Monday, August 30, 2010

War buddies! Widowers! Barflies! Gay gangbangers!: Film Noir Collection Vol. 5

Is it my own perverse nature that prompted me to start and now end my summer DVD binges with box sets of noir, hardly the most Frisbee of cinematic corpuses? I wouldn’t put it past me, yet noir isn’t entirely antithetical to summer—it’s so often about generating heat. Truthfully, not everything in Warner’s
Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 5 can rightfully be granted noir or even gris status. There aren’t many classic examples of the movement/style/thematic here, though there’s a pleasing majority of forgotten gems, however you classify them. The only real disappointment is the absence of supplements, given that Warner’s previous collections boasted consistently lively and informative audio commentaries from the likes of Martin Scorsese, James Ellroy, Eddie Muller, Alain Silver and Peter Bogdanovich. To be fair, I guess assembling such material must be costly, and I’d rather have these movies available than not... Anyway, there are eight titles to cover, so I'll keep my comments for each of them brief.

Former song-and-dance man Dick Powell seemed an odd fit as the cinema’s first Philip Marlowe in Edward Dmytryk’s superb Raymond Chandler adaptation Murder, My Sweet (1944), yet as the freshly widowed Canadian pilot and newly released POW Laurence Gerard in Cornered (45), unshaven, cold-eyed, with that severe haircut, he’s so at one with his vengeful protagonist it’s chilling. This reunion with Dmytryk, who displays an exacting sense of atmosphere and detail, is an all-round success, if unrelentingly harrowing. As the war winds down Gerard travels from Europe to Argentina in search of the ostensibly deceased Vichy official responsible for the death of Gerard’s young French bride. Gerard’s single-minded—he’s got noting left to live for—so the trip’s strictly business, yet numerous shady types he encounters provide ample colour, especially the marvelous Walter Slezak.

Deadline at Dawn (46), inspired by a Cornell Woolrich novel, is considerably lighter. It’s a sweltering New York night when taxi dancer Susan Hayward feels compelled to look after a young sailor on shore leave who mistakenly robbed and maybe murdered a woman while drunk. The sailor had a near-death experience at the age of 12, so maybe that somehow contributed to his almost absurd air of innocence. The script comes from socialist thespian Clifford Odets and abounds in corny ethnic working-class types and cornier dialogue. Still, it’s quite diverting, at times intriguingly loopy and, best of all, swathed in the chiaroscuro imagery of cinematographer Nicholas Musaraca, best known for Out of the Past (47) and his work with Val Lewton.

Desperate (47) was director Anthony Mann’s first noir and fully exercises the sort of muscular expressionism and bracing brutality he’d become known for: Steve Brodie’s truck-driving hero is beaten in some dingy basement under a swinging lamp whose hard light slices the assailants’ faces before we’re treated to a tight close-up of a broken bottle held by Raymond Burr, who really resembles Victor Mature—if Mature ate donuts and hunkered over Wittgenstein instead of going to the gym. Newlywed Brodie is framed by Burr’s thugs but proves highly resourceful—his desire for pleasantly dull domesticity is that strong.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in this set is
Dial 1119 (50), a terrifically menacing little hostage drama I’d never heard of, though fellow noir addicts with welcome the sight of William Conrad, James Bell and Sam Levene like old pals. Conrad plays Chuckles, the proprietor of the ironically titled Oasis, the bar under siege, while Bell’s a lonely older nerdy type who shamelessly propositions a drunk blonde, and Levene, as always, is the resident doctor. The sound of wrestling on TV is the only scoring in the movie, even during the beautiful, long reaction shot of all the barflies when formerly institutionalized Marshall Thompson says out loud that he’s going to kill everyone. We believe him—he’s already iced a bus driver. Very effective, taut, and worth checking out just for the loving attention it brings to the sad night lives of the Oasis clientele.

Backfire (50) is another title I’d never come across, somewhat surprising given that noir mainstay Edmond O’Brien’s one of its pair of war buddies hoping to go in on a ranch together once Gordon MacRae gets out of the veterans’ hospital. Some fox with a sexy foreign accent comes to the hospital one night to tell a doped-up MacRae that O’Brien’s been debilitated and is suicidal. The next morning everyone thinks the lady messenger was a hallucination, but O’Brien’s missing and MacRae immediately starts to play detective upon checking out. It’s a picture full of interesting relationships and ominous clues that would have appealed to Polanski.

Armored Car Robbery (50) meanwhile looks forward to Stanley Kubrick’s early feature The Killing (56), whose plot is nearly identical. Helmed by Richard Fleischer, it’s a bracingly efficient 67-minutes—the titular heist unfolds with barely a word of dialogue spoken, even when one of the robbers gets shot in the guts—yet leaves plenty of room for imaginative character development. Charles McGraw would reunite with Fleischer for the more famous Narrow Margin (52), but anticipates that film’s protagonist here with his charismatically gruff Lieutenant Jim Cordell, a cop so useless with sentiment he can barely offer condolences to his partner’s widow. He’s complimented superbly by the froggy-eyed criminal mastermind played by William Talman, a really interesting actor whose work I'm only started to track but am hungry to see more of.

