Month: January 2012

The Cotton Club

1984

Zoetrope Studios

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Produced by Robert Evans

Story And Screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola, William Kennedy and Mario Puzo

It seems as if anytime movie fans get together and talk about great gangster/crime movies they’ll mention “The Godfather Trilogy” “Scarface” “Bonnie & Clyde” ”The Untouchables” “Once Upon A Time In America” “Goodfellas” or “Miller’s Crossing” just to name some of my own favorites off the top of my head but nobody ever seems to mention THE COTTON CLUB  which is kinda surprising considering that it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola who directed “The Godfather Trilogy” and shouldn’t be looked down upon as a lesser work of that great director.  I’m not for a moment suggesting that THE COTTON CLUB is equal to “The Godfather Trilogy” but what I am saying is that THE COTTON CLUB seems to get overlooked whenever gangster/crime movie favorites are mentioned and it shouldn’t.  It’s an incredibly entertaining movie on a lot of levels and explores an era of American history I’ve always been fascinated with and it’s packed full of terrific actors who all turn in outstanding performances.

The movie begins in 1928; the height of the jazz era and The Cotton Club is the hottest nightclub in New York City.  Bootleggers and gangsters rub elbows with the big rich and movie stars as they are entertained by the top black entertainers of the day such as Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.  It’s not unusual to see Fanny Brice and Jimmy Cagney sitting at the same table with Lucky Luciano and Owney Madden, so intertwined are the worlds of organized crime and entertainment.  Everybody’s a celebrity whether they deal in box office or bullets.

We’re introduced to Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere), a cornet player who has the misfortune to save the life of the infamous Dutch Schultz (James Remar) from a thrown bomb one night.  It’s misfortunate because The Dutchman takes a liking to Dixie and being on the good side of a bloodthirsty psychopath like Dutch is almost as dangerous as being on his bad side.  The situation gets complicated when Dixie falls in love with Dutch’s mistress Vera Cicero (Diane Lane) and Vera falls in love right back.   Dixie gets even more involved with Dutch’s criminal organization due to his brother Vincent (Nicholas Cage) going to work for Dutch when The Dutchman incites a vicious and bloody war as he sets out to take over the Harlem numbers rackets.  Intertwined is the story of Sandman Williams (Gregory Hines), a tap dancer who is in love with Lila Oliver (Lonette McKee), a torch singer who can pass for white and does so as a way of escaping the intolerable racism of The Cotton Club where black audiences can’t get in to see black performers and Sandman is beaten up by the stage manager just for wanting to talk to her in private.

While the love story of these two couples is played out there’s other stories swirling around them: Vincent becomes increasingly unhappy with getting shot up doing The Dutchman’s dirty work and plans to make his own move and get a bigger slice of the lucrative Harlem rackets.  Sandman and his brother Clay have a falling out and they break up their act.  Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins) realizes that the Italian/Sicilian mobs are making a big push into New York, squeezing out the Irish and Jewish gangsters and he thinks that maybe retirement isn’t looking so bad.  Dutch is getting increasingly crazier and crazier and the streets of Harlem are running red as he refuses to back down in his psychotic desire to take it from the control the black gangsters.  Dixie realizes that between his growing love for Vera and his disgust for Dutch his chances of staying healthy aren’t very good.  There are a lot of different stories going on but the movie never seems like its rushing or skimping on the characters and their fates.  The movie is a little over two hours long and none of the running time is wasted.  There’s never a slow point in the movie.  There are so many characters and so much story that Coppola can’t afford to waste any time.

Part of the reason the movie is so entertaining is the excellent casting.  Richard Gere and Gregory Hines are both good looking leading men and they’re wonderful here.  Richard Gere is billed as doing his own cornet solos and I dunno if that’s true or not but he certainly looks as if he knows what he’s doing.  And Gregory Hines is simply brilliant when he’s tap dancing and that’s his real life brother who plays his brother in the movie.  Supposedly the story of the Williams brothers is based on a lot of what happened to the Hines brothers in their own career.  Diane Lane and Lonette McKee are appropriately gorgeous leading women and it doesn’t hurt that they both know how to act very well.

But my favorite actors in the movie are Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne, who plays Frenchie, the bodyguard/confidant/partner of Owney Madden.  They’re based on real life gangsters of the era and I have no idea if they were as interesting in real life as they are in this movie but they shoulda been.  They make an odd pair, Madden squat and solid as a fireplug, possessing a culture and charm that masks his dangerous soul and Frenchie, a towering giant with a graveyard voice and deep set eyes.  The two of them are fiercely loyal and protective of each other and it’s demonstrated in a scene where Frenchie is kidnapped and Madden gladly pays the ransom.  Frenchie turns up alive and well and Madden is almost hysterical with worry as Frenchie calmly explains how he passed the time with his kidnappers.  Hoskins and Gwynne effortlessly steal the movie with that scene which ends up as something real and honestly touching.

