Tag Archives: B

NEW YORK DOLL

You needn’t be a fan of rock and roll to be both amused and moved by this documentary on Arthur “Killer” Kane, the bass player for the early 1970s band the New York Dolls, who were a forerunner of the whole punk scene and seemed on the verge of major success before they disbanded in a haze of drugs, alcohol and acrimony in 1975. Though Kane was luckier than some others of the players (several died quite young), his follow-up musical efforts were failures, and he soon spiraled downward into obscurity and self-destructive conduct until 1989, when he converted to Mormonism and found a new life working in the church’s Family History Center Library in Los Angeles. But Kane never gave up a dream of reuniting with the surviving band members (even though he’d been forced to pawn his guitars and wasn’t at all well disposed toward former lead singer David Johansen, who’d gone on to win fame under the alter-ego of Buster Poindexter and whose success Kane resented).

But out of the blue came an invitation from long-time Dolls fan Morrissey, who was putting together London’s 2004 Meltdown, for Kane to join Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain, the third remaining band member (along, of course, with some young replacement players) for a reunion appearance at the festival. Greg Whiteley, a Brigham Young University grad who’d recently earned a filmmaking degree and had met Kane at an LDS church in L.A., decided to record the now almost courtly, recessive and deeply religious Kane’s journey from his decision to get his guitar out of hock with the help of his friends, through the New York rehearsal sessions (and the tense reunion with Johansen) and the London gig.

The result is “New York Doll,” a picture that’s suspenseful–since one never knows, until the very last moments, how things are going to turn out–but also heartwarming and more than a little poignant. It certainly doesn’t downplay Kane’s eccentricity, nor does it ignore the effect his new-found religion has had on him, but neither does it turn him into a figure of fun or some sort of plaster saint–the LDS is neither ridiculed nor ostentatiously promoted here. Rather the picture is content to present Kane as a genial if oddly remote fellow who, after years of dreaming about getting back on stage with the Dolls again, was about to have his fondest wish realized–though whether that would turn out well or disastrously, either personally or in terms of the performances, was very much in doubt. Whiteley intersperses some rock history into the mix to provide needed context, as well as comments from long-time Dolls fans like Morrissey and other major rockers (as well as ordinary blokes). The picture closes with the London turn and Kane’s reception on his return to L.A.

As a production “New York Doll” isn’t the highest of tech (or the highest of fi, soundwise), but the homely, unpretentious approach suits its subject, and it certainly succeeds in making you feel for–and with–Kane as he makes his way back to the spotlight, however briefly, after nearly three decades absence. It’s a winningly bittersweet little film.

FOUR BROTHERS

Who says they don’t make westerns anymore? John Singleton’s “Four Brothers” may be set in contemporary Detroit, but the tale of the quartet of siblings who take on a local crime boss to avenge the murder of their adoptive mother is like an old John Ford oater–or, to be more specific, an old Henry Hathaway one, “The Sons of Katie Elder” from 1965. And it’s great to have the genre back again, however different the trappings.

The tale begins with the death of Evelyn Mercer (the warmly ingratiating but feisty Fionnula Flanagan), a beloved community figure who’s gunned down in a corner market where she’s come to teach a grandmotherly lesson to a young shoplifter. Her funeral brings back to the old homestead the three adopted sons she’d saved from hopeless lives. Mark Wahlberg, sporting a fine combination of gruff charm and strutting confidence, is Bobby Mercer, the natural leader of the foursome, who rides–sorry, drives–back into town with a well-deserved reputation as a troublemaker. He’s joined by Angel (quietly charismatic Tyrese Gibson), a cooly tough ladies’ man who immediately takes up again with local spitfire Sofi (Sofia Vergara, okay in a stereotype role), and youngest bro Jack (a likably adolescent Garrett Hedlund), a would-be rocker the others incessantly tease. The three returnees are greeted, though not without a bit of reluctance, not only by the fourth member of the family, Jeremiah (the effectively restrained Andre Benjamin), who’s settled down with a wife and kids and is involved in local property improvement projects, but also by Lt. Green (Terrence Howard, the “Hustle and Flow” star who here comes across as a younger Paul Winfield), the honest cop who knew them all back when and tries to persuade them to let the authorities handle the investigation. (Naturally he’s partnered by a much less savory guy, a detective not unfairly named Fowler played by a smarmy Josh Charles). Naturally Bobby rejects Green’s advice, and before long he and his siblings have uncovered evidence that their mother’s death was no random act, but a planned killing involving corruption within the establishment orchestrated by brutal gang boss Victor Sweet (Chiwetel Ejiofor, relishing the opportunity to sink his teeth in a part rife with malice and morbid humor). Of course there are complications as the layers of criminality are stripped away: one of the brothers falls under suspicion himself, a couple of characters the audiences have invested in meet unhappy ends, and the odds against the Mercers grow longer and longer. But a few twists make everything turn out as it’s supposed to in such asphalt-for-sagebrush tales.

What’s great about Singleton’s take on all this is that, like the directors of Hollywood’s studio age, he’s remarkably adept at pulling off the big action moments (a high-octane car chases over ice-slicked streets and a commando-style raid on the Mercer house being the most notable), but he’s also unafraid of big emotions and grand gestures. There aren’t many helmers who could make the occasional ghostly reappearances of Evelyn to her boys seem other than lame, but here they’re exactly right, even moving. And the horseplay (pun intended) among the boys is handled with just the right measure of affectionately bruising camaraderie–it brings Ward Bond and Ford’s other stalwarts to mind. All the cast get into the swing of things, with Wahlberg stepping confidently into the shoes of the likes of Wayne and Mitchum and Ejiofor having a grand old time figuratively twirling his moustache. As for Gibson and Hedlund, one might imagine the spirits of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson hovering over their roles, but they’re both good enough to make you dismiss the thought (and happily they’re not required to sing–always one of the banes of the old westerns). The picture has a slick, professional look (with fine cinematography from Peter Menzies) that makes especially fine use of the wintry Detroit locations, especially in the satisfying closing confrontation. The background score, featuring lots of old tunes, is juicy, too.

It’s as absurd to ask for character development or profundity in a film like this as it would be in any of the John Wayne pictures that it emulates. The point of “Four Brothers” is to grab you, give you a healthy mixture of action, humor and sentiment, and make you feel pleased at the outcome. It does all of those things with energy and skill, and without overdoing the nostalgia. That’s why it’s one of the most sheerly enjoyable popcorn movies of the summer.