In Case You Missed It – Gang Related

When Tupac Shakur’s life was cut short in 1996, not only did he leave behind a growing impact on the world of rap and hip-hop music but also “what ifs” regarding his developing acting career. Although he only appeared in a handful of films, he left the cinematic world wanting for more. From Juice to Poetic Justice to Above the Rim to Gridlock’d, Tupac Shakur displayed a natural charisma and was effortlessly authentic whether he was a romantic lead or a devious villain. His last screen performance in 1997’s Gang Related certainly added to his impressive yet fleeting movie career.

From writer-director Jim Kouf (screenwriter of Stakeout and The Hidden) comes this gritty and timely thriller concerning police corruption, murder and a labyrinthian search for justice. Shakur stars opposite Jim Belushi (in one of his best roles) as a pair of shameless, dirty cops. Their M.O. is to rob and murder drug dealers, as a shortcut to cleaning up their crime infested streets and line their pockets. Belushi justifies their behavior as a reward for his mostly legitimate career, while Shakur needs the ill-gotten gains to fuel his non-stop gambling.

One morning, after a previous night’s homicidal escapades, they are visited by the DEA. Turns out, their most recent victim was an undercover agent. The pair scramble to find a patsy and escape unscathed. With the help of Belushi’s stripper-girlfriend (Lela Rochon), they find the seemingly perfect scapegoat in the form of a homeless drunk (played convincingly by Dennis Quaid). But the hole they’re digging just keeps getting deeper when it’s discovered that their “prime suspect” is actually a long-lost billionaire philanthropist who has been in hiding for almost a decade.

The rest of the film is a tense examination of the modern-day justice system while Belushi and Shakur try every trick and kick over every rock to avoid their own inevitable fates. The film is essentially a hard-boiled fable about two cops who are well beyond learning lessons or earning redemption, and will do anything to survive, even if it means turning on each other. Word has it that Belushi and Shakur had a shaky relationship behind the scenes, but that may be the fuel for the on-screen chemistry.

Despite his more known comedic background, Belushi reminds you what an intense performer he can be. His relentlessness as captured in the film is palpable. And Shakur matches him every step of the way, as an impressionable partner who may have reached the limits of what he is willing to learn and far he is willing to go. In a sense, Gang Related is a much more grounded and realistic in comparison to the overblown histrionics of Training Day.

In addition to these engaging leads, Gang Related has plenty of noteworthy turns. While Lela Rochon’s relationship with Belushi does push credibility, her angst and moral quandary are heartfelt as someone pushed too far and who wants to do the right thing. James Earl Jones brings easy gravitas to the proceedings as the high-priced family lawyer on retainer to save Quaid and embodies the only incorruptible justice in the film. And while Quaid’s character shades a little bit towards sainthood, there is quiet power in the scene when where he divulges the transgressions that led to his self-imposed purgatory.

Gang Related also works for its moments of dark humor. Watch as another criminal (a guilty criminal) on trial notices that his weapon has been swapped out. He exclaims, “That’s not mine,” not out of a sense of innocence but depraved pride. There is also an early moment when Belushi is trying to ascertain the worst scenario of their predicament to which Shakur responds, “You mean, what’s worse that what we’ve done, that can still happen?!” Jim Kouf’s screenplay aches of both the realism of police work and the accompanying jaded cynicism.

Like many artists taken too soon, Tupac Shakur’s legacy is full of both awe-inspiring talent and wonderment at what might have been. Considering that his music espoused social injustices maybe it’s fitting that his only performance as law enforcement was as a dirty cop. And in the end, the ultimate irony is that Tupac Shakur’s life was taken by the same kind of senseless urban violence that the characters of Gang Related are either trying to hide in or escape from.  

In Case You Missed It: Live Wire

It’s a cliché, but timing is everything. Just ask Pierce Brosnan. In 1986, after a successful run on the detective series “Remington Steele,” he was set to take on the most prestigious of film roles as James Bond. Sadly or fortunately (depending on your take), producers wouldn’t let Brosnan out of his contract when the show received an unlikely reprieve from cancellation. James Bond was subsequently re-cast with Timothy Dalton, and Brosnan would bide his time for another opportune moment.

Before finally getting the more concrete agreement to take over the reins of 007 in 1994, Bronsnan kept himself busy. After “Remington Steele’s” disappointing and short-sighted final season, he moved on to film fare like 1987’s tense, Cold War thriller The Fourth Protocol, his first box office hit in 1992’s The Lawnmower Man and even more recognition playing Robin Williams’ romantic foil in 1993’s blockbuster comedy Mrs. Doubtfire. Brosnan was certainly not lacking opportunities.

