Thursday, June 24, 2010

Film Review | Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Can We Talk?

by Thomas Delapa

Did you hear the one about the traveling septuagenarian comedienne?

Fans of comic Joan Rivers may want to stand up and applaud Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work as a labor of love. The less moved will have to work harder to find the punch lines—other than Rivers herself.

The butt of as many jokes as she’s delivered, Rivers might be most famous for being the self-described “poster girl” for plastic surgery. At age 77, Rivers continues to reinvent herself, at least facially, and by now all those nips and tucks have left her visage a taut, pinched mask, preternaturally frozen in time.

It was nearly 50 years ago that showbiz kingmaker Johnny Carson gave Rivers (born Joan Molinsky in Brooklyn) just the professional lift she needed. During a Tonight Show appearance, Carson told her, “You’re going to be a star.” The proclamation launched the catty, taboo-breaking comic into the big-time, leading to record albums, Las Vegas gigs, stints as talk-show host and even her own Hollywood movie (1978’s Rabbit Test—a real turkey).

A rare woman in the tough boys’ club of comedy, Rivers elevated self-deprecating humor to borderline masochism, savaging her looks and desperate love life with glee. She was the comic that audiences loved to watch hating herself. Today she’s progressed, if that’s the word, to raunchy elder stateswoman of the laugh circuit, opening the door for such R-rated comediennes as Kathy Griffin and Sarah Silverman. Yet in that distinctively loud and raspy voice, Rivers is quick to kvetch that, at her age, “Nobody wants you.”

Between a barrage of jokes and one-liners, some smartly dead-on, co-directors Ricki Sterns and Annie Sundberg give the quick-witted Rivers the diva treatment, indulging her whims and complaints. But it’s no laughing matter when Rivers ruefully talks about her late husband and business partner, Edgar Rosenberg, whose 1987 suicide left her emotionally and financially devastated.

In a career that has had more ups and downs than a Vegas hooker (that’s a joke, folks), Rivers is undoubtedly a survivor. Despite the raw, profanity-laced routines that might make a sailor blush, Rivers also plays doting Jewish mother to her grown daughter, Melissa. And every Thanksgiving, she makes a point of personally delivering turkey dinners to shut-ins for a New York City charity.

While other stand-up comics, male or female, would be sitting down at her age, Rivers is almost neurotically determined to go on with the show. At the beginning of the film, she glumly reviews “the book” with her staff, showing the camera the dearth of engagements on her calendar. She insists she will take any job (“I’ll even wear a diaper”) for the money, a necessity given her luxurious lifestyle, bevy of assistants and gaudy Louis XIV-style Manhattan flat. She isn’t picky, taking everything from a gig in a seedy Wisconsin casino to cheesy TV guest shots on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice.

Rivers’ true labor of love, an autobiographical play, sinks during tryouts in the U.K. From the semi-sublime to the sadistically ridiculous, Rivers also reluctantly agrees to be roasted for a Comedy Channel special, where fellow comics pay tribute to her with an assault of lewd, wincingly below-the-belt insults.

Here’s the kicker: Since the documentary was filmed two years ago, all this slavish work has returned Rivers to the top of the showbiz heap, at least for now. Those blank calendar pages are now full. No joke, she was even asked to host the Miss USA Pageant. As she told Entertainment Weekly, “Beautiful gets you everywhere.”

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 6/22/10

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Film Review | Terminator Salvation

Odds and Ends

by Thomas Delapa

OK, we get it. Christian Bale can play super-intense. But like the song goes, Is that all there is?

The Welsh-born actor went batty in American Psycho, screwy in The Machinist and then swooped into the box-office stratosphere as the brooding new Batman. Bale’s 2009 Herculean labor was to resurrect the rusty Terminator series, which last said “Hasta la vista, baby” seven years ago, right before Arnold Schwarzenegger morphed into the California Governator.

In Terminator Salvation—now on DVD—The Arnold is missing in action, and series creator James Cameron is long gone. The B-list substitutions are Bale, Charlie’s Angels director McG (a.k.a. Joseph McGinty Nichol) and semi-robotic Aussie newcomer Sam Worthington. If anything saves Salvation from total self-destruction, it’s the superb visual effects, which almost had me saying, “I’ll be back.”

