Sunday, December 29, 2013

Revisiting 48 Hrs., Eddie Murphy's Exciting Film Debut

Eddie Murphy successfully made the transition from the small screen to the big screen in his star-making role in 48 Hrs.

The film 48 Hrs. celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2012. It's hard to believe that it's been more than three decades since 48 Hrs. opened in theaters back in December of 1982. The action comedy provided a perfect showcase for Murphy's edgy, rapid-fire brand of humor and charismatic personality. It was an extremely impressive film debut for the 21-year-old comic.

Although Murphy had proven that he was an immensely talented comedian and performer on Saturday Night Live, there were still some doubts that he would able to transfer that magic to the big screen. Many other talented SNL performers had attempted to make that transition, but most failed; John Belushi and a few others were the exceptions. Murphy's startling performance in 48 Hrs. removed any doubts about his film career, and he went on to become one of the biggest box office stars of all time.

 48 Hrs. is often credited as being the first buddy-cop action/comedy. After its success, an onslaught of these type of films were produced by Hollywood. And the genre is still very popular today. 48 Hrs. remains one of the best of the genre. It's everything a buddy-cop action/comedy should be. It's extremely funny, has great action sequences, and it keeps viewers thoroughly entertained throughout. And it has two dynamic leads in Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte. The film also has a truly detestable villain, which is essential for a film in this genre. In addition, the film, which was directed by action maven Walter Hill, possesses a gritty authenticity that many other films of the genre lack.

Murphy plays convict Reggie Hammond who's serving a three-year prison term for armed robbery. With just six months to go on his sentence, he's given a 48-hour temporary release to help San Francisco police detective Jack Cates (Nick Nolte) track down psycho bad guy Albert Ganz (James Remar). Ganz was recently sprung from a prison road gang by his hulking partner in crime Billy Bear (Sonny Landham). Not long after busting out of prison, Ganz gets into a shootout with Cates and two other detectives, who happened upon the escaped con while investigating some stolen credit cards. Cates is the only one of the cops to survive the shootout. And to add insult to injury, Ganz gets a hold of Cates' gun during the shootout and kills one of the detectives with it. Reggie's connection to Ganz is that they were both part of a crew that robbed a big-time drug dealer for half a million dollars. Reggie hid the money shortly before his arrest and wants to retrieve it before Ganz finds out where it is.

Reggie and Cates start out despising each other, but the two eventually gain a grudging respect for one another; and by the end of the film, they have developed a tentative friendship. Nick Nolte is spot-on as the crusty, hard-drinking detective Jack Cates. Nolte brings a seen-it-all world weariness to the role that just rings true: the tired gravelly voice, the leaden gait, the gruff demeanor. Everything he does feels natural, right down to the brusque manner in which he flicks his lit cigarette to the ground. And Murphy was not the only one whose career benefited from the film. Nolte's star also rose. He and Murphy have great chemistry in their scenes together. The two riff off one another like a pair of seasoned jazz musicians. In the documentary Nick Nolte: No Exit, Nolte said that most of the dialogue between him and Murphy was improvised.

A good buddy-cop action/comedy always needs a great villain, and James Remar as the vicious psychopath Albert Ganz more than fits the bill. Like Murphy and Nolte in their roles, Remar is perfectly cast as Ganz. Remar exudes menace every time he appears on screen. He's one scary bad guy, a snarling homicidal maniac whose eyes light up when he's killing someone. Ganz is one of the great action-flick villains.

It's interesting to note that 48 Hrs. probably couldn't be made today due to the racially charged dialogue between the two main characters. Cates throws some particularly nasty racial epithets at Reggie, even calling him the N-word at one point in the film. This no doubt would cause a bit of a stir in the overly sensitive PC world that we live in today. You're not going to find many buddy cop flicks nowadays where one of the lead characters, whom the audience is supposed to root for, throwing those type of racial slurs around. Today, if such epithets are used, they're usually confined to the bad guy to make him appear even worse to the audience. Ironically, Ganz, the villain of 48 Hrs., doesn't use any racial slurs towards Reggie, and his trusted right-hand man, Billy Bear, is Native American. So Ganz may be a psychotic, remorseless killer, but he doesn't appear to be a racist.

Also, the attitude the characters have towards women probably wouldn't go over so well today either. Reggie calls two women that he and Cates run across "a couple of dykes" and basically talks to a woman he just met at a club like she's a prostitute, asking her for sex straight away and in a very crude fashion. And she acts like Reggie's the most charming guy ever who just threw a really smooth line at her.

Additionally, the dialogue is replete with four-letter words. But the racial slurs, the profanity and other non-PC language is one of the things that gives the film its sense of authenticity, of how people really talk in a world of hardened criminals and jaded, desensitized cops who see the worst of humanity on a daily basis. These guys are not going to be running around worried if what they say may offend somebody.

