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