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Ed Wood (1994)
Burton's grand masterpiece, too bad so few have noticed
As one of the most overlooked films ever made, "Ed Wood" does for Tim Burton what "Malcolm X" did for Spike Lee and "JFK" did for Oliver Stone, it ruins any expectations one can have of Tim Burton, because he has set a standard here that he will never achieve again. An interest in the period in which it is set is essential, given the set decoration is the film's greatest triumph. It's not surprising that Burton's first "biopic" is about someone revered in the b-movie heyday of the 1950s - that spawned Burton himself. Burton must have felt he had to make this picture because without filmmakers like Ed Wood, Burton himself would have never existed. Set in seedy B-movie Hollywood in the mid 1950s - and wisely and beautifully shot in black-and-white, Johnny Depp plays the titular character; a young, talentless, but optimistic auteur who dreams of being a film director; going so far as to model himself after his idol, Orson Welles. Despite an over-reliance on stock footage, a tin ear for dialogue, and a fondness for wacky, exploitative horror and sci-fi fare, Wood wiggles his way into B-moviedom. Casting anyone willing to step before his camera, Wood cranks out a series of cheesy movies.
When he has a chance encounter with horror film legend Bela Lugosi, now a 74 year-old, foul-mouthed morphine addict wrecked by his lost fame, Ed sees his meal-ticket. Quick for his next fix, Lugosi doesn't seem to mind that Wood is also an out-and-proud transvestite with a particular fondness for Angora sweaters, and soon begins starring in Wood's features. Lugosi, played by Martin Landau, gives the story its biggest jolts of energy. Landau is hysterical in scene after scene utilizing the "dirty old man" routine. Remember, there is nothing funnier on earth than an old man who likes profanity. A gentle - albeit somewhat fictionalized - bond forms between Wood and Lugosi. Depp does a spectacular job of fleshing out Wood's quirky innocence and unbridled passion for moviemaking. This may also be the only Johnny Depp film where you actually see him smile!
What ultimately makes this film so stellar is the impeccable production and costume design and the crisp B&W cinematography; it literally transports you back to the clean-cut, wide-eyed days of the 1950s. I cannot recommend this film enough if you have an interest in the world of 1950s B-movies that produced titles like "Teenagers From Outer Space" and "Project Moonbase". This film functions quite well as a time warp. I liken "Ed Wood" to epics like "JFK" because like those films, this movie doesn't seem to be about what happens as much as how it FEELS to be there; and that's what draws me to the film every time I see it. With "Ed Wood", I'm not always interested in following the story, but I'm totally fascinated with being inside that world. Tim Burton did the best job that anyone could in taking you there.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Woody's more mature rumination on Manhattan life & love with an impeccable ensemble cast
While I am a Woody Allen fanatic, I'm not sure if I agree with the minority of Woody fans who claim this is his best film, instead of "Annie Hall". Sure, I would be quick to elect "Annie" as Woody's best, but then I regard "Manhattan", "Stardust Memories", "Crimes & Misdemeanors", as well as "Hannah And Her Sisters", and I become unsure. This is certainly one of Woody's most mature films, and I would freely place it in my top five of Woody's works. It nicely balances comedy with drama, and it also began a new era of high accomplishment for Woody. Functioning as an ensemble drama loosely organized around three sisters, "Hannah" chronicles several stories at once. The film has an incredibly warm, intimate feeling about it, as people talk in their earth-toned apartments over J.S. Bach or stroll through the city's crisp autumn air. What rings most true about this film is that it doesn't end quite the way you thought it would (the words "too tidy" and "unpunished" get unfairly used a lot), yet it ends as it should.
