Saturday, April 24, 2010

THE PILGRIM AND THE REAL: a review of "Passing Strange"

Based on the original play Book and Lyrics Written by Stew
Music Composed by Stew and Heidi Rodewald

Directed by Spike Lee
**** (four stars)

I cannot explain the reasons why but I am typically not moved very much by-and am actually a tad resistant to-the theater experience. Just so you all know and understand, dear readers, I have nothing against the theater, and fully respect the artistry on display from all participants. All I can say is that I guess the language of the stage doesn’t fully reach me.

Now, this observation is not an over-reaching one as I am able to instantly recall three theater experiences in my life that were nothing less than transformative. As a small child in the 1970’s, I was witness to the production of “The Wiz,” and even from a fairly close vantage point. So close, that I distinctly remember a moment after The Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross) sang his entrance number, he looked out into the audience and I am convinced that he looked directly (and even pointed) right at me! The fourth wall had been shattered completely and I felt to be somewhat inside of the production for every moment afterwards.

Sometime in the 1990’s, I saw the massive touring production of a “West Side Story” revival. I was captivated by the relentless energy and sheer athleticism of those bodies in seemingly effortless flight. Again, that fourth wall had been broken as I marveled that these actors, singers and dancers were physically not far from me, creating a rich, vibrant and ultimately, tragic world.

The last was a show I would not have missed for anything as it was based upon one of my favorite rock albums as well as one of my favorite movies. The Who’s stage production of “Tommy” was an extraordinary sight to witness, and one that was tailor made for my sensibilities. And as for that fourth wall? Well…the “Pinball Wizard” sequence, where sound and vision congealed to make the entire theater resemble a giant pinball machine, oh man, I wanted for absolutely nothing more…and that was the end of the first act!

I also have to say that 1952's “Singing In The Rain” notwithstanding, the classic movie musical is also a genre I have generally been resistant towards as I tend to feel that anything pre-1973 veers towards the corny side. All of those hambone gestures and arsenal of jazz hands rubs me the wrong way and anyhow, my sensibilities lead me toward edgier fare or just something that possess a rock and roll energy as I came of age during the time of the rock movie musical.

Leave it to filmmaker Spike Lee to challenge all of my sensibilities, merge the best elements of film, the movie musical, and live theater together in “Passing Strange,” his dynamic, electrifying and euphoric documentation of the Tony Award winning production, which was filmed at the production’s final performance on Broadway’s Belasco theater. “Passing Strange” is the definition of a revelation and I urge all of you reading this review to race to your local video store emporium and rent it for yourselves. If they do not carry a copy for rental, demand that they do or take your hard earned business elsewhere! This will be worth your time!!

“Passing Strange,” written by rock musician Stew, leader of the obscure yet critically celebrated band The Negro Problem is a semi-autobiographical tale of an unnamed Youth’s (Daniel Breaker) physical and inner journey as an artist in search of “the real.” The story begins in the “plasticland” confines of his Mother’s (Eisa Davis) home and hypocritical church upbringing in 1970’s South Central Los Angeles. After forming a punk rock band and being confronted with issues of personal and racial identity within the African-American community, the Youth rebels and becomes determined (after three epiphanies-one spiritual, one narcotic, one musical) to leave L.A. and venture to a place where he can just be himself and explore his emerging world as an artist and musician. He flees for the promiscuous “paradise” of Amsterdam, where he takes a lover (or several), builds up a musical repertoire yet still feels unfulfilled as he mistakes his comfort and happiness as a hindrance to his artistic process. His journey takes him next to the abrasive, artistically confrontational chaos of Berlin’s “Nowhaus,” where he fabricates a hard living past life in order to “pass” more broadly as an artist. It seems that his search for “the real” has led him into a dark cavern of artifice where only he is to blame for the compromised essence of his soul. The Youth is then forced to face himself and ask the hard questions of why he has deserted his race, his family, his life and whether he will be able to find his way back home again.

It seems quite fitting the play’s title is taken from a line in William Shakespeare’s Othello, as “Passing Strange” utilizes an exuberantly entertaining process to detail a painful existential and even universal journey. One needs not be an African-American rock musician to ask the question, ”Who am I?” and the Youth’s endless quest for “the real” takes the individual and makes him a stand-in for everyone. By working simultaneously as a play, a work of performance art, a rock concert, stark confessional and nearly Holy Ghost-driven church revival, “Passing Strange” becomes a one-of–a kind experience guaranteed to joyously make the collective hairs on the back of your necks tingle while you find yourself rising from your seats to join in the boundless energy on display.

What Spike Lee has done with this film, much like his concert film “The Original Kings Of Comedy” (2000) is to serve in the role of documentarian. Lee is here obtain, preserve and present all of the information while staying out of the actor’s and musician’s ways, as the stage set is minimal and even contains on-stage pods for Stew’s four piece band, which includes his co-composer, Bassist Heide Rodewald. Yet, Lee brilliantly uses the language of cinema to bring the stage to you, the audience at home.

Perhaps taking a cue from Jonathan Demme’s groundbreaking 1984 concert film for Talking Heads, “Stop Making Sense,” there are practically no shots of the theater audience as Lee gets his fleet of camera on stage and up close, providing the home viewer with the complete details of the set, musicians, and all of the actor’s dramatic subtleties and shadings. The look of the film seems to be more of high definition video than film stock, thus eliminating that fourth wall and giving you the feeling you are in the very front row or even more dramatically, possessing a seat directly on the stage itself! You can see the sweat on each actor’s face throughout, showing you the intense peak energy with which the show’s cast and musicians are performing for this final time. The utilization of film editing also works to allow some sequences to flow naturally while giving other sections an even more visceral energy. It is a masterful and magnificent integration of styles and techniques.

But, there is no way that I can give sole credit to Spike Lee, no matter how amazingly he pulled it off. I have to honor the source material, the songs and the extraordinary cast. The identity crisis at the core of “Passing Strange” plus its ruminations of art, music and African-American life seemed to be tailor made for Spike Lee’s sensibilities as many of Stew’s themes successfully mirror Lee’s own. The Youth can almost be seen as an especially immature versions of trumpeter Bleek Gilliam from Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990) or even Patriarch Woody Carmichael from Lee's "Crooklyn" (1994), whose uncompromising devotion and discipline to his art forsakes and damages nearly all of the relationships around him.

Furthermore, there is the astounding music which captures musical theater grandeur by way of rock and roll thunder and nearly gymnastic lyrics that dare you to keep up with them. I haven’t felt quite the same way since reading the works of author and poet Paul Beatty with his blazing cultural mash-ups The White Boy Shuffle, Slumberland and Joker, Joker, Deuce. Stew and Rodewld’s songs completely open up the Youth’s world to us and there’s not even one clunker in the bunch. We can easily and quickly experience his almost "Salingeresque" weary with his weekly excursions to church with “Baptist Fashion Show.” We instantly feel the culture clash between Amsterdam and Berlin with the dissonant “Mayday.” Musical comedy is shown to hilarious heights with “We Just Had Sex” and the Berlin racial breakdown of “The Black One.” The show’s most memorable song to me was the gorgeously stunning love song “Keys,” during which a Danish girl selflessly offers her abode to the Youth upon his arrival to Amsterdam. And then, there’s the wild, anthemic chorus performed at the conclusion of both acts with cast and band singing, the words “Well…It’s All Right!!” over and over. It is a roof raiser that echoes and even rivals Pete Townshend’s classic “Listening To You” from “Tommy.” It feels like the voice of God through slashing electric guitars and pounding drums. I hate to sound so hyperbolic but such was the effect this film left upon me by its conclusion. I cannot downplay the fact that since the show's final performance is the one to have been preserved for us, it truly feels as if all participants gave it their all as if it would be the last thing they would ever perform in their time on Earth. Their collective hearts were on the stage and with all graces to Spike Lee, he captured them for us to see and feel for years and years to come.

So why was this film not shown in theaters at all? I wish I had the answer for you as I wish I just had it for myself. This film did indeed have a showing at the Sundance film festival and it was screened for major film critics last summer, who did indeed write a slew of highly rated reviews. But, alas, no theater showing at all across the country. This film was released on home video in January of this year to coincide with its Public Television premiere on "Great Performances," and aside form that, no other public showings have been held to my knowledge. I cannot understand it at all. If there was a reason behind the scenes, like maybe it was never intended for theaters, or if theaters did not want to take a risk on this material or if it could not find a distributor to release it widely, maybe I would or possibly could understand. But then again, no matter what the reason, there is NO REASON to me, to keep a film like this away from mass audiences and allow the people to decide its popularity. As I go to the movies and see trailers for one piece of garbage after another (Brendan Fraser and J. Lo, I am looking at you right now), it angers me that films like "Passing Strange" would never even have a chance, let alone the opportunity, to be seen as widely as possible.

