Category: Film/TV reviews

The World’s Fastest Indian (2005)


The inspiring true story of Burt Munro, the New Zealander who set the land speed motorcycle record in 1967, a record which still stands today.

Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins) leads a simple life in the peaceful, sleepy town of Invercargill, New Zealand. For years, he has been tinkering with and perfecting his streamlined Indian motorcycle, which he plans to use to break the land speed record during “Speed Week” at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

While occasionally annoying the neighborhood by revving his engines at 6 AM (and refusing to mow his lawn!), Burt is still well-liked in Invercargill due to his trademark ingenuity and boyish charm. He takes local ladies out to community dances. He lets his impressionable young neighbor, Thomas (Aaron Murphy), help him out around his workshop. And he inspires lots of his friends with his dogged pursuit of greatness.

Once satisfied with the engineering performance of his Indian, Burt decides to go to the States for Speed Week. Although his fellow Kiwis wish him well, Burt draws polarizing reactions when he reaches America. Nonetheless, Burt meets and wins over numerous locals due to his gregarious personality and determination. However, he encounters numerous challenges while driving up to Utah, and needs everything to go right in order to make a positive impression. Can Burt’s unflappable nature withstand unforeseen obstacles?


The World’s Fastest Indian is a delightful experience. Perfectly-paced and very entertaining, the movie is anchored by Hopkins’s brilliant performance as Burt Munro. Right off the bat, Munro is a guy that we want to cheer for, and the film shows the instant impact that the courageous New Zealander had on everyone he met. The fact that Burt goes over 200 miles per hour on his bike seems almost like an added bonus due to his decency and generosity.


Kiwi director Roger Donaldson had previously helmed a short documentary about Munro in 1971 and had long desired to make a feature film about him as well. Donaldson was also fortunate to have a relationship with Hopkins, whom he had directed previously in the 1985 version of The Bounty.  Hopkins later recalled that Munro was one of the easiest characters he had ever played, given that their lives resemble each other.

While some aspects of the film are fictionalized, Donaldson elected to go for a sense of realism as much as possible, shooting many scenes on location in Invercargill and using some of Munro’s own tools as props (at the time, most were still on display at Invercargill’s Southland Museum). The movie also shows some of the health issues that Munro experienced — including angina, which led to his eventual death from a stroke in January 1978.


Upon its release in 2005, The World’s Fastest Indian broke box office records in New Zealand and received hefty critical acclaim as well. Critic Peter Calder of the New Zealand Herald expressed his annoyance that Hopkins, a Welshman, didn’t attempt the “Southland burr” — the Scottish-inspired drawl that is unique to Invercargill — but otherwise loved the movie. “Hopkins gives a generous, genial and utterly approachable performance … he nails the backyard eccentric genius dead centre. He has inhaled the nature of a mid-century Kiwi bloody good bloke and he inhabits the part to perfection.”

Beautifully shot and very well-acted, The World’s Fastest Indian is a fun and spirited adventure. I highly recommend it.

Grade: B+

  • Written and directed by Roger Donaldson
  • Produced by Roger Donaldson and Gary Hannam
  • Starring Anthony Hopkins, Aaron Murphy, Tessa Mitchell, Iain Rea, Annie Whittle, Greg Johnson, Kate Sullivan, Antony Starr
  • Director of Photography — David Gribble
  • Music by J. Peter Robinson
  • Edited by John Gilbert
  • Rated PG-13 for brief language, drug use and a sexual reference

The Master (2012)


A boozy, self-destructive WWII veteran falls in with a bizarre seafaring cult led by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd.

In post-WWII America, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a volatile US Navy veteran who has resorted to sex and liquor in order to feel like himself again. One late night in San Francisco, Freddie drunkenly stumbles aboard a large yacht. When he awakens, he discovers that he is surrounded by members of “The Cause”, a bizarre philosophical and spiritual cult headed by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Part self-help guru, part spiritual father, Dodd immediately takes an interest in Freddie and offers him to join their group. With few options left, Freddie becomes involved with The Cause and undergoes numerous psychological tests in order to progress to a higher state of being. Along the way, he makes the acquaintance of various fellow voyagers, including Dodd’s much younger wife, Peggy (Amy Adams) and his increasingly skeptical son Val (Jesse Plemons).


The Master was released in 2012 as the brainchild of acclaimed writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie NightsThere Will Be Blood). Controversy followed the film’s release due to the cult in the movie being compared to Scientology, but The Master received hefty critical acclaim — all three of its leads (Hoffman, Phoenix, and Adams) earned Academy Award nominations for their work.

The movie, which premiered at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, underperformed at the box office, but still received rave reviews from Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and the Christian Science Monitor, among others. Sadly, it was also the fifth and final collaboration between Anderson and Hoffman, the latter of whom died tragically in February 2014 of a drug overdose.


