Categories ‐ Rock Star Cinema

January 2, 2015

Pink Floyd — The Wall

Pink Floyd — The Wall (99 minutes) 1982/Rated R – starring Bob Geldof, Christine Hargreaves, James Laurenson, Eleanor David, Kevin McKeon, Bob Hoskins, David Bingham and Jenny Wright. Directed by Alan Parker. Released through MGM/UA Home Video.

If ever there was a film made for slitting your wrists to, this is it. After almost two decades, Alan Parker’s cinematic translation of the mega-morose musings of Roger Waters and the Floyd is still effectively downbeat and downright depressing. I applaud that achievement only in admiration for craft, not so much for storytelling repercussions. It takes a great deal of skill to make something so entertainingly bleak.

Focusing on the misogynistic, self-indulgent world of male angst, Parker’s visuals and Waters’ lyrics present a relentless hour and a half of melancholic self-pity. Boomtown Rat Bob Geldof plays the lead character of Pink, a self-absorbed rock icon on a downward spiral of Freudian proportions. His father left a void in his life after his death at the battle of Anzio in WWII, and his mother smothered him with bosomy love and affection, effectively ruining any and all relationships with future potential girlfriends. Taunted by abusive schoolmasters, he’s associated his formal ‘education’ as a meat-grinder existence. Once Pink becomes the reclusive celebrity, fearful of adoration, he seals himself completely inside his ‘wall’ of isolation, then, plays out in his mind fantasies of his lashing out at the masses, subordinating their adulation to his very-male, fascistic tendencies.

Suffice to say, there’s a lot of creative elements to Parker’s vision of the material, and there’s also much that is overly-redundant. By nature of Pink Floyd’s opus, there is not much to fill 90 minutes of story. By introducing two new songs, especially “When The Tigers Broke Free,” we are allowed to learn the backstory of Pink’s father at war, and this helps Parker to tie in many militaristic themes throughout the picture (ex. TV’s flickering war films, police corralling looters in regimented fashion, animated hammers marching in formation). Standout scenes tend to revolve around Pink in his hotel room — amongst them, shots of his arranging his life’s mementos across the carpet, his shaving his eyebrows, and his being dragged as a molting metamorphosis to his limo, are all moments which are highly creative. Also, political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe’s malevolent animations add insightful metaphors to Pink’s state of madness. The best match between music and image occurs in the second half of the song “One of My Turns,” when Geldof goes totally ballistic in the hotel suite, thrashing everything in sight, the energy of the soundtrack and the visuals all synthesizing into a mini-masterpiece. Unfortunately, Parker relies heavily on repeating themes of fascism, Pink’s bleak childhood, and interrelation disconnects far too much, as a result of the confining limitations of Pink Floyd’s material, and this leads to his recycling of imagery, making the last half hour of the film drag on endlessly.

Bob Geldof’s performance as Pink is appropriately distanced and catatonic. By only screaming from a hotel window and mumbling the words to “Stop” in a bathroom stall, he conveys the soul of his doomed protagonist mostly through his hollow-eyed stares and inexpressive body language. Because Waters’ creation is pretty much a 2-dimensional fellow, we are only getting to see Pink as a despondent cipher. It’s only when a young Pink, played by David Bingham, approaches a father at a local playground and tries in vain to go home with him, that we see something truly heartfelt and vulnerable.

Perhaps director Alan Parker needed to tear down the Wall of sugary, sweet highs he suffered shooting his musical film “Fame” when he accepted this job. Whatever the reason, try not to catch this movie on that one day when your significant other leaves you, you lose your job, and you’re staring at a bag of cocaine and razor blades.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

January 2, 2015

Ride With The Devil

Ride With The Devil (139 minutes) 2000/Rated R – starring Tobey McGuire, Skeet Ulrich, Jewel, Jeffrey Wright, Simon Baker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, James Caviezel, Thomas Guiry, Jonathan Brandis, and Tom Wilkinson. Directed by Ang Lee. Released through Universal Home Video.

What an unfortunate title. I mean, it’s not much better than the title of the book on which this movie is based, “Woe To Live On.” But, “Ride With The Devil” sounds like a really bad, revisionist outlaw western starring Michael Madsen or Craig Sheffer. Or an equally-horrible, pseudo-hip, gang-heist-double-cross-Reservoir-Dog-rip-off-straight-to-video flick starring, well, Michael Madsen or Craig Sheffer. Whoever the monkey-boy exec was over at Universal that ran this title around the “idea” table seemed to completely miss the wagon in inspiration, simply not capturing the subtlety and mature nuance director Ang Lee was able to layer into this fine film.

