Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book Review | The Story of Hollywood: An Illustrated History

Hollywood and Bust

by Thomas Delapa

In the minds of most, “Hollywood” has always been much more of a mythic idea than a real place. For nearly a century, it has been the world’s film capital—glitzy dream factory, star-studded entertainment center and sinful new Babylon all rolled and reeled into one.

Of all the thousands of books on the business, art and history of Hollywood, few have devoted more than a handful of pages to its existence as a community and, since 1910, as a four-square-mile patch of Los Angeles proper. That sparse scene dramatically changed with the 2005 publication of The Story of Hollywood: A Illustrated History, by Gregory Paul Williams. Handsome, meticulous and chock-full of facts and pictures, Williams’ sharp close-up is just the ticket for serious movie fans.

A Hollywood native, author and part-time puppeteer, Williams writes about his home town with love and nostalgia, as well as a clear, incisive eye. For anyone who has seen Hollywood’s urban decline over the past 50 years, this account will at least be a reminder of what’s been lost. Of course, Hollywood hasn’t faded out entirely in its centrality as movie Mecca, but it has shed much of its glitter. Of the legendary major studios that once famously called it home, only Paramount remains.

First claimed from Native Americans by Spain and then Mexico, the area now known as Hollywood was once dubbed Nopalera—after a cactus. Nestled against the Santa Monica Mountains in the sunny Cahuenga Valley, the land was bisected by the Camino Real, the main Spanish trail down the California coast. Soon after California made statehood in 1850, a wave of Anglo settlers from the East began moving in, edging out Mexican landowners. The Southern Pacific Railroad furthered Americanization of the valley, with farmers and ranchers sowing an array of warm-weather crops, especially lemons, figs, grapes and strawberries. Envisioned as a pricey L.A. subdivision by town wheeler-dealer Harvey Wilcox, Nopalera was renamed Hollywood (after an Illinois estate) sometime in the 1880s, with the east-west Hollywood Boulevard surfacing as the main drag.

No one could have imagined that the budding motion-picture industry would take root in these rural boondocks 3000 miles from the East Coast. The year 1907 saw the first film company go far west, joined soon after by the Biograph Company and its great silent director D.W. Griffith. Whether due to the balmy climate, picturesque locations, cheap land or great distance from New York City—and its monopolistic movie syndicates—Hollywood’s environs became America’s fertile crescent for making “flickers.”

Williams’ vivid flashback is splashed with colorful characters, good and bad, backed by a supporting cast of thousands. From the start of the film era, there existed a tension between the puritanical locals and in-migrating movie people (including the predominately Jewish studio moguls), who were treated with suspicion for their freewheeling, often scandalous ways. But with the rise in Hollywood’s wealth, property values and global fame, the locals grudgingly accommodated the new kids on the block. It was Griffith’s incendiary 1915 Civil War blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation, which signaled the ascendancy of American film, with Hollywood as its glittery new capital.

Writing with enthusiasm and simple prose, Williams crafts a narrative as high-minded, melodramatic and tawdry as any Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic. It’s tinted with rose-colored regrets, most especially for the vintage buildings—like the Vine Street Brown Derby—wantonly cut from the heart of the community over the years. Cast as the main villain is the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), a quasi-public organization formed in 1983 that burned through hundreds of millions of dollars in public money in an effort to stem the growing blight.

As several major studios began moving out towards greener L.A. pastures as early as the 1920s—like Warner Bros., to of all places, Burbank—the stars themselves began a westward trek toward swanky Beverly Hills and Bel Air. Even though the burgeoning television and (rock) music industries recharged the production scene in the 1950s and 1960s, Hollywood by the 1980s had morphed into crime-ridden “Hollyweird,” a low-concept urban disaster plot missing a superhero.

