Saturday, September 28, 2013

Fagen Does Criterion

Fagen and Criterion?! My head may explode!

I knew the man had unmatched taste....



http://www.criterion.com/explore/205-donald-fagen-s-top-10

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Spook Who Sat by the Door

Director Ivan Dixon describes his film THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR, an adaptation of Sam Greenlee's 1969 novel of the same name, as a "fantasy". It is in fact a highly controversial polemic that went "missing" for many years. Allegedly seized by the government weeks after its debut in 1973. Another fist shake at the white establishment of the time, but not as angry or violent as pictures like SWEET SWEETBACK'S BADASSS SONG. In its era, it might not have seemed so fantastic. The U.S. was under siege by near constant protests, demonstrations, and frequent riots and may well have seemed vulnerable, ripe for the sort of scenario this film imagines. Same as it ever was??

SPOOK opens with a meeting of a white senator seeking re-election and two of his staff. His secretary is a black woman who explains in a flat, professional voice free of any hint of ethnicity of his dismal percentages among minorities. He hatches a plan to save face, to plot a swift PR move - open CIA slots to blacks. To the Agency's surprise, one not only passes their rigorous examinations but proves to be one of their best. He masters guerrilla techniques and espionage training.  Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook) gets the job and finds himself  "Reproduction Center Sections Chief", which means he's in charge of the copy machine in the basement.  He comes off as relentlessly serious in his work. Unfailingly subservient. The Agency is proud to use Freeman as proof of their adoption of integration and progress.

Freeman has a covert plan. After 5 years of service, he abruptly resigns to accept a social services gig in his hometown of Chicago, to help out his fellow man. To help youngsters get an education and kick the junk and gang members to stop the madness, yes, but also to learn sophisticated warfare tactics, just like he learned in the CIA. To build a band of Freedom Fighters. To become "free". By any means necessary, as it was said.

There are complications on the road to freedom. Freeman rekindles a friendship with an old buddy, now a cop, who is determined to foil the increasing crime perpetrated by the Fighters (and who is unaware of Freeman's role in it). There is also a reunion with an old girlfriend, now married, who broke off their earlier relationship because she wanted someone with more stability. One of the gang members Freeman trains is white, but insists he is black and is very willing to join the cause.

When the police kill a local junkie, it sparks a citywide riot, creating a perfect segue to a New America.  A revolution, city by city...

THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR is a sloppily made, sometimes technically inept, but undeniably powerful film.  The low budget in fact works in the film's favor - its crude production makes it appear as if the film was made by guerrillas themselves. The result is a frighteningly effective piece of propaganda. A "paranoia" exercise that will have some viewers recoiling in discomfort, and others cheering.

Director Dixon is easily best known for his role on Hogan's Heroes, work that he indirectly refers to as "junk" in an interview included in the disc's extras. He is proud of SPOOK, of its fearless and unapologetic message. Is it irresponsible? Racist? Fair? A cautionary tale?

The PG-rated SPOOK is also surprisingly free of the usual blaxploitation elements, further giving credence to its serious message without side steps into unnecessary sex scenes and/or overly stylized violence. There is a typically funky, memorable electronic score by Herbie Hancock. And the film is not entirely free of humor. Not cheeky, easy vulgarity, but rather at least one moment of scathing satire, such as the ultimate fate of a gung-ho white National Guardsman.

Important topic or not, SPOOK is not immune from the sharpened quill of criticism. Perhaps the film would've been more effective if "whitey" wasn't always drawn so stereotypically. As one-dimensionally racist buffoons (as in your typical blaxploitation pic). My favorite moment: when Freeman's file is reviewed by CIA chiefs, one remarks, "He has athletic ability, that figures!" It recalled for me that moment in TRADING PLACES, when one of the white Duke brothers hears the black Reggie singing in the next room: "They are a musical people, aren't they?" 

THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR, whose title can be interpreted in at least 3 ways I can think of,  also sports one of those curious 1970s endings, a final scene freeze frame that feels abrupt, anti-climactic maybe, but is most certainly a nod to those revolutionaries of centuries past....

Friday, September 20, 2013

Burn Notice Post Mortem

Movies are king
Television is furniture.

Yes, I know there have been some choice, even stellar TV series over the years.  But for me, even the greatest TV moment can't match a film when that unexplainable magic is there.

But over the past few years, shows like Mad Men have broken the boundaries and created great drama, a sharp contrast to a lot of offerings at the multiplex.  Breaking Bad, finishing up its final season, is another good example.

