Monday, January 28, 2008

Catching Up With The Classics

A young filmmaker recently put this forth to Roger Ebert's Answer Man column:

Q: "As an aspiring young filmmaker, I watch and rewatch as many films as possible, around seven to 14 a week (which is tough with college and work). A lot of the time I feel like because I haven't seen every classic or obscure film, I'm less of a director because I never gleaned that knowledge. I'm young, but I love film and I hate when that love is questioned because I haven't gotten to a certain film. What are your thoughts on this whole neurotic mess of mine? Can someone of this generation, so far removed from the birth of film, still make something as good as "Citizen Kane," even if they haven't seen it? (And yes, I've seen it several times. And no, I do not think I could match Welles' genius.)"
Roy Hatts, Warwick, N.Y.


Ebert's Answer: "Join the club. I feel the same way you do. Friends of mine like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Dave Kehr seem to have seen every film ever made -- and David Bordwell, Bertrand Tavernier and Pierre Rissient probably have. There is a suspicion in Chicago that members of the University of Chicago's Doc Films, the first campus film society in the nation, are born having seen every film. But keep on watching good movies. And don't feel insecure when you make them. After all, Orson Welles watched John Ford's "Stagecoach" 100 times before making 'Citizen Kane.'"

This Q & A hits upon a point I've been noticing a lot lately - we, that is film buff folk, are just as obsessed with what we haven't seen as we are with what we have. This is, of course, silly - there will always be movies we've never seen - many of which will be essential classics to uh, somebody out there so fretting over it will get you nowhere. Better to enjoy the process and keep on watching like Ebert says.

I usually mostly write about new movies, whether they are at the theater or new release DVDs but I thought I'd catch up a few older films in the spirit of trying to round out my film education. First off, a film I caught last week on TCM:

BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (Dir. John Sturges, 1955)

The opening has a powerful modern (for the mid '50's that is) steam engine storming down the tracks shown from every conceivable angle. The vivid urgency of each shot immediately pulls us in to this undoubtable classic. There is one incredible full-on "how the Hell did they do that?" shot in the train opening montage that I won't reveal because even though it's a film well documented from over 50 years ago I still promise no Spoilers. The train, we're told for the first time in 4 years, stops in a tiny town literally out on the middle of nowhere and Spencer Tracy gets off. He is a well dressed one-armed man with a stern determined nature and immediately is noticed by the townfolk. An ominous group of cowboys led by Robert Ryan attempt to intimidate him. When you roll with a posse that includes such heavies as Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine you can be sure that intimidation of a high order comes pretty easily.

Tracy ignores any obstacles and checks into a hotel. We don't know what his deal is - is he a cop? A detective? An insurance salesman? What? We just know he is trying to find somebody - a Japanese farmer named Komoko. We know from the reaction to his arrival that his inquiries threaten to shine a blinding light on a dark secret and will place his life in danger. What we don't know is how much of a badass Tracy is under his calm demeanor - but again I won't give anymore away. The town isn't all scary hoodlum types; Tracy does makes a few friends - Walter Brennan as the jaded town doc, Dean Jagger as the alcoholic town sheriff, and Anne Francis as well, the only woman in town it seems.


Howard Breslin's screenplay, adapted from the Don McGuire short story "Bad Day
At Hondu" is excellent with great lines like: "Tim, you've got the body of a hippo but the brain of a rabbit; now don't overtax it" and "You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice." Building on a brilliant beginning the second half of BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK is a scorcher with no wrong turns. If you see this coming up on TCM's schedule make a note of it. It's definitely more that worth a rental too - I may put it in my Netflix queue to watch again especially since I heard director Paul Thomas Anderson praise the DVD commentary by film historian Dana Polan. Sturge's film looks great for its age (it was the first MGM production in Cinemascope) and in these days of likewise lawless desert epics (NO COUNTRY, THERE WILL BE BLOOD et al) it holds up incredibly well.

THE NAKED PREY (Dir. Cornell Wilde, 1966) This film just got a fancy schmancy Criterion collection special edition with a newly restored high-definition digital transfer, commentary by film historian Stephen Prince, soundtrack cues, original theatrical trailer, and the icing on the cake - the original 1913 written "John Colter's Escape"- a document of the trapper's flight from Blackfoot Indians which was the inspiration for the film read by Paul Giamatti. These bells and whistles decorate what is a pretty dated exercise - the opening credits tells us "The music in this motion picture is African Music, played by Africans on African instruments." I can't imagine seeing that notation in a film today.

The plot has a 50's B-movie thing goin' on but fleshed out with real locations rarely seen before on the big screen. In Africa, called "the land of aboriginal tortures", an ivory hunter (Wilde), who is only identified in the credits as "The Man" gets captured by a large tribe and after watching his fellow men tortured (one is covered in mud and baked alive) is stripped down except for his tied hands and given a running head start before the tribal warriors catch and kill him. He outwits them one by one and fares equally well against the harsh jungle animals and terrain. Colorful and creative in it's use of the before mentioned African music - THE NAKED PREY is ultimately a contrived conceit, I mean there's no way this guy would escape alive in this world better known by his pursuers. Still it's a fine ride through what would soon be action movie clichés and the Criterion treatment yet again works it's magic on its claim to classic status. It is impressive that Cornell Wilde was 50 years old when he made it. His lean killing machine of a body almost adds plausibility to this star vehicle vanity piece. Almost.

