Combustible Celluloid
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With: Sam Shepard, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, James Gammon, Cheech Marin, Sheila Tousey, T-Bone Burnett, Ann Militello
Written by: Based on the play by Sam Shepard
Directed by: Michael Almereyda
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 89
Date: 03/19/2013

This So-Called Disaster (2004)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Stage Fight

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

After his extraordinary, ultra-modern Hamlet (2000), in which Sam Shepard played Ethan Hawke's ghostly dad, director Michael Almereyda landed the job of documenting the behind-the-scenes goings-on of Shepard's latest play.

Running at San Francisco's Magic Theater in the fall of 2000, The Late Henry Moss was the hottest ticket in town, featuring a heavyweight cast: Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, James Gammon and Cheech Marin (the latter two were already working in town on the TV series "Nash Bridges").

The film has a truly ragged, homemade look and some of the dark, inaudible footage might have been cut from any amateur's home movies. Yet Almereyda has a plan. He makes himself invisible as the actors and Shepard go to work and even manages to catch such nuances as Penn micro-managing his own performance. At one point Harrelson tries to compliment him, but Penn blows him off. Harrelson counters that from an audience point of view, it was a great performance, but Penn has already tucked himself away in his dressing room.

Almereyda employs a few direct on-camera interviews, and they're remarkably candid. The actors seem to trust Almereyda implicitly, unlike in an early scene in which an AP reporter interviews Shepard and badgers him with stupid questions about how depressing the play is.

It's unlikely that what we're seeing is the "real" Penn or Nolte, but we are getting superb performances by those actors, showing us what they want us to see. Even Harrelson comes in as a fascinating supporting player; he knows he's working with heavyweights and attempts to mix humility and buffoonery as a security device. I only wish that Almereyda had found time or space to interview the gentle comedian-turned-actor Marin, who comes across as the most likable of all. What could have been going through his head working with all these intimidating tough guys?

Ultimately, Almereyda steers away from The Late Henry Moss itself, which did not receive the warmest of reviews. Instead, he winds up deconstructing Shepard and learning the story behind Shepard's father. In the hands of this clever filmmaker, a standard-issue behind-the-scenes documentary has now become a highly personal, hugely entertaining mix of fact and fiction. And where the line is drawn is anybody's guess.

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