Extreme Zen: Man on Wire ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 23, 2008)

I’m up on the tightwire

flanked by life and the funeral pyre

putting on a show

for you to see

 –from “Tightrope”, by Leon Russell

On the surface, Man on Wire may appear to be a straightforward documentary about an eccentric high wire artist who is either incredibly brave, or incredibly stupid. But if you look closer, you might discover one of the best suspense thrillers/heist movies of 2008, although no guns are drawn and nothing gets stolen. It is also one of the most romantic films I’ve seen this year, although it is not a traditional love story. Existential and even a tad surreal at times, it is ultimately a deeply profound treatise on following your bliss.

Late in the summer of 1974, a diminutive Frenchman named Philippe Petit made a splash (of the figurative kind, luckily) by treating unsuspecting NYC morning commuters to the sight of a lifetime: a man taking a casual morning stroll across a ¾” steel cable, stretched from rooftop to rooftop between the two towers of the then-unfinished World Trade Center, 1350 feet skyward. After traversing the 200 foot wide chasm with supernatural ease, he decided to turn around and have another go. And another.

All told, Petit made 8 round trips, with only one brief but memorable rest stop. He took a mid-wire breather to lie on his back  and enjoy what had to have been the ultimate Moment of Zen ever experienced in the history of humankind, contemplating the sky and enjoying a little chit-chat with a seagull (Jonathan Livingston, I presume?) He even ventured a few Fred Astaire moves, as he giggled like a 4-year-old splashing around in a backyard kiddie pool. By the time he delivered himself into the less-than-welcoming arms of the NYPD, Petit had spent an astonishing 45 minutes frolicking in the clouds. The only injuries incurred were provided courtesy of the cops, who decided to test this uppity foreigner’s gravity-defying powers by handcuffing him and “helping” him down a flight of stairs.

Now, a stunt like this doesn’t just happen on a whim. There are a few logistical hurdles to consider. How do you transport 450 lbs of steel cable to the roof of one tower of the World Trade Center, and then safely tether it across to its twin? And perhaps most importantly, considering the fact that the top floors of the complex were still under construction and therefore “off limits” to visitors, how do you case the joint without anyone noticing? Then there’s the whole pesky issue of possibly ending up in stir on a reckless endangerment beef; at the very least, a charge of criminal trespass. Considering all of that, the actual act of traipsing the wire starts to look like the easiest part of the gig. A clandestine operation of this magnitude requires meticulous planning, and at least a couple trustworthy co-conspirators. Sounds like the makings of a classic heist film, no?

All of this potential for a cracking good true-life tale was not lost on director James Marsh, who enlisted the still spry and charmingly elfin Petit, along with a few members of his “crew” to give a first-hand account of events leading up to what can perhaps best be described as a “performance art heist”. Taking an obvious stylistic cue from docu-master Errol Morris, Marsh lets these intimate and engagingly spun first person recollections drive the compelling narrative for his artfully rendered mélange of archival footage and faux-cinema verite reenactments. Marsh also deserves kudos for his excellent choice of music. Excerpts from Michael Nyman’s lovely “La traversee de Paris” are used to great effect, and the accompaniment of Peter Green’s sublime instrumental “Albatross” to one of Petit’s more balletic high wire walks makes for a  transcendent sequence.

The most obvious question is “Why did he do it?” It certainly wasn’t for money (first clue: no corporate sponsors, at least up to and including his 1974 feat). It did not appear to be an act of willful self promotion, which is where he decidedly parts ways with say, an Evel Knieval. He didn’t appear to be making any kind of political or social statement. So what gives? At the time, he enigmatically offered “When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk.” Petit himself remains a bit elusive on the motivations for his stunts.

The director doesn’t  push the issue, which I think is wise. When you watch the mesmerizing footage of Petit floating on the air between the towers of Notre Dame, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and then ultimately the World Trade Center, you realize that it is simply an act of pure aesthetic grace, like a beautiful painting or an inspired melody. And you also suspect that he does it…because he can. That’s impressive enough for me, because I can barely balance a checkbook, and as to heights? I get a nosebleed from thick socks.

The Edge is Still Out There: Gonzo, the Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 12, 2008)

No fun to hang around
Feeling that same old way
No fun to hang around
Freaked out for another day
No fun my babe no fun

 -The Stooges

 “No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”

 -Hunter S. Thompson

It’s been just over three years now since the godfather of gonzo journalism eschewed his beloved typewriter to scrawl those words with a magic marker, four days prior to pulling a Hemingway. Ever the contrarian, Thompson couldn’t resist adding a twist of gonzo irony to his suicide note, by entitling it “Football Season is Over.”

Since then, several quickie “tell-all” books have played Monday morning quarterback with the life and legacy of the iconoclastic writer, with what one would assume would be a wildly varying degree of accuracy. That’s because Hunter S. Thompson was a mass of  contradictions. His work was imbued with DFH political idealism and tempered by full commitment to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll; yet he loved to collect guns, blow shit up and counted the likes of Pat Buchanan among his personal friends. I don’t envy his biographers.

