Monday, May 31, 2010

R.I.P. Dennis Hopper (1936-2010)

"Somewhere in my strange career, someone has liked something." - Dennis Hopper 

Sadly, iconic actor/director Dennis Hopper lost his battle with prostate cancer Saturday morning. Every obituary will understandably point to his breakthrough milestone EASY RIDER (1969), but I'm sure most people who would read this blog know he had a ginormous crazy career spanning almost 6 decades. 

 Impressively IMDb lists over 200 film and television appearances in nearly every genre. In 1986 alone he appeared in HOOSIERS, BLUE VELVET, RIVER'S EDGE, and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, and from the looks of it that was a typical year for the man as he worked constantly until his illness got the best of him - 6 movies in 2008, 26 episodes of Crash 2008-09, and a couple of upcoming projects (THE LAST FILM FESTIVAL, ALPHA AND OMEGA) set for later this year. A career so vast is difficult to cherry pick from, especially since he had so many bit parts in major movies - his roles in friend James Dean's movies REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and GIANT (1956) for example - and also because a few films he directed are unavailable on DVD these days - THE LAST MOVIE (1971) and OUT OF THE BLUE (1980). That said these are my picks for:

10 Essential (And Available) Dennis Hopper Performances

1. EASY RIDER (Dir. Dennis Hopper, 1969)

When I said every obit would highlight this as Hopper's most acclaimed achievement I wasn't saying I wouldn't also. It's inescapable as a classic counterculture event of a movie that helped kick off the "New Hollywood" movement of the late '60s/early '70s. It also solidified the long-haired mustached hippie wiseacre persona that Hopper would return to a number of times throughout his acting career. 

 Concerning a couple of drug dealers (Hopper and Peter Fonda) who make a huge score and set out on their motorcycles to go, in the words of the film's tagline, "looking for America", EASY RIDER is very dated with clumsy artistic cuts, redneck stereotypes, and a cringe-inducing psychedelic trip sequence, but Hopper's glee while riding through Monument Valley out over the sunset on his chopper is infectious. In those moments, which were innovative in their use of rock song scoring, the film's theme of freedom lets its freak flag fly the highest. 

2. BLUE VELVET (Dir. David Lynch, 1986)

Frank Booth, a Nitrous Oxide inhaling sexual deviant, was considered a comeback role for Hopper who had gone through more than one wilderness period in the years since EASY RIDER and the failure of its follow-up THE LAST MOVIE. Booth was scary and a bit funny at the same time; the manner in which he menaces nice boy Kyle MacLachlan being a twisted yet beautiful example: "Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!" The part won Hopper a few Critics' Association awards and in 2008 was voted #54 in Premiere Magazine's list of "The 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time."

3. APOCALYPSE NOW (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) Credited as "Photojournalist" and only given a small amount of screen-time in the final reel, Hopper is one of the most memorable elements of Coppola's seminal sprawling Vietnam epic. His cryptic speeches like this one still resonate 30 years later: "This is dialectics. It's very simple dialectics. One through nine, no maybes, no supposes, no fractions. You can't travel in space, you can't go out in space without, like, you know, with fractions - what are you gonna land on, one quarter, three eighths - what are you gonna do when you go from here to Venus or something? That's dialectic physics, okay? Dialectic logic is there's only love or hate, you either love somebody or you hate them." Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz then angrily hurls a book at Hopper in a moment that doesn't feel scripted.

4. HOOSIERS (Dir. David Anspaugh, 1986) As I mentioned earlier, 1986 was a banner year for Hopper. His roles in BLUE VELVET, RIVER'S EDGE, and this Oscar nominated turn as the basketball supporting town drunk had him unstoppably on the comeback trail. It's a folksy formulaic sports film about underdogs triumphing against all odds, but Hopper's gutsy edge is no small part of the film's abundant charms.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP: The Film Babble Blog Review

(Dir. Banksy, 2010)

The identity of the infamous British graffiti artist Banksy is unknown to the public at large. Here he appears in his own film, a documentary narrated by Rhys Ifans, wearing a hood with his face darkened, and his voice altered by computer.

Banksy, sounding a bit like Karl Pilkington from The Ricky Gervais Show, isn't here to talk about himself though, he and many other renowned artists including Shepard Fairey (creator of the Barack Obama "Hope" poster) and Invader are on hand to discuss the curious case of Thierry Guetta.

