Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Last Waltz

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring:  The Band (Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manual, and Garth Hudson), Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Paul Butterfield, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Emmylou Harris, Ronnie Hawkins, the Staples Singers, Ringo Starr, Martin Scorsese, and Ron Wood
IMDB Entry

The greatest rock concert movie ever (as the cast list shows).

The Band was one of the biggest of rock groups in the late 60s and early 70s, but are surprisingly obscure today.  They started out as a backup band for rocker Ronnie Hawkins, but were thrust into the spotlight when Bob Dylan asked them to join him on stage when he went electric. When Dylan had his motorcycle accident, the group got together in a house in Woodstock and recorded some songs; the album "Music from Big Pink," was a classic.  The follow up "The Band," made them into stars -- reluctant ones, but stars nonetheless.The Band: Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson

In 1977, songwriter Robbie Robertson decided to call it quits and the group performed in a special farewell concert, and asked a few of their friends to perform with them. They also asked Martin Scorsese to direct.  Scorsese had already established himself as one of Hollywood's top directors, but he knew his rock and roll (he had worked as editor and second unit director on Woodstock, the second greatest rock concert movie).

Scorsese appears in the film, interviewing the Band and talking with its members. The interviews are not very in-depth; Scorsese is a better director than interviewer.  But I've always had the suspicion that his appearance here had some influence on the creation of the character of Martin DiBergi, "director" of This is Spinal Tap (a look at the IMDB indicates this might be so).

But the movie is about the music. The Band plays most of the best-known songs: "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "The Weight, "Stage Fright," "Up On Cripple Creek," "The Shape I'm In," and "Ophelia," among others.  There are also some new studio songs that are just as good.

But the guest stars are what really shines.  Usually, one-time all-star conglomerations suffer from everyone being too respectful to cut loose, but here each musician has his or her own time in the spotlight.  And the Band started out as a backing band, so they knew how to let the star take over.Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson

Some of the more memorable songs include Muddy Waters's singing "Mannish Boy" as though he invented the blues single-handedly, Eric Clapton performing "Further on Down the Road" and playing amazing riffs as though he wasn't just warming up. Joni Mitchell does a terrific version of "Coyote," Neil Young performs "Helpless," Van Morrison shows his stuff with "Caravan," and, of course Bob Dylan is given a special spot in the limelight.

The Band then went their separate ways.  Levon Helm -- drummer and singer for "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" who thought breaking up the group was a bad idea -- tried a little acting (he played Loretta Lynn's father in Coal Miner's Daughter), as did Robertson (in the great little film,Carney). But the group never reformed.

The odd thing is how a group this well known has slipped of the radar, but the answer is simple:  The Band never had a hit single.  Their albums did fine:  four in the Billboard top ten, but the best they ever did with a single release was #25 for "Up on Cripple Creek."  (The most successful chart hit was when Joan Baez's rather bland and inferior version of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" made it to #3).  Thus, they have no presence on "Classic Rock" radio.  Occasionally, you may hear "The Weight" (it was recently used in a wireless phone commercial and has been featured in quite a few movies), but nothing else.  It's one of the major gaps in "Classic Rock" (the other being Traffic).

But don't bemoan.  Listen to the concert on either DVD or CD and listen as the Band begins to play.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Support Your Local Sheriff!

Directed by Burt Kennedy
Written by William Bowers
Starring James Garner, Joan Hackett, Jack Elam, Walter Brennan, Bruce Dern, Harry Morgan, Henry Jones
IMDB Entry

It's hard not to like James Garner.  He ambles on the screen with that easygoing walk and crooked smile and charms the sox off the audience. And he gets to use all his charm -- and then some  -- in the comedy western Support Your Local Sheriff.

The setup is simple:  Gold is discovered in a frontier town.  Jason McCullough (Garner), who is "just passing through on my way to Australia," is persuaded to become sheriff and clean up the town.  McCullough may be the fastest gun in the west (though he doesn't think that means very much).  But he is smarter than anyone else in the town, especially Pa Danby (Walter Brennan) and his son Joe (Bruce Dern).