Anderson is widely known as a courageous risk-taker in the industry, bending the rules of filmmaking to his advantage. To be sure, he’s a director that I respect due to his habit of making innovative, technically proficient projects. The Master has an authentic old-school feel to it, having been shot on 70mm film, and Anderson certainly did his homework on the time period. The Master takes place in a 1950s America where a Navy veteran lacks fulfillment in his life and struggles to re-enter civilian society. The film doesn’t shy away from weighty subjects and features some very powerful performances, smart dialogue, and excellent cinematography and music.

However, The Master doesn’t have enough forward momentum, narratively speaking, to sustain all of its important themes. The film feels more like a series of interconnected vignettes as opposed to a cohesive, traditional story. I’ll give Anderson & Co. credit for taking risks and creating a great-looking movie. But ultimately, The Master doesn’t quite reach masterpiece level due to its own internal contradictions and a labored third act.

Grade: C+

  • Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
  • Produced by Paul Thomas Anderson, JoAnne Sellar, Daniel Lupi, and Megan Ellison
  • Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons, Rami Malek, Ambyr Childers
  • Director of Photography — Mihai Malaimare Jr.
  • Music by Jonny Greenwood
  • Edited by Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty
  • Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language.

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)


The story of the infamously bloody Battle of Iwo Jima, as told from the perspective of the doomed Japanese soldiers who fought it.

As Allied forces reclaim the Pacific in 1945, only one island stands between them and the Japanese mainland: Iwo Jima.

Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) arrives to command the forces on the tiny, unpopulated volcanic island. He surveys Iwo Jima with his subordinates and inspects the troops. Kuribayashi insists on rationing food for everyone on the island (not just the enlisted men) and condemns the banzai suicide attacks, viewing them as a waste of human life. Smart and ingenious, Kuribayashi worked as an international diplomat in America for two years prior to the war, so he is more educated than most on the American mentality and, importantly, how to defeat them. Tough but fair, Kuribayashi attempts to use the geographical features of Iwo Jima to his advantage, ordering his soldiers to dig tunnels and caves in the hills, as opposed to trenches on the beach.

Kuribayashi’s old friend, Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), joins him in the daunting task of keeping Iwo Jima out of American hands. Charming and well-educated, Nishi is a former Olympic equestrian champion who appreciates Kuribayashi’s resourcefulness despite the objections of other officers.


Meanwhile, Private Saido (Kazunari Ninomiya) writes letters home to his wife during his time in the caves. An earnest and intelligent man, Saido begins to doubt his mission; unlike many of his compatriots, he doesn’t want to sacrifice himself for the good of the Empire. He finds an unlikely kindred spirit in the mysterious Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a former member of the kenpeitei (secret police).

Knowing that his men lack adequate food, water, and ammunition, Kuribayashi tries to keep spirits high, but he is alarmed when he hears that the Allied forces have decimated the Japanese Navy and Air Force at the Battle of the Mariana Islands. Desperate for any sort of assistance, Kuribayashi sends the increasingly ill Admiral Ohsugi (Nobumasa Sakagami) back to Tokyo to request support.

Despite no air or naval reinforcements, Kuribayashi remains stoic and turns what was predicted to be an easy, five-day American victory into over a month of prolonged, brutal warfare.

“If our children can live safely for one more day, it would be worth the one more day that we defend this island,” Kuribayashi urges his men.

Along the way, we see Saido, Shimizu, and others struggle to come to grips with their suicide mission while also showing empathy, courage, and bravery in the face of impossible odds.


This film is one of my favorites. War films typically draw you in quickly, and Letters from Iwo Jima takes a unique perspective. Clint Eastwood had previously helmed Flags of our Fathers, a WWII movie that focused on the American side of the Battle of Iwo Jima, but along the way, the veteran director said he was stricken by the similarities of the letters that American and Japanese soldiers wrote. In particular, Eastwood said he found it intriguing that American soldiers only wanted to be home with their families, away from the hellish conditions of war, but the Japanese knew that they were not expected to come home alive, with suicide being preferable to capture.

This is explored in-depth in the movie itself. Shmizu states early on in the film that American soldiers lack discipline and let their emotions interfere with their battle duties. Japanese soldiers, he reasons, are honored to die for their Emperor and their country, viewing death as the only honorable method of leaving a war. However, Saido consistently shows humanity, being willing to care for the wounded and follow Kuribayashi’s orders, even when other soldiers or officers refuse and opt for suicide.

The reason Letters from Iwo Jima succeeds on such a grand scale is the character development. It’s an incredibly dark story, showing hopeless, exhausted, hungry men preparing for their inevitable deaths at the hands of their sworn enemies. To be sure, the film never shies away from the brutality of the Japanese, but still shows their humanity and their struggles to come to grips with their new reality. These men were willing and able to die for extremist, imperialist nationalism, but they still worried about their families and their communities just like a soldier of any nationality.