The scene where Reggie single-handedly intimidates all the patrons of a redneck bar is probably the film's biggest highlight. On pure attitude and the force of his personality alone, Murphy totally dominates the scene. He made you believe that Reggie armed with only a badge, his wits and a ton of attitude could thoroughly intimidate all the patrons of that bar. That's the moment when Murphy became a film star. He's had a few more great scenes like this during his film career, but they have been too few and far between of late. He's spent the last 15 years or so starring mainly in family-oriented films where we rarely see that brash, mouthy hot shot who rousted that bar in 48 Hrs.

Many of Murphy's fans miss that edgy, irreverent guy who blew audiences away playing funny, street-smart bad boys. His recent role as a thief in the comedy Tower Heist looks like a step in the right direction. Many critics have praised Murphy's performance as a welcome return to form. Hopefully, he's encouraged by the positive reviews and will take on more roles like that and not go back to solely making family films for a fat paycheck.

48 HRS. at Amazon

Monday, November 11, 2013

Review of Detective Story Starring Kirk Douglas

Kirk Douglas delivers a powerful performance as a jaded detective in this gritty police drama.

Detective Story (1951) is an absorbing police drama that examines a chaotic, trauma-filled day in the life of a cynical detective who's on the verge of an emotional breakdown. Most of the film takes place in a cramped New York squad room. Director William Wyler does a masterful job in adapting Sidney Kingsley's Broadway play to the big screen, creating a raw, realistic atmosphere. The squad room has a dingy, lived-in look to it: The bleary-eyed, overworked detectives flick cigarettes butts right on the dirty floor and write up their reports sitting at their rickety desks that are surrounded by dull, smoke-stained walls. And the dialogue is pitch-perfect as the detectives trade wisecracks and interrogate suspects, or "squeals" as they call them. The viewer can easily imagine that this is how a police squad room would look like around the time the film was released.

Kirk Douglas simmers as Detective James "Jim" McLeod, a jaded hard-nosed cop who's seen and heard it all. During the entire film, he's like a ticking time bomb ready to detonate at any second. McLeod has very little sympathy or patience for criminals and believes the judicial system and society in general "coddle" them. He takes a very tough, uncompromising stance on criminals that borders on cruel and obsessive, and he sometimes engages in excessive force on suspects. There is a scene where he mentions his parents, which gives viewers some insight into his behavior. McLeod's father was a cruel and sadistic criminal, and that behavior took its toll on McLeod's mother, sending her to an early grave. McLeod vowed never to be like his father; thus, he became a cop. And he also vowed never to be "soft" like his mother: "I hate softness. My mother was soft; it killed her," he says.

Near the end of the film, McLeod, to his horror, recognizes that he in fact did turn out just like his father, but only on the other side of the law: "I built my whole life on hating my father; all the time he was inside of me laughing." Like his father, McLeod is cruel, hateful and unforgiving, severely lacking in empathy and compassion. A sordid secret from his wife's past destroys his perfect image of her, causing his world to crash down around him and setting the film up for its tragic conclusion.

In addition to Douglas' searing performance, several other cast members also get their moments to shine. William Bendix is terrific as Detective Lou Brody, McLeod's partner and close friend. Detective Brody is a tough, no-nonsense cop, but unlike McCleod, he possesses empathy and compassion. He's more flexible and doesn't see everything in black and white like his partner does. And Joseph Wiseman turns in a riveting performance as the psychopathic burglary suspect Charley Ginnini. Other stand-out performances include Lee Grant as a nervous shoplifter, Gerald Mohr as smooth and dapper gangster Tami Giacoppetti, and Eleanor Parker as McLeod's anguished wife Mary.

Detective Story was a precursor to police dramas and comedies on television shows such as Hill Street Blues, Barney Miller, Homicide: Life on the Street and NYPD Blue, where much of the action takes place inside the squad room. This film revealed that a lot of drama as well as comedy can be found within the confines of a cramped police squad room.

 Wyler deserves much praise for taking a Broadway play and making it breathe so well on screen, not an easy thing to do. It's not surprising that he's directed several film classics, including Ben-Hur, Wuthering Heights, The Best Years of Our Lives, Jezebel, The Desperate Hours and Roman Holiday. He did a top-notch job in creating the mood and atmosphere for the film. In addition, his  brother writer/director/producer Robert Wyler, playwright Sidney Kingsley and screenwriter/producer Philip Yordan did a stellar job on the screenplay, showing a great ear for police and street lingo. This is an excellent film in a number of ways and boasts an amazing performance by screen legend Kirk Douglas.

Detective Story at Amazon

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Film Review Of Terri Starring Jacob Wysocki and John C. Reilly

A gloomy, obese 15-year-old misfit forms a close and unusual friendship with his school's assistant principal in this quirky tale of teen alienation.