“Fancy women, slot machines and booze,” go the lyrics to ‘Phenix City Blues’, the song performed near the top of
The Phenix City Story (55), Phil Karlson’s appallingly violent docudrama about the seemingly impossible task of driving organized crime out of a notoriously corrupt Alabama town. It features the always likable John McIntire—the sheriff from Psycho (60)—as a crusading DA undeterred by threats as unabashed as having a murdered black girl tossed on his front lawn from a moving car in broad daylight. Something tells me they mightn’t have gotten away with that if it weren’t for the story’s foundation in fact.

Though it opens with a riveting and very stylishly wrought confrontation between rival youth gangs,
Crime in the Streets (56), all too much the “social problem” picture, is both the chronological last and probably least powerful movie in Film Noir Vol. 5. Having said that, I’m fascinated that the gang leader seems to deliberately select the most obviously gay kids in his group—among them Sal Mineo—to be part of his nutso murder conspiracy. Admirers will surely be curious to see a very young John Cassavetes as Frankie Dane, though, speaking as one of those admirers, I can’t say he looks very comfortable in this psychotic, not altogether convincing role.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The damned revisited: Angel Heart

As a kid, though no one in my family really pushed religion on me, I’d somehow managed to suffer overwhelming dread over the threat of eternal damnation. Maybe this explains the special chill I got while watching
Angel Heart, a chill I must have been fascinated by since over a few short years I’d managed to wear out my VHS copy of the movie.

Angel Heart again for the first time in at least a dozen, maybe 15 years, I found that I remembered the movie remarkably well, every plume of steam, flight of stairs, and rattling fan, every goofy smile that crosses Mickey Rourke’s moist, pale face, so often implying Bogart’s internal shrug, his every utterance of “I’m from Brooklyn,” as though that explains everything about him. The chill the movie triggers in my older self isn’t quite the same, of course. But is it me, or does Angel Heart still work as few of those Alan Parker movies we loved as teenagers do, this neo-noir with an icy touch of old-fashioned horror, leading to a not-unpleasurable overwrought finale?

Rourke’s detective Harry Angel is hired by a wealthy, weirdly bearded client played by Robert De Niro who likes to punish his eggs a little before eating them and employs the same manicurist as Dracula. Harry goes down to New Orleans to locate the elusive crooner Johnny Favorite, a reported womanizer and all-round bastard. Harry will find him, eventually, but along the way there’s a guy in Coney Island with a box full of nose guards—which makes Harry look like one of those chickens he’s “got a thing about”—there’s a drug-addled doctor, a fortune teller elegantly played by Charlotte Rampling, a terrific chair fight in a church, a forbidding cauldron of gumbo, and of course that nubile sorceress, an unnervingly sexy Lisa Bonet all too fresh from
The Cosby Show. The word Santería is never mentioned. It’s 1955, but there’s still talk of how a lot of guys got fucked up during the war, which casts a long shadow over Angel Heart and it’s mood-drunk mise en scène.

But as it descends toward its final destination, the movie, based on William Hjortsberg’s 1978 novel
Falling Angel, gradually loosens itself from the dictates of historical, sociological or generic contexts, or even geographical, if we consider this to be a rather expressionist portrait of Louisiana. Metaphysical ambiguities aside, what fuels the story, what makes it chilling still, in its way, is this provocation: you don’t know who you are. Rourke’s repeated protests to the contrary constitute the only sequence where he could be said to push a little too hard, his voice strangled with despair and confusion and injustice. Yet, to be fair, how can he usher us toward the given conclusion otherwise?

1987 was a hell of a year for Rourke, who also made slobbery weirdly seductive in
Barfly, and Johnny Handsome was still ahead of him. It would be another couple of years before some sort of madness, maybe related to celebrity, maybe not, took hold of Rourke and sent him reeling, punch-drunk, toward humiliations I won’t list here and a long string of uninspired, sometimes grotesque work. It seems to me now that Rourke’s subsequent story adds an extra layer of pathos to his hapless gasps of “I know who I am.” Perhaps The Wrestler was his own belated retort.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Out of Sheer Rage: the road not taken

Geoff Dyer, not writing about D.H. Lawrence

Geoff Dyer negotiated with the inexplicable allure of great music by invoking moments in the lives of several giants of jazz through fiction-like prose in
But Beautiful, one of my favourite books about music ever. Now back in print, Dyer’s 1997 book Out of Sheer Rage (Picador, $15 USD) takes a very different approach to writing about D.H. Lawrence, the writer who made Dyer want to be a writer. Dyer’s approach to Lawrence however is largely about avoiding any approach whatsoever. Out of Sheer Rage is a memoir of perpetual procrastination, addiction to anticipation, and despair. Steve Martin says it’s the funniest book he’s ever read. I’m rather fond of it myself.

