of the Ku Klux Klan) were doused in gasoline and burned on the Selznick lot with stunt doubles for Rhett and the still uncast Scarlett standing in, shot with every Technicolor camera they could get their hands on. Leigh made a big impression, and soon after, was cast to huge fanfare.

gwtw 1

Clark Gable HAD to be Rhett Butler

But for the role of Rhett Butler, and this was attested to by magazine opinion polls, America wanted one star and one star only: Clark Gable. Younger audiences don’t always know the name. At the time, he was the biggest star in the world. And Gable was under contract to M-G-M, run by Selznick’s rival and father-in-law Mayer, who was the highest-paid executive in the United States. And M-G-M wasn’t going to loan Gable to another studio out of the goodness of its corporate heart. Mayer had recently loaned Gable to low-rent studio Columbia as punishment when the star was perceived as getting too big for his britches, and it had blown up in his face. Gable had starred in Columbia’s low-budget comedy It Happened One Night and won an Oscar for it. For Gone With the Wind, Selznick eventually had to surrender distribution of the movie to M-G-M, but he had to have Gable.

Over a dozen writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, took a stab at the script. Eventually screenwriter Sidney Howard turned in a screenplay that would run less than six hours, and got sole screenplay credit. The finished film runs a tidy three hours and fifty-eight minutes. The production still ran through at least three directors. Gable crony Victor Fleming shot most of it, after being pulled off M-G-M’s The Wizard of Oz to take over for George Cukor who was shooting at a pace far too slow to suit Selznick, and Gable didn’t like him. Leigh did, and didn’t particularly like Fleming, but Gable had far more clout than the unknown Brit. Fleming had a breakdown during filming, and left the production for a few weeks. Sam Wood directed some scenes while Fleming was out of action, but Fleming ended up getting sole directorial credit for both The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind in the same year, a year considered by many film historians as the best year in Hollywood history ever. (King Vidor finished shooting The Wizard of Oz while Fleming was on Gone With the Wind.)

The KKK Were Portrayed as…Good Guys…?

And even in the late thirties Selznick knew the book’s racial attitudes were going to have to be tempered. The novel is not about race relations, but the racial attitudes of the antebellum south are woven through the book from first page to last. The book is from the southern point of view, the Yankees are not the good guys (in the portions of the book dealing with the Reconstruction they’re positively repellent) and the main characters do not regard blacks as anything regarding equals. In fact, Mitchell basically defends slavery several times during the book. The black characters for the most part are depicted as servile and content, and it’s difficult to imagine most of them living independently of white supervision. And in a major scene in which Scarlett is attacked by freed blacks, her current husband (she has several) rides out to avenge her honor with the sympathetically portrayed Ku Klux Klan.

There’s no mention of the Ku Klux Klan in the movie, and the “N” word, used liberally in the book, is never heard. But the racial stereotypes are there—they’re impossible to miss—and they’ve gotten less palatable over time. The movie sidesteps the ethics of slavery, allowing the white characters to justify their ownership of other human beings by, as Ashley, played by Lesley Howard, is heard to say, “We weren’t brutal to them.” Yeah, but you did own them. No mention is made of splitting up families, of selling a mother’s children in front of her, or beating, whipping and torturing uncooperative slaves. Absolutely no mention is made of a slave owner’s unquestioned right to the sexual services of a woman the law said he owned.


1st Woman of Color to Win an Oscar Couldn’t Sit With Her Co-Stars

The character of Mammy, who serves Scarlett from the beginning of the story to the end, first as a slave, and freed after the war, actually got an upgrade when they made the movie. A male character, Will Benteen, who functioned as an external conscience for Scarlett, was written out to streamline the unwieldy cast, and Mammy got his best lines, particularly, “He’s her husband, ain’t he?” Ironically, Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, became the first African American actor to win an Academy Award® for her role. It has to be mentioned that she was not permitted to sit with her white co-stars at the Oscar® ceremonies. That should be brought to audiences’ attention. It was fifty years before another woman of color was to win one (Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost).

That embarrassing iniquity sort of sums up the problem. You’ve got a mammothly popular book and movie adaptation that perpetuates racial stereotypes and also serves to highlight the movie industry’s own record of unfairness to black artists, and frankly, black audiences.

Fairy Tale Depiction of One of the Bloodiest Periods in American History

It isn’t that slavery is depicted that’s the problem. You can make a movie that dramatizes the institution of slavery honestly. The miniseries “Roots” did it in the seventies, and more recently, 12 Years a Slave and Harriet have done so to critical acclaim and Oscar® nominations. The novel Gone With the Wind makes a few scattered allusions to mistreatment of slaves on other people’s plantations, while waxing eloquent about how emotionally attached the slave-owners could be to the slaves. The movie never delves into the horrors of slavery, or even the ethical question of owning slaves in the first place. Selznick was determined to make the story palatable to as many people as possible, and as a result, Gone With the Wind inevitably is a sanitized, fairy tale depiction of one of the bloodiest and most painful periods of American history. It’s not a bad idea to point that out to viewers, and hopefully, HBO will do just that.

