And Still No Arrests?

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri draws considerable attention. I hadn’t heard of the movie until it started gaining momentum. Although Three Billboards was a top contender to win Best Picture, The Shape of Water overshadowed it. Three Billboards is the more straightforward dramatic Oscar nominee with plenty of great performances. It’s extremely profane like writer/director Martin McDonagh’s previous films. McDonagh was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, though the story was loosely inspired by a real life woman who put up accusatory billboards. The titular three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri are put up by Mildred Hayes when her deceased daughter’s case goes unsolved for 7 months. The billboards read: “Raped While Dying,” “And Still No Arrests?,” and “How Come, Chief Willoughby?

Three Billboards is as emotional as it sounds, but there are lighter moments. Frances McDormand more than earned her second Best Actress win as the determined mother on a mission. After his success in Manchester by the Sea, Lucas Hedges played another son from a dysfunctional family. John Hawkes plays Mildred’s abusive ex-husband and Samara Weaving plays the dimwitted 19 year old he’s dating. Kathryn Newton only briefly appears as the deceased Angela Hayes. Mildred faces scrutiny from the public, but mostly the incompetent police department. Woody Harrelson was nominated for playing the misunderstood Chief Willoughby who’s dying of cancer. Abbie Cornish doesn’t drop her Australian accent to play his wife.

Harrelson’s part is a quick, but memorable role that was outshined by his co-star. Character actor Sam Rockwell won Best Supporting Actor for playing the racist officer Dixon who goes through an unexpected transformation. Dixon is at first a complicated character who lives with his mother and is the most outspoken critic of the billboards that Red Welby is in charge of. This was actually one of two Caleb Landry Jones movies nominated for Best Picture in 2017. The other being Get Out. Even Peter Dinklage took a break from Game of Thrones to appear in the movie. Dixon and Mildred eventually end up on the same page, but whether or not justice is served is left ambiguous. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is more about the impact that three simple billboards can make.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Mildred Hayes promotes her three billboards

Crashing and Burning

Crash has been called the worst Best Picture winner of all time. Despite being the clear favorite, Brokeback Mountain infamously lost Best Picture to Crash. Since the Academy wasn’t ready for a gay film to win, they went with a race film instead. Crash was critically acclaimed at the time, but it wasn’t even nominated for any of the major Golden Globe awards. I purposefully made Crash the very last Best Picture winner that I watched, just to see if it really deserves its reputation. Though writer, director, producer Paul Haggis was well intentioned, Crash is very heavy handed and so over-the-top at times it’s borderline comical. Everyone discusses race almost exclusively and are either openly racist, secretly racist, or fighting racism. Just about every race or ethnicity is accounted for. The small budget, short runtime, and filming methods make it feel like a TV movie, but the large ensemble cast is pretty good. Sometimes they make the more unnatural dialogue sound believable. I think Crash only won Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing because of the way it weaves together several interconnected storylines.

Crash takes place during Christmas in post-9/11 Los Angeles where racial tension runs high when people crash into each other. Almost every character’s arc ends when they’re redeemed or proven wrong about something. Don Cheadle is black police officer Waters who’s in a sexual relationship with his hispanic partner Ria played by Jennifer Esposito. Waters uses the relationship to get back at his mother, but he loses his mother when they discover his missing brother. Fellow Rhodey, Terrence Howard is wealthy black TV producer Cameron who doesn’t speak out against discrimination. Not until Cameron and his more vocal wife Christine played by Thandiwe Newton are racially profiled by a racist officer. Matt Dillon was singled out for praise with an Oscar nominated performance as racist cop Sergeant Ryan. He’s a bit more complex and somewhat justified with his actions. Ryan goes from sexually harassing Christine to saving her life in a pivotal car crash that changes them both. Cameron’s outlook is changed after a violent outburst that ends with the police letting him go.

