Beyond The Lights is Not Your Average Showbiz Movie

I walked into “Beyond the Lights” expecting it to be some sort of manipulative soap opera which aimed to be “The Bodyguard” for a new generation. What I got instead was a showbiz story which felt surprisingly genuine in its emotions and intentions. It does have that familiar ring of two people from opposite walks of life coming together, but the way their relationship evolves throughout proves to be very entertaining to watch.

When we first meet Noni Jean, she’s a little girl performing in a talent competition and singing Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” which leaves the audience in a state of awe. However, when the judges award her a runner up prize, her mother Macy (Minnie Driver) angrily takes her out of the auditorium and orders her to “chuck” her trophy in defiance. The way Macy sees it, being second best counts for nothing in a world where you need to be number one.

We then move to years later when Noni, now played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is on the verge of stardom after having won a Billboard Award even though she hasn’t released an album yet. But after retreating to her hotel room, we come to see how much the pressures of fame are bearing down on Noni as she sits on a balcony ready to jump. Coming to her rescue is police officer Kaz Nicols (Nate Parker) who pulls her back from the edge, literally and figuratively speaking, and two quickly get lost in each other’s eyes. What happens from there is easy to guess.

Initially, Kaz feels somewhat betrayed when Macy pays him off to publicly say Noni did not try to commit suicide, but Noni warms up to him quickly as she can tell he sees something in her others do not.

While they may come from different worlds, Kaz and Noni are going through similar issues. Her mother Macy has been grooming her for stardom ever since she was little, and she has helped turn Noni into the kind of woman every man wants or at least fantasizes about. As for Kaz, his police captain father David (Danny Glover) is grooming him for public office, something he does in fact have ambitions for. However, when you look into Kaz’s eyes, you wonder just how serious he is about politics or if he really wants a different path in life.

Basically, Kaz and Noni are trying to fulfill the desires of their parents, and we have caught up with them as they have long since played a role they feel society wants them to play. In the process, they have lost touch with what they really want out of life, and we follow them as they go through a much-needed period of self-discovery. Watching these two evolve and change from start to finish is deeply involving and, even if the conclusion is never in doubt, we revel in their personal triumphs.

I am not at all familiar with Mbatha-Raw or her work as an actress, and she gives an extraordinary performance here. She is mesmerizing to watch as Noni begins to shed the public persona which has been foisted upon her, and it allows the frightened child inside of her to come out into the open. Also, she has a show stopping moment where she sings “Blackbird” by herself onstage, and you cannot take your eyes off of her for a single second.

Parker also puts in a strong performance as a well-meaning man who respects the law, wants to help people and who has, as his shirtless scenes will attest, spent a lot of time in the gym like any cop should. Looking at the actor’s past which had him involved in political activism, charitable work and working as a wrestling coach, you get the sense he was born to play Kaz. As he wades deeper into Noni’s world of fame, Parker shows Kaz to be someone who keeps his head above water and is not easily seduced by the closed-off world of show business. But there’s also no doubt that the chemistry between him and Mbatha-Raw is very palpable.

Kudos also goes out to Minnie Driver who takes what could have been a one-dimensional stage mother from hell and turns her into a complex character who is far more vulnerable than she lets on. We come to see how Macy has never had it easy, and she is eager for Noni to have everything she never had. But as much as she cares for her daughter, Macy also comes to realize her determination to make Noni a star speaks more about her ambitions than anyone else’s. Driver is a powerhouse as she lets us see how Macy has been wounded by others who had no faith in her when she was young, and it becomes understandable why Macy wants to beat everyone at their own game.

“Beyond the Lights” was written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood whose previous films include “Love & Basketball,” “Disappearing Acts” and “The Secret Life of Bees.” I regret to say I haven’t seen those films, but I am certainly willing to see them now based on the work she has done here. Prince-Bythewood succeeds in giving us a showbiz tale which actually feels grounded in reality. The atmosphere at the award shows and parties Noni attends feel authentic, and they never seem like a spectacle to be easily laughed at. She also gives us a number of complex characters who struggle to survive the high pressure world of fame and fortune where people have everything and nothing at the same time.

I also have to applaud Prince-Bythewood for sticking by Mbatha-Raw when studios were insistent on getting a bigger name cast in the role of Noni. Perhaps a music star would have done a good job here, but they also would have brought an enormous amount of baggage with them which would have had an unintentionally negative effect on this movie. Mbatha-Raw has the advantage right now of not having this baggage, and that makes her performance all the more enthralling as a result.

Sure, there are some soap opera dramatics here and there and certain moments do not ring true, but “Beyond the Lights” really did prove to be one of the big cinematic surprises of 2014. It is also another film to add to the list of worthwhile romantic movies. Just as this particular genre looked to be burning out, the movies coming from it are getting so much better. I’m starting to like these kinds of movies again. What’s wrong with me anyway?

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Click here to check out the video interviews I did with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker which I did for the website We Got This Covered.

Mad Max Fury Road – One Of The Greatest Action Movies Ever

I re-watched the original “Mad Max” just before I checked this sequel out, and I was amazed at what spectacular stunts director George Miller was able to pull off on a budget of less than $1 million. Even today, the 1979 movie is exhilarating to watch as Max Rockatansky lays waste to the gang of bikers who coldly and viciously murdered his wife and son. After watching it, I had to wonder what Miller could do with an even bigger budget. Of course, we all came to see exactly what he could with the next two “Mad Max” movies as well as with his segment of “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” “Happy Feet” and the highly underrated “Babe: Pig in the City.”

But all of his previous works came close to completely paling in comparison to “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the first “Mad Max” movie in 30 years, which had Miller working with a reported budget of $150 million and giving us the kind of action movie which effectively redefines the words thrilling, exhilaration, non-stop and spectacle. It’s as furious as movies get, and the real lack of CGI effects makes the action feel all the more wonderfully brutal. For a follow-up which got stuck in development hell for what seemed like an eternity, it was well worth the wait.

There’s a bit of confusion as to whether “Fury Road” is meant to be a franchise reboot or a sequel, but even with Tom Hardy taking over the role made famous by Mel Gibson, I’m just going to consider this a straightforward sequel. And like many of the best sequels, this one does not require you to have seen the previous three movies to understand all of what is going on.

Once again, Max travels the wretched wasteland of planet Earth in his car equipped with the kind of horsepower we would love to convince others we have under the hoods of our own cars, and it doesn’t take him long at all to get captured by people who have long since been driven mad by the desecration and lawlessness surrounding them. Max ends up being brought to a place called the Citadel which is ruled over by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his army of War Boys. Max eventually escapes (it wouldn’t be much of a movie if he didn’t) and comes into contact with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a hardened warrior who drives a heavily armed truck known as the War Rig. It is eventually revealed that Furiosa has absconded with Joe’s Five Wives, women selected for the purpose of breeding, and Joe will stop at nothing to retrieve what is now considered Earth’s most valuable property: no oil, not water, but human bodies.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” wastes no time in putting the pedal to metal as it is essentially one long chase movie which never lets up. The plot is fairly thin, but it’s still thick enough to support the tremendous action sequences which involve some of the craziest stunts and crashes this side of a John Woo or a James Cameron film. Seeing real cars actually crash and get demolished provides us with the visceral thrills I don’t get enough of at the local cinema these days. The fact Miller was able to give us such an amazing spectacle even at the age of 70 more than raises the bar for the next generation of filmmakers who have a lot of catching up to do.