Like many a true-life saga, The Story of Hollywood lacks the happy ending that its namesake is famous for. The 21st-century ushered in an upbeat sequel of sorts, starting with the new (now-sponsorless) Kodak Theater, which in 2002 won the Oscars back home for the first time since 1960. A hip, Gen-X-fueled club scene took a bow, with some stars actually returning to reside in dodgy but historic Hollywood. Unlike so many of its grand old theaters, the Pantages (1930) is still in the spotlight, as is Grauman’s Chinese (1927) and the Egyptian (1922), the latter lovingly restored as the non-profit American Cinematheque. The original Charlie Chaplin Studios (1918) has been taken over by the Muppets.

Since its calamitous subway construction in the nineties (compounded by a 1994 earthquake), this onetime citrus grove has dusted off and moved on, and has at least tried to put the brakes on seedy decline. But with the increasing decentralization and digitization of the film industry in the age of the Internet and the indie, Hollywood’s epic run as America’s movie capital may be on its last reel.


Monday, March 26, 2012

"Jesus Camp" Review: From the Archives

“Jesus Camp”
Directed by: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
(Magnolia Pictures)
Grade:  B+

By Steven Rosen

“Jesus Camp,” a documentary about children at an Evangelical Christian summer camp with a decidedly conservative political agenda, arrives in Cincinnati Friday with an unusual back story.

The filmmakers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (“The Boys of Baraka”), received cooperation from a Pentecostal children’s minister, Becky Fischer, to record the goings-on at her “Kids on Fire” camp – as well as to follow three children who attend. The children, from different Missouri families, are Levi, Rachael and Tory – good, well-behaved kids.

Amazingly and too ironic to be coincidental, this camp is located in Devils Lake, North Dakota. This is a place where children learn that charismatic-style religion and conservative politics are intertwined in the eyes of their adult authority figures. They pray for a cardboard cut-out of President Bush, are warned about the witchcraft in “Harry Potter” and ghost stories, and are encouraged to get into such an intense, trancelike state while worrying about abortion that they suffer crying fits and mini-breakdowns. To Fischer, they are capable of becoming child preachers helping to recruit for her cause.

She expresses her agenda militantly and even militaristically, comparing her task to that of Palestinians (Islamic fundamentalists, presumably) using their camps to teach their children to sacrifice themselves in a war for control of the Holy Land.

With an agenda like that, one would think Fischer an immediately scary figure – like Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of a homicidal preacher in “Night of the Hunter” stalking children with “Love” tattooed on one hand and “Hate” on the other.

But because she actually is an engaging and outgoing person, as are the children and their parents, the filmmakers and their distributor Magnolia Pictures decided to open “Jesus Camp” in the red-state Heartland first. Presumably, they thought, other Evangelicals would like this portrait. Fischer, herself, is supportive of the film.

But an interesting thing happened. A Colorado Springs religious leader – Rev. Ted Haggard of the National Association of Evangelicals – blasted the movie and encouraged others not to see it. Haggard is in the film, when the three children attend a service at his huge church. He has said in the press he opposes “Jesus Camp” because it gives a distorted view of the Evangelical movement by concentrating on a fringe wing.

The film has done poorly in those Heartland locations. But in bigger cities it is attracting a far bigger and different audience. There, many see it as the latest muckraking expose – along the lines of “Fahrenheit 9/11” or “Why We Fight” – of the secretive rightwing network that has allowed a polarizing President to maintain power and push his agenda. In particular, they say, this shows how some Christian conservatives indoctrinate their kids to the point of child abuse.

Removing politics from the equation, the film might also remind those concerned about religious teaching practices of the disturbing “The Devil’s Playground” of a few years back. That showed how the Amish encourage their children to drop out of school as soon as possible…so they don’t learn anything contradictory to the faith.

Unlike “Fahrenheit” or “Why We Fight,” “Jesus Camp” isn’t a leftist essay and doesn’t have flippantly editorialist comic montages. It observes its subjects with little if any commentary or directorial intrusion, although it has an awful score that seems to want to make every scene ominous and foreboding.

Ewing and Grady’s role models here are the more traditionally straightforward, verite-style documentarians like Frederick Wiseman or the Maysles brothers, especially the latter’s portrait of door-to-door bible peddlers, “Salesman.”

