Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: A Soldier’s Story (dir by Norman Jewison)


Set during World War II, 1984’s A Soldier’s Story opens with a murder.

On a rural road outside of a segregated army base in Louisiana, someone has gunned down Sergeant Vernon Walters (Adolph Caesar).  At the time, Walters was staggering back to the base after a night of heavy drinking.  Both the local authorities and Watlers’s fellow soldiers assume that the murder was the work of the Ku Klux Klan.  Captain Richard Davenport (Howard Rollins) isn’t so sure.

Captain Davenport is the officer who has been assigned to investigate the murder.  From the minute that he arrives at the base, the soldiers stare at him.  As Cpl. Ellis (Robert Townsend) explains it, the enlisted men are shocked because they’ve never seen a black officer before.  Some of the soldiers admire Davenport while other view him with suspicion, wondering what Davenport must have done or who he must have sold out to earn his commission.

Meanwhile, the other officers (who are all white) view Davenport with a combination of condescension and hostility.  Col. Nivens (Trey Wilson) only allows Davenport three days to wrap up his investigation and assigns the polite but skeptical Capt. Taylor (Dennis Lipscomb) to work with him.  Taylor suspects that Walters may have been murdered by the openly racist Lt. Byrd (Wings Hauser!).  Davenport, however, isn’t so sure.  Even though the official story is that Walters was a tough but fair sergeant who was respected by his company, Davenport suspects that one of them may have killed him.

Davenport and Taylor start to interview the soldiers who actually had to deal with Walters on a daily basis.  Through the use of flashbacks, Walters is revealed to be a far more complex man than anyone knew.  We see that Walters was a man who was bitterly aware of the fact that, even after a lifetime of military service, he was destined to always be treated as a second-class citizen by the nation that he served.  Unable to strike out at the men who the army and society had placed over him, Walters instead struck at the men serving underneath him.  While the man in Walters’s company wait for word on whether or not they’ll be allowed to serve overseas, Davenport tries to determine if one or more of them is a murderer.

A Soldier’s Story was adapted from a play but director Norman Jewison is careful to prevent the material from becoming stagey.  Effortlessly transitioning from the film’s present to flashbacks of the events that led to Walters’s murder, Jewison crafts both an incendiary look at race relations and a compelling murder mystery.  He’s helped by a strong cast of predominately African-American actors.  In one of his earliest roles, Denzel Washington plays Pfc. Peterson with a smoldering intensity.  David Alan Grier and Robert Townsend, two actors known for their comedic skills, impress in dramatic roles.  Seen primarily in flashbacks, Adolph Caesar turns Walters into a complex monster.

And yet, with all the talent on display, it is Howard Rollins who ultimately steals the movie.  As  a character, Captain Davenport has the potential to be a rather thankless role.  He spends most of the movie listening to other people talk and, because of his status as both an officer and a black man in the rural south, he’s rarely allowed to show much anger or, for that matter, any other emotion.  However, Rollins gives a performance of such quiet intelligence that Davenport becomes the most interesting character in the movie.  He’s the ultimate outsider.  Because of his higher rank and his role as an investigator, he can’t fraternize with the enlisted men but, as an African-American, he’s still expected to remain separate from and differential to his fellow officers.  As the only black officer on a segregated base, Davenport is assigned to stay in an empty barrack.  One of the best scenes in the film is Davenport standing alone and surveying the stark layout of his temporary quarters.  The expression on his face tells you everything you need to know.

(Towards the end of the film, when Davenport finally gets a chance to drop his rigid facade and, if just for one line, be himself, you want to cheer for him.)

A Soldier’s Story was nominated for best picture but it lost to another theatrical adaptation, Milos Forman’s Amadeus.

 

A Movie A Day #355: F.I.S.T. (1978, directed by Norman Jewison)


Sylvester Stallone is Jimmy Hoffa!

Actually, Stallone plays Johnny Kovak, a laborer who becomes a union organizer in 1939.  Working with him is his best friend, Abe Belkin (David Huffman).  In the fight for the working man, Abe refuses to compromise to either the bosses or the gangsters who want a piece of union.  Johnny is more pragmatic and willing to make deals with ruthless mobsters like Vince Doyle (Kevin Conway) and Babe Milano (Tony Lo Bianco).  Over thirty years, both Johnny and Abe marry and start families.  Both become powerful in the union.  When Johnny discovers that union official Max Graham (Peter Boyle) is embezzling funds, Johnny challenges him for the presidency.  When a powerful U.S. senator (Rod Steiger) launches an investigation into F.I.S.T. corruption, both Johnny and Abe end up marked for death.

