15 years ago today, Halle Berry and Denzel Washington both won Oscars at the 74th annual Academy Awards ceremony.
Creed, directed by Ryan Coogler, is the 7th film in the Rocky saga, which over nearly four decades has chronicled the arduous journey of Rocky Balboa, the Italian Stallion. This saga traverses through the mean streets of Philadelphia, extends to the hard hitting gyms of Los Angeles, across time and the ocean to what was once known as the Soviet Union and back again. For those of you who have never seen a Rocky film, you may be asking yourself if it is a prerequisite. The answer is no. Well, not necessarily. You can walk into a theater today, buy a ticket for Creed, a box of popcorn or a pack of Twizzlers, and enjoy all 133 minutes of the movie without knowing who Apollo Creed AKA the Master of Disaster, AKA the King of Sting, AKA the Count of Monte Fisto ever was. But it would help if you did your homework.
Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the son of Apollo Creed, who was once the most popular heavy weight boxing champion of the world. We first meet Adonis, or Donnie as he prefers to be called, in a juvenile detention center. Donnie has to be pulled off of another youth who insulted his deceased mother and invoked his wrath. He pummels this larger boy with all of the rage he has inside of him and right away we see, misdirected as it may be, that Donnie has the spirit and heart of a fighter within him. Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) pays a visit to Donnie in his cell and befriends him. She tells Donnie that she was the wife of Apollo Creed and offers to let him live with her.
Over the next twenty years, Donnie lives with Mary Anne and eventually immerses himself into the underground boxing world of Tijuana, Mexico. He fights 15 times and has an undefeated record. But fighting is his night job. During the day he works at a financial institution where he is newly promoted. He promptly resigns and informs Mary Anne that he plans to pursue boxing fulltime. She is horrified at the thought of him following in his father’s footsteps. Despite her objections which include a torrent of bad memories she recalls of Apollo being nursed back to health fight after fight, and ultimately dying in the ring, Donnie leaves the Creed compound in search of realizing his destiny as a prizefighter.
Donnie’s first stop is Delphi Boxing Academy in Los Angeles. We see his father’s portrait venerably on display. This is hallowed ground, perhaps not far from where Apollo trained at Tough Gym to become one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time. Tough Gym is where he led Rocky to redemption after having lost the championship belt to Clubber Lang when Mickey died. It’s where a fighter goes to get what Apollo famously dubbed the “Eye of the Tiger.” Delphi Boxing Academy is being managed by Tony “Little Duke” Burton (Wood Harris). Tony is unwilling to train Donnie, writing him off as an amateur in a world where real boxers have to fight in order to survive. Undaunted, Donnie climbs into the ring and challenges any fighter to spar with him. He puts the keys to his new Mustang up as collateral wagering it for a chance to be trained at Delphi. If any fighter can land a glove on him he’ll surrender the keys. Tony watches on. Donnie ducks the first few punches of a game challenger and knocks him out with a wicked counter punch. He roars in defiance of Tony’s refusal to take him seriously as a fighter. But Donnie’s bravado is ultimately silenced by Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler (Andre Ward), Delphi’s best boxer and heavy weight contender, moments after Donnie’s short lived victory. Next stop: Philadelphia, PA.
Donnie tracks down Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) at his restaurant Adrian’s. Donnie asks Rocky to train him. “I don’t do that stuff anymore,” Rocky says. Donnie starts to recant stories of Apollo, details only Rocky would know. Donnie tells Rocky he knows about the secret third fight they had after Apollo successfully trained Rocky to regain his championship belt. He asks Rocky who won that third fight. “It’s sort of a secret” Rocky says, impressed that Donnie knows these things but not yet sure of how. Then it dawns on Rocky, as he studies the young man in front of him that only someone in Apollo’s inner circle could know such things. “What are you like a cousin or something?” he asks. Donnie then tells Rocky that he is the son of Apollo Creed.
If Creed is to stand on its own, it must get out of the dual shadow of both the legend of Apollo Creed (as the progeny of any sports legend must ultimately do) and the legacy of Rocky. This shadow includes 6 previous films, an academy award (Rocky was nominated for 10 Oscars and won for Best Picture in 1976), a score by Bill Conti which is synonymous with victory and routinely played in professional sports stadiums, and an enduring folklore which continues to champion the underdog in society. Can Creed do this? Well, it would be unrealistic to expect this from a 7th installment of a saga. Yet Creed has what it takes to merit its own successive sequels.
Where Creed may be lacking is in the antagonist department. Rocky tells Donnie that his biggest opponent and challenge he’ll ever face in the ring is the one he sees in the mirror. While Donnie’s repressed emotion at the loss of his parents certainly presents a formidable obstacle in his rise to become a champion in this movie, will that be enough of a rival to keep us interested? After all, Rocky had Apollo to contend with and partner with for 4 movies. I, nor any other paying moviegoer I would venture, am interested in seeing Adonis Creed fight himself in and out of the ring for 3 more movies. Adonis will need a larger than life opponent to push him to excel to greatness, just as Apollo pushed Rocky to the limit, to the boundaries of that place that all would-be champions must go to prove to themselves that they are worthy of that pinnacle.
That being said, Creed certainly is a juicy, mouthwatering, appetizer and what I hope turns out to be the first of several more Creed plots. And oh yeah, maybe it’s time we retire, as great as it is, Rocky’s theme music. Adonis will need his own anthem if he is to become the cultural hero that Rocky has become. Questlove, got anything?