Ryan Phillippe plays Ryan’s unsettled former partner Hansen who protects Cameron, but ends up committing the most racist act near the end. Ludacris and Larenz Tate are a couple of carjackers who discuss negative black stereotypes while feeding into them by hijacking cars. One of the cars they jack belongs to the district attorney and his wife. Brendan Frasier is the frustrated DA concerned about the black vote and Sandra Bullock plays against type as his openly racist wife Jean. Bullock gets top-billing despite her limited screen time. Her arc ends when she realizes her hispanic housekeeper cares more for her than her white friends. William Fichtner and Keith David also appear in a smaller capacity. Along with a Persian shopkeeper played by Shaun Toub who buys a gun and changes his locks in order to protect his business. He takes his aggression out on Michael Peรฑa who plays the hispanic locksmith Daniel. Daniel’s reassuring talk with his daughter is genuinely heartfelt, but it has a ridiculous follow through. There are Asians in the film, but none of them are main characters. In the end, Crash has merit, but there’s an air of self-importance that’s difficult to ignore.

Crash

Christine embraces Sergeant Ryan

King Kong Ainโ€™t Got Sh*t on Me!

Training Day brought the streets to the Academy Awards. Although Denzel Washington won Best Supporting Actor for Glory, Malcolm X is the closest he came to winning Best Actor. Despite winning just about every major award, Washington famously beat Russell Crowe for his role in the Best Picture winning A Beautiful Mind. Crowe was fine with the loss since the 2 actors had been friends since Virtuosity. 2001 was the only year where black performers won both Best Actor and Best Actress. Since it was the same year where Halle Berry won for Monster’s Ball.

Police Detective Alonzo Harris may not be Washington’s most defining performance, but he sure does transform into a genuinely unhinged corrupt cop. Training Day takes place entirely in one day where Alonzo Harris trains rookie cop Jake Hoyt. Ethan Hawke was also nominated for playing the more by the book police officer. Jake is increasingly unsettled by Alonzo’s brutal behavior. Alonzo is an L.A. Narcotics officer who believes he has to be just as rough as the people he’s putting away. Training Day is a distinctly black film, but race doesn’t always factor in.

The African American Antoine Fuqua is the director, but David Ayer is the writer. Famous black singers like Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and Macy Grey are in the cast, but there’s also crucial roles for Scott Glenn, Cliff Curtis, and Eva Mendes. Though Alonzo’s actions are partly sanctioned by his superiors, he goes too far by seizing a large sum of money to pay off a debt, killing a fellow officer, and framing Jake for the crime. Jake gets his revenge and Denzel truly earns his Oscar with an impassioned declaration that “King Kong ain’t got sh*t on me!” Training Day is a different kind of buddy cop movie.

Training Day

Officer Jake Hoyt rides with Detective Alonzo Harris

A Lifetime of Hate

American History X explores a hateful mind. The 90’s were filled with movies you just had to be ready for. American History X is an educational film, but I can’t imagine anyone seeing it in school. First time director Tony Kaye made an impression even though he sabotaged his own career by denouncing it. American History X follows a Neo-Nazi skinhead in San Diego who somehow manages to change for the better. It’s not an easy role to get right, but Edward Norton delivered his second Oscar nominated performance in only 2 years.

Derek Vinyard spreads hate, racism, xenophobia, and anti-semitism to a growing number of followers. Fairuza Balk plays his equally twisted girlfriend Stacey and Ethan Suplee goes overboard as his skinhead friend Seth. Stacy Keach is perhaps the most despicable as the older Neo-Nazi leader Cameron. Norton was so committed that he shaved his head and wore a prominent swastika tattoo on his chest. Flashbacks are shown in black & white since that’s where most of the hate is. Most of Derek’s hate can be traced to his deceased father. Derek is left with his chain-smoking mother played by an unrecognizable Beverly D’Angelo.