The story centers around a young German-born, Missouri-raised teen named Jacob Roedel (Tobey McGuire) at the start of the Civil War. German-Americans are considered to be unconditionally aligned with the Union cause, but Jacob, swelling with pride about his adopted State, has joined the Bushwhackers, a scraggly roving band of local men, who lay siege upon the advancing Union (or Jayhawker) regiments. He befriends a charismatic comrade (Skeet Ulrich), a fighting landowner (Simon Baker) and his resourceful, sure-shot slave (Jeffrey Wright). As the North decimates the Bushwhackers through numerous skirmishes, so too does Roedel’s resolve to fight for an unyielding cause begin to whittle away.

As he learns of the common Union soldier’s thoughts about the war by reading correspondence from intercepted mailbags, Roedel gains insight into the wrongs of slavery through scribbled lines like, “What kind of liberty is it that takes the liberty from others.” His evolving friendship with Wright, seeing him as an equal, is gradual and believably introduced through the course of the plot. When the surviving bunch meet up with a widowed girl (Jewel), the validity of family and serenity slowly creep into Roedel’s consciousness.

Ang Lee has always displayed a master’s touch at gently nudging along very idealistic, weighty themes in the most subtle, non-showy ways. The seeds of revelation for the main character practically dissolve into your viewing experience. It is the entire series of events that unfold for Roedel which shape his renewed outlook by film’s end, and if any one of these subtle “lessons” was missing along the way, his transition would not be as believable.

All of the actors are understated and reasonably comfortable in their ‘southern’ identities. Jewel’s feature debut rings true and her transition from girlish flirt (and bigoted belle) to wizened mother, grounded in a deeper understanding of love, is smoothly handled. The camera captures “awareness” behind her expressions, a depth of emotion if you will, that seriously is lacking in many other actresses of her age group. Jeffrey Wright is an absolute marvel to watch in this film. He has all the integrity, gravity, and controlled discipline in his acting skills to match someone more accomplished, like Morgan Freeman, toe-to-toe.

The only real flaw to the movie is found in Tobey Maguire. His main character is an ever-growing, transitional creation, and would be a pleasure to watch almost regardless of who got the role. The actor behind that character, in this case however, unfortunately is a bit of an empty slate. The big, blank eyes, the tortoise-paced movement, and the Ritilan-laced drawl McGuire brought to “The Cider House Rules” and “The Wonder Boys” is starting to wear really thin now and serves to be a bit counterproductive in this endeavor. How is this guy ever going to bring any energy to the role of Spiderman when it starts production soon?

Of course, we all know slavery is bad, and the South should’ve lost the war for that reason alone. But “Ride With The Devil” (there’s that title again, arghh!) deepens this certitude and expounds on other elements of war by successfully examining the very reasons behind those things that are worth fighting for and those that are not.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

January 2, 2015

Shadow Of Doubt

Shadow Of Doubt (102 minutes) 1997/Rated R – starring Melanie Griffith, Tom Berenger, Craig Sheffer, Huey Lewis, Wade Dominguez, John Ritter. Directed by Randal Kleiser. Released through Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video.

From the man who brought you the hideous decadence of “Grease,” the soft-core eroticism of “The Blue Lagoon,” and the ballistic pyrotechnics of “Pee-Wee’s Big-Top Adventure,” comes a taut, compelling, wrenching look at the hard-edged, ruthless world of criminals and courtrooms! Okay, so maybe they didn’t use a line quite like this in the trailer for this film, but “Shadow of Doubt” tries so eagerly to be gritty and hard-boiled, that it unfortunately comes across as sadly laughable in its overstrained efforts.

Melanie Griffith is a tenacious, high-priced defense attorney with a Martha Stewart coif out to represent the innocence of a rising star rapper accused of a brutal homicide. The murder of a billionaire’s daughter triggers a “Diagnosis Murder”-like, convoluted plot involving an aspiring senator, who is running for President, and a former psycho boyfriend as the two other likely suspects aside from the rap artist. Somewhere in here, director Kleiser manages to scotch-tape in the obligatory, kinky-sex-of-the-rich shots that every movie on Cinemax must contractually have in place in order to be aired after midnight. He allows the lighting department carte blanche to illuminate police interrogation rooms with garish, unmotivated purple and blue hues that renders the setting to appear vaguely like a high school production of “Cabaret.” And Kleiser stagnantly trains his camera on the most routine of shots inside a barebones courtroom for a trial that conveys as much tension as watching Chef Emeril determine whether to use the Remoudou or the Ramadoux cheese on his open pan pizza.

