La Bamba

March 25, 2013

labambaRichie Valens was the other great rocker who went down in a plane crash with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper near Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 1959, “the day the music died.” The Buddy Holly story has already been well immortalized on film; now, with La Bamba, it is Valens’ turn.

Valens is hardly as familiar a figure as Holly, of course, and he notched only three hits and 17 birthdays before his death. But La Bamba provides ample evidence of why he is worth celebrating.

The film is the work of writer-director Luis Valdez, whose previous film experience includes the interestingly disastrous Zoot Suit. Valdez has made a carefully balanced movie. It’s a very traditional film biography, and unafraid of the clichés of the form. But it’s also an uninsistent description of the Hispanic experience, a topic Valdez explores without ever losing the solidly entertaining main thread of the film.

The crucial way Valdez does this is by making La Bamba the story of two brothers. Richie (Lou Diamond Phillips) is the nice good-humored boy who becomes a star; Bob (Esai Morales, of Bad Boys) is violently insecure, more volcanic and ill-adjusted. Valdez allows these two to represent twin sides of a single personality—Richie yearning to tap into the American success story, Bob retreating to Mexico to seek the wisdom of the old ways.

Planted throughout this stimulating conflict are the hallmarks of the movie biography: Richie’s mom (Rosana DeSoto) pays for a live performance at a small local hall; Richie is spotted by a talent agent (Joe Pantoliano) who suggests a name change from Valenzuela; lovestruck Richie writes “Donna,” a hit single, for his white high-school girlfriend. Along the way, Valdez beautifully re-creates the humid milieu of Richie’s youth in the California fruit-picking world.

Valdez makes up for the occasional syrupy patch with some exhilarating music. There’s a marvelous scene when Bob takes Richie to a Mexican bordello for a rite of passage; Richie becomes more interested in the house band as it performs an old Mexican folk song, “La Bamba.” His subsequent, sizzling rock ‘n’ roll reworking of that song embodies the movie’s theme: that traditional Mexican ways may be incorporated into new American forms, without denying either. It helps, of course, that Valens’ recording of “La Bamba” is one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs ever laid down.

His music is re-created here by the brilliant Los Lobos, who also appear as the bordello band. There are other clever cameos: Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats plays Eddie Cochran, and Marshall Crenshaw appears as Buddy Holly.

La Bamba was a bit hit at the opening night of the recent Seattle International Film Festival, and Columbia Pictures is clearly counting on the strong word-of-mouth the movie has already generated to carry it past the lack of stars or high concept. It should work, and La Bamba could be this summer’s little movie that goes all the way.

First published in the Herald, July 1987

Fun movie. In retrospect, I assume Luis Valdez’ approach here was to deliver something that wasn’t commonplace in mainstream American films—a straight-ahead portrait of a Hispanic community—by putting it into a very conventional container. Which worked very nicely. Neither Phillips nor Morales quite took off the way one might have thought, although they’re both hard-working actors, with a few eccentric detours along the way. I just watched Esai Morales in Atlas Shrugged Part II, and you want to talk about an actor flashing his professionalism under absurd circumstances, you got it right there.

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The Last Temptation of Christ

March 20, 2013

lasttemptationFinally. After weeks of controversy, most of it generated by people who hadn’t seen the movie, The Last Temptation of Christ has opened. People who like to think for themselves can now make up their own minds.

The controversy surrounding this tale of Christ has sparked picket lines and shouting matches. Church leader Donald Wildmon and Last Temptation director Martin Scorsese debated on “Nightline.” A band of fundamentalists offered Universal Pictures $10 million to buy the movie and destroy it. And protests at the house of Universal president Lew Wasserman took on an ugly anti-Semitic tone.

All of which brings to mind the line from Hannah and Her Sisters: “If Jesus came to Earth today and saw what was being done in his name, he would never stop throwing up.” So much fuss and nonsense over such an entirely well-intentioned enterprise.

The Last Temptation of Christ is a long-cherished project for Scorsese who, along with screenwriter Paul Schrader, has adapted the speculative novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. It is a thoughtful, serious film about the struggle between flesh and spirit, and emphasizes the human anguish and dimensions of Jesus (it does not, contrary to rumor, deny the notion of Jesus’ divinity).

The opening and closing sections of the film are the most intriguing. In the first reel, we find Jesus as a carpenter who hears voices and is disturbed by his Chosen status. The middle, more familiar section of the film shows the Jesus of the Gospels, accepting his role as Messiah, enduring the temptations in the desert, gathering his disciples, and performing miracles.

The final portion of the film is a fantasia during the crucifixion, as Satan leads Jesus on a tour of what his life might be if he chooses to live only as a man—complete with marriage, children, and a sexual life. There is no explicit precedent for this in the Gospels, but it’s a legitimate extension of the idea of temptation, and it actually heightens the concept of the sacrifice of Jesus; if there weren’t any temptation, it wouldn’t be a sacrifice.

