There’s been a sense of stagnation out there for the last two or three weeks. All I’ve been able to think or write about have been movies to come — United 93, Snakes on a Plane, Cannes Film Festival likelies, summer movies, etc. Along with the occasional side-trip — Anthony Pellicano, Marlon Brando, local film festivals.
I finally woke up Tuesday night (3.4) after seeing a striking, not-yet-finished film by Philip Noyce (The Quiet American) called Hotstuff (Focus Features), a true saga of an ordinary South African man’s fight against apartheid in the early ’80s, with Derek Luke and Tim Robbins starring. It’s not just well-made, but well-immersed. It’s a re-creation, of course, but it doesn’t feel like one. You’re “in” it from the start.
Ranpage director George Gittoes, burgeoning rap star Denzel Lovett during filming in Miami’s violent “Brown Sub” neighborhood
This took me back to a couple of hip-hop movies I saw a few weeks ago – Asger Leth’s Ghosts of Cite Soleil and George Gittoes’ Rampage — that had a similar urgency and verisimilitude.
I’ve been lazy in writing about Rampage , which played at February’s Berlin Film Festival and which I saw about three weeks ago. I met Gittoes when he stopped in Los Angeles on his way back from Berlin to meet with local distributors, and we recorded a phone interview just before he flew back to Sydney. He’s now trying to arrange for U.S. distribution.
Rampage is an unusual hybrid — a true-to-form urban hip-hop documentary that exudes the dispassionate mood and attitude of life in a dangerous ‘hood, but at the same time is a kind of “heart” movie.
It’s half-set in one of the deadliest environments in the United States and half-set in the realm of promise (or at least hope). What gets you is that it’s more than just a hard-edged doc about a tough situation but a haunting portrait of death and birth, and is all the more affecting due to the major “characters” all being in their teens and early 20s.
Shot in ’04 and ’05, it’s about four brothers living in a hardscrabble Miami ghetto called “Brown Sub,” a place said to be more dangerous to walk around in than present-day Baghdad.
The “down” story is about one of the brothers, named Marcus Lovett, being shot at a party in Brown Sub over some stupid-assed gang war. The “up” story is about Marcus’ kid brother, a very good-looking, hugely-talented 14 year-old rapper named Denzel Lovett, trying to get a recording career going with Gittoes’ assistance.
And the Big Friggin’ Irony is that Denzel’s lyrics, which are all about the hard- smack realities of living in Brown Sub (shootings, drug deals, dead guys), get in the way of his being signed due to record company executives being nervous about his lyrics not being “age-appropriate.”
The kid is telling it like it is…this is my life, one out of eight kids in my neighbor- hood catches a bullet by the time they’re 23 or 24 years old, it ain’t no picnic or walk in the park…and even though Denzel is attractive and spirited and obviously has what it takes to be a star, the producers all say, “Uhm, really great, Denzel …but can you rap about something less violent and more positive?”
Elliot Lovett, Gittoes, Denzel Lovett
Marcus’s death is obviously tragic, and anyone watching it happen in this film (and how his family reacts) will feel sad, but the reaction of recording execs to Denzel’s material will make you want to vomit.
Gittoes, a war photographer since the late `60s (he’s covered Vietnam, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Somalia, Iraq), a renowned im presionist in Australian art gallery circles, and director of a 2004 Iraq documentary called Soundtrack to War, has called Rampage “the hardest film he’s ever made.”
It started with Gittoes meeting Iraq-based G.I. Elliot Lovett when he shot Sound- track and hearing the line “we get shot more in Miami than Baghdad,” which led Gittoes to follow him home to Miami on leave.
Rampage barely delves into the details about how the Lovett boys make money (there apparently aren’t many options except getting into the drug trade), but he certainly captures what the day-to-day is like. It’s hell…Chicago in the 1920s and then some. Feuds, shootings, territorial imperatives, macho bullshit.
George Gittoes during our interview just off Santa Monica’s Ocean Avenue a few weeks ago
A cop tells Gittoes at one point that kids have used rocket launchers against each other. There’s also a sequence in which Denzel and the gang drive over to Miami’s South Beach district, and we learn they’ve never been there before, and barely looked at the beach or the water.
They live in a vacuum, these guys. Cut off from everything outside the Sub and not at all interested in looking beyond it. Strange, curious…a bit sad.
