PARIS, TEXAS (1984) revisited

June 21, 2014

paris tx Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been 30 years. The movie hasn’t changed. I remember every scene. So that means it’s ME that has changed. While I really liked the movie on its 1984 release, it’s only now that I truly appreciate the brilliance of the script, the music, the direction, the photography and the acting … much less the wide range of emotions released in the smallest ways possible.

Director Wim Wenders has long been a favorite at Cannes Film Festival, and this one took home the prestigious Palme d’Or. Since then, the film has often been mentioned as one of the best movies of the 1980’s, and after this most recent screening (courtesy of the Dallas Film Society), I wholeheartedly concur.

Opening in a most unusual manner … the lead character comes stumbling out of the Texas dessert and doesn’t utter a word for the first 20-25 minutes … this film immediately strikes you as something unique –definitely not cookie cutter. Trying to outguess the script is a waste of time. It’s best to just watch it unfold in a believable and sometimes awkward way.

In a rare lead role, long time character actor Harry Dean Stanton plays Travis. We soon enough learn that Travis disappeared four years ago leaving behind a wife and young son. We also learn that his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) and Walt’s wife Anne (Aurore Clement) have been taking care of the boy, and Hunter (Hunter Carson) considers them his parents (his mom ran off too).

Walt and Anne invite Travis to stay with them and re-connect with his son, but they are caught off guard when the two really click and they take off to find Jane, the wife/mother. Their charming (but less-than-professional) stakeout leads to the discovery that Jane is working in a sex shop, spending her days talking to a 2 way mirror with lonely men she can’t see. One of the most remarkable on screen soliloquies ever seen occurs on Travis’ final trip to see Jane (Natassja Kinski). He tells her a heartfelt story that plays out as an explanation, an apology, and a plan for moving forward. She slowly realizes it’s their story he is telling. It’s his way of making reparations and finally doing the right thing (as he sees it).

As with most classic films, the backstory offers some interesting tidbits and the players are fun to catch up with. This story was originally written by the great Sam Shepard. Mr. Shepard is a Pulitzer Prize winner, an award winning playwright, and well known actor (Oscar nominated for playing Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff). Director Wenders then brought in L.M. “Kit” Carson to add and revise the script while on set. Carson’s son (with actress Karen Black) Hunter plays the boy in the film, and he delivers one of the best, least affected, child performances of all time. Kit went on to write the screenplay for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) and had a significant acting role in Running on Empty (1988). His son Hunter is still a working actor today. Mr. Wenders was one of the German New Wave of directors along with Herzog and Fassbinder, and his Wings of Desire (1987) would make a terrific double feature with this one. Mr. Stockwell was a very successful child actor in the 1940’s and is best known for his work in Blue Velvet and TV’s “Quantum Leap“. Ms. Kinski is the daughter of Klaus Kinski and is fondly remembered for her roles in Tess (1979) and Cat People (1982), though she still works today as well.

Harry Dean Stanton is now 88 years old. He served in WWII and was present during the Battle of Okinawa. His acting career began in the 1950’s and he still works periodically today. In addition to nearly 200 acting credits, he has had a pretty nice career as a musician. His band built a large cult following. Some of his most popular acting roles have been in Cool Hand Luke, The Godfather II, Alien, Repo Man, Escape From New York and, of course, as the dad in Pretty in Pink.

The music in the film is provided by Ry Cooder, who is a tremendous slide guitarist and has worked with some of the all-time greats in the music business – The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison and Neil Young, among others. Cooder is a multi-Grammy winner and re-teamed with Wenders for the Oscar nominated Buena Vista Social Club a few years later. The music is an exceptional compliment to the movie, as is the camera work of Robby Muller, who also works frequently with Wenders.

This story of loss and loneliness is an easy one to overlook, but when a film holds up well for 30 years … and affects you differently depending on your own lot in life … its legacy is secure.