The Last Temptation runs on for two hours and 40 minutes. It’s a stark-looking movie (Scorsese made the film on the amazingly small budget of $6.5 million, in Morocco) and Scorsese aims for none of the grandiose effects that we know and love from Cecil B. DeMille biblical pictures. The actors speak in everyday American accents, the dialogue itself is without the usual King James poetry.

Much of it is engrossing. The theological debate within the film becomes a bit murky and inarticulate at times; the film never seems to find the specific argument it wants to put forward, but perhaps that was the intention.

A lot of the debate is between Jesus, played by Willem Dafoe (the Christlike sergeant in Platoon) and Judas (played by Scorsese favorite Harvey Keitel). In this version, Jesus virtually orders Judas to betray him, and noting Judas’s anguish, says that “God gave me the easier job.”

Mary Magdalene is played with considerable sensuality by a tattooed Barbara Hershey; Andre Gregory is arresting as John the Baptist; Harry Dean Stanton does a touching cameo as Saul, later Paul; and David Bowie is a patrician Pontius Pilate.

Scorsese says he has been wanting to film this story for the better part of two decades, but it seems to me in many ways he’s been making it all along. There is tortured Christian allegory in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull, and those films actually deal with faith and redemption in more alive, forceful terms than this new film. It isn’t Scorsese’s best movie, but The Last Temptation isn’t glib blasphemy, either.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

We certainly haven’t gotten any more enlightened since then; you can imagine what would happen to this movie is someone tried to make it now. I think I’d like it more today myself, but I haven’t watched it stem-to-stern in a while (saw the parts with Harry Dean Stanton a couple of years ago and was really stirred). The casting of Keitel is one of those strokes that at first seems puzzling, and eventually feels inspired.


The Little Thief

March 18, 2013

littlethiefWhen Francois Truffaut died in 1984 at the tragically young age of 52, he left a hole in the world of the cinema that can never be filled. Happily, he also left a series of masterpieces—Jules and Jim, Day for Night, Two English Girls—that will keep his presence, his large and generous soul, with us always.

As it turns out, he left us with something else: a screenplay, written with collaborator Claude de Givray. The Little Thief is a project Truffaut had wanted to make as early as the mid-1960s, when he proposed it as a female version of his first feature, 1959’s The 400 Blows, which was also about a lost, adolescent rebel.

Now The Little Thief has been realized by some of Truffaut’s friends, including Claude Miller, who was Truffaut’s assistant for years before becoming a director himself. Miller does not have the master’s touch, and The Little Thief can’t technically be counted as a Truffaut movie per se. But Miller captures the spirit of his former mentor enough so that Truffaut’s hand is well evident.

The protagonist is a 16-year-old named Janine (Charlotte Gainsbourg, an expressive actress whom Truffaut would have adored), abandoned by her parents, who lives with her poor uncle and aunt in the French countryside of the early 1950s. When we first see Janine, she is swiping a carton of Lucky Strikes from an unlocked car. Janine steals things.

This habit gets her sent away to work as a maid. Janine fails in love, first with an older married man (Didier Bezace), then with a teenage rebel (Simon de la Brasse) who has a motorcycle. Her troubles include a stay in reform school, but she is a survivor.

The movie has many wonderful moments, recalling Truffaut’s romantic sensibility: Janine at a movie theater, falling asleep on the shoulder of a stranger who will become her lover; Janine stealing a volume of Victor Hugo from a bookstore; the biker’s trick of flipping cigarettes in his mouth.

Like the hero of The 400 Blows, Janine eventually ends up at the ocean, which she sees for the first time. “I didn’t expect that color,” she says quietly, gazing at the water, perfectly capturing the adolescent’s mix of wonder and disappointment; a moment evocative of Truffaut at his most characteristic. All in all, a perfectly lovely time at the movies.

First published in the Herald, September 1989

A nice movie, though it seems to have been forgotten. Gainsbourg went on to her international career, as could hardly be avoided from the daughter of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, including her place in the realm of Lars von Trier.


The Great Mouse Detective

March 13, 2013

greatmouseWalt Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective is easily the legendary studio’s most satisfying animated feature since—well, who knows how long it’s been? Observers have charted the decline of Disney, and of the animated feature in general, for so long, it’s difficult to remember the last time anyone spoke of a Disney cartoon with real admiration.

After last year’s ambitious (but unsuccessful) The Black Cauldron, Disney desperately needed a hit. They went so far as to test-market the title of their next feature, which throughout its long schedule of production (animated films are years in the making) was known as Basil of Baker Street.

Sorry, Basil, the market researchers say that The Great Mouse Detective is a more appealing title (even if anyone with an ounce of sense knows it isn’t).