Top Five is the story of Andre Allen, a comedian who is at the precipice of his career and struggling to navigate through a conundrum of celebrity. It’s written and directed by Chris Rock and produced by Jay Z and Kanye West. Played by Chris Rock, Andre is a recovering alcoholic in the 12 step program who is engaged to Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) who is a reality television star. Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) is assigned to interview Allen for the New York Times, and the film opens up with the two of them strolling down a New York street, conversing about race and politics. Andre points out that whenever something goes wrong in the country, White people point the blame at President Barack Obama. Chelsea shoots back saying that the next president will be a woman, a Latina, a lesbian, and then America may even have another disabled president. Andre steps off the sidewalk into the middle of the street to further illustrate his point that America is still a country plagued by racism. He holds up his hand to hail a cab thinking that because he is a Black man no cabbie will stop. To his dismay and embarrassment, the second cab that sees him screeches to a halt-an ironic nod at the current place of race relations in America fraught with continuous advances and regressions.
Andre finds his status as a comedian in serious jeopardy. On one hand, his star is rising in the public’s eye thanks to a string of commercially successful movies in which he plays a character called Hammy. Hammy is a police officer who just so happens to be a bear. Dressed in a bear costume and looking like Kanye West’s mascot on The College Dropout album cover, Andre as Hammy is a super cop of the order of Action Jackson. Fans everywhere love Hammy. Yet Andre knows that these sorts of blockbuster movies he continues to make aren’t fooling his most ardent fans, who’ve been following him since his days of doing standup comedy in clubs. Andre also has a new movie he is promoting called Uprize about the Haitian Revolution. Chelsea underscores what Andre already knows when she asks him why he isn’t funny anymore. Andre responds by acknowledging that people want him to be funny like he was when he first started doing comedy. When he first started making people laugh, he did it high on drugs and booze. Now sobriety has taken a toll on his ability to connect with his audience. Or so he thinks. It will take a fairy tale ending, replete with princes and princesses, to erase the curse of addiction and restore Andre’s confidence to once again be the comedian that everyone first fell in love with on stage.
In essence, Top Five is an amoebic romcom that at once pays homage to Hip Hop (think Brown Sugar), takes you on a behind the scenes tour of a comedian’s private life (think Funny People), and does so with perhaps the most star-studded cast of budding and legendary Black comedians since Harlem Nights. Richard Pryor isn’t there. Eddie Murphy isn’t there. But Chris Rock is there, and he brilliantly sums up their importance to the pantheon of Black comedy, calling Pryor the most honest comic to ever grace the stage, and ranking Murphy’s performance on stage as being more exciting than Michael Jackson’s. Add to the mix, fellow past and present Saturday Night Live cast members Tracy Morgan, Jay Pharoah, Michael Che and Leslie Jones, along with Cedric the Entertainer, Bruce Bruce, Kevin Hart, Romany Malco, Sherri Shepherd, J.B. Smoove, Ben Vereen, and the incomparable Whoopi Goldberg, and you come as close to comedy bliss in the 21st century as is possible.
Even though Top Five doesn’t reach the ascent of Harlem Nights, say in scenes like the one where Della Reese and Eddie Murphy square off in the back alley, or when Redd Foxx and Della Reese compete for curmudgeon of the year, it does successfully remix it. Chris Rock graciously hands the mic to his would-be SNL successors and allows them and the others to freestyle. What happens next is something special, only able to be captured on film once in a while, when comedians are given the opportunity to improvise. You definitely get the feeling that they are heavily riffing, and spitting from the top of their domes.
The topic of conversation revolves around the question: Who’s in your top five? Hence the title, meaning which rappers are in your top five list. Now anyone who has ever been asked that question in a room full of Hip Hop heads knows that depending on who is listening, the rappers you place in your top five list could spark a heated debate. Sometimes no one will have a problem with who you placed in your top five list, but rather take exception to the order in which you’ve ranked them. Or someone may reject a specific rapper you’ve dared so courageously to defend as worthy of a top five ranking. Either way, you’ve got to be prepared to defend your guys or gals that you put in the list. Watching Rock, Jones, Pharoah and Morgan get into this discussion is like being invited into their home, into their living room for dinner. Even Jerry Seinfeld, of all people, gets in the cypher and gives his top five. Now I’ve seen and heard it all!
If who’s in your top five reveals anything about your true character, Rosario Dawson leaves the most impassioned impression of one’s love for Hip Hop since Sanaa Lathan in Brown Sugar. Chelsea defiantly shouts her top five to Andre when he asks her who is on her list. The performance comes off as something of a rallying cry for the current state of Hip Hop and its future. If the last 30 plus years have taught us anything, it’s that Hip Hop isn’t going anywhere. As the generations come and go, as in the world of comedy, there will be both stalwarts and neophytes included in top five lists. No matter your age, sex, race or geographical origin, the only thing that truly matters is who’s in your top five. Here’s my top five: The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, Nas, Tariq Trotter (Black Thought), and Common.
So, who’s in your top five?
The Godfather of Soul gets the royal treatment in the Mick Jagger production “Get On Up.” The life of James Brown, who was also known as “the hardest working man in show business,” is grittily portrayed by Chadwick Boseman. The nonlinear film jumps in and out of the life and times of James Brown, opening with the humorous yet tragic incident that landed him in jail. Incensed by the neighboring business’ refusal to refrain from using his dry cleaning business’ bathroom, Brown interrupts their meeting with a diatribe for the ages-riffle in hand. We then are ushered back to Brown’s roots in rural Georgia. We see him as an innocent child who witnesses the complex abusive and sexual relationship of his father (Lennie James) and mother (Viola Davis).
