The Runaways


The Runaways

Joan Jett loves rock and roll; Cherie Currie loves the lifestyle.

(2010) Musical Biography (Apparition) Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, Michael Shannon, Danielle Riley Keough, Scout Taylor-Compton, Tatum O’Neal, Stella Maeve, Brett Cullen, Alia Shawkat, Johnny Lewis, Hannah Marks, Jill Andre. Directed by Floria Sigismondi

The world of rock and roll is a harsh one, full of broken promises and shattered dreams. Every so often, a performer or a band will break through and change things; on other occasions, a performer or a band will succumb to the excesses of the industry. Sometimes, a performer or a band will do both.

Joan Jett (Stewart) is a young girl who idolizes Suzi Quatro and Keith Richards. She’s an adept guitarist but nobody will take her seriously and she longs to be in a rock and roll band. She meets Kim Fowley (Shannon), a fixture on the Sunset Strip in the 1970s-era Los Angeles when this all took place. Fowley sees himself as an acute judge of talent and a canny promoter who understands what sells. He longs to be a major player in the music business, something he is not at the time. He likes Jett’s look and her dream of  fronting an all-woman rock band – there were none at the time that had any success, although in pop music the girl groups of the 60s (Martha and the Vandellas and over in Motown the Supremes) had met with success. However, these were women who projected a certain safe and virtuous image. Fowley – and Jett – wanted danger and subversion. Fowley hooked up Jett with Sandy West (Maeve), a drummer. The two began practicing together but the band needed fleshing out.

Cherie Currie (Fanning) is Bowie-obsessed and performs one of his songs dressed just like him at a school talent show, getting booed by her audience and flipping them off in retaliation. Her home life is falling apart at the seams – her dad (Cullen) is an alcoholic, spiraling slowly to an inevitable end and her mom (O’Neal) has fled to Indonesia to escape, leaving her with her twin Marie (Keough) as essentially sole support. Fowley discovers her and brings her to his trashy trailer to perform with the band. At first Cherie is stiff and hesitant but with Fowley pushing her/abusing her into the right attitude, her natural performing talent, sexuality and charisma come to the fore. “It’s not women’s lib,” Fowley crows, “Its women’s libido!” The remaining spots in the band are filled up with guitarist Lita Ford (Taylor-Compton) and bassist Robin Wolf (Shawkat).

The group plays a series of gigs in a series of depressing dives before Fowley gets them signed to a major label. A song, “Cherry Bomb” becomes a minor hit (although it becomes a big one in Japan) and the band begins to headline gigs and support major acts in stadiums. They go to Japan where they are mobbed by rabid fans and all of a sudden this group of young girls – all in their mid-teens at the time – suddenly are cursed with the success of the rock and roll lifestyle; plenty of sex, plenty of drugs, and not so much rock and roll. Eventually, the curse of success will overcome the band, with internal musical differences and Currie’s drug habit proving to be too much for the band to survive.

Director Sigismondi makes her feature debut here after mostly directing music videos, as well as working in fine arts (she’s a talented photographer and sculptor as well) and to her credit she makes the most of a very little. She manages to capture the look and feel of both the L.A. suburbs in the 70s (I should know – that’s where I lived at the time) and the decadent scene on the Sunset Strip.

I’ve been a big fan of Fanning for a long time and she doesn’t disappoint here. She captures the nature of the vulnerable and sometimes lost Currie nicely, showing her as clay to be molded by Fowley and drifting off-course, prey to the temptations of the road. As her family life disintegrates, she becomes more and more lost. The movie to a large extent focuses most on Currie (but to be fair, she did write the biography that the movie is based on) and Fanning handles the load nicely.

Stewart, best known as the angst-ridden Bella Swan in the Twilight franchise is surprisingly rough-edged here, showing the force-of-nature strength of Jett but also her bisexual tendencies. There is a fairly lurid make-out scene between Jett and Currie which comes off as exploitative, but given the nature of the band and the era, kind of makes sense as something like it would appear in a 70s “B” movie, which this closely resembles in tone. Stewart shows more range here than she has previously, forcing me to revise my opinion of her as a somewhat one-note actress. I look forward to seeing more from her along these lines.