"Passing Strange" more than deserves the chance. It is document of a theater production so vibrant, so beautifully crafted and executed that I felt as if I was right there. And you know, I have to re-state that last musing because this time the joined languages of theater and film worked together so seamlessly, I didn't just feel as if I was there...I was there and IT'S ALL RIGHT!!!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


I do not remember exactly and I may not even be correct but my gut tells me that I have Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert to thank for being the ones to introduce me to the work of filmmaker Spike Lee. If those two men were indeed the ones to formally create that introduction, then it had to have occurred on an episode of their television program, "At The Movies." The year was 1986 when Lee premiered his debut motion picture feature, "She's Gotta Have It," a film about a proudly promiscuous woman named Nola Darling who juggles the affections and pursuits of three men, including a certain Mars Blackman (winningly played by Lee himself). While for reasons I cannot even think of at this time, I happened to not have seen that film during its landmark theatrical run but I was indeed intrigued as the existence of African-American filmmakers creating artistic yet entertaining and non-stereotypical material was indeed a completely foreign sight.

By 1988, I was 19 and more than ready for Lee's second feature, a musical comedy entitled "School Daze," starring Laurence Fishburne. Set at a fictional African-American collegiate institution, the film cast a wide socio-political net as it explored of sexual politics among a university fraternity and sorority system; the protests against the university's financial connections with apartheid South Africa but most importantly, the racial divisions within the African-American community based upon skin color and hair styles (shown in the astounding musical sequence "Good and Bad Hair"). I sat in my movie theater seat in Hyde Park on the south side of Chicago, absolutely stunned at this particular filmmaker's audacity, bravery, brilliance, irreverence and fearlessness to air and explore our community's private pains so publicly, honestly and even humorously. Just the sight of young African-Americans in college was an unprecedented sight for me. Despite an ending which I felt was too bombastically didactic, "School Daze" was unlike any other film I had seen and I knew my eye had to remain firmly on where he would turn his cinematic eye next.

Now, for "Savage Cinema," I am proud to turn my cinematic enthusiast's eye towards the career of one of my favorite filmmakers. The title of this posting comes from the howl uttered repeatedly at the conclusion of "School Daze," and has occurred as a repetitive phrase through many of Lee's subsequent films. Based solely upon my own personal tastes and qualities that I feel constitute excellent movie making, the collected works of Spike Lee represent a filmmaker whose talents, gifts, overall quality and track record are uncommonly high. The man and his work is presented with the highest level of artistic value and representation through vibrant characters who encounter and ask the toughest questions imaginable about themselves and the communities in which they live. Thankfully, Lee never sells his material short by providing the audience with easy, trite answers. Lee's films while containing enormous entertainment value, always remain challenging, provocative, and empathetic. Moreover, despite what some media outlets may have many of you believe, Spike Lee has consistently produced some of the most fair-minded material to hit our theater screens. His films are at the forefront of innovative cinematography (especially witnessed through his signature shot--the one when actors ride the dolly camera to create the visual impression that they are floating in mid air), production design, editing, usage of New York City as a fully developed character within his stories and Lee is one of the most thoughtful filmmakers working today when it comes to utilizing music within his films.

In honor of his 20+ years behind the camera, I wanted to take this opportunity to list my ten favorite films by Spike Lee...or "Joints" as he likes to refer to his work (a "Joint" being an event of major proportions) and believe me, when Spike Lee releases a film, no matter what the perceptions of the man may be, his films are definitely events to be studied, investigated, argued over and ultimately, cherished. So please let me take this opportunity, as I lead up to my review of his latest film, "Passing Strange," to spotlight this filmmaker and point you towards some excellent films you may want to check out yourselves.

10. "SUMMER OF SAM" (1999)
John Leguizamo, Adrian Brody and Mira Sorvino star in Spike Lee’s darkest, most violent and bleakest work. Yet, the overly grim nature of the material does not cloud the film’s brilliance as it presents a document of a particular time in the history of New York City. This portrait, circa 1977, contains the intense summer heat in the city, the blackouts, the baseball fever starring the New York Yankees and the immortal Reggie Jackson, the discotheque haze of Studio 54, as well as the cocaine binges and nightclub orgies. Hovering menacingly on the edges, like the most brutal of nightmares, are the sadistic serial killings by David Berkowitz, otherwise known as the “Son of Sam” (played by Michael Badalucco).

While the film does feature the horrific slayings, it is not a Berkowitz biopic (although we do take several nose dives into his destroyed psyche). The “Son of Sam” is actually used as a catalyst for the core story of panic, false perceptions, paranoia and fear in a South Bronx neighborhood where Leguizamo and Sorvino star respectively as Vinny and Dionna, a married Italian-American couple. It is also a sly, yet non-dogmatic view of the dangers of drug abuse (a frequent Lee theme), and how just remaining true to your own personal sense of individuality and identity may prove deadly in a world that does not want you to be “different.”

In a nod to his fair-minded sensibilities, Lee’s sympathies seem to lay strongest with Adrian Brody’s character Ritchie, Vinny’s best friend from childhood. Ritchie has found his calling through the emerging punk scene, a new relationship with the so-called "neighborhood slut" (Jennifer Esposito) and also is nursing a questionable sexual identity crisis as he secretly strips nightly and engages in homosexual trysts with clients at a seedy gay club. But because of his affiliations, his spiky hair, love of rock music and every physical trait that set him apart from his neighbors, he is soon perceived to be the serial killer, which leads to the film's punishing climax, scored to The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again." A blistering piece of work.

KEY MUSICAL MOMENT(S): Aside from that climax, I think I would have to give it to two sequences detailing the disintegration of Vinny and Dionna's marriage. Both scenes are where the critically (and dare I say it) justly maligned acting talents of Mira Sorvino are laid to waste as she delivers some powerhouse acting chops against Leguizamo set to ABBA's "Dancing Queen" and Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me This Way."

9. "MO' BETTER BLUES" (1990)
Lee's fourth film and first collaboration with Denzel Washington celebrated the world (and subtly, the African-American history and legacy) of jazz, while also firmly establishing Washington as a romantic leading man. Washington starts as trumpeter Bleek Gilliam, leader of a popular quintet (that features a great Wesley Snipes as saxophonist and romantic rival Shadow Henderson) that performs frequently at the Beneath The Underdog night club. Gilliam's intense and uncompromising devotion to his art is depicted as he also juggles two relationships with school teacher Indigo Downes (played by Spike's sister Joie Lee) and sultry singer Clarke Bentancourt (Cynda Williams). The film depicts the inner world of a man's relationship with his work and the consequences that arise when the work comes ahead of the relationships that fulfill and sustain us all.

In addition to displaying a lush and sleek visual presentation, and excellent music throughout, it also featured Lee's first stab at presenting a world of addiction through band manager Giant's (played by Lee) dangerous gambling issues. Watch for an early performance from Samuel L. Jackson, one of Lee's first repertory players. Also, there is key and chameleon work from Giancarlo Esposito and Bill Nunn, completely unrecognizable from their previous work with Lee in "School Daze" and "Do the Right Thing."

KEY MUSICAL MOMENT: Bleek's redemption set to the first section of John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme."

8. "25TH HOUR" (2002)
This film's power has snuck up upon me over the years. Initially, I was a bit thrown off by the film's slower pace and quieter rhythms as Lee's films are typically propulsive and volatile works. Yet, this film is equally devastating as it was the very first film to be shot in New York City after the September 11th attacks, an aspect that only enhances the story with profound weight.

Based upon David Benoit's novel, "25th Hour" details the final 24 hours of freedom for drug dealer Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) as he spend his last night before heading off to a seven year stretch in prison. The time winding down is essentially a death march as Monty takes stock of his life by visiting with his Father (the wonderful Brian Cox), settling old scores with members of the Russian mafia and sharing final moments with his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) and two childhood friends, Wall Street banker Frank (Barry Pepper) and sad sack high school English teacher Jacob (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). The imminent departure of Monty forces all of the characters to stop and take stock of their own lives as New York City is freshly recovering from tragedy.

"25th Hour" is an intimate story of mourning set in a mourning city and the final fifteen minutes, where Brian Cox delivers an exquisite and elegant monologue detailing the life Monty could have if he didn't deliver his son to prison is heartbreaking.

KEY MUSICAL MOMENT: Lee's requisite composer Terence Blanchard creates a stirring film score. Also, I have to mention an extended nightclub sequence which segues songs from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (the insidiously clever placing of "White Lines") to a collection of songs (most notably, "Bra") from Cymande, an obscure 70s funk band, keeps the storyline simmering.

7. "CROOKLYN" (1994)/"CLOCKERS" (1995)
Yes, my lists always seem to feature at least one "cheat" but this ranking, which features two films, exists as I typically cannot think of one film without the other. To me, these two films are of a piece as they are widely stories about and from the African-American neighborhood, the first from the early 1970's and the second from the drug destroyed streets of the present.

