Film Review: Basquiat (1996)

Also known as: Build A Fort, Set It On Fire (alternative title)
Release Date: August 9th, 1996
Directed by: Julian Schnabel
Written by: Julian Schnabel, John Bowe, Michael Holman, Lech Majewski
Music by: John Cale, Julian Schnabel
Cast: Jeffrey Wright, David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Benicio del Toro, Claire Forlani, Michael Wincott, Parker Posey, Courtney Love, Elina Lowensohn, Paul Bartel, Tatum O’Neal, Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, Sam Rockwell, Michael Badalucco, Joseph R. Gannascoli, Vincent Laresca, Vincent Gallo (uncredited)

Eleventh Street Production, Jon Kilik, Miramax, 107 Minutes

Review:

“What is it about art anyway that we give it so much importance? Artists are respected by the poor because what they do is an honest way to get out of the slum using one’s sheer self as the medium. The money earned, proof, pure and simple, of the value of that individual, the artist. The picture a mother’s son does in jail hangs on her wall as proof that beauty is possible even in the most wretched. And this is a much different idea than fancier notion that art is a scam and a ripoff. But you can never explain to someone who uses God’s gift to enslave, that you have used God’s gift to be free.” – Rene Ricard

Everyone has a favorite movie or few. This is one of mine and honestly, I’ve put off reviewing it because I’ve found it difficult to put into words what I love about it so much. It’s just more of a feeling and a vibe that it gives off, and as an artist myself, I felt deeply connected with the film the first time that I saw it.

While the picture is a biopic about Jean-Michel Basquiat, an artist that rose to prominence and died way too young, it is also an examination of art itself and the artist’s place in the world. It’s a real critique on the art world, especially in the opulent ’80s and the New York City scene. What makes this even more interesting, though, is that this was made by people who knew Basquiat and who were part of this community at the time that he rose up and took the art world by storm.

Honestly, this is probably the most intimate look inside that world and of that specific era that outsiders have ever gotten. It’s an incredibly intriguing place. It’s also made that much more personal by the love of the filmmakers and the passion they put into this motion picture.

This passion goes beyond director Julian Schnabel and the writers, though, as it also comes out through the performances of the actors. And man, this is a movie with an incredible cast from top-to-bottom. For an indie picture about an artist that was here and gone so quickly, the production attracted so many worthwhile actors.

The two that standout the most, however, are Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat and David Bowie as Andy Warhol. These two men gave real life to these iconic figures and their chemistry together was so good that you truly believed in the real life bond between Basquiat and Warhol, a bond everyone else seemed jealous about.

I also loved the scene with Christopher Walken, as a journalist asking Jean-Michel some pretty pointed questions. But this scene kind of shows you where Basquiat is in life, at this point, as everything has moved so fast. Plus, the film shows sections of his life and there isn’t any sort of traditional progression of time, which I liked. Things happen in a dreamlike blur but that’s often times how life goes and you have these random moments that sort of ground you and put things into perspective.

There isn’t a weak performance in the whole film and it features incredible moments between Wright, a newcomer at the time, and well-established actors like Dennis Hopper, Willem Dafoe, Gary Oldman, Parker Posey, Michael Wincott, Benicio del Toro and so many others.

Additionally, the music in the film is just as important as the art and it truly sets the tone in every scene and it’s actually my favorite soundtrack that’s ever been assembled.

By the time you get to the end, the film tries to give you some hope and through a story Jean-Michel tells to his friend, Benny, you fully understand what his place in the world was and still is. Sadly, the writing was on the wall for how Basquiat’s story would end but even with his life cut incredibly short, he created something that would live on forever.

Rating: 10/10

Film Review: Bad Lieutenant (1992)

Release Date: May 14th, 1992 (Cannes)
Directed by: Abel Ferrara
Written by: Zoe Lund, Paul Calderon, Abel Ferrara
Music by: Joe Delia
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Victor Argo, Paul Calderón, Leonard Thomas, Robin Burrows, Frankie Thorn, Victoria Bastel, Paul Hipp, Vincent Laresca

Bad Lt. Productions, Aries Films, LIVE Entertainment, 96 Minutes, 91 Minutes (R-rated)

Review:

“Vampires are lucky, they can feed on others. We gotta eat away at ourselves. We gotta eat our legs to get the energy to walk. We gotta come, so we can go. We gotta suck ourselves off. We gotta eat away at ourselves til there’s nothing left but appetite. We give, and give and give crazy. Cause a gift that makes sense ain’t worth it. Jesus said seventy times seven. No one will ever understand why, why you did it. They’ll just forget about you tomorrow, but you gotta do it.” – Zoe

I’ve heard pretty good things about this movie for years but I had never seen it. Sadly, I was really disappointed with it.

