Categories
3 Stars Movies

A Problem With the Whole World: Dennis Hopper’s Colors

Dennis Hopper’s Colors may be a buddy cop flick on the surface, but it’s hardly typical high-concept Hollywood material. It does have a token overarching plot (involving a mismatched pair of cops tracing the perpetrators of a drive-by shooting), but it’s merely a loose thread to hold the movie together. If neither a character study nor a plot-driven thriller, Colors is a portrait of an issue, a setting, a problem.

A prototype for the HBO series The Wire, Colors is actually a portrait of the deteriorated, hopeless situation in a failed American city lost to the drug trade. But unlike The Wire, which deeply explores the economics of how and why gangs function as organizations, Colors doesn’t offer much detail on how they operate and what they do. However sensitive and balanced Colors may be, it still takes the point of view of predominantly white law enforcement. As such, it’s easy to see why filmmakers shortly turned to films like Menace II Society and Boyz N the Hood, which would look at some of the same issues from the other side of the milieu.

Sean Penn in Colors
Sean Penn in Colors: “You don’t wanna get laid, man. It leads to kissing and pretty soon you gotta talk to ’em.”

The interesting title most obviously refers to the term for a nation’s flag (tying in with the themes of war and the institution that wage it) or the signature colors of three major warring L.A. gangs: the Bloods (red), Crips (blue), and a Latino gang (white). The real colors that divide these groups are, of course, race. The one sign of equality in late 80s L.A. is that nearly everyone calls each other Holmes.

The narrative is loosely hung on several cliches, most notably the trope of veteran cop saddled with rookie partner. Officer Hodges (Duvall) is bitter at being drafted into the L.A.P.D. C.R.A.S.H. anti-gang program, after a lifetime of service that ought to have qualified him for sensible hours, a safe desk job, and more time with his family. Officer McGavin (Penn) is an aggressive, preening dandy, eager to attack the gang problem with the blunt tool of incarceration.

Robert Duvall in Colors
Robert Duvall in Colors: “you got a problem with the whole fuckin’ world, and I’m in it.”

But it’s not long after the movie sets up these cliches that it begins to knock them down. The ostensibly wizened Hodges makes a critical mistake, setting free a young gang member on the assumption that a brush with the law would scare him straight, while simultaneously intending it to be a lesson to the headstrong book ’em-type McGavin — but he turns out to have been a major player in the shooting. Another cliche short-circuited: McGavin romances a local girl from the barrio (Maria Conchita Alonso), but she turns out to be far from the madonna he imagined. Not only that, she rejects him anyway.

Colors ends on a very down beat, not just the death of a significant character, but what comes after. McGavin is forced into the position of imparting wisdom before he’s earned much himself. The film ends with a long shot held on his face (echoed much later in the final shot of mind Michael Clayton as he most likely ponders his ineffectiveness.

Of note are early appearances by Don Cheadle and Damon Wayans, the latter featuring in a stand-out surreal sequence in which his character T-Bone is out of his mind on drugs. Herbie Hancock’s score has not dated well, nor has the vintage rap soundtrack, including the angry theme song by Ice-T. The opening credits are set to “One Time One Night” by the local L.A. band Los Lobos.

Categories
4 Stars Movies

What Did I Ever Do to You? David Mamet’s Homicide

Detective Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) comes to see himself as torn between two discrete worlds in David Mamet’s Homicide (1991). Only when maneuvered into a position in which he must choose, the duality unravels and he finds he is no one special and belongs nowhere in particular.

Gold’s partner Sullivan (William H. Macy) has an unreserved man-crush on him, taking every opportunity to publicly butter him up and extol the therapeutic pleasures of police work. He reminds their peers that his revered partner is “Bobby The Orator,” so-called for his skill at negotiation. Indeed the moniker is deserving, for he is called on to calm a rabid dog with mere words, and later sweet-talk a ferociously stubborn mother into betraying her son. But Gold is certainly no action hero, confirmed in a early scene as he is beaten up and disarmed by an overweight civilian, in the sanctuary of the police station. By the end of the film, he has lost his sidearm a second time and is quickly physically bested again by Randolph (Ving Rhames). Is it too much of a stretch to link his failure to control his weapon with impotence and castration? He certainly feels perpetually aggrieved. At each unfair turn in these very unfair events, he repeats his refrain: “What did I ever do to you?”

William H. Macy and Joe Mantegna in Homicide
“You got some heavy troubles on your mind? Huh, babe? We’ll work it out. We’ll play some cops and robbers. We’ll bust this big criminal. We’ll swagger around.”

