Monday, October 28, 2019

Remembering Robert Evans: The Kid Stayed in the Picture

As a tribute to Robert Evans, who passed away Saturday at age 89, I offer this 2002 interview, which I wrote prior to the theatrical of The Kid Stays in the Picture, the documentary film adapted from his best-selling autobiography.

“OK,” says I, lapsing into my best approximation of a Hollywood hard-sell tone, “there are these teen-agers at this posh British boarding school, and they're feeling rebellious in regard to their oppressive teachers and their bullying classmates, and so they fantasize about getting these automatic weapons and blowing people away on graduation day, only maybe they're not fantasizing because we've blurred the line between fantasy and reality, you know what I mean?”

Robert Evans smiles, his eyes fairly twinkling behind his trademark tinted, oversized glasses as he relaxes in his condo at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. He knows exactly what I mean, because the movie I'm pretending to pitch, If…, was one of many outstanding films released by Paramount Pictures during his storied tenure as head of production in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

In its time, this particular movie — a remarkably lyrical yet darkly troubling fantasia by the late, great Lindsay Anderson — was hailed as a visionary masterwork, and earned top honors at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival. Better still, from Evans’ point of few, it earned a tidy sum for Paramount.

But what would happen if I would pitch If… today?

“You'd be stopped before you’d finish the sentence,” Evans says in his raspy, rumbling baritone. “And the meeting would be over. Immediately.

“And you never get another meeting. At Paramount or anywhere else.”
Which should tell you all you need to know about the difference between the take-no-chances timidity of today’s corporate-micromanaged moviemaking by committee, and the go-for-broke venturesomeness that fueled the filmmaking machinery  — and even infused Hollywood studio decision-makers — during Evans’ heyday three decades ago.

“But If… isn't the only one,” Evans says. “How about Harold and Maude, eh? An 18-year-old boy falls in love with an 80-year-old woman. I actually had to keep that a secret from (Charles Bludhorn, head of Gulf + Western, then owner of Paramount). I just told him it was a love story.

“And then there was Medium Cool,” Haskell Wexler’s audacious semi-documentary drama about political protests and anti-war activism at the 1968 Democratic convention. Evans may have been a close buddy of Presidential advisor Henry Kissinger, but he didn’t let friendship — or the angry response of board members at Gulf + Western — get in the way of his dropping the hot-potato picture into theaters and drive-ins everywhere.

“I even tried to bring Henry Miller to the screen, in 1970. You ever see Tropic of Cancer, with Rip Torn? You did? Well, then you're the only one at this festival who ever had, I’ll bet. It was a half-assed film, I admit. But it was exciting to try it.”

Evans described many highlights of '70s moviemaking in general, and his Paramount output in particular, in The Kid Stays in the Picture, his best-selling 1994 autobiography that has been turned into a uniquely candid and captivating documentary film

Of course, Evans also wrote about the many women he has wooed, wed or otherwise encountered, and catalogued several misadventures involving chemically-enhanced activity, and that helped to broaden the appeal of his book beyond movie buffs and film historians. (The audio version of the book, read by Evans himself, became a cult item and popular Christmas gift among Hollywood insiders and up-and-comers.) 

But his first-hand accounts of green-lighting productions during his Paramount regime —Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, The Conversation, Serpico, Harold and Maude and the first two Godfather epics, among others — are what really make the book required reading for anyone who's serious about cinema as art and entertainment. More important, those stories, and those experiences, are what continue to make the 72-year-old Evans such an influential figure and sought-after adviser in the eyes of much-younger moviemakers in the New Hollywood of the 21st century.

“You go over to Bob's house in Beverly Hills any evening,” says Nannette Burstein, co-director of Kid Stays in the Picture, “and you're likely to find people like Wes Anderson or David O. Russell there, asking questions or just hanging out. Because he made a lot of the movies that we watched while we were growing up, that made us want to become filmmakers.”

Co-director Brett Morgan is even more hyperbolic: “Bob Evans is one of the most fascinating men who ever lived in the 20th century. Without a question. And the more time I’ve spent with him, the more confidant I am to make that statement.”

Robert Evans came to Paramount in 1966 best known as a semi-successful businessman — “I was into women's pants,” he says, jokingly referring to his family’s fashion business — and failed actor. (The title of the book and movie come from producer Darryl Zanuck’s angry response when Evans’ director and co-stars tried to get him booted from a key role in the 1957 film version of The Sun Also Rises.) At the time, little was expected of him because Paramount, then a minor, money-hemorrhaging property of Gulf + Western, was dead last among Hollywood studios. He was dealt a free hand. And with extraordinary frequency, he came up aces.

“Bob was there,” says Morgan, “during a period between the studio system and the corporate conglomerates. It was like the Wild West.”

“It wasn't a multi-billion-dollar business at that time,” says Burstein. “When Robert came into Paramount, is was like, ‘OK, this company is about to go into the graveyard — let’s make some movies, and try not to lose too much on our stock value.’  The thing is, Robert turned it around, and they ended becoming fiscally sound. And a result — and this happened at a lot of other studios as well — the movie business became very important, very profitable. So it became very corporately run.”

Evans eventually stepped down as Paramount chief to work as an independent producer. But he fell out of favor in Hollywood during the 1980s after his arrest for cocaine possession — with typical shrewdness, he avoided jail time by producing a prime-time TV anti-drug extravaganza — and his innocent-bystander involvement with a highly-publicized murder. (He has nothing to with the killing of Roy Radin, a potential investor in The Cotton Club, but he was linked to the crime by newspapers, and endured guilt-by-association consequences.) He began to make a comeback in the 1990s, but was sidelined by a 1998 stroke.

“My right side was totally paralyzed,” Evans says. “But you know what? Now I can play tennis. The doctors thought I’d never be able to walk again without a cane. But I can.”

And so he’s back in the game, planning new films to produce, working on another book – and, yes, he frankly admits, basking in the adulation he’s receiving for the film based on his autobiography.

Evans received a standing ovation after the Sundance premiere of The Kid Stays the Picture. During a post-screening Q&A session, when someone asked if there’s anything he would change about his life, he replied: “The second half.” But, then again, maybe not. Unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose The Great Gatsby he brought to the screen during his Paramount era, Evans believes there really are second acts in American lives.

