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

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Sylvester Stallone Stars in Psychological Thriller

Sylvester Stallone's star power failed to push the film D-Tox (aka Eye See You) to box office or critical success. It's a rather lackluster psychological thriller that has a few really good moments but fizzles out at about the halfway point. The 2002 film is directed by Jim Gillespie and is based on the novel Jitter Joint by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and crime writer Howard Swindle. The book was adapted for the screen by screenwriter Ron L. Brinkerhoff.

Sylvester Stallone Plays An FBI Agent In Pursuit Of A Serial Killer

Stallone plays FBI agent Jake Malloy who's on the trail of an elusive serial killer who's been targeting cops. He has killed nine cops inside of six months, and he doesn't appear to be slowing down any time soon. At first Malloy doesn't realize that he's the reason why the serial killer has been targeting cops. He's doing it as a form of payback against Malloy. He was in charge of the investigation four years earlier in which he was pursuing the same killer for murdering several prostitutes.

The killer claims that Malloy made his life a living hell and interfered with his "important task" of ridding the world of what he calls "diseased filth." He feels it's time to return the favor and does everything in his power to make Malloy's life a living hell, going after his friends and anyone else he's close to. He eventually drives Malloy to the bottle. When Malloy reaches rock bottom, he checks himself into a rehab facility located in an isolated, snow-covered part of Wyoming. The facility is for cops only and is run by an ex-cop. The rehab program is designed to help cops battle their addictions and well as their demons. Malloy must also contend with the serial killer who follows him to the rehab facility to continue his psychological torture.

Average Psychological Thriller

The film has a really bleak tone and look. It seems that Gillespie was going for the grim, atmospheric tone of the much superior psychological thriller Se7en, but its use in this film is downright dreary. It's all a bit too gloomy without enough spark or tension to keep the viewer involved. Granted, there are some intense, gripping scenes early in the film, but even those are highly derivative. Most of them seem like retreads of scenes from better films. There's nothing really unique that makes D-Tox stand out. It's just average in every way. Additionally, the serial killer isn't all that interesting, and having an interesting, complex serial killer is crucial for this type of film to be really effective. The film is also filled with glaring plot holes.

Strong Supporting Cast

The film has a surprisingly strong supporting cast, which includes Charles S. Dutton, Jeffrey Wright, Courtney B. Vance, Tom Berenger, Robert Prosky, Stephen Lang and Kris Kristofferson. Wright is one of the standouts as a jittery, suicidal narcotics cop who Malloy meets at the rehab facility. Wright always manages to make his roles interesting even in bad films. There's something about this actor who can make even the most generic, mundane dialogue come alive. And Dutton is solid in his role as Malloy's partner and close friend. Also, Kristofferson is a reassuring presence as Doc, the former cop and recovering alcoholic who runs the facility. He brings a genuineness and down-to-earth likability to the role. However, Berenger is pretty unmemorable in his role as one of the workers at the rehab facility; but to be fair, he wasn't really given anything interesting to work with. Stallone puts in a commendable effort as Malloy, but there is no spark in his performance.

Watchable Film But Nothing Special

D-Tox is not a bad film. It's just extremely average. It's only worth watching if you're really in the mood for a psychological thriller, and there's nothing better on.

D-Tox at Amazon

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Looking Back At Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein

(review contains spoilers)

Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder struck comedy gold with this hysterical send-up of the horror classics Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein.

Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (1974) has aged extremely well. It's still just as sharp, entertaining and hilarious as it was when it first appeared on the big screen nearly 40 years ago. It's without a doubt one of the funniest and well-crafted comedies ever committed to celluloid. Very few, if any, comedies released today will have the type of longevity and continued relevance that Young Frankenstein has enjoyed over the years. For the most part, today's comedies are a lot like fast food; they satisfy your appetite but are quickly forgotten after the meal is done. Not so with Young Frankenstein, as it's a five-star meal of a comedy that you continue to savor long after the credits have rolled.

Brooks Updates And Puts Comedic Twist On Horror Film Classic

The film stars Gene Wilder as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, a young neurosurgeon and a respected lecturer at an American medical school. He is the grandson of the infamous Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who was vilified for his highly controversial reanimation experiments in which he attempted to bring the dead back to life. For years, Frederick has tried to live down his eccentric grandfather's much-maligned legacy. He believes his grandfather was mentally unstable and a disgrace. Frederick is so ashamed of his family name that he tells people that it's pronounced "Fronkensteen" instead of Frankenstein.

However, Frederick's negative view of his grandfather gradually changes after he inherits his family's estate in Transylvania. The estate houses the laboratory where his grandfather conducted his reanimation experiments. Before long, Frederick is continuing his grandfather's work in reanimation. And after many failed attempts, he successfully brings back to life a massive man, which he and his assistant, Igor, exhumed at the graveyard. Frederick's plan is to make his reanimated subject the perfect human specimen who possesses tremendous physical strength as well as superior intellect. Unfortunately, Frederick's experiment goes terribly awry when he learns that Igor mistakenly gave him a defective brain to put in the monster. The film follows Frederick's attempts to civilize his behemoth creation and even teach the monster a few dance steps and show tunes along the way.

