Month: August 2014

The Abridged Barnesyard – “Little Richard” (2000)

index2Little Richard (2000; Dir.: Robert Townsend)

GRADE: D

By Daniel Barnes

*NOTE: This review was originally published on The Barnesyard in 2006.

Hollywood biopics are less filmed biographies than they are hagiographies — there is an assumption that every story should be “inspiring”, even if the subject is not.  In the TV movie Little Richard, the great rock-and-roll pioneer/scripture-quoting orgyist has his edges sanded down so severely he’s pretty much an effete, piano-playing neuter. We get some rock-and-roll, a tiny bit of scriptures, and no orgies whatsoever. The movie was executive-produced by Little Richard, which may explain the soft bulbs in the spotlight. Over-involvement by the subject and/or their families accounts for the gentile, quasi-inspiring treatment of most modern biopics, but the idea that the story of a poor kid overcoming the odds to reach super-stardom and spiritual fulfillment is more entertaining than watching Little Richard act like an egotistical, salvation-minded, lunatic-pervert for 90 minutes is a fallacy of the highest order.

The one-named actor Leon plays The Quasar, and although he looks a bit like Little Richard, his mannerisms suggest he’s playing a stock homosexual caricature in an “In Living Color” sketch. The film touches the bases of Richard’s life up through the late 1950’s — his poor childhood, his uncommon sexual leanings, his murdered moonshiner father, his musical apprenticeship, his eventual stardom and subsequent relapse into religion — but gives little indication of his character and the forces that drove him. When you take the bisexuality, the pimping, the complicated racial aspects (he felt betrayed and cheated by the white musical establishment, yet his music was always more popular with whites than blacks), and the orgies out of Little Richard’s life, his story is reduced to an extended cliché, and a poorly shot one at that.

indexAs in Walk the Line, the censored gaps are filled with concert performances (Leon lip-syncs) — The Quasar’s live shows were legendary, but Townsend shoots them with all the electric energy and excitement of a Madison, Wisconsin dinner theater production of Smokey Joe’s Cafe. My favorite scene showed a pre-fame Little Richard scraping by as a dishwaher — he’s asked to take out the trash, and lugs what appears to be an empty can out to the curb. Apparently, the production wasn’t budgeted for GARBAGE; ironic, since so much of it appears onscreen masquerading as Little Richard’s life.

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R – 8/28 issues

index*Roger Donaldson’s by-the-numbers The November Man is so comfortable, so content to reprocess the familiar and predictable, that the film practically dozes off on the recliner in the living room of your mind.

*A sequel to Robert Rodriguez’s seminal greenscreen noir Sin City has been in the works ever since it became a surprise 2005 hit, yet the slapdash A Dame to Kill For feels like it was knocked out in director Robert Rodriguez’s basement over a three-day weekend

#84athon – “Tank”

1984_blogathon

Tank (1984; Dir.: Marvin J. Chomsky)

GRADE: D

By Mike Dub

*NOTE: This is Mike’s contribution to the 1984-a-thon at Forgotten Filmcast.  Over 100 bloggers are participating in this week long blog-a-thon, so please check out their site for links to more reviews of films from 1984.  Read Daniel’s review of  Against All Odds HERE.

The mid-1980s was a strange time for Hollywood’s military movies.  Despite the success of New Hollywood features likeThe Deer Hunter and Coming Home at the end of the 1970s, the 1980s were couched in Reagan-era gumption, and produced more reassuring mainstream war films that sought to reinvigorate faith in American military prowess.  Tapping into the most valuable target market, movies like Red Dawn turn to America’s teenagers to protect their country after the pacifist failures of their parents have left the U.S. vulnerable to a cold war invasion.  Top Gun and Iron Eagle, while defining air combat as the coolest thing ever, also feature young men who surpass their fathers’ dogfighting skills in order to save the day.  And, in more explicit terms, films like Missing in Action and Rambo: First Blood Part II depict American soldiers returning to Vietnam to reclaim their military potency by saving POWs leftover from the war.

Somewhere amid those intense, glossy blockbusters sits the relatively modest curiosity of Tank.  Produced in 1984 by Lorimar (the fine folks who brought you the lion’s share of ABC’s “TGIF” schedule in the ‘90s), Tank is a vapid, ridiculous action-adventure romp that revels in the exhibition of military might making right.  A pointless film without any sense of perspective or value, it somehow still manages to capture the infantile glee for American military machinery that permeates the other war films of its time.  Given the forthrightness of its unimaginative title, there is no confusion as to the real star of Tank.

