Dennis Hopper

Land of the Dead (2005, George A. Romero), the director’s cut

While Land of the Dead is almost always an unfortunate misfire, it’s also never an unmitigated disaster. It’s full of missed opportunities, but they’re usually missed because director Romero just can’t crack the scene. And when he doesn’t crack a set piece, he often goes in the entirely different direction; maybe it’s about the budget, which is way too small, maybe it’s not. But it seems like the budget. After the successful opening set piece, there’s no reason to think Romero isn’t going to be able to execute at least the same quality again. And he’s never able to do it, but he also never really tries to do it. Romero front loads the movie; it deflates just when it should be doing the opposite. The characters gradually lose personality and importance. Because it’s time for the adequate but bland zombie action.

The film takes place in the future… the zombies have won, people all grouped in the big cities, the rich people live well, the poor people do not. Romero is shooting Toronto for Pittsburgh with a cinematographer (Miroslaw Baszak) who lights it to look as Canadian as possible. Land lacks any visual personality; the mix of Romero’s composition, Baszak’s flat lighting, Michael Doherty’s fine but bland editing, and Arvinder Grewal’s production design looks less like a post (zombie) apocalyptic vision and more like a pitch reel for one. Same goes for the actors, save Dennis Hopper, who’s just plain terrible. Simon Baker, Asia Argento, John Leguizamo, Robert Joy; at best their performances feel like stand-ins for better ones once the project gets the green light. At worst, it’s a charmless lead like Simon Baker, who is more than capable of being charming, Romero just doesn’t seem to realize it. Not in his direction or his script, which gives his actors really bad life stories purely for expository purposes. There’s not just no character development in Land, Romero doesn’t take the time to even establish the characters.

And it’d be fine if the film could have retained the first set piece energy. So Baker, Leguizamo, and Joy all work for Hopper. They leave the city to raid neighboring towns for supplies. Apparently there’s an almost endless amount of neighboring towns to raid; all you have to do is shoot fireworks and the zombies all look up and everything’s jim-dandy—the zombies don’t attack, they watch fireworks. It also allows Romero to set a lot of action at night, which was apparently less expensive and does nothing to help with that lack of personality thing. Only Baker and Joy discover there’s one zombie—Eugene Clark, in the film’s best performance—who doesn’t look up at the fireworks.

The movie ends up being about Clark leading a bunch of zombies to attack the city, where the rich people live in a ritzy skyscraper and Romero only has the money to establish it through a promotional video playing on a TV–Land of the Dead has both too little budget and too much. The tricks and devices Romero uses to cover for not having more money lack inventiveness; there’s a ton of bad CGI composites. Like, a static matte painting would’ve been much better bad. But you do bad CGI composites because they’re cheap. And it shows. And it hurts the movie.

Anyway, while Clark’s leading the slow-moving attack—see, he’s learned how to use objects and can teach other zombies how to use objects so it’s going to be a different kind of zombie attack (only, not really as it turns out but the attack’s immaterial)—Leguizamo has gone rogue and Baker has to track him down, bringing pals Joy and Argento.

Of the three, Argento’s probably best. She’s not good overall—the writing doesn’t allow for it—but she’s got some rather strong moments. She takes the job more seriously than anyone else. Though who knows what’s going through Hopper’s head as he woodenly delivers lines; who knows, maybe Romero did cast him to be a personality-free rich jackass with a goatee. Hopper’s reaction shots to zombies eating flesh look like someone told him to stand still for his picture to be taken. Romero would’ve done better to give Leguizamo that part. To do something to mix it up.

But there’s no mixing it up. Because outside a couple Romero-Dead nods and sufficiently revolting zombie feasting (though Baszak’s lighting makes it look… not fake, but not real), Land of the Dead has less of a pulse than its zombies.

It’s a shame.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by George A. Romero; director of photography, Miroslaw Baszak; edited by Michael Doherty; music by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek; production designer, Arvinder Grewal; produced by Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann, and Peter Grunwald; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Simon Baker (Riley Denbo), Asia Argento (Slack), Robert Joy (Charlie), John Leguizamo (Cholo DeMora), Dennis Hopper (Kaufman), Joanne Boland (Pretty Boy), Alan Van Sprang (Brubaker), Phil Fondacaro (Chihuahua), Sasha Roiz (Manolete), Krista Bridges (Motown), Pedro Miguel Arce (Pillsbury), and Eugene Clark (Big Daddy).


Hoosiers (1986, David Anspaugh)

Hoosiers rouses. It rouses through a perfectly measured combination of narrative, editing, composition and photography, and music. In that order, least to greatest. There’s no way to discount Jerry Goldsmith’s score and the importance of his music during the basketball game montages. They’d be beautifully cut and vividly photographed, but they wouldn’t rouse without that Goldsmith music. In the second half of the film, the music replaces Gene Hackman as the star presence. The film extends its narrative distance from the cast (Hackman least, but still Hackman) to emphasis the narrative effectiveness of montage. And it works. Hoosiers rouses.