Film Has Look And Atmosphere Of An Old Horror Film

One of the most striking things about Young Frankenstein is its look. Much detail and thought was put into the set design and photography to give the film an authentic classic horror movie look and atmosphere. Brooks shot in the same castle that the James Wales' 1931 classic Frankenstein was filmed. He also used the same electrical apparatus for the laboratory scenes that was used in the horror classic. Additionally, Brooks filmed the entire movie in black-and-white, and he used1930s-style opening credits as well as period scene transitions, such as iris outs, wipes and fades-to-black to give it that old classical look. Cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld and set decorator Robert De Vestel did a tremendous job on this film. Everything about the film was immaculately done, from the set design and cinematography to the costumes, the writing, the acting and the music score. Brooks' longtime composer John Morris provided the film's exquisite period score. The music evoked a classic horror film ambiance.

Film Boasts Incredible Cast

Brooks assembled a sensational cast for this film. The cast is uniformly strong down to the smallest roles. There are an inordinate number of stellar performances to be found in this film. Marty Feldman is flat-out brilliant as Frederick's droll hump-backed assistant Igor; Cloris Leachman is a howl as Frau Blücher, the strange caretaker of the Frankenstein castle; Madeline Kahn is extremely funny as Frederick's neurotic fiancée Elizabeth. With this role, Kahn illustrated what an amazingly gifted comedic actress she was.

Additionally, Wilder is terrific as the frazzled, slightly unhinged Frederick Frankenstein. And Peter Boyle does a great job at humanizing the monster with sly, knowing looks and hilarious double takes. His expressive face and body language convey so much that no words are necessary. And Teri Garr sets the screen on fire as Frederick's Swedish bombshell assistant Inga. In this role, Garr proved that she was not just another pretty face but also a very talented and funny actress. And Gene Hackman does a bang-up job in his cameo as a lonely blind man who befriends the monster. Brooks had so much confidence in his cast members that he allowed them to ad lib in a number of scenes, which greatly increased the spontaneity and humor of the film. And there are several other great supporting performances in the film.

Brooks and Wilder Capture Comedy Magic With Young Frankenstein

Brooks and Wilder collaborated on the film’s excellent screenplay, which is filled with clever one-liners and hilarious dialogue. The two manage to keep the story entertaining and interesting while continuing to deliver big laughs. In many comedies, the plot is just a vehicle through which comedians can do their funny shtick. However, in this film Brooks and Wilder take the plot very seriously and infuse it with not just very funny comedic scenes, but a great deal of emotion and pathos as well. With Young Frankenstein, the two have created a bona fide comedy masterpiece. The movie should be required viewing for any film student who has aspirations of becoming a comedy director or writer.

Young Frankenstein at Amazon

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Spike Lee Reminisces about his Youth in Crooklyn

Spike Lee takes a nostalgic trip back to his childhood in this touching semi-autobiographical film about the struggles of a Brooklyn family in the early 1970s.

Crooklyn (1994) is probably Lee’s warmest and most sentimental film. It’s a big departure from the films he typically directs. His films usually address controversial subjects and are politically charged. In this semi-autobiographical film, the director slows down the pace a bit and takes a warm look back at his youth in Brooklyn, New York during the early 1970s. It's a simple, straightforward story with no social or political agenda to be found. Much of the film has the same slice-of-life appeal as his landmark film Do The Right Thing but sans the controversial themes. As in the Do The Right Thing, most of Crooklyn takes place in one neighborhood and focuses on the events and residents in that area.

The film immediately draws the viewer in with its exhilarating opening sequence. It opens with a vibrant scene on a block in a multiethnic Brooklyn neighborhood where numerous children are out playing; some kids are jump-roping, some are playing stickball and others are playing hopscotch among other lively games and fun activities. The block is alive with youthful energy. And the opening is set to the gorgeous strains of "People Make The World Go Round" by the Stylistics. Lee has always had a good ear and eye for setting scenes to music, and this is a perfect example of it.

The film's protagonist is ten-year-old Troy Carmichael (played by Zelda Harris). Troy is a spirited and outspoken young girl. Growing up in Brooklyn and living with her four rowdy brothers has given her a thick skin and made her tough. She can dish it out as well as any of her brothers. Troy is in constant battle with her oldest brother Clinton (Carlton Williams), who is as hardheaded as they come. Clinton loves to tease and bully his little sister for fun when he's not watching his beloved New York Knicks play on television. Clinton is clearly based on Spike Lee, right down to the slight build, big glasses and the filmmaker’s devotion to the Knicks. Troy devises different ways to get back at her older brother. On one occasion, she uses his prize collection of buffalo nickels to buy ice scream for herself and her friend. Harris does an excellent job of portraying the plucky young Troy. Lee was so impressed with her work in Crooklyn that he later cast in his 1998 film He Got Game.