***NOTE: those of a certain age will get a kick out of the use of a Muse Air jet

watch the trailer:

 

 

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THE LAST STAND (2013)

January 19, 2013

last stand2 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been almost 10 years since Arnold Schwarzenegger was last top billed in a movie. He’s remained in the headlines most of that time … some good, some not so much. If you are an Arnold fan, it’s nice to see him back on screen. And what do you expect from a Schwarzenegger movie? Big guns, big muscles and big laughs from the one-liners. The first U.S. film from noted Korean director Jee-woon Kim delivers all three … and, unfortunately, little else.

Arnold plays Sheriff Ray who has semi-retired to a quiet life in an Arizona border town after a career on an ill-fated Los Angeles police drug team. His deputies are played by screen vet and comic relief Luis Guzman, Zach Gilford, and Jaimie Alexander. An FBI Agent played by Forest Whitaker contacts the Sheriff and lets him know an last stand3escaped drug lord played by Eduardo Noriega is headed through the town on his way to cross the border. Peter Stormare‘s group is in town to clear the path. Things get messy from there.

The tongue-in-cheek parts work best, but the plot and overall script are pretty lacking in substance. This could almost be viewed as a Schwarzenegger tribute film. The self-deprecating humor keeps the film rolling, but some of it just tries too hard … especially the segments with Johnny Knoxville. Some of the action is so over-the-top it draws the desired laughs from the audience, but be prepared for lots of gun play and plenty of Chevy commercial time.

last stand5 We also get a quick scene from Harry Dean Stanton and Rodrigo Santoro has a small role as a former war hero – turned town drunk who gets his shot at redemption. But make no mistake, this is Arnold’s movie and his chance to show that he still has it. The screen presence is still there, but his skills might play better in a more limited support role. That said, I triple dog dare you to not crack a smile when he is firing guns, in a frantic car chase through the corn fields, and engaged in hand to hand combat on the border bridge. After all … he did say he would be back!

*** NOTE to Directors: when you cast Forest Whitaker, don’t film him running … it’s not a pretty sight

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of Arnold the movie star and look forward to seeing him back on screen

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a serious movie about a small town sheriff – this one is closer to trashy B cinema than Oscar.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yMc9h3h9bs


SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (2012)

October 14, 2012

Greetings again from the darkness. When a writer/director sets a standard with a film like In Bruges, the anticipation for the follow-up is palpable, especially from those of us with the demented sense of humor necessary to watch that film over and over. Martin McDonagh is a writer firs (shorts, features and plays), and a self-taught filmmaker second. He again shows his talent for interesting characters in unusual situations, and an extraordinary blend of black comedy, violence and personal struggles with morality.

This film is a smart (but dark) comedy about characters who aren’t nearly as smart as they see themselves. It’s quite self-referential and at its best is a self-parody. Colin Farrell plays a writer who is blocked after creating the perfect title … “Seven Psychopaths”. Sam Rockwell plays his best friend who runs a crafty little dog-napping business and feeds Farrell possible story lines. He even goes as far as to run an ad asking real life psychopaths to come tell their story. Yep, this plan is just running smoothly until Rockwell kidnaps the dog of a local gangster played by Woody Harrelson.

What we quickly figure out is that we are watching Farrell’s writing process unfold on screen. The bigger challenge is trying to figure out which parts are really happening and which parts are fantasy or part of the creative process. The writing and acting are very skillful. Christopher Walken plays Rockwell’s partner and delivers what may be his best performance in years. It’s very offbeat and irregular … in other words, typical Walken.  Though there are many excellent scenes, the best ones involve Walken.

The script pokes fun at the weak female characters – Abbie Cornish as Farrell’s girlfriend, and former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko as Harrelson’s less-than-loyal girlfriend. The film also features some of my favorite character actors. In addition to Walken, we get the great Tom Waits as a bunny loving psychopath, Harry Dean Stanton as a Quaker, Zeljko Ivanek as a henchman, and an opening scene with “Boardwalk Empire” alums Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg.