An Unfortunate Influence

As mentioned, Mitchell was a southerner and grew up on stories about the Civil War. As a girl she was an avid reader, and one unfortunate literary influence was Thomas Dixon, Jr., and his reviled 1905 novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. That novel was the basis of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Dixon, a racist to the core, honestly believed that left to their own devices black people would turn violent and rape, loot and pillage (white people), and that the KKK had saved the south from a fate worse than death. The Clansman is a literary attempt to demonstrate that thesis. Lynchings are presented sympathetically. You read that right. There are sequels.

D.W. Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION. No other caption necessary.

Gone With the Wind is nowhere near as incendiary as The Clansman, but is perhaps as insidious in its own way, all the more so for being less outrageous. The story has always grabbed people. Books don’t become bestsellers, and movies don’t become hits, let alone iconic legends, if they don’t. And therein lies the legacy and the purpose Gone With the Wind still serves. Apart from being a big, shiny entertainment, it vividly documents the attitudes that shaped it. It is important to point out that the movie’s very popularity in the shadow of those attitudes says a lot about racial prejudice, inequality and injustice. I think it’s okay to get swept up in the story, which does after all at least manage to document that the South lost the Civil War, but it might help to point out that they also started it. When the movie is brought back with contextual material, it might be good to point that out.

And a detail I hope they mention is that when Hattie McDaniel won that coveted Oscar® for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, she gave an eloquent acceptance speech, and then returned to her seat.

At a different table from her white co-stars.

Just in Time for 4/20—POT LUCK Looks at Both Sides of Legalized Marijuana in Colorado

Five years after the people of Colorado voted to legalize marijuana across the board, Jane Wells’ new documentary Pot Luck​ takes a road trip across the state to find out what the new normal looks like. Wells is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and the documentary is narrated by Robin Quivers. A colorful cast of locals including businessmen, budtenders, barbers, police officers, prosecutors, and farmers share their views on the still-evolving world of legal cannabis, in a briskly paced, slickly produced documentary that’s both entertaining and informative.

Colorado didn’t just pass a bill that legalized pot. They amended their state Constitution, which means that consumers and vendors alike now assert their “constitutional rights” with the same zeal as NRA members at a Trump rally. Initially, Wells introduces us to budtenders and farmers, who all seem like friendly folks performing a public service. The budtenders stress the purity of their product, and how they like to get know their customers on a personal level. Note that they don’t take plastic—it’s cash on the barrel head. The farmers stress the organic nature of their product, the lack of pesticides, how beautiful the plants are—and listening to these serious-minded, committed people talking against the glorious Colorado landscape, you’re likely to feel that you’re seeing the comeback of the family farm in America.

unnamed (2) (1)
Courtesy Giant Pictures 2020

Some education is presented for those of us who might be inexperienced with the culture of cannabis. It’s been around a long time, and prior to The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, was on the cusp of being a legitimate cash crop. But cannabis was literally nipped in the bud by powerful competitors, robber barons protecting their own interests. Hemp has lots of uses that have nothing to do with getting high. You can make a paper substitute out of it, but newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst had massive timber interests—apparently he not only wanted to own the news but the stuff it got printed on as well—and Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon’s family had invested heavily in the DuPont family’s new synthetic fiber, nylon, which also competed with hemp. Other uses for hemp competed with the fossil industry. The deck was stacked.

Businessmen interviewed in the film talk about the mammoth opportunities legalized pot provided. This is straight-up capitalism to them, and the fact that they’re skirting the line with both federal regulations that still treat their product as contraband and banking regulations that don’t permit handling drug money makes their entrepreneurial spirit seem all the more quintessentially American. You read that right, by the way. The cash-only, but completely legal marijuana dispensaries, can’t open bank accounts. Legal businesses have to find ways to launder their money.

And there’s a lot of money.

unnamed (4) (1)
Courtesy Giant Pictures 2020

There is one little issue, quietly alluded to—cash only businesses do tend to be unusually attractive to the armed robber type. But that’s their problem, right? The vendors present it as minor. But the argument that drug-related crime would be eliminated by legalizing pot has not panned out, and according to the police and prosecutors interviewed, the gangs and cartels have not entirely left the picture either. Public safety problems, including the odd hash oil/butane explosion, have come up. Legal marijuana dispensaries have skirted restrictions on locations near playgrounds and schools by exploiting cartographic boundaries—just past a town line can put the dispensary in unincorporated Boulder County and no one seems to have jurisdiction.

Colorado addiction counselors note the apparent absurdity of some products, such as vaginal suppositories (although one woman in the cannabis business heavily touts the efficacy of anal suppositories for increasing sensation during sex). CDB, the cannabinoid, or cannabis component, highly touted as a remedy for everything from acne to arthritis, has not been approved by the FDA, and none of the products marketed have been regulated by anyone. This is also not your grandfather’s joint. Smoked marijuana now is a genetically modified plant with a much, much higher percentage of THC, the cannabinoid that gets you high, than the stuff passed around at dorm parties in the seventies. The government’s statistics on addiction to marijuana are twenty years out of date, and don’t reflect the increased potency of the modern product.

unnamed (3)
Courtesy Giant Pictures 2020

Cannabis “edibles,” which often contain very high percentages of THC, are produced in candy form, such as gummies and chocolate bars, take longer to act than smoked marijuana, and the effects last longer. They are obviously attractive to children, for whom they can be very dangerous, and they have been known to result in life-threatening cardiac arrhythmias and even cardiac arrest in some people.

