Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part XX: The Last Waltz

The Last Waltz (1978) ****
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Mardik Martin.
Featuring: Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Ringo Starr, Paul Butterfield, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Ronnie Hawkins, Mavis Staples, Roebuck 'Pops' Staples, Muddy Waters, Ron Wood, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Martin Scorsese.

There is a sadness that hangs over Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, which is somewhat strange since it should a celebration. The Band is giving their last concert ever, on Thanksgiving Day, 1976 because after 16 years on the road, they have simply had a enough. “The numbers start to scare you. 16 years is a long time. I don’t know I could do 20” Robbie Robertson, the guitar player, says to Scorsese. The interviews in the film – that we glimpse in segments that usually only last a few minutes between the songs being performed – change the overall tone of the movie. Even when the members recall happy times – there is an air of sadness to them. They’ve told these stories too many times before. And they are tired. More then anything else, they are simply worn out. The Band says what they wanted The Last Waltz to be was a celebration – it almost seems like a memorial service.

Roger Ebert pointed this out in his review, and uses it as a criticism towards the movie. I feel just about the opposite of Ebert. It’s the sadness in The Last Waltz which elevates it above nearly all other concert documentaries I can think of (Woodstock, which Scorsese helped to edit, is still the best, but this is probably second). The Band was never the happiest group in the world anyway. Perhaps their biggest hit, The Weight, has the refrain “and you put the load right on me”. I’m still not entirely sure what the hell that song means, but it certainly isn’t a happy one.

The Last Waltz really is about the end of an era. The Band was together on the road for 16 years before they decided to call it quits. In the ‘60s, it was fun. They travelled around – on their own or with Dylan – and had fun. There was always booze and drugs and women. Lots and lots of women. But sooner are later, the weight, as it were, pushed down on them. Robertson in particular seems especially ready to get out of the business of being a rock star.

Having said all of that, The Last Waltz is hardly a depressing experience. It is filled with some of the greatest rock music ever recorded. Not just the music of The Band itself, which would be enough, but also some great songs by some of the eras biggest acts. Some of them – like Neil Young singing Helpless, Joni Mitchell and Eric Clapton seem to fit right in with the Band. Others, like Neil Diamond dressed like a pimp, or Van Morrison flashy as always, don’t, and yet their music sounds great. When Dylan finally comes out and does a few songs with the Band, the movie hits it’s emotional high point. Singing Forever Young, an ironic choice considering that none of them are young any more, the movie hits another level.

Scorsese has always been a meticulous planner, and he did not want to simply settle for a typical concert movie. He wanted to storyboard the entire show. He got set lists and design the lighting cues to interact with the Band perfectly. He assembled of team of great cinematographers – Michael Chapman leading the likes of Bobby Byrne, Laszlo Kovacs, David Myers, Hiro Narita, Michael Watkins and Vilmos Zsigmond – and had everything mapped out to capture just what he wanted. The Band is photographed is luscious light, sometimes under single spotlights, and the audience is basically ignored. You don’t need the audience – you are the audience – what matters is the performers, and Scorsese’s cameras get up close and personal with them. Strange coincidences happen, like when all but when camera ran out of film during Muddy Waters’ song, so most of it is just that one angel – and yet somehow even that works.

It’s strange that Scorsese made this film when he did. Coming at a low point in his own life, when he was convinced he was never going to make another movie again, the film becomes not just about the end of the Band, but the end of something else entirely. When 30 years later, Scorsese would make Shine a Light with the Rolling Stones, it represented the opposite of this film. That film was about the joy of performing – even after 40+ years together, the Stones still love to perform. The Band couldn’t take any more than 16. The Last Waltz is one of the greatest concert films ever made because it’s about more than “just the music” –which is great. It’s about life and celebrity, and the sometimes painful drudgery that comes along with both.

Weekly Top Ten Part II: The Ten Best Actors Never to Be Nominated for an Oscar

10. Mia Farrow
Mia Farrow delivered any number of great performances for her former husband Woody Allen before they split up. She could have been nominated for Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Radio Days (1987), Another Woman (1988), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Alice (1990) or Husbands and Wives (1992), and was overlooked each time. This doesn’t even mention her non-Woody work of which Rosemary’s Baby (1968) was undoubtedly the best. Mia Farrow is a gifted performer, who transitions easily between comedy and drama, and yet she has never been nominated for an Oscar? I find that odd.

9. John Cusack
If I could be anyone, I think it might be John Cusack. He’s always funny and charming in his movies, despite the fact that he’s made some bad ones in his time. But when he gets the right role, no one is better than he is. Say Anything (1989), where he was brilliant as a teenager head over heels in love. The Grifters (1990) as a conman out of his depth. He was one of the best Woody Allen surrogates in Bullets Over Broadway (1994) Grosse Point Blank (1997) as a hitman going to his high school reunion. The strange puppeteer in Being John Malkovich (1999). The criminal in the vastly underrated The Ice Harvest (2005). The man struggling with his wife’s death in Grace is Gone (2007). Or even the wonderful horror film 1408 (2007). For me, Cusack’s best work remains High Fidelity (2000), as a record store owner going through the five most painful break-ups of his life. He was hilarious and real in that film. How has he not been nominated yet?

8. Kevin Bacon
The six degrees of Kevin Bacon game has turned him into a little bit of a punch line, but looking back over his work, you see a remarkable actor who has delivered any number of great performances. The gay hustler in JFK (1991), the prison inmate in Murder in the First (1995), the astronaut in Apollo 13 (1995), the abusive guard in Sleepers (1996), the corrupt cop in Wild Things (1998), the crazy man seeing things in Stir of Echoes (1999), the cop investigating his two friends in Mystic River (2003), the just released pedophile struggling with his urges in The Woodsman (2004), as half of comedy duo with a dark side in Where the Truth Lies (2005). The vengeful father in Death Sentence (2007). The loyal Nixon aid in Frost/Nixon (2008). Bacon has worked with some of cinema’s best directors, and has delivered some great performances. He should have been nominated by now, right?

7. Steve Buscemi
Steve Buscemi is a God to many indie film lovers, but a look at his entire career shows an actor of remarkable range who has delivered one great performance after another. As the “performance artist” in Scorsese’s New York Stories segment. The fast talking Mr. Pink in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. The guy who won’t shut up in the Coen Brothers Fargo (1996). The alcoholic in his own Trees Lounge (1996). The insane serial killer in Con Air (1997). Donnie, the mildly challenged bowler in Coen’s The Big Lebowski (1998). The news reporter in Interview (2007). Buscemi came close one time to a nomination – for his amazing work in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, as a pathetic, lonely older man who falls for the teenage heroine (Thora Birch), and is heartbroken when she leaves him. One of the best character actors around, Buscemi should have been nominated for at least one supporting Oscar by now.

6. John Turturro
How has John Turturro been so good in so many films over the years, and never received an Oscar nomination. In films like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991) and Clockers (1995), the Coen’s Miller’s Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), The Big Lebowski (1998) and O Brother, Where Art Thou?(2000), Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994) and Robert DeNiro’s The Good Shepherd (2006) he has delivered amazing performances, and yet the Academy has shown little to no interest. Like Buscemi, Turturro is one of the best character actors around. Also like Buscemi, he is all by ignored by the Academy.