Gittoes has said that “the place that I found was most like Brown Sub was Moga- dishu. I thought I was back in Mogadishu and the drug lords were very similar to Aidid and his people.”
After Marcus’s death, Gittoes abandons any pose of neutrality and does everything he can to shop Denzel to the music industry, taking him to meet the right people in New York and Los Angeles, and also on a relaxation trip to Australia.
“What interested me in Iraq was, a lot of Iraqis were walking up to African-Ameri- can soldiers saying ‘what are you doing fighting George Bush’s war?’ Gittoes has recalled. ‘You should be back in America fighting your own’…but these soldiers weren’t there because they were patriotic. They were in Iraq because it was safer.”
Rampage ran 118 minutes when it played Berlin. Gittoes heard some comments there and in Los Angeles that he should trim it down some. (The critic for Screen Daily called it “lively, insightful and even shocking,” but added “it needs to be cut drastically.”) Gittoes wrote me from Sydney about a week and a half ago saying he was doing just that.
An Australian journalist who saw Rampage in Berlin said it was “more urgent, more moving, than entries here by master directors like Robert Altman, Claude Chabrol and Sidney Lumet.”
Gittoes has urged people in the entertainment media (including journalists) “to wake up to hip-hop as an artistic movement.”
The Brown Sub boys “have got nothing and yet the whole time I was with them, I felt that I was poorer than they were,” Gittoes said during the Berlin festival. “I felt that they were in a culture which was much, much richer than mine.
“This is a culture where people are creating poetry spontaneously… They just love words and language — they play with words in a way that’s not unlike Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde or James Joyce. But these middle-class yuppie-type people who are a big proportion of the people that come to arts festivals, a lot of them are against popular art. They just can’t see the cultural value in it.”
It was reported in February that Gittoes and his producer, Gabrielle Dalton, have signed to write a feature screenplay from Soundtrack to War and Rampage.
Gittoes has sunk $500,000 out of his own pocket into Rampage , and is hoping to at least be made whole with enough left over to finance his next film. Here’s hoping for that, and also that the very happening Denzel — who must be about 16 now — gets signed and becomes the big thing he ought to be.
Again, here’s the interview I did with him in mid March.
“I have a problem with George Gittoes’ comment about the Brown Sub boys, to wit: ‘They’ve got nothing and yet the whole time I was with them, I felt that I was poorer than they were. I felt that they were in a culture which was much, much richer than mine.’
“Their culture is richer than yours? You must be dead in the grave then. I live right on the border of the ghetto in Baltimore (which is otherwise known as Bodymore, Murdaland), specifically Park Heights, and I’ve been all over the city, and the ‘culture’ Gittoes is talking about is one of macho thuggery, irresponsibility, misogyny, short-sightedness, ignorance, and generally not giving a shit about anything.
The deceased Marcus Lovett (dressed in light blue, second from left) with Brown Sub homies in George Gittoes’ Rampage
“They have a really rich culture there…one that tries to get middle schoolers into dealing and using drugs to hook them young. They’re less of a problem if they get arrested because they just go to juvie, and if they don’t they’re hooked and have to stay in — they’ve dropped out anyway. And the coolest thing you can do is do wheelies on your dirt bike up and down streets hours at a time.
“You can’t blame these kids for being like this because their parents are are awful (if they exist at all), the infrastructure they have is useless, and the drug wars ravage everything. They can’t even get access to decent food — all their corner stores and liquor stores have is packaged trash.
“Anyone halfway connected to this knows this, and in fact has known for decades, and what’s changed? Nothing. The same pointless drug war, the same white middle-class distaste for black men (except for palatable ones like Tiger Woods or Colin Powell), the same lack of infrastructure.
“In reference to 14 year-old Denzel Lovett being considered too young to spout lyrics of his violent reality, who cares? Oh, so he has to wait three or four years and then he can rap about the same bullshit everyone else raps about? What a tragedy.
“I also love the concept of black soldiers leaving the ghetto to go to Iraq, where it’s ‘safer.’ How about going somewhere that isn’t incredibly dangerous? Like, say, anywhere else? This brings up the idea of getting out, which is explored in the documentary The Boys of Baraka, about boys from Baltimore going to Kenya to gain perspective, and how that changes them. Sorry — no hip-hop in that film. I guess that makes it boring.