What you may have missed was easily his goofiest (though not intentionally) outing in the 1992 flick Live Wire. From director Christian Duguay (Screamers, The Assignment, The Art of War) comes this slightly inventive thriller that is more enjoyable the less you think about it. Thankfully, the casting of Pierce Brosnan provides more than enough gravitas and maybe just a slight glimmer of the athleticism and charm he would bring to the world of James Bond.

Brosnan, stars as Danny O’Neill, an FBI agent who specializes in explosives and bomb disposal. As the film begins, he’s moonlighting for the LAPD when a damsel gets stuck in traffic with a few pounds of C4 beneath her seat. Thanks to O’Neill’s quick timing, the day is saved. The fact that this rescued woman shows up again at the film’s coda is just one of the film’s charms.

O’Neill is recently separated from his wife, Terry (Lisa Eilbacher), unable to properly cope with the loss of their child in a pool accident. Their paths become unavoidably entangled since Terry just happens to work for US Senator Frank Traveres (brought to oily existence by Ron Silver), who is receiving death threats. The fact that Traveres is trying to make time with Danny’s estranged wife is just par for the course.

But then things truly explode with the introduction of Ben Cross as international terrorist Mikhail Rashid. In a career full of scene-chewing villains, Cross gives Live Wire much enjoyed energy as a blood-thirsty mercenary who has found a way to weaponize water. That’s right, explosive H2O. It is the perfect weapon since above all else it uses the human body as a detonator and leaves no trace behind. Like I said earlier, the less you think, the more you will enjoy the movie.

Along the way, O’Neill has a few close calls which includes a “hotheaded” clown at a fair and the killing of a federal judge. The scene in the courtroom should come as no surprise once you notice the use of inexplicable glass barriers. But everything leads up to the ingenious finale. O’Neill must protect Traveres in his palatial home from Rashid and his goons. What ensues is an extended sequence that is MacGyver meets Home Alone, with O’Neill using his wits and numerous households products to survive.

Live Wire is definitely a product of its era. The early 90’s saw a tidal wave of direct-to-video/cable movies that were either over-the-top or derivative facsimiles of successful mainstream movies. I do wonder if this film was an actual inspiration to subsequent bomb-themed thrillers like Speed, Blown Away, and The Specialist.

Regardless, the film works because it is willing to go THERE and BEYOND with a wacky plot and perfectly campy performances from vets like Silver and Cross. But, at the center is Pierce Brosnan who provides the film with just the balance of dramatic creed and a slight wink and a nod. It’s the perfect concoction for Live Wire as well as his future successful run as the world’s most famous MI-6 agent.  

In Case You Missed It – The Last Supper

To call the current state of political discourse volatile is to make an understatement of epic proportions. Between Social Media, infinite political commentators, and a 24/7 news cycle there would be no escaping politics on a good day. But throw in a global pandemic and an upcoming presidential election and avoiding politics would be like avoiding oxygen. And much like COVID-19, it’s seems to be airborne. The days of being able to have a civil discussion about ideals and beliefs are long gone, and the concept of changing someone’s mind is as foreign to me as the appeal of Justice League’s Director Cut.

With this in mind, 1995’s The Last Supper is MORE than timely. It’s a scathingly, dark and witty comedy about the lengths a group of idealistic graduate students are willing to go to make the world, or at least their worldview, better. The film stars Cameron Diaz, Ron Elderd, Annabeth Gish, Jonathan Penner and Courtney B. Vance as said group and features an impressive supporting cast of ideologues whose beliefs are put on trial.

At the outset, we meet our fair-minded group of liberal academics as they prepare for one of their weekly dinners. These dinners are meant to both aerate their developing political work as well as engage willing guests into dialogue that can sometimes become heated arguments. When Elderd’s Pete has car trouble, he invites the seemingly courteous stranger that helped him to their subsequent meal. This stranger is played by Bill Paxton, in full-on Chet from Weird Science-mode.

After a few niceties, Paxton’s Zach reveals himself to be a short-tempered Neo Nazi. And when Zach can’t handle the group’s attempts at education he erupts and goes into actual “attack mode.” In an act of recognizable self-defense, Penner’s Marc stabs and kills Zach. But, instead of calling the cops, the group rationalize that Zach was pure evil and the world is now better off without him. Pete ditches his car and the rest bury Zach in the backyard.

Emboldened by their “getting away with murder,” the group decides that to make actual change in the world it’s not enough to contest and change people’s minds. They decide that the world can just do without some people. What if you met a struggling artist in the 1920’s named Adolf Hitler and simply killed him? Wouldn’t the world be a better place? History?

The plan: every week, invite an individual of questionable beliefs over. Hear their hot takes and involve them in challenging conversation, to see if they are capable of growth. By evening’s end, the group of five votes (no ties possible) on which carafe of wine gets opened next for the guest to sample. Hint: immunity to Iocane powder would be a must.