Bobby accidentally comes across a seemingly mundane murder while chasing down the sexier Randolph case (the kind of unambiguous, action-packed police work, with measurable results, that grants Gold and Sullivan existential satisfaction). Elderly Jewish woman Mrs. Klein has been found murdered in her inner-city candy shop. Everything points to a simple robbery, “everything” being, of course, the supposition that poor neighborhood African Americans have robbed a rare white business. Klein’s son, not quite grieving but resigned to a lifetime of persecution, sighs “It never ends.” When Bobby asks “What never ends?”, granddaughter (Rebecca Pigeon) coldly clarifies for him: “On the jews.” Already the murder escalates from a robbery to a hate crime, and this is a strong whiff of catnip for a man who also believes himself to be perpetually put-upon and aggrieved. As the Klein family correctly infers, Bobby is a Jew. But he wears a 5-point star as a cop. His sublimated Jewish pride only comes out in defense against the occasional professional flare-up in which he is called a “kike.”

Fittingly for a detective celebrated for a mastery of words, pursuing the Klein murder case is more an act of literary scholarship than one of police procedure. Gold’s investigation brings him to a Jewish research library where he senses deeper mysteries encoded in his ancestral Yiddish. His single best clue is the tantalizing derivation of the nonsense-seeming word “Grofatz.” All of this leads him into a confrontation with a decades-old group of Zionist warriors (who may be or may not be the Mossad, although the name is not mentioned in the film) who awaken him to his vengeful Jewish identity. Hungry for the rush of positive action that his cop side is currently denying him, he elbows his way into their ranks and becomes addicted to violent action.

Rebecca Pigeon in Homicide
“Hey, you’re better than an aquarium, you know that? There’s something happening with you every minute.”

But Homicide is a policier on the surface only. Like most of Mamet’s plays and screenplays, the plot is structured around a deep, complex confidence game. House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, Glengarry Glen Ross, Spartan, and Redbelt all feature a long con of one form or another at their cores. A sucker is a sucker because of the truism that if one looks hard enough for something, one will find it. Most of Gold’s apparent clues and leads evaporate into meaningless happenstance. What is at stake is not what he thinks, and he finds himself used and abandoned.

Special mention goes to fine cinematography by the great Roger Deakins. The decaying Baltimore provides for two spectacular chase scenes, one along the rooftops and another below the asphalt. Each coils into a labyrinth, spiraling down and in, deeper and deeper, until Bobby encounters physically powerless but immovable minotaur-like figures the disarmed man must battle with his words alone.


Must read: Homicide: What Are You, Then? by Stuart Klawans

Categories
1 Star Movies

There’s a Corruption in the Force in Gavin O’Connor’s Pride and Glory

Pride and Glory was one of the last New Line Cinema productions made while still a semi-autonomous company, before being eviscerated by parent company Warner Bros. in 2008. For the morbidly curious, Vanity Fair recently related the sad tale in its latest Hollywood issue. Disclaimer: I worked for New Line Cinema through its end times, but had absolutely nothing to do with actually making or marketing its movies, and nobody there cared what rank-and-file employees thought about the artistic merit of their product anyway.

For still undisclosed reasons, Pride and Glory was completed in 2006, but sat on the shelf for almost two years. Director Gavin O’Connor (Tumbleweeds) publicly blamed New Line (and co-head Bob Shaye in particular) for burying his movie. Stars Edward Norton and Colin Farrel also spoke out about it in the press, clearly disappointed but yet more understanding (perhaps these seasoned actors were more jaded, and unsurprised by studio machinations). New Line countered that the sliding release date was intended to avoid the lead actors’ competing projects from different studios. It was eventually scheduled for March 2008, but not actually released until late 2008.

Colin Farrel and Ed Norton in Pride and Glory
Ed Norton and Colin Farrel as a bent copper in Pride and Glory

This attention helped it become a minor cause célèbre among online movie aficionados that couldn’t resist the bait: a scandalous tale of a suppressed masterpiece. But the sad truth is that Pride and Glory is a god-awful, depressing, pointless mess of a movie. Actually, that’s not fair; it’s not poorly made from a technical standpoint. Not to go out of my way to defend the studio, but it now seems likely there was no actual conspiracy to bury a misunderstood masterpiece. Perhaps New Line simply couldn’t slot the film into its slate, figure out how to market it, or was forced to shunt some projects aside during the stress of the imminent destruction of the entire company. Or maybe even, most unlikely of all, New Line had the sense to realize Pride and Glory just wasn’t a very good movie.

