(I’ve neglected the blog. I’ve been busy working on a book. More details to come.)
Dig the rabbit hole of American pop culture, a remake of a 1980s movie, itself an adaptation of a Broadway play, it based on a 1950s radio serial (called Little Orphan Annie), which in turn was adapted from a 1940s comic strip. What we’re dealing with isn’t even a bastardization, but rather a mollusk-type creature that has crystallized into shit. This movie is terrible.
One, of all the participants, only Jamie Foxx can sing. The rest are either augmented by backup singers, auto-tuned, or tinny and weak. They cut some of the original songs and added a few. The new songs are forgettable, lazy ditties that I forgot immediately after the movie ended.
Two, there’s no dancing or choreography, but more on this in a minute.
Three, it’s a sanitized version of New York City, and a vision of foster care so bleached of hardship it resembles summer camp. The whole point of a story involving an orphan being adopted is to juxtapose the misery with the hard-earned happiness. That . . . doesn’t happen here.
The original isn’t a classic. It has an excellent first fifteen minutes, and then becomes alternatingly facile (smile and the world’s problems will be fixed), bizarre (President Roosevelt orders Daddy Warbucks to sing in harmony), and disturbing (Carol Burnett slides into a dirty bathtub filled with rotgut gin). But John Huston directs the original, and he doesn’t evade any of the toughness of orphan life. Annie rescues the dog Sandy from boy who are planning, in all likelihood, to set the dog on fire. (In the remake, Annie sees the dog on the streets and later adopts her from the pound. What the hell is the point of that? Where’s the blear, the reeking poetry?) Both movies celebrate wealth as a lifestyle, although in the original, Daddy Warbucks is a war profiteer of sorts.
But here’s the rub: the new version refuses to see any of the danger in childhood, and removes any kind of tension or terror. The original has Tim Curry as Rooster, and he’s a hustler turned murderer who, in the final scene, chases Annie up an elevated train trestle, intent on dashing her on the train tracks. Curry is a charming rake and a terrifying monster. The remake has Annie in a car, with her fake parents, being pursued over city roads by Jamie Foxx and company in a helicopter. There’s never any danger at all. The tension is Annie being in a car with strangers for fifteen minutes. Who cares?
Even the story has been simplified. Annie is in foster-care, under the not so watchful eye of Ms. Hannigan, played by Cameron Diaz. Stacks, a cellphone mogul, is running for mayor. He’s faltering in the polls, mainly because he doesn’t like other people. He saves Annie one day, it’s caught on video and uploaded to youtube, and his malevolent aid, played by Bobby Cannavale, urges him to foster Annie during the election. So far, so interesting.
But the movie isn’t about politics, or encroaching technology—there’s a scene where Stacks takes Annie on a helicopter tour of his semi-hidden cellphone towers, and it’s supposed to be beautiful; it’s not, it’s horrifying—it isn’t about anything, other than, I don’t know, how much better it is to be rich. I don’t need to watch a shitty musical to have some sense of that.
The new film spends most of its time celebrating new technologies, in a way that I found disturbing. Annie becomes an online celebrity through a fake twitter account. The windows in her room aren’t windows at all, but rather screens which she can choose the artificial backgrounds. I could go on, but I won’t. Everything is simulated and false. And this is her life getting better!
Fewer songs, no dancing—the onscreen musical might be a lost craft. But what the fuck? Why not start over, rename the orphan, cut the songs, build your own characters? Or spend a few bucks on good songwriters? I’m baffled, and can’t think of another movie that has nothing on its mind other than cash and money. It’s also a huge waste of what should have been a great African American showcase. Case in point: Tracie Thoms, an astonishing singer and actor, plays Annie’s fake mother, and not only does she have no songs at all, she’s only given two or three lines. Why? What the hell is going on? African Americans have contributed so much to music and dancing in American culture, why the hell would anyone make a musical, repurpose it with African American leads, and have no singing or dancing of any note? It’s heinous enough to feel like a white conspiracy.
One of the most cynical and corrupt movies I’ve ever seen.
God’s Little Acre
An old Anthony Mann movie from the 1950s, and it’s a strange hybrid of drama, period movie, western, noir and comedy. The movie follows a family led by Ty Ty, played by Robert Ryan, who owns a large piece of perfect farming land. He could be a successful farmer, but instead of growing things he digs for mythical gold his grandfather supposedly buried on the plot. He’s been digging for fifteen years, systematically ruining his land with giant holes, and contributing nothing to nobody. He’s embroiled two of his sons, and one of their wives.