They do break away from their narrative to include on-air commentary from Air America radio personality Mike Papantonio, whose show “Ring of Fire” frequently targets the conservative Christian movement. (He is an active Methodist.)

This provides a balance of sorts – it shows there’s a more mainstream Christian view of American values than what otherwise is being espoused here. But “Jesus Camp” would benefit from more background information on where charismatic Pentecostalism, Evangelical Christianity, and conservative Christianity intersect and where they diverge.  

Still, putting all that aside, it’s hard not to watch the scenes at the camp, where these kids are pushed to tears and beyond by the adults and not ask, “What in God’s name is going on?” This doesn’t look like proper religious education. And it’s heartbreaking to see sweet Rachael, for instance, wander up to strangers like a beggar seeking a handout as she clumsily tries to convert or recruit them.

It should be noted here that the parents of the children are articulate and sincere. They worry about their children in a society driven by crass pop culture and the act of violence that they consider abortion to be. And they fear that secularism may be why that culture has gotten so extreme. They home-school their children at least partly to protect them. Their aim is true. They’re practicing their freedom of religion.

Yet, as they and Fletcher and her staff express their beliefs to their young charges and to the filmmakers – pro-Creationism, abortion is murder, global warming doesn’t exist, etc. – you have to wonder: What if they’re wrong about that?

Doesn’t society have an interest in making sure the children know the full body of knowledge on a given subject? Shouldn’t kids be learning how to separate that which is provable from that which is believed on faith? And shouldn’t they be able to learn without being worked into a panic?

(This ran in Cincinnati CityBeat, 2006.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Special Indie Film Event in Cincinnati March 23 & 24 & 25

For Cincinnati Indie Film Buffs
Event on March 23-24-25

Patrick Wang the director, writer and  co-star of celebrated indie film In the Family will be doing a Q&A after the 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday screenings and the Sunday 1 p.m. screening at the Esquire Theatre in Clifton. This first feature was nominated for a prestigious Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature/John Cassavettes Award.

Below is the press release about the film provided to Deeper Into Movies. 

Comfortable with taking narrative and formal risks, Writer/Director (and lead actor) Patrick Wang tells a story woven around child custody,
two Dads, parental loss, and the human side of the law.

Chip Hines (Sebastian Brodziak), a precocious and loving six year-old, whose mother died in childbirth, knows life only with his two
Dads, Cody Hines, his biological father, "Pa", (Soap sensation, Trevor St. John, ONE LIFE TO LIVE) and the kind and resourceful Joey Williams,
"Dad" (Writer-Director Wang).  Both men are embraced by Cody's family and by their community of co-workers and friends.  Caught up in the
lapidary subtle rhythms of their small, sophisticated Southern town, Martin, Tennessee, Cody teaches Junior High Math and Joey is a general
contractor who has been supervising the restoration and preservation of a mansion owned by retired attorney Paul Hawks and his wife 
Marge (Susan Kellermann, BEETLEJUICE, 33 VARIATIONS).

Suddenly, their world is shattered when Cody is killed in a car accident.  Gradually Joey and young Chip work to regroup and regain
their balance until Joey learns that Cody's will, written six years earlier, was never amended to insure his position as Chip's Dad; 
Cody had named his sister, Eileen, as Chip's legal guardian.  And Chip is taken away from Joey.  When Joey objects, a restraining
order is placed against him.  Instantly, Joey is without sranding in a world he has trusted as safe, and rational, and loving.

Joey knows better than anyone what this loss will mean for Chip, he lost his own parents when he was three - and the law, of course,
is not on his side.  Wang's assured pacing and mise-en-scene are correlatives for Joey's methodical pursuit of a way back to his son.
As a consequence of this exquisite control the audience has time to engage in his images and inhabit his story.

Although Joey has the support of his friends, the prospects are bleak until his client, Paul Hawks - in a towering performance by
Brian Murray (Simon Gray's OLD MASTERS; ME, MYSELF , & I; THE PLAY ABOUT THE BABY) - guides joey to the restoration 
and preservation of his broken world. 

