Saturday, November 14, 2009

On DVD: "Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis Play the Music of Ray Charles"

Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis’ inaugural collaboration, Live from Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York City, was one of my nicest DVD surprises of last year; what sounded, at first blush, like a singularly peculiar paring resulted in a homey, mellow, thoroughly enjoyable blues show by two unexpectedly well-suited collaborators. That show (and its corresponding album, Two Men and the Blues) was apparently a positive experience for the musicians as well; a mere year later, they’ve reteamed for a new concert disc, Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis Play the Music of Ray Charles.

The genius of their first special was how it favored neither man’s immediate, obvious specialty: Nelson is, of course, a country music icon, while Marsalis is one of the nation’s foremost jazzmen, but for that show, they met in the middle and played some blues. This time, in taking on the Charles songbook, they allow themselves to hopscotch all over the melodic map, as he did. Charles was, of course, the “genius of soul,” but he was also a musical journeyman who experimented in pop, blues, jazz, and country (most famously on his classic Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music albums). And they don’t restrict themselves to Charles’ own compositions, just songs he performed throughout his career.

The 91-minute concert is organized by the swings of a modern romance: “love, love lost, and love found again,” according to Marsalis, who introduces most of the numbers (often with heckles and interjections from his collaborators). Things get off to a toe-tapping start with a snazzy jazz arrangement of his early hit “Hallelujah, I Love Her So.” Norah Jones (who dueted with Charles on his final album, Genius Loves Company) joins them for the second number; the disc is subtitled “with special guest Norah Jones,” but she’s rather shortchanged by that billing (I’d guess she has about the same amount of screen time as Nelson). At any rate, the group’s swinging interpretation of “You Are My Sunshine” is a real treat, and a fine showcase for Norah’s sweet-as-honey vocal stylings. (Only one complaint here: Nelson’s guitar solo on that number is surprisingly clumsy, particularly in contrast to his fine solos throughout the rest of the show.)

Jones also sounds terrific on the moody, lovely cover of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” while the band’s bluesy take on “Unchain My Heart” (with cracking percussion by Ali Jackson and a blistering harmonica solo by Mickey Raphael) is outstanding. Jones returns for “Crying Time,” but it doesn’t quite work; as opposed to the other songs where she shares singing duties with Nelson in a taking-turns fashion, this more conventional duet finds them trying to blend their too-distinctive voices without much success (it reminded me of that “Bridge Over Troubled Water” cover on Johnny Cash’s American IV album, a duet with Fiona Apple that marked another case of two great voices that didn’t sound great together).

Marsalis’ wicked trumpet work is showcased on “Losing Hand”; “Hit the Road, Jack” also finds him in top form, wailing away on his horn in a piercing intro (and singing along with the background vocals). It’s (justifiably) one of Ray’s most iconic songs, and they do it justice (thanks also to the killer sax part, which Walter Blanding nails, and the keyboard skills of ridiculously young-looking pianist Dan Nimmer). After a fast-paced rip through “I’m Movin’ On,” they take on “I’m Busted,” and while Marsalis’ arrangement may be a little too clean, Willie’s vocals bring the necessary dirt and grime to the downbeat musical tale.

Jones sings beautifully on the elegant “You Don’t Know Me,” which rolls effortlessly into “Here We Go Again,” and a sassy take on “Makin’ Whopee” (which finds Jones having some fun with the tune’s rhythms). After the pleasant throwaway “I Love You So Much It Hurts,” the full band pulls out all the stops for a rousing romp through “What’d I Say,” with all three of the headliners taking turns on the vocals. It’s big fun, even if it feels like Norah and Willie are holding back a little on the guttural moans of the song’s second half. Finally, “That’s All” is an appropriately high-energy closer, nicely balancing the up-tempo instrumentation with Nelson’s laid-back vocals.

Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson are two unique and surprisingly like-minded talents, as their first collaboration proved. The addition of Norah Jones and the exploration of the music of Ray Charles make this a more-than-worthy re-teaming, full of wonderful arrangements and pleasurable performances.

Also of interest: the recently re-released “The Willie Nelson Special with Special Guest Ray Charles,” a 1985 TV special in which Charles joins Nelson and his band for six numbers.

Friday, November 13, 2009

In Theaters: "Defamation"

Yoav Shamir’s Defamation is a fascinatingly honest and open personal documentary that seldom steps wrong until its final moments, when he kind of blows it (more on that presently). Shamir, an Israeli director, takes on the broad and difficult concept of anti-Semitism—specifically, is it a prevalent and terrifying threat that could tip the world into another Holocaust, or a scare tactic used for purposes of guilt, fundraising, and attention to agendas?