“I’m open to seeing Rampage, but I had to take issue with what I read in your piece.” — Mike Jasik
A typical summer season always seems to come down to one big-budget, lowest- common-denominator no-brainer after another…Hollywood being sort of like Steve McQueen firing diseased buckshot into the body aesthetic with a pump shotgun… wham!…discharge…wham!…discharge.
I was thinking along these lines myself the other day, but that was before I began to really go over the May-to-August releases with a fine tooth comb. It gradually hit me after an hour or so that the 2006 summer is looking a little bit craftier and less dumbed-down than usual.
Jamie Foxx, Colin Farrell in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice (Universal, 7.28)
Four late summer films in particular — an exotic end-of-the-world action drama from Mel Gibson, a sad-eyed World War II combat drama from Clint Eastwood that’s squarely aimed at adults, some kind of undercover drug-smuggling thriller from the masterful Michael Mann, and Oliver Stone’s right-in-your-face depiction of the horrors of 9.11 in downtown Manhattan — are giving the ’06 summer a pedigree all by themselves.
I’m ready to concede, in fact, that out of 15 major summer releases, only two or three seem deliberately aimed at the bozos. And there’s only one, really, that seems to relish the idea of being an empty big-studio wanker — Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (Disney, 7.7).
The Big 15 are so described because they have big, obvious selling points (stars, sequels, high concepts), because they cost the most to produce and are obviously going to enjoy the benefits of saturation advertising well before they open. (The preceding sentence could’ve been written ten or twenty years ago. I think I might have used it in a summer preview piece I wrote in April 1984.)
From the top…
Mission: Impossible III (Paramount, 5.5). Cast: Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ving Rhames, Laurence Fishburne, Billy Crudup, Michelle Monaghan, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Keri Russell. Director: J.J. Abrams. Guaranteed score factor : Hoffman as the villain. Concern: What are the odds that Abrams, a first-timer, will be able to do anything except hold the pieces together, or that he’ll deliver any kind of visual flair in the vein of Brian DePalma? Bad trailer/website thing: That ghastly theme music. Worthwhile alternate 5.5 openers : Sydney Pollack’s Sketches of Frank Gehry, Magnolia’s One Last Thing.
Mission: Impossible III (Paramount, 5.5)
Poseidon (Warner Bros., 5.12). Cast: Josh Lucas, Kurt Russell, Emmy Rossum, Jacinda Barrett, Richard Dreyfuss. Director: Wolfgang Petersen Screenwriter : Mark Protosevich. Guaranteed score factor : (a) That kinda-fake-but-still-cool CG footage of a massive rogue wave toppling a huge luxury liner, (b) costar Kurt Russell, who always rocks in an action mode; (c) “There’s nothing fair about who lives or dies”, (d) savoring the various deaths, and (e) knowing this is basically a revisionist 9/11 film in disguise. Concern: The possibility that Rossum’s character might survive; the suspicion that Peterson-Protosevich will pretty much adhere to what most of us are expecting — a 2006 version of a 1972 disaster film with better effects. Bad trailer/website thing: Characters talking about feelings of love for their mates and family members. (Compensation: the more someone in a disaster film talks about being in love with someone else, the more likely it is that they or their loved one will die a horrible death.) Worthwhile alternate 5.12 opener: New Line and Nic Cassevetes’ Alpha Dog.
The DaVinci Code (Columbia, 5.19). Cast: Tom Hanks, Jean Reno, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen, Alfred Molina, Paul Bettany. Director: Ron Howard Screenwriter: Akiva Goldsman. Guaranteed score factor : Howard is simply too proficient at mainstream filmmaking these days to seriously blow it, so I guess this amounts to a score factor; the Paris locations. Concern: Big, beefy Tom Hanks looks kind of old and ample of girth opposite his pixie-ish costar, Audrey Tatou; the more I look at those shots of Hanks and Tatou runnning while holding hands….hurry! hurry! we haven’t much time! — the more turned off I get. Worthwhile alternate 5.19 opener: Dominik Moll’s Lemming (Strand Releasing).