She causes problems by dating a Jew played by screen legend Elliott Gould. There’s also Derek’s liberal sister Davina played by Jennifer Lien and fellow Edward, Edward Furlong as his impressionable younger brother Danny. Danny idolizes his big brother, but all that changes after a very disturbing curb stomping incident. Only in prison does Derek question his entire identity. Thanks to positive black influences like his former teacher Dr. Sweeney played by Avery Brooks and down-to-Earth cellmate Lamont. Derek wants his brother to be better, but sadly life isn’t that simple. In the end, American History X offers a poignant lesson of not living a life filled with hate.

American History X

Derek is placed under arrested

Attica! Attica!

Dog Day Afternoon is a perfect movie for the anti-establishment 1970’s. Based on the real life Chase Manhattan bank robbery perpetrated by John Wojtowicz and Salvatore Naturile in 1972. I’ve been wanting to see Dog Day Afternoon for years since I’ve seen it parodied on The Simpsons and even SpongeBob of all places. The R rating is mostly for language that they do call attention to a few times. Dog Day Afternoon is an all time best crime film that had serious competition from Jaws and eventual Best Picture winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Although based on the event’s Life Magazine article “The Boys in the Bank,” the movie’s only win was Best Original Screenplay. Frank Pierson’s script is a lot like director Sidney Lumet’s first film 12 Angry Men. Dog Day Afternoon also takes place in real time with a small cast of characters that we get to know over the course of one heated afternoon.

Dog Day Afternoon focuses on the 2 bank robbers, bank employees, police negotiators, and civilians. The renamed Sonny Wortzik beared likeness to Al Pacino, but the actor backed out several times before settling on a performance. An Oscar nominated Pacino was at the height of his fame. He turns Sonny into a sympathetic figure and unlikely hero of the people. His “Attica!” chant perfectly captures his distrust of authority. The crowd gets worked up into a frenzy and of course the media makes a spectacle out of the crisis. Pacino’s fellow Godfather co-star John Cazale plays his much more reserved partner Sal Naturile. Unlike the more outspoken and commanding Sonny, we don’t learn too much about Sal. Their initial bank robbery goes south in an almost comical way. Hostages include the asthmatic security guard, Sully Boyar as the frustrated bank manager Mulvanny, Penelope Allen as lead bank employee Sylvia “Mouth,” and the rest of the all-female bank tellers. The women develop stockholm syndrome and don’t show much fear of their captors.

The primary police negotiators couldn’t be more different from one another. Charles Durning is the more emotional street Sergeant Moretti and James Broderick is the more calm FBI Agent Sheldon. As the movie unfolds, we learn the shocking truth about Sonny’s personal life. He has an overprotective mother and a wife he can’t stand, but the most unexpected twist is the relationship he has with another man. Homosexuality was a sensitive topic back in 1975, so the movie is careful not to make it seem like a joke. Chris Sarandon was also nominated for his portrayal of Sonny’s lover Leon who seeks a sex change operation. Though it’s never made explicitly clear if that’s the whole reason for the robbery. Their phone conversation is intense, but that’s the extent of their interactions. Most of Sonny’s requests for food and transportation are approved until the crisis ends in an instant. Dog Day Afternoon handles crisis with all the intrigue and character depth you’d hope for.

Dog Day Afternoon

“Attica! Attica!”

Top of the World, Ma!

White Heat is one of the greatest gangster movies I’ve ever seen. Yet it was only nominated for Best Story at the Academy Awards. Like so many other classics, I only knew White Heat for the famous and often misquoted closing line “Made it ma! Top of the world.” Ironically it was my own ma who strongly recommended I watch the movie. James Cagney broke typecast when he starred in Yankee Doodle Dandy, but returning to the tough guy roles that made him famous was his only option in the late 40’s. Cagney didn’t get along with Warner Bros, so it was an awkward reunion.

