Formerly "Dave's Blog About Movies and Such"

Friday, May 30, 2008

Of Maine, Film Festivals and T-shirts


(trees)


To my millions of readers who have wondered why, aside from the Sydney Pollack obit, I have not posted anything in a while, wonder no more. In addition to having increased amounts of work lately, I also took a trip up to my home state of Maine to relax and such (I decided to take a break from relaxing to post the Pollack piece because it seemed important. Incidentally, I posted it late because I found out about his death late. Up in Maine we don't have much in the way of news, 'lectricity, or runnin' water (side note: Just kidding Maine. The joking's all in fun)). For those who haven't been, words can not begin to describe Maine's natural beauty. I would post a clip here but no known footage exists of Maine. The natives, having a deep seated fear of soul capturing devices, will ritualistically sacrifice those who would attempt to capture images of the country or its denizens. Consequently, because of the lack of proper documentation, not much is known of this region. Scientists have estimated, though, that this dramatization is the most accurate depiction of Maine life available:


Truth be told, my girlfriend had never seen much of Maine, so I figured it would be fun to show her some of the sights. Aside from visiting obvious stuff such as Acadia, I also wanted to give her a little tour of my favorite haunts back in my hometown of Waterville, ME. One point of interest was my favorite music store, Record Connection. Things had changed in the four years since I visited this quaint little music shop. The owners expanded the already large used vinyl section and replaced the cds with books. Books?! Is the state of the music industry so dire that people would rather pay to read than buy a cd? What is this fucking world coming to? Obviously, digital music is a large reason for the decline of cds, but the sight of so many books fills me with such a rabid, irrational rage that nothing short of an elephant tranquilizer can calm me down. Although the books angered and saddened me, I decided I should at least buy a souvenir T-shirt to remember the place by. When I inquired about buying a Record Connection T-shirt, such as the one featured prominently in the window, the clerk informed me that the store stopped making those twenty years ago. She put the T-shirt in the window because the real sign for the store was either stolen or missing (I can't quite remember which). Even more saddened, I decided to leave.

I also took my girlfriend to Big G's, the world's best Deli. The sandwiches here are so big and delicious that Mama Cass is rumored to have come back to life for the opportunity to choke on one. I ate to the point of hallucination and then bought a T-shirt for $4.25. All was right with the world. We then went to the pizzeria Grand Central Cafe, my last place of employment in Maine. When I asked to see my old boss, the waitress at the counter informed me that Stu was selling the place in a month. The waitress was wearing a Grand Central Cafe T-shirt. Stu never gave me one. No shirts were there to be bought. We left.


Finally we arrived at Railroad Square Cinema, Waterville's premier independent movie theater. Although we did not have time to see a movie, it was nice just to hang out a little and absorb the atmosphere. God I miss that place. Sure, here in New York we have a plethora of art theaters, but nothing beats the charm of small town independents as far as I'm concerned. They have such a familiar homey quality as to make you feel (no matter what the quality of the movie) that you're watching a cherished flick in a favorite uncle's home. The environment is just as important, if not more so, than the actual movie being shown. It should be said, however, that I did see Gerry there and I still hated it.

Going back to Railroad Square I was also reminded of the Maine International Film Festival, which is held there every July. This event was always a real treat. Although I was in Central Maine, the festival allowed me to see early screenings of upcoming movies at the same time as city folk privileged enough to have big festivals of their own. The highlight of the festival was always the presentation of the Midlife Achievement award. Past recipients include Terrence Malick, Jonathan Demme, and Ed harris. This year, John Turturro is the honoree. Not too shabby. Thinking about it, more big names have come through this festival than I have ever seen while living in New York. Actually, that's not entirely true. I did have my fair share of celebrity sightings while working at Movie Place. Not to brag or nothin', but Fay from the show "Wings" was a regular customer and the older brother from Home Alone lived in an apartment above the store. Anyways, if any of you happen to be in Central Maine between July 11 and 20, you could do worse than to frequent the MIFF (wow, who would have known that this long rambling post would have turned into an excuse for me to shill a small town film festival).

