Straight Outta Compton
The music biography has been a popular source of material for movies going back to the creation of the talkies. Even forgetting all the classical composers, the music of the last one hundred years--from jazz to rock and everything in between--seems to continually stir the imagination of filmmakers. And why not? The music bio is a tried and true genre that usually follows the same rags to riches formula and all the excesses that comes with it. From the Glenn Miller and Gene Krupa Stories through Lady Sings The Blues, The Buddy Holly Story, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Sid and Nancy, La Bamba, Great Balls of Fire, The Doors, Selena, What’s Love Got to Do with It?, Control, and of course Ray and Walk The Line, all these films offer different levels of entertainment value. And you can be sure many more are on their way as the greats of the 1960s and '70s continue to reach super-icon status and death.
The last major popular music genre to explode on to the scene has been rap or hip-hop. Though less than forty years old, it has already gotten its share of bios, mixing the “sorta fictional” with the more traditional “lets put on a show” type of music film (Krush Groove, 8 Mile, Get Rich or Die Tryin', Notorious and the lost & forgotten Run-D.M.C. flick Tougher Than Leather). But with Straight Outta Compton, the still young rap-bio has finally gotten its first nearly-great movie. It’s the mostly true story of a fairly diverse group of teens from the tough streets of Compton who came together to form N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit Attitudes). They had a quick and controversial rise and an even quicker implosion, but their impact is still felt today. They weren’t The Beatles of rap. They were more like The Sex Pistols, a band who came on later in the game and only briefly, but whose energy and rage helped make everything before them sound overly safe and instantly dated.Continue Reading
One of the lost near-great films of the '80s by a major director and writer remains mostly buried, but is due for a major reconsideration. Daniel, directed by Sidney Lumet with a script by E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime) based on his own novel, The Book of Daniel, got no love in its day and has received only a compulsory bare bones DVD release since. An easy description would be what happened to the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the real life Jewish couple who were railroaded by the US government and executed for being Soviet spies: a case that reeked of paranoia and anti-Semitism. Doctorow has created a story from pure imagination with the fictional Paul and Rochelle Isaacson sitting in for the Rosenbergs, who had two sons in real life. Doctorow's couple instead have a girl and a boy, Susan and Daniel, played by the fascinating Amanda Plummer and Timothy Hutton (a few years from his Oscar-winning, star-making performance in Ordinary People.) But instead of just being a character study, it’s also a history lesson in post WWII American radicalism, as Daniel, now a young man tries to understand what happened to his parents. As the 1980s were not a great decade for liberalism on film or in real life, spiritually and timeline-wise Daniel sits perfectly between Warren Beatty’s masterpiece, Reds, and Lumet’s own Running On Empty.
The Isaacsons were the classic NY liberal family, children of immigrants, with generations all living under one roof. Paul (Mandy Patinkin), a proud WWII vet and Rochelle (Lindsay Crouse) are naïve in their trust of the “American way,” taking part in causes, meetings and marches that usually involve their children, including free Paul Robeson concerts. (His deep voice fills most of the film's soundtrack). The film knocks back and forth from the '40s to the '50s as the couple grows more radical and eventually are arrested (for something having to do with atomic secrets, but clearly more to do with their outspokenness), and then to the late '60s as the orphaned but now adult Daniel and Susan adjust to life. Susan has become a hippie rebel open to any cause and eager to use her family’s street cred to advance it; a few years later, all that passion leads to a nervous breakdown and being institutionalized. Daniel, in the mean time, has grown into a coolly bearded and intensely angry young man with a wife (a young and adorable Ellen Barkin) and eventually his own kids whom he seems to ignore. Susan’s mental health issues lead him to finally begin exploring the mysteries of why his parents were punished so extremely.Continue Reading
The all-time great director Sidney Lumet is often associated with his ear for the New York streets (The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Prince of The City). He's also acclaimed for his skill at balancing his films’ often loud histrionics (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network). So, ironically, he hit a home run late in his career with a legal drama that actually gets its power through silence.
The film is written by a master of gritty verbal sparring, David Mamet. Upon its release in ’82, The Verdict instantly joined the ranks of the all-time great courtroom dramas — an elite company, with flicks like Anatomy of a Murder and Witness for the Prosecution. And the role of alcoholic lawyer Frank Gavin gave Paul Newman his best role in 15 years (at least since Cool Hand Luke in ’67).Continue Reading
Naked is Mike Leigh's most philosophical exercise in improvisation. It also happens to be a very entertaining tale of the anti-hero and cynicism.