I do have to admit I’m a little bummed Gibson didn’t return to play Max. It’s certainly not hard to understand why he was absent this time around, but coming back to play the role which made him a worldwide star would have been the icing on the cake for “Fury Road.” Having said that, Hardy does a terrific job of making this iconic role his own, and he proves to be furiously mad in his own crazy way.

But seriously, “Mad Max: Fury Road” really belongs to Charlize Theron who steals the show as Imperator Furiosa. There should be no doubt as to how phenomenal an actress Theron is as she has given us amazing performances in “Monster” (and no, the makeup did not do the work for her), “North Country” and “Young Adult” and she deserves far more credit than she typically gets. Her toughened up performance as Furiosa brings to mind Sigourney Weaver’s in “Aliens” as she dominates the special effects in a way few actors get the chance to do.

When it was released, many said “Fury Road” had a strong feminist angle to it, and they said this as if it were a bad thing. Then again, those who urged us to boycott this movie for that reason still have not bothered to watch it, so their hypocrisy remains as infinite as ever. What they need to understand is women cannot and should no longer be considered the weaker sex. The fact is they never were.

I also liked how Miller brought back Hugh Keays-Byrne to play Immortan Joe here as he is the same actor who portrayed Toecutter, the villain of the original “Mad Max.” Byrne ends up having to wear this scary looking mask throughout “Fury Road,” so his eyes and his voice do most of the acting for him. But even with these given limitations, Byrne gives us a very threatening and mesmerizing antagonist who is bent on dominating anyone and everyone who has the misfortune of being in his path.

And let’s not forget Nicholas Hoult who plays Nux, the sick war boy who comes to discover what really matters to him in such a desolate world. It’s been fun watching him go from his early days as a child actor in “About a Boy” to where he is presently, and it has been a voyage full of memorable performances. As Nux, he looks to be having the time of his life as he shouts out loud, “Oh what a glorious day!” His energy never lets up from start to finish, and he succeeds in making us care about Nux even though he is not entirely trustworthy when we first meet him.

There are many images here which have stayed with me long after I first saw it on the silver screen. The design of the cars the characters roam the desert in, the Darth Vader-like mask Immortan Joe wears, those guys hanging tightly to totem poles as the vehicles they are tied to travel at breakneck speeds, and, of course, the travelling guitarist known as the Doof Warrior (iOTA) who plays his instrument and shoots fire out of it with reckless abandon. All of this amazing imagery is done to the thunderous score composed by Thomas Holkenborg (a.k.a. Junkie XL) which proves to be as furious as the onscreen spectacle.

It has now been five years since “Mad Max: Fury Road” was first released, and there should be no doubt that it is one of the best action movies ever made. Time has not taken away from the pure adrenaline rush Miller provides us here, nor does the frustration of him losing the Best Director Academy Award to Alejandro G. Iñárritu who won instead for “The Revenant.” For an action movie, this one is a real work of art.

Seriously, there is something to be said for a movie which brought cinematographer John Seale out of retirement to work on it.

* * * * out of * * * *

The Delta Force – Far Better Than The Average Cannon Pictures Release

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008. I am publishing it here because Eddie Pence, vice-host of “The Ralph Report” podcast, recommended it on the Video Vault segment much to Ralph Garman’s unhinged annoyance. Frankly, I am with Eddie on this one. This was a lot of fun!

Ahh, “The Delta Force.” One of my many favorite action movies from the 1980’s! Phil Blankenship and Amoeba Music presented a midnight showing of it at New Beverly Cinema. Although the theater was not as packed as usual, the crowd was super excited to see Chuck Norris kicking terrorist ass like we always expect him to.

The first time I saw “The Delta Force,” I was quite surprised at how well made it was. While there are parts of it which are unintentionally hilarious, the first half is actually well written and directed for the most part. The last half is pretty much what you expected it to be, a cheesy action movie with heroics and explosions. But even on that level, it is a kick ass experience.

At this screening, Blankenship welcomed a very special guest from the movie, Natalie Roth. She played Ellen, the young girl with the Cabbage Patch Kid doll, and she took the time to take questions from the audience. She said Norris and Lee Marvin were both very nice to work with and that Marvin was in bad health throughout the production (this ended up being his last film before his death). Roth also talked about watching this movie several dozen times on the silver screen just to see herself. Funny how she was got let into an R-rated movie considering her age at the time, but anyway.

“The Delta Force” comes to us from the purported king of 1980’s action movies, Cannon Pictures. Led by Menahem Golan, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay, and Yoram Globus, many of their movies would easily rank in the “so bad it’s good” department while others proved to be utter crap as they were more depressing and pathetic than laughable. They made B-movie stars out of Norris as well as Charles Bronson and Jean Claude Van Damme among others. With all this in mind, you really can’t go into a Cannon Pictures movie with a lot of high expectations. In fact, the lower the expectations, the better. This is why “The Delta Force” is unique in this respect. I usually don’t expect the writing or the acting to be any good in movies like these, and while there is some laughable overacting to be found here, the performances for the most part are spot on.

The film was based on the real-life hijacking of TWA Flight 847 on June 14, 1985, and it uses a lot of those same moments from it like the press conference with the pilot in Beirut. It starts off taking some time to introduce us to the soon-to-be hostages like Shelley Winters and her husband played by Martin Balsam, We also meet Harry (Joey Bishop) and Sylvia Goldman (Lainie Kazan) who are celebrating their silver wedding anniversary, Father O’Malley (George Kennedy) and his two sisters from the church, one played by future “NYPD Blue” star Kim Delaney. In addition, we are introduced to the two terrorists who will hijack the plane, and they are played by Robert Forster and David Menachem.

Now having an American actor play an Arab terrorist would be very unlikely in this day and age, but Forster pulls this role off without it ever being laughable. As Abdul, he makes an excellent villain who’s not just another one-dimensional bad guy, but one who is truly threatening to where you believe it when he says he is prepared to die. “The Delta Force” was made back when Forster’s career was heading into oblivion, but he did finally make his comeback with Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown,” and we have not forgotten how great an actor he is ever since.

Menachem, on the other hand, never knows when to stop overacting. As Moustapha, his eyes open up so wide to where I was convinced they would pop out of his head and ricochet off of a hostage’s head. He is a kick to watch, but his performance did generate a lot of unintentional laughs from the audience at this midnight showing.

Another strong performance comes from Hanna Schygulla who plays the head flight attendant, Ingrid. She is put in a very difficult position as the terrorists force her to pick out the Jews from the passports taken from all the passengers. This is another actor who shows a lot without saying anything, and her close-ups throughout illustrate how she somehow manages to hold it together even when the situation gets worse and worse. I love the moment she has with Forster before she leaves the plane as he perfectly describes her character:

“Ingrid, you’re a brave woman.”

I know I am going to raise a lot of eyebrows by saying this, Norris is not a bad actor. Many think he is flat out terrible, but I disagree. Granted, he is no Laurence Oliver and even he would openly admit this, but as a film actor he has many strong moments. The strength of a film actor is in showing what your character is experiencing without having to spell it out for the audience. Norris has a lot of moments like these, and he is easily a more competent screen presence than others like Jean Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal, both who have since been consigned to direct to video hell. Just look at his face towards the end as he mourns the loss of a comrade. Seriously, you can feel his pain.

Having Marvin in this movie certainly gives it more dramatic heft and believability even when things get increasingly ridiculous in the last half. His craggy face tells you all you need to know about the many tours of duty his character has ever experienced. He is perfectly cast as the unsentimental leader of an elite anti-terrorist force who has no time for pity, and who is always looking out for his men except if he has a timetable to keep.