Letters from Iwo Jima was released in Japan on December 9, 2006 and in the US on December 20. The film received overwhelming acclaim in both countries, with audiences responding strongly to the performances and direction. Made for a modest $19 million, Letters from Iwo Jima grossed almost $69 million at the worldwide box office and received rave reviews from Rolling Stone, Variety, the Los Angeles Times, and Entertainment Weekly. 

While Letters did win Best Foreign Language Film at that year’s Golden Globes, it was ineligible for the same award at the Oscars since it was made and shot in the States by an American director. Nonetheless, the movie received four nominations overall at the Oscars — Best Director, Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Sound Editing.

In short, Letters from Iwo Jima features outstanding acting and directing, a moving story, and suitable period-piece cinematography. It’s a tour-de-force and one of the best war films of the modern era.


Grade: A+

  • Directed by Clint Eastwood
  • Produced by Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, and Robert Lorenz
  • Screenplay by Iris Yamashita
  • Story by Iris Yamashita & Paul Haggis
  • Based on the book “Picture Letters from Commander-in-Chief” by Tadamichi Kuribayashi & Tsuyoko Yoshido
  • Starring Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shido Nakamura, Takumi Bando, Eijiro Ozaki, Hiroshi Watanabe, Takashi Yamaguchi, Yuki Matsuzaki, Nobumasa Sakagami, Ken Kensei, Toshi Toda, Hiro Abe, Masashi Nagadoi
  • Director of Photography — Tom Stern
  • Music — Kyle Eastwood & Michael Stevens
  • Editor — Joel Cox & Gary D. Roach
  • Rated R for graphic war violence.


  • Filmed back-to-back with Flags of our Fathers.
  • Most of the young cast knew nothing about the incidents on Iwo Jima, as the subject is not taught in Japanese schools.
  • One of only nine foreign language films ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Though shot almost entirely in Japanese, it was an American production and was therefore ineligible for a Best Foreign Language Film nomination.
  • When word spread that acclaimed Japanese actor Ken Watanabe had been cast in the lead role of Kuribayashi, virtually every young actor in Japan became interested in working on the film as well.
  • Eastwood had originally wanted to film Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of our Fathers as one film, but as pre-production continued on Flags, he felt it would be impossible to fit both of the storylines into a single movie. Primarily, Eastwood stated that the two separate cultures created very distinctive and separate storylines, creating the need for two individual films about the same battle.
  • The film was shot entirely in California in only 32 days. The filmmakers were not allowed to film in Iwo Jima itself due to cultural taboos, as over 10,000 soldiers are still buried on the island.
  • Ken Watanabe visited the birthplace and grave of Kuribayashi to help him build on his characterization.
  • Eastwood originally wanted Paul Haggis, a frequent collaborator, to write the script, but Haggis felt like he lacked the expertise required to make a foreign language film. He recommended Iris Yamashita, a Japanese-American writer who was a research assistant on Flags of our Fathers.
  • In an effort to keep the movie as historically accurate as possible, costume designer Deborah Hopper deliberately chose not to use silk in any of the period kimono costumes that are used in the film’s flashbacks. Silk was considered too expensive of a fabric to be used in wartime and its use in garments was prohibited.

Ed Wood (1994)


Based on the real-life story of Edward D. Wood Jr., the independent, DIY filmmaker who is widely considered to have made some of the worst movies of all time.

Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) sees himself as the poor man’s Orson Welles, making numerous low-no budget genre films on tight schedules, in addition to acting, directing, and producing his own projects.

Born in Poughkeespie, New York, Wood insists he had a happy small-town childhood, surrounded by comic books, classic horror and sci-fi films, and other nostalgic media that inspired him to be a filmmaker. However, Wood’s mother always wanted a girl, so she dressed him up in girl’s clothing frequently, which affected his psyche as an adult. Wood is therefore a heterosexual cross-dresser, often commenting about how he likes the way angora sweaters feel on his skin. He also mentions that, as a Marine corporal in World War II, he was petrified of getting injured even more so than getting killed, given his penchant for wearing women’s clothing under his uniform.

Despite his quirks and strange traits, Wood’s relentless optimism keeps him going through multiple career disappointments. His actress wife, Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker), helps him at various stages of his filmmaking processes, and Wood also enlists the services of cynical exploitation film producer George Weiss (Mike Starr).

By chance, Wood strikes up a friendship with his boyhood hero, horror film legend Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau). Long considered washed-up — and even presumed dead — by film industry executives, Lugosi still has plenty of talent and ends up acting in several of Wood’s most notorious films, including Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Wood’s campy, error-filled movies draw a small cult following. He seldom does more than one take, as many of his films are made on extremely small budgets, rarely taking more than two weeks to shoot. Despite the lack of respect from his Hollywood peers, Wood perseveres and draws more attention from various people in the industry. However, Wood also deals with financial troubles and relationship drama, and his partnership with Lugosi is put in jeopardy due to the veteran actor’s drug problems. Can Mr. Wood triumph and become an unlikely success story?