“We're in a world of three-act plays now, that's the difference,” Evans says. “You know, at one point, I wanted Warren Beatty to star in The Great Gatsby, and he said, ‘No, I’ll direct it — and you'll play Jay Gatsby.’ Maybe he was right.

“My life has been easier to read or to see than to live. And there’s been a lot of hurt. It’s a cliché, but it's true: You live by the sword, you die by the sword. I lived well by the sword. And I’ve died hard by the sword. Much of it I deserved, though some of it I didn’t. And much of the good I deserved, but some of it I didn’t. But I know one thing: I did it the only way I know how.

“That's why I wanted to do the movie Popeye years ago. That’s what I’ve stood for: I am what I am, that's all that I am.”

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Preview: Martin Scorsese's The Irishman

In the unlikely event you weren’t already geeked to see The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s magnum opus featuring the dream-team cast of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino. Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel, Netflix amped the must-see quotient today by dropping a riveting trailer for the film.

What’s it all about? According to Netflix, The Irishman is “an epic saga of organized crime in post-war America told through the eyes of World War II veteran Frank Sheeran [De Niro], a hustler and hitman who worked alongside some of the most notorious figures of the 20th century. Spanning decades, the film chronicles one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in American history, the disappearance of legendary union boss Jimmy Hoffa, and offers a monumental journey through the hidden corridors of organized crime: its inner workings, rivalries and connections to mainstream politics.

The Irishman will open in limited theatrical release Nov. 1, and debut on Netflix Nov. 27. Here is the trailer. 

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Happy Birthday to Robert Redford!

Back in 2012, the folks at Houston Cinema Arts Festival honored Robert Redford for his many and various achievements as actor, director, producer, and film festival overlord. But let’s face it: For most folks, he remains — then and now, first and last — an old school, much-beloved movie star.

Sure, even the stargazers will agree, the guy has done a lot off-screen as a passionate spokesperson for assorted environmental and sociopolitical causes. And, yeah, he fully deserved his Oscar for directing Ordinary People. In fact, he probably should have gotten another one for the even-better Quiz Show.

But did you ever see him in…?

What follows is an unapologetically subjective list of movies (and one TV drama) I compiled in 2012 — and I’m repeating here today on the occasion of his 83rd birthday — that I think demonstrate the diversity and quality of Redford’s work as an actor.

NOTHING IN THE DARK (1962): In this classic half-hour episode of The Twilight Zone, Redford relies more on boyish good looks and charm than heavy-duty thesping while playing a police officer who seeks help from an eccentric old lady (Gladys Cooper) as he lies seriously wounded near her front door. Trouble is, the lady is reluctant to allow anyone inside her tenement apartment – even a wounded cop – because she’s convinced that, if she lets down her guard, “Mr. Death” will appear in one of his many guises to kill her with his touch. I don’t have to tell you what happens next, do I? Suffice it to say that Redford is well cast and, thanks in large part to the aforementioned looks and charm, extremely convincing. 
BAREFOOT IN THE PARK (1967): This bright and breezy adaptation of Neil Simon’s once-ubiquitous stage comedy about New York newlyweds may be a particularly pleasant surprise for any first-time viewer too young to remember the days when co-stars Redford and Jane Fonda were sleek and sexy rising stars best known as actors, not activists. Don’t get me wrong: I’m certainly not criticizing either icon for his or her politics. But a large part of the movie’s enduring charm is its quaintness as an amusing artifact from a more innocent age. 
DOWNHILL RACER (1969): “How fast must a man go to get from where he’s at?” That question, provocatively raised as the movie’s original advertising tagline, seems to serve as an unspoken mantra for Redford’s obsessively self-directed Dave Chappelet, a small-town skier dedicated to earning Olympic gold. Chappelet’s humorless, tightly focused intensity doesn’t win him many friends among his teammates – even his coach (Gene Hackman) doesn’t really like the guy – and he seems incapable expressing any emotion but the joy of victory. Which, of course, is what makes Redford’s implosive performance all the more fascinating. (Director Michael Ritchie later teamed with his star for another sharply observed movie about competition – The Candidate.)  
BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969): It’s easy to forget that, back in the day, many critics were downright frosty toward director George Roy Hill’s semi-revisionist, seriocomic Western. (Academy voters, however, gave it four Oscars, including awards for William Goldman’s screenplay and Best Song – “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”) But even the naysayers couldn’t deny the immensely appealing chemistry generated by relative newcomer Redford and established superstar Paul Newman as two rollicking, wisecracking outlaws who can’t ride far or fast enough to escape their own obsolescence. Their casting was, quite simply, a match made in movie heaven.

LITTLE FAUSS AND BIG HALSEY (1970): Redford fearlessly portrays an irredeemable son of a bitch (arguably for the last time in his movie career, unless you count Captain America: Winer Soldier) in director Sidney J. Furie’s criminally under-rated road movie about two motorcycle racers – a naïve novice (Michael J. Pollard) and a studly braggart (Redford) -- who go nowhere fast while trying to transcend their status as small-timers. Redford’s Halsey is such a smugly and shamelessly manipulative jerk that, eventually, even Pollard’s timid Fauss rejects him. In typically self-centered fashion, Halsey responds as though unjustly affronted: “If this is friendship, I am aghast.” To which Fauss replies: “I never said I was your friend, Halsey. I don’t even fuckin’ like you.” When I saw this flick for the first time in a theater, the audience roared its approval of Fauss’ put-down. 
THE CANDIDATE (1972): Every political junkie’s very favorite movie seems more prescient with each passing year as it vividly details the image-buffing, compromise-demanding process through which a handsome young Senate hopeful (Redford, at the absolute top of his game) is transformed, with his reluctant acquiescence, from idealistic long-shot to pragmatic campaigner. Redford’s anxious query after his character manages an upset victory – “What do we do now?” – is one of the greatest curtain lines in all of movie history. But it’s only a small sample of the pitch-perfect dialogue in the Oscar-winning screenplay by Jeremy Larner, a novelist (Drive, He Said) who gained unique insights into the U.S. political process while working as a speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign.
THE STING (1973): Four years after they went out in a blaze of glory as Butch and Sundance, Redford and Paul Newman reteamed with director George Roy Hill for this Oscar-winning seriocomic caper about two Depression Era con artists – a sly old pro (Newman) and an eager young grifter (Redford)– who plot an elaborate revenge against the menacing mob boss (Robert Shaw) who murdered the younger man’s mentor. Redford hits the perfect balance of righteous anger and self-awareness when he explains why he’ll settle for conning, rather than killing, the object of his ire: “’Cause I don’t know enough about killing to kill him.” But, truth to tell, he’s never more believable than in the scene where Shaw’s intimidating badass unexpectedly punches him. There’s a moment – just a moment – when Redford’s expression reads: “Geez, he does remember this is just a movie, doesn’t he?” 
THE WAY WE WERE (1973): Beginning with 1966’s This Property is Condemned – and continuing, rather more auspiciously, with Jeremiah Johnson (1972), Three Days of the Condor (1975), and the Oscar-winning Out of Africa (1985) – Redford and director Sydney Pollack developed a fruitful working relationship and a mutual admiration society. Many critics (including yours truly) might insist that The Way We Were wasn’t the finest of their collaborations. But it’s impossible to deny the irresistible and enduring appeal of this bittersweet romantic drama about a WASPy golden boy (Redford) and a fiery left-wing activist (Barbra Streisand) who are united by their love, but divided by their politics. Redford manages the difficult feat of remaining likable, if not admirable, even as his character, a novelist turned TV scriptwriter, gradually is revealed as a man who so easily and often compromises his ideals that you wind up wondering if there’s anything other than ambition driving him. (Shades of Downhill Racer!)  

ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976): Redford served as producer as well as co-star of director Alan J. Pakula’s potently low-key and meticulously detailed adaptation of the nonfiction best-seller written by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodard and Carl Bernstein about their doggedly determined investigation into various aspects of the Watergate scandal. (Screenwriter William Goldman won a well-deserved second Oscar for his part in cinematically translating what many thought was an unfilmable book.) The movie abounds in memorable moments. But Redford’s very best scene by far is the one in which his character makes a cold call to a GOP official, and is so amazed when the official himself actually answers the phone that he’s momentarily lost for words. He vamps, none too effectively, by twice introducing himself as “Bob Woodward of the Washington Post.” If you’ve ever worked as a journalist, and you’re at all honest, you can’t help thinking while watching this scene: “Been there. Done that.” 
HAVANA (1990): OK, it’s my list, so they’re my choices. And even though I realize this is a minority report, Havana – Redford’s last collaboration with the late, great Sydney Pollack – has always impressed me as a forgivably flawed, ultimately affecting attempt to do a Casablanca-style romantic drama set in 1958 Cuba. And I have taken an unreasonable amount of delight in savoring Redford’s dawn-of-middle-age charisma as Jack Weil, a cynical gambler who’s entirely aware that he’s been at the tables too long. (“A funny thing happened to me last week,” he says, only half-jokingly. “I realized I wasn't going to die young.”) Will he be capable of doing the right thing when he falls for an idealistic beauty (Lena Olin) whose revolutionary husband (Raul Julia) needs her sweet inspiration? What do you think? Here’s looking at you, Bob.     

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

New on Netflix: Billy Corben scores with Screwball

From my 9.24.18 Variety review: “The real-life misadventures of central figures in the 2013 Major League Baseball doping scandal play like outrageous twists and turns in the seriocomic crime fiction of Carl Hiassen or Elmore Leonard throughout Screwball, an impudently entertaining documentary that suggests what might result if the Monty Python troupe were given carte blanche to produce an investigative report for 60 Minutes.

“It comes to us from Billy Corben, a filmmaker whose previous chronicles of illicit activity and entrepreneurial drug traders in and around Miami (Cocaine Cowboys, Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja) might now be viewed as warm-up pitches for his latest effort. This time on the mound, he throws heat and scores impressively with help from a lineup that includes baseball All-Stars, mob-connected lowlifes, tanning and bodybuilding enthusiasts, free-spending MLB investigators, and an unlicensed anti-aging expert whose lack of bona fide medical credentials scarcely hindered his ability to provide, one way or the other, performance-enhancing drugs for his clients. The latter shady character, Anthony Bosch, emerges early on as Corben’s most valuable player, in that his astonishingly unfiltered (albeit chronically self-justifying) account of his starring role in the doping scandal makes him the indisputable standout among the movie’s cast of colorful interviewees.”

BTW: Immediately after I saw Screwball at the 2018 Toronto Film Festival, I went to a sports-themed bar-restaurant near my rented condo for dinner. At one point, I looked up from my table, glanced at one of the establishment’s many TV screens and saw one of the film’s “stars” — Alex Rodriguez — offering commentary on ESPN. No, seriously.

Screwball is now available for streaming on Netflix. You can read the rest of my Variety review here.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

The last night of Woodstock '99 was the longest night of my life. I wish I had spent it alone.

Note: I wrote this a few days after July 25, 1999, the last night of Woodstock ’99. Yes, things really were that bad there. Indeed, at the time this originally appeared online, I did not yet know how much worse it had been for some other folks.

Maybe it was the time of night. Or maybe it was the sound of sirens. But as I sat in the darkness of my tent during the final hours of Woodstock ’99, while my son tossed and turned in dream-plagued slumber, I couldn’t suppress the occasional shudder. 

Outside – a goodly distance away, perhaps, but not nearly far enough – several hundred hellraisers had no interest in getting back to the garden. Instead, for reasons never considered by Crosby, Stills and Nash, they had decided that the night was for burning.

And as the noise of their riotous misbehavior intruded upon the eerie stillness of our campground, I found myself wondering: Just how will I protect my child from the fire?

It had seemed like such a great idea last spring, when I impulsively purchased tickets during a late-night web surf: A graying baby-boomer – too young to have attended the first Woodstock Festival, too disinterested to have bothered with the second – would bring his 12-year-old son to Woodstock ’99 for three days of music, adventure and cross-generational bonding.

Right from the start, I assumed the event wouldn’t have the same sociological and iconographic significance for my son’s generation as the original Woodstock had for mine. Even in my worst imaginings, however, I couldn’t foresee that Woodstock ’99 might come perilously close to degenerating into his generation’s Altamont.