Post Note: According to Wikipedia "As teenagers, Joel and Ethan Coen shot their own version of THE NAKED PREY on a Super-8 camera. They called it Zeimers in Zambia and cast a neighbor, Mark Zimering,
in the lead role." Man! I'd Sure like to see that!

OTHELLO * (Dir. Orson Welles, 1952)


I've been on an Orson Welles kick for the last several months. I've been plowing through Simon Callow's lengthy bio "The Road To Xanadu" (which at 578 pages is only Volume 1!) and ordering up DVDs from his canon that I hadn't seen before including essential classics as THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI and THE TRIAL, as well as lesser known treasures like THE STRANGER and F FOR FAKE. The crucial thing one learns over and over in reading Welles's story is that his filmography has been horribly mishandled and few of his films were truly finished. They were either taken away from him and retooled (mostly mangled more accurately) by the studio (best example - MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS ** which isn't available on DVD in any version) or he ran out of money during production and had to scrounge around to complete the project most likely not to his satisfaction. Put this epic Shakespeare adaptation in the latter category. It was filmed over 3 years during which Welles took acting work in other's films to pay for the project. The DVD I got from Netflix (from Image Entertainment) had only a photo gallery as a bonus feature and an awful transfer. The picture is often blurry and the sound is so bad that a lot of the dialogue is indecipherable. Much of it was latter dubbed and redubbed by Welles and the synch is often way off.

If you can get past that, and that is quite a task, this is a grand albeit hammily acted production with much of the picturesque style of CITIZEN KANE in its wide shots and deep focus (murky as it is in this edition). Welles stalks through the shadows and chews scenery with a cagey charisma that only a trained Shakespearean stage actor could possess. His sweaty wide-eyed performance is far from flawless, mind you - in some cringe worthy moments he appears to be wrong at the top of his voice (as Spencer Tracy in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK would say) as if he's trying to reach the patrons in the cheap seats. His fellow cast members Micheál MacLiammóir as Lagos and Robert Coote as Roderigo also overact but this material calls for it, actually it broadcasts for it like on a megaphone. As the object of Othello's obsession Desdemona, Susan Cloutier pretty much just lies there but she's a victum of the Bard's weak writing when it came to strong female characters as much as she is a victum of the plot conventions. This particular edition of the film has the feel of a work print rough cut - reportedely Welles's much criticized business mogul daughter Beatrice Welles had her paws all over this reissue. Well, there's a great movie in there somewhere so when it comes to a proper restoration I hope next time out somebody will take a better stab at it - pun intended. Paging Bogdonavich...

* Full Title: THE TRAGEDY OF OTHELLO: THE MOOR OF VENICE
** MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS is on TCM on February 26th at 8:00 AM. Pencil that in!

Okay! Next time out I'll cover some movies actually made this decade.

More later...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Film Babble Blog Top 10 Movies Of 2007

I’ve hesitated making a list of the best of what has been an exceptionally good year because there are still many potential candidates that I haven’t seen yet – THE SAVAGES, GONE BABY GONE, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES..., PERSOPOLIS, and THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY among them. I should be able to see those all fairly soon but then, come on, there will always be 2007 films that I haven’t seen out there. So here's my Top Ten:

1. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)

The Coen Brothers frighteningly faithful adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel is undoubtedly an immediate classic. I'll refrain from Oscar predictions but there's no way this goes home with nothing from the pathetic press conference that the Academy Awards ceremony is threatening to be. With incredible cinematography by Roger Deakins and great performances by Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and especially as evil incarnate - Javier Bardem. Read my original review here.

2. THERE WILL BE BLOOD (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

An uncharacteristic film for PTA and another based on a literary work (Upton Sinclair's "Oil") this is a mesmerizing masterpiece with a showstopping performance by Daniel Day Lewis as an evil Oil baron. That this and the Coen Bros. are meeting in the same desert area where both films were shot (the West Texas town of Marfa) for a Best Picture Oscar showdown makes it sadder that for this competition there may be no show. My original review here.

3. I’M NOT THERE (Dir. Todd Haynes)

It was wonderful that Cate Blanchett won a Golden Globe and got a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role as Jude Quinn - one of 6 personifications of Bob Dylan (the others being Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw, and Marcus Carl Franklin), because she was the one that really nailed it. Roger Ebert wrote that Julie Taymor's Beatles musical ACROSS THE UNIVERSE was "possibly the year's most divisive film" but I think this divided movie goers to a greater extreme. I heard some of the most angered comments I've ever heard about a movie in my theater's lobby and there were many screenings that had multiple walk-outs. To me though these folk were crazy with the same moronic heckling mentality of those who booed when Bob went electric back in '65-'66. This is a movie as far ahead of its time as its subject: the Fellini, Godard, Altman, Pekinpah, and Pennebaker visual riffing throughout will take decades to fully absorb as well the context of the classic music presented - cue "Positively 4th Street". Read more in my original review here.