The French born Guetta began his journey into the heart of art as a videographer. Always armed with a video camera, he taped street artists for years. The first half of this film contains tons of fun footage of various artists creating art all around their towns with stencils, stickers, tiles, or whatever works and some instances where they have to run from approaching cops. Guetta records everything he sees so his colleague Banksy encourages him to make a film out of it all.

The resulting film Guetta edits is a bombastic choppy unwatchable fiasco that even makes Banksy question his friend's mental health. Banksy offers to take the footage and see what he can do with it - which, of course, is the documentary we've got here - while Guetta decides to try his hand at making street art of his own. Almost immediately Guetta dubs himself Mr. Brainwash and starts putting together a mammoth gallery show called "Life Is Beautiful" in L.A. in the summer of 2008. He somehow has created canvas after canvas of art heavily derived from the screen prints of Andy Warhol, but also from much of his friends work.

This is where some chin scratching comes in about the pink elephant in the room (BTW Mr. Brainwash's exhibit actually features an actual pink elephant in the room) - is this odd man's work a massive put-on at the expense of the entire art market? Is Banksy not just an observer but a co-conspirator, possibly the mastermind of this ruse? One critic (Jeannette Catsoulis, NYTimes) even went so far to call this film a "prankumentary," but no matter what you call it, it provides more fascination than frustration at its riddles.

EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP is a vital addition to the genre of docs including MY KID COULD PAINT THAT and WHO THE #amp;amp;% IS JACKSON POLLACK that question the experts and expense of the world of fine and not so fine art. That is if you consider it a real documentary - I do because even the most fact driven documentaries can't help but have some fiction somewhere in their packaging.

If this one is the joke on its subject some think it is, it's still a worthy visual document; the movie equivalent of great graffiti. And it's a very good joke too. 

More later...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Serious Series Addiction Part 3: Breaking Bad, Treme, And The End Of Lost,

It's time to talk about TV shows again. As I've said before, though this is a film blog I do from time to time babble about television programs that I've been keeping up with. So let's get to them:

Breaking Bad

I had watched this show off and on before, but became hooked on it recently in its extremely strong 3rd season. 

AMC's intense yet darkly humored drama involves Bryan Cranston, best known previously as the dad on Malcolm In The Middle, as a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

To provide for his pregnant wife (Anna Gunn) and his son (RJ Mitte) who suffers from cerebral palsy, he turns to a life of crime: producing and selling methamphetamine.

As a former student of Cranston's living a sordid existence as a drug dealer, Aaron Paul is enlisted as a partner in the dangerous yet highly profitable endeavor. 

Dean Norris as Cranston's crusty brother-in-law just happens to be a DEA agent close on their trail though he is unaware of their identity. There's also trouble with a Mexican drug cartel, along with strife at home and much in-fighting between Cranston and Paul.

Set in the orange hued world of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Breaking Bad has the urgency and scope of many movies. Cranston's performance is a study in edgy power; one minute he's a measured man of reason - the next an exasperated kook, a time bomb waiting to go off. His clashes with Paul, his strained talks with his wife, and his stoical business manner give the show a forceful fluidity as it goes from searing scene to scene.

Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show) was added in the second season as a sleazy lawyer and he shows up quite a bit in the third season which is a nice funny touch to the proceedings. 

Although one can probably pick it up at any point, I'd recommend renting it and watching from the beginning. The first and second seasons are available on DVD and Blu ray; the third should be soon after it finishes its run on June 13th. 


David Simon and Eric Overmyer's follow-up to The Wire has many similarities to that seminal series.

It's a web of story threads concerning a complicated culture, it examines sociopolitical themes, and it features a few of the same players: Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters among them.

But don't get me wrong - it's a very different animal in one major way: music. Treme is bursting at the seams with the rich sounds of New Orleans jazz.
Three months after hurricane Katrina, we are thrown into the aftermath from nearly every angle. The hurting viewpoints of struggling musicians, frustrated restaurant owners, civil rights workers, and outspoken citizens blanket the battered city, but the bands play on.

Along with The Wire's Pierce as trombonist Antoine Batiste and Clarke as a Mardi Gras Indian tribe leader trying to bring his people home, we've got Steve Zahn as a slacker singer songwriter, Kim Dickens as a cook based on famed chef Susan Spicer, Khandi Alexander as a bar owner who is also Pierce's ex-wife, Melissa Leo as cynical lawyer, and John Goodman as Leo's husband - an opinionated college professor and author who has just discovered YouTube in its 2005 infancy as a forum for his anger fueled rants.

