Categories ‐ Rock Star Cinema

January 2, 2015

The Krays

The Krays (119 minutes) 1991/Rated R – starring Gary Kemp, Martin Kemp, Billie Whitelaw, Tom Bell, Susan Fleetwood, Charlotte Cornwell, Kate Hardie, Avis Bunnage, Alfred Lynch, Gary Love, and Steven Berkoff. Directed by Peter Medak. Released through RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video.

The riveting true-life story of the Kray brothers, Reg and Ron, peppered the British tabloids in sordid detail throughout the 1960s, fascinating housewives and businessmen alike. The trail of mayhem and violence they left behind, either through machine gun chatter or samurai swordplay, remains legendary in the annals of English crime. After their arrests and convictions for the murders of gangsters George Cornell and Jack “The Hats” McVitie, the U.K., and specifically London, gave a hearty sigh of relief. The British comedy troupe Monty Python tried to bring levity to the twins’ awesome exploits by spoofing them in television sketches as the Piranha Brothers.

Director Peter Medak translated their shallow lives to the screen in his 1991 film version of “The Krays.” Starring Spandau Ballet’s guitarist Gary Kemp as Ron Kray and bassist Martin Kemp as Reg Kray, the two musicians and real-life brothers got their first break in motion pictures turning in tremendous performances as the dreaded duo. Gone were the wispy, fey facades they fostered in their videos for such Top-Ten hits as “True” and “Gold.” The Kemps glowered fiercely and hinted with subtlety at their characters’ underlying damaged souls.

Not only is “The Krays” a great gangster flick, it strives to peel back the psychological underpinnings of its two antiheroes. Growing up during the Second World War, the Kray twins seemed to have an eerie, unspoken bond that united every breath they took. A compelling moment early on in the film showcases an amateur boxing bout at a local carnival, where members of the audience are free to climb into the ring for a challenge. The two Krays inaudibly invite the other onto the canvas and proceed to pummel the living ca-ca out of each other. Not only do they play together, they practically want to kill each other! The Freudian probe extends deeper as we see their mother Violet (the superb Billie Whitelaw) smother them with tough love, garnering a greater respect from them than they afford their wimpy dad. They sit by her side throughout the movie like malevolent Dobermans. By the time the boys are rich thugs, running posh nightclubs and wiping out their competition, their dear mum is still seen shuffling around their abode, serving all members in the gang some tea and biscuits.

Gary Kemp’s Ron is a loose cannon, unhinged by the fact that he is a closet homosexual, and incestuously jealous of his brother’s affections for a society girl. The homoerotic tension between the two siblings onscreen lends each scene a taboo-inciting undercurrent that practically screams for a damnable moment of consummation. Martin Kemp’s Reg is torn between his heartfelt desires for a wife-to-be and his all-consuming love for his bro. Martin is particularly effective when he is shattered by the suicide of his wife and then resurrects himself into a homicidal beast far more unhinged than his fellow psycho sibling. The Kemp lads, although two years apart in age, inhabit these doppelganger roles so smoothly — their body language moving in tandem, their wordplay complementing the other in staccato soft rhythm — that they’ve practically invented a new kind of two-headed movie villain. Gary Kemp once told a fan, “Martin is not just the best friend of mine, but my conscience too. And then there are no secrets between us, not even on stage.” These brothers were born to play these roles.

While both of the boys pursued subsequent acting gigs, mostly forgettable straight-to-video fodder, “The Krays” remains their most outstanding accomplishment. The supporting cast is all-pro, and the technicians behind the scenes have made the film wonderful to look at. Aside from a few overextended musical numbers at the Krays’ nightclub, the movie gallops along at a fast clip, twisting and turning through each brother’s erratic sociopathic episode. For a night of insightful, intelligent entertainment concerning infamous hoods on the other side of the Atlantic, “The Krays” will fit the bill like a bloody cup of tea.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

January 2, 2015

The Last Movie

The Last Movie (108 minutes) 1971/Rated R – starring Dennis Hopper, Julie Adams, Stella Garcia, Tomas Milian, Samuel Fuller, Sylvia Miles, Don Gordon, Jim Mitchum, Kris Kristofferson, Michelle Phillips, John Phillip Law, Toni Basil, Severn Darden, Dean Stockwell. Directed by Dennis Hopper. Originally released through United American Video Corp.

Ever wonder how Dennis Hopper was able to convincingly portray the whacked-out, drug-fueled, mysticism-spouting character he played in “Apocalypse Now?” Just check out “The Last Movie.” He was that character.