Before I forget, I have to bring up the film’s score by Alan Silvestri who would later go on to compose unforgettable music for movies like “Back to The Future” and “The Abyss.” This is a classic 1980’s score which chiefly utilized the synthesizers of the time. It is a cheesy score, but I still liked it a lot as Silvestri hits some strong emotional notes, and the theme song is one which will stay with you long after the movie is over.

“The Delta Force” is easily one of the best movies Cannon Pictures could have ever hoped to make. Sure, it led to a lot of crappy knock offs and sequels which nowhere as good. “Delta Force 2” was a direct rip off of Timothy Dalton’s last James Bond movie, “License to Kill.” Sure, it had a great and a truly despicable villain in Billy Drago, but sitting through it was painful and excruciating. The less said about “Delta Force 3,” the better.

After all these years, I think “The Delta Force” holds up very well despite looking more and more dated. True, it is one of those movies which can look at and say, “Only in the 1980’s could you have made this,” but I still get a huge kick out of watching it all these years later. It has also led to some great retro t-shirts which you can still see popping up on the internet every day. You may have seen them here and there, and one of them has this on the front:

“I don’t negotiate with terrorists. I blow them away.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Capone Aims For Greatness But Instead Becomes a Real Mess

Al Capone was an American gangster and businessman who became a notorious crime boss during the Prohibition Era, and he has long since become a major figure in popular culture. Many actors have portrayed him over the years like Robert De Niro, Rod Steiger, Jason Robards, Ben Gazzara, Ray Sharkey, William Forsythe and F. Murray Abraham to name a few, and it certainly is a juicy role for any actor to take on as he became a character Shakespeare would have been proud to write about. The great Tom Hardy is now the latest to play him in Josh Trank’s biographical film “Capone,” one of the many films meant to be released in theaters but, because of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic, is instead making its debut on VOD. Whether or not it deserves this particular fate will depend on what you think about the finished product, and this one does come with a lot of baggage.

Whereas many films about Capone focus on his time as a feared crime boss, this one looks at his final year of existence. “Capone” starts off informing the audience of how the famed gangster was sentenced to prison on October 17, 1931 for tax evasion and released a decade later when he was no longer deemed a threat to society. When we first see him here, he is living in Florida with his family and close friends, and we see he is also afflicted with neurosyphilis and dementia which deeply affects the way he sees reality.

Before I go on, I should point out what neurosyphilis really is. According to Wikipedia, it is an infection of the central nervous system which can occur at any age, and “Capone” looks to illustrate how bad this disease can get. While the man is resting in retirement in Palm Island, Florida, his mind is quickly rotting away to where he begins suffering from hallucinations and loses control over his bodily functions. This results in him suffering from some embarrassing situations no one would ever want to be caught in, and I wondered how long he would allow himself to endure such unbearable torture.

I have seen Capone portrayed in many movies like “The Untouchables,” “Road to Perdition” (albeit in a deleted scene), “Mobsters” and “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” to where I feel lI know all there is to know about him. With “Capone,” I got to see another chapter which of his life which I was not as familiar with. It may not be as cinematic a story as his days as a feared crime boss, but it does provide us with a different look at a gangster when his mental capacities were fading rapidly. I also cannot think of a single film which has dealt with syphilis this intimately or in depth. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I want to. The word syphilis is an icky word even when you don’t know its meaning.

But as “Capone” goes on, I kept wondering what everyone here was trying to accomplish. Some filmmakers prefer not to spell out the meaning of their movies, and that’s fine. When it comes to this one, however, I am at a loss because everything becomes a huge mess long before the end credits. The filmmakers go only so deep into the gangster’s addled brain, or what’s left of it, and what we are left with is a lot of unpleasantness and a screenplay which could have used a lot more depth. What exactly was the point of showing us all of this? To make us understand how bad any kind of syphilis is? To see if Capone is worthy of forgiveness and redemption. A lot of questions are brought up, but I never found any satisfying answers.

The big draw here is obviously Tom Hardy, and I am prepared to see him in anything and everything. From a distance, he looks to be the perfect actor for this role having portrayed such villainous figures in “Bronson” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” But while he certainly has inhabited Capone as much as an actor can physically, his performance here is deeply flawed as he more often than not slips into caricature which sucks all the naturalism out of what I thought would be a fully formed character. This is especially the case when you take into account how his co-stars Linda Cardellini, Matt Dillon, Kyle MacLachlan and Kathrine Narducci slip into their roles so easily to where I never caught them acting. Basically, everyone seems to be on the same wavelength except Hardy who appears to be acting in a completely different film, and his bombastic portrayal is a shock considering what a reliable actor he usually is.

But when it comes to “Capone,” the person everyone has their eyes on is writer and director Josh Trank. Back in 2012, he made his big Hollywood breakthrough with “Chronicle,” a found-footage thriller which smartly transcended its genre and provided a huge boost to the careers of Michael B. Jordan and Dane DeHaan. Then he followed it up with the “Fantastic Four” reboot which rode a tidal wave of bad press all the way up to its opening, and quickly became a critical and commercial disaster which must have had a devastating effect on him. Thanks to this nightmarish reception, and to Trank’s tweet about there being a better version of the film which may never see the light of day, he looked to be forever consigned to director jail along with other filmmakers who blew their big chance at a long-lasting career. Still, we all love a comeback, and “Capone” certainly looked like it would wipe away the stench from the rare comic book/superhero movie flop.

I certainly wanted “Capone” to be a success for Trank, but while his filmmaking skills have improved, his screenplay is full of elements which never gel into a satisfying or cohesive whole. It is tempting to believe he relates to Capone’s hellish last year as it threatens to be quite similar to the battles he had with studio executives over “Fantastic Four” as the gangster deals endlessly with paranoia over paparazzi hiding in the bushes and of people he believes may be out to kill him. But when the film finally ends, I came out of it unsure what to think. In his attempts to continually go against the Hollywood grain, Trank instead alienates any audience this film hopes to have as he becomes more interested in rubbing our faces in Capone’s diseased state of mind instead of creating a truly compelling narrative.

Well, Hardy will certainly rebound from this misfire sooner rather than later. As for Trank, there’s always a chance at another comeback. I just hope that next time he works harder at creating a motion picture which is not so much anti-Hollywood, but one which transcends another genre the way “Chronicle” did. “Capone” certainly provides us with a unique look at one of America’s best-known gangsters, but when its all over, I could not help but wonder if it was a story worth telling.

* * out of * * * *

The Irishman – A True Martin Scorsese Masterpiece

I cannot believe it took me so long to watch Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” Then again, when a movie is three and a half hours long, it feels like you have to set aside a whole day in order to watch it. Like many, I am working from paycheck to paycheck, so taking time off from work is tricky to say the least. But hey, this is Scorsese and, as I write this, we are still in a pandemic quarantine because of Coronavirus (COVD-19). With this in mind, there is no better time to watch a movie which is almost four hours long. Besides, it’s not like we can go anywhere.

Well, to be honest, at 209 minutes there is not a single wasted shot to be found in “The Irishman.” Like Scorsese’s best films, it takes you back to a place and time so vividly to where you feel like you are there. It also features a main character who gets sucked deep into the criminal underworld where one’s morality takes a backseat, and we come to see the high price many pay for living such a life. But with this film, Scorsese takes things a bit further as we see this main character whittling away his last days in a nursing home, and we are made to wonder if one person who has killed so many can ever find redemption.

We are introduced to Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a World War II veteran who is working as a delivery truck driver in 1950’s Philadelphia. On one of his routes, he runs into Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), head of the Northeastern Pennsylvania crime family, and eventually comes to do jobs for him as well as for members of the South Philadelphia underworld. Many of these jobs have him, as he puts it, “painting houses.”

