Friday, April 27, 2012

From the library: “Blood Simple”

Appearing amid the same NYU-fueled mid-‘80s indie boom that introduced Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, and Susan Seidelman, Joel and Ethan Coen’s boldly facetious and monstrously clever Blood Simple was immediately heralded as something new. This was an independent movie unburdened by political or cultural aspirations — a signal that indies might just want to be fun.

Blood Simple, the version of which I own on DVD is the remixed and slightly re-edited version the Coen brothers call the "director’s cut," gave further notice that the material that had once been the province of Hollywood B movies was now up for grabs. Taking its title from Dashiell Hammett and borrowing a situation from James M. Cain, the Coen’s debut was arguably the most influential noir since Chinatown. More specifically, Blood Simple gave an already highly aestheticized mode an ironic honky-tonk spin — or, rather, twang — while creating a precedent for indies like One False Move, Red Rock West, and Bound, as well as everything ever adapted from Jim Thompson.

Thus the movie became a cultural landmark after all. Nothing if not self-aware, the Coens are fully cognizant of this fact. This re-released Blood Simple may be the first so-called director’s cut to be shorter than the original-release version, but that’s only so they can include another joke. Actually, the new version is exactly the same length as the original because the filmmakers added an introduction in which a distributor identified as Mortimer Young credits Blood Simple with "ushering in the era of independent cinema" and claims that now that the movie has been "digitally enhanced and tastefully restored" (with the "boring parts" excised and the unmistakable voice of Holly Hunter revealed on a telephone answering machine), it will be "forever young."

This epithet has a double meaning. Blood Simple is not exactly in the Citizen Kane-Breathless league, but if there ever was a movie-brat debut, it’s the Coens’ aggressively stylish mixture of showboat formalism and insouciant nose-thumbing. The movie’s Texas landscape is as deliberate as its low-budget economy is ostentatious. This motel-room, two-lane-blacktop love triangle gone sour is a movie of suspicious minds and cartoonish performances. Glowering cuckold Dan Hedaya can hold the screen and nominal heroine Frances McDormand is scarcely less focused here than she would be in Fargo, while M. Emmett Walsh’s good-old-boy affability is allowed to develop a suitably psychotic edge. Fall guy John Getz is the weak link — monotonously dry-mouthed and angst-ridden, he seems to be the one participant not in on the joke.

From the initial storyboard to the final sound design, Blood Simple is a supremely calculated intellectual exercise. The super-studied, neon-colored compositions are stippled by perfectly arranged shadows. In addition to its cast, Blood Simple boasts some distinguished credits — it was the first feature shot by cinematographer-turned-director Barry Sonnenfeld and the first scored by the prolific composer Carter Burwell. There are some classic attention-grabbers, and the movie builds to a stunning denouement — including the horrendous image of an impaled hand — that owes a bit to the Coens’ erstwhile mentor, Sam Evil Dead Raimi. (A dozen years later, Raimi would return the compliment with his A Simple Plan.)

Unextended to their characters, the Coens’ generosity is expressed mainly in the movie’s trove of sight gags, visual surprises, and little knickknacks to keep the frame busy. There is the sense that the Coens are examining life under a microscope or putting rats through mazes for their own amusement. Blood Simple features a hero so stupid that he manages to frame himself, even as he squanders whatever audience sympathy he might have earlier enjoyed. From first shot to last, the Coens seldom miss an opportunity to suggest that theirs is a movie made by evolutionarily advanced life-forms touring a primitive planet.

The 25 Best Movies of 1985
1. The Color Purple
2. After Hours
3. The Falcon & the Snowman
4. Prizzi’s Honor
5. Ran
6. Witness
7. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
8. Lost in America
9. Streetwise
11. Brazil
12. Shoah
13. Come and See
14. The Time to Live and the Time to Die
15. Back to the Future
16. My Life as a Dog
17. The Purple Rose of Cairo
18. Out of Africa
19. Kiss of the Spider Woman
20. The Breakfast Club
21. Runaway Train
22. Mask
23. Silverado
24. The Journey of Natty Gann
25. The Trip to Bountiful

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Available on DVD: “Crime After Crime”

Crime After Crime, the unforgettable story of a battered woman trapped in a not-so-just criminal justice system, isn’t a visual masterpiece, but this emotionally affecting documentary will move you like few films this year, thanks to a luminous heroine and an unlikely but appealing trio who work tirelessly to release her from prison.

Director Yoav Potash’s labor of love chronicles the fate of Debbie Peagler, a Los Angeles-area woman who was incarcerated in 1983 (after being threatened by prosecutors with the death penalty) for her somewhat vague connection to the murder of ex-boyfriend Oliver Wilson, who had repeatedly beaten her, forced her into prostitution and sexually abused their daughter.

About two decades later, as Peagler still languishes at Chowchilla, land-use attorneys Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa (galvanized by a new state law that factors domestic abuse into appeals) take up her case pro bono, with the help of private investigator Bobby Buechler.

The numerous twists and turns that follow never fail to be engrossing, whether it’s the astonishing revelations of wrongdoing in the justice system, or the personal stories of those fighting against it.

Throughout the film, Peagler is a model of grace, restraint and heartbreaking inspiration.

