A great rock n’ roll film doesn’t have to get everything right. There really isn’t a way around the clichÃ©s of telling the classic rock biopic tale. It’s always the same. Scrappy young kids create sparks playing together in the garage. They play shows in divey little clubs and then a sleazy impresario comes along to whip them into shape and acts as Svengali, enabler, and all around brow beater. After several go nowhere sessions in the studio they get that one song right and then cue the montage of their steady climb up the charts followed by too much partying, band feuds, solo albums, and then the inevitable implosion. Whether it’s a documentary about the Sex Pistols, The Filth & The Fury, or the fictional Ladies & Gentlemen…The Fabulous Stains the classic rock n roll narrative rarely veers off course. The Runaways is a great rock film, which is not to say it works on every level. It’s a disjointed film of mostly excellent individual scenes and adrenaline pumping performances. Don’t expect real insight into the collaborative nature of a band or really any aspect of the Runaways’ story that isn’t directly associated with Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, and Kim Fowley. The other girls in the band might as well not even exist. But do expect tough girls in tight jeans and leather jackets, 1970s Sunset Strip sleaze, and a deeply romantic portrait of teenage girls making rock n’ roll records and taking on a music industry that didn’t know what to do with them.
The Runaways doesn’t shy away from what made the band unique. Some reacted to the raw sexuality in The Runaways as if it was exploitive and that makes zero sense to me. As the scarily good Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley says, “This isn’t about women’s liberation! It’s about women’s libido!” Calling the honest depiction of teenage sexuality exploitive is condescending and misguided. The director, Floria Sigismondi, never loses sight of the fact that these are young women discovering the world and themselves together. It’s not cynical at all and is in fact much less offensive than the virgin/whore pop star thing that caters only to men.Continue Reading
Fast Food Nation
It stands to reason that if you can get people to eat s*** and like it you can pretty much get away with anything. This is the sentiment I took away from Eric Schlosser's devastating expose of the fast food industry, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of The American Meal (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001). The book was compared to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle for its gritty glimpse into an industry that has a stranglehold over our agriculture, our declining health, and our government. (And he really does point out that because of the American beef industry's dedication to doing things as cheaply as possible sometimes feces make their way into hamburger patties. Seriously.) Eric Schlosser connected the dots as to why fast food is so cheap and omnipresent and what he discovered was a vast system of interrelated factors that have been set up to dominate and degrade almost every aspect of our society - from the disgusting ways in which cattle are treated, to the exploitation of undocumented workers, to the disease and obesity epidemics currently plaguing this country. Schlosser wrote the definitive account of why American ideals are so compromised by the dominance of fast food culture. Making a documentary based on the book seemed to be the most logical way to visually depict Schlosser's investigative findings but director Richard Linklater had a different approach. Instead of filming Fast Food Nation as a muckraking documentary he uses the general narrative structure of Steven Soderbergh's ensemble film about the international drug trade, Traffic, as a device for exploring the business of fast food and its negative effects on all of us from multiple viewpoints.
The film follows lots of different characters caught up within their own troubling relationship to fast food production. Greg Kinnear plays an executive for a fast food chain called Mickey's. We follow him as he meets different people affiliated with the hamburger chain. He's shocked when he's told by his superior that they have worries about public outcry over their product. "There's shit in the meat," he says. He talks to scientists paid by Mickey's to craft the taste of liquid smoke in test tubes. He meets the kids who work at a Mickey's in Colorado. A young idealist named Amber (Ashley Johnson) working at Mickey's after school starts to realize that she doesn't want to be a part of what Mickey's is selling. Bruce Willis has a cameo as a cynical meat processing plant owner who warns Kinnear's character about sticking his nose in their business when he hears rumors about mistreatment of workers at the plant. We follow the experiences of Mexicans who crossed the border illegally into Colorado and work in the factory who are taken advantage of at every turn. Some turn to drugs to cope with the long hours and brutal work. Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and even Avril Lavigne pop up in different roles. Amber meets up with a group of college students determined to raise public consciousness about fast food's toll on the environment but have their illusions shattered when they see it's more complicated than they realized.Continue Reading
The Big Chill
Don’t get me wrong, I hate yuppies as much as the next guy. And the thought of two hours of white bread yuppies reconnecting while bemoaning their lost youth and wondering where the dreams went, I would agree, sounds painful. The idea had been filmed once before by indie maverick John Sayles with his very boring Return Of The Secaucus Seven in ’79. But for the much better The Big Chill, director/ screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was able to ensemble a dream cast of bright up and comers who brought magic to his incredibly complicated and witty script (written with Barbara Benedek).