Whatever its title, the new Disney shapes up as a much-needed pride-booster for the animation department. It’s lively, scary, and utterly without the kind of cartoon condescension that assumes kiddies will be unable to follow the most rudimentary story.

Actually, the plot of The Great Mouse Detective is pretty rudimentary, but condescension is more a question of attitude, anyway. It’s a Sherlock Holmes story in which Holmes and Watson (called Basil and Dawson) are crime-fighting mice in 1897 London, and archenemy Moriarty is a nasty, effete rat called Professor Ratigan.

This Basil fellow lives in a corner of the building where the actual Holmes lives (we get a brief glimpse of the human counterparts); but there’s no bones made about the fact that our mice heroes are meant to be the rodent version of Conan Doyle’s sleuths. Basil deduces, cries “The game is afoot!”, and plays the violin. (Don’t expect Basil to emulate Holmesian cocaine use, however—this is the Disney version, after all.)

Professor Ratigan (spoken by Vincent Price, the only big name in the cast) and his icky henchman Fidget (a peg-legged, yellow-eyed bat), kidnap a toymaker for a devious plan involving the upcoming visit from the Queen of Rodentia. The toymaker’s daughter goes to Basil for help, and the rest is elementary.

The story is broken down into a series of set-pieces, including a chase in a toy store, a hearty barroom brawl, a nifty bit in which Ratigan snares Basil and Dawson in a seemingly hopeless trap, and the big finale hanging from the clock of Big Ben.

There are no dead spots, the animation is atmospheric (if hardly revolutionary), and the scary stuff is good and creepy—not watered down.

Before the film is a not-quite-classic Mickey Mouse short, Cleaning Clocks, which shares a few gags with the Big Ben sequence in the feature. It’s oddly comforting to know that, after decades of animated progress, a cartoon character’s head still makes the same CLANNNGGGGG when stuck inside a ringing bell.

First published in the Herald, July 1, 1986

The Little Mermaid deservedly gets credit for turning things around for Disney, but this was the tip-off: a really smart, crackling entertainment from (of all people) the Disney animators. You can tell from the tone of this piece how unlikely that seemed at the time, and what a low point “family films” had reached. Things changed.


Angelo My Love

February 12, 2013

angelomyloveHe’s not much taller than a fire hydrant. His pint-sized tuxedo looks absurdly grown-up, and he has a liking for older women—women of 12 or 13. He can’t read or write, and he has no interest in learning to do so. He’s our hero, this 10-year-old gypsy Angelo, and he’s got important things to do.

The most important thing he has to do in Angelo My Love is retrieve a ring that was stolen from his family. Angelo will inherit the heirloom when he turns 15, but it’s been pilfered by a man named Patalay (Steve Tsigonoff), who is a member of a different group of gypsies.

This search for the ring is the main plot of Angelo My Love, but the plot is really almost an excuse to look at the fascinating gypsy subculture. The film takes time to present such events as the bartering process over a bride-to-be, the candlelit Feast of St. Anne, and a noisy gypsy trial, presided over by the elders, that takes place in the back room of a neighborhood bar.

Through it all struts Angelo, a vain littler charmer who speaks with the brash authority of someone three times his age. His more even-tempered older brother Michael accompanies Angelo, and is accustomed to the tiny spitfire’s tricks. Together, they’re a great Mutt and Jeff detective team, looking for the family ring through the gritty streets and alleys of New York.

The people in Angelo My Love are just people—not professional actors. Writer-director Robert Duvall, one of America’s best actors, became intrigued by the gypsies when he encountered Angelo Evans on the street one day. Duvall built a movie around this natural performer, and although it’s a fictional story, he’s filmed gypsy life with a documentary-like feel for reality—the actors even keep their real-life names.

Duvall has captured the texture of the lives remarkably well. He’s rejected anything that smacks of condescension or romanticizing of these unusual people.

As in his own performances, Duvall the director looks for the truest way of presenting situations and emotions. The actors may be amateurs, but there isn’t a false note struck by any of the cast members. That’s no mean feat in any movie, but it’s particularly impressive in a film that relies on its actors to improvise many of their scenes.

And Angelo is the most impressive of all—the scene in which he puts the moves on a sawed-off country-western girl singer is classic; Angelo gives her a soulful look as she croons a song especially for him—but he’s not so lost in love that he can’t take a moment to sneak a peek at his own immaculately groomed self in a convenient mirror.

In an early scene, Angelo actually attends school-for a few minutes—and is asked to read out loud from a book. He has to make up his own story, since he has no idea what those funny black marks are on the page. The teacher gets suspicious, but Angelo claims he can’t read without his glasses. “Are you near-sighted or far-sighted?” asks the teacher. “I’m every-sighted,” replies Angelo. Whether scripted or improvised, what a lovely and accurate way of putting it.

