Friday, April 27, 2012

When I Met Levon Helm

It was late summer in 2002 when I found myself spending much time with my friend Steve, who worked with me on my public access TV show Film Forum and who had, the previous spring, employed his ubiquitous video camera in capturing the events surrounding a film festival I programmed in the North Georgia town of Dahlonega.  In return, I had been working with him as writer, photographer, actor, and editor on his comedy noir film called The New Yorker. As a result, I'd taken up residence in his Sandy Springs, GA home, where a really unusual crew of roommates and visiting characters were busy trying to make this film happen.  One night, I was hard at work at Steve's basement editing bay, cutting together some of The New Yorker's newly-shot B&W footage, when Steve approached me with some promising news.

He had just been contacted by an old bandmate of his--Steve had been a drummer in a locally successful Georgia jam band called The Grapes. This guitarist (whose name I can't recall, so we'll call him Joe) had moved up to New York where he landed a gig playing with Levon Helm's outfit.  Levon had recently beat down the threat of throat cancer and had been working diligently, trying to get his voice back, and the effort paid off, because Levon was planning a determined return to the stage.  Tours were being mapped and he was getting ready to launch his series of Midnight Rambles, his name for the concerts held weekly at his home/recording studio in Woodstock, NY to which thousands of musicians and fans would eventually flock starting in 2004. Apparently, with his constant camerawork, Steve made a deep impression on Joe; when Levon expressed an interest in documenting his return to form on video, Joe suggested they call Steve.  And for good reason: Steve had quite a way with a camera.  With it, he was stealthy and attentive, and had a way about him that instantly made you forget a lens was examining you, and so the footage he came up with inevitably spoke much truth while remaining pretty to look at.  Steve was not a shaky-cam kind of guy; he had a Stedicam born into his frame, and his footage--whatever it contained--benefited greatly from this skill.


Once I heard the name "Levon Helm," my heart began racing.   Levon was the former drummer/singer/mandolin player for The Band, a seminal contributor to the American musical soundscape.  Songs like "Up On Cripple Creek," "The Weight," "Don't Do It," and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" had been part of my childhood musical lexicon way before I finally saw, at 14 or so, Martin Scorsese's 1978 documentary The Last Waltz.   I first saw that film on the big screen at the Rhodes Theater in Atlanta, during that exquisite period in my life in which I was discovering Scorsese's filmmaking prowess with works like Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, and Taxi Driver.   Watching The Last Waltz was a life-changing experience, because not only did it re-introduce me to The Band (its most important contribution), it defined exactly how musical performances should be filmed.   Scorsese's attention to detail showed through mightily; he had actually storyboarded the film--a seemingly impossible goal for a documentary filmmaker--and its wonderful visage on screen confirmed the value of such preparation.  With Michael Chapman's superb cinematography and Boris Leven's equally impressive art direction, The Last Waltz would stand for me as the single best concert movie ever made until I saw Jonathan Demme's Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense a few years later.  

My excitement was two-fold.  I was a movie fan before being a (gigantic) music fan, and Levon had made his mark in motion pictures as well.   In The Last Waltz, it's Levon's moments that really resonate with passion and authenticity.   When he talks about exactly what a "Midnight Ramble" is, or the mixture or R&B and country that made up rock n' roll, or the allure of New York City (my favorite moment in the film), the viewer is overcome with Levon's genuinely loving, folksy appeal.   So it was inevitable that he'd be tapped for the movies. In 1980, he was cast as Loretta Lynn's protective, coal-mining father in Michael Apted's Coal Miner's Daughter, and he should have been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, as it's his spirit that haunts the entire movie.   


Then, in 1983, he was cast as the narrator, Jack Ridley, in Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff, in which he played the second to the story's hero, Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard).  Still, the lines that I remember from The Right Stuff  are Helms' "Fair enough" (said after Shepard's line "Gimme a stick of Beeman's and I'll pay ya back later"), "Just whang it down like that" (as Helm is explaining how to use a broom handle to close the door to a newly-developed jet) and this twangy bit of narration (written by Kaufman and adapted from Tom Wolfe's book):

There was a demon that lived in the air.   They said whoever challenged him would die.  Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate.   The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, 750 miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way.  He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass.   They called it the sound barrier.  


With his first two monumental narrative movies, Levon Helm had cemented himself as a genuine character actor in my mind.   He was subsequently underused, for sure.  It would be years later that I would see him in movies like the underrated 1997 Steven Seagal vehicle Fire Down Below (playing a rural preacher fighting against a coal company's destruction of his southern homeland), the brilliant 2005 Tommy Lee Jones film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (playing a blind desert denizen), and as Mr. Rate in 2007's otherwise forgettable Mark Wahlberg actioner Shooter.  In 1981, he was even the very first musical guest on my favorite TV show, SCTV.   But with Coal Miner's Daughter and The Right Stuff on his ledger, Levon wasn't just a rock star.  To me, he was a movie star, too.  

Steve let me know that he wanted me to come along with him on the trip up to Woodstock, mainly, I think, because he was a little intimidated by staying in New York City for any period of time, and he needed my expertise about the town (since he knew I had lived there for four years prior).  I immediately agreed to accompany him, and we were off.


On the road, I repeatedly found myself recalling what Levon had said about New York in The Last Waltz.  I had left NYC in 1991, and found myself pining for it for over a decade at this point.  Missing New York City was painful for me, even though I had done much back home in Georgia that was worthwhile.   But once I settled on New York as a destination for myself, no sort of achievement or attachment could extricate its hold on me. To this day, I still think this rocker from an Arkansas cotton farm has said the truest, simplest thing ever uttered about New York City:

It took a couple of trips to get into it.  You just go in the first time and get your ass kicked, and you take off. Soon as it heals up, you come back and you try it again. Eventually, you fall right in love with it.  

Upon my return to Atlanta after my first early-90s sojourn to New York, this statement rang in my head for years. I had always hoped to return to New York, but Atlanta had clawed me in its grips, as hometowns often do. Yeah, my life was there, but my heart was way up north. And now, here I was, with Steve driving a car speeding its way to the home of the man who made this statement that had stuck with me so. On the way up, I bought a copy of Levon's memoir (co-written by Stephen Davis) called This Wheel's On Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band.  Steve and I stopped at two hotel rooms (one in North Carolina and one in New Jersey), and I read as much of the book as I could.  I had never really known about the rancor within The Band, but Levon's book clued me in on why Robbie Robertson was the sole songwriter credited for all their songs: it was a lawyerin' thing.