Ironically, Hannah (played by Mia Farrow) doesn't fare too deeply in the film. The eldest of three, she's the family matriarch soothing her aging parents, a showbiz couple reluctantly settling into old age and blaming each other for it. Her husband Elliot (Michael Caine expertly stuttering & flushing) is consumed with guilt over his heavy crush on Hannah's sensuous, down-to-earth sister, Lee. Lee is slowly pulling away from her failing relationship with Frederick (the always excellent Max Von Sydow), a horribly misanthropic curmudgeon whose reliance on her as his last link to humanity becomes suffocating. The youngest sister, Holly (Dianne Wiest - kicking ass as usual), is a nervous, impatient actress whose insecurity and lack of success lead to competing with her best friend April over work and men. Meanwhile, Hannah's ex-husband Mickey (Woody), a severe hypochondriac, is trying desperately to accept his eventual mortality and still find some meaning in life, which it what it seems all the other characters are trying to do. I won't say where the stories are going or where they all end up, but I will say the ensemble cast is all-around great, Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest are definitely the stand-outs here (their Oscars were well-deserved), but Max Von Sydow and Barbara Hershey do quite fine as well. As for Woody - Mickey is the kind of character that fans were probably waiting for him to play for years, and he pulls it off with his classic ticks & twitches.
Woody's evident genius is shown here by juggling the separate stories back & forth so fluidly. Most attention seems to be focused on Elliot and Lee during the first half (both conflicted & confused), while the second half slightly centers around Mickey and Holly (both nervous & unsure). Mickey operates mostly as an outsider and the strength of his story doesn't pertain too much to "the sisters" (although there are two hysterical flashbacks sequences, one involving Hannah and the other detailing a disastrous date with Holly). Another masterstroke on Woody's part are the internal voice-overs. Woody is too smart to know that there are certain thoughts a person has that will exist only in their head, and extracting these feelings into some kind of dialogue with another person would seem forced. It's casual pacing, novelistic endeavors, vivid characters, cozy settings, heartfelt music and sharp, candid dialogue are what makes this film hold up beautifully for me after dozens of viewings. It's an absolute Woody Allen film.
Another funny "rainy day movie" from the Woodman
I pity those who cling and clamor towards the more intellectual works of Woody Allen and neglect the few early slapstick comedies he started out making. Woody's second directorial effort, "Bananas" - just as much as "Take The Money And Run", "Play It Again, Sam", "Sleeper", and "Love & Death" - is ninety minutes of complete stupid, laugh-out loud comedy. There is not much of a plot and little in the way of character development or storytelling. The story is just a set-up for Woody to pour out his endless bundle of jokes. As consumer products tester Fielding Mellish, Woody falls in love with Nancy, a political activist looking to enroll him in an upcoming protest march. The two strike up a romance, but Nancy soon finds Fielding is not dedicated enough to his political beliefs and leaves him. Looking to impress her, Fielding leaves America for the fictional Latin country of San Marcos where he finds himself embroiled in a revolution and unintentionally becomes their leader (replete with a fake beard a-la Fidel Castro).
I've noticed other comments criticizing the [political naiveness] of the film and it is again a sad reminder of the touchy-feely, overly-sensitive times we are living in. The film isn't meant to stir your emotions or awake any political apathy you may hold, the movie just wants to make you laugh! It's easy for comedies that use sight gags to hold up over repeated viewings, but the verbal barbs in "Bananas" still crack me up over and over. Like all of Woody's pre-"Annie Hall" films, this movie is perfect for rainy days. Just stretch out on the couch, turn off your brain, and laugh away. So, you've got problems? Well this film won't solve them, but it's bound to make you forget them for an hour-and-a-half.
Maybe part of the joy of watching this film over and over is just to laugh at the familiar jokes I've seen one hundred times already. The near-climax where Woody cross-examines himself in a courtroom is hysterical, as well as a scene in San Marcos where Woody enters a local diner and orders lunch for 1,000 army troops in complete dead-pan manner. There is also Woody's fantastic reaction to hearing someone utter the word "castration". The one-liners never quit either, whether Woody is trying unsuccessfully to sweet-talk Nancy during lovemaking ("I can't speak French, how about Hebrew?") or when he tries to invite himself to a party where coworkers are going to watch porno films ("You need an usher?"). It's also worth noting that in his early days, Woody was one of the great physical comedians of his time. I savor Woody's early films so much - even if they don't carry the weight of his later work - simply because this slapdash kind of moviemaking has since become extinct in today's cinema. Like I said, this is a funny, insignificant, little film; great for a quick escape. "So long suckers!"
