All posts by Dennis Hartley

Of second childishness and mere oblivion: Synecdoche, NY ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 15, 2008)

Time – He’s waiting in the wings
He speaks of senseless things
His script is you and me boys

-David Bowie

“Did you see their faces?” my friend stage-whispered to me as we shuffled up the aisle toward the movie theater’s exit. “Yes,” I answered, staring glumly at my shoes, “I did.” He was referring to the ashen-faced patrons with thousand-yard stares who remained pinned to their seats, following a Sunday matinee showing of Synecdoche, New York. “Well,” I deadpanned, in a halfhearted attempt to lighten the mood, “Should we just go outside now and throw ourselves under the nearest bus?” My friend appeared to actually be weighing the pros and cons for a moment. “What do you say we grab some pizza instead?” he finally countered. We decided on the pizza. After all, it was only a movie.

Well, technically, it was only a movie about a theater director whose life is only a play. Or was it? Who were all these players, strutting and fretting about their two hours upon the movie screen? Were they just a Fig Newton of someone’s overactive imagination? And why didn’t the “play” in the film ever have an audience? Maybe we should ask the guy who wrote and directed it (I just happen to have Charlie Kaufman right here, under my desk on Floor 7 ½). Mr. Kaufman, what was that you once said about third acts?

 I don’t know what the hell a third act is.

 -Charlie Kaufman

 Oh. You’re not helping (I’ve got a review to write here, and deadline is fast approaching). If you are just joining us (and wondering when the hell the review is going to start) we’re talking about screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who, with his stubbornly insistent anti-multiplex sensibility and a resultant propensity for penning feverishly bizarre, densely oblique narratives (Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) has become a hot property in cult/art house filmdom, and The Guy Everybody Wants To Work With (For Scale). Now someone has gone and given Kaufman a director’s chair, and the result is the most simultaneously brilliant and maddeningly indecipherable character study since (dare I say it?) Berlin Alexanderplatz (though the running time is 13 hours shorter).

First, let’s get something out of the way, regarding the film’s unpronounceable, Spell-check challenged title. “Synecdoche” is Kaufman’s cryptic nom de plume for Schenectady, a real town in upstate New York. Even though I briefly lived in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area, I’m afraid I cannot shed any light on the significance of the title (maybe Kaufman couldn’t come up with a clever misspelling for Massapequa?). Okay, I’m being a wee bit facetious; according to the dictionary, it means:

 ..a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part, the special for the general or the general for the special, as in ten sail for ten ships or a Croesus for a rich man.

Get it? Got it. Good. Er-let’s move on to the synopsis portion of this “review”, shall we?

Philip Seymour Hoffman eats up the screen five ways from Sunday as Caden Cotard, a struggling regional theater director from Schenectady who gets a shot at  mounting his magnum opus on the Great White Way after scoring a  “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. Obsessed with “keeping it real”, Caden ambitiously leases a huge Manhattan warehouse, and literally constructs a theatrical version of his life, replete with life-sized reproductions of the places he has lived and a large ensemble cast to portray himself and all the people he has known. Lest you assume this is “Rocky on Broadway”, two things: a) This was written by Charlie Kaufman, and b) Something that John Lennon once observed- “Genius is pain.”

Caden has his fair share of pain, physical and emotional. He suffers from an unknown malady that is systematically destroying his autonomic functions. His first wife (Catherine Keener) has left him (with their daughter) to pursue a career as an artist in Germany, where her myopic paintings (so tiny that they require  magnifying goggles for viewing) have won her accolades. Caden has remarried, to one of his leading ladies (Michelle Williams), but things aren’t going so well. His therapist (Hope Davis) is too self-absorbed and preoccupied with marketing her self-help books to offer him any counsel. The only woman in his life that seems to understand him is his personal assistant (Samantha Morton) with whom he develops a complex, long-standing, (mostly) platonic relationship.

As dark as this film is, Kaufman seems to be having fun with the Chinese Box aspect of Caden’s completely self-referential, decades-long production. The very concept of an ongoing stage piece, presented in “real time”, as a metaphor for someone’s ongoing life brings up a lot of existential questions, like, how do you “rehearse” reality? Don’t you have to be psychic? Kaufman’s narrative idea recalls some of Andy Warhol’s experiments, like his 1963 film, Sleep, a five hour epic depicting someone sleeping for five hours. Some people called it genius, others a snore (sorry).