D.H. Lawrence

Dyer’s considerable feat is to sustain our interest in something he’s promised from the beginning is going nowhere by actually going all over the place: to Italy, Greece, Mexico, to the US, and back home to England, to survive an island moped crash, illness, dubbed movies, the temptation to masturbate in public, and, echoing a choice passage from Don DeLillo's
White Noise, the inevitable disappointment of standing in a place intended to radiate significance, or more precisely, to stand in the place where some dead admired person once stood, trying to conjure nonexistent emotions. This is something Dyer does especially well, dissecting conflicted responses to ostensible grandeur, always with a wit every bit the equal of Dyer’s titular rage.

There is of course plenty of literary commentary in
Out of Sheer Rage, its belated arrival feeling almost subversive. Dyer considers his youthful reading and in some cases refusal to reread much of Lawrence—save the entire collected correspondence—as well as the work of Thomas Bernhard and Milan Kundera. He makes a compelling case for the writing of a book being only slightly ahead of the research for a book, for a writer’s notes for a novel sometimes being more valuable than the novels themselves. In one passage of just a few pages, Dyer eloquently sums up much of what David Shields spent all of Reality Hunger, his fascinating and frustrating manifesto-by-collage, trying to say—partially through pulling quotes from Out of Sheer Rage. This might explain Dyer’s own wry appraisal of Reality Hunger: “Reading it, I kept thinking, ‘Yes, exactly, I wish I’d said that,’ and then I realized I had.” Shields only included citations in his book because his publishers forced him to, so all readers who hungered for more of the reality Shields used as his source material owe the old farts at Knopf a great favour, because they at least had the courtesy to include the information that might lead us to read Out of Sheer Rage.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Piranha 3-D: Beach blanket bloodbath, barf-bags may be required

Alexandre Aja’s third horror remake kicks off with Richard Dreyfuss getting sucked into an astonishingly lame-looking computer-generated whirlpool before being gobbled by two-million year-old killer guppies. Dreyfuss’ cameo is meant to remind the amnesiacs in the audience of
Jaws, though wouldn’t it have been more in keeping with the monumental crassness of Aja’s Piranha to somehow digitally resurrect Roy Scheider and shove him into this innovative new product for inducing vomit? That’s not hyperbole, incidentally—there are at least two acts of vomiting in the movie itself, and only one is performed by a piranha.

Wasn’t the first third of
Saving Private Ryan supposed to be a comedy? Apparently that’s the sort of “high-concept” that gets green-lit these days, resulting in this brazenly cynical, simultaneously tedious and upsetting beach blanket bloodbath, quite possibly the only summer fare that includes both Academy Award-winning actors and porn stars in its cast, not to mention the chubby kid from Stand By Me. Funny thing is, I’m not sure which camp gives the worst performances. At least valiant Elizabeth Shue looks like she’s trying, and Christopher Lloyd is nearly amusing in the Sam Jaffe expository scientist bit, though he doesn’t have to work as hard as Sperm Overload 3’s Gianna Michaels, playing a topless parasailing appetizer.

Scripted by Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger, the story’s at once risibly sentimental and utterly heartless, winkily aware of its own irritatingly idiocy yet idiotic nonetheless. It concerns Sheriff Shue trying to evacuate an Arizona resort upon discovering swarms of hungry cannibal piranhas released from captivity while some mannequin who’s supposed to be her teenage son absconds from babysitting duties to hang on a boat with Jerry O’Connell’s insufferable moron with a movie camera, who’s supposedly making pornography. Of course Shue can’t get those pesky spring breakers to exit the water, and soon enough all those dozens of young women Aja worked so hard to get out of their bikinis are ripped to shreds, not only by piranha teeth but also the outboard motor of some scumbag foolishly trying to escape the massacre. After seeing
Piranha you may want to undertake hypnosis to get its images out of your head.

It strikes me that O’Connell’s would-be director is actually a pretty obvious stand-in for Aja. While he’s clearly no match for Aja in the sadistic misogyny department, all O’Connell wants for the first half of
Piranha is to shoot naked tits, yet his most vivid expression of amazement occurs when he sees one of his honeys consumed by piranhas, who possess the showmanship to penetrate her from below and exit through her mouth. Soon after O’Connell’s back on his boat, half-mutilated, paraphrasing Eric Roberts in The Pope of Greenwich Village. “They took my penis,” he gasps, as though he wasn’t impotent to begin with. But he’s impotent in 3-D! Feeling entertained yet?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

When That Rough God Goes Riding: Greil Marcus on the many mysteries, missteps, and pants of Van Morrison

Perhaps the greatest records—the ones that, to borrow Greil Marcus’ standard, we carry to our graves—are those that seize us upon our first encounter, yield their real treasures only gradually, and somehow retain their mysteries even after we’ve internalized their every strum, tickle, and intake of breath. Marcus claims to have listened to Van Morrison’s 1968 creative breakthrough
Astral Weeks more than any other record, every time worrying he’s exhausted it, every time discovering anew that it still hasn’t given itself up. He submits several reasons why this might be in When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison (Public Affairs, $29), though none convince me so much as the one he’s not quite certain of, thus forming it as a question: “Is it because it has no ending?”

