Blast of Silence
If Albert Camus had made a film noir, it would have been very much like Allen Baron’s little-seen 1961 feature Blast of Silence. This low-budget jewel, which enjoyed a critical renaissance after a 1990 screening at the Munich Film Festival, is less a thriller than it is an existential exploration. In many ways, it anticipated Martin Scorsese’s equally dark New York drama Taxi Driver by a decade.
Writer-director Baron had originally cast Peter Falk as hit man Frankie Bono, but wound up playing the part himself after Falk took his career-making role in Murder Inc. Resembling a less feral George C. Scott, Baron is extremely effective as the solitary, dead-eyed assassin, who arrives in New York City at Christmastime to eliminate a troublesome small-time mobster. After a chance meeting, the lonely, embittered killer is drawn to a girl from his past (Molly McCarthy). But he still has a contract to fulfill, and his world begins to unravel as he stalks his prey.Continue Reading
I Stand Alone
Impressions are the one thing we all have in common. Like an instinct for other animals, we need them to stay alert. For instance, how do you know what pain is? Some say that the memory of something such as pain comes from your first experience or impression of it. A child, let's say, only needs to touch a hot stone once before they are aware that it would not be wise to do so again. I Stand Alone was not a cinematic experience for me, but a real and dangerous impression. I've thought of it often over the years, especially with its successor, Irreversible, being talked about and vomited over so heavily (apparently there is a frequency in the soundtrack that induces nausea). And now a new film by Gaspar Noé is in theaters, and within me there is an urge to both rush to the theater and to stay far away from it. I've heard that Noé's new film is not as grizzly as the others, but that is not what I am worried about. While watching I Stand Alone I lost myself. I saw the world, not as a woman or youth, but with the perspective of a bitter, old, incestuous man. The lead character (I dare not call him a protagonist), is so overpowering and steadfast in his ugliness that you cannot help but see things his way. When the film is over, you'll shake your head and repeat to yourself that no soul is this hideous. The fact that you are uncertain is more unsettling than any amount of gore that could ever be pumped into a movie.
Compared to Taxi Driver for its narration, violence, and themes of justice being taken into the hands of a working class maniac, it is also considered the anti-Amélie. Devoid of the previously established harmonies in French cinema, it still boasts the same beautiful cinematography and nostalgic storytelling techniques that were used to exhaustion before it. Were it intentional (and we'll never know if it was), it could be seen as mockery. I enjoyed Amélie as much as the next person, but with cinematic techniques, certain things can be stretched only so far.Continue Reading
Like the original noir of the 1940s, the later '70s neo-noir, (if it’s fair to call it that, admittedly the definition is being stretched pretty thin), is a direct reflection of its times: Vietnam, Watergate, institutional paranoia. (The original noir often reflected the crumbling American dream). Chinatown, The Long Goodbye, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Prime Cut, and Taxi Driver might represent one end of the '70s noir spectrum while institutional paranoia can be found more handily in All The President's Men, The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and even Jaws. Arthur Penn’s Night Moves falls somewhere in the middle. Gene Hackman takes on a Sam Spade/Mike Hammer role, a cynical tough guy who thinks he knows all the answers, but his latest case makes him realize the world is a lot more unpleasant than even he thought. And like one of the seminal '40s noir flicks, The Big Sleep, here all the pieces don’t always add up. But what is especially fun when the film is over is the discovery that what often felt like overwritten '70s mumbo-jumbo dialogue proves to have its purpose as all the pieces fall into place in the grand puzzle.
Harry Moseby (Hackman, in his mustache and hairpiece years), an ex-football player and now down-on-his-luck Los Angeles private detective, is hired by a rich retired actress, Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward, excellent in just a couple scenes) to find and bring back her sixteen-year-old daughter, a baby-voiced nympho, Delly (played by the very young Melanie Griffith back when her voice matched her face). Like in the best of noir, the missing person is only a small part of a bigger picture. Following the swath of young men Delly has left in her path (including James Woods, still looking like a juvenile, but as intense as ever), fairly quickly Harry finds the teen in hiding in Florida, with one of her mother’s exes ('60s & '70s TV staple John Crawford) and his girlfriend (Jennifer Warren). Meanwhile, he has to deal with his own crumbling marriage; his wife ('70s B-actress Susan Clark, sporting a David Bowie haircut) wants him to be more ambitious, but he lives by his own code and has to be true to himself. Like Nicholson in Chinatown, Hackman’s pursuit takes him way out of his comfort zone, as he is exposed to a new world that includes movie stuntmen, statutory rape, dolphin breeding and finally the smuggling of ancient Yucatan artifacts which all stem from the ugly underbelly of the institution known as Hollywood (with creepy Florida also playing a role).Continue Reading
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
Obviously Martin Scorsese is one of the most accomplished filmmakers of his generation, now into his sixth decade with a fairly diverse body of work. He has his great masterpiece, Goodfellas, and his next tier of classics: Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and maybe even The King of Comedy. All five of those are with his methody, then alter-ego, Robert De Niro; though not as extraordinary but still of note is his later Leonardo DiCaprio period. Interestingly, between all these films Scorsese has also unleashed many notable documentaries. After being one of many editors on Woodstock, he started with shorts, including a great bio/interview of a druggy hustler (who played the gun dealer in Taxi Driver) called American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince. But since his feature-length docs have mostly been made for television (with subjects ranging from film history to the New York Review of Books to Elia Kazan), his best have been about music. From his first feature doc, the concert film The Last Waltz, through the mini-series The Blues to his more recent outstanding George Harrison: Living in the Material World, the guy proves he loves and understands the world of musicians. It’s his respect for the little details and the big picture that make No Direction Home: Bob Dylan his true documentary masterpiece, and maybe secretly as great as anything he has directed (or at least right under Goodfellas).