It’s a movie about a shitty, completely unlikable character. While that doesn’t mean that a story has to be bad, the problem is that he’s mostly surrounded by other shitty people and the few good ones are in such miserable situations that there really is no silver lining in this film.

Sure, it reflects the really dark parts about life but it doesn’t leave you with much to care about or anything to hope for. There’s nothing that grabs on to you and you’re just taken on a journey with a total piece of shit in the final days of his pathetic life.

I get it, you’re not supposed to like the guy but just making a movie about an unlikable character isn’t a good story. While he does appear to want to do something positive in regards to the nun who was raped, who isn’t seeking justice, I’m left feeling like he’s not really wanting to do it for her or for justice even. He just wants to take his anger and problems out on scumbags that deserve no mercy for their crime.

Apart from the shitty story and shitty characters, the movie is at least fairly well acted and competently shot.

It looks good, as it captures the grittiness of New York.

However, solid cinematography work can’t save a movie that’s just a turd to begin with.

When comparing this to other crime films of the era, movies like Goodfellas and Donnie Brasco are also full of mostly shitty people. However, those movies found a way to make you care about those crappy humans. They had charisma, charm and there was a suave coolness about them.

In Bad Lieutenant, Harvey Keitel is so unlikable and off-putting that it just broke the movie for me. I usually love Keitel but I sat through this whole movie hoping he’d get killed by the end. So I guess when that moment came, I wasn’t disappointed.

Rating: 4/10
Pairs well with: other Abel Ferrara films.

Film Review: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019)

Also known as: Untitled #9, #9 (working titles)
Release Date: May 21st, 2019 (Cannes)
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Music by: various
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Al Pacino, Julia Butters, Mike Moh, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Samantha Robinson, Rafal Zawierucha, Damon Herriman, Lena Dunham, Maya Hawke, Harley Quinn Smith, Danielle Harris, Scoot McNairy, Clifton Collins Jr., Dreama Walker, Clu Gulager, Martin Kove, Rebecca Gayheart, Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell, Michael Madsen, James Remar, Toni Basil, Quentin Tarantino (voice), Vincent Laresca, Lew Temple, James Marsden (extended release), Walton Goggins (voice, extended release)

Visiona Romantica, Heyday Films, Bona Fide Group, Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures, 161 Minutes

Review:

“When you come to the end of the line, with a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife, getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell.” – Narrator

It’s probably no secret that I really loved Quentin Tarantino’s earlier films.

However, his more recent stuff hasn’t quite hit the mark for me in the same way. I think a lot of that has to do with his reliance on his dialogue and his films coming across as a handful (or less) of long conversations with a bit of cool shit sprinkled in and an overabundance of ultraviolence that isn’t as effective as it once was and often times feels out of place and jarring.

That being said, I really fucking dug Once Upon a Time In Hollywood.

It’s not a picture without its flaws but it’s well constructed, well written and perfectly paced, which isn’t something I can say for the rest of Tarantino’s more modern pictures.

I haven’t liked a Tarantino movie this much since the Kill Bill films.

I’m not sure what changed in the way that he paces and constructs his movies but this plays much more like Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown and that’s a very, very good thing.

A lot of credit has to go to the massive cast, all of whom felt perfect in their roles. It was really cool to see Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt play best buds and sort of go on this adventure together. Their characters were an homage to Burt Reynolds and his stuntman, Hal Needham, who were really close and had a tight bond for years.

DiCaprio’s character was also based off of all the television western actors who were once big stars but never seemed to be able to move on to bigger projects and sort of got typecast and brushed aside.

The third main character in the film is Margot Robbie, who plays a fictionalized version of Sharon Tate, the most famous victim in the Charles Manson murders.

However, like Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, this film doesn’t follow history’s path and it carves out its own unique story. But I’ve always really loved alternative history takes in fiction. Hell, The Man In the High Castle by Philip K. Dick is one of my all-time favorite novels. I still haven’t watched the television show, though.

Anyway, the film does run long but it’s not as exhausting as The Hateful Eight. We’re not trapped in one room for three hours, here. Instead, we get to explore old-timey Hollywood in an era where it was leaving its glamorous age behind and moving into the darker, grittier, post-Code era.

There are some scenes, while pretty cool, that probably didn’t need to be in the film and don’t serve much purpose other than amusing the director.

