"The Grifters" and Academy awards nonsense

Let us not kid ourselves - 1990 was the year the academy got it wrong, very wrong. This was the year that an instant classic by one our greatest living directors got stripped of the big prize by a fairly well made western directed by a well respected 80's actor. Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" with its ambitious tracking shots, -now constantly ripped off- narrative structure and incredible performances lost to Kevin Costner's earnest, well meaning, sincerely decent "Dances With Wolves". We all know which film stood the test of time, in fact Scorsese's classic is still consistently revisited in film schools and is one of the most ripped-off films of the 1990's and Aughts. Whereas it turns out that Costner's film -which does have its fair share of fans- is nothing more than a well made western that seemed to come out in the right place and at the right time. To make matters worse, just look at some of the other best picture nominees; "Ghost"?, "The Godfather, Part III"?  And as much as I liked Penny Marshall's "Awakenings" I'd substitute it all 4 of the above mentioned films -including "Dances With Wolves"- to give a Best Picture Nomination to Stephen Frears' "The Grifters". In fact "The Grifters" is the one 1990 film that comes closest to achieving the greatness of  "Goodfellas". Honorable mentions would include Barbet Schroder's "Reversal Of Fortune", Tim Burton's "Edward Scissorhands", Joel Coen's "Miller's Crossing", Charles Burnett's underrated "To Sleep With Anger" and even David Lynch's kinky, twisted "Wild At Heart". ALL of these films were better and more lasting than 4 of the 5 nominated films.

Frears' film -which includes the best performances of Anjelica Huston and Annette Benning's careers- is a neo-noir served black. Lots of references to film noirs of the 40's and plenty of shadows cast from venetian blinds (a noir staple). In Frears' Los Angeles we look at three tortured, miserable souls that would do anything for the green. It's money that makes the world go round in Frears' film. He shows us greed and a pitch black portrayal of the human heart. This kind of subject matter was rather well dissected by the Coen Brothers in "No Country  For Old Men" yet "The Grifters" feels just as dark and complicated a movie with Oliver Stapleton's stark cinematography and source material based on author Jim Thompson's novel  (which he gets a screenplay credit for). The movie provides an unflinching and relentless window into a dark world most of us would rather pretend doesn't exist - but it does. The characters are subtle and believable; wicked little souls that carry no redeeming value or morals- no conscience. Most of it is so beautifully photographed that it looks like a series of postcards at times YET the feeling you get when watching the film isn't a pleasant one, this is a movie that means to brutally shake you and that it does.

As much as I loved how Annette Benning brought a sexy, dangerous vibe to the film, the artistic success of "The Grifters" would not come close to the high art it achieves without Anjelica Huston's career capping performance as Lilly Dillon. Dressed up in  blood-red or plain white tight dresses, and with a white perm that looks hair sprayed to a tee,  Lilly is a small time crook that fears she has passed over her grifting gift to her son - brilliantly played by John Cusack. I wouldn't reccomend being caught up in Lilly's toxic world, but watching it unfurl from afar is a cinematic thrill. Huston’s brilliant performance makes sure were there with her every step of the way. Her goal is to cash in as much as possible, that is more important to her than anything else, including her own son's life. In fact when things get rough Lilly tries to seduce him in a scene that cannot be described in words and brings a whole new layer to the film's already constantly peeling onion-like structure. It's there and then that "The Grifters" turns into an unlikely original. The film's constant twists and turns cannot prepare you for the seduction or the backstabbingly delicious climax that caps off a truly great film, in fact repeat viewings are a must for the black world Frears' shapes and molds. After every viewing you come out learning something new about these con artists; their motivations seem more real and their actions even more repugnant. "The Grifters" pulls out a rabbit from the hat and plays with its audiences heads, what more can you ask for in a movie?