Shannon is a terrific actor who has one Oscar nomination to his credit and has the chops to garner more of the same should he get the right roles. This one is not, but he does capture the manic and manipulative nature of Fowley who yearned to be a mover and a shaker, but whose claim to fame would always be this band. He often claimed he assembled the Runaways both conceptually and practically, a claim he has backed off from in recent years. Shannon is riveting in the part, capturing both the yin and the yang of Fowley who could be supportive one moment and abusive the next.

In fact, in many ways this movie sugarcoats the Runaways story, leaving out allegations of sexual and physical abuse around the band. It also leaves out the backstory of the rest of the band (in the case of Ford, at the real Lita’s request) in focusing on the two leads. The filmmakers do a disservice to the band in essentially portraying them as a two-woman creative team (in reality, West and Ford co-wrote most of the songs with Jett and Fowley). While it’s true Jett and Currie were the heart and soul of the band, it would have been nice to include more of the rest of the band’s story in the movie, particularly that of West who passed away from lung cancer just prior to the beginning of filming.

The legacy of the Runaways is undeniable; Joan Jett remains a rock and roll icon, an inspiration to young female rockers everywhere. It’s a bit of a crying shame that they remain largely unknown here and those who do know them mostly know them for “Cherry Bomb,” their signature hit. They were certainly much more than that, and anyone who has seen their Showtime documentary (which includes some incendiary performance footage) will attest to that. The movie picks up part of their essence – enough to make it worth seeing. I just wish we would have gotten a little bit more of it.

WHY RENT THIS: An authentic recreation of the time and the scene. Surprisingly gritty performances from Stewart and Fanning. Shannon shows a good deal of charisma.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie leaves out a good deal of information, and fictionalizes or trivializes the group’s achievements.

FAMILY VALUES: There are occasionally graphic depictions of teen sex and drug use, as well as a whole lot of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jackie Fox, the actual bass player for the Runaways, declined to give the producers of the film the rights to her life story so a fictional character was introduced to be the Runaways bassist (and ironically, has no lines in the film); Lita Ford also declined to give her rights to the producers, but did meet with Scout Taylor-Compton prior to filming and declared that even if the film was awful, Taylor-Compton at least did her character justice.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.7M on a $10M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: A Single Man

The Express


The Express

Ernie Davis rumbles for the end zone in the 1960 Cotton Bowl.

(Universal) Dennis Quaid, Rob Brown, Charles Dutton, Omar Benson Miller, Clancy Brown, Darrin Dewitt Henson, Saul Rubinek, Nelsan Ellis, Nicole Beharie, Aunjanue Ellis. Directed by Gary Fleder

In this age where most of the great athletes in our country are of African-American descent, it seems almost incomprehensible that at one time they were not even allowed to play in the national spotlight. For those pioneers who led the way, the path was often painful.

Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) was a humble young man who had spent much of his childhood in western Pennsylvania with his grandfather, affectionately called Pops (Dutton) who had managed to rid Ernie of his stutter by getting him to read passages from the Bible. Ernie was blessed with natural athleticism, speed and strength, all good qualities to have if you want to be a football star and that’s just what he was on the verge of becoming in High School.

Syracuse University Head Football Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Quaid) is about to lose the best player in college football, Jim Brown (Henson) to graduation and the Cleveland Browns. Replacing him will be a tall order. Brown, for his part, is not unhappy to see the University moving behind him into the rear-view mirror. He encountered a great deal of racism on campus and despite being the best running back in the game by far, he had been denied the Heisman Trophy because of the color of his skin. For a man with the kind of pride possessed by Brown that’s a difficult pill to swallow, so when Schwartzwalder, with whom he had an often contentious relationship, called upon him to recruit the young Ernie Davis, Brown was understandably reluctant.