tankUnfortunately, rather than simply showcase the eponymous vehicle in nihilistic exuberance (as would likely happen in an exploitation action film made today), Tank provides a contrived, brain-dead storyline to justify its existence.  Army Sergeant-Major Zack Carey (James Garner), notorious throughout the Army as the only person in the country to own his own Sherman tank, moves his wife LaDonna (Shirley Jones) and son Billy (C. Thomas Howell) to a base in Georgia to finish out his service while his retirement papers are being processed.  Much in the first half of this two-hour long movie plays like a domestic drama, with old man Carey (“Everything’s got to be a disco – I don’t want to go to a disco!”) doing his best to ease family tensions and adjust to his new surroundings.  Before long, though, Carey runs afoul of the cartoonishly sadistic, corrupt local sheriff (G.D. Spradlin), which leads to Billy’s arrest and imprisonment on false charges.  And that’s when he turns to the tank.

Carey uses the tank to bust Billy out of prison, along with the help of gold-hearted hooker Sarah (Jenilee Harrison – the short-tenured Cindy on Three’s Company), and the three of them hop in the tank and head for the state line (“We’re not running from the law,” Carey explains for the benefit of any impressionable kids in the audience. “We’re running to the law”).  As they race for the safety of Tennessee, the news media get ahold of the story and the trio become outlaw heroes – there is even a parade waiting for them at the state line, complete with marching bands and cotton candy.

tank-1984-james-garnerIn a movie like Tank, it is difficult to know exactly when the story moves from stupid to preposterously stupid.  Is it when Carey destroys the town jail with his tank?  Or when, as punishment for a lifetime of severely violent abuses of authority, Carey forces a deputy to strip in public?  Or is it the absence of any federal law enforcement presence on a case that involves a man breaking out of prison in a tank?  Maybe it is Billy’s public apology to his dad, delivered during a CB radio interview, which concludes, “I don’t have to prove anything to him.  I love him.”  I’m not sure, but by the time we reach the climax of the film, during which the sheriff plans to massacre three innocent, unarmed people in front of a carnival of citizens at the state line, it doesn’t matter.  The only pertinent question, beyond how much time is left in the movie, is how little can this film possibly think of its audience.

As idiotic and incoherent as it is, Tank does tap into the resurgence of American military pride in the post-Vietnam era. Early on in the film, we learn that Carey is the father of two sons, but one of them died under circumstances that are never made clear.  While that plot point imbibes Carey with extra motivation for saving Billy (as though that were necessary), it also instills a hint of loss and regret into Carey.  Fortunately, Carey is a true, stiff-upper-lipped soldier, and he’s got no time to dwell on the past.  Tank makes it clear that military power is still in the hands of those who use it, and love it, best.  Most importantly, it provides that lesson in a family-friendly package suitable for children – er, viewers – of all ages.

#84athon – “Against All Odds”

1984_blogathonAgainst All Odds (1984; Dir.: Taylor Hackford)

GRADE: B-

By Daniel Barnes

*NOTE: This is Daniel’s contribution to the 1984-a-thon at Forgotten Filmcast. Over 100 bloggers are participating in this week long blog-a-thon, so please check out their site for links to more reviews of films from 1984. Mike Dub’s review of the 1984 James Garner vehicle Tank will be published here on Wednesday morning.

The first few notes of synth-bass on the soundtrack and the fire engine red color of the opening credits unmistakably announce Against All Odds as a product of Reagan/Orwell’s 1984, but the film has its roots in the postwar disillusion of the late 1940s. Although only the skeletal outline of its source material remains, Taylor Hackford’s languorous “modern” noir is based on the 1947 Jacques Tourneur classic Out of the Past (#47athon), which starred Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer (who also appears here) and Kirk Douglas.

Rather than simply update Out of the Past for the oversized sunglasses and pink polo shirts of the mid-1980s, however, director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter Eric Hughes (whose only other significant screen credit was the Hines/Baryshnikov dance thriller White Nights – #85athon) opt for a more sprawling narrative focused on corruption, class war and kinky sex. Against All Odds posits that you haven’t truly made love to a woman until you’ve made love to her in the sweathouse at the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza while the Dad from Webster watches. After viewing the film, I’m only moderately inclined to agree.

indexHackford and Hughes sacrifice the clean narrative lines and dreamlike potency of Out of the Past for something less personal and far more epic in scope, and for a while it works beautifully. Jeff Bridges (in the same year he made John Carpenter’s Starman, no less) is the perfect noir patsy as Terry Brogan, sexy, sex-starved, and self-destructive, equal parts good intentions and flimsy morality. We trust him, even when he proves unworthy of it.  He has strong values, but they are always negotiable.