Poseidon (Warner Bros., 5.12)
X-Men: The Last Stand (20th Century Fox, 5.26). Cast: Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Anna Paquin, Kelsey Grammer, Rebecca Romijn, James Marsden, Shawn Ashmore, Aaron Stanford, Vinnie Jones, Patrick Stewart. Director: Brett Ratner Screenwriters: Zak Penn, Simon Kinberg. Guaranteed score factor : The fact that the bar has been set very low, due to the fact than nobody expects this third (and quite possibly final) installment to be as good as the first two because the director, Brett Ratner, isn’t on the same aesthetic-creative plane as Bryan Singer. Concern: Brett Ratner. Worthwhile alternate 5.26 opener: Al Gore’s global-warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth (Paramount Classics).
The Break-Up (Universal, 6.2). Cast: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Aniston, Joey Lauren Adams, Ann-Margret, Judy Davis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jon Favreau, Cole Hauser. Director: Peyton Reed Screenwriters: Jeremy Garelick, Jay Lavender Guaranteed score factor : Not sure if there is one except for a general presumption that this is the big definitive GenX relationship comedy of the summer. Everyone wants to re-sample Vaughn’s wise-ass motormouth character, which made him a star in last summer’s The Wedding Crashers. Concern : Aniston needs to be in a quality vehicle sooner or later, or she’ll eventually be in trouble. Worthwhile alternate 6.2 opener: Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion (Picturehouse).
Nacho Libre (Paramount, 6.14)
Cars (Disney, 6.9). Cast: Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, “Larry the Cable Guy”, Cheech Marin, George Carlin, Richard Petty, Michael Keaton, Tony Shalhoub, Paul Dooley. Director/screenwriter: John Lasseter. Guaranteed score factor : The superb-looking animation, “name” voice actors delivering sharp punch-line humor. Concern: Word around the Pixar campfire is that it’s “okay,” “entertaining,” et. al. but not quite the knockout that Brad Bird’s The Incredibles was. (One guy who saw it two or three weeks ago actually said, “Well…I’d rather not say anything.”)
Nacho Libre (Paramount, 6.14). Cast: Jack Black, Ana de la Reguera, Hector Jimenez, Richard Montoya, Peter Stormare. Director: Jared Hess Screenwriters: Hess, Jerusha Hess, Mike White. Guaranteed score factor : Napoleon Dynamite ‘s Jared Hess doing his dry, visually static, neo-Wes Anderson thing and letting Jack Black go to town as a Mexican priest moonlighting as a lucha libre wrestler…certainly a marketable combo. Concern: Disciplined enough? A developed-enough script? Too lowbrow? Worthwhile alternate 6.14 opener: Patrick Creadon’s Wordplay (IFC Films).
Superman Returns (Warner Bros., 6.30). Cast: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, James Marsden, Frank Langella, Eva Marie Saint, Parker Posey, Sam Huntington, Kal Penn, Kevin Spacey. Director: Bryan Singer Screenwriters : Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris. Guaranteed score factor : The DC Comics brand plus the presumption of smarts and stylistic pizazz from Singer, and yet the more you think about this thing and listen to Marlon Brando’s voiceover in that trailer… Concern: Take away the gay maroon-red bikini briefs on Brandon Roush and it all seems a little too similar to the 1978 Richard Donner Superman. (Singer has been fairly upfront about this, apparently.) Many of the same characters turn up. (Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor will be half about whatever he brings to it, and half about avoiding the tone and attitude of Gene Hackman’s Luthor in the ’78 film). And the same old places (Krypton, Smallville, Daily Planet) are used, and even some similar-looking sets. (No missing the Donner influence in that Singer set that’s supposed to be Krypton or Superman’s North Pole lair). And it seems like yet another origin story. I’ve been sensing geek resistance to this thing all along, frankly. Worthwhile alternate 6.30 opener : The Devil Wears Prada (20th Century Fox).
M. Night Shyamalan, Paul Giamatti during filming of Lady in the Water (Disney, 7.7)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (Disney, 7.7). Cast: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Stellan Skarsgard, Bill Nighy, Jack Davenport, Kevin R. McNally, Jonathan Pryce. Director: Gore Verbinski. Screenwriters: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio. Guaranteed score factor: I’ve already spoken bluntly about this film. No point in beating a dead horse…not to suggest in any way that Dead Man’s Chest is a dead commercial prospect. Far from it. Concern: I can’t stand the thought of watching Depp do Keith Richards again…I just can’t take it.