The dizzying climax to Scorsese's Mafia trilogy
Like Oliver Stone's "JFK" and Tim Burton's "Ed Wood", Scorsese had created a bit of monster for himself when he released "Goodfellas" in 1990. He created an undisputed, instant classic for which all of his subsequent films - as well as all other Mafia films - would be measured against. As magnificent as "Goodfellas" is, it can be considered a curse. This is evident in "Casino", Scorsese's more-or-less follow-up to the life depicted in "Goodfellas". It is an impressive achievement, even more dense and visceral than "Goodfellas", but it has received some derision over the years by those who have accused Scorsese of "copying himself." (How can a filmmaker "copy" himself anyway? Nobody has moaned about Spielberg constantly re-visiting the days of WWII.)
Merciless in presenting his strict attention to detail, Scorsese chronicles the rise and fall of Las Vegas under the grip of the Mafia from the early 1970's to the mid 1980's. Utilizing endless freeze-frames, multiple voice-over narrators, incessant music, swirling cinematography and eye-bruising set decoration, Scorsese brings us deep into the diamond-crusted bowels of the big business of Las Vegas and how the mob "skimmed" all they could from it for over a decade. Robert De Niro brings a subtle gravity to the role of Sam "Ace" Rothstein, a genius gambling pro from Chicago recruited by the Mafia to manage and operate the four largest casinos in Vegas. Rothstein's insurance arrives in the guise of childhood friend Nicky Santoro - now a hotshot Mafia captain (and rendered with crushing brutality by Joe Pesci). After years of successful slumming as a mid-level gambler, Rothstein sees Vegas as his shot at legitimacy. He tries to solidify his dream by marrying a high-class Vegas prostitute, Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), who despite her glamorous exterior and sturdy attitude, is ultimately emotionally lost and still desperately hung on her greasy pimp / boyfriend, Lester Diamond (nicely underplayed by the eternally sleazy James Woods). Ginger tires to escape Ace's marital clutch while still enjoying the perks of being the wife of the most powerful man in town, while Nicky disregards Ace's "nice-and-neat" policy of running business in favor of violent extortion and rampant thievery over everyone else in town. Ace sees the coupling together of his rocky marriage to Ginger with Nicky's aggressive attempts at taking over Las Vegas as problematic, but pride & greed prevent him from acknowledging the true severity of the situation. When Ginger and Nicky's frustrations with Ace inadvertently turn them toward each other, all hell breaks loose.
There are probably very few other films that hit the three-hour mark and fly by as quickly as "Casino". Longtime Oliver Stone cinematographer Robert Richardson gives Scorsese's Las Vegas a polished, glossy look; bathed in neons, pastels and solids of every color imaginable. God's gifts to Editors - that being Scorsese's number-one partner in crime, Thelma Schoonmaker, creates a smooth but frenetic pacing in Scorsese's storytelling. The music - which encompasses a bizarre brew of blues, swing, classical, doo-wop, rock and even punk - works wonders. Only Spike Lee is as skilled as Scorsese at utilizing music to re-create an era instead of merely advertising the film's accompanying soundtrack. De Niro's take on "Ace" Rothstein - who's obsessed with doing the job right - allows Scorsese to splurge on showcasing the in's-and-out's of Vegas. We see Ace chastise reckless dealers, slightly overweight dancers, and beleaguered chefs in excruciating detail. This is not limited to Ace's perceptions, Scorsese explains how money is won and lost, and how it is stolen - whether by the mob or by the players. The first hour of "Casino" could easily pass as a documentary on the mechanics of operating a gaming establishment.
Aside from the usual mainstays, De Niro and Pesci, Scorsese has assembled a stellar cast. Both Sharon Stone and James Woods give fiery interpretations of their tortured characters. Stone really surprised everybody with her performance here, but really - how many people would agree to act in a Martin Scorsese picture and sleep through it anyway? Vegas comedy legends Alan King and Don Rickles also appear in straight roles as a casino manager and a mob front, respectively. The great character actor/comedian Kevin Pollack also offers his talent as the mob's squeaky-clean front man. No performance falls flat here.