In Gonzo: the Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room) may have discovered the right formula. He takes an approach as scattershot and unpredictable as the subject himself; using a frenetic pastiche of talking heads, vintage home movies,  film clips, animation, audio tapes and snippets of prose (voiced by Johnny Depp, who has become to Thompson what Hal Holbrook is to Mark Twain). While Gibney keeps the timeline fairly linear, he does make interesting choices along the way-and equally interesting omissions (e.g., Thompson’s formative years are given the bum’s rush).

Gibney begins with the 1966 book Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, which first established Thompson’s groundbreaking style of journalism (as one interviewee observes, he essentially “embedded” himself with the notorious motorcycle gang). An overview of his Rolling Stone reportage ensues, highlighted by the assignment that resulted in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. There’s a fascinating account of how Thompson’s bacchanalian propensities caused him to blow his coverage of the Ali-Foreman bout in Zaire, posited by Gibney as the first inkling that personal excesses were starting to affect HST’s ability to consistently knock one out of the park with each piece.

A lion’s share of the film is devoted to two particular chapters of Thompson’s life: his quasi-serious run for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado and his coverage of the 1972 presidential elections (which provided fodder for Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72).

The segment regarding the 1972 campaign is so riveting and well-crafted that I wished Gibney had turned it into a full-length companion documentary. Gibney reveals how the Eagleton VP nomination debacle and resultant death knell for the McGovern campaign was also a crushing blow to Thompson’s personal sense of 1960s idealism, signaling the beginning of an escalating disillusionment and bitterness that would permeate his political writing from that point on. The director also reminds us that Thompson was quite instrumental in bringing then-governor Jimmy Carter into the national political spotlight by championing his 1974 Law Day Speech.

I think political junkies are going to dig this film more than the those chiefly enamored with Hunter S. Thompson’s superficial substance-fueled “rebel” persona. Excepting the depiction of Thompson’s relatively unproductive latter years, spent ensconced in his Colorado compound, too distracted by guns, drugs and sycophants to do little else but slowly disappear up his own legend (like Elvis at Graceland) the director suppresses the urge to play up the public notoriety and revel in the writer’s recreational excesses, just to sell more movie tickets. If you’re expecting a sequel to Gilliam’s film, this is not for you.

The film is not without its flaws; the frequent use of Depp clips from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas becomes distracting and begins to feel like cheating (by contrast, there is only one brief nod to Bill Murray’s turn in Where the Buffalo Roam.) This is a minor quibble, because there are some real treasures here. Devotees will delight in listening to the audio snippets from the original cassettes that Thompson made while cruising through the Nevada desert with his attorney, as well as the recording of a shouting match between the writer and his long-time collaborator Ralph Steadman while they were in Zaire (let us pray that the DVD will bonus more from those priceless tapes).

This is not a hagiography; several ex-wives and associates  make no bones about reminding us that the man could be a real asshole. On the other hand, examples of his genuine humanity and idealism are brought to the fore as well, making for an insightful and fairly balanced overview of this “Dr. Gonzo and Mr. Thompson” dichotomy. What the director does not forget is that, at the end of the day, HST was the most unique American political commentator/ social observer who ever sat down to peck at a bullet-riddled typewriter.

Bastard. We could sure as shit use him now.

Knight and the City: The Dark Knight ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 26, 2008)

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I love this dirty town.

Psst…Have you heard? There’s this new Batman movie out this summer. Rumor has it that it might have legs. Personally, I think the whole thing sounds a little iffy. I hope that the film studio will be able to recoup its modest $100 million promotion expenditure. Furthermore, I…oops, hang on; someone is sending me a text message. Ah-it’s from one of my inside sources. It says: “$155,000,000 opening weekend.” What a relief (whew!).

Some leading critics are hailing The Dark Knight as the best “superhero” movie of all time. I can’t weigh in on that angle, because it’s not one of my favorite genres (although I was pleasantly surprised by Iron Man). One thing I can tell you with assurance about Christopher Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins is this: it is one of the best contemporary film noirs I’ve seen since Michael Mann’s Heat.

Giving you a detailed synopsis would be moot; suffice it to say that crime-ridden Gotham City still enjoys the nocturnal protection of the Batman (Christian Bale), the masked vigilante/alter-ego of wealthy industrialist playboy (corporate fascist?) Bruce Wayne. He continues his uneasy alliance with the stalwart Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) an Elliot Ness-type lawman who has vowed to round up all the bad guys in Gotham and outfit them in striped PJs. In this outing, they are joined by “incorruptible” D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).

A spanner in the works arrives in the person of The Joker (the late Heath Ledger) a vile criminal mastermind who has formed an uneasy alliance of his own with an assortment of Gotham’s most unsavory recidivists, like the city’s mob boss (Eric Roberts). However, the Joker’s increasingly twisted, nihilistic acts of mayhem even begin to repulse his underworld cohorts. He is the embodiment of purely soulless anarchy, which brings us to Ledger’s performance, which is what lies at the very (dark) heart of this film.