Obviously based on the life and mysterious disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, F.I.S.T. was one of two films that Stallone made immediately after the surprise success of Rocky.  (The other was Paradise Alley.)  F.I.S.T. features Stallone in one of his most serious roles and the results are mixed.  In the film’s quieter scenes, especially during the first half, Stallone is surprisingly convincing as the idealistic and morally conflicted Kovak.  Stallone is less convincing when Kovak has to give speeches.  If F.I.S.T. were made today, Stallone could probably pull off the scenes of the aged, compromised Johnny but in 1978, he was not yet strong enough as an actor.  Far better is the rest of the cast, especially Conway, Lo Bianco, and Boyle.  If you do see F.I.S.T., keep an eye on the actor playing Johnny’s son.  Though he was credited as Cole Dammett, he grew up to be Anthony Keidis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The box office failures of both F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley led Stallone back to his most famous role with Rocky II.  And the rest is history.

 

Film Review: Jesus Christ Superstar (dir by Norman Jewison)


The 1973 film, Jesus Christ Superstar, opens with a desert in Israel.  All is still.  All is quiet.  Suddenly, we see a cloud of dust in the distance.  A bus is speeding through the desert and the music on the soundtrack explodes with a sudden urgency.

The bus comes to a stop and we notice that there’s a big cross tied to the top of it.  The doors open and suddenly — oh my God, it’s hundreds of hippies!  American hippies In Israel!  They’re climbing off the bus, one after another.  Some of them are being tossed sub machine guns.  Another gets a whip.  One of them puts on a purple robe and looks like he is slightly disturbed.  Others are dressed in black.  Makeup is applied.  Everyone’s having a great time.  One heavy-set fellow, with frizzy hair, climbs to the top of the bus and sits down on a throne.  He watches as everyone else pulls down the cross.  One long-haired man, who was never seen leaving the bus, is suddenly among the hippies.  He’s dressed in white and everyone is suddenly bowing before him.

Well, almost everyone.  One of the bus’s passengers, a serious-looking man (Carl Anderson), has walked away from the hippies.  From a safe distance, he looks back at them and he seems to be as confused by all of this as we are.

Why is everyone in the desert?  That’s relatively easy to explain.  They’re performing a Passion Play.  Carl Anderson is playing Judas.  The man in white is Ted Neeley.  Whether he is meant to be an actor playing Jesus or Jesus himself is a question that the movie leaves for you to decide.  We never see him get off the bus and, perhaps more importantly, we don’t see him get on the bus at the end.

(Just you watch.  I’ll mention that Jesus gets crucified at the end of this movie and someone will pop up in the comments and say, “How about a spoiler alert?”)

Hmmm…religion and hippies.  Those are two things that, in the past, I have definitely had issues with.  In fact, you would totally be justified in assuming that I would hate Jesus Christ Superstar.  And yet, I don’t.  I actually rather like it.

True, there are some things that make me cringe.  The sound of all the disciples singing, “What’s the buzz, tell me what’s a happening?” always makes me shudder and say, “Oh my God, this is so 1973!”  A scene where Judas suddenly finds himself being chased through the desert by a modern tank is just a bit too on-the-nose.  Finally, I understand that Ted Neeley’s stage performance as Jesus is highly acclaimed but, to me, his performance in this film will always be known as the Screaming Jesus.  Too often, it’s obvious that Neeley is still performing as if he’s on stage and has to project to the back row.  It’s interesting to compare him to Carl Anderson, who also played Judas on stage but who, in the movie, gives a performance that is powerful specifically because it’s a cinematic performance, as opposed to a stage performance.

But, even with all that in mind, there’s so much about this movie that works.  Based on the rock opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jesus Christ Superstar is definitely a product of its time, serving as a time machine for amateur historians like me.  (Then again, I guess you could say that about any movie the opens with hippies driving a school bus across Israel.)  Sometimes, the lyrics are a bit obvious but the songs still stick around in your head.  And it’s not just Carl Anderson who gives a good performance.  Yvonne Elliman, Josh Mostel, Bob Bingham, Larry Marshall, Barry Dennen — they all contribute strong work, both musically and otherwise.

