When We Were Kings

tn_wwwkIf you were going to build the prototype for the ultimate man, wouldn’t it pretty much be 1974 Muhammad Ali? He’s a badass, a fighter with style. I don’t even really like boxing that much but I love to watch him dance around, swinging his fists so fast. Even Bruce Lee liked to watch him.

He’s handsome in a manly way. He’s charming, eloquent, and funny as hell. His humor is mostly based around making preposterous boasts… but it’s not some Danny McBride overconfidence thing, because he usually delivers. In this movie there’s an interview where he goes into detail about high speed photography and how one of his punches was proven to take only four one hundredths of a second, like a blink or a camera flash, and all this is setup for him to claim “Now, the minute I hit Sonny Liston, all of those people blinked at that moment, that’s why they didn’t see the punch.” A tall tale, but based on a true, provable incident.

Of equal importance, Ali has integrity of the Stickin It To The Man variety. He didn’t believe in the war so he refused to sign up for selective service, knowing it would endanger his career, reputation and freedom, and he held his head high the whole time. And he was outspoken about racism too. And he was right. (read the rest of this shit…)

A Huey P. Newton Story

tn_hueypnewtonPANTHER reminded me of one of the few Spike Lee movies I hadn’t seen, the 2001 made-for-cable A HUEY P. NEWTON STORY. When it comes to the Spike Lee Jointography there are three categories. There’s the main ones you think about – DO THE RIGHT THING, MALCOLM X, all the way through his recent OLDBOY remake. And sprinkled in between are the documentaries, often made for cable. They’re less widely seen, of course, but really good, movies like FOUR LITTLE GIRLS and WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE. But even rarer than that there’s the performance films. I gotta admit I haven’t gotten to most of these. PASSING STRANGE was one, that’s a Broadway musical. I did see ORIGINAL KINGS OF COMEDY. That was pretty good.

A HUEY P. NEWTON STORY, A SPIKE LEE JOINT is a filmed version of a one-man show that Roger Guenveur Smith did starting in 1996 at the New York theater where Hair started.

I don’t know if you know who Smith is. He’s gotta be best known for playing Smiley in DO THE RIGHT THING, so I’m sure people walk up to him on the street every day and say “M-M-M-Martin. M-M-M-Malcolm.” He’s actually been in several Spike Lee movies, he was on Oz I guess, he was one of the stars of Steven Soderbergh’s improvised lobbyist drama K-Street on HBO. But also he was the bad guy in Seagal’s MERCENARY FOR JUSTICE.

He’s an actor I’ve always liked, but I could understand if you didn’t. He has a very theatrical style. He’s a character actor but he likes to show off. He always carries around a little stick of scenery in his pocket to chew on. MERCENARY FOR JUSTICE is an example of him getting a little loosey goosey with the accents. (read the rest of this shit…)

Panther

tn_pantherPANTHER, directed by Mario Van Peebles, written by his dad Melvin Van Peebles based on his own novel, shows the formation and rise and dissolution of the Black Panther Party For Self Defense. That last part of the name is usually left off, which makes sense because it sounds a little awkward. But if they left it on it would make it a little harder to pretend they’re the Kill Whitey Committee.

This is a ’60s period piece made 20 years ago and never even released on DVD in the U.S. as far as I can tell, but it’s timely and provocative because it’s about a community that gets fed up with the shit end of the stick and tries to figure out a better way to deal with it. It opens with a boy riding his bike, taking in the sights of his Oakland neighborhood. He and an older man both watch in delight as a bus blasts by a dressed up lady at a bus stop, blowing her skirt up like Marilyn Monroe. They love that they get to see her garters, and don’t seem to notice that some racist bus driver didn’t stop to pick her up. The innocence of childhood. Nostalgic first person narration is telling us this is where it all started, so it’s a bit of a shock when that kids gets nailed by a car.

He’s not the narrator as a child, it turns out. He’s the dead kid who convinced everybody that they could no longer take “No, you don’t need a stop light at that intersection” for an answer. (read the rest of this shit…)

Selma

tn_selmaSELMA is a story about the influential social justice warrior Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Not a biopic, but a movie focused on one specific campaign, a march through Alabama to demand a law to protect voting rights. The importance of this legislation is illustrated by an old black woman who, though clearly exhausted from her shift at a nursing home, and intimidated by the experience of her previous attempts, tries to register to vote. The white clerk says she’s “stirring up trouble,” threatens to tell her boss about it, and gives her an impossible local government pop quiz before gleefully rejecting her. That the lady is played by Oprah Winfrey, who more than a few people wish would run for president, adds a little meta-weight.

