2 items from 1998
Robert Weide's film about Lenny Bruce serves an invaluable function in providing information about a seminal cultural hero whom everyone seems to know of without knowing much about.
This cogent, well-organized, informative and engrossing documentary is a must-see for anyone interested in how Bruce changed the face of comedy and led the way toward today's anything-goes culture. Produced by HBO, it is receiving its premiere engagement at New York's Film Forum.
The film breaks no new ground stylistically; it is a conventional documentary, a chronological portrait of Bruce's life as told through archival footage and talking heads. But when the story is this powerful and the central figure so dynamic, there is no need for fanciness.
The project details Bruce's evolution from a conventional, shtick-ridden comic to a taboo-busting social commentator whose use of profanity and thoughtful but hilarious explorations of such subjects as race, sex and religion led to his downfall. Weide's thesis is that Bruce's social criticism, much more than his use of explicit language, is what led the authorities to crack down on him, and he makes his case with conviction. He also doesn't neglect to chronicle the less attractive aspects of Bruce's life, including his drug addiction, but neither does he dwell on them.
Included is much fascinating rare footage. Assembled are home movies; clips of Bruce's appearances on television shows that haven't been seen in decades (and in one case, never, since it was deemed too controversial for broadcast); scenes from a grade B crime movie that Bruce directed, wrote and starred in; a television interview with Nat Hentoff in which Bruce was clearly stoned; and news footage in which Bruce's naked corpse is surrounded by police and photographers. We also get to see and hear many examples of Bruce in his prime, with excerpts from many of his classic routines.
There are also interviews with a wide cross-section of those who knew him best: his late mother, Sally Marr, ex-wife Honey, daughter Kitty, friends and colleagues, lawyers and managers -- even the assistant district attorney who helped prosecute him. The entertaining narration is provided by Robert De Niro, no insignificant cultural icon himself.
"Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth" gathers force in its final segments, when it depicts Bruce's mental, physical and emotional decline as his career was systematically destroyed. It tells an important story, and it does so with insight and intelligence.
LENNY BRUCE: SWEAR TO TELL THE TRUTH
A Whyaduck Prods. release
in association with HBO Documentary Films
Producer, director, screenplay: Robert B. Weide
Executive producer: Sheila Nevins
Editors: Geof Bartz, Robert B. Weide
Narrator: Robert De Niro
Color/black & white/stereo
Running time -- 94 minutes
No MPAA rating
The end of the Cold War has frozen a lot of old-time covert operatives -- ours and theirs -- out of a job. Times are tough for these grizzled warriors, as we see in "Ronin", a hard-edged, bullet-paced thriller directed with savvy and skill by John Frankenheimer.
Starring Robert De Niro and featuring a well-chosen, talented international cast -- including Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgard, Sean Bean and Jonathan Pryce -- the United Artists entrant, playing at the Toronto International Film Festival, should flush out a solid domestic showing and go on to international ascendancy, appealing to fans of the spy-thriller genre as well as mainstreamers who will need a seat belt to survive Frankenheimer's hypercharged car chases.
The title itself refers to a warrior class of samurai in feudal Japan who were sworn to protect their liege lords with their lives but failed in that hallowed capacity. These ronin, whose lords were killed, were greatly shamed and ultimately ostracized, surviving as mercenary swords or bandits.
Although the former spies and operatives in this film have not failed in any way in protecting and enforcing their duties, the present-day, post-glasnost folks here are, similarly, warriors without a leader -- reduced to scavenging missions for their very survival, economic as well as psychological.
In this contemporary spin, De Niro stars as Sam, a wise American operative whose formidable, specialized skills have little place in today's downsized world of covert activities. Sam's at the peak of his professionalism but, maddeningly, has no mission worthy of his prowess. Worse, he's strapped for cash. That's roughly the same fate as his peers, friend and foe alike, who come together at the behest of a mysterious employer who has cases of cash in exchange for a deadly, dangerous mission.
In addition to Sam, these post-Cold War warriors include Vincent (Reno), the French coordinator; Larry (Skipp Sudduth), the driver; Gregor (Skarsgard), the electronics specialist; Spence (Bean), a weapons specialist; Deidre (Natascha McElhone), the client contact and the woman with the cash; and Seamus (Pryce), Deidre's mysterious partner. Their mission: to recover a well-guarded suitcase and turn it over to Deidre. What's in the suitcase is none of their business.
Narratively, this escapade is tightly wired with all the right generic components as Sam and company attempt to carry out their suitcase-retrieval mission. In turn, each warrior unsheathes his or her professional expertise in fascinating and tantalizing order; quite niftily, screenwriters J.D. Zeik and Richard Wiesz complicate and heighten the danger at every juncture.
While the hardware gadgetry and insider spy stuff is fascinating, "Ronin"'s edge is sharpest in its murkier moments -- the cafe-noir philosophizing between De Niro and Reno. There's a weary angst and nostalgia for the older, more defined times between these two modern-day mercenaries, and we get a sense of the moral ambiguity attendant in this new world disorder. At least in the old days, you knew with whom to cast your allegiance.
While we get a sense of this professional and personal turpitude, mainly through De Niro and Reno's grizzled and steely performances and Frankenheimer's stirring use of locale and atmosphere, the screenplay itself is a mere rapier rather than a full-edged sword, sharp but too thin to penetrate the flesh. Other than their beards' stubble, there's not much on these characters' bones, even considering the tight strictures and demands of this type of wide-canvass scenario.
Essentially, we don't particularly care much about the characters, though, owing to Frankenheimer's torqued direction and the skilled performances, we're thrust fast-forward along the winding, deep-drop story road. Genre aficionados will be further disappointed by the narrative's predictability and numbed by the astounding, simplistic soupiness of the suitcase's contents.
Despite the script, the performances -- especially from De Niro and Reno -- are engaging and overall charged.
Visually, "Ronin" is no mere attendant lord, owing to Frankenheimer's sharp and grainy eye. The director, who lived in France in the late '60s, has succinctly conveyed a moral/political world as if visualized through a dirty glass in a corner bistro. The atmospherics are so dense that one almost smells the stale odor of Gallois smoke, a credit to Frankenheimer and his skilled technical crew for capturing the flavor and worldview of this genre.
MGM Distribution Co.
United Artists Pictures presents
an FGM Entertainment production
A John Frankenheimer Film
Director: John Frankenheimer
Screenwriters: J.D. Zeik, Richard Weisz
Producer: Frank Mancuso Jr.
Executive producer: Paul Kelmenson
Costume designer: May Routh
Director of photography: Robert Fraisse
Production designer: Michael Z. Hanan
Editor: Tony Gibbs
Music: Elia Cimiarl
Sam:: Robert De Niro
Vincent: Jean Reno
Deidre: Natascha McElhone
Seamus: Jonathan Pryce
Gregor: Stellan Skarsgard
Spence: Sean Bean
Running time --122 minutes
MPAA rating: R
2 items from 1998
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