This is one part of the  hype surrounding the film that is justified; Ledger is mesmerizing in every  frame he inhabits. This definitely isn’t your father’s Joker (Cesar Romero’s vaudevillian cackler in Batman ’66) or even Jack’s Joker (Nicholson’s hammy turn in Batman ‘89). Ledger plays his Joker like a psychotic mash-up of Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange, Tim Curry’s evil clown in Stephen King’s It, with maybe some occasional sampling from Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Gene Simmons on crack. He’s John Wayne Gacy, coming for your children with a paring knife, and in the clown costume. I don’t know what war-torn region of the human soul Ledger went to in order to find his character, but I don’t ever want to go there, even just to snap a few pictures.

While there is no shortage of the requisite budget-busting action sequences that one expects in a summer crowd-pleaser, it’s the surprisingly complex morality tale simmering just beneath the Biff! Pow! Bam! in Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s screenplay that is unexpectedly engaging; it even verges on being thought-provoking.

Nolan is no stranger to the noir sensibility; previous films like Insomnia, Memento, and Following bear that out. When I watch those films, I get a sense he has studied the masters; in fact the bank robbery that opens The Dark Knight is obvious homage to the heist scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. There are a lot of classic noir themes at work here, in particularly the hard-boiled notion that no one is incorruptible; everyone has their price. This idea informs the nexus between the “heroes” and “villains” of the piece; nearly everyone eventually crosses the line to get what they want (even if it’s “justice”). That is what is most frightening about this particular incarnation of the Joker; his sole raison d’etre is to orchestrate a scenario of fear and anarchy-and then sit back and enjoy the show. “I am an agent of chaos,” he states at one point, and you believe him.

I wouldn’t recommend bringing the kids (or the squeamish) to this film, it’s the most brutally violent installment of the franchise. The violence feels very “real”; and I think that is what makes it disturbing. Despite the fact that it is, after all, a super hero fantasy, the film carries an overall tone of gritty realism that is unique for the genre. One scene in particular, set in an interrogation room of a police station and involving Batman and his nemesis, begins to reek uncomfortably of Eau de Jack Bauer (Holy Gitmo, Batman!).

I have a couple of other issues, but they don’t sink the film. Superb actors like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Cillian Murphy feel under-utilized in their underwritten parts. I also felt there were a few too many false endings; as a consequence, some subplots, like the transition of a principal “good guy” into a signature Batman nemesis, seem to get short shrift. Undoubtedly, these loose ends were primarily tacked on as sequel bait, which I suppose is par for the course. Still, you still might want to catch the The Dark Knight on a slow night… if only for experiencing Ledger’s singularly unique contribution to the screen villain hall of fame.

DIggin’ the scene with a gangster lean: American Gangster ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 10, 2007)

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There is a key scene in Ridley Scott’s crime epic American Gangster that defines the personal code driving one of the principal characters. “Look at the way you’re dressed,” says the impeccably groomed, tastefully attired 1970s Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) in disgust, to his ostentatiously pimped-out brother Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor), “…it’s a look that says: ‘arrest me’. Remember, the loudest one in the room is also the weakest one in the room.”

It’s one of the axioms Lucas picked up while paying his dues working as a driver for his mentor, an old-school Harlem crime lord (Clarence Williams III). By the time his boss keels over from a heart attack, Lucas has been thoroughly schooled in the shrewd business acumen of how to remain a wolf in sheep’s clothing; no matter how venal your methods are for getting to the top and maintaining your position, if you’re able to swing it while maintaining a respectable public appearance, everybody will still love you.

Scott’s film is all about “appearances”; judging a book by its cover, if you will. When we are first introduced to the other main character, New Jersey police detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), it’s unclear whether we’re observing a cop and his partner serving a warrant…or watching a disheveled street thug and his pal pulling a B & E. While his personal grooming habits may be questionable, it is apparent his integrity is of the highest order. Not only is he an honest cop in a department soaked with corruption (he’s sneered at as a “boy scout” when he turns in a million in cash discovered in a dealer’s car), he is also diligently studying to pass the bar exam so he can prosecute criminals in court as well. Ironically, he is concurrently entangled in a messy child custody battle with his ex-wife.

Lucas, on the other hand, maintains the appearance of an upstanding citizen; while surreptitiously operating on the opposite side of the law. He has prospered via an ingenious Southeast Asian heroin pipeline that bypasses any pesky “middlemen”. He buys an estate in the suburbs and sets up house for his brothers and his mother (played by the great Ruby Dee, who we don’t see enough of these days). He marries a beautiful Latina (Lymari Nadal) and ingratiates himself as a pillar of the community, mingling with the hoi polloi and contributing to charitable causes. Most interestingly, Lucas is also able to “hide in plain sight” due to the fact that during this era (the early to mid 1970s), it was literally beyond the ken of the law enforcement community to consider that such a sophisticated, large-scale drug operation could be helmed by an African-American.