The almost exactly halfway adjustment in narrative distance is a smooth one. The film has been focusing on Hackman’s acclamation to a new job in a new town and then that plot comes to a close. Then it’s time for basketball. The film–and ostensibly Hackman–have been waiting for it to be basketball time. The distractions are gone; director Anspaugh and writer Angelo Pizzo have precisely plotted out all the subplot resolutions. Hoosiers isn’t a particularly short film. It’s six minutes shy of two hours so halfway is about an hour; meaning the second half, the mostly basketball half, is an hour too.

It’s particularly impressive since there’s zero exposition about what’s going to happen in the second half, based on Indiana state high school basketball playoff systems from the mid-twentieth century. Pizzo’s narrative logic for Hoosiers isn’t something the audience needs to worry about. First, they’ve got to worry about Hackman. Then, they’ve got to watch some basketball.

The film opens with Hackman arriving in a (very) small Indiana town. Old pal and now school principal Sheb Wooley has hired Hackman to coach basketball (and teach civics, which doesn’t turn out to be a subplot). The townsfolk are suspicious of outsiders and don’t want Hackman coaching. They want Chelcie Ross, whose part is small but it’s one of those excellent risible asshat Chelcie Ross performances.

Barbara Hershey is a fellow teacher. She thinks Hackman is just going to try to get her erstwhile ward, Maris Valainis, to play basketball again. She doesn’t want Valainis to play (the previous coach died–before the movie starts–and it profoundly affects Valainis). Hershey also doesn’t like basketball, which gets more attention than Valainis’s arc. He’s present a lot, but he’s an enigma. Or he would be an enigma, if the movie were interested in the interiority of its characters. Hoosiers demands they have interiority, either through performance or filmic presentation (though none of the performances in the film, even from the amateur cast members, are bad–Anspaugh is outstanding with his actors). It just doesn’t want to show that interiority. It’s not interested.

Not while there’s basketball to be played.

Though Hershey’s basketball arc could be seen as the audience’s basketball arc. During one of their early bickering scenes, Hackman tries to get Hershey to understand the magic of the game. Hoosiers, in its second half, creates that magic (for Hershey and the audience).

So the first half is Hackman’s problems. The ones he makes for himself, the ones the townsfolk make for him. The one the basketball team makes for him; specifically the players. Even though the players are in most of the movie, only two of them have actual subplots. Valainis’s gets left offscreen because he’s an enigma (he and guardian Hershey don’t even share a shot together). David Neidorf gets one as an extension of Dennis Hopper’s subplot. Hopper’s the former high school basketball star now town drunk who Hackman tries to reform.

Some of the other players get little things. Steve Hollar is the one who pisses Hackman off the most frequently. Scott Summers is the religious one who Hackman eventually finds lovable–Hoosiers has its Americana, but it keeps it at a certain distance. Like it’s pretty and all but don’t get it too close. There’s probably some cut material with Hackman on that arc (Anspaugh and Pizzo’s version runs an hour longer), but what’s left is a nice recurring theme in the montage sequences.

The film ably pivots between its various pacing speeds. Once it gets comfortable relying on the montages, Hoosiers stays with them. It slows down a bit for the Hackman and Hershey subplot, which is nicely, gently done. Ditto the Hopper redemption slash recovery arc. The film slows down for those two. Otherwise, it’s got to fit in those montages.

Hopper’s great. Hershey’s good. Hackman’s great. Hackman gets the least showy role in the entire film. Even when it turns out he likes to get into screaming matches with referees, he’s still not showy. The film’s rising actions are muted; Hoosiers’s narrative distance is something else.

The production is outstanding. Carroll Timothy O’Meara’s cutting, Fred Murphy’s photography, David Nichols’s production design. All phenomenal.

Hoosiers is a fantastic film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by David Anspaugh; written by Angelo Pizzo; director of photography, Fred Murphy; edited by Carroll Timothy O’Meara; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, David Nichols; produced by Carter DeHaven and Pizzo; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Gene Hackman (Norman Dale), Barbara Hershey (Myra Fleener), Dennis Hopper (Shooter Flatch), Maris Valainis (Jimmy Chitwood), David Neidorf (Everett Flatch), Brad Long (Buddy Walker), Steve Hollar (Rade Butcher), Fern Persons (Opal Fleener), Brad Boyle (Whit Butcher), Wade Schenck (Ollie McLellan), Kent Poole (Merle Webb), Scott Summers (Strap Purl), Chelcie Ross (George Walker), and Sheb Wooley (Cletus Summers).


Giant (1956, George Stevens)

Giant has a fairly good pace for running three hours and twenty minutes. Even more so considering almost the entire second act is told in summary, with stars Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean gradually getting more and more old age makeup. At his “oldest,” Hudson has a bulk harness, which is simultaneously obvious and effective. Hudson’s performance always needed a little heft. The literal visual presence of it helps.