At one point SELMA was gonna be directed by Oprah’s friend Lee Daniels, whose combination of talent and insane tastelessness could’ve been a problem for this story. But I think he was responsible for the brilliant stroke of casting David Oyelowo (the snobby reporter Yardley in THE PAPERBOY, the militant son in LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER) as King. Daniels was also gonna have Robert De Niro, Hugh Jackman, Cedric the Entertainer, Lenny Kravitz and Liam Neeson in the cast. I imagine Neeson would’ve been the voice on the phone harassing Coretta Scott King (played in the actual movie by Carmen Ejogo, who also played King in BOYCOTT, and other characters in ALEX CROSS and THE PURGE: ANARCHY).

Oyelowo (who had also worked with director Ava DuVernay in MIDDLE OF NOWHERE) somehow fattened his face to create a surprisingly good likeness. I’m told he just gained weight, it’s not makeup, but how the fuck do they do that? It’s not like his body is real fat, how did they know he’d gain the weight there? Do they have physical trainers that can focus your diet and workout that specifically? Do they use computers? (read the rest of this shit…)

Taken 3

tn_taken3Unfortunately TAKEN 3 is an uninspired new sausage from the Besson/Kamen factory. Liam Neeson’s ruthless ex-CIA family man character Bryan Mills returns for his first adventure not related to the endless circle of violence caused by his daughter getting kidnapped on a trip to Europe. This time it’s the go-to action movie bad guys of today, the Russian mafia (see also THE EQUALIZER, JOHN WICK, SAFE, DRIVEN TO KILL) who (SPOILER THAT’S IN THE TRAILER) kill poor Lenore (Famke Janssen), Mills’s ex-wife and mother of Kim (Maggie Grace) and who he sort of still has a thing for. The cops show up and it kinda looks like he did it so he beats them up and goes on the run so that he can prove that he didn’t do what it now really really looks like he did.

Even more than part 1 and part 2, part 3 leans heavily on the non-action movie family stuff. There’s a whole lot of time spent showing that he has a good relationship now with his daughter and ex-wife and gets along with his daughter’s boyfriend and tries to help Lenore with her problems with her second husband Stuart (Dougray Scott). I guess at this point I sort of have to admire that Besson cares so much about these characters, or thinks we do, but it’s not like this is real deep observations about relationships. And besides, UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY will always be the definitive action sequel where an old asskicker gives a giant teddy bear to a female relative and it’s awkward because she’s way too old for it. (read the rest of this shit…)

Nightcrawler

tn_nightcrawlerI watched NIGHTCRAWLER back-to-back with FOXCATCHER. So far I’ve been able to keep the titles straight in my head though, haven’t mixed them up like I still do with RISE OF THE/LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS. But it’s not just the titles that are vaguely similar. This is another story about a bizarre, unfeeling weirdo pretending to be a human. The biggest differences from John Du Pont are 1) no fake nose 2) this guy comes from a working class perspective; he’s introduced sneaking around stealing copper to sell for scrap, like a junkie 3) he’s the protagonist.

It takes place in L.A and mostly at night, so it’s kind of like a noir. Jake Gyllenhaal (HIGHWAY, PRINCE OF PERSIA) plays Lou Bloom, the weirdo in question. I liked him so much in PRISONERS that I’ll see a movie just for him now, so I was excited for this even before the acclaim. Lou is the kind of weirdo who (correctly) thinks he can just walk wherever he wants to if he acts like he belongs there. When he’s driving home one night and sees a flaming car wreck on the side of the freeway he just pulls over, gets out and walks up to watch firemen trying to pull the driver out of the wreckage. You know, just curious. Wanted to see what all the fuss was.

