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

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Colors

April 12, 2012

When legendary freakazoid Dennis Hopper dried out and went straight a couple of years ago, his acting career understandably got back into long-delayed gear; for a while, it seemed as though every other Hollywood movie had Hopper in a juicy supporting role (Hoosiers, River’s Edge, Blue Velvet).

It was inevitable that Hopper would try to revive his directing career, which had blossomed with the epoch-making Easy Rider and then crashed and burned with one of the most notorious flops of all time, The Last Movie. Apparently it was Sean Penn’s idea to recruit Hopper to direct Colors, a cop movie about gangs in East Los Angeles.

This combination of card-carrying bad dudes would seem to promise a combustible collaboration, especially with Robert Duvall, himself a Hollywood renegade, added to the mix. As it turns out, given its already explosive subject matter, Colors has gobs of gutter-level power. It’s also often inarticulate, and it operates only under the loosest of structures.

Penn and Duvall play cops, partners in the war zone. Penn is a cocky young strutter who attacks petty criminals with overt sadism; his girlfriend (Maria Conchita Alonso) tells him, “You have a mean heart.” Duvall is a year away from retirement, and he takes a slower approach, content to throw the little fishes back in the water in hopes of making a really big catch.

These two cops could almost be seen as different parts of Dennis Hopper’s personality. Penn is the hot-blooded kid who thinks he needs “the edge” to do his job well; Duvall warns him that he went through the same kind of insanity himself once, “and what I remember most from that time is regrets.” Hopper directs this relationship with the authenticity of one who has been there and back.

The movie is so gritty and relentless, you may not notice how choppy the actual storytelling is. Hopper is stronger at finding the inside of individual moments, such as the terror of a bust that goes bad when the wrong man is shot, or a dying cop’s face bleached out by the harsh white light of a police helicopter. Overall, Colors may not quite hang together, but the devotion of the actors, the punchy music of Herbie Hancock, the late-afternoon cinematography of Haskell Wexler, all combine to create some heat. Dennis Hopper, it seems, has not made his last movie.

First published in the Herald, April 15, 1988

And it was even a box-office success. Hopper did direct again, and seemed to settle comfortably into his aging-celebrity role. This movie’s a mess, but on some level it got the job done, and became a key part of the man’s rehab.