Still, he accompanies Schwartzwalder on the recruiting visit and is pleased and a little taken aback that Davis can quote all his statistics off the top of his head and obviously has a case of hero-worship. Brown relents and quietly makes his sales pitch to Davis, asserting that Schwartzwalder can make him a better player. That’s all Ernie Davis needs to hear. 

On the campus of Syracuse, Ernie has to put up with a certain amount of disdain from the students as well as a hellacious workout regimen. Even though he’s a freshman and ineligible to play on the varsity, he practices with them and dresses for the games, which is painful because Syracuse definitely underachieved that season, falling to lowly Holy Cross in the season finale.

Still, with Davis eligible to play, the 1959 season is full of hope for the Orangemen and with Davis leading the way, the Orange are propelled to an undefeated season despite encountering racial hatred and all sorts of abuse. Still, things could be worse for Ernie; he’s got a great friend in Jack “JB” Buckley, a big lineman with an easygoing sense of humor and a heart of gold, and a beautiful girlfriend in Cornell coed Sarah Ward (Beharie). When the team is sent to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on January 1, 1960 to play the second ranked Texas Longhorns for the national championship, one of the most memorable bowl games of all time would be the result, a game that would cement Davis’ reputation as one of the great college football players of all time and propel him to a destiny both glorious and tragic.

Director Gary Fleder pulls out all the emotional stops in this one, and given the facts of Davis’ life that’s not hard to do. What I don’t understand is why he and his writer Charles Leavitt felt constrained to exaggerate some of the facts of his story and flat out make up incidents that never happened, the most egregious example of which is a game at West Virginia in which, the filmmakers assert, bottles and other dangerous projectiles were thrown at the players (particularly the African-American ones) and set the scene for a dramatic confrontation between Davis and Schwartzwalder. Guys, I’m sure the same confrontation could have easily have been accomplished without maligning the good fans of West Virginia.

Rob Brown does a fine job at capturing the essence of Ernie Davis, who in life was most certainly a leader but led quietly. He was said to be unfailingly polite and kind with a gentle demeanor when he was off the football field. Brown captures that aspect of him, but gives him a core of steel that Davis undoubtedly had to possess in order to accomplish what he did, and showed the fierce competitive streak that players of that caliber must have in order to succeed.

Quaid does a solid job as Schwartzwalder, giving the crusty old ball coach a soft core but one ringed with steel. The unfortunate aspect is that while Schwartzwalder wasn’t a racist per se, he was a man of his times and it took some fortitude for him to unlearn behaviors that were ingrained into white America for decades.

I was a little concerned about the lighting which was sometimes a bit on the underlit side for my tastes, but that’s a minor quibble. While the era is captured with some success, I never really felt immersed in the era of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s when this took place.

Still, I’m really glad that a film is finally being made of Davis’ life. He was the first African-American athlete to win the Heisman and would have undoubtedly had a Hall of Fame-caliber career with the Cleveland Browns. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after being drafted and died at age 23, having never played a down in the NFL. His legacy, however, is unquestioned and his story should be told, and despite the historical gaffes, it’s told pretty well here.

WHY RENT THIS: A fair depiction of a pioneering athlete who has gone largely forgotten by history.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the historical inaccuracies are completely egregious and are just as completely unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some depictions of racism with plenty of racial slurs (including the N-word) as well as other foul language. There’s also a bit of sensuality but overall, it is suitable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, the Penn State score is given as Syracuse 32, Penn State 6 but the actual score of the game was 20-18, one of the Orangemen’s toughest games in that undefeated season.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a wonderful retrospective on Davis that features interviews with Jim Brown and surviving members of his family and friends. On the Blu-Ray edition, there is a feature on the Syracuse championship season, with interviews with players and coaches both archival and contemporary and archival game footage from that season.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past

The Children of Huang Shi


The Children of Huang Shi

Radha Mitchell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers open the door to a new life.

(Sony Classics) Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Radha Mitchell, Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Guang Li, Matt Walker, Ping Su, David Wenham. Directed by Roger Spottiswoode

War brings out the worst in us. Greed, bloodlust, cowardice, brutality, all of these things surface once the shooting starts. However, war also can bring out the best in us, and in the most unlikely of people.