Steven Zailian’s screenplay is based on true events; the story revels in the same seedy 70s N.Y.C. milieu that informed films like The French Connection, Serpico and Prince of the City; namely, the occasionally blurry line between a “cop” and a “robber” Scott also uses a trick that worked well for Michael Mann in Heat, building dramatic tension by keeping his two stars apart for most of the film, while teasing us on the inevitability that the pair’s “professional” paths are destined to cross. When Washington and Crowe finally do share a scene together, it proves well worth the wait (watch closely for the coffee cup prop that becomes a metaphorical chess piece; it’s a masterstroke of gesture from both actors).

Scott utilizes his patented ultra-slick visual style (although a grittier look might have better served the story). One bone to pick: despite the deliberate pacing for the first 2 hours, something about the denouement feels curiously rushed. That aside, honorable mentions need to go out to Josh Brolin, for his full-blooded performance as a corrupt Special Investigations Unit cop, and Armand Assante as a mob big shot. I liked the period soundtrack as well, although we need to declare a moratorium on Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street”. It’s a great song, but it’s now been used in three films!

Tough Guys Don’t Dance ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 10, 2007)

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You’ve likely heard by now that Norman Mailer has passed on. I’ll let the literary critics debate his legacy as an author, but I feel duty-bound to recommend a couple of memorable films that Mailer had a hand in creating.

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Believe it or not, Mailer had four films to his credit as a director. I can’t speak for Beyond the Law (1968), Wild 90 (1968), or Maidstone (1970) because I’ve never seem them (they’re pretty obscure and currently unavailable ), but Mailer’s fourth and final directorial effort, from 1987, happens to be one of my personal cult favorites.

If “offbeat noir” is your clarion call, Tough Guys Don’t Dance is your kind of film. Ryan O’Neal plays an inscrutable ex-con with a conniving “black widow” for a wife, who experiences five “really bad days” in a row, involving drugs, kinky sex, blackmail and murder. Due to some temporary amnesia, however, he’s not sure of his own complicity (O’Neal begins each day by writing the date on his bathroom mirror with shaving cream-keep in mind, this film precedes Memento by 13 years.) Veteran noir icon Lawrence Tierny (cast here 5 years before Tarantino thought of resurrecting him for Reservoir Dogs) is priceless as O’Neal’s estranged father, who is helping him sort out events (it’s worth the price of admission alone to hear Tierny bark “I just deep-sixed two heads!”). Equally notable is a deliciously demented performance by B-movie trouper Wings Hauser as the hilariously named Captain Alvin Luther Regency. Norman Mailer’s “lack” of direction has been duly noted, but his minimalist style works, giving this film a David Lynch feel (although that might be due to the fact that Isabella Rossilini co-stars and the soundtrack was composed by Lynch stalwart Angelo Badalamenti).

Also worth checking out is The Executioner’s Song. A star-making turn from Tommy Lee Jones helped make this dramatization of the Gary Gilmore case one of the best “made for TV” films. Mailer adapted the teleplay from his own book (both available on DVD).

Death of a Lens man: R.I.P. Laszlo Kovacs

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 8, 2007)

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You know what “they” say- it always comes in threes. We recently lost two masters of world cinema, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. Then, on July 21, we lost someone with a bit less name recognition but no less importance. I am referring to one of American cinema’s most respected and influential cinematographers, Laszlo Kovacs. This week, we’ll take a look at some “must see” films from this craftsman’s prolific 50-year career.

Kovacs’ journey to the United States from his native Hungary plays like a nail-biting Cold War thriller. When the Hungarian Revolution exploded on the streets of Budapest in 1956, the young Kovacs, together with fellow student Vilmos Zsigmond, boldly documented the ensuing events with a hidden camera (on loan from their school). The budding film makers then risked life and limb to smuggle the resulting 30,000 feet of footage across the Austrian border. Both men subsequently sought and won political asylum in the U.S. in 1957. (BTW, there is a forthcoming documentary entitled Laszlo & Vilmos: The Story of Two Refugees Who Changed the Look of American Cinema). The cinematography style of Kovacs and Zsigmond was quite literally borne from revolution; and it certainly revolutionized American cinema in the 1970’s with a signature “look”.

Hands down, the film that put Kovacs on the map was Easy Rider (1969). The dialog (along with the mutton chops, fringe vests and love beads) may not have dated so well, but thanks to his exemplary DP work, those now iconic images of expansive American landscapes and the endless gray ribbons that traverse them remain the quintessential touchstone for all subsequent American “road” movies, from Vanishing Point, Two Lane Blacktop and Badlands, through Lost in America, Thelma and Louise and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, all the way up to the recent Little Miss Sunshine.

I’m not sure what his feelings were about this (or if he even cared), but in the course of his long and illustrious career, it’s interesting that Kovacs never once snagged an Oscar (although he was nominated a few times). His friend Zsigmond fared better with the Academy; likely because to tended to work on higher profile films, whilst Kovacs gravitated more toward artistic and/or independent projects (at least through the period leading up to Ghostbusters, the biggest box office hit he ever collaborated on).