Brown’s childhood is wrought with a multidimensional sphere of experiences: Poverty, domestic abuse, abandonment, lynching, bordellos, and religious ecstasy. It’s not long before Brown winds up in prison for the petty crime of stealing a suit, and thanks to the Jim Crow south, he spends years behind bars. It’s in prison where he meets Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), who takes him in once paroled, and together they form the first of many installments of future James Brown lead bands: The Famous Flames. The rest, as they say, is history. And were it not for the two-sided nature of the music business (the music and the business), the rest of the story would be dull. But of course it’s not. It’s anything but.
Playing James Brown is a daunting enough task as it is. After all, who could possibly reproduce all of the quirks that simultaneously made you chuckle and scratch your head while listening to James Brown? Never mind the dancing, stage presence, vocal performance, showmanship, etc. There will never be another James Brown. And knowing that Jamie Foxx forever set the standard for the music biopic genre with his incomparable imitation of Ray Charles (although he had the benefit of sitting at the piano with the master himself), the bar has been raised to a virtually unattainable height. Frankly, there’s nowhere for Chadwick Boseman to go. Despite this, although Boseman never really becomes James Brown in the way that Foxx became Ray, he does manage to emphatically tell the wildly entertaining story of one of the greatest performers to ever take the stage-and do it on the good foot!
The music of James Brown is the true driving force of the movie. At one point during a rehearsal, Brown goes around the room of musicians and asks each band member to state what instrument they play. He then corrects each band member and informs them that whether it’s a trumpet, a saxophone or a trombone, what they’re really playing is a drum. The groove in the music comes from the beat. The rhythm of those songs, layered with brass winds, is an ultra magnetic force spanning time, space, and race. Good God!, no wonder it feels good. And for all of the tragedy and heartbreak you’ll learn about during the course of the movie, you’ll need that musical pick-me-up to get through it.
When I first saw the trailer for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, I made up my mind that I would not go to see it. I just couldn’t see how it would be able to top 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. It’s been nine years, after all. I resigned my continuation with the drama of Ron Burgundy and Veronica Corningstone’s tumultuous, and ultra competitive relationship, to the DVD release. At which time, I would be able to place a hold on the movie at my local library, save my money, and avoid the hype. The build up to Anchorman 2 has included everything from Will Ferrell appearing as Ron Burgundy to pitch the new Dodge Durango, to writing a book as Ron Burgundy titled Let Me Off at the Top!: My Classy Life and other Musings. He even appeared as Ron Burgundy on a Bismarck, North Dakota, local news broadcast, and co-anchored the entire show. I’ll admit that promo gimmick made me chuckle. After all, Will Ferrell is a master of improvisation. But Wednesday, when the movie opened in theaters, I caved to the pressure. The legend continues.
It’s been a while since I’ve written anything about a movie that I’ve seen. So I figured, going into Anchorman 2, I would write something about the new Adam McKay sequel. But on arrival to the movie theater, my instinct told me I might end up writing as much, if not more, about the theater itself. I’m new to the Lake Worth, FL, area. So when I did a search on moviefone.com for the nearest theaters showing Anchorman 2, I settled on Movies of Lake Worth located at 7380 Lake Worth Road. Tickets were listed as $7.00 for adults. The other theater in Lake Worth advertised their ticket prices as $8.50 for adults. This was an easy choice.
Movies of Lake Worth is located in a shopping plaza. It’s very unassuming, evidenced by the marquee which plainly displays the word “Movies” in full view. The ticket booth employee greeted me warmly when I stepped up to the glass window. “Anchorman 2 for 1:15pm please,” I proffered while sliding my debit card through the opening in the window. “Okay, but it’s cash only.” Her retort confused me. The last time I frequented a movie theater that accepted cash only was back in the mid 1990’s. In fact, that theater may have also accepted debit and credit cards, but I would have never thought to use either or, because it was a $1.00 movie theater. I backed away from the counter, and remembered that I had cash with me as well. I gave the attendant a $10.00 bill, and she gave me $4.00 back and a ticket stub. Apparently the matinée cost of a ticket is only $6.00. That’s a great price! The ticket stub did not have Anchorman 2 printed on it. It just said Cinemas: Admit One.
I walked into the theater and decided to get a soda. “What kind of sodas do you have for sale?” “We have Diet Dr. Brown’s,” the woman behind the concession stand answered. Her reply befuddled me. “I’m sorry, could you repeat that? What type of sodas do you have?” “Diet Dr. Brown’s.” At first I convinced myself that she had merely made a mistake and meant to say Dr. Pepper. But no, she had not made a mistake. I have never heard of Dr. Brown’s soda before. Maybe it’s because I’m from the Midwest. In fact we say “pop” and not “soda” in the Midwest. But apparently Dr. Brown’s has been around since 1869, as it clearly states on the can. So what do I know? “Okay I’ll take a Diet Dr. Brown’s please.” She handed me the “naturally flavor black cherry soda with other natural flavors” housed in a pink can, and I handed her $2.50. Just about that time, as I was turning with my soda in hand to walk into the theater showing Anchorman 2, an elderly woman addressed a man, who looked like he was the manager of the movie house. “Excuse me sir, could you tell them that the sound is turned down way too low in our movie?” Then it occurred to me that most of the movie goers around me were about the age of approximately 65-75. The manager turned toward her. “Which movie is it?” “12 Years a Slave,” the elderly woman replied. “The sound is always low at the beginning of the movie.” “Oh, okay,” she said, seeming to have accepted that rationale for the inaudible audio in her showing. Seconds latter a senior couple passed by me on their way to their movie. “What’s Anchorman?” “It’s a radio broadcast film,” the man said to his wife. “Oh, I see,” she said after hearing his confident answer to her question.
