Tuesday, March 29, 2011
(May 2005, U.S.)
Before I even get into this film, I want to mention a song from my favorite Broadway musical AVENUE Q called "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist". Look up the lyrics and you'll see that they're not only very funny, but they also just might ring true with anyone who is completely and totally honest with themselves.
That having been introduced, we now discuss Paul Hassis' CRASH, a film about racial and social tensions in Los Angeles, California and the tremendous anger it produces amongst a small group of people. Like other films before it, such as SHORT CUTS (1993), 21 GRAMS (2003) and BABEL (2006), these people ultimately are connected in some form or fashion; in this case, of anger or racist action. Several characters' stories interweave during two days in Los Angeles; a black LAPD detective estranged from his mother, his criminal younger brother and gang associate, the white District Attorney and his irritated and pampered wife (played, by the way, by Sandra Bullock in the only decent acting I think the woman has ever done. Then again, I haven't seen THE BLIND SIDE), a racist cop who disgusts his more idealistic younger partner, a Hollywood director and his wife who must deal with the said cop, a Persian-immigrant father who is wary of others and a Hispanic locksmith and his young daughter. As the title's metaphor suggests, these people's lives will not just interweave, but will literally crash head-on into each other with intense tragedy. And as cliche might predict, the film ends up displaying some small signs of redemption and goodness at the end that may give the viewer warm and cozy feelings inside, but rest assured, these feeling won't last too long, because before you know it something happens in our lives with someone we don't know that will provoke our anger and our intolerance all over again.
CRASH, in my opinion, does very little to paint a positive portrait of human beings and their tolerance for each other based on color or creed. On a more personal level, though, I can only say that I've never been accused of being racist. On the other hand, I've never been accused of being tolerant, either. Like many others, I'm very capable of getting pissed off at people I don't know and letting my anger get the better of me, and what's more I have no intention of displaying any signs of hypocracy by offering an apology that is not genuine. This anger I often feel is usually most found on the road when I'm driving amongst other people. It happens when I see a woman insane enough to be texting while driving or when I get stuck behind some old man who drives too slow or behind the person who is too fucking stupid to realize that they ARE permitted to make that right turn at a red light!
Let me jump back to that song from AVENUE Q that I mentioned earlier. Here's a few lines from it that may sum up what many of us REALLY think and feel...but probably will never admit:
"If we all could just admit
That we are racist a little bit
Even though we all know that it's wrong
Maybe it would help us get along"
Is it true? Who knows.
CRASH won the Oscar for best picture of 2005. But as much as I loved it, I thought George Clooney's GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK should have won instead.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Jean: "I am angry all the time... and I don't know why."
Thursday, March 24, 2011
(August 1997, U.S.)
Every once in a great while a ripple occurs in the general order of things that threatens to rock the very foundations of our universal order. In this case, it's the fact that overkill-action star Sylvester Stallone is actually capable of ACTING when he has to. Let's move on and see what I'm talking about...
COPLAND is, of course, about cops...cops who work in Manhattan, but have created a life for themselves and their families just across the George Washington Bridge in the fictional town of Garrison, New Jersey. As one would predict, many of these cops are corrupt to the bone. Stallone plays the quiet sheriff of Garrison whose only real stretch of law enforcement is pulling over speeders and investigating who's illegally dumping their garbage in front of his friend's house. In other words, he's a town sheriff who knows his place amongst real bad cops and hasn't got the balls to stand his ground on anything (a very ANTI-Stallone character, indeed!). The rest of the cast plays like a who's-who of cop and mafia films, including Harvery Keitel, Ray Liotta and Robert DeNiro as the internal affairs man investigating bad cops. Yes, my friends, what we have here is MEAN STREETS meets ROCKY meets TAXI DRIVER meets GOODFELLAS, and it's fucking great! But like most other cop films, those who corrupt our system will eventually meet with justice, and it's the sheriff of this small New Jersey town who will stand alone against all the bad guys in a final shootout showdown for truth and justice (sounds just like Gary Cooper in HIGH NOON, doesn't it?). Stallone's performance builds slowly but achieves a stunning payoff when his character (Freddy) decides to clean up his town. Freddy awakes to his own potential, and it's exhilarating to watch the character and the actor revive together in unison. His transformation is more than a matter of his physical weight. He looks spiritually beaten and terribly sad. In other words, he looks like a real person and not the cult-of-the-body movie star he's been known as for so long. He uses this opportunity to deliver what I consider to be his best performance since F.I.S.T.(1978).