Albert Grossman, the bulldog-like manager of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Todd Rundgren, seduced Robertson and convinced him to go behind his fellow bandmate's backs and claim ownership of these songs they wrote together; Grossman and Robertson would split the proceeds.   Helm and the rest of The Band had to fight for the rest of their lives to get the benefits they were due. I was stunned at this revelation, but it made sense, especially considering Robertson sang not ONE of the songs the world loved so much. This especially made sense given that Robertson's post-Band output was resolutely not one that belonged to a truly great songwriter;.  And let's not forget: when The Band first got together, they were the backing outfit for Ronnie Hawkins, and when that gig ended, they were known as Levon and The Hawks (except for Levon, everyone in the band was Canadian, by the way).  Even the faux-generic name The Band was Levon's idea, and on their self-titled second album, he wanted the members to only be listed by their first names (an idea that the Grossman nixed).


Not knowing whether we'd be interviewing Levon for the camera this time round, I decided to come prepared by penning a few pages of questions to ask him.   Most of these queries were answered in the book, but I had a few special, personally concocted questions thrown in there.   I spent my nights in those hotel rooms reading and amassing my plans for when we got to sit down with Levon.  It was incredibly exciting...the closer and closer we got to Woodstock, the more my adrenals were pumping away.   I had met many celebrities before, but I had never been to one's house to interview them, so I was pretty keyed up.  I didn't know Levon at that point, so I didn't know that all I needed to be was myself.  Steve, meanwhile, wearing his multi-colored beret and holding a half-smoked cigar in hand, was cool as could be.  It was difficult for me to read his emotions, which I guess was a feature that made him a bit more of a professional than me.

Steve and I left our hotel room in Passaic, New Jersey that morning with high hopes.  I was particularly thrilled because, in all my time spent in New York, I had never been upstate.  I was anxious to behold its beauty as we ventured up there.   And so I learned that Manhattan was only a neighborhood in the state of New York; the region was positively majestic, with its September trees still green but about to turn with the coming autumn.   Its allure was a revelation to me, and I instantly understood why so many gravitated to its comforts.   Knowing that New York City, the center of the world, was was only an hour's drive away from this gorgeously remote haven made it seem as if to live in Woodstock would be tantamount to having the best of both the rural and the urban worlds.

Finding Levon's house was difficult for us newbies.  GPS was just a dream then, so it was up to Steve and I to navigate the backwoods that led to Levon's house.  I remember ending up on a resolutely green and curvy country road, where there was an unassuming "Enter Here" sign that led us into what looked like a dirty back road into nowhere.  We had tried to call Levon, but there was no answer.  Yet we figured it out and here is where we arrived:


We were a little early--it was about noon--and as Steve found a place to park the car, I tried to see if anyone was coming out of this tucked-away home.  The midday light was painting all the tree's leaves, and we wandered around the house's circumfrence as Steve tried to call Levon.  We didn't have to wait long. After a minute or so, Levon appeared, shirtless and stretching from a night's sleep, obscured by a screened-in porch.

"I heard you pulling up.  It's nice to see you guys.  Just come on in.  The door's around the side." he said.

The door we took led us right in to the kitchen which, with all the colorful stuff on the immense central table, was obviously the home's non-musical meeting place.  Even now, I look at photos of Levon and I can remember what it was like to sit at that table.  God knows who else sat there before me:


We stepped in and looked at all the photos pinned up on the walls.   Here was Levon with George Harrison.     Here he was with Norah Jones (who, he let us know, was due to the house next week to record).   And here was a photo of Billy Bob Thornton sitting at the table.   I began to feel even more edgy. What was I doing here? Who the hell am I?

It was obvious that Levon was busy getting dressed as we waited for him. I wandered around the house as Steve messed with his camera.   I saw there was a great big central room where Levon's drums had been set up, clearly as the centerpiece for a constantly-changing band.   In this wood-hewn room, I noticed a distinct difference in sound quality.  It was as if every noise that was made floated into the atoms of the the timber itself.   When I spoke, the words had a flattened yet resonant quality. It was a sound I had never heard. Standing in the middle of this regally gabled space, I felt as if I were in the center of hearing itself.  I looked up and saw a huge American flag hanging longways from its ceiling, as well as the brightly yellowed "Don't Tread On Me" flag, hung properly, its snake spiraling upwards.  I loved that the words "Don't Tread on Me" nearly mirrored my name in welcome. My being there seemed like divine providence.


Levon came down and shook our hand vigorously, and put his hand on my shoulder, and he told us how glad he was to see us.  He told us that Joe, his guitarist and Steve's friend, was on his way over, and he asked us if we needed anything.  I said I needed a glass of water, beating myself up over my nervousness, and he directed me towards the glasses, and I gulped down the best-tasting water I'd had in ages.  We sat down and he asked Steve whether the place was easy to find, and we said that it was a little difficult, but we were here now.   He laughed, and then launched into what he wanted for this documentary he was planning.   At this point, I deferred to Steve, and just reveled in this place where I was, trying to take it all in.

Joe arrived quite soon, and took us outside while Steve and I had a smoke (out of deference to Levon's health problems), and Joe reiterated to us the importance of this project.  "I mean, when you talk to Levon," he said, "you have to realize that this guy has been there at every stage of rock n' roll history.  He saw Elvis perform, and Roy Orbison, and John Lee Hooker.  He was there with Ronnie Hawkins, Dylan, and there at Woodstock. And then the stuff with The Band.  The Last Waltz.  And here he still is, about to launch a comeback.  I mean, this is a big deal."

I'm not sure we needed to hear this.   It only made me more nervous.  But I recognized that this was Joe, here, revealing to himself the incredible position he'd been invited into.  He only wanted to impart what an important project this was.   As it was Steve's assignment, I felt I was somewhat out of the loop.  I was, and still am not, a filmmaker, and was primarily just a fan.  I had to remind myself, in that moment, how lucky I was.   My mind was being blown, in other words.

We went back in and I took a few moments to take a gander at Levon's shiny yet exactingly-worn drums.  I was a drummer and singer, too, with my band UberEasy back in Atlanta.   But I played just congas, bongos, and hand percussion.   Wandering around Levon's high-ceilinged great room, I noticed sets of hand percussion that were labeled "Amy," whom I later discovered was Levon's only child.  I took a moment to play these instruments, but I was careful not to disturb them too much.   I looked back up at this house's amazing structure, with the rich smell of its wood in my nose, and decided I needed to join my friends.


Steve, Joe, and Levon talked while I was away, and by the time I rejoined them, they were all good buddies.  I got myself another glass of that water, sat down at the kitchen table, and examined the photos on the wall.  I didn't see Bob Dylan repped there, but I did see endless photos of musicians I knew and didn't know, playing right here and elsewhere.  I began to truly take into my heart that Levon, our endlessly kind host, was the personified zenith of rock n' roll history and, furthermore, was someone who'd not lost his connection to what was going on even today.