The truth of the matter is, it’s probably somewhere in between. Shamir’s film is distinctively homemade (right down to the handwriting style of the on-screen text), but he certainly doesn’t lack for ambition; he travels from Israel to America to Moscow to Poland to points in between, talking to school kids, fellow journalists, activists, professors, and his slightly crazy grandmother. He spends a great deal of time with Abe Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, sitting in on meetings and accompanying him to forums. He tries to find a case of anti-Semitism that he can follow (“Every film needs a drive,” he explains to a lawyer).

But the story that he ends up telling is one of in-fighting and voices of dissent. Foxman represents the voices of those who feel that the ubiquity of anti-Semitism is a continuing threat to the Jewish people. But then he meets Professor Norman Finkelsetin, the controversial author, who theorizes that anti-Semitism is a ploy used to silence critics. In the struggle over their warring ideologies, Shamir finds a powerful conflict to hang his film on.

Many other voices are heard, and one of the film’s most interesting elements is how he keeps turning our expectations on their head. In chasing the story his film needs for “drive,” he talks to a Jewish reporter who off-handedly spews some semi-alarming racism. He talks to a group of New York African-Americans who claim no beef with their Jewish neighbors, and then proceed to pontificate ridiculous (and vile) theories of the “Jews are evil and run everything” variety.

His interview strategy is one of the simplest but most effective: he lets people keep talking. An astonishing percentage of the time, even the most reasoned and thoughtful interview subject, allowed the rope of uninterrupted camera time, will proceed to hang themselves. He talks to a couple that represent the West coast branch of the ADL, and they end up confessing that they don’t agree with a lot of what they’re supposed to agree with. Foxman himself seems an incredibly bright and effective guy, but he’ll occasionally carry his logic to a realm that can only be called paranoia. Most disturbingly, Finkelstein gives a piercing rebuke to “warmongers from the Hamptons” which had people in our theatre laughing and cheering—and then he proceeds to compare Foxman to Hitler, a comparison that he only withdraws because it “isn’t fair to Hitler.”

Shamir manages to be fair and still personal; he lets everyone say their peace, as borderline insane as it may turn out to be. It’s occasionally worrisome but, it seems, accurate—there are no good guys and bad guys in the film, no easy targets, no black or white. It’s all shades of grey, too complex and difficult for easy designations.

That’s why his final voice-over is such a misfire. Throughout the film, he has followed a group of Israeli students as they prepare for an extended trip to visit the sites of the Holocaust’s greatest crimes. Early in the trip, there is a riveting sequence where they visit a concentration camp and feel horrible—but only for not getting more emotional. Later, however, they go Auschwitz, and it is powerful and moving. Shamir doesn’t interfere, doesn’t ask so much as a question. He hangs back and observes. But then, in the final scene, he offers up a brief and not-terribly-insightful voice-over, wrapping it up with his take on the issue. The film, and the issues it addresses, are too inscrutable for that, and the efficacy of the final sequence doesn’t require a director to come in and tell us what to think. We’ve put it together for ourselves—and some of us may have arrived at a different conclusion than he does.

"Defamation" is currently playing in limited release.

On DVD: "Rocky: The Undisputed Collection"

Whenever we talk about great American films, we feel compelled to talk about them as a turning point, how they made an indelible mark on moviegoing culture and influenced everything that came after them. It’s easy to pinpoint Jaws and Star Wars as the moments when the blockbuster mentality took over the golden age of 1970s filmmaking, for example, and how that film’s release (either one, doesn’t matter) was the moment when studio executives realized the insane amounts of money that could be made by snowing television with ads and eschewing platform releases for wide ones (though other, smaller films had done it before), or that they marked the turn of the tide in 70s filmmaking from art to commerce (a workable theory, as long as you’re willing to negate the millions that the indisputably artful Godfather pictures raked in). The fact of the matter is, due to their long lead times and gun-shy financiers (always have been, always will be), movies are seldom if ever genuinely “cutting edge”—movies react to the mood of our culture, the mood of our country, and most importantly, they react to whatever else is currently making money and capturing the popular imagination.

This is why the Rocky films (now assembled in the Blu-ray set Rocky: The Undisputed Collection) are so valuable—not as great cinema (though some of them are), but as a cultural artifact. The Rocky pictures didn’t influence the American zeitgeist. They reacted to it, and reflected it. Few (if any) motion picture series so thoroughly encapsulate where conventional Hollywood picture-making was when each film was released; we can watch the first Rocky film, and it is a perfect representation of the kind of quiet, personal cinema that was all the rage in 1976, just as Rocky IV is exactly the kind of glossy, soundtrack-driven, empty-headed bullshit that we all wanted to stick in our eye-holes in 1985. Each Rocky film pretty much tells you everything you need to know about where we were as a moviegoing populace at the time it came out—for better or for worse.