This unsuspecting group of guests include Charles Durning as a homophobic priest who believes that AIDS is a justifiable punishment for homosexuality, Mark Harmon as a chauvinist and rape apologist and Jason Alexander as a Global Warming denier who when pressed about being anti-environment, proclaims “I am Pro Human Being.” We also get Nora Dunn as the local sheriff who keeps showing up ala Columbo due to the uptick in missing people.

And Ron Perlman chews up the scenery with gusto as the group’s dream nemesis, Norman Aburthnot, a cigar chomping right wing pundit who’s delayed flight provides a chance meeting with one of our intrepid graduate students. The final act of the film finds Norman as the group’s latest guest. Everything comes to a head, with each member either developing vital morality or embracing their homicidal vindictiveness.

The ending may be a bit on the nose, but director Stacy Title deserves a lot of credit for keeping everything moving along briskly and directing with just the balance of sharp wit and infectious debauchery. The Last Supper is all about moral quandaries and ethical what ifs, as we watch this group enact their plan of “political purification.” The film is sly, funny, and exceedingly dark. But like the best of black comedies, there’s just enough sinister joy to carry one over.

Despite my own strong and devout liberal beliefs, I sincerely doubt I would ever go as far any of the characters in The Last Supper. First, lowering yourself to such bloodthirsty depths as your opponent just means they have already one. Second, where would it stop? For every one of me, I am sure there are twenty who don’t share my views. Life is too short to be constantly worrying about what other’s think and believe…….unless it’s about film in which case I will fight dirty if necessary 😊

In Case You Missed It: The Apple

In 1998, filmmaker Brian Helgeland accomplished a rare and notable feat. In the same week that he was being rightfully honored with an Academy Award for his work adapting L.A. Confidential to the silver screen, he was also bestowed a Golden Raspberry for his screenwriting work on the The Postman. Story has it, that Helgeland keeps both awards displayed on the same mantel to remind him of “the Quixotic nature of Hollywood.” The truth of the matter is that often the same amount of effort that goes into making a bad movie also goes into making a good movie. For every Get Out, Moonlight, and Birdman there’s a Movie 43, Norbit and Cats. Effort and vision don’t always guarantee execution and entertainment.

With this in mind, I’d like to recommend 1980’s The Apple. A film soooo bad, it has to be seen to be believed…..or disbelieved. I admit, this one even flew under my radar, never garnering the attention/ironic affection of such notable train wrecks like Plan 9 From Outer Space, Manos: The Hands of Fate or Caligua. But after a viewing on Netflix a few years ago, it’s certainly worthy of inclusion in any list of the most gawdy, overblown, and dreadful pieces of cinema ever produced.

So, where to start? This Sci-Fi musical (what a combo) is set in the “futuristic” world of 1994. In a world that can best be described as The Warriors meets Xanadu meets Flash Gordon, we learn that music is equal part currency and political clout. Once a year, new stars/leaders are chosen via the Worldvision Song Festival (think Eurovision meets the RNC). Everything seems in the bag for Mega-Music Mogul Mr. Boogalow’s latest hand-chosen puppets until a showstopping performance by the saccharine, new age duo of Alphie and Bibi threatens the balance of talent and power.

Despite losing, Alphie and Bibi captivate the world with their wholesome brand of ……..I don’t know, think Donny and Marie to the tenth power. Mr. Boogalow, fearing the couple’s popularity, plots to separate the lovebirds. After offering the duo a prized contract, we watch as Bibi descends into the worst parts of fame and power while Alphie tries to remain pure and break free of the perceived enslavement. And as if the religious parallels weren’t enough, the film concludes with a God-like figure named Mr. Topps, who appears to save the righteous from the ensuing Rapture. Hooked yet?

If The Apple was just bad or an overly simplistic morality tale that would be one thing. But the film is also the backdrop for music that is as bland as it is forgettable and choreography that is as uninspired as it is disconnected. The costumes are certainly indicative of what someone in 1980 might think 1994 looks like, think Back to the Future Part II meets Logan’s Run. And as if that weren’t troubling enough, Catherine Mary Stewart, as Bibi, is put on display to merely and unconvincingly lip sync. I take solace in the fact the Ms. Stewart would escape this dreck and find gainful employment in cult hits like Night of the Comet and Weekend at Bernie’s.   

All of this is brought to you under the “watchful” eye of Menahem Golan. The Israeli filmmaker would go on to a successful career directing such B-classics as Enter the Ninja and The Delta Force. But he is more renowned for his work as a tireless film producer, putting The Cannon Group on the map with the Breakin’ series and the early film career of Jean Claude Van Damme. What he may have lacked in subtlety, he made for in style and shameless mass-production.