 As wonderful a writer as McDonagh is, we can’t help notice the influences of Quentin Tarantino and the spaghetti westerns – especially The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. His comedic tendencies wrapped in violent sequences really challenge us as viewers. Trying to find the good in those who aren’t necessarily so good adds an element and complexity as the film throws violence in our face as the characters are confronting their deeper feelings on morality. Since Farrell’s character is a writer named Martin, we are probably safe in assuming that McDonagh is working through some of these same issues himself (especially the unnecessary violence and weak women characters).  McDonagh proves again to be one of the most intriguing and talented filmmakers working, and even though this one is a tick below his last one, I anxiously await his next.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you saw In Bruges and appreciated the dark comedy and philosophical nature OR you don’t want to miss a classic Christopher Walken performance

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your comedy to be light-hearted in nature OR you can’t appreciate the character who brings a flare gun to the final shootout in the desert

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOsd5d8IVoA

 

 


COOL HAND LUKE (1967) revisited

June 21, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Entirely too many years have passed since I last saw this movie, so when Cinemark included it in the summer classic film series, I was in my seat nice and early. Mention this movie and the first thing people do is quote one of the most famous lines in movie history: “What we’ve got here – is failure to communicate.” No question that’s a great line. But there is so much more to this movie and it holds up beautifully 45 years after release.

Based on the novel by Donn Pearce, who spent two years on a chain-gang, this is the story of Luke (Paul Newman) who just can’t bring himself to conform to the rules, regardless whether those be the rules of the military, society, prison, or self-imposed by his fellow convicts. We are introduced to Luke as he drunkenly cuts off the top of parking meters on main street of a small town. Later, in a throw away line, we learn he was gaining revenge on someone. It’s the clear indication that while he doesn’t always want to fit in, Luke clearly knows right from wrong.

 There are so many terrific scenes in this film, that it’s not possible to discuss each. Every scene with the prison warden, played by Strother Martin, is intense. Each of the Boss guards are frightening, especially Morgan Woodward as the sharpshooter behind the mirrored shades. There are numerous impactful scenes featuring the group of convicts. Even though we learn little about the individuals, we realize the fragile male psyche is on full display. Despite the power of all of these characters and scenes, the real strength of the film is the relationship between Luke and Dragline (George Kennedy). Watching the early cat and mouse game, and the subsequent transfer of power, we realize this is two amazing actors at the top of their game.

 George Kennedy rightfully won the Best Supporting Actor award and continued on to become one of the most successful and prolific character actors of the 70’s and 80’s, and his career culminated with his iconic role in the Naked Gun series. As for Paul Newman, this is one of his best performance in a long line of standout performances. This one is in the middle stage of his career and he exuded manliness with a touch of sensitivity. He and Strother Martin would meet again in one of the best sequences of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

 Watching Luke win over all the convicts, including the previous leader played by Kennedy is stunning, yet gut-wrenching when offset by the scenes with the guards who are hell bent on getting Luke to understand his place. They understand the risk he poses to the systematic rhythms of the prison.  What no one seems to understand is Luke’s odd need for misery … he allows himself only moments of joy before lapsing back into some odd form of sacrifice. Study the famous egg scene.  50 eggs. 50 inmates.  The pain he endures and the scene ends with a crucifix pose. Now take that to the final few scenes that take place in the church. Luke is asking the questions, but he refuses to hear the answer.

 The supporting cast is downright incredible. This was the feature film debut for: Ralph Waite (4 years later he became the beloved paternal figure of TV’s “The Waltons”); Joe Don Baker (Buford Pusser from Walking Tall); James Gammon (later the crusty manager in Major League); and Anthony Zerbe, another iconic character actor of the 70’s and 80’s. Also featured are Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton (singing a few songs), Wayne Rogers (from “MASH”), Richard Davalos (James Dean’s brother Aron in East of Eden), and Rance Howard (Ron’s dad as the sheriff). In a brief, but truly great scene, Jo Van Fleet (also from East of Eden), appears as Arletta, and we quickly understand Luke’s background and inability to find himself.