George Hogg (Rhys Meyers) is a confirmed pacifist and a British reporter with a yen for adventure but not a ton of experience. He travels to China to report on the Japanese invasion there in 1938. China had been in the midst of a civil war between the communists and the nationalist regime, but all that was put aside when a common energy emerged.

Along with fellow reporters Andy Fisher (Walker) and Eddie Wei (Su), Hogg manages to finagle their way into a medical supply transportation mission from the Red Cross into the besieged city of Nanking (called Nanjing more properly in the film). There, he witnesses first hand the atrocities of the Japanese army against the Chinese citizenry and captures it on film before he himself is captured. The Japanese commander seems inclined to release his prisoner back to Britain until the contents of his camera are discovered. Hogg is then marched off to be executed, but is saved by communist intelligence agent Chen Hansheng (Fat). During their escape, he witnesses the execution of his colleagues and in his shock, gives away their position. He is wounded and Hansheng only just manages to get them away in the nick of time.

Hansheng leaves him in the care of American nurse Lee Pearson (Mitchell) who has become a de facto caregiver to the displaced refugees of Nanjing. His wounds are not fatal but severe enough that he can’t travel back to England and tell the world what is going on in China, as Hansheng wants him to do. Instead, she sends him to the tiny village of Huang Shi where there is an orphanage, forgotten in the panicked exodus before the Japanese military invasion. She leaves him there to look after the children, who have almost no food and less learning. He is charged to provide them with both.

At first Hogg is uncomfortable with his new position and the children are none too happy with the situation either. In fact, they lead him out and attempt to beat him to death with sticks until a timely return by Pearson who admonishes the kids that if they don’t leave him alone and let him take charge, she will never return leaving them without medicine and food. Reluctantly, the kids agree to the deal.

There is a great deal of mistrust on both sides but as they warm to each other, Hogg proves to be resourceful. He manages to get a rusty old generator working, providing the orphanage with light. He strikes a deal with black marketeer Mrs. Wang (Yeoh) to provide seeds so that the orphanage can grow their own food. In return, he gives her half the harvest to sell on the black market.

Their little community is thriving when the news comes that the nationalist army is coming through and intends to conscript all of the older male children to fight in their army against the Japanese and the communists (talk about ambitious). Hogg, realizing that he can no longer stay in their little sanctuary, determines to move the children to safety. He finds a place on the edge of the Gobi desert so obscure, so out of the way that it is almost a sure thing that nobody will bother them there. The trouble is that the site is 700 miles away and they have no transportation. They must get there on foot.

Director Spottiswoode, whose resume includes Tomorrow Never Dies and The 6th Day, makes good use of the Chinese locations and even better use of Chinese cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao. Zhao, the man behind the camera for such Chinese epics as Curse of the Golden Flower, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles and House of Flying Daggers, is well able to capture the gorgeous vistas of the Gobi and the hills, forests and plains around Nanjing, but also the horrors of the war. The two make for a jarring counterpoint.

Rhys Meyers, so good as Henry VIII in the Showtime series “The Tudors,” is solid as Hogg. A man with the courage of his convictions but lacking the experience to know when he’s in over his head, he nonetheless changes from a plucky adventurer more consumed with making a mark on the world into a man of resourcefulness and responsibility who realizes that when you make a mark on a child, you’ve made a mark on the future just as indelibly as he wished to in his previous life. Mitchell is likewise solid as the hard-as-nails Pearson.

I was more taken with Fat and Yeoh. The two have a natural chemistry as you may remember from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and their all-too-brief time onscreen together here is memorable. They have very different roles; Fat as an agent who is James Bond on the outside but has deep convictions about his cause and a great deal of love for people. Yeoh is the opposite – somewhat cool and reserved on the outside but similarly soft on the inside. These are simply put two of the finest actors on the planet and it’s a shame they don’t get the props they deserve on this side of the Pacific.

