Tuesday, November 28, 2023

A Singular Film by John Singleton: Boyz N the Hood

About a month ago, the airwaves were filled with tributes to Richard Roundtree, dead at 81.  Back in 1971, at age 29, Roundtree soared to international celebrity in Shaft. The story of a tough, sexy Black detective combing the mean streets of Manhattan helped launch the blaxploitation craze, in which crime dramas, martial arts dramas, and the occasional urban comedy featured African American casts, raw languages, and funky musical scores. As an underling at Roger Corman’s down-and-dirty New World Pictures, I worked on my share of blaxploitation flicks, but ours tended to emphasize female nudity.  We were the first to corral the talents of the bodacious Pam Grier, but my most vivid memory of that era is working on 1975’s TNT Jackson, in which a Playboy centerfold named Jeanne Bell played a kung fu expert fighting off bad guys in Hong Kong.

 The blaxploitation era as a whole had the virtue of helping talented Black performers become stars. But it didn’t make for the world’s best movies. Cut to 1991, the year when a 24-year-old writer-director set Hollywood a-buzzing with a coming-of-age drama set in South Central L.A. Boyz n the Hood started out as part of Singleton’s application for the famous USC Film School. Feeling deeply connected to the gang-ridden urban environment in which he himself had grown up, he knew from the start that this was material he had to direct himself. Which didn’t mean he made the film in a vacuum. Some of the early material involving four young boys checking out a dead body was influenced by the 1986 film, Stand by Me. And when he sold his script to Columbia Pictures in 1990, the greenlight came quickly because of the box office success of Spike Lee’s 1989 streets-of-Brooklyn masterpiece, Do the Right Thing.

 Singleton’s story, which leaps seven years at mid-point, explores what it’s like to grow up in an area dominated by gang violence. At ten, the little boys of the Crenshaw neighborhood of South Central, are already aware that they can easily become targets. There are roughnecks around to taunt them, and the local police (including an arrogant Black cop) are less than helpful in keeping trouble at bay. Young Trey has the advantage of a tough-love dad determined to keep him on the straight and narrow; young Ricky is a budding football talent. But as this section ends, Ricky’s half-brother, the chubby Doughboy, is already being arrested for shoplifting. The stage is set for the drama that is to follow.

 As a very young filmmaker, Singleton was helped by a cast that contained old pros as well as some bright new talents. The script’s essential father figure, “Furious” Styles, was portrayed  by the gifted Laurence Fishburne, who’d played major stage roles and been featured in films like Apocalypse Now and The Color Purple. Fortunately, Singleton had met him on the set of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse¸ where he was working as a production assistant and security guard. Day jobs have their uses: Singleton met Ice Cube while serving as an intern on the Arsenio Hall Show, then gave him a central role (as the teen-aged Doughboy) that has propelled the rapper into a major acting career. The elegant Angela Bassett played her first significant film character as Trey’s upwardly mobile mother Reva in Singleton’s film; both Cuba Gooding Jr. and Morris Chestnut—as 17-year-old Trey and Ricky—essentially began their careers with Singleton. (Bassett has since become a two-time Oscar nominee, and Gooding won the supporting actor statuette in 1996 for Jerry Maguire.) Nia Long and Regina King can be spotted too.



Thursday, November 23, 2023

Shine On, Flower Moon: Scorsese on the Prairie

Recently I’ve heard from several admirers of David Grann’s 2017 bestseller, Killers of the Flower Moon: the Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. These readers—including Jack El-Hai, a colleague known for his work as a biographer—are disappointed by Martin Scorsese’s new film adaptation of Grann’s book. They find the film, among other things, too long, too lacking in sympathetic characters, and too focused on one family’s egregious behavior to capture the magnitude of the problem the book confronts.

 I can’t agree with them, partly because I’ve never read Grann’s book. So I don’t exactly know what was lost in the transfer from page to screen. I do know that the filmmakers, deeply aware of the strong emotions invested in this project by indigenous groups, worked hard to avoid any accusation that this was a “white savior” project. They didn’t want this, in other words, to be one of those movies in which white-skinned men of good conscience rescue suffering Native Americans from their oppressors. Scorsese even goes so far as to make an appearance at the beginning of the film, spelling out his intentions. And I’ve heard that star Leonardo DiCaprio, a longtime Scorsese collaborator, made the gutsy decision not to star as an heroic FBI agent but rather to play a not-too-bright World War I veteran whose credulous nature contributes to the disastrous love story at the center of the film version.