What else is good in the movie?  Well, there’s Gwen Verdon who plays Dixie’s mother and Mario Van Peebles is one of The Cotton Club dancers.  Laurence Fishburne plays a character based on the great black gangster Bumpy Johnson, a character he would play again in “Hoodlum”.  The period costumes and sets look wonderful and the music and dancing work to give you an excellent idea of what that era must have been like.  And despite a couple of grisly deaths somehow Coppola manages to pull a happy ending out of all the bloody misery that doesn’t seem forced but has the same feeling of inevitability that his “Godfather” films do.

So should you see THE COTTON CLUB?  I have no idea why you wouldn’t want to.  It’s an excellent gangster movie made by a director who knows this material like a monkey knows coconuts and it’s an extremely well made period piece with plenty of great music and not a bad performance from any of the actors and how many movies have you ever heard me say that about?

Rated R

127 min

The Warriors

1979

Paramount

Directed by Walter Hill

Produced by Lawrence Gordon, Frank Marshall and Joel Silver

Written by David Shaber and Walter Hill

Based on the novel by Sol Yurick

The one Walter Hill movie that everybody can agree on that they love without reservation whatsoever is his 1979 masterpiece THE WARRIORS.  Walter Hill took equal parts of the western, comic books and Greek literature, threw them in a blender and poured this movie out onto the screen.  It’s a tribute to his skill as a director that the movie is still as well known today as when it first had its original theatrical.  Just mention THE WARRIORS to most people, even if they aren’t movie fans and they know it.  Practically everybody I know has seen THE WARRIORS  at least two or three times and if you mention it as a favorite of yours they  will either throw their arms open like Cyrus and howl: “Can You Dig IT?” or imitate David Patrick Kelly: “Warrrriors….come out to playyyyy-aayyyyyy….”

THE WARRIORS takes place in a New York that is overrun by gangs.  Originally, Walter Hill wanted to have a subtitle saying: “Sometime In The Future” but I think he should have set the movie in the alternate world urban jungle of “Streets Of Fire” since this New York has little in common with the New York of our world.  It seems almost entirely populated by gangs and cops and we see almost no regular Joe or Jane Punchclocks in the film.

A charismatic gang leader, Cyrus (Roger Hill) of The Gramercy Riffs has summoned representatives of every gang in the city to come to a meeting in The Bronx.  During a massive rally where Cyrus comes across as a Malcolm X of gangdom, he outlines his plan: collectively, the gangs outnumber the cops nearly five to one.  If they all stop fighting over each other’s  little piece of turf and join forces, the entire city of New York can be theirs   The gangs are behind Cyrus and his plan but he is shot and killed by the psychotic Luther (David Patrick Kelly) of The Rogues.  The gang rally is raided by the NYPD and using the confusion to his advantage, Luther places the blame the killing of Cyrus on The Warriors.  The Warrior leader Cleon (Dorsey Wright) is jumped and killed by The Gramercy Riffs while the remaining Warriors have no choice to run for their lives with every gang in New York as well as the cops after them.  This means they have to battle every mile of the way from The Bronx back to their home turf of Coney Island in Brooklyn using the subway for transportation.

Now take it from somebody who has lived in New York all their life and this is no lie: You can take an airplane from New York to Florida in a shorter amount of time than you can take a train from The Bronx to Brooklyn and that’s without a horde of gangs trying to kill you or cops trying to arrest you.  The Warriors have to do it in one night and it’s one hell of a night indeed.

Like most great stories, it’s a simple and time-tested one.  Indeed, the supposed inspiration for THE WARRIORS is based on the Greek story of ‘Anabasis’, which is about a band of Greek mercenaries betrayed and stranded far from home and their desperate march to safety.  But I’ve seen any number of westerns where Army patrols or wagon trains are lost and stranded in Indian territory and have to fight their way to safety and Walter Hill himself would use this theme again in his “Streets Of Fire” where his small band of heroes have to once again fight their way out of a dangerous, hostile land and get back to the safety of familiar home ground.   All of these genres have echoes in THE WARRIORS as well as comic books, which is what Walter Hill himself has said THE WARRIORS is: a live action comic book.

And I can see where he’s coming from.  Certainly there have never been real life gangs in New York like The Gramercy Riffs who dress in tailor-fitted karate outfits or The Boppers who wear purple vests, neatly pressed shirts, ties, applejacks and have spats on their shoes or The High-Hats who look like mimes wearing Abraham Lincoln stovepipe hats and let’s not forget The Baseball Furies who look like The New York Mets in Kiss makeup.