Of course, there are other reasons why the original Rocky was so beloved (and rewarded, both in the year’s highest box office revenues and the year’s Best Picture Oscar). First and foremost, it had a compelling backstory: star Sylvester Stallone was a Hollywood also-ran, toiling away in bit parts with a career headed to nowhere, when he wrote the gentle, affecting screenplay as a vehicle for himself (and refused big payday offers to sell it unless he was attached to star). Taking his inspiration from a 1975 bout in which Muhammad Ali gave a title shot to obscure fighter Chuck Wepner, Stallone penned the story of Rocky Balboa, a Philadelphia club fighter and muscle man for a local loan shark who lives in a run-down apartment and pines for the love of shy, homely pet store clerk Adrian (Talia Shire). When heavyweight champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is desperate for a fill-in opponent, he decides to fight an unknown, as a display of the limitless opportunities of America on its Centennial birthday; he picks Rocky because he likes the symbolism of his nickname, “The Italian Stallion.”

Shot for just over a million dollars in under a month, Rocky reflects the style and tone of the character-driven dramas so often seen in the mid-1970s—movies like Fat City, The King of Marvin Gardens, and Mean Streets, from which Rocky director John G. Avildsen lifts much of the picture’s decaying urban aesthetic. Considerable time is spent setting up Rocky’s world, letting him wander the neighborhood, chatting with friends and neighbors, hanging out with Adrian’s brother Paulie (Burt Young), chewing the fat with his mob boss, tentatively courting Adrian. The film is admirably patient, low-key and lived-in; its emphasis on dialogue and cock-eyed humor (Rocky tells his pet turtles, “If you guys could sing and dance, and wouldn’t be doing this, you know?”) is easy to forget, considering how the series’ later entries would lean so heavily on fight scenes and training montages. Indeed, around the midway point, we embark on a lengthy sequence showing Rocky and Adrian’s first date, and it is charming, sweet, and a little heartbreaking (“I always knew you was pretty,” Rocky tells Adrian, to which she immediately responds, “Don’t tease me”). A series of dialogue scenes this long and understated would be unthinkable by the time we get to Rocky III.

It’s also easy to forget how great Stallone is in the film; so convincing was he as the slurry-voiced bruiser that people tended to think he was just playing himself (an assumption that apparently irked Stallone to such a degree that he took to wearing unnecessary eyeglasses and giving overly verbose interviews in the 1980s). But at the time of the film’s release, he was legitimately compared to DeNiro and Brando, and for good reason: it’s a terrific performance. He conveys palpable, powerful fear and hesitation in the scene where the Creed bout is proposed, and his speech, late in the film, about wanting to “go that distance” is wonderful.

The original Rocky is also unique among its successors for the time it takes to get to a training sequence (90 minutes in, culminating with Bill Conti’s rousing music and the triumphant ascension of the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an oft-seen moment that still gives goosebumps) and the brevity of its fight scene (less than ten minutes of screen time). We know how it ends, but the tremendous power of the film’s final moments is undiminished by the passage of time.

Three years after the success of Rocky, Stallone and the cast returned for Rocky II, again penned by Stallone, who this time took over the director’s chair as well. 1979 was, in Roger Ebert’s words, “a year of sequels and prequels and remakes,” a year where people wanted more of the same, and Rocky II delivered that—beginning, in fact, by using the final six minutes of Rocky as the first six minutes of its follow-up (this habit, of lighting the new film with the cigarette butt of the last one, would continue through Rocky V).

The second installment finds Rocky marrying his beloved Adrian and trying to cope with his sudden success. He is promised lucrative endorsement deals and myriad opportunities for more fights, but there’s a problem: doctors tell Rocky that the eye troubles from the Creed bout are serious, and if he fights again, he could go blind. The commercial bids dry up (come to find out, Rocky’s not so good on camera), and Rocky has to find work to support Adrian (and their pending baby). Trouble is, he can’t do much other than fight, and Creed is pressuring him for a rematch (to save face after the close, split decision of what should have been an easy win). Will he return to the ring? Hmmm, I wonder.