When Bale enlisted in this sci-fi sequel about a futuristic war between man and machines, he may not have known he’d be demoted to virtual co-star, given that Williamson surprisingly gets a huge chunk of screen time. Not that the casting had anything to with Bale infamously blowing a fuse on the set, which was captured on audio and went viral faster than the swine flu.

As John Connor, leader of the resistance in the post-apocalyptic 2018, Bale puts his mouth in overdrive, shouting his lines in apoplectic fury. The computer-network Skynet and its army of monster machines have got humanity on the run, while Connor and his comrades are set to test a secret weapon designed to make the machines crash and burn.

Though the script (by John Brancato and Michael Ferris) goes back to the future again, the prologue is in the present, where a condemned man unsuspectingly donates his body to mad science. Inexplicably, Marcus Wright (Williamson) pops up in Connor’s present, teaming up with a sexy fighter pilot (Moon Bloodgood), and launching himself on a mission to find a youth named Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin). Like the movie, Wright suffers from an identity crisis, uncertain of his past and purpose, betting he’ll find answers within Skynet’s fortress command center in derelict San Francisco.

To program new life into the series, the writers dubiously ignore the present, setting the story almost exclusively in a drab dystopia that’s relieved only by Martin Laing’s exceptional production design. Instead of giving us a new generation of Terminator robots played by humans, the 2009 version is uploaded with generic CGI goons with demonic red eyes. The battle this time isn’t as personal (or as scary-funny), however peppered with high-impact thrills.

The final (de)termination comes early. In the mid-movie attack by a Godzilla-sized “hunter-killer” machine accessorized with motorcycles, the effect is pure shock-and-awe, revved up with a crescendo of heavy-metal sound effects. But after that, Terminator Salvation winds down like a dying Energizer bunny, ending on a whimper instead of a big bang.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Film Review | Shrek Forever After

Ogre and Out

by Thomas Delapa

Once upon a time in a strange, make-believe land also known as Hollywood, there was Shrek, a fractured fairy-tale cartoon about a big green ogre with a heart of gold. It made a king-sized pile of green for the DreamWorks studio and so did its two sequels. But in 2010, the franchise came under the spell of a neo-1950s fad called “3D,” which tricked audiences by whisking them to a weird alternate kingdom where one-dimensional storylines rule.

When it comes to the latest screen technology, 3D may be the clearest case of the tail (instead of the tale) wagging the dog. After the animators finished with Shrek Forever After, whatever script that director Mike Mitchell started with had been forever changed by the gimmicky, in-your-face 3D effects. Conjuring the illusion of depth, DreamWorks turns shallow.

Virtual cotton candy with a saccharine flavor, Shrek 4 goes retro in plot, too. Now married with children, our not-so-jolly green giant (voiced by Mike Myers) is settling into domestic life with his true love, Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz). But Shrek is suffering post-ogre remorse. He yearns for the good old days of yore when he could behave badly, bellow and terrify villagers. Curiously like the bored and bratty newlywed Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City 2, Shrek discovers that “happily ever after” is a fairy tale.

Shrek’s supernatural solution to his mid-life crisis? He naively signs an “ogre for a day” contract with the runty, double-dealing Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn), who’s scheming for regime change in the land of Far Far Away. Shrek wakes up in a dark, topsy-turvy world where Rumpelstiltskin leads an axis of evil with a coven of witches, and ogres are slaves.

Like its digitally drawn predecessors, Shrek 4.0 is uploaded with a witches’ brew of pop-culture jokes, but they’re largely charmless. Even if the characters’ life-like expressions are magical, the spell wears off the deeper Mitchell gets into this sickly green riff on It’s a Wonderful Life. A la George Bailey, Shrek has the misfortune of seeing what happens had he never been born (and never rescued Fiona), thus making him appreciate the wonders of middle-class married life. In vapid storybook fashion, life without true love and marriage is a curse.