For George, my son, the decision to go was a no-brainer: Many of his rap-rock fave-raves, such as Korn, Limp Bizkit and Everlast would be on the bill, ensuring a terrific time. (Better still, George immediately recognized, he would be the envy of his friends and classmates for attending the mega-hyped affair, even if he went with someone as terminally uncool as Dad.) For his father, other acts – Alanis Morisette, The Brian Setzer Orchestra and George Clinton & The P-Funk All Stars – had an equally irresistible appeal.

Both of knew we likely would skip some of the lesser attractions. But, then again, we had to sleep sometime, right?

The good news: Throughout the first two and a half days, George and I vacillated between blissed-out pleasure and sunbaked exhaustion, pretty much fulfilling our most optimistic expectations. Indeed, the only real disappointment was the tardiness of our arrival: The “luxury tour bus” from Queens, N.Y., our point of departure after flying in from Houston, left nearly three hours late. We missed – damn! – the electrifying funk of James Brown, the official opening act of Woodstock ’99, and the sassy sensuality of Sheryl Crow (who, I must admit, never ranked very high on George’s must-see list.)

On the other hand, we arrived to find our accommodations were great, thanks in no small measure to the kind of pre-planning that’s greatly under-valued, and occasionally mocked, by most 12-year-olds. It helped a lot that Dad had e-purchased camping equipment from Ace Hardware, which had the material available for pick-up on the festival grounds. (For George, this was Life Lesson Number One: When you’re making a journey that might entail a long walk under a summer sun, pack light.) It helped even more that, because the e-purchase totaled more than $100, father and son could pitch their tent on a grassy, fenced-in campsite operated by Ace a few hundred feet to the right of the West Stage area. You could wander up a conveniently located hill within Camp Ace, and savor an unobstructed view of the immense stage and, more important, the humungous video monitors that offered close-ups of the performers.

Despite his youth, George fully appreciated the irony that Woodstock ’99 – which, like it two predecessors, employed a dove of peace as a registered trademark – was set in the 3,000-acre environs of the former Griffiss Air Force Base. (Festivalgoers were greeted by a memento of the decommissioned military outpost -- a hulking gray B-52 bomber -- just outside the gates.) And, like his father, he was cynically nonplussed by the high prices that appeared to outrage so many people. Four bucks for a bottle of water? Five bucks for chicken tenders? Twelve bucks for a 12-inch cheese pizza? So what? Didn’t you pay just as much, if not more, at movie theater concession stands?

If George was disturbed by any of the darker undercurrents trickling through the festival – the brazen bartering for drugs, the ubiquitous beer-drinking by under-age hard-partyers, the obvious evidence that many folks had ignored the restrictions against bringing fireworks and alcoholic beverages (i.e., glass bottles of wine and whiskey) inside the gates – he kept his uneasiness to himself.  Fortunately, he was sound asleep while, late on the first night, a spirited drug deal was consummated by what sounded like bad B-movie actors – “Yeah, man, this is primo stuff!” – right outside our tent.

Just as important: George was too busy being pumped up by the kick-ass aggressiveness of his favorite performers to complain much about the heat or the overpriced T-shirts or the foul-smelling, under-attended portable toilets.

(This probably is as good a spot as any to remind you that, for 12-year-olds, certain music-festival phenomena are not unalloyed delights. And, no, I’m not talking about Jewel or Sheryl Crow. Each time George saw any of the many bare-breasted young women who happily flaunted their charms here, there and everywhere, he instinctively averted his eyes – and then, after mustering up a little courage, stole a few furtive glimpses. The first time I noticed this, I teased him, and he responded with a sheepish grin. But he didn’t smile the second time I teased him, and so that was the end of that.)  

Early on, however, I began to feel a little queasy about the mood encouraged by the music. At the risk of sounding like those censorious fogies of the 1960s who thought the Rolling Stones plumbed new depths of decadence with “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” I must admit that, somewhere around the 15th or 25th time I head someone on stage screaming “Fuck you” or “I don’t give a fuck” or “Smash their fucking heads in,” I lost my taste for the distinct charms of the more belligerent rap-rock performers. And I began to worry about the cumulative effect of so much high-decibel belligerence on a large crowd.

Late on the second day of Woodstock ‘99, I questioned George about what I interpreted as full-throated roars of rage from Korn and their ilk. “They’re just expressing their emotions,” my son patiently explained. Then, with a flash of his most mischievous smile, he admitted: “And sometimes, they express their emotions with fuck you.”

Well, maybe. Early on the final day, however, I repeatedly noted telltale signs that, at least for some festivalgoers, the broiling heat and the roiling testosterone might be having a toxic effect.

As we strolled along the former Air Force runaway that served as a kind of carnival midway, we saw volunteers aboard a small vehicle passing candles to the crowd. “Bring them to the East Stage tonight,” they emplored passers-by, “for a peaceful protest against handgun violence.” For a rowdy twentysomething in a golf shirt, this was too much. He ran alongside the vehicle for several feet, yelling – no, I’m not making this up – “NRA! NRA! NRA!” The volunteers responded by tossing a few candles to him. (Or at him – it was hard to tell.) The heckler responded by grabbing a box of candles from the vehicle and tossing it several few away. As he dashed away, the volunteers stopped their vehicle and retrieved the candles.

(Ironically, these were the sort of candles eventually used by the rioters to light the fuse of their conflagration near the East Stage. Chalk it up to the law of unintended consequences.)

During our extended afternoon stint near the East Stage, George remained quietly unimpressed during an exhilarating set by the Brian Setzer Orchestra – rockabilly and big-band bop simply isn’t his bag – but responded with surprising ardor to a lazily amiable performance by Willie Nelson. I suggested to George that maybe, just maybe, Nelson’s songs about heavy drinking, chasing loose women and being too drunk to recall a concert might not be so very different from the odes to self-indulgence sung by his favorite “modern” acts. George warily nodded in half-hearted agreement.

Then came Everlast, the only rap-rock artist George and I enjoy with virtually equal enthusiasm. He and his self-proclaimed “white boys” were at the top of their game, especially during their dead-serious, high-energy cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man.” (George seemed astonished that his father could actually sing along with an Everlast number.) Unfortunately, this is when things got ugly.