My only beef is that Potash doesn’t have adequate footage to support the beginning of the story, which makes the details of Peagler’s upbringing — and the original crime itself — a bit jumbled. It’s the only time his (wise) decision not to use narration works against him.

But in the end, these are quibbles. This film delivers an emotional wallop, and it’s hard to argue against that. Rent it, buy it, download it, borrow it from a friend — find someway to see it.

Way to go, Jerry!

Back in January I wrote these words on this journal:

"Memo to Jerry Jones: You are little more than two cornerbacks away from having a Super Bowl contending team. Sign a top-notch free agent cornerback (there will be a couple available) and use your first draft pick to get second one. Voila! Instant fix."

So what does Jones do? He signs the superb free agent Brandon Carr from Kansas City and then, just moments ago, grabs LSU’s Morris Claiborne, the top-rated CB in this year’s draft.

Voila! Instant fix.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Available on DVD: “The Double Hour”

A beautiful, head-spinning mystery that requires keen attention — and rewards it with a tricky and poetic payoff — The Double Hour is a topflight Euro thriller right up there with Tell No One.

Italian director Giuseppe Capotondi, a commercial and video guy clearly schooled in Hitchcock, early Polanski, and the classic noirs (especially Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window), makes an astounding feature debut that pulls the rug out from under its lead character — and from the viewer.

That character is Sonia (Russian actress Ksenia Rappoport), a sad-eyed Slovenian émigré to Turin. She works as a hotel chambermaid, and, as The Double Hour begins, she has to contend with the haunting departure of one of the hotel's guests. At a speed-dating event, she meets Guido (Filippo Timi), an ex-cop who works as a security guard at an elegant private villa on the outskirts of town. Something clicks as the two trade introductory, exploratory chatter. It's not long before they fall into a serious romance — and serious trouble.

It would be irresponsible to say another word about what happens between Sonia and Guido. Trust me, though — you'll want to find out.

Rappoport and Timi won the best-acting awards at the 2009 Venice Film Festival for their efforts. Their work on screen is subtle and smart and absolutely pitch-perfect. On one level, The Double Hour is a love story, and a story of forgiveness and trust and second chances. On another level, it's a psychological puzzle, pulsing with suspense.

There may come a point in The Double Hour when you find yourself feeling toyed with, manipulated, perhaps even betrayed. But let things sit with you a while, and consider the implications and resonances in this labyrinthine plot.

There's more here than meets the eye.

Available on DVD: “Littlerock”

Director Mike Ott, co-writing with his star, Atsuko Okatsuka, and his cinematographer, Carl McLaughlin, has found a way to say a lot with a little in Littlerock, an ethereal and ephemeral musing on the art and artifice of communication.

Which is not nearly as dry as that might sound, though Littlerock itself, a down-market exurb northeast of Los Angeles where the film is set, certainly is. So parched is this bump in the road that any movement sends dust flying in a landscape already saturated in browns. Yet McLaughlin, who has a good eye for the minimal, manages to bring out the haunting beauty of empty places littered with the discards of forgotten lives.

It all begins when brother and sister Rintaro and Atsuko are stranded after their rental car breaks down. They are already uneasy traveling companions, here from Japan on a California road trip and clearly tired of each other. Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) is anxious to get to San Francisco, their next stop on a carefully mapped-out agenda. Atsuko (Okatsuka) would just like to relax for a day or two and drink it all in, even though Littlerock seems to have little to offer.

The idea of communication becomes the central issue because Atsuko doesn’t speak English. Instead, she relies on her brother’s bare-bones knowledge, then increasingly her instincts and observations, as the siblings get drawn into the local slacker scene of drinking, drugs, occasional sex and lots of aimless hanging out. Cory (Cory Zacharia), a slacker among slackers who has Hollywood dreams and hometown issues, is their guide into this world.

Atsuko’s postcards to her father back home, given voice by the actress, provide clues about what she is thinking. But mostly we learn by watching Atsuko watching everything around her. There is humor and irony in the language misfires, but without the bridge of a common language everyone says less, and that allows for unexpected stretches of silence — comfortable or uncomfortable, depending on the moment.

A turning point comes when the replacement for the broken car arrives. Rintaro, who has been something of a translator for us as well, heads on to San Francisco; Atsuko stays behind. She falls into the daily rhythms of Littlerock, finds romance, then a job, and you wonder if she might stay. But the filmmakers are not content just skimming the surface — there are other forces pulling at Atsuko too, ones that emerge only when the veneer of Littlerock is scraped away and she is reminded of the real distance she has traveled to get here.

None of this would have worked if the actress did not have such an expressive face and the filmmakers hadn’t known how to exploit that. By staying focused on her, following her glances, the shrug of a shoulder, a smile, they take us into her world. As Atsuko moves through the days and nights, as relationships are formed and broken, as disappointment and insight comes, we understand. Even when there are no words.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Good night, Levon

I’ve already said my piece about Levon Helm a couple of days ago but I wanted to share this, written by Michael Elliott of Time magazine:

Levon Helm, who died in New York on April 19, age 71, from the cancer that he had been fighting for more than a decade, was one of the most celebrated rock drummers of the last 50 years. He uniquely embodied two sets of folk memories in his music, one of the pop culture of the 1960s, and another of an older, lost America of dirt farmers, train robbers and civil war veterans scratching out the foundations of the republic. And somehow he managed to do this all while continually winning the passionate devotion of new fans in our linked but atomistic nation almost until the moment he died.