Critically acclaimed actress Alfre Woodard plays Troy's no-nonsense mother Carolyn. She is the parent who lays down the law in the dysfunctional household. Delroy Lindo (Malcolm X , Get Shorty) plays Troy's father, Woody, who is much more lenient with the children. Woody's an unemployed jazz musician who's constantly at the piano composing his original music. He refuses to play popular music (which he thinks is mostly garbage) any longer and only focuses on his own music. Woody's stubborn refusal to play the type of music that could bring more money to the household upsets Carolyn, as the family's forced to get by on her salary as a teacher and the rent from their border. This and his leniency with the children cause acrimony between the couple, and they are separated for a short time.

Troy Experiences Culture Shock When She Visits Her Relatives In Virginia

Towards the end of the film, Lee shifts gears and has Troy visit her relatives in a Virginia suburb for a month. The move from Brooklyn to a Virginia suburb is a huge culture shock for Troy. Initially, she hates everything about the South and her Southern relatives but eventually starts to warm up to her surroundings. She learns to appreciate the slower and quieter way of life during her stay, and she develops a close friendship with her young cousin Viola (Patriece Nelson). It was a good idea to have Troy visit Virginia, as it provides a nice contrast to the chaotic scenes in Brooklyn. And Frances Foster is a hoot as Troy's flighty Aunt Song.

This film has a number of memorable scenes. One highlight has all five kids dancing along with the Soul Train dancers on TV as they groove down the legendary Soul Train line. Another great scene has Troy and her friends making fun of each others' hairstyles while sitting on the stoop in front of her house. The scene is at once funny and touching and will no doubt remind many viewers of the silly arguments they would get into when they were kids. In addition, there is an extremely funny scene in which Carolyn wakes up all the kids at four in the morning to clean up the mess they left in the kitchen.

Oddball Characters

The film has an array of oddball characters, including the family's annoying, weird neighbor Tony Eyes (David Patrick Kelly), whose house is a pigsty and reeks so bad that his neighbors are constantly complaining, and the wild-eyed, glue-sniffing Snuffy played by Lee.

Talented Young Newcomers Do A Great Job Playing The Carmichael Children

The young actors who play Troy's siblings do a marvelous job. In addition to Carlton Williams, they include Sharif Rashed, Tse-Mach Washington and Christopher Knowings. Also, Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo are terrific as the Carmichael parents. Both bring strong, nuanced performances to their respective roles. The remainder of the cast is also quite good.

Highly Entertaining Film From Start To Finish

Crooklyn is an underrated gem and a nice change of pace for Lee. It's poignant and funny as well as consistently entertaining. Some may complain about the near wall-to-wall music in the film, but Lee utilizes it so well in setting up scenes that it doesn't feel at all intrusive. Lee, his sister Joie Lee, and their brother Cinqué collaborated on the film's great screenplay. Lee should reminisce more often on film.

Crooklyn at Amazon

Related blog entry: Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing Revisited

Friday, July 4, 2014

Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train: Farley Granger and Robert Walker Star in Lauded Hitch Film

A chance encounter between two strangers on a train leads to murder in this classic suspense thriller.

(review contains spoilers)

Strangers on a Train (1951) is one of Alfred Hitchcock's most recognized and praised films and is considered one of the foremost suspense thrillers in cinematic history. The film is based on American author Patricia Highsmith's first novel of the same name. Famous detective novelist Raymond Chandler was one of the screenwriters who adapted Highsmith's novel for Hitchcock's film. The other writers involved on the screenplay were Czenzi Ormonde and Whitfield Cook.

Murder Swap Plan

The film begins with a chance meeting between two men on a train. Amateur tennis champ Guy Haines (Farley Granger) meets rich, spoiled socialite Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) after the two men accidentally bump shoes. Bruno immediately recognizes Guy from his pictures in the paper. Right away Bruno becomes overly familiar with Guy, asking him personal questions about his rocky marriage to his trampy, adulterous wife Miriam and his romantic relationship with Anne Morton, the daughter of a U.S. senator.

The scene has clear homoerotic undertones as it feels like Bruno is hitting on Guy. At first Guy is wary of Bruno's forward behavior but feels he's harmless enough and is cordial to him. During their conversation, Bruno tells Guy about his domineering, hard-nosed father who has recently been putting pressure on him to get a job and make something of himself. Bruno feels going to work and punching a time clock is beneath him and doesn't want any part of it. Bruno no doubt was a problem child and continues to be a burden to his father as a young adult. Bruno's worried that his father will eventually cut him off if he doesn't attempt to get a job and try to do something with his life. Thus, he feels he has to do something drastic before this happens.