Wang, Brian Murray, Trevor St.John and Susan Kellermann are joinedd in this luminous ensemble by stage and television actors,
including Peter Hermann (WAR HORSE; UNITED 93), Kelly McAndrew as Eileen (CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF), Park Overall (EMPTY NEST,

Esquire Theatre Website

In Praise of Silent Movies


By Steven Rosen

From The Denver Post

Recently, more than 600 people crowded into Boulder's venerable Chautauqua Auditorium to see an old movie. A really old movie.

   It was a silent movie - Charlie Chaplin's 72-year-old "The 
Circus," with piano accompaniment from Hank Troy.

There were all ages present. Some were old enough to remember when silents were golden; others were toddlers who squealed - loudly - when Chaplin's famous, baggy-trousered Tramp character was chased by an angry mule or harassed by monkeys on a tightrope.

And there were even teens, usually phobic about being seen near anything old - as black-and-white silent movies most certainly are.

Now in its 14th season, which continues on Wednesday evenings through Sept. 6 (with a week off on Aug. 16), Chautauqua's Silent Film Series is the best local example of the enduring appeal of silent movies. (See accompanying schedule.)

"Comedies are our staple, but we like to throw people a curve every now and then," explains Chautauqua's Ray Tuomey. "We bought two new 16-millimeter projectors this year, so what you see on screen is bright. And we've been going to collectors to get the best prints."

There is plenty of other evidence, both here and abroad, that interest in silent movies is strong. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra has had success performing scores to Chaplin's "The Gold Rush" and Carl Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc" as accompaniment to showings of restored prints.

The Telluride Film Festival has a tradition of having a musical ensemble perform a new score to a silent classic. In fact, the funniest movie I've seen in recent years was Telluride '97's "Pass the Gravy," a silent short in which a boy kills his neighbor's prize chicken only to discover it will be served at a family dinner honoring that neighbor. The Alloy Orchestra performed an amusing new score.

In Pordenone, Italy, there is an entire festival devoted to restored or rediscovered silent classics. And there are more Web sites devoted to silent-film culture than there are theaters that still show the classics of Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, etc. Search for a site called Silent Movies Page and find links to numerous other pages.

While none of this is a risk to the gross receipts of "Nutty Professor II," "Coyote Ugly" or "Me, Myself & Irene," the ongoing viability of silent films raises questions. In 72 years, will 600 people crowd into Chautauqua, or anywhere, to watch restored versions of this year's high-profile Hollywood comedies as they still do Chaplin?

And why do silent movies still appeal to anyone, anyway? In this age of megaplexes, IMAX screens and stereo movie sound, shouldn't they now be antiquated? Aren't they relics of a long-ago past, suitable for framing - pun intended - only in museums?

Actually, no.

In fact, a case can be made that they represent the epitome of film as a form of modernism. And film, essentially if not technically a 20th century creation, certainly is a modern art form.

The pioneering silent filmmakers had to develop a universal visual language - just like painters and sculptors. And the language came from sources other than speech. Some were adapted from the stage - expressive acting, set design, lighting, costumes.

Others were new and related to cinematography and directorial vision - camera angles, montage, experiments with focus, editing, closeups and panoramic shots. Films also relied on musical scores, usually performed live during the screening, to create mood and express emotions.

All this constituted a great leap forward, especially for anyone who believes this key tenet of enlightened modernism - that which moves us should not also divide us. Because the silents had no spoken dialogue, everyone could understand them. That's why the silent era was far more international than today's movie industry, in which the sounds of Hollywood movies - explosions, gunfire, car crashes, punchouts, as well as the spoken word - dominate the world.

Before the sound era, filmmakers from France, Great Britain, Russia and Scandinavia were as important as Americans, such as D.W. Griffith or "The Crowd's" King Vidor. They did not make "foreign movies," they made movies. (America's vast population and economic power did give it an early edge, especially after Europe exhausted many of its resources and joie de vivre on World War I.)