As a director, Stallone keeps a tighter pace than Avildsen, though he wisely preserves the original picture’s look and feel. He also doesn’t shy away from the darker overtones—the downbeat portrait of the fighter’s quick fall is surprisingly vivid. As a general rule, though, his screenplay is more pumped-up; the dialogue here is less about conversation and more about big speeches (though the quietly powerful hospital scene, in which Rocky asks Creed, “Did you give me your best?”, is a noteworthy exception). To be sure, some of those big speeches—like Rocky’s late night chat with his trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith), in which he confesses “I just gotta be around it”—are potent. But there’s also some corn in the dialogue (like Mickey’s “What are we waitin’ for?” after Adrian gives her blessing to their training), and the various crises with Adrian and her pregnancy feel like soap opera.

The fight sequence is much longer this time around, but it’s a great sequence of high drama, in which Stallone starts to experiment energetically with sound and slow-motion, amping up our investment on the way to an ingenious and deservedly famous ending. Rocky II doesn’t match the emotional investment or tonal perfection of its predecessor, but it has its moments; there is still some heart and soul to it, though those qualities were gasping their last breaths in mainstream filmmaking by the time of its release.

Rocky III hit screens in 1982, a mere three years later, but the temperature of Hollywood film was changing rapidly. MTV was unveiled the year before, and up-and-coming directors were cutting their teeth on these three-minute music films and other commercials, bringing that glossy flash into the multiplex; audiences wanted their movies to be faster, slicker, to cut to the chase. Twenty minutes into Rocky III, we’ve already had more boxing action than in the entirety of the first film, and its preliminary exposition (the solidification of Rocky’s heavyweight crown and the rise of his soon-to-be challenger, Clubber Lang) is done in music-montage form, like a little MTV video of Rocky’s life since the last movie.

In its opening scenes, the film feels narratively aimless; it sets up the rise of Lang (Mr. T, in a performance that grows campier with each passing year) but then goes off on several tangents, like the exhibition bout with wrestler Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan) and the unveiling of a Rocky statue, kind of forgetting about Lang until he shows up at the statue ceremony for an awkwardly staged, poorly written confrontation.

Generally speaking, Stallone’s gift for colorful turns-of-phrase and street language are absent by the third film; there is far less dialogue, in favor of more montages and more boxing action. The first big fight with Lang is rendered nearly cartoonish by the overblown sound effects and the melodramatic timing of Mickey’s demise, while some of the training sequences—particularly his first race on the beach with competitor-turned-manager Creed, which is rendered in slo-mo and intercut with sepia-toned flashbacks—are just plain goofy.

The clever (and clean) storytelling turn that puts Rocky and Apollo together is a good one, but Stallone’s script plays like a filmed outline; it’s starting to feel like paint-by-numbers screenwriting. He’ll write a scene where Rocky and Adrian yell at each other, but not one where they’ll talk to each other—the unique relationship so gingerly cultivated in the first two pictures is now that of a shrewish wife and a frustrated husband. But Stallone’s scenario seems primarily designed as a showcase for his new, hyper-ripped bod (dig the lingering close-ups of his running thighs), and the unfortunate period fashion choices that entails (bare midriffs were never a good look for men, I don’t care who tries to claim otherwise). What’s more, he’s rapidly losing sight of the character; you see him slipping out of it, losing Rocky’s distinctive speech patterns within his own (he only has one moment of genuine, believable acting, and that comes when he’s at Mickey’s deathbed). The final fight is thrilling, even if the force of those punches would clearly kill an actual human being and the co-opting of Ali’s “rope-a-dope” strategy feels like a bit of a cheap shortcut.

Like clockwork, the passing of three years brought a new Rocky picture, Rocky IV—or, as I call it, “the 90-minute music video where Rocky wins the Cold War.” Between parts III and IV, Stallone had starred in First Blood and its sequel, Rambo; the strident jingoism of the fourth Rocky film seems as much a reaction to Rambo’s success as anything that preceded it in the Rocky series. The picture’s level of subtlety is established right at the top, with the imagery of a US flag boxing glove and a Russian flag boxing glove colliding, and then exploding. That’s pretty much everything you need to know about the picture right there—empty symbolism, meaningless action.

After the required replay of the last film’s ending, the film gets off to a shaky start with some awful business with Paulie and a robot (don’t ask) and Carl Weathers reduced to posturing and glowering as he decides to take on Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), a “perfect specimen” of Russian science and training. Creed faces Drago at a gaudily staged, oddball exhibition match in a Las Vegas showroom (with James Brown as the opening act); Drago beats Creed to death (literally), and Rocky is challenged to face the big Slavic brute by the laughable Russian caricatures that are his handlers (including ice queen Brigitte Nielsen, then Stallone’s wife). Adrian screams at him, “It’s suicide! You can’t win!,” prompting the nadir of the entire series: a music video (“There’s no easy way out…”) of Rocky driving in his Lamborghini, intercut with strobe images of Drago and flashbacks to all of the previous films. The empty sounds of power rock and the fetishism of Rocky’s conspicuous consumption surely represent the series at its most soulless (and its laziest—a good five minutes of the picture’s slender 91 minute running time is whiled away recycling footage from previous films), while the clips from the earlier films are downright jarring—they seem to be airlifted in from another dimension, the unique and memorably flesh-and-blood creations of the first movie unrelated to this world of dull humanoids.