The protagonist, Johnny (David Thewlis), is an upbeat though altogether conflicted young man on the run from his native Manchester after getting himself into a sticky situation. He travels to London, ending up on the doorstep of his ex-girlfriend and encounters her roommate, Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), while his ex-girlfriend is at work. Here we find our first example of Johnny putting his philosophical idioms and questions to work, as he seduces Sophie via negativity and shrewd, boastful simplification of existence and purpose.Continue Reading
Che: Part One
Everyone can come up with their "overlooked for an Oscar nomination" mis-justice list. Such a list may start with the fact that Martin Sheen wasn’t nominated for Apocalypse Now. And if you want to dig deeper, my list would point out that Orson Welles’ brilliant performance (and direction) in Touch of Evil was overlooked by awards givers. But out of the last ten years the performance and film that had Oscar pedigree written all over it and got no love was Benicio Del Toro and the film Che: Part One. Frankly it barely even got a theatrical release. Of course Che was director Steven Soderbergh’s epic story of the revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara and, like Tarantino’s Kill Bill double bill, it was so big it was lopped into two different films (and its awards consideration, totally mishandled). They are two very different movies, and Part Two is worth seeing (though much harder terrain if you don’t already know the history of Che’s involvement in trying to bring a revolution to Bolivia). Like history itself, Part One is a more easily digestible piece of pure entertainment, though in the end, the two together help give Che a bigger arch. Like the Cuban revolution itself, the romance is in the buildup, the planning, and the underdog story. The actual governing, not so pretty. But don’t think this is some kind of boring homework assignment, it's wonderful filmmaking anchored by Del Toro’s brilliant performance as the future college dorm-room poster superstar.
The film picks up almost where Walter Salles’ much more popular The Motorcycle Diaries ended. Exiled in Mexico the young Argentinian doctor, Che, is introduced to the budding Cuban intellectual revolutionary Fidel Castro (the also excellent Demian Bichir, who scored a forgotten Oscar nomination for the film A Better Life). Like everyone else Che is mesmerized by the charismatic leader and he agrees to join up. Cut to the jungles of Cuba where a weak Che eventually learns the ropes of a fighting guerilla (wonderfully spoofed in Woody Allen’s Bananas, thirty years earlier). He slowly earns the respect of his comrades and the peasants he meets along the way, to whom he gives free medical care and insists on educating. And though Che becomes a tough talker, he seems to be a poet at heart, a quality Del Toro always brings to his roles -- no matter the part there always seems to be a hipster softy lurking in there. Che also develops a relationship with a young protegee, Aleida March, who actually became his second wife (played by the beautiful Catalina Sandino Moreno, an Oscar nominee for her harrowing work in Maria Full of Grace).Continue Reading
Hunger is Steve McQueen's unforgettable dramatization of a volatile period in Irish and British history. If we can apply all the factions of war to the individuals involved, then we can and should call it as such –though the common man is seldom able to dictate history. The key battleground where it was waged was the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. The leader of the opposition was Bobby Sands, whose written words shortly before his death, “I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world,” rang true for the members of Irish Republican Army. Dozens of IRA soldiers, unkempt and uniform in misery, withstood years of imprisonment and torture whilst those on the outside continued efforts to have the entity recognized as a political one –thus rendering those taken in as political prisoners instead of the terrorists they were publicly deemed.
McQueen's political sympathies are quite clear in the film, and his background in contemporary art is not only blatant in the work, but recognized in moments of ethereal beauty. Narratively, the film is not of the norm in terms of the characters we follow and the amount of time dedicated to each. In fact Sands (played by Michael Fassbender) hardly appears in the film until the final 3rd of it. It opens by following the daily routines of Raymond (Stuart Graham), a prison official: icing his swollen knuckles after beating inmates, smoking, checking under his car for explosives planted by the IRA, sitting alone amongst bombastic colleagues at lunch break. One is never aware if he is coming undone or reeling in a sociopathic void. I don't think he even utters a word. His segment, and a brief glimpse later in the feature, are not necessarily a looking-glass in the supposed inner-conflict of those with the upper-hand, but they do offer a realistic vision in terms of the psychological turmoil that had to be a reality for at least some of the guards involved.Continue Reading
In the strange mega-career of Clint Eastwood, no matter what your overall opinion of the guy is, it can’t be argued that his choices have been fascinating. Before becoming the acclaimed and active old-man director of middle-of-the-road bores he is today, he was a huge super-duper action actor and in his heyday made some interesting zigs and zags (all from 1969-1973 when he made ten films).
Fresh off of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, giving him international box office clout, he made the bizarre musical Paint Your Wagon (1969) with Lee Marvin. The same year Dirty Harry cemented him as America’s premier tough guy, he directed the female stalker thriller Play Misty For Me (1971). He followed that up directing the completely awkward Breezy (1973) about a romance between senior citizen William Holden and a teenage flower child. Also in 1973 High Plains Drifter, which may be his greatest directing accomplishment, was released. Eastwood plays a drifter in the old west and the film opens with him raping a woman (of course, she ended up falling for him). Right in the middle of those crazy four years he made the oddest and maybe most psycosexual film of his career, The Beguiled, a sorta Gothic Civil War almost-ghosty story (in the sense that people are haunted by memories), about female lust. It’s as if Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women went on a Picnic at Hanging Rock.Continue Reading
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution
The opening title card of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution reads: “In 1891, Sherlock Holmes was missing and presumed dead for three years. This is the true story of that disappearance. Only the facts are made up.”