But where would movies be today without the dark, eerie expressionism of such German silents as "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" or "Nosferatu"? These prefigured - and helped create - film noir, suspense and horror. Today, we take for granted that film has a right to show a distorted, abstracted reality. This happened because silent filmmakers couldn't rely on dialogue.

Surprisingly, among those who believe the silent era was the best is one of cinema's (and theater's) masters of language, David Mamet. In a 1997 interview with The Denver Post, he said, "It works better without words.

"What I'm hired to do (as a screenwriter) is describe pictures. The question is how to tell the story best at any given point. The answer always is to see if I can do it without words, because then I know I'm doing it right. But sometimes I'm not smart enough. But that's my ideal."

Of course, there are great talkies. With time, filmmakers have found authoritative ways to match the rhythm of words to the rhythm of pictures. This can be done with a transfixing deliberativeness, as in post-war European art films. Or it can be done with spitfire speed and alacrity, as in American screwball comedies. But since the sound era started with Al Jolson's 1927 "The Jazz Singer," has there been another movie star with such emotional, universal appeal as Chaplin? In that regard, the movies peaked early.

In "Charlie Chaplin: Comic Genius," David Robinson asserts the Tramp is the most important fictional character created in the 20th century. "One day in the first week of January 1914, he went into the shed ... to select a costume," Robinson writes. "When he emerged, he had created the Tramp figure that remains to this day the world's best-known fictional representation of a human being."

In an age of great poverty, Chaplin's Tramp was the downtrodden underdog everyone could root for. While the British-born actor's creation was an American invention, it spoke to the world.

He wore rags and twirled a cane as frail as his own rail-thin body; he was clumsy, insecure and often inept. Yet he also was romantic, optimistic, resilient and resourceful - and funny. He represented hope and humor.

As the director of his own features, Chaplin had an astoundingly inventive visual sensibility. In "Gold Rush," the Tramp cooks his own boot for a Thanksgiving dinner and improvises a surreal "dance of the dinner rolls." And funny as "Circus" is, the final scene of the Tramp alone in a field of grass is as evocative as a quiet sunset.

Of the few other enduring movie "representations of human beings," success has rested more on power and propensity for violence than Chaplin's humane poetry. A pessimist could track the decline of Western civilization from Chaplin's Tramp to Sylvester Stallone's "Rambo."

James Bond, who first appeared in Ian Fleming's novels but became famous from debonair Sean Connery's portrayal in movies, had a license to kill. So, too, did Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name and Dirty Harry, more or less. And "Rambo" seems more superhuman cartoon character than mortal.

Chaplin, who believed in the power of silent films, tried to sustain them long after the sound era began. His pantomime style of acting owed everything to silence. In the 1930s, he made the essentially silent "City Lights" and "Modern Times." When he finally did adopt dialogue, with 1940's "The Great Dictator," he retired the Tramp. That wasn't a reactionary action - he was right to try to preserve what he knew couldn't be replaced.

Earlier, I wondered if in 72 years a screening of "Nutty Professor II" would be able to draw as many people to Chautauqua as "The Circus" did. Maybe it will - the scene of a giant, feces-flinging hamster is essentially a sight gag, after all. But I doubt it. Somehow, it just lacks the stuff of greatness. But "The Circus" probably will still be drawing big crowds in 72 years - and 72 years after that. Silent films will never lose their appeal.

Steven Rosen's e-mail address is

Monday, March 19, 2012

DVD Review | The Departed

Old Jack City

by Thomas Delapa

Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and a cast of seven robbing hoods. The Boston underworld. Director Martin Scorsese. Now that you've seen the bad-ass ads for The Departed, I know what all youse wiseguys are thinking: a mob movie in the tradition of GoodFellas.

Well, you can fuhgetaboutit. Redolent of four-letter words, Scorsese's flatulent Boston massacre doesn't amount to hill of beans. Count me among those who wished to depart from The Departed before it was over.