How To Survive A Plague

How to Survive a Plague: A new documentary of the AIDS epidemic

By Jordan Ruimy

Here’s a movie that matters. David France’s "How To Survive A Plague" has a heavy topic surrounding it; the AIDS epidemic in 1987. Just 6 years after its sudden appearance, the virus had run rampant into the lives of many and something had to be done. After all, there was Institutional indifference, sluggishness and outright hostility towards gay people and the only real way to fight this was through demonstration.
Focusing mostly on the group ACT-UP (Aids coalition to unleash power) and its landmark fights for answers, the documentary aims to make you feel a time and place when confusion, anger, and sadness were at their peaks in the AIDS ravaged gay communities of New York City. President Reagan hadn’t even uttered the word AIDS until 1987 – even with deaths at an all time high - and no medical treatment even existed.

ACT-UP, to put it simply, acted up and with furious energy protested through the streets of New York City on a daily basis. These protests were meant to rile people, an in your face assault of the anger and punishment they felt about governmental isolation. They were loud and sent their messages through the streets at a time when AIDS was still a very taboo and risky subject to even mention. They woke up a nation of millions to the subject and helped deliver an euphoria of acclaim for their cause.

Some members of ACT-UP even went as far as delving into medical and scientific research in order to find some sort of cure, and others tried aggressively to change many pharmaceutical companies’ minds and policies. By 1996 new drugs came into fruition and ACT-UP’s efforts paid off admirably - but not before millions of deaths beforehand and countless corrupt policies by well “respected” public authorities.
It’s a documentary that will shock, touch and, most of all, anger its audience. Using mostly archival footage to tell its story, "How To Survive A Plague" talks about a time often forgotten in the public’s memory. ACT-UP’s efforts to change the game also ended up changing the world. David France knows that and with his endless years as a journalist, reporting on the epidemic in the 80’s and 90’s, and constant 3 decade research, he tries to bring as vivid and important a portrayal as any out there. It’s a documentary that shows the power a movement can have on society, social change and policy.

"Do The Right Thing"

"My people, my people, what can I say, say what I can. I saw it but didn't believe it, I didn't believe what I saw. Are we gonna live together, together are we gonna live?"

Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing celebrates its 23rd anniversary this summer and it still packs a wallop. Lee's examination of the racial divide in America is as relevant today as its ever been before. The first time I saw it I felt something I hadn't felt in years, a movie of such relevance, poignancy and incendiary truth- I was stunned, scared, shaken. Radio Raheem still lingers in my head, so does Mookie throwing a garbage can at Sal's Pizzeria, Buggin Out with his infamous boycott and Pino's in your face racism. When it first came out people were expecting riots and anarchy but instead we got conversation and reasoning- the essence of what art can do. I got the criterion edition a few years ago but the new Blu-Ray edition supposedly blows that one out of the ball park- the image is crisper and the sound is top notch. It's still -along with David Lynch's Blue Velvet and Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull- a landmark movie of the 1980's.

So after all this praise on my part, it is still a real shock to realize that Do The Right Thing – a movie of unequivocal importance then and now- did not get nominated for Best Picture of 1989. Instead we got a safe, predictable portrait of Racism in “Driving Miss Daisy” winning Best Picture. The four other nominees were better; Peter Weir’s involving ”Dead Poets Society”, Oliver Stone’s “Born On The Fourth Of July”, Jim Sheridan’s “My Left Foot” and the corny “Field Of Dreams”. I’d replace the Costner movie with Woody Allen’s daring “Crimes And Misdemeanors” and of course the artificial “Driving Miss Daisy” with “Do The Right Thing”. Lee’s movie not only aged better than any of the above mentioned but created conversation in the public eye. Hell, even President Obama and First Lady Michelle went to see “Do The Right Thing” on their first date !

Lee’s film opens with Public Enemy's “Fight The Power” playing as Rosie Perez's Tina breakdances through the credits. Once that is done we enter a neighborhood like no other. The story is told on one hot summer day, the hottest of the year in fact, in a New York City alive with racism, confusion and corrupt cops. Radio Raheem- one of the film's many colorful characters- has one hand tattooed with the word Love and the other with the word Hate, a perfect description of the film. Lee knew very well of the struggle that America was going through-and still does- with racism and bigotry. He explored it through characters that had resentment in their blood.