Ironically, the final film that Kovacs is credited on prior to his death was a 2006 project with his old friend Zsigmond, a documentary that was produced to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution called Torn from the Flag. In an artistic sense, you could say that he came full circle.

Here’s a Whitman’s sampler (if you will) of more cinematic gems from Kovacs’ resume:

Hell’s Angels on Wheels (1967) – Easy Rider wasn’t the first foray into the 60’s biker scene for Kovacs and Jack Nicholson; this cult film/guilty pleasure from director Richard Rush (The Stuntman) may have been the warm-up. Separated from the rest of the era’s grind house grist by Nicholson’s charisma and the skillful work from director Rush and DP Kovacs. Adam Roarke lives!

Targets (1968)-Director Peter Bogdanovich’s impressive debut and the first of many collaborations with DP Kovacs. Bogdanovich created a minor classic with this low-budget wonder about an aging horror movie star (Boris Karloff, not such a stretch) who is destined to cross paths with a seemingly “normal” young man who is about to go totally Charles Whitman on his sleepy community. This film presaged the likes of Taxi Driver, The Stepfather and Falling Down in its implementation of the “disenfranchised white male who snaps and goes on a killing spree” theme. A real sleeper.

Five Easy Pieces (1970)-“You see this sign?!” Easy Rider collaborators Kovacs, director Bob Rafelson and star Jack Nicholson were reunited for what is arguably the defining road movie of the 70’s. Nicholson fully realized what we now think of as the iconic “Jack” persona in this character study about a disillusioned, classically-trained piano player from a moneyed family, working a soulless blue-collar job and teetering on the verge of an existential meltdown. Karen Black (Oh! The voluptuous horror!) contributes outstanding support as his long-suffering waitress girlfriend. Kovacs makes excellent use of the verdant, rain-soaked milieu of the Pacific Northwest. No substitutions!

What’s Up, Doc? (1972)- Another Bogdanovich-Kovacs collaboration, this hysterically funny homage to Hollywood’s golden age of screwball comedies (think Bringing Up Baby) features wonderful tongue-in-cheek performances from Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand. Kovacs works his usual DP magic with the luminous San Francisco locale.

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)-The Rafelson-Nicholson-Kovacs triumvirate hits yet another one out of the park in this intense neo-noir character study about a cynical radio talk show host (Nicholson) who attempts to save his low-life con artist brother (Bruce Dern) from himself, only to become embroiled in one of his sleazy schemes. Ellen Burstyn gives one of the best performances by an actress ever, period. Kovacs expertly wrings every possible drop of noir atmosphere from the grim, gray Atlantic City locale. A brilliant work of art, any way you slice it. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

Paper Moon (1973)-The true test of a cinematographer’s mettle is how well he or she can work in black and white; and Kovacs passes the “shadows and light” test with flying colors in this Bogdanovich film about a Depression-era bible salesman/con artist (Ryan O’Neal) and his precocious young sidekick (40 year-old midget Tatum O’Neal).

Shampoo (1975)-Sex and politics (and more sex) are mercilessly skewered, along with the shallow SoCal lifestyle in Hal Ashby’s classic satire. Warren Beatty (who co-scripted with Robert Towne) plays a restless, over-sexed hairdresser with commitment “issues” (Oy, having to choose one “favorite” between Lee Grant, Goldie Hawn and Julie Christie would give anyone such tsuris!) Beatty allegedly based his character on his close friend (and hairdresser to the stars) Jay Sebring, one of the victims of the grisly Tate-LaBianca slayings in 1969. This was one of the earliest films to step back and satirize the 60’s counterculture zeitgeist with the hindsight of historical detachment. Kovacs gives the L.A. backdrop an appropriately soft, gauzy look that perfectly matched the protagonist’s fuzzy approach to dealing with adult responsibilities.

Heart Beat (1980)-John Byrum’s slightly flawed but fascinating take on the relationship between beat writer Jack Kerouac (John Heard), Carolyn Cassady (Sissy Spacek) and Neal Cassady (Nick Nolte) over a 20-year period. Hmm, a character study about restless people, non-conformity and going On The Road-who ya gonna call? Why, Laszlo Kovacs, natch! (Byrum wasn’t dumb). A low-budget sleeper.

Frances (1982)-Speaking of non-conformists. The sad story of how the bright, headstrong and politically outspoken actress Frances Farmer transitioned from a promising young Hollywood starlet in the 1940’s to a lobotomized mental patient, dying in near-obscurity is dramatized in this absorbing biopic from director Graeme Clifford. Jessica Lange throws herself into the role with complete abandonment and fearless passion, providing a compelling impetus for staying with this otherwise overlong film. Kovac’s sharp DP work drenches the dark, tragic tale in haunting, gothic atmosphere.