Other, conventional law enforcement problems present themselves. A constitutional right to use marijuana doesn’t give you the right to operate a vehicle under the influence. One longtime pot smoker interviewed in the documentary relates, in apparent seriousness, about how marijuana improves her focus and that she drives better under the influence. Seriously? Alcoholics often make the claim that they drive better when they’re drinking, right up to the time they wrap themselves around a tree. Unlike alcohol, however, marijuana remains in the bloodstream long after the user has past being actually intoxicated. There is no equivalent for a breathalyzer test that can instantly tell a police officer that someone who has been using marijuana is legally intoxicated.

Pot Luck is content to let the viewers draw their own conclusions. The interviews are interesting, and the production values are high. This is a well-made, balanced and intelligent documentary that doesn’t forget to be entertaining. Just in time for 4/20, Giant Pictures released Pot Luck on April 14, 2020 on all digital platforms including, Apple TV, Prime Video, Xbox / Microsoft Store, Vimeo On Demand, Google Play, Vudu, and Hoopla, plus DVD nationwide.

ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD: Translating Tarantino’s Tinseltown Tutorial

Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar®-winning Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood is now showing on Starz, which will certainly widen the audience of this popular—and controversial—movie about the heady days of a Hollywood in transition during the late sixties. This movie is probably best-appreciated by somewhat older viewers who have some memory of those days, but that’s not to say it can’t be enjoyed by younger audiences, who will almost certainly be asking what parts are true, and what parts are pure invention.

Anyone who’s seen Tarantino’s 2009 epic The Inglorious Basterds knows that presenting an authentic historical document is emphatically not Tarantino’s priority. Since that movie’s 11 years old, it’s probably okay to mention [spoiler alert] that he changed the end of World War II. And although there won’t be any spoilers here regarding Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, there are, shall we say, one or two historical details that are viewed Tarantino’s personal lens of artistic license.

Vivid Tapestry of Hollywood During the Vietnam War Era

That being said, Tarantino presents a tapestry of Tinseltown during the Vietnam War era which is powerfully evocative, and generally authentic as to tone. That are tons of details which are inaccurate, some of them deliberately, and then there are lots of things that are absolutely the way things were.

Courtesy Columbia Pictures 2019.

Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood chronicles Hollywood through the eyes of best friends fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his out-of-work stunt double Cliff Booth (Oscar®-winner Brad Pitt) in the period leading up to the infamous murder spree of the Charles Manson family. Rick is best-known for a black and white TV western, “Bounty Law.” The show is fictitious, but there were plenty of black and white westerns on the tube in the fifties, most of them half an hour long, some, like “Gunsmoke,” later to expand to an hour. “Bounty Law” bears an obvious resemblance to “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” which launched the career of Steve McQueen, arguably the biggest movie star of the sixties.

The promo we see for “Bounty Law” features the notorious “Wilhelm Scream,” a canned scream going back at least to the fifties, usually reserved for falls, and now often recognized by sharp-eared movie fans in the know. Directors who use the “Wilhelm Scream” in this day and age are usually doing it as in-joke, and you can assume that includes Tarantino.

Burt Reynolds Isn’t In It, But…

Rick and Cliff are fictitious, but they’re pretty clearly modeled on the relationship between close friends Burt Reynolds and stuntman, and later director, Hal Needham. Burt Reynolds, who never worked with Tarantino, casts a shadow over this movie almost like a perversely gleeful shroud. According to numerous published accounts, Tarantino had intended on casting the aging Reynolds in the role of George Spahn, the real-life owner of the Spahn Movie Ranch, a frequent location for TV and movie westerns in the fifties and sixties, and later to become notorious as the hideout of the Manson Family. The movie correctly depicts Spahn as a virtually blind, elderly man kept docile by Manson’s young female followers, who had regular sex with Spahn on Manson’s orders.

Reynolds died before production on Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood commenced, and the part, which isn’t much more than a cameo, went to veteran actor Bruce Dern, making his third appearance in a Tarantino movie. Reynolds, although cutting his teeth in a supporting role on “Gunsmoke” early in his career, is not closely identified with westerns. According to his own autobiography, he walked away from “Gunsmoke,” to the horror of friends and family who couldn’t believe he was giving up such a lucrative meal ticket, doing mainly miscellaneous TV work until his movie career really took off in the seventies, and he became one of the most bankable stars in the world. (Younger audiences that have only seen it on TV don’t tend to appreciate what a gigantic hit Smokey and the Bandit actually was.)

EVERYONE Did Westerns…

Reynolds was not alone in owing at least some of his career to westerns. Steve McQueen was one of the young stars of 1958’s The Blob (billed as “Steven McQueen”), playing a heroic high school student (he was 28). Shortly after, he was cast as the lead in “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” which he did for three seasons, and then got back into features, this time in a big way. (He co-starred in the feature western The Magnificent Seven while “Wanted: Dead or Alive” was still on, which was a major hit.)

Courtesy Columbia Pictures 2019.

Where’s Clint Eastwood?