Synecdoche, New York may or may not be a work of genius, but it is anything but a snore, thanks to a brilliant cast. Hoffman remains one of the most amazing actors of his generation. The ensemble holds an embarrassment of riches; in addition to the aforementioned, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh bring their formidable skills to the table as well. If you’re like me, you may not fully comprehend the whys and wherefores of all that commences during the course of this astounding 2-hour mind fuck, but you’ll love the pizza afterwards (…in fair round belly with good capon lined).

Silence is golden: Continental: a Film Without Guns ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 31, 2008)

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Quebecois writer-director Stephane LeFleur’s Continental: A Film Without Guns breathes new life into the “network narrative” (a device popularized by Robert Altman, but which has become  a cinematic staple dating at least as far back as 1932’s Grand Hotel.)

In fact, LeFleur uses a hotel as the rendezvous point in this story of four lonely and disenfranchised people, whose lives are destined to intersect, directly or tangentially. In the enigmatic opening scene, a middle aged insurance salesman snoozes through his bus stop and wakes up at the end of the line (literally and/or figuratively). He calmly gathers up his briefcase and coat, and after what appears to be a moment of Zen, meditating on the night sounds of the forest, walks straight into the darkness of the trees and disappears.

The remainder of the film delves into the ripple effect that the man’s disappearance has on the lives of four people-his 50-ish wife (Marie-Ginette Guay), a 30-ish life insurance salesman who is hired to replace him (Real Bosse), a 60-ish owner of a second-hand store (Gilbert Sicotte) and a 20-something hotel receptionist (Fanny Mallette). To be sure, the age spread of the characters indicates a convenient symmetry, but LeFleur is examining certain universal truths about the human condition that transcend age and/or gender; namely, the fear of dying, and perhaps most terrifying of all- the fear of dying alone.

That is not to say that this is a Bergman-esque, “excuse me while I go hang myself in the closet” fest. LeFleur injects just enough deadpan humor into his script to diffuse the inherently depressing nature of his themes. All members of the cast give uniformly excellent performances. The almost painterly photography (by DP Sara Mishara) is richly moody and atmospheric, no small feat in a film largely comprised of static interior shots.

LeFleur exhibits a style quite similar to that of fellow Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan (The Adjustor, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter). Like Egoyan, LeFleur is not afraid to hold a shot as long as he needs to, nor is he afraid of silence. Silence can speak volumes, especially in the hands of a skilled director (just watch any Kurosawa film for a master class). In a movie season of explosions and screeching tires, a little silence can be golden.

All by myself: Mr. Lonely ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 31, 2008)

I will admit  that Harmony Korine is not one of my favorite directors. If you have followed this weekly post for a while, you know that I have high tolerance for what others might call “weird” or “unwatchable” cinema, but frankly, I found Korine’s Gummo (1997) and Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) a little too weird and (virtually) unwatchable. However, after taking in Mister Lonely, I guess Korine can make a “watchable” film…in the form of this tragicomic rumination on alienation, mental illness, and the human tendency to kowtow at the alter of both pop culture and “God” with equal fervor.

Beautifully shot by DP Marcel Zyskind (Code 46, The Road to Guantanamo), the film begins with an elegiac slow-mo sequence reminiscent of the opening credits for Blue Velvet. Choreographed to Bobby Vinton’s plaintive ballad “Mr. Lonely”, a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna), replete with requisite red jacket, shades and surgical mask, rides a scooter, with a stuffed, winged monkey toy in tow. It’s a remarkable scene that manages to convey both a blissful innocence and an aching sadness at the same time.

The otherwise shy and awkward young man puts out his hat and performs all the requisite flamboyant MJ dance moves in the streets of Paris, where he is largely ignored; he supplements this meager income with help from an “agent” who gets him the odd booking. While performing at a nursing home, he meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton). The two have an immediate attraction to each other, although “Marilyn” is quick to mention her husband, a Charlie Chaplin impersonator (Denis Lavant). She and “Charlie” live on a communal farm in Scotland with their daughter “Shirley Temple” and a few dozen other celebrity impersonators; she talks Michael into joining this odd but welcoming community (the “One of us! One of us!” chant from Freaks did enter my mind.)

