Monday, June 14, 2010

May 2010

TRACKS (1977)
After ushering in the most creative and adventurous decade in American cinema with “Easy Rider,” it was quite appropriate that Dennis Hopper appeared in the last great movie of the 1970s, “Apocalypse Now.” Yet in between, Hopper contributed almost nothing to this seminal era. Like much of his career, the 70s were lost in a haze of drugs, alcohol, paranoia and destructive relationships.

Actually, it’s a miracle “Easy Rider” ever got made if even half of the stories of Hopper’s behavior during the filming are true. Equally miraculous is that the man lived 74 years, losing a battle with prostate cancer on May 29.

Before he turned 20, Dennis Hopper had appeared in two classics of the 1950s, “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant,” both starring James Dean. By 1969, he was a minor supporting player, mostly in television, who had failed to live up to his own dream of carrying the Method acting torch for Dean.

Then Peter Fonda brought him a story of a pair of motorcycle-riding hippies transporting dope across the country. He fought endlessly with Fonda, co-writer Terry Southern and producer Bert Schneider and pulled a knife on co-star Rip Torn. That turned out to be Hopper’s best directorial decision: Torn was replaced by Jack Nicholson. Hopper turned in a four-hour cut of the film and was immediately sent on vacation as Schneider and editor Donn Cambern turned it into a releasable picture. No one expected to make a dime, but it grossed $40 million and nearly single-handedly awakened Hollywood to a new paradigm. The 70s were born.

But Hopper’s tenure as a hot, young director ended quickly with the incoherent chaos of his follow-up, “The Last Movie” (1971) and he was back to his pre-“Easy Rider” role, still a minor player even in the new Hollywood he helped create.

One of his more interesting performances during the decade is in “Tracks,” playing an unstable Vietnam vet escorting the body of a fellow soldier across the country. Actually, writer-director Henry Jaglom would have been better off dropping the Vietnam angle and finding another reason for Hopper’s train trip. Whatever political statement Jaglom was trying for here just gets in the way of a pretty good character study.

To say Hopper’s Jack Falan is tightly wound is an understatement. He’s so nervous around people that he usually excuses himself (very politely) just a few minutes after sitting down. He makes friends with a hustling hippie (Dean Stockwell) and makes a clumsy attempt to woo a confused college girl (Taryn Power), but by the end of the trip has become completely delusional and on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Needless to say, the ‘Nam soldier goes nuts theme is the worst kind of cliché, but Hopper brings a quiet dignity to the role. In the nicest touch of the film, Falan listens to World War II era music whenever he’s alone. As one of the many characters he encounters on the train says of him, “There is something oddly endearing about the man.”

But the film did nothing to raise Hopper’s profile; in fact, when I first saw “Apocalypse Now,” I was uncertain which character he was playing. He was just a name to me. After repeated viewings, he seemed to be playing himself as the fast-talking, Kurtz-idolizing photojournalist.

Then, in 1986 at age 50, Hopper had his breakthrough year. He was the creepy drug dealer Feck in “River’s Edge,” the alcoholic basketball expert Shooter in “Hoosiers” and, most astonishingly, the psychotic, unnervingly explosive Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet.” He was nominated for a supporting Oscar for “Hoosiers,” but the nod was clearly seen as a comeback award for this Method acting prodigal son. Booth became the role the rest of his career would be based on as he played a series of crazies in hits such as “Speed” (1994) and “Waterworld” (1995). Much of what he appeared in was unwatchable straight-to-DVD movies, but he never stopped working, appearing in over 100 movies and TV series from 1986 until his death.

He had two memorable TV roles in this second half of his career: as the vile racist in “Paris Trout” (1991) and as Victor Drazen, a European terrorist who seeks revenge on Jack Bauer in the first season of “24” (2002). And he got his chance to direct some mainstream Hollywood films, including “Colors” (1988) and “The Hot Spot” (1990).