Perhaps still smarting from The Aviator's Oscar snub, Scorsese has landed with bloody vengeance back on his home turf in the gangster flick. But this is easily his worst film since Cape Fear. How bad is GoodFellas Does Boston? So bad that even Jack Nicholson is a deadly bore.

When we first see Nicholson as sleazy gangland boss Frank Costello, he's slithering into a dark cafe, sporting a grizzled goatee and armed with insinuating sexual language. Nicholson's accompanied on the soundtrack by the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter," helping to cue us in that Costello is, by golly, the devil. At least Scorsese mercifully delivers us from "Sympathy for the Devil."

In William Monahan's script—lifted from the 2002 Hong Kong hit, Infernal Affairs—Boston is a ratty hellhole where you can't tell the difference between the crooks and the cops. That's literally true when it comes to Billy Costigan (DiCaprio), a troubled rookie policeman who's assigned to infiltrate Costello's gang. Costigan's cop doppelganger is Colin Sullivan (Damon), who in actuality is Costello's top mole in the state police.

Scorsese and Monahan pile on the bodies and four-letter words with a nihilistic glee that might even cause Tony Soprano to run to confession. Somewhere among the scumbags, dickheads and fucksticks (that's a new one), Monahan's lamebrain script wants to connect the corpses in a study of how gangland crime is rooted in a perverse sense of family obligation. Gee, and I thought I was just watching a Scorsese snuff film.

Beginning with his miscasting in Gangs of New York, DiCaprio has let his own fixation with Scorsese as his screen daddy take him down a dark Steadicam path. With the exception of an admirably subdued Alec Baldwin, all the actors in this movie seem to be juiced on testosterone shots from Floyd Landis' doctor. The unwritten mobster dialogue here isn't "Top of world, Ma!" but rather, "Look how tough I am, Ma, I'm in a Scorsese movie!"

Not only is Scorsese repeating himself in self-parody, but even his usual flair for pop music sounds a death knell. Alongside "Gimme Shelter" (twice) and Patsy Cline's "Crazy" (twice), composer Howard Shore can only contribute a limp background score. Veteran cinematographer Michael Ballhaus' camera is as dead as Costello's numbing parade of victims, including one who falls splat from five stories up at DiCaprio's feet.

Buried within Monahan's script is a relevant 9/11-era theme about the absurd turf wars waging between city, state and federal crime agencies. In one attempt after another to collar Costello, the police bungle the arrest, looking like the Keystone Cops in plainclothes. That Costello may be an FBI informant further blurs the lines of cop and criminality, adding to the witches' brew.

But Scorsese lets his cast play everything at a fever pitch in overheated confrontations that boil over with random acts of brutality. Loosely based on the notorious mob exploits of "Whitey" Bulger, The Departed is no departure for Nicholson, who riffs on all his past Satanic-majesty roles, from The Witches of Eastwick to The Shining.

An ugly 2 1/2-hour whack-fest, The Departed left me hoping that Scorsese will never darken the screen with another gangster movie again.

Originally published in Boulder Weekly, 10/12/06
[Postscript: The Departed won the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for 2006.]

Monday, March 12, 2012

DVD Review | The Deer Hunter (1978)

Deer Diary

by Thomas Delapa

After only two movies, more than a few pronounced him a directorial genius. Two years later, he underwent one of the fastest fade-outs in Hollywood history.

Following 1978’s Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino was considered a sure shot to join the growing superstar ranks of Scorsese, Altman and Spielberg—led by top-dog Francis Ford Coppola. But not only did Cimino’s colossal follow-up, Heaven’s Gate, flop, his career quickly went to hell in a bamboo hand basket.

Nominated for nine Oscars and a winner of five, including Best Picture and Best Director, The Deer Hunter was one of those incendiary epics that divided audiences along political battle lines in the post-sixties hangover, a.k.a. the 1970s. Though the movie was victorious over Coming Home—and star/activist Jane Fonda—it didn’t win the hearts and minds of left-leaning audiences; while both dramas dealt with the Vietnam War, Cimino’s epic was, in Fonda’s acerbic, pre-aerobic words, “a racist, Pentagon version of the war.”

