Sunday, February 22, 2015

Review of Birdman Starring Michael Keaton

Michael Keaton turns in a powerful performance as a fading film star who makes a desperate bid for relevancy by staging an ambitious Broadway production in this absorbing black-comedy drama.


In Search of Relevance and Redemption

Michael Keaton portrays washed-up actor Riggan Thomson who’s best known for playing the lead character in the lucrative superhero film franchise “Birdman” more than 20 years ago. Riggan abandoned the franchise in the early ‘90s, because he felt his talents were being wasted playing a one-dimensional comic book character, and he wanted to be viewed as a serious actor and act in films befitting his talents.

Presently, Riggan’s decision to leave the successful film franchise has been haunting him, and he wrestles with the fact that perhaps he made the wrong decision. His career as a serious actor hasn’t quite panned out as he had hoped; he hasn’t had many critical successes or films that have come anywhere close to Birdman’s box office power. In addition to that, he has developed a drinking problem in the post-"Birdman" years, which contributed to his failed marriage.

In an effort to reignite his career and do something of merit, Riggan is staging a new adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It’s a very ambitious undertaking, as he’s not only starring in the play, but also directing and writing the adaptation. He feels this production could be his path back to relevancy—and more importantly his redemption: “This is my chance to do some work that actually means something,” he tells his daughter Sam. It’s a risky move both financially and career-wise on Riggan's part.

The World of the Theater

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu does a tremendous job in capturing the world of the theater and gives the audience an up-close and intimate view of that environment. Most of the film takes place at Broadway’s historic St. James Theatre, which gives Birdman an authentic look and feel. And it’s beautifully filmed by award-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Additionally, Birdman is filmed to look like one continuous tracking shot, which is quite impressive.

And the terrific screenplay was written by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo. The dialogue is smart, sharp and funny.  And there are many gripping emotionally charged scenes as well quiet, touching ones.

Cast

Iñárritu draws strong performances from all of the members of his talented cast. Keaton delivers the performance of his career as Riggan Thomson, a fading film star who lives in the shadow of his iconic Birdman character and wants desperately to be acknowledged for something outside of that. Keaton brings a mix of desperation, anger, humor and sadness to the role of a man experiencing a serious identity crisis. It’s a finely nuanced performance that's fascinating to watch.

And Edward Norton lights up the screen as acclaimed Broadway actor Mike Shiner, who’s a last-minute replacement for one of the actors in Riggan’s play. Shiner is the ultimate method actor who lives and breathes for the stage. Giving a completely honest performance onstage is everything to him, and anything short of that is an affront to the art in his view. He’s very talented and intensely passionate about his art, but his behavior is often erratic and unpredictable, which makes him very difficult to work with. Norton skillfully brings this intriguing, complex character to life onscreen.

Moreover, Emma Stone is pitch-perfect as Riggan’s cynical drug-addict daughter Sam, who’s fresh out of rehab and works as his assistant. It’s easily Stone’s best work onscreen to date. And Naomi Watts delivers a sterling performance as Lesley, one of the actors in Riggan’s play. Watts brings a genuineness and honesty to her role of Lesley. There is a really touching and sweet scene between her and Riggan near the end of the film in which she expresses how much it meant to her that he provided her the opportunity to appear in a Broadway play, something she’s dreamed of ever since she was a little girl. It’s a nice quiet scene that is beautifully acted by Watts and Keaton.

Also, Amy Ryan shines as Sylvia Thomson, Riggan’s ex-wife and Sam’s mother. And Andrea Riseborough delivers a strong performance as Laura, an actress who’s part of the cast in Riggan’s play and his girlfriend.  Additionally, Lindsay Duncan is great as acerbic theater critic Tabitha Dickenson. She has nothing but disdain for Hollywood actors who try to use the stage as a vehicle to revive their flagging careers. Her thoughts on Riggan: “He’s a Hollywood clown in a Lycra bird suit.” And a trimmed-down Zach Galifiankis turns in a quality performance as Jake, Briggan’s nervous, high-strung lawyer and co-financer.