That MTV storytelling permeates the second half of the film; we get two back-to-back training montages, contrasting Drago’s high-tech training with good ol’ analog Rocky, chopping down trees and hauling crap through the snow with his bare hands. Fancy Russkie science ain’t got nothin’ on good ol’ fashioned American ingenuity! (Compounding the pain are the most mind-numbingly literal accompanying lyrics in movie history: “Two worlds collide…” goes one song. “Seems our freedom’s up against the ropes!”) And when the dramatic beats come (like Rocky and Adrian’s fight and reconciliation), they’re simplified to a point of mawkishness. Oh yeah, and then at the end, when Rocky takes down the enormous Russian in Russia in front of a crowd of Russians, what do you know, they start to chant Rocky’s name. It is, charitably speaking, a moment that strains credibility. From its obvious opening images to our hero’s comical closing speech, Rocky IV is the low point of the series, a film as hollow and synthesized as its soundtrack.

Stallone didn’t revisit the Rocky franchise for five years, and in that time, he saw his brand begin to falter; films like Rambo III and Cobra and Lock-Up made money, yes, but performed below expectations, while newer action stars like Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis appeared to be stealing Sly’s thunder. The studio slates were more and more reliant on sequels, on nostalgia, and a return to his most beloved character was looking like Stallone’s best option to reclaim his box-office throne. Rocky IV’s bad reviews appeared to have stung a bit; seldom has a film series’ desire to get back to its roots been more transparent. So for Rocky V, Stallone ceded the director’s chair back to Rocky director John Avildsen, and he concocted a story that busted Rocky and his family all the way back to the mean streets from whence they came.

The less said about the circumstances that put them there, the better (it’s some nonsense about Paulie signing over Rocky’s power of attorney to a crooked accountant). Rocky’s medical troubles make a convenient return; he’s apparently got some minor brain damage from the Drago bout, and it could be permanent (and even deadly) if he returns to the ring. So, as in Rocky II, our hero has to support his family (including his teenage son, played by Stallone’s own offspring, Sage) without doing what he does best. He ends up running Mickey’s old gym, where he takes a talented young fighter named Tommy Gunn (a mulletted Tommy Morrison) under his wing, managing him to success, all the while dodging George Washington Duke (Richard Gant), a Don King-style promoter who wants to lure Rocky back into the ring.

The good news about Rocky V is that the emphasis has returned to character and dialogue (with even a few flashes of the early films’ off-kilter humor). The excesses of the 80s films have been toned down considerably; the second act does get a little music-heavy (and is hampered by the desperate-to-be-hip decision to use a rap soundtrack, which both feels wrong and manages to date the film considerably), but there’s no new boxing action of note until the 80-minute mark. There are some nice callbacks to the first film, including its aping of the opening shot from the original film at the beginning of Tommy’s first club fight. And, thankfully, Stallone is bothering to act again; the father/son subplot is a dud overall (if for no other reason than for the younger Stallone’s dangly earring), but it winds up nicely, thanks mostly to Stallone’s earnest, honest performance.

The bad news is that most of the other performances are pretty bad. Morrison is a phony, overdoing his golly-gee character with line readings out of a high school play, and Gant’s broadly overdone character wrecks nearly every scene he’s in (particularly the ridiculous press conferences). In fact, his cutaways nearly sink the film’s otherwise shrewd climax, which shakes up the series’ rigid format by ending with a street fight instead of a pro bout. Rocky V has its problems, yes, but its heart is in the right place; it doesn’t recapture the magic of the inaugural outing, but it certainly tops Rocky III and Rocky IV.