Mark Lavon "Levon" Helm was born to a family of farmers in Arkansas in 1940 and started playing with local groups while he was still at school. He joined the band of Ronnie Hawkins, a Canadian rockabilly singer who was popular in the south; when Hawkins moved back to Toronto, Helm went along, and was soon joined by local musicians Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. After breaking with Hawkins, the band became Bob Dylan’s backing musicians, as Dylan made his epochal switch from folk music to electric rock. When Dylan moved to Woodstock, New York, after his motorcycle accident in 1966, the band recorded hours of tapes with him in the Catskills town. Initially, Helm wasn’t with them; disillusioned with music, he’d gone back to Arkansas, but when The Band, as they were now known, got a recording contract, the other members summoned him north again. Together, they put together one of the seminal works of popular music.

Music from Big Pink — the famous house in Woodstock where the boys played and lived — came at just the right time. In Britain, getting ready for college, I must have heard it first in the fall of 1968, when if you had any sort of soul you knew that rock music was taking a turn for the worse. The fun, smart, three-minute-at-most stuff that we’d listened and danced to for years was being ousted by the "progressive rock" of bands whose names one shudders to remember, full of a thin pretentiousness; listening to it was like reading a John Fowles novel that never ends. Big Pink was different. Knowing nothing about its tangled roots in musical forms from soul to country to gospel and R&B, there was something wonderful about the way its songs were at easy on the ear, rhythmically complex — that was Levon — and, the same time, just bloody strange (right: The Weight).

My friends and I were completely hooked. We listened to Big Pink and The Band’s second "brown" album until we knew every note and drum beat by heart, and when Stage Fright arrived in Britain in 1970, two of us raced to the local music store in Oxford to hear it in a soundproof cubicle (yes, kids, that’s how we once did consumer testing), nervous that it might be a fall from grace. As if. Have you listened to The Shape I’m In lately?

After three years of obsessing about The Band, I finally got to see them at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1971, an extraordinary night which had the useful side benefit of reducing my girlfriend’s bragging rights. (She’d seen The Band accompany Dylan at the legendary 1969 Isle of Wight Festival, as she reminds me to this day.) But inevitably with time, my passion faded a bit. More albums came, I bought all of them, bought them again on CD, watched Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Waltz, but was no more than vaguely aware that Helm and Robbie Robertson had had a bitter falling out. Manuel committed suicide, Danko died in Woodstock, and it seemed as if the story of The Band was going to turn into one of those all-too-common, dark chapters in the history of rock.

Then, a few years ago, a friend mentioned to me that Levon, who had survived a serious bout with cancer and for a while lost his voice, was in the habit of getting a knockout band together on Saturday nights in the barn-cum-recording-studio at his Woodstock house. My wife and I went up the river. And all I can say is: if you were one of the lucky ones who caught a Midnight Ramble, good for you; if you never did, shoot yourself. "In decades of dogged concert-going," my friend Clive Crook wrote in the Financial Times in 2009, "this reviewer cannot remember an evening as uplifting or as satisfying."

Before an audience of about 150 crammed into the barn — hipsters up from the city mixed with locals with a lot of off-road miles on their clock, members of both groups slipping out into the country air for a smoke — Levon led a band of all the talents. There was Dylan’s long-time guitarist Larry Campbell and his wife, the singer Teresa Williams; Levon’s daughter Amy; keyboardist Brian Mitchell; the best horn section ever; and guests like Steve Earle, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, Graham Parker, and countless more. One evening last year, as four hours of music drew to an end, an enormous bear-like figure shambled on to the stage, white beard halfway down his chest, and took to the piano for the Ramble’s traditional closing number, which was, of course, The Weight. That was Hudson, then 73.

What made the evenings memorable, though, was not just the music. It was the happiness. (Everyone was encouraged to bring a dish to a potluck that we all ate outside, so the Rambles were half-revival show, half-picnic.) And there was not the slightest doubt who made everyone feel so good. Levon, grinning like a cat who’d found a pail of the thickest cream in the Catskills, sat to one side of the stage (except there wasn’t a stage — you sat on top of the musicians) driving the band through New Orleans blues and rags, rockabilly, Band songs, covers of the Grateful Dead and Dylan, and traditional folk numbers. In later years, he didn’t sing much — the cancer, I guess, was never really licked — but he hummed and murmured, picked up the mandolin every now and again, and just spread an air of infectious joy over the whole proceedings. Once my wife and I nervously took our world-wise daughters, then 21 and 19, to a Ramble — Levon’s 70th birthday party, as it happened. They quickly tagged this whole Woodstock deal as their parents’ aging hippie thing, so I was a bit apprehensive when I asked them at the end how it had all gone down. No worries: "Awesome!"

The band that Levon put together for the Rambles produced three albums: Dirt Farmer, Electric Dirt, and last year, Ramble at the Ryman, recorded in Nashville. Each of them won a Grammy, insofar as that mattered. What really counted was that a whole new audience was finding a voice that managed to be sorrowful one moment, fun the next, rolling through old ballads from the eastern mountains, new songs about events long ago, clever takes on Band classics and a heartbreaking version of Buddy Miller’s Wide River to Cross. You should buy them all.