One way to angle the film for yourself if you're at all put-off by its structural similarities to "Goodfellas" need only regard this - "Casino" is basically an explanation of what would have happened to the characters in "Goodfellas" had they succeeded beyond the middle-class comfort of where they roamed. The film also contains the novelty value of displaying De Niro's ability to juggle! I try to be concise when writing reviews and not ramble as I have done here, but it is difficult to do so with a film like "Casino", because it is a film so crowded in its presentation. It's a traditional American Mafia story about gluttonous, reckless, greedy people. Nonetheless, it is another Scorsese masterpiece.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Coen Brothers deliver a hilarious journey through the weirder side of L.A.
For the life of me I couldn't understand the acclaim the Coen Brothers achieved over the years. I could tell their films were well-crafted and executed, but they didn't strike me as anything remarkable. I was particularly puzzled over the success of "Fargo", which I initially found monotonous and flat. Then I saw "The Big Lebowski", and my attitude about the Coen Brothers changed 360 degrees. This explained to me perfectly that - in my estimation - the Coen Brothers films are not about stories as much as they are studies of culture and characters. However lively or lazy the plot may be - it's beside the point. The joy is to be found in the dialogue of the characters and the world they inhabit. The Big Lebowski has easily make itself one on my favorite films of the 1990's.
Set in Los Angeles in the early 1990's, Jeff Bridges seems to smile and grimace with delight as Jeff "The Dude" Lebowksi, a lofty, 40-something pothead who wastes his days smoking pot and drinking White Russians while practically living inside his regular hangout - a bowling alley. The Dude is accompanied by his buddies Walter (John Goodman in a hysterical performance of an angry, trigger-happy veteran) and the babbling, clueless Donnie (Steve Buscemi). The Dude is soon mistaken for a millionaire with the same name as his whose trophy wife Bunny has racked up a debt with a local pornographer. It seems Bunny has been kidnapped for ransom and the real Lebowski (hence the title) would like The Dude to serve as his courier for the pay-off. The Big Lebowski's daughter - a pretentious performance artist played by the always-reliable Julianne Moore - intervenes, suggesting that the instructions The Dude has received from her father may be misleading. A series of complications ensue that involve a private eye, a missing toe, a sacred Jewish holiday, a trio of bumbling Germans, and the Dude's beloved rug that "really tied the room together".
Damn, I may never tire of seeing this film. The ingenuity the Coens' display here is endless and tireless. Have you ever noticed that so many Coen Brothers films feature characters you love to watch but would probably hate to know in person? Jeff Bridges totally re-defines his breadth as an actor by completely disappearing beneath The Dude's shaggy beard, sloppy wardrobe, profane vocabulary and rotund pot belly. For a character who seems pretty clueless, we have an easy & enjoyable time following The Dude through his travails. Employing John Goodman again, the Coen Brothers put him to terrific use as a gun-loving veteran obsessed with making a spectacle to enforce his point no matter where he is, as well as honoring the religious duties of his ex-wife, despite the fact that he's not Jewish but nonetheless pledges himself to it ("Shomer f**king shabbus!!!"). Most great filmmakers have themes and / or an era they tend to re-visit over & over. This is not evident with the Coen Brothers. Like Stanley Kubrick and Mike Nichols, the only re-occurring element in all of their films are that they are well made and very unique from all others. If you're not sold on the idea of seeing "The Big Lebowski" yet, it's worth viewing just for seeing the view from inside a bowling ball as it travels down an alley. This is a wild, wacky movie that's nonetheless intelligent and crafty. Basically, "The Big Lebowksi" is a dumb comedy for smart people.
Deconstructing Harry (1997)
The culmination of Woody's comeback in the 1990's
Wow! Who would have thought Woody Allen would have ever produced this kind of movie? Extending the returning winning streak of great films he began with in 1993 after spending the late 80's and early 90's mired in morose drama, "Deconstructing Harry" is both a swipe at his detractors as well as himself. This is NOT your average Woody Allen film. It is profane, obscene and vulgar in its content and dialogue. As the main character, Woody is unlikable, selfish and morally bankrupt. However, it boasts an all-star cast put to great use. There is a unique editing and narrative method employed, great one-liners, and it is executed with Woody's usual comfortable confidence. Overall, it is an absolutely hilarious journey.