The first half of Giant is Taylor’s. The film starts in early twentieth century Maryland. Texas cattle rancher Hudson arrives to buy Taylor’s stallion. Again, literally. It’s not clear why Hudson wants the horse because once he gets it home, there’s clearly no need for it. But Taylor decides she wants to marry Hudson right after meeting him; she’s engaged to Rod(ney) Taylor, who gets like four lines.

Taylor is Taylor so Hudson marries her, even though she’s already challenged him. Well, not him, but Texas. She pointed out they stole it from Mexico. That conversation ends up being this lengthy subplot through the entire film. And really Hudson’s only complete one. Giant starts as his movie but it’s Taylor’s after her second scene.

When they get back to big empty, pre-oil Texas, Taylor immediately runs into trouble with Mercedes McCambridge. McCambridge is Hudson’s (presumably older) sister who actually runs the ranch. Though Hudson doesn’t seem to understand it. At that point in the film, Giant becomes this glamorous yet discomforting look into the situation of intelligent women. They have to marry dim bulbs.

Besides realizing being a racist prick isn’t good, Hudson’s only arc for the three hours is worrying about who’s going to take over the family ranch. And it’s never dramatic because almost everyone in the second half–once the kids, who arrive about an hour in, grow up into teens then twentysomethings. Giant doesn’t dwell much on the years in between toddler and late teen because Pearl Harbor happens and young men need to be old enough to go off to war.

Taylor’s got a lot going on in the first half, before the aging makeup. She’s got to deal with McCambridge thinking she’s trying to take over the de facto matriarchy, Hudson being a chauvinist and a racist, her husband and his sister starving the Mexican-American workers on the ranch while intentionally depriving them of safe living conditions, problem ranch hand James Dean giving her the eye, and, soon, Hudson’s only parenting instinct to be to instill toxic masculinity.

And she’s great. The script’s always a little too scared to throw down about Hudson’s racism, almost like director Stevens knows it’s going to get too awkward afterwards so why not save it until the end. So Taylor’s got to navigate around that softness while still developing her character. It culminates in Taylor heading back for a “visit” in Maryland, taking the kids. Rodney Taylor gets another line. Real character development on the kids happens, which is cool. And the last time some of the three kids ever get any.

The second half, about when it’s the forties and oil has struck, eventually deals with youngest daughter Carroll Baker deciding to rebel by pursuing James Dean. Dean, in his old age makeup with an awesome pencil mustache, is, of course, old enough to be her father.

That the three kids, both as babies and then adults, look more like not just Taylor and Dean’s kids, but also Taylor and Taylor’s is sadly never a thing. Hudson whines at one point about a grandkid not looking like him but, come on, none of his kids ever have.

Giant’s not a soap. While Dean clearly has the hots for Taylor, her arc with him (in the first half, when she still gets arcs), is more about her coming to terms with her disappointment in Texas. Young Dean is a dreamer who wants to get far away. Old Dean is not a dreamer. The movie doesn’t really do the dreaming thing. Everyone’s too rich. It just happens.

Dean’s fantastic. He’s a villain, of sorts, but a supporting one. He’s not Hudson’s antagonist, at least not after the film’s done establishing the Texas ground situation on Taylor and Hudson’s arrival. But the thoughtfulness of the performance, which carries over (and gets even better, actually) into the aging makeup, is something to behold. There are some flashy scenes, but it’s also impressive in the quiet moments when the film’s still giving Dean an active subplot.

He loses it just before the film starts jumping ahead. He figures into the second half a lot, but he’s not an active presence. Third act, yes. Third act is when he gets to show-off what screen acting can actually be in old age makeup. But in the second he’s all background. He’s no longer in current contention for ranch heir.

Dennis Hopper plays the disappointing son–first he became a doctor and then he married a Hispanic girl (Elsa Cárdenas in the film’s most thankless role, which is saying a lot considering Sal Mineo’s “part”). He ends up figuring into the third act a lot. He’s all right. Better than Baker, who isn’t able to make the minx believable. Old man Dean is a creeper and he doesn’t hide it. It’s never believable Baker would think it was so hot.

Other than Dean being dreamy, apparently. And it’s no wonder. Taylor and Hudson’s old age makeup puts them in their, I don’t know, late sixties? They’re supposed to be fifty (at the most). Only Dean looks close to appropriate.

Screenwriters Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat bring up the aging in dialogue once or twice, with one full conversation, but it doesn’t play into the rest of the film. It’s never subtext. It’s either obvious or absent. Hudson’s increased drinking, however, seems like it might be a thing, especially since he and Dean both become massive functioning alcoholics simultaneously but separately.

In the finish, the film decides it wants to be about Hudson and his racism, but without ever, of course, being too judgy about it. Giant’s not telling people not to be racist at home, just out in public when some of the good ones might be around. But it does go so far as to tell them it’s still not really okay to be racist at home. Mind who’s around, of course. Good old uncle Chill Wills is all right, wink, wink.

And it almost kind of sort of gets somewhere. Even though it ignores this subplot actually had everything to do with Taylor before the film took it away. Giant comes through for Dean at the end. It comes through for Hudson. Well, his character at least. But it never comes through for Taylor.