Originally conceived by Cinque Lee and Joie Lee (Spike's brother and sister), "Crooklyn" tells the semi-autobiographical story about the Carmichael family, as seen through the eyes of 9-year-old Troy (a terrific Zelda Harris). This is Spike Lee's most tender and bittersweet film to date. Alfre Woodard stars as the family Matriarch, Carolyn Carmichael, a schoolteacher who exhaustively holds her family of daughter Troy, and four unruly sons together while her loving yet more lenient husband Woody (played by Delroy Lindo in the second of his collaborations with Lee) concentrates nearly solely on his life as a ferociously independent yet under-employed composer and musician.

Presented somewhat as a series of summertime vignettes, we are given a snapshot of a time where the neighborhood truly functioned as a village. Communal bonds were strong, sidewalks were clean, people genuinely cared for each other's well being and most importantly, children were able to safely venture outdoors to play sidewalk games and make mischief. And the most threatening figures are the glue sniffers (which Lee portrays one of in a cameo role) on the next block. The film also features a visually controversial and arresting 20 minute sequence when Troy is dispatched to her Southern relatives--a completely alien location for this city bred girl-for a portion of the summer. Reflecting Troy's inner state, this section of the film was filmed through an anamorphic lens giving the viewer an image where the proportions are stretched taller and thinner. Again, Lee shows off his stunning visual eye to great effect.

Best of all, there is the film's final section which makes a strong dramatic and tragic turn as Carolyn prematurely takes ill with cancer--just like Lee's own Mother. Here is where the film's heart is strongest and we see that "Crooklyn" is ultimately a sorrowful tribute to Lee's Mother. It is a truth filled sadness that never falls into melodrama or false sentiment. Every lump in the throat is deeply and honestly earned.

KEY MUSICAL MOMENT(S): I loved a family argument between husband and wife with The Persuaders' "Thin Line Between Love And Hate" as a backdrop. But, mostly, it was the hidden layers of The Chi-Lites' soul classic "Oh Girl," that firmly underplayed the emotions of the children and even Woody, as Carolyn grows sicker, and the Carmichael family has to face life without the tremendous force that held it all so tightly.

Like "Crooklyn," "Clockers" also tells the story of a neighborhood but this time it is a world after it has been decimated by drugs and addicts. Mekhi Phifer makes a sensational debut as drug dealer Strike, a "clocker" (one who sits on the benches watching for new drug sales around the clock) caught in the middle of a murder mystery that may end up sending his straight laced brother and family man (Isaiah Washington) to prison. Harvey Keitel also stars as Detective Rocco Klein, who doggedly pursues Strike for the truth, while drug kingpin Rodney (an outstanding Delroy Lindo) tightens Strike's leash.

Strike, nursing a dangerous ulcer due to the stress of a life his heart is simply is not cut out for, feels the walls of his world slowly closing in. In addition to the Detective and the kingpin, he is harassed by the neighborhood policeman (Keith David) who continuously pressures Strike to leave this lifestyle behind and even the Mother of one of Strike's young admirers joins the fray in admonishing the destruction his life has placed upon the community as a whole.

With "Clockers," Lee has crafted a thrilling yet unglamorous crime story that also depicts how the drug trade combined with cartoonish gangsta rap, the constant presence of liquor stores in African-American communities, and the deplorable amount of young Black men in jail or deceased has destroyed once vibrant and safe neighborhoods across the country. You wonder just how the Carmichaels of "Crooklyn" would exist and survive in these times.

KEY MUSICAL MOMENT: Strike's grand entrance at the film's opening set to "Return Of The Crooklyn Dodgers" by, of course, The Crooklyn Dodgers.

6. "HE GOT GAME" (1998)
Denzel Washington
re-teamed with Spike for their third collaboration as Jake Shuttlesworth, a man from the Coney Island housing projects serving time in prison for the accidental murder of his wife (Lonette McKee). Shuttlesworth is granted a temporary one-week release for one profound task. To influence his son, the improbably and brilliantly named Jesus (Ray Allen) and the nation's number one high school basketball draft pick, to attend the Governor's alma mater, Big State University. If Shuttlesworth succeeds, he will be granted his freedom.

This film is Lee's condemnation on the soulless business side of the sports industry and the far reaching and damaging affects upon the African-American community at large. In fact, Lee's parable about the perils of taking the "short money" (a frequent Lee theme, seen less successfully in 1996's "Girl 6" and 2004's "She Hate Me") could also be titled "The Continuing Temptations of Jesus." Power, corruption, and lies rule the day and attack Jesus from all sides as he weighs the greatest decision of his young life thus far. The vultures in his life exist in the forms of sports agents, his coach, colleges, his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) and his own money grubbing family (Bill Nunn returns to the Lee fold as Uncle Bubba).

Also, this is a highly emotional film about personal redemption and the unbreakable bonds between Father and son no matter what has transpired in the past. Lee's cinematography is extraordinary as his magnificently elegant crane and aerial views sail over Coney Island like a basketball in flight to the rim.

KEY MUSICAL MOMENT: The music of composer Aaron Copland is used to illustrate an intimate version of a panoramic and universally American story, with basketball at the center. For me, a short sequence where Jake Shuttlesworth cradles the grave of his wife, set to a pastoral piece of Copland's music is soul stirring.

5. "JUNGLE FEVER" (1991)
Lee's incendiary film is much more complex, layered and heartfelt than it was given credit for when it was first released. The story of Harlem architect Flipper Purify's (an outstanding Wesley Snipes) interracial affair with Angie, his Italian temporary secretary from Bensonhurst (a wonderful Annabella Sciorra) truly rattled the cages and created a surprisingly bleak film with a grim ending. It could also be titled "Flipper Goes To Hell," as Lee's controversial film begins with a dark exploration into interracial relationships obtained solely through racial curiosity as opposed to true love, and slyly delves into the destructive nature of drugs and addiction as Flipper's life takes a free fall from prosperity into crippling despair.

As friends, families and communities are tearing themselves inside out over issues of race and color, drugs are almost an afterthought and what a shame. When watching this film, please take notice of all of the off handed ways drugs are mentioned throughout and compare them to the violent reactions (Angie's beating by the hands of her Father, the African-American female's "war council" in Flipper's living room) race brings out in the characters. The effect is riveting as our priorities are glaringly out of focus.

But, hope does indeed remain in this world and Lee's attitudes towards interracial relationships aren't as dogmatic as the media may make it appear. The sweet story of Paulie (frequent Lee cast member, John Tuturro), candy shop clerk and Angie's neglected long-term boyfriend, who nurses a crush upon an African-American daily customer, shows that when the intent is pure and love is real, that will become a union that extends beyond race. Paulie will literally get himself beaten to a bloody pulp by his Bensonhurst friends and still walk to this woman's home for a date. His heart and aim are true.

KEY MUSICAL MOMENT: The film boasts a complete song score by none other than Stevie Wonder, whose "These Three Words" and the end credit stunner "Feeding Off The Love Of the Land" were some of his best material since the 1970's. But, the greatest sequence in the film is Flipper's feverish search for his crackhead brother Gator (a blistering Samuel L. Jackson) from the streets of Harlem into the mammoth drug den known as the "Taj Mahal" and set to Wonder's epic seven minute classic "Living For The City."

4. "GET ON THE BUS" (1996)
One of Lee's most criminally underseen films and how disheartening as it was a briskly created (filmed on location in four states in only 18 days!) and enormously rewarding film which focused on the cross country road trip and inner lives of 20 African-American men on their way to Washington D.C. for the 1995 Million Man March, organized by Minister Louis Farrakhan. Charles S. Dutton stars as one of the bus drivers and veteran of the civil rights era and the tour group includes an angry Hollywood actor (the inimitable Andre Braugher), a UCLA film student (Hill Harper), a police officer of mixed race background and light skinned complexion (a terrific Roger Guenveur Smith, another Lee veteran), a homosexual Republican couple (Isaiah Washington and Harry Lennix), a Father (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) and son chained together due to a court order, and the late, supremely great Ossie Davis as the group's spiritual leader.

It was a microcosm of the African-American community in a way that I have never seen before or since and this film incredibly presents Lee's fair-minded outlook as each character has their moment, their opinion, their say, and their beliefs. This trait even extends itself towards Richard Belzer's character, a Jewish man and Dutton's bus driving partner, who is understandably discomforted with the journey and vocally objects to Farrakahn's well documented and controversial Anti-Semitic statements. The film is a testament to our history as a people as well, as all of the characters ruminate over our collective futures with the importance of the journey itself at the forefront.

KEY MUSICAL MOMENT: The inclusion of Curtis Mayfield's "Keep On Pushing" at a crucial moment near the film's climax was perfection.

3. "BAMBOOZLED" (2000)
As you may have remembered, I have already placed this film as my number #2 pick as one of the very best films from the previous decade. I cannot stress the power of this film enough as this explosive satire explores how African-Americans in the media, and especially ones who hold power over the images that are created and disseminated to the world at large, have a profound responsibility to our race must we continue to advance and elevate our standing.

Damon Wayans stars as a frustrated television writer who, in protest, creates a modern day minstrel show with Black people wearing black-face only to have the program become a nationwide smash hit. As he is ultimately seduced by the fame and fortune "The New Millennium Minstrel Show" brings him, it results in the complete loss of his soul and devastating repercussions for all involved.

