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Friday, Nov 17, 2006


In places like California and Florida they dot the landscape like thousands of artificial lakes. They sparkle with chlorinated cleanness and dapple a billion beams of rainbow light across the trimmed lawns and aluminum sided cells of suburbia. When they thrive, they are bastions of relaxation and exultation, a sign of wealth, privilege, and the endless summer. But when they expire, they become stagnant and brackish. They crack and decay, crumbling into themselves under the burden of a thousand vacations and a million screams of joy. Occasionally, they become garbage reservoirs, refuse piles conveniently located in your own backyard. And just as quickly as they were craved they are forgotten, resigned to a death as a smelly sinkhole in the midst of an overall gentrification of a nation. But every once in a while, they are resurrected. They are given a new charter on being, cleaned and appreciated by a fresh assemblage who still find kinship in their kidney shapes and delirium in their deep ends. For these are the bowl riders, the shredders who grind the coping and defy the deathbox as they maneuver through their own individualized skatepark sunk into the ground. They are men who live on the buzz of the bank. They are people who make it their goal to keep a skateboarding tradition vital and vibrant in these modern times of wooden ramps and video games. They exist for risk and thrive on the fleeting, fading smell of Chlorine.


Chlorine is a companion piece to 2002’s stellar skateboarding documentary Dogtown And Z-Boys. Actually, it’s more like a footnote to a single facet of that film, i.e. pool skating or as those in the know call it, “bowl carving.” Utilizing interview footage, archival material, and a Cops-style follow-along technique, we witness firsthand how a ragtag group of fanatics find ways (and abandoned pools) to get their much-needed gnarlies out. It’s joyful expression of athletic artistry. It’s a beautiful and brutal look at how time and age have ravaged and reinvigorated the first generation of skate legends. There are five featured “stars” in this film, old school riders who still find the sublime in the shred: the physical and mature Steve Alba, the cocky and confident Dave Reul, the rocker in search of a band swagger of Steve Olson, the manic screech preacher Dave Hackett, and the teen trapped in an adult’s body known as Lance Mountain. They, along with various other famous faces from the world of boarding, leave an indelible mark on this movie. They recall the foundation of one of skating’s traditions while reflecting on how, in some ways, the sport has moved on, laughing under its breath at the last remaining riders of the concrete curves.


There is something wistful about a movie like this. Perhaps it’s the lazy, lonely California setting, the abandoned pools and rundown homes baking in the warm sun, in stark contrast to the over-glamorized LaLa Land we’ve come to expect in the media. Maybe it’s the men themselves, seasoned skaters who’ve avoided the Tony Hawk spotlight and corporate sellout ideal for the true rush of riding the cement surf. Or it could be the outright blood brother companionship these people feel for each other, a tribal mentality of being inside an elite cult of crazy, crafty clowns that only want to push their bodies and their experiences to the limit. For this group, every new aquatic discovery is an inverted mountain to climb, a chance to take one more endorphin-pumping pass inside the prototypical symbol of class and luxury. For the riders in Chlorine, there is a quest for the perfect pool and the perfect pool ride. And it’s never ending.


The important part to note here is that most of the men featured in this film (some of whom made appearances in Dogtown) are all now in their late 30s and early 40s, a time when a label of “middle age” is stamped on a human’s head and their daredevil days of shredding and cutting are supposed to be far behind them. Yet what we see is the exact opposite. These are men chasing age away through the timeless nature of their sport, their hobby…their obsession. They are true characters, icons in a closed culture of specialty speak, shared exciting episodes, and, most importantly, depression over the bastardization of their passion by the media and the mainstream. These hardcore warriors are out to fight for the internal ethos of skateboarding, to deliver it from the malls and the parking garages and re-establish it within the empty pools and patios of a decaying suburbia, where it belongs. Chlorine instills this kind of metaphysical reality to the mostly skate-rat ideal of modern step jumping and railing riding.


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Friday, Nov 10, 2006
by Ian Murphy


James Ellroy’s unnerving 1983 crime novel Blood on the Moon presented a humdinger of a protagonist in Sergeant Lloyd Hopkins. A homicide detective with the LAPD, Hopkins is obsessively workaholic, as tough as Dirty Harry Callahan, and possessed of ethics which could best be described as dubious. He enjoys stealing evidence, breaking and entering, and seducing witnesses. It’s all in a day’s work for him. He has, as his boss tells him, “a wild hair up his ass about murdered women”, and is at pains to puncture his eight-year-old daughter’s illusions about the world because, as he sees it, innocent women are the victims of “a terminal disease that comes from way back when they’re fed all the bullshit about how they’re entitled to happiness like it’s their birthright”. He’s also fiercely intelligent, with a genius-level instinct for deeply entering the minds of killers.