Magical Realism

Iñárritu employs elements of magical realism throughout the film to emphasize Riggan’s increasing disconnect from reality. He often imagines that his screen alter ego Birdman is talking to him (via voiceover) and giving him the brutal truth about his life and career. He also sometimes imagines that he possesses Birdman’s super powers—such as levitating and the ability to move objects with just the wave of his hand. The Birdman sequences are quite well done and become increasingly more pronounced as the film goes on until the line between fantasy and reality has become significantly blurred.

Parallels between Michael Keaton and Riggan Thomson

The parallels between Michael Keaton and Riggan Thomson were not lost on film critics and cinema buffs. Keaton starred in the very first “modern” Batman film back in 1989 and its sequel Batman Returns in ‘92. But he left the successful franchise before the third installment. Similarly, Riggan was the first actor to don the “Birdman” costume in the film that launched the franchise but left before the fourth installment in the early ‘90s. Of course, Keaton’s post-Batman career turned out to be more successful than Riggan’s after he left the "Birdman" franchise.

Awards

Birdman is one of the most praised films of 2014 and has won a truckload of awards. And it has garnered nine Oscar nominations, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor.

Not a film for Everyone

Birdman is a compelling film and boasts stellar performances from a very strong cast. However, it's not one of those across-the-board crowd-pleasers. Some might find a few of the scenes a bit drawn-out and boring, because there are long stretches of uninterrupted dialogue much like a play. But this is definitely the film for those who love talky films in a theatrical setting, which have great acting and smart, well-written dialogue.


International Trailer for Birdman

Birdman at Amazon

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Married Life Starring Pierce Brosnan and Chris Cooper

Pierce Brosnan and Chris Cooper star in stylish crime drama/romance.

Married Life (2007) is a stylish and sophisticated little crime drama/romance that touches on themes of betrayal, deception and the true meaning of love. The film has a decidedly noirish tone. Director Ira Sachs does a great job in capturing the look and feel of film dramas from the 1940s. And the dialogue harkens back to the bygone era when smart, well-written dialogue was as important as car chases and CGI are today. The screenplay is based on John Bingham's book Five Roundabouts to Heaven and was adapted by Sachs and screenwriter/director Oren Moverman.

Murder: A Painless Way To End A Marriage

The film is set in 1949 and is about a successful, middle-aged businessman named Harry Allen (Chris Cooper) who wants to leave his wife of many years for his lovely young mistress Kay Nesbitt (Rachel McAdams). He confides in his close friend, Richard Langley (Pierce Brosnan), about his dilemma and even introduces him to Kay. Richard is surprised to learn about Harry's affair and his plans to leave his wife Pat (Patricia Clarkson), as he always thought the two had a pretty strong and happy marriage.

Harry is concerned that when he tells Pat about his affair and his plans to leave her, it will be too much for her to bear and believes that the only decent and merciful thing to do is to murder her so she won't have to suffer: "I can't stand to see anyone suffer. You know how I am," he tells Richard. Of course, Harry never tells Richard about his plan to murder Pat, but Richard eventually starts to catch on. While Harry devises his plan to do away with Pat, he asks Richard to look in on Kay from time to time, because he's worried that she might get lonely while he's away. This is probably not the most shrewd idea on Harry's part, being that Richard is a notorious playboy with matinee-idol good looks and bucket loads of charm and charisma. Richard starts to fall for Kay, and she slowly starts to reciprocate those feelings, adding yet another complication into Harry's predicament.

Compelling Film Bogged Down By Long And Dreary Exposition

The film gets off to a slow start but eventually picks up steam when Harry's begins formulating his murder plan. The exposition dragged on too long and could've have been trimmed down and gotten to the action quicker. The film would have been much more effective had Harry's murder plan kicked into gear sooner. Nonetheless, it is still a very engrossing and entertaining film.