And take the racial makeup of The Warriors, for instance.  While every other gang in the movie is shown as having racial/ethnic roots, The Warriors are plainly multi-cultural with three blacks, two guys who look as if they could be Italian, one guy who looks as if he might be Polish, two possible Hispanics and one guy who could conceivably be anything you like.

Originally, Walter Hill wanted The Warriors to be an all-black gang but the producers put their foot down on that right quick and said no.  I notice they didn’t have any problem with The Gramercy Riffs, who are the nominal bad guys orchestrating the nightlong hunt for The Warriors be all black, though.  And as I said earlier, we hardly see anybody else in the movie besides the gangs and the cops and that lends to the alternate world feel of the movie.  This is a strangely depopulated New York; unusual for a city that is active 24/7/365.

I’d like to be able to say that the movie has outstanding performances but I honestly can’t.  Most of the actors in the movie were just starting out and went onto other films where their acting abilities could really shine but here, the main thing is the atmosphere, the style, the action and the suspense of us wondering if The Warriors are going to make it back to Brooklyn.  Michael Beck plays Swan who leads The Warriors after Cleon is killed and he goes through the movie with clenched jaw and single minded determination to get his men home.  A baby-faced James Remar is Ajax, the chief ass-kicker of the gang who is taken out of the movie much too soon.  Deborah Van Valkenberg is Mercy who is originally part of The Orphans but switches to The Warriors and she probably turns in the best acting job of the movie as she does a great job of showing Mercy’s thirst for the sex and violence gang life brings.  There’s a scene where a Warrior is fighting with a cop and she’s standing there watching, eyes shining brightly, breathing heavily and obviously sexually excited by the violence.  And there’s a fight in a subway men’s bathroom where she gleefully throws herself into the middle of the fight and again it’s obvious she’s getting a sexual charge out of big sweaty guys beating the hell outta each other.  And we won’t even talk about what she does on Friday or Saturday nights except to say that when you watch the movie, look at the expression on her face when she talks about what she does on Friday and Saturday nights and how Saturday nights are better than Friday.

I’d like to also mention the late Lynn Thigpen who plays The DJ who during the night is giving out information to the gangs hunting The Warriors and plays records to taunt them as her character puts an interesting spin on the action we’re watching.  Listening to her and her constant sports references, I realized that the action of THE WARRIORS was a metaphor for…and don’t laugh…a baseball game.  Her character acts as a commentator of the action.  The Warriors are the home team who start out with nine men and the NYPD act as referees who remove any Warrior who deviates from their goal of trying to get back home (yer out!).  The subways are the base lines and each stop where The Warriors have a fight are all bases.  The  first one is in the park with The Baseball Furies.   The second one is in the lair of the Lizzies, a lesbian gang.  And the third one is in the Union Station Bathroom with The Punks.  Or maybe I’m reading more into it than is really there.  You tell me.

And no review of THE WARRIORS can be complete with mentioning David Patrick Kelly who plays Luther.  Most of the best moments in the movie come from him and his really loopy performance, especially the classic scene where he has three empty Budweiser bottles on his fingers and he’s clinking them together, exhorting The Warriors to “come out and playyyyyy-ayyyyyy”.  But I really like the scene where Michael Beck asks him why did he kill Cyrus and throw the city’s gangs into a frenzy?  Kelly replies simply: “I like doing stuff like that…it’s fun.”  No high-minded motives for this cat.

So should you see THE WARRIORS?  Most of you reading this have probably seen it already and more than one time so I’m preaching to the choir when I say it’s an absolute action masterpiece that is necessary viewing.  For those of you who haven’t seen it, I strongly advise you to Netflix THE WARRIORS the next time you’re sitting at home on the weekend wondering what to rent.  It’s a perfect Saturday night movie and despite the acting and somewhat silly dialog at times, the movie overcomes those shortcomings with a solid story and some really cool action/fight scenes. THE WARRIORS has well deserved its reputation.  It’s simply and truly one hell of a good movie and should be seen on nothing more than that basis.

93 minutes

Rated R: I can’t believe that viewers today would actually be offended by the violence in THE WARRIORS.  It’s not even comic book violence as comic books nowadays are far more violent than this movie.  Even the language isn’t all that bad.  I don’t know if that’s a reflection on us as a society today or what but hey, I just review movies, not society.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Name Is Nobody

1973

Paramount Home Entertainment

 

Produced by Fulvio Morsella

Directed by Tonio Valerii

Screenplay by Ernesto Gastaldi

Based on a story by Fulvio Morsella and Ernesto Gastaldi

 