A while ago, after a particularly epic Ramble, I decided that if one man and his friends could reliably make so many people find joy, I wanted as much of it as I could. So I’d buy a house in Woodstock. I found just the place, too, an 18th century farmhouse on the edge of town, a bit knocked about, with deer munching in a backyard that must have been a petri dish for Lyme disease, but with floors and bookshelves made from a dark, old, cherry tree. My family, who are much more sensible than me, pointed out that the whole idea was nuts, and I reluctantly agreed.

Still and all, it was a mistake. If I’d gone mad that weekend, we would all have had a few more evenings remembering how magical popular music can be, before Levon Helm crossed his own wide river.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Good night, Dick

Don’t count me among the Dick Clark admirers. I believe he went out of his way to kill rock ‘n’ roll.

The first great era of rock ‘n’ roll began around 1954 and ended in 1958 when Elvis entered the Army. The music was vibrant and those of us who were teenagers at the time ate it up. We all became rebels with a cause and that cause was listening, dancing and making out to Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Little Richard and, of course, the biggest threat of all, ol’ "Swivel Hips" himself.

When Dick Clark, who died today at 82 of a heart attack following "a medical procedure," first began American Bandstand in 1957, he featured many of those artists on his show. But slowly he began to change. He tried to put coats and ties on a music that appealed to the primal in us all. He subsequently banned appearances by Lewis and Berry and replaced them with "safe" pop singers, vocalists like Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Connie Francis, Bobby Rydell, Jimmy Clanton et al — artists who would be considered palatable to his real audience: the parents of the teens he was pandering to.

In disgust, many of us abandoned this sanitized rock for folk music, discovering Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and embracing such new artists as Joan Baez; Peter, Paul & Mary; and, of course, Bob Dylan.

Then came the Beatles. I was always more of a fan of The Rolling Stones than I was of The Beatles, but one of the things I will give the Fab Four credit for is that they rescued rock ‘n’ roll from the clutches of Dick Clark. Clark, in fact, refused to have The Beatles on his show because he did not think they measured up to his standards. Just goes to show ya.

I’ll give Clark credit for this, though: He could be brutally honest, even about his dishonesties. During an interview I conducted with him in the late 1970s he did admit to me he was guilty of the same payola misdeeds that ruined the careers of many of his contemporaries in the late 1950s (off course, the statute of limitations on the crimes had run out by that time) and he did tell me had he partial ownership in the careers of most of the artists he pushed on his show.

And now that I look back on those years with a more objective eye I must admit — where rock ‘n’ roll was concerned — the world was divided into "us" and "them" and that Dick Clark never really was one of "us."

The Amazing Spider Man

I'm not a big fan of mindless action pictures, particularly those based on comic book heroes. I did enjoy Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, the second Spider-Man feature and the first Iron Man installment, but that's about it.

However, the latest installment of Spider Man shows some promise. But then it was directed by Mark Webb whose lovingly whimsical (500) Days of Summer caught me completely by surprise and written by Steve Kloves, the writer who produced the screenplays for Racing With the Moon, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Wonder Boys and all the Harry Potter films.

I also liked the lines "You think I'm a cop, dressed in a skin tight red and blue suit" and "38 of New York's finest against a man in a unitard."

I must also admit I have a soft spot for Emma Stone and it appears Andrew Garfield can pull off the title role. Plus, look at the rest of the cast: Martin Sheen, Rhys Ifans, Sally Field, Dennis Leary, Campbell Scott.

It just might work.

Sad news about Levon Helm

Just ran across this letter from the family of Levon Helm:

Dear Friends,

Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer. Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey.

Thank you fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration … he has loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat, and make the people dance! He did it every time he took the stage …

We appreciate all the love and support and concern.

From his daughter Amy, and wife Sandy

Helm was not the primary drummer when the group that was then known as the Hawks and later became known as The Band originally backed Bob Dylan on his first "electric" tour. He took a two-year leave of absence after the first couple of performances with Dylan sparked a mostly negative response from audiences. He was replaced by Mickey Jones.

He was also the only American in the band. Helm, who was born May 26, 1940, in Marvell, Ark., created his first band, The Jungle Bush Beaters, while still in high school. By the time he was 17, the band was playing the club circuit in and around Helena, Ark. Upon graduation from high school, Ronnie Hawkins, a rockabilly singer popular throughout the southern United States at the time, asked him to join his band, The Hawks. According to his autobiography, Helm’s real name is Mark Lavon Helm, but he changed it to Levon because the other members of the Hawks had trouble pronouncing Lavon correctly.

Rockabilly at the time was also popular in Canada and Hawkins eventually relocated to Toronto in 1959. A couple of years later, Helm and Hawkins had to recruit all new band members and they settled on Canadian musicians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. In 1963, Hawkins and his backup musicians went their separate ways and Helm’s group became known first as Levon and the Hawks and later The Canadian Squires and, finally, simply, The Hawks.

During his two-year sabbatical, while the rest of the group was backing Dylan, Helm worked on offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Following a European tour, Dylan decided to withdraw from public life and he holed up with the band in Woodstock, N.Y. In 1967, Danko called Helm and asked him to rejoin the group and together they played with Dylan almost daily, producing a series of demos that would quickly become known as The Basement Tapes.