This film biography takes a comedy-drama approach and succeeds all the more for it. The real Ed Wood (1924-1978) died a penniless alcoholic at the age of 54 after failing to attract any notable attention — either positive or negative — post-Plan 9 From Outer Space, which is now widely considered to be one of the worst films ever made. Despite his many ups and downs and obvious lack of filmmaking skills, the real Wood had an extremely fascinating life story. Although he died in relative obscurity, Wood’s life and career were re-examined in 1992, when writer Rudolph Grey penned the biography Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood Jr. 

The movie itself was penned by the writing team of Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski when they were both students at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. They eventually decided to make the film in order to avoid typecasting after some initial success with children’s movies. Alexander and Karaszewski pitched the script to Tim Burton, a young director/producer who was fresh off two huge successes — the 1990 version of Batman and Edward Scissorhands.

Burton and Denise Di Novi agreed to produce Ed Wood for Columbia Pictures; but the project’s director, Michael Lehmann, had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. Burton decided to direct the film himself, but Columbia butted heads with him when he decided to shoot Ed Wood in black-and-white. Eventually, the script was shipped off to Disney, who made the film through their Touchstone Pictures subsidiary.

At the time, Depp was in a career rut, trying to avoid typecasting as a 30-year-old rising star. But when Burton approached him about playing Wood, Depp was instantly intrigued. “The role gave me a chance to stretch out and have some fun,” Depp recalled, adding that working with a legend like Landau helped him renew his passion for acting. In order to prepare for his role, Depp studied Jack Haley’s performance as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.


Ed Wood is an excellent film, featuring extraordinary acting from Depp (in his second collaboration with Burton) and Landau, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as Bela Lugosi. The movie explores Wood’s weirdness and his utter lack of talent, but also shows his odd charm and humanity.

The relationship between Wood and Lugosi is a major highlight. Written off by Hollywood as a has-been, the gruff, no-nonsense Lugosi still takes an interest in Wood, and their friendship results in some of the film’s most memorable moments. Wood’s relationship with Dolores, his first wife, also takes center-stage at several times. In addition to Landau and Depp’s outstanding performances, the movie is frequently lifted by its excellent supporting cast, including Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Bill Murray, and Jeffrey Jones.

Ed Wood was released in 1994 to critical acclaim, with particular praise for the acting and directing. However, despite earning two Oscars (Best Supporting Actor and Best Makeup), the movie flopped at the box office, earning a mere $5.9 million on an $18 million budget.

Burton is an excellent director, and Ed Wood has outstanding costume and production design, but the film can sometimes feel unfocused or inconsistent in tone. This can be common in biopic films, considering that one is trying to cram in lots of information, drama, and comedy into a two-hour runtime. With that being said, Ed Wood is very well-made and does almost exactly what I expected it to do. I highly recommend it, particularly if you’re interested in Depp’s early ’90s work.

Grade: B+

  • Directed by Tim Burton
  • Produced by Tim Burton and Denise Di Novi
  • Written by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski
  • Based on the book “Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood Jr.” by Rudolph Grey
  • Director of Photography — Stefan Czapsky
  • Music by Howard Shore
  • Editor — Chris Lebenzon
  • Starring Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Bill Murray, Lisa Marie, Jeffery Jones, Juliet Landau, George Steele, Ned Bellamy, Max Casella, Vincent D’Onofrio
  • Rated R for some strong language.


  • The movie cost more to make ($18 million) than all of the real Ed Wood’s movies combined.
  • Kathy Wood, Ed’s widow, once visited the set and asked to meet Johnny Depp. That day, they were filming a scene where Wood would look really messed up, which made Burton nervous for what Kathy would think of the movie. When Depp exited his trailer, she said, “That’s my Eddie.”
  • Tim Burton’s second collaboration with Johnny Depp, after Edward Scissorhands. Also the first Burton movie in which his frequent collaborator, Danny Elfman, did not compose the score.
  • Martin Landau won the Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi — the first time any actor had won an Oscar for playing another actor.
  • Bela Lugosi Jr. loved the movie, but objected to his father’s speech in the film; according to the younger Lugosi, his father never used profanity.
  • The real Dolores Fuller enjoyed Depp’s performance and Burton’s direction, but was displeased with her portrayal in the film. Particularly, she objected to the circumstances of her and Wood’s initial breakup (she left him primarily because of his alcoholism, which is not depicted in the film).
  • In addition to Jack Haley’s performance in The Wizard of Oz, Depp said he was influenced by the films of Ronald Reagan and Casey Kasem. Depp also commented that he had previously been introduced to Wood’s films through director John Waters.
  • In the film, Lugosi dismisses Boris Karloff’s role of Frankenstein’s monster as “all make-up and grunting.” In real life, Lugosi himself was offered the part and turned it down because it didn’t have any speaking lines and required too much make-up.
  • One source claims that one of the reasons that Burton chose to shoot in black-and-white was that he had no idea how Bela Lugosi should be filmed in color, as all of the actor’s own films were in black-and-white. In order to accommodate the black-and-white film stock, Landau’s makeup was done in a deliberately contrasted way, with parts of his face nearly painted white.
  • Landau did not want his portrayal of Lugosi to be over-the-top, saying that “Lugosi was theatrical, but I never wanted the audience to feel I was an actor chewing the scenery… I felt it had to be Lugosi’s theatricality, not mine.” In order to imitate Lugosi’s voice and mannerisms, Landau watched approximately 35 Lugosi movies and purchased Hungarian language tapes.
  • Burton’s first collaboration with editor Chris Lebenzon and his second with costume designer Colleen Atwood.
  • Out of his entire filmography, Burton has said that this movie is his personal favorite.