Oh yeah, there's also a young couple - Michiel Huisman on keyboards and Lucia Micalelli on violin - who try to make their living from street performances. Treme is absorbing viewing that swiftly juggles all those characters and their scenarios in an intoxicating fashion. 

One feels like they are really getting the flavor of New Orleans through these people and the well chosen locations. It oversteps contrivances and keeps your feet tapping throughout each episode. I'm not sure that it alone is worth subscribing to HBO for, but it definitely deserves a place in your Netflix queue. Happily it's been renewed for a second season. 

Lost: "The End"

As I've documented here before, I began watching the vastly popular island castaway drama Lost in January of this year on Netflix Instant while pedaling on my exercise bike. 

I pedaled though all 5 seasons until I was caught up with the sixth and enjoying it all immensely from my sweaty bikeseat - though there were some dull or tedious patches here and there.

The bike made me feel like I could pedal fast through the stupidity then race on to the next one.

Up until the last handful of episodes I hadn't had the experience of waiting week to week to see what happens like the folks who were there from the beginning in 2004. 

Those seem to be the people who are complaining about the just aired finale on blogs, message boards, or status updates all over the internets. Their complaints being that the mythology wasn't satisfied with a lot of questions unanswered.

I can't imagine how I could spoil it for anybody who hasn't watched the show so I'll just say that it was simply about the characters' fate - principally Jack's (Matthew Fox) - rather than the particulars of their journey.

I would have liked to have some questions answered too - the 4 toed statue for one - but, like the end of The Sopranos did, it's growing on me.

If you have Netflix Instant - it's a great way to watch the show because you don't have to deal with waiting on individual discs. I can completely understand folks being discouraged at the prospect of 121 episodes and the bitching from the online minions about its conclusion, but I didn't find it to be a waste of time at all. 

Maybe though, that's the Dharma Initiative beer talking. That's all for TV for now - back to the movies, that is until the 4th season of Mad Men premieres. Then be sure to expect another post about serious series addiction. 

More later...

Thursday, May 20, 2010

MACGRUBER: The Film Babble Blog Review

MACGRUBER (Dir. Jorma Taccone, 2010)

MacGruber! Making a movie out of a flimsy SNL sketch!

MacGruber! Which will most likely be clobbered by SHREK FOREVER AFTER's opening weekend grosses!

MacGruber! His movie actually doesn't suck!


The first film derived from a Saturday Night Live sketch in a decade (the last being 2000's THE LADIES MAN) accomplishes something surprising - it's much better than the sketches on which it's based.

With a few exceptions, like when Betty White famously appeared as MacGruber's grandmother earlier this month, I've found the sketches to be irritatingly repetitive. They always concern a countdown in a control room in which Will Forte's MacGyver take off fails to halt a bomb's detonation because of whatever neurosis of the week he's dealing with.

Of course, you can't make an entire movie out of repeatedly blowing up the hero so borrowing heavily from the 80's action movie handbook we get a something resembling a plot. Which is - the ridiculously over decorated special operative MacGruber is called out of retirement because his arch nemesis, named...wait for it...Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer), has stolen a nuclear warhead and threatens to, in his words, "turn Washington D.C. into a pile of ash."

Brought back into action by the always welcome Powers Boothe as Col. James Faith, the mulleted MacGruber assembles a team of beefed up "American heroes with over 100 years of combined combat experience." The early fate of this team is one of the better jokes in the film so I'll just say MacGruber has to make do with Lt. Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe) as his second in command, and Forte's fellow SNL-er Kristen Wiig as Vicki St. Elmo who is just as stuck in the '80s hairstyle and fashion-wise as our uber-unlikely hero.

There's a back story involving Kilmer's killing of MacGruber's fiancee (Maya Rudolph) 10 years previous which ups the stakes - MacGruber threatens Kilmer with his signature "throat rip" among other, uh, unsavory things. Apart from that it's what you'd expect, not that that's a bad thing, from an over the top action comedy directed and co-written by one of the minds behind SNL digital shorts like "Lazy Sunday." It's a hard R with more F-bombs than actual bombs, scads of crude juvenile humor, and the most hilarious sex scene since TEAM AMERICA.

By no means a comic masterpiece since it's a little too sloppy and choppy to qualify; MACGRUBER is funnier than it has a right to be.

Forte's fearless gusto - which means he'll even go nude for a laugh - and his mock egotistical line readings make for a performance that's maybe not a tour de force, but certainly a minor comedic triumph.