White Heat delves deep into the twisted mind of a gangster. Arthur “Cody” Jarrett is the remorseless head of a criminal gang. Though he seems heartless on the surface, Cody is a serious mama’s boy who tries to make her proud. Even though “Ma” is every bit the criminal mastermind he is. After a great train robbery, the Jarret gang hideout in Los Angeles till the heat dies down. The U.S. Treasury stays hot on their tail when Cody gives himself up. Most of the movie takes place in jail where undercover agent Hank Fallon is tasked with getting information out of Cody.

There’s betrayal and close calls around every corner. After playing a similar character in The Best Years of Our Lives, Virginia Mayo now plays Cody’s wife Verna who betrays her incarcerated husband for “Big Ed.” When Cody escapes to rob a chemical plant, it’s all over for him when Hank contacts the police. Not only does Cody suffer from debilitating headaches, but he goes completely insane with one last rampage. It costs him his life, but he’s finally on top of the world. Cagney made the role his own and should have been recognized for it, because White Heat goes out in a blaze of glory.

White Heat

“Made it Ma! Top of the World!”

The Rat Symbolizes Obviousness

The Departed is the only Martin Scorsese movie to win Best Picture and Best Director. We all know it should’ve been Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or Goodfellas, but I’m glad it was something that emphasised what he does best. A hard R crime thriller with shocking gang related violence, heavy profanity, and morally grey characters. The Departed sounds like it was tailor-made for Scorsese, but it’s actually an American remake of the 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs. Which technically makes The Departed the first remake to win Best Picture. I’ll admit my only knowledge of the movie was from the Simpsons parody episode “The Debarted.”

Scorsese elevates the foreign source material with a stellar all-star cast and a scenery change to Boston. “I’m Shipping Off to Boston” is the perfect song to kick things off. Jack Nicholson’s last great film role was playing Irish mobster Frank Costello. He’s a laid back gangster based on Whitey Bulger who takes a liking to young Colin Sullivan. Although Brad Pitt produced with the intention of starring, the role went to Boston native Matt Damon instead. Sullivan is the first rat who works as a mole for Costello inside the state police department. Scorsese’s new golden boy Leonardo DiCaprio plays dropout recruit Billy Costigan Jr. Costigan is the second rat who works undercover for the police in order to put Costello away.

Sullivan and Costigan don’t meet until the end, but they’re both flawed and desperate to maintain their cover. Their only direct connection is a psychiatrist played by Vera Farmiga that they’re both sleeping with. Aside from Costello, Costigan has to prove himself in front of his brutal right-hand played by Ray Winstone. The Massachusetts State Police has several big names including Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, and Mark Wahlberg. I’ll admit I sometimes get Damon and Wahlberg mixed up since they both have thick Boston accents. Wahlberg is surprisingly the only actor nominated for his role as the profane Staff Sergeant Dignam. The climax is intense, unexpected, and lives up to the title with characters departing left and right. “X’s” are a perfect way to signal death, but ending with a literal rat is a little obvious. The Departed is a well-crafted product of its environment.

The Departed

Costigan confronts Sullivan on a rooftop

Bill the Butcher

Gangs of New York is a story only Martin Scorsese could tell. Both as a native New Yorker and gangster enthusiast. Scorsese was fascinated by the history of New York and the 1927 non-fiction novel The Gangs of New York was the best way to explore it. Though it was a troubled production that took 2 decades to make, 3 years to film, and it was delayed 1 year because of 9/11. Gangs of New York is worthy of a Best Picture nomination, but it’s far from the masterpiece Scorsese was hoping for. Most of the cast does an admirable job, but Gangs of New York is really held together by one performance. Daniel Day-Lewis is dedicated as ever to playing the ruthless native New York gang leader Bill the Butcher.

William Poole actually existed, but he was renamed with the more on the nose name William Cutting. Day-Lewis was only nominated for Best Actor, but his charismatically unhinged performance sort of encompasses every role he ever won for. He has ties to Irish culture like Christy Brown, the mustache and warped religious mindset of Daniel Plainview, and the 1800s tall hat of Abraham Lincoln. Bill is far more violent in his rivalry with the Irish Dead Rabbits. This was the first Scorsese picture to star Leonardo DiCaprio. His Irish accent is more Americanized as he seeks revenge for his slain father.

