Film Review: Tracks (1977, dir by Henry Jaglom)


The 1977 film, Tracks, opens somewhere in America.

Jack Falen (Dennis Hopper) sits on a bench, waiting for a train.  He’s wearing a military uniform.  He claims that he’s a 1st sergeant.  He claims that he’s just returned from Vietnam.  He’s traveling with a flag-draped coffin.  He says that the coffin contains the remains of his best friend from Nam.  Jack is accompanying the coffin back to his friend’s hometown.  Jack says that he’s going to make sure that his friend gets a proper burial.

From the minute we meet Jack, we get the feeling that there’s something off about him.  He’s a little bit too quick to smile and, when he laughs, it’s the guttural sound of someone who has learned how to show joy by watching other people but who has perhaps never felt it himself.  Sometimes, he’s quiet.  Sometimes, he is loquacious and verbose.  When he does speak, he rarely looks anyone in the eyes.  Jack is jumpy, as if he’s constantly afraid that he’s about to be exposed as a liar.

Soon, Jack is riding a train across the country.  While the rest of the passengers look out the windows and takes in the American landscape, Jack nervously wanders around the train.  He gets involved in a regular chess game.  He befriends a mysterious man named Mark (Dean Stockwell).  He starts a tentative relationship with a student named Stephanie (Taryn Power).  He tells anyone who will listen that he’s traveling with the body of his best friend.  When a black Korean war vet complains that Jack is acting like he’s the only person who lost a friend in a war, an offended Jack replies that his friend was black.

Jack sees things.  When he sees that the other passengers are assaulting Stepanie, he pulls out a small gun and aims it at the back of the train, just to suddenly realize that Stephanie is sitting unbothered at the back of the train.  While we know that Jack was hallucinating the attack on Stephanie, we still wonder if he really pulled out that gun.  If he did, no one else seems to have noticed.

Sometimes, the passengers say things to Jack that don’t seem to make any sense, leaving Jack staring at them in confusion.  Other times, Jack sees dark figures walking through the train.  At night, he wanders around naked.  Jack spends the trip watching the other passengers with a slightly dazed look on his face.  He plays chess with a man who later insists that he’s never played chess with Jack.  Sometimes, he thinks that he and Stephanie are outside of the train.  When Mark approaches Jack and asks for help, Jack explains that he can’t help anyone.  While a soundtrack of old World War II propaganda songs thunders in the background, Jack struggles to keep track of what’s real and what isn’t.

And so does the audience.  As we watch, it occurs to us that Jack’s stories about Vietnam don’t really seem to add up.  Add to that, we never actually saw Jack board the train.  Instead, we saw him sitting on a bench and waiting for the train.  We’re left to wonder if the train’s real or if the whole movie is just a figment of Jack’s damaged imagination.  And what about the coffin?  Tracks is full of unanswered questions but, in the film’s incendiary final moments, we do learn the truth about that coffin … maybe.

Henry Jaglom has been making independent films for several decades now.  Tracks is one of his better films, if just because Jaglom’s loose, seemingly improvised style actually works well at communicating Jack’s own struggle to keep up with what’s really happening and what he’s imagining.  As deceptively random as the film’s collections of scenes may appear, it’s all anchored by Dennis Hopper’s wonderfully unhinged performance.  Hopper brings a method actor’s intensity to Jack’s struggle to not only keep straight what’s real and what isn’t but also to keep his fellow passengers from understanding that he’s deeply unbalanced.  This film was made during Hopper’s drug-fueled lost years and he plays Jack like a man who is desperately trying to keep the world from seeing that he’s in the throes of withdrawal.  Unlike Hopper, Jack’s addiction isn’t to drugs.  Instead, Jack’s addicted to war, or at the very least his obsession with war.  (By the end of the movie, you have your doubts about whether Jack’s ever been to Vietnam or not.)  The use of World War II propaganda songs on the soundtrack may occasionally get annoying but they actually play up the contrast between our often simplistic view of war and the far more complex reality.

If nothing else, I would recommend Tracks for Hopper’s performance.  As well, since he co-stars with Dean Stockwell, it’s easy to imagine Tracks as being a bit of a prequel to Blue Velvet.  Who’s to say that Jack Falen didn’t change his name to Frank Booth?

Scenes that I Love: Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper Do Mardi Gras and Drop Acid in Easy Rider!


Today, a lot of people have traveled to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras.  Here’s hoping that they have a better time in the city than Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) had in the 1969 film, Easy Rider.