Shattered (1991)-Kovacs teams up with action director Wolfgang Petersen. Tom Berenger and Greta Scacchi steam up the screen in this Hitchcockian tale of a man attempting to piece his life back together after suffering amnesia following a serious auto accident (or was it an accident?). Sure, this plot has been done to death, but the attractive leads, taut direction and the dynamic lens work by Kovacs make it a worthwhile watch.

Also-for additional back story of the American film renaissance of the 1970’s, I highly recommend the documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (Kovacs is a featured interviewee.)

Summer of Darkness: Warner’s Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4 ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 11, 2007)

The summer of 2007 has been belly belly good for aficionados of film noir (guilty, your honor!). Recent DVD reissues include Criterion’s long awaited restoration of Billy Wilder’s cynical masterpiece Ace in the Hole, a trio from MGM including Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the WIndow, Orson Welles’ The Stranger and Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential (all three sporting transfers superior to public domain prints on previous DVDs) and now  there’s an outstanding  10-film set from Warner Brothers, the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4.

The real jewels among the treasures in the Warner Brothers box set are a pair of cult films that hardcore noir geeks have been itching to get their mitts on for years-Crime Wave and Decoy (both on one disc-it’s almost enough make me believe that there is a God).

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Crime Wave (1954) was directed by Andre de Toth, perhaps more well-known for directing stark westerns like Ramrod (1947) and Day of the Outlaw (1959). After languishing in B-movie obscurity for decades, this strikingly photographed, low-budget wonder has built a cult following over the years.

The story itself is fairly standard issue; an ex-con trying to go straight (Gene Nelson) is framed and blackmailed by two former cell mates (ubiquitous noir heavy Ted de Corsia and a  young Charles Bronson). Nelson’s character gets a shot at clearing himself by helping a homicide detective (played by a looming, toothpick-chewing Sterling Hayden) bring his blackmailers to justice.

The two main factors setting Crime Wave apart from other era B-movies are the meticulously composed cinematography (by DP Burt Glennon) and the ingenious use of L.A. locations. Although the decision to shoot almost exclusively on location was likely based more on pragmatism (budgetary constraints) than artistic vision, the end result was a neo-realism that makes the film seem less dated than its contemporaries. The DVD transfer is nearly flawless, taken from what looks like a pristine vault print.

I also send out major kudos to whomever it was came up with the inspired idea to pair up film noir expert extraordinaire Eddie Muller with the master of modern pulp crime fiction, James Ellroy for the commentary track. Muller’s encyclopedic torrent of fascinating trivia and savant-like grasp of All Things Noir is always worth the ride (I heartily recommend you pick up his book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir) and having Ellroy in the passenger seat is extra icing on the cake.

Ellroy is a riot; panting and growling his way through the commentary and acting like a perverse version of the proverbial kid in the candy store as he spots and identifies familiar L.A. locales. Most interestingly, he posits Crime Wave as a spot-on visual time capsule of the 1950s LAPD milieu that informed the backdrop for the series of crime novels  referred to as his “L.A. quartet” (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz). Fans of L.A. Confidential (the book and/or the movie) in particular will fall out of their chair like I did when Ellroy exclaims “That is Bud White!!” the first time Sterling Hayden’s world-weary, physically intimidating LAPD detective shambles onscreen.

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And then (hoo, boy) there’s Decoy (1946), which gets my vote for the closest thing to a David Lynch film prior to, well the moment David Lynch unleashed his first full-length feature film on an unsuspecting public. Featuring a truly demented performance from British actress Jean Gillie as one of the most psycho femme fatales ever (replete with an insane cackle that could de-calcify your spinal column at twenty paces), this mash-up of Body Heat with Re-animator defies description (although…I believe I just described it!).

Gillie masticates all available scenery as Margot Shelby, mastermind of a small gang of thieves, who comes up with an elaborate scheme to literally bring a former associate back from the dead immediately following his execution in the gas chamber (don’t ask) so she can put the squeeze on him and find out where he hid $400,000 (can’t call that a cliche narrative).

In order to get to that loot, Margot charms, uses and then unceremoniously discards a string of hapless male chumps in record time (the film runs less than 80 minutes). In the film’s most infamous scene, she runs over her lover, then just for giggles, backs up the car and runs over him again (remember, this movie predates Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! by a good 20 years). A must see for genre diehards who think they’ve seen it all.

Warner is selling the five double feature discs in the box set “a la carte” as well; but they list at $20 each. I would recommend picking up the box set-Amazon and some of the brick and mortar retailers are selling the collection for around $40 (averaging out to $4.00 per title) making this set the bargain of the year for noir enthusiasts.

Arise, Commie Pinko Hollywood Lefties: Reds (****) & The Internationale (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 17, 2007)

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Every time I see our illustrious VP’s mug on the tube or hear mention of Halliburton, I always flash on my favorite scene in Warren Beatty’s Reds. Early on in the film, the story’s protagonist, journalist/activist/Communist Party member John Reed (Beatty), is at a meeting of Portland’s Liberal Club, where discussion has turned to the current war in Europe (WWI). Reed is asked what he thinks the conflict is “about”. Reed stands up, simply mumbles one word, then promptly sits right back down. The word: “Profits”. The crystalline brevity of that answer blew my (then) twenty-something mind back in 1981.