For starters, there was this balding, middle-aged fellow standing behind us. (To get the right image in your head, imagine that father who’s always yelling at his kid when the youngster strikes out during a Little League game.) Midway through Limp Bizkit’s set, I saw the guy shoving my son. So I shot him a dirty look. Not being a complete imbecile, he could see he’d been spotted, and indignantly sputtered: “Hey, I just wanted to keep my space here. You guys moved in front of us.” I shot him another dirty look, and he backed away, more embarrassed than genuinely intimidated. Whatever his reason, I was happy to end the confrontation without resorting to violence – particularly since, being a head taller and a foot wider than me, he very likely could have drop-kicked me into a different zip code. But I must confess: I barely refrained from laughing out loud when the guy was kicked in the face by a boisterous party animal who was being passed from hand to hand over the crowd.

Then everybody began to toss their plastic bottles into the air, making it appear that a swarm of economy-size locusts was hovering overhead. Fine and dandy, until Everlast noticed glass bottles also were being tossed. “Hey, stop that, you guys!” he extolled the crowd. “Act like ya mudders raised ya!” It was not entirely surprising that, after Everlast left the stage, an announcer asked the crowd to make way for emergency vehicles to tend to the injured near the stage.

By the time George and I schlepped back to our campsite, some ineffable but obvious bad vibe was in the air. We were surprised to note that a few tents already were gone, that our numbers were significantly diminished. And we were more than a little annoyed that, as early as 6 p.m., the water had been shut off. But we didn’t start to worry until some people on the other side of the fences began to engage in vandalism as a team sport.

Looking back, I have to say that George and I were lucky: The “rioters” near us had to be among the most stupid would-be hooligans at Woodstock ’99. In one corner, we had 10 or so knuckleheads who thought it would be a cool idea to topple a thick wooden flagpole used to mark their campsite. When they couldn’t muster the muscle to budge the pole, they attempted to burn it down, using scraps of plywood torn from another fence to build a bonfire. That didn’t work, either. They did succeed, however, at frightening the folks camped on our side of the fence – the sporadic bursts of wind could have easily carried something ablaze over to one of our tents. Fortunately, a fire truck arrived before things got of hand. And the fire fighters, despite being pelted with a few plastic bottles, quickly extinguished the blaze. After they left, the knuckleheads once again tried to topple the flagpole. After a while, however, they lost interest and wandered off to other misbehavior.

In another corner, a frightfully huge and obviously inebriated dunce was leading his smaller but likeminded companions in the systematic demolition of the plywood fence that separated the West Stage area from the campsites. Have you ever seen Full Metal Jacket? OK, remember the thick-witted recruit played by Vincent D’Onofrio? Then imagine that guy’s bigger, dumber and more undisciplined younger brother. That’s what the fence-smashing dunce looked like. When he finished with the plywood, he wandered over to the chainlink fence surrounding our campsite. As soon as he tried to rip it down, however, someone in a tent near ours shouted, “Hey! Don’t do that! Get outta here!” Miraculously, the dunce stopped dead in his tracks, turned and staggered away.

After all of this, I decided it might be a good idea to alert our campsite’s non-uniformed security enforcers -- who, until that point, had remained conspicuous by their absence. At the front gate, I talked with a guy who explained that most of the peacekeepers employed for Woodstock ’99 were busy handling far more serious disruptions throughout the festival. (Keep in mind: This was before sunset, hours before the full-scale rioting began after the festival-closing set by Red Hot Chili Peppers.) So I asked: “Well, if the water has been shut off, should I leave my son here and go buy some bottled water before the sun goes down?” He replied: “You want my advice? Pack up and leave. Now.”


When I told my pessimistic adviser that we couldn’t leave – our bus back to Queens wouldn’t arrive until the next morning, we had no other means of transportation, we really had no idea where the hell we were or what was between us and nearby Rome, N.Y. – he was sympathetic but unhelpful. “All I can suggest,” he said, “is that you get your food and water, go back to your tent, and just lie low.”

And that, for better or worse, is what we did. George and I trudged up the hill to watch the last West Stage attraction, a performance by Megadeath, mostly to distract ourselves from our worst expectations. (Not wishing to unduly frighten him, I said nothing about the “pack up and leave” advice.) After that, we returned to our tent. Fortuitously, George quickly fell asleep. I remained awake, steeling myself for a sudden invasion of rioters fueled by booze, drugs and all-purpose rage. I felt like Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs, suddenly confronted with a primordial test of my manhood. Trouble was, I didn’t have a bear trap or any of the other devices at Hoffman’s disposal.

Sometimes, I felt very scared. (If festivalgoers had managed to sneak whiskey and fireworks and even large dogs past the security guards, who’s to say they didn’t also bring along handguns?) More often, however, I felt ashamed and angry because I felt I had recklessly placed my son in harm’s way. And, worse, I feared I probably wasn’t bad-ass enough to do him much good if push came to shove.

Well into night, I could hear the insistent beat of people pounding on metal trash drums and other improvised percussion instruments. (Until I banished the image from mind through sheer force of will, I thought of the terrified documentary filmmakers huddled inside their tent during The Blair Witch Project.) Frequently, there were screams and sirens. Sporadically, there was something that sounded like a distant explosion. I told myself the latter merely was the sound of thunder. I also told myself that things couldn’t be as bad as I feared. I told myself that a lot.

Early the next morning, we awoke to a dim sunlight obscured by mist. (Or – gulp! – smoke from charred ruins?) George and I wandered past the trashed fences and the smashed pay phones, past scatterings of young people – many of them not so much older than George – who had passed out in the mud. We did not yet know about the torched trucks and toppled towers, about the looted tents and ransacked ATM machines. We didn’t know about the few hundred festivalgoers who were cheered by thousands of their fellows as they set fire to trucks and overturned portable toilets and “liberated” pricey food and beverages from concession booths. But we could see dozens of state troopers in riot gear directing the departing toward exit gates. And we knew this was not a good sign.

“Geez,” George marveled. “Something really bad must have happened last night.” And then, later, after we reached the main gate: “Boy, some people try to ruin things for everybody else.” Even so, neither us was sad or mad. Just relieved. We actually smiled when an oddly cheery unshirted teen-ager asked us to sign his Woodstock ’99 T-shirt. “It’s a souvenir,” he told us as his female companion handed a black marker to us. “This way, we’ll have something to show people years and years from now, to prove we all had a great time.”