Tarantino’s movie does not mention Clint Eastwood, who was exploding at the time. Eastwood’s first appearances in movies were less than forgettable. He was uncredited in his first role, The Revenge of the Creature. And Francis in the Navy. Francis was a talking mule who appeared in service comedies. Also uncredited in Lady Godiva of Coventry, but he played Alfred the Fletcher. No, I have no idea why you’d make that story in a time when you were prohibited from showing onscreen nudity. But in 1959 Eastwood got cast as Rowdy Yates in the TV western “Rawhide,” which ran six years. While on hiatus in ’64, Eastwood accepted a quick gig to star in, of all things, a western, in Spain, with an Italian director. That turned out to be A Fistful of Dollars. Unreleased in the U.S., it did great business in Italy, and in each of the next two years, Eastwood starred in a sequel (For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), all of them directed by Sergio Leone. In 1967, United Artists bought the U.S. distribution rights and released them as a series in rapid succession. Eastwood had arrived. By 1968, he was co-starring in the big budget World War II adventure Where Eagles Dare opposite Richard Burton.

Westerns are exotic to younger audiences. It’s difficult for them to conceive of the fact that they’d been a mainstay in movies since the silent age, and even in the sixties, on any given night you’d find at least one western show on primetime. “Gunsmoke” ran for 20 years. “Bonanza” ran for 14. In Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Rick Dalton is shown guest-starring on “Lancer,” which only ran for two seasons, but featured guest appearances by many, many up-and-comers, including Martin Sheen, Tom Selleck, Sam Elliott, Tom Skerritt, Ron Howard and future Brady Bunchers Barry Knight and Eve Plumb. Among the many familiar faces that popped up was Bruce Dern. The child actress character Trudi Fraser (brilliantly played by Julia Butters) is fictitious. Series lead James Stacy, played in the movie by the wonderful Timothy Olyphant, is a real person. Stacy is portrayed in the movie as a motorcycle enthusiast, which is accurate. A couple of years after the cancellation of “Lancer,” Stacy lost an arm and a leg in a catastrophic motorcycle accident. The resulting medical bills virtually bankrupted him. He did eventually manage at least a partial comeback, and was later nominated for two Emmys.

Although primetime TV dramas were generally shot on 35 millimeter movie film even in the fifties, a Panavision camera is shown on the “Lancer” set in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, and that’s questionable. TV shows were not shot widescreen at the time. The old Hollywood workhorse Mitchell BNC would have seemed more likely. The director of the episode is depicted as Sam Wannamaker, an actual director and actor later audiences would recognize from the miniseries “Holocaust” and the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Raw Deal. Wannamaker is played by Nicholas Hammond, who was one of the Von Trapp children in the classic movie musical The Sound of Music, and who was also the first live-action Spider-Man in the short-lived TV series “The Amazing Spider-Man” which ran for 14 episodes in the seventies.

Nicholas Hammond (front, center) as Sam Wannamaker in ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD. Courtesy Columbia Pictures 2019.

Mention is made of two features that the Rick Dalton starred in, both fictitious. Fictitious but… There is no western called Tanner, although some critics (this one included) think it might be modeled on the fifties feature Gunman’s Walk, which starred Van Heflin and Tab Hunter, who like Rick Dalton, tried his hand at singing. Oddly, the bit of opening credits we see from Tanner prominently lists Henry Wilcoxon, an actor adamantly not best-known for westerns. Wilcoxon was a Cecil B. DeMille regular, appearing in epics like Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments.

What IS Behind the Green Door?

About the singing. We see Rick Dalton singing on the TV show, “Hullabaloo.” The song choice is distinctly Tarantonian. Dalton is singing “The Green Door,” an actual song recorded by Jim Lowe. Urban legend has it the song refers to the goings-on behind the green door of a private lesbian club in London. There is no evidence substantiating this, but it may have influenced the title of Behind the Green Door, an adult movie directed by the Mitchell Brothers, which helped usher in the “Golden Age of Porn” in the seventies and made an underground movie star of Marilyn Chambers.

The other Dalton feature we hear about early in the movie, The 14 Fists of McCloskey, bears a distinct resemblance to Tarantino’s own The Inglorious Basterds, and the flamethrower scene is anachronistic. They not only couldn’t have done the scene in the sixties, certainly not the way Tarantino depicts it (the asbestos suits required for fire gags were bulky and obvious and no one would have let an actor set stuntmen on fire with an actual flamethrower), they wouldn’t have done it. Flamethrower scenes were done only rarely, and generally only in black and white war movies—color would have been pretty much unthinkable. It is noteworthy that DiCaprio is shown in an eye patch and sergeants’ stripes in the clip. This is almost certainly a nod to the Marvel comic book character Nick Fury, who started out in the World War II comic Sgt. Nick Fury and His Howling Commandos (a copy of which is seen in Cliff’s trailer), which was popular throughout the early sixties. (War comics were in fact fairly popular until the Tet Offensive, when the Vietnam War became markedly less popular with the American people.) Yes, that’s the same Nick Fury that Samuel L. Jackson plays in the currently MCU movies. He’s the only character ever to be played both by David Hasselhoff and Samuel L. Jackson. (Hasselhoff played the part in the 1998 TV movie Nick Fury: Agent of Shield, which was written by David S. Goyer, now one of the hottest writers in Hollywood. You can look it up.)

Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Pacino in ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD. Courtesy Columbia Pictures 2019.