By the way, if folks are worried that I'm gonna turn this blog into a personal stories kind of thing, worry no more. Although I will occasionally write pieces such as this, it does not change the fact that this is a movie site. Indeed, I will have a new review up sometime soon. I am also going to start a new weekly feature that I think you'll all enjoy. I'm not gonna let you know what that feature is yet. That'll be a surprise. The suspense must be killing you.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

R.I.P. Sydney Pollack

Iconic actor/director/producer of the seventies New Hollywood, Sydney Pollack, died Monday at the age of 73. His career produced numerous distinguished pictures including Jeremiah Johnson and Three Days of the Condor, but I will always remember him for his early directorial effort They Shoot Horses, Don't They?. Taking place at a dance marathon in Depression era America, this adaptation of Horace McCoy's novel examines both the depravity of opportunistic businessmen and the helplessness of ordinary folks forced to stoop to unimaginable lows in order to survive. Whereas Bonnie and Clyde is energetic, and The Grapes of Wrath and Bound for Glory are angry, this movie about the Depression is, well, depressing. It captures the mindset of ordinary folks caught up in a force that they can neither control nor understand. They Shoot Horses, Don't They? was every bit as important as Point Blank, Bonnie and Clyde, and Easy Rider in setting the tone for the new generation of realistic revisionist films of the seventies.

Interestingly, Tod Browning unsuccessfully tried for years to adapt McCoy's novel back in the thirties. Were he to make this picture, he certainly would have surpassed Pollack in the cynicism department. I doubt, however, that he would have shown the empathy toward the characters that Pollack did. Coming from an acting background, well defined characters were important for Pollack. As in his other pictures, Pollack succeeded here in allowing us to live with and understand these characters.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Soundtracks to Memories

John Phillip Law, the handsome actor best known for his roles in Barbarella, Danger: Diabolik!, and The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, passed away a few days ago (I would have posted this sooner but I've been away from my computer for a few days). News of his death, instantly sent me back to my days at Movie Place. While working there I watched Danger: Diabolik! on a seemingly endless loop. Although his turn as a super-thief in Mario Bava's gleefully mod film is iconic, Law was not the reason I kept returning to this movie. Rather, it was Ennio Morricone's swinging score. As far as mod soundtracks go, his work here is rivaled only by Herbie Hancock's Blow-Up score and Quincy Jones' The Italian Job score. Morricone's beautifully breezy uber-cool score was the perfect background music for a busy night at the store. Consequently, hearing this music instantly sends me back not only to this movie but also to those days at Movie Place. It's hard to think of a better piece of music an actor could want to be associated with.

For those who haven't seen this movie, here are some bits of Morricone's score:






Friday, May 16, 2008

Things That Make You Go, "What the Fuck?!"

Good news for people afraid they would never get to see Nicholas Cage jerk off onto the side of a car, he and Werner Herzog are teaming up for a remake of Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant. The original film was responsible for quite possibly the greatest performance of Harvey Keitel's long, illustrious career. It was also the apex of Ferrara's directing career. Herzog is one of the most original and inventive living filmmakers. And Cage, well -- ok, I was going to make a crack here about Nicholas Cage's talent, but it seemed too easy. Regardless, he gets a lifetime pass from me for Raising Arizona.

Anyways, this remake has the potential to be either brilliant or life-fuckingly awful -- no in-between. Either way, I can't wait to see it.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Macon County Line (1974)

dir. Richard Compton

"If the lord was going to give the world an enema, right here is where he'd stick the hose."
-Chris Dixon

The character actor's fear of being typecast is so pronounced that it has fueled drug addiction, criminality and other such hilarity among this not so vaunted group. These actors must constantly strive to reinvent themselves lest they lose their lives playing the same character ad infinitum in a gin soaked haze. Particularly susceptible to typecasting is the TV actor. How can a sitcom actor be successful in a thriller, for instance, when the audience wants nothing more than to erupt in paroxysms of Pavlovian laughter when said actor finds himself in another wacky, cliched situation, or spouts whatever hackneyed catchphrase his character has become famous for? Of course, recent years have produced a slew of quality television shows in which actors have been able to display their full range and depth. In the sixties, however, this was not the case. Unashamedly appealing to the lowest common denominator, these shows gave actors, if nothing else, a steady pay check. One notable typecast victim from this period was Max Baer Jr. (referred to henceforth by his God given name, Jethro Bodine).
Eager to escape the shackles of the lovably dimwitted hillbilly type that made him famous, Jethro Bodine decided to write and produce his own damn movie. His desire to make his own picture was also due to the fact that he couldn't find any work in the rapidly changing environment of the New Hollywood of the seventies. The realistic thrillers, sophisticated sex comedies, existential road pictures, revisionist westerns, and racially themed movies of this period simply did not have any place for an actor of Jethro Bodine's standing -- or so it seemed. Determined to show off his range and prove his worth as an actor, Jethro Bodine would helm a movie designed to give his fellow actors and himself the ability to perform the range of emotions generally reserved for junkies and manic-depressives. "You wanna see actin'? I'm gonna act the shit out of this." Thus was born Macon County Line, a low budget drive-in feature that would become an unexpected hit.