This clever welcoming very much sums up the kitschy and revisionist way the story of literature’s greatest detective is treated. One-time dance choreographer turned director Herbert Ross created a near-brand for himself in the '70s with his theatrical adaptations, with films like Funny Lady and Play It Again, Sam, and Neil Simon scripts including The Goodbye Girl, California Suite and The Sunshine Boys. But it is with this adaptation from the popular novel by Nicholas Meyer that Ross really gets to break away from his more stagebound roots, taking advantage of actual European locations and a very exciting cast to tell this tale of Holmes being treated by Sigmund Freud. (Later he would have success going back to his dancy roots with films like The Turning Point and Footloose.)Continue Reading
After his death, Steve McQueen reached rebel-cool icon status based on his off-screen machismo (racing cars and motorcycles, martial arts with Bruce Lee, stealing Robert Evans’ wife) and partly on his actual film resume, which in retrospect isn’t as great as you would expect. His peak years start in ’63 with his one masterpiece, The Great Escape (he did the overrated but still influential Western The Magnificent Seven a few years earlier), a couple of big hits that now feel more like remake-bait time capsules (The Thomas Crown Affair and The Cincinnati Kid), and of course there is also Bullitt, largely famous for its amazing high-speed San Francisco auto chases. But for the most part the late sixties were rounded out with forgotten melodramas (Love with the Proper Stranger, Baby the Rain Must Fall and The Sand Pebbles). The early seventies include a couple lesser collaborations with Sam Peckinpah (Junior Bonner and The Getaway) and the super cast/super dud The Towering Inferno. But besides appearing as himself in the Oscar-winning motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday, McQueen’s best film since The Great Escape is the epic Papillon, a film that has been written off by some as overly long and cold. But for my money it’s one of the best prison escape movies ever, as well as an eye-opening look at worlds I knew little about. (ALSO OF NOTE: I first saw it as a very young kid, in its second run at a drive-in, and there are some moments of violence that then confused me, but have stuck with me ever since.)
Based on the questionable autobiography of French petty criminal Henri “Papillon” Charrière, (played by the very American McQueen and shot in exotic locations all over the world) the script is credited to blacklisted legend Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (one of the creators of the '60s Batman TV series). The film begins in pre-WWII France with Papillon and other convicted criminals being marched through town and on to a boat to be shipped off to a French penal colony work camp. On the long and brutal ship ride, Papillon strikes a deal with a wealthy and rather famous forger, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman in full nebbish mode), for protection. With a promise to keep the meek embezzler alive, Dega will finance any escape attempts. Through the course of time, the two strike up an unlikely friendship (a prison adventure Midnight Cowboy). The film covers years in swampy, tough malaria-plagued conditions, finally ending on the infamous Devil’s Island. The film is loaded with wonderful set pieces, including long and short escape attempts, a leper colony, sadistic guards, creepy prisoners, solitary confinements and lots of double crosses (even a nun stabs Papillon in the back). It’s a survival saga and a friendship story, though the survival aspect is the highlight.Continue Reading
It’s called The Doors but director Oliver Stone’s hyper-bonkers bio of the band should have just been called Jim Morrison. Because the real show here is Val Kilmer’s brilliant performance as the self-destructive lead singer, while the rest of the guys--Ray Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan), Robby Krieger (Frank Whaley) and John Densmore (Kevin Dillon)--spend most of the movie standing around scolding Jim and telling him to grow up. As usual, Stone hits his points with a sledge hammer, and Doorsaphiles may take issue with the actual facts. I mean, was Jim’s LSD-inspired obsession with an Indian shaman a Morrison or a Stone concoction? But that’s neither here nor there; like Stone’s greatest film, JFK (also released in ’91), in the end the actual facts don’t matter. What does matter is the incredible filmmaking skills on show here. From the camera work to the editing to the use of sound, Stone is in his element with his usual all-star crew at their most dizzying and superfluous. If Morrison was one of music’s most self-indulgent windbags--some love The Doors while others call them overrated--Stone is in a similar boat. The guy has won a couple Oscars and penned a couple kinda-classics (Midnight Express, Scarface) but often gets eye rolls when his name is mentioned. And that proves to be part of the beauty here; the excess of Morrison’s short life is perfect for Stone’s excess on film.
Though living members of The Doors at different points of production were consulted, in the end they all publicly disavowed the final movie, claiming Stone ignored their suggestions. So in Stone’s world, the story of The Doors goes something like this. Transplanted from a nice all-American, middle class childhood, Jim was a groovy, shirtless UCLA film student, influenced by Literature 101 (The Beats, Nietzsche, Rimbaud, etc.), making ridiculous overly arty student films. After discussing his coolness with a classmate, Manzarek, they decide to form a band. They add the less hip, but apparently talented Krieger and Densmore to the band and pretty quickly start to gain a rep on the Sunset Strip club scene for their rulebreaking improvised style. Jim, in full swagger, also stalks and then seduces a young flower child, Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan), and she becomes his old lady. The band navigates the swirling waters of the swinging sixties rock scene, having hit records, meeting Andy Warhol (Crispin Glover), dealing with police arrests and a general far-outness. Meanwhile the more successful they get, the more Jim alienates Pam and his band with his excessive egomania and drug and alcohol abuse, until he finally overdoses in Paris at the age of twenty seven, just after the publication of his poetry book.Continue Reading