Morrison gets down with Janet Planet

First time I heard
Astral Weeks I must have fallen into a trance. I was sure the record consisted of three, maybe four songs. I was later shocked to discover the eight listed on the back cover. It feels like traveling, this record, like following a path in the dark that leads to changes in topography you hadn’t anticipated yet in retrospect seem the natural result of all that came before. Marcus gets at something similar when discussing the yarragh, which William Butler Yeats once described as a sort of Celtic lament, which for our purposes we might loosely align to the Spanish concept of duende—in his 1999 essay ‘The Secret Life of the Love Song,’ Nick Cave memorably declared that duende “pursues Van Morrison like a black dog and, though he tries to, he cannot escape it.” Marcus locates the yarragh in Morrison as “the voice that strikes a note so exalted you can’t believe a mere human being is responsible for it, a note so unfinished and unsatisfied you can understand why the eternal seems to be riding on its back.”

When That Rough God Goes Riding, which is more a collection of short essays than a sustained consideration of Morrison’s work, is at its best in rapturously articulate passages such as these, as well as in smaller, sometimes quirkier digressions. Marcus considers Morrison’s performance of ‘Caravan’ in The Last Waltz, wearing that amusingly snug outfit and kicking his right leg in the air like a Rockette, and later pays loving homage to Morrison’s donning of hot pants in ‘Moonshine Whiskey.’ Marcus is wonderfully sensitive to the nuances of Richard Davis’ bass work on Astral Weeks. Marcus tells a vivid personal story about a schoolmate’s bohemian mom whose image he recalls while listening to ‘Madame George.’ He’s very good with the strange, hushed aural space Morrison inhabits with ‘Linden Arlen Stole the Highlights’: “the louder you try to make it, the more it recedes, until it reaches as far as it will go toward silence, making you lean into it.”

Morrison getting his kicks in The Last Waltz

Marcus can be less persuasive when making cross-media comparisons, ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ to Raymond Chandler’s
Little Sister, a somewhat intriguing case, or ‘Friday’s Child’ to a scene in Anton Corbijn’s Control, which could have just as easily been a million other things. He seems determined to spend an awful lot of ink describing the movie Breakfast on Pluto before analyzing its use of Morrison’s music. I appreciated Marcus’ audacity to write off 16 entire years of Morrison’s work—“The tedium was almost heroic in its refusal to quit,” he quips—yet if you’re familiar with the work in question, as well as with other less reputable records that Marcus champions, you can’t help but yearn for closer readings of Morrison’s whole 45-year oeuvre, rather than the scattering of musings collected here. But I suppose the scattered, associational nature of When That Rough God Goes Riding could be seen as Marcus’ own riff on the yarragh. I closed the book without any doubts as to the sincerity of Marcus’ stray assertions about this artist he so clearly reveres, even those that admit their own inconclusiveness. It takes a certain critical flair to end an essay with the confession that “what I value most is how inexplicable any great work really is.”

Monday, August 16, 2010

When we're all orphans: L'enfance nue on DVD

Maurice Pialat was already in his 40s when he embarked on his feature debut, but I like very much that he made it about what we used to call a “problem child.” I’ve read that Pialat was something of an overgrown problem child himself, tempestuous, demanding, and difficult to work with.
L’enfance nue (1968) shows 10-year-old François (Michel Terrazon) being dismissed from one provincial foster home and shuttled off to another in the first 20 minutes, by which point we’ve already seen him throw a cat down several flights of stairs. Pialat was not himself a foster child, yet he repeatedly assured anyone who asked that L’enfance nue was a kind of self-portrait. Collaborators describe Pialat as having developed abandonment issues very early in life, feelings he could plausibly project upon François. But I wonder if when Pialat said L’enfance nue was about him he was actually referring to his adult self. This is a story about a shit disturber. It is also, incidentally, a truly remarkable, unnerving, yet also playful and affectionate movie by a filmmaker whose work most of us should probably know much more of.

I only really became aware of Pialat, who died in 2003, after being prompted to review
Loulou (80) for Edmonton's Metro Cinema’s screening a few years back. It’s haunted me since, as a defiantly unresolved portrait of working class routines and erotic self-actualization, as a performance from Gerard Depardieu the likes I’ve which I’ve never seen, and as the closest thing in French cinema to a Bruce Springsteen song. I’d seen Pialat’s Van Gogh (91) when I was very young and recall being impressed by how little it catered to my notions of the eponymous artist’s persona or what bio-pics are supposed to do, by how immersed I became in its portrait of the milieux Van Gogh quietly slipped through. Unfortunately Pialat’s name vanished from my thoughts afterwards, probably because like so many of the most gifted post-New Wave filmmakers—Jean Eustache and Philippe Garrel spring to mind as members of this group I’ve belatedly come to cherish—he failed to gain any significant foothold in North American movie culture. But we’re coming around. Criterion’s already released Pialat’s À nos amours (83) and is now offering L’enfance nue for our consideration, accompanied by some excellent supplements, like critic Kent Jones’ video essay and Pialat’s early short L’amour existe (60), which inspired François Truffaut to help produce L’enfance nue. (Pialat based François on a real kid with the same name, so apparently it's only a coincidence that the character shares the same Christian name as Truffaut, who less than a decade earlier made his debut with one of world cinema's defining movies about difficult childhood.)