Now while this film is called “The Irishman,” but you do not see this title at the beginning. Instead, we are the following: “I Heard You Paint Houses.” This is the name of the nonfiction book by Charles Brandt upon which “The Irishman” is based, but this title is not meant to be taken literally as it proves to be a euphemism for murder or contract killing. When Frank paints houses, he is essentially painting the walls with the blood of his targets. Later on, Frank also says he does his own carpentry work, meaning he cleans up after himself as well.

Just as in “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” the violence comes fast and bloody, and no one knows they are about to get hit. But unlike those films, Scorsese largely portrays the violence in “The Irishman” as largely banal or being just an average day at work. There was one sequence where we see Frank dumping a variety of firearms into the river, and this leads to a scene I have been waiting to see in a film for ages; We see a gun, after it has been dropped, sinking into the water and landing at the bottom where dozens of other firearms have been dumped as well. Considering the endless number of TV shows and movies which have shown characters doing this, this scene had to happen eventually.

Working with longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese takes a non-linear approach with “The Irishman,” and it proves to be a brilliant study in film editing. Just as Ethan Hawke did with “Blaze,” Scorsese and Schoonmaker takes us from one period of time in Frank’s life to the next with what seems like relative ease. No sudden change in the storyline ever seems jarring or misplaced, and it made this great film even more compelling than it already is.

As Frank continues to keep painting houses, Russell eventually comes to introduce him to the head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). As pro-union as Hoffa appears to be, he still has one foot in the criminal underwood which has provided him with much funding. He struggles to balance out his duties with the teamsters and with members of the federal government, several of which look to take him down and send him to prison. During this era, Frank and Jimmy become great friends to where Jimmy hires him as his personal bodyguard. However, knowing what eventually happened to Hoffa, we know this story will not have a happy ending.

Seriously, how great is it to see all these actors working with Scorsese again? This is De Niro’s first film with him since 1995’s “Casino,” and I wondered if Scorsese could ever pull himself away from Leonardo DiCaprio long enough to do one more project with the “Raging Bull” actor. As Frank Sheeran, De Niro gives us one of his more subtle performances in recent years as he presents this character as someone who could easily disappear into the shadows. Had he never run into Russell Bufalino, Frank would have been another guy just doing a day job and supporting his wife and kids as best he can. De Niro makes us see this clearly as Frank does what he can to protect his family even as he delves deeper and deeper into a sinful life.

I am glad to see Pesci come out of retirement to appear here as he makes Russell into a study in quiet power. Russell never has to speak up too loudly to let you know who makes the rules in the mob, and Pesci almost succeeds in making Russell into the nicest character he has ever played in a Scorsese film. This is especially the case when you compare him to the characters he portrayed in “Goodfellas” and “Casino.”

There are some other performances I want to single out here as well. Harvey Keitel, working with Scorsese for the first time since “The Last Temptation of Christ,” is a very welcome presence here as mob boss Angelo Bruno. I also got a real kick out of Ray Romano who plays IBT attorney, Bill Bufalino, and he continues to prove to the world he is a better actor than we typically give him credit for.

And then there’s Al Pacino who, to everyone’s utter astonishment, is making his first ever appearance in a Scorsese film. Looking at their careers, you figured these two were made for each other, but it took the role of Jimmy Hoffa for these two to finally collaborate. While he does have some of those “whoo-ah” moments which have infected his acting ever since “Scent of a Woman,” Pacino ends up giving one of his very best performances in quite some time here. As Hoffa, he makes the long-lost teamster boss a study in pride as it comes to be one of his biggest sins. Even when the cards are stacked against him, Hoffa believes he is untouchable, and Pacino makes his boundless pride all the more reckless and palpable.

Now there has been some controversy regarding Anna Paquin who plays Frank’s daughter, Peggy Sheeran. Many have said she does not have enough dialogue, and this is especially pertinent as “The Irishman” relegates the majority of its female characters to the back burner. However, I think people miss the point. After Frank beats up a storekeeper for berating Peggy, we see her living in constant fear of her father to where she is terrified to speak up. When Peggy does, Paquin turns it into a truly a shattering moment as any trust between Peggy and Frank is forever shattered to where no one needs to spell out why. Seriously, the look on Paquin’s face speaks volumes, and she needs no extra dialogue to tell us what we need to know.

As we watch Frank recede in his golden years, we see him desperately trying to reconnect with his family his efforts are rebuffed constantly as they see right through him. Peggy, in particular, shuts him down at every opportunity even as he begs for her to listen to him. When I think of the relationship between Frank and Peggy, I am reminded of a scene between Michael and Kay in “The Godfather Part III:”

“I did what I could, Kay, to protect all of you from the horrors of this world.”

“But you became my horror.”

When we reach “The Irishman’s” last act, Frank is a shell of his former self as he wastes away in a wheelchair and reflects on a past which everyone has forgotten or never bothered to learn about. This proved to be one of the most interesting aspects of this film to me. When “Goodfellas” and “Casino” reached their conclusions, their main characters barely managed to escape certain death, and the stories stopped there. But here, we see what happens to Frank long after he has left his criminal life behind, and there isn’t much left for him except to pray for some form of redemption. Looking at Frank’s life, it is tempting to think he is hardly worthy of any kind of redemption. But then again, who are we to deny anyone in their attempts to make peace with their sins?

When it comes to “The Irishman,” I have to say thank god for Netflix as this film would not exist otherwise. Granted, the short span of time between it shown in theaters and then being available for streaming is unfortunate as this film, like many of Scorsese’s works, deserves to be seen on the silver screen. But considering the state of entertainment today which values franchises and superhero movies above thoughtful character studies, it is sadly easy to see why no Hollywood studio would touch it. It’s a real shame as it is films like these which demonstrate the wonderful and amazing power cinema can have over us.

In many ways, this is the perfect career capper for Scorsese. While he is revisiting many themes such as organized crime, greed, destruction and redemption, he is also seeing it in a different perspective. “The Irishman” belongs on the same shelf alongside his best works, and it is one worth revisiting over and over again. I just hope the next time I see it will be in a movie theater.

* * * * out * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: Bonnie and Clyde

I went into “Bonnie and Clyde” with the same mind set I had when I sat down to watch Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” I figured the passing of time dilute the immense power it possessed upon its initial release. Plus, already knowing the basic story, I felt I was more than prepared for the movie’s most controversial elements to where I did not think I would come out of it particularly disturbed.

But in the end, none of that mattered. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” still is an extremely unsettling horror film, but “Bonnie and Clyde” isn’t far off in the shocking department. It’s a brilliant character piece which follows the exploits of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker as they make their way across America robbing banks, and of the people they pick up on their journey. It was also one of the first films to come out of the New Hollywood era in how it portrayed sex and violence in a much more visceral fashion. More than 40 years later, it still packs a powerful wallop, and nothing has taken away from its accomplishments.

Yes, this is another one of those movies “based on a true story,” a major pet peeve of mine as this term typically signals another real-life story undone by clichés and Hollywood formulaic conventions. This term, however, is not seen in the opening credits which is a major plus. Instead, we are presented with snapshots of the title characters which, while from a time long since past, feel very vivid. By introducing these two infamous people in this fashion, we are already drawn into their reality without questioning it much. I wish more movies today would try this tactic more often as it has me believing I am about to watch something out of the ordinary.

“Bonnie and Clyde” jumps right into the action as we come upon Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) listlessly resting in bed and clearly bored with her life as a waitress. When she suddenly spots the mischievous Clyde (Warren Beatty) trying to steal her mother’s car, she is immediately smitten and jumps right out of the house to join him. While in town, Clyde tells her he robs banks, and she questions just how serious he is. Clyde ends up proving it to her by robbing a store across the street, and he proudly shows off the loot he absconded with. From there, these two are on the run and crazy in love with one another.