As to Rick Dalton’s Italian adventure, the movies referenced are again, fictitious, but… There is no actual spaghetti western called Nebraska Jim. There is one called Navajo Joe, which stars, wait for it, Burt Reynolds, before he got big, and which was directed by Sergio Corbucci, who also directed the original Django. Yup, the one Tarantino rebooted with Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz and which featured a cameo by Franco Nero, who starred in the original Django. And Once Upon Hollywood says Nebraska Jim was directed by Corbucci.

A Nod to Billy Jack

As to Cliff Booth, the part that won Brad Pitt a well-deserved Oscar®, the character is fictitious, though probably to some degree modeled on real-life stuntman, stunt coordinator and director Hal Needham. He’s also, according to multiple published accounts, heavily informed by sixties/seventies movie icon Billy Jack, created by the late actor/writer/director/activist Tom Laughlin. Cliff’s laid-back, folksy demeanor is certainly reminiscent of Laughlin’s character, a half-American Indian, martial artist, Green Beret Vietnam veteran, who sticks up for the oppressed while trying to find his way in a hostile world through Native American mysticism. Bolstering that theory is the fact that Pitt wears a pretty good facsimile of Billy Jack’s trademark jeans, denim jacket and navy-blue tee-shirt in an early scene with DiCaprio and Al Pacino.

And What Did Bruce Lee Ever Do To Tarantino?

It’s interesting that in a flashback depicting Cliff working on an episode of “The Green Hornet,” Tarantino depicts martial arts icon Bruce Lee as sort of an asshole, particularly in light of the fact that in Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Tarantino laid no fewer than three Bruce Lee Easter eggs: Uma Thurman wears a yellow jumpsuit with black racing stripes evoking Lee’s in his last, uncompleted performance in Game of Death, The Crazy 88’s are all dressed like Kato in “The Green Hornet,” and he uses the iconic trumpet theme music from “The Green Hornet.” In the scene Zoë Bell refers to Lee as the series lead. That’s wrong. He wasn’t. The show was called “The Green Hornet,” not “Kato.” (Okay, when it played in syndication in Hong Kong, they did call it “Kato” there.) It should also be noted that Mike Moh, who plays Lee, is wearing his hair much longer than Lee did on “The Green Hornet,” more the style he wore in Enter the Dragon.

Mike Moh as Bruce Lee in ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD. Courtesy Columbia Pictures 2019.

TV was pretty much being produced and broadcast in color by 1969, but that didn’t mean everyone in America was watching on color TV’s, still pretty expensive (my own parents didn’t own one until 1971 or ‘2.) Tarantino very believably depicts Cliff Booth watching the private eye show “Mannix,” produced in color, on a black and white TV.

There are a couple of other small anachronisms, particularly in view of Tarantino’s virtually fetishistic obsession with movie trivia (maybe less so in view of his well-known love of toying with history): Pitt’s Cliff Booth at one point is seen in front of a billboard for Tora! Tora! Tora!, 20th Century Fox’s big-budget recreation of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The scene takes place in early 1969, and Tora! Tora! Tora! didn’t open until late September, 1970.

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD. Courtesy Columbia Pictures 2019.

Yes, Starring Joe Namath…

In another, completely charming scene, Margot Robbie, playing the late Sharon Tate, watches her own performance in the otherwise completely forgettable Matt Helm movie, The Wrecking Crew (which starred Dean Martin). But before the feature starts, the theater shows a trailer for C.C. and Company, a low-rent biker movie released by Avco Embassy, that starred (I’m serious, dammit) legendary New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath and Ann-Margaret. That movie didn’t open until October of 1970, and it’s entirely possible it hadn’t even been shot yet. Joe Namath was a major sports celebrity at the time, and perhaps he thought he might carve out the sort of small but respectable movie career that Hall of Fame running back for the Cleveland Browns Jim Brown had carved out. He didn’t. Seymour Robbie, who directed C.C. and Company survived, and had a busy career in episode TV, directing many episodes of Wonder Woman, Barnaby Jones, Trapper John, M.D., Remington Steele and 21 episode of Murder, She Wrote.

Other contemporary movie references are more accurate, including posters for The Night They Raided Minsky’s, Funny Girl and Ice Station Zebra, all released in 1968. When Cliff first encounters the Manson Family member Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), he is playing the Simon and Garfunkel song “Mrs. Robinson,” from the movie The Graduate, which was released in 1967. The song is both accurate for the period, as well as dramatically ironic, given the sexual overtures made by Pussycat and the large difference between the characters.

The Manson Family and “The Godfather of Gore”


The Manson Family, of course, was all too real, and terrifying. This writer still recalls being terrified by the Life Magazine cover featuring a now-notorious of the crazy-eyed Charles Manson. People who encountered them did not always report the Children of the Corn demeanor the movie demonstrates—some reported that they could be alternately frightening or simply quirky. An interesting omission, given Tarantino’s well-demonstrated love of the least respectable subgenres of exploitation film (one shared by this writer), is a little-known tidbit of historical trivia. While the Manson Family was staying at the Spahn Ranch, “Godfather of Gore” filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis was there as well, filming, of all things, a lesbian western, Linda and Abilene. Lewis did a number of types of movies in a career that was anything but prestigious, but he is best known for his “gore” movies, like Blood Feast, forerunners of the more modern splatter film. I interviewed Lewis, who proved to be a genial, intelligent and humorous gentleman, before his death in 2013. He was talked about shooting in the company of mass murderers:

Linda and Abilene was shot at the Spahn Ranch which became notorious because that’s where the Manson Family were carving up people. They were there while we were shooting. I didn’t know we were in such dangerous company. They had a big dog and they had put some kind of a bell around the dog’s neck, typical of these people. It drove that dog absolutely crazy. Every time the dog moved, the bell and rang and the dog was trying to dislodge the bell, and it couldn’t do it, and somebody who was working with us removed the thing from the dog’s neck, and somebody from that gang said, ‘You want to die?’ We didn’t take that seriously, but they were serious about it, because it wasn’t said with good nature. But at least for the time being we got the thing off the dog.”

