The Cult Movie Club: Fourteen Days In May (1987)

It doesn’t happen very often, but occasionally a documentary comes along that makes you question everything, puts a new slant on life and death, the whole shebang. Or just gives you a damn good scare. Paul Hamann’s ‘Fourteen Days In May’ definitely fits the bill.

Shot over two weeks during the summer of 1987 at the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary – AKA Parchman Farm – ‘Fourteen Days In May’ follows a young black man Edward Johnson as he prepares for – and, with the help of his lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, tries to evade – the gas chamber.

First shown on the BBC over 30 years ago, it has become a landmark film. Similar areas have recently been explored by Werner Herzog, Louis Theroux and Nick Broomfield, but arguably ‘Fourteen Days In May’ trumps all of them for sheer emotional impact.

It explores the inner workings of a prison geared up for taking human life. Astonishing shots shed light on a kind of modern slavery, with policemen on horseback brandishing shotguns, calling out loud reprimands and instructions to large groups of (almost exclusively) young black detainees as they dig ditches or clear roadside vegetation.

Elsewhere we are witness to the last few minutes of another (white) inmate’s life as he is strapped into the electric chair, though thankfully we don’t see the moment of truth. The gallows humour of both the killers and killed will linger long in the memory.

As ‘Fourteen Days In May’ moves painfully and inexorably on, it becomes increasingly clear that Johnson is innocent. But no-one can do anything about it. Various (black and white) prison officers bravely profess their doubts as to his guilt, while Johnson’s family rally around the quiet, unfailingly polite young man, singing him songs to keep his spirits up.

Hamann breaks the fourth wall to says his goodbyes to Johnson in a memorable scene. But shorn of a voiceover or title cards, ‘Fourteen Days In May’ offers no explicit critique of capital punishment. It doesn’t need to. The facts do that for themselves.

It would seem churlish and pointless not to reveal the ‘ending’ of the film here – Edward Johnson meets his maker. The crushing coda reveals that a young black woman came forward after the execution to verify that she saw him in a pool hall during the time of the alleged crime, but when reporting this to a white police officer soon after was threateningly advised to mind her own business.

What do we take away from ‘Fourteen Days In May’? The only correct response would seem to be rage. And fear. But after that, there’s a helplessness and a slow-burning disgust. The only slight light at the end of the tunnel is the knowledge that it was in direct response to this documentary that the Lifelines organisation was set up, arranging pen pals for death row prisoners. Stafford Smith has also founded Reprieve.

Is America still like this? Over to you. The suspicion would have to be that it is.

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The Cult Movie Club: Seems Like Old Times (1980)

It seems a bit weird to describe ‘Seems Like Old Times’ as a cult movie when everything about it screams ‘Hollywood’: co-stars Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn, screenwriter Neil Simon, ‘Mary Tyler Moore’/’Cosby Show’ director Jay Sandrich, Columbia Pictures (this was one of the first movies they made after the David Begelman embezzlement scandal).

But it’s a cult movie in that it now seems completely forgotten. I probably would never have come across it unless I’d happened upon it on TV one afternoon. I stuck it on a VHS and wish I still had it, because it’s one of Chevy’s funniest films and an interesting companion piece to ‘Caddyshack’. 1980 was a good year for Steely Dan’s first drummer.

‘Seems Like Old Times’ is clearly modelled on the great Hollywood screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s. Even the title comes from a popular song written in 1945 (sung by Diane Keaton in ‘Annie Hall’). Chase stars as a falsely-accused bankrobber who takes refuge at his ex-wife’s Beverly Hills ranch. There are ‘unresolved issues’ in their relationship, not to mention the suspicions of Hawn’s new husband Charles Grodin. The sparks fly and the one-liners come thick and fast.

Hawn, Chase and Grodin

Chase channels Cary Grant at his zaniest, Hawn is fairly adorable and has some great comic moments, and they have a decent chemistry. Grodin (who I was amazed to read was Razzie-nominated for this performance) excels in the role he always seems to play, a control freak seemingly on the edge of a nervous breakdown, while Robert Guillaume and Harold Gould lampoon the Reaganite elite almost as effectively as Ted Knight in ‘Caddyshack’.

Simon writes loads of memorable secondary characters too: TK Carter is funny as Chester (though the part wouldn’t win any ‘woke’ points these days) and Yvonne Wilder is great as Mexican maid Aurora (ditto). The locations are gorgeous, with a striking helicopter shot over the opening credits along the Southern California coast. I love Marvin Hamlisch’s theme tune too, sounding a bit like Herb Alpert jamming with Billy Joel. And the cheap, slushy, ridiculous last five minutes get me every time.

‘Seems Like Old Times’ is a film that you can just let wash over you – you’re in the hands of experts. Indeed it sometimes feels a bit too professional. It was a reasonable hit but proved a bit of a career dead end for Chase, who pretty much eschewed the ‘romantic lead’ pictures from here on in. A shame, in a way. His dead-eyed buffoonery and surprisingly subtle charm take him and the film a long way.