Although part of a larger rednexploitation trend, including Walking Tall, White Lightning, and Thunder and Lightning; Macon County Line is quite the odd duck in this group of films. Uncommon for a low budget seventies exploitation flick, this movie is a period piece; albeit of a recent period. It can be unnecessarily costly to fill a film with period detail, but Jethro Bodine was interested in writing not just an interesting story, but one of a certain time and place: Louisiana in the fifties. The setting here is vitally important in defining this movie. Luckily, the rural locale of this film necessitated that the only period artifacts necessary would be the costumes and a few cars.

Throughout the course of the flick, we follow three separate groups: Chris (Alan Vint) and Wayne Dixon (Jesse Vint) - two northern rough and tumble brothers having their last hurrah before joining the military; Jethro Bodine's character, Deputy Reed Morgan - a traditional (i.e. racist) southern small town lawman who will become a relic of the past; and Lon (Timothy Scott) and Elisha (James Gammon) - two sadistic murderers in the middle of a road trip/crime spree. Oh what times they'll have when their worlds collide.

Early on, Macon County Line takes the form of a high energy comedic road movie. As the Dixon boys make their way across the country; they bang hookers, skip out on diner bills, toy with local law enforcement and pick up an underage female hitchhiker, Jenny Scott (Cheryl Waters) -- just good old fashioned American fun. After stopping at a run down service station to fix their car, they run afoul of Deputy Reed. You see, this is a good old fashioned town and the folk here just don't cotton to the sorts of shenanigans that some no good out of towner city folk might cause. No sir, they don't like it one bit. Luckily, ol' Reed sets the Dixon boys straight when he let's them know what's what. It seems that they best be on their way if they know what's good for them. When the Dixons' car dies on the road they decide to find shelter in a nearby barn and stay for the night. Problem is, their car dies right outside of Reed's humble abode.

The Reed story-line has all the folksy charm of an "Andy Griffith Show" episode. Reed spends his time romancing his wife, buying a gun for his ten year old son, Luke (Leif Garrett -- yes that Leif Garrett), and explaining the virtues of segregation to said son -- just good old fashioned American fun. Although the encounter with the Dixon boys ruffled a few of his feathers, it wasn't enough to bring Reed down. You see, he is about to pick up his son from military school so as to bring him hunting. Ain't nothing gonna bring him down -- for now.

In the meantime, the Lon and Elisha storyline has the feel of a suspenseful thriller. These boys are making their way across the country a-robbin' and a-murderin' -- just good old fashioned American fun. This plot-line is the most enigmatic. Aside from a quick flashback of a police beating of Lon, we know next to nothing of these two men. They are less characters than forces of nature, which is unfortunate for Reed's poor wife, Carol (Joan Blackman), who meets an untimely end at the hands of these two thugs.

Now all of the worlds and genres collide. Assuming the Dixon boys, whose car is parked outside of his home, are responsible for the death of his wife, Reed goes apeshit in his attempt to hunt down and kill these fellows. Taking on the feel of a slasher film, the last half hour of this movie is a tense cat and mouse game between the cold-blooded revenge-seeking psychopathic Reed and his clueless prey. And before one has a chance to take it all in, the film climaxes in a brutal and shocking scene of violence.

Who would have known that Jethro Bodine could co-write and produce such an entertaining movie? Not that there weren't hints earlier on of what was to come. There was the storyline on "The Beverly Hillbillies", after all, in which he became a movie producer because he met the qualifications of having both a sixth grade education and an uncle who owned a movie studio. But still, who knew?