Filmmaker Azazel Jacobs takes a rather fresh and unique look at teen alienation in his indie comedy drama Terri (2011) and has won over a slew of critics in the process. Roger Ebert awarded the film a perfect score of four out of four stars, and it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Terri is a pretty odd film, but it has some surprisingly warm, human moments amid the weirdness. The film is based on a series of short stories by novelist Patrick deWitt.

The film centers on the life of an obese 15-year-old high school student named Terri Thompson, who's played by Jacob Wysocki in his feature-film debut. Terri's a sullen kid whose life is pretty much miserable across the board. At home, he spends a good portion of his time looking after his ailing Uncle James (Creed Bratton), who appears to be suffering from early stages of Alzheimer's disease. And at school, Terri is a social outcast who's constantly being ridiculed for his weight. One particularly cruel classmate calls Terri "double d's" and grabs his chest shouting, "gah-ooo-gah!"

And to add more fuel to the bullies' fire, Terri has recently started the odd practice of wearing his pajamas to school. When asked why he wears his pj's to school, he answers simply, "They're just comfortable on me." Much of Terri's life remains a mystery. It's never explained why his parents are not in the picture and why he alone is charged with looking after his sick uncle.

Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), the assistant principal of Terri's high school, takes an interest in the morose 15-year-old. Fitzgerald is a friendly and garrulous man, the total opposite of the rigid disciplinarians that principals are often portrayed as in teen comedies. Fitzgerald explains to Terri that the school is made up of two types of students who stand out: "the good-hearted kids and the bad-hearted kids." He considers Terri among the former group and invites him to come in for visits in his office every Monday morning to talk about whatever's on his mind.

 Fitzgerald is a rather unconventional principal; he really seems to want to be Terri's friend and not just another stern adult authority figure in the teen's unhappy life. He correctly surmises that Terri needs a person that he can open up to, someone with whom he can share his fears, insecurities and goals. A strong friendship slowly develops between the two. The exchanges between Terri and Fitzgerald are among some of film's best scenes. Wysocki and Reilly have great chemistry in their scenes together. The always-reliable Reilly turns in a strong performance as Fitzgerald, and Wysocki is impressive in his first feature-film outing as Terri.

Terri befriends two other misfits at his school. One of them is a scrawny loner named Chad Markson (Bridger Zadina) who compulsively pulls his own hair out. Chad is a strange kid who has a lot of anger issues and often acts out for attention. Compared to Chad, Terri seems fairly normal. Like Terri, Chad meets with Fitzgerald once a week to talk about what's going on in his life. Chad is a sharp kid, and he's much more world-wise than Terri. Chad can be funny and very likable on occasion, but there's something about him that's worrisome. He seems like one of those troubled kids who might completely snap one day and go on a shooting spree. Zadina delivers an edgy and memorable performance as Chad. The young actor steals nearly every scene he's in.
Terri also befriends a girl in his home economics class named Heather Miles (Olivia Crocicchia). Heather is a pretty girl but has very low self-esteem. She allows boys to take advantage of her sexually because of a deep-seated need to feel loved and wanted. Heather is treated like a pariah following an incident in home ec class where her boyfriend pressures her into a sexual act, which almost gets her kicked out of school. Terri sees something in Heather that his fellow students don't. He sees a wounded soul like himself. Heather appreciates the fact that Terri is kind to her and doesn't appear to want anything in return for that kindness. The scenes between the two shyly passing notes to one other in class are quite touching. Crocicchia does a stellar job as Heather, bringing a deep sense of vulnerability and underlying sadness to the role. Even when the character is being overtly sexual, there's a hint of sadness in her eyes.

Terri is a very engaging film, and the viewer feels thoroughly invested in the main character. However, the final third of the film feels a bit rushed, and the trajectory of the friendship between Terri and Chad seems to jump a few stages ahead of where it really should be at that point. Also, the ending feels kind of abrupt, and a lot of issues in the film go unresolved. But perhaps that was Jacobs' intention--to not give viewers a pat, predicable ending but allow them to reflect on the characters and speculate what happens with them. Terri is definitely a film that stays with you.

Terri at Amazon

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Don Johnson Stars in Dennis Hopper's The Hot Spot

A charismatic drifter blows into a small Texas town where he begins a steamy affair with a sultry femme fatale in this entertaining potboiler.

The Hot Spot (1990) is a noir-ish thriller directed by Dennis Hopper and is based on the 1953 pulp novel Hell Hath No Fury by noted American suspense author Charles Williams. The film has a nice B-movie charm to it, and it manages to be consistently entertaining. It's a bit weak on plot and dialogue, but makes up for it with plenty of style, mood and attitude. And that's all a film like this really needs to be effective. The Hot Spot is aptly titled, as much of what goes on in the film centers around heat: the random fires, the incessant smoking, the sweltering weather and even hotter sex.