It was only a matter of time before Blood on the Moon was adapted for the big screen. Generically retitled Cop to dispel sci-fi aficionados expecting an intergalactic horror rather than a hard-boiled urban policier, it was adapted and directed by James B. Harris, a onetime Stanley Kubrick producer who had a generally unremarkable, improlific directorial career (and who recently revisited the shady world of Ellroy by executive-producing Brian De Palma’s movie of The Black Dahlia). It was co-produced by its star, James Woods, no doubt because it afforded him such a potent performance vehicle.


The film opens with Lloyd discovering the corpse of a woman who’s been horrifically mutilated and strung up from her kitchen ceiling. Observing the victim’s unusual taste in feminist literature (titles like The Womb Has Teeth adorn her bookshelf), he weighs up the vague evidence and soon convinces himself that this is the latest in a string of serial murders of young women dating back fifteen years. Using his rather far-fetched intuitive skills in piecing together seemingly unrelated clues from unsolved female homicides in the Los Angeles area during that timespan, Lloyd comes into contact with a feminist poet and bookstore owner (Lesley Ann Warren), who harbors naïve romantic delusions about a mystery man who sends her love poems and pressed flowers. Over the course of his investigation, Lloyd’s personal and professional life unravels. His long-suffering wife (Jan McGill), pushed to breaking point by his penchant for telling their daughter gritty bedtime stories about police busts, leaves him with a note diagnosing him as “deeply disturbed”. His unorthodox work methods alienate his friend and superior officer Dutch (Charles Durning), and his mass murderer theories get him stripped of his gun and badge at the hands of his uptight captain (Raymond J. Barry).


Cop is a flawed effort. The plot traffics in coincidences, loose ends and clues that seem to drop right out of the sky. Warren’s feminist poet, who at one stage implores Woods to “make love” to her, is the sort of flaky, panicky daydreamer who could single-handedly carpet-bomb the feminist movement back to the dark ages. And, unlike Ellroy’s novel, little attention is paid to the motivation of the killer, whose identity feels almost incidental to the story.


But Cop is really the James Woods show, and he doesn’t disappoint. Arriving hot on the heels of his Oscar-nominated portrayal of real-life photojournalist Richard Boyle in Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986), Cop consolidated the notion that Woods’ hyperactive nervous energy could sustain a movie on its own. He twitches, crackles and chain-smokes his way through this film with an intensity that demands you keep looking at the screen and then punishes you for doing so. He acts with his face, his voice and his whole body. His lean, wolfish visage, with its thick lips with wary bug eyes, communicate everything we need to know about Lloyd’s imploding state of mind. Woods gets us to feel his caffeinated, insomniac paranoia, his bull-headed stubbornness in the face of authority, and the maverick intellect with which he’s been both gifted and cursed. Above all, he gets us to feel Lloyd’s increasingly desperate need to silence his own inner demons by saving other innocent lives. He nails every shading of Hopkins, from sensitivity to sleaze, and he makes Cop as much a disturbing character study as a Dirty Harry-style thriller.


The film’s centerpiece is a simple scene where Lloyd stakes out the sparse, dimly lit apartment of a vice cop he suspects has some involvement in the murder case. Sunken into an armchair, with his thousand-yard stare boring a hole in the opposite wall and his mind wired and weary from meditating on human evil, Woods presents a chilling portrait of a man at the end of his tether. It evokes such a queasy dread that it almost derails the movie, and simultaneously raises it to a higher plateau.


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Saturday, Nov 4, 2006


Country is the first in a long series of roles that Jessica Lange would become famous for: the farm-wife/mother. It also was, for those paying close attention, the first outspoken political statement Lange would utter. As time would go on to tell, it certainly would not be the last. Her cause in 1984 was the plight of American farmer and the unjust practices of corrupt government agencies that strong-armed them into submission. It is a somewhat straightforward story by cinematic means, but the subversive ideas are epic in scope.