As is my normal routine when I go to see a movie, I headed over to the restroom after locating my theater. I hate it when nature calls during the climax of a movie I just paid to see. I entered the men’s room, through a walkway which seemed to be designed to evoke feelings of being backstage in a Broadway theater, in the dressing room of the actors. The gentleman next to my stall had just finished as I began, and was tapping down on the flush handle unsuccessfully. He let out a frustrated sigh that felt incriminating to my generation, as if to say, “they don’t make them like they used to,” and “that’s what’s wrong with this country.” As he exited, I pushed down on my flush handle. The water trickled down sparingly and reluctantly. I walked over to the sink, and as I washed my hands, I saw another gentleman behind me using the toilet. The door was open. He was standing with his back to me, with one hand operating his cell phone pressed to his ear, and his other hand…well, you get the picture. I’m always tickled by people who are so busy that they have to talk on their cell while urinating. The phone call was obviously pressing to the point where he didn’t care that the person on the other end of the phone, like me, could hear the splashing. If Anchorman 2 failed to deliver the guffaws I’d paid for, I could always think back to the laughter I was now suppressing in the men’s room.
When I exited the restroom and walked into the theater, I again was transported to the mid 1990’s. The theater was very similar to those cinema theaters of the 1990’s-narrow and flanked by two columns of seats on each side, with about six or seven seats in each row. There was only one way in and one way out. There was only one aisle. The sound of the projector could be heard in silent pauses during the movie. Faint traces of those squiggly black lines that surface every half second, in all directions, on every inch of the screen, could be detected. Visually, those squiggly lines are equivalent to the scratching sounds of vinyl records, which I particularly enjoy from a nostalgic point of view. There were only five people in the movie theater. I was the youngest person, and I would venture to say that there were a good three decades of age difference between me and the other people in the theater. One gentleman had a walker. I was curious to see how the other movie goers would respond to the raunchy, racist, sexist, crude, low-brow, comedy signature to the Anchorman franchise. Approximately thirty minutes later, I got my answer. No one had laughed out loud, except for me, and one woman walked out of the theater. This only intensified the humor of the socially unacceptable antics of Ron Burgundy, Brian Fantana, Champ Kind, and Brick Tamland.
Without spoiling the movie, I’ll just say that walking into the movie I was sure that Anchorman 2 would not be as funny as the first Anchorman. Upon leaving the theater after the movie was over, I was no longer sure that Anchorman 2 was not the funnier movie. The battle of the sexes and glass ceiling theme of the first Anchorman movie, created the kind of archetype awkward tension between Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), that supplied a perfect, seemingly unending stream of hilarious scenarios. In Anchorman 2, the theme switches to the presence of African-Americans in the workplace. Meagan Good plays Ron Burgundy’s boss Linda Jackson. The tension between Linda Jackson and Ron Burgundy is brought on by the sexually aggressive seduction of Burgundy by his boss (Meagan Good is as sexy as ever on-screen). This conflict coupled with the taboo of interracial sex in the 1970’s and 1980’s is an ordeal ripe for hilarity. Both Ferrell and Good excel at making the most of this comedic opportunity. The other themes of what is news, and what is not news, and too much news, supply a concrete foundation for the jokes that follow. And as if that’s not enough, there’s also Baxter, the irresistibly funny dog and faithful companion of Ron Burgundy. Baxter is hands down, the funniest dog to ever appear in film.
When the movie ended, the three or four other people still left in the theater made their way out. I stayed put in my seat, just in case there was an extra scene at the end hinting at an Anchorman 3 movie. There was not. The silver-haired gentleman with the walker passed by me. I nodded out of respect. I guess if you’re of a certain age, you can sit through Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and not laugh even once. Perhaps you can even enjoy the movie and not laugh once. But not me. I wiped tears of laughter away from my eyes on two occasions. I laughed hysterically, yet subdued, under my breath, releasing only a few decibels of chuckles during the funniest scenes, out of deference for the other people in attendance. I didn’t want to ruin their movie experience. Even though through the whole movie, I wanted to stand up and yell at the top of my lungs, “Are you seriously not finding this to be the funniest shit you’ve ever seen?”
It’s official. My name can now be added to the long list of movie fans who got caught up in the craze of Director Baz Luhrmann’s release of The Great Gatsby. Blame it on the “man crush” I’ve had on Leonardo DiCaprio ever since Titanic. Leo’s Jack Dawson made me want to quit college, get on board a ship as a stowaway, go to Paris, become an obscure artist, meet a Rose DeWitt Bukater, and steal her away from her millionaire fiancé. He made being a poor artist look cooler than being a gangster or a tycoon. Fast forward 16 years, and you have, essentially, the same story. A poor guy falls in love with a rich girl, and somehow has to convince her that he’s the right man for her. He’s got to separate himself from the throngs of obviously more eligible bachelors and wealthy suitors. He goes on a quest. He painstakingly sets himself on a course of rigorous self-improvement. Instead of mastering drawing, he perfects the art of becoming a gentleman; and makes nouveau riche look cooler than inherited wealth. But this drama doesn’t unfold on the deck of a ship. Well, part of it does.
Before I saw the movie, I decided to read the book. Or I should say, I decided to re-read the book. I remember being assigned F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in high school as a reading assignment. Probably about 5-10 pages into it, I thought to myself “why the hell do I have to read this?” I was an African-American teenager, living and attending high school in a predominately White neighborhood. Back then, The Great Gatsby was just a literary reminder of being Black in a White dominated world. As the title of Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece echoes, The Great Gatsby reminded me of what it felt like to be invisible. I did not identify with the protagonist Jay Gatsby, because I did not grow up poor. I grew up middle class. The world of the aristocracy was not interesting to read about. I considered myself anti-establishment. I did not have aspirations to become rich. I think mostly, like other teenagers who feel like they’re social outcasts, I just wanted to be left alone.