And then there’s the big Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem production number:

There’s several reasons I love this scene but mostly it just comes down to the fact that it captures the explosive energy that comes from watching a live performance.  Larry Marshall (who plays Simon Zealotes) has one of the most fascinating faces that I’ve ever seen in a film and when he performs, he performs as if the fate of the entire world depends on it.  As previously stated, I’ve never been sold on Ted Neely’s performance as Jesus but Carl Anderson burns with charisma in the role of Judas.

Mostly, however, I just love the choreography and watching the dancers.  I guess that’s not that surprising considering just how important dance was (and still is, even if I’m now just dancing for fun) in my life but, to be honest, I’m probably one of the most hyper critical people out there when it comes to dance in film, regarding both the way that it’s often choreographed and usually filmed.  But this scene is probably about as close to perfect in both regards as I’ve ever seen.  It goes beyond the fact that the dancers obviously have a lot of energy and enthusiasm and that they all look good while dancing.  The great thing about the choreography in this scene is that it all feels so spontaneous.  There’s less emphasis on technical perfection and more emphasis on capturing emotion and thought through movement.  What I love is that the number is choreographed to make it appear as if not all of the dancers in this scene are on the exact same beat.  Some of them appear to come in a second or two late, which is something that would have made a lot of my former teachers and choreographers scream and curse because, far too often, people become so obsessed with technical perfection that they forget that passion is just as important as perfect technique.  (I’m biased, of course, because I’ve always been more passionate than perfect.)  The dancers in this scene have a lot of passion and it’s thrilling to watch.

Beyond that, there’s the insane burlesque of Josh Mostel’s performance as Herod and Barry Dennen’s neurotic interpretation of Pilate.  There’s Yvonne Elliman’s performance of I Don’t Know How To Love Him.  There’s that famous closing shot, a happy accident that was achieved when a shepherd just happened to wander past the camera.

And, of course, there’s this:

The performance above pretty much sums up the appeal of Jesus Christ Superstar.  It’s both ludicrous and powerful at the same time.

I know there’s some debate as to whether Jesus Christ Superstar is sincere or sacrilegious.  In college, there was this girl in my dorm who started the semester as a pagan, spent a month as an evangelical, and then ended the semester as a pagan again.  When she was going through her evangelical phase, she would listen to the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack constantly.  Seriously.  24 hours a day.  7 days a week.  After three days, I was sick of hearing it.  I found myself wondering if anyone had ever been driven to murder over having to listen to Heaven On Their Minds one too many times.  Fortunately, something happened to cause her to once again lose her faith and she went back to listening to Fall Out Boy.

I don’t think that, as conceived by Rice and Lloyd Webber, Jesus Christ Superstar is in any way sacrilegious.  At the same time, it does have a potentially subversive streak to it.  This is especially true of the film version.  At times, director Norman Jewison seems to be almost deliberately parodying the excesses of more conventional religious films.  Instead of spending millions to recreate the ancient world, Jesus Christ Superstar uses ruins and desert.  Instead of featuring ornate costumes, Jesus Christ Superstar features Roman soldiers who wear pink tank tops.  Ultimately, Jesus Christ Superstar reveres Jesus but dismisses the conventions of both organized Christianity and epic filmmaking.  Judah Ben-Hur would not have known what to do with himself if he wandered onto the set of Jesus Christ Superstar.

It’s over the top, silly, ludicrous, and ultimately rather powerful.  Jesus Christ Superstar is a film that shouldn’t work and yet it does.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (dir by Norman Jewison)


russians_are_coming

Earlier tonight, I watched a 1966 film called The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.  

It’s a cheerful comedy about what happens when the captain (played by Theodore Bikel) of a Russian submarine decides that he wants to take a look at the United States.  Though he was only planning to look at America through a periscope, he accidentally runs the submarine into a sandbar sitting near Gloucester Island, which itself sits off the coast of Massachusetts.  The captain sends a nine man landing party, led by Lt. Yuri Rozanov (a youngish Alan Arkin, making his film debut and receiving an Oscar nomination for his efforts), to the island.  Their orders are simple.  Yuri and his men are too either borrow or steal a boat that can be used to push the submarine off the sandbar.  If they run into any locals, they are to claim to be Norwegian fisherman.