Hot off the heels of her double whammy in 1982 (Frances and Tootsie), Lange was able to use her status to co-produce and star in this unfettered portrait of a family struggling to make everything work. She is Jewell, the matriarch of a small family that depends on their land for income, only to be plagued by bank foreclosures and violent twisters. Dutiful, tough and fired-up opposite real-life partner Sam Shepard (the second of several successful, heated on-screen collaborations), Lange is relaxed and cautious with her creation and her care shows most assuredly in a scene where the family is out in the field during a windstorm. Her son becomes trapped under a gigantic pile of corn and her fury as she digs him out is nearly as powerful as the gale. Then, the next morning, its back to serving up pancakes with rollers in her hair as if nothing happened. This detail is effective because it shows the versatility a woman who must be ready for anything if she is going to survive this kind of life. There isn’t much room to fuss over something that might have happened to her hard-working son the previous night when there are babies to be fed and chores to be done and records to be kept.


Country doesn’t really pull any punches when it comes to the negative effects of the hard knocks taken by the family. Jewell and Gil’s marriage begins to disintegrate when he starts drinking and stops fighting for the farm and starts fighting with their children, physically and verbally. The homespun film conveys a seemingly ancient sense of community strength and respect for tradition along with an un-ironic sense of earnestness. The characters depend on each other, neighbors, family, and all. In a scene where Jewel and Gil agree to do a simple favor for a friend who they know is about to be run off his land by creditors, the two principals take a “less-is-more” approach with an unfussy reverence for individual privacy. They merely help him without asking for too much information.  In the hands of lesser performers, these clichés would have come off inert, but in the hands of pros like Lange and Shepard the conventions are fresh.


Lange somehow makes this woman endearing and actually functional, rather than a weak stereotype. She even manages to endow the character (that might have been envisioned as a nervous wreck or a melodramatic sap) with a wry sense of humor even in the face of repossession and the farm being auctioned off. It is a master class in social crusading and self-sacrifice that upstarts like Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich and Charlize Theron (North Country) likely obsessed over as part of their preparation to play similarly heroic roles.


Even though Lange may play the naïve, small-town woman up against crushing odds often, she makes Jewell’s confusion convincingly build to a cool, controlled rage. It is clear that the actress puts a unique stamp on her characters every time. By the time the town unites to stop the crooked auctions, led in their rallying by the wiser and empowered Jewell, the outcome is electrifying: she begins a climactic chant of “no-sale” that is so powerful it actually works. Pride and loyalty are two important values implied in the code of conduct for farmers used to this way of life. It’s a refreshing reaction of trust and kindness that make for the best kind of epics: the small ones that matter the most.


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Saturday, Nov 4, 2006


Since my obsession with Swedish film star Liv Ullmann has begun to, shall we say, blossom (or fester, depending on how you look at it) over the years, one film in her cannon has painfully eluded me: Jan Troell’s epic cinematic interpretation of Vilhelm Moberg’s novels, 1972’s The Emigrants (which has only been available to US audiences in a crappy dubbed video version or on laserdisc)
   
Happy days are here thanks to some anonymous seller on EBay, who happened to be unloading some strange, unauthorized version of the film, unedited, in its three hour-plus running time and complete with English subtitles rather than the English dubbing. I have truly found at least once facet of the Swedish film industry’s numerous Holy Grails!


Troell’s story beings in Smaaland, a rural community in southern Sweden, where the land has been farmed to its limits and prospects are dying out rapidly. Max Von Sydow’s Karl-Oscar has dreams of uprooting his large family to somewhere better, where the soil is good. Wife Kristina, played, of course, by Ullmann (who begins the film constantly pregnant, naive and deeply religious), is at first skeptical and then through a series of tragic events, decides a change is for the best. Joining them is Karl-Oscar’s brother Robert, who works as a farm hand for an abusive employer and his pal, Arvid. Kristina’s Uncle Danjel, a righteous man himself, his wife and his followers (including a bitchy former hooker with the proverbial heart of gold and her illegitimate child) soon decide to go with them as well.


The first part of the film, which details the brutal, infertile existence in Sweden is wrenching. The desperation, the hunger and the idea that only God can save them is depressing. When they decided to leave for America, I wanted to cheer. However, the decision was not without its consequences.