That was my first exposure to the Band. Through connections I had at the time, I secured about a dozen reel-to-reel tapes of those songs Dylan and The Band recorded in early 1968. Later that year The Band released its first album, Music from the Big Pink, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

I loved that album. I listened to it over and over again. My personal favorite song on the Big Pink was Chest Fever. In August of 1968, I moved from Austin to Dallas carrying all my worldly possessions (namely ragged clothes) in a foot locker onboard a Greyhound bus. Shortly after my arrival I found myself a second floor flat in Oak Cliff that suited my purposes and my pocketbook and I bought myself a small transistor radio, one of those little fits-in-your-hand mechanisms popular at the time that you had to place near a window in order to get any kind of reception at all. I tuned in to the only FM rock oriented station at the time (it was a Gordon McClendon-owned station — KNUS 98.7 — this was before the advent of WFAA’s FM offshoot, The Zoo). Jon Dillon, who later gained some well deserved notoriety when the Zoo did form, was a disc jockey for KNUS and one of the first things I heard him say was that he wanted listeners to call in with requests. I was suffering from Chest Fever withdrawal big time so I called the number and — waddya know? — wound up talking directly to Mr. Dillon his ownself. I requested Chest Fever by The Band. To this day, I recall in horror his response verbatim: "I just played Three Dog Night’s version of that song." I slammed down the receiver, picked up the tiny transistor radio and hurled it out the window and watched as it smashed into pieces on the ground below. To this day — almost 44 years later — I have never listened to a Dallas radio station that plays music. For me, Dallas radio is only Chuck Cooperstein, Brad Sham and Eric Nadel.

I finally got to meet Levon Helm and the rest of The Band at Austin’s Sunday Break II. It was after the show, around 2 or 3 in the morning, and I was alone in the lobby of Driskill Hotel, sitting at the piano with one hand playing with the keys and the other wrapped around a gin and tonic. Then the group walked in. Richard Manuel sat next to me on the bench, saying "Mind if I join you." Then he began playing with the piano and broke into That’s All Right, with the rest of the band (and yours truly) joining in on the vocals. We then sang Rock Around the Clock, Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean, Mystery Train and a couple of others I’ve long forgotten.

But I’ve never forgotten the night I played with Levon Helm and the rest of The Band.

The above video features Levon’s unique vocals and drum stylings on The Weight, my second favorite song from Big Pink.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Killer stat of the night

The Utah Jazz average 3.9 three-pointers a game and shoot them with a 31.1 percent success rate. Last night against the Mavs, the Jazz converted on 12 of 28 three-point attempts, 42.9 percent. Dallas, as you probably know by now, lost the game by two points, 123-121, in triple overtime, a loss that could have been averted if the Mavs had just defended slightly better from beyond the arc.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Unintentionally (?) funny line from Cooperstein

I was listening to the Mavericks-Lakers game on radio yesterday afternoon when announcer Chuck (Is there a better play-by-play man in radio?) Cooperstein described a foul on the Mavericks’ Jason Kidd by the Lakers forward formerly known as Ron Artest: "World Peace smacked Kidd alongside the head."

Saturday, April 14, 2012

From the library: “Shadow of a Doubt”

Deathly Americana; not as fun or spine-tingling as other films by director Alfred Hitchcock, but who’s complaining? Hitch’s favorite among his own films was based on the case of the real-life "Merry Widow Murderer," Earle Leonard Nelson, a mass strangler of the 1920s. The sly Hitchcock made this chiller all the more frightening by having his crafty homicidal maniac intrude into the tranquility of a warm, middle-class family living in a small town, deeply developing his characters and drawing from the soft-spoken Joseph Cotten one of the actor’s most remarkable and fascinating performances.

At the beginning of the film, Charlie (Cotten) is shown wooing and then murdering a woman for her riches. He barely escapes the police and then boards a train, having wired his sister Emma (Patricia Collinge) in Santa Rosa, California, that he is coming for an extended stay with the only family he has. (On board the train, as a passenger in his cameo appearance, is director Hitchcock.) In Santa Rosa his niece, also named Charlie (Teresa Wright), is delighted to hear that her urbane, witty, and adventurous uncle will be visiting the family. She, her father (Henry Travers), and her young brother and sister (Edna Mae Wonacott and Charles Bates) greet Uncle Charlie at the train station, but are shocked to see him limping on a cane, being helped by porters. He claims to be ill, and the family quickly takes him home, where Emma pampers him.

Charlie stops at a bank and makes a scene while depositing $40,000, but his strange behavior is explained as an idiosyncracy by his adoring niece.

Gradually, though, Charlie’s past comes to town to haunt him, especially when a detective (Macdonald Carey) shows up. Battling the thought that her beloved uncle could be the mass killer the detective has suggested he is, Charlie tries to get closer to her uncle, hoping to learn about his past and allay her fears.

This is Hitchcock’s most penetrating analysis of a murderer — a masterful profile, aided by Cotten’s superb performance, of a subtle killer who cannot escape his dark passions, despite a superior intellect. The film’s construction is adroit and perfectly calculated, letting the viewer know early on just what kind of man Cotton really is, but providing tension through Cotten’s devious charade as a gentle, kind man deserving of his family’s love — a tension which fuels the chilling cat-and-mouse game between Cotten and Wright that provides the film’s suspenseful center.