 Taking the film as a film—and not as an adaptation of an important book—I have to say that I found it enthralling. Though well over three hours long, it caught me in its grip and wouldn’t let go. Partly this is a matter of a brilliant production design, best appreciated on an IMAX screen. I will long be haunted by the memory of Osage men, having sadly concluded that their traditional way of life is dead and buried, suddenly reveling in a spurting plume of crude oil on their land. And there’s a stunning moment much later in the film when firefighters battling an arson blaze seem like inhabitants of Dante’s Inferno.

 Moviegoers who have watched loads of classic westerns will be enthralled by this apparently authentic look at the Osage people, circa 1920, following the discovery of oil. These Native Americans do not live in wigwams or hogans, nor do they dress in buckskin and wear feathers in their hair. Now wealthy because of their land rights, they speak good English, attend the local Catholic church, and glide into their squalid Oklahoma town in taxis driven by white men. Young women like Mollie may proudly wrap themselves in tribal blankets, but also cover their heads in stylish chapeaux. Played by rising star Lily Gladstone, Mollie is hardly the pathetic little squaw of many a western. Strong and spirited, she has no problem in choosing DiCaprio’s Ernest as her husband, and sharing with him (at least at first) an intense connubial life.

 If Ernest doesn’t seem worthy of his bride, it’s at least partly because of his allegiance to his uncle, played by Scorsese regular Robert De Niro as William King Hale. In his illustrious career, De Niro has played many bad hombres. But there must be a special circle of hell for the man he portrays here. King Hale speaks the Osage language and loudly touts his friendship with the Osage people. But ultimately his eye is on those lucrative Osage land rights, and the devil take the consequences.

 A clever (though controversial) device at the film’s end invites us to put this tragic story into perspective. Bravo, Mr. Scorsese.


Tuesday, November 21, 2023

“Saltburn” and “The House of Sand and Fog”: Location, Location, Location

It’s perhaps appropriate that one of Emerald Fennell’s major acting credits is the role of Camilla Parker Bowles in the Netflix miniseries The Crown. There’s something entirely apt about a woman with a yen for the perverse playing a real-life English villainess, opposite Emma Corrin’s dewy Princess Diana. As a writer/director too, Fennell seems to gravitate toward the ominous and the grotesque. Her first feature as a director, Promising Young Woman, is an often-macabre film about a revenge fantasy that becomes all too real. In 2021, it wowed critics and audiences (and me), landing five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Fennell herself was singled out for two nominations, for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. She took home the golden statuette for the latter category. I discovered she’d also played a tiny role in the film, as the uncredited host of a Blowjob Lips Make-Up Video Tutorial.

 Moving on from that triumph, Fennell has now given us Saltburn, a film seemingly made for those who’d enjoy tearing wings off of butterflies and torturing puppies. When I watched it in a large L.A. auditorium, it elicited nervous giggles and guffaws, but I’m not sure the audience was having fun. We knew from the start that despite the film’s cheery Oxford opening scenes there were going to be gloomy times ahead. For one thing, the film’s central character is played by Barry Keoghan, who took an ominous role in The Killing of the Sacred Deer and was the pathetically lovelorn young man who comes to no good end in The Banshees of Inisherin. Small, pockmarked, and dour (though he has lovely blue eyes), Keoghan plays Oliver, a brilliant but lonely new student who’s taken under the wing of the gregarious and gorgeous Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). When a family tragedy for Oliver evolves into an invitation to spend the summer at Felix’s fabulous country estate, we think we know where the movie is going. Turns out we don’t.

 Yes, we’ve all seen films in which a stately home plays a central role. Think Downton Abbey, Gosford Park, even Rebecca’s Manderley. We’re primed to feel sorry for the outsider who just doesn’t fit into the world of wealth and privilege, with its sneering butlers, fancy dress balls, and portraits of princely ancestors in the hallways. But as matters get more and more grotesque, we’re no longer sure who deserves our pity. I suspect Fennell enjoys our confusion, because the clues don’t exactly add up. She’s more interested in dark jokes, like Oliver skulking through a Midsummer Night’s Dream-themed birthday celebration wearing an embroidered jacket and a pair of antlers on his head (he’s horny, get it?). And of course Oliver’s intimate involvement with the Catton family leads to a cruel final Twist.

 There aren’t any jokes at all in House of Sand and Fog, a brilliantly executed 2003 drama that centers on home ownership. The house in question, located in a seaside community near San Francisco, was inherited by Cathy (Jennifer Connelly), who’s dealing with marital and drinking  problems. When she loses the house through some sloppy county legal errors, it’s quickly purchased by an exiled Iranian colonel (Ben Kingsley) and his family. Cathy vows revenge, and is helped by a married deputy sheriff who falls for her in a big way. This is a heart-breaking tale in which everyone (mostly) means well, but no one comes out well in he end. The story, based on an Andre DuBus III novel, is complicated but never confusing. And if you’re human, you might shed a tear or two for the fools these mortals be.