For me, this is the most difficult Lee "joint" that I've sat through as the plethora of negative imagery that has misrepresented me and my race in the past pales compared to the imagery we continue to allow ourselves to create, promote and sell to ourselves, thus destroying our collective souls and all for the sake of that "short money." It pinned me to my seat, left me speechless and wrung out. Frankly, the executives at BET and every surviving record label which promotes one cartoon gangsta rapper after another should be forced to watch this film over and over, "Clockwork Orange" style. Demanding, difficult and explosively daring, "Bamboozled" is Spike Lee's cinematic Molotov cocktail.

KEY MUSICAL MOMENT: Composer Terence Blanchard's mournful score set to a montage of Hollywood's most disturbing racist imagery.

2. "DO THE RIGHT THING" (1989)
If Spike Lee had only made this one film, he would still be one of the greatest modern American filmmakers working today. Lee made a quantum leap from his first two films, with this "day in the life" exploration of the long simmering racial tensions on one block in New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood during the hottest day of the summer.

Conflicts emerge and rise from the presence of a pizzeria owned and operated by Sal (Danny Aiello) and his two sons, gentle Vito (Richard Edson) and racist Pino (John Tuturro) yet frequented by the predominantly African-American members of the community. Volatile B-Boy Buggin' Out (an extraordinary Giancarlo Esposito) poses the smart bomb question to Sal about why the faces of famous Black people are not represented on the pizzeria's "Wall Of Fame." Sal replies that if he wants to have Black faces on a Wall Of Fame, then he should get his own business and do what he wants with it. Buggin 'Out counters that since Sal's business survives on the money earned and spent by Black people, then the customers should have some rights. This is the double edged crux and Mookie (played by Lee in an excellent performance), the young pizza delivery man, is caught in the middle.

From this early confrontation, the film sprawls into a wide reaching examination of where the seeds of racism sprout from, the generation gap between the neighborhood's older (as represented by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee) and younger residents, African-American frustrations at how we consistently spend our money on businesses that we do not own or try to create are among a myriad of other provocative issues which are presented in a matter of fact, sometimes humorous, sometimes brutally in-your-face manner. And, I have to also say that it never, for even one minute, feels as if it is a public service announcement. Every character has their moment as Lee keeps his film even handed while also presenting a militant viewpoint.

The film's final act is its most controversial as the tensions finally erupt into a shocking act of violence against one of the film's major characters by the hands of the police and the ensuing riot follows. The effect is appropriately jarring as it shows how a day can begin one way and conclude in ways unimaginable.

"Do The Right Thing" is a film to embrace, endlessly explore and use to educate ourselves as it is the most accurate depiction of modern day race-relations I have seen in any film before or since. It shows us where we are, warns us of where we may head as it shows us what has happened time and again in even our very recent past. And through the brilliant juxtaposition of two quotations by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. at the film's conclusion, it forces us to question where we would like to see ourselves, as a culture, move towards. What is the right thing to do? The film's bold ambiguity is one of Lee's greatest gifts as there is no way to simply answer a question so vast. If he was able to do that in a two hour film, he wouldn't just be making films, he could eradicate racism entirely!

And yet, for all of the pain, "Do The Right Thing"' is a wonderful and celebratory experience as well. It rejoices in the life of a neighborhood, warts and all. It reminds us of the sense of community we once had and could continue to keep, only if we want to. The wide cast of characters remains one of the most memorable in any film I have ever seen. Think of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn in his iconic role) with his massive boom box and "Love" and "Hate" metallic gear. The watchful eye of neighborhood elder Mother Sister (Ruby Dee). The We-LOVE radio station with Samuel L. Jackson's incredible DJ, Mr. Senor Love Daddy. The three older African-American men who serve as the film's "Greek Chorus" (which featured the late, great comedian Robin Harris) who sat and commented by that large blood red wall. Or how about the visual presentation with the gorgeous cinematography? You could feel the heat and humidity even in a completely air conditioned movie theater. Or how about the montage of racist diatribes from Black, Italian and Korean characters? Or one of the very best opening credits sequences ever filmed, Rosie Perez's ferocious dance set to Public Enemy's "Fight The Power"? One landmark moment, image and sequence right after another and it made up into one of the very best films from the 1980s, one of Lee greatest achievements, and one of the best examples of modern American cinema period.

And yet...there is one film he's made that I love even more...

1. "MALCOLM X" (1992)
Lee's most towering achievement on film to date and I really believe that while he made this film after "Do the Right Thing," he could not have made that film without this one. "Malcolm X" was the film Spike Lee was born to make as the life and legacy of Malcolm X has informed his own life, career, business practices by opening the door for African-American filmmaking hopefuls, and his overall artistic integrity.

His three hour and twenty minute epic does not exist to solely re-introduce and correct many historically misrepresentative and perceptive wrongs concerning Malcolm X. Spike Lee wants to give us the life of a man in its many stages and phases and it is impossible for me to think of a better conduit than Denzel Washington, who gave the performance of his life in the title role. The completeness and richness is beyond extraordinary, from the sky lifting speeches to the most intimate moments, Denzel Washington was transcendent and transformative. THIS is the role he should've won an Oscar for.

Truth be told, he should have won FIVE Oscars for that performance as he essentially played five different men. From Malcolm Little to the zoot suit wearing, numbers running thief and cocaine addict Detroit Red to his descent as the imprisoned Satan, and his rebirth as Malcolm X. After his pilgrimage to Mecca, he reinvents himself once again as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, the name he claimed until his 1965 assassination. All of these personas encompassed the life of one man and through the spirit of Washington and the glorious cinematic eye and viewpoint of Lee, we are given this life so vividly and exhaustively, while also being a gripping piece of entertainment. Do not be intimidated by its massive length. "Malcolm X" moves briskly as it holds you firmly in its power.

I have never seen a biopic, before or since, that made me feel as if I knew the subject as well as "Malcolm X" and I urge those of you who have not seen it (as well as to those of you who have not seen it in a long while) to take ample time and get to know this man through this astounding film. It is a film about Spike Lee as much as it is about Malcolm X.

Furthermore, it is a film about all of us, regardless of race and gender. As you ruminate over your own lives thus far, really think to yourselves if you are the same person that you were five years ago...ten years ago...thirty years ago. Compare yourself from then to now and how we all go through periods of re-invention. Are any of us one-dimensional beings? How many identities do we possess in a single day let alone a lifetime? Think of the arc of your own lives and once you do, you will understand the intent behind the cinematic majesty of Spike Lee's grand vision.

The final moments of this film which feature school children from America all the way to South Africa standing up by their school desks proclaiming loudly, "I am Malcolm X!!" could not be any more appropriate.

We are all Malcolm X. just because we are human.

KEY MUSICAL MOMENT: Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" plays as Malcolm heads to give his final speech. Lee uses his signature shot to make Washington appear as if he is floating on a ghostly plane, seemingly knowing his final moments on this Earth are just about to play out.

There you have it! My Top Ten (or eleven, as the case may be) from Spike Lee. May his life extend onwards as fully and for as long as possible as I am anxious to see anything and everything he comes up with next. And for those of you who are unfamiliar with his works, head to your video emporium and collect a few of these titles.

And after you watch, let me know what you think...


“BROTHERS” Directed by Jim Sheridan
** (two stars)

Ever since I fell hopelessly in love with the movies and having the communal experience of seeing films in a movie theater, one of my most favorite aspects about this pastime, aside from the popcorn, has always been the pleasure of seeing the coming attractions trailers. Becoming more informed and excited about what was coming soon to a theater near you only continued to ignite my growing and unending passions with the movies. I still feel the same to this very day except for one unique change that I am curious if you have noticed as well.

For me, I think I first noticed it around the time of the 2003 remake of “The Italian Job,” starring Mark Wahlberg and Edward Norton. For nearly two minutes we were subjected to a series of short clips detailing the film’s plot, like millions of other movies, but what seemed odd to me is that I had felt that I had seen the entire film in that short span of time. In that film’s trailer, we are quickly introduced to all of the key players. We are given the basic plot. But then, we are also given the MAJOR plot twist, the plan for revenge, all of the characters’ quirks and witticisms and all of the events of the film’s action packed climax. When I finally saw the completed film, I was decidedly under-whelmed as it was indeed a two-hour version of that two minute coming attractions trailer I had seen months earlier. Any and almost all entertainment value had effectively been deflated. I had a similar sensation as I watched “Brothers,” the latest film from Director Jim Sheridan, who has previously helmed “In The Name Of The Father” (1993) and the wonderful family drama, “In America” (2002), among others strong features. While my final feelings concerning “Brothers” were middling, I am wondering if it was either due to the completeness of the film’s sneak preview or the quality of the piece as a whole. Perhaps it was a bit of both as the film failed to leave a strong impression upon me despite the strengths of the material and some of the performances.