Hitchcock took his time in making Shadow of a Doubt, and the care shows. The director got Thornton Wilder to write the screenplay, assuming that the playwright who created Our Town would be the perfect scenarist to bring the right kind of ambience and characterization to the film’s small, close-knit Santa Rosa. After consulting briefly with Hitchcock, Wilder wandered about Hollywood with a notebook, writing bits and pieces of the screenplay when he could. He and the director took their time developing the intricate story, and Wilder had not finished the screenplay when he enlisted to serve in the Psychological Warfare Division of the Army. To finish the script, Hitchcock boarded a cross-country train to Florida (where Wilder was to begin his training) with the writer, and patiently sat in the next compartment as Wilder periodically emerged to give him another few pages of copy. The great playwright finished the last page of Shadow of a Doubt just as the train was coming to his stop, and he used the train upon which he and Hitchcock traveled as his model in creating the setting for the gripping finale.

The 25 Best Films of 1943
1. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
2. Day of Wrath
3. Meshes of the Afternoon
5. I Walked With a Zombie
6. Love Story
7. The Raven
8. Heaven Can Wait
9. The Ox-Bow Incident
10. The Song of Bernadette
11. Madame Curie
12. The More the Merrier
13. Lassie Come Home
14. Cabin in the Sky
15. Watch on the Rhine
16. So Proudly We Hail!
17. The Human Comedy
18. The Phantom of the Opera
19. For Whom the Bell Tolls
20. This Land Is Mine
21. Destination Tokyo
22. Five Graves to Cairo
23. Guadalcanal Diary
24. Hangmen Also Die
25. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

Available to stream: “Weekend”

The collapse of sexual taboos has caused some trouble for love, or at least for love stories. That sex often precedes emotional intimacy — or proceeds without it — is a fact of life that movies, with their deep and longstanding investment in romance, especially have a hard time dealing with. Contemporary sexual mores tend to be explored either with grim, punitive realism (as in Steve McQueen’s Shame), or with cute and careful wishful thinking.

Comedies like No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits strain to adapt the ethics of the modern bedroom to tidy and traditional marriage plots (though not always with benefit of clergy). What starts as zipless lust winds up in a longing for commitment. The desires of the flesh rarely spare the heart.

You can’t really fault Hollywood, an empire built on fantasies of heterosexual happiness, for simplifying such complex matters. But there is also a need for stories that address the complex entanglements of love and sex honestly, without sentiment or cynicism and with the appropriate mixture of humor, sympathy and erotic heat.

Weekend, Andrew Haigh’s astonishingly self-assured, unassumingly profound second feature, is just such a film. In its matter-of-fact, tightly focused observation of two young men who find their one-night stand growing into something more serious, the movie ranges over vast, often neglected regions of 21st-century life. It is about the paradoxes and puzzlements of gay identity in a post-identity-politics era, and also about the enduring mystery of sexual attraction and its consequences.

Shot in a little more than two weeks and taking place over a little more than two days, Weekend is also, even primarily, about the leisure-time activities of ordinary British young people, who go to clubs and children’s birthday parties, settle in to marriage or seek out casual sex, and unwind after work with beer, hashish and takeout curries.

Haigh films these activities in the ground-level, hand-held style that has become the international signature of movies by and about restless youth. The audience does not hear music unless the people on screen hear it too, and the overall look and sound display a studious lack of polish. The dialogue feels improvised; the editing is a mix of abrupt cuts and extended takes; and the themes emerge slowly, in keeping with the natural diffidence of the characters.

Or one of them, anyway. Russell (Tom Cullen), who works as a lifeguard at a public pool, lives in a way that disproves any easy, either-or distinction between being in or out of the closet. In the early scenes, which show him hanging out with a mostly straight, mostly paired-off group of friends (including his best pal from childhood), he seems comfortable with himself, but also circumspect. Later, at a gay club, his cruising has a similarly low-key, slightly abashed aspect.

The next morning he wakes up with Glen (Chris New), who is more outspoken and outgoing, full of jokes, opinions and ideas that both unsettle and intrigue his new acquaintance. As they sip coffee in bed, Glen pulls out a tape recorder and interviews Russell about the previous night’s encounter, which the viewer has not seen.

The recitation of physical acts creates both immediacy and distance — it can be more embarrassing to talk about some things than to do them — which is part of Glen’s intention. He explains to Russell that the taped conversation is part of an art project intended to explore the gap that opens up, when sex comes into play, between who someone really is and who he wants to be.

The differences between Glen and Russell form the dramatic backbone of Weekend. It is not just that they disagree about gay marriage, or that Glen is more politically assertive than Russell, who dislikes drawing attention to himself and resists linking his sexuality to a public cause. Their arguments — affectionate but intense — reflect contrasting personalities, and the friction between them is what makes them, potentially, such an interesting couple. Each one, without quite saying so, is grappling with basic questions about love and identity. What can I mean to another person? Whom do I want to be with? Who do I want to be?