Film Boasts Stellar Performances from Cast

All the main cast members deliver strong performances. McAdams is surprisingly good in her role of Kay. And Brosnan effortlessly turns on the devilish charm as Richard. He’s the only character in the film who knows all the angles, and it's fun to watch him play everyone like a deck of cards. But he's not a complete scoundrel and feels guilty about his actions—but not guilty enough to stop. The character in a lesser actor's hands would have been much more unappealing, but Brosnan makes you like and care about Richard, even when he's behaving badly. And Clarkson is impressive in her role of Pat. The talented, award-winning actress rarely turns in a bad performance.

But the standout of the cast is Cooper, who turns in a powerful, nuanced performance as Harry. Some of his best moments had no dialogue at all; just his facial expressions and body language conveys so much. There's a moment during the film's climax in which it appears that everyone has betrayed Harry. The look of utter devastation on his face was just amazing. Cooper made you believe what Harry was experiencing was real in every scene.

Absorbing Film But Falls Short Of Full Potential

Sachs helms the film with a sure hand and is able to get the best out of his actors. However, he sometimes is too methodical and deliberate and could have paced the film a with a little more vigor and punch. If he had, he might have had a truly great film on his hands. Nonetheless, he accomplishes what he set out to do and that is to make an entertaining and compelling film that holds the viewer's attention throughout.

Married Life at Amazon

Monday, November 3, 2014

Jack Lemmon Stars in Hilarious 1970 Comedy About Taking on The Big Apple

Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis play Ohio suburbanites who are forced to endure a number of unexpected hardships when they visit New York City.

No one plays the harried, put-upon everyman better than Jack Lemmon. The late actor had this uncanny ability to inhabit these type of roles in such a way that the viewer could immediately empathize with his plight. He brought a genuine honesty to his performances, and it never feels like he was acting. And this skill is illustrated in his portrayal of Twin Oaks, Ohio businessman George Kellerman who finds himself in over his head when he travels to New York City to interview for a job promotion.

Directed by Arthur Hiller and written by playwright Neil Simon, The Out-of-Towners is a rippingly funny fish-out-of-water comedy.

New York City As An Urban Hell

George and his wife Gwen's trip to New York City is a disaster from the start when their flight is redirected to Boston because of bad weather, and when they finally arrive in New York City, they learn that their hotel room wasn't held because they didn't call ahead. And to top it off, all of their luggage was flown back to Ohio due a glitch brought on by the bad weather. George and Gwen's disastrous trek through New York City is one catastrophe after another. The way Neil Simon and Arthur Hiller depict it, New York City is an urban Hades where George and Gwen endure the comedic equivalent of The Trial of Job.

Neil Simon Brings His Usual Incisive Wit To Screenplay

Neil Simon's writing is as sharp as ever. The film is filled with great one-liners and witty, acerbic dialogue. Lemmon always brings his best to Simon's screenplays. He has starred in other excellent Simon-penned films, including The Odd Couple and The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and always infuses them with his patented manic, high-energy performances that his fans have come to love so well.

Sandy Dennis Makes A Great Foil For Lemmon

And Sandy Dennis is fantastic as George's stalwart, ever-patient wife Gwen. Throughout most of the film, she tries to put a positive spin on everything even when the situation looks beyond hopeless and listens patiently while her overwrought husband vents and gripes. But even she finally cracks, and it's fun to watch her lose it. Lemmon and Dennis have excellent rapport in this film, and it's hard to imagine another actress playing this role so well.

Great Supporting Cast

The supporting cast is also top-notch. Some of the standout supporting performances include Graham Jarvis as a smooth-talking mugger, Anthony Holland as a prissy hotel clerk and Anne Meara as a distressed purse-snatching victim. Also look out for a very young Billy Dee Williams in the role of an airport lost-and-found agent.

Stellar Performance From Jack Lemmon

The Out-of-Towners displays why Lemmon was such a respected actor, as he doesn't hit a single false note as George Kellerman. He brings an infectious nervous energy and naturalness to his role. 

This is a highly enjoyable and hilarious comedy in which nearly everyone can identify.