4. ZODIAC (Dir. David Fincher)

An unjustly overlooked new-fangled stylized, though with old-school ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN tactics, serial killer period piece procedural - which I know makes it sound either too scary or too boring (or both), but damnit this is a knock-out of a movie. Fincher utilizes every bit of info available about the original late 60's to 70's case about the Zodiac killer through his baffling coded killings to the sporadic nature of his possible identity, through the incompetent technology of the time and the mislaid evidence because of separate investigations. So fascinating, it will take a few more viewings to fully appreciate how fascinating it is - and I haven't even seen the Director's Cut! With passionate performances by Jake Gyllenhall, Robert Downey Jr., Chloë Sevigny and Mark Ruffalo. Read my original review here.

5. 3:10 TO YUMA (Dir. James Mangold)

In this remake of the 1957 film based on the Elmore Leonard short story set in the 1880's, Christian Bale is a down on his luck handicapped farmer who takes on the job of transporting evil yet poetic outlaw Russell Crowe across dangerous terrain to the scheduled train of the title. An amazing sense of pacing plus the ace performances of the principals help this transcend the "revitalizing the Western" brand it's been stupidly stamped with. A stately yet grandly entertaining movie with an extremely satisfying ending. Read my original review here.

6. AWAY FROM HER (Dir. Sarah Polly)

Julie Christie is going to be hard to beat for Best Actress this year because her portrayal of a woman suffering from Alzheimer's is as heartbreaking as it gets. Gordon Pinsent is understated and affecting as her estranged husband - lost to her mentally and helpless as she is institutionalized. He's sadly confined to the sidelines as she falls in love with a fellow patient played by Michael Murphy. My review (based on the DVD) is here.

7. RATATOUILLE (Dir. Brad Byrd)

Flawless animation enhanced by an ace script with embellishment by star Patton Oswalt (he voices the rat) makes this story about a Parisian rodent that happens to be a master chef as tasty a dish as one could salivate for in the proud Pixar present. My original review - of course it's right here.

8. BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD (Dir. Sydney Lumet)

Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke are brothers who plot to rob the jewelry store owned by their parents. Tragedy ensues - some hilarity too but it's of the cringe-variety. Read my review here.

9. THE SIMPSONS MOVIE (Dir. David Silverman)

Some may think that it's funny that in this year of worthy candidates that my choice of this big screen version of one of the 20 year old TV cartoon family’s adventures, but as Homer says “I’ll teach you to laugh at something that’s funny!” This is definitely here because of personal bias but isn't that what these lists are all about? Original review - here.

10. MICHAEL CLAYTON (Dir. Tony Gilroy)

A surprisingly non glossy legal thriller with a downbeat but nuanced George Clooney. Didn't really pack 'em in but got respectable business and critical notices. Despite enjoying and obviously thinking it's one of the year's best, I was surprised it got a Best Picture Nomination - I really thought INTO THE WILD would get it. Since this is the superior picture I'm happy to be wrong. Also nice to see Tom Wilkinson getting a nomination for his intense turn as Clooney's deranged but righteous key witness. My review? Oh yeah, it's here.

Spillover:

The ones that didn't quite make the Top Ten grade but were still good, sometimes great flicks - click on the title (except for ACROSS THE UNIVERSE which links to its IMDb entry) for my original review.

NO END IN SIGHT
(Dir. Charles Ferguson)
HOT FUZZ
(Dir. Edgar Wright)
ATONEMENT
(Dir. Joe Wright)
BREACH
(Dir. Billy Ray)
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE
(Dir. Julie Taymor)
SiCKO
(Dir. Michael Moore)
THE HOAX
(Dir. Lasse Hallström)
2 DAYS IN PARIS
(Dir. Julie Delphy)
AMERICAN GANGSTER
(Dir. Ridley Scott)
SUPERBAD
(Dir. Greg Mattola)

So that's it for now - I may revise this at some point but I'm thinking it would be better to let it stand.
This post is dedicated to
Heath Ledger (April 4th, 1979 - January 22nd, 2008). He, of course, was one of the Bobs (pictured above) in my #3 Film of the year and I enjoyed his performances in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, THE BROTHERS GRIMM, and MONSTER'S BALL (those are the only ones of his I've seen so far). As I write this many pundits on cable are pontificating on the cause of his death exaggerating every tiny detail of what should be his private life. I prefer to just look at the work he left behind. His role as the Joker in the upcoming Batman sequel THE DARK KNIGHT is surely going to be the most anticipated role of 2008.

R.I.P.

More later...