Director Burt Kennedy and screenwriter William Bowers were old hands at making westerns, so knew enough about the genre to play with all the cliches. For instance, when McCullough arrests Joe for murder, there's one problem:  there are no bars on the jail.  McCullough draws a line with chalk where the bars should go, then drips red paint.  When he brings Joe in, he tells him to stay behind the line.  "Are you crazy?" asks Joe.  Then he sees the red paint.  "What is that red stuff all over the floor there?"  "Uh oh," says McCullough.  "That's the poor fella that crossed the line earlier today." Joe stays put.

How to stop a gunslingerAnd when Pa Denby goes to spring Joe, McCullough faces him with a ploy directly out of Bugs Bunny. 

Similarly, McCullough's demonstration of his shooting ability for the town fathers will bring you a smile whenever you think about it.

The role seems tailor-made for Garner, and he makes the most of every line and situation, with a straightforward charm that cuts through the plots others have for him.

Just as impressive is Jack Elam as his deputy Jake, who has just been promoted from shoveling horse... working around the stable. This was a milestone part for Elam; prior to it, he usually played heavies and henchmen.  The movie helped start a second career as comic sidekicks (even starring in a TV show The Texas Wheelers).  He makes a perfect foil to Garner.

Walter Brennan is always worth seeing, and Bruce Dern is good as the especially dumb Joe.  Joan Hackett plays Garner's love interest, who keeps trying to impress the sheriff, but ends up taking pratfalls each time.  (The title, by the way, is a parody of a bumper sticker slogan of the time, Support Your Local Police, used by people who weren't happy with the social changes of the 60s.)

Kennedy, Garner, and Elam collaborated for Support Your Local Gunfighter. It's not a sequel -- the characters are different -- but it has the same easygoing comic charm.  Kennedy also did one of the better made for TV movies, Shootout in a One-Dog Townand kept active directing (mostly westerns) until his death in 2001.

Support Your Local Sheriff! is among the best and wittiest of all comedy westerns and well worth seeking out.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

200 Motels

200 Motes(1971)
Directed by Tony Palmer and Frank Zappa
Starring Ringo Starr, Theodore Bikel, Frank Zappa, Mark Volman, Howard Kaylan, Keith Moon (as a nun), Martin Lickert, Janet Ferguson, Lucy Offerall, and various members and groupies of the Mothers of Invention.
IMDB Entry

OK.  The film is a mess.  But what a mess!

I became a fan of Frank Zappa in the early 70s, when I go a copy of We're Only In It For the Money. I liked humorous music, and loved Zappa's anarchistic take on American life.  So I went out and paid more than I should for Freak Out and then started picking up albums by Zappa and the Mothers as I could find them. 

But Zappa and the Mothers (the "of Invention" was added by the record company) were more than just a comedy group.  Zappa was a very talented and ambitious composer, often looking toward modern classical music as inspiration.  He was also a keen social observer.  The more you look into his work, the more you realize he was something greater than just a rock songwriter.

And when I heard they were doing a movie, I was there.

This was when Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan were with the group.  Volman and Kaylan were original members of the Turtles, one of the original feel-good rock groups (ironic note:  on Freak Out!, Zappa derisively quoted a music executive who wanted to make the Mothers as big as the Turtles).  They brought a sensibility to the Mothers that was even wackier and more risqué than ever before.

The movie was made on video.  Nowadays, this isn't unusual, but back in 1971 it was.  Tony Palmer, a British TV director, directed the film's visuals, and he relied on the techniques of cutting edge video artists of the time -- Nam June Paik, William Wegman (yes, the dog guy -- his video work in the 60s is where he started), Ed Emshwiller. This allowed for some great (and cheap) psychedelic effects -- colors wrapping around people, ultra sharp visuals, chroma keys, animated segments (see below) etc.  It was perfect for the psychedelic era.

