Sunday, January 22, 2023

Hey, Mr. "Postman"! Mark This Movie "Return To Sender"!

"You're such an ass!": Kevin Costner gets acting tips from his co-star Bill the mule.

Hello, movie lovers.

Kevin Costner. A national treasure, to be sure. Handsome, talented, affable, athletic, an Oscar winner, a box office draw, star of the wildly popular series "Yellowstone".

In a career that began as Alex, the late campus radical in 1983's "The Big Chill", Costner has appeared in some fine films, including "No Way Out", "The Untouchables", "Silverado", "Field of Dreams", "Dances with Wolves", "Open Range", "The Upside of Anger", "Let Him Go" and (my favorite) "Bull Durham".

Alas, he has also appeared in some...shall we say...not so fine flicks: "The Bodyguard", "Swing Vote", "Revenge", "Water World", "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" and "The Postman".

Strangely enough, "The Postman"(1997) is the subject of today's article. Isn't that lucky?

The shades make the Postman look like a bad ass.

To get straight to the point, this movie sucks. On toast. If it was more of a dog, it would have fleas. This flick makes about as much sense as a knitted condom. This movie is about as believable as a Kardashian virginity pledge. It's stupid, awful, dunder-headed, smug and down right offensive--and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. The best character in the cast is played by a mule named Bill, who wisely kept his real name out of the credits.

Although "The Postman" is based on a dystopian novel by Brian Drin, it's really just the same old saw about an eccentric loner wandering aimlessly among the remains of a once-great-nation, who inadvertently starts a movement that inspires the downtrodden to throw off the yoke of their oppressors and reclaim their freedom and dignity.

For our purposes, the eccentric loner is played by Kev, who wanders aimlessly among the ruins of a once-great-nation, visiting knots of villages, performing bits of Shakespeare with his mule Bill, who out acts him at every turn.

Of course, eccentric loner Kev doesn't think much about the people he meets or their sad lives; he just does his thing, gets his money and trudges off into the sunset, leaving behind only the great smell of Brut. However, one day a nasty, fascist, violent, megalomaniac thug named Gen. Bethlehem (Will Patton) rides into a village. He orders Kev and the other guys to join his "army"--an "army" called "The Holnists" who are obsessed with the number 8. An "army" that considers itself the law of the land. An "army" that steals Kev's mule and then later eats him. 

It's clear our eccentric loner isn't going to put up with this nonsense for very long, so he ditches the Holnists and finds safety in an old mail truck. Besides lots of old, unopened mail, the eccentric loner finds the skeletal remains of a postal worker. Kev slips on the stiff's jacket, puts on his cap, grabs his satchel full of letters and heads off into the great wide somewhere.

"Don't you know it's illegal to read other people's mail?" smart ass Bill reminds Kev.

The eccentric loner's first stop is the village of Pineview, where he convinces the town's mayor that he is indeed a mailman and that the government has slowly gotten up and running. The villagers are delighted, especially when Kev gives them actual letters from real family members that folks haven't heard from in ages. That evening, the town has a hoe-down to celebrate and our eccentric loner meets up with a lady person named Abby (Olivia Williams). As they dance, Abby asks Kev some very personal questions, like if he's married, if he's ever been sick, if he's ever had the Clap and if he has healthy man juice. Then Abby introduces Kev to her husband Michael (Charles Esten). See, hubby's man juice is kaput (due to a bout of "the bad mumps") and Abby would like Kev to get her pregnant. Michael is perfectly OK with this, by the way--said no sane husband ever born on God's Green Earth. Always a gentleman, our eccentric loner agrees, to the couple's delight.

As nothing can keep a postman from his appointed rounds, our eccentric loner heads off to the village of Benning, lugging a whole batch of letters from the folks of Pineview. Unfortunately, Gen. Bethlehem and his fanatical fascists arrive shortly thereafter. See, they fear an independent postal system will threaten their power over the population. So they shoot everybody in sight, torch the post office a plucky dude named Ford Lincoln Mercury (Larenz Tate) has restored and take Abby hostage. The Holnists also catch up with Kev and he surrenders (don't ask). But have no fear: Kev and Abby manage to escape and even find a cute cabin to spend the winter.