It didn’t make much of an impression on audiences or critics, however. The problem could be that Stallone, in its writing, was still playing in fantasy—his career wasn’t exactly on the upswing, but he was still a rich guy imagining what it would be like to be poor and desperate, and his screenplay lacked the heart and authenticity that made Rocky so special. That would no longer be a problem when Stallone finally returned to the series 16 years later, for 2006’s Rocky Balboa. The intervening years had not been kind to Sly; there had been occasional bright spots (1993’s Cliffhanger and Demolition Man), and a full-on great performance in a well-reviewed indie (1996’s CopLand), but every comeback attempt sank without a trace, and by the beginning of the new millennium, Stallone was fronting straight-to-DVD efforts like D-Tox and Avenging Angelo. It took years to get anyone to take a chance on his sixth turn as Rocky; like his protagonist, he was perceived as a man past his prime. But by 2006, studios were so confused about what the American public wanted that they were willing to throw a few bucks at a one-time titan to see if he could get a few nostalgia bucks out of Christmas moviegoers.

We find Rocky content with his lot in life, but a sad man; he has lost Adrian to cancer and longs for a meaningful relationship with his son (played this time by Milo Ventimiglia of Heroes). Rocky owns and operates an Italian eatery named after his lost love, greeting diners, posing for pictures, and telling fight stories. An ESPN program imagines a fight between Rocky and the current champ, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver); it gets the bruiser thinking about how much he misses the ring, so he applies to fight again, which leads to Dixon’s promoters suggesting an exhibition match.

Rocky Balboa marked Stallone’s first directorial effort since Rocky IV over 20 years before; though his filmography was slim, Stallone was always a competent, occasionally inspired filmmaker, and the picture has a nicely meandering sense of atmosphere, seeming perfectly at home in its Philadelphia streets and gyms. There are some scenes here that are just plain good; Rocky’s tentative friendship with a neighborhood girl has a nice off-handed intimacy, and watch how well-written and well-played a brief confrontation with a neighborhood tough guy outside of her bar is. He also knows exactly how to use the series’ considerable iconography; it’s impossible to not get worked up when the “Gonna Fly Now” training montage rips, and when he trots out trademark visuals like the downing of eggs and the punching of beef.

When we get to the big climactic bout, Stallone chooses to play out the first two rounds in real time, with chyrons and announcers present, as if we’re watching it on TV. It’s a risky call; it amps up the “reality” of what we’re seeing (since this is how we’re used to seeing fights), but it’s cinematically dodgy. Thankfully, he gets more inventive, building us up and working us over until arriving at an honest-to-God poignant climax in the middle of the blistering bout. It might be trite, it might be hokey, but it works like a charm, delivering a moment of sheer electric emotion that gave this viewer chills.

No one’s ever considered Stallone to be a terribly personal filmmaker, but there is undoubtedly an element of autobiography in his Rocky scripts (or, at the very least, the good ones). In Rocky, it was perhaps more a case of artistic wishful thinking—the unknown looking for a shot, writing the story of another unknown who got his. Rocky II finds that out-of-nowhere star dealing with the pitfalls of sudden fame. But nearly every scene of Rocky Balboa feels straight from Stallone’s heart. It doesn’t take a literature professor to draw the parallels from Balboa’s past glory as an athlete to Stallone’s fallen stock in Hollywood; indeed, much of the criticism prompted by his character’s decision to return to the ring seems reminiscent of the hoots of derision that greeted the news that Stallone was taking another stab at this franchise. Rocky is told he’s too old to do what he used to do better than anyone else, and while it may be partially Stallone’s fault that he aged out of the roles he’d made himself famous playing (it wouldn’t have killed him to have slid a quality project somewhere in between Over the Top and Tango & Cash, just to remind us that he could act), we feel sympathy for both the character and the actor when he notes that “the older I get, the more things I gotta leave behind—that’s life.” When he rails to the licensing board about getting what you deserve after paying your dues, it feels real and personal. When his bartender friend notes, “It doesn’t matter how it looks to other people, it matters how it looks to you,” you can’t help but feel for the big lug—Rocky, and Sly. And his triumph at the picture’s end feels as much like Stallone’s as it does Rocky’s. It took him a while to find Rocky’s heart and soul again, to tell his story in a way so open and warmhearted, at risk of ridicule. But he pulled it off, and that, in its own way, in the Hollywood of 2006, was a minor miracle.

Whether you see the Rocky movies as a sampling of Hollywood trends, as Stallone’s professional autobiography, as a microcosm for America itself (from the beaten-down but hopeful late 1970s to the empty, go-go 80s to the no-frills recession-era early 90s and mid 2000s), or just as fun boxing pictures with a healthy slab of melodrama (which is, I know, the most probable choice), they stand as one of our most enduring and beloved film franchises. And the middle ones may be junk, but (taken in the right spirit) they can be trashily enjoyable junk; either way, they’re a part of Rocky and Stallone’s journey to a modest and unassuming final chapter. The series may be wildly uneven, but what the hell. That’s Hollywood for you.