Now I must inform you up front that nearly all of the forthcoming plot details (including the MAJOR plot twist) are present in the film’s coming attractions trailer so my description should not be perceived as Spoiler laden. Set in 2007, “Brothers” stars Tobey Maguire as Captain Sam Cahill, a celebrated Marine, cherished husband to high school sweetheart Grace (Natalie Portman), devoted Father to two adorable little daughters (played by Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare, respectively) and honored son to his military Father, Hank Cahill (played by Sam Shepherd). Sam is the definitive “golden child” of this family, which also includes his screw-up brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), who, at the start of the film, is being released from prison just as Sam is due to return to Afghanistan for yet another tour of duty.

As Grace maintains the home front, which includes bailing Tommy out of yet another drunken scrape, Sam’s helicopter is shot down and is presumed dead. As Grace falls into devastating mourning, Tommy begins to relinquish his designated role as the irresponsible brother, by becoming a helpful caretaker to Grace and his nieces. He redesigns and constructs her kitchen, takes the girls ice-skating and essentially becomes Grace’s rock and support. Then, one late evening, as Tommy and Grace sit by the fire, smoking pot, reminiscing about their teen years while listening to U2’s classic song “Bad,” they share a passionate, grief filled kiss as their collective loss (and simmering emotions for each other) overtakes them.

But, there is the MAJOR plot twist to deal with. Tommy and Grace are completely unaware that Sam has not been killed in action. He has actually been taken prisoner, endured captivity and torture and after his rescue, Sam returns home to his family shell shocked and haunted by his war experiences while also becoming consumed with jealous suspicions of what may have occurred between his wife and brother while he was thought to be dead.

“Brothers” is a mostly quiet, thoughtful, solemn affair that never sails into hyperbolic melodrama. It is a film more in the vein of the strong John Cusack passion project, “Grace Is Gone” (2007) as this film primarily deals with a military family in the throes of grief, coupled with the attempts to move forwards after tragedy strikes. What actually worked for me the most in this film was Sheridan’s attention to the power and pain behind delineated family roles and how those roles may be shaped and tremendously difficult to escape no matter how desperately you try. The dynamic between Sam and Tommy is etched almost in stone, at least in the eyes of their Father. This is expressed very well in an extremely tense dinner sequence after Tommy’s release from prison as well as the painful funeral sequence where Hank, devastated by the loss of Sam, questions who would ever stand up for Tommy and honor his memory when he leaves this world. Viewing Tommy’s gradual emergence into a responsible adult as he becomes the Cahill family caregiver, suggests that Sam’s apparent death has freed him from his role as the family’s requisite failure. Yet once Sam returns, Tommy quickly slinks back into his established role, which is also placed firmly and deeply in Sam’s shadow. It is here where the material shone the brightest, as its perceptive qualities gave this film a truthfulness that ceased it from ever becoming maudlin.

But, overall, the film didn’t necessarily move me terribly much. I have to say that I actually found the sequences featuring Sam Cahill in Afghanistan distracting. Upon Sam’s return home, we can see that he has been psychologically damaged by his wartime experiences and I am still not certain if the cumulative effect of the movie needed those sequences. Perhaps it was an issue with the film’s structure because as I kept growing more comfortable and interested in life at home, we were whisked back to Afghanistan and for me, the film lost any sense of pacing and rhythm. As I watched those scenes, I was reminded vividly of Director Michael Cimino’s peerless 1978 film, “The Deer Hunter,” a Vietnam epic that split each of its three hours into clearly defined sections of before, during and after the war. That film’s excruciating second hour, with its almost unwatchable and torturous Russian Roulette sections, neatly set up the film’s third hour where we are all plunged into the endless aftershocks in the lives of soldiers Robert DeNiro, John Savage and Christopher Walken. Certainly, it would be extremely unfair to suggest that “Brothers” needed to go as far as ”The Deer Hunter.” What I am suggesting is that the way the midsection of “Brothers” was structured, ultimately hindered any dramatic tension. Imagine if we never saw what had happened to Sam. Imagine if we never knew that he was alive in the first place. But, then, to imagine something like that, we have to take our attention all the way back to the film’s coming attractions trailer.

As I have previously stated, all of the plot points I have described thus far (sans the actual prisoner of war sequences) are all presented in the trailer. Seeing those moments and possessing that knowledge, especially about events that occur in the film’s final third, before even entering into the film as a whole, sadly robbed “Brothers” of any mounting tension, drama and overall power. You knew everything that was to occur and had to ultimately spend two hours just getting there. Because of that reaction, I wondered strongly if I would have liked this film even more if I had not seen the trailer and my intuition informs me that I probably would have. As it stands, all I was left with were the performances, which were generally strong throughout. Jake Gyllenhaal played to his strengths with his scruffy, wounded puppy dog demeanor while Tobey Maguire, usually so reticent and reserved, tapped into an unprecedented amount of rage, which gave the film several unpredictable sparks of energy and catharsis. Natalie Portman is the least impressive of the three leads as she is unfortunately only required to do nothing more than look sad and be pretty while doing so. This is certainly a feat she need not even be awake to accomplish fully, but it did sadly waste her considerable talents overall.

I think what has happened here is that “Brothers” is another casualty in our increasingly unimaginative times in current Hollywood cinema. The idea of any studio relinquishing any potential creative and monetary risks in favor of the pursuit of box office gold, has lessened the artistic value of the films and has insulted the movie going public's intelligence to boot. When did it happen and mainly, who are the people responsible for the perception that audiences need to know every single thing about a film before one even has the chance to see it? Have we lost our ability or better yet, the desire to be surprised? The box office has always been the bottom line, of course. Yet, it seemed there was a time when art and commerce could co-exist, to a degree. In the case of “Brothers,” the powers that be took a noble, dramatic effort and through giving it all away in the span of a two minute trailer, sold itself and its potential audience so disappointingly short.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

FROM THE ARCHIVES 6: a review of "Miracle At St. Anna"

To preview my upcoming Top Ten feature on filmmaker Spike Lee, I am introducing an archived review of his World War II film.

Originally written November 2008

"MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA" Directed by Spike Lee
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

Over the last 20 plus years, Director Spike Lee swiftly moved to the very peaks of my personal collection of cinematic heroes. By crafting often blazing cultural critiques of modern African-American life with a skill and artistry that signals the work of a natural born filmmaker, I have anticipated each "Spike Lee Joint" with palpable excitement. This could not be understated in the least with his latest effort, "Miracle At St. Anna," a WWII film that focuses on a quartet of African-American GI's trapped in a Tuscan villa.

The importance that this film exists cannot be denied as it serves to right the cinematic wrongs of films past by including the faces and lives of people who are often neglected when creating historical representations on film. I even have an uncle who served in Germany during WWII so this was truly special for me. I wanted desperately for Spike to hit that grand slam once again as his output quality is astonishingly high. And while he is more than able to handle a genre and an epic scale he hasn't tackled before, I have to sadly say I was disappointed with the final result.

Some criticisms of this film have mentioned that it lacks a clear focus. I disagree with that statement wholeheartedly. "Miracle At St. Anna" definitely has a clear focus but the many story threads unfortunately do not hang together into a tight narrative that would ultimately give the desired effect. Crucially, for a film that it meant to celebrate and honor the African-Americans who fought and died for our country, especially through the paradox of racist institutions, I was surprised to find that the four soldiers are so thinly drawn that the film remains somewhat ungrounded. Because of that, the additional plot points from the small Italian boy who attaches himself to the soldiers, the symbolically spiritual leanings of the statue head one soldier carries constantly, a mysterious tie to a 1980's murder, a love triangle, an Italian resistance force and so on do not congeal properly or build to the emotional force the conclusion wants to convey.

It reminded me of Director Anthony Minghella's "Cold Mountain," a film I felt left huge holes but ultimately led me to the excellent novel. So, it was not a complete failure by any means. Neither is this film as it also made me want to seek out the novel by James McBride, who also wrote the screenplay.

Perhaps that was the main problem: the screenplay. Maybe Spike needed to write it himself or else have a strong screenwriter adapt the novel to make all of the threads weave together stronger. Then, we could have possibly had a film, like Director Frank Darabont's "The Green Mile," that has a wide cast of characters, that is leisurely paced and contains a spiritual element that carefully created a world that built to an undeniable power.

This film definitely has sequences of undeniable power as well --the opening and climactic battle sequences, the massacre at St. Anna by the Nazis, and a gorgeously written and edited prayer that connects the faiths of the Black GIs, the Italian civilians of St. Anna and even a conflicted Nazi soldier. In fact, it is that latter sequence that is Spike's greatest gift as a storyteller and overcomes the greatest misconception about him. Spike Lee is often depicted in the media as the angry black man who hates all white people and I feel that many of his film reviews attack his persona rather than judge the actual work on the screen. On the contrary, Spike Lee has been quite the open-hearted and fair minded commentator, who has long balanced his depictions of racism with honest realities of communities ("Do The Right Thing"), politics (the excellent and compulsively watchable documentary, "When The Levees Broke") and even leveling his own moral outrage against the African-American community in films like "School Daze," "Clockers," and the underseen, undervalued and unrepentant brilliance of "Bamboozled."