Also ceasing production is USA Network's Burn Notice, which completed a seven series run a week ago. It may not earn a spot in the distinguished company of those other shows. Hell, it wouldn't even make such a claim.  It's the very definition of a guilty pleasure, a wildly entertaining, sometimes exhilarating adventure that took itself fairly seriously but always lent a wink to let you know that while some bad things may happen (even to the principal players), everything would ultimately be OK. As cast member Bruce Campbell (who plays Chuck Finley, er, Sam Axe) puts it, "It's the meatloaf effect.  It's a nice, comfortable meal that makes you feel good." Well said.

Creator Matt Nix concocted the story of an ace CIA agent named Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) who in the midst of a job in South America is "burned". Blacklisted. Meaning, disavowed from the Agency. Left to spin in the wind.  As every episode's opening narration states (read by Donovan/Westen), "....no cash, no credit.  You're left in whatever city they decide to dump you in..." In this case, Miami, his hometown, and a perfect backdrop for all of the mayhem to play out. Another piece where the locale is a character itself.

Also, far from my favorite city.  I could torture you with a detailed missive as to why I despise the place, what I consider a confused, wannabe metropolis, but for now let's just explain why  its so perfect for Burn Notice. The very banality of its tropical culture, from the gaudy mansions to the sleaziest back-alleys, were vital and perfect for its storyline. And this was not some shot-in-Southern California fakery (those extra tall palms and mountains in the background always give it away). BN is shot street level all over Miami, with a base in Coconut Grove/Coral Gables. Of interest to me as I am there monthly to visit my father-in-law.

Westen is reunited with his ex-girlfriend, a trigger-happy former IRA member named Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), friend/ex-Navy SEAL Sam Axe, and even his mother (Sharon Gless, who had an Emmy nom one season), who gave the show much dramatic weight and plenty of guilt tripping. In the fourth season, another burned spy named Jesse (Coby Bell) joined the cast, rounding out the team as each week they used their considerable skills (and lots of duct tape) to help someone in need, at the mercy of sheisters and kingpins. It was somewhat of a cross between The A-Team and MacGyver, but with more deaths.. Arcing through the series was Michael's desperate efforts to find out who burned him, and why.

It was a long, dangerous, and sometimes ponderous journey.   Along the way, a parade of former comrades and enemies turn up. Guest star turns by the likes of Tim Matheson, John Mahoney, Patton Oswalt, and even Burt Reynolds. The team itself had backstory: On again/off again lovers Michael and Fiona met in Ireland a decade earlier when she was working for the IRA, while Sam was the career Navy SEAL who eventually spied on Westen for the FBI.  Sam even had his own BN spin-off prequel movie, still unseen by me.  Jesse was also a spy who was accidentally burned by Michael and when he learned the truth, became a temporary antagonist. But the quartet always settled their differences and worked together.

I wish the series had ended at the close of season 4. It was one of the most perfect finales ever, filled with the highest caliber action and drama of the series run. It concluded with Westen being whisked back to Washington D.C. Would he get his old job back? But then the next season did not pick up exactly where the previous had left off and missed a chance for some interesting Agency dynamics.  The whole re-adjustment period  Westen likely experienced. Instead, the series jumped to 6 months later. USA did feature a comic based on the time gap on their website.

Season 7 tuned considerably darker as the client-of-the-week format (and generally light tone) was dropped to focus on Westen's efforts to infiltrate a group of vigilantes who were described by the CIA as terrorists. Michael learns otherwise, perhaps seeing a group led by the enigmatic James (John Pyper-Ferguson) as a similar version of himself, albeit with more ruthless methods. Westen has no choice in his mission, as failure would result in his and his friends'  life imprisonment in a CIA holding facility due to some past "indiscretions" during Season 6 that are too complicated to discuss here.

The series finale was quite satisfying, and I won't entirely spoil it for those who haven't watched. Nix wrote and directed an episode that tied up all possible loose ends, leading to a happy final scene that fans were praying for during a long, somber season. But, there was one very tragic death among the principal players, very well played.

But my favorite thing? The very last scene explains why Westen was providing narration the entire series run, and to whom. Why he spent each and every episode in voiceover discussing the methodology and psychology of spy work (one of the most intriguing aspects of the show, IMO). I always wondered if the device wasn't just some 3rd person omniscient POV or if he was indeed recounting a story to someone.