Woody portrays Harry Block, an alcoholic, pill-popping, whore-frequenting writer whose thinly-veiled books that account the lives of his family & friends provide for successful stories but leave him at great odds with nearly everybody in his life. Harry soon learns that the college that once expelled him (for giving the Dean's wife an enema, it seems) is now honoring him for his literary contributions to the world. Harry brings along a sympathetic hooker, an ailing friend, and his son, whom he has half-heartedly kidnapped from school. Upon driving to the university, Harry begins to evaluate his life. Communicated in flashback, Harry reflects on the numerous relationships he's wrecked with his gluttonous ways and how he shamelessly incorporated those experiences into his novels, at the expense of others (the film showcases how these events happened in his own life, or how they appeared in the book - with different actors playing the fictional equivalents of his friends & relatives. It is a fantastic device, and Allen utilizes it to frenetic effect).
Only the truest of Woody Allen fans will recognize this as one of his best films. Supposed fanatics clamoring for the sophisticated insights of "Manhattan" and "Hannah & Her Sisters" may be disappointed here. This is Woody Allen in a raw, unpolished form (which may account for the jerky, quick-cut editing). This is a battle-weary Woody emerging from the wreck that was his personal life in the early 1990's to give a big middle finger to his interrogators. The stellar cast does wonders, especially Woody regulars Caroline Aaron and the always-hysterical Judy Davis. Billy Crystal serves up his usual dry humor in a dual role as Harry's best friend as well as his fictional vision of the devil ("You ever f**ked a blind girl? Ah, they're so grateful.") Allen does a great job of examining a man who is a failure at life but a success in his art. We'll never truly know how much of this is autobiographical, but it is a rare, fierce achievement for Woody Allen. Proceed with caution!
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
A great ensemble-character study amidst World War II
Grand director David Lean delivered himself as one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation in 1957 with the WWII epic "The Bridge On The River Kwai". Addressing the effects of racism, insanity and pride upon humans in war, Lean easily transcends the typical "anti-war" story and creates a great character study that defines one of the most subtle examples of 'battle of wills' ever seen on film. Decades later, this film still looks and plays wonderfully. The film progresses at a measured, decaffeinated pace, and may put-off those used to state-of-the-art explosions that are (nowadays) supposed to occur every 15 minutes in a war film.
Set in a Japanese prison camp - simply named Camp 16 - in southeast Asia in 1943, a group of British military prisoners, led by Alec Guinness' dry Colonel Nicholson, are forced to build a bridge on the River Kwai. The bridge will link the cities of Bangkok and Rangoon, thus enhancing the Japanese's war efforts against Britain and their allies. Colonel Nicholson, a reserved but willful officer, rejects Commander Saito's instructions under the Geneva convention policies, but soon gives way to Saito's orders when he realizes the construction of the bridge will serve as an example of British supremacy over the Japanese. Meanwhile, Major Shears, portrayed by William Holden, is an American soldier who has escaped from Camp 16 and poses as an officer to gain sick leave from a British military hospital. The British army soon discovers Shears' true identity and blackmails him into joining a secret raid to demolish the bridge.
Here in the new millennium, where less-than-stellar locations and tepid cinematography can be compensated for with digitally created sunsets and skylines, this film is a cinematic marvel. Shot in Sri Lanka, the forests, deserts, streams and waterfalls that Lean captures are simply breathtaking - and completely genuine! Given the primitive state of filmmaking in the late 1950's, the attention this film and Lean initially received is totally warranted, and it remains beautiful today. Most impressive is a sequence where we see an extended group of bats fleeing a tree when a gun shot is fired. Lean navigates back and forth between the British prisoners forced to build the bridge and the covert crew assigned to demolish it, unaware that the first train to cross the bridge contains said prisoners. Also impressive is the lack of music, even the assured climax transpires without score.
As for the performances, it's understandable that an American film star like William Holden receive first billing, but the film clearly belongs to Alec Guinness (who won the Best Actor Oscar that year). Guinness' interpretation of Colonel Nicholson is brilliant. We witness Nicholson gradually descend into obsession with the completion of the bridge, while all the while retaining his mannered, stiff-necked British demeanor. His battle of wills with Commander Saito - ashamed and suicidal that the British are building a bridge his army could not do properly - is much more engaging than the journey through the jungle that Shears and his crew experience, which may be why we spend more time watching Nicholson. A great triumph for David Lean and Alec Guinness, and one of the best war films ever made.