In a half-joking manner, Bruno hypothetically suggests that the two exchange murders: Guy kills Bruno's father, and Bruno kills Mariam, "Crisscross." Bruno believes that the murder-swapping plan is perfect because neither would have any motive for killing a complete stranger, so there would be no connection tying them to the murders. Guy assumes that Bruno is joking and humors him, telling him it's a good idea. Guy gets off the train and doesn't give what Bruno said a second thought. Later on, to Guy's horror, Bruno tells him that he has indeed murdered Miriam and is now demanding that Guy keep up his end of the bargain and murder his father. Bruno's homicidal action sets off a psychological and suspenseful game of wits between the two men. It's compelling how Bruno keeps pulling Guy deeper and deeper into his dark, murderous plan to the point where Guy feels like a trapped prey.

Hitchcock Keeps The Tension High throughout Film

One of the things that makes the film so entertaining is that Hitchcock manages to sustain a high level of tension and suspense throughout. He keeps the audience on its toes with a number of unexpected twists and turns. Another significant component is that Hitchcock infuses the film with his trademark morbid sense of humor. His gallows humor can be found in most of the scenes involving his daughter Patricia Hitchcock, who plays Anne's younger sister Barbara ("Babs"). Babs is a kind of a strange girl who apparently has no filter and blurts out whatever she's thinking, much to the annoyance of her stern and rigid senator father. Bab's character is oddly charming. You can't help but like her.

Film Boasts Great Cast

The cast is uniformly good. Ruth Roman does a terrific job as Guy's romantic interest Anne Morton. Her character is all cool sophistication and haughty elegance. She just oozes class and style. She's the polar opposite of Guy's trashy wife Miriam. Kasey Rogers plays the role of Miriam with raunchy sex appeal, a bespectacled Jezebel with a devilish grin. The standout of the cast is Robert Walker as Bruno. Walker does a tremendous job in his role as the psychopathic Bruno. He's alternately menacing, desperate and vulnerable in the role. And Farley Granger is top-notch in probably the least colorful role in the film as the straitlaced Guy. His character is a great foil for the unbalanced and homicidal Bruno.


There are also some nice subtle touches in the film, for instance, when Guy gently straightens Bruno's tie after punching him in the face. It's a great moment as it shows the type of person Guy is in that he could still show kindness to someone who's attempting to ruin his life. And the scene also brings attention to the homoerotic undercurrent of the film. Or the scene when Miriam is flirting with Bruno at the amusement park the night he murders her. She looks over her shoulder to see if he's still following her, and when she turns back around, he' standing right next to her, seeming to appear from nowhere like an apparition.

Additionally, there's an excellent scene in which a very angry Guy is talking to Anne on a phone from a phone booth about his wife Miriam, who refuses to give him a divorce now that he's made some money playing tennis. While he's venting about Miriam, the sound of a train grows louder and louder, and when he finally yells into the phone, "I said I could strangle her!" the train goes by him and nearly drowns his words out. The sound of the train is a reference to the conversation he had with Bruno earlier about exchanging murders, and it also foreshadows Bruno killing Miriam by strangulation.

The Master Of Suspense

This film illustrates why Hitchcock was such a highly respected and critically acclaimed director. He knew how to grab an audience's attention and hold it in a vice grip. He was a great at building tension and suspense and would always sprinkle ample doses of his twisted, dark humor in his films to help counterbalance their more gruesome and horrific moments. They didn't call him "The Master of Suspense" for nothing.

Strangers On A Train at Amazon

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Peter Berg's Very Bad Things: A Very, Very Black Comedy

A bachelor party turns into a nightmare when a prostitute is accidentally killed during the festivities. Her death triggers all sorts of unforeseen calamities. (review contains spoilers)

Very Bad Things is a truly twisted black comedy that teeters way over the edge of good taste. It was a very risky move on writer/director Peter Berg's part to make this his first foray into feature films as a director. However, the 1998 film has gone on to become something of a cult classic.

The film centers on a group of friends who throw their buddy Kyle (Jon Favreau) a bachelor
party in Las Vegas. In addition to Kyle, the group includes Mike (Jeremy Piven), his brother Adam (Daniel Stern), Boyd (Christian Slater) and Moore (Leland Orser). The guys are having a blast—boozing, snorting coke and trashing the hotel room—while Mike is having wild sex with a prostitute in the bathroom. In mid-coitus, Mike accidentally slams her head into a towel hook, killing her instantly.

When the others find out what happened, they start to panic and don't know what to do. Adam immediately runs to call the police, but Boyd stops him as he's not so sure if that would be the best course of action considering their situation. The rest of the group agrees with Boyd. They feel that calling the police would bring down an avalanche of problems on their heads and would completely ruin Mike's life. Thus, Boyd suggests that they bury the prostitute in the middle of the desert. He tells them that no one else even knows she was there, as he made the arrangements directly with her. The others think that this would be the best way to handle the situation.

The only one who has any real reservations about the idea is Adam. Boyd and the others eventually convince him that burying the prostitute would be the most practical and expedient thing to do in this predicament and would save them a world of trouble. Right when they're devising the plan of how they'll bring the prostitute’s body to the desert, a hotel security guard enters the room and tells them that there had been complaints about the noise. He soon spots the prostitute’s lifeless body in bathroom. Without hesitation, Boyd stabs him to death with a corkscrew. Now the group has two bodies to bury in the desert.