At first glance, this extended family of fringe dwellers appears to lead a Utopian existence. They have a barn (yes, at one point, they do put on a show). They cheerfully tend to the livestock and enjoy warm communal mealtimes together (usually in full costume), but upon closer examination, it seems that there is trouble in paradise.

A sadomasochistic undercurrent runs through Marilyn and Charlie’s marriage; a tearful Marilyn blurts out the film’s best line: “Sometimes, when I look at you, you seem more like Adolph Hitler than Charlie Chaplain.” The “Pope” (James Fox) is an alcoholic. “Abe Lincoln” (Richard Strange) has an impulse to utilize “fuck” in every sentence. The Buckwheat impersonator has an unhealthy obsession with chickens…and so on. Korine throws in a weaker second narrative concerning a missionary priest/pilot (German director Werner Herzog, who cannot act) and his posse of er, flying nuns who help him do relief work in Central America. I will say no more.

Luna and Morton both give lovely and touching performances. I won’t pretend I completely grasped Korine’s intent; but his film is engaging, emotionally resonant, and ultimately haunting. I find it easier to contextualize by pointing to two Nicholas Roeg films that I strongly suspect had a major influence on Korine here: Performance (1970) and Insignificance (1985).

In Performance (written and co-directed by Donald Cammel), the narrative plays with the concept of two self-loathing protagonists who swap identities in an attempt to escape themselves; in essence “impersonating” each other. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Korine has cast two of the principal actors from Performance in his film-James Fox and Anita Pallenberg (who plays the Queen of England impersonator).

In  Insignificance, screenwriter Terry Johnson fantasizes Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Senator Joe McCarthy and Albert Einstein interacting in a hotel room in the 1950s; the result is a strange but compelling treatise on fame, politics and nuclear paranoia. Korine uses the same device (the unlikely juxtaposition of iconic figures) to expound on his themes as well. Granted, Mister Lonely is not for all tastes, but if you would prefer to not “Mess With the Zohan” this summer, thank you very much, it is one possible alternative.

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: R.I.P. Norman Mailer

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 thing, Tough Guys Don’t Dance is your kind of film. Ryan O’Neal plays an inscrutable ex-con with a conniving “black widow” of a wife, who experiences five “really bad days” in a row, involving drugs, kinky sex, blackmail and murder. Due to 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 resurrected 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 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 (that could  be due to the fact that Isabella Rossilini co-stars and the soundtrack was composed by Lynch stalwart Angelo Badalamenti).

I would also recommend 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 of these titles 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”.

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.

For additional back story on 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.)

Here’s a  sampler of cinematic gems from Kovacs’ resume:

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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 “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 snaps and goes on a killing spree” theme. A real sleeper.

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Easy Rider (1969)-Dennis Hopper’s groundbreaking directorial debut also put Kovacs on the map. The dialogue (along with the mutton chops, fringe vests and love beads) may not have dated so well, but thanks to Kovacs’ 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 the American “road” movies that have followed in its wake.

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Five Easy Pieces (1970)-“You see this sign?!” Easy Rider collaborators Kovacs, director Bob Rafelson and star Jack Nicholson were reunited for one of  the defining road movies of the 70’s. Nicholson fully realized 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 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!

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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.

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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.

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Paper Moon (1973)-The true test of a cinematographer’s mettle is how well they 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).

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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.

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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. A well-acted character study, with great work by Kovacs.

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Frances (1982)-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, providing a compelling impetus for staying with this otherwise overlong film. Kovacs drenches this dark, tragic tale with a gothic atmosphere.

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Shattered (1991)-Kovacs teamed up with action director Wolfgang Petersen for 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?). Granted, this plot has been done to death, but the attractive leads (Tom Berenger and Greta Scacchi steam up the screen), taut direction and the dynamic lens work by Kovacs make it a worthwhile watch.

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.