Cinema Station

Picture of the Week: The Hot Spot

April 25, 2012
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This is a new series that we are inaugurating on a continuing basis here at Cinema Station… Now there are other movie blogs that already feature a recommended Movie of the Week so what makes us different?  Or are we just imitating something that has already been done? Hopefully not. We’re going to be different because the titles we select will not be from the generally accepted canon of worthwhile or critically acclaimed films. In other words our selections will not have any discernible pedigree of any kind. They are the runts of the litter, the orphans, the rude children that just won’t behave or conform, the mavericks and the outlaws.   So they will mostly be small, offbeat and often low budget works that caught our fancy or captivated our attention for one reason or another.  A different way of putting it is to say that these are films that got made, released but somehow slipped through the cracks somewhere along the way and now reside in the dark abyss of obscurity. But it doesn’t have to be that way forever. At least not here in the universe of Cinema Station. So hang with us, maybe you’ll find a gem or two among them.

The Hot Spot (1990)

In the old Hollywood Studio System stars were typecast based on the kind of roles they played best and how the audience responded to them at the box office.  Directors and writers were too.  Today things are considerably different and some might even say improved. Maybe they are. But sometimes, just every once in a while I find myself wishing that some of the practices of yesteryear were still being enforced…Take the case of Dennis Hopper (1936-2010), not as an actor but as a director. He was good but I wouldn’t say great, quirky but one wouldn’t say uniquely so. At least in the way of a Godard, Greenaway or Altman. As a director I would sum his abilities as “professional” and “intelligent” in a somewhat traditional manner.

In his directing career Hopper was only able to make seven features starting with the phenomenal cult favorite Easy Rider (1969). As a commercially successful director he was never able to reach those heights again. Many consider Easy Rider his best film. But I would argue that his overall best work is the seldom seen pulp thriller The Hot Spot (1990), a film that due to its genre was virtually ignored by the so called “prestige” critics at the time of its release. I remember when I first saw it; it was in a little out-of-the-way theatre in Greenwich Village with perhaps 15 other patrons. And this was on a Friday night at nine o’clock. But the picture is/was a doozy if you like pulp type stories about larcenous individuals for whom blackmail and murder are the answer to many of life’s thornier problems.  The screenplay was written by Nona Tyson and Charles Williams from Williams’ paperback novel Hell Hath No Fury. Charles Williams was one of the masters of the 1950s paperback pulp novels and many of his books have been adapted into well known films including Truffaut’s Confidentially Yours (1983) from The Long Saturday Night and Dead Calm (1989) from his novel of the same name. But good as those films are I still feel that The Hot Spot is the best adaptation of Williams’ work. And one of the best adaptations of a paperback novel that I have seen. Primarily because it retains the book’s cheap, low rent tone and doesn’t apologize for the genre by elevating its characters via the use of big stars or high end production values. It allows everyone to be who they are (as written in the novel) in their full tawdry glory.

The story has to do with a guy named Madox, a used car salesman who wanders into a small Texas town. And after spending a short time looking things over wrangles a job at a car dealership. In short order he is engaged in an adulterous affair with his boss’ wife (played by Virginia Madsen) and seduces a troubled but somewhat innocent young woman (played by future Oscar winner, Jennifer Connelly) and then pulls off a slick bank robbery simply because he’s bored and the opportunity as he sees it is too much to resist…Part of the fun is that the inhabitants of the town aren’t your Thornton Wilder’s Our Town type of poetic common folk.  No, not at all. In fact just the opposite. They are characters full of dark secrets that include incest, suicide, embezzlement and sexual bullying. In other words, all the ingredients that gave those pulp novels their spice and tang.