The Believer (2001)


Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling) is a neo-Nazi. He’s also Jewish.

Inspired by true events, The Believer centers around Danny, a young New Yorker who consciously rejects his childhood beliefs and culture and embraces the twisted philosophies of the Third Reich. While he hangs around a local group of skinheads and gets into plenty of twisted mischief on his own, Danny also attempts to defend his beliefs intellectually to like-minded people, including at the home of a professor, Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane) and fellow academic Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell). At the meeting, they are both impressed with Danny’s intelligence and charisma but disagree with his extreme approach.

Unbeknownst to Danny, a reporter, Guy Danielsen (A.D. Miles), was at the meeting and contacts Danny for an interview. Danielsen has been researching far-right hate groups and invites Danny for coffee to pick his brain. During their meeting, Danny delves into his own twisted worldview but threatens to commit suicide after Danielsen reveals Danny as Jewish.

Along the way, Danny develops an intimate relationship with Carla, Lina’s daughter (Summer Phoenix) and also begins to deal with long-repressed feelings about his Jewish upbringing. Growing up in synagogue, Danny frequently interpreted Scripture in an unorthodox manner, drawing the ire of the rabbis. However, as time goes on, Danny begins to question his own racist beliefs, wrestling with his own conscience. His relationship with Carla further complicates matters, as does Stuart (Dean Strober), an old friend from Hebrew school who Danny reconnects with by chance.


The Believer is an obscurity to many people. Directed by veteran screenwriter (but first-time director) Henry Bean, the film’s subject matter was considering so shocking that it didn’t even get an American release back in 2001. However, The Believer was a smashing success among critics, earning an 87% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and taking home hardware at Sundance, Cannes and the Moscow International Film Festival.

Bean, who was raised as a Conservative Jew in Philadelphia, drew upon the real-life story of neo-Nazi Dan Burros, who committed suicide after being revealed as Jewish by a New York Times reporter in the 1960s. With a minuscule budget ($1.5 million), Bean decided to cast a former child actor from Canada who had never been a leading man before — Ryan Gosling.


Well before he became A-list material via starring roles in The NotebookLars and the Real GirlDrive, and La La Land, Gosling was a scrawny 18-year-old struggling to gain mainstream acceptance following a brief career as a child star on The Mickey Mouse Club. I’ve long been a fan of his work in general, but in The Believer, the young Gosling simply owns the screen.

The Believer occupies a unique place in film history. As opposed to other movies dealing with racist gangs (American History X and Romper Stomper come to mind), there’s not much violence. The themes and Danny Balint’s ideology are both what make this film so unsettling — and what makes Gosling’s performance so brilliant. Well before he played tortured, violent men in indie flicks like Drive and Only God Forgives, Gosling broke out with an outstanding, complex performance….in a film, that, unfortunately, nobody saw at the time.

(Intriguing side note: Bean specifically chose Gosling due to his religious upbringing. Gosling was raised Mormon growing up in Ontario, and Bean felt that this background would help Gosling understand the isolation of Judaism.)

I’ll give The Believer credit, simply because it doesn’t rely on added shock value via excessive violence or disturbing images, instead choosing to take an intellectual approach, all while dealing with Danny’s inner demons and showing his willingness to wrestle with hard questions. With that being said, some elements of the film, particularly in the third act, feel like they skim the surface a bit too much and don’t necessarily focus on the real philosophy behind the choices that are made. Ultimately though, The Believer isn’t just a provocative little shocker — it’s able to rise above its disturbing subject matter and look at the big picture in a way that few movies do.

Grade: B

  • Written and directed by Henry Bean
  • Story by Henry Bean & Mark Jacobson
  • Produced by Susan Hoffman and Christopher Roberts
  • Director of Photography — Jim Denault
  • Music by Joel Diamond
  • Edited by Mayin Lo and Lee Percy
  • Starring Ryan Gosling, Billy Zane, Summer Phoenix, Theresa Russell, A.D. Miles, Glenn Fitzgerald, Dean Strober, Elizabeth Reaser, Ronald Guttman, Heather Goldenhersh
  • Rated R for strong violence, language, and some sexual content

Bronson (2008)


The life and (violent) times of Charles Bronson, Britain’s most notorious prisoner.