In Its Attempts To Shock, The Film Becomes Too Far Removed From Reality.

The Vegas incident triggers a chain reaction of mishaps and more grisly deaths. As the film progresses, it grows increasingly more violent and outrageous with the body count steadily climbing. After awhile, it seems that Berg wants to shock viewers more than he wants to entertain them. The first half, while sick, was still funny and entertaining, but the latter half just feels forced, soulless and depressing. It's shocking and sick just for the sake of it with no rhyme or reason behind it. The film becomes so over-the-top and outrageous that it loses any semblance of reality as well as much of its humor.

Each Character Battles With His Conscience.

The film raises some serious moral and ethical questions, and each character is forced to wrestle with his conscience as he comes to terms with his actions. However, there is one person who doesn't appear to be at war with his conscience, and that is Boyd. The incident in Vegas revealed a side of him that his friends never knew. It turns out that he's a bona fide psychopath. And Boyd is not just your everyday, run-of-the-mill psycho. He's a psycho who spouts self-help jargon while chopping up and disposing of dead bodies; he's a psycho who views killing two people and burying them in the middle of the desert as a sign of personal growth for him and his friends and treats it like a male-bonding excursion.

Christian Slater is terrific in the role of Boyd. It's one of his most underrated performances. And it's quite chilling to watch him calmly rationalize each monstrous act he carries out. Even when the film starts to veer off course, his character still remains interesting to watch.

And Daniel Stern and Jeremy Piven are quite good as the bickering brothers Adam and Mike. Both have a number of great scenes. Probably the funniest scene in the entire film is when Adam nearly has a nervous breakdown in the middle of a gas station mini-mart. Overwhelmed with guilt and paranoia, he just about loses it completely. The scene is fraught with tension and dread, but it’s also extremely funny. And Stern displays a great talent for physical comedy in the scene.

Stellar Soundtrack

One of the best things about the film is its soundtrack. Berg does a tremendous job in choosing the right music to set up scenes. For instance, the scene where the guys are cleaning up the hotel room and cutting up the bodies is set to "Do It, Fluid" by the Blackbyrds. This is a wickedly clever song choice for this scene. And right after that scene, Willie Bobo's "Fried Neck Bones and Some Homefries" is played while the group drives deep into the desert to bury the bodies. The haunting Latin groove fits the scene perfectly.

Cameron Diaz Plays The Bride-To-Be From Hell.

The film also stars Cameron Diaz as Kyle's controlling bride-to-be Laura. It turns out that she's just as deranged as Boyd. Her obsessive and controlling traits are apparent early on in the film. Even after she learns of what really happened in Las Vegas, she's still adamant about going through with the wedding. She wants to get married at any cost, even if she has to literally kill someone to make it happen. Laura and Boyd are cut from the same cloth. Both are selfish and manipulative control freaks who have homicidal tendencies. Diaz does a solid job as the cold and calculating Laura.

And Jeanne Tripplehorn (Criminal Minds and Big Love) delivers a fine performance as Adam's exasperated wife. Retired porn star Kobe Tai plays the prostitute, and Russell B. McKenzie plays the hotel security guard.

Peter Berg Makes Bizarre Choice For First Feature Film.

This film is a pretty odd choice for a director making his debut into feature films. But you've got give Berg credit for having the cojones to stick to his vision and not try to tone it down to make it more palatable for mass-audience consumption. This film has some brilliant parts but just as many bad ones, especially the ending. The film's finale is flat-out terrible. It feels as though Berg and everyone else involved had run out of ideas and just hastily threw that scene together. Had the entire film remained as strong as the first half, it would have been a great black comedy.

The reception to the film has been pretty much divided. It's just as much loved as it is reviled.

Very Bad Things at Amazon

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Boogie Nights: A Look Back at a Decadent Decade

Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997) is a compelling exploration into the adult film industry during the late 1970s.

Boogie Nights is a captivating snapshot of the late 1970s and early ‘80s and the adult film industry before video, DVDs and the Internet turned it into a $15 billion-a-year cash cow. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson effectively captures the temper of the era in all its hedonistic decadence, from the casual sex to the illicit drug use to the loose morality that defined the decade. What could have been a depressing three-hour cautionary tale of the era’s excesses turned out to be a fascinating and thoughtful examination of a group of flawed individuals who form a familial bond in the most unlikely of circumstances and settings.

Strong Cast Brings Film To Life

The film boasts a stellar cast that includes Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy and Philip Baker Hall. Screen veteran Burt Reynolds turns in one of his finest performances as adult film director Jack Horner. Jack has designs to be a “real” filmmaker, meaning he wants to be taken seriously as a director outside of the porn industry. He feels that his work will one day be respected by mainstream audiences and ultimately change people’s perceptions of adult films. His ambitions reveal how different things were back in the late '70s in that some thought that X-rated movies would eventually become a legitimate and respected genre in mainstream filmmaking. In Reynolds' hands, Jack is a compelling character, who is by turns charming, scary, paternal and sleazy.

