Film Review: Blood Red (1989, directed by Peter Masterson)


The time is the 1890s.  The place is California.  Sicilian immigrant Sebastian Collogero (Giancarlo Giannini) has just been sworn in as an American citizen and owns his own vineyard.  When Irish immigrant William Bradford Berrigan (Dennis Hopper) demands that Sebastian give up his land so Berrigan run a railroad through it, Sebastian refuses.  Berrigan hires a group of thugs led by Andrews (Burt Young) to make Sebastian see the error of his ways.  When Sebastian ends up dead, his wayward son, Marco (Eric Roberts), takes up arms and seeks revenge.

Have you ever wondered what would have happened if the famously self-indulgent directors Michael Cimino and Francis Ford Coppola teamed up to make a movie about the American Dream?  The end result would probably be something like Blood Red.  Like Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate, Blood Red begins with a lengthy celebration (in this case, in honor of Sebastian’s naturalization ceremony) that doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the film but which is included just to make sure we know that what we’re about to see is more than just a mere genre piece.  Like many of Coppola’s films, Blood Red features a tight-knit family, flowing wine, and a score composed by Carmine Coppola.  The only difference between our hypothetical Cimino/Coppola collaboration and Blood Red is that the Cimino/Coppola film would probably be longer and more interesting than Blood Red.  Blood Red is only 80 minutes long and directed by Peter Masterson, who seems lost.  There’s a potentially interesting story here about two different immigrants fighting to determine the future of America but it gets lost in all of the shots of Eric Roberts flexing his muscles.

For an actor known for his demented energy, Eric Roberts is surprisingly dull as the lead but Blood Red is a film that even manages to make veteran scenery chewers like Dennis Hopper and Burt Young seem boring.  (Hopper’s bizarre attempt at an Irish brogue does occasionally liven things up.)  The cast is full of familiar faces like Michael Madsen, Aldo Ray, Marc Lawrence, and Elias Koteas but none of them get to do much.  Of course, the most familiar face of all belongs to Eric’s sister, Julia.  Julia Roberts made her film debut playing Marco’s sister, Maria.  (Because the film sat on the shelf for three years after production was completed, Blood Red wasn’t released until after Julia has subsequently appeared in Mystic Pizza and Satisfaction.)  She gets three lines and less than five minutes of screen time but she does get to briefly show off the smile that would later make her famous.  Today, of course, that smile is the only reason anyone remembers Blood Red.

Music Video Of The Day: God’s Gonna Cut You Down (2006, dir by Tony Kaye)


This is a case where I like the song more than the music video.  This video was actually filmed three years after Johnny Cash’s death.  As far as “official” music videos are concerned, I always feel like a musician should have some sort of say into how their music is visually interpreted.  Obviously, Johnny Cash wasn’t around to have anything to say about the video for God’s Gonna Cut You Down.

Since Cash wasn’t available, director Tony Kaye filled the video with cameos from other actors and musicians, a few of whom (though not many) were previous Cash collaborators.  Among the celebs who make an appearance in this video: David Allan Coe, Patricia Arquette, Travis Barker, Peter Blake, Bono, Sheryl Crow, Johnny Depp, the Dixie Chicks, Flea, Billy Gibbons, Whoopi Goldberg, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Hopper, Terrence Howard, Jay-Z, Mick Jones, Kid Rock, Anthony Kiedis, Kris Kristofferson, Amy Lee, Adam Levine, Shelby Lynne, Chris Martin, Kate Moss, Graham Nash, Busy Philipps, Iggy Pop, Lisa Marie Presley, Q-Tip, Corinne Bailey Rae, Keith Richards, Chris Rock, Rick Rubin, Patti Smith, Sharon Stone, Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, Brian Wilson, and Owen Wilson.  Some of the celebs — like Dennis Hopper and Kris Kristofferson — seem like they naturally belong there.  Others seem so out-of-place that you’ll want to throw something.  You know how that works,

God’s Gonna Cut You Down is a traditional folk song.  I’ve heard countless versions of it.  I prefer Cash’s version to the more traditional gospel arrangement but, then again, I tend to find gospel music to be dull in general.  Cash’s arrangement brought new life to an old song.

Enjoy!

6 Good Films That Were Not Nominated For Best Picture: The 1980s


Rob Lowe and Snow White perform at the 1989 Oscars

Continuing our look at good films that were not nominated for best picture, here are 6 films from the 1980s.

Out of the Blue (1980, dir by Dennis Hopper)

After spending several years in the cultural wilderness, Dennis Hopper directed his best film, this downbeat study of a young girl, her junkie mother, and her irresponsible father.  From the film’s first scene, in which Hopper crashes his truck into a school bus to the film’s explosive ending, Out of the Blue is a fascinating trip into the heart of American darkness.  It was definitely too dark for the Academy.

Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982, dir by Amy Heckerling)

Fast Times would appear to take place in a totally different universe from Out of the Blue.  Still, it’s an unexpectedly intelligent look at growing up in the suburbs and it’s influenced practically every high school film that’s come after.  Plus, this may be the only movie in which Sean Penn was intentionally funny.  Despite good reviews and a cast full of future stars, Fast Times At Ridgemont High received not a single nomination.

Once Upon A Time In America (1984, dir by Sergio Leone)

Sergio Leone’s final film, this epic gangster film might be a look at how America grew and changed over the first half of the 20th Century.  It might be a trenchant critique of capitalism.  It might be an homage to the classic gangster films of the 30s.  Or it might just be a hallucination that Robert De Niro is having while visiting an opium den.  That critics are are still debating just watch exactly this film actually means says a lot about the power of Once Upon A Time In America.  However, because the film was originally released in a severely edited form, Once Upon A Time In America received not one nomination.

Brazil (1985, dir by Terry Gilliam)

Much like Once Upon A Time In America, Brazil is a brilliant film that was betrayed by the studio that distributed it.  Convinced that Terry Gilliam’s satire was too strange for American audiences, Universal Pictures initially released the film in a severely edited version.  Fortunately, Gilliam’s version was eventually released but the controversy undoubtedly hurt Brazil when it came time for the members of the Academy to select their nominees for Best Picture.

The Breakfast Club (1985, dir by John Hughes)

Perhaps the Academy understood just how unfair it was that Anthony Michael Hall had to write the essay while everyone else got either a makeover or a new romance.  For whatever reason, this classic high school film — perhaps the classic high school film — received not a single nomination.

Blue Velvet (1986, dir by David Lynch)

David Lynch was nominated for Best Director but the film itself proved to be just a bit too controversial for the Academy to give it a Best Picture nomination.  David Lynch described this film as being “the Hardy Boys In Hell” and it would have been an uncoventional, though very worthy, nominee for Best Picture.

Up next, in an hour or so, the 90s!

 

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.