While Kev and Abby nest, word continues to spread about the postal service and villagers everywhere start writing letters. To deliver the letters, people of all ages sign up to be postal carriers. Soon, mail routes have been established, linking once isolated villages. Even more important than the letters, however, is the hope the mail carriers are spreading. The government has been re-established! The president is a good guy! They no longer have to fear the Holnists! Civilization is being restored!

No one is more surprised by this than our eccentric loner. He only donned the mail carrier's uniform to escape the Holnists. He only wanted to find his old home/neighborhood/village called Rosewood (or something like that). He never intended to spark a social uprising. He's an eccentric loner who has only ever thought about himself, for Pete's sake! Does he look like Gandhi?

Fearing that his reign of terror might be coming to an end, meanie Gen. Bethlehem orders any and all mail carriers shot and redoubles his efforts to find the Postman, as he's now called. Kev, learning that the mail carriers are being killed, feels things have gotten out of hand and tries to disband the postal service for everyone's safety. Nothin' doing'. Neither rain, snow, sleet, hail or murder will keep these mail carriers from their appointed rounds. What's more, the Postman's message of hope has traveled as far as (what once was) California, which drives Gen. Bethlehem batty. Who will rid me of this troublesome Postman?! wails the general.

"You got Lucky": Mayor Tom Petty (yes, he's really the mayor!) of Bridge City happily agrees to help the Postman on his appointed rounds.

Meanwhile, Abby and Kev, guided by mail carriers Eddie, Ponytail (Costner's real daughter Annie) and Billy head off to Bridge City. It's at this site that the Postman hopes to escape via a cable car. In order to do that, Kev will need the help of Bridge City's mayor who happens to be and ,no, I am not kidding, Tom Petty! The real Tom Petty! He's not playing a character! Tom Petty is the REAL mayor of Bridge City! How do we know this for sure? Because Kev gives the mayor a hard stare and says, "I know you." Pause. "Your...famous."

"I was once," the good natured Petty replies. "Not anymore."

Later, when the people of Bridge City converge and realize Kev is the Postman, Tom says, "I heard of you, man. Your famous!"

Tom Petty is one of my favorite artists. It's great to know he had such a healthy perspective on the true nature of fame. I bet he was a good mayor, too. I mean, not every rock star is cut out for public office. As much as I love George Thorogood, for example, I just don't see him in a position like that. Also, Bridge City's nightly campfires must have beeen wild, with Tom belting out "Free Falling", "Don't Come Around Here No More", "The Waiting" and other hits. The scenes with Tom are the highlight of this film; Petty totally steals the flick--he's even better than Bill! (May they both rest in peace. Tom left us in 2017, remember).

Anywhooo, Kev and Abby hitch a ride on the cable car and Mayor Petty urges the Postman to keep up the fight for freedom and justice, which he does.

The Postman and his Carriers are ready to deliver mail and kick ass. And their out of mail.

In a scene that would give AP English teachers the vapors, "The Postman" stages the final confrontation (there's always a final confrontation in these type of movies) between the Carriers and the Holinsts as a replay of Henry V's Siege of Harfluer. Kev even rallies his troops with Henry's (actually Shakespeare's) famous speech, "Once more unto the breech dear friends, once more...!" (You can read the rest of the speech yourself; it's pretty rousing). Unfortunately, Kev, talented as he is, isn't an Olivier or a Kenneth Branagh. Not since Millard Coody (of the Wichita Mountain Pageant) who appeared as Jesus in H. Kroger Babb's "The Prince of Peace" (1948) uttering in his flat, mid-western twang, "Which one o' you is gonna betray me?" has there been a greater mismatch between an actor and their dialogue--unless some genius gets the idea to cast Tori Spelling as Cleopatra ("I'm, like, fire and air; My other elements I totally give to, you know, baser life or something", I can hear Tori warble).

I don't want to spoil the ending for you, but Gen. Bethlehem and his fascist fiends are defeated, just not in the way you'd expect. Never the less, with Bethlehem gone, freedom returns to the once-great unnamed nation and everybody lives happily ever after. In the-not-to-distant future, the daughter of the Postman and Abby, all grown up, gives a speech at the unveiling of a statue of the Postman from a grateful nation. The statue is a recreation of a moment when Kev (on horse back, mind you) snatched a letter from a young boy so it could be delivered. Among the throng at the unveiling is that very boy, now all grown up.

"That was me," he whispers, holding back tears as the music swells.