In a star-making performance, Mark Wahlberg plays troubled teen Eddie Adams who stumbles into the adult film industry. Eddie’s an emotionally wounded kid who’s constantly belittled by his bitter, shrewish mother. His caring but browbeaten father provides him little help from his mother’s verbal assaults. Eddie’s in sore need of someone who will make him feel that he has some value and will provide him unconditional love. Jack and the crew of his production company take Eddie in and become his surrogate family and provide him the unconditional love that was missing in his real family.

It turns out that Eddie’s a natural, as he’s, shall we say, gifted in an area that would make him very bankable in the adult film business. He rechristens himself Dirk Diggler and has a short reign as the top male star in the adult film industry before drugs and ego take him down. Diggler’s character is loosely based on real-life porn star John Holmes who went from being top dog in the porn biz to a desperate drug addict, eventually dying from AIDS-related complications at 43 in 1988.

Drug-Fueled Violence

This film contains several disturbing scenes of graphic violence, most of them triggered by excessive cocaine use. However, these scenes are not gratuitous but are necessary to show the brutal reality of the environment in which the characters inhabited. Probably the most chilling and riveting scene in the entire film takes place when Dirk and his two buddies Reed Rothchild and Todd Parker (played by John C. Reilly and Thomas Jane, respectively) get in over their heads when they try to rip off wealthy and dangerous drug dealer Rahad Jackson (brilliantly portrayed by Alfred Molina). The scene unfolds like a great piece of music. The tension builds and builds until it reaches a crescendo of heightened emotion and violence. Anderson has said in interviews that the scene was inspired by the real-life 1981 Wonderland murders in which John Holmes was involved. Holmes was on the scene when the crime took place, but it was never confirmed whether he participated in the actual murders.

 Great Use of Popular Music In Setting Mood

Anderson deftly utilizes some choice tracks in creating the proper mood in his scenes. Like Martin Scorsese, he has a knack for picking just the right song to perfectly set up a scene. Some of the artists and bands featured on the film’s terrific soundtrack include Marvin Gaye, the Ohio Players, the Beach Boys, KC & the Sunshine Band, the Commodores, Electric Light Orchestra and Eric Burdon and War.

Paul Thomas Anderson Delivers With Boogie Nights

In only his second feature film, Anderson proved that he was filmmaker of great vision and talent. And although he was working with a large cast, he managed to make the viewer get emotionally invested in each character. Following Boogie Nights, Anderson continued to display his gifts as a writer/director with excellent films such as Punch-Drunk Love, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood. He always manages to get the best out of his actors. And when watching Boogie Nights, it’s clear that Anderson was a student of legendary director Martin Scorsese. Any Scorsese fan will notice the Scorsesian touches throughout the film. However, Anderson definitely has his own unique and original style of filmmaking, and he will no doubt continue to make compelling films.

Boogie Nights at Amazon

Related blog entry: Review of Paul Thomas Anderson's First Feature Film Hard Eight

Friday, June 6, 2014

Elisabeth Shue Stars in Adventures in Babysitting

Elisabeth Shue charms her way through this adventure/comedy about a suburban babysitter who gets thrown into a rough urban world of criminals and lowlifes.

(review contains spoilers)

Harry Potter director Chris Columbus made his directorial debut with Adventures in Babysitting (1987). It is a fun, highly entertaining comedy about the misadventures of a high school senior who gets sidetracked into a rough urban world of gangsters and assorted lowlifes while on a babysitting job. This was Elisabeth Shue's first starring role, and she didn't disappoint.

Adventures in Babysitting is sort of Risky Business lite. Both of the films' protagonists are naive, sheltered Chicago suburbanites who get a crash course in the real world and learn some important life lessons along the way. However, the PG13-rated Adventures in Babysitting is much tamer than the R-rated Risky Business.  The opening of the film even pays homage to the iconic Tom Cruise underwear scene from Risky Business. But instead of Bob Seger's gritty "Old Time Rock and Roll," Shue's character gets her groove on to the Crystals' hit "Then He Kissed Me." It's a really great way to open the film. You've got Phil Spector's famous Wall of Sound, the sweet voices of the Crystals, and a joyful Shue dancing around while she gets ready for her big date. It nicely sets the film's fun, playful tone.

A Babysitting Job Goes Awry

Attractive suburban high school senior Chris Parker (Shue) takes a babysitting job after her jerk of a boyfriend cancels on their date at the last minute. The little girl that she's hired to babysit is a spunky eight-year-old named Sara Anderson (Maia Brewton), who's a huge fan of the Marvel Comics superhero Thor. Sara roller-skates around the house wearing a winged Thor helmet, and posters of the hammer-wielding Norse god adorn her bedroom walls. Sara's older brother Brad (Keith Coogan) is a gawky15- year-old who has a mega crush on Chris.

