Dead Presidents (1995, directed by the Hughes Brothers)


In 1969, Anthony (Larenz Tate) graduates from high school in the Bronx and shocks his family by announcing that he will not be following in his brother’s footsteps by enrolling in city college but that he will instead be enlisting in the Marines and going off to fight in Vietnam.  While his friends taunt him for choosing to fight in a “white man’s war,” Anthony thinks that serving in the Marines will make him a man.  His two biggest heroes, his father and the local numbers boss, Kirby (Keith David), both served in Korea.  Kirby’s even lost his his leg in the war but he can still keep order in the neighborhood.

Vietnam doesn’t turn out to be what Anthony was expecting.  He serves two tours of duty and becomes an efficient killing machine but he is also forced to do things that will haunt him long after the war is over.  When Anthony finally returns to the Bronx in 1971, the old neighborhood has changed.  Crime, drugs, and poverty are destroying the community and Anthony struggles to support his girlfriend (Rose Jackson) and his daughter.

Finally, with no other opportunities available and feeling as if his country has abandoned him, Anthony agrees to take part in an armored car robbery.  Working with him are a few friends from the old days and a few members of the revolutionary Nat Turner Cadre.  Anthony thinks that he has the robbery planned out perfectly but nothing ever goes as planned.

In 1993, The Hughes Brothers made their directorial debut with Menace II Society, an incendiary film that holds up as one of the best feature debuts of any filmmaker.  Their follow-up to Menace II Society was Dead Presidents.  While Dead Presidents operates on a more epic scale than Menace II Society, it’s also a far more uneven film.  While the first part of the film (which follows Anthony and his friends during their final days of high school) is strong, things start to fall apart once the action moves to Vietnam.  The Hughes Brothers tried to recreate the Vietnam War on a Grenada Invasion budget and the action never feels credible.  When Anthony returns to the Bronx, Dead Presidents regains some of its footing but the eventual armored car heist is never as exciting as it could be.

Still, Dead Presidents has enough good moments that it’s always watchable.  Larenz Tate gives a good performance as Anthony and he’s surrounded by the some of the best black character actors of the 90s.  Keep an eye out for a young and incredibly obnoxious Terrence Howard, playing an aspiring gangster and getting a deserved beating at the hands of Anthony.  Though the movie often bites off more than it can chew, it does do a good job of seriously dealing with the issues that returning vets have to contend with when they come back home.  Anthony suffers from PTSD, which is something that a lot of people didn’t talk about in 1995, and the Hughes Brothers deserve much credit for their sensitive handling of the topic.  Dead Presidents may not be perfect but it’s impossible not to admire the film’s ambition.

Film Review: The Basketball Diaries (dir by Scott Kalvert)


When exactly did Leonardo DiCaprio become a good actor?

That may seem like a strange question because, today, Leonardo DiCaprio is often and rightfully described as being one of the greatest actors around.  He regularly works with the best directors in Hollywood, including Martin Scorsese.  His performances in The Aviator, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Revenant should be viewed by any aspiring actor.

And yet, it’s easy to forget that Leonardo DiCaprio has been around forever.  Long before he was Martin Scorsese’s go-to actor, he was appearing in movies like Critters 3.  He started his career when he was 14 years old and spent a few years appearing in commercials and sitcoms before making his film debut in 1991.  (He was 17 when he made his first movie but, as anyone who has seen any of his early movies can attest, he looked much younger.)  When you watch those early DiCaprio films, you’re left with the impression of an actor who had some talent but who definitely needed a strong director to guide him.  Watching those early DiCaprio films, it’s always somewhat amazing to see both how good and how bad DiCaprio could be, often in the same movie.  If a scene called for DiCaprio to be quiet and introspective, he was a wonder to behold.  But whenever a scene called for big dramatic moment or gesture, DiCaprio would often become that shrill kid who made you cringe in your high school drama class.  I think that part of the problem is that the young DiCaprio was often cast as a passionate artist and, when you’re a certain age, you tend to assume that being a passionate artist means that you spend a lot of time yelling.

Take a film like 1995’s The Basketball Diaries, for instance.  In this film, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a real-life poet named Jim Carroll.  The film deals with Carroll’s teenage years, which were basically made up of going to Catholic school, writing poetry, playing basketball, committing petty crimes, and eventually getting hooked on heroin.  It’s pretty dramatic stuff and, with his face that’s somehow angelic and sardonic at the same time, the young DiCaprio certainly looks the part of a teenager who split his time between private school and the streets.  Though the young DiCaprio was way too scrawny to be believable as a star basketball player, he’s convincing in the scenes where he’s writing out his thoughts and his poems.

But then, Jim’s best friend (played by Michael Imperioli) dies of leukemia and a despondent Jim goes from pills and inhalants to heroin and both the film and DiCaprio’s performance quickly goes downhill.  Playing drug addiction (and, even worse, drug withdrawal) tends to bring out the worst instincts in even the best actors and that’s certainly the case with DiCaprio’s performance in The Basketball Diaries.  Suddenly, Leo is shaking and yelling in that shrill way that he used to do and, when he has gets emotional, he overplays the emotions to the extent that you can actually hear the snot being sorted back up his nostrils and you, as the viewer, start to get embarrassed for him.  As soon as Jim starts screaming at his mother (played by Lorraine Bracco), you really wish that the director or the writer or maybe the other actors had stepped in and said, “Leo …. dial it down a little.”  If you need proof that DiCaprio’s a far better actor today than he was in 1995, just compare Leo on drugs in The Basketball Diaries to Leo on drugs in The Wolf of Wall Street.

When The Basketball Diaries does work, it’s usually because of the actors around DiCaprio.  In one of his earliest roles, Mark Wahlberg has such an authentic presence that you kinda wish he and DiCaprio had switched roles.  (Yes, there was a time when Mark Wahlberg was a better actor than Leonardo DiCaprio.)  Bruno Kirby is chilling in a few cringey scenes as Jim’s basketball coach.  Ernie Hudson bring some welcome gravitas to the role of an ex-junkie who tries to help Jim straight out.  And then there’s poor Lorraine Bracco, bringing far more to the role of Jim’s underappreciated mother than was probably present in the script.

The Basketball Diaries is one of those films that seems profound when you’re like 15 and you come across it playing on TBS at like 2 in the morning.  Otherwise, it’s mostly interesting as evidence that, over the past 20 years, Leonardo DiCaprio has certainly grown as an actor.

Film Review: I Shot Andy Warhol (dir by Mary Harron)


When did Andy Warhol die?

The official date of death is February 22nd, 1987.  The 58 year-old artist died in his sleep of a cardiac arrhythmia.  He was at Manhattan’s New York Hospital, recovering from gallbladder surgery.  The surgery itself had been a minor procedure and, in the days before his death, Warhol was reported to be making a good recovery.  Warhol himself was scared of doctors and had continually put off having the procedure done.

Others, however, argue that Warhol might as well have died on June 3rd, 1968.  That was the day that the world-famous pop artist was shot, at point blank range, by a woman named Valerie Solanas.  Warhol barely survived the attack, spending five hours in surgery and carrying both the mental and physical scars with him for the rest of his life.  It’s debatable whether Warhol ever physically recovered from being shot.  It’s been theorized that the reoccurring gallbladder problems that led to Warhol entering the hospital were directly the result of being shot.  If that’s the case, then Solanas murdered Andy Warhol.

But even beyond the lingering physical injuries, the shooting left Warhol mentally shaken.  The artist who, in the 60s, was famous for hosting a never-ending party at The Factory became far more reclusive and paranoid.  No longer could anyone from anywhere show up in New York and, if they were interesting enough, become a member of Warhol’s entourage.   No longer would Warhol direct films that challenged the assumption of what film had to be.  Warhol spent most of the 70s doing portrait commissions and finding new ways to make money.  (As he wrote in 1975, “Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art.”)

It can be argued that, with the pull of a trigger, Valerie Solanas changed the course of history and yet, she has always remained an obscure figure.  (Many would argue that she deserves to remain an obscure figure.)  After the shooting, when Solanas turned herself in, she said that she had no choice but to shoot Andy because “he had too much control over my life.”  Others theorize that Solanas was upset because Andy hadn’t helped her get her book, The SCUM Manifesto, published.  Solanas was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and, for nearly a killing an artist, she spent three years in prison.  While she was in prison, The SCUM Manifesto was finally published.  Ironically, she died in poverty and obscurity, just a few months after Warhol, as forgotten as Andy as was celebrated.

So, who was Valerie Solanas?  That’s the question that 1996’s I Shot Andy Warhol attempts to answer.  Lili Taylor portrays Valerie, giving a performance that is both frightening in its intensity and empathetic in its portrayal of Valerie’s desperation to be heard as a human being and respected as an artist.  Wherever Valerie goes, she’s an outsider.  As a lesbian, she’s been rejected by conventional society.  When she appears on a local talk show, the audience boos her and the host has her thrown off the set.  As a writer, she is rejected by publishers and readers who view her work as being, as one person puts it, “too sick even for us.”  When, like many aspiring artists and lost souls, she arrives at the Factory, the members of Warhol’s entourage reject her because she’s neither beautiful nor glamorous.  Valerie is stuck in a winless situation.  It’s her intensity that makes her a memorable writer but it’s the same intensity that guarantees that almost no one will be willing to read what she writes.

Valerie has written The SCUM Manifesto.  (SCUM stands for Society of Cutting Up Men.)  Throughout the film, we see black-and-white scenes of Valerie reading from the opening of her book:

“Life” in this “society” being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of “society” being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.”

Today, of course, Valerie could just start a tumblr or maybe get a job teaching at Evergreen State.  In the 1960s, though, Valerie believes that the only way she’ll ever be heard is by getting her work to Andy Warhol.  When she first meets Andy (Jared Harris), he seems to be receptive to her but we soon see that this film’s version of Andy is receptive to almost anyone.  I Shot Andy Warhol portrays Andy as being an emotionally detached voyeur, a master of passive aggressive behavior.  Instead of personally rejecting Valerie, he lets the more bitchy members of his entourage do it for him.  In fact, at times it seems as if the reason that Warhol surrounds himself with such angry people is so he’ll never have to get angry himself.  It’s actually a rather interesting interpretation of Warhol and the Factory, though it does rely a bit too much on the clichéd image of Andy Warhol as a passive voyeur.  Whenever Jared Harris is onscreen, you never forget that you’re watching someone imitate Andy Warhol as opposed to feeling like you’re watching Warhol yourself.

(When Andy Warhol died, he was worth 220 million dollars.  That alone should be enough to debunk the image of Andy Warhol being a passive voyeur of his own life.)

I Shot Andy Warhol is a frequently fascinating film, one that is sympathetic to both Solanas’s artistic ambitions and her desperate need to be acknowledged as a writer, while also not shying away from the fact that she was a very sick and dangerous person.  At the same time, the film does leave out one very important detail of Solanas’s later life.  After she was released from prison, she still continued to stalk Andy and other members of the New York art world.  That’s an important detail that should have, at the very least, been acknowledged.

Finally, after Andy Warhol’s death, Lou Reed wrote a song called “I believe.”  The song dealt with his feelings towards Valerie Solanas and it’s reasonable to assume that Reed spoke for many of Warhol’s associates.  Here are just a few of the lyrics: ” “I believe life’s serious enough for retribution… I believe being sick is no excuse. And I believe I would’ve pulled the switch on her myself.”

Trailer: Oldboy (Red Band)


OldboyRemake

Today saw the release of the red band trailer for the remake of Park Chan-wook’s classic neo-noir Oldboy. This remake by Spike Lee already looks to pay homage (or imitate) the look and feel of Park’s adaptation of the Japanese manga of the same name by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Mineshigi. We see quick glimpses of the hallway fight scene and a montage of the main character’s 20 years spent locked up in an unknown hotel room.

There’s a great chance for Spike Lee to make this remake his very own by using the Park film as a template but not as gospel. The Park adaptation itself took some liberties with the story told in the manga. Lee and the screenplay by Protosevich could do same to allow this Oldboy a chance to stand on its own instead of becoming another Gus Van Sant Psycho.

Though I wouldn’t mind to see what Lee has in mind as Josh Brolin’s character’s first choice of a meal once getting out.