Like, Dean is perving on Baker because she’s Taylor’s kid. It’s a thing. And Taylor never gets to deal with it. Stevens really lacks confidence in the leads’ abilities in the oldest aging makeup. So much so he doesn’t even try. He steps back. It works for Dean. It works for Hudson.

It doesn’t work for Taylor. It’s a bummer.

Most of the acting is good. Besides Baker. Earl Holliman’s a little ineffectual as well. But Paul Fix and Judith Evelyn are good as Taylor’s parents. Wills is good. Jane Withers, playing a character who clearly had a lot more to do in the novel, is fine.

Excellent photography from William C. Mellor. Stevens’s direction is good. It’s just a lot of story and a lot of movie. They get through it, but they don’t excel with it. William Hornbeck’s editing is perfunctory, which really doesn’t help by the third act, when the film proves unable to be soapy even when it wants and needs to be.

Still, taking everything into account, Giant’s worth it for Dean’s performance. It’s worth it for some of Taylor’s. It’s a damn shame there isn’t more to hers. The film really needed to be more confident treating second-billed Hudson like he’s second-billed.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by George Stevens; screenplay by Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat, based on the novel by Edna Ferber; director of photography, William C. Mellor; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; production designer, Boris Leven; produced by Harry Ginsberg and Stevens; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Elizabeth Taylor (Leslie Benedict), Rock Hudson (Jordan ‘Bick’ Benedict Jr.), James Dean (Jett Rink), Mercedes McCambridge (Luz Benedict), Carroll Baker (Luz Benedict II), Dennis Hopper (Jordan Benedict III), Fran Bennett (Judy Benedict), Elsa Cárdenas (Juana Guerra Benedict), Earl Holliman (‘Bob’ Dace), Chill Wills (Uncle Bawley), Paul Fix (Dr. Horace Lynnton), Judith Evelyn (Mrs. Nancy Lynnton), Jane Withers (Vashti Snythe), Rod Taylor (Sir David Karfrey), Robert Nichols (Mort ‘Pinky’ Snythe), Carolyn Craig (Lacey Lynnton), Sal Mineo (Angel Obregón II), and Charles Watts (Judge Oliver Whiteside).


The American Dreamer (1971, Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson)

The best part of The American Dreamer is some of Warner E. Leighton and co-director Schiller’s editing, which only works thanks to Schiller and Carson’s filmmaking. They have this wonderful device where they film their subjects listening to recordings of their previous filming and then cut, often imperceptibly, between the subjects listening to themselves and the subjects speaking. They do it twice in the film, once towards the beginning, once towards the end. It’s best at the beginning.

The American Dreamer is Dennis Hopper. He’s editing a big studio motion picture (The Last Movie) in Taos, in a lovely home, populated by a bunch of stoned people. Presumably, a lot of them are on the Movie’s post-production team. Dreamer doesn’t introduce anyone. Carson and Schiller are more comfortable centering the film around Hopper–who then complains about it at the one hour mark, at which point Dreamer sort of rushes to wrap up.

If Carson, Schiller and Hopper intend to reveal or suggest anything mysterious about Hopper (who is credited as a co-writer), they fail. At one point, probably halfway into Dreamer, after listening to Hopper talk about how he loves people’s thoughts and ideas and hearing them, he keeps interrupting this Playboy bunny while condescendingly explaining Playboy to her (and to the camera).

Later on, just before he rails against the directors in an interview moment, he flips out about their inability to properly shoot him while he’s presenting his photographs. Early in the film, Hopper was far more open, far less condescending. Maybe I just gave up on him when he started justifying Charles Manson to the bunny.

As for Hopper as a filmmaker, what does American Dreamer reveal? He compares himself to Orson Welles, not Robert Wise. His filmmaking objective is not narrative but revolution; at least, he wants the viewer (and his entourage) to believe its revolution. He’s convincing, in no small part to Carson and Schiller. Even though he’s openly hostile to them by the end, he’s still the hero.

The folk soundtrack is also amusing. It’s okay enough, especially at the beginning, but these are folk anthems to the glory of Dennis Hopper, presumably added in post-production. The American Dreamer is a strange example of egomania, which is really too bad, because the stuff Carson and Schiller capture of Hopper editing the film–he’s focused, angry, irritable–is striking. Even the most honest-looking cinéma vérité is still cinema.

Especially in the second half, when someone clearly thought they needed to spice up the movie with a dozen girls there to fulfill Hopper’s fantasy of a sleepover.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson; written by Dennis Hopper, Carson and Schiller; edited by Warren E. Leighton and Schiller; produced by Schiller; released by EYR.


Black Widow (1987, Bob Rafelson)

Black Widow is an odd film. Ronald Bass’s script starts being about Debra Winger as a Justice Department analyst who can’t get her male colleagues to take her seriously when she discovers a woman (Theresa Russell) killing her rich husbands. The film never discusses Russell’s motive, though one can assume they’re awful guys since every guy in Black Widow is a sexist jerk. Even the nicer guys are still sexist jerks. Or at least mild perverts.