Writers Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke are willy-nilly pillagers, raiding everything from The Wizard of Oz to Deliverance and old Carpenters’ songs. At Rumpel’s seedy palace, a horde of hook-nosed, rave-happy witches do his bidding on broomsticks. When Shrek finally finds Fiona, she’s been made over into the chilly, no-nonsense leader of the underground ogre resistance. (You could say that it’s at least a better fate than poor Donna Reed in the noir side of It’s a Wonderful Life, transfigured into a spinster librarian since Jimmy Stewart wasn’t there to sweep her off her feet.)

Movie technology should be ruled by story and character, but in Shrek Forever it’s the other way around. Between such oddball scenes as an ogre fandango, Mitchell launches a made-for-3D centerpiece that pits Shrek against a squadron of flying witches hurling (and smashing) flaming pumpkins.

It’s not easy being green, but in this virtually recycled Shrek, DreamWorks forgot to take out the trash.

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 6/7/10

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Myth of Dennis Hopper's "Lost Years"

Digging Deeper
There's more to Dennis Hopper than his reputation might suggest

(This first ran in Cincinnati CityBeat ( on June 2, 2010)
. . . . . . .

Most of the obituaries of Dennis Hopper, who died of prostate cancer May 29 at age 74, have followed a similar narrative arc:

After a promising start in supporting roles in two of friend James Dean’s movies – Rebel Without a Cause and Giant – the young, volatile actor fell afoul of director Henry Hathaway during filming of the Western From Hell to Texas and became a Hollywood outcast for almost a decade.

When the counterculture made “outcasts” hip, he came roaring back by directing, co-writing and starring in 1969’s Easy Rider but immediately blew it again on substance abuse and personal turmoil that rendered him one of the greatest burnouts of the era.

When he emerged in 1979’s Apocalypse Now — as a jabbering, crazed photojournalist — many people assumed he wasn’t acting. Then he disappeared again.

Finally, in 1986, David Lynch cast the now-middle-aged, sobered-up Hopper as the drug-sniffing Frank Booth, one of modern movies’ great villains, in that dreamscape of a thriller, Blue Velvet. The same year, he received an Oscar nomination — as a town drunk helping a high-school basketball team — in the far more ordinary Hoosiers.

Hopper was back. And from then on he was ubiquitous in movies, TV shows, commercials — in so many films he made Kevin Bacon jealous.

It’s a great melodramatic narrative with a fantastic comeback hook. And Hopper himself seemed to believe it, at least to the extent it served him. But, away from the limelight, he continued to believe he did good, adventurous work during those lost decades — the 1960s before Easy Rider, the 1970s after it. And he was right.

I was fortunate in the late 1980s to see two films in a Hopper retrospective at Berkeley’s Pacifica Film Archives: 1961’s Night Tide and 1971’s The Last Movie, his “disastrous” directorial follow-up to Easy Rider. He proudly attended the latter’s screening for a Q&A, pleased to discover the audience found in the flawed movie some dynamic, thought-provoking, Jean-Luc Godard-influenced filmmaking.

And Night Tide continues to be an overlooked jewel of early indie movies. Directed and co-written by the late Curtis Harrington — a Los Angeles underground/avant-garde filmmaker — the low-budget (and arty) thriller stars Hopper as a sailor on leave (pictured above) attracted to a mysterious woman (Linda Lawson) who works in a carnival sideshow as a mermaid. And she just might be one, a dangerous one at that. The daughter of the carousel operator (a fine actress named Luana Anders) seems to know, but the sailor won’t listen.

A film indebted to the atmospheric, naturalistic yet quasi-surreal horror movies of Val Lewton, Night Tide has a Cocteau-like poetic quality while also capturing the long-lost pre-tourist glitz style of life at Santa Monica’s pier at the time. It’s a beautiful hallucination of a movie.

The Last Movie has been derided as an excuse for post-Easy Rider Hopper and his hipster pals to party in Peru on a major studio’s dime, turning in an incoherent and self-indulgent movie whose very existence was a symbol of hippie-Hollywood’s arrogance. Well, yes and no. There are indeed indulgences (as well as wonderful cinematography from Laszlo Kovacs), but what comes together fitfully is a Marshall McLuhan-esque take on the ability of the camera, itself, to both empower and exploit people.

Hopper plays Kansas, a crew member who stays behind after production on a Western is shut down and discovers that Indian villagers are re-enacting film scenes … maybe for real. The movie unfolds in a deconstructionist style heavily influenced by Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni and cinema-studies theory. Like Easy Rider, it also tries to update and question the most mythically American of movie genres, the Western, at a time when all American myths were under question.