Also contributing to the aura of controversy was the bungled filming of a police funeral scene at the actual ceremony for New York City officer Eric Hernandez, accidentally killed by friendly fire in 2006. The production reportedly promised the family they would be respectful and stay out of their way, but reneged and clumsily intruded on the sensitive affair. Having seen the completed scene, I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t have been effectively staged with a complement of extras in full dress uniform.

Pride and Glory was written by brothers Gavin and Gregory O’Connor. As the sons of a police officer, they had unusual access to the New York Police Department. If their film is supposed to be a tribute to honest cops, its corruption plot must feel like a slap in the face. The movie’s fictional corrupt cops are wholly, utterly evil, with no gradations of character or motivation. Jimmy Egan (Farrel) and a clutch of fellow cops have been skimming money off drug busts for years, and have graduated to murder and selling drugs themselves. Egan’s brother-in-law Ray Tierney (Norton) finds himself in a position where he could turn Egan in. Complicating matters, Tierney’s pop Francis Sr. (John Voight) and brother Francis Jr. (Noah Emmerich, brother to New Line executive Toby Emmerich, and typecast as a cop after his role in Little Children) are also in the force. Francis Jr. also knows about the corruption, but doesn’t have the courage to man up. If Ray does the right thing, it will not only tear up his family but the New York Police Department itself. But events conspire such that the good guys don’t have to act; three crooked cops self-destruct of their own accord, and the story reveals itself to the press. Jimmy and Ray are freed to settle their personal grievances as two stereotypical movie Irish cops ought: fisticuffs in a pub.

John Voight in Pride and Glory
John Voight in Pride and Glory. Cheese it, it’s the fuzz!

I suspect O’Connor had pretensions to making another L.A. Confidential, but his result doesn’t measure up to the standards of such a superior film noir. Note the superficial resemblances: police corruption, drugs, family pride. Pride and Glory’s plot only seems complex, but is actually stupid-simple. Exposition scenes basically lay out the plot quite early, draining any sense of mystery or suspense. The dialogue is peppered with a torrent of names that are challenging for the audience to connect with faces, a technique that provides only a superficial complexity to a simple plot.

The tone is absurdly grim and totally humorless, and devoid of any human emotion beyond Ray’s grim sense of duty. The classic film noir element most notably lacking in this boy’s club production is any hint of women or sex. What few women there are in the cast barely figure into the plot. The most significant female character is cancer-stricken Abby (Jennifer Ehle), whose sole purpose in the plot seems to be to humanize husband Francis Jr. Pride and Glory utterly lacks the sense of verisimilitude of the television series The Wire, similarly set in the worlds of inner city drug and police cultures. Now is as good a time as any to state that this blog does not apologize for taking advantage of any opportunity whatsoever to evangelize The Wire.

The setting is a version of New York City that may or may not actually exist. In fact, there’s an unusual disclaimer before the end credits stating its characters and events are totally fictional. Obviously, if there was an actual case of such massive corruption in the NYPD, we’d have heard about it. After the credits, there’s yet another disclaimer I’ve never seen before, stating that no one connected with the production took any money to promote the use of tobacco products. I don’t smoke, and never has, but is offended by the notion that movies are influential in this way. Granted, movies are a powerful artform, and can affect people’s hearts and minds. The ills of society are real problems that require complex solutions, but censoring movies is not one of them. It’s a cheap and easy way for righteous fools to believe they are combating a problem. Where’s the corresponding worry that little kids will watch this movie and be inspired to grow up to be corrupt cops?

Categories
Music

26 Albums I’m Told I Should Remove From My Collection

Chalkills, the XTC fansite, wants to help you sift through the detritus of your music collection, pronto: One Hundred Albums You Should Remove from Your Collection Immediately (spotted on DGMLive).

I own (or once owned) a whopping 26% of these overrated (so they say) canonical classics! Hey, Chalkhills, what did I ever do to you? I love XTC (Apple Venus and Wasp Star being two of my all-time favorite albums, hands-down), so my tastes can’t be all bad, can they? But having read your list, I find that for every one of your selections that brings steam out of my ears, there’s another with which I have to begrudgingly agree.