The film stars Don Johnson as a drifter named Harry Madox who lands in a small Texas town. Harry has a mysterious and slightly dangerous edge about him; it's clear he's a man with a shady past. He quickly gets a job as a used car salesman on the strength of his charismatic personality. Once Harry is in town for awhile, he starts devising a plan to knock over the local bank. He also catches the eye of a sultry seductress named Dolly Harshaw (Virginia Madsen), who's his boss's wife. At first Harry tries to resist her advances, but his resistance is futile against this determined Southern siren. At one point in the film, she coolly tells him, "I always get what I want, Harry." Before you know it, the two are engaged in a hot affair.

In the meantime, Harry begins a chaste romance with a ravishing young brunette named Gloria Harper (Jennifer Connelly), who's the bookkeeper at the used car dealership where he works. Gloria seems very innocent, but it's later revealed that she has something of a checkered past as well. She's being shaken down by a lowlife, no-account blackmailer named Frank Sutton (William Sadler), who has some damaging information on her. Gloria sort of serves as a foil to Dolly, as the two couldn't be more opposite. The two women represent the dichotomy of Harry's character: the decent guy with morals is embodied in Gloria, and the law-breaking bad boy in Dolly.

Don Johnson is solid in his role of Harry Madox, bringing some swagger and simmering intensity to the part. He has a cigarette in his mouth about 85 percent of the time that he's on screen. The cigarette appears to serve as a prop for Johnson in helping him inhabit Harry's character; and you have to admit that he does look pretty damn cool with a ciggy dangling out of his mouth in brooding James Dean mode. There's even a cigarette in the actor's mouth on the DVD cover.

Virginia Madsen is muy caliente as buxom femme fatale Dolly Harshaw. Madsen plays Dolly in the tradition of noir bombshells such as Veronica Lake, Jane Greer and Gene Tierney, but amped up to 10 with a near suicidal crazy streak. She effortlessly exudes smoldering sexuality in her role and practically steals every scene she's in. Her bedroom scenes with Johnson are extremely hot but not overly explicit. The two actors share such great sexual chemistry that they don't need to show a whole lot in order to make their sex scenes sizzle.

There are also some really great performances from the supporting cast, especially from William Sadler as sleazy blackmailer Frank Sutton. He plays this scumbag with such unabashed relish that it's a joy to watch. Jack Nance, a longtime regular in David Lynch's films, is also quite good as the jittery bank manager Julian Ward, and Charles Martin Smith is likable as good ol' boy used car salesman LonGulick. However, Connelly is kind of bland as Gloria. She isn't required to do much in her role, except look gorgeous and act innocent or forlorn, not much of a challenge for this talented actress.

Probably the best thing about the film is its amazing jazz-blues soundtrack. The original score to the soundtrack was by composed by producer, songwriter, arranger and film composer Jack Nitzsche and features contributions from musical titans Miles Davis and John Lee Hooker. The soundtrack also features Taj Mahal, Bradford Ellis, Tim Drummond, Earl Palmer and Roy Rogers (the blues slide guitarist, not the iconic "Singing Cowboy" film star). Much credit should be given to Hopper for assembling such an incredible lineup of talent for the film's soundtrack. This is one of those occasions where the soundtrack is more significant then the film itself.

The Hot Spot is no masterpiece by any stretch, but it's a very entertaining film. And Dennis Hopper does a great job in creating the film's steamy atmosphere. This is the perfect film to watch when you're in the mood for some tawdry B-movie fun while listening to some fantastic music.

The Hot Spot at Amazon

Saturday, October 12, 2013

In The Heat of the Night Starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger star in this absorbing crime drama set against the volatile backdrop of racism and segregation in a small Southern town.

In the Heat of the Night is an important film for a number of reasons. In addition to being a compelling and extremely well-acted crime drama, it resonates with great historical and cultural significance. The historical context in which the film was released should be noted when evaluating it. Upon its release in 1967, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been passed a mere three years prior, and Jim Crow segregation laws had just recently been taken off the books but were still practiced in parts of country. The film reflects the explosive state of race relations in the U.S., particularly in the South, during the 1960s.

Sidney Poitier plays Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs who finds himself stuck in a bigoted Mississippi town where he reluctantly assists the chief of police in investigating the murder of a wealthy industrialist. Northerner Tibbs represents change and a new way of thinking in a place that is stuck in a racist past. It’s a past where black people "knew their place," a place where a black man was called boy even if he was in his eighties.

Tibbs is immediately at odds with his surroundings and is looked upon with either hatred or curiosity by all those he encounters. Even the black residents of the town don’t know what to make of him and eye him cautiously. Tibbs' character embodies a new mindset towards race relations. The residents of the town had never seen a black man like him before, and that alone compels some of them to reevaluate their outmoded thinking and attitudes towards black people.

As was the case in a number of Poitier's roles at the time, Tibbs' character served as a categorical refutation of the procession of negative and stereotypical black characters that had been perpetuated by the film industry for decades. He was the polar opposite of every black racist stereotype that had come before him. Some of the worst of these stereotypes include the stupid, lazy coon; the obsequious and shuffling jiggaboo; and the brutish, depraved savage as depicted in D.W. Griffith's controversial film classic The Birth of a Nation. And some of these stereotypes are still found in films today, of course in different, less obvious incarnations.