In 1970, after the phenomenal box-office success of his debut directorial effort, “Easy Rider,” Universal Studios gave Hopper $850,000, 50% of the eventual gross, and total control of the next picture he chose to direct. His new venture planted a team of cameras, crew, and celebrity friends firmly in the center of the ancient Incan village of Cuzco, Peru for months on end, and the subsequent result of this endeavor was arguably one of the most self-indulgent Hollywood pictures of all time. The theme of “The Last Movie” is easy to expound upon. It’s a statement about the pernicious expansionism of American influences, the deconstruction of Western themes, the avaricious nature of consumerism snuffing out the delicate balances of tradition. As a story, however, the film’s narrative is so horribly disjointed and needlessly hollow that, even though it somehow snowed the Italians into awarding it a Critics’ prize at the Venice Film Festival, the rest of the general public the world over stayed away from this stinker in droves.

Hopper plays a stunt man working for a Hollywood crew that is shooting a gunfight tale on Old West sets built in a Peruvian village. Once the film wraps, and an actor dies, the crew leaves town, but Hopper remains behind, with grand ideas of beckoning more filmmakers south to use the deserted sets. The natives of Cuzco begin “filming” a movie with “cameras” fashioned out of bare sticks, and the violent action they perform, imitating the Western they have just witnessed, turns out to be real. Pretty soon Hopper is caught up in their dangerous game and sums up the menace by mumbling, “They want me to die in the movie…you know, that’s what’s wrong, because we brought the movies, that was our mistake.” Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Not by a long shot.

Influenced by ‘60s Euro-cinema auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard, whose penchant for busting up linear storytelling left many a pompous college film student clucking to fellow weasels about the merits of time-space jump-cut techniques, Hopper chose to take garden shears to his miles of footage and jumble the trims into an incoherent mess. Endless shots of villagers going about their routines, long pans of pretty Andes sunsets (courtesy of ace cinematographer Lazlo Kovacs), and songs like “Me and Bobby McGee” shoveled out by Kris Kristofferson, who plays a mountainside minstrel, (I presume), just don’t add up to much. Oh yes, there’s also some nonsense about Hopper and his buddy trying to find a gold mine (with no payoff), a rich American couple who want to see two lesbians nuzzle each other’s bosoms (a titillating payoff), and assorted scenes of a very-dated ‘70s dance party. Hopper is the focal point in the majority of these moments, and his amateurish, improvised dialogue is numbingly painful to listen to. The viewer has absolutely no connection to Hopper’s character as he rambles about wanting to buy a mountaintop, smacks around his whore girlfriend, and is showered with milk from the breast of a peasant woman (another titillating payoff… sorry).

The reason this film is being reviewed for this column is that, for years now, I had heard about the name cast Hopper had managed to coax to this location and was curious about the musician members’ performances. Including Kristofferson, The Mamas and the Papas’ Michelle Phillips, and one-hit-wonder Toni Basil (“Mickey”) were in attendance in the town of Cuzco. However, together, the three of them probably manage to snag a total of 40 to 50 seconds of screen time combined. So don’t be fooled into thinking any of these people, for that matter even Peter Fonda, are worth renting this picture for. Incredibly, Michelle Phillips fell in love with Dennis while making this film, and when they got back to the States, they married on Halloween in 1970. The marriage lasted 8 days. Apparently, according to Ms. Phillips, she was not entirely smitten by newlywed Hopper’s proclivity to firing guns in their house and his habit of handcuffing her so she wouldn’t run away.

Needless to say, when the top brass at Universal saw the finished product, they were understandably horrified. Peter Biskind, in his book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” tells of the moment when Hopper screened his movie for the film executives. As the lights went up, the room was silent. Through the wall to the conference room they could hear the projectionist saying, clear as a bell, “They sure named this movie right, because this is gonna be the last movie this guy ever makes.” Yes sir, maybe for Universal Studios, but for the rest of Hollywood, history has proven the town has a short memory. Hopper was back behind the camera by the end of the decade. He gratefully has never achieved these heights of banality again.


© 2000 Ned Truslow

January 2, 2015

The Leading Man

The Leading Man (96 minutes) 1996/Rated R – starring Jon Bon Jovi, Anna Galiena, Lambert Wilson, Thandie Newton, Barry Humphries, Patricia Hodge, Diana Quick, Harriet Walter, David Warner. Directed by John Duigan. Released through BMG Independents Home Video.

British playwright Felix Webb is having an affair with the leading lady of his latest production, Hilary Rule. Felix’s wife Elena suspects he is straying. Felix does not wish to hurt Elena’s feelings as he contemplates leaving her for Hilary. Enter Jon Bon Jovi as Robin Grange, a sweet-talking, smoldering, high-profile American actor who has chosen to perform in Felix’s new play. Sensing the distraught Felix’s weakness of the heart, Robin swoops in like a silent tornado, with his lothario looks and slick charisma, offering to seduce Elena, for Felix’s sake, of course, so that Hilary and Felix can conduct their affair guilt-free. What Robin’s true motivations are and how this quartet of carnal cougars contend with Robin’s overt sexuality, ultimately set this plot on a path to potential destruction.