The Out Of Towners at Amazon

Friday, October 24, 2014

Female Directors and the Academy Awards

Kathryn Bigelow clutching her Best Director Oscar
In the 86-year history of the Academy Awards, only one woman has won an Oscar for best director. And only four women have been nominated for the coveted award. Is the situation for female directors improving, or is it stuck in a holding pattern?

At the 2010 Academy Awards, filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow made history when she became the first woman to win a best-director Oscar for her film The Hurt Locker (2009). Bigelow's win was a big breakthrough for women in a male-dominated industry. One of the most significant aspects about her win is that it no doubt inspired many young women and girls to consider film directing as a career, which will help further increase the number of female filmmakers in the future.

And another important thing about Bigelow's Oscar win is that she earned it for directing a war thriller that focuses on an elite bomb squad unit, the type of film usually reserved for male directors. With the huge success of The Hurt Locker, Bigelow proved that a woman can direct an absorbing and entertaining film in a genre that appeals to a large male demographic, which might make it easier for other female directors to be considered for such projects in the future.

However, there is currently still a big discrepancy between the number of female directors and their male counterparts in the film industry. And since Bigelow’s win in 2010, no female filmmaker has even been nominated in the best-director category by the Academy. Hopefully this will soon change as more great films helmed by female directors receive wider recognition.

Bigelow has been directing films for 36 years now. Some of her most her most well-known films include Blue Steel, Near Dark and Point Break. She also directed three episodes of the acclaimed television crime series Homicide: Life on the Street. Her most recent directorial outing was the award-winning action thriller Zero Dark Thirty (2012), which is about the decade-long hunt for Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001.

Women Who Were Nominated for Best Director

In addition to Bigelow, the three other women who were nominated for best-director Oscars are Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola and Lina Wertmüller. Campion received a best-director Oscar nomination for her 1993 film The Piano. The film is a neo-Gothic romance drama set in1850s New Zealand. It’s about a mute Scotswoman who travels to the New Zealand bush with her young daughter and prized piano for an arranged marriage to a wealthy landowner and then has a torrid affair with a scruffy plantation worker.

The film is very densely layered and singularly unconventional, not the usual type of film that receives an Oscar nomination. The film earned Campion an Oscar for best original screenplay at the 1994 Academy Awards as well as a best actress win for Holly Hunter and an Oscar for an 11-year-old Anna Paquin for best supporting actress.

Campion is one of New Zealand's most successful international filmmakers. Her first feature film was Sweetie (1989), which she both directed and cowrote. The film garnered the director some international awards, including the Independent Spirit Award for best foreign film. Some of Campion’s other notable films include Holy Smoke, In the Cut and Bright Star.

Filmmaker Lina Wertmüller Landed A Best Director Oscar Nomination For Seven Beauties

Italian film writer and director Lina Wertmüller's Seven Beauties (aka Pasqualino Settebellezze) earned her an Oscar nomination for best director at the1977 Academy Awards. This marked the first time that the Academy nominated a woman in the best-director category. Seven Beauties opened in France and Italy in 1975 and hit U.S. theaters in 1976.

The comedy drama is about a deserter from the Italian army during World War II who winds up a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. The prisoner uses his wiles to survive in this bleak, spirit-crushing environment. Wertmüller also wrote the film's excellent screenplay, which landed her another Oscar nomination. In addition, the film pulled down a best-actor nomination for Giancarlo Giannini and one for best foreign language film. Some of Wertmüller's other notable films include Camorra (A Story of Streets, Women and Crime), Swept Away and A Night Full of Rain.

Sofia Coppola Steps Out of Dad's Shadow With Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola, daughter of legendary film director Francis Ford Coppola, established herself as a talented filmmaker in her own right with her feature film Lost in Translation (2003). The film earned her a nomination for best director at the 2004 Academy Awards and an Oscar win for best original screenplay. The film also grabbed a best-actor nomination for Bill Murray and one for best picture. The film is about two lonely people who cross paths in a Tokyo hotel, one a jaded, middle-aged American movie star, the other the young neglected wife of a self-absorbed photographer. The two find that they are kindred spirits and develop a unique and close friendship.

