Wednesday, August 17, 2011

SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION (FRED SCHEPISI, 1993)

Six Degrees of Separation, USA, 1993
Dir: Fred Schepisi
Cast: Will Smith, Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland


Chaos and Control. Chaos and Control.


There are times in your life when you will sit down to watch a quality drama or even a comedy, or at least expect to, because of different factors like the cast involved, the director, or the studio representing the film. Stanley Kubrick had an immense talent to make films that fall under different categories, never pigeon-holing himself in any one particular genre. You might sit down and watch Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick's classic comedy, and expect the filmmaker to be a witty intellectual with a good sense of humor. But you will be shocked when you sit down and see A Clockwork Orange, which Kubrick directed a few years later, a movie that was Rated X for its graphic violence and multiple rape scenes. You would never expect a filmmaker to make two, such contrasting works of art.

This all brings me back to the original point that sometimes you think you are in for one thing, but end up experiencing something altogether different. Sometimes you sit down to watch a movie that you don't think will scare you and you end up seeing something that absolutely terrifies you. This is the feeling I got when watching the brilliantly creepy performance in Six Degrees of Separation by actor and rapper known at the time as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Of course, I'm referring to Will Smith, currently the world’s biggest movie star. An acclaimed performer (twice nominated for an Academy Award), and one of the most profitable (over $2.5 billion in lifetime grosses), Smith has grown into a global persona since the film's release. This movie, however, finds Smith in an unusual role. He play's Paul, who at first glance comes off as intelligent, kind, witty, and passionate about literature and philosophy. He stumbles into the lives of Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing, wealthy art dealers living in the swanky NY area of the Upper East Side. He also claims to be acclaimed actor Sidney Poitier's son. As the film moves along, we learn that A. He is not related to Sidney Poitier. B. Paul is actually a gay hustler. C. He has conned many, many other married couples into letting him into their homes.

What makes Six Degrees of Separation so appealing is its star -- Will Smith. Watching the film nearly 20 years after its release, it is a different experience watching former TV actor, turned best selling rapper, turned international movie star in such an intimate and complicated role. Watching Smith playing this character is like watching him do Shakespeare. He turns in a magnificent performance.

Another bright spot in the cast is Anthony Michael Hall, who plays an MIT student who teaches Will Smith to be a proper gentleman. Sample line: “It’s not boddle-o-beer. It’s bottle of beer.” In addition to Hall, the impressive supporting cast includes Ian McKellan, Heather Graham and J.J. Abrams (creator of cult TV shows Alias and Lost).

Six Degrees of Separation, originally a stage play by John Guare, is based on a true story of David Hampton, who in the 1980s conned a group of wealthy Manhattanites out of thousands of dollars. Although Will Smith’s character, Paul, is different. He fooled people into believing his story that he was Sidney Poitier’s son, and that he went to a boarding school in Switzerland and has enjoyed a wealthy upbringing. But in reality, his character was dirt poor, probably abandoned by his parents, and found himself living on the streets, trying to hustle people in order to survive. But his character is so unique, because he is not your typical hustler. He’s not just a good talker, he possesses real intelligence and ability to adapt and change, seemingly into whatever the people he’s conning want him to be.

Sutherland and Channing’s characters, privileged parents of three, are kind but na├»ve, whose children despise them for their naivety and inability to connect with them. The parents long for a child who is caring and compassionate, and they find that in Paul and fall under his spell, even after they’ve realized that they’ve been deceived so heavily. The real life Paul, David Hampton, was ultimately caught and arrested in the 1980s, and served jail time in several different states. He eventually died of AIDS in 2003.

The title of the film refers to the idea that only six people on earth connect any one person. This theory, which has since entered the consciousness of popular culture was a fascinating idea two decades ago and was inspiration for a wildly successful play, as well as a brilliant film that I highly recommend you to see.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

PIECES OF APRIL (PETER HEDGES, 2003)

Pieces of April, 2003, USA
Dir: Peter Hedges
Cast: Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Platt


One recent late Friday night, I decided to pop in a DVD lying around on the table where my television used to sit (it has since gone on to TV heaven). I popped it into my DVD player and sat back, relaxed, and was pleasantly surprised to find that Pieces of April is a tiny budgeted, hand held shot, independent little gem starring a load of talented actors, and helmed by a successful novelist turned screenwriter, turned director.