Rafelson and Bass juxtapose all Winger’s opposition with Russell seducing a new husband–Nicol Williamson. Williamson’s fantastic, by the way; easily the best performance in the film.

But then once Russell discovers Winger is after her, the movie moves to Hawaii where the two women have a bonding movie together. They see the sights, have some vaguely homoerotic scenes together. The trip to Hawaii doesn’t serve the film at all, just the cast and crew who got a paid vacation.

And in Hawaii, Winger falls for this perfect Indochinese millionaire, played by Sami Frey (who looks way too young to be the older gentleman he’s portraying). He’s a great guy though, nothing like the pigs she encountered earlier. Must be the accent.

Rafelson’s direction is acceptable. Good photography from Conrad L. Hall, truly great editing from John Bloom.

Both Russell and Winger give fine technical performances, but they can’t overcome the script. Terry O’Quinn, D.W. Moffett and Diane Ladd excel in small parts.

Black Widow‘s tedious and shockingly predictable. It’s downhill from the start.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Bob Rafelson; written by Ronald Bass; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by John Bloom; music by Michael Small; production designer, Gene Callahan; produced by Harold Schneider; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Debra Winger (Alexandra), Theresa Russell (Catharine), Sami Frey (Paul), Dennis Hopper (Ben), Nicol Williamson (William), Terry O’Quinn (Bruce), Lois Smith (Sara), D.W. Moffett (Michael), Leo Rossi (Detective Ricci), Mary Woronov (Shelley), Rutanya Alda (Irene), James Hong (Shin) and Diane Ladd (Etta).


My Science Project (1985, Jonathan R. Betuel)

It’s hard to say what’s worse in My Science Project, Beutel’s lame characters or his direction of the actors playing those roles. And I’m not counting Dennis Hopper, who plays an ex-hippie in the picture. While Hopper certainly has a poorly written character and Beutel’s direction of him is bad… it was Hopper’s decision to play a caricature of himself. I’ll give Beutel a pass for that one.

But Fisher Stevens (as a television trivia obsessed Brooklyn “greaseball”), Raphael Sbarge (an overweight–the padding is visible–nerd) and Richard Masur (a cowboy detective)? Beutel doesn’t just have dumb ideas, he’s also incapable of executing them.

Science Project also suffers from a lack of plot. High school senior John Stockwell discovers an alien gadget and complications ensue, including a time warp with future mutants, a surprisingly competent dinosaur and a damsel in distress. But there’s no drama to the plot. Beutel just throws in things he’d seen in other movies and relies on Fisher’s bad jokes to make the film palatable.

The damsel, played by Danielle von Zerneck, and Stockwell actually have a fairly decent romance. Though one wonders if Beutel ever actually attended high school, given the absurdities of the one in Science Project.

Von Zerneck’s always good, even when the script’s bad, and Stockwell’s best in his scenes with her. The final third lacks their chemistry and the film suffers.

Beutel’s composition is competently unoriginal. Peter Bernstein’s music helps.

But Beutel’s Science Project still fails (sorry, couldn’t resist).

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jonathan R. Betuel; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by Carroll Timothy O’Meara; music by Peter Bernstein; production designer, David L. Snyder; produced by Jonathan T. Taplin; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring John Stockwell (Michael Harlan), Danielle von Zerneck (Ellie Sawyer), Fisher Stevens (Vince Latello), Raphael Sbarge (Sherman), Richard Masur (Detective Isadore Nulty), Barry Corbin (Lew Harlan), Ann Wedgeworth (Dolores) and Dennis Hopper (Bob Roberts).


Waterworld (1995, Kevin Reynolds), the extended edition

I haven’t seen Waterworld since the theater–probably opening day. I remember it being an unimpressive sci-fi adventure without a lot of distinct characteristics, but certainly not a disaster. Watching it again after fourteen years, that description holds (for the most part). The film–even in the three hour extended version–moves quickly. There’s always something going on, some bit of tension to pass the time. But I certainly didn’t remember Kevin Costner’s character was such an unrepentant bastard. He might be the worst protagonist in a major Hollywood summer tent pole. It’s stunning how little the film–until the third act–cares about making him a likable character. The way the film works, how to plot unfolds–and how long they manage to keep pertinent information (information the viewer knows) from the protagonist is something.

Costner has some good acting moments, but the script doesn’t provide many of them. He’s fine throughout, but it’s frequently a physical, silent performance. He has a good conversation with Jeanne Tripplehorn at one point and then, at the end, he has a fine standoff with Dennis Hopper. That final standoff comes after the viewer is told all about Costner being a dangerous person. The film only shows the aftereffects, which makes the sequence awkward, but when Costner faces off with Hopper–those previous, iffy sequences get an automatic pass.