Made for PBS’ American Masters series (the source of so many brilliant documentaries of the last thirty years), the film clocks in at over 200 minutes and was shown in two parts. Instead of his famous, show-offy visual flair, more than anything else he has ever done, No Direction Home shows off his storytelling skills. All of the footage was shot before he came on board, so in some ways his role as director was really that of lead editor (though the actual editor job is credited to David Tedeschi, who later was promoted to co-director with Scorsese on his NY Review of Books doc, The 50 Year Argument). Besides the incredible plethora of material (film footage and music, much not even of Dylan), the great choice Scorsese made is that instead of an entire overview of Bob Dylan’s life, he kept it small. After a quick run-through of Dylan’s childhood in Minnesota, the film ONLY really details his New York years from 1961 when he first hit Greenwich Village, until his famous motorcycle accident in ’66 (which let to a brief retirement and then a career reboot). But what an amazing five years that was. The film is also about the other music that was happening at the time that influenced Dylan (and which he would go on to influence) and really works as a history of folk music as well.Continue Reading
With post-Vietnam War movies there is a “Vietnam Vet taking down his enemies” genre that would include the pulp biggies Taxi Driver, Billy Jack and First Blood, as well as pure vigilante exploitation films like Eye of the Tiger, Vigilante Force, The Exterminator, The Annihilators and Gordon’s War (not to be confused with the ‘Nam vets that appear as crazies in Targets, Black Sunday, Skyjacked and Earthquake or the zombie vets of Cannibal Apocalypse). Somewhere between pulp and vetploitation lays the very intense and violent Rolling Thunder. This was director Joe Flynn’s followup to his interesting crime thriller The Outfit. Paul Schrader (most famous for writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) wrote the screenplay though he claims it was reworked away from his original intention by credited co-writer Heywood Gould (Fort Apache the Bronx and Cocktail). Either way Rolling Thunder definitely carries Schrader’s signature theme of the lonely loner on a self-destructive path against society while seeking his own kind of redemption.
The film opens with Denny Brooks’ ballad “San Antone,” which was used similarly in The Ninth Configuration (he also sang the theme to the Chuck Norris choppy-socky Breaker! Breaker!). After spending years as POWs, Major Charles Rane (William Devane) and Sergeant Johnny Vohden (a very young and very intense Tommy Lee Jones) finally return home to Texas. Of course, we know from our film studies, going as far back as William Wyler’s WWII drama The Best Years of Our Lives, that returning vets have a tough time readjusting. And Rane is no different. His pretty wife Janet (Lisa Blake Richards of TV’s Dark Shadows) tries to help him ease back into civilian life, but he senses she has moved on (it’s obvious she has been involved with a local cop), and his son doesn’t even remember him. Rane suffers from PTSD and is emotionally distant, even turning down the advances of a young military groupie, Linda (Linda Haynes). The town tries to make him feel welcomed with a parade, a new car and over two grand in silver dollars (one for every day he was in captivity).Continue Reading
The Deer Hunter
The Deer Hunter - a film about three Pennsylvania steel worker buds who go off to fight in Vietnam, and how the war affects them and the people around them - was massively praised on release back in '78. Time has been a mixed bag for the film, though everyone would agree the acting, with Robert De Niro leading a cast of then mostly unknowns, is exceptional; it’s the film’s murky politics and point of view that has been put into question. Much of the reevaluation has arisen with the epic rise and brutal fall that director Michael Cimino went through. But regardless of what the film was trying to convey, what is on screen is a stunning looking piece of filmmaking. Like a great symphony, it is often gentle and quiet, but still emotional and then loud with a horn section of shocking violence, giving the film a massive punch to pack.
The first third of the film’s three-hour running time follows a group of steel workers first preparing for Steven’s (John Savage) Russian Orthodox wedding and then a deer hunting trip as Steven, Michael (De Niro), and Nick (Christopher Walken) are about to be shipped out to Vietnam. They are joined by three other friends played by George Dzundza (Basic Instinct), Chuck Aspegren in his only film role, and the great John Cazale (Fredo of The Godfather and Sal of Dog Day Afternoon in his fifth and final film role before he died). The overly tense Michael also has a little thing for Nick’s girlfriend, Linda (Meryl Streep), but acting on it would play against his machismo code.Continue Reading
Through the eyes of movies in the 1970s, New York City looked like one rough place. I don't mean the Woody Allen romantic side of New York (Annie Hall, Manhattan). I'm talking about almost every other film made in the decade, the dark Taxi Driver side. From The Out Of Towners to Death Wish (and most cops and crime flicks), culminating in the apocalyptic Escape From New York, the place appeared to be a dangerous dump. Bottom line: Central Park is not somewhere you want to be caught in after dark. The Warriors is maybe the perfect vision of this comic book wasteland.
The gangs in New York outnumber the cops two to one, so says Cyrus, leader of the baddest (and apparently the biggest) gang in town, The Riffs. This gangsta’ visionary gets all the gangs together in Central Park for a sort of pep rally. But like so many important revolutionaries before him, he is assassinated by a creepy guy named Luther (played by the creepy actor David Patrick Kelly). Luther is able to blame the Warriors, a small-time gang in for the convention from Coney Island, Brooklyn. The Riffs kill the Warriors' leader, Cleon, and put out an APB on the rest of the gang. Suddenly every gang in town is after the remaining eight Warriors. Narrated by a hot-lips radio DJ, the Warriors are forced to fight off gangs, the cops, and negotiate New York's unreliable transportation system.Continue Reading