In direct contrast to those stereotypes, Tibbs' character is poised, intelligent, cultured and brave. He is man a of high principles and moral integrity who bows to no man, white or black. The characters Poitier played were sometimes criticized for being too perfect, that they were more symbolic ideals than real people. But these roles were necessary in counterbalancing the numerous negative images of African Americans promulgated by Hollywood filmmakers.

To be sure, Poitier wasn't the only black actor out there who was rectifying these negative images, but he was at the forefront because he was such a big star. So fair or not, a lot of it landed on his shoulders alone. But Poitier is such a commanding and charismatic actor that he brought those iconic roles to life and made them very human.

Rod Steiger earned a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar for his superb portrayal of the hard-nosed and hot-tempered Police Chief Bill Gillespie. He and Poitier have incredible chemistry in their scenes together. At first glance, the two men are a study in contrasts. Whereas Gillespie is coarse and quick-tempered, Tibbs is unflappable and polished; Gillespie is sloppy and overweight, while Tibbs is trim and dapper.

However, upon closer examination, the two have much more in common than first meets the eye. Both are proud men who stand by their principles, even if their beliefs and actions go against the grain. And both are quite stubborn. What's brilliant about Gillespie's character is that at first he seems like the typical racist redneck police chief that we've seen in films many times before, but underneath there are several layers of complexity. Near the end of the film, the two men have formed, if not exactly a friendship, a mutual respect for one another and a bond that crosses the racial divide as well as the divide between the North and South.

Director Norman Jewison does a masterful job in capturing the mood and look of a small Southern town during a hot, muggy summer. And he drew great performances not only from Poitier and Steiger but from the rest of the cast as well. Some of the standouts among the supporting cast include Warren Oates as the dim-bulb but likable deputy Sam Wood, Beah Richards as abortionist Mama Caleba, Larry Gates as powerful plantation owner Eric Endicott and Anthony James as the creepy diner counterman Ralph Henshaw. The little hunched-over dance James does to the song "Foul Owl on the Prowl" is classic.

In the Heat of the Night is based on American author John Ball's novel of the same name, and screenwriter/producer Stirling Silliphant does a great job in adapting it for the big screen. Probably the most significant thing the film accomplishes is that it's a gripping crime drama that also effectively addresses issues of race without knocking the viewer over the head with it. In addition to Steiger's win, the film took home Oscars for Best Picture and Best Screenplay at the 1967 Academy Awards.

(originally published at

 In the Heat of the Night at Amazon

Friday, October 4, 2013

Review of Ralph Bakshi's American Pop

Ralph Bakshi's animated epic tells the story of four generations of a musical family and how their struggles parallel American history in the 20th century.

American Pop (1981) is a powerful animated feature film that uses popular music as a means to highlight significant events in American history dating from the late 1890s to the early 1980s. Director/animator Ralph Bakshi gives the film a sweeping epic feel and is able to keep the viewer engrossed through great storytelling, pop-culture imagery, and classic music.

The film chronicles four generations of an American family and how music is the thread that ties all these generations together. It begins in the late 1890s with the story of Zalmie Belinksy, a Russian Jewish boy who flees with his mother to America from Tsar-ruled Russia because of Anti-Jewish pogroms (organized violent attacks against Jews) carried out by the Cossacks. Zalmie and his mother were forced to leave his rabbi father behind, as he refused to leave until he had finished leading the communal prayer and was killed by the Cossacks.

Zalmie and his mother land in New York during the ragtime era at the turn of the 20th century. Bakshi effectively captures the mood and atmosphere of this period. The air is filled with ragtime music, and burlesque houses, saloons and music halls line the streets. Young Zalmie starts hanging around small-time vaudevillians and is soon completely immersed in this world. He eventually becomes an all-around performer on the vaudeville circuit: singer, comic, dancer, etc. As he grows older, he is also introduced to the seedier elements of show business, a world filled with mobsters and sundry lowlifes.

The film follows Zalmie’s character through World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World World II and the beginning of the McCarthy era. A number of unfortunate events sideline Zalmie’s career, so he transfers all of his showbiz dreams onto his piano-playing son, Benny, a musical prodigy. But those dreams are dashed when Benny enlists in the army and is killed by a German soldier during World War II. Thus, it’s up to Benny’s son, Tony, to carry on the family’s musical tradition.

Tony is probably the most intriguing character in the entire film. He’s a brilliant yet tortured individual whose weaknesses eventually overpower his great gifts. Tony’s character carries the film from the late-1950s through the early ‘70s. A restless kid, Tony leaves his suburban home in Long Island while still in his teens and heads for California. Once he arrives in San Francisco, he dives headlong into the hippie counterculture scene of the 1960s.