John Duigan, director of films like “Wide Sargasso Sea” and “Sirens,” has had a knack for presenting sophisticated plotting and mature themes in a bemused, uncomplicated manner throughout his sexually-entrenched narratives. “The Leading Man” tumbles each turn of the story over in an uncontrived, realistic fashion. It’s like watching a long episode of “Red Shoe Diaries,” except that with Duigon’s deft touch, you can satisfyingly enjoy the proceedings with your brain turned on as well as your lust.

Jon Bon Jovi does a great job with his role as the mysterious Robin. With his wide smile and soft voice, which never rises above seduction level, he presents the mask of a cipher who only seeks to manipulate and toy with the feelings of others, just because he can. Little touches Duigan’s crew bring to Bon Jovi’s character, such as a small basketball hoop on the back of his dressing room door, help to spotlight the Americanized playfulness Robin is exuding amongst his very English co-stars. Robin is the consummate, conceited actor, a two-dimensional character gliding through real life, devoid of a past, who delights in the instant pleasures he can derive from only the present and the future. Consequences and conscience do not ever cause doubt in him. Bon Jovi, dressed mostly in casual black, knows exactly when to throw a smile to melt a lady’s heart, appears quietly super-confident when a sexy groupie approaches him, and appropriately calm when he moves in tight to stroke the hair of his female prey. So many actors on the screen these days are not able to appear at utmost ease when executing a cerebral playboy role like this. Bon Jovi is comfortable.

The other actors in “The Leading Man” are in top form as well. As the suffering wife, Elena, Anna Galiena exudes humanity and touching grace as she yearns for someone to cast nurturing light on the empty chambers of her heart. Lambert Wilson expertly conveys Felix as a man who conspires to shape his romantic destiny, which, in the end, only serves to reduce him to an unsatisfied, detached existence. And Thandie Newton capably presents Hilary’s tug-of-war emotions as the proverbial woman-in-the-middle pawn. As a favor to Duigan, who cast her in her first major feature film role in “Flirting,” Nicole Kidman shows up in a cameo as an awards presenter, giving the film’s climax an appropriate credibility ace-in-the-hole.

The film’s photography and lighting are gorgeously golden and soft, which lends to the love-in-the-air tone of the piece. Duigan’s subtle direction turns even the briefest of scenes into stylish artistry. For example, a moment in which Elena is getting ready to go out to meet her new love, Robin, is interrupted when Elena’s daughter pops her head in and comments on how beautiful her mother looks. This is all that is said in the scene, yet the daugther delivers the line choked up because ultimately, it’s not a compliment, but an acknowledgment that she knows her mom is having an affair. This scene could have played much more confrontational and overwrought in a less competent director’s hands, but Duigan’s tactful finesse is masterfully evident in the majority of moments throughout this film. For a night of intellectual and mature interplay, “The Leading Man,” and in particular, Jon Bon Jovi’s performance, are well worth a peek.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

January 2, 2015

The Magic Christian

The Magic Christian (93 minutes) starring Peter Sellers, Ringo Starr, Laurence Harvey, Richard Attenborough, Christopher Lee, Raquel Welch, John Cleese, Yul Brynner, Roman Polanski. Directed by Joseph McGrath. Available through Republic Home Video.

As the legacy of the Beatles came to a close in the early months of 1970, Ringo Starr was already taking steps to branch out on his own. His first solo album, “Sentimental Journey” was being released, and his second foray into film acting without his Liverpool chums, in the dark comedy “The Magic Christian,” was about to raise eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic.

Based on the Terry Southern novel of the same name, “Christian” follows the life of Youngman Grand (Ringo) who is adopted by the world’s richest man, Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers). Told in a series of vignettes, father and son set out on a mission to wreak all sorts of havoc amongst London’s wealthy, privileged, elite class. Openly bribing members of the arts, law enforcement, and transportation officials, the Grands’ schemes are scathingly politically incorrect and hilarious. The film falls in line with British humor of the period, akin to groups such as Monty Python, who, in turn, went on to influence the anti-establishment sketches of “Saturday Night Live.”

Ringo is quite charming as the innocent scruff who complements his dad’s penchant for mischief. He always stands by, commenting dryly on the shenanigans, while Peter Sellers has Laurence Harvey strip naked during “Hamlet,” fixes a boxing match so that the pugilists kiss, bribes Richard Attenborough to throw the Cambridge-Oxford rowing tournament, makes a spectacle out of an art auction, terrorizes a fancy restaurant, and causes chaos aboard the luxury liner “The Magic Christian,” an upper class venture which never even leaves port! Ringo’s most hilarious moment comes when he’s confronted by Spike Milligan, who plays a determined traffic cop issuing a parking infraction. While Sellers pays the meterman to eat his own ticket, Ringo practices isometric facial exercises that become ever more hysterical with each contortion.