Kasdan had been a hot go-to guy for scripts, having written The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders Of The Lost Ark. His first outing as a director was the steamy modern noir twister, Body Heat, starring the young William Hurt and Kathleen Turner (with an excellent little role for an even younger Mickey Rourke). The Big Chill was his personal take on a group of 1960s college friends reuniting fifteen years later for the funeral for their mutual bud, Alex (played in flashbacks by Kevin Costner, though those scenes were famously cut out of it. Kasdan would reward Costner with a plum role in his next film, the overrated gee-wiz Western, Silverado).Continue Reading
If you watch any of the terrific documentaries on films of the last fifty years (The Kid Stays In The Picture, A Decade Under the Influence, Visions Of Light, etc) you will notice there is ONE film that comes up over and over, its influence and success massive, the impact it had on the public and the industry indescribable. If you polled people, I bet it would make as many favorite ten-best lists as any other movie. If I happen upon it on TV I set sucked right in. It's the Gone With The Wind of its time.... Yes, you know what we are talking about, The Godfather. Perhaps the greatest movie ever made.
Of course this is the epic story of a post-WWII Italian American family. Vito, the Patriarch (Marlon Brando), is the head of the Corleone crime organization. The film opens at the wedding of his daughter, Connie (Talia Shire). His oldest son, Fredo (John Cazale), is a rather weakly type. His next son, Sonny (James Caan), a hothead womanizer, is the heir to take over the business. There is also an adopted Irish American son, Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall), who works as the family’s lawyer. His youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), is there with his new girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton). He is not part of the family business; as a collage graduate and a "war hero" there are expectations for greatness cast upon him. In a nutshell, The Godfather is a tale about how Michael evolves from clean-cut, all-American wanna-be to the head of the family when his father dies and his brother Sonny is murdered. And he ends up becoming even more ruthless than his father ever was.Continue Reading
The Day of the Locust
Adaptations of quintessentially L.A. novels tend to either work marvelously, as with L.A. Confidential, or don't quite measure up to their source material (a category I’d lump Ask the Dust into). John Schlesinger’s adaptation of The Day of the Locust was a costly misfire for Paramount Studios which spent something like 6 months on the film and a whole lot of dough. It could have been as influential as Chinatown, but it was a flop upon release, though ultimately it had some enduring appeal as a cult film in later years. Nathaniel West’s novel is generally considered to be the very best novel on Hollywood, its more grotesque inhabitants, and its tragic allure as a festering dump where dreams go to die. That makes the novel sound sobering and self-serious but this is a story about fame whores, violently degenerate midgets, sociopathic child actors, cockfights, stag films, and a movie premiere that culminates in the apocalypse. It’s brutally dark and really, really entertaining.
The movie is essentially a literal adaptation of West’s novel and it came under criticism from some quarters for being too literal. Director John Schlesinger was taken to task for supposedly ignoring the arch satire of West's depiction of Hollywood as the epicenter of greed, desperation, and idiocy, and instead ratcheting up the cartoon nihilism to a fever pitch. But when you do a story about America’s pop cultural border town that ends with a murderous orgy of celebrity blood lust I’m not exactly sure "holding back" is the way to go. The Day of the Locust is about a particular kind of American tragedy that West found on Hollywood Boulevard during the 1930s. In the dive bars and diners that lined the boulevard were hundreds of desperate people without a nickel to their name, all drawn to Hollywood in the hopes of making it big. Most, West found, couldn’t even get work as extras. He saw them as a mass of human wreckage under the movie premiere kleig lights. The dark joke beneath the glittering dream that Hollywood came to embody was exquisitely rendered by West as it was happening. The film does justice to the novel with its horror show theatrics under the palm trees and sunny skies of Southern California and ultimately it’s more creepy than campy.Continue Reading
Last Tango In Paris
Film acting can be defined with "before Brando" and "after Brando." Marlon Brando brought a reality and a vulnerability to the screen that had never been fully been realized by a major movie star before his startling run of influential film performances in the early 1950s. The generations of "method actors" (Dean, Newman, Hoffman, De Niro, Pacino, Penn, etc.) all cited Brando as their number-one influence on their own revolutionary work.
No other actor has given a string of film performances like the first half dozen of Brando's performances; they were monumental. The Men (1950), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), Julius Caesar (1953), The Wild One (1953), and On the Waterfront (1954) (for which he finally won his first Oscar) all contributed to his legend.Continue Reading
Homer & Eddie
You know how in old classic films or screwball comedies there is usually some sort of love triangle where a guy and a gal "meet cute" and go on some ridiculous adventure together, later to get married? Well, Homer and Eddie is sort of like that scenario, only fairly depressing and in no way romantic.