Courtesy Columbia Pictures 2019.

As to whether Lewis actually met Charles Manson, the answer was a little chilling:

“I don’t know—They really weren’t in our way very much, but they were there. We would see them, we would cross paths with them, they weren’t that unpleasant. We would say, would you mind letting us have this area—? But they were certainly on the scene.”

How Tarantino missed that one is a mystery to me.

Revisionist Peter Pan Reimagining WENDY Turns Children’s Classic into Dystopian Horror Fable

Nothing should bring shivers of dread to the modern moviegoer quicker than the words “visionary reimagining.” This virtually always means the director thinks s/he knows better than the guy who wrote a classic. That’s exactly what’s happening with director Benh Zeitlin’s new movie Wendy, which “reimagines” J.M. Barrie’s enduring classic Peter Pan right into the cutout bin at Walmart. Wendy is almost as entertaining as a prostate biopsy, but takes far longer.

Zeitlin’s last movie was eight years ago—the trippy and unpredictable Beasts of the Southern Wild. Wendy shares that movie’s surreal, vision of the American deep south, but lacks its sense of wonder. This effort seems very much a case of belated sophomore slump. Where Beasts was loose-limbed and free-flowing, Wendy is disjointed and choppy, drifting in and out of lanes uneasily between fantasy and surrealism, unsure of whether it takes place in the real world or a magical landscape, with a frayed narrative thread that flirts dangerously close to incoherence.

020_WE_SG_16811 (1)
Courtesy Searchlight Pictures (2020).

And while nearly a decade has passed since Zeitlin made his last movie, cinema itself has not been standing still, and what was cutting edge in 2012 is already looking a little dated. Motion sickness-inducing, handheld camera work and stringing together successions of close-ups is just not the way things are being done anymore. We are unanchored almost immediately, as this movie’s Wendy (newcomer Devin France), raised above a family diner, seems to enjoy her existence helping her mother (Shay Walker) and sparring with her brothers James and Douglas (brothers Gavin and Gage Naquin respectively), who believe that adulthood means the end of dreams and accomplishment. Zeitlin shoots virtually everything in jarring and disorienting handheld close-ups, which more than anything else makes the viewer feel like voyeuristic intruder in every scene. It also makes it far more difficult to for the audience to get its bearings.

The diner is set right by train tracks, a fact that proves important. At the very beginning of the movie, a young boy, hearing that his future is apparently going to be as a janitor, runs out and hops a passing freight train, perhaps egged on by a mysterious shape atop the train. Years later, he is a face on the side of a milk carton and Wendy and her brothers regard adulthood as something threatening. Peter Pan does make his inevitable appearance—it seems to take a while—but not the way we’re expecting. This Peter doesn’t fly into Wendy’s room, there is no Tinkerbell, no trying to stick his shadow back on with soap. He is glimpsed only as a shadow on the wall, as a train rushes by the diner. Peter is on top of the train, laughing wildly, apparently luring additional runaways. Wendy climbs out the window and pursues the train, followed by her brothers.

005_WE_SG_16611 (1)
Courtesy Searchlight Pictures (2020).

Rapidly the movie strays into territory that’s not necessarily unfamiliar—many viewers will start having post-traumatic flashbacks to Lord of the Flies—but it’s definitely not Barrie’s well-beloved classic. The landscape of Peter’s island is no paradise. Much of it is rocky and foreboding, reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s take on Skull Island in his King Kong reboot. A volcano throws mortar shell-like chunks of steaming debris without warning. The Lost Boys sleep outdoors and there isn’t a mermaid in sight.

Peter seems to worship The Mother, who initially seems to be some sort of neo-pagan goddess, and is eventually revealed to be a luminous, deep sea Kraken, which seems to be the movie’s substitute for the crocodile that ate Captain Hook’s hand.

The other only magic seems to be that on Neverland (a name we never hear) childhood can, but does not inevitably, last forever. Eternal childhood is an act of will. Apparently, you can never doubt yourself—introspection of any kind leads to aging, and these Lost Boys regard that with coronavirus-level dread. In the 1967 “Star Trek” episode “Metamorphosis,” written by Gene L. Coon, the character Zefram Cochrane, played by Glenn Corbett, says: “Believe me, Captain, immortality consists largely of boredom.” Here it appears to be absolute stagnation followed by dementia. The Lost Boys who become really lost, a euphemism for growing old, are exiled to a kind of post-apocalyptic Margaritaville on the far side of the island where they fish for The Mother, in the misguided belief that eating her flesh and drinking their blood will restore their lost youth—an obscene perversion of Christian communion likely to be deeply offensive to Catholics.