The problem I have with this biopic, as I do with most biopics, is the unnecessary license the filmmakers take with history. One of the major historical characters in the film, for example, is shown dying heroically of wounds suffered in an aerial attack but history show that the character died instead of tetanus incurred when the character stubbed their toe playing basketball after which the toe became infected. Also, the orphans tend to be more stock characters than anything else; if they had been fleshed out more, it would have made for a more interesting dynamic.

Don’t get me wrong; this is a solid bit of filmmaking. Despite the license taken occasionally here, most of the events actually happened. George Hogg was a real guy and he did lead a group of orphans on a 700 mile journey. He also wrote a book about his experiences called “I See a New China” that is worth a read. His story translates well cinematically, although it doesn’t appear that the movie used his book extensively to fact check. Because of that, this isn’t a movie you need to see urgently, but it is still a movie worth seeing.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s a tremendous story from a historical event relatively unknown in the West. Gorgeous cinematography and outstanding performances from most of the cast make this a worthwhile endeavor.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: As is usual with Hollywood biopics, much historical misrepresentation, some of it fairly unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: Violence and brutality are everywhere in this representation of the Rape of Nanking; definitely not for more impressionable sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Lee Pearson is loosely based on Rewi Allen and Kathleen Hall, two nurses from New Zealand who were close to Hogg during this period.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Syrian Bride

Amelia


Amelia

Richard Swank and Hilary Swank hope they've found the route to success.

(Fox Searchlight) Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Mia Wasikowska, Cherry Jones, Joe Anderson, Aaron Abrams, William Cuddy, Dylan Roberts, Scott Yaphe, Tom Fairfoot, Ryann Shane. Directed by Mira Nair

One of the more fascinating figures of the 20th century was Amelia Earhart. An aviatrix in a time where the skies were dominated by men, she was unafraid to take bold chances in pursuing her dream. In the process, she empowered women to follow their dreams and became one of the most popular celebrities of her time, yet today she is perhaps more generally remembered for her mysterious disappearance on her final flight.

Young Amelia Earhart (Shane) grew up in Atchison, Kansas on the wide-open plains but even these endless horizons were not endless enough for her. She sees an airplane flying overhead and dreams of chasing the clouds in the sky.

Grown-up Amelia (Swank) is summoned to an interview with publisher and latter-day P.T. Barnum George Putnam (Gere), who is looking for someone to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Several women had made the attempt but none had as yet succeeded. Amelia is eager to fly but Putnam frankly doesn’t think she has the skill. She will be little more than an ornament on the flight, ostensibly given the command of a pilot (Anderson) – who is oddly named Bill in the movie, but whose name was Wilmer Stultz in reality – and navigator Louis “Slim” Gordon (Abrams). They arrive in Scotland in 1928 and Earhart is catapulted into fame and fortune.

She goes out on the lecture circuit, co-authors a book about her experiences and endorses a variety of products from luggage to clothes to cigarettes (which she only reluctantly does as a non-smoker in order to make sure that her fellow aviators from the Trans-Atlantic flight were paid). She is clearly uncomfortable with the circus but realizes that it is necessary for her to jump through these hoops in order to finance the flights she wants to make.

In addition, she and Putnam become romantically involved and although he wants to marry her, she resists. She doesn’t want her freedom to be impinged on, or have her dreams crushed by the weight of being a wife and mother. Eventually, after Putnam promises that they will be “at the dual controls” of their relationship, she relents.

At a high society party, she meets Gene Vidal (McGregor), former Olympic athlete, suave high society member and aeronautics instructor at West Point. The attraction between the two is immediate and palpable. Even Putnam notices it but chooses to ignore it. Amelia recommends to Eleanor Roosevelt (Jones) that Vidal be named the first Director of the Bureau of Air Commerce (the forerunner to the F.A.A.) which surprises the First Lady since she thought Earhart would be more enthusiastic about a woman in the role.