5. Joseph Cotten
Perhaps it was his close relationship with Orson Welles – who was never Hollywood’s most popular guy – but somehow Joseph Cotton went through his entire brilliant career and never got nominated for an Oscar. Three of his best roles came early in his career. One as Jed Leland, Kane’s best friend and then enemy in Citizen Kane (1941) for Welles, followed by his performance as Eugene Martin in Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). In 1943, he was great as Uncle Charlie in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, where he wasn’t quite the good guy he pretended to be. His other great role was in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), where he plays Holly Martins, who goes on a search to find his old friend Harry Lime (Welles again). Each of those performances should have surely got him a nomination. He has other great work among them- Gaslight (1944), Duel in the Sun (1946), The Farmer’s Daughter (1947), Portrait of Jeannie (1948), Niagara (1953), Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964). But it’s those four performances that cement his legacy – and should have earned him four Oscar nominations.

4. Donald Sutherland
One of the best, most offbeat leading men of the 1970s who has turned himself into a great character actor in recent years, and still Donald Sutherland has never received an Oscar nomination. Starting with The Dirty Dozen (1967), and continuing through MASH (1970), Klute (1971), Johnny Got His Gun (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Day of the Locust (1975), 1900 (1977), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and Ordinary People (1980), Sutherland was consistently great in all of them, and never got a nomination. His supporting work in Backdraft (1991), JFK (1991), Six Degrees of Separation (1993), Outbreak (1995), A Time to Kill (1996), The Assignment (1997), Without Limits (1998), Space Cowboys (2000), Pride and Prejudice (2005), American Gun (2005) and Ask the Dust (2006) have all also been wonderful. This is one of those cases where it takes almost a willful effort on the part of the Academy NOT to nominate someone.

3. Gary Oldman
Surely there must be some sort of mistake if Gary Oldman has never been nominated for an Oscar. I mean come on! The man is brilliant! He should have easily WON the Oscar in 1986 for his performance in Sid and Nancy. Other great performances include Prick Up Your Ears (1987), JFK (1991), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), True Romance (1993), The Professional (1994), The Contender (2000), Hannibal (2001), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2003), Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008). How is it that Gary Oldman has never been nominated for an Oscar. It just doesn’t make sense!

2. Edward G. Robinson
Edward G. Robinson is one of the most iconic actors in film history, and yet no matter what he did, he could never receive an Oscar nomination. I could go on about any number of performances, but instead I’ll highlight six. In Little Caesar (1931), he played one of the prototypical gangsters. In the Woman in the Window (1944), he is one of the best “dupes” in film noir history. In Double Indemnity (1944), he was a detective unraveling a tangled web. In Scarlett Street (1995), he is a man torn apart by guilt over a murder he commits. In Key Largo (1948), he is another ruthless gangster, holding people hostage. In House of Strangers (1950), he is the hard driving father who cares more about money then his sons well being. In each of these films, Robinson delivers a believable, Oscar caliber performance, and in each one – and countless others – he was ignored. I cannot figure out how they never gave him at least a nomination. It’s even sadder that he died just a short while before he was to receive an Honorary Oscar.

1. Jennifer Jason Leigh
Jennifer Jason Leigh is great in practically every performance she has every given. As far back as Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), where she played a student struggling with a decision of whether or not to get an abortion, she has been wonderful. In Last Exit to Brooklyn (1990), she plays a prostitute, who is eventually gang raped, and has no one seem to care. In Short Cuts (1993), she played a phone sex worker with a lot more of a chaotic life then her clients would want to know. In Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), she was the center of a vast web of intellectuals. In The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), she did a killer Katherine Hepburn imitation. In Dolores Clairborne (1995), she was the daughter trying to figure out what happened. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. What about performances in The Big Picture (1989), Miami Blues (1990), Rush (1991), Georgia (1995), Kansas City (1996), eXistenZ (1999), The Anniversary Party (2001), Road to Perdition (2002), Palindromes (2004), Margot at the Wedding (2007) and Syndecdcohe, New York (2008). Here is an actress who is absolutely fearless, and will do just about anything on screen. She is one of my personal favorites of all time – I light up when she comes on screen – and yet she always seems to be on the outside looking in. For shame.

Weekly Top Tens Part 1: The Ten Best Actors Never to Win an Oscar

Once again this week, I’m doing a two part top ten. The first ten are the ten best actors never to win an Oscar. The rules governing this one are that the actors had to receive at least one nomination in the past, but that’s all. Some of these guys are still alive so they have a chance. Some aren’t. Later today, I’ll do the 10 Best Actor Never to Be Nominated for Oscars. They were eliminated from this list, just for the sake of space reasons. Some would have easily made it here had they received a nomination at some point. I also shied away for actors who mainly worked in another language (not really fair, since they so seldom get nominated) or silent stars. But anyway, here’s part 1.

10. Harvey Keitel (Nomination: Bugsy - 1991).
I’m not sure how an actor as consistently great as Keitel has gone through a 40+ year career and only managers one nomination – and for a performance in Bugsy, that while wonderful, is nowhere near his best. Why he didn’t get nominated for any of his work with Scorsese – in Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1968), Mean Streets (1973), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), Taxi Driver (1976) or The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) is beyond me. And what of his work in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994)? Other great performances include Copland (1997), Spike Lee’s Clockers (1995), The Piano (1993) and Blue Collar (1978). But all of those pale in comparison to Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant in 1992. I understand why the Academy didn’t nominate the performance – which after is in an NC-17 rated movie, and in which he plays a darkly violent cop, gone on drugs, who verbally rapes two teenage girls, and becomes obsessed with a the rape of a nun. But it’s one of the best, most undersung performances of the 1990s. Keitel should have an Oscar by now.

9. Jeff Bridges (Nominations: The Last Picture Show – 1971, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot – 1974, Starman -1984, The Contender – 2000).
There are few actors that have Bridges range. Just look at his four nominated performances. In one he’s a confused teenager struggling in his small Texas hometown despite his popularity, in another irreonsible bank robber, another a visitor from another planet and finally he plays a President who while he isn’t corrupt, he isn’t fully nice either. An these are probably not even his best performances. What about his brilliant work as the father in The Door in the Floor (2004), or his work in American Heart (1992) and The Fisher King (1991). Go back father and you have The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). Farther still and you have Fat City (1972). But his best work is obviously as The Dude in the Coen brothers The Big Lebowski, a pitch perfect comedic performance, and one of the most iconic characters in recent years. Bridges easily could have won for any of those performances, and yet after nearly four decades of stellar work, Bridges still is Oscar-less. It’s a shame.

8. Peter Sellers (Nominations: Dr. Strangelove – 1964, Being There – 1979).
Unlike Bridges, Sellers definitely had his two best performances nominated by the Academy, but in both cases, he lost to someone not as good as he was. In 1964, he delivered three great performances in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (had he not faked an injury, it would have been four) – one as the ineffectual President, one as the crazed former Nazi scientist, and one as British officier dealing with a crazy US General. Each character is different, and Sellers plays each wonderfully. In 1979’s Being There, he played Chance the Gardener, a mentally challenged man whose simple logic for how to tend to a garden is mistaken in the age of TV for profound life lessons. Sellers never betrays he knows precisely what is going on, and he simply wanders through the film, brilliantly oblivious. There were other great performances – in Kubrick’s Lolita as the perverse Claire Quinty, another three part roll in the brilliant political comedy The Mouse That Roared, in The Party, in The Ladykillers, or in the first two Pink Panther movies. Sellers was one of the most gifted comedic performers of all time, and therein lies his problem. The Academy doesn’t recognize great quality comedy nearly enough.