When he learns he can make a living listening to a police scanner, chasing down these tragedies and shoving a camera in there, it quickly becomes clear that he has a natural talent for it. He’s not only completely willing to get in the way of cops and paramedics in life and death situations, he’ll also walk into a house where a shooting has taken place, film the bodies, move things around to make the shots more compelling. Here, get this happy photo of the victim next to this bullet hole. Perfect. (read the rest of this shit…)

Cutaway

tn_cutawayHow’s this for a pitch: it’s POINT BREAK meets DROP ZONE and TERMINAL VELOCITY! Stephen Baldwin plays an over-the-edge customs agent who, like Keanu Reeves’s FBI agent in POINT BREAK, goes undercover with a group of (non-surfing this time) skydivers who he suspects of being involved in drug smuggling. And like DROP ZONE and TERMINAL VELOCITY it’s about this whole subculture of skydivers who live like a family or a tribe with their own stupid lingo and traditions that they’re real proud of. For example “cutaway” is their term for somebody (for example a hot shot lawyer) leaving behind their previous life to just be one of these parachute gypsies for now on. And of course that takes on extra meaning for Baldwin’s character, who is here with a secret agenda that he’s gonna be tempted to cutaway from as he becomes accepted by the group. (read the rest of this shit…)

Get On Up

tn_getonupFor several years Spike Lee talked about doing a James Brown biopic starring Wesley Snipes. This was fairly recently, like while Wesley was locked up. Man, I couldn’t quite picture what that would be like, and I really wanted to find out. But I figured even if Wesley could pull off the role I wasn’t sure a movie about James Brown could ever work. Would a movie really be able to show his incredible genius without toning down what a horrible person he was?

When I heard somebody besides Lee was doing the James Brown biopic, and that it was the guy that did the fucking HELP, I was not happy. And who do they have playing The Godfather? Chadwick Boseman, same guy who already played Jackie Robinson in that other movie that that other white director did before Spike Lee could. I bet this Boseman guy has nightmares about getting stomped by Air Jordans.

And the trailers didn’t help. With quick clips of Boseman in a wig lip synching James Brown, you couldn’t really tell if he looked that much like him, same with the dialogue. And there was a version with interviews of rappers and Mick Jagger and stuff talking about how important James Brown is. What the fuck is this approach? Who is this demographic of fucking weirdos who have no idea who James Brown is but will see a movie about him if Mick Jagger recommends it? What, did they already see a video of Taylor Swift or Macklemore or somebody explaining how important Mick Jagger is? (read the rest of this shit…)

What the shit? Darth Mad Dog?

Okay, I’m skeptical about this one, but it would be irresponsible of me not to make sure everybody has heard this report that three great screen martial artists from the RAID saga are allegedly crossing over to the STAR WARS one. This has been picked up by Deadline and other industry type blogs (specifically the movie industry), but the report comes from Twitch, who source it simply by saying that “Twitch has learned” Iko Uwais (Rama), Yayan Ruhian (Mad Dog/Sad Dog) and Cecep Arif Rahman (“The Assassin” in part 2) will be in THE FORCE AWAKENS.

I guess only time will tell whether or not Twitch learned accurately. In my opinion these three star warriors are for sure playing Luke Skywalker’s triplet sons Huey, Louie and Mad Dog Skywalker. I have learned (in a dream) that part 7 is pretty much non-stop brutal martial arts and death defying stunts with an occasional C3PO “Oh dear!” for punctuation.

Seriously though, guys, if this somehow turns out to be true then it looks like Lucasfilm has decided to go after the coveted Vern vote. Next week they’ll announce that part 3 will be directed by Isaac Florentine and go straight to video.

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The Outlaw Josey Wales

tn_outlawjoseywalesBack in 2013 I started a new old wives tale that it is good luck for a critic’s first review of a new year to be a Clint Eastwood movie. I continued the tradition for 2014 and I ended up having a really intense year that was not fuckin around when it came to either highs or lows. It was a year that included a funeral, way too much time spent hanging out in hospitals and job-related fears like losing my health insurance. But on the other hand I finally published that damn novel and I had a great trip to Tennessee and of course my TED talk or whatever at Cinefamily was a great blessing and the highlight of my career so far. It was also just an evolutionary step for ol’ Vern because I learned I could actually make a public appearance without ruining everything, as far as I could tell. So in honor of my miraculously retained Outlaw status let’s start off 2015 with THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES. I haven’t seen this one in forever and a day and a half.

What we have here is a badass western revenge story. Clint directs and plays the titlational Josey Wales, who at first is just a regular non-outlaw family man. Then “redleg” raiders come through raping and pillaging, kill his boy and his wife, burn down his house, scar his face. Who knows how many days later he’s still just sitting there brooding on his patch of land when a squad of Confederate guerillas come by, tell him they’re at war with the bastards who did this. “I’ll be comin with you,” Josey says. (read the rest of this shit…)