Often overlooked by film historians, “Lucille” putting on a show for the convicts as she washes her car, is a scene that is meant for more than titillation. As she creatively buffs the windows, the reaction of the convicts reminds us that these are still men and no amount of humiliation and degradation can change that. One of my friends (Big E) argues that Joy Harmon was clearly cheated out of an Oscar for this scene.

The score is the handy work of Lalo Schifrin and expertly captures the moment … especially in the black tar scene. Director Stuart Rosenberg (working here with the great Conrad Hall) was known only for his TV work when he got this script. He went on to direct another prison movie in 1980 called Brubaker. Starring Newman’s Butch Cassidy co-star Robert Redford, the film was a decent prison drama, but not at the level of Cool Hand Luke … which by the way, was installed into the National Film Registry in 2005.

 


THE AVENGERS (2012)

May 5, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The concern coming in was that this would be like an All-Star game, which as any sports fan will tell you, is typically a massive letdown. Assembling so many super heroes and colorful characters into one movie: Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Nick Fury, and Loki … would probably lead to either mass confusion, a 4 hour movie, or short straws for a couple of characters. Somehow director/co-writer Joss Whedon has avoided the pitfalls and delivered a huge action film that is loads of fun for everyone, including the fanboys.

Whedon does a remarkable job of giving each character their fair share of screen time, and somehow manages to make the interaction between the characters the best part of the movie. There is some terrific dialogue and the number of quick-witted exchanges are too numerous to recount. While this would be expected from Robert Downey, Jr‘s Iron Man, I must admit to being pleasantly surprised at Chris Hemsworth‘s Thor and especially Mark Ruffalo‘s Dr Banner/Hulk. I found Ruffalo’s take on the role very interesting since he is the third actor to tackle this in the past nine years (Eric Bana 2003 and Edward Norton 2008). The movie contains quite a few laugh outloud moments, which is pretty impressive in a filled theatre.

 If you are going to combine six super heroes in a movie, you need a bad guy. A villain. Actually, a super villain. Tom Hiddleston as Loki (The God of Mischief from Asgard, and Thor’s brother) is up to the task. For me, he was a weak link in Thor, but here is a full-fledged, powerful evil mastermind looking to gain power by stealing the global power of Tesseract (Cosmic Cube), commanding an alien army, and ruling earth. Hiddleston is clearly having fun and it shows. For the movie to work at all, his plan and power must stand up to the impressive line up of good guys he is fighting. That is certainly the case.

 Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow has come a long way from her brief work in Iron Man2, and we really get to know more about Natasha the Russian spy … although her accent fades in and out. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye seems a bit out of place, but Renner is so cool, we don’t really care. Chris Evans as Captain America does a wonderful job of taking control of the band of misfits and displays the leadership expected of a super-soldier. We even get a good dose of Agent Coulson (Phil to his friends) and Clark Gregg‘s deadpan deliver is a great addition. Samuel L Jackson (as Nick Fury) will be adding hundreds of millions more to his current record of being the highest-grossing actor of all-time.

Gwyneth Paltrow is back as Pepper Potts. Since last we saw her, she has evidently been shopping for short shorts and helping design the new Stark Tower. Natalie Portman makes a creative cameo, reprising her awful role in Thor. Stellan Skarsgard is back as a believable scientist. Powers Boothe appears as a member of the Council that Fury reports to. The great Harry Dean Stanton(at 85 yrs of age) has a comical scene as a security guard who stumbles onto Hulk’s mess. And of course, Stan Lee makes his well-deserved cameo appearance – a tradition in the Marvel movies.