A less brave, less honest movie would hasten to provide answers, assuming that the lovers require promises and that the audience needs reassurance. But Weekend, which is about the risks and pleasures of opening up emotionally in the presence of another, remains true to the unsettled, open-ended nature of the experience it documents. And for exactly this reason — because Haigh avoids the easy payoff of either a happy or a tragic ending — it is one of the most satisfying love stories you are likely to see on your TV set or computer screen this year.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Give me the money

Good news. Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm sent word tonight that sales tax dollars continue to climb. The city collected $16.1 million in sales taxes in February, which is a nice 10.4 percent over what was collected in February, 2011, and 8.7 percent more than was forecast. That means the city has $1.3 million more to play with than it figured it would have. I say put that money right into street repair.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Available on DVD: “Into the Abyss”

Is lethal injection ever justified? Condemned to death as punishment for a triple homicide, the boyish Michael Perry has had plenty of time to ponder that question.

Perry seems eager to talk, but whether he's genuinely remorseful or playing for sympathy is hard to gauge. With the full force of Texas justice due to come down on him, he certainly has nothing to lose. What's truly disturbing, considering his situation, is his goofy demeanor.

Jason Burkett, who's serving a 40-year sentence for the killings, is anything but lighthearted. Resigned to the long years ahead of him, Burkett is perhaps grateful that — as bad as things can be behind bars — he'll still be alive.

Perhaps life in the Texas town of Conroe was just so boring that Perry and Burkett thought their plan to steal a red Camaro was a good idea. But it went horribly wrong.

One of the best documentaries of the year, Into the Abyss looks at a horrible crime and its aftermath with an insight that's often lacking in such accounts. Directed by Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams), the film is at once a crime story, a jailhouse romance and a critique of the American criminal justice system. At its heart is the question of whether killing, under any circumstances, is morally acceptable.

Herzog, who interviews his subjects off-camera, seems mystified as to how a person could be murdered over the theft of an automobile. And the viewer is encouraged to reflect on the arbitrariness of life as we meet some of the people forced to live with the convicts' choices — including Burkett's pregnant wife Melyssa, whose belief in him is absolute.

Into the Abyss makes a strong case for the inhumanity of capital punishment, regardless of the crime or the criminal.

“Blood on the Tracks”: The Movie

Just heard that a couple of (I guess) savvy Brazilian producers have purchased the movie rights to Bob Dylan’s landmark 1975 album Blood on the Tracks. Now I know the album, which ranks alongside Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde as the best of Dylan’s brilliant career, is almost confessional in nature, with Dylan accepting the traumatic breakdown of his marriage. Be that as it may, two songs in particular, Tangled Up in Blue and Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, could be made into movies of their own , neither of which would bear any similarity to the other.

Probably nothing will ever come of this project — I, for one, hope it doesn’t. I mean, there are certain things, even in our pop culture, that are just plain sacred.

Arkansas got it right, Miami almost did

Bobby Petrino
Jessica Dorrell
I was hearing a lot of talk yesterday morning on sports radio concerning whether (1) University Arkansas head football coach Bobby Petrino and Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen should have been fired.

Petrino had to go. Not only was the married father of four having a extra-marital sexual affair with 25-year-old former University of Arkansas volleyball player Jessica Dorrell, he makes sure she beats out 155 other applicants for a plum position on his staff, after which he writes her a check for $20,000. And when confronted about all of this by university athletic director Jeff Long after Petrino and Dorrell are involved in a motorcycle accident. Petrino, in effect, tells his boss, with Dorrell present, "Hey, there’s no hanky-panky going on between us. We’re just work colleagues." When the evidence Petrino was lying became insurmountable, Long had no choice but to show Petrino the road out of Fayetteville, even though the coach had taken the Razorbacks to a 9-2 record and a spot in the Sugar Bowl last season.

Ozzie Guillen
Guillen’s motor-mouth got him in trouble again. He told a Time magazine reporter that he actually respected Cuban dictator Fidel Castro because he remained in power for as long as he did. Now the Marlins’ prime audience is comprised of Cuban exiles living in Florida, many of whom had family members tortured and/or put to death by the Castro regime. In fact, the team’s just-opened stadium is nestled in the Miami neighborhood known as Little Havana. Castro is regarded in Little Havana the way Adolph Hitler is in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. South Florida political leaders of Cuban extraction demanded Guillen’s immediate dismissal and were outraged when the team only gave him a five-game suspension. Now they are threatening to organize a boycott of Marlins home games.

I also thought the punishment against Guillen was light — a 30-game ban would have been more appropriate. But the Marlins shouldn’t dismiss him.

Why? Because in this country we have this little thing known as a Constitutional protection of free speech, under which, anything short of shouting "Fire!" in a crowded movie theater or "Charlize Theron is walking naked down the halls" in a men’s prison is permissible. That means no matter how distasteful you find someone’s speech to be — whether they be Larry Flynt, Timothy McVeigh or even Rick Santorum — they have the right to spew whatever they desire.

Guillen’s protected; Petrino had no safety net.

From the library: “Little Caesar”

Little Caesar now seems a bit dated and inelegant, but it is an indisputable landmark. Though not the first gangster film, it spawned the immensely popular gangster cycle of the 1930s and launched the career of one of the greatest icons of the genre — Edward G. Robinson. This tough film still packs a considerable wallop largely due to the mesmerizing performance of Robinson as the thoroughly vicious Rico Bandello.

Rico Bandello is a dedicated killer and thief right from the opening scene. He disappears into a gas station and, after a flash of gunfire, emerges with the money from the till. His driver, Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), nervously wheels the coupe into the darkness. Later, Rico and Joe are in a diner, ordering "spaghetti and coffee for two," telegraphing their ethnicity to the audience. After reading in the newspaper about underworld big shots, Rico informs Joe of his ambition to become a rackets czar. He declares that he's not "just another mug." Rico is a man with a mission. He quickly goes about making his criminal dreams come true.