Needless to say, things that don’t quite go as planned.  The first Americans that Yuri and his men meet are the family of Walt Whitaker (Carl Reiner), a vacationing playwright.  Walt’s youngest son immediately identifies the Norwegian fisherman as being “Russians with submachine guns.”  When Walt laughingly asks Yuri if he’s a “Russian with a submachine gun,” Yuri produces a submachine gun and promptly takes Walt, his wife (Eva Marie Saint), and his children hostage.

Yuri may be a Russian.  He may officially be an enemy of America.  But he’s actually a pretty nice guy.  All he wants to do is find a boat, keep his men safe, and leave the island with as little drama as possible.  However, the inhabitants of the island have other plans.  As rumors spread that the Russians have landed, the eccentric and largely elderly population of Gloucester Island prepares for war.  Even as Police Chief Mattocks (Brian Keith) and his bumbling assistant, Norman Jonas (Jonathan Winters), attempt to keep everyone calm, Fendall Hawkins (Paul Ford) is organizing a militia and trying to contact the U.S. Air Force.

Meanwhile, Walt’s babysitter, Allison (Andrea Dromm) finds herself falling in love with one of the Russians, the gentle Alexei Kolchin (John Phillip Law).

As I said at the start of this review, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is a cheerful comedy, one with a rather gentle political subtext, suggesting that the majority of international conflicts could be avoided if people got to know each other as people as opposed to judging them based on nationality or ideology.  There’s a rather old-fashioned liberalism to it that probably seemed quite daring in 1966 but which feels rather quaint today.  Sometimes, the comedy gets a bit broad and there were a few times that I found myself surprised that the film didn’t come with a laugh track.  But overall, this is a well-acted and likable little movie.

As I watched The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (and, as someone who is contractually obligated to use a certain number of words per review, allow me to say how much I enjoyed the length of that title), I found myself considering that the film would have seemed dated in 2013 but, with all the talk of Russian hacking in the election and everything else, it now feels a little bit more relevant.  Not a day goes by when I don’t see someone on twitter announcing that the Russians are coming.  Of course, if the film were released today, its optimistic ending would probably be denounced as an unacceptable compromise.  Peaceful co-existence is no longer as trendy as it once was.

Another interesting thing to note about The Russians Are Coming, The Russians are Coming: though the film was written by William Rose (who also wrote another example of mild 1960s feelgood liberalism, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner), it was based on a novel by Nathaniel Benchley.  Benchley was the father of Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws.  It’s easy to see the eccentrics of Gloucester Island as distant cousins of the inhabitants of Amity Island.

As previously stated, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming was nominated for best picture but it lost to the far more weighty A Man For All Seasons.

In Praise of Alan Rickman: The January Man (1989, directed by Pat O’Connor)


JanuarymanposterLast week, when the world first learned of the death of the actor Alan Rickman, it was shocking to realize just how many great roles he had played.  He made his feature film debut as Hans Gruber in Die Hard.  He played Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies, the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Hilly Kristal in CGBG and Marvin the Paranoid Android in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  He even played Leonard Nimoy Alexander Dane in Galaxy Quest.  But the first time I ever saw Alan Rickman, he was playing Ed the Painter in The January Man.

As The January Man begins, the new year is barely a day old and already Manhattan is in a panic.  Over the past 11 months, a serial killer has terrorized the city, killing one woman per month.  His latest victim, Allison Hawkins (Faye Grant) was murdered on New Year’s Eve.  Now, it’s January and everyone in New York City is waiting for the killer to strike again.

Mayor Flynn (Rod Steiger, bellowing his lines as only an Oscar-winning “great” actor can) is upset because Allison was a friend of his daughter, Bernadette (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio).  Flynn orders the police commissioner, Frank Starkey (Harvey Keitel), to put his brother on the case.  Nick Starky (Kevin Kline) was the best detective in New York but Frank framed him on corruption charges.  Now, Nick is working as a fireman and does not want to return to police work.  However, Nick tells Frank that he will investigate the murders on one condition: Nick wants to make dinner for Frank’s wife (and Nick’s former lover), Christine (Susan Sarandon).

After cooking an octopus for Christine, Nick works the case.  His unorthodox methods get on the nerves of Capt. Alcoa (Danny Aiello, bellowing almost as much as Rod Steiger) but also wins him the heart of Bernadette.  Helping him investigate the case (and repainting his office) is his neighbor, Ed (Alan Rickman).  Ed is not only a painter but he’s also a computer expert who figures out exactly where the killer is going to strike next.