 

Cinematically the story is beautifully realized by Hopper with the help of his screenwriters, his cinematographer Ueil Steiger and a stinging score by Jack Nitzsche. The cast represents many of Hollywood’s best but under recognized and I suspect underpaid talents all of whom weigh in with sharp dimensional performances. The four standouts because of the size of their roles are: Virginia Madsen, William Sadler, Barry Corbin and Charles Martin Smith.  The role of Madox is played by Don Johnson who for my money gives one of the best performances of his career. It is my opinion that Johnson is a highly underrated actor who has never gotten his due in terms of good roles. But here he has the opportunity to demonstrate the potency of his abilities…Still I give most of the credit for this well realized film to Hopper for bringing it off so well. I only wish that more contemporary directors had his proficiency and modesty… And this brings me back to my comment about studio typecasting of directors. If I was a studio head (and this is something I often fantasize about) I would’ve assigned Hopper only to crime oriented pulp genre type films with B level budgets, the way they did with Phil Karlson and Don Siegel for most of their careers because I’m willing to bet that under those circumstances Hopper would’ve had more near masterpieces like The Hot Spot on his resume.

 

-GE.

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The Casting Director: Marathon Man

April 20, 2012
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Contrary to the general consensus, I do not think John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man is a great film. I do not even think that it is a good film. Instead, this is a movie with incredible potential, some moments of excellent acting, and many flaws. For one, the story is convoluted. The motivations, especially for the villains, are not strong enough to sustain the plot. The acting is uneven. And most of all, the ending is cartoon-ish and almost embarrassing. To say the least, I think the film deserved a remake and have no doubt that in the right hands with the right cast it could improve the original. Here is my fantasy cast for a remake of Marathon Man.

Babe – Casey Affleck

This first pick (the replacement for Dustin Hoffman) goes along with my second choice. I think it would be very interesting (and successful) to cast the Affleck brothers as on screen siblings in this film. Casey has a weaker, more vulnerable look than Ben, so the dynamic of college student versus spy would work. However, Casey can also believable as an everyman in intense/dangerous situations, proven in his brother’s film Gone Baby Gone. Ben’s assurance and strength as an actor would lend itself to the older brother Doc which was played very well (my pick for the best performance in the film) by Roy Scheider. His clean professionalism and cynicism would contrast well with his brother’s academic idealism. I must admit, I’m also a sucker for brother casting (a la Long Riders) and this is another instance where I think it would work.

Doc – Ben Affleck

See above.

Dr. Christian Szell – Klaus Maria Brandauer

To replace Lawrence Olivier, I can see Hollywood going immediately to Christopher Plummer or Max Von Sydow. But Klaus Maria Brandauer is my choice. I still have not seen his reputed work in Mephisto and other early films but even his performances in studio pictures like Out of Africa show a magnificent force at work. I believe he could capture the quiet, tense nature of this escaped Nazi and also the desperation he faces as his plan unravels.

Elsa -Kristin Scott Thomas

“What? Isn’t she too old?” you may ask. Well, yes… and no. I can’t think of a finer actress working today (she deserves much more credit for re-inventing her career in recent French cinema). I don’t think there is anything wrong with casting an older actress in the role, matter of fact it might add a whole new element to the dynamic between her and Babe. The younger and somewhat insecure protagonist might be attracted to someone unconventional, say an older European student with a no-bullshit persona and a mature sexual appetite. This would also help for Doc to be more suspicious of her from the very start, questioning her intentions with his younger brother. Kristin Scott Thomas can transition from warm and affection to cold and cruel in a heartbeat and I think it would be a lot of fun to see her as Elsa.

Peter Janeway -John Hawkes

A bit of an odd choice to replace William Devane, I pick John Hawkes for a few reasons. One, he’s a terrific actor and I’d like to see him in a variety of roles. Second, this character remains throughout the film someone we are not quite sure of. What side is he on? That kind of ambiguity was mastered in Hawkes’ portrayal of the cult leader in last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, the best American film of 2011 in my mind. If you need further proof, watch an equally powerful and ambiguous performance in Winter’s Bone. I’d like to see Hawkes get out of the “woods” and into something more urban and this story would provide that chance.