The sequence garnering the most shock in this film was its conclusion in which Sellers and Starr see just how far wealthy businessmen will stoop to attain riches. Filling a large industrial vat with blood, vomit and excrement in the middle of London’s financial district, Sellers mixes in hundreds of pound notes to the vile brew and stands back to observe. Like moths to the flame, passerby executives stop to see all the money and after a while, they are swimming in the sickening mess, clutching at their fortune. When “The Magic Christian” aired on broadcast television throughout the 70s and 80s, this scene was invariably eliminated from the airwaves.

For a night of black humor with cutting edge overtones still relevant to today’s societal imbalances, you can’t go wrong with this Beatles’ finest solo comedy outing.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

January 2, 2015

The Wedding Planner

The Wedding Planner (100 minutes) Rated PG-13/2001 – starring Jennifer Lopez, Matthew McConaughey, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, Justin Chambers, Judy Greer, Alex Rocco, Joanna Gleason, Charles Kimbrough, Fred Willard, Kathy Najimy, and Kevin Pollak. Directed by Adam Shankman. Now in theaters and distributed by Columbia Pictures.

As a website devoted to music and the personalities that make those notes come alive, it’s fair to say that when we review a movie around here, we’re not only checking out the acting, the story, and the photography, but also the soundtrack. Music, of course, is used for character definition, pacing, and can signal an underlying mood in support, or counterpoint, to the story unfolding on the screen. Unless it’s used during a moment devoid of dialogue, a film’s soundtrack should be subtle and masterfully subordinate or complementary to the scene at hand. Someone tell Mervyn Warren this. He’s the overbearing composer of “The Wedding Planner.”

If you haven’t seen this film but intend to, listen up to the score. I don’t think you’ll have much of a choice not to ignore it. This is how not to score a film. Every comic “gesture,” however lame it is, is given a kooky musical “stab” for emphasis. Even those moments when one character simply gives a “look” at another is nudged with cutesy notes. Lines that fall flat in wit are unmercifully “pumped up” with a jolly orchestral titter. And scenes that are just plain ordinary (fer cryin’ out loud!), are given such a goofy, giddy goose under the musical direction of Warren that the tone of “The Wedding Planner” rockets far past the insipid, groan-inducing merriment of a Dean Jones-Sandy Duncan matinee.

The film’s achievement in mediocrity shouldn’t be laid completely at the feet of its composer, however. The two writers who share screenplay credit must have never collaborated on the final draft because the movie feels as if one script was stitched onto the other halfway through the storyline. When the film begins, unhitched wedding guide Jennifer Lopez, a woman who is so anal she alphabetizes her credit cards, meets “cute” with the glazed charm of Matthew McConaughey, after he rescues her from a runaway dumpster. The two connect romantically on a date before Lopez learns that the drawling Don Juan is due to marry a socialite and poor Jennifer is in charge of the wedding details. What unfolds for the next 45 minutes are “comedic” vignettes so uninspired and contrived that more originality seemed to ooze from the red-lit EXIT sign next to the theater’s screen.

Watch how the duo dance a synchronized tango together at a ballroom dance class, all the while arguing with each other! See Matthew overreacting to a comment Jennifer makes to his fiancee by swerving into oncoming traffic! Bust a gut over Mr. McConaughey inexplicably being drawn into competing with an Italian admirer of Jennifer’s as the two men lift weights and wrestle each other! All of these stock “comedy” scenes might have risen above their banal execution if any one character in this film had the slightest connection to a human being. Jennifer and Matthew elicit no initial chemistry together. Their supposed romantic “connection” turning point, at an outdoor date in a San Francisco Park (actually shot at LA’s Veteran’s Administration Hospital), is absolutely barren of scintillating dialogue or genuine feeling. The story demands that these two get together, but outside the confines of the flickering frame, you’d never buy in real life that these characters “instantly” cared for each other.

Lopez, who’s feisty work in “Out of Sight” and “U-Turn” showed a woman who can bring spark and depth to a role, has absolutely nothing to play with here. First off, we’re supposed to swallow the fact that her wedding planner hasn’t had a date in two years, as a fallout result of a broken-heart. That leaves Jennifer with nothing to do but basically be a gorgeous wallflower with a winning smile. Not entirely believable. The man she does fall for is not very charming. Oh sure, the screenwriters have painted the “by-the-numbers” wacky scenarios mentioned above for McConaughey to force the audience to accept his veneer of charm. But since his fiancee, played by the wonderfully-grounded Bridgitte Wilson-Sampras, is portrayed as a delightful companion in her own right, and Matthew’s time is simply spent skulking about, almost creepily, pursuing Lopez, his character comes across as not very genuine and worse yet, a bit of a cad.