In just under 80 minutes, writer/director Peter Hedges, fresh off an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay for About a Boy, managed to create a very sentimental and poignant family drama, done in a very traditionally untraditional manner. Starring Katie Holmes, Pieces of April centers on a rebellious 20-something girl who invites her family over for Thanksgiving dinner. She lives with her boyfriend, played by Derek Luke. Her mother, Patricia Clarkson (in an Academy Award nominated performance), plays her cancer-stricken mother, soon to die. They have never gotten along, and this complex mother-daughter relationship or lack thereof is at the heart of this story.

Oliver Platt, who portrays the titular April’s father, trying to hold the family together, leads a great supporting cast. Her sister is played by a wonderfully annoying Allison Pill, and rounding out the celeb-filled cast is Sean Hayes, of Will & Grace fame, who plays April’s strange neighbor.

Part of the movie’s success is that it falls into many genres and categories. It’s a food movie, for one. It’s all about food, preparing food, discussing food, eating food. Food has always been a form of bringing people together, and it is the tool used to bring this dysfunctional family together for the most important meal of the American year. It is also a Thanksgiving movie. The film is set entirely during the last Thursday of November, traditionally celebrated as Thanksgiving. The food being hastily prepared is a turkey that can’t find an oven to be cooked in, once April’s stove break down.

The screenplay was written by Peter Hedges, who also directed the film. Hedge is most famous for being the author of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, which was turned into an acclaimed film in 1993, starring Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Pieces of April was shot on a shoestring budget, less than what most small indie films are shot on. Each cast member sacrificed a significant portion of his or her usual fee to be a part of the project. The film was also shot digitally, which gives it a very realistic and urban feel to it. It was around this time that digital filmmaking had really taken off, and more and more filmmakers were given the opportunity to make their films their way with small, digitized cameras that allowed filmmakers to shoot movies on the cheap.

Pieces of April succeeds where many other simple, independent films do not. It has a warm, and affecting and well-written script. It also features a brilliant cast who managed to create a very serious film filled with humor and wit. It is the result of very fine skills and talent, and is one of the best independent films of recent years.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

MIRACLE MILE (STEVE DE JARNATT, 1988)

Miracle Mile, USA, 1988
Directed by Steve De Jarnatt
Starring Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham, Mykelti Williamson


Have you ever wondered what the consequences would be if ever there were a real full blown nuclear war? Countless films, mostly released in the 1950s and 60s told tales of “what if?” in thought provoking fashion. Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe, even Rod Serling delved into the subject in several Twilight Zone episodes. The topic wasn't covered in Hollywood for decades after the Cold War subsided in the late 60s and 70s.

The 1980s marked the return of competing nations like America and the Soviet Union. A tension-filled arms race followed with no winners and no losers. Hollywood took notice and began to start asking the ultimate question on everyone’s mind, what if it did happen? What if one country set off a nuclear bomb attack on another? This was tackled by several productions in the 80s such as the The Lathe of Heaven (reviewed on 9/09/10), The Day After and Miracle Mile, the latter of which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 1988.

Pulse pounding and working in real time, Miracle Mile is about a young trumpet player who shows up late to a date with the girl of his dreams and answers a chance phone call who tells him a nuclear war is set to go off in less than an hour. He struggles to explain the situation to nearby diner patrons, who naturally believe him to be a crazed loon. However, he convinces enough people to start a mini-storm of panic, while the clock slowly ticks away. The question on everyone’s mind is, of course, whether or not the phone call he received was real or just a prank.


The trumpet player was played by Anthony Edwards, only a few years before he achieved TV stardom on ER. Also starring is Mare Winningham, just years after she achieved minor stardom in the rat-pack installment St. Elmo’s Fire and Mykelti Williamson, most remembered for playing Tom Hank’s army buddy Bubba in Forrest Gump.

Originally intended as a segment in the Twilight Zone movie released in 1983, director Steve De Jarnatt battled for nearly a decade to get the film produced and released. Originally a flop at the box office, it has since gained some minor-popularity over the years. Coming in at just 87 minutes, it’s a very quick, but memorable suspense story. Miracle Mile also features a brilliant soundtrack by one of the greatest ambient music bands of the time – Tangerine Dream. The German group, most famous for electronic music, also spearheaded the soundtracks for other cult classics like Michael Mann’s The Keep and the Tom Cruise flicks Risky Business and Legend.

Set in L.A. in the middle of a sleepy night, Miracle Mile’s ending, where the audience finally finds out whether or not they’ve been hoaxed, cannot be missed. Roger Ebert described the film in his review back in 1989 as having “the logic of one of those nightmares in which you're sure something is terrible, hopeless and dangerous, but you can't get anyone to listen to you.” The question is, if such an event ever did occur, would anyone believe you?