Ryan is a marvelous actor, and he combines madness and dreaminess in a way that is believable. He’s driven by an impossible dream, in some ways he’s a precursor to Harrison Ford’s Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast, attempting to do the inconceivable. Ryan’s career is astonishing; he steals scenes in minor roles, and expands the lead. His great performances include The Naked Spur, where he plays a mouthy, sinister murderer; Crossfire, where he’s a terrifying anti-Semite who bullies everyone around him; Bad Day at Black Rock, House of Bamboo, Lonelyhearts, The Professionals, Billy Budd, the list goes on and on. He’s perfect as Thornton in The Wild Bunch, a gunman who admires the men he’s betrayed and despises the band he’s allied with. If you watch him in that movie again, he’s stony and hard, but all as a thin casing against his immense loneliness. Ryan’s last film was Frankenheimer’s screen adaptation of The Iceman Cometh, and he’s an absolute marvel. His rage and anger shine through his haggard face like a radioactive skull. (The movie is astonishing, with Frederic March, Lee Marvin, and Jeff Bridges.) There’s always something serpentine and coiled about Robert Ryan; he’s eternally lethal.
God’s Little Acre has a number of surprises: Michael Landon plays an albino. He’s handsome and intriguing onscreen; you can see how he became such a big TV star. Buddy Hackett plays the dumb, smarmy, Pluto Swint, who is obsessed with Ty Ty’s youngest daughter, Darlin’ Jill. Rex Ingram, one of the great black actors of the classic Hollywood era—known for his role of the Djinn in Michael Powell’s The Thief of Bagdad—plays Uncle Felix, and has a great calm performance that is funny and sad at the same time. Near the middle he points a shotgun at Michael Landon. “You’re not going to shoot me,” Landon says. “No,” Ingram says, “I’m not going to shoot you.” Pause. “But this shotgun will.”
Finally, the women. Fay Spain, Tina Louise and Helen Westcott play Darlin’ Jill, Griselda and Rosamund, the wives of the various men in the movie. They each bring a rich complexity to what are often one-dimensional roles. Clever, adaptable survivors. Sexy as hell, too.
The movie juggles all the characters with taut and lean directing. Ryan is surprisingly funny. At one point, he apologizes to one of the female characters, saying, “Our family . . . ain’t known for its politeness to women.”
The movie hints at rampant adultery, and plenty of backwoods intercourse, but also has a subplot involving unions and workers’ rights. It’s an ambitious movie, juggling the comedy and tragedy with a large cast of characters, but little plot.
The atmosphere feels noirish, with the black and white photography and the hints at danger and derangement, as well as looming doom. Mann paints God’s Little Acre in chioaroscuro tones. There’s a touch of Deep South mysticism. It all adds up to something, I’m just not sure what. It isn’t great movie, but worth seeing, a fascinating and enthralling little movie.
This is how you make a white franchise into a black movie; I loved this. Ryan Coogler followed up his excellent, heart-breaking docudrama, Fruitvale Station, of a young black man murdered by police with the next installment of the Rocky franchise, moving the action to Apollo Creed’s bastard son, Adonis. Creed died—killed in the ring at the hands of Ivan Drago in Rocky IV—before Adonis was born, and his mother died soon after. He is dumped into groups homes and foster care, and spends his childhood fighting.
The movie begins with Creed’s wife, played by Phylicia Rashad, adopting him out of juvie. Michael B. Jordan plays Creed, and he’s a fabulous actor. It’s hard to see him through his absurd physique, a musculature rivaled only by Carl Weathers in Rocky III, but his performance is excellent, nuanced and strong. He has an astonishing face for movies; he’s handsome, but with hard, angular features. He carries the movie.
Adonis leaves his home in Los Angeles, quits his high-paying job, and moves to Philadelphia, where he seeks out Rocky Balboa, aging, at the end of things, a lonely owner of a restaurant. Adrian and Paulie are dead. Rocky is resistant to Adonis, who asks for guidance and training. Rocky doesn’t want to contribute to another boxing life. But Adonis persists, and soon the movie is perfectly in the trajectory of the other films. Training, hardship, psychological toughness, and the vanquishing of inner and outer foes.
The boxing movie is alive and well—Million Dollar Baby and The Fighter were both excellent, and The Wrestler might as well be about boxing, and is probably the biggest visual influence on this movie—and here Coogler has an astonishing sequence in Creed’s first professional fight, a single take, lasting close to four minutes, with the boxers slugging, jabbing, feinting and dancing in and out of frame. Creed is notable for lots of things, the first boxing movie with a black protagonist since The Great White Hope, for one, and the performance by Stallone that is calm, unglamorous, and steady. I wish the film had allowed Adonis and Rocky to knock around a bit more, develop a relationship as opposed to allow the audience to assume their affections, but it’s a very fine piece of that sub-genre of sports movie, the boxing film.
The final fight has our black hero fighting a white champion in an all-white crowd, in England. Filmed with supreme technique, and filled with the terror of violence, the finale plays out without irony or sentimentality.
Somehow, Coogler has repurposed the boxing movie, scoring his points but also maintaining the integrity of the film, turning a burned out franchise into a genre masterpiece. I goddamn loved it.