Little Caesar was one of the first sound films to portray the American gangster outside of prison walls, coming after such early prison stories as The Last Mile, The Big House, and Numbered Men. Robinson's character is as ruthless as Al Capone, the real-life gangster upon whom Chicago author W.R. Burnett based the novel from which the film is adapted.

Made for a then-hefty $700,000, the film was a box-office smash and typecast Robinson in the role of the gangster. Given free rein by co-producer Darryl Zanuck, director Mervyn LeRoy produced a fast-paced film that kept up with its lightning-fast star. Oddly, Little Caesar contains a minimum of explicit violence, although murderous intent is always lurking in Robinson's menacing face. The 37-year-old Robinson was not new to films; he had been acting in movies since 1923, though he was largely unnoticed.

The film's other producer, Hal Wallis, assigned Robinson the lead, but the sensitive actor found it difficult to adjust to the role of the killer, blinking wildly every time he had to fire a gun. LeRoy solved the problem by affixing little transparent bands of tape to Robinson's upper eyelids, so that when he did blast away, his eyes remained wide open; this trick had the added benefit of giving Robinson an even more menacing, heartless appearance.

The 25 Best Films of 1931

1. City Lights
2. M
3. Tabu
4. The Million
5. Frankenstein
6. À Nous La Liberté
7. The Threepenny Opera
8. La Chienne
9. Kameradschaft
10. Dracula
11. Maedchen in Uniform
12. The Public Enemy
13. The Smiling Lieutenant
14. The Last Flight
16. Waterloo Bridge
17. Monkey Business
18. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
19. Platninum Blonde
20. The Champ
21. The Front Page
22. Tonight or Never
23. Private Lives
24. Five Star Final
25. Street Scene

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Boss pays tribute to the Big Man in N.J.

Bruce Springsteen is obviously a home-state hero in New Jersey so when he played the Izod Center in the Meadowlands this week you had to know the crowds would be especially enthusiastic. Bruce has been saving Tenth Avenue Freeze-out for the final song of the evening so far on every stop of the Wrecking Ball tour. But on Wednesday night, he actually sang it from a mini-stage located out in the audience and when he came to the line "when the Big Man joined the band," he not only stopped for a moment of reflection for his dear departed friend, but, for the first time on the tour, pictures of Clarence were shown on the auditorium’s big screen. The audience’s reaction is electric, as you can see here.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A few previews to whet your appetities

Although not the featured attraction, by any means, Alec Baldwin just might find himself in a couple of worthwhile, financially successful, movies this summer. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

From the Library: "His Girl Friday"

Perfection and possibly the fastest comedy on record. This hilarious re-working of The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur sees Cary Grant as the savage editor and, in a switch, the reporter played by a scheming Rosalind Russell. Instead of merely having the editor doing all in his power to keep his most brilliant reporter on staff, this version adds the twin lures of sex and romance, since Russell is Grant’s ex-wife. She intends to marry again and her intended is the blatheringly innocent Ralph Bellamy, here in the quintessential Bellamy second lead. When convicted killer John Qualen escapes his cell the night before he is to hang and hides in the news room of the jail — inside a rolltop desk — Grant uses the incident to entice Russell back to work. She is to write the scoop of the break, but Grant’s deeper motive is to keep Russell near him so he can somehow woo her back.

The machine gun dailogue is by Charlie Lederer, Hecht’s friend and sometime collaborator: Abner Biberman, a thug working for Grant, defends his new girlfriend by saying: "She’s not an albino; she was born right here in this country!" Russell calls in a report to the city desk: "Shot him right in the classified ads … No, `ads’!" And there are many inside jokes. Grant criticizes Bellamy to Russell, saying he "looks like that actor … Ralph Bellamy!" Grant again grins (in the above clip) as he says: "The last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat." (Archie Leach was Grant’s real name.)

The film moves at whirlwind speed, as director Howard Hawks instructed his actors to overlap their lines, so much so that at times everyone seems to be talking at once. One archivist actually timed the hurricane delivery of the actors at 240 words per minute, so fast that the dialogue is just discernible, the actors speaking about 130 words per minute above average delivery. Hawks also had his cast move at twice normal speed so the whole thing was frantic from scene to scene, thus conveying the urgency of the news world he was depicting.

His Girl Friday is distinctly Hawksian, bearing his trademark of madcap comedy, also brilliantly shown in Bringing up Baby and I Was a Male War Bride, both starring Grant. But Friday presents Grant in a no-holds-barred comedy-bully performance. This time he’s the aggressor, the persecutor as he cajoles, aggravates, intimidates, lies — sometimes he even resorts to noises in this hilariously self-centered performance. It’s his greatest comedic role, proving once again the amazing versatility of this fine actor.

Russell is at her peak, too — demonstrating her own brittle breakneck speed with comedy lines and instilling an ungainly charm into Hildy’s physicality. Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Margaret Sullavan, Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert and Carole Lombard were all offered the role, but turned it down. Russell leapt at the chance to play the screwball role and it turned out to be her greatest comedy part, one which assured her immortality. The supporting cast is a Who’s Who of willing comedy loons.