Fast forward 20 years, and now when I read The Great Gatsby, I don’t necessarily see Jay Gatsby in the mirror, but I do identify with him. A little. Somewhat. I now know what it’s like to fall in love with a girl and lose her to a man who’s got money. I’ve had that experience. I know what it’s like to be poor, and want to move up the economic ladder to get the girl of your dreams. That’s every poor man’s fantasy. I identified with that hunger. I identified with that ambition. While reading, I hoped to soak up any vestige of fortuity still blinking, in this age of The Great Recession, of that “orgastic” green light that Fitzgerald so eloquently wrote about.
The best way for me to describe Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, is to say that it is a movie of contrasts. From the start, this much is made clear. A grainy, black and white projection is used for the opening credits, giving them a very Nickelodeon feel. This nostalgic effect lasts only a few seconds, and gives way to a gilded makeover. As the opening credits go, so does the music. The Bryan Ferry Orchestra compositions used in the film constantly tangle with Executive Producer Jay-Z’s soundtrack. Normally, I prefer a period film to only incorporate music from the era being shown. Using Hip-Hop music in a Jazz/Big Band era at first would seem to be incongruent. And it is, from a musical standpoint. However, this incongruity helped to sharpen the contrasts between the lifestyles of the residents of East and West Egg, with that of the city (New York). The extravagant parties thrown by Jay Gatsby at his mansion look like scenes from rap videos-everything from custom luxury cars to expensive champagne. When the jazz music of the era plays in the film, all is gay. When the rap music blasts from the Dolby Digital Surround speakers in the movie theater, you can taste the excess and touch the decadence. No “old sport,” this is not your grandparent’s Great Gatsby. About half way through the movie, I noticed that an older couple, probably in their early 70’s, decided to leave the theater. I sort of chuckled, but in an understanding way. They were probably expecting Duke Ellington and Artie Shaw alone to handle the score. To be honest, so was I.
The film also presented a spectacular contrast between the living and working conditions of the rich and poor. The lush green acres of East and West Egg are paradise compared to the dry, gray ash heaps visible on the way into the city; where the sounds of steel driving hammers and gas pumps can be heard, workers are covered in soot, sweat and grease. But the East and West Eggers are wrapped in pink and white clothes made of the finest materials to be found in the entire world. It is class struggle in all of its cinematographic glory.
The only qualm I had with the film was that I did not get to meet Jay Gatsby’s father at the end. This was, perhaps, a minor omission by the film in comparison with the book. Still, it would have been nice to see Gatsby’s dad. But I’m just being a stickler, a purist. I generally enjoy the book better than the film adaptation. And this was no exception. That being said, and only having read The Great Gatsby a couple of times, I would strongly recommend it to lovers of the book.
And all that’s really left to say (and please excuse all of my “blushing”) is that once again, Leonardo DiCaprio turned in an extraordinary performance. By the end of the film, I think I was just as much in awe of Leo as Nick Carraway was of Gatsby. Maybe it’s because I don’t get invited to parties. I’m not what you call a cool or hip person. I don’t have lots of friends. I never was in the A crowd. (What a rant!) But when the movie ended, I felt like Gatsby was my friend. I felt privileged to get to know him, captivated by how mysterious he was, inspired to throw caution to the wind and dream audacious dreams, like being able to “repeat the past.” And yes, I’ve since adopted the phrase “old sport” and I plan to use it as often as possible. (OMG…I think I’m turning into Nick Carraway)
42 is the story of how Jackie Roosevelt Robinson went from an obscure baseball player for the Kansas City Monarchs to the most celebrated personality in all of Major League Baseball. Robinson wore the number 42 when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, hence the film’s title, and that number was retired once his career came to an end. No one will ever wear 42 on the baseball field again, except for today, April 15, when MLB annually recognizes the legacy of Jackie Robinson by having all major leaguers wear the number on their uniforms.
If you are a sports fan, or a history buff, then you already know the story of how Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play baseball in the majors. So if you see this movie, you already know the gist. A black man is denied access to the “whites only” world of professional baseball until a god-like figure materializes to open the door. This god-like figure isn’t omnipotent in the sense that he can demonstrate supernatural feats of force. His omniscience proves his divinity. And the one thing he knows better than anyone is that money isn’t black or white-it’s green.
When Branch Rickey (the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers played by Harrison Ford) defends his decision to integrate American baseball in 1946, he tells his office staff that there are a lot of black people in Brooklyn who love baseball. That translates to ticket sales. The only missing component is a black player. But not just any black player. Rickey needs a black player who can not only perform superbly on the field, but equally superb off the field in the torrent of 20th century American segregation.
Rickey and his staff do their homework. They start analyzing statistics of ballplayers in the Negro Leagues. Some players have the stats but not the temperament for the job and vice versa. Some players are too nice and likely “chum” for the sharks in the crowd who will no doubt show their disapproval of a black player with biting barbs. But after studying Jackie Robinson’s (Chadwick Boseman) profile, Rickey has found his man. Robinson is perfect. He attended UCLA. He’s a former U.S. Army lieutenant. He was once court-martialed because he refused to sit in the back of a bus, but he was later cleared and given an honorable discharge. His batting average is .350 (.387 in 47 games with the Monarchs according to the book Heroes of the Negro Leagues by Mark Chiarello and Jack Morelli). He’s even a Christian. In fact, he’s a Methodist like Rickey. So far so good. The only question is whether or not Robinson can stand up to the test of being jeered mercilessly by racist fans. As it turned out, Robinson would also have to withstand death threats made to himself, his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) and their infant son.