L’enfance nue might have been a documentary, and the residue of this early conception remains in its opening images of a demonstration, but more pointedly in the camera’s dexterous responsiveness to the action. Most of the players are non-professionals, and several, most memorably Marie-Louise and Rene Thierry, who become François’ sexagenarian second foster parents, were essentially asked to tell their own stories within the boundaries of Pialat’s loose, often elliptical narrative framework. The approach imbues L’enfance nue with an unsentimental yet touching sense of the real. Terrazon however was not an actual foster child and this was probably a wise choice, given that it resulted in a central performance that never for one second comments on itself. We see François do both terrible and tender things and it’s more compelling that he barely seems cognizant of the difference. We see his face when others aren’t watching and he’s clearly listening to what’s going on around him, yet he doesn’t seem to listen with set expectations as to what response his actions will incite. We see François make discoveries—such as the Polaroid camera or Marie Marc’s wonderful, largely bedridden Nana’s mischievous sense of humour—and in these moments our internal scorecard of François’ positive or negative traits falls away while we observe him experience a moment fully. He’ll eventually experience a wedding, a death, and serious punishment for his deeds, and through it all Pialat’s knack for letting a scene breathe before abruptly moving on the next one invites us to simply take it in as we go. It’s only after the final fade-to-black that we can begin to comprehend just how much we’ve been through.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Expendables: Island hosts a cage match

Sylvester Stallone’s throwback actioner gathers as many genre stars as can fit on the poster and casts them as soldiers of fortune who take out baddies on a made-up Latin American isle where ugly American Eric Roberts has erected a puppet dictator in the interests of squeezing as much dope from cheap labour as possible. Somewhere in all this the mercenaries talk about feelings and ostensibly gain some social conscience. Obviously, the whole thing’s absurd and wildly bloodthirsty. Amongst the more astonishing sequences has Stallone and Jason Statham just barely escape from the island only to double back for no other reason than to slaughter dozens of underpaid local military. Yes, these are the good guys. And if their journey gradually bears vague traces of a
Wild Bunch type of suicidal, go-for-broke, final act shoot-up, you can rest assured that the list of casualties will manage to stay extremely one-sided.

The Expendables is not without bizarre points of interest. Plenty of shit blows up for those requiring that sort of thing, but merely beholding this motley assemblage of hulks, he-men and has-beens can be kind of fascinating in its own right. Mickey Rourke especially seems present for no other reason than to present Mickey Rourke. He enters on a Harley, sports his favoured Predator hairdo, does tattoos, smokes a pipe, and gets a teary monologue soaked in regret and despair—is it me or did Rourke invent this character on his own? Jet Li is the butt of many short jokes and that’s about it. Dolph Lundgren gets the nuttiest bit as the loose cannon who turns on his own crew, with lines like “Life’s a joke, shitbird!” and “Bring it, Happy Feet!” (That one’s for Li.) Stallone for his part underplays every scene, his face clay-like and largely immobile, his bulging veins resembling a topographical map of the Himalayas, which might be the place on earth where The Expendables isn’t opening this weekend. It’ll be bigger than Westlemania.

See Wednesday's post for a wide-ranging rooftop interview with Dolph Lundgren

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Eat Pray Love: JR tours the globe in search of Enlightenment Lite

In her
Washington Post review of Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search For Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, Grace Lichtenstein quipped that the only thing wrong with Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir “is that it seems so much like a Jennifer Aniston movie.” Lichtenstein misread the book. It’s actually a Julia Roberts movie. It is very much a Julia Roberts movie.

Roberts is ten years older than Gilbert was in her memoir, and this might contribute to the some of what feels off in the comma-excised adaptation of
Eat Pray Love, directed by Ryan Murphy, who seems drawn to best-selling memoirs in which privileged people quench their spiritual thirst by trying on alternative lifestyles. Roberts is very youthful and still adorable, but it’s to Roberts’ credit as a human that her Liz seems like she should be a lot smarter by this point in life. Marital disharmony to Billy Crudup sends Liz to prayer, self-help books, and James Franco’s cutie-pie actor, which is how we discover that Gilbert’s also the author of one of the worst plays in the English language.

When none of those remedies serve, the next step is travel—lots of it. Liz’s tours of Italy, Calcutta and Bali hit on each of the titular verbs, though Gilbert forgot to add
Shop. A feast of cultural stereotypes and pop psychology bullshit follows. It’s frustrating because it’s not as though most of us can’t relate to Liz’s search for inner balance, and it would be pointless to condemn her for having the means to solve her problems through extended peregrination.