An hour or more into our visit, Levon finally sat down at the kitchen table.   This was obviously a meeting place for all who visited his home, as there were few other obvious locales to sit down and chat.   Levon, Joe and Steve joined me at the table, and Levon reached into a bowl and pulled out a stinky bud of weed and began breaking it down and rolling it up.   Clearly, I thought, this was a habit that had not died with his cancer battle.   I thought "This probably helped him through those 29 chemo therapies he'd gone through."  So I felt it was an honor to smoke the ganja with Levon.   But the weed was so extraordinary in quality, it began affecting my mood, and I began to regret smoking it after a while.

Sitting at the table, I started to realize who I was with, and even though Levon was unfailingly friendly, I began losing it a little, and Levon saw this, and came to help.

"I have all these questions I want to ask you," I said, "But I think you've answered them a thousand times before."

"That's okay," he said.  "Ask away."



I first asked him about Woodstock, and he told us about what it was like being in a helicopter, flying high above all those concertgoers.   He wove a good tale, being careful to include stories about The Who and Pete Townsend's bashing of Abbie Hoffmann off the stage.  He said that things were good in The Band at that stage, and he went into talking about their life at the house called Big Pink, where so many great songs were written and recorded by them as a team (there was a typewriter set up there on the table, and they'd all take turns writing lyrics on it). But he then let us know that it was Albert Grossman, and by extension, Robbie Robertson, who were the villains of his life.  He launched into a gentle tirade against Robertson--this was something that clear still stung--especially after I mentioned The Last Waltz.  He didn't immediately demean the experience of filming the movie, but he did pipe up in other ways.

"You've seen the movie, right?" he asked.

"Of course," I said.

"Well, you see Robbie singin' away at the microphone?   What you don't know is that Robbie can't sing a lick, so we had the mike turned off during that performance. He didn't get one note in."  Levon cackled hard at this memory.

This astonished me.   If you look at Scorsese's The Last Waltz, not only is Robertson portrayed as The Band's leader, he's seen as their most valuable mouthpiece as well, both in interviews and on stage.  I mean, he looks like he's belting it away during that film.  But, sitting here with Levon, I learned that this was the basis for the schism in the band.   Levon had enough good will to provide some memorable moments for Scorsese, but he told us he hated doing the movie, because he felt it supported the notion that the duplicitous Robertson was the center of The Band.  "If anyone was the center, it was Garth Hudson.  He was our music teacher, and he was the one that took us on up."

The weed, and even the truth, began getting to me, and I apologized.  "Levon," I said, "I feel really privileged to be here.  I'm sorry if I seem a little nervous.  I hope you understand that I see you as a friend of Martin Scorsese's, and I'm a film lover, so I..."

He got up and put his hand on my shoulder and, smiling, got into my face.  "Look, brother, I'm not Scorsese's friend.  Never have been, never will be.   That's just something I did.  He's not a friend to me.   He's on Robbie's side.   That's how the movie turned out like it did."

"Well, I can understand that," I said.   "I think the interview segments are the weakest part of the movie."

"That's right," he answered.   "The only thing that makes that movie good is the performance.   The interviews are pure fake."



"But, then, there are your scenes.   Can I tell you something?"

"What's that?"

"That thing you said about New York in that movie has really stayed with me."   I told him about my relationship, as a fellow Southerner, with the city, and told him I had had my ass kicked, and that I hoped to return there one day, and that his words about the city still inspired me.  "Well," he said, "it's a helluva town, and you need to make your way back up here, if you feel that way."

"Okay.   I'll take that advice.  I'll be coming back," I promised.

"That's good, buddy.   You need to be here, if you feel it that strong."  He looked hard into my eyes, and there was one of those quiets that fall when you know you're hearing something important.  This took a load off.  None of my everyday Atlanta friends had ever provided so much support, and I resolved to return to New York.  At that second, Levon made his way resolutely into my heart.

I harbored a wish to play music along with Levon, but that didn't happen, although he heard my drumming on Amy's congas and had kind things to say about it.   He sat behind his kit for a moment and gave us a short lesson in backbeats. Steve sat at the drums a bit and played, but he never brought out his camera, and those questions I worked so hard on went unused.  Levon talked for a while about how proud he was of his daughter, Amy, and how much fun they had playing music together. She was clearly his shining pride.

By this time, Steve and I had been at Levon's place for about three hours, and it became apparent that Levon was excited to have us involved in the documentary he was planning.  I knew that my contribution to this project would be minimal--this was Steve's baby all the way--but I was nonetheless ecstatic over the possibilities. When it came time for us to leave, Levon disappeared for a minute, then came back into the great room and thanked us for visiting him.   He shook my hand, and as he did so, he slipped a big fat joint into the breast pocket of my shirt.   "I wanna tell you what a pleasure it was to meet you, Dean.   Here's a little somethin' for the road."

I could feel myself blushing as I looked into those eyes of his.  They really did literally twinkle with joy.   This man was in a good place, I thought.  "Thank you, Levon.   It's been a tremendous honor to meet you.   Overwhelming, really."  I held my hand to my heart.

He chuckled and thanked me, patting my shoulder again, and he then turned to shake Steve's hand, and likewise slipped another joint to him.   My mind was reeling as we stepped back outside into the clearing, and got into Steve's car.   Levon and Joe waved to us as we drove away.  The ride back to New York, where Steve was set to meet a girlfriend of his, was filled with promising talk.  But, for me, the experience was over.


In New York City, Steve and I had a horrendous and embarrassing fight that ended our relationship--something I still feel bad about a decade later.   I didn't get to talk to Steve very much from that moment on, and ended up staying in New York for a few days with his girlfriend (who also had shared in this fight).  During this trip, a girl with a guitar smiled at me at a Lower East Side coffee shop.  I talked with her for a little while and learned her name was Madeline Peyroux, and that she was a singer/songwriter who had a Georgia connection (she had been brought up in Athens).   We hit it off well, and she invited me to come and see her at a small gig she had that night in the Village.   The enigmatic Peyroux is now an internationally renowned artist, but at the time, she was just a nice girl--with a remarkable voice and manner--that I happened to meet.