A talented harmonica player and songwriter, he begins writing songs for a Jefferson Airplane/ Big Brother and the Holding Company-type band. His involvement with the band pulls him into the crazy and chaotic world of rock and roll, a world of excessive drugs, wild sex and non-stop partying. He soon develops a huge heroin addiction, which ultimately destroys his life and his musical dreams.

This film is filled with great pop-culture images and classic songs from the 20th century, and Bakshi does a tremendous job of incorporating these images and songs into the storyline. There are several amazing musical montages that fuse great iconic images with classic music. These montages cover different time periods and historical events. One of them is a terrific World War II montage set to Benny Goodman’s rousing rendition of “Sing, Sing, Sing.” The segment intercuts images of soldiers on the battlefield with lively couples swing dancing. The segment also has images of the explosive and acrobatic Nicholas Brothers dance team. It is a truly captivating segment where the images seem to jump right off the screen.

Other great musical segments include an animated Jimi Hendrix doing a wild and electrifying performance of “Purple Haze" and  an excellent punk-rock montage during the mid-1970s segment. Bakshi utilized a variety of animation techniques and other mixed media for the film, including rotoscoping, computer graphics, live-action shots, water colors and archival footage.

Probably the weakest part of the film is the final section which involves Tony’s son, Pete, a drug dealer and aspiring rock star. Pete’s story, while interesting, doesn’t quite have the same tragic power of the others. That’s not to say that the character is not engaging. Pete has a cockiness and swagger that his father didn’t possess, and he also doesn't have Tony's self-destructiveness . In addition, unlike his father, he’s extremely ambitious and won’t let anyone or anything stand in his way of becoming a huge rock star. Pete’s story covers the mid-to-late '70s, and there are some great images and music from the emerging punk scene. Pete’s story wraps up the film nicely on a triumphant note.

This animated feature is an absorbing film from start to finish, and Bakshi should be applauded for making this sprawling and ambitious epic such an enjoyable viewing experience. And much credit should also go Ronni Kern for writing such a fantastic screenplay. In addition, the voice actors do a stellar job of bringing the animated characters to life. Ron Thompson voiced Tony and Pete; Marcello Krakoff voiced little Zalmie, and Jeffrey Lippa voiced adult Zalmie; and Richard Singer voiced Benny. The other voice actors do an equally great job in voicing their characters in the film.

American Pop is moving in a way that you wouldn't expect of an animated film. For some odd reason, the animation seems to enhance the film's overwhelming pathos and wistfulness. It is probably the saddest animated feature this viewer has ever seen, and that's not a bad thing.

(originally published at

American Pop at Amazon

Monday, September 30, 2013

Jay Baruchel Stars In Fetching Cody

Jay Baruchel shines in his first starring role as a small-time drug dealer who attempts to alter the past to save his girlfriend's life.

Writer/director David Ray melds fantasy, drama, dark comedy and romance in this imaginative and compelling indie film about a young couple caught up in the street life in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, British Columbia. Fetching Cody (2005) is one of those films that surprises you with its inventiveness and creativity. It starts out as a straight-forward drama, but, then, blindsides you with the fantasy element of time travel. At first, the time-travel aspect seems like a bad idea that could possibly derail the film; but, surprisingly, it ends up working really well and helps underscore the dramatic scenes. This was Ray's directorial debut, and he also penned the screenplay.

The film centers on a small-time drug dealer named Art (Jay Baruchel ), who lives in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Art's girlfriend, Cody (Sarah Lind), is a sweet, down-to-earth girl. She is also a drug addict and hooker. One night Art finds Cody lying unconscious in her apartment from a possible heroin overdose. She's placed in the intensive care unit at the local hospital where she lies in a coma, and the chances of her coming out of it don't look too promising.

Enter Art's eccentric junk-collecting friend Harvey (Jim Byrnes), who claims that a beat-up old recliner he found in a dumpster also functions as a time machine. It turns out that it actually works as a time-traveling device, and Art uses it to travel back in time in an attempt to change Cody's past, so she won't end up where she is now.

Baruchel impresses in his portrayal of Art. He imbues the role with pathos and awkward charm. He handles both the dramatic and comedic scenes quite well and proves that he can ably carry a film. And Lind delivers a quality performance as Cody.

The film also has a strong supporting cast. Some of the standouts among the supporting cast include Lucas Blaney as Cody's troubled older brother Holden; Angela Moore as the kindly Nurse Sam; and Jim Byrnes as Art's odd but wise friend Harvey.

Fetching Cody is quite a unique and inventive film. You rarely find films that mix time travel and comedy with serious themes of prostitution, teen suicide and drug abuse, but Ray somehow manages to make all these elements mesh. There are several genuinely touching dramatic moments as well as very funny ones. And Ray utilizes time travel in a very creative and interesting fashion, yielding some of the film's funniest moments. The film won the Director's Choice Award at the Sedona Film Festival in 2006, as well as the Gold Award at WorldFest Houston that same year.