Lee created more than a dozen memorable characters for “Do The Right Thing”, all well sketched out and imperfect in their actions and thoughts. There isn’t really a single heroic figure in the bunch. Mookie, the character that we think is heroic, ends up starting the riot in the film’s blistering finale by throwing a garbage can through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria. Did he do the right thing? It’s left for discussion and after close to 2 decades there are still mixed thoughts Mookie’s actions. What I do know is that Lee did it on purpose, he wanted to create conversation and make a film that would impact our lives. Job well done.

Not everyone took it that way. Reviewers feared that Lee’s film would incite black audiences to riot. No such riots occurred and Lee criticized “white reviewers for implying that black audiences were incapable of restraining themselves while watching a fictional motion picture.” He had a point. The fact that Americans thought black people would riot is the exact reason why Lee made the film in the first place, to show the divide and confusion that reigned in America at the time.

To call Lee’s film a game changer wouldn’t do it much justice It brought impact to a society that needed to be shaken and got audiences asking questions that not only had to do with the movie but had to do with their own ideals. We live in a time when most movies don’t have the balls to create such ambitious, daring work. Lee’s film reminds us of the power that art can have on society as a whole and the whiplash that comes with watching such a visionary creation. He never made a better movie than "Do The Right Thing", only his second film, not many have since.

"Die Hard" and its Yipee-Ki-Yay legacy

Continuing on with my weekly column, we arrive at 1988. The nominees for best picture were "RAIN MAN", "The Accidental Tourist", "Dangerous Liaisons", "Mississippi Burning" and "Working Girl" – 5 excellent, well deserved choices. I’d –however- substitute “Working Girl” and “Dangerous Liaisons” for darker, more memorable fare such as Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation Of Christ”, Pedro Almodovar’s tasty “Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown”, Charles Chrichton’s “A Fish Called Wanda”, Robert Zemeckis’ groundbreaking “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” or even Penny Marshall’s “Big”, featuring Tom Hanks at his playful, irresistible best.

However, and this might be a bit of a controversial pick, my top choice would be John McTiernan’s Die Hard. Just like last week’s 1987 pick –“The Princess Bride”- McTiernan’s movie already had one bad thing going for it; Its genre. The action genre isn’t exactly something the academy has warmed up to in the past. One can think of such non-nominated classics such as “The Terminator”, “The Killer”, “The Matrix”, “Speed”, “The Bourne Identity”, “Aliens”, “the Dark Knight”, “Enter The Dragon”, “Face-Off” and “Kill Bill”. All of these have aged wonderfully well and were more than deserving of a shot at best picture. The only exceptions that actually did get nominated are “The Fugitive” and Ang Lee’s artful take on the action picture “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.

McTiernan’s “Die Hard” isn’t high art but it got the job done in high octane fashion and set the standard for what an action film should be like in the 21st century. It spawned numerous rip-offs in the 90’s and still does today, none of which have attained the excitement of McTiernan’s original. It is in fact not overblown to say that “Die Hard” is the perfect modern action movie, a film with well sketched characters and a script that just doesn’t let up. It might not make you think much but it does make you feel as excited and pumped up as any movie can. Bruce Willis’ John McClane is the film’s heroic action figure, yet at the same time Willis doesn’t play the role too seriously as if winking at his audience by saying “hey, this is just a movie”. It’s a snarky, perfect performance that eventually sent Willis into superstardom mode and spawned a slew of sequels afterwards.

Willis’ McClane is the average man caught in a non-average situation. We tend to recognize ourselves in his character; whatever he does we understand why he does it. He gets shot, he bleeds. He panics, he cries. He’s not a perfect man, he’s flawed and we look up to his flaws as being part our own. This sort of identity to the main hero is what lacks in many of today’s action movies (“The Expendables” anybody?) where we can’t identify with anyone, the heroes are cardboard and the viewer is isolated and ultimately disappointed by the experience.