As is evidenced by my description of the movie, Macon County Line is quite unstable, tone-wise. It brings to mind such diverse movies as Two Lane Blacktop, American Graffiti, My Cousin Vinny, Walking Tall, and Friday the 13th. That such a seemingly unmarketable film would become a smash hit is a testament to the state of the film industry in the seventies. This was an era in which audiences were much more willing to accept wild experimentation in even the most mainstream fare. I have always been fascinated by movies that manage to effortlessly shift tone and genre midstream. Although usually the result of equal parts unfocused filmmaking, massive amounts of drugs, and dicking around; the tone/genre shifts in this movie are quite purposeful.

More than anything, this movie depicts a changing of the guard. Although the one race related scene in this movie is brief, it is important in understanding Macon County Line. When he witnesses Luke's cordiality toward a few black friends, Reed quietly fumes. Later during their car trip, Reed explains to his son, in the most dulcet tones, that the commingling of races is against the order of things. The impressionable Luke, although confused at first by his papa's request not to associate with the "colored boys", eventually acquiesces to his all-knowing father. It is one of the most quietly devastating scenes put to film. Reed's actions here are far more chilling than the crazed rantings of an obviously psychopathic character such as Jessie Lee Kane.

This movie exposes the crazed racism, paranoia and brutality lurking beneath the thin veneer of good old fashioned "American Values", specifically in the Jim Crow South of the fifties. Scratch the surface of an Andy Taylor and you'll find a Bull Connor. In its depiction of vigilante justice gone horribly wrong, Macon County Line also skewers the machismo of the western myth. After his wife is murdered, the traditional Reed is thrust into a world he doesn't understand and thrashes out at the young, rebellious, out of town "others" that he assumes must be responsible. It is a last ditch effort to preserve a way of life. For the Reeds of the world, however, everything is about to come crashing down.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Why Not?

If for no other reason than that I woke up with this song (albeit the Cranberries version) in my head, I'm gonna post a clip of my favorite scene from Wong Kar Wai's Chungking Express.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Crime Wave (aka The City Is Dark) (1954)

dir. Andre De Toth
"Once you do a stretch, you're never clean again. You're never free. They've always got a string on you, and they tug, tug, tug. Before you know it, you're back again."
-Steve Lacey

A while back I mentioned the large collection of out of print movies I had at my disposal while working at Movie Place. Having free access to so many out of print flicks is, of course, the wet dream of many a movie geek; and much to my pleasure, the majority of these pictures were noirs. Considering their prolificness and the affection my owner had for said movies, it was no surprise that, one: so many of these movies would be out of print; and two: our store would have such a large collection of these dark, brooding films. Although the classic prestige noirs had generally always been available on home video, many of the lesser known flicks had been forgotten. The reason is obvious; it just would not be economically feasible to manufacture videos of so many lesser know pics. One of the movies that slipped through the home video cracks was Andre De Toth's tense Crime Wave, perhaps my favorite from our out of print collection.

With the advent of the dvd age, however, all the rules changed. Considering the relative ease of mass producing dvds, studios would have less to lose if more obscure movies failed to sell in substantial numbers on the home video market. One of the greatest benefits of the dvd age would be the ability to watch so many movies that would have otherwise vanished into the dustbins of history. Budding film scholars could get a better grasp of film movements and directors' oeuvres, because now it was possible to study not only the benchmark films but also the run of the mill fare.

It would be misleading, however, to refer to Crime Wave as run of the mill. Although it is not groundbreaking in any significant way and falls smack dab in the middle of a larger film movement, it is an expertly paced and crafted thriller that still holds its power to captivate.

Crime Wave, although part of the crime film genre, belongs, more specifically, to the smaller subset of films dealing with the subject of the reformed criminal getting sucked back into a life of criminality (a mini genre that would reach its apex with the Eddie Bunker penned Straight Time). In Crime Wave, reformed criminal Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson) struggles against former accomplices, an unsympathetic police force, and himself to stay on the straight and narrow. More compelling than the standard crime film, movies of this sort are of particular note because they seek to indict not only the criminals, but also a system that contributes to such criminality. In essence, everyone is culpable.