7. John Malkovich (Nominations: Places in the Heart – 1984, In the Line of Fire – 1993).
When he wants to be, Malkovich can be one of the most scarily intense actors in the business, as his nominated performance in In the Line of Fire proves. He turned what could have been a routine thriller into one of the best of the 1990s. His other nominated performance, as a blind man in Places in the Heart was sympathetic, even if I find the movie to be overrated in general. Add to those two performances his great work in The Killing Fields (1984), Death of a Salesman (1985), Empire of the Sun (1987), Dangerous Liaisons (1988), The Sheltering Sky (1990), Of Mice and Men (1992), The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Con Air (1997), Shadow of the Vampire (2000), Ripley’s Game (2002) and you have the resume of an extremely versatile actor. This doesn’t even mention two of his best performances – in comedies of all things – in Being John Malkovich, as an exaggerated version of himself and in the Coen’s Burn After Reading, as an alcoholic CIA agent. Give the man an Oscar already!

6. Johnny Depp (Nominations: Pirates of the Caribbean – 2002, Finding Neverland – 2004, Sweeney Todd – 2007).
It took the Academy a long time to catch up with the genius of Johnny Depp. He’s an eccentric actor who never delivers the same performance twice (unless of course it’s as a Pirate), who has the ability to take mildly interesting roles, and turn them into bizarre, wonderful characters. He turned a summer blockbuster, based on a theme park ride, into one of the more entertaining films of 2002. In Finding Neverland he was actually rather dull, but he’s still quite good. In Sweeney Todd, although he doesn’t have the voice of some other actors, he is still absolutely brilliant. He should have been recognized for brilliant work in two other Tim Burton films – Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Ed Wood (1994)– not to mention Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and Sleepy Hollow (1999). He has also been great in Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Donnie Brasco (1997), Dead Man (1995) and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993). What does this man have to do to win an Oscar?

5. Barbara Stanwyck (Nominations: Stella Dallas -1937, Ball of Fire – 1941, Double Indemnity – 1944, Sorry, Wrong Number - 1948),
How Barbara Stanwyck went without winning an Oscar is beyond me. Her four nominated performances are all wonderful. Stella Dallas is an emotionally shattering drama. Ball of Fire a wonderful comedy. In Double Indemnity she became the prototypical Femme Fatale. In Sorry, Wrong Number is a top notch thriller. And none of these can compare to her great work in Anthony Mann’s Western The Furies (1950) or Baby Face (1933), as a woman who literally sleeps her way to the top. Her best performance ever though was as The Lady Eve (1941), a comedy about a con woman, who torments poor Henry Fonda. Stanwyck was equally adept at comedy and drama, and delivered many more great performances. Sure, they threw her the bone of a honorary Oscar in 1982, but they should have given her one for one of her many great performances.

4. Julianne Moore (Nominations: Boogie Nights – 1997, The End of the Affair – 1999, Far From Heaven – 2002, The Hours – 2002).
Julianne Moore is consistently great in nearly every movie she does. She should have easily won an Oscar for her performance as a porn star/”mother to all those you need love” in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, and for a 1950s housewife in Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven. Her other nominated performance, as an adulterous wife in The End of the Affair, and a suicidal mother in The Hours, are also wonderful. This doesn’t even mention her work in Blindness (2008), Savage Grace (2008), Children of Men (2006), Magnolia (1999), A Map of the World (1999), The Big Lebowski (1998), Safe (1995), Vanya on 42nd Street or Short Cuts (1993). It’s going to harder for her to get great roles now that she’s almost 50, but please someone give her an Oscar caliber soon, so she can finally win a much deserved Oscar.

3. Peter O’Toole (Nominations: Lawrence of Arabia – 1962, Becket – 1964, The Lion in Winter – 1968, Goodbye Mr Chips – 1969, The Ruling Class – 1972, The Stunt Man – 1980, My Favorite Year – 1982, Venus – 2006).
Peter O’Toole has the dubious distinction of being the most nominated actor in history not to win an Oscar. Sure, they threw him a bone a few years ago with a lifetime achievement award, but it’s not the same. Looking at his 8 nominated performances (!) you see the work of one of the most extraordinary actors in history. In his debut film, he carried Lawrence of Arabia on his back for nearly four hours. In Becket and The Lion in Winter, he played two different King Henry’s with great wit, humor and humanity. He sang like a fool in Goodbye Mr. Chips. He was a mental patient who thinks he’s Jesus in The Ruling Class. He was a vein, egotistical movie director in The Stunt Man. A former matinee idol in My Favorite Year. And finally, a sad, lonely old man in Venus. There are too many other great performances to name them all, but sufficed to say, that O’Toole is a man who should have won a few of these by now.

2. Robert Mitchum (Nomination: The Story of G.I. Joe – 1945).
Robert Mitchum was never the most popular guy in Hollywood, which probably explains why he only ever received one Oscar nomination (and why even after nearly every other group did, the Academy never gave him a lifetime achievement award). Sure, a lot of the films on his resume are not very good, as he admitted to doing films for the money all the time, but when he stumbled into the right role – and he did often – no one was better. To name but a few there were Pursued (1947), Crossfire (1947), Angel Face (1952), Track of the Cat (1954), Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (1957), The Sundowners (1960), Cape Fear (1962), El Dorado (1966), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), The Yakuza (1974), Farewell My Lovely (1975) and Dead Man (1995). But undoubtedly his two greatest performance – in fact two of the greatest performances in history – were in Out of the Past (1947) and Night of the Hunter (1955). In Out of the Past, he became the quintessential film noir detective, falling dangerously for the femme fatale, and unraveling a complex case, that was only half of what the film was about. In Night of the Hunter, he plays a demented Minister on the hunt for treasure and two kids, after chillingly killing their mother. No actor in history held the camera quite like Robert Mitchum did – with a chilling stillness. Really, he should have won a few.

1. Cary Grant (Nominations: Penny Seranade – 1941, None But the Lonely Heart – 1944)
Cary Grant was one of the most talented actors in movie history – but he made it look all so effortless – so not only did he never win an Oscar (outside of the inevitable Career Achievement Award in 1970), he only received two nominations – and for two unmemorable melodramas at that! How did an actor who was so brilliant in The Awful Truth (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Holiday (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), The Philidelphia Story (1940), Suspicion (1941), Talk of the Town (1942), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Notorious (1946), North By Northwest (1959) and Charade (1963) among countless others go an entire career and not win an Oscar? Look at those performances, and you see one of the most gifted comedic performers in history, who often outshone his nominated co-stars, but also an actor who was capable of doing drama, and in Hitchcock’s Notorious, even turn the male hero into a prick! My love for Cary Grant’s work grows with each new performance I watch. He was one of the greats, and the fact that he never won an Oscar is shameful.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part XIV: American Boys: A Profile of Steven Prince

American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince (1978) *** ½
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Julia Cameron & Mardik Martin.
Featuring: Steven Prince, Martin Scorsese, George Memmoli.

If you’ve seen Taxi Driver, that no doubt you remember Steven Prince in that movie even if, like me, you never knew his name. In the film, he plays the gun dealer who Bickle buys his arsenal from, who lays out his guns in much the same way that a priest lays out what he needs for mass. He goes into detail about his guns in a disturbing matter of fact tone of voice. We may not know who this actor is, but he leaves an impression.