What is shown onscreen likely doesn’t resemble complete historical accuracy, but Arthur Penn’s true aim was to present a more romanticized version of these two individuals who were as passionate as they were dangerous. The story takes place in the middle of the Great Depression when families lost much of what they owned, and criminals were treated like celebrities. This becomes apparent when Bonnie and Clyde hide out at an abandoned farmhouse when its owner comes by for one last look. It turns out the bank took his farm from him heartlessly, and the two bank robbers no longer see him as a threat but as someone who was thoughtlessly wronged. When they tell him they rob banks, the farmer sees them like they are coming to the rescue of folks like him. Now does any of this remind you of anything we are going through in this day and age?

But don’t mistake the romanticism of “Bonnie and Clyde” as being the same as glamorizing the criminal lifestyle. While Beatty and Dunaway look fabulous in their costumes, which quickly became fashion statements of the time, the violence shown here is harsh in its senseless brutality. The movie marked the first time a character got shot at and killed all in the same frame, and even today it is still shocking to watch.

This brings me to another big accomplishment of this classic film; the screenplay makes us empathize with these characters. Brilliantly written by David Newman and Robert Benton, with Robert Towne on board as a special consultant), the screenplay sucks us completely into the lives of these criminals to where we don’t get much of a perspective outside it. Now in real life we have the common sense not to be around these people, but the appeal of being so close to those who are considered famous is more enticing than we ever care to admit. Bonnie and Clyde are criminals, but we are seduced by their desire to lead a life that unrestrained by legal boundaries and filled with a strong desire to feel alive. Seriously, this devilish desire exists in all of us as everyone has a dark side.

With Beatty, I have long since gotten so used to seeing him as one of Hollywood’s elder statesmen. But watching him as Clyde wiped this image away from my consciousness for two hours, and I was instantly reminded of what a great and charismatic actor he was and still is. He must have had the time of his life playing this gleefully law-breaking criminal because it shows in his face throughout. Beatty inhabits Clyde with a wild abandon, fully accepting of the path this character has taken in life with little to no remorse.

Watching Faye Dunaway as Bonnie, it’s easy to see why this movie turned her into such a big star. Now I don’t just mean her first scene where she stands naked in front of her bedroom window as she stares seductively down at Beatty. What struck me was how she brought a fantastically crazed energy to Bonnie as she fearlessly takes this character through a throng of deeply felt emotions. Whether she is in sheer ecstasy or utter frustration over her circumstances, she fully inhabits Bonnie to where it’s impossible to catch her acting.

“Bonnie and Clyde” also marked one first movie roles for the great Gene Hackman who plays Clyde’s never-do-well brother, Buck. It’s immensely entertaining to watch him imbue Buck with such a combustible lifeforce, and it makes me miss his work on the big screen all the more. Seriously, he deserves a better cinematic swan song than “Welcome to Mooseport.”

I remember Michael Pollard from “Tango & Cash” in which he lent Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell his state-of-the-art van which they, unsurprisingly, destroy. As getaway driver C.W. Moss, I can’t help but wonder if he got typecast as a car expert or mechanic on the basis of his performance here. Whatever the case, I loved how he got all sucked into the fame this bank robbing duo were obsessed with, and the look of fear and confusion on his face when things go horribly wrong reflects our own. Like him, we slowly realize just how deep into the muck we have gotten ourselves into.

Estelle Parsons, who plays Buck’s wife, Blanche, won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance. Regardless, I have to say though I was with Bonnie in wanting to shut Blanche the hell up because she was constantly yelling throughout the whole film, and I can only take so much of that. Still, you have to admire just how far Parsons went with her character. If Blanche and Buck ever had a son, it would have looked and sounded a lot like Bill Paxton’s character of Hudson from “Aliens.”

“Bonnie and Clyde” also marked the film debut of Gene Wilder, and he gives the movie some of its funniest moments as Eugene Grizzard. When the gang steals his car, Eugene promises his girlfriend he will tear them apart. Of course, things don’t go quite as planned, and watching Wilder’s expressions throughout reminds us of what a brilliant comedian and actor he was.

Arthur Penn was not just looking to make an average gangster movie, nor was he showing violence for the sake of it. Even back in the 1960’s, there were already several movies like this one, and he had to find a way to make it stand out from the pack. By giving us the combustible elements of sex and violence, he made “Bonnie and Clyde” a true classic for the ages. There are never really and good or bad guys to root for or against here, and by its viciously bloody conclusion, we are emotionally drained at all we have witnessed. Whether or not you feel justice was served, you still can’t escape the feeling of loss presented here.

This movie certainly has had a huge influence on many other movies I deeply admire like Tony Scott’s “True Romance,” Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart,” or even Ridley Scott’s “Thelma & Louise.” The combination of sex and violence remains a potent one in some of the best films ever made, and I would like to think “Bonnie and Clyde” was the first one to make this clear to audiences.

I apologize for taking way too long to sit down and watch this one, but in retrospect, it was well worth the wait.

* * * * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: Safe – Directed by Todd Haynes and Starring Julianne Moore

I am thankful I live near New Beverly Cinema as it has long since proven to be a great film school for movie buffs like me, and it has allowed me to watch movies I might otherwise not have bothered to watch when they were first released. Case in point is the 1995 movie “Safe” which marked a huge breakthrough for its director Todd Haynes and lead actress Julianne Moore. I do remember when it was first released and of film critics like Roger Ebert singing its praises, and it came out during a time when movies like these played in cities far from where I lived, and getting out to see them was impossible. Even with a driver’s license, certain cinematic events were too far away for me to attend.

Anyway, Moore plays Carol White, a suburban homemaker who is comfortably married to Greg (Xander Berkeley), and she spends her days either doing things around the house, going to her local aerobics class, or having lunch with friends. But one day after driving down Olympic Boulevard, she finds herself coughing uncontrollably after traveling behind a big rig truck whose exhaust seeps right into her air conditioning system. This marks the beginning of an acute sensitivity to just about every chemical known to the human race, and things just get worse and worse for her from there. In addition to coughing uncontrollably, she later finds herself suffering from nose bleeds, she develops asthma-like symptoms, and she ends up convulsing at the local dry cleaners.

Carol is said to have developed multiple chemical sensitivity, otherwise known as MCS or the “Twentieth-Century Disease.” This is still seen as a very controversial diagnosis which remains unrecognized by the American Medical Association. “Safe,” however, is not out to prove if MCS is a real threat to us all or not. Instead, it looks at how a disease can forever change the way we look at ourselves and of how we view the world around us.

“Safe” also gets deep into that anxiety-ridden place in our psyche which goes haywire when our safety zone gets violated by forces beyond our control. We feel Carol’s agony throughout because we all collectively fear getting a disease which has no clear diagnosis or an immediate cure. When you end up going through lord only knows how many doctor’s appointments where it feels like nothing’s working, it really wears you and your loved ones down to the point of sheer desperation.

Things get even more horrifying from there when Carol travels to a resort in the New Mexico desert called Wrenwood. Designed to help those afflicted with MCS, it really seems more like a cult. Instead of finding ways to deal with this condition to where people can function normally in their daily lives, its leader Peter Dunning (the excellent Peter Friedman) subtly enforces his fear of the chemical world on his dutiful followers. Peter comes in the guise of a very friendly person with the best of intentions, but we all know where good intentions lead.