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Best Of BLADE RUNNER On The Internets

When I saw in the Independent Weekly last week that BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT was going to be playing at the Carolina Theatre in Durham I was excited for several reasons:

1. The thrill of seeing this now inarguable classic film on the big screen.
2.
The legendary film, adapted from Phillip K. Dicks short story "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep", had frustratingly been at “very long wait” in my damn Netflix queue since this new cut was released on DVD last month.
3. It is one of only 4 35MM prints in an extremely limited run.
4. The most important reason is that it is my Father’s all time favorite movie. So I called him immediately when I saw the ad in the paper that it was playing and said “let’s go.” We weren’t alone in our plans – at the Sunday matinee we attended today the theatre was pretty packed with a diverse looking crowd. When it hit the screen my eyes looked like the opening shot above. When it was over a lot of people clapped. I just simply said to my dad “that was awesome.

Showing my age here I have to say that I saw the film back in ’82 at a crummy theatre that doesn’t exist anymore (The Ram Theatre in downtown Chapel Hill) and I didn’t care for it. Harrison Ford seemed drab and uninterested in the material and though I liked the vision of future L.A. the special effects were bad at times- the wires being plainly visible on what were supposed to be flying cars*. I was 12 so my critical facilities weren’t really developed (not that they still don’t have a long way to go now) but over time with cable re-airings, various alternate versions including the heralded 1992 Director’s cut, and my father’s love of the film I have come to absolutely adore BLADE RUNNER.

* Now I really like Fords layered jadded tone and the visible cables on the hovercraft were removed in the '92 cut.

So since it’s one of the most fascinating sci-fi cult films, if not THE most fascinating sci-fi cult film I thought it would be beneficial to look at the best of what’s been written about it online lately. So follow the links and enjoy:

The Best Of BLADE RUNNER On The Internets

The IMDb FAQ - Its an obvious place to start but the best film site on the web has a lengthy incredibly informative entry that breaks down the many available versions and has interesting insights into the existential matters of the most artsy sci-fi flick this side of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

Brmovie.com – The Home Of Blade Runner - Much better than Warner Bros. official site for the film and also armed with a great FAQ this site, created as a forum for users of the newsgroup alt.fan.blade-runner, is regularly updated and brimming with sharply presented
BR related info.

What's New in Blade Runner: The Final Cut? - A well written piece by John Howell for SFFMedia.com (Science Fiction And Fantasy Media) detailing the many changes in the new cut. The comments at the bottom of the article are a good read as well.

Q&A: Ridley Scott Has Finally Created the Blade Runner He Always Imagined - From Wired.com - a 5 page interview with director Ridley Scott that is pretty essential to every fan, casual or not, of
BR. He talks at length about the ending, the battles with the studio, and the long relationship hes had with the film that will not go away. Key quote: I knew Id done a pretty interesting movie, but it was so unusual that the majority of people were taken aback. They simply didnt get it. Or, I think, better to say that they were enormously distracted by the environment.”

The BLADE RUNNER Nexus - This is a nice cleverly conceived graph also from Wired Magazine's website by Matthew Honan that charts the influences and styles:
BBR - Before Blade Runner and ABR - After Blade Runner.” Be sure to fully click & drag to take in each department on the left - there's a lot of great trivia tidbits.

A great study of the evolution of an opinion - read Roger Ebert
s original review of BLADE RUNNER (printed July 2nd, 1982) in which, despite giving it 3 stars, calls it a failure as a story and concludes: The obligatory love affair is pro forma, the villains are standard issue, and the climax is yet one more of those cliffhangers, with Ford dangling over an abyss by his fingertips. Then check out his recent review of BR: THE FINAL CUT and witness Ebert confessing he committed a journalistic misdemeanor and that now it is time to cave in and admit it to the canon. It is now included in his Great Movies Collection.

Blade Runner, Revisited. - By Stephen Metcalf
- There has to be those who haven
t been won over so to represent such a clueless clan there's this Slate.com essay subtitled How Will Fans Defend It Now? It makes the argument that: a quasi-sacred halo has come to surround it, a force field so powerful as to apparently render nuanced critical judgment impossible. For after all these years, and all these iterations, this is still in many respects the film panned by Maslin and Kael.What should be panned is you, pal.

Okay! That
s enough of a Blade Running writing round-up. If the FINAL CUT is playing at a theatre near you make the effort to see it. Im going to leave now and try not to step on the little tin-foil unicorn on the floor on my way out the door.

More later...

Friday, January 18, 2008

There Better Be Blood!

Been waiting for this one for what feels like forever! I'm a huge Paul Thomas Anderson fan - I loved HARD EIGHT(which he would prefer to be called SYDNEY), BOOGIE NIGHTS, MAGNOLIA, and PUNCH DRUNK LOVE and consider them masterpieces, ignoring that most critics add the word "flawed" to that accolade. The press has been tremendous (it seems to have opened everywhere but here in the last few months) but I've worked hard to ignore the banter and bickering from the film world blogosphere about THERE WILL BE BLOOD by not reading reviews, interviews, or articles about said film until I could see it for myself. I succeeded and feel better for it - so here's my review:

THERE WILL BE BLOOD
(Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

The very definition of an Epic with a capital E, Paul Thomas Anderson’s long awaited loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel "Oil!" is yet another 2007 release that lives up to its hype and redefines the current cinematic landscape. And when it comes to landscapes, the vistas that fill the frames of THERE WILL BE BLOOD engulf from the first shot – a Texas valley in 1898 aided by a jarring wall of cacophonous strings (courtesy of Johnny Greenwood from Radiohead) to the last shot of...oh wait no Spoliers! As oil magnate Daniel Plainview, Daniel Day Lewis owns the film – he’s in nearly every scene and though he seems to be doing an imitation of John Huston, has a sculpted manner that, as just about every critic is exclaiming, has Oscar written all over it. Plainview’s methods in the art of wheeling and dealing are mesmerizing as is his way with words (on acquisition of oil obviously) – “If you have a milkshake and I have a milkshake and I have a straw and my straw reaches across the room and starts to drink your milkshake. I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!”

“Greed versus religion” is what I gather was the driving issue behind Sinclair’s book (which I really should read) and it comes alive in the person of Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a young preacher whose family's land becomes entangled in Plainview's conquest of the "ocean of oil" that he declares is his and more importantly - nobody else's. Dano practices a form of fire and brimstone evangelizing that Plainview, when first attending his church calls "one Goddamn Hell of a show." Dano plays twins - which can be confusing because it is the little-seen Paul who first appears and sells out the location of oil to Plainview. Plainview has a child (Dillon Freasier) who he more or less inherited as a son from a man who died in his employment. The boy, who Plainview names H.W., loses his hearing in yet another accident and Plainview admonishes Sunday for being unable to heal him. The clashing confrontations that mount as time moves on form the final acts; I must admit that in the 3rd act I felt that Anderson loses his way a bit but regains for a severely strong finish.

The film is dedicated to Robert Altman but it seems to my eyes to be heavily Kubrick-influenced. The opening sequence, a nearly 20 minute dialogue-free long-form montage in which we see Plainview starting from scratch, digging in fresh earth and slowly building his operation, has the operatic feel and flow from 2001 while the extended real-time pacing and gorgeous studied long shots throughout remind me of the fine tempered fabric of BARRY LYNDON. But Kubrick is only one of the masters in Anderson’s mosaic; I’ve seen comparisons to the grandeur of greed in CITIZEN KANE, the location (the West Texas town of Marfa) is the same as in the classic George Stevens/James Dean classic GIANT (also NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was filmed mostly there too), and the essence of THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE* is largely felt. THERE WILL BE BLOOD, even with all those obvious inherited influences (or because of them) stands as an amazing achievement for a premiere American film maker and a film to cherish forever. This Epic-scale period movie on a less-than-Epic budget will bubble like the oil in the well before it bursts through Plainview’s derrick in cineaste’s psyches for a long time - regardless of whether or not it takes home the gold come Oscar night. One Goddamn Hell of a show indeed.

* Reportedly while making TWBB Anderson put on his copy of THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE every night as he was going to sleep. I wonder what wife Maya Rudolph (SNL) thought about that!

More later...

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Blasting Bogdanovich & 10 Definitive Rockumentaries

Who knew Peter Bogdanovich could rock?

This guy - the refined ascot wearing autuer who directed THE LAST PICTURE SHOW but is best known to the masses as Dr. Melfi's shrink on
The Sopranos not only can rock but he can rock for a long ass time. 4 hours in fact - the length of his new rock documentary TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS: RUNNIN' DOWN A DREAM.

I made it through the whole thing and loved it (I hope my review below won't take 4 hours to read) and it got me to thinking about other great rock documentaries, or rockumentaries if you will, so yeah - I made another official
Film Babble Blog list. First though let's take in Bogdanovich as he goes off on a Tom Petty tangent:

TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS: RUNNIN' DOWN A DREAM
(Dir. Peter Bogdanovich, 2007)

"Marty took 3 hours and 40 minutes to tell 6 years of Dylan and I figured, if that's the case, why shouldn't we take 4 hours to tell 30 years of Tom Petty?"
- Peter Bogdanovich on Sound Opinions (broadcast January 7th, 2008)

A big package this is - 4 discs, 2 of which are the 4 hour 15 minute director's cut of the documentary, the 3rd disc is the complete 30th Anniversary Gainesville, Florida concert from September 30th, 2006, and the 4th is a soundtrack CD featuring 9 previously unreleased songs. Whew! Hard to claim to be just a casual Petty fan after absorbing all of that. Bogdanovich's film even at its bloated length is engrossing and never lags.

Framed by footage from the before mentioned concert we are taken through the history of the band with interview segments spliced with photos, fliers, home movies, TV appearances, grainy videotape material, and every other source available. The ups and downs are perfectly punctuated with Petty standards - the punchy pop bright Byrds influence that brought forth the break-through single "American Girl" captures the band on a television stage young and green while the promotional video for "Refugee" shows them freshly on the mend from battles with lawyers and declaring bankruptcy.