His last performance in a major film turned out to be one of his best, playing a famous poet and intellectual and best friend to star Ben Kingsley in “Elegy” (2008). In a moving scene, Hopper’s George, on his deathbed, takes his friend in his arms. Despite all the over-the-top, wild-eyed performances of the past two decades, it was clear that Hopper, if given a chance, was capable of creating an emotionally truthful and intelligent character.

But it’d be romanticizing Hopper to say that, without the drugs and alcohol, he could have made something more of his career. He never possessed the talent or screen presence of his idol Dean or his contemporaries Nicholson and the underrated Stockwell. Yet he managed to will to life the movie that marked the end of the studio system, had a central role in the best American film of the past 25 years and, along the way, became the surviving icon of Hollywood rebellion. What his character says of Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now” could easily apply to Hopper: “The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad….don’t judge the colonel like you would another man.”

I admit I was baffled when Pedro Almodóvar announced the winner of 2009 foreign-language film Oscar was this Argentine picture, at that point yet to be released in the U.S. I suspected, based on the questionable picks by Academy membership in this category in years past, that Michael Henke’s “The White Ribbon,” was just too provocative for the Oscars. In 2008, they ignored “Waltz with Bashir” and “The Class,” both edgy, widely praised pictures, and instead went with the Japanese film “Departures,” which, when it was finally released here, was roundly paned.

But now that I’ve seen “Secret in Their Eyes” I must admit that, at least this time, the Academy got it right. This is one of the most stylish, well acted and intelligently written murder mystery/love stories I’ve seen in a long time.

Argentine writer-director Juan José Campanella, who previously was up for a foreign-language film Oscar for his comedy “Son of the Bride,” draws you into the story---a beautiful young woman is brutally raped and murdered---quickly and effortlessly. It’s so refreshing to watch a movie made for an audience that doesn’t require every plot point to be spelled out. Even first-rate American films are filled with unnecessary transitional and explanatory scenes that not only diminish the art of the film but drain its energy. (Eduardo Sacheri, who wrote the novel, co-wrote the script with Campanella.)

In “Secret in Their Eyes,” subtle character relationships and an emotionally complex plot that shifts back and forth between the 1970s and today, kept me glued to the screen from start to finish. Adding to Campanella’s superb storytelling is the performance by Ricardo Darin, who is both obsessed and introspective as Buenos Aires prosecutor Benjamin Esposito, who must battle his bosses to solve this crime of twisted passion.

At the heart of the case---recalled by Esposito as he attempts to novelize the story 20 years later as a retiree----is the manner in which the prosecutor is completely taken by the devotion of the dead girl’s husband (an impressive Pablo Rago) and his dogged determination to find her murderer.

Paralleling the mystery of tracking the killer and then political complications in a corrupt Argentina (this is the 1970s), is Esposito’s mostly unspoken, unrequited love for his boss, the eloquent, American education chief prosecutor Irene Hastings (Soledad Villamil). Especially in their scenes in the contemporary part of the film, Darin and Vallamil convey a mature, complicated relationship that develops between those who have know each other for decades.

Darrin is so convincing as both the younger Esposito and the retiree version that until I looked up his filmography, I didn’t know which age he was closer to in real life. (At 53, he’s closer to retirement than the young gung-ho prosecutor of the 1970s.) Also memorable is Guillermo Francella, a well-known Argentine comic actor who plays Esposito’s assistant. His Pablo offers welcomed comic relief, but also, when not in the midst of an ugly drinking binge, provides some impressive insight into the case and Esposito’s romantic longings.

“Secret in Their Eyes” doesn’t flinch from its duty as a murder mystery/police procedural genre picture, but this smart, philosophical movie is much more as it explores life’s regrets and how chance can alter lives in a second.

This occasionally amusing, standard-issue Wes Anderson picture mines the same territory as his films, “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.”

Yet again, Anderson, and co-writer Noah Baumbach (who also worked on “Life Aquatic”), offer up a main character who does what he wants with little regard to those around him. The only difference this time is that he’s a fox (dressed as a human and voiced by a sanguine George Clooney). I’m sure the original Roald Dahl story is very clever and heartwarming; in the hands of Anderson the tale is yet another collection of quirky characters that adds up to very little.