With nary an action sequence in the whole film, one is left with the thespian might of Melanie Griffith’s righteous attorney. Unfortunately, when she angrily peeps out lines like “I don’t play games, and I don’t respond to threats,” you might find yourself searching your room for a pierced balloon bleating high-pitched in the corner. Thankfully, John Ritter is on hand for a couple of cameos, playing a shifty councilman, whose two quick scenes serve no reason in driving the main plot forward, and as a result, may cause you to check the director’s notes on the DVD to see if another film’s scenes might have been spliced in erroneously.

As for Huey Lewis, it’s no News to anyone after watching this film that he may wish to consult with someone in the business known as a dialogue coach. Smoke alarms render more diversity in tone than Huey’s casual line readings. To Huey’s credit, his bemused smirks indicate that he had some fun playing the part of Al, a computer/telecommunications whiz, and because of that easygoing attitude, he was truly the most likeable character in the film. Each time he appeared in a scene, it looked like he was on his way back from helping himself to some food at the craft service table where he had overheard a much more entertaining story than the one unfolding in front of the camera.

Unfortunately, Huey’s valiant efforts could do nothing to resuscitate this limp crime drama. The whole mess collapses by movie’s end, when the script ludicrously calls for Huey’s character to set up a precisely-synchronized broadcast feat on multiple TV screens to fool a psycho killer. This accomplishment, which would’ve taken the crew from Monday Night Football a week to choreograph, sucks up whatever whiff of plausibility the movie had earned to this point, and derisively wipes it away without a shadow of a doubt.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

January 2, 2015

Shanghai Surprise

Shanghai Surprise (96 minutes) 1986/Rated PG-13 – starring Sean Penn, Madonna, Paul Freeman, Richard Griffiths, Philip Sayer, Clyde Kusatsu, Kay Tong Lim, and Sarah Lam. Directed by Jim Goddard. Released through Handmade Films and originally available on Vestron Video.

The title of the film refers to a type of explosive, packed away inconspicuously in a money belt. When the wired compartment is snapped open, both times by the movie’s main villain, a controlled bomb is triggered causing bloody mayhem. In the case of the entire film “Shanghai Surprise,” it refers to a type of dud, the kind that fizzles upon the first few expository scenes, never to ignite interest for the remaining running time.

While golden era movie couples, those that were linked both on and off the screen, made for classic pairings (Gable & Lombard, Bogart & Bacall, Tracy & Hepburn), modern day sweetheart films seem to fall resoundingly flat. Ted Danson and Whoopi Goldberg in “Made In America,” anyone? Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin in “The Getaway,” if you please? Madonna and Sean Penn had been married just a few months when they decided to make a film in the Far East, a part of the globe filled with mystical enchantment and exotic locales. Ships are also referred to as junks there and this endeavor began to resemble a sinking garbage barge.

With paparazzi woes, less-than-celebrity accommodations, and an inexperienced director (Goddard had only helmed TV fare up to this point), the Material Girl and her Pit Bull Mate dissed the production and disowned the film upon its release. Some of these logistics are hard to predict and plan for until a crew actually arrives on location. What is controllable is casting and storyline. The lack of an entertaining plot and the complete misfire in casting the two leads should have alerted executive producer Beatle George Harrison that he shouldn’t have signed the first check on this project.

Penn plays a weasel tie salesman literally thrown from a boat at the feet of a Massachusetts missionary played by Madonna. The year is 1938 and Shanghai, China has become occupied by the Japanese (the film was primarily lensed in Hong Kong). Madonna recruits her newfound, Mandarin-speaking, hustling friend to help her find a cache of opium plants mysteriously stolen from an ex-drug kingpin who has met his demise in a double-cross. By retrieving the opium, the drug can be used to help the pain suffered by GI’s everywhere, Madonna claims. A varying assortment of nefarious characters shadow the pair as they wander from one tip-off to the next. Jewels figure into the narrative somewhere midway and more double-crosses lurch across the screen. It’s the tedious kind of adventure film where it’s all talk, all bickering, with many pointless supporting characters, and with nary an adventure. The height of action occurs in a lamely-directed rickshaw chase that lasts about two minutes.

Penn and Madonna may have been honeymooning lovebirds at this time, but that chemistry seems to have been left back at the Hong Kong Hilton on a daily basis. Penn appears detached, looking offscreen half the time, as if he’s trying to spot the whereabouts of his on-set trailer. Madonna’s monotone delivery and feeble attempts at stirring emotion show an absolute lack of commitment to her characterization. Watching the couple together onscreen gives one the distinct impression that the flight over from the States left the duo with a debilitating case of jet lag. An undercurrent of smugness can be detected in the way both actors treat their supporting players in every scene (all very capable and headed by the sophisticated Paul Freeman). Their final obligatory ‘kiss-and-make-up’ scene highlights their indifference to others, as Penn and Madonna violently shove their way through Asian citizens on a dock, Madonna barking, “Move, move!,” and one can only assume that director Goddard just captured an unscripted moment in the star couple’s daily life on location.

Cinematographer Ernie Vincze’s photography is the only element that keeps this whole mess from sinking to the bottom of the celluloid harbor. With a limited budget, he has managed to capture an atmosphere of time and place that, in better hands, would’ve served the production immeasurably. George Harrison wrote and performed five songs for the soundtrack, and while they are unmistakably “George,” they’re not unmistakably “good.” For a project that ostensibly must have been pieced together to showcase the “Couple Of The Moment,” it fails miserably in convincing us their personalities were the least bit noteworthy. When Madonna’s character succumbs to Penn in bed, in one of the cinema’s most unconvincing build-ups to a sex scene, she gets herself drunk the next morning to mask the shame she feels. You too might rummage for a bottle in despair after you waste an hour and a half of your life subjecting yourself to “Shanghai Surprise.”

© 2000 Ned Truslow

January 2, 2015

Stormy Monday

Stormy Monday (93 minutes) 1988/Rated R – starring Melanie Griffith, Tommy Lee Jones, Sting, Sean Bean, Alison Steadman, Derek Hoxby, Mark Long, James Cosmo. Written & Directed by Mike Figgis. Released through Paramount Home Video.

As he has done with “Leaving Las Vegas,” “One Night Stand,” “Time Code,” and even “Internal Affairs,” director Mike Figgis likes to follow characters around, watch them breathe, eat, sleep, and sometimes carry a little plot. And while not much really happens in “Stormy Monday,” an early effort by Figgis, the pictures, compositions, and atmosphere are sure pleasant to look at.

Chalk it up to ace photographer Roger Deakins, who makes the rain-slicked streets and cozy, jazzy nightspots of industrialized Newcastle, England look crisp and overwhelmingly artful. Cast in neon blues, reds and golden schemes, the film concentrates on four main characters whose lives figuratively, and sometimes literally, bump into each other over an eventful, celebratory “America” week in the center of town. The American theme has been concocted by Texas businessman Francis Cosmo (Tommy Lee Jones) who hopes to drive the last public relations nail into the city’s councilmen before he snares a lucrative redevelopment deal worth millions on Newcastle’s crumbling real estate. His only hold-out is a slick, well-connected owner, Finney, of a smoky jazz bar, the Key Club, played to scruffy perfection by ex-Police man Sting. Melanie Griffith and Sean Bean (Pierce Brosnan’s nemesis in “Goldeneye”) round out the quartet as a prostitute hired by Cosmo to coax reluctant board members and her newly-arrived drifter/beau working at Finney’s establishment.

The pacing of the movie is languid to say the least. Time is spent with the camera trained on atmosphere enhancers like billowing smokestacks, soccer practices, jazz performers, and parade marchers. But, editor David Martin takes these elements and mixes them into a moody narrative, flowing like a comfortable stream across the screen. Figgis layers on a jazz and blues score that adds to the melancholy pall lying just beneath the deeply-saturated hues in each scene.

The film feels a bit dated now with its ‘80s fashion sense. Melanie Griffith throws another mousy, oxygen-deprived performance onto her theatrical bonfire with her portrayal of Kate, the plain Minnesotan way over her head in dreary England. Speaking of her head, Griffith’s hairstyle, all teased and flaming red, made me keep thinking Pat Benatar was about to burst onto the scene ready to belt out “Hell Is For Children.” Not that poor Sean Bean’s heavily-moussed ‘do escapes rock comparisons (he looked scarily like Swede-man Jonas “Joker” Berggren from Ace of Base). He does, however, fare better in his role as a reserved, withdrawn boyfriend-to-the-rescue, yet his and Melanie’s chemistry never really ignites.

As for the two main adversaries, Sting wins the acting prize hands down. Tommy Lee Jones practically screams, “I’m a bad guy,” the way he tries to act mean, rolling his eyes and exaggerating his disappointment in his minions. His no-nonsense, verbal “every farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse” line delivery he’s famous for spewing in films like “The Fugitive” was not quite so accomplished or convincing in this earlier film. Sting gives an understated performance that comes across much more mature and commanding. The film’s most intense scene, in which Sting faces off against a pair of Cosmo’s thugs, showcases how he exudes power by being very restrained, choosing to be cool as a cucumber, as opposed to becoming overly animated.

At a running time of an hour and a half, the film doesn’t wear out its welcome and the story is wrapped up nice and tidy by the last shot. If not for its pretty pictures, “Stormy Monday” is notable in that it captures one of Sting’s best, most natural, roles to date on film.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

January 2, 2015

Straight To Hell

Straight To Hell (88 minutes) 1987/Rated R – starring Joe Strummer, Sy Richardson, Dick Rude, Courtney Love, Biff Yeager, Zander Schloss, Miguel Sandoval, Jim Jarmusch, Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones, Shane McGowan, Spider Stacy, and Elvis Costello. Co-written and directed by Alex Cox. Originally released through Alliance Home Video.

Let’s all meet up in Spain and film a movie for a few days. Don’t worry about the lines, we’ll make it up as we go. That must have been director Alex Cox’s pitch to his friends when he had the brainstorm to create this scattershot Western parody. The punk auteur who created the wonderfully unique “Repo Man” and the sly, poignant “Sid and Nancy” was on cruise control when he rolled camera for “Straight To Hell.” The punk spirit is definitely in place. But attitude is vapid when there’s no substance to back it up in the material.

It’s not completely off the mark to suggest writer/director Quentin Tarantino was inspired by elements of this film. A hasty bank heist involving three bumbling robbers (in dark suits and skinny black ties) results in their having to hole up in a frontier border town somewhere in the desert. One of the robbers, (Sy Richardson), is a jeri-curled, brooding African-American (can someone say, Samuel L. Jackson in “Pulp Fiction?”) The ramshackle berg they stumble into is filled with a menagerie of bungling villains, all under the command of gruff outlaw, Frank MacMahon (Biff Yeager). The loopy dialogue is keyed to be “out of character,” meaning some villains spew poetry, others sing at chow time in a bent sort of dinner theatre atmosphere. This kind of out-of-context dialogue is pure Tarantino, with a twist of Mel Brooks thrown in for good measure.

What Mr. Tarantino surely didn’t lift from “Straight To Hell” was its characterizations and story. There really isn’t any. Cox has fashioned a long sketch, a punk homage to spaghetti-western guru Sergio Leone, but without the attention to any narrative or emotional nuance. Like the screeching sound of Courtney Love’s voice, it’s a harsh guffaw with a little spittle mixed in, hurling off the screen in the form of a black, overplayed comedy. As throwaway bits, the effect of the nonchalant brutality is at first jarringly amusing (again, much in the way Tarantino has fashioned his violent comedy moments). When one of the town’s more gentle souls, a hot dog vendor (Zandor Schloss), pledges his allegiance to the robbers in their standoff with the town’s villains, the robbers consider his offer for a second and then just shoot him dead. This striking humor is straight out of the cynical Saturday Night Live spin-cycle and can elicit a chuckle, but after awhile, the mindless bloodshed and hollow camp antics wears thin.

There isn’t one individual in the film that figures prominently beyond a cartoon character. The Clash’s Joe Strummer plays one of the bank robbers with the squinty countenance of a young Clint Eastwood. His minimal performance is adequate but so threadbare he hardly could be called the “lead” in this movie. Courtney Love plays the pregnant girlfriend of Richardson, and while she is established as a whining nag at the start of the picture, she virtually disappears around 30 minutes into the film. Singer Grace Jones shows up in the company of Dennis Hopper, a real estate broker wanting to turn the place into an upscale development (shades of his character’s motivations in the equally-disconnected mess “The Last Movie”). Hopper leaves the robbers a guitar case filled with guns to use in their plight against the town’s thugs. (Tarantino’s fellow auteur-whiz Robert Rodriguez perhaps lifted this idea for his breakthrough “El Mariachi” film). Members of the band The Pogues (who also contribute to the soundtrack) play various goons in the McMahon clan, but all of them are interchangeable and forgettable. And a barely-recognizable Elvis Costello appears briefly throughout the hour and a half as a butler who serves coffee to the jittery hooligans. Needless to say, he didn’t make much of an impression.

Director Cox has at least assembled a crack camera team. The photography is graciously colorful and keenly composed. The soundtrack music made me want to check E-bay for an old CD copy. But the movie is a misfire. For better results with the same tone in mind, make a double feature out of “Blazing Saddles” and “Reservoir Dogs.”

© 2000 Ned Truslow

January 2, 2015

The Harder They Come

The Harder They Come (104 minutes) 1973/Rated R – starring Jimmy Cliff, Janet Bartley, Carl Bradshaw, Ras Daniel Hartman, Basil Keane, Bobby Charlton, and Winston Stona. Co-written, produced and directed by Perry Henzell. Originaly released through Thorn EMI Home Video.

When Rosie Perez performed her ‘fly-girl’ moves over the opening credits of Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing,” the imagery brazenly introduced the world to a new music form. Hip-hop was in your face and here to stay. Mr. Lee might’ve copped inspiration from the end credits of 1973’s “The Harder They Come,” over which a woman’s swiveling hips shook to a fresh new musical sound called reggae from Jamaica. Upon its release, the film was seen as a powerful introduction to this progressive island beat and opened the door for discovery to artists like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh.