(originally published at

Fetching Cody at Amazon

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Joel and Ethan Coen's O Brother, Where Art Thou?

George Clooney Stars in this Entertaining Coen Brothers Film
Three escaped convicts trek through Depression-era Mississippi to retrieve a buried fortune in this wild and entertaining comedy/adventure.

Joel and Ethan Coen bring their unique brand of filmmaking to the surreal but thoroughly entertaining Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). The film contains the duo's signature idiosyncrasy; you can't mistake it for the work of any other filmmaker. And typical of many Coens Brothers' films, O Brother, Where Art Thou? doesn't stay anchored down to one particular film genre, but rather is a mélange of genres; it's part adventure, part musical comedy, part satire, and part fantasy. The brothers shared directorial duties as well as collaborated on the screenplay, which is based on Homer's epic poem The Odyssey.

The film follows three escaped convicts as the make their way through the backwoods of Mississippi during the Great Depression in 1933. It begins with the ragtag trio escaping from a prison chain gang. The de facto leader of the group is the fast-talking con Ulysses Everett McGill, adeptly played by George Clooney. Everett claims to have $1.2 million that he stole off an armored car stashed away. So the convicts set out on a quest to retrieve the money before they're tracked down by the law. Clooney fits comfortably into his role of the loquacious know-it-all Everett. A roguish backwoods scoundrel, Everett sports a Clark Gable pencil-thin moustache over a crooked smile and slicks his hair back with his ever-handy Dapper Dan hair pomade. However, underneath Everett's slippery, double-dealing facade, he's basically a decent guy.

His two companions are Pete and Delmar. Delmar (played by Tim Blake Nelson) may not be the brightest crayon in the box, but he makes up for his lack of smarts with a strong sense of loyalty and a heart as big as Texas. Nelson plays Delmar with a goofy innocence and sweetness. He's the soul and backbone of the trio. And Coen Brothers regular John Turturro does a splendid job portraying Pete, a surly hillbilly who grumpily follows Everett and Delmar in their quest for the hidden loot.

During their long journey, the three fugitives encounter a slew of peculiar characters and witness some amazing sights and other bizarre occurrences. The Coens infuse many of the scenes with Magical Realism, a common feature in many of their films. There is a scene where the boys are put under a spell by three otherworldly seductresses known as sirens; the men wake up disoriented and are unable to find Pete. Delmar thinks the sirens may have turned Pete into a toad.

The group also encounter an elderly blind railroad man, who's also a prophet. He foretells what will happen to the trio later in their journey. And John Goodman plays an eye-patch-wearing Bible salesman who robs Everett and Delmar. The character has a supernatural quality about him. He doesn't quite seem human and has a very keen sense of smell, almost canine. And he also seems to possess superhuman strength, as he dispatches of Everett and Delmar without even breaking a sweat. Goodman's character is an allusion to Polyphemus the Cyclops from The Odyssey. The blind seer and the sirens were also inspired by Homer's epic poem.
Along their journey, the trio befriend a young black blues guitarist named Tommy Johnson (played by Grammy-winning blues artist and actor Chris Thomas King). The character is based on influential Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson, who, according to urban legend, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for exceptional gifts as a blues player; a similar myth was also applied to Robert Johnson, another great Delta bluesman. Tommy travels with the boys for a spell and even cuts a record with them at a radio broadcast station. The quartet dub themselves "The Soggy Bottom Boys" and receive $10 a piece for their song "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," which later goes on to become a huge hit.
In some ways this film is similar to Raising Arizona, one of the Coen's early films, as it has some of the same homespun, cracker-barrel charm and humor as well as a funny assortment of hicks and hayseeds. One of the funniest characters in the film is Mississippi Governor Pappy O'Daniel (Charles Durning), who is campaigning for reelection. Durning is hilarious as the cantankerous and opportunistic politician. O'Daniel's sycophantic cronies are equally funny. His character is loosely based on real-life Democratic politician W. Lee O'Daniel, who was the Governor of Texas and a U.S. senator. Stephen Root is also quite funny as the blind proprietor of the radio station.
Music plays a significant role in this film and is almost like character in itself. The are some superb musical sequences throughout the film. For instance, the musical segment of the scene where Delmar and Pete are baptized possesses great beauty. And paradoxically a scene involving the Ku Klux Klan preparing to lynch a black man is quite powerful. The ritual begins with a man singing in a very solemn and haunting fashion. The fact that the preparation for killing an innocent person is given such reference and solemnity makes the scene all the more disturbing and wrenching. Also, the scene where the singing sirens seduce the three men is fantastic. The Coens always manage to find beauty amid the absurd and hellish.
The film also boasts an amazing soundtrack. It's chock of great music that covers a wide range of styles, including bluegrass, folk, gospel, country and blues. The soundtrack took home the coveted Album of the Year award at the 2002 Grammys.