Lost in Translation created quite a buzz upon its release and received much critical acclaim and picked up a slew of awards. What's especially impressive is that it was only Coppola's second feature film in the director’s chair. Coppola's first feature film as a director was The Virgin Suicides (1999). The other films that she has directed are Marie Antoinette, Somewhere and The Bling Ring, which opened in movie theaters last year.

The Situation Has Improved Slightly For Female Directors But Still Has A Long Ways To Go

It seems that female filmmakers are finally starting to be recognized for their talent, and their numbers do appear to be increasing a bit. Quite a few are making a name for themselves in the independent film arena. Hopefully those numbers will continue to grow, and more female directors’ works will be widely recognized and celebrated.

And in addition to needing more recognition for female filmmakers, it's equally important for the Academy to recognize the works of gifted filmmakers of all races, cultures and nationalities from across the globe, as each group brings their own unique perspective to films and can share their individual experiences and stories. And this can only further enrich the medium.

The Hurt Locker at Amazon

Monday, October 13, 2014

Alan Arkin Delivers One Of His Funniest Performances in Neil Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers

Alan Arkin shines in this trenchant comedy about a bored, middle-aged restaurateur and his failed attempts at having an extramarital affair.

(review contains spoilers)

Based on Neil Simon's Broadway play, Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972) is a hilarious and incisive comedy that utilizes Alan Arkin's dry, deadpan humor to great effect. This is one of Simon's most underrated screen adaptations. The screenplay is distinguished by the award-winning playwright's razor-sharp dialogue and wry observations on life.

A Bored Restaurateur Experiences A Midlife Crisis

Directed by longtime Simon collaborator Gene Saks, the film follows the misadventures of Barney Cashman (Arkin), a mild-mannered 45-year-old restaurateur who's suffering from a midlife crisis. Barney is bored to death with the mundane routine of his life. He feels as though life has passed him by, and he has nothing left to look forward to. In his state of ennui, Barney finds himself constantly eyeing all the beautiful young women who appear to be everywhere he looks. And for the first time in his 22-year marriage, he's seriously considering having an extramarital affair, thinking it might bring some excitement back into his life.

However, having an affair is much easier said than done, especially for Barney who
makes Andy Stitzer from The 40-Year-Old Virgin look like Iceberg Slim. Barney is utterly clueless when it comes to interacting romantically with the opposite sex. He got married really young, and besides his wife, the only other sexual partner he's ever had was a slovenly 44-year-old prostitute when he was 18. The experience fell short of Penthouse Forum material for Barney: "It cost me $7, and I threw up all night long. And in the next three days, I took 12 baths, nine showers and I didn't touch anybody in my family for two months."

Barney Completely Bungles His First Attempt At An Affair

Barney's first opportunity to have an affair comes in the form of a tall, attractive woman named Elaine Navazio (Sally Kellerman), who's a frequent patron of his fish restaurant. Elaine is a hardened and cynical married woman with a nasty smoker's hack. There's no sense of romance about her. To Barney's chagrin, she’s totally upfront about why she’s there and wants to get right down to business. Elaine is alternately impatient and amused by Barney's complete ineptitude at seduction. An example of his cluelessness: He chose his elderly mother's apartment for the afternoon rendezvous. The two have to be out by five lest his mother catches them. 

Sally Kellerman gives a superb performance as the sardonic, chain-smoking Elaine. And it's hilarious watching Arkin's naive and clueless Barney play off this worldly, touch-as nails character. Barney naively wants to make the encounter a memorable and romantic experience, while Elaine is coldly pragmatic and unsentimental about the whole situation. She treats it for what it is: an opportunity to have sex and nothing more. Elaine finally grows bored with Barney's cluelessness and leaves.