While babysitting Sara, Chris gets an urgent phone call from her best friend Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller). Brenda ran away from home due to her contentious relationship with her stepmother, but lost her nerve once she got a peek at some of the derelicts, weirdos and perverts who hang out at the seedy bus station in downtown Chicago. Brenda doesn't have any money for cab fare to get home and wants Chris to come pick her up.  So Chris takes along Sara, Brad and his obnoxious best friend Daryl Coppersmith (Anthony Rapp) to get Brenda. The rescue mission is thrown way off course after Chris' car gets a flat tire on the expressway. In their peril-filled journey through the rough streets of downtown Chicago, they encounter a car thief, gangbangers, a young prostitute and assorted mobster types.

Elisabeth Shue really shines in this film, bringing a natural charm to her role of Chris. In addition to her good looks, she has a relatable appeal that connects with the audience. However, there is one problem, and it doesn't have anything to do with her acting abilities. Shue does not look like a 17-year-old high school student. The then 23-year-old actress seems much older than cast member Keith Coogan, whom she's only supposed to be two years his senior. It's not a big problem, but it does make you do a double take when it's mentioned that the two attend the same high school.

Shue receives strong support from her fellow cast members. The standout among the supporting cast is Maia Brewton as Sara. The young actress has great comedic timing and steals a lot of scenes in her role as the scrappy eight-year-old Thor devotee. And Penelope Ann Miller is hilarious as Shue's frantic best friend Brenda. Also, Calvin Levels is impressive as Joe Gipp, the charming car thief with a heart of gold. Rapp and Coogan are also quite good in their respective roles.
 In addition, the late character actor John Davis Chandler is very scary as hardened mobster Bleak. With his raspy sandpaper voice and cold-as-death glare, Bleak is one guy you don't want to mess with. And keep an eye out for a very svelte Vincent D'Onofrio (Full Metal Jacket and Law & Order: Criminal Intent) as a surly mechanic who Sara thinks is Thor in his secret identity.

Columbus does a good job in his first outing in the director’s chair. He moves the film along at a nice, crisp pace and draws strong performances from his young cast. Columbus went on to a hugely successful career as a filmmaker with five massive blockbusters to his credit: Mrs. Doubtfire; Home Alone; Home Alone 2: Lost in New York; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone; and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The screenplay for Adventures in Babysitting was penned by writer/producer David Simkins.

Additionally, the film boasts a killer soundtrack. It’s filled with stellar blues, R&B and rock tracks. Some of the artists represented on the soundtrack include Percy Sledge, the Rolling Stones, Edwin Starr, Junior Walker, Iggy Pop, Muddy Waters and Sam Cooke. And the late legendary bluesman Albert Collins has a cameo in the film. The kids duck into his blues club while fleeing from mobsters. He tells them, “Nobody gets out of here without singing the blues.” The highlight of the film is the scene with Collins and the kids performing “Babysitting Blues.”

Columbus delivers the goods with Adventures in Babysitting. It’s everything a film like this should be. It has a charismatic and extremely likable protagonist; it’s very funny, has lots of excitement and a really strong group of supporting players. And as an added bonus, the film has an amazing soundtrack. What more could you ask for?
Adventures In Babysitting at Amazon

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing Revisited

Spike Lee explores the racial divide in America and mob mentality in his controversial film Do The Right Thing.

(review contains spoilers)

It has been 25 years since Spike Lee's landmark film Do The Right Thing hit theaters in 1989. The film remains as relevant as ever and continues to spark heated discussion about race and racism in America. It stands as one of the most honest and uncompromising depictions on film of the problematic and sometimes volatile state of race relations in the United States. This is a very courageous film, especially for a young filmmaker who was just making a name for himself.

Probably the most significant thing that Lee accomplished with this film is that he reopened dialogue about race in America. Not many films at the time were addressing racial problems in the U.S. in such an upfront and contentious fashion. Although many critics hailed the film, others accused Lee of being reckless and irresponsible for releasing such an "inflammatory" work, which they felt reopened racial wounds that were better left closed. When Lee made this film, he knew full well that race problems were still very present in America and believed sweeping them under the rug and not addressing them just made the situation worse. He felt that open dialogue was the best way to address such issues. Therefore, Lee was doing the exact opposite of trying to fan racial flames as some had wrongly accused him.

Lee assembled an extremely talented cast for the film, which included Ossie Davis, Samuel L. Jackson, Ruby Dee, John Turturro, Giancarlo Esposito and Danny Aiello. Aiello is superb as Sal, the Italian-American owner of a pizzeria located in the Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy) section of Brooklyn. Sal has run the pizzeria in the same location for the last 25 years, and he and his pizzeria have become neighborhood fixtures. Sal is basically a decent and caring man who works hard and makes an honest living. For the most part, he gets along with most of the people in the area, which is predominately African-American. However, he is not without his flaws; he still holds deep-seated prejudices and is a bit of a hothead. Aiello doesn't hit a single false note as Sal, probably the most complex and finely drawn character in the entire film. Lee originally wanted Robert De Niro for the role of Sal, but De Niro turned it down due to prior commitments. Lee has said that getting Aiello for the role turned out to be a "blessing."