In 1978, Martin Scorsese made two documentaries. The one that everyone has seen is The Last Waltz, about the final performance of The Band, which is considered one of the great rock documentaries of all time (and, of course, will be the subject of my next installment). The one that almost no one knows is American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince, which is a 55 minute film in which Scorsese turns his camera on his friend Steven Prince, and just lets him tell a series of stories to it. Prince is a fantastic storyteller, whether his stories are funny or tragic – or as in many cases both – he’s the type of guy who is able to immediately pull you in his storytelling. It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of this is simply one man looking at the camera and telling stories – the film is alive with energy, both Prince’s and Scorsese’s.

Prince is remarkably open and honest to Scorsese about his experiences. He doesn’t try to hide anything, and while I suspect that some of his stories are exaggerated, he never tries to cast himself in a better light. He tells stories about growing up Jewish in New York, and how he made money on Sunday mornings by crossing over and buying bagels for a low price, and coming back to his neighborhood and selling them at a huge markup. His business was so successful, he soon had five guys doing all the work for him, and he got to sleep in. He talks about his father and mother and grandmother, and how in their own way, they all shaped his outlook on life. He talks about the time a teamster have him a shot of pure speed that helped him stay up for three days straight getting the sets for a play done on time. And so, we are introduced to drugs.

Prince was the road manager for Neil Diamond for 2 or 3 years, and for most of that time, he was high on heroin. Because he scheduled all the flights, they never took one more than four hours long. They kept making stopovers to allow Prince to get high again. Everyone except Diamond knew, and when he found out he didn’t fire Prince – he offered him help, that Prince stubbornly refused. He almost got arrested one time when he had a drug dealer staying at his house with a kilo of heroin hidden there. What got him off? Hysterical crying that led to a nosebleed, and the cops let him off.

Prince got out of the draft in Vietnam even though he passed both the IQ test and the physical with flying colors. He had refused to answer a question about any homosexual relationships he may have had, for fear of disgracing his father and older brother – both in the army.

Prince’s life was touched by tragedy and violence on more than one occasion. He tells a story about a poor kid who electrocuted himself by accident that he could not save. And the time he shot a half-Native, half Mexican guy high on speed that came at him with a huge knife. Prince fired six bullets from a 44 magnum into him at the gas station where he worked. He blew him to “between the ethyl and the regular”. Fans of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life may remember this story – Prince told it in that movie as well. And anyone who has seen Pulp Fiction will recognize another of Prince’s stories, about a woman who ODs and is brought back with an adrenaline shot to the heart. It’s lifted, almost word for word, from this movie. So it seems that even if American Boy isn’t that well known to the general public, it certainly had an impact on some filmmakers.

What to me makes American Boy so special, and makes it better from the similar Italianamerican that Scorsese directed in a similar style in 1974, is that Scorsese seems better able to probe and push Prince. The final story in the film, Scorsese has him tell three times, because he wants to make sure he gets the details right. And after nearly every story, Scorsese’s camera holds for a few seconds on Prince’s face. It’s in these moments that Prince’s bravado slips a little, and we see the scared, scarred Jewish kid underneath. It’s here that Prince goes beyond just being an eccentric character and good storyteller, and becomes a real person we can relate to. American Boy may not be a well known Scorsese film – and until it becomes available on DVD and not just on YouTube, it will probably remain mainly unknown – but it deserves a wider audience. It’s fascinating portrait of a complex man you’ve probably never heard of.

DVD Views: Notorious (2009)

Notorious ***
Directed by:
George Tillman Jr.
Written By: Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker.
Starring: Jamal Woolard (Christopher 'Biggie' Wallace), Derek Luke (Sean 'Puffy' Combs), Anthony Mackie (Tupac Shakur), Antonique Smith (Faith Evans), Naturi Naughton (Lil Kim), Angela Bassett (Voletta Wallace), Dennis L.A. White (Damion 'D-Roc' Butler), Marc John Jefferies (Lil Cease), Christopher Jordan Wallace (Biggie - age 8-13), Julia Pace Mitchell (Jan), Aunjanue Ellis (Sandy).

Christopher Wallace was born a poor, fat kid in Brooklyn New York to a Jamaican immigrant who came to America for a better life. His father was a married man when he got his mother pregnant, and was never a part of his life. His mother Voletta (Angela Bassett) tries to impress upon Christopher proper values. She wants him to be good in school, and grow up into a respectable young man, who will take care of his kids and not abandon them like his own father did. But sometimes, no matter how good a parent you are, your kids will make mistakes. If you live in a poor area of Brooklyn, those mistakes maybe more serious than elsewhere.

Wallace (Jamal Woolard) starts dealing drugs at a young age, and by the time he is 17 he is making a lot of money doing it. Although he is a very big guy, he is funny and charming, so he has a girlfriend, Jan (Julia Pace Mitchell), and when she tells him she is pregnant, he says he will step up and be a man. His mother is furious, but still loves him and offers him support. That is, until she discovers he’s dealing drugs. Then, he’s out on his ass. Eventually, Wallace will be arrested and put in jail. While there Wallace, who has always been a talented rapper, who uses it just to entertain his friends, develops his skills even more. By the time he gets out, he makes himself a demo tape that finds its way into the hands of Puffy (Derek Luke), who works for a record executive. Together, they decide that they’re going to change the face of hip hop. Christopher Wallace becomes Biggie Smalls or the Notorious B.I.G. And he does indeed change rap forever.

Notorious tells Wallace’s story from the time when he’s that fat kid on the stoop in Brooklyn until the time when he is gunned down on the streets of LA at the age of 24. While the movie never sanctifies Wallace, it certainly does go a little soft on him. True, the film doesn’t shy away from calling him a womanizer – he moves on from Jan to Kim (Naturi Naughton), who with Wallace’s help will transform herself into Lil’ Kim, and then moves on again to Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), a R&B star, who he is still unable to remain faithful to, even after they are married. But if Wallace had a harder side – a more violent side – then the movie doesn’t really show it. Even though Wallace is a drug dealer who has done hard time, his gangster persona he put on in his music seems to be just that – a put on. When a war between East Coast rappers, led by Wallace and Puffy, and West Coast rappers, led by Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie), erupts, the movie puts all the blame on the West Coast. The two former friends become enemies, because Tupac was paranoid, and believed that Wallace set him up and tried to have him killed. Not true according to the movie. But when Tupac is murdered, things get even more heated. And when Wallace travels to LA to promote his new album, his fate is sealed.

But what I found fascinating about Notorious is that the movie seems more interested in Wallace than it is in Biggie Smalls. This is not yet another movie about bullshit posturing and acting tough, but about a kid who made mistakes, made it big, and kept making mistakes. He decides shortly before his death, that’s it’s time to change his life around. He announces a new direction for his music, tries to reconnect with his kids, and seems finally ready to grow up and become a man. That he never got a chance to is tragic.