Much of the credit for this must go to Joss Whedon. He may finally be out of his “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” shadow, as this movie is quite an accomplishment. Entertaining and funny for the masses, yet detailed enough for the comic book fan boys. I was thinking how much fun this would be for a 10-12 year old, and how my mind might have exploded if something like this existed in my childhood. Even comparing this to the Christoper Reeve Superman movies will help you realize just how far super heroes movies have come.  There are some holes in the story and a couple of things will have you scratching your head if you think too hard … but this one’s not about thinking.  Just sit back and enjoy!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see the most Academy Award nominees ever assembled for a super hero movie OR you just want to have fun watching a big old summertime blockbuster with comedy, action and colorful characters

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have already decided you’ll hate it … otherwise, you might actually like it

watch the trailer:


THE GODFATHER II (1974) revisited

April 21, 2012

 Six weeks ago was The Godfather in a theatre setting. This time it was the exceptional sequel, which generated an equal amount of movie bliss. Experiencing these two classic movies on the big screen almost 40 years after release reinforces what great films they are … and how few truly great films get made. We are reminded that a powerful well-written story, world class cast, visionary director, brilliant photographer and stunning composer are all necessary components for movie greatness.

This sequel explores three time periods: the journey of 9 year old Vito to the U.S., his rise to power in Little Italy, and Corleone life after Vito’s death. Some find the cuts to varying timelines to be distracting. Personally, I find it fascinating and a very effective way to tell the entire story. Watching an almost mute 9 year old Vito land on Ellis Island and transform into a twenty-something community “leader” is one of the more powerful and unlikely events ever seen on screen. Mixing that with Al Pacino holding little back as a power-mongering Michael is downright frightening. If you doubt this, look at it from the perspective of Diane Keaton‘s May, or John Cazale‘s Fredo.

The film received 11 Oscar nominations and won 6, including Best Picture. Robert DeNiro won for his tremendous turn as young Vito, in a performance with very little English. This is early DeNiro … the Mean Streets, Taxi Driver era. DeNiro and Marlon Brando remain the only two actors to have won Oscars for playing the same character. DeNiro’s Supporting Actor competition came from two other cast members: Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth (supposedly based on Meyer Lansky) and Michael V Gazzo as Pentangeli. Mr. Strasberg was the famed acting teacher whose prized pupils included none other than Al Pacino (who talked him into taking this role). Strasberg was also bequeathed 75% of the Marilyn Monroe estate and there was much scandal after his death when his widow auctioned off most of it.  Gazzo’s grizzled look and voice dominate his scenes and leave you feeling uneasy about what’s really going on with him.

 Here are a few other interesting points.  Most of this script was original for the film, though the background story of Vito was drawn from Mario Puzo‘s novel. Director Francis Ford Coppola considered casting Joe Pesci as the young Clemenza, but ultimately decided on Bruno Kirby. Dominic Chianese plays Hyman Roth’s right hand man Johnny Ola. Chianese has been recently seen in both The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. B-Movie mogul Roger Corman plays one of the Senators on the committee interrogating Michael and Pentangeli. Harry Dean Stanton plays one of the FBI bodyguards, and former heartthrob Troy Donahue plays Connie’s (Talia Shire) goofy boyfriend Merle. One of my favorite characters in the film is Don Fanucci, robustly played by Gastone Moschin. His strutting and preening always creeps me out and makes me laugh.

Besides being the first sequel to win a Best Picture Oscar, The Godfather II is simply one of the finest films ever made. At 200 minutes, it requires both a time and mental commitment, but along with The Godfather, Coppola and Puzo have provided us exemplary story telling through expert filmmaking … and a piece of movie history.

here is a link to my comments on the original: https://moviereviewsfromthedark.wordpress.com/2012/03/03/the-godfather-1972-revisited/

below is a link to the trailer, but be warned … it contains 3 plus minutes of actual footage.  If you have not seen the film, I would not recommend watching the trailer: