Film Review: American Me (1992, directed by Edward James Olmos)


American Me tells the story of Montoya Santana (Edward James Olmos).  Conceived during the Zoot Suit Riots of the 1940s, Santana is first arrested when he’s just 14 years old.  It’s only a breaking-and-entering charge but, on his first night in juvenile hall, Santana is raped by another inmate.  When Santana retaliates by murdering his rapist, his fate is set.  As soon as he’s 18, he’s transferred to Folsom Prison but, by that time, he and his friend J.D. (William Forsythe) have already formed what will become La Eme, the Mexican Mafia.  Running things from their cells, Santana and J.D. not only control the prison’s drug trade but they also keep an eye on who, from their old neighborhood, is going to be joining them behind bars.  Santana establishes early on that the punishment for any sign of weakness or disloyalty is death.

When Santana is finally released from prison, he finds that the world has changed since he was first incarcerated.  La Eme has become powerful both inside and outside of prison and nearly everyone in Santana’s old neighborhood looks up to him.  But Santana, himself, is lost.  In prison, Santana was feared and respected but, on the outside, he’s a 34 year-old man who has never had a job or a relationship.  He’s never even learned how to drive.

After meeting and falling in love with Julie (Evelina Fernandez) and seeing firsthand the damage that the drug trade is doing to his community, Santana starts to have second thoughts about La Eme.  But, according to the rules that he previously established, trying to leave La Eme is punishable by death.

American Me is a classic gangster film and I’m always surprised that it doesn’t have a bigger following than it does.  Along with starring in the film, Olmos made his directorial debut with American Me and he provides an unflinchingly brutal look at the drug trade and the violence that goes along with it.  Olmos was allowed to film inside Folsom Prison and even used actual prisoners are extras, bringing a touch of neorealist verisimilitude to the prison scenes. Early on, there’s a sequence that follows a baggie of heroin from one orifice to another until it finally reaches it destination in the prison.  It leaves you with no doubt that if people are willing to go through that much trouble to get drugs, it’s going to take something more than just zero tolerance laws to dissuade them.

Once Santana is released, Olmos does a good job, as both an actor and director, of showing just how lost he is.  In prison, Santana was in charge and feared but, when dealing with people in the real world, he’s just as awkward as he was when he was a teenager on his way to juvenile hall.  Olmos gives a tightly-wound, subtle performance as a man who is as much a prisoner of his outlook as he is of the state of California.

The men who served as the real-life inspiration for Olmos’s film were reportedly outraged by American Me.  They weren’t upset by the film’s portrayal of the drug trade or their callous disregard for the members of their community.  Instead, the film’s crime was suggesting that their organization was founded by someone who had been previously raped in prison.  (That Santana subsequently killed his rapist made no difference.)  Three people associated with the Mexican Mafia, all of whom has served as consultants to American Me, were subsequently murdered in the days immediately following the release of the film.

As for Edward James Olmos, he has remained busy as an actor.  One generation got know him on Miami Vice and then the next came to know him from Battlestar Galactica.  He’s subsequently directed four other films.  For me, his strongest work, as both an actor and a director, remains American Me.

Film Review: A Dog’s Way Home (dir by Charles Martin Smith)


I’ll admit it right now.  I’ve never really been a dog person.

That’s the way it’s been my entire life.  According to my sisters, I was bitten by a dog when I was two years old.  Needless to say, I don’t remember that happening but that still might explain why, when I was growing up, I was scared to death of dogs.  Seriously, if I was outside and I heard a dog barking or if I saw a dog running around loose (or even on a leash), I would immediately start shaking.  It didn’t help that, for some reason, I always seemed to run into the big dogs that wanted to jump and slobber all over me.  (“Don’t be scared,” one dog owner shouted at 10 year-old me, “that’ll just make him more wild,” as if it was somehow my responsibility to keep his dog under control.)

As I grew up, I become less scared of dogs but they still definitely make me nervous.  I still cringe when listening to the barking and I still reflexively step back whenever I see a big dog anywhere near me.  Now that I know more about dogs, I have to admit that I feel a little bit guilty about not liking them more.  Knowing that dogs actually blame themselves for me not liking them is kind of heart-breaking and I have been making more of an effort to be, if nothing else, at least polite to the canines who lives in the neighborhood.  That said, I’m a cat person and I’ll always be cat person.  Cats don’t care if you like them or not nor do they blame themselves if you’re in a bad mood, which is lot less of an emotional responsibility to deal with.

With all that in mind, I have to say that I still enjoyed A Dog’s Way Home.  It’s a family film that was released last January, dealing with an adorable dog named Bella.  Bella (whose thoughts are heard courtesy of a Bryce Dallas Howard voice-over) is raised underneath an abandoned building by a cat.  (“Mother cat!” Bella shouts as the audiences goes, “Awwwwwww!”)  When the building is demolished by an unscrupulous businessman, Bella is adopted by Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King).  Lucas works at the VA and Bella is soon a hit with everyone from the patients to Lucas’s mom (Ashley Judd).  In fact, the only people who don’t love Bella are the corrupt animal control people.  They not only declare Bella to be a pit bull but they also say that it’s illegal for her to live in Denver.

In order to keep the city of Denver from putting Bella down, Lucas and his mom make plans to move to a suburb.  However, until they can move, they arrange for Bella to stay at friend’s house, 400 miles away.  Bella doesn’t understand what’s happening.  She just wants to get back home to Lucas.  And, when she hears someone utter the words “go home,” this leads to Bella attempting to do just that.  Escaping from her temporary home, Bella spends the next two years making her way to her real home.

Along the way, of course, Bella has adventures.  For instance, she discovers that humans really suck sometimes.  When a cougar is killed by hunters, Bella adopts and raises the cougar’s child.  (Bella calls her “Little Kitten” and then, after a few months pass, “Big Kitten.”)  She also discovers that sometimes, humans can be okay, like when she’s temporarily adopted by a couple who love her but who just aren’t Lucas.  And, when she’s temporarily the property of a homeless man, Bella learns about the comfort that a pet can bring to someone in need….

There’s nothing surprising about the film but it’s well-done and, like Bella itself, blessed with a genuinely sweet nature.  (I started crying about five minutes into the film and I teared up several times afterwards.)  Though the corrupt animal control officers seem like they stepped out of a bad Disney film from the 60s, the rest of the cast does a pretty good job of bringing some needed sincerity to even the most sentimental of scenes and it’s impossible not to be touched by Bella’s determination to return to Lucas.  It’s a sweet movie, one that can be enjoyed even by someone who isn’t much of a dog person.

Catching-Up With Two Courtroom Dramas: Suspect and 12 Angry Men


As a part of my continuing effort to get caught up with reviewing all of the movies that I’ve seen this year, here’s two courtroom dramas that I recently caught on This TV.

  • Suspect
  • Released in 1987
  • Directed by Peter Yates
  • Starring Cher, Dennis Quaid, Liam Neeson, John Mahoney, Joe Mantegna, Philip Bosco, Fred Melamed, Bernie McInerney, Bill Cobbs, Richard Gant, Jim Walton, Michael Beach, Ralph Cosham, Djanet Sears 

Suspect is a hilariously dumb movie.  How dumb is it?  Let me count the ways.

First off, Cher plays a highly successful if rather stressed public defender.  And don’t get me wrong.  It’s not that Cher is a bad actress or anything.  She’s actually pretty good when she’s playing Cher.  But, in this movie, she’s playing someone who managed to graduate from law school and pass the DC bar.

Secondly, Cher is assigned to defend a homeless man when he’s accused of murdering a clerk who works for the Justice Department.  The homeless man is deaf and mute, which isn’t funny.  What is funny is when he gets a shave and a shower and he’s magically revealed to be a rather handsome and fresh-faced Liam Neeson.  Liam doesn’t give a bad performance in the role.  In fact, he probably gives the best performance in the film.  But still, it’s hard to escape the fact that he’s Liam Neeson and he basically looks like he just arrived for a weekend at Cannes.

Third, during the trial, one of the jurors (Dennis Quaid) decides to investigate the case on his own.  Cher even helps him do it, which is the type of thing that would get a real-life attorney disbarred.  However, I guess Cher thinks that it’s worth the risk.  I guess that’s the power of Dennis Quaid’s smile.

Fourth, the prosecuting attorney is played by Joe Mantegna and he gives such a good performance that you find yourself hoping that he wins the case.

Fifth, while it’s true that real-life attorneys are rarely as slick or well-dressed as they are portrayed in the movies, one would think that Cher would at least take off her leather jacket before cross-examining a witness.

Sixth, it’s not a spoiler to tell you that the homeless man is innocent.  We know he’s innocent from the minute that we see he’s Liam Neeson.  Liam only kills who people deserve it.  The real murderer is revealed at the end of the film and it turns out to be the last person you would suspect, mostly because we haven’t been given any reason to suspect him.  The ending is less of a twist and more an extended middle finger to any viewer actually trying to solve the damn mystery.

I usually enjoy a good courtroom drama but bad courtroom dramas put me to sleep.  Guess which one Suspect was.

 

  • 12 Angry Men
  • Released 1997
  • Directed by John Frankenheimer
  • Starring Courtney B. Vance, Ossie Davis, George C. Scott, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Dorian Harewood, James Gandolfini, Tony Danza, Jack Lemmon, Hume Cronyn, Mykelti Williamson, Edward James Olmos, William Petersen, Mary McDonnell, Tyrees Allen, Douglas Spain

The 12 Angry Men are back!

Well, no, not actually.  This is a remake of the classic 1957 film and it was produced for Showtime.  It’s updated in that not all of the jurors are white and bigoted Juror #10 (Mykelti Williamson) is now a member of the Nation of Islam.  Otherwise, it’s the same script, with Juror #8 (Jack Lemmon) trying to convince the other jurors not to send a young man to Death Row while Juror #3 (George C. Scott) deals with his family issues.

I really wanted to like this production, as it had a strong cast and a strong director and it was a remake of one of my favorite films.  Unfortunately, the remake just didn’t work for me.  As good an actor as Jack Lemmon was, he just didn’t project the same moral authority as Henry Fonda did the original.  If Fonda seemed to be the voice of truth and integrity, Lemmon just came across like an old man who had too much time on his hands.  Without Fonda’s moral certitude, 12 Angry Men simply becomes a story about how 12 men acquitted a boy of murder because they assumed that a woman would be too vain to wear her glasses to court.  The brilliance of the original is that it keeps you from dwelling on the fact that the accused was probably guilty.  The remake, however, feels like almost an argument for abandoning the jury system.

Here Are The Satellite Nominations!


la-la-land

The International Press Academy — a.k.a. the Oscar precursor that nobody cares about — announced their nominees for the best of 2016 earlier today and it was a very good day for a film that I cannot wait to see, La La Land!

Here are the Satellite nominations!

Special Achievement Award Recipients

Mary Pickford Award- Edward James Olmos
Tesla Award- John Toll
Auteur Award- Tom Ford
Humanitarian Award- Patrick Stewart
Best First Feature- Russudan Glurjidze “House of Others”
Best Ensemble: Motion Picture- “Hidden Figures”
Best Ensemble: Television- “Outlander”

Actress in a Motion Picture

Annette Bening, “20th Century Woman”
Emma Stone, “La La Land”
Natalie Portman, “Jackie”
Ruth Negga, “Loving”
Taraji P. Henson, “Hidden Figures”
Meryl Streep, “Florence Foster Jenkins”
Isabelle Huppert, “Elle”
Amy Adams, “Nocturnal Animals”

Actor in a Motion Picture

Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea”
Ryan Gosling, “La La Land”
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “Snowden”
Viggo Mortensen, “Captain Fantastic”
Joel Edgerton, “Loving”
Andrew Garfield, “Hacksaw Ridge”
Tom Hanks, “Sully
Denzel Washington, “Fences”

Actress in a Supporting Role

Helen Mirren, “Eye in the Sky”
Michelle Williams, “Manchester by the Sea”
Nicole Kidman, “Lion”
Octavia Spencer, “Hidden Figures”
Naomi Harris, “Moonlight”
Viola Davis, “Fences”
 Actor in a Supporting Role

Jeff Bridges, “Hell or High Water”
Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight”
Dev Patel, “Lion”
Lucas Hedges, “Manchester by the Sea”
Eddie Murphy, “Mr. Church”
Hugh Grant, “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Motion Picture

“La La Land”
“Moonlight”
“Manchester by the Sea”
“Lion”
“Jackie”
“Hacksaw Ridge”
“Loving”
“Hell or High Water”
“Nocturnal Animals”
“Captain Fantastic”
“Hidden Figures”
“Fences”

 Motion Picture, International Film

“The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki”- Finland
“Toni Erdmann”- Germany
“Julieta”- Spain
“A Man Called Ove”- Sweden
“The Salesman”- Iran
“The Ardennes”- Belgium
“Ma’ Rosa”- Philippines
“The Handmaiden”- South Korea
“Elle”- France
“Paradise”- Russia

Motion Picture, Animated or Mixed Media 
Title of Film
“Zootopia”
“Kubo and the Two Strings”
“Moana”
Finding Dory”
“My Life As a Zucchini”
“The Jungle Book”
“The Red Turtle”
“Miss Hokusai”
“Trolls”
“Your Name”

Motion Picture, Documentary

“Gleason”
“Life Animated”
“O.J.: Made in America”
“13th”
“The Ivory Game”
“The Eagle Huntress”
“Tower”
“Fire at Sea”
“Zero Days”
“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week”

Director

Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight”
Kenneth Lonergan, “Manchester by the Sea”
Mel Gibson, “Hacksaw Ridge”
Damien Chazelle, “La La Land”
Tom Ford, “Nocturnal Animals”
Pablo Larrain, “Jackie”
Denzel Washington, “Fences”

Screenplay, Original

Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight”
Damien Chazelle, “La La Land”
Kenneth Lonergan, “Manchester by the Sea”
Taylor Sheridan, “Hell or High Water”
Matt Ross, “Captain Fantastic”
Yorgos Lanthimos/Efthymis Filippou, “The Lobster”

Screenplay, Adapted

Andrew Knight/Robert Schenkkan, “Hacksaw Ridge”
Luke Davis, “Lion”
Kieran Fitzgerald/Oliver Stone, “Snowden”
Justin Marks, “The Jungle Book”
Allison Schroeder, “Hidden Figures”
Todd Komarnicki, “Sully”

Original Score

Rupert Gregson Williams, “Hacksaw Ridge”
Justin Hurwitz, “La La Land”
Lesley Barber, “Manchester by the Sea”
John Williams, “The BFG”
John Debney, “The Jungle Book”
Hans Zimmer, “Hidden Figures”

Original Song

“Audition”- ‘La La Land’
“City of Stars”- ‘La La Land’
“Dancing with Your Shadow”- ‘Po’
“Can’t Stop the Feeling”- ‘Trolls’
“I’m Still Here”- ‘Miss Sharon Jones’
“Running”- ‘Hidden Figures’

Cinematography

John Toll, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”
Linus Sandgren, “La La Land
James Laxton, “Moonlight”
Simon Duggan, “Hacksaw Ridge”
Jani-Petteri Passi, “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki”
Bill Pope, “The Jungle Book”

Visual Effects

“The Jungle Book”
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”
“Doctor Strange”
“The BFG”
“Sully”
“Deadpool”

Film Editing

Tom Cross, “La La Land
Joi McMillon/Nat Sanders, “Moonlight”
Tim Squyres, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”
Alexandre de Francheschi, “Lion”
John Gilbert, “Hacksaw Ridge”
Steven Rosenblum, “The Birth of a Nation”

Sound (Editing and Mixing)

La La Land
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”
“Hacksaw Ridge”
“The Jungle Book”
“Allied”
“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”

Art Direction and Production Design

David Wasco, “La La Land
Barry Robinson, “Hacksaw Ridge”
Jean Rabasse, “Jackie”
Christophe Glass, “The Jungle Book”
Gary Freeman, “Allied”
Dan Hennah, “Alice Through the Looking Glass”

Costume Design

Colleen Atwood, “Alice Through the Looking Glass”
Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh, “Love & Friendship”
Courtney Hoffman, “Captain Fantastic”
Madeline Fontaine, “Jackie”
Mary Zophres, “La La Land
Alexandra Byrne, “Doctor Strange”

Quick Horror Review: Wolfen (dir. by Michael Wadleigh)


Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen (1981) remains one of my favorite stories with wolves, though there are no actual werewolves in the movie. It’s a great and underrated film, though I’m not quite sure if it really can be considered Horror. There’s bloodshed, yes, but not a lot when compared to the more superior The Howling, which came out in the same year.

The film in a nutshell is that you have the Bronx. Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, the Bronx was a warzone, and there were a number of films showcasing the decay of the area (Nighthawks and Fort Apache: The Bronx are two good ones). When a real estate mogul who’s developing buildings in the area and his wife are brutally murdered, Detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) is partnered with a terrorism expert (Diane Venora) to solve the crime.

Through the film, Dewey discovers that the murders are being done not by people, but the spirits of ancient indians in the form of Wolves – or better to say that they were hunters from an older time. The Wolfen, as they’re called, are scavengers of the city’s decay, feeding off of those who won’t be missed – derelicts and the like.