Director – Sean Durkin

Speaking of Martha Marcy May Marlene, I can’t think of a better director than Sean Durkin to take on this American thriller. He showed so much promise in his debut. He truly created a paranoid environment than not only the protagonist but the audience also descended into. His command of characters and the tension that passes between them is impressive and I look forward to see what he does next. A remake of Marathon Man would be an interesting challenge. Sometimes an independent director falls flat on his face when given a studio assignment; other times it can produce stellar results. I would bet on the latter.

-TM


Picture of the Week: The Outsider (1980)

April 17, 2012
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This is a new series that we are inaugurating on a continuing basis here at Cinema Station… Now there are other movie blogs that already feature a recommended Movie of the Week so what makes us different?  Or are we just imitating something that has already been done? Hopefully not. We’re going to be different because the titles we select will not be from the generally accepted canon of worthwhile or critically acclaimed films. In other words our selections will not have any discernible pedigree of any kind. They are the runts of the litter, the orphans, the rude children that just won’t behave or conform, the mavericks and the outlaws.   So they will mostly be small, offbeat and often low budget works that caught our fancy or captivated our attention for one reason or another.  A different way of putting it is to say that these are films that got made, released but somehow slipped through the cracks somewhere along the way and now reside in the dark abyss of obscurity. But it doesn’t have to be that way forever. At least not here in the universe of Cinema Station. So hang with us, maybe you’ll find a gem or two among them.

The Outsider (1980)

When I watched The Outsider, I had no idea how obscure of a film it was. It is confused for and lost in a sea of similar titles. There has been no release on VHS or DVD (I found it on Netflix). There is no information on wikipedia or IMDb other than plot summaries. It is the only film ever directed by Tony Luraschi. And the only reviews I found were both from the New York Times around the film’s release which divulged that Luraschi (in 1980) was a 40 year old American who studied under Roger Vadim among others and had been a still photographer before working in film.

I’m on this quest to find out more about The Outsider and its director because it is a powerful piece of cinema. It tells the story of an American (played by Craig Wasson) and Vietnam veteran who joins the I.R.A. to fight the British, influenced by his prideful Irish-American grandfather. Thrown into a power play of soldiers and politicians on either side, Wasson’s character ends up being used by both ends, his ideals exploited for victory and publicity.

This is perhaps the best film I have seen about the Irish conflict. The “outsider” perspective allows the director to take an unbiased look at the situation. As he is quoted in the NY Times review, “It doesn’t have a point of view. It just tells what is happening.” The film is not looking for answers and for that reason, it is rough, less polished, and more honest than mainstream attempts to portray this material.

Luraschi portrays a bleak Belfast where bombs explode at any time of day and night for no apparent reason and with no one clearly responsible. Though the British are more the “bad guys” of the movie, there are bastards on both sides of the war and Luraschi makes no judgments on them. In many ways, this is a film as complex, disturbing and almost as brilliant as Jean-Pierre Melville’s French Resistance drama Army of Shadows. Both movies leave much for us to decide, their characters a mystery at times and the conclusion of the stories utterly haunting.

If there is one weak point in the film it is Craig Wasson, who tries to meet the film on its level but isn’t quite capable. Still, it is refreshing to see an unlikely lead in this film, which would have been completely ruined by a typical Hollywood male star. For this reason, Wasson is the kind of protagonist we can relate to and follow through the horror. As Spielberg wisely decided on Jaws, it is often more effective and unpredictable to cast an every-man hero. Roy Scheider instead of Charlton Heston, for instance.

Sterling Hayden gives one of his last performances as the grandfather who influenced Wasson to fight in Ireland. There is only one scene between the two actors but it carries the weight and tone of the whole picture. Luraschi has the guts afterwards to end the film with no resolution. How could he when the war that it concerns continues even today?

The Outsider is a semi-flawed masterwork and it is a shame that the director never made another film.

If you’re out there anywhere Tony, know that your film continues to awe and astound those who come upon it.

