Palatable: Black Widow

Black Widow (1987)
Directed by Bob Rafelson
Written by Ronald Bass
Produced by Harold Schneider, Laurence Mark
Starring Debra Winger, Theresa Russell, Sami Frey, Nicol Williamson, Terry O’Quinn, James Hong, Diane Ladd, Lois Smith, Dennis Hopper, D.W. Moffett
Westward athwart these United States, a prominent publisher of New York, Texan toymaker (Hopper) and anthropologist tenured in Washington (Williamson) fall victims sequentially to a lean, industrious mariticide (Russell) who discreetly beguiles, weds and poisons her marks, the deaths of whom are misjudged to eventuate from Ondine’s curse before she raids their copious coffers and adopts a new identity. Only an analyst (Winger) of matching adamance and assiduity in the Justice Department’s employ identifies this lethal streak as her personal spoor after the penultimate murder; her prospicience, a plenty of cumulative circumstantial evidence and latitude furnished by her smitten section chief (O’Quinn) moves him to sanction her first field assignment in pursuit of the flighty perennial widow to Hawaii, but neither anticipated a love triangle to conceive with her latest target, a polished, pioneering hotelier (Frey) devising an inland resort on fresh pahoehoe as a proximally optimum outlook of Kilauea. Rafelson’s second thriller after the torrid yet torpid remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice finds the veteran of New Hollywood in better form here as exponent of intrigues: his judicious balance of personal sensitivity and criminal craft optimizes Bass’s knotty yet accessible plot as well as his dream troupe, and sustains tension of shifting grades without the discharge of a single gunshot. At contrast, Winger’s histrionic determination complements Russell’s evidently dispassionate frigidity satisfactorily, but for all the former’s emphatic method realism, she’s frequently upstaged by her icy co-star’s occasional gusts and unspoken expressivity belying a measured monotone. Neither the impetus of Russell’s insinuating murderess nor its underlying pathology are divulged, but her arcanum and sparing, vulnerable percolation by allusion are far more plausible and powerful than any gushing, artless exposure distinctive to so many contemporary femme fatales. In charismatic orbit about the leading ladies’ oppugnant nucleus, aging Frey is enduringly, disarmingly sexy as the object of their mutual affection and opposed intention, unparalleled thespian Williamson underplays nimbly against type as the achingly kindliest of Russell’s betrothed victims, untypically empathetic O’Quinn exudes an almost paternal solicitude, Ladd and Smith render respectively the most and least sympathetic of the deceaseds’ survivors and Hong’s seldom seen sleazier than as a meddlesome private investigator. Moreover, Rafelson’s fine framing’s fortified by the gorgeous photography of Conrad Hall, which reestablished the thitherto decadally inactive DP’s eminence throughout the early aughts: colors pop brilliantly and minute details are discernible in every chic interior and sprawling establishing shot alfresco; none of the players are quite as beauteous as their environments! It’s no masterwork: like Smith’s and Ladd’s appearances, Hopper’s cameo is regrettably brief, and while Michael Small’s lush score is impressively diversified and occasionally effective in concert with John Bloom’s taut cuts, it’s also conventionally overutilized where silence might’ve been a better attendant of Hall’s striking visuals. Only modestly profitable, Rafelson’s return to a feature’s helm posterior to a sexennial hiatus verified his verve for the oversight of a challenging script and crack cast, and evidenced his conjoint, newfound knack for style — a hallmark otherwise accredited to so many of his contemporaries.

Sublime: Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004)
Directed by Xan Cassavetes
Produced by Steve Matzkin, Rick Ross, Marshall Persinger, Susan Heimbeinder, F.X. Feeney, Jonathan Montepare, Leslie Lowell, Alison Palmer Bourke, Ed Carroll
Starring Jerry Harvey, F.X. Feeney, James B. Harris, Vera Carlisle Anderson, Robert Altman, Stuart Cooper, Henry Jaglom, Douglas Venturelli, C.L. Batten, James Woods, Paul Verhoeven, Theresa Russell, Charles H. Joffe, Kevin Thomas, Alan Rudolph, Alexander Payne, Charles Champlin, Jacqueline Bisset, Penelope Spheeris, Bob Strock, Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino, Vilmos Zsigmond
For cinephilic Angelenos, seven years of incomparable entertainment and edification broadcast by L.A.’s early subscriptive telecast Z Channel encompassed an international sweep of commercial blockbusters, celebrated classics, exploitation flicks, neglected chefs-d’oeuvre, softcore pornography: the boundless and omnibus orbit of its disturbed, innovative program director Jerry Harvey, briefly a spaghetti western’s screenwriter and pioneer of the commercialized director’s cut who successfully screened The Wild Bunch with Peckinpah’s ministration as the luminary had intended it at the Beverly Canon Theater, not too many years before an irate epistle to Z Channel evincing his expertise concerning televised presentation won him there his managerial berth. Cassavetes’ comprehensive account of Harvey’s uproarious life and ruinous demise embodies press clippings detailing every phenomenon that the channel induced and weathered, abundant scenes from features which subtly demonstrate the amenity and allure of content that Harvey so avidly aired while paralleling narrative tenor, and an embarrassment of interviews with his ex-wife (Anderson), friends, collaborators and subjects, all interspersed with excerpts from a radio interview in which Harvey articulated with some inhibition many of his objectives, passions and disappointments. Perhaps the most gratifying highlights of this mass are instances in which surviving filmmakers (Harris, Altman, Jaglom, Rudolph, Cooper, Spheeris, Verhoeven), actors (Woods, Russell, Bisset) and critics (Feeney, Thomas, Champlin) who Harvey celebrated, popularized and befriended explicate the aesthetic apercus by which he discerned great cinema, and how his engaging programming monopolized an audience. Z’s worldwide televised premieres of director’s cuts presented the erst abbreviated Heaven’s Gate, Berlin Alexanderplatz and Once Upon a Time in America to audiences who had seen only contracted cuts in theaters; thematic marathons showcased accomplished filmmakers and stars whose renown was limited beyond their native France, Japan, Italy, Netherlands, etc.; classics and their remakes were cablecast in consecution; beset visionaries from Cimino to Altman to Friedman were exclusively interviewed and solicited for projects that had enjoyed scant if any distribution. During a period when New Hollywood was winding down, Harvey was eager to screen its many brilliant flops…or sebaceous sex comedies, jidaigeki, silent obscurities, early Technicolor epics…the universal breadth of feature films transmigrated to television for transfixed audiences was both his secret weapon successfully deployed against the impingement of HBO and Showtime in the L.A. market, and mechanism by which he curated a vast panoply of filmic works to a local subscriber base. This singular dedication to the endorsement of motion pictures unfortunately proceeded from the same dysfunctional formative years as the melancholy that haunted Harvey lifelong: son of a callous Catholic judiciary hardliner who routinely administered capital punishment and phlegmatic mother, and brother to two sisters who capitulated to suicide, the glowering alcoholic’s mercuriality was as familiar to his circles as his generosity. Compounding frustrations fomented the execution of Harvey’s adored second wife an hour before his own suicide served as a sick expiation for his iniquity. If Harvey’s sad, short life seemed destitute of course or satisfaction, his secondhand vision nonetheless communicated a sprawling reverence for the cinematic art that no TV broadcaster had theretofore expressed. Fellow cineaste Cassavetes does her eminent patronym no disrepute with this exhaustive assessment of a supremely sagacious cognoscente who strove to publicly chart a medium from its heart of intrigue to its thrilling fringes.