I caught a bus back home to Atlanta and resumed my life there.   I had heard in the intervening years that Steve was busy making numerous trips back up to Woodstock to film Levon in action, but I never sussed anything out about the project outside of what was mumbled about in close-knit Atlanta circles.   Around 2006, I learned that Steve had had a falling-out with Levon, and that the project was on permanent hold.   Typically, with Steve, who'd shot much unedited tape of everything he encountered over the past decade, the footage he took of Levon would remain on the shelf, tucked away on itty bitty cassettes in clear plastic cases. A friend said to me that it probably wouldn't see the light of day until Levon passed away, which I hoped would be never.

In 2010, I found myself again living in New York (this time, in Brooklyn), just like I had promised Levon I would. One day, via the internet, where I had friended Levon on Facebook, I discovered that a documentary about his comeback was definitely afoot.   In the interim, Levon had released one record called Dirt Farmer, and another, Electric Dirt, which would win the first ever Grammy for Best Americana Album.   He'd win another one for his live 2011 release Ramble at the Ryman.  The new documentary was humorously called Ain't In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm--a title that had Levon's fingerprints all over it.  But Steve's name was not connected to it, and I still wonder how that makes him feel.



The day Levon passed away--April 19, 2012--I cried all night long.   I watched The Last Waltz twice and, while doing so, remembered what Levon had to say about the experience.   Not having seen it since before our meeting with Levon, the film had a newly-soured meaning for me.  I could see through Scorsese's rock-starry-eyed machinations, and Robertson's put-on, coked-up behavior (Levon told us that the Band as a whole thought he was acting like an ass all throughout the filming, and I could now see them not joining in with him, really, on film).   When I saw Robbie singing his guts out, I remembered that his mike was defunct.  Levon's laughter sounded out again in my ears.  That night, I finally finished with the film thinking that it was, partially, pure artifice. The only moments that felt bona fide belonged to Levon and the rest of The Band, whom I now saw as victims of Robertson's egoism.  I still admire greatly the concert portions of the movie, which, to Scorsese's credit, never shy away from giving center stage to Helm, the late Rick Danko, or the brilliant Garth Hudson, whose mournful sax solo during "It Makes No Difference" made me cry even more that night.   The Last Waltz remains a great movie.  The interview portions largely were now painful to witness, yet the magnificent music remained, and I could remember Levon talking so endearingly about those Midnight Rambles...



Life itself is a ramble Levon spent his time on earth steadily providing a vital beat for, and the party continues even after he's sadly departed.   His story was a masterpiece, painted with glory and musical grandeur.   In the brief moments we spent together, I discovered he was a great friend not only to me, but to most everyone he met. And so, with love and admiration, I say: Farewell and thank you, Brother Levon.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Film #150: GOODBYE FIRST LOVE

NOTE: Though I saw this movie at the 2011 New York Film Festival, I've been reluctant to post a review until it's become available for moviegoers to see it.  Goodbye First Love has now found distribution, and it's worth seeking out, so I decided to post my review now. 



To see more movies like Mia Hansen-Love's Goodbye First Love would be like feeling the heat being turned on in a cold movie theatre.   The American cinema is almost devoid of films that deal with real stories of passion and growth (particularly as seen through female eyes), and so this French filmmaker's newest (after her much acclaimed 2009 effort Father of My Children) fills an unnatural void in cinema storytelling.   I'll admit: I adore movies about first loves, as I feel it's an important subject that gets short shrift.  Everybody remembers the spiraling feeling of being so entranced by another for the first time, and how each subsequent bout with romance pales in comparison.   So why aren't there more movies like this--movies to which everyone can relate?  I suppose we have to rely on the lovely French to provide this sort of thing for us...


Here, the adorable Lola Creton plays Camille, a young Parisian in love with Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky). She's lives perhaps too much in the moment, while he has other things on his mind--Sullivan's starting to lose focus on his romance with Camille, and is redirecting it towards his upcoming tour of South America, as he's hungering to find out more about himself.   Camille, meanwhile, has made her whole world about what Sullivan does, and this mindset sends her into bedlam.  She thinks his upcoming absence will destroy their relationship, and her along with it, so we spend the first act of the film vascillating between extremely sexy romps and woeful, teary fights (my favorite shot in the movie has a sad-mouthed Camille crawling to the snide Sebastian, begging for a forgiveness she shouldn't need).  Even with all this drama, there are a few light-dappled moments of total bliss delicately placed by director Love for balance.


Sullivan does what he will, and the film continues to follow Camille, her soul stolen, as she trepidatiously steps her way through university as an architecture student.  As she follows Sebastian's progress with stickpins on a map, she launches into a mature affair with her fortysomething teacher (Magne-Havard Brekke), but her mind is almost always elsewhere, with wherever Sullivan is.  The hold he has on her is powerful and, even after seven years have passed, strong feelings remain and difficult choices have to be made.


Goodbye First Love is gorgeous simplicity itself.  Quiet, and yet scored with superb source music choices, it trades in the real and recognizable without ever falling into cliche.  It's an extremely small-scaled movie, anchored by Caton's beautifully naive performance, and it'll get you reminiscing about your own first love.  As that hat floats downstream in its final majestic shot, it'll have you wondering how you let such a great thing go, if you let it go at all.  And it'll leave you marveling at how you got where you are.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

My Movie Diary (August 2010-March 2012)

Since August of 2010, I've been keeping a movie diary on the right-hand column of FILMICABILITY.   But now it's time for me to delete those titles on the sidebar in order to make room for newer titles. So, in one single post, I decided to group these 630 films and 14 TV series according to the grades I've given them.  This is really just a post for me, but it can be for you, too.   Just take all the titles in the A+/B range, and if there's anything you haven't seen on these lists, boy, update your Netflix list pronto, because you need to see these movies/TV series.   At any rate, I'm not commenting at all on these, except to say: AVOID those titles at the bottom!  


A+
Pulp Fiction, You're Gonna Miss Me, General Orders No. 9, The Tree of Life, A Little Romance, Midnight Cowboy, Culloden, A Man Escaped, Bonnie and Clyde, O Lucky Man, Tommy, Rushmore, Goodfellas, A Separation, Tiny Furniture, Yellow Sky, Quatermass and the Pit, Hardware Wars, The Big Lebowski, Drugstore Cowboy, Men Don't Leave, Birth, The Deer Hunter, Moneyball, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, On The Bowery, Melancholia, Interiors, Frankenstein (1931), Louie (Seasons 1 & 2), The Fountain, Tess, Life is Sweet, Blood Simple, To Kill a Mockingbird, Blue Velvet, Bugsy Malone, Short Cuts, Inglourious Basterds, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, Harry and Tonto, The King's Speech, Encounters at the End of the World, This Man Must Die, 12 Angry Men, Timepiece, Special Delivery, Marvin and Tige, Electra Glide in Blue, Chopped (seasons 1-10), Jackie Brown, All The President's Men, Hud, Brewster McCloud, Point Blank, Troll 2 (good bad movie), "I Know Where I'm Going," Let Me In, Goodbye Day, Ablution, Secrets and Lies, K Street (miniseries), per-mu-tat-tion, On The Bowery, All or Nothing, 8 Ball Bunny, The Dot and the Line, My Darling Clementine, Our Day, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, King-Sized Canary, Breaking Bad (Seasons 1-4), The Office (seasons 1-5), Home Movies (Seasons 1-4), The House of Mirth, Salesman, What's Up, Doc?, Mad Men (Seasons 1-4), The Wire (Seasons 1-3), Targets, Dock Ellis and the LSD No-No, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, Catalog, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, The Social Network, Boxing Gym, The Heiress, Greenberg, The Short and Curlies, Topsy-Turvy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Edvard Munch, Make Way for Tomorrow, The Sopranos (full series).