Mr. Fox moves his family (Meryl Streep voices his wife; Jason Schwartzman their whiny son) from a hole to a tree house in defiance of three wealthy, evil farmers in clear sight of the tree. And then, after promising his wife to stop stealing chickens---he becomes a newspaper columnist but we never see him at his paper---he plots a grand scheme to break into the farms.

The old-fashioned stop-action animation is a long way from Gumby, but it’s still more functional than artistic, and never comes close to making up for the slow-moving, déjà vu all over again plot.

As with so many of these animated pictures, I have no clues as to what anyone over the age of 13 saw in “Mr. Fox”---it’s just a furrier version of Anderson’s past failures. At least in his live action pictures, Anderson includes a roomful of nutty characters to divert one’s attention away from the inane plot and the self-indulgent lead. The only character who made me laugh in “Mr. Fox” was Coach Skip (perfectly voiced by Anderson regular Owen Wilson) who explains the rules of a bizarre, cricket-like sport called Whack-bat. It lasts about three minutes.

The film offers some unusual music on the soundtrack, including “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” but otherwise, “Mr. Fox” is way too ordinary for its own good.

I can offer no excuse for waiting so long to experience a Tyler Perry film. But now that I have, I’m thinking I should have waited a bit longer.

Perry has quickly become the most successful African-American filmmaker in movie history, having racked up over $450 million in box-office receipts with eight movies since his 2005 debut. The 40-year-old actor-writer-director began as a playwright and cross-dressing star of regional stage comedies featuring his Madea, an outspoken, feisty middle-aged woman. With “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” (2005), he successfully transferred his stage work to the screen (in fact, all his films begin as stage plays) and since then nearly every one of his films has opened as the weekend’s No. 1 film. Perry’s film have succeeded in the face of generally tepid reviews and backlash in the black community, led by Spike Lee, who assailed the comedies as harkening back to “Amos ‘n’ Andy” shows.

“Why Did I Get Married?” his third film and first drama, is a version of one of those cloying, preachy and ultimately teary films, usually set during a holiday or at a wedding, in which every member of the family shows up with a problem that will be solved by story’s end.

Perry avoids the family/holiday-wedding cliché by focusing on three married couples vacationing together at an upscale mountain resort. But he utilizes every other cliché in the marriage-drama handbook, turning each character into a symbol for a social problem. It plays like a very long episode of a very bad television series.

Essential, the film is a series of discussions (it can’t hide its stage origins) between various members of this group of well-to-do friends thrown together for a weekend. The dialogue sounds as if it was written by a collection of self-help experts, which is ironic since one of the characters plays a psychologist who has written a book about the problems of her friends. It’s all very sincere and well meaning with a heavy dose of Christianity.

We quickly are told of the marital dysfunctions: One of the husbands has brought his female “assistant” from work along because, as he repeats over and over again, his wife is embarrassingly fat; while another is hiding a STD from his wife. And the marriage of Terry and writer Patricia (Perry and Janet Jackson) is on the rocks because of an unresolved tragedy in their past.

Overall, the acting comes off as flat and uninvolving, with the exception of Tasha Smith as the fast-talking, blunt Angela, who steals nearly every scene she’s in. It’s hard to blame the actors as they are saddled with Perry’s stilted dialogue, but the ensemble displays zero chemistry.

By the end, problems are miraculously resolved, tears are shed and hugs are exchanged, and blame gets evenly distributed.

The sequel, “Why Did I Get Married, Too,” opened early this year and quietly made $50 million. Clearly there is a large audience of black moviegoers desperate to see their world depicted on the screen and Hollywood isn’t doing much about it.

I know this is backhanded praise, but Perry’s film is no worse than the typical feel-good product Hollywood regularly cranks out for mainstream audiences. His next production steps away from the safety of his own plays, as he’ll direct the film version of the popular ‘70s play, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.”