Hopper’s okay as the villain. He’s got some good moments and some bad ones. He’s really funny with Tina Majorino. Waterworld‘s interesting today because of its rather neon anti-American sentiments. The villain wants nothing more than to turn the mythical Dryland into a golf course development. Not to mention the ice caps melting (from an unmentioned global warming)–it’s kind of strange, but also an indicator of when the film was made. I don’t think any big Hollywood pictures today are going to allow any “anti” American sentiments in.

Waterworld‘s most successful as a spectacle. It cost a bunch of money and it looks great. There’s some definite 1995 CG, but it’s certainly excusable, given the amazing practical effects. Kevin Reynolds knows how to shoot action scenes–complex ones with intricate geographies and lots of players–and Waterworld‘s exciting when it’s trying to be exciting. James Newton Howard’s fine score only amplifies the film’s (relative) success. It’s a big action-adventure movie with zero sequel prospects included–a dead sub-genre.

Even though it doesn’t affect Waterworld‘s quality overall, the third act features some truly idiotic developments. It humanizes Costner all of a sudden, with one particular scene being the turning point. Except that scene doesn’t have anything to do with humanizing him. Either there’s a scene missing or Waterworld‘s makers thought the audience wasn’t going to be paying enough attention. It’s an annoying misstep, the first of many in the conclusion. After spending at least two hours inflating the viewer’s suspension of disbelief–everyone speaks English (and some can read it), there are still discernible ethnicities, there’s oil around and the ability to refine it–Waterworld ends on fast forward. There’s a rapid-fire romance between Costner and Tripplehorn, which doesn’t make any sense since she kind of seduces him and then, in the next scene, has given up hope. There’s the convenient return of the people from the first hour–I mean, R.D. Call’s good and I was glad to see him back, but come on–and then there’s the conclusion. It’s not like they’ve got Hercules’s twelve labors to get to Dryland. It’s kind of sitting around for anyone to find and it’s unbelievable only two other people did. Waterworld plays fast and loose with its time frame, which is fine until the lackluster ending, when it should come through and doesn’t.

Some of Waterworld‘s failures have to do with Costner. When he made this film, he wasn’t a big star–he was on the way down, as I recall–but he made epic films. Waterworld is a finely paced summer diversion masquerading as an epic. It needed a solid rewrite, another half hour and, surprisingly, a bigger budget (for more characters and sets).

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Kevin Reynolds; written by Peter Rader and David Twohy; directors of photography, Dean Semler and Scott Fuller; edited by Peter Boyle; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Dennis Gassner; produced by Charles Gordon, Lawrence Gordon, John Davis and Kevin Costner; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Kevin Costner (The Mariner), Dennis Hopper (The Deacon), Jeanne Tripplehorn (Helen), Tina Majorino (Enola), Michael Jeter (Old Gregor), Gerard Murphy (The Nord), R.D. Call (Enforcer at the Atoll), Jack Black (Smoker Plane Pilot), John Toles-Bey (Ed, Smoker Plane Gunner), Robert Joy (Ledger Guy), John Fleck (Smoker Doctor), Kim Coates (Crazed Drifter), Sab Shimono (Elder of the Atoll), Leonardo Cimino (Elder of the Atoll), Jack Kehler (Banker), Rick Aviles (Gatesman at the Atoll), Sean Whalen (Bone), Lee Arenberg (Djeng), Robert LaSardo (Smitty), William Preston (Depth Gauge) and Chris Dourid (Atoller).


The Indian Runner (1991, Sean Penn)

Halfway through The Indian Runner–I’m guessing at the location, but halfway sounds about right–there’s a stunning montage. It might be the best way to talk about the film, or at least to start talking about the film, because The Indian Runner resists any standard–or glib–entry angles. It’s a five character montage, taking place in the late evening and then the late night. David Morse lies in bed, smoking cigarette after cigarette–as close to the filter as he can accomplish–wife Valeria Golino asleep beside him, watching the Democratic Convention riots on the news. Four states away, his brother, played by Viggo Mortensen, steals a car from a man going to a birthday party (his birthday party, in fact). Mortensen’s girlfriend, Patricia Arquette, spends an evening watching Gilligan’s Island with her parents, hoping Mortensen will call. Across town from Morse, he and Mortensen’s father–Charles Bronson–watches home movies of the two as children. Penn includes the birthday party in this montage of his main characters and there’s where The Indian Runner is something. It’s frequently indescribable. This montage, where Penn is able to plummet into the depths of his characters, doesn’t have any dialogue. It takes the length of the song playing on the soundtrack. It’s like nothing else.

What Penn brings to The Indian Runner–as an auteurist–is a thorough understanding of how to apply (and I hate to use the term) pre-Miramax independent filmmaking techniques to a mainstream American story. The montage is an easy example. Not so simple is, for instance, Arquette’s constant shrieking–or the graphic child birth sequence–or Morse (a deputy sheriff) harangued by a lonely woman. Or Golino smoking pot and Morse giving her time to put it out before he sees her. Or Bronson telling Morse he’s glad he married Golino, even though she’s a Mexican. The Indian Runner is based on a Bruce Springsteen song and Penn captures that complicated pride Springsteen feels about people and being American. It’s like nothing else.