Charles Bronson is one of the most violent and unpredictable prisoners that the United Kingdom has produced in a long time. Born in 1952 as Michael Gordon Peterson, Bronson had a perfectly ho-hum, middle-class childhood, but his violent temper and appetite for crime as a young man has led to a seven-year prison sentence after a grand larceny conviction for robbing a post office.


While on the inside, he has more violent outbursts, which result in his sentence being extended, as well as stints in solitary confinement. Put into psychiatric evaluation due to his condition, Bronson nonetheless has never been convicted of any murders and is eventually declared sane. He returns to society and begins a career as a bare-knuckle boxer, winning many fights in the process. Dissatisfied with his meager prize winnings, Bronson organizes more ambitious fights, sometimes with more than one opponent. In the meantime, he attempts to woo a local girl he met through his uncle, and even steals an engagement ring to propose to her. She declines, and Bronson is arrested again and sent back to prison.

The film is told in a surreal, non-linear format, with Bronson as the omniscient narrator. Sometimes he directly addresses the camera while wearing his prison jumpsuit, and other times he talks to and entertains an audience while onstage in a vaudeville-type theatre. Therefore, the film doesn’t entirely function as a traditional story, but rather as a series of interconnected vignettes, punctuated by narration.


Bronson is a somewhat-fictionalized account of the real man, and is directed and co-written by Nicolas Winding Refn. Before Refn became a household name with experimental arthouse films like Drive (one of my all-time favorite action flicks) and Only God Forgives, he made a big splash with Bronson, a micro-budget affair that was made for only US$230,000.

The real Bronson, now age 65, was once quoted as saying: “I’m a nice guy, but sometimes I lose all my senses and become nasty. That doesn’t make me evil — just confused.” Indeed, the film doesn’t attempt to rationalize the man’s behavior or create undeserved sympathy, but it also doesn’t avoid the consequences that Bronson himself faced. Tom Hardy delivers an excellent and charismatic performance that attempts to grasp the nuances of a man who, even if not criminally insane, was violent and psychopathic. There’s lots of dark comedy along the way, too.

Roger Ebert gave Bronson three out of four stars, remarking “There is some human behavior beyond our ability to comprehend. I was reading a theory the other day that a few people just happen to be pure evil. I’m afraid I believe it. They lack any conscience, any sense of pity or empathy for their victims. But Bronson is his own victim. How do you figure that?”

That, more than anything, is the real point (or non-point) of Bronson. He was a man who had a chance to make something of himself, and like many people who wind up prisoners, chose to throw it away after making a serious of bad decisions. Be that as it may, the film is far from preachy and doesn’t focus too much on what could have been or why Bronson chose to do the things he did. On paper, there are other people who could be considered more nefarious than Bronson. At heart, he was just a charismatic guy with a vicious temper who refused to resist his violent tendencies — no more, no less.

Filming was done in and around Nottingham. Unfortunately, Refn was not allowed to interview or speak to the real Bronson before filming began, as he is not a British citizen, but Hardy managed to speak to Bronson on the phone in order to prepare for the role. Bronson was very impressed with how much Hardy had built up his physique in order to portray him.


Despite Hardy’s earnest performance and some tight direction by Refn, the film can certainly be off-putting due to A) its disturbing violence and B) the avant-garde nature of the storytelling. There’s not much in the way of subplots or intriguing supporting characters, but it’s a very well-made film given the lack of budget and manages to be a reasonably engaging character study. With that being said, Bronson doesn’t always hit all the emotional beats in the best way possible, and certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Still, it’s an admirable effort at getting to the psyche of a disturbed person and helped launch the fruitful careers of Refn and Hardy.

Rating: B

  • Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
  • Written by Brock Norman Brock and Nicolas Winding Refn
  • Produced by Danny Hansford and Rupert Preston
  • Starring Tom Hardy, Kelly Adams, Gordon Brown, Katy Barker, Amanda Burton, Andrew Forbes, Matt King, James Lance, Juliet Oldfield
  • Director of Photography — Larry Smith
  • Music — Johnny Jewel
  • Editor — Mat Newman
  • Rated R for violent and disturbing content, graphic nudity, sexuality and language.


  • The line “It was absolute madness at its very best” was written by Charles Bronson himself for the film and told to Nicolas Winding Refn during one of their phone calls.
  • Charles Bronson was not allowed to see the film, but said that if his mother liked it, that would be enough for him. According to Refn, his mother loved it. In 2011 Bronson was finally allowed to see the film and called it “theatrical, creative and brilliant.”
  • Bronson is occasionally seen wearing a small pair of sunglasses. These are not an accessory. According to the real-life Bronson, his years in poorly-lit solitary confinement units damaged his eyesight so badly that he required darkened lenses just to be able to read.
  • Jason Statham was originally considered for the role of Bronson, but declined due to scheduling conflicts.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Tom Hardy did not do 2,500 push-ups a day in preparation for the role of Bronson. The confusion and reason for this rumor is that the real Bronson was the one doing 2,500 push-ups a day around the time Hardy was meeting with him to gather information for the film’s script during pre-production. Hardy himself denied the rumor during a 2009 interview while doing publicity for the film.
  • The film’s London premiere was prefaced with a recording by Charles Bronson himself, recorded in prison, where he stated “I’m proud of this film, because if I drop dead tonight, then I live on. I make no bones about it, I really was a horrible, violent, nasty man. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it either. See you at the Oscars.” The British Police Officers Association lodged a formal complaint with the filmmakers, as it’s illegal in the UK to make unauthorized recordings of prison inmates.