In Out of the Past, the protagonist played by Mitchum was a sharp-tongued, quick-witted, iron-tough detective in a snappy fedora, but Brogan’s detective skills are more in line with Bridges’ signature role as The Dude in The Big Lebowski. As the film opens, he is shuffling around a Mexican beach town, showing a picture of a smiling couple to ice vendors and fisherman, mumbling the same phrase over and over again in phonetic Spanish. When the film flashes back to show how Brogan got to the island, we discover that he is a washed-up football player, intentionally injured by his own team before getting unceremoniously waived.

index2The pro football angle is entirely invented for Against All Odds, and it’s kind of a pleasant shock when it comes, as it updates the story to the unscrupulous world of 1980s high finance and physical perfection without sacrificing the essential genre trappings. It also presages the Los Angeles-based football thriller genre mash of Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout (#91athon) by almost a decade. “It’s a different ball game,” says the team’s trainer, and he’s not referring to the fact that the crackback block Terry gets chewed out for missing would get him penalized and fined in today’s NFL.

Terry is totally stuck – he can’t play football due to an injury, his agent won’t talk to him, he wasted all of the money he earned as a player, and he is still in debt to a slimy, beach volleyball-obsessed bookie played by James Woods (note to self: if Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-style [#2004athon] technology is ever developed in real life, use it to erase the image of James Woods playing beach volleyball). Woods’ character has a problem that should sound familiar to anyone who has seen Out of the Past – his girlfriend stole a wad of his money and took off for Mexico, and he needs an ethically flexible, off-the-payroll stooge to fetch her back.  The first third of Against All Odds is close to great, creating a world that oozes corruption out of every pore, and where danger and self-immolation are the only forms of integrity left.

Eventually, Terry finds his femme fatale, a lithe and smoldering con woman named Jessie who is played by Rachel Ward.  It does not suffice in the least to say that Ward is no Jane Greer – she may not even be Phoebe Cates.  Forget the fact that Jessie is clearly the Australian daughter of American parents (if you can), and just imagine how much this film would have been elevated if Sigourney Weaver, Debra Winger, Nastassja Kinski, Jamie Lee Curtis, or any number of other enticingly androgynous female stars of the 1980s had been cast instead.  Ward was hot off the huge TV success of The Thorn Birds (#83athon) when this film was made, but her acting career plummeted pretty swiftly afterward, and it’s not hard to see why – the film starts its precipitous slide downhill the moment she shows up on screen.

After some token banter, Terry and Jessie become sexually involved, forgoing their responsibilities back in America to frolic on the beach and make goo-goo eyes at each other in absurdly opulent beach huts.  This is where the film is probably most familiar to fans of 1980s pop culture, as these scenes form the bulk of the Phil Collins video for “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)”, a #1 hit that was also nominated for an Academy Award (it lost to “What’s Love Got to Do With It” from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, so no harm no foul there), with a steamy music video that played in heavy rotation on MTV.

These scenes are silly but still pretty sexy, and they do lead to the aforementioned canoodling in the Mayan ruins.  It’s in the final third where Hackford fumbles the ball, relying on an overwrought electronic score and pretentious jump cuts to convey psychological turmoil, while still reveling in the hoariest of genre cliches.  Against All Odds has its moments, but too often the film plays less like an official remake of Out of the Past and more like an unofficial prequel to Tequila Sunrise (#88athon).

In Theaters (SF) – “To Be Takei”

to_be_takeiTo Be Takei (2014; Dir.: Jennifer M. Kroot)

GRADE: C-

By Mike Dub

*Now playing at the Sundance Kabuki in San Francisco.

To Be Takei, an unfocused celebrity puff piece on actor and activist George Takei, falls into the same trap that many biopics and documentary profiles do: it tries to cover so much ground that it can only superficially investigate much of what it is trying to say. As the film illustrates, Takei is a lot of things: husband, son, actor, sci-fi legend, gay rights activist, Japanese-American rights activist, Facebook auteur, and – did you know he ran for city council in the ‘70s? Takei is so many things to so many people that the film can’t possibly cover everything with any amount of depth. So instead, filmmaker Jennifer M. Kroot allows overviews to all the facets of Takei, while trying portray the “real” person behind the fame as an everyday man and husband. However, that creates another problem altogether.

By showcasing Takei’s relationship with his husband, Brad Altman, the film comes to greatly rely on the “charm” of watching two old men bicker with each other like old hens. The idea, I suppose, is to expose the minutia of their lives, thereby normalizing their relationship, a noble endeavor and one presumably worthy of Takei’s reputation for gay rights activism over the last decade. It’s a fine conceit, but in practice we are left with not-so-thrilling sequences of Takei getting a haircut; Takei nitpicking with his husband about using the term “lifestyle”; Takei telling Will Wheaton, “You’ve gained weight”; Takei and husband discussing where they should eat; and lots and lots of driving. These sequences have all the cloying awkwardness of dinner with my grandparents, but filtered through the anxiety inherent in people who are being constantly filmed.