Shot on a budget of $400,000 around the slums of Kingston, the film tells the tale of a poor folk hero who seeks fortune and a singing career. Arriving from the outlying countryside, Ivan Martin (played by reggae sensation Jimmy Cliff) has his belongings stolen at the first street corner he crosses in the big city. Denied employment throughout the town, he labors for a charismatic preacher (Basil Keane) and falls for one of his ardent followers (Janet Bartley). Ivan aspires to become a renowned singer, yet when he records a hit song for the island’s only record producer, the unscrupulous Sir Hilton (Bobby Charlton), the fledgling artist only receives $20. Turning to the pot trade, Ivan becomes a drug runner, but is soon set up to take a fall by a corrupt police detective (Winston Stona). While his hit song climbs the charts and becomes a countrywide smash, Ivan remains on the lam, a renowned legendary hero headed for a final showdown.

The triumph of filmmaker Perry Henzell’s narrative lies not in its originality but instead in its raw presentation. Shooting the scenes in a detached, loose style, the film has the “look” of a documentary, a choice in telling fictional stories that had only been seen up to that point in a few films like “Z” and “Medium Cool.” The unpolished, relaxed characterizations that the actors project appear unrehearsed and natural. Some critics commented on their thespian abilities as being amateurish, but their spontaneity and reserved demeanor give the scenes more authenticity.

Jimmy Cliff gives a solid reading of his notorious outlaw. Appropriately confounded in his adjustment to urban life, prideful of his natural singing talent, and despondent over his eventual predicaments, Cliff shows a progression to character that keeps your interest whenever he’s onscreen. The only false note in his performance comes when he carjacks a Cadillac and the camera lingers incessantly on his forced smiling face as he drives across open fields.

Janet Bartley as his love interest, Elsa, lends a grounded maturity to Cliff’s unfocused scheming. His pals Jose (Carl Bradshaw) and Pedro (Ras Daniel Hartman) are effective in their alternating chummy and ruthless behavior. Only the actors who play the figures of authority, the preacher and the detective, come across as stilted and not very credible in their portrayals.

Music is used to great effect throughout the movie. With contributions from The Melodians, Toots and the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, and four songs by Cliff, hardly a scene goes by without the use of tunes as an integral and transitional part of the narrative. The title song aptly chimes in each time Cliff’s character rises to the next level of notoriety. Although director Henzell claimed that he initially only saw this film being viable to the Caribbean market, it seems he was confident enough to know that the power and originality the reggae sound contained would translate to a broader acceptance. “The Harder They Come” still holds up as a fresh, vivid snapshot showcasing the birth of a new musical genre.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

January 2, 2015

The Hunger

The Hunger (98 minutes) 1983/Rated R – starring Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, Susan Sarandon, Cliff DeYoung, Beth Ehlers, Dan Hedaya, Rufus Collins, Suzanne Bertish, and James Aubrey. Directed by Tony Scott. Released through MGM/UA Home Entertainment.

Before author Whitley Strieber flipped out and started chatting with aliens in his books “Communion,” “Transformation,” and countless others (he’s made such a cottage industry of his “true-life” contacts, the little critters are practically living in his spare bedroom), he was a writer of urban horror novels like “Wolfen” and “The Hunger.” The enticing element to “The Hunger” is the “casual” atmosphere in which vampires walk among us. Anyone is prey for a little blood meal in Central Park or down a side alley. They’re chic, they’re cultured, and they want to be your friend, for life.

“The Hunger” tells a very simple story. Catherine Deneuve plays Miriam Blaylock, an ages-old beauty who has maintained her eternal youth by the standard jugular lapping but also by keeping a string of mortal companions alive in an undead state to fill her empty years. Trouble is, the companions only stay young for about a century or two, then they rapidly age to a withered, debilitating state in a matter of days. David Bowie plays her husband who is experiencing the “final” process as the film begins. When he seeks out help from Susan Sarandon, a scientist examining aberrations in aging, Sarandon falls under the spell of his lover, Deneuve, who sees Sarandon as her next century’s pal around town.