As will usually happen to a writer, people will always ask me what my influences are.  And I name various writers and genres and then I mention spaghetti westerns and a strange thing happens: their eyes light up and they start asking me have I seen this movie or that movie in the genre and people are always surprised that I proudly cite spaghetti westerns as an influence on my writing style.  I don’t see why. Out of the nearly 600 spaghetti westerns made between 1960 and 1975 I would estimate I’ve seen at least 200 of them.  You don’t see that many movies in a genre without it having a profound effect on you.  And I’m not the only one.  If you’re a fan of John Woo, Roberto Rodriguez and Quentin Tarentino then you’ve seen three of the most popular filmmakers of current times who were profoundly influenced by the spaghetti western.  Most people only know the Sergio Leone “The Man With No Name” Trilogy as an example of the genre.  But as far as I’m concerned “Once Upon A Time In The West” is the greatest western ever made with “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” following a damn close second.   But there are many, many, many more spaghetti westerns besides Sergio Leone’s that are well worth seeing.  But we’ll get into those in other reviews, okay?

For many movie fans, myself included, Sergio Leone invented the spaghetti western, as we know it.  Leone created a mythic American West that has more in common with the fantasy fiction of Robert E. Howard than the actual American West.  In Sergio Leone’s American West, warriors carried six-guns instead of swords and instead of sorcerers they fought villains of unimaginable cruelty whose skills rivaled that of the heroes.  And in most of Leone’s movies, the only reason the good guys won out was because they played just as dirty or even dirtier than the bad guys.  Evil was challenged, fought and defeated by a greater evil that somehow was nobler and more pure.

Now if you look at the credits of this movie above you’ll see that Sergio Leone’s name is not mentioned and since he is officially unaccredited I did not do so.  But trust me that MY NAME IS NOBODY is a Sergio Leone picture.  He worked on the screenplay, he choose Henry Fonda for the movie (in fact, he wouldn’t make the movie without him) and he directed key scenes.  And he did so because this movie was his statement about The American Western Vs. The Spaghetti Western.

Jack Beauregard (Henry Fonda) is an aging gunslinger just looking to retire in peace and quiet.  Unlike most gunslingers his age he knows his time is up and the world has moved on.  He’s booked passage on a ship that will take him to retirement in Europe.  Jack only wants to get on the ship and spend the rest of his days his peace.  It’ll take Jack about two weeks to get to the ship and he plans on doing it nice and easy.

However, Jack runs into a young, handsome gunslinger that apparently has no name.  Whenever he’s asked what his name is he simply replies: “I’m Nobody.”  But this Nobody (Terence Hill) clearly idolizes Jack.  He knows everything about Jack’s life and can recite the names of every man Jack has killed, where he killed them and even how many shots it took for Jack to kill them.  Jack isn’t clear as to what this Nobody wants.  Does he want to face down Jack in a gunfight?  No, actually Nobody wants Jack to take on The Wild Bunch, a gang of 150 purebred sons of bitches and he wants Jack to take them on alone in a battle of Ragnorakian proportions.  Nobody wants Jack to go down in the history books as the greatest gunslinger of them all and for much of the movie, Nobody manipulates Jack until Jack has no choice and he has to face down The Wild Bunch in an epic gunfight.

It’s interesting to see how MY NAME IS NOBODY is filmed because the scenes with Henry Fonda by himself are done as a straight American Western while the scenes with Terence Hill are done as a Spaghetti Western.  What Sergio Leone was doing in this movie is basically acknowledging both genres, using the then current icons of the genres and letting them play off each other and it’s a really good piece of work.  MY NAME IS NOBODY is a very funny movie in its own right as Terence Hill made his rep in western comedies, often pared with Bud Spencer who played his brother in the ‘Trinity” movies and he’s got some great comedic moments here.  I always like how he treats his near supernatural abilities with a gun as if it’s the most boring thing in the world.   He’s got a great scene where he’s holding his saddle on one shoulder and on a dare, draws his gun and replaces in the holster three times with the same hand holding the saddle without letting it drop.

Henry Fonda is really good in this movie.  The whole thing revolves around the relationship between Jack Beauregard and Nobody and Henry Fonda sells it.  He never really knows exactly what Nobody wants or what he’s trying to do but by the end of the movie you truly get the sense that they have become friends.  And you also get the sense that Sergio Leone has made friends between The American Western and The Spaghetti Western.  And I couldn’t write this review without mention of the score by The Master Himself: Ennio Morricone.  He’s got this really hilarious theme for The Wild Bunch whenever they show up in the movie that’s based on Wagner’s “Ride Of The Valkyries” that you’ve have to hear for yourself to believe.  Only Morricone could make it sound both threatening and funny at the same time

It’s a remarkable film just in the way it’s filmed, with those vast vistas that Italian directors loved.  There’s a tense scene where Nobody and Jack are talking in a graveyard that is deadly serious and another that mirrors that scene but it’s in a pool hall and played mainly for whimsical laughs.  Henry Fonda is his usual reliable self when it comes to acting.  His Jack Beauregard is a tough old son of a bitch who can still outdraw and outshoot young punks half his age.  He just doesn’t want to anymore.  And Terence Hill is a really goofy, funny actor who I like a lot.  He’s absolutely great in this movie and he works well with Fonda.  They make an intriguing team and MY NAME IS NOBODY is a movie you should put on your Netflix queue to see if you haven’t seen it yet or even if you haven’t seen it for a while.  It’s a worthy western that any fan of the genre should see.