Stardust Memories (1980)
Certainly one of the most autobiographical films from the Woodman
Woody Allen likes his privacy. He rarely gives any access to the media or his audience, yet he's aware they exist, and once in a while he makes a movie like "Stardust Memories", where he speaks to them. Following the maturing success of "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan", Woody decided to address the segment of fans who were clamoring for his "early, funny" films. As filmmaker Sandy Bates, Woody attends a film festival in his honor where he reflects back on his cinematic career and love life, the latter of which concentrates on two French women. As usual, Woody claimed years after that this film was not autobiographical. It's probable that some details in the story were constructed or exaggerated for dramatic effect. Still, with Woody's evident evolving as an artist, coupled with references to his own life (studying magic as a child, the numerous fans praising his "early, funny" films), it's clear that some of these thoughts mirror Woody's real life. These inner-reservations may not be as incendiary as the ones presented in the wonderfully blistering "Deconstructing Harry", but they are genuinely honest - and resentful.
There are two types of Woody Allen films; his "New York" films and his experimental, European-influenced films (perhaps a third style would be when he blends the two together). "Stardust Memories" would definitely qualify as one of his experimental European films. Despite the lush black-and-white photography of "Manhattan" cinematographer Gordon Willis, and the all-around nuanced performances (most certainly Jessica Harper and Helen Hanft above all others), this is a strange journey the viewer takes in the film. What transpires is essentially a film within a film within another film, but Woody rolls it out wonderfully (especially the ending, or rather, the ending-within-an-ending-within-an-ending). Given the usual intelligence and intellectualism in Woody's films, criticizing the audience may seem off-putting but he should be allowed to once in a while. Sandy is a relatively normal person whose fame and success breeds hangers-on and freeloaders. Critics are rightfully portrayed here as self-serving media whores (a critic asks a cutting question that implies plagiarizing Vincent Price and then gives a "I've-got-him-now" wink), and Sandy's fans are seen as selfish, inarticulate leeches ("Would you sign my left breast?" "I love your films sir, you have such a degenerate mind!"). It is not lost on Woody for a moment that "Stardust Memories" may be criticized as the work of a narcissist documenting his personal pain and "fobbing it off as art", so he has someone say so within the first ten minutes of the film. Smart move!
What is so strange about this film are the facial features of several characters. Many of the critics and audience members appear with elongated beards, pudgy noses, raised eyebrows and oversized glasses. It always makes me curious when I see the film whether Woody is implying that he only remembers the strange-looking people in his audience or if he sees all of them in a skewered manner. In a way I hope I never learn which is the truth, I enjoy the mystery of it, and it's always a good sign when a movie raises questions. The Q&A sequences, the discussion with the aliens, and Sandy's crashing of a Sci-fi convention are absolutely genius. This is definitely a film for the more hard-core Woody fans, but I think it remains of of his most essential (and so does he).
A muddled but enjoyable spin on the effects of fame
After continually bringing his audience through one high after another with a brilliant comeback in the 90's, Woody Allen has a little bit of a letdown - but still manages to entertain - with "Celebrity". There are many components of the film that make sense, but the whole balance between showcasing the pratfalls of fame and chronicling his usual neurotic-Manhattan marital fallout don't always work. Why Allen cast Branaugh to play "Woody" is puzzling. Perhaps Woody is all too aware of the audience's despondence with him cuddling up to women one-third his age, or maybe Branaugh was used just to see what kind of response it would provoke. Either way, Branaugh does well; it just depends if you can stomach him playing Woody.
There are as many good jokes here as any other Woody film, but the frame of reference is different. His jokes don't exclusively concern the absurdity of fame, but also how ridiculously far it extends into American culture and how it's now seen as the ultimate power play. The fame of religion, sex, excess, the lack thereof and the just plain fame of fame ("It's all showbusiness!" Branaugh complains). Allen acutely demonstrates how fame corrupts a person (Branaugh shamelessly hawking his screenplay) and how some seem to find normalcy in life despite it (Joe Mantenga's easy-going TV producer). We also see how the culture of celebrity affects everyday people and how they think. Witness the scene where a group of rabbis, appearing on a talk show, calmly ask beforehand "Have the skinheads eaten all the bagels?" Meaning it didn't matter to a group of Jewish clergymen that they were sharing a green room with Nazis, because they're about to be on TV. Also consider the scene where the wonderful Judy Davis (somewhat reprising her excellent role in the fantastic "Deconstructing Harry") seeks out a high class hooker with nervous, star-struck adoration in search of sexual advice.