Haynes, working with a minimal budget, makes “Safe” feel all the more real as he portrays suburban life in the San Fernando Valley in ways which never come across as corny or the least bit campy. All the characters are complex and the kind we recognize from our own lives, and the agitation they experience feels unnervingly vivid. Adding to this sense of dread is an excellent ambient score by Ed Tomney which deftly illustrates the growing anxiety of the film’s main character. Haynes brings out the best in each of the actors, and he lets them become their characters instead of just playing them.

Moore’s performance in “Safe” proved to be a revelation as she sucks us right into her character’s dilemma, and we can never take our eyes off her as Carol turns further inward and isolates herself from the world at large. The whole movie rests on her shoulders, and she shows no vanity in her portrayal of Carol. She literally becomes the character before our very eyes to where she looks frighteningly emaciated and close to being completely incapacitated. It’s a deeply affecting performance which made me want to reach out and hug her, and I say this even though it would probably not be enough to save her character.

“Safe” ends on an ambiguous note, leaving it up to the audience to guess what will become of Carol White. This will drive a lot of the mainstream audience members crazy as they demand to have things explained in full detail, but a movie like this cannot and should not offer easy solutions. How can it? I got so caught up in Carol’s ordeal to where I felt I was in her shoes. Personally, I hope she finds a way to overcome her circumstances, but that may just be wishful thinking.

I am really glad I finally got to see “Safe,” and I hope more people take the time to check it out. It stays with you in a way few movies do. It also leaves us with a haunting image of a certain character seen from a distance, completely covered with clothing to where they are hiding every part of their body from the world at large. Arcade Fire may sing about the body being a cage, but what happens when we put another cage over it? This all reminds me of a lyric from a song by Peter Gabriel:

“The more we are protected, the more we’re trapped within.”

* * * * out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: When I first saw “Safe” at New Beverly Cinema, it had been out of print on DVD and VHS for several years. The Criterion Collection, however, has since released a special edition of it on DVD and Blu-ray, and I could not recommend it more highly. Click here to find out more about this special edition.

Funny People – A Flawed But Fascinating Look at a Tortured Stand-Up Comedian

I always figured comedians were the best kind of people to hang out with as a kid. Hearing them tell funny stories, making joke after joke, happiness always seemed served up to them on a silver platter. But as time went on, I came to see while they were clowns on the outside, they were crying an endless river of tears inside. Comedy from these people comes from a deep pain and sadness in their lives, or out of a deep-seated anger they have at the world around them.

Look at Richard Pryor, need I say more? He had all the money, women, cars and drugs you could ever ask for. For “Superman III,” he ended up paid more than Christopher Reeve. Still, I remember reading an interview in which he said the last truly happy moment he remembers in his life was when he was jumping around in the dirt while pretending to be a cowboy at the age of 10, and he was in his 40’s when this interview was conducted. Comedy was his constant weapon against pain, and he never held anything back in his routines.

Funny People” understands very well this gloomy realm many comedians live in, and is written and directed by a filmmaker who still performs from time to time as a standup comedian, Judd Apatow. But unlike “The 40-Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” this film has a darker edge to it and doesn’t hide away from the inherent viciousness of its characters. “Funny People” has been advertised as a comedy drama, but the balance often veers more to the dramatic. There are many laughs to be had here, but this movie clearly came from a rather dark place.

Adam Sandler stars as George Simmons, a comedian turned movie star whose career looks a lot like Sander’s own. George became famous with movies like “Merman” where he played a male mermaid, and “Re-do” in which he plays a character whose body has transformed into that of an infant. Seeing George’s head digitally inserted onto a baby’s body at once gives us a great sight gag, but it also seems like the kind of silly comedy Sandler himself has made once too often. Besides, I have more than my fill of talking babies.

George has it all: a beautiful mansion overlooking the sea, a swimming pool he does laps in on a regular basis, great cars, women who don’t hesitate to sleep with him even if they have boyfriends, and all the money one could hope to live off of to the end of time. But in his eyes, we see he is a sad man who has come to truly despise himself for what he has become. All the wealth he has amassed only serves to isolate him from the rest of the world, and it makes him defensive around total strangers who are unable to see him as ever resembling a regular person. But now, his doctor has diagnosed him with a terminal disease and has only months left to live. George reacts to this news as if someone drained his blood while he wasn’t looking, and it makes him realize how much self-hatred he has. From there, he becomes to make every last minute of his life count, but this may not alter his antagonistic personality from where it currently resides.

As George Simmons, Adam Sandler gives one of his best performances to date, and its right up there with his brilliant turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love.” Not once does he back down from how George is a hard man to like. Throughout “Funny People,” George is dismissive to many around him, and he ends up being thoughtlessly mean to those who look up to him. Regardless, Sandler still manages to make you sympathize with this character and of the terminable diagnosis which he did not see coming. It’s the moments where Sandler lets it show through his eyes just how full of regret Simmons is, and it serves as proof of how this former “Saturday Night Live” performer is more talented than he thinks.

Along with this famous comedian on his cynical farewell tour is Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), an aspiring young comic who is not entirely confident with his stand-up act. George catches Ira’s act one night after he makes a surprise appearance at a comedy club, and while he is hurt when Ira discusses how he bombed onstage just moments before, George thinks this kid has got talent and offers to pay him some money to write up some jokes for an upcoming benefit show. From there, George hires Ira as his personal assistant, an employment opportunity which involves more work than the average 9 to 5 job which never pays enough.

Remember all those nasty horror stories from people who were assistants to the stars and certain sociopathic studio executives? Well, Ira may have gotten off easy compared to those people, but we fear his soul will be forever crushed the longer he stays with George.

In a lot of ways, Ira is they typical kind of character Rogen has played over and over again in movies, and not just the ones he does with Apatow. While I would love to see him take on riskier roles like the one he played in “Observe and Report,” he is the perfect match for Sandler’s endlessly cynical misanthrope of George. By the movie’s end, Rogen his performance proves to be the most underrated in the film, and he believably takes Ira from someone lacking in confidence to one who finds his voice with each standup routine he does to where he shows a strength he did not know he had. Rogen makes this transition feel seamless to where he had a stand out moment when he faces down Simmons and tries to make him see how his terminal disease has not come close to changing his outlook on life.

But the one person who almost steals “Funny People” is Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann. Having already proved what a comedy dynamo she was in her husband’s previous films, there should be no more talk from those who believe she has only gotten this far as an actress because of nepotism.

Mann plays Laura, and George describes her to Ira as “the one that got away.” Laura was and still is George’s one true love, and he finds she still yearns for him even though their relationship came to a heartbreaking end when he cheated on her. This is a moment George appears to regret more than any other, and he becomes eager to make up for it as soon as he can. Laura never tries to hide her character’s undying affection for this man who is lonelier than most, and she is willing to end her marriage to an Australian soccer nut (Eric Bana, who is hilarious) who may be cheating on her as well. As Laura, Mann succeeds in making you fall for this character even while she selfishly tries to redirect her life without realizing the consequences of her actions.

There are a lot of strong elements working in favor for “Funny People,” but it doesn’t change the fact it is a deeply flawed movie. While it is good and worth watching, it will most likely be seen as one of Apatow’s weakest movies. I do like how he dared to go in a slightly different direction with this movie compared to what he has given us previously, but the balance between comedy and drama is off kilter most of the time. For many, I don’t think it will be entirely clear as to whether they are watching something comic or very serious.

Plus, at over two hours long, this movie really could have been shorter. I’m usually cool with long movies, but only if they can justify their length. It is way too easy to come off as self-indulgent when making a three-hour epic. “Funny People’s” length does cut deeply into its comic momentum, and there are spots where it things really dragged. It does pick up towards the end, but the story still could have used a bit more tightening.