117 minutes

Rated PG

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carnage

2012

Sony Film Classics

Directed by Roman Polanski

Produced by Said Ben Said

Screenplay by Roman Polanski and Yasmina Reza

Based on the play “God of Carnage” by Yasmina Reza 

When the end credits of CARNAGE scrolled on the screen I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from the animated movie “The Point” which is the lesson learned by the main character Oblio who is the only round-headed person in a land where everything and everyone has a point.  The lesson: You don’t have to have a point to have a point.

What has this got to do with CARNAGE?  Well, I just threw it out there so that if and when you decide to watch it you won’t be taken by surprise by the movie’s conclusion which isn’t really a conclusion.

Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) visit the Brooklyn condo of Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster) to discuss a recent incident involving their sons.  During a playground dispute, the Cowan boy hit the Longstreet boy with a stick, knocking out two of his teeth.  The parents have decided to meet to avoid legal foofaraw and resolve the matter themselves.  Penelope insists they they can work this out in a civilized manner.  Turns out that she’s wrong.  As the discussion gets more involved as the two couples discuss marriage, parenthood, their jobs and their lives, civilized behavior begins to deteriorate.  And once the apple cobbler, 12 year old Scotch and cigars come out, things really begin to heat up.

Penelope is insistent that societal responsibility must be adhered to and blame assigned.  Michael strives to remain the genial and affable host, struggling to contain his short temper and naturally abrasive manner.  Nancy resents being in competition with Alan’s Blackberry which he seems to prefer talking to during the meeting rather than the Longstreets.  What starts out as a simple meeting soon turns into the four people dissecting each other verbally, cutting away the false faces they wear to get along in the world and getting at who they really are underneath.

Now, don’t worry that we’re getting into “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” territory here.  Although the movie could have easily gone that way, it doesn’t.  Instead, it’s surprisingly light and funny.  The characters don’t really go for each other’s jugular, instead we get them throwing solid jabs at each other but never going for a knockout punch.

What we have here are four really fine actors just…well, acting.  99% of the movie takes place inside of the Longstreet apartment with just the four actors.  And it is fun to watch them at work.  Especially John C. Reilly who stole the movie every chance he got, as far as I was concerned.  But everybody gets a chance to shine and they do.  For some, this movie may be too much like a filmed play but I didn’t have a problem with it.  Matter of fact, I prefer to watch my plays this way, especially when they are this well-acted.

Well, maybe just two problems.  It does get a little tiresome to have the Cowans continually attempt to leave the apartment only to have to return.  And I can’t see four people getting that drunk on one bottle of Scotch.  But at one point, Alan does say; “That’s some Scotch,” so maybe it is possible.

So should you see CARNAGE?  You should if you like the actors involved and want to see them throwing witty, sharp dialog at each other.  There’s really no plot here, no story, no stirring resolution or life-changing  epiphany.  Just four great actors doing what they do best.

80 minutes

Rated R for language as there is no violence or sex at all.

Red Tails

2012

20th Century Fox

Directed by Anthony Hemingway

Produced by Rick McCallum, Charles Floyd Johnson and George Lucas

Screenplay by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder

By now the story is legend.  The Tuskegee Airman were heroic African-American fighter pilots that fought in World War II, earning honor and distinction as bomber flight escorts. So successful were they at getting bomber groups to their targets and back to friendly airspace safely that soon commanders of bomber flights were specifically requesting that they be escorted by the 332 Fighter Group aka the RED TAILS.

This isn’t the first movie to tell the saga of The Tuskegee Airmen.  There’s the HBO movie “The Tuskegee Airmen” from 1995.  In fact, Cuba Gooding, Jr. who stars in RED TAILS was in that one as well.  It’s a story of true sacrifice, heroism and courage that took George Lucas 25 years to bring to the big screen.  And I give him a standing ovation for finally accomplishing that task.  And while I enjoyed RED TAILS for the most part I feel that the really great, epic movie about The Tuskegee Airmen has yet to be made.