Of course, my first attraction to this movie was the prospect of seeing a young Charles Bronson in an early film role. Yes, Bronson previously worked with De Toth on the Vincent Price movie House of Wax, but seeing as I haven't seen that movie since I was a kid I don't remember much of it (Besides, the action/thrillers have always been where Bronson has excelled, and this movie is no exception). I also wanted to see if this film could further prove my theory that Charles Bronson was never young. Indeed, it is an important piece of the puzzle. I'm sure, were I to get pictures of the catfish whiskered infant smacking the birthin' doctor while lighting a stogie, my theory would be complete. Although it is not well known, Bronson's weathered appearance was partially attributable to his bout with iggypopitis, a condition in which the victim, although exhibiting the lean, muscular physique of an athletic twentysomething, is cursed with the grim, hard-worn, leathery visage befitting septuagenarian chain-smoking prostitutes and Skeletor.

Here, Bronson plays Ben Hastings, a member of a group of cons on a crime spree, or crime wave, if you will (hey, that's the name of this movie). As the film opens, this group pulls a minor stick up of a gas station, and in the process shoots a cop who in turn injures one of their own, Gat Morgan (Nedrick Young). Seeking refuge, Gat decides to flee to the apartment of an inhospitable Lacey. Lacey knows that where Gat goes, his cohorts will be soon to follow. And when the rest of the gang tracks down Lacey, they fail to believe in his desire to lead a clean life.

Hot on the trail of these hoods is the no-nonsense Detective Sims, played expertly by Sterling Hayden, one of my favorite character actors. His appeal is due to the fact that he always seemed to have a touch of the crazy. It is hard to tell where his characters end and he begins. Like the hoods, Sims does not believe that Lacey is either reformed or reformable. His mantra is, "once a criminal, always a criminal". It is his unwavering desire to out this former criminal that fuels his pursuit of the criminal gang. And although Sims does not know it, he is in a race against time to rescue Lacey's wife who has been kidnapped by crazed goons so as to coerce Lacey into aiding the gang in their latest bank heist (One of the crazed goons is played by career psychopath Timothy Carey. Talk about an actor with a touch of the crazy). Of course, Lacey is also eager to shake off the gangsters and rescue his wife, and it is this tension that works to bring the film to an interesting, if not wholly believable climax.

Crime Wave belongs to a larger trend toward a docu-realism style that started in the previous decade with such pictures as The Naked City and Kiss of Death, and would continue until the end of the noir form in the latter half of the fifties (Of course, it would later make a resurgence in many of the gritty urban dramas of the New Hollywood films of the seventies). Crime Wave is also part of a group of films more inclined to examine the psychology of criminality and display the relative moral ambiguities of criminality and justice, evidenced not only in such high profile pictures as White Heat, The Asphalt Jungle and The Big Heat, but also in lesser known gems such as Crashout and The Big Combo.

Of particular note in this film is the careful attention to seemingly unimportant details that De Toth displays. He feels perfectly at ease, for instance, with filming an extended scene in which Sims roams a police station and catches snippets of random interrogations, none of them relating to the plot at large. Just a decade earlier, such a diversion would have been unthinkable in a streamlined studio picture. In this new group of films, scenes such as this became important in that they helped build the atmosphere in which a movie took place. More than anything, De Toth excels at creating a sense of place.

The completely un-romanticized vision of criminality on display here is also noteworthy. The gangsters here are not larger than life kingpins building criminal empires, but rather the working stiffs of the criminal world. They survive by pulling a series of small time jobs. Their goal is not the house on the hill but the next meal. This is just a job to them. Rarely does a movie depict the banality of an existence that is normally the subject of either intense scorn or glorification.

It should be noted that the dvd containing Crime Wave also has an earlier noir, Jack Bernhard's Decoy, which I saw for the first time after rewatching the De Toth picture. If only for its insanity, Decoy is even more interesting than Crime Wave and I plan to write about it extensively in an upcoming post. Thanks in part to the dvd age, Decoy has only been rediscovered in the past few years. It will be interesting to see which random, minor films of today will be hailed in the years to come.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Twister Fever -- Catch It

So I just went to IMDB and tried to type a movie in the search bar but I had a little problem. A damn tornado dun' came by and I couldn't write anything. A tornado in Brooklyn, you say? Luckily, it was localized right inside my computer monitor. I am speaking of course about the ad campaign for the two disc special edition dvd of Twister. Can I have it now? Why wasn't I sufficiently warned about this 12th anniversary special edition dvd debut of the legendary film. As I sit here writing this, I could be listening to Jan De Bont's scholarly commentary track or watching the featurette, "Capturing Banality in a Jar: The Making of Twister".