COPLAND's additional strength is in its hard-edged, novelistic human portraits, which pile up furiously during the film's dynamic opening scenes right up until the final moment. Everywhere the director's camera turns in this tense and volatile drama and it finds enough interest for a truckload of conventional Hollywood fare. Whatever small limitations the film may possess, COPLAND has true talent to burn up on the screen.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Lt. Ray Donlan: "Listen to me, Freddy. You know the difference between men and boys? BOYS bet everything on everything! Boys take every hand as a royal flush. You play cards with a MAN, he knows his limits! Freddy, I invited MEN, cops, good men to live in this town. And these men make a living, they cross that bridge every day to a place where everything is upside down...where the cop is the perp and the perp is the victim! But they play by the rules. They keep their guns in their holsters and they play by the rules. The only thing they did was to get their families out, BEFORE it got to them. We made a place where things make sense and you can walk across the street without fear! And you come to me with a plan to set things right! Everyone in the city holding hands singing 'We Are The World'! That's very nice. But, Freddy, your plan is the plan of a BOY! You made it on the back of a matchbook without thinking...without looking at the cards! I look at the cards. I see this town destroyed. Now that's not what you want, is it?"
That part about "We Are The World" cracks me up every time because it genuinely and perfectly represents my general cynicism toward the world! Thanks, Harvey!
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
(April 1974, U.S.)
It's startling enough that director Francis Ford Coppola even found the time to make anything in between both GODFATHER films. Instead he managed to make one of his best pieces of work and get it nominated for best picture of the same year (1974) as THE GODFATHER-PART II's nomination.
THE CONVERSATION is a Michelangelo Antonioni's BLOW-UP-inspired thriller stars Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who runs his own company and is highly respected by others in the same profession. Harry is also obsessed with his own personal privacy; his apartment is almost bare behind its triple-locked door, he uses pay phones to make calls, claims to have no home telephone of his own and his office is enclosed in wire mesh in a corner of a much larger warehouse. He's completely professional at his work but finds personal contact with other people difficult (almost sounds like ME!). Despite his insistence that his professional code means that he's not responsible for worrying about the actual content of the conversations he records or the uses to which his clients put his surveillance activities (like murder), he is, in fact, wracked by guilt over a past wiretap job that left three people dead as a result. His sense of guilt is sharpened by his devout Catholicism. His only leisurely hobby is playing along with his favorite jazz records on a tenor saxophone in the privacy of his apartment.
Getting back to murder; it becomes clear early on that the conversation Harry records between a seemingly innocent young couple will likely end in someone's demise. The interesting twist is that the victim doesn't turn out to be the one you might expect. Just when you think a young couple in love are going to be killed at the hands of a powerful corporate executive, you find out that it was the other way around. And frankly, trying to imagine that sweet little Cindy Williams (remember Shirley?) could be responsible for killing anybody is a challenge in itself.
The final sequence of this film, in which Harry discovers that his own apartment has been bugged and goes on a frantic search for the listening device is most intruiging. It starts off simple enough in which he checks obvious locations like the telephone and the hanging light fixture. Failing that, he starts tearing up the walls, the floorboards and ultimately ends up destroying his apartment to no avail. There's almost a sense of tragedy involved here in that you know Harry Caul is the best at what he does and yet, somehow, the other people have gotten the best of him, and try as he might, it seems he will never find the bug that's been planted in his apartment. His personal security is dead forever. By the end of the film, he's left sitting amidst the wreckage, playing the only thing in his apartment left intact: his saxophone.