"Rocky: The Undisputed Collection" is currently available on Blu-ray.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On DVD: "The Maiden Heist"

More often than not, if you’ve never heard of a picture that’s chock full of people you know, well, there’s a reason. Marquee stars turn up in films like Personal Effects or Powder Blue or Even Money, and someone strolling through a Blockbuster might pick up a copy and scratch their head and think, “Well, I just must have missed that one,” unaware that they’re holding, in their hands, the product of a mercy killing.

Poor Morgan Freeman has been in a shocking number of these straight-to-DVD films over the last couple of years (Edison Force, The Contract, and the stunningly inept The Code), but The Maiden Heist isn’t another turkey unceremoniously dumped to Netflix. Indeed, the folks behind this all-star caper (the cast also includes Christopher Walken, William H. Macy, and Marcia Gay Harden—all actors who brighten up just about any project they wander into) wanted badly for it to hit theaters; it seems, according to NPR, that it fell by the wayside due to the financial troubles of the distribution arm of the Yari Film Group, the film’s production company. It was shopped to other distributors, but no one wanted to jump because ancillary rights (including DVD) had already been sold to Sony. So, with theatrical distribution a no-go, The Maiden Heist makes its world premiere on small screens.

Walken, Freeman, and Macy play a trio of security guards at a Boston art museum, each of whom has developed an attachment to a particular work of art during their long hours of standing around staring at paintings and sculptures. When they find out that the museum is shipping much of its permanent collection to a facility in Denmark, including their beloved works, they’re heartbroken; after ruling out following the art (“Do you know how far Denmark is?” Macy asks. “And it’s a really hard language!”), they decide to swipe the three pieces during the move, replacing them with forgeries and keeping the originals for themselves.

Michael LeSieur’s screenplay has an intriguing set-up, and the heist itself is fairly clever. But taken as a whole, the script is pretty thin stuff. The three men aren’t given much in the way of characters to play (the contrast between Freeman and Walken’s gee-whiz enthusiasm and Macy’s paranoid short fuse is about the only noteworthy beat they get), so they mostly end up filling out the blank spaces with bits and pieces of their own, pre-existing personas. Sometimes this works—Freeman seems to have fun playing a goofy eccentric, and Macy finds the right frustrated note (though his frequent nudity is a running gag that never quite pays off like they want it to).

But director Peter Hewitt (whose unfortunate filmography includes Garfield and Zoom) can’t figure out what the hell to do with Walken. He doesn’t have the skill of a Spielberg, who managed to get the iconic actor to sit on his tics and deliver a genuine, naturalistic performance in Catch Me If You Can; this regular Joe turn requires that same kind of discipline, but Hewitt and Walken never settle on a tone for his performance, and he occasionally lapses into his distinctive oddball cadences and flourishes (“I’ve been at it… all day… I need a break, ha ha!”). The usually-reliable Marcia Gay Harden is also allowed to wildly overplay the role of his long-suffering wife.

There are moments that work, like the inventive and pleasurable run-up to the big job (in Thomas Crown-style split screen) and the genuine suspense of the caper itself, though there’s some odd logical trouble at the climax (Macy is speaking at full volume during a scene where he would be immediately discovered). But the picture is so laid-back, it’s hard to muster up too much enthusiasm for its outcome; the filmmakers note that they were attempting to replicate the style and tone of the Ealing comedies, but they can’t match the clockwork comic momentum of those films.

The Maiden Heist
is a quiet, low-key film with some small pleasures, and while it’s better than your average straight-to-DVD effort, it is weaker than one might expect considering its powerhouse cast. It has some charm and a few chuckles, but not much more than that.

"The Maiden Heist" hits DVD on Tuesday, November 24th.

Today's New DVDs- 11/10/09

Up: Best film of the year so far, bar none, end of discussion.

Ballast: And one of last year's best films finally makes its long-awaited debut on DVD and Blu. It's a small masterpiece. Go find it.

The General (Blu-ray): And one of the best films of all time hits Blu-ray as well. ( gives it high marks.) Good lord, I'm spending too much on Blu-rays this week.

Heat (Blu-ray): Pacino and DeNiro faced off for the first (and best) time in Michael Mann's sprawling, brilliant cops-and-robbers drama. The new Blu is in my stack at home; review is forthcoming.