The scenes below, featuring Hopper, Fonda, Karen Black, and the legendary Toni Basil were actually filmed at Mardi Gras in 1968.  These were among the first scenes that Hopper (making his directorial debut) shot for the film and reportedly, filming was so chaotic that they were also nearly the last scenes to be filmed.  As those who have seen Easy Rider know, Billy and Wyatt spend the entire movie trying to get to New Orleans so that they can visit a famous brothel.  Once they get there, they discover that absolutely nothing lives up to the legend.  The brothel is a sleazy mess.  Mardi Gras is full of bad vibes.  Wyatt has an amazingly bad LSD trip.  (Hopper convinced Fonda to really drop acid before filming the scene, which led some harrowing footage.)  After they leave New Orleans, Fonda and Hopper cross the border into Texas and promptly end up getting blown away by two rednecks in a pickup truck.

Welcome to the sixties!

In the scene below, we get actual footage of 1968’s Mardi Gras.  Just watch all the celebrants who stop to stare at the  camera.

And here is the infamous cemetery scene.  Fonda resisted doing it and the end result is not easy to watch but it’s also one of the most powerful moments in the entire film:

A Movie A Day #352: Mad Dog Morgan (1976, directed by Philippe Mora)


Though he may not be as internationally well-known as Ned Kelly, Dan “Mad Dog” Morgan was one of the most infamous bushrangers in 19th century Australia.  Much as with the outlaws of American west, it is sometimes difficult to separate the fact from the legend when it comes to Mad Dog Morgan but it is agreed with Morgan has one of the most violent and bloodiest careers of the bushrangers.  Whether Morgan was a folk hero or just a ruthless criminal depends on which source you choose to believe.

In Mad Dog Morgan, Dennis Hopper plays Morgan as being the ultimate outsider.  Though the real Morgan was believed to have been born to Irish immigrants in New South Wales, the film presents Morgan as being the immigrant, an Irishman who ends up in Australia searching for gold and who is disgusted when he sees the way that the colonial authorities run the country.  Addicted to opium and angered by the casual brutality and corruption that he sees all around him, Morgan fights back and soon ends up in prison where he spends years being abused and raped.  It is all intended to break his spirit but, instead, Morgan comes out of prison even more determined to seek revenge on any and all figures of authority.  Working with a fellow outsider, an Aborigine named Billy (David Gulpilil, from Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout), Morgan blazes a bloody and self-destructive trail across Australia.

Mad Dog Morgan was made long before Hopper cleaned up his act and became on of America’s favorite character actors.  This is Hopper back when he was still one of the most unpredictable and dangerous actors around.  By many accounts, Hopper was in the throes of drug-induced psychosis during the filming of Mad Dog Morgan, which makes it all the more remarkable that Hopper still gave one of his best performances as the legendary bushranger.  (For proof of how authentic Hopper feels in the role, compare his performance to Mick Jagger’s in Ned Kelly.)  Hopper was an outlaw playing an outlaw and his full commitment to the role is obvious from the start.  Featuring brutal action and a cast of talented Australian character actors, (Jack Thompson, Bruce Spence, Bill Hunter, and Hugh Keays-Byrne all have roles) Mad Dog Morgan is an essential film for fans of both Australian cinema and Dennis Hopper.

A Movie A Day #337: Colors (1988, directed by Dennis Hopper)


Los Angeles in the 80s.  Beneath the California glamour that the rest of America thinks about when they think about L.A., a war is brewing.  Bloods vs Crips vs the 21st Street Gang.  For those living in the poorest sections of the city, gangs provide everything that mainstream society refuses to provide: money, a chance to belong, a chance to advance.  The only drawback is that you’ll probably die before you turn thirty.  Two cops — veteran Hodges (Robert Duvall) and rookie McGavin (Sean Penn) — spend their days patrolling a potential war zone.  Hodges tries to maintain the peace, encouraging the gangs to stay in their own territory and treat each other with respect.  McGavin is aggressive and cocky, the type of cop who seems to be destined to end up on the evening news.  With only a year to go before his retirement, Hodges tries to teach McGavin how to be a better cop while the gangs continue to target and kill each other.  The cycle continues.