Homer (James Belushi) is a slightly mentally handicapped man who has lost a bit of sense and gained a fair amount of childlike ignorance after being hit in the head with a baseball during a game when he was a boy. In the beginning of the movie he prepares himself for a long journey, saying goodbye to his desolate neighborhood and a local stray before hitting the road. His goal is to see his sick father before he kicks the bucket, though the man and his entire family have pretty much abandoned him after the case of his retardation. While hitchhiking on the freeway, he gets his suitcase and cash stolen. With no means of lodging, he wanders into a garbage dump and falls asleep in the backseat of a seemingly empty car. But in the morning, he discovers that he's not alone as the driver, Eddie (Whoopi Goldberg), was asleep in the front. After being startled by the aloof and friendly stranger, she tries once to rob him, then oddly offers up help in a half-brained scheme to locate the men who stole the money that she somehow figures is now rightfully hers.Continue Reading
Me Without You
If you've ever experienced or witnessed the heavy and sometimes odd bond that two girls can have, you will enjoy (or remain bewildered after) seeing this movie. Set in the summer of 1973, Holly and Marina are two neighbors who become best friends in a small London suburb. Holly is the only child of a very conservative Jewish family where her mother and father are still married and highly involved in her progress as an intellect. Her best friend Marina's life serves as an excellent juxtaposition. Her mother is….well, picture a woman with the spirit of a 1930s flapper and the heart of a British teen in the '60s who chain smokes and likes Valium. Her father is a globe-trotting pilot who is never around and her older brother Nat is an attractive lad with a life of his own. The two girls take an oath that summer to be "one" in a place in their minds that they've named "Harina." As time goes on, the two share all of life's disappointments and thrills, but as the girls get older and things get more complicated, the balance of their friendship changes. Holly becomes the only positive force in Marina's unstable and self-destructive existence. And while she only wants happiness for everyone she knows and loves, Holly can't help redeeming her pact and getting involved with Marina's chaotic pastimes, nor can she snuff the growing passion she has for Marina's brother.
The actresses who play the older stages of these two girls are what put the icing on the cake. Holly is played by Michelle Williams—an excellent choice for a character who is a bit mousy, intellectual, and an old-fashioned romantic. Marina is played by Anna Friel, a charismatic and colorful actress who fits the part perfectly. By the time they've hit college, still living together in a flat with other roommates, they've experienced some of the best parts of being young, which include hard drugs and casual sex. The soundtrack of the film is an excellent addition to their exhilaration, and while it is looked down upon to have it be the one of the film's best features, the spirit of this movie survives because of the sounds of The Clash, Wreckless Eric, Scritti Politti, Echo and the Bunnymen, and other landmark artists.Continue Reading
We’ve all seen movies that circulate around addiction, whether it be substance abuse or recreational activities. The success of their messages can either scare the pants off an audience, urging them to never go down that path, or pull recovering addicts into a reminiscing spell. But Candy is somewhat different. Directed by Neil Armfield and co-written by the novel’s author, Luke Davies, it is a story more about the addiction of being loved and its consequences than of substance abuse.
Heath Ledger plays Dan, a sensitive, almost puppy-like poet who is addicted to heroin. Candy, played by Abbie Cornish, is an artist who falls madly in love with Dan and all of his habits, including the drug. Together they think they’ve found a bliss and complacency unlike anything they’ve ever experienced that would be the envy of any romantic, as well as a "secret glue" holding their world together. Though this euphoria is aided by the opiate, the real drug they fall under the influence of is their infatuation with one another.Continue Reading
If I had a dime for every time I had to defend this brilliant film, I’d be a millionaire. The film is set in the red-light district of the early 1900s in Storyville, New Orleans—a time when prostitution was beginning to be looked upon as foul by the community. Brooke Shields plays Violet, one of three children who are being raised in the brothel in which her mother Hattie (Susan Sarandon) works and resides. The house also serves as a sort of hotel for passing travelers and is stumbled upon by a photographer named Bellocq (Keith Carradine). At first, he is only interested in the women in order to study how they live and to capture their beauty and charismatic wonder with his camera. But when the 12-year old Violet begins her initiation to join the ranks of the women there, he becomes trapped in a battle with his conscience to both stop the girl from having a future in the house and to hold off his desire to keep her for himself. As for Violet, she is, after all, only a child and offers no aid in helping Bellocq make the right decision. She plays on his affection as one would expect a vain, spoiled, and fatherless girl to do. The resolution that comes to these characters does so without any sort of satisfactory closure. You’ll still be thinking about the future of people like this long after you’ve finished the film.
Now, let’s get past the controversy quickly before continuing. Yes, Brooke Shields is a 12-year old portraying a child prostitute who is artistically nude in some shots, though never performing a sexual act on screen. To most, this would be considered child pornography. But let us remember this is Louis Malle we’re talking about—a brilliant director who has a gift for delivering complex coming-of-age films as honestly and true to life as one can in cinema. Let us also remember that this film was made in the '70s when artistic expression without limitations was soon to come to an end, especially in America. Lastly, for a person in this time period, the social requirements for whom you could marry and sleep with was as far removed from today’s standards as you could imagine. With that said, I believe there is a lot more than what meets the eye with this film. I believe that it is still relevant and important in our society, and is perhaps a visual image that pairs well with songs like "House of the Rising Sun."Continue Reading