By the way, did you ever see ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998) with Will Smith and Gene Hackman (it was only okay)? If you did, then you'll remember that Hackman's character was a man exactly like Harry Caul, only he wasn't Harry Caul. He SHOULD have been Harry Caul! It would have been amazing for him to play that same character again twenty-four years later for us to see what became of him.
Just a quick word now about personal security in general, something we all cherish so presciously and fight so hard to protect. But do we REALLY protect it as we claim we do?? Think about this for a moment - everytime we spill our guts on Facebook, Twitter or any other bullshit social network that's out there we are, in fact, freely surrendering our personal security to anyone and everyone with a keyboard or iPhone at their hands (people have lost jobs and their marriages because they couldn't keep their big, stupid mouths shut on social networks). Hell, everytime we inconsiderately speak into our cell phone while riding the train or sitting in a restaurant, we surrender our personal security to anyone or anything that may be listening. I suppose my only point in all of this is to clearly outline the hypocrisy we all walk around with in our daily lives. If we truly wanted to protect our personal security to its ultimate end, we would likely have to resort back to rotary telephones and good ol' fashioned letter writing. Not gonna happen.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Harry Caul: " I'm not afraid of death, but I am afraid of murder."
Thursday, March 17, 2011
(August 2005, U.S.)
When I saw THE CONSTANT GARDNER at a small movie theater in Westhampton Beach, Long Island, it seemed like the perfect way to end the Summer of 2005 that had just seen George Lucas conclude the STAR WARS saga and Steven Spielberg destroy the Earth with his version of WAR OF THE WORLDS.
This simple, independent film based on John Le Carre's novel tells the story of English diplomat Justin Quayle (played by Ralph Fiennes), a man who seeks to find the motivating forces behind his wife Tessa's (played by Rachel Weisz) murder in Kenya, Africa. Tessa is a young activist who's not only driven by her deep passion for the cause, but also a talent for necessarily humiliating the right people in power with her overactive mouth (you gotta love her for that!). As the mystery surrounding her death unfolds, the normally shy Justin is radicalised in his determination to get to the bottom of his wife's murder. He soon runs up against a powerful drug corporation that is using Kenya's population for fraudulent testing of a tuberculosis drug ("Dypraxa") with known harmful side effects and disregards the well-being of its poor African test subjects. This is a thriller that is more well driven by "cat-and-mouse" dialogue and detective investigation rather than the usual traditional or cliche action sequences. Ralph Fiennes, I have to say, is without a doubt the most intense, serious actor I've seen in the last two decades. The man seems serious even when he manages to playfully smile. This is not a fault, mind you. This intensity has only served to make him one of the better actors during a time in Hollywood when good acting has been shamefully substituted for pretty faces and bad stories on film.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Tessa Quayle (to Justin): "Sorry, I've just got one question: Whose map is Britain using when it completely ignores the United Nations and decides to invade Iraq? Or do you think it's more diplomatic to bend the will of a superpower and politely take part in Vietnam the Sequel?"
Monday, March 14, 2011
(May 1982, U.S.)
I've often told people that the only thing that has ever made me really feel my age (43) is the fact that Hollywood is remaking films that I saw in the 1970s. It feels worse now because they've started in on films from the 1980s. The remake of CONAN THE BARBARIAN (starring someone I never heard of!) is due out before the end of this year. For my tastes (any everyone elses from my generation!), I'll stick with the Arnold Schwarzenegger original.