In the first meeting between Rickey and Robinson, the Dodger owner initiates a role play in his office to gage his soon to be star’s temper. Only Robinson doesn’t know that Rickey is testing him. Harrison Ford summons the scoundrel as only he can do from his acting repertoire and calls Boseman’s Robinson a “black son of a bitch.” Boseman is a monument of restrained, intense furry in his response, standing at attention to face the challenge he’s just been invited to. He asks Rickey if he wants to see if he’s got the guts to fight back. Rickey tells him no. Instead he wants to know if he’s got the guts not to fight back. The guts not to fight back like their savior Jesus Christ, and instead turn the other cheek. Later Rickey will be telling him to “run bases like the devil” on the playing field (Robinson had a penchant for stealing bases and stole home in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series). But for now, he needs to be reassured that Robinson won’t “mess up all of his plans” to present the first black ballplayer in the big leagues as a decent, amicable guy that won’t sour white America by brawling with the first person who calls him a nigger.
Rickey assigns Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier as Robinson’s guide. He acts as Robinson’s mentor, prepping him on how he should give interviews to the press and respond to hecklers. Robinson is dismissive of Smith when the sportswriter asks him how it feels to be trying out for the Montreal Royals (the Brooklyn farm team) en route to becoming a Dodger. Robinson largely ignores Smith’s question, until the same question is asked of him by a throng of white reporters, to whom he gives the reply that Smith coached him to deliver. The irony is palpable-a black ballplayer considered insignificant by white ballplayers writing off a black sportswriter.
Robinson gets his first opportunity to not “mess up” Rickey’s plans in a series against the Philadelphia Phillies in 1947. As Robinson steps up to the plate to bat, Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) pesters him with a vicious string of obscenities. He ridicules Robinson in a good ole boy twang, calling him “nigger, nigger, nigger.” His verbal onslaught is unbearable. It is unceasing. Tudyk’s repetitive pronunciation of the epithet, and the adjoining chuckle at Robinson’s displeasure was more than enough to unnerve all of the theatergoers in attendance. It set the stage for the most powerful scene in the movie, (Oscar worthy in my opinion) when Boseman articulates Robinson’s anguish by exploding in the tunnel he walks off into after failing to get on base. Boseman destroys a bat by swinging it into the walls, fueled by a deafening roar he lets loose from the pit of his soul. His scream stops time. It divides Robinson’s existence into two halves. Before it, he was a black ballplayer in the company of other black ballplayers on the field, collectively struggling against a racist society. After it, he was the only black ballplayer on the field, expected to war against it all alone. This wasn’t his first game in the majors. But it was the first game in which that tension of being the only black ballplayer on the field overcame him.
He collapses onto the floor, surrounded by splintered fragments of his bat. He is in tears. This giant of a man is sobbing, almost to the point of being inconsolable. Rickey finds his way into the tunnel to see Robinson destroyed. He tells Robinson that he must go back out on the field because he is “medicine.” By going back out on the field, he is going to heal the wounds that racism has inflicted on the consciousness of everyone watching. He is America’s panacea. And by some miracle, Robinson gets up and makes his way out of the tunnel and back onto the field.
The baseball action in 42 was riveting- enough to engage the crowd seated in the showing I sat in to clap and cheer in approval whenever Robinson stole a base or scored a run in the movie. They clapped just as enthusiastically at the epilogue, some of whom were maybe only 9 or 10 years old. The fact that those of the younger generation were moved to such a degree is the true testament of 42’s effectiveness. If the film can emotionally connect with children whose parents weren’t even alive when Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball, then its message is enduring. That, along with a sensational 1940’s era set and costume design (love those throwback jerseys), makes 42 a home run.
Quadlings, tinkers, and a china doll join the familiar cast of Munchkins, flying monkeys, and witches to conjure a tale of a conniving carnie named Oscar Diggs’ rise to power in Oz the Great and Powerful. This prequel, of sorts, to the 1939 film titled The Wizard of Oz is based on works by L. Frank Baum who wrote the original book titled The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was published in 1900.
Oscar “Oz” Diggs (played by James Franco) begins his journey in Kansas as an unsuccessful carnival magician who pulls upon more strings attached to women’s hearts than upon rabbit ears from out of hats. Oz yearns for greatness instead of the mediocrity he sees within his own existence. He despises his assistants and highlights their faults by angrily shouting insults at them. The sullen tears of a disabled girl (Joey King) who believes his powers will make it possible for her to walk again have no effect on him. Even the news from Annie (Michelle Williams), his beloved girlfriend from years passed, that she has received a marriage proposal from another suitor, does not persuade him to choose the promise of fulfillment that stands in front of him, that of a family life, over his dubious prospect for prominence. Enter the gale!
I will stop short of sounding a spoiler alert for all you stragglers out there who have not yet seen the movie. Giving away the details of a story’s denouement is wholly unforgivable. I’m still pissed off at the guy in front of me in line for Attack of the Clones who, talking to his buddy, loudly informed him and anyone else within an earshot that “Anakin gets his arm cut off in this one.” Thanks Jerk! But what I will say is that the extra few dollars to see the majestic Land of Oz in 3D is well worth it. The classic corridor themed opening credits are equally phenomenal, as is the water-spewing river fairy which made me blink, the storm of raining spears which made me flinch, and the billowy entrance of the Wicked Witch of the West which made my inner child cower.