Few filmmakers would be bold enough to meld genres the way the Coen Brothers do in
O Brother, Where Art Thou? and even fewer would have the talent and vision to pull it off as skillfully. Great acting, provocative storyline, interesting characters, inspired sequences and incredible music make this film a wholly enjoyable and unique viewing experience.

(originally published at

O' Brother, Where Art Thou? At Amazon

Friday, September 27, 2013

Review of Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle

What's up folks. Welcome to Ken's Hollywood Shuffle. This is a blog about film, television and other entertainment-related topics. My inaugural blog post is a review of Robert Townsend's comedy Hollywood Shuffle, which inspired the name of this site.

Robert Townsend Pulls No Punches In Hilarious Take on Hollywood and Race

Writer/Director Robert Townsend denounces Hollywood's treatment of black actors in this uproarious comedy about an aspiring young black actor looking to catch his big break.

Hollywood Shuffle (1987) is an extremely funny and insightful look at the film industry's less-than-stellar treatment of aspiring black actors. Though the film is more than 20 years old, the issues it addresses are still very pertinent today. It's true that things are better for black actors now than they were when this film was made, but the situation is still pretty dismal. Black actors still face many of the same problems that the characters face in this film. For every Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Don Cheadle, Forest Whitaker and Will Smith, there are hundreds of talented black actors trying to get their foot in the door who either can't find any work at all or are mainly offered stereotypical parts, such as drug dealers, street hustlers, gangbangers, pimps, junkies, convicts, thugs, the funny sidekick, etc. There still remains a very limited number of great roles for black actors in both film and television. And the situation is even worse for black actresses.

Townsend plays a struggling young actor named Bobby Taylor. While working at his dead-end job at a hot dog stand, Bobby dreams of one day becoming a famous, award-winning actor. Although Bobby is a talented actor, it's difficult for him to find any decent roles. When he goes to casting calls, he finds that most producers and directors are only offering black actors stereotypical roles, such as pimps, slaves, drug dealers, gangbangers, etc. He wonders why he's never asked to audition for the action heroes, the romantic leads, the James Bonds, or the superheroes. During his rounds to auditions, he runs across classically trained black actors who have studied their craft for many years reduced to trying out for degrading stereotypical roles.

Bobby is faced with a dilemma when he's offered the leading role in a blaxploitation-type film called Jivetime Jimmy's Revenge. Jimmy's character is a lowlife, nearly illiterate pimp/gangbanger. Bobby's grandmother and some others feel he should turn the role down as it reinforces black racist stereotypes and sends a bad message to young black kids. On the other hand, most of Bobby's actor friends think he'd be crazy to turn down the role because of the exposure it would bring him and the doors it could open for his career. They believe he should take the role no matter how degrading and stereotypical it is, as it's a starring role, and he may never get such an opportunity again. To add to his quandary, he has a ten-year-old brother who looks up to him, and he doesn't want to play a role that would influence him in a bad way.

Townsend, who collaborated on the screenplay with Keenen Ivory Wayans and Dom Irrera, no doubt drew from his own personal experiences as a struggling young black actor in Hollywood for this film. The film manages to be extremely funny while at the same time is an astute examination of racial politics in Hollywood and the compromises black actors often have to make in order succeed in the business. Townsend addresses these serious issues with large doses of humor.

Some parts of this film are flat-out hilarious. One extremely funny segment involves a spoof of "Siskel & Ebert & The Movies" called "Sneaking in the Movies" where two homies from the hood critique films in their own profane, street-slang-ridden fashion. And one of the films they review is called Attack of the Killer Pimps in which a group of zombified pimps terrorize local hookers. The visual of zombie pimps bunched up together and cold mackin' is perhaps one of the funniest sights ever committed to film.

Another hilarious segment involves Bobby playing a scene from Jivetime Jimmy's Revenge. Sporting a huge afro wig and strutting around like a demented rooster on crack, Townsend acts like he channeled every pimp, street hustler and drug dealer he's ever seen from the very worst blaxploitation flicks for his portrayal of Jivetime Jimmy. This scene alone is worth the price of admission. It even has James Brown's super-funky "The Big Payback" as Jimmy's theme song.

Hollywood Shuffle is a very impressive debut for Townsend in the director's chair. It’s a riotous and highly entertaining film. In addition, Townsend assembled a terrific cast, which includes Anne-MarieJohnson, Helen Martin, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Paul Mooney, Damon Wayans and Franklin Ajaye. However, there are a few minor problems with the film, and one is concerning the Jivetime Jimmy's Revenge segment. Although the segment was funny as all get out, it seemed a bit outdated. It played more like a '70s blaxploitation film rather than a stereotypical black film that would be made in 1987. The film also got a little preachy towards the end.

These are just minor flaws and in no way take away from the film's overall impact. What's most important is that Townsend was able to keep viewers thoroughly entertained throughout the entire film while also getting his point across.

(Originally published at

Hollywood Shuffle at Amazon