When the script switches tone jarringly halfway through the movie, the two leads suddenly become different characters. They instantly are given a semblance of maturity, as they take long moments to discuss their conflicts and feelings. Jennifer’s only standout performance in the film occurs during this second half, when she gets inebriated and mumbles her lines with abandon. For once, the director allows the “situation” and Lopez’ acting chops to calmly exhibit the comedy element to a scene instead of bombastically goosing it with overuse of smarmy looks or that horrid music score. Speaking of which, Mervyn Warren finally takes a brief moment to layer on the romantic strings with an appropriate cue during Lopez’ drunken scene before going over-the-top nutty at the end.

Believability, a romantic bond and comedic balance are all we ask out of a decent lighthearted tale of the heart. “The Wedding Planner” unfortunately had a flat tire while delivering these elements to the chapel of love.

© 2001 Ned Truslow

January 2, 2015

Union City

Union City (87 minutes) 1980/Rated PG – starring Deborah Harry, Dennis Lipscomb, Irina Maleeva, Everett McGill, Pat Benatar, Tony Azito, Sam McMurray, and Terina Lewis. Directed by Mark Reichert. Originally released through Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment.

Flying well under the radar when it hit screens in 1980, “Union City” saw only limited release in big city “art” houses. The only reason to rent it today is if you are a fan of the group Blondie or of Pat Benatar. As a feature film, the plot is extremely threadbare. Based on a short story, it’s a suspense movie with a “twist” ending, but the lack of subplots and character developments make it seem like an expanded episode of the old “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” television show.

Set in 1953 New Jersey, the movie’s director, Mark Reichert, and his crew, do the best they can with an obviously tight budget, filming scenes in retro static shots, awash in contrasts, much like noir movies of the ‘40s. Even though this opus is in color, it “feels” like an old black and white flick.

The story revolves around an accountant and his wife, played by Debbie Harry, who live in a bland apartment and are just making ends meet. Harry is bored with her husband, who tends to be overly retentive. Someone is drinking from the bottles their milkman sets outside their door every week, so the accountant figures he’ll tie a string from one of the bottles to his finger while he rests in bed. Sure enough, he catches a vagrant swilling his dairy product late one night, and after a scuffle, the accountant batters the vagrant to death. He places the body in the empty apartment next door, in a bed closet. The building’s superintendent is having an affair with Debbie, yet the accountant never notices because he’s too caught up in trying to keep the lover out of the vacant apartment.

As the accountant, played by Dennis Lipscomb, becomes more frenzied and insane, the movie finally comes alive. For the first hour, it seems like the pacing of the film stretches endlessly in its rather simple set-up of the plot. By the time Pat Benatar and Tony Azito appear on the scene as newlyweds, moving into the vacant apartment, anyone can see the “twist” ending coming a mile away.

Interestingly enough, Harry and Benatar stand out as the best actors in the film. With her subtle jibes at her nervous-nelly spouse and her gradual awakening to love in the arms of Everett McGill, Debbie Harry plays her scenes in an understated, mature manner. Benatar has a short period of screen time, yet she and Azito seem perfectly at ease and capture one’s attention in their naturalness amongst all the overacting Lipscomb is throwing about and by the flamboyant ministrations exerted by a kooky neighbor, played by Irina Maleeva. McGill, along with the actors in the roles of the vagrant and Lipscomb’s secretary, all come across as stilted and amateurish.

Chris Stein, the lead guitarist who formed the group Blondie with Harry, composed the movie’s score, and again, for what had to have been a very low budget, he is able to switch from dance hall orchestral tunes to smoky jazz ensemble pieces to spooky tinklings on the Mellotron with an effective, scene-enhancing flair. (Trivia note: Kathryn Bigelow, one of cinema’s first female film directors – “Point Break,” “Strange Days,” etc. – and former wife of James Cameron, was a script girl on this production).

While not pulpy enough to rank with Jim Thompson works like “The Grifters,” and not noirish enough to capture the essence of ‘40s standards like “Out of the Past,” “Union City” falls into a limbo land of wannabe style and mood, ultimately never finding a penetrating or lasting voice.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

January 2, 2015

Wanted Dead Or Alive

Wanted Dead Or Alive (104 minutes) 1987/Rated R – starring Rutger Hauer, Gene Simmons, Robert Guillaume, Mel Harris, William Russ, Susan MacDonald, Jerry Hardin, Hugh Gillin, Robert Harper, Suzanne Wouk, and Eli Danker. Directed by Gary Sherman. Originally released through New World Home Video.