Over in 1944 Italy, Major Stance (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) struggles to keep his pilots on a tight leash.  Chomping at the bit to see some real action, “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker) “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo) “Joker” George (Elijah Kelley) “Smokey” Salem (Ne-Yo) and “Ray Gun” Gannon (Tristan Wilds) are fed up with meaningless recon patrols in broken down planes that their chief mechanics “Coffee” Coleman (Andre Royo) and “Sticks” (Method Man) are barely able to keep flying.

red_tails

That changes when orders come from their commanding officer, Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard) who has been in Washington battling to get his squadron a real mission.  It isn’t easy dealing with the blatant racism of Colonel Mortamus (Bryan Cranston) who is more than eager to disband the squadron.  But with the help of Captain Tomilson (Lee Tergesen) he gets that mission and The Tuskegee Airmen get their chance.

And while The Tuskegee Airmen are busy making legends, they’re also making enemies in the form of a German ace they know only as “Pretty Boy” (Lars van Riesen) while “Lightning” is equally busy making a future life with a village girl named Sofia (Daniela Ruah) he’s fallen in love with and wants to marry.

Despite all of these characters, RED TAILS really skimps hard on the characterization.  Which I suppose is why all the major characters have colorful nicknames.  It helps to keep them straight.  There are is some effort made to show the racism that The Airmen had to confront but it doesn’t seem to go into that very deeply.  I get the impression that the filmmakers take it for granted that we know about The Tuskegee Airmen and their struggles against racism and so concentrate more on the action in the sky.

Not that I minded.  I always appreciate a good dogfight and there’s plenty of good ones here. I give director Anthony Hemingway credit for getting Cuba Gooding, Jr. to behave himself and act like a human being instead of a live action cartoon.  And I’m willing to bet that Gooding grew up watching more than his share of World War II movies.  Both he and Terrence Howard have a lot of fun delivering stirring speeches about never giving up and fighting for their country.

So should you see RED TAILS?  There’s a lot to like in the movie.  It’s professionally made and acted.  Just don’t look for much depth in the characters or the historical background of The Tuskegee Airmen and you’ll be fine.

121 minutes

PG-13

Thunderbirds

2004

Universal

 

Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Mark Huffam

Directed by Jonathan Frakes

Screenplay by William Osborne and Michael McCullers

Story by Peter Hewitt and William Osborne

Based on “Thunderbirds” created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson

I used to have this theory regarding TV shows turned into feature films: If the original theme song is used then the movie will turn out to be a good one.  If the original theme song is not used then the movie will turn out to suck beef jerky.  For example: “The Wild Wild West” “The Avengers”.  Well, consider that another brilliant theory of mine blown all to hell because THUNDERBIRDS does use the original theme song but it’s such an incredibly bad movie that the theme song is the only thing I can recommend about the whole thing.  In fact, if the movie had possessed the zip and charm of the opening credits it would be worth watching.  The animated credits show the various Thunderbird vehicles at work while the stirring theme song plays and it’s easily the best part of the movie.

The movie was especially a major letdown for me because I’ve been a fanatical lover of THUNDERBIRDS ever since I was a kid.  In the 60’s Gerry and Sylvia Anderson created a series of popular futuristic action/adventure shows featuring puppets.  There was “Stingray” the adventures of a submarine crew protecting an underwater city.  “Fireball XL5” was set in outer space and “Captain Scarlet” which was a really fun series about a group of aliens called The Mysterions trying to take over Earth.  Standing in their way is an organization called Spectrum whose members all have color based names and rankings.  Captain Scarlet is the major enemy of The Mysterions due to their accidentally giving him a healing factor while trying to duplicate him and bring him under their control.  Captain Scarlet can regenerate after any and all injuries and may actually be immortal since he dies several times during the series and comes back to life.

The THUNDERBIRDS TV series concerned the adventures of International Rescue, an organization created by and staffed by The Tracy family who live on a Pacific island paradise that houses their spectacular fortress containing their specialized rescue vehicles, called Thunderbirds.  International Rescue is a freelance crisis response team that immediately zooms to wherever disaster strikes.  Thunderbird One is a hypersonic jet.  Thunderbird Two is a heavy cargo carrier.  Thunderbird Three is a spaceship.  Thunderbird Four is a submarine while Thunderbird Five is the Tracy family’s personal space station that monitors all emergency channels and potential disaster spots from orbit above Earth.  Each vehicle is operated by one of the sons of Jeff Tracy, ex-astronaut and billionaire.  In a nice touch, Tracy’s sons: Alan, Scott, Gordon, Virgil and John are all named after the Mercury astronauts.  Providing back-up and support for The Thunderbirds is their resident scientific genius Homer Newton III aka Brains, faithful manservant Kyrano and his daughter Tin-Tin (who has a crush on Alan) and ex-superspy Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward who is more or less Jeff Tracy’s personal enforcer.  Based in London and backed up by her trusty cockney sidekick Parker, Lady Penelope lives in swinging London where she tools around town in a six-wheeled pink Rolls Royce pimped out with as many gadgets and weapons as The Batmobile or The Black Beauty.