I know its easy to decry this film, or any film, for being awful and yet I have to respect its conviction. Here’s a film that has a vision, a misguided one at that, and stays focused and resolute. Does the film make sense? No, but maybe that’s the point. Either a film speaks to you or it doesn’t. In the case of The Apple, it screams “run away, run far away.”

Palm Springs (2020)

There have been many banner days in the history of American Comedy but maybe none more overlooked than December 17, 2005. The debut of “Lazy Sunday” on Saturday Night Live brought about two lasting effects. First, SNL garnered a whole new legion of fans aching to watch the latest in the SNL Digital Video series. Second, Andy Samberg solidified his role as SNL “go-to-person” and spent another six seasons developing his knack for goofy comedy that finds a way to be both highbrow and low brow at the same. Throw in seven seasons of the hilarious and always timely “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” and Samberg’s resume and place in pop culture grows with every day.

And while, he has worked steadily in film as well (I Love You, Man, Friends With Benefits, Celeste and Jesse Forever) he may have finally segued in to official “leading man” territory with his hilarious and heartfelt work in Palm Springs. From writer Andy Siara and director Max Barbakow, the film is a subversively funny and unexpectedly charming romantic-comedy that finds Samberg in his element and Cristin Milioti getting to shine as well.

In a plot that can best be described as Groundhog Day for the millennial set, Palm Springs (the city) is the backdrop for a day (or a multitude of days) in the life of Samberg’s Nyles. We don’t get much, if any, of a back story but from the moment he wakes in a desert resort, we know Nyles is having “one of those days.”  After barely crawling out of the bed for a bout of meaningless near-sex with his high maintenance girlfriend (Meredith Hagner), he meanders to the pool in what seems like a daily routine of pool lounging and binge drinking.

Cut to the evening, where Nyles somehow fits in at a lavish wedding despite wearing a Hawaiian shirt and cargo shorts. After some ceremonial niceties, things come to a noticeable halt when the sister of the bride, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), is the put on the spot for an impromptu toast. Nyles steps in and delivers an effortless speech about marriage, love and what it means to be found. This is the first of many hints to Nyles living “many lives.”

Sarah is subsequently drawn to Nyles and after a romantic sojourn to a nearby cave (and one jarring moment of comedic violence) she finds herself drawn to a light. The next day, Sarah wakes and realizes fairly quickly she is in, as Nyles describes, “one of those infinite time loop situations that you might have heard about.” What ensues is Sarah trying every trick in the book to escape, with Nyles as her nonjudgmental guide. Of course, these two will fall in love and there will be plenty of obstacles, which include Sarah’s very shady recent past and Nyles having to avoid the murderous revenge of the seemingly innocuous Roy, played with maniacal glee by Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons.

Palms Springs might inspire some cinematic Déjà vu but it still finds ways to surprise you between the witty script by Andy Siara and the finely tuned direction of Max Barbakow. On the one hand, we have this outrageously choreographed scenario where Nyles and Sarah takes turns “living like there’s no tomorrow.” This may best be represented by a montage of all of Nyles’ sexual conquests (which includes a few men.) On the other hand, the film has a justifiable sweetness ala Groundhog Day. It only works because we like these characters and want them to find happiness.

Samberg continues to build on his Golden Globe-winning work from “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” giving us a surprisingly layered Nyles who is much more than his slacker exterior. Milioti, who is best known to me portraying scorned or dying characters (“How I Met Your Mother,” “Fargo,” The Wolf of Wall Street) is a true revelation. As Sarah, she gives us a complex heroine who is far from perfect, just a little vindictive, and loads more interesting than the stereotypical “dream girl” prototype usually on display in traditional Rom-Coms. Samberg and Milioti have undeniable chemistry and in the end while love is an answer it is not THE answer to escape the loop. Without spoiling too much, I was happy to see the introduction of Quantum Physics as a remedy as opposed to just “being the best you.”

Palm Springs certainly embraces the messiness inherent in all things love, family and life…..thrown into a blender of sci-fi relativity. There are plenty of ethical and philosophical questions pondered in the film. As for me, I would begrudgingly relent to my own time loop with endless carbo-loading coupled with no waistline repercussions.

Grade: B+

In Case You Missed It: 2 Days in the Valley

Say what you will about Pulp Fiction, it’s legacy is undeniable. Not only did it guarantee a sustainable career for writer-director Quentin Tarantino but it ushered in a bold and groundbreaking era of independent film. But as with every trend-setting movie, not only were there worthy successors but a slew of knockoffs and cheap imitations. In particular, films like Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead, Suicide Kings, and Boondock Saints showed that not everyone could pull of Tarantino’s knack for creating vivid characters engaging in jazz-like dialogue while navigating the criminal underworld and the occasional dead body.