By 1982, comic book heroes on the big screen were still trying to make it's big modern breakthrough. SUPERMAN (1978) had been a huge success. FLASH GORDON (1980), though, was a complete dud (though I still love the Queen song, "Flash"). On the other other, the early 1980s saw the birth of a very popular game with freaks and geeks called Dungeons & Dragons (I never played it!), and with it came spectacles on the screen including DRAGONSLAYER (1981), CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981) and THE BEASTMASTER (1982). So it's safe to say that the time for CONAN THE BARBARIAN was just right. Now whether Arnold could actually ACT or not was probably irrelevant because he was already well known regardless, and he had just the right body for the role. But then again, acting was probably not a key factor in any of this considering the original comic book character doesn't say much (if anything at all) to begin with. So there you have it - Arnold was perfect for the role of the legendary sword and sorcercy master of the prehistoric Hyborian Age. The story itself is all cliche in that Conan's people are murdered when he's a small boy by the evil warriors of Thulsa Doom (played by James Earl Jones) and Conan will (of course) grow up to inevitably take his revenge and destroy the evil army forces behind Doom. He'll have help along the way and also fall in love with the beautiful female warrior Valeria (played by Sandahl Bergman). When she's killed by the evil Doom, Conan's bloody revenge will take on more meaning.
CONAN THE BARBARIAN was co-written by Oliver Stone, by the way, so it had the darkness and the edge that one might expect from a Stone script. It was a serious, R-rated film that didn't waste your time with a lot of over-the-top comic book campiness, and for that I'm very grateful. In other words, it was a worthy film for its time and still is today. I'm more than confident the remake has virtually no chance of matching it.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Conan: "Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad. Why we fought, or why we died. All that matters is that two stood against many. That's what's important! Valor pleases you, Crom... so grant me one request. Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to HELL with you!"
Friday, March 11, 2011
(June 1988, U.S.)
From the years 1982 to 1988, I loved just about everything Eddie Murphy did. Even commercial duds like BEST DEFENSE (1984) and THE GOLDEN CHILD (1986) had some good moments for me. After 1988, two things happened; the first was that the man got it into his head that he could direct a movie and literally tortured me with HARLEM NIGHTS (1989). The second was that he suddenly decided to tone himself down and make a whole bunch of forgettable family films. And so, even though BOWFINGER (1999) has some decent moments in it and he does a pretty funny voice for Donkey in the SHREK movies, it's my opinion that Eddie Murphy is a man who needs to get raw and down and dirty all over again, for my sake at the very least.
So it's safe to say that I'm of the opinion that COMING TO AMERICA was the last great Eddie Murphy movie. You know what else? It's also safe to say that it was also the last great film John Landis directed. But's its Eddie Murphy's role as the overly-pampered great prince and heir to the throne Akeem of the fictitious African country Zamunda who comes to America to seek out his bride (in Queens, New York City of all places) that's irresistably funny and fun to watch. By his side is his loyal sidekick Semmi (played hilariously by Arsenio Hall) who despises everything the entire shithole borough of Queens stands for (who can blame him??). And when you watch James Earl Jones as the mighty king of the African land, you can almost understand why he was chosen to provide the voice of Mufasa in THE LION KING (1994); from one king right to another. The movie's plotline is as cliche as you might expect - Akeem falls in love with a sweet, simple girl, he doesn't tell her she's a prince, she finds out anyway, he almost loses her, he gets her back and marries her. Yes, it may all sound a little blah, blah, blah, but it works for one reason - Eddie Murphy is consistently funny (for the last time) and that's what you really want in any of his comedies.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Akeem (happily referring to his neighborhood in Queens): "Behold, Semmi - life! Real life! A thing that we have been denied for far too long! Good morning, my neighbors!"
Neighbor: "Hey, fuck you!"
Akeem (happy): "Yes, yes, fuck you, too!"
Monday, March 7, 2011
(December 1985, U.S.)
During a period of nine years (1975-1984), Steven Spielberg reigned as supreme commander over the American blockbuster. He'd given us stories of a giant New England shark named "Bruce", dazzling unidentified flying objects, two adventures of an archaeologist named after the family dog, and a sqishy extra-terrestrial who only wanted to go home (and in my opinion, even the 1979 comedy flop, 1941, wasn't that bad). But Steven Speilberg was suffering an unfortunate stigmata of a "Peter Pan syndrome" in that it appeared the man would never grow up, at least in terms of the movies he was making.