So here’s my annotated list, including, for fun, the format in which I purchased each offending title and whether or not I eventually discarded it:

U2 - The Joshua Tree
2. U2 – The Joshua Tree
20th Anniversary Edition boxed set
U2’s true masterpiece Achtung Baby was yet to come, but the complex depth of that record wouldn’t have been possible without the unironic earnestness of The Joshua Tree. And yes, maybe I’m a snob (not to mention old) for upgrading to the remastered anniversary edition, but just the other day I listened to the revived recording of “Mothers of the Disappeared” with my jaw literally hanging open and the proverbial chills running up and down my spine.


Nirvana - Nevermind
3. Nirvana – Nevermind
cassette (discarded)
It was a gift, I swear. While I intellectually understand what the mass-market breakthrough of Nirvana did for music (basically, sparking a fresh explosion of so-called “alternative” music comparable to punk’s effect on a stagnant world of disco and stadium rock in the early 1970s), I always preferred the rock ‘n’ roll songcraft of Pearl Jam to the loud ‘n’ sloppy depression of Nirvana.


The Beatles - Let It Be
5. The Beatles – Let It Be
cd, The “Naked” version
Any antipathy towards the Beatles seems a bit strange coming from an XTC fansite — surely Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding are acolytes. Do I still have to discard Let It Be if I own the McCartney-approved “Naked” edition, as opposed to the original with Wall-of-Schmaltz orchestral overdubs by Phil Spector? Let it Be is not my favorite Beatles long-player (that would definitely be The White Album), and obviously one the lads tossed off at the tail end of their (actually quite brief) association. But how is that any different, really, from their early quickie LPs recorded in mere hours with the aid of amphetamines?


The Police - Synchronicity
7. The Police – Synchronicity
cassette (discarded)
I agree with Chalkhills’ assessment that Synchronicity is a surprisingly dark album for a mainstream platinum hit, but I believe that’s exactly what makes it special. What other band, at the peak of their commercial success, released such a paranoid, neurotic album? OK, maybe Radiohead’s Kid A.


Lou Reed - Transformer
8. Lou Reed – Transformer
vinyl
Agreed. “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Satellite of Love” are both masterpieces, but I couldn’t name a single other song from the album. Am I redeemed by owning the vinyl edition? It must be said that it earns extra Cool Points for being produced by David Bowie, but the back cover photograph of Lou with the boner in his tight jeans is just plain gross.


Miles Davis - Bitches Brew
9. Miles Davis – Bitches Brew
Complete Bitches Brew Sessions boxed set
Yes, I am that poseur that owns the Complete Sessions boxed set. I have to very, very strongly object to Chalkhills’ dismissal here (and I do I detect a strong anti-jazz bias?). Miles changed music forever when he plugged in to rock, fusion, and funk. Trying to pretend Bitches Brew never happened is as fruitless as still complaining about Bob Dylan going rock (or country, or Christian, etc…) or The Sex Pistols giving the world the finger. The difference is that it still sounds fresh and new.


Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti
12. Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti
vinyl
I love me some Zeppelin, but I have to agree that Physical Graffiti isn’t a keeper. It is, however, better than its follow-up Presence (but that’s not saying much).


Beck - Midnite Vultures
19. Beck – Midnite Vultures
cd (sold)
Agreed. I listened to it once, and then sold it as quickly as I could. Blech!


Derek and the Dominoes - Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs
21. Derek and the Dominoes – Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs
cd (sold)
I could not agree more: two brilliant songs in “Layla” and “Little Wing,” padded out with a forgettable batch of filler. Legend has it the substance-abusing Clapton literally does not recall recording the album.


The Who - Tommy
22. The Who – Tommy
vinyl (triple gatefold with lyric booklet)
I don’t disagree that Tommy is loaded down with a lot of silliness and filler, but hey, it’s a rock opera, and the first one at that. What do you expect?


U2 - Zooropa
26. U2 – Zooropa
cd
I firmly, absolutely disagree. Zooropa may be a product of its time (the cut ‘n’ paste postmodern media overloaded 1990s), but it includes some of U2’s all-time best songs, including the title track and Stay (Faraway So Close). The multilayered production by Flood and Brian Eno may make the songs “sound weird,” but it also rewards a lifetime of repeat listens.


The Flaming Lips - The Soft Bulletin
32. The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin
cd
I regrettably agree. Give me Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots any day, but I just can’t get into this one.


Dave Brubeck - Time Out
34. Dave Brubeck – Time Out
cd
Blaspheme! Blaspheme! Again with the jazz hate! I was not aware anybody disliked this album. What’s wrong with you? If you had included Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue on your list, I think I would have had an aneurism.