Barney Has A Second Shot At An Affair With Aspiring Actress Bobbi Michele

Barney gets another shot at having an affair, this time with a psychotic aspiring actress/singer named Bobbi Michele (Paula Prentiss) who he met in the park while on his lunch break. Bobbi is ball of nervous energy and erratic mood swings. Barney is taken aback by her wild stories of depraved men who stalk, proposition and abuse her as well as other crazies who inhabit her demented universe. The high point of this encounter—and probably of the entire film—is when she coerces Barney into smoking a joint with her. Of course, Barney has never smoked weed before, and his reaction to getting high for the first time is a howl. It's one of the funniest things Arkin has ever done on film. When a retrospective reel is put together to honor Arkin's career, the clip of him getting high in this scene should definitely be included.

And Paula Prentiss is brilliant as the flakey nutcase Bobby Michele. Prentiss brings a sublime combination of playful sex appeal and psychosis to her role of Bobbi. The scene ends with a stoned Barney and Bobbi caterwauling the pop hit "What The World Needs Now Is Love," leaving Barney 0 for two in his quest to have an affair.

Barney's Last Shot

Barney gets one last opportunity to have an affair when his friend’s wife, Jeanette, comes on to him at a get-together. So once again he makes arrangements to meet at his mother’s apartment. When Barney is making preparations for the afternoon tryst with Jeanette, there is clearly something different about him. There’s a new confidence about him, a swagger in his stride that wasn’t there before. This time around Barney’s ready to get down to business. When Jeanette arrives at the apartment, she’s completely different from when they talked earlier. She’s tightly clutching her purse, and Barney has to coax her to even step inside the apartment; and he has an equally hard time in getting her to sit down. It’s just another example of Barney’s dumb luck. When he’s ready to get down to business, he gets someone like Jeanette who’s afraid to even sit down.

Jeanette suffers from severe depression due to her husband Mel’s infidelities. The only reason she came on to Barney was to get back at her husband. For nearly the entire afternoon, she’s either sobbing uncontrollably or popping antidepressants, not exactly what Barney had in mind. When Jeanette finally stops crying, the two have a philosophical discussion about life and death, which leaves Barney almost as depressed as Jeanette. That’s strike three for Barney, and he resigns himself to the fact that he’s not cut out to be a player, so he calls his wife to set up a rendezvous with her at his mother’s apartment.

The encounter with Barney and Jeanette is probably the weakest part of the film. While funny, it doesn’t pack the same comedic wallop as the others. The preceding encounters each had a number of moments that were flat-out hilarious. The scenes with Jeanette were merely funny. However, Reneé Taylor gives a great performance as the clinically depressed Jeanette.

Drawbacks Of The Film

One of the few drawbacks of this film is that some of the speeches ran on a bit too long, which gave it a stagy feel at some points. It probably would have been a good idea if Simon had trimmed some of them down a bit, because what works on stage doesn't always translate well on screen. However, the many great moments more than make up for this. Also, even with the male-pattern-baldness makeup and wig, Arkin still looked too young for the role. He was a youngish 38 when the film was made and looked nearly ten years younger than the 45-year-old character he was playing. Nonetheless, he delivered an amazing and convincing performance as the hapless Barney Cashman, one of his best and most memorable roles.

Last of the Red Hot Lovers at Amazon

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Karate Champ Jim Kelly Stars In Black Belt Jones

A superbad martial arts master takes on the mob and a powerful drug dealer in this fun, action-packed film.

(review contains spoilers)

Black Belt Jones (1974) is quite an interesting and entertaining hybrid of two film genres that were extremely popular back in the early 1970s: blaxploitation movies and Kung Fu flicks. It was inevitable that these two genres would eventually intersect. And what better way to do it than to get a badass brotha who’s a martial arts expert and place much of the action smack dab in the middle of the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles. It's sort of like The Chinese Connection meets Trouble Man. The late international Karate champion Jim Kelly plays Black Belt Jones, who's a mixture of James Bond and Shaft with some Bruce Lee thrown in. Jones sometimes hires out his martial arts expertise and espionage talents to do special jobs for government types as well as guarding dignitaries.