First published in the Herald, November 22, 1983

The movie made a nice impression in the pre-Sundance era, but is almost completely off the radar now. With this and The Apostle, Duvall the director really deserves status as a kind of American original, having made some films that are not like anything else


The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

January 28, 2013

cookthethiefPeter Greenaway, the exceedingly provocative English director of The Draughtsman’s Contract and A Zed and Two Naughts, has said of his new film that “I wanted to engage in some of the excitements of unrestricted license.”

Mm-hmm. That is an elegant way of saying that Greenaway has tipped over a number of taboos in his new movie, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. It’s a film that happily seeks to offend and outrage.

And, oh, it succeeds. But Greenaway is such a witty and imaginative filmmaker that he makes his outrageousness watchable. At the very least, this film is visually stunning, even when it is at its most grotesque, which might be any of a number of moments.

The title provides the basic situation. A gangster (Michael Gambon) comes every night to the lavish restaurant he owns. He has no taste whatsoever, for food or anything else, but he likes to parade around with his entourage. His wife (Helen Mirren) is at his side, apparently for the sole purpose of giving him someone to abuse.

Across the restaurant sits a lone diner (Alan Howard), who spots the unhappy wife and sneaks off for the first of a series of trysts with her, in the hidden corners of the restaurant. The head chef (Richard Bohringer) watches all this with a steady, unflappable gaze.

The film is about the wife and her lover’s attempts to come together, while the gangster tries to figure out what is afoot (Gambon, the brilliant British actor who starred in the BBC’s “Singing Detective,” must have 85 percent of the film’s dialogue, and he thunders magnificently).

But the plot does not describe Greenaway’s gallery of effects. His films are not meant to be realistic; they are theatrical, melodramatic. Costume and set design and music are main characters, and they tend to dominate the puny human concerns.

As far as the taboos are concerned, the film pays disgusting detail to torture, scatological excesses, regurgitative functions, and finally cannibalism, in a climactic scene that will probably send people either screaming or chuckling from the theater. Like him or loathe him, Greenaway completely creates his own world, and it’s like nothing else in the movies.

Incidentally, this film grossed out the MPAA ratings board to such an extent that it received an X rating. Unfortunately, the X has come to be associated with hardcore porn (which this film is not, although it contains much nudity), and some newspapers and TV stations won’t accept ads for X-rated films, regardless of content. In Seattle, the movie is being released without a rating. These sorts of problems suggest that it’s time to rethink the current ratings system.

First published in the Herald, April 8, 1990

Caused some excitement at the time, that’s for sure, and Greenaway was really on a roll at that moment. I wonder whether I’d like it as much now.


Let’s Get Lost

January 23, 2013

letsgetlostAs sad and romantic as its evocative title, Let’s Get Lost is a documentary about the great jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, whose death in a fall from an Amsterdam hotel window in 1988 was the final step in a lifelong dance of self-destruction. Much of the movie was shot in 1987, when Baker was clearly near the end of his long, painful road.

Let’s Get Lost is no straightforward documentary. Filmmaker Bruce Weber, a longtime fan of Baker, has created a dreamlike, black-and-white collage of interviews, music, old photographs, film clips, and new footage. It tells Baker’s history, but also conjures the feeling of a long, mournful jazz wail.

In the 1950s, young Chet Baker was a great white hope of jazz, a key figure in West Coast cool jazz, a beautiful trumpet player and a wispy, romantic vocalist. He also looked like James Dean, and Hollywood was grooming him for stardom.

He had talent, he had charm, he had…something ineffable. William Claxton, whose famous photographs of Baker in the ’50s are featured prominently in the film, says that photographing Baker gave him his first indication of what photogenic meant.

These early glimpses of the young Baker are interspersed with the wreck Weber interviewed in 1987. Baker, not yet 60, looks like an angel of death, his face heavily lined and toothless, his spirit shredded by constant drug use. Interviews with his wives, girlfriends and children create a portrait of a master manipulator, a totally unreliable friend and father.

Some will see this film and dismiss Baker as a self-destructive jerk. Fine. But that doesn’t explain the music, which is as graceful and fugitive as a trail of smoke. Baker seems to have been a person so racked with pain and hurt that he was simply unable to function in the world, except to express himself through music.

Bruce Weber is a fashion photographer whose Calvin Klein campaign set the tone for advertising in this decade. As a filmmaker, he’s still drunk on images: the story in Baker’s face, the glamour of the jazz set in the 1950s. (This movie is unimaginable in color.) Weber may be mostly concerned with surfaces; he can’t explain Chet Baker. But he can fashion Baker’s dream state, his lost world.

First published in the Herald, April 1989

Slightly surprised this isn’t considered more of a classic documentary, but maybe it doesn’t fit the mold; also, it was out of circulation for a long time. The treatment fits the subject, for sure.