Friday, April 30, 2010

A Voice, a vision and Vietnam

        I saw Heaven and Earth a few nights ago. I don't know how these little gems slip by me. Not my favorite movie but Oliver Stone did a pretty good job. He does have a love affair with Vietnam. The film was released in 1993 and stars Tommy Lee Jones (always so good) and then newcomer Hiep Thi Le, with Joan Chen, Haing S. Ngor and others in a big strong cast.

       Oliver Stone is one of a few exceptional directors. His resume includes Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, Talk Radio, Born of the Fourth of July, Natural Born Killers and JFK. 

     Movies that snag me fast are those with a great voice. Not necessarily narration, but it usually is a narrated film. Voice-over story tellers and epic tales. Breathtaking cinematography. Some I love are as short as Out Of The Past to Days Of Heaven to Memoirs of a Geisha and The Joy Luck Club (something entrancing about the Asian accented.) Giovanni Riblisi narrating The Virgin Suicides and  Alec Baldwin's telling us about the Royal Tenenbaums. Stacy Keach's marvelous pipes telling of the The Duel.     Nothing can ruin a great movie faster than a bad narrator. (think Sam Shepard in The Voyager). A story, a score and a great voice. The triple crown for movies.

For some of these great epics and film noir see right here.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Snap out of it!

          Snap out of it!

            One of the best lines in one of the best movies of the 1980s. Moonstruck, with Cher, Nicolas Cage, Olympia Dukakis (who won best supporting actress Oscar) and the late wonderful Vince Gardenia. 

            As far as good romantic flicks go, this ranks right up there. Okay hey it's a chick flick some like to say. But Moonstruck has a smart story line (no sappy schlock), funny, great cast and the flavor of New York City. There are lots of romantic comedies but few are really good. 

           Nicolas Cage is one of my favorite actors. I think he is underrated. But that's probably because of some dump role choices. But he was good in Moonstruck (1987), Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2002) and Leaving Las Vegas for which he won the 1995 Oscar. Elizabeth Shue was superb, but so underrated. We never hear much about Capt. Corelli's Mandolin, with Penelope Cruz and John Hurt and takes place during one of my favorite eras for movies: World War 2. What a time to be alive.

        Back to Cage. How can someone do such excellent work (including the anxiety-riddled con man in Matchstick Men) Cage was hilarious as the anxiety-riddled grifter with a dozen ticks.  And then he does this completely stupid ghastly film called The Wicker Man.  OMG. I guess he needed the money.   I read recently Cage filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. Hey, bad stuff happens to the best of us. But come on he was married to Lisa Marie Presley, plus he made some big bucks for those movies. Nick, jeepers, what did you do with it? You got top-flight kin in the business (nephew to directorial titan Francis Ford Coppola and cousin to the gifted and wonderful director Sophia Coppola.(The Virgin Suicides, Lost In Translation). 

       Hey those back IRS taxes will do you in every time. Don't you hate it when that happens? These things work themselves out. So Nick snap out of it!   

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Here's to Toots and a haunting harmonica

        I am embarrassed to admit this but I saw Midnight Cowboy (1969) only last year. Of course I have seen bits and pieces of it.  I knew it put Jon Voight on the map. I knew Dustin Hoffman's character was Ratso Rizzo. The role showcased his remarkable talents, coming off of his clean-cut innocence in The Graduate

        But I never watched Midnight Cowboy from beginning to end. What a great flick. The ending really hit me. I don't recall a movie that gave me such a feeling of sadness at the end. Not teary hanky sad. Just sad like a void. A loss.

      Without the gifted harmonica playing it would not have had the impact. Even as true to form as it was to James Leo Herlihy's brilliant book.  The glorious playing was done by Jean Toots Theilemans. I'll tell you some instruments need gifted musicians to show you their capabilities. The harmonica is one of them.

     Music sets the tone.  The youthful exuberance the opening of Across the Universe with the Beatles song "It's you," so energized and sparkling. Or the creepy feeling the Doors music brought to Apocalypse Now.  The best is the jazz score set to a low-budget 1958 science fiction thriller called 4D Man. Great jazz music by itself, but it really made the action bounce along.

    That's why if I love a book, I hesitate to see the movie. Who wants your imagery ruined if you heard raggae and they do rock? I sometimes get the book, though, if the movie is good.Sometimes I avoid the movie after reading an exceptional book. You see some movies not even close to the book. Like LA Confidental. Both a great book and flick. The book starts out with a conversation between two LA cops, one of whom is a major player in the book. But in the movie he's just a bit character and on top it of he's killed off fast. I have read most of Elroy's books. The master of novel noir.

