Angry. Vital. Reactionary. Honest. Masterpiece. Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, from a brilliant screenplay by David Benioff, is easily one of his best films, and unquestionably my personal favorite joint from this quintessential NYC filmmaker. Released in the shadows of 9/11, this searing drama features one of the greatest performances from Ed Norton in his entire career (which says a lot in my estimation), and incredible supporting turns from Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, and Anna Paquin. One of the first films to directly confront the horrors of 9/11 both visually and thematically, Lee and Benioff crafted a ferocious film that rests on its riveting narrative and sexy-gritty visual style (the versatile Rodrigo Prieto handled the striking cinematography), with Terence Blanchard’s haunting score filling the background. Brian Cox is late-in-the-game devastating as Norton’s father, who has to contend with the fact that his son is about to head to prison for a major drug charge. The film pivots on Norton’s character getting pinched for dealing, and following him over the course of his last day of freedom, as he settles scores, examines friendships, and comes to terms with his girlfriend (the super sexy Dawson giving a rich and emotionally affecting performance). I can remember seeing this film opening night at the Hollywood Arclight back in 2002, with a totally sold out crowd, and the stunned silence at the end also contained a palpable level of tension that you could cut with a knife. The film gets under your skin, purposefully, picking at the ills of society like a bloody scab; Norton’s “Fuck You” speech in that bathroom mirror is still one of the most sensational bits of cinema that I’ve ever seen. I’d never spoil it out of context, as it’s truly a moment that needs to be experienced organically, but let’s just say that what flows from his mouth is shattering, pointed, and disturbingly true. The film was met with a somewhat muted critical response and it performed decently, for its budget, at the box office – more should have been made of this film at the time of its release. I think that people were too shell shocked to realized what they had been given, and over the years, my hunch is that many people have discovered this gem for what it is – a reflective cinematic mirror from a very specific time and place that tells a universal story against an uncertain backdrop of personal despair. It’s time that this film got the attention that it deserves, as it stands as a blistering piece of contemporary social commentary that feels cut from the open wound of a society struggling to find its footing. Available on Blu-ray. Buy it.
Sydney Pollack’s The Electric Horseman is my sort of 70’s, honkytonk, pseudo-Western fun. You get a sloppy drunk Robert Redford in the opening act, all glammed-out in his garish light-up outfit atop his horse, making kissy-faces and stealing glances with a sexy Jane Fonda, while a fantastic supporting cast including Valerie Perrine, Wilford Brimley, Allan Arbus, John Saxon, Nicholas Coster, and Willie Nelson (who provided the country western score and lots of sly laughs) peppers the background with flavor. Redford is a past his prime rodeo champion who has resorted to a humiliating job as a promotional pitch-man for a breakfast cereal company, making appearances in a tacky Las Vegas show. He’s then tasked with performing alongside a $12 million horse, which he later discovers is being drugged so that it would be complacent, and he high-tails it into the desert, disgusted by what he’s witnessed. Meanwhile, Fonda, playing an eager TV reporter, hears about the incident, and pursues Redford, looking for her big story. The movie is a comment about big corporations, a satire on the conventions of the western, and a genial romance between Redford and Fonda with some action-adventure thrown in for good measure. The Electric Horseman has an old-fashioned atmosphere and tone (even for 1979!) and it sort of shambles on to its happy but still bittersweet finale. Pollack’s solid direction keeps this oddly charming film watchable all throughout, while the peppy and romantic score from Dave Grusin immediately set a playful mood. Great cinematography by Owen Roizman.