Sal runs the pizzeria with his two sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Older brother Pino is openly racist, has contempt for nearly everyone he comes in contact with, and hates every minute of working at the pizzeria: "Every day I come to work, it's like Planet of the Apes," Pino gripes. Vito, on the other hand, is much more tolerant and open-minded. He is cordial and respectful to all the customers at the pizzeria and even befriends a couple of them.

Mookie (Lee) is a young black man who delivers pizza for Sal. Mookie lacks ambition and is irresponsible. He has a young son out of wedlock with his girlfriend Tina, a sexy, sharp-tongued Puerto Rican played by Rosie Perez, and he's a burden to his younger sister Jade (played by Lee's real-life younger sister Joie Lee), with whom he lives. He does his job in a lackadaisical, apathetic fashion and constantly complains to Sal about making deliveries. Mookie is well-liked by almost everyone in the neighborhood, and even though he constantly screws up on his job, Sal holds a soft spot for him. Of course, Pino thinks his father should have fired Mookie a long time ago.

With such a serious and polemical subject matter, one would think that this film would be a grim and heavy viewing experience. On the contrary, much of the film is an enjoyable slice-of-life piece that chronicles the events during the hottest day of the summer in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood. The film is filled with colorful and humorous vignettes of the characters coping with the heat and bantering back and forth. Lee adeptly balances humor and serious drama in the film. The comedic moments allow the viewer to warm up to the characters. It was a smart move on Lee's part to offset much the serious drama with ample doses of humor. This melding of comedy and drama can be found in the famous racial-slur montage, one of the film's most powerful scenes. In the montage, people of different races and ethnic backgrounds take turns spewing racial epithets directly at the camera. This scene is at once compelling and funny.

The main conflict in the film begins when Buggin Out (a militant young black man played by Giancarlo Esposito) notices that there are no African American on Sal's wall of fame at his pizzeria, only Italian Americans. Buggin Out's grievance is that the wall of fame should be representative of the majority of customers who frequent the pizzeria, which is largely black. However, Sal feels he can put on his wall whomever he likes, as it is his pizzeria. An argument ensues between the obstinate Buggin and the hothead Sal, with Buggin being kicked out of the pizzeria. This compels Buggin to call for a boycott of Sal's Pizzeria. Later that night, Buggin and Radio Raheem (a hulking and intimidating young black man played by Bill Nunn) storm into Sal's restaurant right before closing.

Buggin loudly demands that Sal put some pictures of "brothas" up on the wall, and Radio defiantly has his boombox turned up full blast, further exacerbating an already explosive situation. Sal finally snaps, first dropping the "N" bomb and then destroying Radio's boom box with a baseball bat. Then all hell breaks loose, with Radio attacking Sal while Buggin and some of the other customers get into it with Pino and Vito. When the police arrive, they immediately go for Radio and put him in a choke hold until they cut off his air supply, killing him. The large crowd of onlookers explodes like a nuclear blast, and the conflict between Buggin and Sal has erupted into a full-scale riot during which Sal's pizzeria is burnt to the ground.

In this explosive scene, Lee brilliantly illustrates how a seemingly insignificant conflict can escalate into a full-blown riot. He shows how mob mentality can take over in which people don't think or act rationally. When Mookie throws a trash can through the window of Sal's Pizzeria, he yells, "Hate!!," verbalizing what was going through the minds of all the rioters. Da Mayor (the sagacious neighborhood drunk excellently depicted by Ossie Davis) is the only voice of reason during the mayhem; he tries to calm the crowd down, but to no avail. Lee caught flack from some people for the violent climax, but more praised him for the brutal honesty of the scene and for not holding back and laying bare how people's emotions can get the best of them and cause them to do things that they later greatly regret.
The film's conclusion has Mookie coming back to see Sal sitting in front of his destroyed pizzeria the day after the riot and asking for his last paycheck. The conversation they have is quite interesting. There are no apologies from either but a mutual understanding and an unspoken acknowledgement that both were wrong in their actions the previous night. The scene subtly shows that even after all that happened the night before, Mookie and Sal don't hate one other. Much credit should go to Lee for avoiding the temptation to infuse the scene with fake sentimentality or empty platitudes. The scene wouldn't have possessed the same authenticity and power if he had. The scene symbolically illustrates that there is still hope for a mutual respect and understanding between races--particularly between white and black--but will only be accomplished by acknowledging that there is a problem and addressing it through open dialogue.

Lee doesn't pretend to have all the answers with this film but merely opens the door for discussion about the issues of race and racism in America. He respects the intelligence of his audience enough not to spoon-feed them a pat ending wrapped up in a nice little bow. Lee challenges viewers to ponder and debate the issues rather than telling them what to think. 25 years later, Do The Right Thing still stirs up heated debate about racial issues in America,  which is a testament to the film's effectiveness and timelessness.

Do the Right Thing at Amazon

Related blog entry: Spike Lee Reminisces about his Youth in Crooklyn