Despite the profound importance of this film in the lexicon of cinematic history, "Miracle At St. Anna" has found itself in the lower ranks of Spike's efforts ("Girl 6" and "She Hate Me"). But...perhaps I will revisit this film sometime in the future on DVD and maybe, it will resonate more.

POST SCRIPT: After having seen this film, I did indeed purchase a copy of the book and while the finished film is quite faithful, the outstanding book is the way to go.

FROM THE ARCHIVES 5: a review of "The Smashing Pumpkins: If All Goes Wrong"

On the heels of my review of "The Runaways," I am going to extend the rock and roll theme by posting an archived review of a recent documentary on The Smashing Pumpkins. I suppose this posting will also pose as a celebration as it arrives to you on the eve of the band's latest release from the 44 song album in progress, "Teargarden By Kaleidyscope."

Originally written November 2008

**** (4 stars)
Director Jack Gulick's "If All Goes Wrong" truly and happily surprised me. It is not a concert film or a vanity piece. As the film chronicles two residency performances held in 2007 by the reformed/reconstituted alt-rock band The Smashing Pumpkins, we are treated to an exploration of the artistic process, the reasons why art is created, how the environment can effect the artistic process in positive and negative fashions and even the symbiotic relationship between artist and audience. Heady stuff for rock and roll but in many ways, I shouldn't have expected less from a band led by Billy Corgan, whose songwriting often contains high drama, sweeping emotions, fragile beauty and at times pitch black anger, rage and devastating sorrow.

The music of The Smashing Pumpkins has consistently shown a difficult spiritual exploration and pursuit of the majestic, a trait that has always kept this band a tad out of step with the current musical scene--even when they ruled the rock charts in the early to mid 90s. As drummer Jimmy Chamberlin pointedly states during an interview segment, "Art shouldn't make you feel comfortable," and we often see the discomfort Corgan puts himself through in creating new music daily, dealing with fans' expectations crossed with his own high expectations of himself and his band performing at a residency engineered for them to explore new musical territories and to strengthen their own bonds as a musical unit.

Yet, if a kernel of truth or a beautiful song is the result, wasn't the sometimes arduous process worth it? That is the question Gulick poses as we are treated with a film that is not about the end results, the "peak work" or a great rock show but the actual process--a process the residency audience is consistently and sometimes unknowingly and unfavorably a part of.

Throughout the music press, Billy Corgan has been painted as an egomaniacal Svengali whose often rampaging music is seen as being nothing more than a child's tantrum. His critics' views of him will probably not be changed by this film. But, I give credit to Corgan to allow himself to be captured on film not as a rock-star hero but as a human being doing the best he can at what is obviously his calling, his life's work. We see his hopes, his desires, his ambivalence with his musical past and former bandmates (the stare he gives the camera as he defiantly plays "Soma," a track co-written with former guitarist James Iha is blistering), his failings with himself and his extremely self aware knowledge of his fans' desires and the possible frustrations he has placed upon his band ("I think I may have pushed the band too fast, too far this time," Corgan says after another disappointingly received performance which ended with new Pumpkins guitarist Jeff Schroeder angrily hurling his instrument down to the stage floor). It shows a man and a band unwilling to rest on past hits and tour forever on one song when there's so much to be discovered--and if new selections like the shimmering "The Rose March," the 37 minute epic "Gossamer" and the gorgeously folky "99 Floors" are any indication, the musical future of The Smashing Pumpkins is firm.

But, most importantly, I am thrilled to have seen a film released in our current instant gratification, completely impatient, success obsessed culture that celebrates and gives ample time to the process.

"If All Goes Wrong" is a strong documentary that was one of the finest films I have seen this year.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


“THE RUNAWAYS” Written for the Screen and Directed by Floria Sigismondi
Based upon the book, Neon Angel by Cherie Currie
*** ½ (three and a half stars)

“...they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it….And that’s what they want! And it’s happening right now! I’m telling you, you’re coming along at a very dangerous time for rock and roll. The war is over. They won.”
-Lester Bangs
“Almost Famous”

“…bring me a girl
they’re always the best
you put ‘em on stage
and you have ‘em undress
some angel whore who can learn a guitar lick

hey, that’s what I call…MUSIC!!!”
-Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers


Believe it or not, dear readers, there is an art form that your favorite film enthusiast loves even more than the cinema. Its true. When he thinks of all areas of his life, and the very things aside from family and friends that speak to and sustain his soul, this item is the one thing he is unable to conceive of having a life without. That one thing is…Music. I have often gone many days without reading a novel or even involving myself in the soul-filling act of writing. Obviously, I have often gone for days without even watching one film. But, to go for even one day without music is something I cannot fathom. It has been a part of my being and something that my soul has responded to from the very beginnings of my life. If I possessed a certain musical proficiency (and of course, had the resources), I would definitely be a musician or at least, have the tools to create musical soundscapes at will. At least, I have been given the gift of a certain ability.

When I was around six or seven years old, I began to channel whatever was inside of me into learning how to play the drums. I took lessons for many years and by the eighth grade, I was asked to join a rock band in my school. For those that know me best, I am not one to self-promote or place myself out in the open terribly much. It is not my strong suit to publicly display myself too far out of my comfort zone. But, the idea of playing drums seemed to be the safest route as I could express myself (loudly) and exist behind the band members as well as a drum kit. No one was directly looking at me. Even so, there was one thing that made me feel competitive, anxious and itching to reveal myself.

By the time other kids discovered that I was a new member of the band that would eventually name itself Ground Zero (complete with the self-designed nihilistic mushroom cloud t-shirts) there were a few who were skeptical of my talents. Not due to any musical ability. It was entirely because of my race. Being an African American to play straight rock and roll was just too foreign a concept to visualize in 1983 (and in many ways, it still is) and as one kid pointed out to me, “black kids can’t get into the metal.” That one short-sighted statement made me furious as I was a devotee of the many rock drummers who saturated the Chicago classic rock stations, where I would first learn about some of the most favorite music of my life. I studied at the feet of Bonham, Moon, Collins, Peart and Copeland, among others and while I knew I was nowhere within their league, maybe I could possibly visit their neighborhood for a song or two. I wanted to get behind my kit and musically shove my drums sticks down the collective throats of the people who felt that this black kid couldn’t rock. I wanted to blow them through the back wall of the school cafeteria where many bands performed lunchtime concerts. And I indeed broke many pairs of drum sticks and drum heads to prove it.

During my recent screening of “The Runaways,” the debut feature film from music video director Floria Sigismondi, I could not help but to identify with the angst of a teen aged Joan Jett, circa 1975, as she is consistently discouraged and told that girls just don’t play electric guitars. How I immediately latched onto her seething urge for creative self-expression as well as her desire to launch a forceful guitar blast in the face of anyone who would dare defy her. Thankfully, this film as a whole, not only serves as a tribute to the pioneering band of the same name, it carries the energy of that forceful guitar blast and transforms it into a highly entertaining film whose combined power of rock and teen aged female empowerment is palpable.

As “The Runaways” opens, the male driven rock music scene has hit a stylistic crossroads as the androgynous glam rock began to sing its swan song and the dawn of brutal punk rock was just emerging. Los Angeles teens Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) have discovered their own equal yet separate crossroads as well. When we first meet Jett, she’s a 15-year-old guitar slinger, who frequents seedy rock clubs, like Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco, and has just spent her every last cent upon a men’s leather jacket. Nursing dreams of starting her own all female rock band, Jett bravely descends upon the hulking, intimidating glam frame of Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), famous record producer and impresario, who skulks and scours the L.A. streets for new talent. After a brief introduction to teen drummer Sandy West (played by Stella Maeve), the two girls align themselves and begin to hammer out new raging hymns for their restless adolescent hearts inside of an ancient trailer in the woods. As Fowley continues to assemble the band, which will soon include 17-year-old guitar whiz Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) and bassist Robin (Alia Shawkat), the search is on for a lead singer to tie all of the pieces together.

Painfully shy yet steadfast in her boldness, we are introduced to Cherie Currie, whom we first see being heckled, as she lip syncs to David Bowie's "Lady Grinning Soul," (wearing full “Aladdin Sane” regalia), in a high school talent show. Cherie’s home life is a broken, sad affair as Dad is an absent alcoholic and Mom has taken up with a new man, with plans to marry and abscond to Indonesia. With only her sister Marie (played by Riley Keough) as her confidant and support, Cherie struggles to discover not only her creative voice, but her overall place in her ever changing world. One night at the English Disco, fate intervenes as Fowley spots the feathered haired cherubic beauty standing alone amidst the blaring glitter rock, introduces her to Jett and invites her to an audition. Arriving without a prepared song to sing, the band composes the now-classic “Cherry Bomb” on the spot, giving Cherie a newfound identity as not only a 15-year-old front woman, but as a jail bait sexual tease for the predominantly male audience. From here, the film details the band’s ascension from house parties and sleazy L.A. rock clubs to endless major tours just as the band’s infrastructure implodes due to inner turmoil, band member jealousies and especially, deep resentment directed at the show business of Cherie’s rising sexual star at the expense of the band’s artistic vision.