Straight Outta Compton (2015)



The true story of N.W.A, one of the most controversial and influential groups ever, and their rise and fall in the golden age of hip-hop.

The year is 1986, in Compton, California — one of the roughest cities in the United States.

Eric “Eazy-E” Wright is a crack dealer who decides to team up with his good friend, aspiring DJ Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, to create some new rap music. The laid-back, charismatic Eazy-E prefers to rap just for the fun of it, but Dr. Dre embraces all things hip-hop and has a passionate work ethic to boot. He convinces Eazy-E to start up an independent label called Ruthless Records, and they cut a demo, offering a raw, uncensored view of life in the hood and the challenges thereof.

Together they join with talented lyricist O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson and also enlist the services of Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby and Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson, forming the group Niggaz Wit Attitudes, or N.W.A.

N.W.A’s demo becomes a hit among the fertile hip-hop grounds of Los Angeles, and the group regularly starts selling out small shows in town and drawing passionate fans. Veteran record producer Jerry Heller catches wind of this and offers N.W.A a deal with Priority Records. He takes a particular interest in Eazy-E, becoming a mentor to him along the way.

N.W.A’s debut album, called Straight Outta Compton, becomes a massive hit in 1988, with its profane, violent lyrics and unfiltered look at life on the streets. Police brutality is rife on the streets of L.A., and N.W.A takes aim at the boys in blue on more than one occasion, most notably with the hugely controversial single “F-ck Tha Police.”


The quintet becomes both undeniably important and notorious within the hip-hop scene — N.W.A’s 1989 tour is an unprecedented success, although it’s also marred by riots, protests, and even cease-and-desist threats from the FBI. The tour reaches a boiling point both professionally and personally after a riot following a performance of “F-ck Tha Police” in Detroit, as well as the unexpected tragic murder of Dr. Dre’s younger brother, Tyree, back in Compton.

However, the controversy doesn’t faze N.W.A, with Ice Cube proclaiming at a press conference that “our art is a reflection of our reality….freedom of speech includes rap music.”

Meanwhile, Cube grows jealous of the Heller/Eazy-E relationship, and he tries to get Dre on his side, eventually leading to a rift among the three primary N.W.A members. When Heller tries to convince Cube to sign his individual artist contract without a lawyer present, Cube quits the group. While refusing to take sides in the Cube/Heller dispute, Dre leaves N.W.A to focus on producing, as well as his solo career. Ice Cube embarks upon a successful solo career, too, releasing a vicious diss track towards both Heller and his former bandmates in the song “No Vaseline.”

Dre joins forces with fellow Compton native Suge Knight and the two found Death Row Records. In addition to Dre’s best-selling debut album The Chronic, Death Row also churns out some serious up-and-coming hip-hop talent, including Tupac Shakur, the D.O.C., and Snoop Dogg. After his breakout performance in the 1991 film Boyz in the Hood, Ice Cube chooses to primarily focus on writing and acting, while Eazy-E and Heller remains business partners but struggle to find much solo success.

Despite plenty of commercial success with Death Row, Dre becomes increasingly disturbed by Suge Knight’s violent and shady tendencies, while Eazy-E struggles to pay child support and discovers potential embezzlement on Heller’s part, eventually firing him. Amidst all this, Los Angeles becomes a virtual war zone following the not-guilty verdict in the Rodney King beating and the subsequent Watts riots.

Cube, Dre, and Eazy-E soon agree to mend fences and reunite, but the plans are derailed following Eazy-E’s HIV/AIDS diagnosis. He dies tragically at the age of 30, ending any plans for an N.W.A reunion. The film concludes in 1996, the following year, as Dre leaves Death Row to form his own company, Aftermath Records.


In a lot of ways, N.W.A were hip-hop’s equivalent of the Sex Pistols — a short-lived, extremely controversial group that remain undeniably important and influential to this day. It’s hard to look at the group’s discography with fresh eyes now. And even to this day, you can see Ice Cube in multiple summer blockbusters, and Eazy-E’s likeness is still graffiti’d on back alleys all across the world. And of course, Dr. Dre, who even at age 52, is still ubiquitous and still a multi-millionaire.

As for the film itself, it’s about what you’d expect for a film about N.W.A — it’s raw, uncompromising, and riveting. The cast all give remarkable performances, and it’s cool to see Ice Cube played by the man’s actual son, O’Shea Jackson Jr. However, in my opinion, the real revelation is Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre. He gives a powerful, evocative performance that doesn’t shy away from Dre’s temper, talent, and complexity.