Still, I really did like “Funny People” because it shows how Apatow still succeeds in giving us characters and situations which feel very real on an emotional level. With him taking his established formulas in a different direction, it is clear his work will continue to grow with each successive project he takes on.

I also love the brilliant cameos he manages to extract from big celebrities in his films. One scene in “Funny People” has George meeting up with a lot of famous comedians like Norm McDonald, Andy Dick (wow), Charles Fleischer, Collin Quinn and Sarah Silverman who has one of the movie’s funniest scenes. But the biggest surprise cameo to be found here is Eminem’s as I never expected to see him in any movie, let alone one directed by Apatow. Seeing him dissing Ray Romano provides us with an unforgettable moment where Ira ends up saying to Ray, “I thought everybody loved you.”

One perception about “Funny People” which needs to be cleared up is that it is not what many would call a “disease movie.” It is really to Apatow’s credit here that he never gets all mushy on us like many others would have when it comes to films about people who think they are facing certain death. George’s arc here is much like the character Michael Keaton played in “Clean and Sober.” In the process of trying to improve themselves and become better people, they end up fooling themselves to where they think they are changing for the better, but are instead acting more selfishly than they realize. Their attempts to help those in desperate situations reveal just how self-involved they are, and it just gets worse for them from there. It is not until the climax which has them at a place where they realize what they truly need to do to move on from a fractured past.

“Funny People” is definitely worth seeing. Just don’t go in with the normal set of expectations you have for the average Apatow production because things are a little different here. It definitely has some hilarious moments and dramatic ones, and Sandler makes it clear to us he can be a great actor when given the right material. It is also an intimate look at the fame and success one person experiences, and of how damaging and isolating it can be.

This project was really a long time coming for both Apatow and Sandler because they did share an apartment when they first moved out to Los Angeles. “Funny People” actually starts off with home video footage of them making prank phone calls which has them laughing in hysterics. It is meant to be a look of innocence which fame forever changes, but at least we can see how in real life these two funny men have their families to keep their egos in balance. George Simmons is simply the person each of them would have become if they weren’t careful.

* * * out of * * * *

Dolemite Is My Name – Eddie Murphy is Back!

With the Coronavirus still wreaking havoc around the globe (deal with you flat-Earthers), this mandatory quarantine has allowed me to catch up on movies which I was hoping to watch sooner. One I finally caught up with is “Dolemite is My Name,” the biographical comedy film about comedian and filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore who created the character of Dolemite, released several successful comedy albums, and then risked everything to bring his iconic character to the silver screen. What unfolds proved to be one of the best and most entertaining movies of 2020. Eddie Murphy gives us one of his greatest performances ever, Craig Brewer returns to make a film as entertaining as his best efforts, and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have given us yet another offbeat biopic about an unlikely character who more than left their mark on the world.

When we first meet Rudy, he is a struggling artist living in 1970’s Los Angeles. We see from the start he is a natural born hustler, and his determination to become a star knows no bounds. At the same time, his life has long since fallen into a rut as he finds himself working at a record store whose manager, Roj (Snoop Dogg), refuses to play Rudy’s songs which comes with names like “Step it Up and Go” and “Below the Belt.” Despite Rudy’s eagerness, Roj freely admits none of his songs could ever compare to Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On.”

Furthermore, Rudy is past his prime, and he is starting to believe his dream of stardom has long since gone out of his reach. His stand-up bits at a local club fail to elicit a single laugh as his jokes are exquisitely lame to put it mildly. In addition, he has become quite, as someone later describes him, “portly.” Yes, even back in the 70’s, Hollywood seemed to have a problem with overweight people.

Then one day, Rudy gets accosted by a homeless man named Ricco (Ron Cephas Jones) who comes into the store making various loud proclamations which show off his superb rhyming skills, and one of them includes the name “Dolemite.” This ends up lighting a fire of inspiration in Rudy as he goes out into the streets to meet up with Ricco and his brethren to record their dialogue which prove to be poetic as it is profane. To be sure, Rudy pays these men to him their stories, but while some may be all about the Benjamins, he is more about the Washingtons.

From there, the character of “Dolemite” is born and Rudy dresses himself up for the occasion. It is an electrifying moment when we first see him take the stage even after the club owner begs him to just stick with his normal act. While he was at first ignored as an opening act, he now has the audience in stitches when he tells them, “Dolemite is my name, and fuckin’ up motherfuckers is my game!” From there, he finds the loving audience which had long eluded him, and he becomes increasingly intent on leaving his mark on the world.

Eddie Murphy certainly had a much different path to fame than Rudy Ray Moore ever did. He got cast on “Saturday Night Live” when he was 19, and film stardom came soon after when he starred in “48 Hrs.” Rudy, on the other hand, found success later in life and with a niche audience which was nowhere as big as Murphy’s. But watching Murphy here, I can see why he is a perfect fit to play Rudy as he inhabits this raunchy comedian and hustler with such an unbridled enthusiasm to where his spirit is so infectious throughout. Seeing Murphy land so many of Dolemite’s one-liners perfectly reminds us how brilliant his comedic timing is, and it is shocking to learn this is his first R-rated feature since 1999’s “Life.”

But moreover, Murphy really gives a great performance here which, in another year, might have earned him a deserved Oscar nomination. He really makes us root for Rudy even as his confidence begins to wane, and he also shows the insecurities and the past Rudy is constantly trying to stay several steps ahead of. There is one scene where we see Rudy on the phone with a prospective movie studio, and we do not even have to hear who is on the other line as Murphy shows us what rejection looks like as his face crumbles. Seriously, if this moment does not prove what a great actor can be, what will?

For Craig Brewer, “Dolemite is My Name” is his first feature film directorial effort since his 2011 remake of “Footloose.” To say this is a comeback for him is not really fair as he has spent the last few years producing several movies and directed TV episodes, so clearly he has been a busy body. However, watching this movie proves he has not missed a step as it contains the same boundless energy and enthusiasm he brought to “Hustle and Flow” and “Black Snake Moan.” Brewer clearly revels in the journey Rudy took from being a starving artist to becoming a known personality, and he makes this journey a thrilling and endlessly entertaining one for the audience.

For Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, this stands proudly among their others which include “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” “Ed Wood,” “Big Eyes” and “Man on the Moon.” In some respects, Rudy’s career trajectory is a bit similar to Ed Wood’s as their talent, to put it mildly, can only go so far. But the screenwriters do make Rudy out to be an admirable go-getter who may not have gotten love from everybody, but who did get exactly what he needed. And in the end, Rudy certainly earned more success in his career than Ed ever did.

There are a couple more people I would like to single out including the mighty Da’Vine Joy Randolph who steals a number of scenes as Lady Reed, a single mother whom Rudy encourages to join him on his stand-up tour while in Mississippi. Randolph makes Lady Reed into a vulnerable individual who ends up finding the strength to make herself known to people who otherwise would might otherwise have paid her any notice. The scene she has with Murphy where Lady Reed thanks Rudy for paving the way to Hollywood for her is one of the most deeply felt as it rings so true emotionally, and there is not an ounce of sentimentality or emotional manipulation to be found.

And there is Wesley Snipes who comes close at times to stealing the show as the director of the “Dolemite” movie, D’Urville Martin. Watching Snipes here, it feels like the first time he has been this wildly energetic since “Major League.” After the cinematic debacle that was “Blade: Trinity” and his conviction for tax evasion, he seemed forever resigned to a career in direct-to-video movies where he played only deadly serious characters. But here, he gives one of his best performances in lord only knows how long as he turns D’Urville into a hilariously bewildered human being who keeps wondering how the hell he got mixed up with Rudy and his crew. It’s such a brilliantly off-the-wall performance, and just looking at his face during one of the most hilariously staged sex scenes in motion picture history is priceless.