-TM


More Quotes from Jean-Luc Godard

April 17, 2012
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Jean-Luc Godard has been cinema’s premiere provocateur since the 1960s making films that stimulate as well as outrage in so many ways that it is nearly impossible to itemize them. To paraphrase Elizabeth Barrett Browning “How can I unsettle you? Let me count the ways” seems to be the mantra of his life in cinema. But besides making films that turn expected reactions to contemporary movies on their head, Godard has also articulated his outlook on cinema and its process in a variety of ways. We here at Cinema Station and Running Wild Films view him as a patron saint and an inspiration. We’ve quoted him before. Here are a few more presented as food for thought.

–       I make film to make time pass.

–       You don’t make a movie, the movie makes you.

–       My aesthetic is that of the sniper on the roof.

–       There is no point in having sharp images when you have fuzzy ideas.

–       What I want is above all is to destroy the idea of culture. Culture is an alibi of imperialism. There is a Ministry of War. There is a Ministry of Culture. Therefore, culture is war.

–       It’s over. There was a time when cinema could have improved society. That time was missed.

–       Every edit is a lie.

–       In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie.

–       Up to now- since shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution- most moviemakers have been assuming that they know how to make movies. Just like the bad writer doesn’t ask himself if he’s really capable of writing a novel- he thinks he knows. If moviemakers were building airplanes, there would be an accident every time one took off. But in the movies, these accidents are called Oscars.

–       Robert Bresson is to French cinema what Mozart is to German music and Dostoyevsky is to Russian literature.


Picture of the Week: No Name on the Bullet

April 10, 2012
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Picture of the Week

This is a new series that we are inaugurating on a continuing basis here at Cinema Station… Now there are other movie blogs that already feature a recommended Movie of the Week so what makes us different?  Or are we just imitating something that has already been done? Hopefully not. We’re going to be different because the titles we select will not be from the generally accepted canon of worthwhile or critically acclaimed films. In other words our selections will not have any discernible pedigree of any kind. They are the runts of the litter, the orphans, the rude children that just won’t behave or conform, the mavericks and the outlaws.   So they will mostly be small, offbeat and often low budget works that caught our fancy or captivated our attention for one reason or another.  A different way of putting it is to say that these are films that got made, released but somehow slipped through the cracks somewhere along the way and now reside in the dark abyss of obscurity. But it doesn’t have to be that way forever. At least not here in the universe of Cinema Station. So hang with us, maybe you’ll find a gem or two among them.

No Name on the Bullet (1959)

This is a modest little Audie Murphy (1924-1971) western that came out in 1959. Murphy was, as you might know, and still is America’s greatest war hero. During the Second World War this baby faced young man from Texas became this country’s most decorated soldier and won every major medal we give for valor, including the coveted Medal of Honor. Some 32 medals in all…After the war he was summoned to Hollywood where he remained for a quarter of a century acting and mostly starring in a series of low budget westerns for Universal studios. Generally the films were modest in their intentions and pleased the undemanding western fans of the time. Murphy was a good, low key actor who brought off the histrionic demands of the scripts with a pleasingly convincing demeanor. They were films generally long on action with just enough plot to make the action plausible. Altogether, Murphy made 49 features of which 33 were westerns. No Name on the Bullet came somewhere in the middle and slipped through in the mix of what had become known as “an Audie Murphy western”. This was almost a separate genre unto itself. Or more properly, a sub genre of the western. But what distinguishes this film and gives it its special place in my esteem, is the story. Murphy, for the first time in his career plays the villain, or a sort of villain. He plays a character named John Gant, a known assassin who rides into a town, goads some individual into a gunfight and kills that person all nice and legal, then moves on. In this film he is or can be viewed as some sort of Avenging Angel because the people he kills are always deserving their fate because of some crime they committed and thought they had managed to escape the consequences. On screen we never see Gant kill anyone deliberately. And even when goaded he always manages to avoid a deadly confrontation. So he is not a psychopathic killer by any stretch of the imagination. In fact his outlook and manner, as played by Murphy, is almost philosophical. “You did a bad thing once and now the fates have caught up with you, so accept it.”