Lady in the Water (Warner Bros., 7.7). Cast: Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban, Freddy Rodriguez, Sarita Choudhury, Jared Harris, Bill Irwin. Director/screenwriter : M. Night Shyamalan. Guaranteed score factor : The M. Night brand is widely appreciated by audiences these days — they know they’re at least going to get something distinctive and particular. And you can’t go wrong with Paul Giamatti these days. Concern: The story was initially written for Night’s children, apparently, and the trailer refers to the movie as a “bedtime story.” Worthwhile alternate 7.7 opener: Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly (Warner Independent).
Miami Vice (Universal, 7.28). Cast: Jamie Foxx, Colin Farrell, Gong Li, Naomie Harris, Ciaran Hinds, Justin Theroux. Director/screenwriter : Michael Mann Guaranteed score factor : The legend of the ’80s TV series, Farrell and Foxx, the hand of Michael Mann, and costar Gong Li. This has to be some kind of knockout. The creator of Heat, Collateral, The Insider and Ali is too exacting and ambitious to have anything to do with a lazy summer movie. Concern : I tried reading a draft of the script early last year and I couldn’t stay with it. It felt like it was more about expensive toys and South Beach machismo than anything else. (But then I bailed, so what do I know?) And then there were those set stories about Mann not having a decent ending worked out until the tail end of the shoot. Worthwhile alternate 7.28 opener : Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Little Miss Sunshine (Fox Searchlight).
Flags of our Fathers (DreamWorks/Paramount, 8.4). Director : Clint Eastwood. Screenwriter: Paul Haggis. Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, Paul Walker, Jamie Bell. Guaranteed score factor : It’s a rare thing these days for a big studio to produce and distribute a high-calibre drama aimed at the over-30 trade, but that’s what this is. Flags is essentially a World War II art film about the space between ordinary soldiers and the civilians and family members who regard them as “war heroes.” Eastwood’s track record as a winner of two Best Picture Oscars lend an expectation that this may rank as one of the year’s most affecting dramas, whether or not it ends up as an ’07 Oscar finalist. Concern : The script I read doesn’t have much of a through-line. There’s a lot of time-trip, back-and-forth cutting and it certainly progresses in a manner of speaking…but it doesn’t exactly “build” and pay off according to the Robert McKee definition of those terms. Worthwhile alternate 8.4 opener: Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep (Warner Independent).
Nicolas Cage in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (Paramount, 8.11)
Apocalypto (Disney, 8.4). Director: Mel Gibson. Screenwriters: Gibson, Farhad Safinia. Cast: Buncha no-namers. Guaranteed score factor : The family righties who came out for Gibson’s The Passion will most likely be attuned to Apocalypto‘s story about an ancient civilization going through a period of self-destruction from within, which obviously conveys an end-of-days metaphor. Concern : Gibson is a good, go-for-broke filmmaker. If there are serious concerns about Apocalypto, I dont know what they are.
World Trade Center (Paramount, 8.11). Director: Oliver Stone. Screenwriter: Andrea Berloff. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllen- haal, Jay Hernandez. Guaranteed score factor : The “too soon!”-ers who are claiming they won’t go to Paul Greengrass’s United 93 probably won’t go to this one either, but an awful lot of us are going to find it hard to resist wanting to know how Stone will depict the nightmarish events of that day, even though his story focus (the fate of two Port Authority guys who were buried alive in the rubbble) is fairly narrow. Concern: Stone and producers Michael Shamberg and Stacy Sher have, in their press statements, seemed so concerned about offending anyone that their melodrama may, in the end, be so ultra-politically correct it won’t have any teeth. Worthwhile alternate 8.4 opener: Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson (THINKFilm).
Snakes on a Plane (New Line, 8.18). Director: David Ellis. Screenwriters: John Heffernan, David Loucka. Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Nathan Phillips, Benjamin McKenzie. Guaranteed score factor : Everyone’s going to want to see this thing after all the internet hype — SOAP geeks, mainstreamers, young kids, African- Americans, etc. Concern : That the tone will be a bit too lampoonish. It has to be more or less straight with just a hint of a wink. Worthwhile alternate 8.18 opener : Kevin Smith’s Clerks 2 (Weinstein Co.).
Westbourne Drive and Melrose Avenue during this morning’s rain — 3.4.06, 9:05 am.
Melrose and Westbourne, looking west — 3.4.09, 9:08 am.