Karate School Owner Gets Pressure From The Mob

The plot centers on a Karate studio that is located in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles, which is owned and operated by Pop Byrd (Scatman Crothers), Jones's old friend. The studio sits in an area that is planned for redevelopment. Realizing that the studio could be sitting on a potential gold mine, the mob wants to buy it and won’t take no for an answer. The mob taps Pinky (Malik Carter), a powerful local gangster and drug dealer, to strong arm Pop into selling the property to them. Pop is eventually forced to enlist the help of his old friend Jones. This leads to a number of great action scenes with the Afro-crowned martial arts ace whipping butt and taking names.

Kelly Displays Stellar Martial Arts Skills But Stiff Acting

Jim Kelly pulls off his action scenes with style and flair. He has a fluid and commanding fighting style, mixing Karate with street boxing; and like Bruce Lee, Kelly has his own signature fighting grunts and yells. However, his acting is another story altogether. Kelly’s acting is wooden in the non-action scenes; he rarely sounds convincing in much of the dialogue. However, his charisma and commanding presence during the fight sequences more than make up for his stiff acting.  He completely owns the screen during the action scenes.

Gloria Hendry Makes For Great Romantic Interest And Badass Fighter

The extremely foxy Gloria Hendry is well-cast as Pop Byrd's tough, headstrong daughter Sydney, who is Jones’s love interest and fighting ally. Hendry is a solid actress and has a regal beauty about her. And she handles herself well in the action scenes. She is a very physical actress, and her feline athleticism is well-suited for the role. And she’s a stronger actor than Kelly, which is a big help in the romantic scenes between the two and prevents these scenes from being too bad.

Robert Clouse Directs With Tongue In Cheek

The film is directed by the late Robert Clouse, who also directed Enter The Dragon and Game of Death, Bruce Lee's last two films before his untimely death at age 32. Clouse directs Black Belt Jones with a great deal of camp and humor. Much of the dialogue is intentionally cheesy, and even the fight scenes have a lot of humor in them.  And Clouse definitely knew how to set up action scenes. For instance, he does a terrific job in setting up the film's exciting intro. It begins with Jones descending from atop a patrol car in slow motion like a badass bird of prey. The entire scene is set to guitarist and composer Dennis Coffey's funky "Black Belt Jones" theme song. Jones dispatches of the thugs without even breaking a sweat; and not a single strand of his perfectly spherical Afro is knocked out of place during the brawl. The screenplay was penned by filmmaker/screenwriter Oscar Williams.

Good Solid Cast

And Clouse did a great job in the film's casting, particularly in getting Kelly for the lead and Hendry as his love interest and fighting ally. Hendry really shines in the film. She's cool, confident and sophisticated as Sydney and does a bang-up job in the action scenes. One of the film's biggest highlights has Hendry in only a shirt taking out bad guys in a garbage truck car wash. It's quite sexy to say the least. Scatman Crothers provides some great comic relief as Pop Byrd. Pop is basically a good guy, but he's kind of irresponsible and given to gambling and womanizing. But Pop can handle himself when things get dicey. It's a treat to watch Scatman Crothers whoop some butt with some Karate chops and kicks.

And for those who grew up in the '70s and '80s, there are a number of recognizable faces from television in the cast. Some of them include Marla Gibbs (The Jeffersons and 227) as a bartender and Eric Laneuville (Room 222) as one of the students at Pop Byrd's Karate school. Also, keep an eye out for Ted Lange, who played Issac the bartender on The Love Boat, as a young militant. And he's actually quite convincing in the role.

Film Is An Enjoyable Showcase For Jim Kelly's Unique Talents

Black Belt Jones is a fun and highly entertaining film and was the perfect vehicle for Kelly to showcase his tremendous martial arts skills. Some of Kelly's other significant film roles include Enter The Dragon, Three The Hard Way and Hot Potato.


Black Belt Jones at Amazon

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Review of Paul Thomas Anderson's First Feature Film Hard Eight

In his first feature film, Paul Thomas Anderson crafts a thoughtful tale about the relationship between a weathered gambler and his young protégé.