“The Runaways,” in large portions, is a strong success as it functions as a coming-of-age film, music biopic, family drama and cultural commentary all in one and deftly juggles all aspects with supreme confidence. Additionally, the film serves as an acutely observed period piece as it displays a strong attention to a time and place that delves deeper than 70's cosmetic window dressing. We are given a dirty, filthy, narcotically enhanced ground level view of Los Angeles where the stars and dreams rise from the unwashed, underfed denizens of the streets. You can almost receive a contact high from the screen. It seems more than fitting that the film’s first shot is of a drop of Cherie’s menstrual blood hitting the sidewalk pavement, as Sigismondi has carved out a raw, wild and unleashed rock drama. For me, this film fits snuggly with other recent 1970’s rock period pieces, like Writer/Director Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine” (1998) or Writer/Director Richard Linlater's "Dazed and Confused" (1993) and it also feels like the scuzzy, bratty cousin of Cameron Crowe's great “Almost Famous” (2000). It even aligns itself very closely with films from the period, most notably, Director Jonathon Kaplan’s “Over The Edge” (1979) with its depiction of feral, alienated teens.

What worked best for me are the extended tour sequences, including one of Japan, where The Runaways over consume and constantly battle ferociously resentful male musicians along the way. There is not much attention at all given to where and when the band happens to be performing and that particular lack of detail actually works in the film's favor. The endless nature approximates what it must have felt like for these girls (and any musicians, really) to soldier on their particular treadmill. One concert date seeps and bleeds into the next, resulting in one long trip. Yes, the film is loaded with the standard rock and roll excess, including Cherie's severe descent, but it is much less concerned about the degradation and debauchery and much more focused as a portrait of kids in an adult world, forced to make the adult decisions and suffer consequences they are desperately not ready for. It is a dark world where responsible adults are scant, if visible at all. It is the age of latch-key kids, the first generation that had to raise themselves and here are five girls given the keys to the kingdom that is more than ready to eat them alive. We witness the damaging toll it places upon them and within them. Like those fun-loving teens from cinema's Ridgemont High, who had to deal with job pressures and abortions along with their midterms, the girls of The Runaways are indeed living in times too fast for them to handle successfully, and least of all, responsibly.

While Kristen Stewart has thankfully crawled out from the rubble known as her performance in “The Twilight Saga: New Moon,” her role as Joan Jett is more than credible, yet not revelatory. Her performance is most impressive in its rock swagger and physicality, as she carves out a strong persona of a teenage girl with a desperate urge for self-expression, rock integrity, artistry, and a “sleeps-with-my-guitar” mystique to go along with her extremely petulant slouch. Her striking resemblance to the real Joan Jett certainly helps too. Yet, as with most of her film roles, she has been very well cast and her representation of Joan Jett is the latest in her arsenal of sullen, sour girls. Perhaps her lack of dramatic range was evident to the filmmakers as Jett is seen mostly as an observer throughout the film and Stewart is not required to handle most of the heavier dramatic lifting.

Although Stewart may hold the film’s top billing, “The Runaways” is far and away Dakota Fanning’s movie. Fanning has consistently been an actress who has possessed an almost eerie sense of professionalism as she has easily held her own with no less than Tom Cruise (2005’s “War Of The Worlds”), Sean Penn (2001’s “I Am Sam”) and Denzel Washington (2004's “Man On Fire”) with strong, rich performances. For her first major role as she transitions from child to slightly more adult actress, Fanning, (who is currently 15 years old) is pitch perfect as Cherie Currie. And what a tightrope she has to walk.

Fanning is presented and performs as an on-stage sexual tease without ever becoming even slightly pornographic. She is so in touch with Cherie Currie’s overall humanity and vulnerability, which in large portions includes her deep solidarity with her sister and her equally deep need for her father’s attention and love. Through Fanning, we are witness to Cherie Currie’s collection of clashing personas. We see her rapid descent into a messy drug induced downward spiral as well as her aforementioned turn as an alluring pin-up girl who also carries a soft spot for the songs of Don McLean (much to the chagrin of her bandmates). It feels as if we are witnessing a child trying on different costumes: the sister, the vamp, the dutiful daughter, and so on and we wonder if any of these roles are extensions of Cherie or simply roles needed for her emotional survival and acceptance from others. When she does finally take that first step in honor of her own needs, the effect is seismic for the band, as well as herself. Dakota Fanning delivers a multi-layered performance on a level that will definitely make her an actress to be reckoned with as she ages.

As terrific as she is, truth be told, Michael Shannon nearly steals the film out from under both Stewart and Fanning with his performance as Kim Fowley. He is an insane P.T. Barnum, supremely vulgar Svengali taskmaster, sinister businessman and hedonistic exploiter of the teenage girl's nubile flesh all in one man. His grueling band rehearsals, littered with the crudest of verbal abuse, takes on the tone of a rock “boot camp” as he teaches the girls how to deal with the inevitable fallout from male musicians as well as drunken, sexist, horrific audience members who have no interest in hearing a bunch of girls attempt to play hard rock. Most of all, Shannon creates a character that represents the very spot in time when the business began to overshadow the art. For Fowley, it is the concept …not the music of The Runaways that will sell them to the masses and if they happen to carve out strong artistic material while he makes his fortune through their exploitation, then it is a means to an end. Fowley, while shown having a charismatic presence, is not a nice man in any regards. The audience never loses sight of the fact that it is in his best interest to treat these girls as ciphers and commodities rather than musicians or, at least as people! His insidious nature is always the wolf at the door for the girls, if they dare try to exude a sense of independence from him. As with Fanning, Michael Shannon is obviously having a ball with the over the top nature of this outlandish character but it is also a multi-layered performance that gives this film the proper weight and tension.

The film is not without its flaws, however. There has been some criticism launched against the film claiming that for a band that broke new musical ground, challenged rock music's sexual politics and paved the way for the likes of The Go-Go's, The Bangles, Bikini Kill, Veruca Salt, Hole and even Madonna, to name a few, the film's structure is more than a little pedestrian. While I concede that Sigismondi did indeed follow the well-worn path of the "rise and fall" arc, there was much on her mind beneath the surface that distinguished this film greatly from others of its ilk. That said, the film's faults lie in other areas as there is a fair amount of false information presented in the name of "artistic license," and that unfortunately punctures a hole in the film's authenticity.

For openers, I am unsure as to why the film is even titled "The Runaways" as it is obviously more concerned with the dynamics between Jett, Currie and Fowley rather than all five band members as a musical unit. Despite the obvious affection for drummer Sandy West (who passed away from cancer in 2006), the other three band members barely register. Lita Ford only exists as an antagonist and worst of all is bassist Robin, who I do not recall uttering even one (or more than one) line of dialogue, a decision which completely wasted the talents of actress Alia Shawkat, who was so charming in Drew Barrymore's "Whip It." Was the bassist a composite of the band's several bass players during their brief, intense existence and why was The Runaways' primary bass player Jackie Fox never mentioned even once in the film? I couldn't help but to wonder if there are still long running resentments between the former band members that affected the completed work. Whatever the reasons, perhaps "Neon Angels On the Road To Ruin," (or at least an abbreviated version of that song title) would have served the film better.

And then, there's the film's final exchange between Jett and Currie. It is a short sequence I will, of course, not spoil but it is one where the real Cherie Currie has publicly expressed never happened the way it was presented in the film. Why did Sigismondi choose to not present it the way it really occurred? As it stands, this otherwise roaring film concludes on a limp and slightly false note.

Regardless of those critiques, I was hugely rewarded with "The Runaways," as it spoke to a spirit that remains kindred to those shown on screen. Every note I was able to perform with my friends all of those years ago was a blessing as well as a much needed teenage explosion of my creative spirit. These days, I do not play in a band but every so often, I travel to music stores around my city with the sole purpose of bashing away on a set of either acoustic or electronic drums. And sometimes, I'll spot from the corner of my eye, a kid peeking at me. Sensing that they may want to try it out, I'll remove myself, offer the drum sticks and hand them over. I'll take a few steps away to give them their personal space but I have to see that initial moment, the one where their faces burst into a smile of wonderment at the sounds they are able to create themselves. I cannot help but to wonder, as I regard these young people trying out this aspect of their own creative spirits, which one of them may take that amazing free fall into music...and perhaps change the world.

The collective free fall into music and remaining legacy of Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Lita Ford, Sandy West and Jackie Fox cannot be questioned or emphasized enough and "The Runaways" is a fine testament to their enduring and raging inspiration.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


After all of the rites of male passage in the last few postings, I felt it would be time to highlight some older reviews that feature women at the forefront...and also to foreshadow a review of "The Runaways," which will hopefully arrive soon...