Harold Becker’s excellent and supremely underrated 1996 drama City Hall is always a great re-watch and it definitely deserves a Blu-ray upgrade. It’s a comfort-blanket type film for me – I just like watching it. This came out during the “Screaming Mad” Al Pacino era (Scent of a Woman, Carlito’s Way, Heat, Donnie Brasco, The Devil’s Advocate, The Insider, Any Given Sunday) and his forceful, emotionally invested performance as the beleaguered mayor of NYC is one of his most underappreciated. Boasting a roster of big-gun studio screenwriters (Bo Goldman, Paul Schrader, Nicholas Pileggi, Ken Lipper), the dialogue is smart, the plotting is believable, and the themes are still topical. Also, it’s another fantastic instance of massive Character Actor POWER: Danny Aiello utterly owns his scenes, and then you have the likes of Martin Landau, David Paymer, Richard Schiff, Nestor Serrano, Larry Romano, Anthony Franciosa, Tamarie Tunie, Lindsay Duncan, and John Slattery(!) filling the edges with colorful supporting work. John Cusack and Bridget Fonda are solid if outmatched by the gusto of Pacino, who looked purposefully tired and haggard with a voice that sounded coarse and strained, which all added to the realistic nature of the character and his endless pursuit of justice. This is one of those sturdy, dramatically effective movies that didn’t register with critics or at the box office, and for some reason, still has never found the due respect that it deserves during its endless cycle on the cable channels and in DVD bins. It might not be brilliant, but it’s endlessly watchable, and as usual for Becker, there’s an unforced steadiness to his directing that keeps everything moving along at a brisk clip, aided by the classy stylings of cinematographer Michael Seresin. Boasts a superb score by Jerry Goldsmith.
The 2014 comedy Obvious Child is one of the most realistically funny films I’ve seen in the last few years. On repeated viewings, it’s gotten better and funnier and I keep noticing how on point so much of the social commentary feels, especially within the context of our increasingly nutter-filled landscape that we all inhabit. Jenny Slate was absolutely outstanding and completely deserved an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, but sadly, that didn’t happen, as the Academy has an aversion to comedies, let alone ballsy ones like this. Long live the amazing people at A24 – without their taste and resources, the recent movie-going experience wouldn’t be anywhere near as impressive as it’s been. This is a wonderfully honest and often times darkly hilarious comedy that despite featuring one small plot contrivance seems perfectly calibrated over the possibly too brief running time (at 85 minutes, I could’ve spent more time with these characters in a few more scenes). But when artistic collaborators seem this tapped into their material, it’s tough to fault them for what they didn’t do. Slate stars as a down on her luck stand-up comic who’s miserable after being dumped by her boyfriend and losing her part time job and only real source of income. Then, things get extra complicated when she learns that she’s pregnant after a one-night stand with a too-nice-to-be-real potential beau, played by Gabe Liedman, who killed it on the later seasons of The Office (damn I miss that show!) Is she ready for a child when she doesn’t even have control over her own life? How can she break the news to a guy she’s just met? Obvious Child is the product of multiple female voices (co-writer/director Gillian Robespierre, co-writers Karen Maine and Elisabeth Holm, and exec-producer/star Slate) and combines a clear, linear narrative with uproarious improvised stand-up bits which Slate and Liedman absolutely nail with aplomb. A special mention must be paid to the film’s almost unique obsession with fart and poop humor; so simple yet so effective and so refreshing to see it used in a smart fashion rather than as random, scatological humor. And most importantly, I love how Obvious Child isn’t a “will she have an abortion or not?” ticking-clock type movie; the right to choose should always be left to the individuals responsible, with zero interference from any outside institution, which is the message that the creative team clearly and wholeheartedly endorses. Most importantly — this movie is just damn funny, with the humor coming from an honest, heartfelt place.
Black Hawk Down really was a tour de force for director Ridley Scott and his crew of technicians and actors. I’ve see this film so many times it’s almost laughable, but revisiting it just recently, I was struck by just how immersive of a film experience this really is, with few rivals. It’s the gold-standard for combat movies, and Scott’s uncompromising vision of urban warfare set precedents in the early 2000’s and has been constantly imitated ever since. Borrowing from cinematic touchstones like The Battle of Algiers and Saving Private Ryan, this was Jerry Bruckheimer’s stab at Oscar gold and he must’ve been livid when Scott was nominated for Best Director but the picture itself was short-changed in the top category. It’s the rare Bruckheimer picture to be taken truly “seriously” by critics, and one of the few pictures in his entire filmography that strived for something more than just “entertainment.” Scott and Bruckheimer made sure to stick to the core of Mark Bowden’s riveting and devastating book, and in doing so, created one of the most visceral pieces of action filmmaking ever constructed.