  Here's a my badly edited liberty with Midnight Cowboy to showcase Toots' haunting harmonica:

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Better to be smart, or lucky?

    The answer of course, is both. But most people aren't. They aren't even one or the other. But given a choice, luck is best. How many smart, talented people end up living utterly miserable lives?

     What a dour prelude to this blog. I read three books in a row by the same author, Sam Shepard. All three were his collections of short stories Day out of Days: Stories, this book being the most recent. I know he's also a noted playwright whose early work Buried Child won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1969.

    I confess I don't read plays. The stage directions get annoying. They clutter the story. So, I haven't had had a full view of  his work. Though the short stories I read seem to get repetitive. Collections of this or that, all the same just different packages covers.
   Love books? Almost as much as I love movies and I  got the jammed bookshelves to prove it. Read 'em all. I am partial to mysteries (love Sue Grafton starting with  A Is for Alibi and that wonderful novelist noir James Elroy) and read so many true crime stories for example, Truman Capote's In cold blood (I have stacks by the best) and then there are just plain good books like Anna Quindlin's Black and Blue: A Novel

      So I read in order of publication Shepard's three collections of short stories starting with Great Dream of Heaven: Stories published, if I recall, in 1986, then his Cruising Paradise: Tales in 1997 and his most recent Day out of Days: Stories published this year. 

    The books aren't just short stories as much as a few good tales with a bunch of essays, remembrances of personal events, poems, and a few chapters that are no more than a paragraph. You can say some pretty powerful stuff in a paragraph. But each book seems weaker than the next. Each had fewer stories and more essays, on, for example, Shepard's escapades during this latest acting job. Or his childhood. I saw a number of those movies and I recognized a lot of those locations and situations. If he disliked it that much why do it? He didn't need the money.

     Shepard made well as an actor. He was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. That was more because Yeager was an amazing man than Shepard an amazing actor.  Shepard's best roles were in 1977 Days of Heaven  by Terrence Malick, co-starring Richard Gere and Brook Adams. The other was a part as Ethan Hawk's courageous publisher dad in Snow Falling on Cedars.. (The book and film  were marvelous).

    I read autobiographical material in which I shared with Shepard a  childhood with an abusive, alcoholic parent. So I checked his books out of my local library. I know what he means when, in one of his essays he talks about intrusions of prickly thoughts. Maybe that's the genesis of the series on the severed head. A treacherous childhood can leave its tattoos. I don't read or watch much on westerns. Cowboys themselves are more interesting but so much information is available on the internet. Like everything you want to know about Hank Williams Sr. Beats me why the New York Times went ga ga over Shepard's last book. Genius? I guess it is a matter of taste. Still, it's better to be lucky. Shepard sure was in his adult life.


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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Swords, snits and sinewy soldiers

     One of the most lusciously filmed movies I ever watched was released in 1977. The Duellists starred very young and fairly new actors Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel. Both were beautiful, fit, lean. Sinewy legs and round buns in skin tight uniforms. 

    Besides the actors, the movie scenery was lavish and the score was  sensual. I think a the producers used a lot of Mozart. The movie also was Ridley Scott's debut film. What surprised me was that such an excellent movie had such limited release at the time. I saw it for the first time last year. 
    It was narrated artfully by Stacey Keach. The story was based on actual events. Novel-noir writer Joseph Conrad read about the duelists an old newspaper. The clipping told of a lifelong grudge between two soldiers who dueled every few years over the same insult. The transgression was long forgotten, or perhaps never really existed but in the minds of one or both.  In the movie, the duels take place during the course of the Napoleonic rule, and end when it ends.

     Period pieces have to be gripping to keep my attention. I did enjoy both  Pride And Prejudice 1995 and 2006. Also Sense and Sensibility and most recently  Marie Antoinette in 2004.  If you get a chance, Joseph Conrad's the Duellists is worth watching. Oh those men in uniform can be a handful.

   Here are a few scenes:

and this little gem:

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Wambaugh, war and other bloody messes

         Joseph Wambaugh probably had no idea what a love affair he was creating when he wrote The New Centurions, published in 1970. The LAPD cop-turned-novelist gave us some interesting crime and good and bad guy stuff in the day. But the thing Wambaugh did that generates the most devotion isn't in his resume. 