While many critics fulsomely declared Deer Hunter to be a masterpiece (“Surely one of the most powerful films of the seventies,” trumpeted Stephen Schiff in the Boston Phoenix), others were more circumspect, even derisive. Nearly 35 years later, contemporary audiences may draw a blank, given that it’s aged only somewhat better than leisure suits and disco. If The Godfather, Jaws, Chinatown and Star Wars are still bright in our memories, The Deer Hunter crouches languidly on the endangered classics list.

With only one directorial effort to his credit (the underrated buddy drama Thunderbolt and Lightfoot), the Yale-educated Cimino set his sights on the definitive story of America’s lost, pre-Vietnam War innocence—not so unlike George Lucas’s nostalgic American Graffiti five years previous. But whereas Lucas’ bittersweet comedy was fresh and unpretentious, screenwriter Deric Washburn seemed to cut and paste from The Godfather, Deliverance, and Scorsese’s Mean Streets—along with a few dusty plucks from The Four Feathers—for his meditation on male camaraderie and bravado in wartime.

Cimino took a bead on a band of blue-collar buddies in a flinty, Russian-American Pennsylvania steel town. Enlisting right after his searing success in Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro is Michael, the group’s stoic alpha male, with John Savage, John Cazale and newcomer Christopher Walken sturdily bringing up the rear. (Terminally ill with cancer during the shoot, Cazale died months after its completion.) In only her second movie role, Meryl Streep spryly plays Walken’s betrothed, one of the women left waiting on the home front.

In the 2005 Universal DVD release, the gifted Hungarian/American cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond talks about his part in creating Cimino’s striking widescreen visuals, from the fiery blast furnaces to the golden interiors of the Russian Orthodox church, where the signature wedding scene takes place. A la The Godfather’s ritualistic bookends, Cimino frames his three-hour saga with the ironic pairing of one wedding and a funeral.

Sandwiched between the over-praised naturalism (several of the scenes were improvised by the cast), Washburn and Cimino shoot for the heights, yet their aim is scattershot. The overarching metaphor is Michael’s cryptic Spartan philosophy to bag a deer with “one shot,” and one shot only. As embodied in De Niro’s stolid, goateed machismo, Michael stands head and shoulders above his less-than-steely friends, a heroic coupling of James Fenimore Cooper and Ayn Rand.

In one of cinema’s most shocking jump cuts, we’re lifted from the airy Pennsylvania (actually Washington) mountains instantly into the sweltering jungles of Vietnam. In the first of a load of dubious coincidences, De Niro, Walken and Savage meet up as soldiers in the middle of a battle, and just as quickly find themselves in riverfront tiger cages, imprisoned by the Viet Cong. There, in the film’s most controversial sequence, the trio is forced to take part in their captors’ depraved game of Russian roulette.

Embedded within Cimino and Zsigmond’s vivid realism, this harrowing, wholly fabricated sequence can be viewed, at best, as symbolic of America’s self-destructive death march in Vietnam. At worst, it’s pernicious, booby-trapped propaganda that points the blame for the American tragedy in Vietnam squarely at sadistic, jabbering (“Mao! Mao!”) monsters who have nothing better to do than torture and kill defenseless G.I.s.

After a cathartic, shoot-’em-up escape that would make Dirty Harry’s day, the trio parts ways, their roads home emblematic of the wildly different fates of returning veterans (and intriguingly resonant of the dilemmas of the three soldiers in William Wyler’s far less bombastic The Best Years of Our Lives three decades earlier). While Michael returns die-hardened, if tempered, his brothers-in-arms face grimmer prospects. In perhaps the movie’s most poignant and authentic section, De Niro tracks down Savage to a V.A. hospital, where their friendship is re-forged in the face of crippling tragedy.