One film that I feel gets unnecessarily lumped in with the “Pulp-less Fiction” is 2 Days in the Valley. From writer-director John Herzfeld (Don King: Only in America, 15 Minutes) comes this dark and funny series of tales of murder and mischief during 48 hours in San Fernando, California aka The Valley. Many critics decried the film for being a weak facsimile of Tarantino’s world of hitmen and burgers, but I found it to have more than enough charm along with an engaging and extensive cast.

The film is an enjoyable series of interconnected stories and characters, and like Hollywood Homicide and L.A. Story, captures the nuances of life in Hell-A. Los Angeles, from my experience, is a 24-hour world full of dreamers, schemers, and non-stop driving. 2 Days in the Valley captures that spirit in a way that has its fair share of violence and yet denotes a hint of worthy optimism.

There are many moving pieces in the plot, but the catalyst is when Teri Hatcher hires James Spader (100% swarmy) and his femme fatale partner Charlize Theron (in only her 2nd screen role) to off her parasitic ex-husband (Peter Horton). Spader enlists ex-Mafioso (Danny Aiello) for assistance/scapegoating only to have him escape and seek shelter with an obnoxious art dealer (Greg Cruttwell) and his long-suffering assistant (played lovingly by Glenne Headley).

Also, in the mix are Eric Stoltz and Jeff Daniels as your typical mismatched Vice cops, with Stoltz dreaming of moving to the Homicide division and Daniels nearing suspension who’s only solace is in cleaning up “the Valley.” We also get long time filmmaker Paul Mazursky playing a broken-down version of himself as Teddy Peppers, a washed-up director preparing to commit suicide who just happens upon the kind ears of a nurse played by the always welcoming Marsha Mason. Their scenes together ring of authenticity as two lost old souls as well as reverence for two old time Hollywood pros who have had their fair share of success and failure.

I’d rather not give too much more away because half the joy in 2 Days….is watching how these characters collide. Herzfeld is masterful in the way he maneuvers these characters and their stories, almost like a master stage director. Each story has a purpose and each character has just enough verve and intrigue for you to want to know more but respect the remaining mystery.

All the performances are uniformly effective but a few things worth noting:

  • The no-holds barred fight between Hatcher and Theron is one for the ages. It has just the right balance of professional moves and human clumsiness to be both entertaining and shocking. Think a female version of Roddy Piper and Keith David from They Live.
  • Danny Aiello reminding us what a caring and commanding performer he was. Yes, he’s playing a criminal but as we learn, a down on his luck one. His scenes with Headley are particularly satisfying.
  • James Spader in full-on “sleeze” mode may seem too obvious as a professional hit man but he delivers every line with nuance and cunning. His monologue about giving each of his victims “1 Minute to live” is highly absorbing.

2 Days in the Valley may seem dated today, but I still believe it captures not only the essence of Los Angeles but the spirit of independent film in the late 90’s. Today’s world of film is overflowing with remakes, reboots, and every super hero that has ever been depicted in a comic book. Where are the original ideas? Where’s the artistically crafted dialogue? Where are the casts of actors and actresses ready to deliver a diverting world not based on superpowers or alien forces? It’s a troubling time for any film lover looking for originality or uniqueness. But I would at least settle for anything that evokes the goofy and grisly charm of 2 Days in the Valley.

In Case You Missed It: Lantana

How much do you know about your neighbors? How much do you REALLY want to know? Podcasts, documentaries, and social media continually wet our appetite with all things “true crime.” And in almost each and every product/story we get a glimpse of suspects and perpetrators through the lens of their neighbors, those who might seem to “know” them best, if only through proximity. But how much do they really know? Or is all just curiosity mixed with speculation and just the right hint of projection?

2001’s Lantana is an overlooked mystery that partially delves into this concept of the neighbors as both comforting presences and potential menace. But it’s also an examination of the people actually in our lives, how much we know about them, and how much we SHOULD know. It reminded me of 1997’s The Sweet Hereafter, where a bus accident seems to tear a town apart but upon further examination the people were already fraying. Lantana centers around the discovery of a potential murder victim (I will not reveal who) and how it galvanizes a group of people, all effected in different ways.

The film takes place in a suburb of Sydney, Australia and stars Anthony LaPaglia (in one of his best roles). US film audiences became aware of Mr. LaPaglia in such cult films as Betsy’s Wedding (where he is the best thing in the film), So I Married an Axe Murderer, and Empire Records. He then segued into more mainstream recognition as a NY-based FBI agent in TV’s long-running “Without a Trace.” But to hear him in his native Australian accent is to be privy to his genuine talent and power as an actor.