Straight Outta Compton is pretty accurate for a film biopic overall. The sheer hysteria about N.W.A’s profane lyrics is captured quite vividly, as is the unacceptable behavior of the cops that the group so famously railed against. The real-life Jerry Heller was unhappy about his depiction in the movie and sued the producers; despite Heller’s death in September 2016, the case is still pending.

The movie is quite long (two and a half hours), but that won’t be a big deal for the majority of viewers, especially ones who are already hip-hop fans. Even though the film takes place over about a decade of time, it’s still very well-paced and doesn’t wear out its welcome (kudos to veteran director F. Gary Gray for that, as well as for his passion for the source material).

Some people — mostly film critics or rap historians — also took issue that the movie glossed over some unpleasant allegations against N.W.A members, particularly Dr. Dre (ostensibly the film’s protagonist) and the time he slapped reporter Dee Barnes at a Hollywood nightclub in 1991.

(Note: This scene actually was filmed, but was left on the cutting room floor. In real life, Dre served two years probation and paid six figures in fines, and has since apologized for the incident on several occasions.)

However, I feel like such controversy was kind of missing the point of the film. Make no mistake: Straight Outta Compton doesn’t pull punches when it comes to violent behavior (from N.W.A or anybody else), and it makes no excuses for it either. It’d be easy for the film to take the proverbial high horse, but it chooses not to. It’s simply the true story of a fearless group that wanted to bring their own reality as they saw it to the masses — and just so happened to change hip-hop history while they did it.

Grade: A

  • Directed by F. Gary Gray
  • Screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff
  • Story by S. Leigh Savage & Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berloff
  • Produced by Matt Alvarez, Scott Bernstein, F. Gary Gray, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Tomica Woods-Wright
  • Starring O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Paul Giamatti, R. Marcus Taylor, Marlon Yates Jr., Carra Patterson, Alexandra Shipp, Elena Goode, Keith Powers, Corey Reynolds, Tate Ellington
  • Director of Photography — Matthew Libatique
  • Music — Joseph Trapanese
  • Editors — Billy Fox and Michael Tronick
  • Rated R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use


(This’ll be a new section in any film/TV reviews that I write from now on. Enjoy!)

  • Straight Outta Compton is the highest-grossing music biopic ever, grossing nearly $202 million worldwide against a $50 million budget.
  • Dr. Dre and Ice Cube both served as the movie’s co-producers, as did Tomica Woods-Wright, Eazy-E’s widow.
  • The actors playing N.W.A. re-recorded the entire Straight Outta Compton album before filming started to help them get into character.
  • Film debut of O’Shea Jackson Jr.
  • The film’s script was written all the way back in 2004, and was originally intended to strictly be an Eazy-E biopic. After acquiring the music rights from Tomica Woods-Wright, the script was moved forward, but the project languished until Ice Cube and his producing partner Matt Alvarez got involved. Cube wanted the film to focus on all of N.W.A and not just Eazy-E, so he hired Andrea Berloff to re-write the script. F. Gary Gray and Dr. Dre weren’t hired as director and producer, respectively, until much later.
  • The filmmakers originally wanted Eazy-E’s son, Eric Jr. (AKA Lil Eazy-E), to portray his dad in the film, but they decided against it. Despite this, Lil Eazy-E was involved with the production as a consultant.
  • The movie grossed over $56 million its opening weekend in August 2015, making it the highest-grossing opening weekend for a music biopic since Walk the Line.
  • The film’s director, F. Gary Gray, is a long-time friend and colleague of Ice Cube. They first worked together on the cult classic black comedy Friday in 1995.
  • Early in the filming process in August 2014, a drive-by shooting took place less than a block away from where the movie was being shot on location in Compton. Thankfully, there were no fatalities, although one civilian was injured.
  • The real-life MC Ren was upset that he wasn’t featured more in the finished film, although he said that he liked the movie otherwise.
  • Another real-life person who disputed some of the movie’s narrative was club promoter Alonzo Williams, who appears in several early scenes, in which he praises Dr. Dre’s talent but forbids him from playing gangsta rap in his club. Williams claimed that this part of the film was inaccurate and also stated that he was the one who originally introduced Eazy-E to Jerry Heller.
  • There’s an ongoing conspiracy theory about Eazy-E contracting the HIV/AIDS virus, and that Suge Knight had one of his hitmen inject Eazy-E with infected blood. Eazy had seven children with six different women, none of whom have since tested positive for the virus. Eazy’s son has gone on record as saying that he thinks there may have been something sinister going on with Knight (as he and Eazy were frequently at odds with each other). Similarly, a transcript from a grand jury indicated that Knight sent threatening text messages to F. Gary Gray during filming, although Gray did not confirm that while under oath. Knight, who is currently in jail on an attempted murder charge, has also been accused in the past of being involved in the still-unsolved 1997 murder of the Notorious B.I.G.