The Ugly Truth: And here's one for all you masochists out there; one more reason to hate Katherine Heigl. (Orndorf was not a fan.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On DVD: "Margaret Cho: Beautiful"

There was a time when many people, herself included, probably presumed that Margaret Cho was on her way to huge mainstream success. She made TV appearances, she opened for Jerry Seinfeld—hell, she did a Bob Hope special. And then she hit the 1990s stand-up jackpot: she starred in her own sitcom. All-American Girl was pegged as a sure-fire hit in 1994, but it crashed and burned quickly, its failure stalling Cho’s burgeoning career for several years. However, her 2000 stand-up film (and accompanying book), I’m the One That I Want , marked the most startling stand-up comeback this side of Chris Rock’s Bring the Pain. In that film, and its follow-up Notorious C.H.O., the comic was raw, candid, tough, and fiercely funny.

But something happened in the two films that followed (2004’s Cho Revolution and 2005’s Margaret Cho: Assassin ): she got dirtier without getting funnier, in a rather transparent attempt to offset that she was taking herself more and more seriously, to the detriment of her comic act. As she became more active and vocal in political issues (gay rights in particular), she took to lecturing her audience, going on long jags of rabble-rousing commentary that, while sometimes eloquent and usually on-the-mark, weren’t exactly gut busters. There’s always a danger when a political comedian begins to focus too much on commentary over laughs; it’s what happened with Dennis Miller, and, when he doesn’t check himself, Bill Maher is often guilty of it as well. I once read an Entertainment Weekly review that called a Maher special little more than “a Libertarian rally peppered with zingers”; Cho’s later specials often amount to a GLAAD fundraiser with some laughs. She’s going for what Tina Fey once called (in an otherwise unfortunate bashing of The Daily Show) “clapter”—people chuckling and clapping because they agree with what’s being said. Cho’s bold stances might have surprised and inspired casual stand-up observers a few years back, but these days, she’s preaching to the choir: her audience seems primarily composed of comedy geeks and members of the GLBT community, and they don’t need much convincing.

She’s thankfully toned some of that down in her new special, Margaret Cho: Beautiful. To be sure, it rears its head occasionally, particularly in the out-of-left-field commentary near the end of the show that explains its title, but for the most part, she’s going for laughs here. The trouble is, the special is only sporadically funny. First and foremost, there’s the issue of timing; the show was shot less than two weeks before the 2008 election, so there is much discussion of Obama and McCain and Prop 8, and while there’s some good material there (particularly her opening slash-and-burn job on Sarah Palin), it’s terribly dated (and has been for quite a while now). Her bits on the political sex scandals of Spitzer, McGreevy, and Craig play a little stronger, but even these feel a bit like warmed-up leftovers after the thorough roasting all three men received from late night talk show hosts over the last few years. (This is Cho’s first stand-up tour in four years, and she presumably didn’t want to part with good jokes just because they’d gotten stale.)

The show’s other problem, a continuing one, is its vulgarity. Look, I’m no prude, and I had no problem with the raunchy material in her first two shows; in those, that material felt (as it did in the work of the man she pinpoints as her biggest influence, Richard Pryor) like it grew organically out of her persona, that she was putting everything out there in a way that was candid and honest and frequently funny. Her recent shows have been just as dirty, but the dirt is nowhere near as funny; she’ll get some chuckles with some of the material (like her description of her “Mac sexuality”), but for the most part, it feels like a desperate bid for gross-out laughs. It’s frank, yes, but there’s such a thing as over-sharing onstage, at least if you can’t find a way to spin it into anything more than a cheap laugh.

Also, as my colleague Jamie S. Rich noted, the film feels geared specifically toward her gay audience in a way that her earlier films never were (and in a way that her contemporary and fellow self-professed “fag hag” Kathy Griffin never is). She does some heartfelt and effective material about racism, but it’s undercut by her frequent (and continuing) use of the stereotypical “ghetto voice.” And there’s distressingly little of Cho’s prime comic weapon: her uproarious characterization of her strict, conservative Korean mother (she does have one good, if short, story about her mother taking her to The Rocky Horror Picture Show—“It’s too late! Mommy is so tired!”).

By the time Margaret Cho: Beautiful arrives at its weak ending (with the aforementioned sermon and a terribly unfunny closing song), the less patient viewer may very well have checked out. Cho remains naturally funny—her timing is sharp and her body English is frequently hilarious—but too often, her material is simply subpar.

There are funny lines here and there in Margaret Cho: Beautiful (she says she began getting tattoos at 35 because “I wanted to be a Suicide Girl, but I’m so old I’m like an Assisted Suicide Girl”; of three-ways, she notes, “I don’t like them. They make me feel like a competitive eater”), but generally speaking, it’s a weak effort, low on the laughs and heavy on the vagina jokes.

"Margaret Cho: Beautiful" hits DVD on Tuesday, November 17th.