Roberts embodies Liz’s yearning while never succumbing to morbid self-absorption—remember, Roberts was born perky. In fact, Roberts is capable of many things, including smartness, sexiness, even misdirection. As a star, the only thing missing is taste. Things might have worked better without Liz’s voice-over, which starts by telling us that survivors of genocide just want relationship advice and goes downhill from there. Liz becomes didactic by example, though I don’t buy any of her tidy revelations. She’s far more convincing when she’s just having a good time.

Richard Jenkins is nice as an abrasive Texan, until he’s prompted to suddenly spill his guts. Javier Bardem is strangely tough to accept as Brazilian, though I’m not sure if this tremendously gifted actor is actually trying. Is it just me, or is Bardem’s sloppily emotive performance commenting on the material? Is he perhaps wondering when exactly he was pegged as the new Antonio Banderas?

Roberts and her crazy brother Eric both have new movies out this weekend, one for women, the other, boys. Neither goes any distance toward renovating the careers of these talented siblings. Maybe they need to be in a movie together?
My Best Friend's the Pope of Greenwich Village? Runaway Bride-Train? Help me out here.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"Life takes its own turns..." A conversation with Dolph Lundgren about crossovers, comebacks, and that killer instinct

I met Dolph Lundgren on the roof of Toronto’s Thompson Hotel, which features a swimming pool, bar, and bevy of women wearing bikinis and heels. Lundgren was undistracted and quite honestly just wonderful to talk to, warm, humble, funny, and utterly candid about his life both on and off screen, as both a father and a son. Fully cognizant of his peculiar career as star and occasional director of countless low-budget actioners, he’s good humoured yet remains genuinely ambitious. He has plans to make a period drama in his native Sweden, and hopes that his memorable role in Sylvester Stallone’s
The Expendables will help him re-enter the mainstream.

Universal Soldier

One thing that became clear in our conversation was the depth of Lundgren’s affection for Stallone, an expression of long-term friendship that much more endearing when you consider that Lundgren put Stallone in intensive care for several days during the making of
Rocky IV. This was back in the mid-1980s, when the multilingual black belt had abandoned a life in sciences—he was awarded the Fulbright Scholarship to get his PhD in chemical engineering at MIT—to get into the movies. He was dating Grace Jones and debuted alongside her in A View to a Kill before landing the part of Rocky’s Russian nemesis Ivan Drago. But thanks to the ballooning video market a niche was opening up, one tailor-made for the likes of he and Jean Claude Van Damme, with whom he co-starred in Universal Soldier. Lundgren has never been out of work since, but he hasn’t had a theatrical release in 15 years. Until now.

Rocky IV

JB: You have an enigmatic role in
The Expendables, playing this guy who’s drowning in drugs and sadism and turning on his friends. Gunner seems like a villain but proves to be something more complicated.

Dolph Lundgren: One reason I wanted to do the film—other than Stallone asking me, which is something you don’t think about twice—was the fact that Gunner is such an interesting guy. I was surprised he was so complex. In fact in the original script there was more drugs and Gunner was totally nuts. I’ve done bad guys before, but someone like Gunner is appealing because, being a kind of bridge between the bad guys and good guys, he offers something very specific to play, instead of coming on set and just trying to look tough.

The Expendables

JB: You’ve occupied the director’s chair several times now. Are there things you’re still able to learn from watching someone like Stallone work in that capacity?

DL: Anyone making an $80-million dollar picture with all these people, locations and big set-pieces in it at his age—there are only so many people in the world who can pull that off. So as long as I can be there next to him I’m checking out everything he does.

JB: While the action scenes are fairly cutty, there’s actually a lot of camera movement within many individual shots, which is unusual these days.

DL: That’s a good point. Stallone originally had a younger DP before hiring Jeffrey Kimball. Jeffrey’s an old-timer, he lights very old school, and wanted to shoot the character stuff as simply as possible. Even in the action, as you said, he likes to show more of what’s happening. Of course people are used to quick cutting, so you’ve got to give them some of that, otherwise they get bored. It can be funny nowadays to watch older action movies where you see a guy running and running and here comes the explosion… and still he’s running and it seems to go on forever. The funny part is that’s only 15 years ago. [Laughs] Things change.

with Grace Jones

JB: You possess a very particular kind of celebrity, one that doesn’t often promise much in the way of theatrical release yet attracts hordes of passionate fans. You even have a drink named after you! It’s a kind of celebrity that didn’t really exist before the 1980s—when you started out—and the development of this enormous specialty market for action thrillers on home video. Has this aspect of your career surprised you?