Penn has some amazing directorial moments–the end is a visual delight, though it’s hard to use the word delight while discussing The Indian Runner, since–even though it’s a positive affirmation of the human condition–it’s a constant downer. But the scenes where he lets the people talk… those are something else. The Indian Runner isn’t dialogue heavy. It’s conversation heavy–but that description isn’t right either. People talk and people listen. Charles Bronson spent the last half of his career in schlock, but fifteen seconds of his performance in The Indian Runner leaves a fine epitaph, revealing an immensely capable actor if only he had the opportunity. Penn’s script is extraordinary, but his direction of it–the way he can introduce a character, the time he gives the actors–makes it. The script is so fine it allows David Morse to emote while wearing sunglasses.

The character development is another high point. Mortensen’s the screw-up son (even before Vietnam, which makes The Indian Runner somewhat unique), but it slowly becomes clear he’s the one more like Bronson. Mortensen’s regret at failing to make Bronson proud is palpable and devastating. It comes at a moment long before Penn even plunges deeper into the characters’ depths–the climatic scene near the end gives the impression of reaching bottom, but the denouement reveals otherwise. It’s almost limitless.

I suppose, since I’ve talked about Bronson and Mortensen (a little), I could spend some time talking about the other actors. Glibly, because it’s one of the few subjects related to the film where I can get glib. Penn gets a great performance out of Valeria Golino, something I previously would have said was impossible. Arquette’s excellent. Morse–in this quiet (especially when compared to Mortensen) role–is amazing. So many of Morse’s scenes are spent without verbosity, just with him looking at something, watching something… Penn’s ability to get a performance out of his actors is incredible, especially for a first time director.

The Indian Runner doesn’t have a single misstep. Everything Penn does is perfect. It’s one of the most impressive debuts.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Sean Penn; director of photography, Anthony B. Richmond; edited by Jay Cassidy; music by Jack Nitzsche; production designer, Michael D. Haller; produced by Don Phillips; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring David Morse (Joe Roberts), Viggo Mortensen (Frank Roberts), Valeria Golino (Maria), Patricia Arquette (Dorothy), Charles Bronson (Mr. Roberts), Sandy Dennis (Mrs. Roberts), Dennis Hopper (Caesar), Jordan Rhodes (Randall), Enzo Rossi (Raffael), Harry Crews (Mr. Baker) and Eileen Ryan (Mrs. Baker).


Rebel Without a Cause (1955, Nicholas Ray)

For a film with pioneering use of widescreen composition–the shot with the cars moving past Natalie Wood–and one of the better film performances (James Dean), Rebel Without a Cause is a curious failure. It’s loaded with content–there’s the stuff with Dean and his parents, the stuff with Wood and her father, the gang, Sal Mineo, the police, the stuff with Dean and Wood, Dean and Mineo, Mineo and his home life. It goes on and on until it finally gets to the ludicrous conclusion. The film’s entirely nuance-free. It’s probably the finest example of “Technicolor filmmaking.” Even if it was shot in Warner Color.

There are countless problems with the film’s details–like Corey Allen’s affable gang leader, Wood going from amoral sociopath (cheering on the bullies, something she never shows any regret for–her actions towards Dean, yes, but not the ones she supported). Then there’s the film’s almost unimaginable lack of subtext. There’s a frequent and rather misogynistic conflict between Dean’s parents, Jim Backus and Ann Doran. Dean’s constantly suggesting Backus needs to assert himself more and it leads to Backus sitting on the couch in a flowered apron trying to defend him. It’s like the film’s parodying itself (but it is not).

For every second he’s on screen–which is thankfully most of them–James Dean commands the film in a perfect performance. He’s in the first shot and from there on in, I don’t think there’s a single scene where Dean doesn’t do something amazing with his performance. The script occasionally gives him great material–the early scene with Edward Platt, some of the scenes with parents Backus and Doran (Backus’s browbeaten husband gets to be a bit much very quickly), and most of the scenes with him and Wood. Wood’s got a story arc all her own–the film drops it after a while, which is a bad move; the fast forward romance between her and Dean is well-acted by both, but it comes off false. The film opens with Dean, Wood and Mineo at the police station, all three with some definite problems–as the story progresses, it forgets about Dean and Wood’s problems and concentrates solely on Mineo’s, given their Cinemascope potential. The conclusion for Dean and Wood comes off goofy, but Rebel‘s been goofy for almost an hour and a half so it’s not exactly a surprise, but it is a disappointment….

The film has two conceptual failings–first, it’s a teen gang movie where we’re supposed to believe Allen’s a scary tough guy (not to mention gang fights happen at scenic spots, cheered on by a dozen middle class kids); second, it’s a continual present action. The film takes place over a day and a half. There’s the whirlwind friendship between Dean and Mineo, the whirlwind romance between Dean and Wood–both of those can get a pass (it’s a movie, after all), but the film forgets these people have been up for thirty hours. Stern’s script, so strong in the first act, kills off a kid in front of twenty other kids, none of whom freak out–no crying, not even from the kid’s girlfriend. It’s an abject oversight–Rebel Without a Cause would have been a much better film if it’d taken responsibility for that plot development and dealt with it, instead of ignoring it for the Mineo emphasis.