The pleasure derived in viewing “The Hunger” is actually found in its eye for detail. Director Tony Scott, like his brother Ridley, practically invented the film language of long shots jumping to exquisitely extreme close-ups over a matter of seconds in a scene. Music video directors immediately copped the technique as their own, usually without the same flair or reasoning behind the edits and have pounded us with unnecessary imagery ever since. Scott’s pacing for this film is languorous. Outside of his later film, “Revenge,” the cigar-chomping director of such testosterone epics like “Top Gun,” “Crimson Tide,” “Beverly Hills Cop 2,” and “Days of Thunder” uncharacteristically showed restraint with this film. His handling of a notorious lesbian scene between Deneuve and Sarandon is astonishingly erotic considering his later “boys-club” sensibilities. He actually allows characters to “breathe” in scenes without the Attention Deficit Disorder inclination common these days to edit the pace of a spare conversation like a Nintendo game.

Although the dialogue is detached and antiseptic, and the hard-edged fashion can be traced to Flock of Seagulls circa 1983, Scott keeps a dream-like flow to the narrative that almost puts it in an alternative universe altogether. Stephen Goldblatt’s photography is impeccable, although image motifs like flapping doves and diffuse lighting are a tad overused. The film’s ominous, discordant score is used to great effect as is the muted, echoed sound design.

Bowie’s performance is superb. Instead of coming unhinged with his weathered fate, he maturely chooses to remain calm and pensive. With this choice for his character, Bowie is fascinating to watch, as he ever so slightly changes his mood from desperation to wistfulness to bitterness to resignation. The moment when he has transformed into a withered man and asks Deneuve to kiss him like she did when he was young and healthy is handled by both actors in a sensitive, moving manner usually not found in standard vampire fare. While Sarandon plays an important part in the storyline, it’s the romance between Deneuve and Bowie that holds the greatest depth of meaning to this tale. (Trivia note: look quick at two guys standing at a phone booth. They’re actors John Pankow and Willem Dafoe, who three years later would act together in “To Live and Die in L.A.”).

Unfortunately, “The Hunger” lurches to an unsatisfying conclusion. Had the screenwriters taken the time to explore more unconventional endings for the tale, this film would truly be worthy of the top ten list of vampire flicks. As it is, “The Hunger” should still satiate your bloodsucking yearnings in a pinch.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

January 2, 2015

Dancer in the Dark

Dancer in the Dark (141 minutes) 2000/Rated R – starring Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Joel Grey, Cara Seymour, Vladan Kostic, Vincent Paterson, Jean Marc-Barr, Siobhan Fallon, Udo Kier, and Stellan Skarsgard. Written and directed by Lars Von Trier. Released through Fine Line Features. Currently in theatres.

The diminutive Icelandic singer Bjork makes one of the most impressive film debuts in a long time. As a tool factory worker slowly losing her vision in the film “Dancer in the Dark,” she has the cherubic face and expressive eyes to give credibility to her character’s upbeat struggle staying strong in the face of horrific odds. This is a film that splits critics and audiences down the line. They are either completely annoyed by it or are hailing it as a masterpiece. Well, this review calls it a tie. The subject matter of the film was very annoying. Bjork’s performance is Oscar-worthy.

Set in Washington State in 1964, a bespectacled Bjork plays Selma, a woman with a degenerative eye condition whose son faces the same genetic fate. Working double shifts and side jobs in a race to earn enough money to buy her son an operation that would halt the affliction, Selma daydreams of life seen through the world of Hollywood musicals. Her best friend, factory laborer Catherine Deneuve, takes her to revival cinema showings of Busby Berkeley movies, describing the action to her near-blind pal. A benevolent police officer, on whose land she rents her trailer home living quarters, is in debt and winds up stealing Selma’s hard-earned savings. This action, along with her being let go from the factory, sets in motion a domino effect of tragic proportions.

Writer/director Von Trier, who gained notoriety with his 1995 film “Breaking The Waves,” once again focuses a story on a meek, kind-hearted woman who is virtually destroyed by the desires of others and the fragility of health. This time, however, the anti-fairy tale is completely malicious and vindictive. The viewing experience equates with watching a skillful hunter shoot out the legs of an unsuspecting fawn, one by one. While we’re scratching our heads at the outrageous contrivances Von Trier has chosen to torture his awkward swan with, we’re riveted by the total commitment in strength and nobility Bjork brings to her anguished heroine. Through the palpable and stark suffering she exemplifies, her performance transcends the screen, appearing at times as if she, the actress, is furious with Von Trier’s callous, manipulative fable.

Shot on digital video in documentary fashion, ‘reality’ scenes are drained of color, whereas, Selma’s musical alter-life is saturated in deep hues. Von Trier jump-cuts his scenes, pulling up pauses and editing quickly between isolated character lines. The jagged nature of this technique becomes distracting during moments of intense emotion. Eight songs contain rhythms spawned from natural sounds, i.e. locomotives, phonograph scratches, footsteps, etc. The lyrics are literal, Andrew Lloyd Webber-style, readings, wherein Bjork just warbles in reaction to the events having just transpired on screen. The musical numbers are a novelty, to be sure, but tend to wear thin by about the fourth song.