Jamal Woolard is excellent in the lead role. He bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Wallace, and although he was already an accomplished actor, he took voice lessons to make him sound more like Wallace as well. He is able to project Wallace’s charm, his humor, his slightly darker side, as well as his massive intelligence and talent. The whole movie rests on his performance, and it’s a great one. Also great are Naturi Naughton, who just about perfectly captures Lil’ Kim’s swagger and dangerous sex appeal, but allows a softer side to come through and Antonique Smith who makes Evans into a truly sympathetic character. Bassett could do this role in her sleep, but doesn’t. She makes Voletta into a strong, independent, intelligent woman. Less successful however are Luke and Mackie. Luke is saddled playing Puffy, who in real life produced this movie, and so is presented here in a completely positive light. He is a good influence on Wallace, who convinces him to do what’s best for him, and takes credit for much of Wallace’s music. Luke tries hard, but I was never able to reconcile that Puffy I have seen on TV for years with his version. Mackie, as talented as he is, just cannot match Tupac’s swagger and confidence, which to be fair, would be almost impossible. He tries hard, but there is never a moment where we don’t see him acting. It’s an honorable effort, but not one that he truly pulls off.

Yet the movie involved me from beginning to end. I have never been a huge rap fan, yet I am still interested in the world that they inhabit. It’s seems pointless and tragic to me that these multi-millionaires can never seem to leave the streets behind them, and continue to get involved with petty beefs and crimes. Tupac and Wallace were both talented young men, who changed the face of rap music forever. It’s too bad that they never got a chance to do more. They died way too young.

Movie Review: The Solosit

The Soloist **
Directed by:
Joe Wright.
Written By: Susannah Grant based on the book by Steve Lopez.
Starring: Robert Downey Jr. (Steve Lopez), Jamie Foxx (Nathaniel Ayers), Catherine Keener (Mary), Lisa Gay Hamilton (Jennifer), Tom Hollander (Graham Claydon), Stephen Root (Curt).

I have grown tired of movies about people with a disability or mental illness triumphing over adversity. All the movies are pretty much exactly the same. A character appears to be lost, but with the help of a supportive friend, they are able to turn their lives around. They overcome hardships and difficulties, but in the end, they are okay. We’ve seen it before too many times by now. The Soloist is the latest movie to take on this storyline, and despite the presence of Robert Downey Jr., who is brilliant as always, the movie never rises above its own limitations.

Downey plays Steve Lopez, a reporter for the LA Times who writes a human interest column. The paper, like many across the country, is having trouble because young people don’t read the paper anymore – they go online to get their news. But Lopez continues to plug away at his column week after week. One day, while on another assignment, he meets Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) on the street admiring a statute of Beethoven. He finds out that this guy, who obviously has some sort of mental illness, went to Julliard years ago. Now he’s living on the streets, and playing a violin that only has two strings. Lopez writes a column about him, and assumes that that will be the end of it. He’s wrong.

Something about Ayers touches people who read the paper. People send their old instruments to Lopez to give to Ayers. In return, Lopez reaches out to a group home in a bad area of LA in the hopes that they can help Ayers in off the street, and perhaps get him to take medication. Ayers is resistant to everything that Lopez tries, but gradually, by baby steps, he starts to come along. In Lopez he has found a friend. Lopez is somewhat horrified by this. He has always been a selfish prick, and he doesn’t want to be responsible. But he cannot say no.

Downey, it must be said, is wonderful in the movie, and he keeps the movie from being boring. He doesn’t much resemble the real Lopez in terms of his personality, but the Lopez we see on screen is much more interesting. My guess is that after Downey was cast, they did some rewrites to make Lopez more Downey-like. The result is an interesting character and performance by Downey, but he’s stuck in a plot that just isn’t up to his level. The same could be said for Jamie Foxx is also quite good in the movie. Despite the fact that characters like this always win, or at least get nominated for Oscars, I have never been as impressed as some with the performances. They are, by necessity, one note. Foxx does precisely what he is supposed to do in the film. It’s not his fault that the character just isn’t that interesting. The rest of the cast is wasted, particularly Catherine Keener. She seems like a woman who is completely together, but then there is one scene where she gets drunk at a benefit and says things she shouldn’t. Nothing in the movie leading up this point makes us think that she’s an alcoholic or is troubled – and then the scene is never mentioned again. It’s a very odd scene. Tom Hollander also has a small role as a religious cellist who tries to give Ayers lessons – but the character is never developed enough to make sense.

The director of the movie is Joe Wright, whose previous two films, Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, were both great. He seems at home with the British countryside in period pieces. But in modern day Los Angeles, he is lost. He never captures the right look or feel for the movie, which seems to be based more on other movies, then the city itself.
The film ends up being a jumbled mess that never truly involves us, or makes us feel for the characters. The film just sits there on the screen, and while we are never really bored by it, we never truly care either. This should have been a good little “inspirational” drama, but it isn’t. It’s just there.

Movie Review: Fighting

Fighting **
Directed By:
Dito Montiel.
Written By: Robert Munic & Dito Montiel.
Written By: Channing Tatum (Shawn MacArthur), Terrence Howard (Harvey Boarden), Zulay Henao (Zulay Valez), Michael Rivera (Ajax), Flaco Navaja (Ray Ray), Peter Anthony Tambakis (Z), Luis Guzmán (Martinez), Anthony DeSando (Christopher Anthony), Roger Guenveur Smith (Jack Dancing), Brian J. White (Evan Hailey).

Fighting is a movie that never really decides what it wants to be. At times, it feels like it wants to be a gritty, realistic movie about the mean streets of New York. At times, it seems it wants to be a B movie about the world of underground fighting. At times it seems it wants to be a romance. Or a story about racism. Or a story about the legacies passed down by our parents. Or many other things. The movie never coheres into one movie. So while in isolation, many of the scenes in the film “work” by themselves, they seem like part of the same movie.

The movie stars Channing Tatum as Shawn MacArthur, a kid from the South who for reasons that will remain cloudy until the end of the movie, has ended up by himself in New York City. One day on the street, he is forced into a fight, and handedly wins. Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard) sees him, and thinks he can use him. Harvey is a hustler and a low level conman, who always has at least a few scams going at the same time. In Shawn, he sees a good looking, college educated kid who he can put in underground fights and make some quick money. He knows the people who run these types of things, and although they don’t like him very much, they know a good angle when they see one, and Shawn is a good angle. He quickly makes a name for himself in this world, and continues to get offered bigger and bigger fights, for more and more money.

Meanwhile two other characters enter Shawn’s life. The first is Evan Hailey (Brian White), who is known as the reigning king of these types of fights. Shawn and Evan have a past that Evan refers to obliquely – something about Shawn’s father who used to be Evan’s wrestling coach. The other character is Zulay (Zulay Valez), a Puerto Rican waitress a club that Shawn frequents that Shawn falls for at first sight. He is persistent with her, even though she keeps giving him the brush off. She has her reasons. She has a young daughter and an old grandmother to care for, and doesn’t have the time to be jerked around. But Shawn seems nice and genuine, so we know she will eventually give in.

The director and co-writer of the movie is Dito Montiel, whose debut film A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, was a strong film in the vein of Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Here, he returns to the New York neighbors that he knows so well, and the film has a ring of authenticity in the way it looks at the city. The tourists see the lights and the glamour, but not everything that goes on underneath.