If director Costner wanted this moment to pack the kind of punch of ,say, the ending of "Saving Private Ryan" or "Spartacus" ("Here's your son, Spartacus and he's free!") or "Brian's Song" ("I love Brian Piccolo. And I want you to love him, too. And tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him...")  he was very, very mistaken. Even a single-celled organism would know what's coming, especially when they saw the statue and the camera pans to a blond guy tearing up, with his wife offering up wifely support. 


"A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!": The entertainment starved citizens of Pineview sit through the Postman's version of Richard III and over look the fact that Bill (far left) is a mule, not a horse.

Of course, "The Postman" was a box office bomb and the critics weren't too impressed. USA Today called the movie a "futuristic folly", while Film Journal International  said it was a "bloated spectacle with leaden attempts at humor." The Movie described it as "a miserable failure in just about every respect." The New York Times, meanwhile, took issue with the flick's "bogus sentimentality" and "mawkish jingoism." My favorite review of "The Postman" comes courtesy of Paul Tatara of He felt "The Postman" was "about as inspiring as a movie about a vengeful meter reader." Director/star Kevin Costner, however, defended his MESSterpiece insisting "I always thought it was a good movie!", but admitted he "probably started it wrong." Probably? 

However, to the Golden Raspberry Awards (aka the Razzies), "The Postman" was catnip. It earned Costner both the Worst Actor and Worst Director honors for 1998. It also won Worst Picture, Worst Screenplay and it's entire soundtrack won Worst Song. That's an impressive basket of berries, considering "Water World" (an equally bad movie dubbed "Fishtar"--after the megaflop "Ishtar"--and "Kevin's Gate" after "Heaven's Gate") was nominated for four Razzies in 1995 and only brought home one: Worst Supporting Actor for Dennis Hopper.

While it's true "The Postman" ended up delivering useless junk mail instead of, say, an IRS refund check of $50,000 dollars, the flick did finally convince Kev to move on from playing selfish loners who discover they have untapped wells of greatness in them. "The Postman" also showed us the value of the written word over, say, texting, and how vital our postal service is. And then there is the Tom Petty cameo. And the Peggy Lipton cameo. Both of these folks are gone now, so it's a real treat to see them on screen. And Kev's daughter Annie (as Ponytail) showed promise as a young actress (she was 10 or 12 at the time). And the flick swept the Razzies, which is impressive in itself, considering "Batman and Robin" and "Speed 2" were also in contention for Worst Picture (just for the record, I find "Batman and Robin" utterly unwatchable; therefore, for "The Postman" to bring home the Worst Picture basket of berries has to stand as one of the highlights of Kev's career).

So, for being the best thing in this rotten, nasty chain-letter of a movie, Tom Petty, Junk Cinema salutes you!

The mayor of Bridge City tells the Postman that freedom-loving citizens everywhere are "Counting on You" to continue the fight against fascism. 

Saturday, January 14, 2023

The People Who Inspired The Characters In "Babylon"

 Greetings, movie lovers and happy 2023.

By now you've probably all heard and read about Damien Chazelle's take on 1920's Hollywood, "Babylon".

The film has received mixed reviews and so-so box office.

However, instead of posting another review of the flick (which I may still do), I thought it might be more interesting to discuss the real life inspirations fueling Chazelle's three in a half hour epic.

Sound like fun? Good! Let's begin!

Theda Bara was the premiere "vamp" (short for vampire) of early Hollywood. She's considered a "truly silent star" because there's no recording of her actual voice. Although she's not featured in "Babylon", Bara is one of the silent eras most iconic figures.

Who is Who

 "The Wild Child" Nellie La Roy (Margot Robbie) was clearly based on 1920's super star Clara Bow.

Presented as the ultimate fun loving flapper, Bow appeared in such films as "Mantrap" (1926), "The Plastic Age" (1925) and "It" (1927). However, it was novelist Elinor Glyn who dubbed Clara "The It Girl", not her studio.

"There are few people in the world who possess 'IT'", Glyn declared. 

The lucky ones were Rex "the Wild Stallion star", Spanish actor Tony Monero, "the Ambassador Hotel doorman" and Clara Bow.