It’s fair to say there are so many by-the-numbers maverick-cop-versus-malicious-foreign-terrorist-organization films in the archives of global cinema today, that it takes skillful writing, clever direction, and solid performers to breathe life into this overly-tired formula. Most of the recent endeavors are produced with lightning-quick scenes (usually under two minutes), are littered with canted camera angles and swish pans, and have an assortment of B-grade actors spewing anger and irritation without the slightest care to lending their personas an ounce of emotional resonance. So, it’s a rather unique viewing experience to get nostalgic and watch one of these formulaic movies from a decade and a half ago.

“Wanted Dead Or Alive” is certainly no masterpiece. At best, it’s just average B-grade action fare. But its characters do stop to talk a moment. The execution of scenes aren’t one big truncated MTV montage. When maverick, ex-detective, bounty hunter Rutger Hauer enters his voluminous loft in an abandoned warehouse in downtown LA, we get to see him simply take a moment to check the mail, amble into different rooms, in essence, Breathe. As stilted as Hauer’s line delivery tends to be, the camera lingers on him, allowing us to examine his features longer than two seconds, read the worry and concerns in his brow. These are shadings of characterization, however minute, that are all but lost in today’s B-grade action pictures. Hauer’s Nick Randall becomes likeable not because the camera poses him a certain way, not because he blows away innumerable bad guys, and not because the script gives him clever witticisms honed by writers hired to punch up the material. No, he’s just interesting because we’re given time to study him.

The story concerns a former fed agent (Hauer), once linked to anti-terrorist efforts in the Middle East, being caught up in attempts to thwart the violent plottings of a renegade faction led by Malak Al Rahim (the superbly-malevolent KISS maestro Gene Simmons). Of course, there’s someone corrupt within the feds who have persuaded Nick, now a bounty hunter, to work along with the organization again. Yes, the plot is propelled by Rutger shaking down the low men on Rahim’s totem pole until he finally catches up with the madman. But both hero and antagonist act in such an understated manner, that it’s a guilty pleasure to see the story unfold in an unhurried, yet predictable, manner.

Hauer’s full Flock-of-Seagulls mane of blond hair and the Members Only jackets worn by several extras date this as a the mid-eighties adventure it is. The relationship between Hauer and his girlfriend Terry (Mel Harris), and his friendship with his cop friend (William Russ), are quite realistic and given some screen time to develop, and therefore, both are given tragic weight when the terrorists dispatch these two people that Hauer cares for. As far as worthy opponents go, Gene Simmons agreeably chews the scenery with his menacing sneer and bone-dry utterances. He embraces his villainy with relish, as he coldly shoots one of his cohorts in both the foot and in the kneecap to extract information. After splattering the brains of a female operative against the inside of the window of a truck he’s driving, Simmons nonchalantly wipes away a clean spot from the bloodied pane as if it were just a smidgen of dirt clouding his vision. In other words, he’s baaaad, but not in an overstated way.

You may find the majority of “Wanted Dead Or Alive” forgettable, but low-key charm can be found in its leisurely pacing and concerned characters. The climax of the film, when Hauer finally finishes off the ruthless Simmons in a unique, show-stopping manner, however, is quite memorable, I can assure you.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

January 2, 2015


Lisztomania (103 minutes) 1975/Rated R - starring Roger Daltrey, Sara Kestelman, Paul Nicholas, Fiona Lewis, Veronica Quilligan, Nell Campbell, Andrew Reilly, Ringo Starr. Directed by Ken Russell. Available through Warner Home Video.

Ahh, director Ken Russell. Master of subtlety. Champion of the light touch. Just witness the opening frames of “Lisztomania.” We see a metronome ticking back and forth. There’s Roger Daltrey as Franz Liszt in bed beside the measured metronome with the ravishing Countess Marie d’Agoult, keeping time in their mutual motions of love. Discovered by her husband, the Count, Daltrey engages him in sexually connotative sword thrusts while the Countess watches from bed, suggestively eating what else?…a banana. Okay, so this film is one long sex joke, right? After sitting through an hour and 45 minutes of this carnival of kookiness, all I can say is, your guess is as good as mine.

This is not to say that Russell’s vision isn’t original. Acting as a mad Cabaret emcee, this director of such films like “The Devils,” “Tommy,” and “Crimes of Passion,” presents the life of Franz Liszt in a sort of Grand Guignol, kaleidoscopic, cartoon world. The 19th century adoring female fans of Franz’ stage persona are Jane Austen-like groupies who squeal at him in delight. The court of Princess Carolyne von Wittgenstein, the woman who strongly influenced Liszt as a composer in Weimar, is adorned with huge phallic molds made of brass, and her attendants ride a huge phallus around the famed lothario as if it were a mechanical bull in “Urban Cowboy.” The composer Richard Wagner, whose work was greatly sponsored by Liszt, literally becomes a vampire and sucks the life’s blood and inspiration out of Franz. As demented as these scenes are, their over-the-top presentation batter home the significant events of Liszt’s life in an unconventional, hard-to-forget manner. Hey, who cares about nuance in a Russell film?