Unfortunately, Montiel cannot bring this same authenticity to his characters. Tatum has turned out to be a surprising good young actor, and there is an openness and honesty in his performance that we want to trust. But because he holds back the story of what exactly happened between him and his father, we’re not sure about him (the secret when it comes out is a huge letdown). Howard is an actor who is incapable of being boring on screen, yet a wonder if he was bored making this movie. He has always had a slightly nasally, high pitched voice, but here he seems to be exaggerating that voice to absurd extremes – at times it sounds like he’s trying to do a Truman Capote impression. He certainly doesn’t sound like he’s from Chicago like he claims. Having said that, when Howard’s on screen, at least you’re not bored. Newcomer Zulay Valez is gorgeous, and the camera loves her, but she is undermined by the screenplay that is constantly forcing her to hold back information, so at times she seems stilted. Brian White would be more at home in one of those lower rent fighting movies – like last year’s Never Back Down – as he never even tries to make Evan into a realistic character. He’s all bravado. Talented actor like Luis Guzman and Roger Guenveur Smith are completely wasted in their roles, and in Smith’s case, made to look like talentless hacks.

The fight scenes are handled well. For the most part, they have a rawness to them that feels more real than most fight scenes in the movies. The fights are messy, and somewhat clumsy, and they appear to hurt –at least as they are going on.

Fighting never really does cohere into a complete movie though. There are times when it works, but the scenes do not flow into each other naturally. They sit there on the screen until the next one comes on. Fighting is certainly not a terrible movie, but it just isn’t very good either. Which is a disappointment because Dito Montiel is a talented director. This time though, his film just isn’t good enough.

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part VIII: New York, New York

New York, New York (1977) ***
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Eric Mac Rauch & Mardik Martin.
Starring: Liza Minnelli (Francine Evans), Robert De Niro (Jimmy Doyle), Lionel Stander (Tony Harwell), Barry Primus (Paul Wilson), Mary Kay Place (Bernice Bennett), Georgie Auld (Frankie Harte), George Memmoli (Nicky), Diahnne Abbott (Harlem Club singer), Steven Prince (Record producer), Casey Kasem (D.J. aka Midnight Bird), Harry Northup (Alabama).

It is easy to see why coming on the heels on Taxi Driver, New York, New York was seen as a major disappointment from Martin Scorsese in 1977. Here was a bright, young filmmaker who had garnered a reputation for making gritty, violent movies based on the mean streets of New York. Now, he follows up Taxi Driver, one of the most acclaimed, most violent films of the decade with a 2 hour 45 minute musical starring Liza Minelli? What gives? It didn’t help that the film was a financial bomb either – costing the studio a lot of money, and not making much back. To this day, New York, New York is cited alongside a film like Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate as prime examples of why the “Golden Age” on 1970s American cinema came to end. The “auteurs” were spending too much money making films no one wanted to see.

Watching the film again, the flaws in the film were still readily apparent. This is perhaps Scorsese’s most deeply flawed feature. Yet, the great things in the movie (and yes, there are many great things) also stood out more. New York, New York is certainly no masterpiece, but it is certainly ambitious – and never boring.

The film opens just as WWII is ending. Jimmy Doyle (Robert DeNiro) is a man just free from the army, who goes out on the town with his buddies in the hopes of getting laid. He tries his moves on every girl in a crowded club, until he settles on Francis Evans (Liza Minelli). He is constantly rebuffed, but continues trying anyway. They continue to run into each other, and eventually she accompanies him to an audition. He is a saxophonist trying to make it big. He is bombing out in the audition, until she jumps in and saves him by singing. They’re hired as a duo. They eventually, fall in love. They hit the road, they get married, she gets pregnant and returns to New York, and their act bombs without her. She makes extra money with recording sessions, he comes home. She has the patience of a saint, dealing with Jimmy’s angry outbursts and fragile ego. She can no longer deal with it when she starts to become really successful, and he doesn’t and then she leaves. Her star continues to rise, and eventually Jimmy becomes famous to. There is a possibility of a reconciliation, that the movie doesn’t reveal doesn’t happen because of confusion or because one or both of them thought better of it. That’s the story.

To my mind, there are two major flaws in the movie. The first is the running time. Scorsese’s film is an homage to the old MGM musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, which usually ran about 90 minutes and wrapped everything up in a happy ending. Scorsese’s film is more than two and half hours long, and it drags in some spots. It’s not that whole sequences have to be eliminated; it’s just that it feels like almost every scene is dragged on just a little bit longer than it should have been. It’s worth pointing out that this is one of the few features Scorsese directed not edited by Thelma Schnoomaker – one of the great editors in cinema history. Perhaps had she edited it, she could have convinced him to cut the film down.

The other flaw, and this is slightly painful for me to admit, is DeNiro. It’s not that DeNiro is bad in the movie – the opposite in fact. There is crazed brilliance to his performance as he hits different notes from charming to funny to intense to downright scarily violent, yet he never goes over the top. The master of “method acting” is able to pull off a more old fashioned performance that wouldn’t seem all that out of place in those old movies. He also makes him convincing, even if his character can be slightly schizophrenic. The flaw is that he doesn’t fit into the rest of the movie the way he should. His character, with all his rage and jealously, is what makes New York, New York a “Scorsese” movie, but considering that this is supposed to be a light, entertaining musical, he constantly seems at odds with his surroundings. While I can appreciate DeNiro’s performance in and of itself, it just doesn’t work in the movie.

But there are many things that do work in the movie. Lazlo Kovacs gorgeous cinematography, shot in the narrower aspect ratio of 1.66:1 to better recreate those old films, is wonderful, and full of images that stick in your head long after the movie is done (like DeNiro being dragged down a hall full of lights kicking and screaming). The production design and costumes also brilliantly recreate those old movies. Full of garish colors that lack “authenticity” yet fit perfect, costumes where everything is just slightly “more” than would be real, New York, New York is a very distinct visual film. The musical numbers are staged brilliantly by Scorsese, proving that all those rumors in the past about him directing a musical are not as outlandish as they seem – he could do it fine, he’d just need to find the right musical. But perhaps best of all, and this is also kind of painful for me to admit, is Minelli herself. She was born to be in movies like this, and her Francie Evans holds the movie together even when it appears ready to fly off the rails into madness. Her musical numbers are brilliant. We are reminded of just why it is that she is an Oscar winning actress (for Caberet, a much better musical than this). It’s her loss, as well as ours, that she came along at a time when musicals were out of fashion.

So while I admit that New York, New York is a flawed film – perhaps a fatally flawed film in many eyes – I cannot say that it’s a bad movie. At worst, it’s an ambitious failure. Scorsese’s normal themes and obsessions don’t really fit into a musical, and the two sides of the movie seem at war with each other and never truly cohere. But I give the movie three stars anyway. Why? There’s just so much to admire about the movie that despite its flaws, I’m glad the movie exists. Masterpiece or not, it’s clear in every frame of New York, New York that it was made by a truly great director.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Book Review: Columbine By Dave Cullen

On Monday of this week, I posted a story about School Shootings in the movies, and was unaware that the day, April 20, represented the 10th Anniversary of the Columbine Massacre. When I did discover it, a flood of memories came rushing back to me. I remember that day I was at a friend’s house working on a school project. When we were finished, I waited for my mom to show up and pick me up, and we turned on the TV. We were flooded with images of Columbine. Crying students, struggling to comprehend what happened. News reporters who were still not sure (although this was nearly four hours after the massacre began) what exactly had happened, and how many were killed, and if the killers themselves were still alive. Over the following weeks, the news dominated TV and the papers, and I was, to be honest, slightly obsessed with it. I had been the killers age when the massacre took place. I was shy and quiet, and a bit of an outcast, although I cannot really say that anyone picked on me. I was mainly left alone – by everyone – in high school. It was, at least in part, my own choice. So while I understood the isolation that the TV kept saying these kids felt, I never did understand why they picked up guns and decided to kill. All the video games they had played, I had played. All the movies they had watched countless times (notably Natural Born Killers), I had watched countless times too. I owned all the CDs of Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails. What had set these kids off? I never really did understand.