The Cult Movie Club: Moviedrome

Watching ‘Halloween 2’ (1981) on the big screen the other night brought back lots of memories.

Apart from generating a few more scares than I had remembered first time around (though co-writer/co-producer/’ghost’ director John Carpenter once described it as ‘not my proudest moment’), it also brought back the very real excitement of the late-night cult movie.

‘Moviedrome’ wasn’t a cult movie but a series of cult movies transmitted on Sunday nights by the Beeb between 1988 and 2000. Pre-internet, there was a real curiosity to this collection of lost classics. Your parents had gone to bed. It was just you and the TV. What forbidden wonders were about to be unfurled?

‘Moviedrome’ was initially presented by director Alex Cox (‘Sid And Nancy’, ‘Walker’, ‘Repo Man’), and just a glance at the running order of the first two series should certainly excite movie fans of a certain hue:

1988:

The Wicker Man
Electra Glide in Blue
Diva
Razorback
Big Wednesday
Fat City
The Last Picture Show
Barbarella
The Hired Hand
Johnny Guitar
The Parallax View
The Long Hair of Death
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
The Fly (1958)
One From The Heart
The Man Who Fell To Earth
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
One-Eyed Jacks

1989:

The Man With The X-Ray Eyes
Jabberwocky
D.O.A.
The Thing From Another World
The Incredible Shrinking Man
California Dolls
THX 1138
Stardust Memories
Night of the Comet
The Grissom Gang
The Big Carnival (Ace in the Hole)
Alphaville
Two-Lane Blacktop
Trancers
The Buddy Holly Story
Five Easy Pieces
Sweet Smell of Success
Sunset Boulevard

Many of these films are etched upon my brain 30 years on, particularly ‘THX 1138’, ‘Electra Glide In Blue’,  ‘The Man With X-Ray Eyes’, (‘Pluck it out! Pluck it out!’), ‘Five Easy Pieces’ and ‘The Parallax View’. In later series, they showed uncut UK premieres of ‘Bad Timing’, ‘Scarface’ and ‘Pulp Fiction’, amongst others. Checking in to watch ‘Moviedrome’ on a Sunday night gave you the feeling that you were a member of a very small but select club.

Cox’s introductions were highly original bits of film criticism in themselves, with his arch sense of irony and keen eye for detail (bit-part actors, weird editing, striking set design). He even had the audacity to present his own movie ‘Walker’ during the series. Later Mark Cousins brought a more serious tone, an intriguing accent and also some intelligent, subtle analyses. Watching a few of these intros just make me want to watch the movies again. If only there was such a widely-seen yet distinctly ‘cult’ film club as ‘Moviedrome’ these days.

The Cult Movie Club: Driving Me Crazy (1988)

Documentary director Nick Broomfield has spent most of his almost 50-year career annoying people in pursuit of the truth.

In the ’70s and ’80s, his attention was focused mainly on societal concerns – the British class system (‘Proud To Be British’), urban decay (‘Behind The Rent Strike’), juvenile delinquency (‘Tattooed Tears’) the US Army (‘Soldier Girls’), legalised prostitution (‘Chicken Ranch’). All are superb and worth seeking out, as is his latest ‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’.

But 1988’s ‘Driving Me Crazy’ marked a lightening of tone and the birth of Broomfield’s post-modern style, where he became a ‘character’ in the film – and, it has to be said, often an irritant. The movie came about when the financiers of big-budget, all-black musical ‘Body And Soul’ – booked for a six-month run in Munich – sought out Broomfield to make a ‘Fame’-style documentary about the extended rehearsal process in New York. All well and good, thought Broomfield. It was a chance to extend his range and do something different, more light-hearted.

But then it all went pear-shaped. The financiers reduced the documentary budget from $1.6 million to $300,000. They also wanted to incorporate a ‘fictional’ element into the film, with writer Joe Hindy and his agent playing themselves. Egos ran wild and sensibilities were messed with. Broomfield considered bailing but decided to hang around and document the resulting drama. So ‘Driving Me Crazy’ became a film about not being able to make a film, in the tradition of ‘Waiting For Fidel’.

The good news is that it’s one of the funniest but also most awkward movies of Broomfield’s career. ‘Body And Soul’ choreographers George Faison/Mercedes Ellington and assistant director Howard Porter don’t take kindly to the film crew and give them hell. Broomfield becomes almost persona non grata. Though this must have sometimes been painful, he almost seems to relish it. He also flirts outrageously with the PA of show producer Andre Heller and there are uncomfortable suggestions of racism from some of the suits.

But Broomfield and his DoP Rob Levi also document some absolutely stunning rehearsal footage. There are memorable jazz, hip-hop, soul and doo-wop performances and beautiful images of late ’80s New York, with shades of films like ‘Fatal Attraction’ and ‘9 1/2 Weeks’. There’s a particularly notable panoramic cityscape shot towards the end, soundtracked by one of many fractious but funny Broomfield phone calls.