The January Man was Alan Rickman’s second film and followed his debut in Die Hard.  Other than sharing a similarly sarcastic sense of humor, Ed the Painter is the exact opposite of Hans Gruber.  Gruber was a murderer who would do anything for money.  Ed is an artist who wants only to paint and hang out with Nick Starkey.

When I first saw The January Man, I was seven years old and I was on an airplane flying to London.  I was too young to really understand what was happening in the movie but I knew that Ed was my favorite character because he was the one who got all the funny lines and he spoke with a British accent.  When he told one of his models “Don’t molest anything,” I thought it was hilarious even though I did not really understand what he was talking about.  (Years later, I would watch The January Man on HBO and I would discover that Ed made his living painting nudes and that Bernadette and Nick were having sex, all information that was edited out of the airplane version.)

After I heard that Rickman had died, I rewatched The January Man for the first time in years.  I discovered that The January Man is a terrible movie that tries to unsuccessfully to mix slapstick comedy with brutal serial killer action but Alan Rickman still gives a really good performance, the best in the film.  (A close second would be Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, whose smile lights up every scene in which she appears.  She married the movie’s director so at least she got something good out of appearing in The January Man.)  That Alan Rickman is one of the film’s few bright spots is a testament to his talent as an actor.  Alan Rickman was such a great actor that he even made The January Man watchable.

Alan Rickman

RIP, Alan Rickman.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Salt of the Earth, The Molly Maguires, F.I.S.T., Made in Dagenham


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films.  As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films is all about letting the visuals do the talking.

Since it’s Labor Day, this edition of 4 Shorts From 4 Films has a theme!  All four of these shots come from films about labor!

4 Shots From 4 Films

Salt of the Earth

Salt of the Earth (1954, directed by Herbert J. Biberman)

The Molly Maguires (1970, directed by Martin Ritt)

The Molly Maguires (1970, directed by Martin Ritt)

F.I.S.T. (1978, directed by Norman Jewison)

F.I.S.T. (1978, directed by Norman Jewison)

Made in Dagenham (2010, directed by Nigel Cole)

Made in Dagenham (2010, directed by Nigel Cole)

 

Dance Scenes That I Love: Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem from Jesus Christ Superstar


Today, Arleigh and Pantsukudasai have left town to attend the Anime Expo and I find myself momentarily alone here at the TSL Bunker, curled up on the couch in my beloved Pirates t-shirt and Hello Kitty panties, and cursing my asthma.  As I lay here, it occurs to me that it’s been a while since I’ve shared a “scene that I love” here on the site.  So, why not rectify that situation now?

Norman Jewison’s 1972 film version of Jesus Christ Superstar is a film that I’ve been meaning to review for a while but for now, I just want to share my favorite scene from that film, the performance of Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem.

There’s several reasons I love that scene but mostly it just comes down to the fact that it captures the explosive energy that comes from watching a live performance.  Larry Marshall (who plays Simon Zealotes) has one of the most fascinating faces that I’ve ever seen in film and when he sings, he sings as if the fate of the entire world depends on it.  That said, I’ve never been sold on Ted Neely’s performance as Jesus but Carl Anderson burns with charisma in the role of Judas.
 
Mostly, however, I just love the choreography and watching the dancers.  I guess that’s not that surprising considering just how important dance was (and still is, even if I’m now just dancing for fun) in my life but, to be honest, I’m probably one of the most hyper critical people out there when it comes to dance in film, regarding both the the way that it’s often choreographed and usually filmed.  But this scene is probably about as close to perfect in both regards as I’ve ever seen.  It goes beyond the fact that the dancers obviously have a lot of energy and enthusiasm and that they all look good while dancing.  The great thing about the choreography in this scene is that it all feels so spontaneous.  There’s less emphasis on technical perfection and more emphasis on capturing emotion and thought through movement.  What I love is that the number is choreographed to make it appear as if not all of the dancers in this scene are on the exact same beat.  Some of them appear to come in a second or two late, which is something that would have made a lot of my former teachers and choreographers scream and curse because, far too often, people become so obsessed with technical perfection that they forget that passion is just as important as perfect technique.  (I’m biased, of course, because I’ve always been more passionate than perfect.)  The dancers in this scene have a lot of passion and it’s thrilling to watch.