Seriously, I get severe whiplash looking at Eddie Murphy’s career, and that’s even though its not as intense and jolting as what I get when looking at John Travolta’s. Murphy has been up and down so many times to where it hurt to wait and see him be great again. Heck, I almost gave up on him after “Beverly Hills Cop III.” But with “Dolemite is My Name” and his triumphant return to “Saturday Night Live,” he has more than earned his latest comeback, and I really hope this is one which will last for several more movies.

* * * * out of * * * *

Coronavirus Quarantine Viewing: In the Line of Fire

In this time of quarantine due to the global pandemic known as Coronavirus (COVID-19), I have not stayed in my apartment all day long as I have no choice but to work. Still, getting my ass out of bed continues to be a struggle, and while I keep saying I have no time to watch any new releases, I do find myself watching whatever is playing on one of the various Starz cable channels. And I have to be honest, there is always a certain movie which captures my attention regardless if I already have the movie on DVD or Blu-ray.

One movie which has been playing on Starz a lot recently is “In the Line of Fire,” the 1993 political action thriller which was directed by Wolfgang Petersen and stars Clint Eastwood as the grizzled and cantankerous veteran Secret Service Agent Frank Horrigan.

I worked at a movie theater in my hometown, Crow Canyon Cinemas, which played it, and during my lunch breaks I would go and watch it to take in the excellent direction, brilliant acting and terrific action sequences.  It also provided me with one of my most frustrating moments while I worked there. While working a shift, an audience member came up to me and said the lights were still up inside the theater. I rushed in to see what was going on, and the lights were indeed still on as the movie opened up on Washington, D.C. and Ennio Morricone’s began playing. Another audience member yelled out, “ARE YOU GOING TO TURN THE LIGHTS OFF?!” This caused others in the audience to laugh, and I walked out of there inescapably pissed. Hey, if I was operating the film projector, I would have made certain the lights were turned off when the movie began. Please do not automatically assume it’s my fault! Do you even know who I am?! Do you know what us concession workers, ushers and box office personal are forced to deal with on a regular basis?!

Anyway, Frank Horrigan is a veteran Secret Service Agent who is busy breaking in a rookie named Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott) whom, as you will see, has a really bad first day at work. Upon arriving back at his apartment, Frank receives a call from a man who calls himself Booth, short for John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Booth is later revealed to be Mitch Leary (John Malkovich), a disillusioned and deeply obsessed CIA assassin who is determined to assassinate the current President of the United States. From there on out, Frank becomes determined to stop Mitch from ever reaching his murderous goal.

Of course, Mitch has a special reason for telling Frank about his plan as he is the sole active agent remaining from the detail guarding President John F. Kennedy back in 1963 when he was assassinated. Mitch prods Frank into thinking he could have done more to keep Kennedy alive, and we see in Frank’s eyes why this is still a gaping wound which has aversely affected his life for far too long

What really fascinated me about “In the Line of Fire” was the relationship between Frank and Mitch as it worked on different levels. At first, it felt like Mitch was viciously deriding Frank for his failure in Dallas on that fateful day, but perhaps Mitch was taunting Frank in an effort to see if there was any government worker who was still worth believing in. Either that, or perhaps Mitch was eager for some competition as he had long since become such a skilled assassin to where this particular job was easier for him than it should have been. The screenplay by Jeff Maguire is not clear on the answer to this, but this is part of this movie’s charm.

“In the Line of Fire” was the first movie Eastwood had acted in following his Oscar winning triumph, “Unforgiven.” When I saw “Unforgiven,” it forever changed the way I looked at Eastwood as I figured he was just coasting on the success of “Dirty Harry” for far too many years to where he could easily phone in a performance before we realized it But when it came to “Unforgiven,” this movie made me realize he was a consummate artist both in front of and behind the camera. Watching him in “In the Line of Fire” made me see this all the more as, behind that famous glint of his, he succeeds in giving a wonderfully complex performance as Frank Horrigan. From start to finish, Eastwood makes Frank into a difficult, thoughtful, charming, guilt-ridden and stubborn human being, and it is a real shame he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his performance.

The key scene for Eastwood comes when Frank reminisces about the day of Kennedy’s assassination with Agent Lilly Raines (the always terrific Rene Russo), and he paints a very vivid picture for the audience to where no flashbacks are needed to illustrate what he is talking about. It was also one of the few times back then where we got see Eastwood cry, and an image like this seemed unthinkable for so long. Still, watching this iconic star lose it over an American tragedy which has long since been burned into our collective memory is a beautiful moment. Some are forever trapped in a time and place they can never escape from, and the assassination of J.F.K. is one which still holds many in its grasp.

One actor who did score an Oscar nomination for their performance was John Malkovich. With his character of Mitch Leary, Malkovich created one of the most malevolent psychopaths the world of cinema has ever seen. But as demented as Malkovich makes Mitch (the scene where he puts Eastwood’s gun in his mouth was his idea), he also allows us to see this character has some form of empathy. When Mitch talks about how he doesn’t remember who he was before the CIA “sunk their claws” into him speaks volumes as he has long since become a former shell of his former self to where he has nothing left to live for except revenge. When it comes to Malkovich, you can always count on him to take any character he plays and mold him into something undeniably unique.

I also have to single out Rene Russo who is an absolute joy to watch here as Special Agent Lilly Raines. She made her film debut in “Major League,” but she really caught my eye after co-starring in “Lethal Weapon 3” as Lorna Cole, an internal affairs detective who beat up the bad guys every bit as effectively as Martin Riggs did. When we first saw her in “In the Line of the Fire,” we knew her character was not an agent to be easily messed with as she could kick ass with the best. Still, Russo shows a wonderful vulnerability throughout as Lilly confesses to Frank how she broke off a relationship because she would not give up her job for anyone. Russo does not even have to spell out in words why Lilly is hesitant to become involved with Frank as any potential relationship comes with a lot of baggage, and yet the chemistry between these two proves to be so strong to where we have one of the more hilarious love-making scenes in cinema history. As we see the various objects drop off them as they climb into bed, we can understand Frank’s frustration about having to put all of it back on.

“In the Line of Fire” was directed by Wolfgang Petersen, the same man who gave us the greatest submarine movie ever made, “Das Boot.” Petersen directs this movie in a way which makes it clear to us how character means more to him than spectacle. Whether or not the stunts are the best you have ever seen, they are exciting as hell because we are rooting for the characters from start to finish. As the story heads to a most thrilling climax, I could not take my eyes off the screen for a second.

This movie also has one of my favorite film scores ever by the great Ennio Morricone as he nails every single moment for all its emotional worth. Whether it’s the main theme which is filled with a hard-fought for patriotism, the romantic themes which illustrate the growing relationship between Frank and Lilly, or the themes which add to the taut action sequences, there is not a single false note to be found here.

It is nice to revisit “In the Line of Fire” after all these years, and it still holds up in this day and age. It is a top-notch thriller and the kind of character driven motion picture we do not see enough of these days. It also makes you respect the secret service in a way we always should have. They have to defend the President of the United States regardless of how they feel about him or her as a person. I mean, heaven forbid we have another President serve as a martyr for this great country the way John F. Kennedy did. I bring this up because this is especially the case when we are forced to deal with an infinitely unpopular President, and I will just leave it at that.

* * * * out of * * * *