Now, however, I think I do. At least in part. After I realized that it was the 10th Anniversary, and a new book was being published about the massacre, I went out and picked it up. Dave Cullen’s Columbine floored me. Many of the things I thought I knew about Columbine turned out to be untrue. This is a thorough picture of everything that happened – both leading up to April 20th, April 20th itself and the years that followed.

First of all, it doesn’t really seem that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were picked on all that much at Columbine. There was one incident where some jocks threw ketchup on the group of them – but that was in January 2008 more than a year before the massacre. Neither one mentioned the incident in the journals they kept. Both mentioned picking on younger kids and “fags” in there though. The two also never belonged to the Trench Coat Mafia. This was a group of video gamers, who wore trench coats, but most of them graduated in 1998. Both Harris and Klebold knew the group, but weren’t really members. This characterization at least made sense – they did wear trench coats the days the day of the massacre, but this appears, at least in part, to have been a practical measure. How else could they transport the guns without being noticed?

The pair did not target any one group. They didn’t just shoot the jocks, or the minorities or the Christians or the preppies any other group. The shooting appeared to be random. They shot who they wanted to, and didn’t shot the people they didn’t. Their plan was to blow up the cafeteria and kill 500 students, perhaps more, in the blast then pick off students as they fled the building. Then, after they assumed the police had killed them, their cars would explode killing even more people. They didn’t want to kill only specific people. They wanted to kill EVERYONE.

It was widely reported that one of the victims was asked if she believed in God, and when they answered yes, they were shot. This, also, appears to be untrue. That victim never had a chance to speak. Harris knocked on the table she was hiding underneath in the library and said “peek-a-boo” then bent over and shot her. No discussion, just murder. Klebold did ask another girl if she believed in God, and she stumbled for an answer, first saying no, and then yes. When asked why, she said it was because it was what her parents believed. Klebold scoffed, but didn’t shoot her.

Hitler’s birthday appears to have nothing to do with the day they chose. Harris was fascinated by Nazis, but I don’t think it was because they killed Jews. It was because they killed so many people they felt were “inferior” to them. Harris believed everyone was inferior to him. The original date of the attack was supposed to be April 19th, which does have significance. That was the day that the FBI and ATF raided the compound at Waco, killing the Branch Dravidians. Two years later, on the same day, Timothy McVeigh retaliated for that with the bombing of Oklahoma city. Harris and Klebold wanted to outdo McVeigh.

So then why did Harris and Klebold go on a shooting spree? What caused them to do it? They had their own separate reasons. Harris is perhaps easier to understand. He was a psychopath, pure and simple. He saw everyone as inferior to him, and as such, he was frustrated that he had to spend so much time with the “zombies” and “idiots” that surrounded him. On the day of the massacre, he wore a shirt that said “Natural Selection”. He believed that mankind had interfered with natural selection with all their medical advances and special ed programs – keeping the weak (i.e. everyone else) among the strong (i.e. himself). He felt no empathy, no remorse for his actions. In fact, he felt next to nothing, as many psychopaths do. He was able to be charming and affable – able to fool all the adults in his life into thinking he was a good kid - another trait of the psychopaths. When he and Klebold was arrested in January 1998 for breaking into a van, he grew angry. What right did anyone have to punish him? He meticulously planned every aspect of the plot for a year. He made all the bombs himself. He did almost everything.

Klebold is a sadder case. He was depressed. He talked about killing himself for years before the massacre. While both he and Harris saw themselves as unique – they saw that uniqueness in different ways. Harris saw it as meaning he was better than everyone else. Klebold saw it as being worse. What he wanted more than anything was love and acceptance, and he never found it. His journal is filled with page after page proclaiming love for the girls in his school – girls he never worked up the nerve to talk to. He had one friend he felt understood him – not Harris – but when that guy got a girlfriend, Klebold became even more depressed. Harris offered him a way out. Klebold wavered on the plan for months, right up to the week before the murders, but eventually he committed. He was depressed, and blamed himself for all of his problems – directing all his anger and rage at himself. Eventually, this rage turned outwards, probably fueled by Harris.

Had Klebold never met Harris, the chance of him doing something like Columbine would have next slim, if not non-existent. Here was a kid who talked about killing himself for more than 2 years, but never made any real attempt to do it. Not even one of those “cry for help” attempts where they don’t really mean to kill themselves. In Klebold, Harris probably saw someone he could exploit. The rest of his friends acted tough, but they didn’t have the rage that Klebold did. We’ll never really know how the two came about agreeing to do what they did, but they did a full year before they carried out the attack. Klebold sat back and let Harris make the plans. He planned to kill himself before the attack anyway, so it didn’t matter to him. But somewhere along the way, Klebold got fully on board. In February 1999, he wrote a violent short story for his creative writing class, where he imagines himself witnessing a man in a trench coat brutally murdering a group of preps. The level of similarities between that story and the Columbine massacre are striking. His teacher was concerned enough to contact the school councilor and Klebold’s parents. Nothing happened.

The fact that Harris was most likely a psychopath does not mitigate his responsibility in anyway. He was not insane. He knew the difference between right and wrong, he just didn’t care. It also probably helps to explain why the massacre was limited to only 13 victims before the two killed themselves. From the moments they started firing to the moment they killed themselves, approximately 45 passed. 17 minutes into the massacre, they stopped killing. For the next half hour, they roamed the school, shot up empty classrooms and the office. But they left the classrooms full of kids – where they looked in the windows – alone. They left the kids hiding in the cafeteria alone when they went their in a last ditch effort to set the bombs off again. In the library – where 10 of the 13 were killed, there were more than 50 students. They shot less than half of them, and killed fewer than half of those. They had the time (it would take the SWAT team more than three hours to reach the library) and the ammunition to inflict much greater causalities then they did. They still possibly could have killed hundreds, like they imagined they would with the bombs. But 17 minutes after the shooting started, it stopped. Why?

Psychopaths get bored easily. Shooting people was fun for a while, but then it just became the same old thing again. They liked to taunt their victims, both before and after shooting them, but you can only do this so many times. Harris probably got bored and so they stopped killing people. They waited around to see if the bombs they hoped to set off in the parking lot would go off – that’s why they returned to the library to get a better view. But when they failed, there was nothing left for them to do. So they shot themselves. They were done. They made their statement, and now it was time to move on.

And the fact that Klebold was depressed, and exploited, does not mitigate his responsibility either. He, as well, knew the difference between right and wrong. And although he did care, he didn’t care enough. In Eric, he saw the type of person he wanted to be – outgoing and friendly. Klebold barely had the nerve to talk to anyone about anything. He seems to be aping Harris in the videos and the on the day of the shooting itself. For a short while he was free. Klebold talked in his journal about polar opposites – Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil, Love and Hate – and how you have to choose your side, but hope that the side chose you back. “Why does love never choose me back?” he complained. Sooner or later, he got tired of not being chosen back, so he picked Hate – and on April 20th 1999, Hate chose him back.