Like Nellie, Clara had an awful childhood. Her mother was mentally ill and her father was abusive. Also like Nellie, Clara was a natural on camera and, yes, she did allow her father to handle her money (which he lost). When the talkies arrived, Bow struggled to meet the demands of the new medium, just as Nellie did. Although it's true Clara liked to party, the rumor she had sex with the entire USC football team--as reported in the underground classic Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger--is false. And mean.

"She has IT": Clara Bow was the personification of a 1920's flapper/good time girl.

"Babylon" contains a scene where actress Constance Moore pitches a fit because Nellie is stealing her movie. However, the flick has this wrong. Samara Weaving was suppose to be Colleen Moore; actress/singer Constance More didn't make her film debut until 1930.

Along with Louise Brooks, Colleen helped popularize the bob haircut. Her screen image was that of a flirty flapper, but not as rambunctious as Bow. Like Clara, Moore didn't make the jump to talkies, but she came out way better financially: Colleen invested her movie earnings wisely and became a millionaire. Later on, she'd write a book about investing. Edith Davis, the mom of Nancy Reagan, was a life long friend.

Moving right along, we have the doomed matinee idol Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt).

The inspiration for Conrad is John Gilbert. Not only was he one the eras biggest stars, John had a very public romance with his co-star Greta Garbo. Like future super couples Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton or Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, John and Greta's doings were written about in papers cost to cost. One movie theater, hoping to cash in on their popularity, advertised their latest flick (conveniently called "Love") with the tag line "Garbo and Gilbert are in 'Love'."

 Greta Garbo and John Gilbert were hot and heavy on and off the screen.

Although Hollywood lore has it that John Gilbert's voice didn't jibe with his looks, his speaking voice was fine. Still, his career faded anyway, helped along by alcoholism and feuds with Louis B. Meyer. On the other hand, Greta's career only got bigger with the arrival of sound. To promote her talking debut "Anna Christie" in 1930, her studio MGM merely said "Garbo Talks!" and the audience arrived in droves (for the 1939 film "Ninotchka", MGM did the same thing, declaring "Garbo Laughs!"). To help her ex-boyfriend out, Garbo insisted Gilbert be cast opposite her in "Queen Christina" (1933). This was the the couple's fourth pairing (their other films were "Flesh and the Devil" (1926), "A Woman of Affairs" (1928) and the already mentioned "Love" (1927), but John's last film. He died in 1936.

After the failure of her film "Two Faced Woman" in 1941, Garbo left Hollywood for New York City. She shunned all publicity, refused to give interviews and wouldn't consider a comeback. She passed away in 1990.

Li Jun Li portrays the alluring singer/actress/writer Lady Faye Zhu. Her character is a mix of Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich.

Wong was one of the first Chinese-American actors to become a movie star. However, racism kept her from more prestigious roles. Anna seemed the natural choice to play O-Lan in the big screen adaptation of "The Good Earth" (1935). However, the studio gave the part to Luise Rainer, who was Austrian. MGM, who was producing the movie, said audiences wouldn't accept an Asian actress playing opposite a leading man (Paul Muni) who was white. Despite winning several Oscars, "The Good Earth" has become a prime example of "yellow face": using extensive make-up and costumes to make white actors appear Asian. 

In "Babylon", Lady Faye wears a tux and sings a racy number about her "girlfriend's pussy". Later on, she kisses a female audience member on the lips. This is where the Dietrich influence comes in. Several of Marlene's films had her performing in white tie and tales--which was considered quite daring back in the day. The scene where Faye kisses a woman is copied directly from the movie "Morroco" (1930), where Marlene did the same thing. A "pre-code" Hollywood movie, "Morocco" has Marlene playing a world weary cabaret singer and Gary Cooper as the French Legionnaire who loves her.

"Mind if I smoke?": Lady Faye Zhu (Ji Lun Ji) is based on Anna May Wong with a bit of Marlene Dietrich thrown in for good measure.

Marlene Dieteich as Mademoiselle Amy Jolly in "Morocco": "Mind if I smoke?"

Later on, "Babylon" shows Nellie and Faye having a romance. (Early in the flick, Lady Faye, writing titles for one of Nellie's first films, asks a co-worker, "I wonder if she swings both ways."). Nellie's studio believed the relationship would jeopardize La Roy's career, so Lady Faye is fired. With the arrival of talkies, Faye goes to Europe to work for Pathe' (a French film and distribution company started in the 1890's) and seek out other opportunities. Wong did this, too.