As Leon Zat, he is a police detective investigating a woman’s body discovered in the Australian bush. But, it’s not that simple. He is currently cheating on his wife, suffering cardiac episodes, and looking for any excuse to beat up anyone. In an early scene, we watch as his bull doggedness causes him to collide with a fellow jogger. The other jogger, who has his own heartbroken tale, was just as careless and yet we are left to wonder who else will wind up in Leon’s tornado path.

We meet Zat’s wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) who is aware of his cheating and tries to exact revenge in a scene of that aches of fury and misplaced passion. She is also seeing a psychiatrist, Valerie (Barbara Hershey), hoping to get through this rough patch. In turn, Valerie is having marital woes of own with her distant husband, John (Geoffrey Rush), whom she thinks is cheating with one of other patients. We learn that their daughter was tragically taken from them years ago and Valerie took it upon herself to pour her grief into a best-selling book.

Also, in the mix is Jane (Rachael Blake), Leon’s lover and potential witness to elements of the investigation. She just happens be a neighbor to Nik and Paula (Vince Colosimo and Daniela Farinacci). Nik is considered a suspect in the crime, perhaps out of merit or just dumb luck. Without revealing too much, all of these lives will collide, and we watch as certain characters need to hide what they know, and some are just hiding out of habit. There are many powerful scenes, but the best one may be watching LaPaglia and Rush in a very subtle face off near the film’s climax. We see cop and suspect but we also see two husbands with vary degrees of guilt trying to figure each other out as well as themselves.

Andrew Bovell’s screenplay (adapted from his own stage play) is sharp and tragic. He creates a small universe of characters, each with their own distinct tragedies and sins, whose lives seamlessly interlock due to one small event. Director Ray Lawrence choreographs these intertwining characters with skill and keeps everything moving towards the inevitable tragic conclusion. And the performances are first-rate, from LaPaglia as a cop on the edge, to Rush as man whose pain makes him look guilty in more ways than one to both and Armstrong and Blake as women being wronged and struggling to find a way out and Hershey as an intelligent woman whose propensity to doubt has caused a rift in her marriage and causes a grave judgment in error that is the catalyst to the film’s drama.

In the end, we never know how we will act when tragedy strikes. We can plan, we can strategize, and we can get our affairs in order, but nothing ever truly prepares you. On the other hand, some people are just happy (or pretending to be) to live their lives as is, in the moment, with no recognition of consequences. Lantana is about a group of people from the latter, and what happens when they realize that a lot of their tragedy is of their own creation.

In Case You Missed It: Smoke

One of my favorite tropes in film and television is the “neighborhood hangout.” You know, that place where everybody knows everybody. That mythical haven where characters can spend countless hours, away from their loved ones and be sassed and supported by their surrogate family. The world of TV has given us Sam Malone’s Cheers, Luke’s Diner (GILMORE GIRLS), MacLaren’s Pub (HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER) and Monk’s Café (SEINFELD). Additionally, the world of cinema has presented Joe’s Diner (WAITRESS), Vianne Rocher’s shop in CHOCOLAT, and Stan Mikita’s Donuts (WAYNE’S WORLD), to name a few.

Each of these fictional locales tap into a perceived need to escape from our actual lives to a proxy oasis of sorts. A place where we can be our true selves, embrace our chosen camaraderie and ease ourselves back into reality on our own terms – or when it’s closing time. In the current state of the world, I am sure more than a few of us have daydreamed about such a place, real or imagined. As for me, even though I haven’t smoked a cigar since college, I’d be more than happy to while away a few hours at the Brooklyn Cigar Store from 1995’s Smoke.

Director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club, Anywhere But Here, Maid in Manhattan) delivers a charming, and sometimes sobering, slice of life film with a myriad of colorful characters amongst intertwining stories. The screenplay written by renown author Paul Auster plays like a fine and layered short story anthology with numerous human insights discovered amongst the film’s cinematic vignettes. Front and center of the action is Harvey Keitel, in one of his most endearing performances.

It probably seems fitting that Keitel stars since he was something of a “poster boy” for independent film in the early 90’s. From Reservoir Dogs to Bad Lieutenant to The Piano, Keitel was both fearless and relentless in his choices of role and the ensuing performances. And here he adds to his remarkable canvas of characters as Auggie Wren, the owner-proprietor of a Brooklyn smoke shop. He has his fair share of regulars and casual passer-byers in the type store that you can see being a local institution but has probably been turned into a Starbucks in Brooklyn’s recent gentrified Renaissance.

Every morning, at the same time, Auggie takes his camera out to “his corner” and takes a photograph. Why? A) Because its his corner and B) as a way to document time and more importantly his life. He shows his unique album to his most “regular” regular, a writer named Paul Benjamin (played effortlessly by William Hurt). The pair have something of a bromance and Paul is at first perplexed by his friend’s hobby until he sees a photo that haunts him. I’d rather not spoil too much but suffice to say, Paul’s life has seen tragedy and later on a very touching scene ensues when Auggie explains how he could have made a small choice to alter certain events of a certain day.