As his meek but eager love interest, Wiig registers much more favorably than in her recent blank slate roles such as EXTRACT, WHIP IT, and DATE NIGHT. This is sort of odd due to the purposely shallow nature of Wiig's character, yet she has some of the funniest bits in the film.

Kilmer comes off beautifully as the oily bad guy in Euro trash threads sporting a slimy smirk. It's the kind of role he's perfect for as it tweaks his former 80's it boy status and gives him big artillery backdrops to chew on.

Phillippe, apart from some celery silliness which I won't spoil, plays his role straight as if he's in an actual action movie and that's the right idea.

True satire movie-wise is hard to come by these days so don't really expect any of it in MACGRUBER. It has spoofery in its genes, but it's more content to exist in the margins of immature buffoonery.

For folks looking for a mindless summertime diversion with more than its share of decent jokes, it should do just fine.

More later...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


As the season of blockbuster bombast looms it's nice to point out smaller overlooked films like this which just dropped on DVD:

HOW I GOT LOST (Dir. Joe Leonard, 2009)

When first introduced to the protagonists of this award winning indie film, I feared that this would be another good stable friend/bad manipulative friend road trip morality tale; but while it, well, kind of is, it's got much more of a soul than a cynical capsule breakdown like that would suggest.

Starting off in New York City in the days just following 9/11, Joe Leonard's feature length film debut concerns 2 friends - Jacob Fischel and Aaron Stanford. Fischel is an aspiring writer dealing with a painful breakup of a relationship that began "the day after the world ended."

Fishel explains: "Like planes going into buildings were just an excuse for us to find each other. I know how that sounds, but that's how it felt." Stanford (best known as Pyro in the X-MEN movies) is a hard drinking Wall Street banker who didn't become the business mogul he dreamed of being. 

After getting a mysterious phone call Stanford impulsively persuades Fischel to get out of town and hit the road with him. They hire a cab to Philadelphia so they can borrow Fischel's mother's station wagon and go from there, well, not far from there as they quickly run out of gas. 

On the road out in the middle of nowhere leaning up against the car in the light of the dawning sun, Stanford reveals the real reason for the trip: his father died and he doesn't want to go to the funeral alone. At the funeral Fischel's got his friend's back, but Stanford has a bit of a freak-out yelling about his disconnection with his father at the other attendees. 

With a tired shrug, Stanford leaves Fischel to handle his affairs and returns to New York. A sympathetic diner waitress played by Rosemarie DeWitt (RACHEL GETTING MARRIED, Mad Men) provides Fischel with some comfort. This is some plotting that could have been cringe worthy, but is measured and moving - there is tangible chemistry between Fischel and DeWitt and Leonard makes good use of it. Though the characters are directionless, the film never feels so.

Fischel's voice over narration, coming from the book or whatever he's typing out in his apartment in the last third of the film, comes close to the edge of pretension, but never falls over and lands there. The score by Georgian singer songwriter Kaki King also successfully skirts around overly melodramatic methods.

Despite some inevitable heavy handedness, especially when dealing with a post 9/11 mindset, HOW I GOT LOST is an earnest and poetic work, grounded in realism, and beautifully filtered through the fear we all felt nearly a decade ago. We all got a bit lost as priorities were redefined or destroyed and our communal spirit desperately needed to be re-sparked. 

The film's conclusion revolves around the Northwestern blackout of 2003, utilizing real footage shot on the NY streets during the outage. It's a fitting bookend to see the city come together via bonfires and other makeshift celebrations, while Fischel finally fixates on what he really has and what has really been lost. 

More later...

Monday, May 10, 2010

IRON MAN 2: The Film Babble Blog Review

IRON MAN 2 (Dir. Jon Favreau, 2010)

Summer sequel season has officially begun with the return of Robert Downey Jr. as Marvel Comics super hero Iron Man. But you not only know that, you've probably already seen it as it had the second-highest May opening of all time grossing $133 million over this last weekend. 

For my two cents, I'll say upfront that IRON MAN 2 is a good time, not the great time that the original was because it's a bit messy. Highly stylized and funny with quite a few sheer thrills, but still a bit messy. 

We catch up with Tony Stark, not long after revealing his identity as Iron Man, enjoying his reign as a global celebrity who claims to have "privatized world peace." He seemingly takes in stride that he's called before a Senate Committee for a hearing led by Garry Shandling as a disapproving Senator who wants Stark to turn over the Iron Man suit to the military.

Our snarky hero is more concerned that the palladium in the arc reactor keeping his heart beating has begun to poison his body so he's trying to live it up since his days are numbered.