Despite being dismissed as a ‘kid’s puppet show’ by many, THUNDERBIRDS was actually a pretty mature show.  First off, the premise of the show wasn’t about good guys vs. bad guys.  Most of the episodes were nail-bitingly suspenseful as International Rescue had to figure out how to avert some disaster or save people trapped in a life-threatening situation.  One of the best episodes was the one where The Empire State Building collapses and the only way to reach workers trapped in the basement is by an underground river.  But sometimes The Hood, Kyrano’s half-brother who wanted to steal the secrets of The Thunderbirds to use for criminal purposes would cause a disaster to bring International Rescue out.  Usually The Thunderbirds never dealt directly with The Hood.  That was reserved for Lady Penelope and Parker.

Now with a premise like that, the movie version of THUNDERBIRDS should have been a no-brainer.  But the writers and the director, Jonathan Frakes (Command Riker from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) threw out everything that made the original show so much fun and so enjoyable, instead turning it into an out-and-out children’s action movie that looks as if it were made for The Disney Channel.

The plot centers around Alan Tracy (Brady Corbet) who dreams of the day when his father Jeff (Bill Paxton) will finally let him join his brothers as they fly around the world saving lives.  Alan’s best friend is Fermat (Soren Fulton) who takes after his dad Brains much the same way Alan takes after his dad.  While on spring break at Tracy Island, The Hood (Ben Kingsley) fires a missile at Thunderbird Five, knocking it out of orbit.  Jeff and the boys charge up there to save John Tracy and end up stuck on the space station that is falling back to Earth.  The Hood takes control of the island and plans to use Thunderbird Two to rob The Bank of London.  It’s up to Alan, Fermat and Tin-Tin (Vanessa Ann Hudgens) to stop The Hood and save Jeff and the others on the space station.

None of this is anywhere as exciting as it sounds.  It fact, it’s downright dull in most spots, despite the kids running around and shouting all their dialog, even during scenes where they’re supposed to be hiding from the bad guys.  Ben Kingsley apparently thinks he’s acting in  a completely different movie since he plays his role totally straight while everybody else knows they’re making a live-action cartoon.  Kingsley and Bill Paxton are both excellent actors and while watching this I was trying to figure out whom they pissed off so much to have gotten stuck in this mess of a movie.  Sophia Myles and Ron Cook as Lady Penelope and Parker are apparently the only ones who bothered to rent the DVD box sets of the original show and watch them.  They hit the right note with their characters and when they’re on screen I felt I was actually watching a live action episode of the TV show.

The set designs and production is very good, what with the look of Tracy Island and the vehicles reproduced in faithful detail.  It’s too bad it was wasted in such a shameful manner.  The other Tracy boys are totally ignored in favor of the three teenage heroes so it’s hardly even mentioning the actors who play them. And out of the teenage actors Vanessa Ann Hudgens is the only one who’s fun to watch and can actually act.  Her two male co-stars are embarrassingly bad and she easily steals every scene she’s in.  Maybe if they had put her in the role of Jeff Tracy’s daughter THUNDERBIRDS might have been more enjoyable.  As it is, if you’re an old time fan of the show like me, you’re going to be tortured sitting through this, so don’t.

Do yourself a favor for me:  go get yourself the DVDs of the original series and the two feature films made back in the 60’s: “Thunderbirds Are GO!” and “Thunderbird 6!” because you’re my friends and you deserve to watch the real THUNDERBIRDS in action.

95 minutes

Rated PG

Dirty Pretty Things

2002

BBC Films/Miramax

Directed by Stephen Frears

Written by Steven Knight

Produced by Robert Jones and Tracey Seaward

 One of the things that made “Serenity” so memorable was the performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor as The Operative, the movie’s main bad guy.  Even though he was the antagonist and performed a number of truly horrific deeds during the course of the movie, there was no denying that Chiwetel Ejiofor’s acting ability blew me away and made The Operative a character that maybe I couldn’t root for or like but I came away from the movie feeling as if I fully understood his motivations.  This cat was cruel but full of heart.  Emotionless but radiating nothing but feeling.  Cold as a February night in Brooklyn yet warm with the security that he was doing the right thing.  As The Operative, Chiwetel Ejiofor created a memorable character that for me typified exactly what a Good Bad Guy should be: He doesn’t think he’s The Bad Guy.  As far as he’s concerned, he’s The Good Guy and his actions make perfect sense to him according to his spiritual, emotional and intellectual directions.  I’d seen the movie DIRTY PRETTY THINGS in his resume of films and it was always cited as one of his best.  I decided to check it out and you know what?  It is.

Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an illegal Nigerian immigrant living in London.  By day he drives cab and at night he works at a really nice hotel where he supervises the Russian doorman Ivan (Zlatko Buric) and the cleaning staff, including the maids.  One of them is the Turkish immigrant girl Senay (Audrey Tatou) who has fled an arraigned marriage that would have been just as good as slavery.  She and Okwe have a working friendship: he cleans and cooks for her and she lets him sleep on her couch.  Okwe’s boss Mr. Juan (Sergi Lopez) is kinda on the sleazy side but Okwe has no idea how really bad the man is until one night when Okwe goes up to one of the rooms to fix an overflowing toilet and finds a human heart in it.  Okwe takes the heart to Mr. Juan, suggesting that somebody should call the police.  Mr. Juan, knowing Okwe’s situation quite well, dials the police and holds out the receiver, daring him to report the heart.

It turns out that Mr. Juan is running a lucrative black market organ operation out of the hotel.  Give up one of your kidneys and he’ll give you a passport.  For the immigrant subculture of London, a passport is The Holy Grail, The Ark of The Covenant and The Sword In The Stone all in one.  It means that you can escape a life of drudgery and servitude, the poverty of working a below minimum wage job and go somewhere else, like New York or Los Angeles and start a new life.  Senay has a cousin who lives in New York and she desperately wants to go there.  Preferably with Okwe, with whom she has fallen in love with.  But Okwe is haunted by his dark past that comes to light in a surprising way when Mr. Juan learns that Okwe is a doctor.  Mr. Juan puts pressure on Okwe to come into the business with him.  He’ll give Okwe $10,000 dollars and a clean passport for Senay as Mr. Juan has a 12-year-old girl who is flying into London with her parents to get a new kidney.  Okwe refuses to have anything to do with the whole deal until he learns that Mr. Juan has talked Senay into being the donor for the girl.  All of a sudden, things change.  Boy, do they ever.

The way I lay it out like that you’d be fair in thinking that DIRTY PRETTY THINGS is a thriller/suspense movie but it really isn’t.  The fascinating thing about this movie is the way it explores the illegal immigrant subculture in London but this story could have been told in New York, Paris, Beijing, Los Angeles and anywhere there is a sizable population of illegal immigrants who clean up society’s shit.  There’s a wonderful scene where a buyer of illegally donated organs asks Okwe who he and his friends are and he says: “We’re the ones you never see.  But we drive your cabs, clean your rooms and suck your dicks.” And I liked the scenes where we see how Okwe’s boss at the taxi company steers business his way.  His boss has friends who have all caught the clap from the same nasty ho and Okwe makes a few bucks on the side treating them.  He steals antibiotics from the hospital by the simple means of going in with a mop and bucket right into the room where the drugs are kept since nobody pays any attention to a black man with a mop.

In fact, except for the customers of the hotel and the immigration officers who are pursuing Senay.  We never see any native Londoners or native British citizens.  The movie is all about the illegal immigrant culture that is a necessary part of everyday London life and economy.  They’ve formed a network that crosses racial lines and boundaries as in a very real sense they are all in exile and trying to survive in a foreign land.

I really can’t praise Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance enough in this movie.  He’s got these incredibly expressive eyes that he knows how to use to maximum effect.  There are several great scenes where he says nothing but we can look in his eyes and see exactly what he’s thinking and feeling.  And he backs up his expressive eyes with really good acting.  This guy is terrific and he’s an actor who should be getting a helluva lot more work than he is now.  I also liked Benedict Wong as Okwe’s best friend, a Chinese immigrant who works in a hospital’s morgue.  He throws away human remains, cleans off autopsy tables and manages to keep a very good sense of humor and real sense of how the world works.  He tries to pass this onto Okwe with little effect.  And because of their differences about how they view they lives, their conversations make for some of the best scenes in the movie.  Audrey Tatou also does very good work as Senay.  We can tell right from the first scene that she’s in love with Okwe but it takes him most of the movie to catch on.  And Sophie Okenedo does exceptionally fine work as Juliette, a prostitute who works the hotel who most definitely does not have the clichéd heart of gold but she knows who her people are and comes through for them when it counts.

So should you see DIRTY PRETTY THINGS?  I’d say absolutely yes.  But don’t go into it expecting a straight out suspense thriller even though it’s got elements of that genre.  It’s an absorbing and wonderful look at a subculture of the society that exists in every major city in the world and one that we may not want to admit exists or acknowledge.  But the people who inhabit that world are ones we see every day of our lives and whether we want to admit it or not, they’re human just like us and have dreams and hopes and aspirations of a better life just as we do.  The difference between them and us is that we don’t have to trade our humanity and body parts to achieve our dreams and they sometimes do.

97 minutes

Rated R