A
Star Wars, Dillenger (1973), We Need To Talk About Kevin, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Buck, Inside Moves, Heartbeats, Of Gods and Men, Storytime, Winnie The Pooh, An Idiot Abroad (Seasons 1 and 2), Footnote, Motion Painting 1, King of the Hill (Steven Soderburgh), Hell and Back Again, A Night to Remember, Dusty and Sweets Magee, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, One Trick Pony, Carny, The Edge of Heaven, Billy Budd, Goodbye First Love, Stanley Kubrick's Boxes, Play, A Little Help, Striking Distance (good bad movie), We Own The Night, Find Me Guilty, The Wrestler, The Artist, High School, Contagion, Pina, Car Wash, Citizen X, Career Girls, Successful Alcoholics, Red (starring Brian Cox), Reagan, Big Fan, Theater of Blood, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (Seasons 1-4), Galaxy Quest, eXistenZ, The Last of Sheila, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer, Happy-Go-Lucky, Red (Bruce Willis), The Simpsons (Season 4), Easy A, Blue Valentine, Conspiracy, The Rutles: All You Need is Cash, Birds Anonymous, Green for Danger, My Dog Tulip, The Fighter, Disneyland Dream, Clueless, Rejected, Player Hating: A Love Story, The Ghost Writer, Blazing Saddles, The Autobiography of Nicolai Ceausescu, The Bostonians, Carlos, A Letter to Elia, Tuesday After Christmas, Inside Job, Hausu, Lucky Louie (Season 1), The In-Laws (1979), Picnic at Hanging Rock, Julia (Tilda Swinton), Frozen (2010), Night of the Demon, Deep End, Insignificance, The Tin Star, The Ricky Gervais Show (Seasons 1 & 2)


A-
Gone in 60 Seconds (1974), The Yes Men Fix The World, Crazy Stupid Love, Phone Booth, Elephant (Alan Clarke short), Shampoo, Louie CK: Hilarious, The Future, King of New York, Bridesmaids, The Dirty Dozen, Japanese Myths, The Silence of the Lambs, The Devil's Double, The Squid and the Whale, An Enemy of the People, The Little Foxes, The Devil Thumbs A Ride, C'est La Vie, Paris Texas, The Boys Next Door, Enter the Void, Buffalo Soldiers (2001), Escape From New York, Seconds, The Constant Nymph, Martha Marcy May Marlene, La Vie en Rose, Magic, Jude, Heat (Michael Mann), Disabled but Able to Rock, Rabbit Hole, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, The Swimmer, The Odd Couple (1968), Kitchen Nightmares (Seasons 1-4), Dick, Gandhi, You're Telling Me, Frances, Lebenon, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Cyrus, Tom Sawyer (1973), The Bank Job, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Double Indemnity, War Zone (Maggie Hadleigh-Smith), Nights and Weekends, The Bridge, Silent Souls, Aurora, Rollerball (1974), Mother and Child, The Outsiders (director's cut), Please Give, The Hitch-hiker (Ida Lupino)


B+
Duma, The Sniper, Midnight in Paris, The Lonely Guy, The Brink's Job, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Sunshine Boys, Project Nim, Beginners, The Trip (full series, 2011), The Inturrupters, Pollyanna, Patton, The Guard, The Rain People, The Yes Men, Tell No One, Little Buddha, Into the Abyss, Warrior, River of Grass, Clean and Sober, My Week With Marilyn, Source Code, When The Wind Blows, Magnum Force, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Win Win, A Room with a View, Path to War, Seven Men From Now, Death Buy Lemonade, Kwidan, Cleopatra (1963), Countdown to Zero, Night Shift, Hatchiko: A Dog's Story, Beeswax, Who is Harry Nilsson (and Why is Everybody Talkin' About Him), The Tillman Story, Stone, Pawn Stars (Seasons 1-4), Mona, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Monsters, The Great Santini, Eegah (good bad movie), Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, The Racket, Meek's Cutoff, Tales from the Crypt (1972), 1941, The House of the Devil, The Narrow Margin (1952)


B
Trainspotting, Exam, Once Upon a Time in America, War Horse, The Days of Wine and Roses, That Evening Sun, Q, Corman's World, The Doonesbury Movie, A Dangerous Method, Breaker Morant, Quicksand, Where The Sidewalk Ends, Tyrannosaur, The Man Who Crossed Hitler, The Muppets, Ironweed, The Aviator, Croupier, The Skin I Live In, The Descendants, An Inconvenient Truth, 4:44: Last Day on Earth, The Help, Fatso, Let There Be Light: The Making of DARK STAR, Boardwalk Empire (Seasons 1 & 2), Inherit the Wind (1962), Rocky Balboa, Rio Lobo, The Gathering Storm, Helter Skelter (2004), Stepping Out, Freakonomics, Lars and the Real Girl, The Lookout, Get Low, Suddenly, Lovely Still, Black Swan, Paranormal Activity, Monty Python's Life of Brian, Without Limits, Film Socialisme, American Hot Wax, Dark Passage, Our Mother's House, Animal Kingdom, Trailer Park Boys: The Movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Man with the Gun, Voices, One on One

B-
Paul, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Desperate Hours (Cimino version), Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, Water for Elephants, The Mist, Rudy, Loophole, Candleshoe, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), Walking and Talking, Tell No One, 'night Mother, Half Nelson, Robocop 2, The Beaver, The Happy Years, Beautiful Girls, Copland, The Falcon and the Snowman, Assault on Precinct 13 (1973), Terri, The Last Man on Earth, The Caine Mutiny, Greased Lightning, Short Walk to Daylight, A Patch of Blue, Soldier in the Rain, Bonanza Bunny, Outland, The Company Men, Big, Longford, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Blood Work, Hardcore Pawn (Seasons 1-2), The Bunker, Somewhere, Splice, The Office (seasons 6 & 7), Gasland, Huge (Season 1), Hot Tub Time Machine, Lennon NYC, Quiz Show, The Leopard, How to Train Your Dragon, In the Valley of Elah, The Hospital, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