Meanwhile villainy toils in the shadows in the form of Mickey Rourke as a crusty Russian who has built his own arc reactor and a suit that has its arms outfitted with cybernetically controlled whips.

Whiplash, as he's dubbed, blames Stark Industries for his father's death, and seeks revenge. He attacks Stark on a racetrack in Monaco, but Stark defeats him after some close calls when he's able to get to his snazzy Iron Man suitcase.

Also meanwhile, and that's one problem with this film - too many meanwhiles, Sam Rockwell as a conniving competing weapons manufacturer plots to take down Stark and sees an ally in Whiplash. 

Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Stark's right hand lady Pepper Pots, who Stark promotes to CEO. Terrence Howard doesn't return as Lt. Colonel James "Randy" Rhoades, for reasons that aren't quite clear he's been replaced by Don Cheadle.

Scarlett Johansson joins the cast as Stark's new assistant who is revealed to be a double agent working with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), introduced in the post credits of the original, of S.H.E.I.L.D. which was co-founded by Stark's father (Mad Men's John Slattery) who appears in an old Stark Expo film that just happens to contain a secret message. Whew!

There's a bunch of other elements I'm not going to go into because, well, you get the picture - it's over stuffed with plot strands. This means a number of payoffs, such as Rourke's placing in the climax, are a bit compromised.

By the way, Rourke's mock Ruskie accent made me keep thinking he was going to say "I'm going to break you" like Dolph Lundren did in ROCKY IV. Johansson doesn't make much of an impression except in one scene where she kicks the ass of a squad of baddies that comes off like an audition for CHARLIE'S ANGELS 3D.

As for the others - Paltrow just hovers around, Cheadle is a bit more engaged yet ultimately just along for the ride, and Rockwell does a decent job but doesn't bring much new to the game.

Director Favreau reprises his part as Stark's bodyguard giving himself more screen time which doesn't detract, but maybe should have been deleted scenes for the later DVD/Blu ray.

As we all know though, it's Downey Jr.'s stage and he makes the most of it. Glib wisecracks aside he has a great interrogation room scene with Rourke. Both actors bring it dramatically for one of the only breaks from the comic action spectacle, and it helps give the movie some needed grounding.

So the fresh feeling of the first one is gone and the plotting is a bit creaky as well and the exposition heavy, but there's enough fun to go around until the next time (stay through the credits to get a glimpse of what's coming). IRON MAN 2 is much better than just passable (as super hero sequels often are), and its heart (or arc reactor) is in the right place. 

More later...

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

BABIES: The Film Babble Blog Review

BABIES (Dir. Thomas Balmes, 2010)

How can I write a review of this movie without sounding like a hater?

I guess it's not possible because the bottom line is I'm just not into babies. In fact today my wife and I told a doctor that we are 100% certain that we are never going to have kids - that's all I'm going to say about that situation here.

So the idea of a documentary made up completely of shots of babies really didn't appeal to me, enough that I almost skipped the screening. I decided to try to be open as a film lover and a documentary lover and check it out regardless.

Hate to say that it was exactly what I thought it would be, only somehow much duller. But if you like babies, like most of the population seems to, you may find the footage of 4 separate babies from 4 different corners of the world (San Francisco, Toyko, Namibia, and Mongolia) delightful.

We're given little information apart from titles indicating locations and times (only a few of those) as Balmes cuts back and forth from the babies. There is no narrator and very little English is spoken by one of the sets of parents. It's just babies crying (happily this is kept to a minimum), babies crawling, babies harassing animals (also animals harassing babies), babies sleeping, and an unbearable amount of clips of babies doing nothing but being babies.

There is some context in the manner of culture clashing. Balmes goes from one baby lying on an expensive carpet being dabbed by a parent with a lint roller to another baby shown playing in the dirt of their impoverished village fiddling with rocks and bits of bones. As it's used throughout the film, a little of this sort of contrast goes a long way. BABIES is a definitive "is it what it is" movie - I'm inclined to say if you like babies you'll like it, but I suspect hardcore baby lovers might get bored too.

Even at its merciful 79 minute running time it feels too lengthy and I sure didn't learn anything new from it. Learning something new is the main reason I love documentaries. The best ones shape footage into an insightful narrative giving you a fresh portrait of their subjects, but BABIES is just blandly basic and never justifies its existence for being.

It's like an annoying parent who over estimates their offspring's cuteness over and over. Then again I'm just a baby basher - what do I know?

More later...