But then in 1985, something strange happened that forever turned the tide for him (and US, as his fans!). Warner Brother's THE COLOR PURPLE was announced and Steven Spielberg was going to direct it. Wait a second! How could this be? Spielberg was, by all accounts, still a kid who likely couldn't do better than blockbuster event movies - you know, the kind that came with an extra large bucket of buttered popcorn and an extra large Coke. What possible justice could this man do to an African-American period drama film based on Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel? Besides, the man was white and Jewish, for crying out loud! But guess what - this incredible story that showed the problems African-American women faced during the early 1900s, including poverty, racism, and sexism and how the character of Celie (played by Whoopi Goldberg) is forever transformed as she finds her self-worth through the help of her two strong female companions shined through under Spielberg's masterful direction. It also had what I still consider to be the most heart-touching, sentimental climactic reunion of any film I've ever seen that would likely bring the toughest person you know to pathetic, wimpy tears. It was a film about life and love that made us think, laugh and cry. In short, it was what I considered to be the best picture of 1985, and it was cleary time for the whole world to take the work of Steven Speilberg seriously.
But wait, it got even better! By the start of 1986, THE COLOR PURPLE was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, including best picture of the year. You know how many it won? None. I say again, NONE!!! In what I still consider to be the greatest act of rape and robbery in the history of the Oscars, THE COLOR PURPLE lost every fucking nomination it received and was defeated in the best picture department by Sidney Pollack's grossly-inferior OUT OF AFRICA! It seemed pretty damn clear (at the time) that Hollywood and the idiots who were running it were never going to give Spielberg his just dues as a great and serious film maker. Even twenty-five years later, I still get pissed thinking about how that man got so royally screwed! It would take another eight years before a Steven Spielberg film would finally get the best picture Oscar it deserved and that film would be SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993).
Favorite line or dialogue:
Celie (shouting to Albert): "I'm poor, black, I might even be ugly, but dear God, I'm here. I'm here!"
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
(October 1986, U.S.)
If you're, by chance, one of those funny people that gets turned on by bizarre coincidences, then try this one on for size - not only am I posting two Tom Cruise films in a row, but in both films his character's name is Vincent. Spooky.
THE COLOR OF MONEY is an easily forgettable Martin Scorsese film. Mind you, I don't mean it's a bad film. Hell, if it were bad, I wouldn't even have it in my collection. What I mean is that when you stack it up against some of Scorsese's other groundbreaking films like TAXI DRIVER (1976), RAGING BULL (1980) and GOODFELLAS (1990), it's understandably easy to dismiss THE COLOR OF MONEY from his filmography existence. But by its own rights, the sequel to THE HUSTLER (one of my favorite classic black and white films!) stands out on its own as a great film, even if you haven't seen THE HUSTLER before it (it helps, though).
Tom Cruise was at the pivotal breakout point of his career in 1986, having just scored a major smash hit with TOP GUN. How could he fail now, being paired up with the great Paul Newman in a sequel to a classic film from two decades prior? It's a pleasure to watch Newman reprise his role as "Fast Eddie" Felson, the great pool huslter and stakehorse who believe that "money won is better than money earned". He's older now and not as fast as he used to be, but having Vincent Lauria (Cruise) under his expert tutelage is the next best thing. Eddie teaches Vincent and his girlfriend Carmen (played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) how to hustle significant amounts of money at the pool halls they travel to. But he also becomes increasingly frustrated with both of them and with himself, until an explosive falling-out results in a parting of the ways and ultimately a final pool game that may or may not square things away between them. In the end, it's all about who has the best game and who walks away with more of the other person's money.
Despite the minor controversy at the time of Jackie Gleason NOT making a cameo appearance as his HUSTLER character, Minnesota Fats, I believe THE COLOR OF MONEY was a better film for it. To have included his character would have likely been nothing more than a mere afterthought of the past and his place in it. This is a story about "Fast Eddie" and what became of him and how his life continues to change along the way. It also finally won Paul Newman the Oscar for best actor that he was long, long overdue.
Favorite line or dialogue:
"Fast Eddie" Felson: "Hey...I'm BACK!"