C+
Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Red State, The Paper, Horror of Dracula, When Worlds Collide, Puss in Boots, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher), Three Days of the Condor, Ciao Manhattan, Black Dynamite, A Bunch of Amateurs, Carnage, Cleaners, The Lady in Ermine, The Devil Rides Out, Vicki Christina Barcelona, Brainstorm, The Young Lions, Man on Fire, Hanna K., The Special Relationship, The New Centurions, Bitter and Twisted, Rango, Texas Killing Fields


C
Hugo, In The Heat of the Night, The Round-Up, Transamerica, Django, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Racing with the Moon, A Movie, Firstborn, 28 Days, Trial and Error, The Towering Inferno, Rabid, Night Falls on Manhattan, Happy Accidents, Barber Shop, Man in the Moon, A Dog Year, Margin Call, She's Working Her Way Through College, The Enforcer, Sometimes a Great Notion, Helen, Lust For Life, Art and Copy, Welcome to Mooseport, Best Worst Movie, Moonshot, Just You and Me, Apocolypto, John Carpenter's Vampires, Welcome to the Rileys, The Night They Raided Minsky's, The Cat Concerto, An Unfinished Life, American Crude, American: The Bill Hicks Story, Brubaker, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Cemetery Junction, Cold Weather, Page One: Inside The New York Times, Cinema Verite, Too Big to Fail, The Ides of March 

C-
Ice Station Zebra, Horrible Bosses, Super 8, The Scenesters, Smokey and the Bandit II, Hammer, Battle Royale, Into the Night, The Selling, Our Idiot Brother, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fair Game, Only You, Six Pack, Paul McCartney is Really Dead, Funeral for a Friend, Art School Confidential, Nowhere Boy, Phoebe in Wonderland, The Robber, Hereafter, Revelucion, Immortal Sargeant, Rampart, The Boyfriend

D+
The Iron Lady, This Thing of Ours, Sudden Impact, Surviving the Game, Unstoppable, 127 Hours, The Sunset Limited, Conan O' Brien Can't Stop, 

D
The Conspirator, Bad Teacher, The Satan Bug, The Bigamist, Fighting Back, Evilspeak, Billy The Kid (1956), Albert Nobbs, J. Edgar, Fast Break, The Man With The Golden Gun, The Conspiritor, The Brothers Grimm, Lymelife, 8 Million Ways to Die, The Elephant in the Room, Fracture, To Hell and Back, Deadhead Miles

D-
My Super Ex-Girlfriend, 30 Minutes or Less, Grandma's Boy, Me Myself and Irene, Frankie and Alice, Kick-Ass, The Strange Case of Angelica, Pretty Ugly People, Saturn 3, Another Earth

F
Larry Crowne, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Wicker Tree, Wrecked, Robocop 3, Little Murders, Chillerama, Immortal Beloved, Hot Stuff, We Can't Go Home Again, Assault of the Killer Bimbos, Joe Dirt, Nothing But Trouble, The Omen (2006), Veronica Guerin, Volunteers, Edison Force

Saturday, April 14, 2012

2012 Atlanta Film Festival review: THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

Okay, don't worry: there aren't going to be any spoilers here.  And if you know what I'm talking about, that also means I don't have to go into much plot detail regarding The Cabin in the Woods, the fantastically smart new horror comedy from director/co-writer Drew Goddard (who wrote Cloverfield) and producer/co-writer Joss Whedon. Given Whedon's involvement, I was hoping for a Buffy-like jaunt with brash dialogue and a genre-busting mission...and I got what I wanted.  Giddy while watching it unspool as the closing night offering for the 2012 Atlanta Film Festival (where I got to shake hands with its star, the extremely charming Kristen Connelly), I tried to remember midway through when I'd last had such a high time at a movie.   Actually, I couldn't come up with a competitive title...surely, I'd had fun at other blockbusters recently.  But, no, I can't really even think of one even now (many genre hits of the past decade have been rather dreary).  Meanwhile, The Cabin in the Woods is an insanely exciting, resoundingly new kinda hoot all the way through.


I had a friend recently say he hated the movie because it was too cliched.   Wondering what, exactly, this person was expecting, I quickly came to the film's defense:  "Don't you realize that the movie's ambition is to tear down the cliches while giving them a hilariously gigantic reason d'atre?"  The film isn't just about five kids who go off to party by the lake, and all the "horror" that premise entails.   It's a full-on spoof of movies, audience expectations, the video-game culture, the reality TV boom, and the labeling of personalities (some viewers might look towards the Scream series as a reference point, but this movie is much cleverer than Scream ever was).  Also, in the wry scenes that feature Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as smart-assed scientists (and I'm not giving anything away there, because they're the first characters we see in the film), Cabin freely mocks conspiracy theorists and big-picture seers while admitting that they might indeed be on to something.  With every turn of this outlandish riot of a plot--if you choose to read its deeper intentions--there is a new skewer or challenge directed at something occurring in the culture.  Or, if you're not into picking your movies apart, you can just sit back and be amazed at where this labyrinth takes you.


The cast is almost uniformly terrific, with Fran Kranz taking the lovability award here with his meek, scratchy-voiced, conspiracy-minded stoner.   I really loved a little throwaway moment with Kranz as he's sitting on a bed, anxiously reading a collection of Little Nemo comics and pleading with Nemo to wake up (I laughed hard at this, but almost no one else in the theater did, which shows I'm a real geek).   The resourceful Kristin Connelly makes a pretty nifty virgin girl (who's resolutely not a virgin), and Anna Hutchison gets some hot points for her smoldering dance moves and ability to tongue-kiss a wolf's head.  The other two guys, Chris Hemsworth and Jesse Williams, are ciphers as the jock and the brain, respectively, but that's okay because they do what's required of them: they make you sort of not care about how this story treats them.  And the presence of the wired. scuzzy Whitford and the dutiful Jenkins ups the film's acting gravitas quite a bit.   Any time Jenkins, in particular, shows up in a movie, you can feel that film getting better by the second.