Just when the film starts to sag (or seem in search of a plot) we are given a brief jolt by the crafty Leonardo DiCaprio. Woody may have predicted the attention DiCaprio was about to attract with "Titanic" and offered him this role out of sympathy. DiCaprio gives a frenetic cameo as Brandon Darrow, allowing him to lampoon his public image before the press ever constructed it: that of the young, spoiled movie star. With this bit part, DiCaprio joins Woody in extending his middle finger towards the media (as Woody had been doing in his work throughout the late 90's). Overall, the film is quite puzzled in its presentation. The black-and-white cinematography is a nice touch, it's doubtful Woody chose B&W for the same panoramic methods he held in the late 70's / early 80's. I assume the B&W photography was designed to impress you with more of a behind-the-scenes feel. Maybe some of the humor got lost in Woody's determination to hold contempt for the famous high life, but "Celebrity" is worth one look if you consider yourself a mild Woody fan.
SLC Punk! (1998)
Frenzied, electric coming-of-age / punk rock story
Wow! This film is a jolt of lightning! What a surprise to see the sometimes annoying Matthew Lillard carry this story. Writer-director James Merendino puts Lillard's maniacal geekiness to intensely good use in this coming-of-age story for punk rockers. Set in Salt Lake City in 1985, Lillard is Stevo, an intellectual punk rocker devoted to anarchy, who, alongside his best friend Heroin Bob, takes us through his post-college array of nutty friends as he searches for a purpose in life, egged on by his yuppie-lawyer father, who wants Stevo to follow in his footsteps. Mostly they party and ride around town causing mild trouble, and there's plenty of frustration vented towards living in a city repressed by religious influence.
What strikes me so deeply about the film is not only Merendino's Scorsese-on-acid cinematography and editing, but the varied, goofy cast of characters in this film. Trish, Sandy, Chris, Jennifer, Mark and John the Mod were just as interesting as Stevo and Heroin Bob and I wished so much that we could have spent more time with them. They also reminded me of the strange, slightly older punk rock teenagers I sometimes hung around with when I was growing up - during the 80's, of course. The north side is the only place in Chicago where you'd find such hooligans; guzzling pot and acid just like these characters, but also puking malt liquor at the beach. It pleased me to see this movie have the same sordid sort on the other side of America. From the album cover opening credits through the "ass-beating food chain" sequence to the Dungeons & Dragons flashback, I thought Merendino's methods for telling his story were endlessly inventive, even if he slowed the pace of the film at times to concentrate on strange details in order to introduce characters (Sean's knife-wielding acid trip, Heroin Bob's hospitalization, Mark's gun-toting house tour). My favorite detail in the whole film was the scene where Stevo finally meets the beautiful Brandy while Blondie's "Dreaming" waves around in the background. A gorgeous touch!
The soundtrack is nicely devoid of punk rock cliches, there's no "Rock The Casbah" or "Holiday In Cambodia" included. Matthew Lillard's hyper face-on camera narration is so intense he makes Woody Allen seem sedated. Annabeth Gish is wonderfully mercurial as Trish, whose certainty that she is a "goddess" rings true even though the clueless Heroin Bob is the only one who agrees (and also because, as Stevo tells us, everybody worships her steely sexiness). Jennifer Lien is also good as Sandy, the grimy hippie-punk who Stevo holds much affection for. James Duvall as the hip John the Mod character was a cool addition too (love that haircut!). Merendino has clearly never lost memory of how teenagers talk and think, as this film is one of the few to get it's details right with adolescent dialogue. There's no deep revelation or conclusion made at the end of the film, although the sad climax is magnified by Lillard's gravely honest interpretation of it. In a craft ripe with Scorsese wannabes, James Merendino proves he's no novice (even if his previous efforts are embarrassingly laughable). A crazy movie, very much alive and in your face!