What went wrong at Woodstock ’99? Not nearly enough for the festival to qualify as a total disaster – remember, there were those two and half great days before the long dark night – but more than enough to encourage op-ed writers and social commentators to manufacture scores of plausible theories. George and I agree that the root causes for the rage of the rioters were heat, high prices, heavy drug and alcohol consumption, and the non-stop, wall-to-wall inconvenience of having to walk so far to get anywhere. But I would also include another factor: The spirit of the music of the age. You really shouldn’t be surprised when, after three days of hearing so many swaggering rockers spew so much foul-mouthed venom about “ripping someone’s head off” or applying unauthorized anal probes, a few impressionable types warm to the idea of mob madness for fun and profit.

George, of course, doesn’t think the music had anything to do with it. And, frankly, I would be amazed if he thought it did. He does concede that festivalgoers might have acted a bit differently if they had spent three days listening to the likes of Ricky Martin or The Backstreet Boys. But, hey, Dad -- who would want to do that?

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Once again, from me and Bill Pullman: Happy Independence Day!

I am an immigrant's son, and I get paid to go to the movies. Truly, this is the land of opportunity. And so, to celebrate the birthday of our great nation, I once again give you the ridiculously corny yet tremendously affecting speech given by a beleaguered U.S. President (potently played by Bill Pullman) to rally a final push against invading extraterrestrials in Independence Day. Let freedom ring.

“Good morning. In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind. ‘Mankind.’ That word should have new meaning for all of us today.

“We can't be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it's fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom... Not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution... but from annihilation. We are fighting for our right to live. To exist.

“And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: ‘We will not go quietly into the night!’ We will not vanish without a fight! We're going to live on! We're going to survive!

“Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”

Monday, June 17, 2019

New on Netflix: Wild West action in Big Kill

From my 10.19.2018 Variety review: “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear — specifically, the mid-1950s to the late ’60s — when Paramount and Warner Bros. relied on producers such as A.C. Lyles and Hal Wallis, and directors like Henry Hathaway, Gordon Douglas, and Burt Kennedy, to maintain a steady flow of workmanlike Westerns for consumption by diehard horse opera fans at theaters and drive-ins everywhere. That’s the invitation extended by writer-director-star Scott Martin’s Big Kill, one of the precious few Westerns of recent years that one can easily imagine as a decades-ago vehicle for John Wayne, Dean Martin, James Stewart, and their contemporaries with only minor tweaking of the script (and some discreet removal of vulgar language, sexual references, and other naughty bits).

“Yes, it clocks in at a leisurely 127 minutes, but that makes it only four minutes longer than John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) — just one of the obvious influences on Martin’s scenario about an upright tenderfoot who learns hard lessons about rough justice in the Wild West.”

Come Tuesday, Big Kill will be available for streaming on Netflix. You can read the rest of my Variety review here, and my Cowboys & Indians Magazine interview with Scott Martin here.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

The funniest movie of 2019 (so far) stars Lil Nas X, Billy Ray Cyrus... and Chris Rock

Sure, you can hear a more melodramatic remix of “Old Town Road” on the potent new trailer for Rambo: Last Blood. But this version has Chris Freakin’ Rock. You can’t beat that. 

Friday, May 31, 2019

To celebrate the birthday of Denholm Elliott, here is video of the late, great British actor pointing a peeing dog at Dudley Moore

On this date in 1922, Denholm Elliott was born in Ealing, Middlesex, England. The great British actor — who passed away in 1992 — distinguished himself in many movies, most notably Station Six Sahara, King Rat, Alfie (as the seedy abortionist hired by Michael Caine’s irresponsible womanizer), Too Late the Hero, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, A Doll’s House, Robin and Marian, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Trading Places.

But I must confess: Whenever I hear or read Elliott’s name, the first movie that pops into my head is The Hound of the Baskervilles, a spoofy 1978 take on the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story directed by Andy Warhol protégé Paul Morrissey, starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as, respectively, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Although it went unreleased in the United States until after Moore had scored box-office hits with Ten (1979) and Arthur (1981), my wife and I saw it during a day trip to London, Ontario while attending the 1978 Stratford Shakespeare Festival (where, by the way, we saw Maggie Smith in Macbeth and Private Lives, so feel free to turn green with envy). 

Critics have never been kind to this film, but I count it among my most treasured guilty pleasures. And the first time I saw Elliott aiming a urinating canine at Moore — well, it’s the closest I’ve ever come to literally falling onto the floor laughing since I first saw the killer rabbit scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

P.S. The one time I ever got to do a telephone interview with Denholm Elliott, during my 1982-95 run as film critic for The Houston Post,  I figured it would be a good idea to wait until the very end of the conversation to mention how much I was amused by this scene. And I can’t tell you how relieved I was to hear that he, too, thought it was pretty damn hilarious.  

Monday, May 13, 2019

Looking back at Doris Day and Pillow Talk

As a tribute to Doris Day — who passed away today at age 97 — I offer this chapter from my 2004 book Joe Leydon’s Guide to Essential Movies You Must See.(Trust me: The title was not my idea.) 

Whenever a film critic tries to disparage a romantic trifle by likening it to “a Doris Day movie,” you can be sure the reviewer isn't referring to Calamity Jane or With Six You Get Eggroll. The belittling allusion is critic-speak shorthand for a specific type of glossy fluff that flourished between the late 1950s and the mid ’60s, a genre best represented by Pillow Talk, the first and arguably best of some half-dozen movies that irreversibly established Day as the Virgin Queen of wholesome sex comedies.

Very much a pop-culture product of its time — and, as such, more enlightening than most historical or anthropological overviews of the period’s mood and mores — Pillow Talk cast Day as... well, to use the quaint nomenclature of the time, a career girl. She was 34 years old when production began in early 1959, and already had more than 20 major movie credits on her resume. But on the advice of her agent-husband, Martin Melcher, the self-styled financial whiz who would eventually squander most of her millions on ill-advised investments, Day decided to jump-start her temporarily stalled career by not acting her age.