DL: I never knew what to expect from my career. When I was training for
Rocky IV, I’d just done this Bond movie with Grace Jones, who was my girlfriend at the time. I remember Grace saying to me, “Forget the Bond movie. You’re going up against Rocky. This is going to be with you forever. This is huge.” I didn’t really know what she was talking about, but then your life takes it’s own turns. I became kind of famous, but I ended up doing a lot of smaller movies, some big ones, but a lot of small ones that went direct to video. I hadn’t expected that, but I never expected to direct either. You’re probably right about that difference in celebrity, because now that I’m back on the big screen, I mean, I wouldn’t say it’s like Mickey Rourke’s comeback, but you can’t help but feel there’s something similar going on when you’ve been around for so long and you get that groundswell where everybody kind of knows of you but you need to be in that big movie for people to rediscover what you’re all about. It’ll be interesting to see what happens. Now when I do these premieres I’m sure there’ll be people whispering to themselves, “Shit, he’s still alive!” [Laughs]

Johnny Mnemonic

JB: Are you actively looking for projects that fall outside the genres you’re known for?

DL: Always. What it is John Lennon said? “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Things seem to run away from you sometimes, but then you arrive at these turning points in your career. I do feel like maybe this is one of those times when all these hours I’ve put in to making these weird movies all over the world might add up to something. For instance, I’d like to direct this period piece in Sweden. If I can pull it off it would be a transition from action to drama. Not an easy transition but there are those who’ve done it, like Mel Gibson or Kevin Costner or Clint Eastwood. I’m not in their league but I’m trying to do something similar.

The Shooter

JB: Have you tried to work in Sweden?

DL: I’ve been offered things but they’ve been very stereotypical. I figured if I was going to run around with a gun and shoot people I’d do it in Hollywood. But two years ago I did an episode of this summer radio show where you sit down and talk about your life and play music for 90 minutes. I talked about my dad and my childhood, because all the Swedes just saw me as this big, dumb blonde guy who lives in Hollywood and loves violence and doesn’t give a shit about Sweden. That went over pretty big, and then last year they approached me to host the Eurovision Song Contest. I had to do some singing and dancing, and it was quite well received. So I hope I might be a position now to do something different because they’ve glimpsed another side of me.

Masters of the Universe

JB: Did you watch a lot of Swedish cinema growing up? I confess that virtually the only Swedish films I know from the period of your youth are probably all Bergman.

DL: Sure, we all did. Bergman included, of course. It was very artsy in those days, but all of that’s in me somewhere. I still love
Fanny and Alexander.

JB: Last year your home in Spain was broken into. I understand they tied up your wife, which must have been terrifying. Is it true they fled after seeing a photo of you and realized they were robbing Dolph Lundgren’s house?

DL: They didn’t really flee. They were there, stealing stuff. They were probably Eastern Europeans because they spoke bad Spanish. My wife and eldest daughter were there—my little one was asleep—and my daughter says to them, “If my dad were here you’d be in trouble!” Right at that moment they saw the picture of me and said, “Hey, wait a minute, we’re big fans of his movies.” [Laughs] My daughter asked them how they could be doing this if they like my movies and one of the robbers said, “Well, I suppose you can have a
few things back.” The whole thing was like a Saturday Night Live sketch. Bizarre. Anyway, I was filming The Expendables at the time and couldn’t leave the set, so I really went nuts. I called some people I know in Bulgaria and asked them to go find these guys and have a word with them. Of course nothing came of that. The good thing is that my kids now know there are bad people in the world. I have a good security system and armed guards now, so I hope it never happens again. I suppose there was a slight advantage to being famous in that situation, but then I started to think these guys might come back and try to grab one of my kids or something. That’s why I beefed up the security. You never know with these people.

in the karate pants

JB: You’ve devoted a large part of your life to martial arts. Have you found yourself in situations outside of the movies where you’ve had to use those skills?

DL: Very few times. I rarely get in a fight because I’m quite big, so most people don’t want to mess with me. But when you do martial arts you’re not typically an aggressive person. You learn to brush things off. I think the only times I’ve had to use those skills outside of movies was when I worked as a doorman in Sweden or Sidney or someplace when I was 25. I’ve fought a lot of people in a dojo, but that’s completely different.

JB: Was a part of your original motivation to learn martial arts to defend yourself?

DL: I think part of the motivation was that my dad was physically abusive. It was very tough, you know, him beating up on my mom and me. Dealing with that is very difficult for a child. It makes you feel inadequate, so you look for something to help you feel confident. I played ice hockey for a while, did some boxing, but it was only when I took up karate that I felt stronger, like I could defend myself, and I found some of that inner harmony you get from studying martial arts. Of course, I also become a good fighter. Something kicks in and you get that killer instinct. That’s something that happens when a person’s been hurt when they’re very young. I think all great fighters have something like that in them, some kind of scar. You need a little bit of an evil part to your character to be able to knock somebody out. It all happens very quickly. You don’t even know what you’re doing until it’s over.

A review of The Expendables will be posted this Friday.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Art in America: Terry Zwigoff's portraits of infamous or insufficiently famous men, their problematic legacies and vanishing worlds, return on DVD

Terry Zwigoff had played in a band and been close friends with legendary American cartoonist Robert Crumb for over two decades before finishing
Crumb (1995), and it makes you wonder if more documentary filmmakers shouldn’t be turning their cameras on their most intimate acquaintances—providing their intimacy doesn’t blind them to these acquaintances’ more difficult tendencies. Crumb benefits enormously from Zwigoff’s relationship to his subject, yet familiarity in no way inhabits discovery or critique.