THE T.A.M.I. SHOW (1964)
On Oct. 28-29, 1964, producer Bill Sargent staged what he expected would be an annual music concert called the Teen-Age Music International Show. Sargent filmed the show held at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in a high-definition video process called Electronovision, which enabled him to transfer the tape to film and release the edited concert in theaters. While the process quickly faded and there never was another T.A.M.I. show, the rarely seen concert has grown to legendary status over the past 40-plus years.

Finally, earlier this year, the concert was released on DVD and it doesn’t disappoint. The performers, including Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, the Beach Boys, James Brown and the Rolling Stones, exude the energy of young musicians finding their voice and establishing themselves in a quickly changing industry. The show catches the exuberance of a musical revolution, which started just eight months earlier when the Beatles performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Central to the freshness and vibrancy of “The T.A.M.I. Show” is the dynamic direction of Steve Binder, who, over the next decade, became the go-to guy for capturing memorable pop music on television. He went on to shoot the landmark dance show “Hullabaloo,” helmed the Elvis Presley comeback special and later called the shots for “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.” Binder keeps the camera moving, shifting from wide shots of the entire bands to close-ups on the musicians (something rarely done when filming performances in that era) while mixing in shots of the provocatively dressed dancers (who weave around the stage during performances) and, of course, the crowd reaction.

Just like the crowd scenes from Beatle performances, this audience screams at the top of their lungs for every act, seemingly on the edge of hysteria for the entire show. Leslie Gore, one of the show’s stars, told Steven van Zandt on his “Underground Garage” radio show, that it was nearly impossible to hear the other acts from backstage because the crowd was so loud, let alone trying to perform.

What has made this show legendary is the incredible lineup, put together by the great rock ‘n’ roll arranger and producer Jack Nitzsche, who convinced Sargent that a little-known band from England was good enough for a prominent spot in the show. Nitzsche also put together the incredible house band, including Leon Russell on piano and Glen Campbell on guitar, which plays behind the vocalists.

Appropriately opening the show was Chuck Berry, whose musical influence permeates nearly every performer’s set. It also immediately signals what a revolutionary show this was: here’s Berry singing “Sweet Little Sixteen” while a young white go-go dancer shimmies on a set behind him. The mixing of whites and blacks was unheard of just a few years earlier and in 1964 it remained bold. For Middle America, seeing a crowd of mostly white teenagers screaming madly for Berry and the other black performers was still something of a concern.

Berry, while singing “Maybellene,” passes the spotlight to Garry and the Pacemakers, wearing their guitars at chest level, who do their own version of his classic. Before you can take a breath after those performances, the Miracles take center stage and rock out the joint with “Mickey’s Monkey.” They are followed by Marvin Gaye, looking incredible clean-cut, Leslie Gore and then the show’s emcees, Jan and Dean.

The show hits another high point when the Beach Boys hit the stage. They go through a half-dozen of their hits and are in peak form (I had forgotten what a great drummer Dennis Wilson was), but the boys’ controlling father wasn’t pleased and demanded that the performance be cut from the show. Only with the release of this DVD have their songs been restored to the movie.

The show does hit a lull with the performances of Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, a Brian Epstein discovery that scored a Top 10 hit with “Little Children” and the Barbarians, a hideously bad Boston band with comical Beatle-like haircuts.

But they are quickly forgotten when James Brown and his Fabulous Flames take over the stage. This spellbinding performance, called by aficionados as his greatest ever caught on tape, makes everyone that came before him look like amateurs. In constant motion and dancing like no one had ever seen before, Brown out screams the audience with “Out of Sight” and “Prisoner of Love,” before launching into his already legendary “Please, Please, Please” act.

Brown, soaked in sweat from the first number and sporting that no-hair-out-of-place pompadour, faints collapsing to the stage and then is slowly walked off the stage by a band member after wrapping the singer in a cape. “The Godfather” then tosses the cape aside and returns to center stage. This melodrama is repeated three or four times. It’s both outlandishly pretentious and mesmerizing and has been duplicated by everyone from Prince to Eddie Murphy to Paul Shaffer. Brown ends this amazing set with one of his first hits, “Night Train,” dancing so fast it’s as if he’s motorized. Those tiny, nibble feet and Astaire-like legs do what no performer could do: upstage Brown’s singing.