Aside from the personal investigation into Takei’s current life, much of the film concentrates on Takei’s childhood, during which his family was interned in a Japanese-American camp during World War II. The story is interesting, but it is told through a series of lectures by Takei to various groups around the country. Kroots constantly cuts between lectures, having Takei start a sentence in one and finish it in another. It’s her way of trying to break things up and add some life to those sequences, but it just reminds us of how pat and rehearsed the lecture is, to the point that when he is talking in an interview format to the camera, even his conversation carries the unemotional weariness of repetition.

to-be-takei-george-takei-in-star-trekThe rest of the film is an uneven exploration into The Importance of George Takei, where nearly equal weight is given to his culturally transformative appearances in positive Japanese-American roles as to his daily Facebook posts. There is a lengthy section concerning Takei’s role as a gay rights activist, the best section of the documentary, but one that would have been more interesting had the film not been pulled in too many other directions, rendering any nuanced approach to the issue of closeted homosexuality in Hollywood completely impossible. The extent of its political outrage consists of the same fish-in-a-barrel target practice we’ve grown accustomed to in activist documentaries. When Takei discusses the veto of a gay marriage bill in California, the movie cuts to a montage of people with signs that proclaim God’s hatred of gays, along with a clip in which Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is pelted by an egg. So much for political discourse.

Even all of that wouldn’t have even been so terrible, had it not been for the late realization that To Be Takei is, in fact, just a publicity piece for his new play (“coming to Broadway in 2014,” the film assures us), a musical based on his experiences in the Japanese internment camp. We catch glimpses of rehearsals, a few bars from a few of the show tunes, and Takei’s sincere explanation of the catharsis of acting in it. Just before the film’s credits start rolling, we are told of the awards the play has been nominated for and the box office records it has broken. If only the movie had started with that unabashed advertisement, we could have saved a lot of time.

In Theaters (SF) – “Rich Hill” (Our 200th Post!)

images2Rich Hill (2014; Dir.: Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos)

GRADE: B+

By Daniel Barnes

*Now playing at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

Rich Hill is a poor Missouri town about 75 minutes south of Kansas City, population 1,396 and dwindling. As shot by cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo (You’re Next), who also co-directed this intimate and unsettling documentary with his cousin Tracy Droz Tragos, the town looks almost as bleak as the post-apocalyptic Australian Outback of The Road Warrior or The Rover. “I never had any dreams or hopes,” admits the chain-smoking mother of one of the three troubled boys profiled here, and it’s one of the many unfortunate legacies that we see the parents of Rich Hill pass on to their offspring.

Palermo and Dragos follow three middle school-aged boys who are maturing into a world without prospects. Andrew is a sweet, hard-working boy who lives in squalor with his twin sister, and whose unwavering belief in his comatose parents is heartbreaking. Appachey is the seething and scowling 12 year-old son of an utterly overwhelmed single mother. Harley is an intensely damaged teenager whose mother is serving time for the attempted murder of the stepfather who raped him. “Things that happened to me, they still happen,” Harley says on Halloween night, feeling bolder than usual behind his Insane Clown Posse face paint.

indexAt times, Rich Hill has the vibe of an Errol Morris-esque picaresque about small town oddballs, but there is also an ethnographical bleakness to this portrait of angry boys. There is such a deeply uncomfortable honesty from and unflinching access to the young subjects that, much like Grey Gardens, the project constantly (and thrillingly) threatens to cross over into rank exploitation. Certainly, the many cutaway shots to stacks of unwashed dishes and piles of dirty laundry were excessive, especially as I contemplated the sink full of dirty dishes in my own kitchen at that moment.

Still, the storytelling and character-building in Rich Hill are powerfully effective, and the images are as vibrantly cinematic as in any film I’ve seen this year. In a year when we probably won’t get a new Terence Malick movie, savor the gliding beauty of this film’s 4th of July sequence, as the camera gracefully tracks along with Andrew and his cartwheeling cousins while they shoot off bottle rockets. And yet despite its accomplished cinematography, the film never strives for mere pictorial beauty – the emotional core of this sequence is our relief that these jaded and rage-filled kids can still be amazed by something.

Without condescending to check off boxes on a political agenda, Rich Hill offers a troubling picture of the invisible children of American poverty.  Andrew’s father is a nearly dead-eyed wanderer who moonlights as a Hank Williams, Sr. tribute artist, and whose grand scheme for pulling his family out of despondency is to become a gold prospector. As Palermo and Tragos guide us through the broken fences and empty lots of Rich Hill, we see that any sort of plan is a luxury, even one with no intention of following through, and with no chance of success.