The Cabin in the Woods isn't trying to be all that scary (though it has a few moments, particularly in its astounding final third, but it's unfailingly exciting throughout).  But, primarily, it IS funny--all the way from its shocking, improbably-placed red-lettered title card (its appearance made me laugh so hard, I had to endure a headache afterwards) to one particular blood-spattered special effects shot unlike any on-screen massacre I've ever witnessed (sure to be talked about as the film's WTF apex).  I could go on and on about the film's most hysterical moments, but you deserve to see them for yourselves.  So it's not a frightening horror film, but it is an important genre entry nonetheless--and that's a real rarity.  Most satisfyingly, The Cabin in the Woods is the sort of undemandingly intelligent, rollicking movie fun best experienced in the company of an unprepared audience. And it's not often I get to write THAT sentence.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

What's Coming Up?: Five great trailers, April 2012


Let me say two things about trailers that are making me sick when I see them:

(1) The incessant fades outs/fades ins or cut-to-blacks; Alfred Hitchcock used this technique to make scenes in Rear Window more sleepy and fuzzy.  Why is this trick being used sometimes 50 times during trailers of supposedly exciting movies?  It dizzies me in exactly the wrong way.  Is this a marketing-born bait-and-switch being attempted by studios who're trying to make something look better than it is?  Well, sometimes yes and sometimes no.  I think this ridiculous meme has made its way into the best and the worst of film trailers (particularly of action blockbusters), simply because it's been "proven" to sell.   It cries out "cliche" and, worse, it assumes all of us watching are gullible goofballs.   Kill this trend now!

(2) Can we leave Hans Zimmer's bass-toned Inception horn alone already?  I don't think there's one genre trailer out there that does't reference this, along with a momentary reveal of an eye-popping shot.  Might this be the astounding Inception's most lasting legacy?  I'll admit, I loved Hans Zimmer's score for the Nolan film, horn included, but I DESPISE how this justifiably famous one-note vanguard is being ripped off now in trailers (I imagine it's being brazenly appropriated for the body of some pretty bad movies, too).  By the way, I'm ashamed that one of these trailers I'm about to tubthump for commits both of these crimes.  But I'll explain that later.  Here are the five trailers that I, lately, most admire (and I try to judge them as just mini-films themselves).

1) Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2012) 
There's no way I can avoid revisiting my favorite film I saw at 2011's New York Film Festival.  Ceylan's moody rural-noir has now been released in theaters, and I have to come out here in saying that it deserves as many eyes as it can get, especially on the big screen where cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki's gorgeous widescreen work can be appreciated in full.  As a trailer, this one does everything right.  Unlike many foreign film previews, it doesn't try and conceal that it's a movie with subtitles; there is dialogue here, and not just a bunch of shots of people turning around to face the camera while the background music swells  It captures a snapshot of each of the movies most memorable sequences while withholding their connection to one another.  Most importantly, it gets Anatolia's understanding yet hard-edged feel just right in an economical 97 seconds.   Exhibitors: I implore you to program this masterpiece in your theaters.



2) Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley, 2012) 
The trailer for Polley's much-awaited sophomore effort as writer/director following her Oscar-nominated turn with Away From Her, comes with a surprising cast reveal, a terrific backing song from Jenn Grant (the song is called "Parachutes"), and most importantly, a daring structure that fearlessly begins with the luminescent Michelle Williams giving us what we want: a moment, alone, with her.  I think Take This Waltz is going to be a remarkable film about people--just the sort of movie I love.



3) The Cabin In The Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012) 
I'm about to write my review of this much-awaited film, but I'm petrified of giving too much away about its plot.  However, I like how the filmmakers (including, surely, co-writer/producer Joss Whedon) have packaged this movie.  There are parts of it that recall 80s trailers (as much as the market will allow), and I like how the preview doesn't reveal two of its most recognizable actors.  Still, the trailer at least gives away that these kids are up against something they couldn't possibly expect.  The Cabin in the Woods is on point to be the best straight-up horror film since Spain's [rec], and I think this trailer hammers that home without resorting to many cliches.



4) Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012) 
The trailer I'm highlighting here is the short one that was offered up way back in December of 2011.  This is all I need to see.   I like it in that it resembles the last half of the original Alien preview.  I have to show you that before I go on...I think this is one of the greatest trailers in history, primarily because of its eggy, mystifying first half, shot specifically for this piece by the estimable R. Greenberg Associates, who did many an astounding credits sequence in the 80s and 90s.



The Prometheus trailer isn't brave enough to photograph an egg for 40 seconds, but it does have that "What? What? What is THAT?" thing with which the Alien trailer culminates.  I don't WANT to know much about this movie. Surprise is of the most valuable coin here.   I've watched subsequent, longer trailers, but they let me know too much.  And let me say this: the original Alien trailer made me feel frenzied to see the film it advertised, and it did so before I even knew who Ridley Scott was.  And , yeah, this has that damned Inception horn in it, but at least they tempered it with that high-pitched Alien scream.  Anyway, this is the trailer I prefer to live with.  



5) Girls (Lena Dunham, HBO, 2012) 
This slightly-talky extended trailer for HBO's upcoming series has me so excited.  I loved Dunham's debut feature Tiny Furniture, and though I know her voice is possibly not for everyone (much like Hal Hartley and Whit Stillman), it is resolutely for me.  I almost went with Seth McFarland's trailer for Ted in this fifth spot, because I felt it convinced me to see something by someone I dislike (McFarland's TV animation makes wanna retch).  But I reminded myself to think positively, and there is no newcomer out there I'm thinking more positively about these days than Lena Dunham.  She a star in my book.

Monday, April 9, 2012

2012 Atlanta Film Festival review: BASICALLY FRIGHTENED: THE MUSICAL MADNESS OF COL. BRUCE HAMPTON



It's taken over seven years (and 300 hours of footage) for the filmmakers to get a handle on its structure, but the documentary about legendary musical guru Col. Bruce Hampton is finally here, and it's named Basically Frightened, after the good colonel's poetic, funny (he's a VERY funny guy, Hampton), and bluesy list-song about things that give him the willies.  Given that he's one of the most daring personalities ever to hit a stage (and we're talking Frank Zappa-type daring here; Zappa was a contemporary and a fan), after seeing this vastly entertaining tribute piece you might well think that Hampton really isn't afraid of anything, except maybe his own shadow.  He's been in the music biz for five decades now while flying decidedly under the radar, except to say that he's been tremendously influential to the jam band movement best represented by those who often headline the famed H.O.R.D.E. festival, including Dave Matthews, The Allman Brothers, Derek Trucks, The Grateful Dead, Blues Traveller, Phish, Widespread Panic, Unknown Hinson, Peter Buck (of REM), Susan Tedeschi, and Rolling Stones associate Chuck Leavell (also repped here is the late Phil Walden, the CEO of Capricorn Records, who goes on record as labeling Hampton "the Vincent Van Gogh of rock 'n roll").   Each of these artists have veered from their road schedules to provide interviews singing the praises of their "crazed uncle," and this is certainly a feature of Basically Frightened that will help it find its audience.