Aside from Bjork, the other cast members are extremely laudable in their roles. Catherine Deneuve shows great compassion as Selma’s true bud. David Morse as the cop gives just as complex a performance as Bjork’s, pulling our empathy strings one minute and pushing our hatred button the next. The other standout performance comes from Siobhan Fallon who plays a prison guard. Her very quiet, compassionate scenes with Bjork are the best in the film, and we completely identify with her wrenching inability to help the crushed angel before her.

Von Trier has taken the idealistic promises of Hollywood musicals, those that portray a world in which nothing bad ever happens, and has juxtaposed it against a story in which a girl who dreams of this Utopian existence winds up being flushed down life’s toilet. It’s as if he’s saying, we will never be able to live out the fallacies portrayed in Hollywood. Life is mean-spirited and unjust. There is no redemption. The silent camera pullout at the end of the film is the antithesis of the Berkeley musical. Von Trier just wants us to know life sucks.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

January 2, 2015

Dangerous Game

Dangerous Game (108 minutes) 1993/Unrated – starring Harvey Keitel, Madonna, James Russo, Nancy Ferrara, Reilly Murphy, Victor Argo, Leonard Thomas, Christina Fulton, Glenn Plummer, and Richard Belzer. Directed by Abel Ferrara. Released through MGM/UA Home Entertainment.

If you’ve ever wondered what actors were talking about in interviews when they said a movie set can be a very tedious place, this “behind the scenes” glimpse at a low budget film production is the perfect example of banality. And I don’t mean that in an artistic, complimentary way. This movie is a waste of celluloid, period. And a complete waste of your time.

Filmed at the tail end of Madonna’s self-discovery “Sex” period in the early ‘90s, “Dangerous Game” didn’t titillate nor was it very dangerous. Harvey Keitel plays Eddie Israel, a New York director trying to bring out the best performance he can from a “big-name” LA actress (played by Madonna) in his new movie about the disintegration of a pair of swingers’ open marriage. James Russo plays the lead actor opposite Madonna in this movie-within-a-movie, and he is just plain despicable. Yes, his ‘character’ is supposed to be despicable, but I defy you to name one film Russo has acted in in which he isn’t obnoxiously loathsome. Sorry, but his acting just brings those feelings to the surface. With every piece of “shocking” dialogue he vulgarly spews forth at Madonna and others on the set, one can’t help but wonder if this fellow has an ounce of nuance or humanity in his real life.

The main focus of the film, if there really is one, is the decline of Keitel’s character into amorality and infidelity while he directs a picture on that very subject. No surprise here; everyone knows this is how the majority of Hollywood directors live their lives on and off the movie lot. As Keitel coaches his actors in his movie, his rants are utterly uninteresting because the movie he’s directing is so vapidly dull. It’s just two messed-up people, Madonna and Russo, pontificating inanity at each other. Oh yeah, and it’s also about Russo unrelentingly shouting, beating, degrading, and raping his on-screen ‘wife.’ Only actors within the low-budget buckshot of Tinseltown would find the abuse in this film something they could relate to. For all others outside the radar of the LA basin, this is the kind of narcissistic, pointless, navel-gazing experience that only borderline Hollywood denizens seem to have the time to examine and explore, let alone finance.

One example of ‘deep’ dialogue involves Keitel telling Madonna how he once had a nose bleed while having intercourse with a woman. As he saw it, his drops of semen and blood resembled pearls and rubies he had given her. Madonna praises him as being a romantic. Ugh! This pretentious claptrap of a story only seems remotely fragile when Keitel’s wife and kid show up at his LA hotel just moments after he’s schtupped Madonna’s character. His family’s one minute of naïve normality amidst Keitel’s ‘movie world’ histrionic excrement makes the viewer just want to take the wife and kid out of this picture and follow their adventures in another film altogether.

Madonna is able to cry on cue. So, I guess she displays some semblance of acting in this flick. One scene in which Keitel goads her highly-paid actress character to connect to a scene by continually saying, “Come on you commercial piece of s**t,” actually does convey some of the tenuous mind games that go on in the world of acting. But overall, she is treated like the proverbial slab of meat by both Keitel’s ‘director’ and the real film’s director, Abel Ferrara. Madonna told Details magazine, “I saw the movie and I cried. I just felt so deceived by Abel. It was my chance to prove once and for all that I could act, and he f***ed me over.” Don’t despair Madonna. Even if there were scenes in which you flawlessly achieved heights never attained in the entire history of the Royal Shakespeare Company, it would have been to no avail. This is a shallow, desperate piece of moviemaking.

© 2000 Ned Truslow