Of course there are unavoidable rockumentary clichés that are as old than THIS IS SPINAL TAP - recording studio squabbles, the trials of transporting drugs over the borders, and the "Free Fallin'"-out of the band when they aren't on the same page but they are amusingly displayed in a knowing manner that transcends the usual VH1 classic fodder. It's hard not to think of Scorsese's landmark Dylan doc when putting in disc 2 of RUNNIN' DOWN A DREAM for the most obvious reason - as Part 2 starts the first words uttered, by Petty, are "Bob Dylan, I don't think there's anyone we admire more". So the collaboration with Petty and Dylan begins - there is great footage from the HBO special
Hard To Handle. Bob thrusts his hand behind him while playing his harmonica on the intro of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" to stop the band from coming in too soon and it's an amazing moment - the greatest songwriter ever (as Petty and I call him) directing the best working class Americana band of the mid 80's and beyond.

Tom and Bob's collaboration led to the Traveling Wilbury's - the ultimate supergroup filled out by former Beatle George Harrison, legend Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne of the elaborately Beatle-esque Electric Light Orchestra. Petty's approach was forever altered - which we see as certain band members have to cope with his new direction. Especially former drummer Stan Lynch, (who refused to be interviewed for the film but is presented in archive footage) who says bluntly of Petty's biggest selling album "Full Moon Fever" - "there were more than a couple songs I just didn't like." Through the 90's up to now we see Petty and the Heartbreakers weather grunge (Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl played with them on
SNL right after Lynch left), a death of a long time but still considered "new kid" bassist Howie Epstein, and the competition from a world in which "rock stars were being invented on game shows" all with their self declared "I Won't Back Down" spirit.

Though you ordinarily wouldn't think of him in the same company as Orson Welles and John Ford, this masterful showcase of material makes a solid case that Petty is indeed in the pantheon of those previous subjects of Bogdanovich's. Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, who seems to show up in every rocumentary or rock related movie these days (even WALK HARD), appears at one point to sing a duet with Petty on "The Waiting" at a recent concert. When the song ends and the giant audience erupts Petty says to Vedder,
“Look at that, Eddie - rock and roll heaven.” He's right - for 4 hours and 15 minutes it sure is.

So since Bogdanovich's Petty opus joins the ranks of great rockumentaries and because this year new docs 'bout U2, Patti Smith, and Marty's huge Rolling Stones project will be unleashed on the market it's time to appraise those ranks. So here's:

10 Definitive Rockumentaries

1. A tie - DON’T LOOK BACK (Dir. D.A. Pennebaker, 1967) /NO DIRECTION HOME: BOB DYLAN (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2005)

Despite the fact that I hate ties this shouldn't surprise anyone, I mean have you met me? D.A. Pennebaker's document of Bob's 1965 British tour coupled with Marty's wider scoped portrait of Dylan's rise to fame are equally essential so I could not separate them. The Bob shown in these docs, with the wild hair, sunglasses and mod clothing is the same Bob that Cate Blanchett portrayed in I'M NOT THERE - the one most caged in his persona and held to the highest levels of scrutiny. Incredible concert footage flows through both films and hits its pinnacle in May 1966 when Bob faces a hostile crowd and a historic heckler - "Judas!" is shouted from the darkness one night in Manchester. "I don't believe you - you're a liar!" Dylan sneers before launching into a mindblowingly rawking "Like A Rolling Stone". Scorsese and Pennebaker both capture lightning in a bottle and leave us with glorious glimpses of the greatest songwriter ever in his prime serenading the world even when most of the world wasn't quite ready for his weary tune.

2. I AM TRYING TO BREAK YOUR HEART (Dir. Sam Jones, 2002)

Not a career overview but a capsule of one particular plagued period when a great band - Wilco - made a great record ("Yankee Hotel Foxtrot") and it was rejected by their record company. Chicago critic, and co-host of the great NPR show Sound Opinions Greg Kot puts it best: "It's not a VH1 "Behind The Music" story. It's a not a drugs-groupies-celebrity kind of story at all. This band's story is the music. 20 years from now their probably going to get more of their due than now." Well let's get them their due right now because this a compelling black and white film full of great music both in the studio and on stage. Key scene: leader Jeff Tweedy and guitarist Jay Bennett have a tense awkward argument over a crucial edit while mixing the album that shows how far they have drifted apart as collaborators. Indeed Bennett was asked to leave the band while the film was being made. The band grows stronger and gets a label and has a hit album which gives this rockumentary a happy ending and a nice second placing on this list.

3. THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT (Dir. Jeff Stein, 1979)

Sure there's that new more extensive and correctly chronological AMAZING JOURNEY: THE STORY OF THE WHO but this hodgepodge of Who with its odds 'n ends, warts 'n all, kitchen sink approach is much more exciting. In the first five minutes explosives go off in Keith Moon's drumkit from a performance on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Show then we zigzag around to such '60s shows as Shindig and Beatlcub, seminal gigs like WOODSTOCK and the Monterey International Pop Festival and then conclude with specially shot for the film footage from Shepperton Film Studios mere months before Moon's death in '78. We don't get narration or anything in the way of historical context - none of the bits are titled and nobody is identified and it is all out of order - but the collage effect satisfies and everything jels together like one of best movie mixtapes ever. Key scene: The Who blow the Stones off the stage on their own TV special with a ferocious "A Quick One, While He's Away".