The first image we have of Day in Pillow Talk is an admiring close-up of her lovely legs as she arranges her stockings. But don't misunderstand: She's in her own bedroom, alone, getting dressed for work. This bait-and-switch is typical of the tickle-and-tease that passed for sophistication in pseudo-risqué comedies of the era. (The DVD edition of “Pillow Talk” includes the original 1959 coming-attractions trailer, which promises “the most sparkling sex-capade that ever winked at conventions.” Yeah, right.) Another distinguishing characteristic: The movie's depiction of single working women — whoops, excuse me, I meant to say “career girls” — as pitiably incomplete and unhappy creatures in desperate need of a good man, a lusty ravishing or, preferably, both.

Day plays Jan Morrow, an interior decorator who's sufficiently successful to afford a stunning wardrobe, a spacious Manhattan apartment, and a housekeeper given to excessive drinking and wisecracking. Early on, however, Pillow Talk tips its hand by underscoring Jan’s true worth in the world. When she complains about the playboy who monopolizes their shared party line, a phone company official makes sympathetic noises, but claims he can't do anything to solve the problem. Yes, he knows that Jan needs to use her phone for business purposes. But, no, she can’t be placed any higher on the list of folks waiting for single lines. Unless, of course, some kind of emergency arose. “If you were to become pregnant,” he explains, “you’d jump right to the top of the list.” But -- remember, this is 1959 — that would require a husband, right?

Actually, Jan does have a serious marriage proposal to contemplate: Jonathan Forbes (Tony Randall), a fabulously wealthy client, wants to make her his fourth wife. But Jan isn’t interested, and not just because of Jonathan’s matrimonial track record. She simply doesn’t love the guy. And she doesn't want to marry anyone just for his money.

Could it be that Jan enjoys her independence? That's her story, and she's sticking to it. But Alma (Thelma Ritter), her cynical housekeeper, isn't convinced: “If there’s anything worse than a woman being alone, it's a woman who says she likes it.” Indeed, even the annoying playboy — played by Rock Hudson as the kind of guy who, in an updated remake, would likely read Maxim and Playboy — feels entitled to make snide remarks about Jan’s unmarried status. If she doesn’t like to hear his crooning sweet nothings to his many girlfriends every time she picks up the phone, well, that's her problem, not his. “Don't take your bedroom problems out on me,” he snarls.

Naturally, these opposites are destined to attract. Brad Allen (Hudson) — who just happens to be a good friend of Jonathan — is intrigued when he fortuitously recognizes Jan in a nightclub. She doesn't know who he is, however, and he contrives to hide his true identity by posing as a courtly Texas gentleman named Rex Stetson. He begins a meticulously chaste courtship, figuring the best way to lure Jan into bed is to behave as though his intentions are purely honorable.

And just to have a little fun at her expense, he drops none-too-subtle hints that any guy who's this polite must be — wink-wink, nudge-nudge — very devoted to his mother. (One can only wonder what mixed emotions Hudson felt as the famously closeted gay actor played a straight character who pretended to be effeminate.) Despite Rex’s pronounced “sensitivity” — or, more likely, because of it — Jan falls for his smooth talk. But just before Brad can make his move — are you ready for this? are you sitting down?   — he realizes he has truly fallen in love with her. And even then, he’s forced to delay his gratification when she sees through his role-playing.

Brad desperately woos her, apologizes to her, even hires her to redecorate his Hugh Hefneresque apartment. When Jan gets even by turning his love shack into a tacky faux bordello, Brad responds by smashing through her door, grabbing her out of bed, and carrying her down the street, back to his place. She squawks and complains, but, oddly enough, no passer-by comes to her aid. (Indeed, a passing cop more or less gives Brad his “Atta boy!” approval.) Or maybe it's not so odd after all: As I said, this is 1959, back when men were able to do this sort of thing with impunity — in the movies, at least — and women, when they came to their senses, seemed to really, really like it.
The funny thing is, even as you recognize the smug (and frankly sexist) assumptions on which the comedy is based, Pillow Talk remains inexplicably irresistible as a lavishly produced, campily retrograde guilty pleasure. (In 2003, the makers of Down With Love paid it affectionate homage by hiring Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger to channel Rock and Doris.) It helps that Day and Hudson are such appealing farceurs, and the supporting players are such scene-stealing scamps. It helps even more that much of this particular “Doris Day movie” is undeniably hilarious, albeit in some of the most blatantly non-PC ways imaginable.

Feel free to laugh with Pillow Talk — but don’t be too quick to laugh at a glossy romantic comedy that many people took very seriously back in the day. One of the highest-grossing movies released during the 1950s, it edged out Wild Strawberries, North by Northwest and The 400 for Best Original Screenplay at the 32nd annual Academy Awards. That same year, Doris Day received her one and only Oscar nomination as Best Actress for her game performance in this “sex-capade.” No kidding. 

Monday, April 29, 2019

Looking back at John Singleton's Rosewood

As a tribute to John Singleton, the gifted filmmaker who died Monday at the ridiculously young age of 51, I offer my original 1997 review of his “Rosewood.”

Given the facts that inspired the makers of Rosewood, it shouldn't be surprising that so much of the movie, for good or ill, has the look and feel of fiction.

During the first week of January 1923, the residents of Rosewood, a predominantly black settlement in Central Florida, were savagely attacked by angry whites from the nearby mill town of Sumner. Until then, the people of both areas had co-existed in relative harmony. Indeed, many of them knew each other, had done business with one another. But this familiarity did little to diminish the bloodlust of the Sumner mob once a white woman announced that she had been assaulted by a black man. Over a period of four days, many black men and women were shot, lynched or burned alive in and around Rosewood. The exact number of the victims remains a subject of historical dispute — estimates range as high as 250. The survivors fled into the swamps to escape certain death, leaving behind all their worldly possessions. They never returned. Rosewood was wiped off the map. In effect, the mob from Sumner murdered the entire town.

The history and destruction of Rosewood remained unknown to the rest of the world for more than six decades. Survivors rarely talked of the tragedy outside of their immediate families. At first, their silence could be attributed to fears of reprisal. (After all, the folks of Sumner were alive and well and, quite possibly, ready to return to their vigilante ways.) As time went by, however, it became obvious to the descendants of those who had escaped Rosewood that the survivors were too traumatized — and, perhaps, too ashamed — to say anything of what had happened.