It turns out to be the latter. As Nix and his writers were formulating the final season, this idea came to him, as if it was always there and he just figured it out. It's like Gabriel Byrne's character in COOL WORLD: an animator who thought he created an entire universe and finds that it had always existed. If you've seen BN's finale, tell me it isn't a brilliant touch. It will be fun to go back and re-watch, with a new dimension added that will only make the series even better. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Honeydripper

I just adore how a John Sayles film plays. Flows naturally. Unfolds perhaps in a novelistic fashion yet feels real.  Detractors may say it meanders, has no shape. People get so fidgety when their entertainment doesn't follow a predictable path or connect the dots.  Travel the well worn linear. Then there are those film snobs who dismiss things that don't have some deeper meaning, are "about something". Honestly, I'm sick to death of those who are constantly probing for hidden themes, or allegories. The layers are in fact often there, whether the artist intended it or not. That's an entire discussion of its own. Sayles makes movies about real people and shoots them in real locations. Down home character studies. Sometimes home grown Americana, other times in places like Ireland or Mexico. And he makes them cinematic, without self consciousness.

2007's HONEYDRIPPER fits nicely among the writer/director's works. Segregated Alabama in the 1950s is the setting. Tyrone "Pine Top" Purvis (Danny Glover), a former piano prodigy, runs a failing blues club, populated on a typical evening by a handful of local drunks and a soulful female crooner living out her final days.  Across the way is a competitor, a joint that is jumping, seducing those in the town who have a dollar in their pocket, including several weekend pass soldiers. One day, a young drifter named Sonny Blake (Gary Clark, Jr.) happens into Purvis' club. He carries a homemade guitar, a plank of wood that he wound and fretted himself. He asks for a job, but Pine Top already has a gig booked, a nationally known plucker who'll promise Standing Room Only. A do-or-die night that he hopes will turn things around.      

HONEYDRIPPER introduces a gallery of other characters, another fine cast assembled by Sayles. Pine Top's wife, Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton), is a housekeeper for a prominent local couple (the matriarch played by Mary Steenburgen).  She attends revival tent meetings on the outskirts of town, and becomes conflicted as the words of the preacher seem to uncomfortably describe her husband's sinful life to a T. China Doll (Yaya DeCosta) is the Purvis' stunning teenage daughter, who takes a shine to Sonny. Her character is actually given some depth and backstory. There's the local redneck sheriff - not necessarily the one note racist he appears to be- named Pugh (Stacey Keach). He's vaguely menacing and one day picks up Sonny merely for being unemployed and puts him on his prisoner work detail. Charles Dutton plays Pine Top's friend, Maceo.  Even Keb Mo' is on hand.

There are smatterings of music throughout, and of course during the finale. I won't divulge what happens, but it shouldn't be too difficult to guess.  Some solid playing in there, but I wanted more! Maybe I was expecting wall to wall tunes. That would be a small beef I have with HONEYDRIPPER, and yes I realize I could buy the soundtrack.

And the movie is so well textured, so vivid and well acted, that periodic lapses in pace and a slight overlength are easily forgiven. Much care was taken with this production, and Sayles' refusal to get tangled in tired plotting, pretentious attempts at subtext, or to contrive big emotions are what separates this from other films that tackle race relations in the mid 20th century - Oscar bait like THE HELP or the current LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

The MISSION IMPOSSIBLE franchise began to grow tiresome for me at some point during the second installment, despite it being directed by Asian mayhem maestro John Woo. Part three had J.J. Abrams at the helm, and he unleashed some of his worst instincts. Such as? Vertigo inducing hand held camera work and washed out cinematography. Nearly a total bust. Only Philip Seymour Hoffman made it worth watching.  Part IV, GHOST PROTOCOL has Brad Bird, who previously only directed animated films, in the driver's seat.

That's OK, because GHOST PROTOCOL might as well be a cartoon. It's one of the most gleefully silly and frantic spy thrillers in memory. Not a single thing seen is to be believed, including perhaps the sight of Tom Cruise, again playing agent Ethan Hunt, hanging off a 100 plus story building in Dubai.  Though, Cruise proudly did his own stunts.

It seems pointless to spend the time reviewing a movie like this. What is there left to say about the contemporary spy thriller? Well, every once in awhile there's a more cerebral offering like TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. But for every one of those there are a dozen over the top, hyperactively edited products designed to appeal to things besides that part of your brain that craves a well written, thoughtful exercise.

And GHOST PROTOCOL is not awesome enough for me to end each sentence with an exclamation point. Likewise, it's not bad enough to litter your screen with a pile of smart-ass potshots. Mainly, I want to encourage those of you who bailed on this series to give this newest one a try. That is, if you're indeed not entirely weary of adrenalized spy exploits. If you have a hankering for escapism at its most frenzied, yet one that hasn't lost an innocent sense of fun like so many other spy films and TV programs these days.