Roger Daltrey of the Who, having made his acting debut earlier in the year in Russell’s “Tommy,” (“Tommy” was released in March; “Lisztomania” in October) seems completely lost in this film. With line delivery like, “Oy, hang on then” bleated out, there seemed to be no attempt on his part to capture Liszt’s Hungarian roots. Even though he scowls a few times, Daltrey spends much of the film tossing his curly locks and flashing his pearly white smile to match the keys on his glittery piano. Strangely enough, those moments when he should seem comfortable performing a song are times, in fact, where he appears to be horribly overacting. Since Russell has stated, “I don’t talk to my actors much,” the assumption is Roger was left to his own novice choices in how to play the character of Liszt.

Ringo Starr makes an appearance as a deadpan Pope and practically steals the show in his understated line delivery. Sometime-Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman composed the overblown, Moog-heavy score for the film and had Daltrey singing deep lyrics like “Now that love has won, we’ll live in peace at last.” And if you look closely enough, one can catch a glimpse of Pete Townshend’s face as a saint in Princess Carolyne’s court.

In general, Russell tends to let his scenes go on for far too long and the lack of compelling plot brings out many yawns. A Charlie-Chaplin vignette with Daltrey writing love songs in the form of hearts to his Countess is extremely tedious. The recycled motif of dancing naked nymphs and huge phalluses starts to feel limp after a while. And all of this symbolic build-up finally whirls apart in a chaotic, nonsensical meltdown when Wagner is resurrected as a Thor-like Frankenstein monster, accompanied by Hitler youth in Friedrich Nietzchian-Superman costumes, mowing down Jews with his machine gun-guitar, only to be stopped by a dive-bombing Liszt in a makeshift cathedral organ-jet plane.

Yep, you can’t say Russell’s vision isn’t original.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

January 2, 2015


McVicar (104 minutes) 1980 – starring Roger Daltrey, Adam Faith, Cheryl Campbell, Steven Berkoff, Brian Hall, Jeremy Blake, Leonard Gregory, Peter Janfield, Anthony Trent, and Ian Hendry. Directed by Tom Clegg. Originally released through Vestron Home Video.

John McVicar was Britain’s most wanted criminal in the late 1960s. Famous for his armed robbery exploits, he was finally nabbed and sent away to prison for 23 years. Obtaining a college degree behind bars, he was subsequently released in 1978 after serving eleven years and went on to be a broadcaster and a freelance journalist. His recent articles have tackled subjects as diverse as the World Chess Championships and the Russian Secret Service. Nowhere in the film “McVicar,” co-written by the ex-con himself, does it showcase the man being any brighter, charming or conniving than the average bank robber. What the movie does highlight is the fact that The Who’s frontman, Roger Daltrey, finally learned how to act on the big screen after a series of stilted, silly performances in the early 1970s.

After his goofy, deer-in-headlights turns in “Tommy” and “Lisztomania,” Daltrey must have felt the sting of the laughter and cast about for meatier roles. Set up under the funding of the rock group’s movie division, Who Films, “McVicar” presented him with numerous situations to scowl, sneer and appear generally peeved. The screenplay, however, makes Daltrey’s efforts seem smug and tonally inappropriate because, frankly, the McVicar character comes across simply as a self-absorbed, average thief who should’ve gotten just what he deserved.

The first hour of the movie takes place in the prison system. Under the kinetic force of Daltrey’s title song, “Free Me,” McVicar is transferred to a tighter security facility. The place isn’t San Quentin or The Tombs. It looks adequately accommodating. So when McVicar instantly institutes a riotous mutiny just because the cons would have to wear prison issue uniforms and work a little during the week, his actions elicit the thought, “poor baby.” The guards at the penitentiary are quite chipper and hardly overbearing. “C’mon now lads we’re all gonna lose on this,” the chief officer tells the barricaded rioters. You almost expect them all to sit down for a cup of tea. The brutes respond by tearing the administrative offices apart, and then they sing a good-natured pub ditty. This movie about hardened criminals makes the whole thing look like a Bing Crosby Catholic school fracas.

McVicar finally makes his break with his jail pal Probyn (Adam Faith). Some of the film’s few fine moments occur when Probyn asks a guard to test the strength of a rope he’s fashioning for the escape and blatantly responds to the warden’s concerns about his upcoming parole by saying, “I’m planning on making my own way out, sir.” Falling back in with his old robbery cronies, McVicar pulls a few payroll jobs (which we never are privy to witness) and one routine armored car theft as his big score. This last crime is meant to be the film’s ‘showcase’ robbery, signaling to us what a master criminal McVicar is. But when he fires a shotgun on a fumbling security man, the impression one comes away with is that we wish the poor employee had blasted McVicar first. That’s not a very good indicator that the director has done his job to make us care one iota about the film’s protagonist.