Actual Irishmen like Liam Neeson and Brendan Gleeson play a part, but John C. Reilly and Henry Thomas do a fine job with their respective accents. The very English Jim Broadbent does surprisingly well with corrupt New York politician “Boss” Tweed. The only weak link is Cameron Diaz, because she feels a little too modern for a period piece. In the nearly 3 hour runtime, Gangs of New York manages to capture a seldom seen New York City from the 1800s and tackle rival gang wars, racism towards abolished slavery, hatred towards Irish immigrants, and anti-draft sentiment fairly well.

Gangs of New York

William Cutting rallies his gang

It is the East, and Juliet is the Sun

O Romeo + Juliet remade. Thou art more beautiful in modern day. ‘Tis the finest way for teachers to introduce William Shakespeare’s immortal play to thine youth. School is where I and a great many in mine generation hath learned of the two star-crossed lovers. Director Baz Luhrmann is all style and borrowed substance. True to keep Shakespearean dialect in spite of contemporary change. ‘Twas the second of three in his own Red Curtain Trilogy. After Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet set the stage for a tragedy told in a manner not seen. Unless West Side Story be counted.

Fair Verona hath become Verona Beach. The Montagues and the Capulets art feuding gang members with the same petty squabbles. Before Leonardo DiCaprio found romance aboard the Titanic, he won the heart of the fair and beauteous Juliet. Romeo ’tis a beachfront pretty boy with a lust for trouble. After My So-Called Life, Claire Danes played Juliet with her head in the clouds. Both art more passionate with loving glances and tender kisses. The ball is an elaborate costume party that drugs and musical interludes do enhance. The balcony monologue is all the more loving in a pool where they swim. Be they wed by thine Father Laurence and helped along by Juliet’s nanny.

Their union is consummated through tasteful passion. Mercutio is in part black and possibly gay as Romeo’s friend now faces the longsword of a gun. Tybalt is ruthless and crazed with John Leguizamo in the role. Violent means lead to violent ends as police Captain Prince banishes Romeo. Paul Rudd is Dave Paris, the governor’s son betrothed to a saddened Juliet. When death cometh to Romeo and Juliet, ’tis made more tragic as Juliet awakens before her beloved Romeo is poisoned. Her happy dagger is a gun that ends this tale of woe on the saddest note I may ever know. Romeo + Juliet ’tis a hip young modern classic.

Romeo + Juliet

Romeo and Juliet profess their love

Watch Out Mister… Here Comes the Twister!

The Human Tornado feels more intentionally bad than accidentally bad. Dolemite was far from high art, but I don’t expect that from Blaxploitation. Rudy Ray Moore fully embraces his Dolemite identity for an even crazier sequel 1 year later. With a title like The Human Tornado, you’d swear this was a superhero flick. Everything about Dolemite is exaggerated. He speaks in spoken word poems more often, his sexdrive is in overdrive, and all of his kung fu fights in the climax are sped up.

As for the movie, the picture quality is worse, the editing is ridiculous, and I’m pretty sure they dubbed a lot of the dialogue. Dolemite now finds himself finishing a comedy tour, but dealing with more blatantly racist police officers. He flees to California with his friends and a particularly flamboyant hostage. A young Ernie Hudson plays one of his friends, but I still don’t recognize most of the cast. Dolemite has to save his friend Queen Bee from a gangster and rescue two of his girls from kidnappers.

The R rating is exploited even further with more uncomfortable violence (mostly directed at women), almost constant profanity, and just about every actress getting naked whether it makes sense or not. I know you’re not suppose to take it seriously, since they throw in stuff like an out of nowhere sex fantasy. The Human Tornado is a whirlwind of nonsensical ideas.

The Human Tornado

Dolemite does kung fu

Preceded by: Dolemite