One such scene is the fight between Bruce Lee and Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it but it didn’t serve the story other than to show how cool and tough Booth was but by this point in the movie, we already knew that. It was also a way for Tarantino to wedge in a few more cameos, in this case: Zoe Bell and Kurt Russell, two of his faves.

The sequence that really cemented this film as being pretty solid was the one that took place at the ranch. Here, Brad Pitt’s Booth discovers that an old friend’s ranch has become infested with cultish hippies, who the audience comes to learn are associated with Charles Manson. It’s an absolutely chilling sequence that builds up suspense in a way that I haven’t seen Tarantino do since the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds, a decade prior.

The climax of the film is also well constructed and pretty fucking intense. This is the part of the film where history is altered and we get to see some epic Tarantino-styled justice befall the force of evil that has been brooding over the story for over two hours.

I probably should have seen this in the theater and I believe that it’s the only Tarantino picture that I haven’t seen on the big screen. However, his two previous films exhausted me and I assumed that this would do the same. But I’m glad to say that this seems like a return to form and I hope this momentum carries over into his future projects.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: other more modern Tarantino films.

Film Review: Juice (1992)

Also known as: Angel Town 2 (Europe video title)
Release Date: January 17th, 1992
Directed by: Ernest R. Dickerson
Written by: Ernest R. Dickerson, Gerard Brown
Music by: Hank Shocklee and The Bomb Squad
Cast: Omar Epps, Tupac Shakur, Jermaine Hopkins, Khalil Kain, Cindy Herron, Vincent Laresca, Samuel L. Jackson, George O. Gore II, Michael Badalucco, Fab 5 Freddy, Doctor Dre, Ed Lover, Donald Faison, Oran “Juice” Jones, Special Ed, EPMD (Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith)

Island World, Paramount Pictures, 95 Minutes

Review:

“You gotta snap some collars and let them motherfuckers know you here to take them out anytime you feel like it! You gotta get the ground beneath your feet, partner, get the wind behind your back and go out in a blaze if you got to! Otherwise you ain’t shit! You might as well be dead your damn self!” – Bishop

Any film that opens with a Rakim song is going to get me pumped up. Juice opens up with the best Rakim song, so I was hooked right away.

Truth be told, this was a favorite film of mine during my middle school years. It came out at the very beginning of the black film movement that happened in the ’90s. This, along with New Jack CityBoyz N The Hood and Menace II Society made a huge cultural impact and for good reason.

Watching it now, I do notice some of the weaknesses of the film, which weren’t as apparent in my younger days.

A big part of the narrative towards the end of the movie has to do with how the gun crazy Bishop (Shakur) is pinning his killings and crimes on his ex-best friend Q (Epps). While Bishop gets his just desserts and Q survives, it’s left unknown what the outcome really was. Was Q in trouble? Would he still be punished for these crimes? Or would his other friend Steel, who survived an attempt on his life, be able to save his friend. While Steel mentions that Bishop is setting up Q to a nurse that is their friend, you don’t know if he survives his trip to the ER. I guess it is to be assumed that it worked out okay but after Bishop’s death, the film ends abruptly.

Another issue I have with the narrative, is that it doesn’t really develop Bishop’s power trip enough. Sure, having a gun is power but it is pretty one-dimensional in how it is handled. Also, the group of friends, who skip school and steal records, still feel like decent kids. The plot shifting to them all of a sudden deciding to rob a corner store just happens out of nowhere.

Still, shaky narrative aside, the film is an adrenaline rush, especially over the course of the last act.

It is well acted by all important parties in the film. Epps and Shakur are pretty exceptional and both men were incredibly young in this. In fact, this was what brought Tupac into the mainstream for most people. He was given an opportunity, ran with it and did great.

The film is very stylistic and represents early ’90s east coast hip-hop well. There are also cameos from several known rappers and hip-hop personalities besides Tupac: Queen Latifah, Treach, Special Ed, EPMD and from Yo! MTV Raps, Ed Lover, Doctor Dre and Fab 5 Freddy. You also get to see Samuel Jackson in an early role, just before he broke out as a star in 1994’s Pulp Fiction.

I also love that they focused a lot on Q’s quest to make it as a respected DJ in the super competitive New York City landscape. The movie does a good job of showcasing what DJ battles were like at the time, when DJs still mixed manually and didn’t have computers and gadgets to make their lives infinitely easier.

Juice is gritty and has a strong feeling of realism to it. Plus, it has a lot of energy and a great soundtrack.

Rating: 7.75/10