Zappa himself directed the actors -- though the term "directing" should be used very loosely.  Only Theodore Bickel was really a professional actor (and seemed completely bewildered by everything going on). Ringo Starr, of course, had an acting career, but the rest of the cast were just members and groupies of the band.  Some had even less experience:  Martin Lickert was Ringo Starr's chauffer, a last-minute replacement for a musician who quit the group.  He got the part when Zappa said that it would go to the next person who came into the room; it was Lickert, who was getting a pack of cigarettes for Ringo (he actually acquitted himself well). 

The story is supposedly how life was on the road for the Mothers, with Lickert being tempted by Bikel (as the devil) to leave the group, but it's too free-form to even being to summarize (though this site tries and manages quite well).  It was recorded live -- no lipsyching -- with all-original music by Zappa.  There are plenty of in-jokes and self-referential humor (at one point, the members of the band want to help Lickert before Zappa finds out and makes him do it in the movie).

The movie is not for everyone; its base audience is hard-core Frank Zappa fans.  But visually it's amazing, and there is enough plot and good music (though, admitted, Zappa's music is often an acquired taste) to entertain anyone, especially if, like me, you love weirdness for its own sake.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Stunt Man

The Stunt Man(1980)
Directed by Richard Rush
Written by Lawrence B. Marcus (screenplay), Richard Rush (adaptation), Paul Brodeur (novel)
Starring  Peter O'Toole, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey, Alan Garfield, Charles Bail
IMDB Entry

As you might guess, I love movies, so I'm a sucker for movies about moviemaking.  And by far and away the best is The Stunt Man.

How good?  Well, the first time I saw it, they showed two reels out of order.  It made the entire plot more than a tad confusing, but I still loved it.  (It wasn't until I was leaving the theater that I swapped the sections of the film in my mind to get the plot straight.)

The Stunt Man is the story of the filming of a World War I epic, being directed by Eli Cross (Peter O'Toole).  Cross is a madman artist, someone who is not beneath playing games with actors, stuntmen, and passers-by in order to get the effects he wants.  It's hard to see on the image, but the poster for the film depicts O'Toole as a film director with a devil's tail, which is quite appropriate.  Cross does have a bit of satanic madness to him.

Cameron (Steve Railsback) is a Vietnam vet with a past who unknowingly stumbles upon the set, and accidentally causes the death of a stuntman during a stunt.  Cross dragoons him into replacing the dead man in a stunt that requires he crash a car into water, and takes Cameron under his wing, telling him about filmmaking with the immortal line, "If God could do the tricks that we can do he'd be a happy man!"  But can Cross be trusted?

Cameron is never sure.  One of my favorite moments in the film is when he's being briefed about his stunt. Chuck Barton (Charles Bail) is telling him that, as the car sinks, Cameron will need to take a hit from the air tank under the car seat.  Cameron reaches for it, but it's not there.  "Don't worry," said Barton.  "It will be there."  But will it?

This is one of Peter O'Toole's best roles.  His Eli Cross is a fascinating, larger-than-life bravura character who dominates the film and whose presence enlivens every scene. Railsback plays what could be a cliché -- a Vietnam vet scarred by war -- and makes him a very sympathetic and likeable character.  Charles Bail (a stuntman himself) is also very good as the head stuntman who tries to show Cameron the rudiments of the trade.  And Barbara Hershey is memorable as the star of the film and love interest.

And though I rarely notice such things, the score by Dominic Frontiere is superb.  For years, whenever a movie found itself without a completed score for the theatrical trailer, there was a good chance they'd take music from The Stunt Man.

This was a labor of love by director Richard Rush.  He worked on the script, but it took him 9 years to get it filmed, and, as an insult, the studio refused to release it for another two years.  Finally, bullied by Rush, who evidently had it screened for one week in his native Seattle to great reviews and business, it was released. It picked up three Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe.

It was the pinnacle of Rush's career, alas.  It was 14 years before his next movie, The Color of Night, which was not so well received. But The Stunt Man is essential viewing for anyone who wants to see movies about moviemaking, or anyone who loves the great offbeat performances that Peter O'Toole can give so effortlessly.