After 10 years, I feel like I understand, at least in part, what happened and why it happened. Could the massacre had been prevented? Probably, if more people had paid more attention. But Harris and Klebold didn’t want people to know. Unlike many school shooters, they didn’t tell their plans explicitly to anyone. Klebold hinted at them, as did Harris on his website, but they didn’t tell anyone precisely what they planned. They hid it all.

Dave Cullen’s Columbine is a great book. Some people have complained about some factual inaccuracies in the book, but that is most likely the case for any book of this sort. Among them are contentions that Klebold had potato skins, or possibly French Fries the day of the attack (who cares? I’m not sure why this was even included in the book). But a few of them seem to be of more pressing concern. One is Cullen’s portrait of Harris as a little bit of a ladies man, even though he admits (in interviews, not in the book) that he doesn’t think Harris ever had a girlfriend (this was slightly confusing to me as well). Another was the contention that the explosions not going off rattled Klebold, who most likely headed into the school first (there is NO evidence to support this one). And finally, some complain about Cullen’s characterization of Harris as a psychopath, and the catalyst of the attack. To be fair to Cullen though, that wasn’t his conclusion. It was the lead FBI agent on the case’s conclusion – who it should be pointed out is a psychologist.

I plan to read “Columbine: A True Crime Story” by Jeff Kass in the coming weeks as well, as it was released just a few weeks before Cullen’s book (although, it appears that it is not available at any stores around me, so I had to order it. It was released by a much smaller company than Columbine was). I will more than likely review that one in the coming weeks. Kass, apparently, reaches different conclusions about what motivated Harris and Klebold to do what he did. Plus, his book seems to have less criticism leveled at it about factual inaccuracies.
I realize that this was less of a book review, and more of a summary, or at least filtering my own thoughts on the massacre after reading the book, as well as other sources in the last week. I realize that to most people, this is probably not an event that they would like relive. For me though, Columbine was one of the things about my high school years that I remember the most. It was shocking and terrifying. I’m not sure why I have remained fascinated by this story for as many years as I have, but nonetheless, I have. It's possible that because my fiance is a teacher, and as such is still in effect in high school, that I have become more fascinated by this again after all these years. Whatever the reason, Columbine still fascinates me, and Columbine the book was the best thing I've read on the massacre to date.

God and the Cinema Part VI: Secret Sunshine

Chang-dong Lee’s Secret Sunshine was one of the very best films I saw at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival, and yet nearly two years later, it still does not have a North American release. It is still playing at small film festivals, and getting released in other countries, but as of yet I have no idea when or if the film will ever be released here – even on DVD. That’s sad, because it is one of the best films of recent years, and certainly has a lot to say about God. Nearly two years later, I still remember the film in vivid detail – and it still haunts me.

The film is about Shin-ae (Do-yeon Jeon), a recently widowed woman, now raising her son by herself. She decides to move to her husband’s hometown of Milyang, a small Korean town, because he always intended to go back. Milyang is a fairly nothing town – there is nothing much there and much of the populace has moved to Seoul or other big cities. Industry has shut down. But Shin-ae starts a small business as a piano teacher, and for a while she is happy. She makes one friend – an auto mechanic named Jong Chan (Kang-so Song), who we believe has a crush on her. He follows her everywhere, but not really in a creepy stalker way. She is approached repeatedly by local Christians who want her to join their prayer group. She brushes them off.

Tragedy strikes when her son is kidnapped. Eventually, the body of her son will be found dead. The killer is quickly captured and put in jail. Shin-ae is torn apart by this death, but finds solace when she finally agrees to attend a prayer meeting. God has spoken to her, and she becomes born again. She is happy. She goes to the prison to see her son’s killer to tell him she has forgiven him. He tells her that he has also had a religious conversion and found God. He has repented his actions, and God has forgiven him as well. This angers Shin-ae. How can God forgive this man before she does? He didn’t wrong God; he wronged her and her son? God shouldn’t have the power to forgive him before she does. Shia-ae then develops a new mission – punish God. She goes out and does mocks the Christians, has random sex in fields, and essentially completes loses it again.

Secret Sunshine, I think, reflects two truths about religion. One is the comfort that religion can bring, and one is the anger that it can inspire. At first, Shin-ae finds that comfort. Her belief in God allows her to move past her son getting murdered, and for a while, she is happy. But it is a short lived happiness. Religion provides nothing more than a band-aid for her pain. The pain is still there, and still real, inside of her.

Do-yeon Jeon is, to put it bluntly, amazing in the film. It was the best female performance I saw in 2007, and to be honest, I’m not sure I’ve seen a better one since. It is easy to see why she has won numerous awards for the movie, including the Best Actress prize at the Cannes film festival. She captures Shin-ae in four unique, complex stages. First as a grieving widow trying to make the best life she can for her son. Next as a frantic mother, first looking for her son, and then falling apart after his death. Then as the religious fanatic, finding comfort in God. Then as the woman who tries to punish God for his perceived transgressions against her. In the last scene in the movie (which I will go into a little later), she seems to have moved onto to yet another stage. But this is not a schizophrenic performance. It is one grounded in reality, and each transition seems natural.

Lost in all the praise for Do-yeon Jeon was an equally remarkable performance by Kang-so Song as her one real friend Jong Chan. At first, we think he is sort of sad and pathetic – following Shin-ae around like a lost puppy dog with a school boy like crush on her. In the first part, when she is un-religious, so is he. When she gets frantic and goes looking for her son, he’s there. When she joins the Christian group, so does he. When she leaves, so does he. He is mocked by both his friends, and hers, for most of the films with remarks about how in love with her he is. He doesn’t defend himself, or deny it. But there is a scene that completely flips our perception of him when Shin-ae decides to start punishing God. She tries to seduce him, and he rejects her advances. He seems disappointed in her, but he does not leave. You could argue, if you chose, to say that Jong Chan is really just a nice guy who doesn’t want to take advantage of Shin-ae. That he is in fact in love with her, but doesn’t want to have her that way. But I think the scene means something different. I think that Jong Chan represents God – at least how we would like God to be. He is always there for her, never judges her, and follows her everywhere. When she needs him, he’s there and when she turns her back on him, he still loves her. He is the ever loving, benevolent God. He does not step in to try and stop the pain in her life, or prevent her for making mistakes. But he loves her unconditionally and non-sexually.

I think ultimately though, that Secret Sunshine rejects the idea of looking to God for answers. In the final scene of the movie, Shin-ae is still lost and broken and angry – but she seems to have moved beyond her need for vengeance against the God who wronged her. She turns to Jong Chan, who is still there, for support. The camera then slowly pans away from them, finally settling on the ground strewn with toys. To me the message is clear. If you want answers and comfort in your life, you do not turn towards the heavens for them. You have to find them here, on earth.

Secret Sunshine is a masterpiece, pure and simple. The fact that it has not got North American distribution is both understandable, and regrettable. Here is a dark film – and a long one at nearly two and half hours. It does not meet the normal requirements for Asian cinema to be released over here – mainly that it isn’t an action a horror film. It is dark character study. It’s hard to imagine people flocking to the theaters to see it – but it’s a shame that serious filmgoers do not have a chance to see one of the best films of recent years. Hopefully, this will change soon.