Colors was one of the first and best-known of the “modern gang” films.  It was also Dennis Hopper’s return to directing, 17 years after the notorious, drug-fueled disaster of The Last Movie.  Hopper took an almost documentary approach to Colors, eschewing, for the most part, melodrama and instead focusing on the day-to-day monotony of life in a war zone.  There are parts of Colors that are almost deliberately boring, with Hodges and McGavin driving through L.A. and trying to stop trouble before it happens.  Hopper portrays Hodges and McGavin as being soldiers in a war that can’t be won, combatants in a concrete Vietnam.  Colors is nearly 20 years old but it holds up.  It’s a tough and gritty film that works because of the strong performances of Duvall and Penn.  The legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler vividly captures the harshness of life in the inner city.  Actual gang members served as extras, adding to the film’s authentic, documentary feel.  Among the actors playing gang members, Don Cheadle, Trinidad Silva, Glenn Plummer, and Courtney Gains all make a definite impression.  In a small but important role, Maria Conchita Alonso stands in for everyone who is not a cop and who is not a gang member but who is still trapped by their endless conflict.

One person who was not impressed by Colors was future director John Singleton.  Boyz ‘n The Hood was largely written as a response to Colors‘s portrait of life in South Central Los Angeles.

Film Review: Basquiat (dir by Julian Schnabel)


Basquiat.  I love this movie.

I Shot Andy Warhol was not the only 1996 film to feature Andy Warhol as a character.  He was also a prominent supporting character in Basquiat.  In this film, he’s played by David Bowie and Bowie gives a far different performance than Jared Harris did in I Shot Andy Warhol.  Whereas Harris played Andy as a detached voyeur, Bowie’s performance is far more sympathetic.  (Of course, it should be noted that Harris and Bowie were playing Andy Warhol at very different points in the artist’s life.  Harris played the younger, pre-shooting Warhol.  Bowie played the older, post-shooting Warhol.)

Then again, it’s not just Andy Warhol who is portrayed more positively in Basquiat than in I Shot Andy Warhol.  The entire New York art scene is portrayed far more positively in Basquiat.  Whereas I Shot Andy Warhol was a film about an outsider who was destined to forever remain an outsider, Basquiat is a film about an outsider who becomes an insider.  On top of that, Basquiat was directed by a fellow insider, painter Julian Schnabel.

The film itself is a biopic of Jean-Michel Basquiat (very well played by Jeffrey Wright), the graffiti artist who, in the 1980s, briefly became one of the superstars of the New York art scene.  However, it’s less of a conventional biopic and more of a meditation on what it means to be an artist.  Throughout the film, Basquiat looks up to the New York skyline and sees a surfer riding a wave across the sky.  The image itself is never explicitly explained.  We never learn why, specifically, Basquiat visualizes a surfer.  But then again, that’s what makes the surfer a perfect symbol of Basquiat’s artistic sensibility and talent.  It’s a reminder that, while we can appreciate an artist’s work, only the artist can truly understand what that work is saying.  All attempts to try to explain or categorize art are as pointless as trying to understand why that surfer is in the sky.  Ultimately, the why is not as important as the simple fact that the surfer is there.

The film follows Basquiat as he goes from living on the streets to being a protegé of Andy Warhol’s and, until he overdosed on heroin, one of the shining lights of the New York art scene.  Along the way, Basquiat struggles to maintain a balance between art and the business.  In one of the key scenes of the film, an empty-headed suburbanite (Tatum O’Neal) looks at Basquiat’s work and whines that there’s too much green.  She just can’t handle all of that green.

Basquiat’s friendship with Andy Warhol provides this film with a heart.  When Bowie first appears — having lunch with a German art dealer played by Dennis Hopper — one’s natural instinct is to assume that Bowie as Warhol is stunt casting.  However, Bowie quickly proves that instinct to be wrong.  As opposed to many of the actors who have played Andy Warhol over the years, Bowie gives an actual performance.  Instead of resorting to caricature, Bowie plays Warhol as being mildly bemused by both his fame and the world in general.

Basquiat also develops a close friendship with another artist.  Gary Oldman may be playing a character named Albert Milo but it’s obvious from the moment that he first appears that he’s playing the film’s director, Julian Schnabel.  If there was any doubt, Schnabel’s studio stands in for Milo’s studio.  When Milo shows off his work, he’s showing off Schnabel’s work.  When Albert Milo introduced Basquiat to his parents, the nice old couple is played by Julian Schnabel’s actual parents.  It’s perhaps not surprising that Albert Milo is presented as being one of the most important and popular artists in New York City.  In a film full of bitchy characters, Albert Milo is unique in that literally everyone likes and respects him.  And yet Gary Oldman gives such a good and heartfelt performance that you can’t hold it against the character that he happens to be perfect.  There’s a small but touching scene in which Albert Milo and his daughter share a dance in front of one of Schnabel’s gigantic canvases.  Of course, Milo’s daughter is played by Julian Schnabel’s daughter.