Wilco - Being There
39. Wilco – Being There
cd (sold)
Like the rest of the world, I loved Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, so I sought out some older Wilco albums. And I suspect like most of those people, I got rid of them.


The Police - Zenyatta Mondatta
42. The Police – Zenyatta Mondatta
cd
Disagree! Zenyatta Mondatta is my favorite Police album. Granted, “De Doo Doo Doo, De Da Da Da” is the epitome of pop silliness (except for maybe “Louie Louie” and R.E.M.’s “Stand”), but the rest of the album is full of classic reggae-inflected new wave pop.


Jane's Addiction - Nothing's Shocking
44. Jane’s Addiction – Nothing’s Shocking
cd
As Perry Farrell himself once sang, “Stop!” Jane’s Addiction’s debut studio album Nothing’s Shocking is a fantastic batch of songs. Perry Farrell’s wild persona and Dave Navarro’s famously louche lifestyle got all the press, but my god, haven’t you listened to the rhythm section? Jane’s Addiction proved that prog could live without shame in a new world after Led Zeppelin, and they got even better in their next album Ritual De Lo Habitual (before self-destructing, alas).


Cocteau Twins - Heaven or Las Vegas
50. Cocteau Twins – Heaven or Las Vegas
cd
I don’t have a really strong opinion about it, but I enjoy listening to it from time to time. I didn’t even know it was especially popular. Sorry, jeez.


Radiohead - I Might be Wrong
51. Radiohead – I Might be Wrong
cd
It’s a fair statement that most live albums begin life as contractual obligations. But what actually does bother me more about I Might Be Wrong is that it’s basically an EP sold at LP prices. That said, the performances are strong, and prove that the weird, arty music on Kid A and Amnesiac can and really do come to life on stage.


Tori Amos - Under the Pink
54. Tori Amos – Under the Pink
cd (sold)
I loved Tori’s official solo debut Little Earthquakes, but I suspect my sensitive teenager self may have been crushing on the cute & quirky redhead at the piano.


Arrested Development - 3 Years, 5 Months, & 2 Days In The Life Of...
55. Arrested Development – 3 Years, 5 Months, & 2 Days In The Life Of…
cd (sold)
“…non-threatening rap-lite for sensitive white liberals who want to “keep it real” and experience hip-hop safely.” Zing! Busted.


Pink Floyd - The Dark Side of the Moon
64. Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon
30th Anniversary SACD
Again, blaspheme! Yes, enough copies of Dark Side of the Moon exist on this planet to form their own continent, but don’t you think there is a reason for that? Mere momentum alone can’t be enough to explain its appeal. If you want to single out one Pink Floyd album for being overrated and overpurchased, please allow me to direct you to The Wall, which unlike most other Floyd albums, appeals to sullen immature teenagers but does not grow in sophistication as they do.


Sarah McLachlan - Fumbling Towards Ecstasy
65. Sarah McLachlan – Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, Surfacing
cds (still on my shelf but I really ought to sell them)
Ouch! You got me here. I once liked both of these, but quickly fell out of love with them. I maintain there are some decent songs underneath the slick adult contemporary overproduction.


U2 - War
69. U2 – War
vinyl
U2 charts no less than three times on this haters list, rivaling the Beatles and the entire genre of jazz for raising Chalkhills’ bile. I suggest revisiting “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and tell me if the drums don’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.


R.E.M. - Out of Time
80. R.E.M. – Out of Time
cd
OK, maybe it’s not their best, and it is especially disappointing for having come right after the legendary, essential album Green. But “Shiny Happy People” is maybe the best 3/4-time pop song ever, and the whole second half is superb.


Grateful Dead Reckoning
83. Grateful Dead – any album
Reckoning (lp) & Infrared Roses (cd)
Yep, I picked up a secondhand vinyl copy of Reckoning for pennies and it’s pretty loose and rambling, even for the Dead. But I do dig the crazy electronic jams on Infrared Roses, man.


Sting - Ten Summoner's Tales
90. Sting – Ten Summoner’s Tales
cd (sold)
I’ll cop to liking “Fields of Gold” back in the day. Oh god, did I just admit that out loud on the internet?


There, done. Finally, I just want to say that yes, I do have a sense of humor and I get the point of Chalkhill’s rant. Responding to their List of Hate was just an excuse for me to scribble out a few words about some of the dustiest old artifacts from my music collection. Thanks!

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