In 1932, she launches her most ambitious flight yet – a solo Trans-Atlantic flight. She would be the first person since Lindbergh to accomplish it (and of course the first woman). Although Putnam has misgivings, he bids her farewell witha “See you.” Amelia, who was supposed to land in Paris, instead touches down in an Irish meadow, greeting an astonished shepherd and his flock with an enthusiastic “Hello, sheep!!!”

Once home the adulation increases and she finds herself even more constrained and feeling trapped. She begins an affair with Vidal whose son Gore (Cuddy) would eventually grow up to become a famous author and essayist. When Putnam finds a love letter she’d written to Vidal and she realizes how much she’s hurt him, she ends her affair with Vidal.

However, now her sights are set on a feat that nobody had been able to accomplish – an around the world flight. Using a bit of chicanery, Putnam arranges for Purdue University to establish a department of aeronautics with Amelia as chair and has them buy her a Lockheed Elektra as a “flying laboratory.”

But a flight around the world isn’t as easy as it sounds. There is one gap in the Pacific where the expanse of ocean is so broad that refueling is nearly impossible. Amelia doesn’t have the skill needed for air refueling so it is decided a refueling stop would be made on Howland Island, a tiny little low-lying spit of sand in the vast blue of the Pacific. A navigator with experience in celestial navigation is needed and Fred Noonan (Eccleston) is hired, although he has a history of drinking.

Their first try ends in disaster. A mechanical failure causes the Elektra to crash on take-off from Honolulu. They repair the plane but the route must be changed; instead of flying east to west, they must now fly west to east in order to avoid inclement weather. That would put the most dangerous leg, from New Guinea to Howland, near the end of the flight, a flight that would end in tragedy but would elevate Earhart into legend.

Director Mira Nair has made movies with a feminist bent in her career, so this would seem to be a good fit. Swank also physically resembles Earhart pretty closely both in body type and face. She has also picked up the cadences of Earhart’s speech which is a bit of distraction at times – it sounds like Swank is in a screwball comedy – but is authentic at least.

Nair has recreated the roaring ‘20s and the Depression-era ‘30s very nicely, from the costuming and set design to the cadences of speech. She also incorporates newsreel footage of the actual Earhart as well as newspaper headlines to further give perspective to Earhart’s fame and accomplishments.

One of the things that I have to remark upon is the aerial photography. Nair delivers some breathtaking imagery of what Earhart must have seen from her vantage point in the sky. You can see the appeal it must have had to aviators to witness the wonders of our world from a height where you can actually make them out.

The last scenes are harrowing, as Eccleston and Swank deliver painful performances displaying the anguish, fear, frustration and despair the two must have felt as their fuel dwindled and Earhart was unable to communicate with the U.S.S. Itasca, a Coast Guard cutter dispatched to assist her in reaching Howland. Even though we know how the story ends, the tension level is very high, rendering these scenes some of the most effective in the film.

The issue I have with the movie is that it doesn’t really give you any more of a sense of who Amelia Earhart was. She loved to fly, check. She took some risks, check. Advocated civil aviation and encouraged women to fly, check and double check. There are some moments where we get a glimpse of who Amelia might have been but the writers don’t really delve deeply into it. What we get is a bit too much reverence and not enough intuition. The movie is like an issue of Vogue – very glossy but ultimately of little substance. However, the subject matter and the photography are enough to make you want to read the magazine anyway.

REASONS TO GO: The movie captures the period very effectively. The aerial shots are not to be missed. Swank gives an energetic performance that is charming in places. The final scenes of Amelia’s last flight are very well handled, keeping the viewer on the edge of their seats even though they know how the story ends.

REASONS TO STAY: I never got a sense that I had gotten to know Earhart any better than I had before I saw the movie. While the story of Amelia Earhart is fascinating, the movie seemed to capture only her essence rather than fleshing her out. I left feeling there was a better film to be made on the subject, never a good thing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some implied sexuality, and plenty of drinking and smoking but otherwise suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mia Wasikowska, who played Elinor Smith here, will next be seen in the title role in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

HOME OR THEATER: The sweeping aerial shots make seeing this in a theater a worthwhile endeavor.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)