Daltrey is in top form physically, as evidenced in his unabashed nude prison shower scenes, and he conveys an appropriate dose of menace to authority figures (even if we wish said authority figures would just bash McVicar’s face in). When he returns home to his wife and child, (a moment that plays like he’s returning from the fish & chips shop and not on the lam as public enemy number one), the rock star gives a restrained, convincing scene as doting father to his infant son, Russell. (Interesting side note: In reality, McVicar’s son Russell grew up to execute 16 armed robberies of his own in the 1990s, including the theft of a Picasso).

The screenplay leaves many supporting character storylines simply unresolved. McVicar’s chum, Probyn, who is developed for the film’s first full hour, is never heard from again after Daltrey escapes. A villified sex offender is introduced in two scenes only to never be dealt any prison justice. McVicar’s rivalry with a fellow con (Steven Berkoff) is simply dropped after he leaves him behind in the clink. It’s as if there are two stories just stapled together at an intermission point, neither having much to do with the other.

Daltrey’s stirring vocals, courtesy of his collaboration with musician Jeff Wayne (“War Of The Worlds”) results in a series of effective songs like “Without Your Love” and “Waiting For A Friend” during key moments in the narrative. Combined with his decent thespian chores, Daltrey’s turn in “McVicar” is far more worthy than the material or the main character himself ever warrants.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

January 2, 2015

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (106 minutes) 1973/Rated R – starring James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Richard Jaeckel, Katy Jurado, Chill Wills, Jason Robards, Bob Dylan. Directed by Sam Peckinpah. Available through MGM/UA Home Video.

1881 New Mexico. An era filled with hardened, angry men. Violent gunfights on saloon steps. Posses pursuing outlaws. And Bob Dylan. Huh? For “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” balletic, blood-spatter maestro Sam Peckinpah listened to Dylan’s song about Billy the Kid and felt not only the tune but the tunesmith would be right for his film. The influential rocker’s musician pal, Kris Kristofferson, who was slated to play the part of Billy, had screened a print of Sam’s previous ode to the dying west, “The Wild Bunch,” for Dylan. The kings of folk-rock and manly oaters found they had a mutual respect for each other’s talents and soon teamed up for this classic morality play about honor amongst friends.

As outlaw-turned-lawman Pat Garrett, James Coburn is tasked by rich cattlemen to bring his friend, William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, to justice. With his wearied face and laconic demeanor, Coburn resonates in his reluctant role of executioner. The story is simple: Garrett tracks down all of the Kid’s gang to find his prey’s whereabouts and winds up eliminating every member as he relentlessly stalks the notorious outlaw. Although spare in story, it is the blunt honesty each scene delivers that raises this western to classic status.

Kris Kristofferson certainly established himself as a first class actor with this film. One particular standout moment occurs when Kristofferson stops in on a family’s home for dinner and finds a lawman, Jack Elam, also eating at their table. The palpable tension is handled with such maturity, as we realize these two will have to shoot it out once they step outside after dinner. The two of them try to figure a way out of their showdown, Kristofferson winds up having to shoot Elam, yet he stays a moment to tenderly comfort the lawman as he lies dying. There are many scenes like this which show Peckinpah at the top of his game, extracting winning performances from the film’s who’s-who of western character actors like Dub Taylor, L.Q. Jones, Slim Pickens, Matt Clark and Elisha Cook Jr.

As for Dylan, he plays Alias, a printer who hangs up his smock to become a member of the Kid’s gang. Bob grins mischievously like a Bohemian choirboy and mumbles one- sentence responses throughout the film. When asked who he is, Dylan snaps back, “That’s a good question,” and this dodginess exemplifies his character’s enigmatic purpose in the story. Although it’s never clear why Dylan’s Alias suddenly chooses to ride with the Kid, it’s a presumption that he will eventually write a piece on the outlaw’s exploits. Given Bob’s few line readings, it’s difficult to tell whether he would make a good actor outside of this brief role. His impish qualities and reserved manner, however, served the part well. And the use of his carousing songs of life on the border help establish a gritty, well-worn tone to the old west trappings.

With Peckinpah’s usual slo-mo violence, male bonding, and final rolls in the hay with easy women (one of them being singer Rita Coolidge), this film could’ve easily been seen as a retread of “The Wild Bunch” or even “The Ballad of Cable Hogue.” But “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” stands on its own as a worthy dissertation on the integrity and noble codes of the American West legend.

© 2000 Ned Truslow