The Wizard of Oz has always been a character that I’ve struggled to view as favorable. He is after all, a “humbug,” as the Scarecrow played by Ray Bolger in The Wizard of Oz put it. The genius of Oz the Great and Powerful lies in its ability to convince us to trade the trickery for the ingenuity, and to overlook the dastardly for the stealthy. With wicked witches in pursuit and the precious china in pieces, haggling over the would-be wizard’s virtuousness may not be the wisest course to take, depending on the seriousness of the character flaw in question and provided that he can indeed rid the land of the greater evil. And of course, for all of his slyness, we do need the Wizard to rid the land of the greater evil.
But for all the genius Oz the Great and Powerful exudes, one thing it cannot do is replicate Judy Garland (Dorothy), Ray Bolger (the Scarecrow), Jack Haley (The Tin Man), Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion) and Terry (Toto) on the yellow brick road. Though I’m told a sequel is in the works that may reprise The Wizard of Oz characters we all have grown to love over the years, nothing will ever compare to their songs. The innocence of Judy Garland’s voice in Over the Rainbow, Ray Bolger’s whimsical If I Only Had a Brain, the tenderness of Jack Haley’s If I Only Had a Heart, and the hysteria of Bert Lahr’s If I Only Had the Nerve and If I Were King of the Forest are what I would have asked the Wizard for if I was a Hollywood director in Emerald City.
“As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster…” Every gangster movie fan will recall that quote from the film Goodfellas delivered ominously by Ray Liotta. American society’s fascination with violence and power did not escape me as a child, and as far back as I can remember, I was always a fan of the Gangster movie genre. I watched gangster movies so much as a kid, I felt like some of these characters actually resided with me in my living room, or could have been members of my family-La Colesa Nostra has a good ring to it don’t you think? So I thought it was time to compile a top ten list of my favorite gangsters in cinema. (Number one being my favorite, in descending order). So ladies and gentlemen, I hope you brought your bullet proof flash drives with you and remember not to sit with your backs facing your web portal, because this could get ugly…
10. Chazz Palminteri as Sonny LoSpecchio in A Bronx Tale: Everything about Sonny is cool, from his suits, to the way he talks with his fingers, to the way he drives his car in reverse around the block. I have to admit, I took my vehicle for a spin in reverse around a block or two after watching this movie over and over again. Fortunately the police didn’t catch me acting out my gangster fantasies of being Sonny the mob boss in my 1994 Ford Escort Sport. Those were the days, when I could follow Sonny’s advice about dumping a girl on the spot if she was too selfish to reach over and unlock my door from the inside after I extended the courtesy of opening and shutting her car door for her. Now that philosophy is obsolete because of electric and remote access locks. But one of Sonny’s maxims, “Sometimes hurting somebody ain’t the answer” still rings true today, as he schools Calogero AKA “C” during his frustration over an attempt to collect $20 he lent to a friend of his. Sonny tells him, “He’s outta your life for $20, you got off cheap, forget it,” after convincing C that violence is not necessary to solve such a small problem. Who says gangsters can’t be diplomatic?
9. Gregory Hines as Goldy in A Rage in Harlem: The virtuoso of Tap dance scores big time in this mad rush for gold gangster story in which Mississippi and New York mobsters clash over loot and booty. One of the best chase scenes ever filmed features Gregory Hines’ Goldy dashing up flights of stairs, flying from roof top to roof top, and in and out of get-away-cars. Goldy’s footwork is as fanciful as the real life Hines’ dance choreography and his timing with his gun as sharp as the moves he flashed on Broadway. Any good crime and suspense drama is always enhanced by comic relief, and Goldy wisecracks with the best of them! Never once is he fooled by a pretty smile or intimidated by an opponent, be it crook or copper. The gold is what is eminent, hence the appropriate moniker – Goldy. From his first appearance on screen, groovily strolling out of a ballroom where later Screamin’ Jay Hawkins will perform at the Annual Undertaker’s Ball, momentarily pausing to greet a pretty girl on the sidewalk, and seconds later warding off a mob boss, all within a couple of strides, Goldy makes a memorable impression.
8. Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas: The character of Tommy is more like the Terminator than a button; a true maniac that somehow in his madness conjures up wit and charisma that makes you laugh seconds before or after he’s just totally annihilated somebody for no reason at all. But I’m not going to lie. If I had to go to war and I was in the trenches on a battlefield, there’s no doubt I would be calling Tommy to come to my aid. This guy is a machine, a time bomb just waiting to explode. Don’t ever remind him he used to shine shoes before he wore silk suits, forget to serve him a drink at a game of cards, or embarrass him in public. Because if you do, believe me you’re asking for trouble…and lots of it!
7. Tupac Shakur as Roland Bishop in Juice: It’s been 19 years since Juice was released in theaters and I still haven’t forgiven Bishop for killing Raheem. I mean everything was going as planned: they got in the store, they successfully held it up, they were on their way to proving they belonged in the same league as Radames, and then BANG! Bishop becomes the neighborhood’s worst nightmare. Q couldn’t even finish his set at the DJ contest with a clear conscious, and he had been waiting for that moment his whole life…Queen Latifah was hosting man! But I thought Bishop was the definition of cool when I was a teenager: The Gumby box fade, the flowing hoody, the baggy jeans and boots, and the machine gun necklace charm. Bishop turned me on to James Cagney movies like White Heat (“Made it ma, top of the world!”) and made being an outlaw look like a never ending adrenaline rush. Tupac proved to be the quintessential artist, having certainly acquired his acting chops at the Baltimore School for the Arts as a teen. As Bishop, he sums up his significance within his crew and in Hollywood with the now infamous line, “I’m the one ya’ll need to be worried about, partner!” Classic!