Entertaining, unsettling and sometimes exhilarating, the oft-neglected ‘Driving Me Crazy’ is well worth another look.

Siskel & Ebert: The Worst Of 1987

Given the precarious state of movie criticism (and movies?) these days, it’s a treat to check out the intelligent, measured and authoritative work of these two gentlemen.

Probably best known for their ‘thumbs up/thumbs down’ schtick, I’ve recently become fairly addicted to Siskel and Ebert’s deceptively laidback presenting styles and incisive comments.

They called it exactly as they saw it, and you never feel there is any kind of corporate skullduggery going on in the background. And they certainly didn’t always agree on stuff; their exchanges could get pretty fruity.

Gene Siskel died in 1999 and Roger Ebert in 2013. They started out as rivals, writing for competing Chicago papers (the Sun Times and Tribune) in the early 1970s, but were brought together for the small screen when PBS devised a new movie review show in 1975. Its popularity quickly increased and it received national syndication in 1982.

As well as reviewing all the current releases, Siskel and Ebert also presented in-depth investigations on movie controversies of the early ’80s (video nasties and slasher movies) and weren’t afraid to get moral on our asses. But I initially zeroed in on this ‘worst of 1987′ list. Let’s go back almost 30 years to the day and check out a very tasty list of ill-conceived star vehicles (sorry about the picture quality). I want to see all of ’em. Especially the Stallone arm-wrestling flick.

 

 

The Cult Movie Club: The King Of Comedy (1982)

Looking at the trailer and publicity for James Franco’s Tommy Wiseau biopic ‘The Disaster Artist’, it’s hard to ignore the ‘King Of Comedy’ comparisons. Featuring Robert De Niro’s fascinating and detailed turn as anti-hero Rupert Pupkin, Martin Scorsese’s classic black comedy was released 35 years ago today. 

If Wiseau didn’t actually exist, Hollywood would probably have to invent him. Recent American cinema is full of Wiseaus and Pupkins – desperate characters, probably a few cards short of a full deck, who will do almost anything to make it.

Pupkin passive-aggressively stalks celebrities for their autographs, but then comes to believe that he is owed a shot at fame. Talk-show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) is his passport to success – Pupkin and disturbed rich-girl Masha, brilliant played by Sandra Bernhard, kidnap him. Pupkin then demands the opening monologue on Langford’s nightly TV show.

Jerry Lewis and Robert De Niro in character

If ‘The King Of Comedy’ had been made today, it would probably be hailed as a modern classic, a fable for our times, a coruscating attack on narcissism, celebrity culture and unchecked ambition. It’s ‘Nightcrawler’ meets ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’. But it stiffed on its original release (not helped by a substandard trailer – see below), grossing barely $3 million against a $19 million budget.

The studio didn’t know how to market it, trying to sell it as a knockabout comedy. Scorsese sensed the bad vibes gathering around the film long before it was released, telling writer Peter Biskind, ‘A close friend of mine told me “The buzz is bad.” I hate that. When the buzz is bad, people don’t want to be associated with the picture. But they were right – the film was a bomb. It’s called “The King Of Comedy”, it’s Jerry Lewis, and it’s not a comedy. Already it’s a problem…’

Yes, it sometimes feels like a succession of skits strung together, almost in the style of Brian De Palma’s early films ‘Greetings’ and ‘Hi Mom’. And it would be nice to get a bit more access to Pupkin and Masha’s backgrounds. But Scorsese, Lewis, De Niro and Bernhard, working instinctively from ex-Newsweek film critic’s Paul D Zimmerman’s slight but intriguing story, create something toxic and completely memorable.

Scorsese fills the screen with significant minor characters, mainly playing themselves and recruited from the ‘real’ TV world, and he obviously has deep respect for Lewis and all he stands for (though has less respect for the all-pervading, gossipy influence of TV culture). Bernhard, prodded by De Niro, is superb, given free rein by Scorsese to improvise freely: ‘I cover the waterfront, remember that!’ she bawls at Pupkin, just before one of the director’s typically bracing cuts.

There are many excruciating moments: Pupkin’s arrival at the Langford house (De Niro apparently screamed antisemitic abuse at Lewis to elicit the correct level of outrage in his response to having his golf game interrupted) and Masha’s ‘seduction’ of Langford. Is his violence towards her justified? Over to you. I’m not sure. And then there’s Pupkin’s monologue, shown in one long take with no cutaways – Scorsese and De Niro dare us to laugh at this schmuck, and it’s unsettling when one or two of his gags hit the spot.

‘The King Of Comedy’ is the De Niro/Scorsese collaboration I return to the most. Nobody gets killed, but a lot of people get hurt. Very hurt indeed. And it bears repeated viewings: recently I noticed an intruder in the restaurant scene where Pupkin tries to persuade his ‘girlfriend’ Rita to accompany him to Langford’s. Check him out. He’s behind Pupkin, mocking him throughout. I take it he’s supposed to stand in for the entire film-going audience.