But Cimino isn’t satisfied with subtlety or even naturalism. He’s after bigger game. Back in Saigon during its chaotic 1975 fall to the North Vietnamese, Walken’s Nick has gone bananas, plunging into his own heart of darkness. Lured by a decadent Frenchman, the traumatized Nick is now the chief combatant in high-stakes backroom games of Russian roulette.

Whatever the nationality, Cimino gambles on lurid sensationalism, and it doesn’t pay off—now or then. In place of a sharp focus on the war and its victims, he aims for xenophobic myth; in place of cathartic realism, he shoots for muddled pulp. In the ambiguous—or laughable—last scene, Cimino waves the flag to the tune of “God Bless America,” betting that Academy Award voters would stand up and salute. They did.

Armed with his Oscar trophy and a bloated $40 million budget, Cimino nearly broke the bank (and United Artists) in his elephantine western Heaven’s Gate, one of the biggest disasters in movie history, which was instrumental in killing off the “New Hollywood” halcyon days of experiment and artistic risk. Cimino’s career has never recovered, in hindsight perhaps another indirect casualty of the hellish Vietnam War.


Saturday, March 3, 2012

Film Review | 300 (2007)

Greek Rush

by Thomas Delapa

If you're talking tough love, nothing beats the wives of ancient Sparta. When Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) sends her husband Leonidas (Gerard Butler) off to fight the Persians, her adieu is short and not-so-sweet: "Come back with your shield—or on it."

Pumped up with fab abs and a legion of computer effects, 300 takes no prisoners in its visceral and feverishly visual retelling of the legendary battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. Armed with every high-tech weapon in today's filmmaking, director Zack Snyder has kicked your father's sword-and-sandal movie back to the Stone Age.

Based on the graphic novel by Sin City author Frank Miller, 300 far outnumbers anything in theaters right now for cinematic and sinewy audacity. On the other hand, it's heavy in collateral damage. If you had to pick one movie that would bring a round of salutes from Hitler, Mussolini and Alexander the Great, this is it.

Temporarily sidestepping the film's racist and xenophobic streak, this may be the best adaptation of a graphic novel to date. Snyder (2005's Dawn of the Dead) and company keep Miller's neo-mythological tone and look intact, winging us to an ancient Greece that floats between reality and imagination. It's an Olympian feat, but it's also afflicted with an Achilles heel of Western jingoism.

Acting as sentinel for the European Aryan nation is Sparta, a city-state of 24/7 warriors led by the brave and bellicose King Leonidas. Only 300 Spartan warriors stand in the way of Persia's Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his hordes. A bald and semi-androgynous giant of a tyrant, Xerxes is a scary guy, beginning with a face full of piercings that would make even Hellraiser's Pinhead say ouch.

In this tale of arms and the man, poet-soldier Dilios (David Wenham) joins up to add an epic narration, resounding with mythical embellishment that hearkens back to the great storytelling traditions of Virgil and Homer. On the Spartan home front, waffling politicians debate whether they should send reinforcements to back up Leonidas' band of brothers. The king's feisty wife fights her own battles, firstly with the sleazy and treacherous leader of the council.

Grecian history formula aside, 300 gangs up to sound a clarion call to protect the Indo-European frontier in whatever continent. The barbarians are at the gates, and they've brought their "tyranny and mysticism" along with elephants. It's an army conscripted with slaves, giants, deformed freaks, harem harlots and veiled, bomb-throwing cowards. In 480 B.C., Persia (read: Iran) was still pre-Islamic, but there's nothing like a pre-emptive Armageddon to get the blood running.

And what a lovely war it is. On Snyder's sepia-toned killing fields, wave after wave of Persian minions run headlong into Leonidas' handful of gallant men, who grant no mercy and expect none. Boldly choreographed with slo-mo flourishes, it's a bloody good show—accent on the blood. But in Miller's gory holy war, there are no winners and few survivors. "I have filled my heart with hate," says the Captain (Vincent Regan) after his son is killed in one skirmish. To which Leondias smiles and replies, "Good."

By Zeus, where do I sign up for the Crusades?


Originally published in Boulder Weekly, 3/15/07