Gant rides in to a town called Lordsburg and almost immediately many of the town’s “distinguished” citizens begin to wonder and worry if it’s them he’s after. Each, it becomes obvious, is guilty of some mendacious act in their past. Or sometimes it’s even worse. Their imaginations begin to go wild and they try to figure ways of getting Gant to leave town or maybe even kill him. This is a script riddled with all kinds of disturbing sub-textual elements addressing the hypocrisy of so called “respectable lives” then and even now. This is why I like this film because it moves beyond the usual  western set-ups and tropes to ask questions that have some universal resonances. I think that this same story, with its Kafkaesque subtext about universal guilt, in the hands of say one of the classic French filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Melville or Robert Bresson would have been turned into a film about which academic theses would’ve been written over the decades. But it is obvious that this Jack Arnold directed picture with a story and screenplay by Gene L. Coon and Howard Amacker had no such ambitions in mind. It is an efficiently made, quiet little western that satisfyingly substitutes action for character revelation with an ending that has a touch of the “morality tale” about it.

The supporting cast is filled with many of Hollywood’s best but unheralded character actors who went through whole careers giving excellent performances virtually every time out that were for the most part unrecognized and taken for granted. I’m talking about Charles Drake, Virginia Grey, R. G. Armstrong, Whit Bissell, Jerry Paris (who transitioned into directing), Karl Swenson and the recently deceased Warren Stevens. No Name on the Bullet is one of those little gems from the Studio System’s second unit setup that just slipped right on through. Give it a try, see if you don’t agree. 

A side note.

The title No Name on the Bullet was also used as the name of a quite good biography of Audie Murphy by Don Graham published by Viking Press in 1989.

-GE



Picture of the Week: Light Sleeper

April 3, 2012
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Picture of the Week

This is a new series that we are inaugurating on a continuing basis here at Cinema Station… Now there are other movie blogs that already feature a recommended Movie of the Week so what makes us different?  Or are we just imitating something that has already been done? Hopefully not. We’re going to be different because the titles we select will not be from the generally accepted canon of worthwhile or critically acclaimed films. In other words our selections will not have any discernible pedigree of any kind. They are the runts of the litter, the orphans, the rude children that just won’t behave or conform, the mavericks and the outlaws.   So they will mostly be small, offbeat and often low budget works that caught our fancy or captivated our attention for one reason or another.  A different way of putting it is to say that these are films that got made, released but somehow slipped through the cracks somewhere along the way and now reside in the dark abyss of obscurity. But it doesn’t have to be that way forever. At least not here in the universe of Cinema Station. So hang with us, maybe you’ll find a gem or two among them.

Light Sleeper

Willem Dafoe plays a drug dealer. He works for Susan Sarandon who is trying to make her break from the business and start a cosmetics company. He’s in love with a woman (Dana Delaney) who has broken away from drug lifestyle completely and though Dafoe is sober, she wants nothing to do with him. And he feels like someone wants to kill him.

Light Sleeper is the kind of thriller common to the late 80s and early 90s. Slick, moody, filled with dark rainy streets, it feels like an old Michael Mann movie. But it was directed by Paul Schrader, who beyond writing some good screenplays which Scorsese turned into great films, has a list of misfires to his name. But Light Sleeper is dead on.

It is a dreadful trip through the “high class” drug underworld. Dafoe’s character isn’t a saint, but he’s trying to do good in his own way and find love, but no matter his intentions the world seems to be closing around him. Schrader’s themes are firing in all the right directions and his cast is placed in perfect unison, especially the two women. Delaney, as the recovering, addict is the symbol of innocence and salvation for Dafoe, yet she’s sexy and elusive. Sarandon, whose performance did not work for me up front, grows into the picture and her work at the end steals the scenes.

But it’s Dafoe who really shines. His inner monologue as he sleeps on a mattress spread out on the floor of his loft, his lonely rides around the city looking for a recognizable face, and his helplessness as he realizes he doesn’t know who to trust.

A terrific thriller with some Noir elements, Light Sleeper is my underrated film pick of the week.

-Travis Mills