4. GIMME SHELTER (Dirs. Albert Maysles, David Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin, 1970)

The 60's dream died here, or so the tale goes - just ask Don McLean. That fatal night at Altamont Speedway where Hells Angels acted as security for a free Rolling Stones gig made what could have been just an assembly line concert film (see LET'S SPEND THE NIGHT TOGETHER
for that) into a piece of true crime documentation that could play on MSNBC as well as VH1 Classic. The Stones had shed psychedelia and were getting back to their roots so in 1969, touring with Ike and Tina Turner and we get a good sampling of a Madison Square Garden concert (also featured on the album "Get Your Ya-Yas Out") and a stirring performance of "Wild Horses" at Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama before proceeding to the scene of the crime in California. We see Mick Jagger and Keith Richards watching the Altamont footage in the editing room and they freeze the image of a knife in the hand held above the fighting crowd and it is one of the most chilling images in cinema that has ever been seen. I don't know if Satan was laughing with delight like McLean sings in "American Pie" but he was sure smirking.

5. LET IT BE (Dir. Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1970) Actually the 60's dream died here too. The break-up of the Beatles with their final public performance on a rooftop in London is a tough sad watch but one that's vital in understanding exactly how the mighty can fall. Unfortunately because as producer and former Beatles assistant Neil Aspinall said recently "When we got halfway through restoring it, we looked at the outtakes and realized: this stuff is still controversial. It raised a lot of old issues" - the film may not see the light of a DVD player anytime soon. That's too bad - even though it's not the Beatles at their best it's them at their most human and as uncomfortable as George Harrison's studio squabble with Paul McCartney is (George: "'ll play, you know, whatever you want me to play. Or I won't play at all if you don't want me to play, you know. Whatever it is that'll please you, I'll do it.") we still somehow feel the love in what they were trying to make. And in the end isn't that what they were trying to tell us all along?

6. DiG! (Ondi Timoner, 2004) Though most haven't heard of either of the bands studied here - The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre this tale of the sometimes friendly rivalry will make people listen up. Billed as "a real-life Spinal Tap" DiG! follows these bands with their retro rock through a few years of touring, arguing, getting wasted, busted, and getting up to do it all again. Despite the fact that DW frontman Courtney Taylor narrates, BJM member Anton Newcombe steals the show over and over with his asshole antics and crazy talk like "I'm not for sale. I'm fucking Love, do you understand what I'm saying? Like, the Beatles were for sale. I give it away." Maybe the funniest rockumentary on this list.

7. TIME WILL TELL (Dir. Declan Lowney, 1992) Bob Marley's story is pretty glossed over in this doc but that is okay because it is so full of great footage with many full songs represented. Interview footage doesn't really provide insights - except that Marley was always stoned - but footage from the One Love Peace Concert and various 70's TV shows (particuraly the footage from the Old Grey Whistle Test, BBC 1973 pictured left) is worth many repeat viewings.

8. MADONNA: TRUTH OR DARE (Dir. Alek Kekishian, 1991) I'm sure there are those who will scoff but I added this not just because I realized that this list was too much of a sausage party but because it's seriously a notable rockumentary. There sadly aren't many docs about female artists so this will have to some representin'. This follows Madonna on her controversial Blond Ambition tour and has the backstage bits in DON'T LOOK BACK-esque hand-held black and white while the concert sequences are in color. We do actually get some amusing insights like when Warren Beatty, who briefly dated Madonna during the filming of DICK TRACY, says of her when she's having a dental appointment filmed: "she doesn't want to live off-camera, much less talk. There's nothing to say off-camera. Why would you say something if it's off-camera? What point is there existing? " None I can think of.

9. THE LAST WALTZ (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 1978) Sure Marty and the Band (they were Bob's band in 1965-66 under the name The Hawks) were both represented at the #1 spot on this list but this film deserves to place on its own. It's a doc wrapped around a seminal concert film - the farewell performance of arguably the greatest Canadian band ever who play an incredible set helped out by their friends - including ace work by Eric Clapton,Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Ronnie Hawkins, Ringo Starr, Neil Diamond (!), and their old bandleader Bob Dylan. The interview segments with Scorsese sitting casually around for conversations with Band members Robbie Robertson and Co. were parodied by Rob Reiner as director Marty DiBergi in THIS IS SPINAL TAP and they set a precedent for rockumentary etiquette. But for my money, the sequence in which Neil Young sings "Helpless" with The Band and accompanied by the beautiful backup singing of Joni Mitchell in the wings is one of the most infectious pieces of musical celluloid ever presented. That Marty had to visually edit a nugget of cocaine hanging off Young's nose by rotoscoping in post production only adds to the affecting edge.

10. STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN (Dir. Paul Justman, 2002) This film provides a great service - it shines a light on the largely unknown supporting players on some of the greatest music of the 20th century. The Funk Brothers provided the backing for literally hundreds of hits that defined "the Detroit sound" - the memorable melodies behind Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, The Supremes, and many others. This film gives us interviews with Bandleader Joe Henry and various other surviving Funk Brother members and we see new live performances where they play with such soul notables as Me'shell Ndegeocello, Chaka Kahn, and Bootsy Collins. An incredibly entertaining and emotional experience with a band that should be grandly celebrated for, as narrating actor Andre Braugher tells us, "having played on more number-one records than The Beatles, Elvis, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys combined."

Postnotes: I tried to focus on wide-ranging documentaries not straight concert films hence the ommision of the Jonathan Demme's amazing STOP MAKING SENSE (which would place high on a list of straight concert films) and other worthy films of that caliber. Some other honorable mentions:

THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON (reviewed on filmbabble Oct. 11th, 2006)
GIGANTIC (A TALE OF TWO JOHNS) - A great doc about They Might Be Giants, a band who many left behind in college but is still part of our
Daily Show lives.
THE BEATLES ANTHOLOGY - If you ever have a day to kill you could do much worse than watching this 674 min. production.
MONTEREY POP
METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER - This hilarious doc about a once mighty metal and going into therapy is the real-life Spinal Tap IMHO.
THE FIFTH AND THE FURY- Julien Temple and the Sex Pistols - need I say more?
THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILISATION This and its 2 sequels which cover the history of decadent underworld of punk and metal are as essential as rockumentaries can get.

Whew! Okay, that's enough rockumentaries for now. If you think I've left out your favorite - that's what the comments below is for.

This post is dedicated to
Brad Renfro (1982-2007)

He appeared as Josh in one of my all time favorite movies - GHOST WORLD (2001). At least he fulfilled that old maxim to die young and leave a good looking corpse. Sigh.

R.I.P.

More later...

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Depp & Burton Together Again At The Multiplex

I went today with my Varsity Theatre co-worker friend Molly to see SWEENEY TODD: DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET at Movies At Timberlyne. I realized as we pulled up that the last time I'd been to this particular multiplex was for CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY - another Tim Burton/Johnny Depp deal. So I decided that I'll only go to Timberlyne to see Burton/Depp movies from this day forward. So I won't be back 'til 2010 when Burton's live action ALICE IN WONDERLAND is released. Depp as the Mad Hatter - can't hardly wait.

So onto the picture show:

SWEENEY TODD: DEMON OF FLEET STREET

(Dir. Tim Burton, 2007)


I went in to this completely unfamiliar with the original 1979 Steven Sondheim musical (I say "original" loosely - that was based on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond which was based on...oh, you get the idea) so I liked letting it play out with no comparing notions. To me it was essentially the 6th in the Burton/Depp series - which are usually gothic twisted stories with a misunderstood but still magnetic protagonist with an odd affliction or vision and all the visual splendor that a crazy haired madman director can provide.

This time though Depp is singing and not badly I admit. Burton's wife and reporatory member Helen Bonham Carter has good pipes too. In fact all of the cast -Sasha Baron Cohen (BORAT!), Alan Rickman, and Jamie Campbell Bower all sang without embarrasment - I just wish they had better songs to sing. But I'm getting ahead of myself, first let's get onto the obligatory plot description.

Depp in the title role, with all the strained intensity he brought to Captain Jack Sparrow, shows up in London after years in exile. He finds that his beloved wife poisoned herself and a daughter is being held captive by an evil Judge (Rickman) - the same Judge who had him exiled.

His old landlady (Carter) runs a scummy roach-ridden meat-pie emporium and after a taste of one of her 'orrible pies she returns his treasured set of razors - which shine like EDWARD SCISSORHAND's blades in the light. Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower) - the young sailor who brought Todd home, falls in love with Todd's daughter (Jane Wisener) and plots to save her from the evil Judge. Todd, while planing his revenge against the Judge, goes into an odd business venture with his lusty landlady. He, with Barber shop set-up, slits the throats of his customers and drops them through a chute to her basement to be used for meat in her 'orrible pies.

Maybe, as I was told, the editing down to 2 hours from 3 of the original score made for a lot of concessions but the amount of fragmentary non-gripping verses without choruses and then overlong sequences based on a flimsy overdone melody left me buried musically. None of the songs were catchy enough for me to remember right now is what I'm saying. The look of the film with its grey hued tones contrasting with the bright rich red color of blood lives up the best of Burton except that the flour whiteness of Depp's and Bonham Carter's skin almost gave me snow blindness.

Typical of Burton there are a handful of fitfully funny bits - Depp's unchanging gloomy mug in the one sunny fantasy scene song that Bonham Carter sings ("By The Sea") is one that comes to mind. Still the whole thing seems to lack ommph. Full sequences are better than passable but there was no real passion present.

Depp and Burton next time out should sink their teeth into such material not just nibble. I mean a musical mind you, one with a costume ball rape scene and scores of bloody slit throats, should be a full meal not a glorified Hors d'oeuvre. Just sayin' that this choppy LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS meets DELICATESSEN could've been so much more.


More later...