By the time a tenacious reporter for the St. Petersburg Times began to piece together the story of Rosewood in 1982, most of the survivors had died, and those who remained alive were reluctant to talk. Eventually, journalist Gary Moore — no relation, presumably, to the TV variety show host of yesteryear — tracked down about 20 survivors and their descendants. From their accounts, he fashioned a story that attracted the interest of producers from TV’s 60 Minutes. The resultant publicity fueled the efforts of Arnette Doctor, the son of a Rosewood survivor, to demand reparations for the survivors and their families. Finally, in 1994, the Florida state legislature passed a bill providing for payments to the Rosewood survivors. By that time, inevitably, Hollywood had begun to take notice. Producer Jon Peters acquired the rights to the story, beginning the process that has led to the release of Rosewood.

Unfortunately, by now there is very little first-hand information about what happened in the Florida town more than 70 years ago. Director John Singleton, the immensely talented young filmmaker who made his first impression with Boyz N the Hood, and screenwriter Gregory Poirier spoke to a few survivors and their relatives. For the most part, however, they were forced to extrapolate from oral histories and local legends. Clearly, the filmmakers have based many of their speculations on other accounts of racial tensions in Central Florida during the 1920s. Just as clearly, they also have tossed a healthy dose of Hollywood hokum into the mix.

Surprisingly enough, the mix jells into something truly substantial. Rosewood is such a cunningly constructed and emotionally overwhelming piece of work that, even when it veers off into Wild West clichés and Saturday matinee heroics, the drama remains powerful and persuasive. Singleton and Poirier take care to sprinkle a few complex characters among the familiar archetypes, and ground the entire story in reality by vividly evoking the specifics of time, place and attitudes. This may not be precisely how things happened in real life. But Rosewood is more than convincing enough to help us accept the more fanciful touches of dramatic license.

Mann, the most brazenly stereotypical of the lead characters, is also, according to the film’s production notes, the only character Poirier invented entirely out of whole cloth. Played with taciturn dignity and hulking authority by Ving Rhames, Mann comes across as a classic gunfighter hero — eager to settle down, reluctant to involve himself in scrapes, lethally efficient when push comes to shove. The big differences is, he’s African-American. More precisely, he’s a black World War I veteran who rides into Rosewood on a handsome horse, and is greatly impressed by a place the locals describe as “heaven on earth” for black people.

Rosewood is indeed usual for its time, being a town where most of the residents are black, and many of them are, by standards of the era, prosperous. One of the few white citizens, John Wright (Jon Voight), is a store owner who actually treats his black neighbors with respect. Whether he does this only because it’s good for business isn't initially clear. In any case, Wright has managed to earn the wary admiration of Sarah Carrier (Esther Rolle), a family matriarch who doesn't always speak highly of her fair-skinned neighbors. Mr. Wright, she tells Mann, “is a half-way decent white man — if there ever was such a thing.”

For a long time, Mann functions primarily as a plot device, serving as the audience’s surrogate while he is introduced to the major residents of Rosewood. In addition to John Wright and Sarah Carrier, the notables include Sylvester Carrier (Don Cheadle), Sarah’s son, a proud piano teacher who defiantly insists on treating white men as his equals; and Scrappie (Elise Neal), a 17-year-old schoolteacher who makes Mann think seriously about giving up his wandering ways. Rosewood takes ample time to let us know these people, to appreciate the simple pleasures and satisfactions of their everyday lives, before Singleton and Poirier ignite the nightmare. The slatternly white women who claims she was attacked by a black man — possibly an escaped convict — is a liar. (The audience sees her being assaulted by her brutal white lover.) More important, just about everyone in Sumner, even her husband, suspects she is lying. But that doesn't stop the rumors from spreading or the anger from blazing.

Rosewood makes it very clear that virulent racism isn't the only thing feeding the mob’s bloodlust. Most of the white folks in Sumner are depicted as low-income rednecks who bitterly resent the apparent prosperity of “those niggers” in Rosewood. In one telling scene, a sneering redneck wonders aloud why Sylvester Carrier can afford a piano while he, a white man, can’t. A friend points out that the redneck doesn’t even know how to play the piano. But that information is brushed aside as insignificant. It’s the principle that matters.

When the full fury of the hate-filled mob begins to hammer down on Rosewood, the spectacle is at once horrifying senseless and painfully familiar. By sheer coincidence, I saw Rosewood at the recent Berlin Film Festival, just a few hours after seeing Calling the Ghosts, a documentary about Croat and Muslim women who were raped and beaten by their Serbian captors during the Bosnian civil war. These women, like most of the other prisoners in their internment camp, had lived for years alongside their Serbian neighbors, and had assumed these people were their friends. Just like the black townspeople in Rosewood thought they knew, and were known by, the good folks of Sumner.

Late in Rosewood, there is a scene where the white mob dumps dozens of black corpses into a massive grave. Once again, the scene was all the more chilling for me because I viewed it in the context of a film festival where ample evidence of man’s inhumanity to man abounded. I couldn't help thinking of other things I had seen in Berlin — documentaries and dramatic films about wartime horrors and, even more joltingly, an exhibition at The Topography of Terror, a museum on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters, that showed Nazis disposing of their many victims in a fashion very similar to that of the racists thugs in Rosewood. Hate is a virus. It takes different forms, but the symptoms never seem to change very much.

With all that fresh in my mind, I may have been more willing than most moviegoers to forgive the makers of Rosewood for wanting to show heroism and self-empowerment as well as evil and destruction — for wanting to provide some glimmer of hope in something like a happy ending. The movie is tremendously effective as a large-scale reconstruction of terrible historical events that should never be forgotten. On the other hand, Rosewood also gives us in Mann and John Wright two characters who transcend their differences, and their own mutual suspicions, to save as many lives as possible. (Voight is exceptionally good at illuminating Wright's moral complexities.)

To say more would risk spoiling the impact of the movie’s pulse-pounding climax. Suffice it to say that, by embellishing the known facts with a few romanticized flourishes, Singleton and Poirier have struck a fair balance between their responsibility to historical truth and their desire to entertain — and, yes, inspire — audiences.