It’s a physically exhausting movie to sit through, harrowing all throughout, with a constant sense of dread and impending violence. With stunning spatial clarity and obsessive technical finesse, Scott and cinematographer Slawomir Idziak created a gorgeous yet brutal film that pummeled the audience with a sense of sustained cinematic intensity that few other films have matched (Peter Berg’s recent Lone Survivor and portions of Randall Wallace’s We Were Soldiers come close). I saw this film 10 times theatrically, a personal record for one movie. Granted, I saw it 5 nights in a row at my college campus theater (for free), but for me, this is one of the most exciting, most intensely realized portraits of warfare that’s ever been created. I also had the chance to work on this film during pre-production during my days as an intern at Jerry Bruckheimer Films – I’ll never forget the sight of Bruckheimer, Scott, and Joe Roth doing laps around the Santa Monica compound, smoking cigars, talking about the film. I had the experience to hang out with production designer Arthur Max quite a bit, and Scott would come into the room and check out all of the models and boards and plans, deciding where the helicopters would land, etc. Totally wild.
Tarsem Singh’s The Cell is the kind of revelatory, mind blowing, breathtaking, once in a decade kind of fantasy film that is utterly unique, truly memorable and pure artistic creation. Singh utilizes so many visual elements and ideas that you get the notion that you are truly immersed in a human being’s subconscious inner realm, and not merely watching a film. It’s transcendent. Jennifer Lopez, in a performance of great empathy and serious emotional depth, plays a child psychologist who uses futuristic technology to literally enter the dreams of comatose patients and attempt to heal them. When a seriously disturbed killer (the monumentally talented Vincent D’Onofrio) enters a coma before the FBI can find his latest victim, she is hired to enter his mind to find out the location. A scary setup indeed. The first plunge into his mind is set up with a dread inducing soundtrack cue, and a sudden, Topsy turvy whirlwind of surreal images, sounds and stimuli which are truly eerie and intangible. The art direction, special effects and design of the spirit realm she ventures into are just something you don’t see in many films, because most people are afraid to think about that kind of raw, uninhibited subconscious content. Not Singh. He willingly explores the dark, mysterious side of the human mind and soul, with a complexity and understanding that is all to rare. For folks who find that too much surreal imagery and soul disturbing content makes them uneasy (hell, I’M one of those folks) those aspects are balanced out by the clean cut, very grounded in earth time plot line of Vaughn’s team helping him out from ‘earthside’, a standard cops vs. killer mentality to even out the strangeness. They even have a guy from CSI playing one of the cops. Vince Vaughn feels slightly miscast as the head fed, but James Gammon, Dean Norris, Dylan Baker, Marianne Jean Baptiste, Patrick Bachau and Musetta Vander all give stellar support. If you have a strong stomach (this film gets pretty brutal in ways you can’t imagine), and a wandering, artistically abstract mind for all things surreal and dreamy, definitely check this out.
I’m very stoked to present my recent interview with veteran actress Rae Dawn Chong, of Commando, The Color Purple and the iconic Quest For Fire. Enjoy!
Nate: You began acting at a fairly young age, did you train at any school? Did you know acting was something you wanted to do from an early age?
Rae: Early on I didn’t do much training as I as a child actor. As I grew older I studied with various teachers in LA. Some more famous then others, Barry Primas (Actors Studio) as one example. I started Milton Katselas but booked so much work I couldn’t finish the course. Another teacher was Ron Moss. I believe actors should diversify their training to have more access to tools which prevents you from being bullied with bad directors which there are plenty. At this point I am interested in coaching and teaching myself.