“BABY MAMA” Directed by Michael McCullers (2008)
**1/2 (two and a half stars)
I had the absolute pleasure of watching the opening skit to the season premiere of "Saturday Night Live" last night, featuring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler as Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton, respectively, addressing the nation. It was a brilliantly written and performed sketch that showcased exactly what happens when comedic writing and acting are working at their collective peaks. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for "Baby Mama," a sadly bland and generic feature film that tries desperately to skate by on the undeniable talent and chemistry of Fey and Poehler.

Often while watching this film, I couldn't help but to think about Judd Apatow's "Knocked Up," released only last year, and I realized how that film was so right in countless ways and where this film, while not terrible by any means, often took the safe, predictable and pedestrian route. It lacked teeth, the direction was artless and sluggish and despite sparking to life during a few sequences (and any time the shockingly underused Romany Malco appeared), it was simply a film that overstayed its welcome.

I have a strong feeling that if Tina Fey actually wrote this film, either solo or with Amy Poehler, we would've ended up with a film that was a bracing as their terrific opening sketch last night. Let's hope Fey and Peohler continue to collaborate in the future...but next time with a better script and director.

Originally written September 10, 2008

"I COULD NEVER BE YOUR WOMAN" Written & Directed by Amy Heckerling (2007)
*** (three stars)
Don't let the stigma of a "Direct To DVD" release sway you from seeing the latest charmer from Writer/Director Amy Heckerling. Michelle Pfeiffer returns to the screen as a divorced Writer/Producer of a hit teen sitcom entitled, "You Go Girl!" who is also dealing with the politics of feminism and aging in the Hollywood scene. Added to her plate are the travails of raising her daughter, Izzie as she enters puberty. Just when her life could not get any more complicated, she meets and falls in love with Paul Rudd, a 29 year old actor auditioning for her program.

What we have is a smart, breezy, and sharply satirical film that is a showcase for Pfeiffer, who displays a loose, brightly comedic and frisky exuberance not on display in far too long. Rudd also shines brightly with effortless charm but a special treat is the early supporting performance by Saoirse Ronan (from "Atonement") as Pfeiffer's daughter experiencing her first pangs of teenage love.

So why was this film not released in theaters? Thanks to a recent expose in "Entertainment Weekly," Heckerling certainly walked through the fire for her film, which was the victim of several studio collapses and Hollywood politics. This is not a perfect film and it doesn't scale the heights of Heckerling's two classics, "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" (1982) and "Clueless" (1993). It does seem a bit ragged here and there, from what seems to be unfinished color correction and special effects. But, again, it is well worth a look and what a pleasure it was to see Michelle Pfeiffer again!

Originally written February 15, 2008

"SEX AND THE CITY" Written & Directed by Michael Patrick King (2008)
** (two stars)

Before an arsenal of Carrie Bradshaw's favorite shoes come flying my way because of my star rating, let me first say emphatically that I was a big fan of the "Sex and the City" television series. Each time the latest season would be released upon DVD, I eagerly raced to my neighborhood video store and compulsively watched the continuing adventures of Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte for the entire weekend. The thing that made me feel skeptical once the announcement of a feature film version was made was that I was quite unsure as to exactly what they could and would do to make an already explicit series--thanks to airing on HBO--work as a motion picture experience. But, more thematically, for me, the series finale truly felt like a heartfelt conclusion. The story of the series was over and where else could they really go?

Well, at a hefty two and a half hour running time, all parties involved found many places where the lives of our frisky and romantically challenged quartet could continue onward but unfortunately, the proceedings felt trite where the series was insightful, the writing seemed to lack the razor sharp cleverness and always quotable dialogue of the series and once it was completed, I uttered an adjective I never used even one time during the entire run of the series and that word was..."boring."

The movie begins with the engagement and wedding preparations of Carrie and her true love, Mr. Big. From there, we also pick up with the lives and exploits of Carrie's friends, all dealing with themes of pre-marital jitters and commitment, being true to one's own romantic and sexual nature, the issues of maintaining one's identity within a long-term relationship--all compelling material. Yet, for this film, it lacked that "New York minute" level of insight and truth that made the series so beloved. Conflicts seemed arbitrary and their resolutions even more so. At times, I felt that if two characters had just spoken in one scene, we could have eliminated five additional scenes. And did we really have to have TWO sequences of Carrie and friends trying on clothes set to some song included on the soundtrack album? And then, there was the humor. I frequently laughed out loud at the series but not so much during this film where some laughs seemed surprisingly low-brow and cheap. Don't Miranda and Charlotte deserve better than being the object of jokes about unshaven pubic hair and explosive diarrhea?

But, despite the flaws, the entire cast returned to their treasured roles with complete ease and the time away from each other did not weaken their chemistry in the least. "Sex and the City" (the movie) is essentially a film about the solidarity and bonds between these four women and perhaps it was that depiction the filmmakers, studio and sponsors wanted to convey to the target audience as well as the intended viewing experience itself.

When this film was released in theaters, it became a pop-cultural film event targeted to a female audience on a level that had been previously unseen. It was a "mark the date on the calendar" event where women could go out with other women and have an evening akin to the characters in the movie. Certainly that is nothing to complain about and in many respects, in the sexist world of film, it is something to even be celebrated. The strategy obviously worked tremendously as it was a box-office smash. But, I am hoping, with the inevitable sequel that the finely honed and often terrific writing of the series returns.

Originally written September 25, 2008

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Now that the reviews for "Hot Tub Time Machine" and "Greenberg" have been completed and posted for your reading pleasure, I have decided to make this edition of "Short Takes" devoted to smaller, earlier reviews of past works from John Cusack and Noah Baumbach.

"MARTIAN CHILD" Directed by Menno Meyjes (2007)
*** (three stars)
On a recent episode of Bravo's "Actor's Studio" program, John Cusack remarked to the audience that there was once a time in Hollywood when if one wanted to know something about an actor, all one had to do was to look at the work. If there is any truth to that statement, what can be gained from Cusack, starring in his second of three 2007 roles as a grieving father?

Speculation aside, the quickly dismissed "Martian Child" stars Cusack as a widowed science fiction writer who adopts an emotional traumatized boy, who believes he is an alien from Mars (the wispy voiced Bobby Coleman). The bulk of this film rests on the palpable charm built by the relationship between Cusack and Coleman. Watching them "taste the colors" of M&Ms, playing baseball and performing a strange "Martian dance" together works very well with effortless likability.

While the film often veers close to the edge of "Lifetime movie" cliches, their relationship and the goodwill of the entire cast bring it back from the brink. There is nothing groundbreaking here but after a year of often brilliant and extremely dark fare, it is refreshing to see a film without villains; just a collective of decent people all trying to do right by a child. It is a sensitive, sentimental film without a hint of ironic distance and that makes it an easy target. But the bond between Cusack and Coleman--and their bond to us--makes for a sweet film told with unapologetic sweetness.

Originally written February 15, 2008

"GRACE IS GONE" Written and Directed by James C. Strouse (2007)
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

At last!! After its barely seen theatrical release (it never made it to Madison, WI), I finally saw this film last night on DVD and it was definitely worth the wait. John Cusack has carved out another richly layered and seemingly effortless performance as Stanley Phillips; husband, devoted father, manager of a Home Depot styled establishment and Republican patriot who is crippled with grief upon hearing the news of his wife's death while serving in Iraq. Equally crippling is his ability to inform his two daughters of this personal tragedy so he takes them on a road trip to an amusement park, all the while stalling the inevitable discussion he must have with his children.

While this film is essentially a meditation on grief and loss, it is not maudlin. It is filled with restraint and dignity and it is surprisingly not without humor. Cusack's chemistry with the two young actresses drives this film with Shelan O'Keefe being most impressive as the highly intuitive older daughter whose deep stares at Cusack simultaneously plead, challenge and encourage him to tell her the truth. Strong praise must also be given to Clint Eastwood, who contributes a gorgeously mournful score that binds all passages of this film together.

Again, the highest praise must be given to John Cusack for bringing this film to life. Clearly a "passion project," Cusack, through the sure-handed writing and direction of James C. Strouse, has fashioned a non-partisan story about the human cost of any war and how the tragedies of the battlefields resonate so deep, far and wide. It is a shame this film was so underseen but hopefully DVD will give it a second chance. Now, onto Cusack's other Iraq inspired film"War, Inc."--also probably fated to a life on DVD.

Originally written June 6, 2009

"MARGOT AT THE WEDDING" Written and Directed by Noah Baumbach (2007)
*1/2 (one and a half stars)
Writer-Director Noah Baumbach carved out brilliantly devastating new territory for himself with the microscopically astute divorce story, "The Squid and the Whale." His latest film is just as sharply written and observed but it is meaner, harsher, colder and finally, pointless. It feels like an endless one-act play with a variety of sequences hurled around simply for us to spectate at how awful these people are in full view of impressionable children. It is well acted--all three leads (Nicole Kidman, Jack Black and Jennifer Jason Leigh) give it everything they've got and the young actor who plays Kidman's older son seems to be another strong "Baumbach alter-ego." But, when it is all finally and mercifully over, just what is the use of one more dysfunctional family film if you have nothing new to say about it?

Originally written July 16, 2009