The entire cast is full of familiar actors.  Willem DaFoe appears as a sculptor.  Christopher Walken plays a hilariously vapid interviewer.  Courtney Love plays a groupie.  Benicio Del Toro plays Basquiat’s best friend.  Parker Posey shows up as gallery owner Mary Boone.  Michael Wincott plays Rene Ricard, the somewhat infamous art critic who was among the first to celebrate the work of both Basquiat and Schnabel.  For once, the use of familiar actors does not sabotage the effectiveness of the film.  If anything, it helps to explain why Basquiat was so determined to make it.  There’s a magical scene where a then-unknown Basquiat peeks through a gallery window and sees Andy Warhol, Albert Milo, and Bruno Bischofberger.  However, the film’s audience sees David Bowie, Gary Oldman, and Dennis Hopper.  What both Basquiat and the audience have in common is that they’re both seeing bigger-than-life stars.

Basquiat is an often magical and poignant film and I absolutely love it.

A Movie A Day #94: Eye of the Storm (1991, directed by Yuri Zeltser)


A motel sits off of a highway in the Nevada desert.  One night, two criminals (Ally Walker and German boxer Wilhelm von Homburg) brutally murder the husband and wife who own the motel.  Their youngest son, Steven, flees the criminals by jumping through a window and is left for dead.

Ten years later, the motel is still sitting off the highway, operated by the blind Steven (Bradley Gregg) and his older brother, Ray (Craig Sheffer).  Ray is very protective of his brother and, when a car pulls up to the motel, he does not even want to turn on the vacancy sign.

The motel’s newest guests are a very unlikely couple.  Marvin Gladstone (Dennis Hopper) is an alcoholic gambler who regularly berates at his much younger trophy wife, Sandra (Lara Flynn Boyle).  Marvin and Sandra were heading to Las Vegas to renew their vows but the drunk Marvin accidentally drove their car off the road.  Now, Marvin and Sandra are stranded at the motel while a dust storm approaches and one of the brothers turns out to be psychotic.

Eye of the Storm is another low-budget and predictable thriller from the 1990s but, taken on its own terms, it’s not bad.  Along with some striking shots of the desert, Eye of the Storm features a quartet of strong performances.  For fans of David Lynch, the main interest here will be seeing Blue Velvet‘s Dennis Hopper and Twin Peaks‘s Lara Flynn Boyle as a couple in trouble.  Hopper especially seems to be enjoying himself and when his character leaves the movie, Eye of the Storm becomes much less interesting.  Lara Flynn Boyle is sexy throughout, enough to make you reconsider everything you thought you knew about Donna Hayward.

See this one on a double bill with Red Rock West.

A Movie A Day #90: Red Rock West (1992, directed by John Dahl)


The place is Red Rock, a little town located in the middle of nowhere Wyoming.  When a man from Texas (played by Nicolas Cage) wanders into his bar, the owner, Wayne (J.T. Walsh), assumes that the man is Lyle From Dallas, the semi-legendary hit man who Wayne has hired to kill his wife, Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle).  Wayne gives the man half of his payment in advance and promises the other half after Suzanne is dead.  What Wayne doesn’t realize is that Lyle From Dallas is not actually Lyle From Dallas.  Instead, he is a drifter named Michael who has just recently lost his job.  Michael takes Wayne’s money but, when he sees Suzanne, he tells her that Wayne wants her dead.  Suzanne responds by offering to pay Michael to kill Wayne.  Michael mostly just wants to leave town but his every effort is thwarted, with him continually only managing to get a mile or two out of town just to then find circumstances forcing him to once again pass the Red Rock welcome sign.  Meanwhile, the real Lyle From Dallas (Dennis Hopper) has shown up and he is pissed.

Red Rock West is a clever and energetic neo noir that plays out like the child of a marriage between the Coen Brothers and David Lynch.  Like the Coens’ Blood SimpleRed Rock West is a violent movie that is full of twist and turns and features characters who are often confused and rarely understand what is actually going on.  From David Lynch, it borrows both Twin Peaks‘s Lara Flynn Boyle and Blue Velvet‘s Dennis Hopper.  Red Rock West was made when Nicolas Cage still gave a damn and it also shows why, during his short career, J.T. Walsh was everyone’s favorite duplicitous character actor.  Hopper is his usual crazy self and Boyle is a sultry and sexy fatale.  Red Rock West is one of the best neo noirs of the 1990s.