       The Police Story, first aired in 1973, still has the hearts and minds. It was a collaboration between script writers and Wambaugh and stars Vic Morrow in the lead. But it has quite an ensemble cast in Ed Asner, Chuck Connors, Harry Guardino and Ralph Meeker. Over its long run, actors of both genders took the lead and supporting actors came and went but the show stayed strong.

       I have a DVD of 1973's The Police Story pilot show in top-flight condition, and a slew of happy customers to prove it. The show provided the formula for all those cop serials to come: it was realistic and gritty. Maybe Vic Morrow's gruesome death adds to the mystique. Morrow and two youngsters, as you all know, was killed in the helicopter crash while filming a scene for Twilight Zone, The Movie. He was 52, and on the verge of a come back after he fell off the face of the Earth. It had to be tough to take after Morrow's success in the 1960s World War II show Combat!  
      Morrow's real talents were behind the camera. Some of Combat's best episodes were directed by Morrow: The Pillbox, and more. Innovative camera angles, smart story lines and ground-breaking approaches to war shows. Who knows what might have been. No one was held accountable for those deaths during the filming. Want an intriguing read and penetrating view into the hidden side of Hollywood? Read Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego, and the Twilight Zone Case

    Here is a scene from The Police Story pilot, Slow Boy. Please check out my YouTube channel I just added a second season episode on Aug. 18, 2011 called Love, Mabel. It aired in 1974 and starred William Shatner and Dean Stockwell. In the first five seasons the main characters changed quite often, with bad guys coming back in later shows as cops.

        I read a few years ago that Combat co-star Rick Jason shot himself. He was at home with his wife. He woke up, got up, and shot himself (if what I read was accurate.) Jason never had the fame or acclaim of Morrow, but to watch him on youtube at Combat! reunions, in interviews, he never seemed disappointed or unhappy. Outward appearances are deceptive. No one knows what goes on in a person's head. Did anyone out there in cyberspace know him? Know of him? Have any insight into what might have been going on? Was he ill?  I was a fan of his.
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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Ear-biting cinema

        Wow. I finally found and watched Norman Mailer's improvised 1970 movie Maidstone. Yup, the infamous hammer-bonking, ear biting, blood and mud wrestling flick that is among the four movies Mailer directed.

       Odd. Two days later, I read a review of Norris Church Mailer's A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir. Church is Mailer's sixth and last wife. Her title also could sum up hubby's forays into film making: journeys into the bizarre, unreal and self-indulgence. 

       The New York Times gave Mrs. Mailer high marks for honesty in describing a life devoted to fulfilling Mailer's quirky needs and whims. Secretarial and maid service included. Example: Mrs. M labors to remodel a room taking great pains to make sure it suited all Mailer's needs and he criticizes the way she hung one of his suits. Well, yeah.

      On the Mailer movie front. Cinema verite? Gonzo Cinema? Well Hunter Thompson was talented. Mailer's entire flick is an exercise in the kind of narcissism his last missus describes.

      Maidstone was one of four films he made. His last movie, "Tough Guys Don't Dance," Mailer did not appear in. The star role went to Ryan O'Neal. The NY Times called that movie demented film noir.   The three better known ones are "Maidstone," and "Wild 90," and "Just Beyond the Law". The last one again featured Rip Torn. 

     I figured Mailer's films would be, uh, off-beat. In Maidstone, as most people know, Mailer plays famous film maker Norman T. Kinglsey. He is considering a run for president. Alter ego for Mailer, the  man who would be director, and who did run for New York mayor in 1972. 

     Yes yes the usual full frontal nudity. This is a hoot: Mailer as director is in a scene telling his prospective actresses they need to be prepared to bare all for some scenes so don't have hissy fits, yet he says bad taste in nudity makes him squeamish. Puleeeeeeeeeeeeze!  Nothing shows Mailer's sexism, racism and common-mentality better than his character's interviews-lectures to the prospective actresses. None of that for the men in the film, though.

    Worth watching? You bet. If for anything it is a worthwhile art house flick for 1) the hilarious spontaneous fight between Mailer and Torn and 2) getting a view of a person who gave us The Naked Face 1948, and The Executioner's Song in 1976, Armies of the Night in the 1960s, among other great books. Mailer was one of the literary giants of our day. What a gulf between the writer and the man who created those movies. Mailer lived quite a life. Better to have lived out loud than not at all.

   See Maidstone, uncut version, region one DVD at look for Bohemian_bungalow. 



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