006_WE_SG_16690 (3)
Courtesy Searchlight Pictures (2020).

There are dark, psychological underpinnings to the Peter Pan story—they’re inevitable. Peter does separate children from their parents in Barrie’s original story, and the parents do suffer as a result. But those aspects of the story are sugarcoated by a story that’s full of magic and adventure. This version, paints Peter as a virtual monster, a Trumpian narcissist whose decisions are invariably wrong, has all of the darkness—in fact here the dark aspects aren’t a subtext, they’re the point—and added more of its own. Wendy, ultimately, is a horror movie about a pernicious imp who refuses to grow up and rides the rails through eternity luring discontented children to purgatory, even Hell itself. Although I personally do, as a rule, resist the tendency to throw out spoilers, it should be noted that the movie’s final scene, presented as an epilogue, utterly undercuts the apparent third act climax.

Zeitlin predominantly, if not exclusively, shoots on 16mm film, and Wendy was shot on 16mm stock with an ARRI 416 camera. There’s an anti-digital backlash happening in some quarters, and 16mm is currently being used more extensively in professional film production, often with surprisingly rich, handsome results (AMC’s “The Walking Dead” is shot on 16mm), than many cineastes realize. One might wish that Zeitlin and his DP Sturla Brandth Grøvlen had condescended to use a camera mount occasionally, but you can’t deny the richness of light and texture they’ve captured. Dan Romer’s often soaring score has a triumphant note—and as to whether that’s supposed to be ironic or not, your guess is as good as mine.

03_WE_01923_R4_d7VKf9Y (1)
Courtesy Searchlight Pictures (2020).

There is a tendency, with child actors, to praise their performances blindly and automatically. In point of fact, a movie does not achieve excellence simply because the main characters are children. The performances here are neither charming nor particularly insightful, although blame should not be laid at the feet of the performers (newcomers, by the way). Nothing about this movie is their fault. The screenplay doesn’t know where its going, so how can children with no prior acting experience? It doesn’t help that the movie’s Peter, Yashua Mack, has an expressive face, but a nearly unintelligible voice.

Joel Schumacher’s MTV-influenced, 1987 vampire flick The Lost Boys also used Peter Pan as a creative springboard, but with far more success and oddly, far more heart. Devoid of magic, adventure or humor, Wendy comes off like the unpleasant results of combining Peter Pan and Lord of the Flies in a food processor. Far too dark and intense for children, it doesn’t offer adults much either. Zeitlin’s dystopian reimagining of a classic that didn’t need reimagining, has the soul of a horror movie and in the end your blood will probably run a little cold.

JOJO RABBIT: Or Why It’s Never Too Late to Indict Nazis

When a movie opens with footage from Triumph of the Will to the Beatles singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” in German, you expect what follows to be a little radical. New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi’s new feature adaptation of Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies is actually less radical than it might appear at first blush, but that isn’t to say it’s not hip.

Jojo Rabbit, a frequently surreal dark comedy about Johannes Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a ten-year old boy growing up in Germany during World War II, is alternately funny and horrifying. Johannes, nicknamed Jojo, is a member of the Hitler Youth, and idolizes Hitler to the point that a version of Hitler not far removed from The Producers appears to him as part imaginary playmate/part hallucinatory advisor. Injured during grenade practice at Nazi sleepaway camp, Jojo is assigned to light duties helping the party while he’s recuperating. In addition to some facial scars and a limp, he’s also acquired the nickname “Jojo Rabbit” because he wouldn’t wring a rabbit’s neck during one of the educational seminars at the camp. Jojo’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johannson) is out one afternoon when Jojo gets home early, and that’s when he makes a startling discovery – his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in the attic.

033_JR_13055_CC (1)
Thomasin McKenzie and Roman Griffin Davis star in JOJO RABBIT. Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures 2019.

Jojo and his new houseguest Elsa (a tough and luminous Thomasin McKenzie) form an uneasy rapprochement that’s really more Mexican standoff. If Jojo goes with his first instinct – as he’s been taught – and turns Elsa in, his mother is dead at the very least. If she lets Rosie know Jojo knows about her, she may be shown the door, and that’s as good as being shipped to the same concentration camp the rest of her family has already been consigned to. On top of that, Jojo begins to like Elsa – and not just as a sisterly friend – despite the fact that he’s been taught to consider Jews subhuman.

At no point does Waititi, who also wrote the movie’s quirky screenplay, try to pretend that Jojo isn’t virulently anti-Semitic. He’s absolutely in the thrall of his Nazi teachers, and parrots Hitler’s racist drivel with conviction. His mother clearly disapproves of the Nazi Party and the war, though can’t say so openly without risking dire consequences.

In addition to excellent performances from the young leads and Johannson, Waititi benefits from an excellent supporting cast, particularly Sam Rockwell as a German officer who’s been relegated to Hitler Youth training after losing the use of an eye in combat. Waititi himself plays Jojo’s imaginary Hitler, who keeps offering Jojo cigarettes, although Hitler himself reportedly did not smoke. Rebel Wilson, as a Nazi Den Mother from Hell is largely wasted.