As the characters embark to what they believe will be a better life and world, the second half of the film takes off with a “can-do” spirit and optimism that is catchy despite the perilous journey that lay ahead for the poor, eager Swedes. They board a skiff bound for America and a treacherous, disease and famine-filled adventure begins. People drop from cholera and the plague. Food is contaminated. Oh, then comes the scurvy. It’s a bloody, barbaric trip to be sure. Several of the main characters come face to face with death. It’s amazing what people can survive and what they will actually endure to achieve what they desire – in this case, the freedom to farm on fertile land and the freedom to practice their religion unimpeded. You get the sense that this liberty is everything to them. The peril they put their families through is worth it though. It’s worth taking the chance to get to America. They have a purpose and will do everything and risk everything to fulfill it.


The third and final act of the film brings us to the US. Interestingly, part of this film was actually made here, shot on location in Wisconsin, Minnesota and in and around the Great Lakes. Once they get off the boat, the journey is still not complete. There are still trains to catch and more boats. When they finally reach the North, the viewer is given a sense that the Swedes have finally found a foothold toward their goal. Yet we also know that there is still much work that will have to be done.


The simplicity and straightforward storytelling makes the film seem very crisp and focused. I really got the feeling that this story was authentic, not embellished and cleaned-up. The characters fight with each other. They have some really ugly moments, but then they develop a wonderful sense of community and familiarity and there are some terrific, humane moments throughout. The photography of the film is just as direct: showing the natural elements of the journey (water, ice, earth, etc…) in their glory. The boat scenes show the water as being both menacing and gorgeous. The sets are quite minimal and this really highlights the acting and story.


Of course, the chemistry between Ullmann and Von Sydow is magical. Ullmann has that uncanny knack for building her characters from scratch. She begins as a sort of sheltered, fragile mother who isn’t strong enough to make it to the new world and she slowly weathers many terrible tragedies that make her stronger and wiser. She is supported wholeheartedly by her husband, giving the film a little romantic sheen.


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Friday, Nov 3, 2006


I am a man who loves a good costume drama. I said it, with no shame. Mary Queen of Scots, criminally unavailable on DVD, might not exactly be Merchant Ivory-material as far as the production values go but is a treat for fans of historical period films nonetheless.


Vanessa Redgrave received an Oscar nomination back at the start of the ‘70s for her portrayal of Queen Mary Stuart and it holds up as one of the actresses most unique achievements: it is a surprisingly inventive performance, deserving of its accolades. The story is really not innovative or well done for that matter, but the film is saved by the truly visionary work of Redgrave at the height of her powers.


In the late ‘60s she won two Best Actress awards at Cannes (and was Oscar-nominated as well) for Morgan! (1966) and Isadora (1968) and appeared in Michelangelo Antionini’s classic Blow Up. During this time she also became an outspoken political activist, an incendiary proposition for a performer to take back then. Bad press aside, the actress managed to carve a niche for herself in world cinema despite making a slew of enemies.


What essentially saved Ms. Redgrave’s ass was the fact that she was descended from acting royalty (father was Michael, sister is Lynn), as well as her genuine gift for putting a fresh, modern spin on classic characters such as Mary Stuart. Her character’s arc is quite dynamic: Mary starts out in France (Redgrave learned French phonetically for the part), a happy young queen in love who witnesses the death of her beloved husband. She is exiled to live in Scotland (photographed with an other-worldly opulence), where she is used as a pawn of the Catholic Church until finally she comes into her own realizations after many bloody, manipulated years on the throne.


It is curious that the actress would condescend to appear in such a seemingly straightforward historical romance, but she succeeds in seeing past the trite romantic clichés that riddle the script. The tawdry dime store love interludes of the film are its weakest points, but Redgrave manages to wring out some exactness in the mushiness. She is at her height in the more forceful scenes, showing no mercy to the husband and brother who have betrayed her, and accepting her fate as a religious martyr. The parallels between Redgrave and her character could be seen as laughable (Redgrave is obviously not a martyr) but she uses the hysteria directed at her real life to great effect. She was one actress who understood completely what it is like to be persecuted and vilified, like Mary.


Complicating matters is Mary’s cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (played brilliantly by two time Academy Award winner Glenda Jackson, who knows a thing or two about rowdy politics herself and who also played the Queen in a PBS mini-series that same year). Elizabeth is torn between letting Mary, who is a queen by birthright, rule without interference, be kept in exile, or be killed. It is this cat and mouse game between the two women that keeps the story floating briskly by. Although there is no actual historical meeting documented between the rivals, the film imagines two secret interactions between them, which provides some great dramatic sparks just as the film begins to lag. Jackson and Redgrave look as though they are having the time of their lives trying to out-bitch one another.


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