(review contains spoilers)

A year before Paul Thomas Anderson made a big splash with his widely acclaimed film Boogie Nights in1997, he released Hard Eight. The small-budget film was written and directed by Anderson, and it showcased his undeniable gifts as a filmmaker. Barely known outside of hardcore Anderson fans or major film buffs, Hard Eight (1996) is an underrated jewel of a film. It is an engrossing examination of the lives of a small group of people who inhabit the gambling world in Reno, Nevada. It is a world of brightly lit casinos, sparsely decorated hotel rooms, casual prostitution, 24-hour restaurants and diners, and, of course, nonstop gambling.

A Close Friendship Formed In A Unique Setting

The film focuses on the relationship between a weathered gambler named Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) and a naive young drifter named John (John C. Reilly). Sydney first spots John sitting despondently in front of a diner just outside of Las Vegas. John has lost all of his money gambling. His mother had recently died, and he went to Vegas in hopes of winning enough money to pay for her funeral. Sydney offers him a cup of coffee, some conversation and a little money for food. Initially, John is wary of Sydney's generosity and believes that the much older man has ulterior motives, possibly of a sexual nature. However, John's suspicions are quickly assuaged, and he starts to warm up to Sydney.
Sydney takes John under his wing and becomes his mentor, teaching him the ins and outs of the gambling scene and how to work casinos to his benefit.

The film has a great prologue where Sydney shows John how to score comps at a Vegas casino with spending very little money. Following Sydney's schooling, John winds up getting a free hotel room and other cool comps. As the film progresses, Sydney and John develop a father-and-son-type bond. And later in the film, secrets about Sydney's rather shady past begin to surface, such as him being a  former mobster. It appears that Sydney is attempting to atone for past sins in his close friendship with John.

Anderson's Theme Of Family In Hard Eight

In Hard Eight Anderson first employed what would become one of his recurring themes: familial bonds—particularly those formed outside of the conventional family structure. Anderson touched on this theme again in his next film Boogie Nights. In Boogie Nights, a young man who is estranged from his real family becomes part of an extended family in the adult film industry, and in Hard Eight a directionless young man forms a father-son bond with a man who introduces him to the world of gambling and casinos. In these two films, both characters have mentors who also function as surrogate paternal figures: adult film director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) to rising young porn star Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) in Boogie Nights and Sydney to John in Hard Eight. Also, in both films the friendships are formed in very unique settings and circumstances.

Cast Delivers

Anderson draws strong performances from all of his cast members. It is clear in Hard Eight and his other films that the filmmaker has a great love and appreciation for the craft of acting and enjoys working with talented actors. In all of his films, he provides each cast member an opportunity to shine, even down to the smallest roles. Gwyneth Paltrow turns in one of her finest performances as John's girlfriend Clementine, a cocktail waitress who moonlights as a hooker. Paltrow brings a wounded vulnerability to the role of Clementine. She is a damaged soul who is desperate and often self-destructive, and Paltrow's portrayal makes this very flawed character interesting and sympathetic.

And Hall is impressive as Sydney. His stolid, poker-faced acting style was a perfect fit for the role; it would be hard to imagine any other actor playing Sydney. And the always reliable Samuel L. Jackson brings his usual cocksure charisma and charm to his role of John's lowlife friend Jimmy. Also, Reilly portrays John with a boyish innocence and sweetness that plays well off of Hall's deadpan, world-weary Sydney. And Philip Seymour Hoffman completely dominates the one scene he's in as an obnoxious craps player who tries to get underneath Sydney's skin.

An Auspicious Debut For Anderson

Hard Eight is a much quieter and slower film than Boogie Nights, but it is just as entertaining. The film cost a modest three million dollars to make, showing that Anderson doesn't need a big budget to make a great film. The pacing of the film is unrushed and deliberate, with Anderson showing nice subtle touches and attention to small details in his scenes. The film has some great tense moments as well as touching and funny ones. Hard Eight was a very impressive debut for Anderson and probably the most overlooked and underrated film in his oeuvre.

Hard Eight at Amazon

Related Blog Entry: Boogie Nights: A Look Back At A Decadent Decade