For an action movie to be great its hero has got to be likeable and humane -Willis does that job very well here- but a great action movie has got to also have a great villain and Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is just that. Gruber is not a one dimensional terrorist; he is a manipulating, well versed and educated man that knows exactly what he wants to do. Gruber is methodical and is patient with his intentions. His charm and intelligence make him seem like someone who wouldn’t cause harm but he can. He is in fact very scary because he is very real. Rickman, with his well trimmed goatee, gives us a grueling, intense portrayal of evil.

The film is a great example of what happens when all the pieces of a film fall together in the right place. There are no flaws, no plot holes and no letdowns. Its 131 epic minutes are not wasted and don’t let up right up until its very last shot. In short, “Die Hard” puts you on the highest of highs and McTiernan reaches a peak he has since never attained again. His film redefines the “action movie” and the “action star”, presenting a new language to the genre and re-inventing the game with an incredible balance of character development and action. Of course Oscar didn’t come knocking, why would it anyways? Action movies are not the Academy’s thing and for good reason. They are –most of the time- loud, abrasive, dumbed down and ultimately artless films (‘The Expendables” anybody?) but sometimes a movie like “Die Hard” goes beyond genre and achieves something special through sheer perfection of the craft. Yipee-ki-yay indeed.

NOT Best Picture nominee 1987 "The Princess Bride"

1987 wasn’t a great year for movies, what with these 5 nominees in the running for Best Picture – THE LAST EMPEROR", "Broadcast News", "Fatal Attraction", "Hope and Glory", "Moonstruck". Not a bad bunch of films but none of which really stood the test of time, although I would still call Broadcast News a minor classic and far and away the best picture out of the bunch. However what the Academy failed to do then, and are still guilty of doing now, was not nominate a fantasy movie that ultimately became a classic (“Edward Scissorhands”? “The Holy Grail”? “King Kong”? “Pan’s Labyrinth”?) Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride starts off what will be a weekly column for me as I will go through a film a week from 1987-2011 that never got nominated for Best Picture but should have had a shot at the big prize. There are plenty of contenders for every year and I encourage you to give your own choice in the comments section below.

One can understand why Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride was such an enigma when it first came out in the fall of 1987. Here was a film that was supposed to be primarily aimed at a younger audience but ended up pleasing all ages with its deadpan, Monty Python-esque humor and a bold, satirical narrative that never took itself too seriously. That is not to say that we don’t fully invest ourselves in its fairy-tale like storytelling and genuinely good natured morals. In fact one is touched by the love story deftly told by a grandfather to his ill grandson about a beautiful princess called buttercup who gets kidnapped and needs to be rescued by her brave, young fiancĂ©e Prince Humperdinck.

What works in Reiner’s tale is that every character is a delight to watch, there isn’t a dull one in the bunch. From Wallace Shawn’s Vizzini –“Inconceivable !”- to Andre The Giant’s gentle Fezzik all the way to Billy Crystal’s hilarious cameo as Miracle Max, an old, Jewish wizard that disapproves of his wife (played by Carol Kane) and refuses to help Humperdinck in his voyage to save Buttercup. But most of all, the true heart of the story is Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya a heroic swordsman with a secret –"Hello My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."It’s an undeniably powerful line that brings real, humane feeling to Reiner’s screenplay and, with the depth Reiner brings to Montoya’s story, packs a wallop on the viewer’s emotions.

It’s not easy making a children’s tale these days and allowing adults to be as enchanted by it as the kids. Pixar has made it a habit year by year with its original tales and it is no surprise that their latest, “Brave”, had shades of Reiner’s film in some of its colorful, imaginative frames ditto “Shrek’s” fairy tale, satirical edge and –of course- the “Pirates Of The Caribbean” movies which didn’t have half the imagination of Reiner’s classic yet made 10 times the money by rehashing some of its ideas. “The Princess Bride” ran on an overdone, age old concept but brought freshness to its edges. It is a clichĂ© to say that a movie, from start to finish, was a magical, transcendent experience but that is truly what this movie is. The laughs come with a sting and the world that we enter is so rich and mesmerizing that it is hard to have explanation of its surreal, dreamy impact.  The fact that this wasn’t nominated for Best Picture only makes it a better movie, it was a mistake not giving it its due in 1987 but it has stood the test of time and beyond. Inconceivable !