Once movies got the sound-thing under control, producers and directors decided to add singing and dancing to the mix. This allowed JoVan Adepo's character Sydney Palmer to branch out into "Soundies": mini movies that featured music, singing and dancing. Some film historians believe Soundies were the inspiration for the music videos of the 1980's (when MTV played nothing but music videos).

Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie are just a few of the black artists who appeared in Soundies. Sydney Palmer is a composite of these men. Just as racism kept Lady Faye from a bigger Hollywood career, Sydney is also denied the chance to star in movies--even though his Soundies are huge hits. Later on, Sydney is asked to wear make-up so he will appear "more black" in his latest short subject. Unfortunately, this really did happen. Hollywood studios were worried that the lighting needed for film production made certain black performers "look white". In order to release their movies in the south, and to ensure audiences didn't think the bands were "mixed", black artists were asked to darken their skin.

SPOILER ALERT: disgusted by the practice, and everything else, Sydney leaves Hollywood and returns to playing nightclubs. Of all the "Babylon" characters, he's the luckiest, and it's clear he's happier playing live music than making movies.

Another "Babylon" character based on a real person is the drug dealer known as "The Count" (Rory Scovel). 

Musician Sydney Palmer (JoVan Adepo) wails away at a Hollywood party. His character will turn his back on Tinsel Town for good.

Rumor has it The Count was based on an actor who worked for Mack Sennett. He's mentioned in the underground classic Hollywood Babylon directly as "The Count". Described as a "quiet, gentlemanly actor", he supposedly supplied drugs to actors Wallace Reid (who died of an over dose), Mabel Normand, Barbara La Marr and others.  Hollywood Babylon, of course, is the most reliable source. Since its publication in 1959, most of the "scandals" detailed in the book have been debunked.

That said, another inspiration for The Count could be Captain Spalding. He was a military man who smuggled and sold drugs to silent film stars. He was implicated in the over dose/suicide of Olive Thomas in 1920, although he denied it. What is true is that struggling actors often did peddle drugs on movie sets in hopes of getting parts. In "Babylon", The Count is seen reminding studio exec Manny Torres (Diego Calva) that he wants "a monologue" in his next picture in return for getting the cash needed to pay off Nellie La Roy's gambling debts.

The final "based on a real person" character is Jean Smart's Elinor St. John, the ever-present gossip columnist. She's patterned after Sheilah Graham (who was British) and Louella Parsons.  Together along with Hedda Hopper, these gals were syndicated in hundreds of newspapers across the country and exercised considerable power. The film studios often supplied the gossip columnists with stories to keep potentially more damaging items out of the press. Getting on their bad side could be hazardous for your career. For example, when Gene Tierney failed to tell Louella Parsons she was pregnant, Parsons was so mad, she told Tierney not to expect anything good about her next film from her (I read this story in Ingrid Bergman's autobiography My Story).

When Orson Welles released "Citizen Kane", he so enraged Hedda Hopper that she organized a campaign to discredit the movie--and it worked.

Strangely enough for a movie set during the 1920's, "Babylon" didn't mention Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks or Lillian Gish. Of course, the movie was a fictional account of roaring twenties Hollywood, not a documentary, but leaving them out seems odd.

Mary Pickford was known as "The Little Girl with the Golden Curls" even though she was an adult.

Charlie Chaplin as "The Little Tramp". He based the character on a man he saw at a mental institution. 

Oh, and one more thing: the drug abuse shown in "Babylon" was pretty accurate. What? You think great grandma and great grandpa didn't know how to party? Movie sets in the '20's were teaming with drugs, especially cocaine, because it allowed the actors to work long hours and stay thin. The popularity of coke in the movie industry inspired something called "Cokie Comedies", the Cheech and Chong flicks of the day. Perhaps the most famous Cokie Comedy was "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" from 1916 and starring Douglas Fairbanks (!). Doug was suppose to be a send-up of Sherlock Holmes, who was so crazy for coke that he wore a belt with syringes on it and had a clock that had "Dope" and "Drink" etc. instead of numbers. There is also a big can labeled "cocaine" on his desk, in case you missed the point. Just for the record, Fairbanks didn't like this movie.

This is where I leave you movie lovers. My next post, hopefully, will be about the real events depicted in "Babylon". Until next time, SAVE THE MOVIES.