Nate: You spent a lot of time in both the states and Canada (in my hometown of Vancouver, as I’ve read!). How do they compare for you, in terms of life, and the industry? Do you like spending time in both places equally, or one moreso?
Rae: I adore Canada and am very proud to be Canadian. Having said that I prefer working state side as we get paid better and the unions are much stronger and we have better residuals. Canada has a LONG way to go still, and it is frustrating for performers because Canada is such a small country and most who work in the industry are all connected, which is good and bad. Because as an artist looking for protection against the abuses of say a film corporation like Atlantis Alliance well it is impossible because every single law firm in Canada is on retainer to them so we as artist- actors- writers have little or no recourse to collect money owed and that kind of smallness makes working in Canada less attractive.
Nate: Commando- Your role in this film is very unique because she’s not just a standard action film, damsel in distress tag along, she’s actually proactive and gets involved in the action. Was this a draw for you to the movie? How did you get that role?
Rae: Auditioned for it. Lots of actors had trouble with a certain part of the script (a dildo was involved) which I realized early so when it came time to say the offending line I reversed it and made it reflect on Arnold’s character and it was hilarious in the room. Luckily the offending part never made future drafts so I survived a huge hurdle and got the role.
Nate: Quest For Fire- I recently read Ron Perlman’s autobiography in which he says it was a really challenging shoot. How was it for you?
Rae: The most challenging, difficult, almost impossible shoot. Torturous would be too slight a term. We suffered every single day, all day. It was a mental test to be sure. It was like climbing a mountain naked without oxygen. Grim.
Nate: Your performance in it is extraordinary, how did you get into the headspace and bring about that energy and persona in your work?
Rae: I hated working with the director who made it his life work to be extra mean to me. So if Ron said it was hard you cannot imagine how it was for me. An example: I never officially got the role. I just did it. He never gave me the role, Jean Jacques he lorded this over me. The desperate producer Micheal Gruskoff was my champion and protector, he made me Ika, he demanded they book me. OMG, I survived it because I am stubborn and I never quit even when I want to. I wanted to but by the time we started we were hanging on to each other for dear life so why not finish the gawd forsaken job, you know? If one of us left it would have mentally unraveled the group. So much pain and well…thankfully it is a work of art.
Nate: I read that you are involved in many charities. Care to elaborate specifically which ones, and why this work is personally important to you?
Rae: Service is the soul food of life. When I can I give my time to all who need me. It is what one should do…love it.
Nate: You wrote and directed a short starring Chris Pratt. How did that project come about, and have you considered getting more into writing/directing any more?
Rae: It is my first full length feature and honestly it is an epic fail, or imperfect. I adore the film of course because it is my first born and a problem child at that. BUT it educated me and I learned what to do and not do as a director. You improve every time out. Chris is adorable and the film fun and funny. I heard IMDB lists it as a short and I have asked and tried to change it but IMDB is annoying. I will need to request they change it once again. UGH!
Nate: Do you have any projects, cinematic or otherwise that you are excited for and want to speak about?
Rae: Currently starring in a play called Climax at the Santa Monica playhouse. Developing a TV series called “Hello Sunshine” hoping it gets picked up this month. 3rd meeting with a studio…so close. I have another pilot I am work shopping to fix the bugs, make it the best it can be. I have a feature film I am producing that is called Theory of Invisibility by Aimee Pitte which is magnificent. We are looking for a (STAR) director and star to take it to the studios. I just accepted to produce a new play by Derek Botelho which is an intimate 2 character piece about a moment in Tennessee William’s life as friend and writer Carson Macullers share a cabin on the shore. It is exciting…this period in my life is amazing. I am loving LA and life as a film maker- actor. I am very happy creatively.
Nate: Sounds awesome! Thanks so much for your time Rae, and for chatting with me.