Indeed, it is a testament to Beatty’s own sense of conviction and legendary powers of persuasion (or as Tom Hanks put it, repeatedly, at the recent Golden Globe Awards, “Balls”) that he was able to convince a major Hollywood studio to back a 3 ½ hour epic about a relatively obscure American Communist (who is buried in the Kremlin, no less).

As we know now, of course, the film turned out to be a critical success, and garnered a dozen Oscar noms (it won three, including Best Director). Almost unbelievably, it was not released on DVD until late 2006. If you haven’t seen it in a while, or have never seen it-you owe yourself a screening, particularly if you are a history buff.

Diane Keaton turns in one of her best performances as Reed’s lover, writer and feminist Louise Bryant. Maureen Stapleton (who we sadly lost last year) earned her Best Supporting Actress trophy with a memorable portrayal of activist Emma Goldman. Jack Nicholson’s take on the complex, mercurial playwright, Eugene O’Neill is a wonder to behold. And Beatty deserves kudos for assembling an amazing group of surviving real-life participants, whose anecdotal recollections are seamlessly interwoven throughout, like a Greek Chorus of living history. No one makes ‘em like this anymore.

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If you really want to make a “subversive” night of it, a certain rousing anthem that figures prominently in the Reds soundtrack is the sole spotlight of another recent DVD release. Blending archival footage with thoughtful commentary, The Internationale takes a look at the origins and historical impact of the eponymous political anthem, from its 19th century roots in the French Commune movement to Tienanmen Square and beyond, packed into a breezy 30 minutes.

Arguably one of the most idealized (and frequently misinterpreted) rallying songs ever composed (just the melody alone gives me goose bumps), the tune has been embraced by Socialists, Marxists, anarchists, anti-Fascists, workers and labor activists alike over the years, transcending nationalist and language barriers. The most interesting aspect the film examines concerns the bad rap the song received after it was “officially” adapted by the oppressive, post-revolutionary Soviet regime. Pete Seeger (a perfect choice, no?) emcees the proceedings, with support from historians, musicologists, and multinational participants (veteran and current) in some of the aforementioned movements. British punk agitprop troubadour extraordinaire Billy Bragg also makes a brief appearance. C’mon everybody! You know the words…

Whacking philosophical: The Sopranos coda

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 10, 2007)

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Well, this is it. After tonight, no more Sunday night dinners with Tony, Carmela and the, erm, Family (Hmmm…maybe no more Tony-we’ll know definitively by 10pm Eastern).

Whatever happens tonight on the series finale of HBO’s The Sopranos, one thing we can count on is this: It’s not likely to resemble M*A*S*H: The Final Episode (with the possible exception of the gunshot traumas). Let’s just say I don’t foresee a lot of hugging.

This mash-up of The Honeymooners with I, Claudius was a stroke of genius, and we probably will not see its like again anytime soon. Love it or hate it, David Chase’s epic mob drama has changed the formula of what constitutes a “hit series” and upped the ante considerably on TV drama in general. A 48 minute story arc just won’t cut it any more.

The Sopranos has weathered many storms since its 1999 debut, from initial accusations that the show was only serving to reinforce the Italian-American gangster stereotype, to a sophomore slump (Chase allegedly endured a paralyzing creative block getting the much-delayed and grumpily received fourth season underway), and most recently suffering a dramatic drop-off in viewership.

But despite the vacillating loyalty by viewers, the outcries from the PC police regarding stereotypes, sex and violence, and all the fan boys hand wringing themselves silly online over who shouldn’t have been whacked and who deserves to be whacked, one thing about the show has remained consistent. The directing, writing and acting has been, hands down, some of the best I have seen in any medium, whether it be network TV, cable or film. The Sopranos deserves every Emmy it has received and more, and I miss it already.

So what are we going to watch now on HBO Sunday nights? John from Cincinnati?! I hate it already. Somehow, the idea of a show centered on a philosophical surfer dude by the creators of Deadwood isn’t exactly grabbing me (why don’t they just call it “Driftwood”-because that’s all it’s going to be in the wake of The Sopranos, IMHO).

And the biggest question of all-what’s James Gandolfini going to do now? Will he face the “Spock” curse of being so indelibly linked with one particular television character that he can never be taken seriously in any other role? Well, maybe he could look to Bill Shatner for inspiration… wait a minute…that’s it!

Picture if you will: later tonight, after the final episode has been put to bed, Denny Crane and Tony Soprano are sitting on the balcony, enjoying their well-earned scotch and cigars. Denny turns to Tony and says reassuringly, “Don’t worry, Tone. There’s life after a cult series. Seriously.” Tony raises his glass, and with a sparkle in his eye, says: “Sleepover tonight?” To which Denny replies: “You don’t mean…’with the fishes’, do you?” Both men laugh and clink glasses.