In addition to this key relationship we also meet Rashid (Harold Perrineau), a young man who plays a fateful role in Paul’s life as well, while trying to outrun his own demons. We also meet an old flame of Auggie’s played by the incomparable Stockard Channing. She stops by when we she needs to get help the daughter that Auggie never knew about. And this troublesome offspring is played by Ashley Judd (in one of her first star making roles). There are a few other characters that drift in an out, played by other notable character actors like Forrest Whitaker, Giancarlo Esposito and Jared Harris in a film brimming with talent.

But in the end, it’s all about the friendship of Paul and Auggie: Writer and the guy that supplies his smokes. The film concludes with a wonderful “story within a story.” Paul explains that his latest assignment is to write a Thanksgiving story. Auggie weaves him a tale of a chance meeting full of heart and compassion that again, I’d rather not spoil. Watching Keitel tell this story, which may or may not be true, with such grandeur and nuanced details as Hurt listens with the right balance of interest and skepticism is the height of the film’s charm.

Smoke may fall into a certain category of late 90’s/early 00’s indie films that were either seen as too hip for their own good or skated by with a fortuitous cast. But I always felt there was something more. Here’s a film that is both about the art of storytelling and is artful in its storytelling. Director Wang navigates this world with ease and never lets us linger too long in any story. And Auster’s screenplay is masterful in giving us glimpses into interesting characters without getting too gimmicky or cliched. In conclusion, Smoke is a reminder that we are all authors, in the way we live and tell the stories of our lives. The question is who we can get to listen and who can get to buy in.

 

In Case You Missed It: Nine Lives

As a lifelong lover of literature, there has always been one format that attracts me more than others: the short story. I find true joy and wonderment in any author that can captivate an audience and tell an engrossing tale with complex characters in anywhere between 1,000 and 20,000 words. Be it Edgar Allen Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Anton Chekov, or Shirley Jackson to more modern authors like Stephen King, Jennifer Egan and Sarah Hall, I delight in the artistry and craft in engaging an audience quickly and allow them the ability to linger on what might happen next.

It should then be no surprise that some of my favorite films have an anthology feel, that is large casts of actors and actresses spread out over cinematic tapestries in interconnected tales that echo of literary gravitas. Some of the more famous of these types of films include the work of directors Robert Altman (Short Cuts, Nashville, A Prairie Home Companion) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) as well as horror anthologies like 1982’s Creepshow and 1985’s Cat’s Eye.

So, for the next few weeks I will take this opportunity to highlight other “anthology” films worthy of note. Films that, like my favorite short stories, are able to tell riveting narratives that can be enjoyed in small bites but become more nourishing when woven into larger filmic fabrics.

2005’s Nine Lives has the feel of a short story anthology brought to life via movie in more than one way. First, it’s a series of nine short films that together tell modern stories of women at emotional crossroads, with some characters co-existing in multiple stories. Second, the film was written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, the son of legendary Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Rodrigo Garcia is a gifted artist in his own right who specializes in using film to create his own literary-inspired story telling. His other films of note are 2000’s Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her and 2010’s Mother and Child. But Nine Lives is his masterpiece in terms of style, writing, and mood as well as the endless number of powerful performances he captures in just under two hours.

The star-studded cast includes Robin Wright, Holly Hunter, Glenn Close, Kathy Baker, Sissy Spacek, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Amy Brenneman, Mary Kay Place as well as budding stars at time in Amanda Seyfried and Dakota Fanning. We also get just enough of the male perspective represented by Aidan Quinn, Jason Isaacs, William Fichtner, Stephen Dillane, Joe Mantegna and Ian McShane. Somehow, filmmaker Garcia is able to balance all of this talent into nine finely tuned stories that resonate with heart, regret, passion, and resolve.

Each film is approximately 10 -12 minutes in length and are filmed in one single shot. Garcia is able to pull each of these segments off effortless without ever feeling like a gimmick or that the audience is getting shortchanged. I could go on forever about each individual film, which is titled after each female lead character, but I would like to save as much of the discovery to you, the potential viewer, as possible. And yet, I should provide a few quick hits, as it were:

Robin Wright – the 2nd segment, and the most written about, finds a pregnant woman in a chance meeting with a former lover. The scene aches with “What Might Have Been” and “What Still Could Be.” By the end, you may feel utter anguish at what you’ve have witnessed and the fact that Ms. Wright has never been nominated for an Oscar.