6. Calvin Lockhart as Silky Slim and Biggie Smalls in Uptown Saturday Night and Let’s Do it Again: Both of these Sidney Poitier directed films starring him and Bill Cosby were second to none in my household growing up as a kid. Calvin Lockhart’s portrayals are consistently as gangster as it gets and it’s difficult to choose one role over the other in each of the films, so I had to pair his characters together in the number 6 slot. When Silky Slim holds up Madame Zenobia’s establishment, he delivers the smoothest line I’ve ever heard in my life. With a machine gun clutched in his hands and mask over his face, he thanks the crowd for their cooperation by saying, “Never before have so few owed so much to so many.” Whew! It get’s even better in Let’s Do it Again when he and John Amos who, cast as Kansas City Mack, gets an honorable mention in this top ten list, go at each other’s throats over gambling territory in New Orleans, LA. Lockhart’s Biggie Smalls (Yes that’s where The Notorious B.I.G. got his alias) is cooler than cool, with a gritty baritone voice best described as unearthly, and wardrobe including leather jackets, platforms and berets. He looks like he could have just finished a set with Curtis Mayfield, who provides the masterful score for Let’s Do it Again, as he collects and pays off.
5. Robert De Niro as Vito Corleone and Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II: Another tandem this time fills in the 5th spot on this list, appropriately so, as there is no way for me to choose between these two phenomenal actors portraying two memorable roles. The Godfather Part II and it’s two main protagonists simply are a cut above most gangster films because of the way the past tale of Vito Corleone is intricately woven into the present story of Michael Corleone. Vito’s rise to power is chronicled by his emergence as a man of the common people, standing up to tyranny and economic exploitation. Michael is left to struggle with his own demons in his attempt to establish his family’s business as legitimate. From Vito insisting a neighbor’s rent be reduced by a greedy landlord, to Michael’s chess match with hypocritical government representatives who rendezvous in fancy hotels with mistresses, the Corleone men aim to find their place in world full of deceit, tricks and lies. And they do it often by making offers others seldom can refuse.
4. James Cagney as Eddie Bartlett and Humphrey Bogart as George Hally in The Roaring Twenties: The Depression era takes center stage in this gangster film where Eddie and George, former soldiers in World War I, find themselves interlocked in another war when they return home over bootlegging, prohibition. If you’ve never seen this one, James Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett will dazzle you with right hand hooks that level two brutes with one punch, fits of controlled rage that leave pretend tough guys with their cigars smashed in their faces, and one of the best gangster end scene chase sequences of all time, probably only second to White Heat. Humphrey Bogart’s George Hally is no slouch either, with an itchy trigger finger and dialing finger, never hesitating to put in his own work or telephone someone else to carry out his orders. The two characters combine to produce something really special in this timeless tale of early 2oth century America.
3. Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas in American Gangster: I literally watched this movie every single time it was broadcast on HBO when it was first released on cable, for like three weeks, or so it seemed. Wow! I understand this was a biopic and horrible events occurred in the real life account of Frank Lucas, but didn’t Denzel make you want to fill out a job application for his organization in this one? Maybe it’s just me, but I definitely wanted to go along on the ride to meet beautiful Puerto Rican beauty pageant winners, sit ringside at heavy weight championship bouts, fly to Vietnam and tell kingpins and warlords, uninvited, that I didn’t need anyone’s permission to run my own business in the states, and hold serve in a game reserved for Anglo Saxons and Italians. This character was some sort of three-part Molotov cocktail made up of politics, entrepreneurship, and racketeering. And he knew how to properly maintain carpet, as he emphatically reminded us when his was stained during a party, to use club soda and blot…never rub!
2. Samuel L. Jackson as Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction: “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness. For he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.” -Jules Winnfield. Um…Mr. scary hit man with the curly afro who just ate my Big Kahuna burger and drank my Sprite, I know I offended your boss and that I am guilty. But could you please just have mercy on me and kill me without reciting that Bible scripture first, because, I’ve never heard such a frightening thing! I think that’s how I would have responded to Jules Winnfield’s soliloquy if I was Brett, the victim, right after I lost control of my bodily fluids, and in between my tears and snotty, running nose. I honestly don’t know of a scarier hit man in the movies than Jules, who is more like a wandering philosopher. One minute he has me cracking up with laughter, the next minute contemplating miracles, and the next, double checking to make sure my door is locked. And no gangster has ever had better hair, period.
And the number 1 gangster movie role of all time is (drum roll please)…James Caan as Santino “Sonny” Corleone in The Godfather: I believe, way down in my heart, that as a child, I was immediately traumatized when I saw Sonny mowed down like wheat in a field at that tollbooth. At that young tender age, I knew nothing about stunts, special effects, blank ammunition, and fake blood. All I knew was that my hero, who saved Rocky Balboa’s wife Adrian (Talia Shire) from a physically abusive husband Carlo, by giving him the ass whipping of his life, which included punches to his face, knees to his midsection, biting his knuckles, and hitting him with his own shoe, a garbage can, the lid of the garbage can, and finally kicking him into a spewing fire hydrant, was just shot with a zillion bullets. I honestly thought it was real the first time I saw it. What are we going to do about this, I wondered? Is there anyone we can report this to or can we just take up arms to avenge this? I was ready to go after those thugs, even if it meant something bad might happen to me, like getting punched or having my toys stolen or something. But anyone who can hand out a beat down like the one Sonny, my all time favorite cinematic gangster, gives Carlo, and do it without their loose tie strung around the collar of their shirt falling off, has to be the greatest of all time.