Now I realize that the pointlessness of special edition dvds has been chronicled extensively on the interweb but this ad just struck me as funny. I guess it's a little unfair for me to pick on this flick, mostly because Bill Paxton can do no wrong, but also because it's not an exceptionally terrible movie. It's just one of those flicks I put in the category of, "Oh yeah, that exists." For some reason I didn't remember Twister as being a huge phenomenon on it's release but I looked at its box office and saw that it pulled in 241 million. Not too shabby. A little hype can go a long way. It just illustrates how disposable most of these blockbusters really are (again, no new insight here).

I wonder what movies from the past couple years will be semi-forgotten in twelve years time. If it weren't for the built in nostalgia and toy tie-ins I would put Transformers in this category. What are your thoughts?

I Love Free Stuff

Reprise (2006)
dir. Joachim Trier

One of the perks of having a movie blog is getting to see so many free movies. Ok, this just happened for the first time Sunday, but it's still kinda cool. How did this happen? Well, a year ago, Joachim Trier won a bunch of awards in his native Norway for his debut feature, Reprise. Now, Miramax is going to distribute the picture in the states and it needs some advance press and hype. Because of this, they invited a bunch of folks who are members of The Large Association of Movie Blogs to their screening room to watch the movie. After all, whatever we, the powerful movie bloggers, write will surely influence the hoi polloi (wow, that was sarcastic. I got to see a free movie. I should just shut the hell up). Since I would feel bad deriding something after getting to see it for free, I told myself that if the movie sucked I wouldn't write anything about it -- thus I would avoid tainting my artistic credibility (because, you know, I'm just swimming in artistic credibility). If the movie turned out to be good, however, why not write about it. As you can see, the movie was pretty fucking good.

Reprise is one of the truest representations of the creative process that I have seen in film. It concerns two twentysomething aspiring writers, Phillip (Anders Danielsen Lie) and Erik (Espen Klouman-Hoiner), who are trying to make names for themselves. Suffice it to say, the movie struck a chord with me. Opening as the two friends mail their manuscripts to a publishing company, we are plunged full force into the frenzy of emotions that are part and parcel of the nakedness felt when one exposes his work to strangers for the first time. At first there is the Rupert Pupkinesque delusion of grandeur in which the taste of fame is so strong that Phillip and Erik can see the next two years of their success mapped out in full detail. Underlying it all, however, is the sneaking suspicion that their work may just be no damn good.

Erik's fears will come true when his manuscript is rejected. And although Phillip does get his manuscript published, he will get temporarily committed in six months time. Told in a non chronological order, we gradually see the process that led to Phillip's insanity. Certain faces and things trigger memories for Phillip and as he struggles to understand what has happened to himself, we see these events unfold for the first time. It works to bring the viewer into Phillip's mindset. Although the nonlinear structure could be seen as gimmicky showboating by a first time director, it is essential to this movie. Were it told in a conventional manner the story would not hold the same force.

The movie is not all doom and gloom, however. Reprise is filled with the sort of funny vignettes and quirky characters that are more common to a coming of age film. Indeed, although the protagonists are too old for this to be considered part of that genre, Reprise did bring to mind such films as Sonnenalle, Spetters and Quadrophenia -- as directed by Resnais or Tarkovsky. Also, although this is not a period film, the movie has an 80s post punk/new wave soundtrack that has became de rigeur for Trier's generation of directors. The music certainly pressed the ol' nostalgia buttons.

Occasionally, Reprise does bear the mark of a first time director. Much like the protagonaists of the film, Trier wants to make his mark and pulls out all the stops, style-wise. In certain flashback scenes, for instance, Trier intersperses past and present images with non-matching dialogue. Although it creates for an entertaining, mindbending experience, these techniques seemed too clever by half (Mindbending? What am I, a sixty year old hippie?). Regardless, the seeds of a great director have been sown here. Trier is certain to have a long illustrious career ahead of him..