Also represented here is Billy Bob Thornton, who cut his directorial teeth in the early 90s by helming a video featuring Col. Bruce and one of his many bands (the colonel has led, most famously, the Hampton Grease Band, The Lost Ones, The Aquarium Rescue Unit, and his present outfit The Pharaoh Gummint).  Thornton went on to cast Hampton in a key scene for his Oscar-winning Sling Blade, in which the colonel plays the idiosyncratic lyricist for Dwight Yoakam's troubled troupe (the late, great Vic Chesnutt provides the music). That was the first time I'd ever seen Col. Bruce Hampton, even though I'm a native Atlantan.   In the years before Sling Blade, I had read Hampton's name as it headlined many an Atlanta music venue, but I'd somehow missed seeing the man in action until 2005, when I finally met him at an October 26th gig in Tucker, GA.  I walked into the place and shook his hand, and he said "Happy birthday" to me.  I was awe-struck.   How could he have known that today was my birthday?


But, in fact, he does this with everybody.  The documentary even has a segment devoted to this unusual talent, which keys into Hampton's otherworldly connection to the writhings of the universe.  Col. Bruce seems to be a magnet and conductor for inexplicable phenomenon.   One of Basically Frightened's memorable moments has a few of Hampton's cohorts describing an on-the-road shake-up during which all witnessed a UFO arrival near a many-peopled mountaintop.  A newcomer might chalk this sort of thing up to some sort of reductive acid flashback, but the film makes it clear that Col. Bruce and his band are vehemently anti-drug (at least, for their own purposes).  Their wildness comes naturally, even onstage, where there seems to exist a miraculous telepathy between Hampton and his bandmates.   The UFO sequence, like most of the movie, is goosed with underground-comix-flavored graphics by Joe Peary, whose work helps break up the film's tremendously talky visage.

And that brings me to my one major complaint with Basically Frightened: it's yakkity-yak all the way.  In its zeal to educate, it sometimes becomes headsy and pedantic.  The film begins with a tidal wave of praise from people you might know better that Hampton, and it subsequently seems to plead the viewer to dig deeper into this musical treasure (the problem here is that much of Bruce's output is hard to access nowadays).  But I feel that, in movies, showing is better than telling and, save for one powerful segment, Basically Frightened is afraid to let Col. Bruce's music take center stage.  I've since seen Hampton live three times, and the thing that strikes me about his acumen is his loving inclusion of all musical styles.  In a Hampton live show, you might hear pure funk, followed by bluesy travelling, and then with a delve into classic country music.  Then, in the middle, you might get total performance-artist wildness.  But Basically Frightened prefers the wildness, because it's more visual (the sight of Col. Bruce speaking tongues at a microphone IS something extraordinary).


However, rarely does the soundtrack allow for anything other note except "weird."  Hampton's music serves as background for the interviews, but it registers as nothing but noise.  It's no surprise that the film's most effective sequence concludes with the brilliant "Hallifax," off of the Hampton Grease Band's notoriously low-selling debut double-disc Music to Eat.  It helps that the story of Hampton's promising-then-disappointing major label bow is classic documentary material (this is also the film's only emotional low-point).  But the fact that directors Michael Koepenick and Tom Lawson III cap this sequence with a full minute of Hampton's incredible song, which goes on for a trip-taking nine minutes on the album, lets us breathe a little bit while companioned only by the music and photographed scenes from 1969's Atlanta Music Festival.  Full disclosure: I saw a rough cut of this movie back in the mid-2000s, because one of my best friends Tim O'Donnell, was hard at work editing the piece, and did so with tremendous results alongside his fellow editors.  But, with all the performance footage shot for this film, it surprises me that the final product--timing in at around 90 minutes--doesn't allow for more unencumbered moments of musical bliss.   Midway through watching Basically Frightened, I wondered if a Stop Making Sense-style concert movie might do a better job of introducing the masses to Col. Bruce; I could see it leading to impassioned record-buying much more effectively than do the adoring words from a coterie of the man's well-loved admirers. I have to admit that watching the movie proved to be a respectful intro to this this monumental artist.  In that way, I think Basically Frightened does its job--but only as a primer.  I contend a meticulously-filmed stage performance is absolutely in order.  The brave and never self-important Col. Bruce Hampton, Ret. deserves another tribute, this time purely tune- and performance-based.


Courtesy of my friend Rich Gedney (who did the camerawork here), I took some time out at the Atlanta Film Festival closing party to interview director Michael Koepenick regarding his impassioned involvement with this project.   Check it out...



Friday, April 6, 2012

CINEMA GALLERY: 30 brand new entries!

It's been a long time since I added to my CINEMA GALLERY, so today I found 30 more shots I felt were worthy of inclusion in this ongoing meme.  As always, I implore you to click on each photo so you can see it writ large, and I urge you to play along and guess which movies from which these scenes hail.  The titles, including the films' directors and release years, follow at the end of the piece.  Enjoy!































1) Amadeus (Milos Forman, 84)
2) The Incredible Mr. Limpet (Arthur Lubin, 64)
3) eXistenZ (David Cronenberg, 99)
4) The Round-Up (Miklos Jancso, 66)
5) Spirals (Oscar Fischinger, 26)
6) Quick Change (Bill Murray and Howard Franklin, 90)
7) Phone Booth (Joel Schumacher, 2002)
8) Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 87)
9) Unbreakable (M. Night Shyamalan, 2000)
10) Westworld (Michael Crichton, 73)
11) Tin Toy (John Lasseter, 88)
12) American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2003)
13) Friends With Money (Nicole Holofcener, 2006)
14) Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 74)
15) The French Connection (William Friedkin, 71)
16) The Boys Next Door (Penelope Spheeris, 85)
17) Django (Sergio Corbucci, 66)
18) Downhill Racer (Michael Richie, 69)
19) White Hunter Black Heart (Clint Eastwood, 90)
20) The Cider House Rules (Lasse Hallstrom, 99)
21) My Fair Lady (George Cukor, 64)
22) The Electric Horseman (Sydney Pollack, 79)
23) A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson, 66)
24) The Living Desert (James Algar and Walt Disney, 53)
25) 'night, Mother (Tom Moore, 86)
26) Once Upon A Time in America (Sergio Leone, 84)
27) Hardware Wars (Ernie Fosselius, 78)
28) Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins, 74)
29) O Brother Where Art Thou? (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2000)
30) Battle Royale (Kenji Fukasaku, 2000)