Lisa Gay Hamilton – in a segment headed towards tragedy we watch a woman build up the courage to confront her abusive stepfather. Ms. Hamilton (best known for TV’s The Practice) unravels and strengthens right before our eyes in a segment that is somehow both hard to watch and hard to look away.

Kathy Baker – there may be no more anxiety-inducing situation than awaiting surgery and Ms. Baker and Mr. Mantegna capture the perfect tenor of a couple built to weather any storm. Watching their playful bickering is one of the few “joys” of a film full of drama and despair. It’s a surprising window of hope in a film that lives for ambivalence and uncertainty.

Glenn Close – the final segment starts innocently enough with Ms. Close taking her young daughter for a picnic. But as the gears turn, the viewer realizes there’s more than meets the eye. Garcia’s final camera pan brings the film full circle to an image of suffering and heartbreak. Hope I haven’t given TOO much away.

My wife often wonders why I gravitate towards this “dark stuff.” Films like Nine Lives are, to me, the dramatic equivalent of a roller coaster. There are ups and downs, turns and surprises and you just might approach sensory overload by the ride’s end. Watching powerful films like this, with all of its angst, misery and somberness, make me feel strangely alive. I become mesmerized in this type of kaleidoscope of characters and find strength in their portrayals of pain and acceptance. When the day comes that movies like Nine Lives don’t affect me, then and only then will I know I am truly dying.

La La Land in 25 Tweets

(INCLUDES SPOILERS: YOU’RE WELCOME)

 

 

Okay, nice diverse opening number but not that diverse: no Eskimos. #LaLaLand #TypicalLATrafficJam

 

Oh, I get it. Emma Stone’s roommates were pushing to go out because they needed her as a Designated Driver. #LaLaLand #SoMuchForUber

 

Ooh, JK Simmons! Any chance he starts slapping the clap out of pretty boy Gosling? Rushing or Dragging? #LaLaLand #Whiplash

 

Nice tap number. Gosling labors a little but he’s eons ahead of Lorenzo Lamas. #LaLaLand #BodyRock

 

Oh, yes, white man, please explain jazz. Can you also explain Rap, Soul Food and the appeal of Kevin Hart? #LaLaLand #WhiteSplaining 

 

Green dress, green earrings, green necklace and she’s eating salad. I feel sorry for the colorblind watching this. #LaLaLand #SuperGreen

 

Just a couple of white folks breaking into the Griffith Observatory. At least have a kindly black janitor help. #LaLaLand #MagicNegro #WhitePrivilege

 

Better yet, perfect cameo for Christopher Walken. God knows we could use some scenery chewing. #LaLaLand #PeterPan

 

You know your movie’s in trouble when you’re agreeing with the “villain.” #LaLaLand #JohnLegend #TruthBomb

 

Jazz like any other art form needs to evolve, it needs new life, it’s need to find a new audience. #LaLaLand #Jazz

 

Why isn’t John Legend the lead? He would have brought so much needed dimension. #LaLaLand #JohnLegend

 

Also would have made that “jazz tutorial” a lot less troubling. #LaLaLand #WhiteSplaining

 

This dinner scene is very jarring and brings everything to a complete halt. Also, clichéd to the Nth degree. #LaLaLand #Clicheland

 

I get that these lovers need obstacles but I shouldn’t be able to guess every line of dialogue. #LaLaLand #DejaVu

 

Emma Stone is auditioning for a film that has no script. Easily the most believable moment so far. #LaLaLand #TypicalHollywood

 

Fine, Emma Stone’s performance of “Audition” is surprisingly touching. This is where she won. #LaLaLand #Oscar

 

Okay, if this interracial couple we keep seeing with Gosling doesn’t get dialogue I’m going next door to watch Rock Dog! #LaLaLand #RockDog

 

Tom Everett Scott? Is that Spartacus? So she traded up from a jazz pianist to a jazz drummer #LaLaLand #ThatThingYouDo

 

Wait, I’m confused. Was it all just a dream? Is this the big twist? Did Shyamalan do an uncredited re-write? #LaLaLand #WTF #SixthSense

 

Or is this a leftover unnecessary dream sequence from Batman V. Superman? #LaLaLand #WTF

 

And there’s the obligatory acknowledgment, “It wasn’t meant to be.” This film should have been a helluva lot happier or a helluva lot sadder. #LaLaLand #HeroinAddicts

 

Stone and Gosling are talented and dynamic performers but in the end their characters are colorless and not engaging. #LaLaLand

 

Also hard to feel sorry for these characters. Struggling actress to famous movie star. Struggling musician to jazz club owner. #LaLaLand #HardKnockLife

 

The Academy got it right, and still found a way to rob Moonlight of its deserved glory. #LaLaLandOverrated #Moonlight

 

New plan: go home and watch Sing Street 3X in a row. #LaLaLandOverrated #SingStreetWuzRobbed