Also worth seeing (but not easy to find) are some of his other 1970s films. In 1973’s Kid Blue, directed by James Frawley, a revisionist Western in which he portrays a criminal trying to go straight in the small town of Dime Box. Free from being a director or writer, Hopper can just act and does it quite well. And he also is fine in Henry Jaglom’s 1977 Tracks as a distraught Vietnam-era soldier escorting his friend’s body home to California on a train.

Wim Wenders, the German director whose fascination with Americana later resulted in the classic Paris, Texas, cast Hopper in one of his finest roles in 1977’s The American Friend. He’s the cowboy-hat-wearing art dealer Ripley, who seduces a picture framer into committing murder. It’s a politicized take on Patricia Highsmith’s oft-filmed Ripley’s Game, showing both Wenders’ and Hopper’s interest in America’s (and Hollywood’s) Western mythos and how it affects the world. I can’t imagine it without The Last Movie having come first.

And in 1980’s Out of the Blue, which Hopper directed, he plays the troubled father of a young small-town rebel, memorably played by Days of Heaven’s Linda Manz.

Hopper might have been as difficult in the 1960s and 1970s as the conventional narrative says, wasting the power he acquired with Easy Rider. But he also did some fine work that's waiting to be rediscovered.
(Photo: From Night Tide)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Film Review | Moon

Space Oddity

by Thomas Delapa

Like a Frankenstein monster on steroids, the science-fiction film has mutated into “sci-fi” over the past quarter-century, juiced up with special effects, behemoth budgets, gore and gloom. It was in a Hollywood galaxy long ago and far away that thoughtful, speculative movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner were launched. With the genre near eclipse, 2009’s Moon—now out on DVD—is luminously retro, boldly going where few contemporary science-fiction films dare to go.

Produced on a relative nano-budget by first-time British director Duncan Jones, the futuristic Moon is a minimalist throwback to 2001, Silent Running and other far-out space classics. In what’s essentially a one-man show, Sam Rockwell delivers a bravura performance as Sam Bell, a lonely lunar miner nearing the end of this three-year stint on Moonbase Sarang. He spends his down time obsessively building a scale model of an all-American small town, only occasionally interrupted by nostalgic video transmissions from his beloved wife. Bell’s sole companion is Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), the base’s placid and paternalistic super-computer with robotic arms.

But this is no Tranquility Base. Houston does have a problem, and it starts with Bell’s ringing black-outs and apparent hallucinations. The miner discovers that he isn’t alone on the dark side of the moon. Or maybe he’s just as crazy as a lunar loon.

Like the best of science fiction from Arthur C. Clarke or Ray Bradbury, Nathan Parker’s script digs into a deep vein of ethical issues involving modern science and technology. If 2001 was the “ultimate trip,” Jones and Parker aim lower and modestly shoot for the moon, yet still manage to explore earthbound themes as universal as romantic longing and as enigmatic as human identity and memory.

With England’s historic Shepperton Studios (where Alien also landed) as their base, Jones and production designer Tony Noble craft a handsome homage, the studio sets boosted by quaint—but convincing—miniatures as well as modern digital effects. The stark, pockmarked lunar landscape hasn’t looked this good since Neil Armstrong first made his Apollo-like giant leap for mankind almost 41 years ago.

Despite the superbly economical backdrops, it’s Rockwell’s performance that really gives Moon its gravity. As the increasingly schizoid hero, Bell gets the opportunity to confront himself—quite literally—in a series of amazing sleight-of-hand doppelganger scenes that send the story hurtling off into what might be called an existential mystery. But this is no mere cinematic parlor trick. Working in a parallel universe to Philip K. Dick’s (especially in his novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—the source for Blade Runner), Jones wants us to probe the deceptive dark matter of memory, and what distinguishes artificial intelligence from the real.

In a field littered with weightless space junk, this is intelligent and provocative science fiction. It’s made exceptional because of the way Jones tugs at the conventions of the genre, then flips your expectations, shooting Moon off on a heady orbit all of its own.

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 6/1/10