Plot? I will not detail it too deeply, but I'll  mention that it involves nuclear arms and Mother Russia. Cold War over or not, what better fodder for a spy tale? A bomb levels the Kremlin. Hunt and his team are officially blamed for the attack by their own country but are secretly allowed to escape and find the identity of a figure called "Cobalt", who plans to initiate a nuclear war. One member of the group is an Intelligence analyst named Brandt (Jeremy Renner) who has a past with Hunt, though the latter is unaware of this.

Nothing seen in GHOST PROTOCOL is to be believed? Even the script incorporates that attitude, as in one sequence Ethan and an accomplice use a projection screen to fool security guards in  believing a hallway is free and clear. This moment is very similar to one in 1986's thriller, F/X. Bird uses his generous budget well, employing real stunts with the CGI trickery, which thankfully isn't too obnoxious or artificial. The climax involves a car chase, with a twist: it's vertical.

Adventures like this always up the ante, create mayhem that tops all that came before. If the BOURNE films (which were far more straight faced than any of the MIs) failed to satiate the moviegoer action lust, GHOST PROTOCOL probably will. Fans of the series will also enjoy some brief cameos from actors who appeared in the earlier films.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Insignificance

The reviewers of 1985's INSIGNIFICANCE have been misleading me for years. They wrote of how four individuals very closely resembling Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and Joe DiMaggio all meet in a NYC hotel one summer night.  As if they are all in the same space at the same time. They never are.  That director Nicholas Roeg set his film in a single room and merely shot a filmed play.  He did not.

The scenario always piqued my interest, but I was not sufficiently compelled to grab that VHS box all those years ago, the multitudes of times I passed it by. And I've always been fascinated by Roeg, whose unique films can hardly be called entertainments, but are always challenging, uncomfortable.  Few movies are as intriguing as THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. The mixed reviews for INSIGNIFICANCE, which was recently restored by Criterion, didn't faze me either. Unanimous acclaim for Roeg would render suspicion.

It is the mid 1950s, Manhattan. A film crew is working into the night to print an image that would become iconic, of a certain blonde starlet as her skirt flies up over a subway grating. The techs underground are tired but thrilled. The starlet is troubled and races away with her driver. There's a big guy who stares after her.

Cut to a disheveled man (Michael Emil), pacing his hotel room which is strewn with pages of mathematical equations and music stands. He's preparing for a lecture. There are interruptions. First, a serious man in a fedora (Tony Curtis) who badgers him to participate in a witch hunt, to name certain people who are suspected Communists. Later, the starlet (Theresa Russell) appears at his door and will remain in his room until the next day, despite the man's efforts to shoo her on, as there's much work to do. At one point, she explains The Theory of Relativity as she understands it back to its author (in a gem of a scene). The big guy (Gary Busey) we saw earlier, who also whiles a few hours away in a bar, arrives later and tries to bring his wife home. He's a bit imposing, a lunkhead, but not without a little insight into things, himself.  Bubble-gum as it may be.

As with many of Roeg's other pictures, INSIGNIFICANCE is maddeningly uneven, provocative, messy, chaotic. Also, rarely dull and never predictable. And the director delights in keeping his audience off guard.  '80s music punctuates characters' entrances. There are disturbing flashbacks to each character's childhoods: the man who resembles McCarthy recalls abuse by a priest; Marilyn/Norma Jean is seen taunted in an orphanage, and so on. While INSIGNIFICANCE never explicitly identifies these celebrities, having their names spoken, the film elaborately makes their cases nonetheless.

What is INSIGNIFICANCE "about"? What do all of the images add up to? Are we just spending time with colorful icons, allowing the actors (all fine) to simply riff on the personas so well documented in the pages of Life magazine and elsewhere? Does Roeg want to make statements about celebrity, or the ideas we have about these individuals (rather than what they're really like)? Yes. They're played with the sort of behavior we might expect of them. Their demons are not hidden. The starlet, so desperate to have a child, is dealt a cruel blow. The scientist, haunted by the bomb he created, sees children on fire.  For awhile, the film seems to be pointing towards the scientist's realizations, as to what INSIGNIFICANCE's real purposes are. Watch out for that finale, in all its apocalyptic glory. It reminded me of Antonioni's ZABRISKIE POINT.

But then, a curious, abrupt freeze frame for a final scene. Maybe to underline the film's title?

What if Roeg had placed all four characters in the same room? Would the universe cease to exist, fold over itself, in a manner that could only be explained the scientist? Even for a director such as Roeg, comfortable with the unfathomable, even that might've been just too much.