The story problems do bring down the film, but they can’t really vandalize Dean’s performance (or Wood’s to some degree). Like I said before, Dean’s enthralling. But Ray doesn’t keep him on screen enough, talking enough, to camouflage the plot deficiencies (the frequent, poor scenes with the teen gang on the loose jar). But Ray does a great job directing Rebel Without a Cause and that achievement–significant as it may be–doesn’t overcome the writing. Maybe because the film came from Ray’s story, so he’s embracing all the shortcomings.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Nicholas Ray; screenplay by Stewart Stern, based on an adaptation by Irving Shulman of a story by Ray; director of photography, Ernest Haller; edited by William H. Ziegler; music by Leonard Rosenman; production designer, Malcolm C. Bert; produced by David Weisbart; released by Warner Bros.

Starring James Dean (Jim Stark), Natalie Wood (Judy), Sal Mineo (Plato), Jim Backus (Frank Stark), Ann Doran (Mrs. Carol Stark), Corey Allen (Buzz Gunderson), William Hopper (Judy’s Father), Rochelle Hudson (Judy’s Mother), Dennis Hopper (Goon), Edward Platt (Ray Fremick), Steffi Sidney (Mil), Marietta Canty (Crawford family maid) and Virginia Brissac (Mrs. Stark, Jim’s grandmother).


The Hot Spot (1990, Dennis Hopper)

One of the most important things about a film noir is the ending. It has to be perfect. It doesn’t matter what comes before, the ending just has to be right. The Hot Spot is a film noir. It’s not a neo-noir. There’s an important distinction. Hopper seems very aware of that distinction; everything he does in the film engages it. But The Hot Spot‘s in color and the frame isn’t academy ratio–when it comes down to it, these differences are showier than the more obvious ones. What Hopper does is present a hard-boiled film noir with everything explicit–it’s not just the sex, it’s the violence. Neither are implied or hinted at–Hopper shows them both in detail. By the first violent scene, that angle completely overshadows the graphic sex. It’s so violent, it’s like he’s going too far (but it’s only fair, given how far he took the sex).

Oh, the ending. I kind of forgot about it (I wish I could).

The Hot Spot‘s ending is a dismal failure. The film’s shockingly good until the end. I never thought I’d be comparing Don Johnson to Robert Mitchum (before I even read the script was written, in 1962, for Mitchum), but he’s like Robert Mitchum here. His delivery of the dialogue is perfect. He’s got a real lack of affect–his eyes don’t emote–and it plays perfectly here. Watching his seemingly soulless character fill with hopes and dreams… it’s wonderful. Too bad about the end.

What happens at the end–and The Hot Spot takes a hit with its final pseudo-scene. A real big hit. Before, it’s already impaired, but the last shot is just rubbish. Anyway, what happens is simple. Dennis Hopper seems to think Virginia Madsen is giving a good performance and she should have more material. Madsen’s performance–and her Texan accent–is laughable. If it weren’t for Jennifer Connelly’s laughable performance (and Texan accent), it’d be stunning. It’s like Hopper casted both women based on their willingness to do nude scenes. Connelly’s character spends a lot of time being quiet and demure, so that awful accent isn’t popping up all the time. Madsen can’t shut up. Yap, yap, yap. It’s embarrassing to both Johnson and the film.

The end falls apart because Hopper relies on Madsen. I have no idea how it would have played with a good actor in her role–because, by the third act, it’s impossible to imagine anything but the horror of Madsen’s performance. It’s excruciating.

Hopper’s direction is excellent. Ueli Steiger’s photography is good (Wende Phifer Mate’s editing is lacking). The supporting cast–Charles Martin Smith especially–is great… Barry Corbin, Jerry Hardin. Only William Sadler (mostly because of his bad accent) is weak.

Until the last fifteen minutes, The Hot Spot was a veritable joy to watch. The ending’s such a misfire, it’s hard to believe no one said anything about it while they were filming. Like a rigger looked up from plugging in some lights and said, “This is terrible.”

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Dennis Hopper; screenplay by Nona Tyson and Charles Wiliams, based on a novel by Williams; director of photography, Ueli Steiger; edited by Wende Phifer Mate; music by Jack Nitzsche; production designer, Cary White; produced by Paul Lewis; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Don Johnson (Harry Madox), Virginia Madsen (Dolly Harshaw), Jennifer Connelly (Gloria Harper), Charles Martin Smith (Lon Gulick), William Sadler (Frank Sutton), Jerry Hardin (George Harshaw), Barry Corbin (Sheriff), Leon Rippy (Deputy Tate), Jack Nance (Julian Ward), Virgil Frye (Deputy Buck) and John Hawker (Uncle Mort).


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