Crumb draws a portrait of the artist in middle-age, on the verge of leaving his San Francisco home forever to re-settle in France with his wife. It describes a deeply eccentric nerd and preternatural curmudgeon who learned to make a life for himself by submitting to a relentless compulsion to interpret the world around him, the result being sometimes satire, sometimes fantasy of the most brazen, grotesque, perverse incarnations, and often both—I wonder if this mixture hasn’t endowed Crumb with a legacy not altogether different from that of Naked Lunch author William Burroughs. Those who have seen Zwigoff’s Ghost World (01) yet are unfamiliar with Crumb will likely see him as the real-life version of the later movie’s hapless Seymour, but with talent and purpose.

Zwigoff’s clearly enamored if not obsessed with Crumb’s work and sensibility—Zwigoff conveys real love for everyone in Crumb’s family, who, it rapidly becomes evident, are as much this movie’s subject as Crumb himself. Yet Zwigoff’s interest isn’t reflexively defensive. What’s morally or politically troubling about Crumb’s monstrous, big-assed, powerful-legged—and, in at least one case, decapitated—women or his nostalgia for bygone eras awash in racist imagery is all on the table, and Zwigoff invites several articulate commentators to examine it, some of whom regard Crumb as a contemporary Brueghel or defender of full-figured female beauty, others a narcissistic pornographer of the most dangerous kind. I don’t think this is Zwigoff’s attempt at objectivity. I think he’s just trying to get things right, to look at Crumb’s work from as broad a perspective as possible.

You might argue that Crumb’s work is of secondary importance to the story of the Crumb brothers. Zwigoff and his crew accompany Robert on visits to his housebound, pharmaceutically dependent brother Charles, who still lives with mother in a house frozen in time, passing his days re-reading the Victorian novels he adored as a boy, and to his ascetic brother Maxon, who lives alone in a San Fran fleabag apartment, alludes to a history of sexual assaults, and meditates on a bed of nails. There’s something deeply unsettling about how closely Charles and Max resemble less fortunate variations on Robert, who seems to care for and even admire his brothers, yet is so overcome with despair over their lifestyles and psychological frailty that all he can usually do in response to their stories is emit more of his trademark dry chuckles. Truth is you’ll probably laugh too while watching Crumb, which never succumbs to pity or sentimentality and often celebrates that one essential element that might just keep the Crumb brothers—and some of the rest of us—alive for as long as we can bear it: a healthy sense of humour. Long before he made fiction movies, Zwigoff proved himself a masterful storyteller, and I don’t think he could honestly tell any story without recognizing it’s inherent laughter.

Criterion’s beautifully transferred and packaged release of
Crumb this week coincides with their release of Zwigoff’s less known yet just as wonderful documentary Louie Bluie (85), a portrait of obscure country-blues musician and visual artist Howard Armstrong, whose recordings Zwigoff had cherished and emulated for decades before discovering that Armstrong alive and well and living in Detroit. As with Crumb, Louie Bluie takes a no-brainer approach to telling its subject’s story, with scenes of Armstrong doing his thing—ie: playing fiddle and mandolin or displaying his fecund, scatological and not un-Crumb-like art—and a journey back home, in this case rural Tennessee, where Armstrong learned to play whatever instrument he could find or invent, as well as several languages so he could play songs for diverse ethnic audiences. What’s magical about Louie Bluie arises not from its rudimentary structure but from Armstrong’s immense charisma and the movie’s slyly selected details.

We see Armstrong and his old partner Ted Bogan playing up a storm in the kitchen of “Yank” Rachell, another old collaborator. Armstrong solos with the mandolin behind his head while Rachell nonchalantly peruses the latest issue of
Income Opportunities. We see Bogan boiling water in a frying pan to make a cup of Hill Brothers instant. We see Armstrong convince Bogan to give him one of his least-ugly shirts. We see Rachell sucking every last bit of anything we might call flesh from a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken while Armstrong mercilessly and affectionately makes fun of him. None of these guys made much money from their musical talents, but Zwigoff makes it abundantly clear that what they did earn was several lifelong friendships. And as with Crumb, Zwigoff doesn’t shy away from the potentially offensive aspects of his subject’s outsized persona, allowing Armstrong to display his beloved erotic-historical Whorehouse Bible, and to hold forth on his ways with women and his inability to understand the appeal of Jesus: “Who the fuck cares about somebody nodding his damned head when some guy’s getting ready to kick his ass?”

Lovers of our less-recognized musical traditions owe a debt to Zwigoff for preserving this record of Armstrong, who died in 2003 at the age of 94, which also preserves many anecdotes and images of largely unheralded or even anonymous black musicians who developed what we call jazz, country and blues in the early 20th century. Lovers of our great if less-championed movies owe an equal debt to Criterion for rescuing
Louie Bluie from oblivion.