While Finney and Venora carry the film, Gregory Hines has some fun lines as the local NYPD mortician and Tom Noonan’s Wolf Expert was interesting, though a little strange. The best person in the supporting cast (who doesn’t have as much time to work with) is Edward James Olmos, in a surprising turn as Eddie, who is believed to have something to do with the murders, but later helps put Dewey in the right direction.

Supposedly, the movie was a little heavy handed with all of the anti-terror angle they tried to use. From what I’ve read, it wasn’t a major part of Whitley Streiber’s novel of the same name and it tends to steer the audience away from the actual problem. I mean, the audience is seeing wolves do this (or at least are seeing something animalistic do it), so to bring in the notion that there’s a terrorist plot involved kind of went over my head. The movie would have been tighter without it, I believe anyway.

One of the cooler elements of the movie is that you are able to see things through the eyes of the Wolfen themselves in an infrared vision style. While this was done with movies after it like Predator, and films before it like Westworld, Wolfen was my first experience with the effect. That, coupled with James Horner’s score (a mixture of themes you’d later find in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Aliens), lend to some of the style. Unfortunately, Wolfen is a somewhat difficult film to find in terms of obtaining the DVD for it, but the film has been on Netflix. If you have a chance to catch it, it’s an interesting watch.

Quickie Review: Wolfen (dir. by Michael Wadleigh)


1981 was a great year for wolf movies. There was the excellent An American Werewolf in London by John Landis and Joe Dante’s equally creepy The Howling. To finish off the trifecta of werewolf films for the year there’s Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen. Wadleigh’s film was a very good werewolf tale that added a bit of Native American folklore to the typical lycanthrope story, but it’s slightly overlong running time keeps it from being as great as Landis’ and Dante’ contributions.

Wolfen takes place in the city of New York and its growing urban jungle of decaying and condemned buildings in the city’s ghettos. One has to remember that the late 70’s and through on the mid-80’s the inner-cities of most of the major metropolitan cities in the US have turned into rundown ghettos rife with drug problems, high-crime rates and unemployment. It is in this setting that Wolfen takes place in. The film used the screenplay co-written by horror veteran novelist Whitley Strieber and his quirky style heavily influences this werewolf story. Strieber’s screenplay mixes together a police procedural, political intrigue, business corruption, race and class relations, Native American lycanthrope folklore and horror. Wolfen tries to combine all these different elements together as well as possible and it mostly succeeds, but there’s times when the film gets dragged down a bit trying to accomplish this.

The cast was made up of mostly new actors (well young and new at that time) with a few veteran actors holding things together. Albert Finney gets the choice role of NYPD Detective Dewey Wilson who begins investigating a series of brutal murders of three individuals whose race, class and personal status brings no discernible clues that ties them together. Joining him in his investigation — which Wilson gradually suspects has some sort of supernatural angle to it — were the very young Diane Venora and Gregory Hines. Edward James Olmos plays a Native American whose knowledge ties to who or what was involved in the killings might be closer than everyone thinks. The performances from all involved were pretty good though Hines comic relief performance was a bit too blackface in its tone and execution. 1981 Hollywood was still not ready to discount such racial stereotypes and it gives Wolfen a certain sense of creepiness and insensitivity. Maybe the screenplay was written just that way to highlight one of the film’s themes of racial and class inequality. If it was then Strieber sure did an excellent job of hammering home the point.

There’s a point in the film where we find out the nature of these wolfen and it does stretch the usual definition of the typical werewolf story. But looking back on it now this version told by Strieber and Wadleigh does lend credence to native folklore about wolves who were cunning as men and who preyed not just on the animals in their territory but hunted men as well. Whether they’re wolves or men in the shape of wolves really is left to the audience’s imagination even after the brief explanation of the wolfen and it’s role in the legends and myths of Native Americans.

The film had very creepy moments whenever the story switches over to be told through the viewpoint of the wolfen. The skewed perspective the camera takes on to signify that we were seeing things through the eyes of the wolfen was disorienting and creepily well-done. Wolfen never really has pure horror moments in the film though in the hands of a director like Carpenter these sequences definitely would’ve raised the level of dread and horror. Wadleigh does a good enough job, but it seemed like he was treating the horror aspect of the story with less attention than it was its due.

Wolfen marks the weakest of the werewolf trilogy of 1981, but thats not to say that it was a bad film. The finished product was a well-done film and its attempt to be very ambitious in its storytelling has to be commended. The fact that the filmmakers and all involved were able to keep all the different themes and genres together without having the film spiral into utter confusion makes it a worthwhile werewolf film. It may have been the weakest of the three films mentioned but it wasn’t by much.