(Music up, fade to black.) Adieu, Tony. Adieu.

SIFF 2007: The Life of Reilly (***1/2) & Delirious (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 14, 2007)

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This week, we’ll examine a pair of films that offer two different perspectives on the business we call “show”- from the inside looking out, and from the outside looking in.

The Life of Reilly is a new performance film featuring a veritable tour de force of masterful showmanship from a very unlikely source-Charles Nelson Reilly. Yes, I’m referring to that Charles Nelson Reilly, instantly recognizable by his flamboyant demeanor and propensity for catty zingers, and best known for his ubiquitous presence on the talk show/game show circuit from the late 60s onward (Younger readers may recognize him as a recurring character on the X Files and its spin off series Millennium.)

Reilly, who passed away in May of this year, once resignedly predicted that all of his obits would undoubtedly contain the phrase “game show fixture” somewhere in the lead sentence. Actually, it would surprise many people to learn that Reilly was in fact classically trained as a stage actor. It certainly surprised a group of college students once attending one of Reilly’s master acting classes, when they were unexpectedly treated to a lengthy but enthusiastically received performance piece (improvised on the spot), in response to a simple question: “How did you become an actor?” The incident inspired Reilly’s autobiographical one man show Save it for the Stage. Reilly had officially ended the run before he was asked to perform it one final time (in 2004) for this film.

Reilly runs the theatrical gamut, segueing from hilarious anecdote to moving soliloquy without missing a beat. He begins with a series of wonderful vignettes about growing up in the Bronx. Reilly had a tragicomic family background tailor-made for a stage show (an overbearing mother, institutionalized father and a live-in aunt with a lobotomy) and he milks it for all its worth. His mother’s favorite admonishment, “Save it for the stage!” becomes the teenage Reilly’s secret mantra as he begins to gravitate toward the boards.

After a promising start in “Miss (Uta) Hagen’s $3 Tuesday afternoon acting class” in NYC in the early 50s (you won’t believe your ears as Reilly rattles off the names from the actual roll call), he hits a brick wall when he auditions for an NBC talent scout, only to be bluntly informed “They don’t let queers (sic) on television.” In a brilliant callback later in the play, Reilly gets the last laugh when he recalls poring over TV Guide every week at the peak of his saturation on the tube, to play a game wherein he would count how many times his name would appear (including reruns). “I know I was once told I wasn’t allowed on TV,” he quips, “…but now I found myself thinking: Who do I fuck to get off?!” At once funny, moving, and inspiring, The Life of Reilly is a real winner.

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Our second SIFF feature this week is the latest offering from writer-director Tom DeCillo, Delirious. (Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.) DiCillo returns to the same sharply observed, navel-gazing territory he explored in his previous films The Real Blonde and Living in Oblivion, namely, pointed meditations on the personal and artistic angst that performers (and all those who take succor from their celebrity) must suffer as they busily claw their way to fame and fortune.

DeCillo regular Steve Buscemi portrays the peevish Les Galantine, a bottom feeding paparazzi who fancies himself as the heir apparent to Richard Avedon. We are introduced to Les in a scene that strongly recalls Martin Scorsese introduction of the desperate and needy autograph hounds in The King of Comedy; a group of photographers hurl insults and elbows at each other as they jostle for position waiting for a glimpse of the ridiculously named K’Harma Leeds (Alison Lohman), a wispy pop diva. We observe as Les establishes himself as the alpha parasite, shoving his way to the front of the swarm.

Also on hand is an aspiring actor turned homeless bum named Toby Grace portrayed with wide-eyed, angelic, erm, grace by Michael Pitt. Quite by accident, Toby literally stumbles into affording Les the money shot of the diva as she steals out a side door. Toby subsequently ingratiates himself into an overnight stay on Les’ couch, and, with the opportunistic instinct of a street person, proceeds to convince the initially suspicious photographer that he needs an assistant to help him get more of those page one tabloid photos (a job he will gladly fill in exchange for room and board).

To avoid spoilers, let’s just say serendipity (and a tremendous suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer) eventually lands the homeless Toby into a plum role in a hot new TV series, and a star is born, greatly complicating his friendship with the now embittered and still-struggling Les, who feels Toby is “his” discovery (Pitt is basically reprising the same All About Eve-styled character he portrayed in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.)

DiCillo isn’t exactly breaking new ground either, but he executes it with his patented blend of darkly comic cynicism, tempered by an occasional touch of magical realism. Buscemi is at his “lovable weasel” best here, and the strong supporting cast includes the always dependable indie stalwart Kevin Corrigan (Who?! If you saw him, you would say “Oh yeah-that guy.”) and Gina Gershon, who displays a real flair for vicious comedy as a cutthroat agent (her character is sort of a female version of Ari Gold from HBO’s Entourage.) Also look for Elvis Costello, as himself in a hilarious cameo. I wouldn’t call this DeCillo’s best film, but fans of “backstage” tales are sure to get some jollies out of it.