014a_jjr_r6_v012c0_190607_10jk_g_r709_JacquelynSilverman.00_14_49_16.Still (1)
Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis star in JOJO RABBIT. Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures 2019.

Leunens’ novel was adamantly not a comedy. Waititi’s movie is, albeit a dark one, and there’s some very dark, even shattering, stuff in it. Jojo himself is alternately sweet and repellent. There’s every reason to suspect that Waititi is a Wes Anderson fan – Jojo Rabbit has a distinctly Andersonian vibe, though not Anderson’s increasingly stately sense of visual composition. And Anderson handles mixed tones more smoothly than Waititi.  The juxtaposition of horror and humor is often awkward here, leaving the viewer off-balance, though that’s scarcely inappropriate given the subject matter. 

The dialogue, and often the music, are deliberately anachronistic, and the device works surprisingly well. It should be noted that the German version of David Bowie’s “Heroes” (“Helden”) is actually better than the English original. The movie’s pyrotechnics are alarmingly convincing, and are both more exciting and more frightening than those in many recent action movies with far larger budgets.

Modern audiences are likely to think this is a more radical approach than it actually is. Black comedy and surrealism have been used before to illustrate the insanity and horror of war. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 set the bar high, as did Robert Altman’s movie adaptation of Richard Hooker’s novel M*A*S*H. Woody Allen’s character play Play It Again, Sam, later filmed by Herbert Ross, was advised by an imaginary specter of Humphrey Bogart. Bottom line, none of this is new.

026_JR_03406_CC (1)
Scarlett Johannson and Roman Davis Griffin star in JOJO RABBIT. Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures 2019.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant. At a time when inbred, mentally defective white supremacists and neo-Nazis disgrace their country by pubicly embracing Hitler’s evil political philosophies and denying the historical reality of The Holocaust, and the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue openly race-baits his followers at political rallies that look alarmingly like Nuremberg, Jojo Rabbit is tragically topical. The Nazis were all too real, and there was nothing funny about them. There is a point to be made by satirizing them and it might help get the attention of those who don’t think a rising tide of anti-Semitic hate crimes is a pressing problem.

Jojo Rabbit certainly stands out in the current cinematic landscape, and makes its point in a disarmingly comical way, the horrors that frame its edges notwithstanding. It doesn’t attempt to sugar-coat the fact that war always ends the same way – in ashes, rubble and corpses. But it also attempts to prove that the human heart is capable of changing, forgiving and enduring, and that is an attempt worth making.

ALONG CAME THE DEVIL II: You Can’t Keep a Good Demon Down

Writer/director Jason DeVan’s direct-to-video release Along Came the Devil emerged as a pleasant surprise last year, milking a micro-budget for everything it was worth, while assuring audiences that it was “based on true events.” That’s a line that tends to have a lot of caché with fans of demonic possession movies, and there are a lot of them. 

It’s not a surprise that to see a sequel come down the pike, and not surprisingly, the “true events” aspect isn’t up front, as the filmmakers venture further out on their own. That won’t matter to fans of the original at this point, and the fact of the matter is, the DeVans (featuring two of the director’s children onscreen, as well as his wife in both acting and producing capacities, this is very much a family project).

2ACTDII (1) (1)
Laura Wiggins as Jordan in the horror film, “ALONG CAME THE DEVIL II” a Gravitas Ventures film. Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.

In the first movie, Ashley  (Sydney Sweeney of Hulu’s “The  Handmaid’s Tale”) was sent to live with  her estranged Aunt Tanya (Jessica Barth of Ted  2).  She began to have  visions of her deceased  mom, driving her to attempt to contact the  spirit world, resulting in her unknowingly unleashing demonic  forces. In the sequel, after receiving an unsettling voicemail, Ashley’s younger sister Jordan (Laura Wiggins) returns home looking for answers, only to find even more questions.

Wiggins is convincing as the now older Jordan, though it’s young Cassius DeVan as a young half-brother who might or might not be under the influence of demonic forces himself. Bruce Davison (X-Men) makes a welcome return as the would-be exorcist town pastor, and Mark Ashworth, who loomed over the first movie’s prologue as an Ashley and Jordan’s abusive father reprises the role, though the character has had a notable transformation.Co-producer Heather DeVan clearly relishes the opportunity to work in heavy character makeup.

Cassius DeVan as Xander in the horror film, “ALONG CAME THE DEVIL II,” a Gravitas Ventures film. Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.

Where this sequel has a leg up is that DeVan didn’t give audiences a cookie cutter happy ending in the first installment, and so no one had any reason to think the town’s demonic possession problem was actually over and done with. And the DeVan Clan (which actually is the name of their production company) appears to have had a bigger budget – not big – just bigger – this time around, resulting in a handsome-looking product. Jay Ruggieri’s lush cinematography is an asset.

Scarier than its predecessor, with a particularly fast-paced, no holds barred third act, DeVan knows his modern horror movie lore, and if anything increases his propensity for Easter eggs for sharp-eyed fans. Nods to not only The Exorcist, which DeVan acknowledges as a favorite, but Halloween and The Shining abound.

Along Came the Devil II is a straightforward, unpretentious horror thriller that’s being unleashed in theaters, on demand and digital October 11th, 2019, just in time for Halloween. And yes, there is a room for an Along Came the Devil III.