That should have been the end of the show, but the Rolling Stone’s manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, had insisted that his band close the show. James Brown warned the producers. “You’re making a big mistake,” he told them. “Nobody follows me.”

But Mick and the boys were up to the task. Jagger slides onto stage and does a split just as the band launches into their version of Berry’s “Around and Around.” Looking impossibly young yet already in possession of their bad-boy attitude, the Rolling Stones offer a preview of where popular music is headed.

The show closes with the Stones doing “Let’s Get Together,” joined by everyone on stage. It’s quite a scene and if you watch closely you can spot go-go dancer Teri Garr dancing with Jan (or is it Dean?).

“The T.A.M.I. Show” is not only an important piece of musical history, capturing the diverse, changing scene as of 1964, but provides more energy and unforgettable music than almost any concert ever captured for posterity.

IRON MAN 2 (2010)
This flabby sequel to an inventive, entertaining comic book movie is filled with so many cheap-shot one-liners and purposeless action that, at times, I felt like I was watching a spoof.

Robert Downey Jr. is back as Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), who by his mere presence has established world peace. Then into the ring jumps Mickey Rourke, a pissed off Russian physicist with a pet bird and a grudge against Stark. The film quickly moves from caustic to idiotic when Rourke’s Mad Russian shows up at the Monte Carlo street race and starts causing car wrecks as he attempts to confront our hero. Get this: he stands in the middle of the street with his super-powerful outfit/weapon but without a helmet. Any half-awake security guard could have taken him out with one shot. But nothing. Everyone just stands around waiting for Iron Man to do his thing. It’s just like in “Superman” when the cops slip out of sight while the man with the cape takes care of business.

I know, I know: Why am I looking for logic in a comic book movie? That’s why I shouldn’t be allowed to see these kinds of films. For what it’s worth, Rourke, giving his usual quirky, twisted, comical performance, and Scarlett Johansson, as the steely super spy whose seductive figure nearly melts Iron Man, are the only reasons to catch this dumb sequel.

The writers couldn’t even come up with some cliché megalomaniac who wants to take over the world: this film is basically about Stark’s attempt to hold on to the patent rights to his Iron Man contraption. Real edge-of- your-seat stuff.

This British war film takes its time as it chronicles the true story of the invention and deployment of a special kind of bomb used by the British to destroy a pair of key German dams during World War II. The superbly made picture methodically follows the process from the lab to the testing grounds to the battlefield, but ultimately delivers an exciting aerial finale.

But the first-rate direction, by Michael Anderson, and acting, led by Michael Redgrave and Richard Todd, can’t overcome the jolting and uncomfortable name given to the dog of wing commander Guy Gibson played by Todd. This black Labrador’s name is the n-word.

Todd and the other pilots don’t just say his name once or twice, the dog is constantly being referred to and becomes the center of attention near the end of the film when his name becomes a code word for one of the dams. It’s diverting and stinging in the casual, unthinking way everyone in the film uses the dog’s name. It might as well be Spot. It’s a little hard for me to believe that as late as 1955, the use of that word was accepted in a British film. Certainly, you wouldn’t hear it in a Hollywood picture unless it was used by a character clearly defined as a racist.

The story is being remade by Peter Jackson’s production company and I read where they are struggling with what to do about the dog’s name. Because they want to sell the film as “a true story,” they are reluctant to change the name as that was what the real-life Gibson called his Lab. Clearly, they will have to alter history if they expect to get U.S. distribution.

Redgrave plays inventor Dr. Wallis, who struggles with getting just the right calibration for his bowling ball-like bomb that skips like a stone over water to allow the planes to drop it well before the dam site. When the bombardiers do blow the dams, the “special effect” showing the explosion looks as if it was hand drawn on the frames. It’s very cheesy. But what the film does well is show the individual efforts and meticulous work that went into just one bombing run in the war against the Nazis. If only the filmmakers had shown some sensitivity or foresight to rename the dog.