British director Alan Parker’s third film, the high school musical Fame, has spawned a television series, a musical play, and a remake, not to mention inspiring reality competitions, the TV show Glee and other assorted bores about singing and dancing teenagers. What’s been forgotten is Fame works best as a gritty New York drama about teenage life in 1980. Parker, having just come off shooting the harrowing Turkish prison drama, Midnight Express, is no dance choreographer turned director. He’s a realist. Parker seems to be more inspired by the social realism of his countrymen Ken Loach and Alan Clarke rather than the Hollywood musical style of Busby Berkeley. He originally came out of television advertising and is often associated with popular English filmmakers of his generation like Adrian Lyne, Hugh Hudson, Ridley Scott and Tony Scott, who all started off in commercials and brought a shiny sheen to their films in the eighties. Although much of their work in that period (including Parker's) looks like champagne ads, Fame still resembles the unpolished look of seventies docudramas over the more purified work that followed. Fame is also one of the better films to casually capture the multicultural urban youth vibe of the times, unlike the John Hughes teenage whitewash that would come to dominate the eighties.
Fame depicts the lives of seemingly random students at New York’s School of the Performing Arts, from auditioning freshmen to upperclassmen. Ralph Garcia (Barry Miller of Saturday Night Fever) is a tortured Puerto Rican actor/stand-up comedian who worships comic actor Freddie Prinze and takes up some dangerously bad habits. The ambitious Coco Hernandez, played by singer Irene Cara (the original Sparkle), is a triple threat in acting, singing and dancing. Unlike her character Coco, Cara was never really able to capitalize on the attention Fame brought, although later she sang the hit theme to Flashdance. Bruno Martelli (Lee Curreri) is an obvious composing genius and his cab driver father will certainly tell anyone who will listen. Leroy (Gene Anthony Ray) only auditioned to help his girlfriend get in, but when the impressed dance instructors take an interest in his raw talent over her, he becomes the school's resident rebel. Even though her pushy stage mother believes in her, Doris (Maureen Teefy) may be a little too insecure for the competition. Speaking of insecure, acting student Montgomery, played by Paul McCrane (who would later appear as a great creep in RoboCop), is a wreck until he finally confronts his homosexuality. When the beautiful and wealthy ballerina, Hilary Van Doren (Antonia Franceschi), enters the school she inspires more competition among students.Continue Reading
This is Spinal Tap
Although it has had a lot of competition since it was released in 1984, This is Spinal Tap still remains the greatest mockumentary, the best spoof on the rock music scene, and one of the funniest, most continually quotable flicks I’ve ever seen. This was the first film directed by Rob Reiner who, at the time, was primarily known for his role as Meathead on the legendary sitcom All in the Family. He would go on to have a mostly pedestrian directing career with a few stand-outs (Stand By Me). With This Is Spinal Tap, Reiner and his three costars - Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer (all four of whom are the credited writers) - created something very special whose style has been copied many times over, especially by Guest himself. But nothing has hit it so far out of the park as this one did.
The mockumentary (a spoof of a documentary) was not new at the time. Though rather dull, David Holzman’s Diary was considered a landmark in 1967. Woody Allen made the now classic Take the Money and Run. There was that Beatles spoof, All You Need is Cash, and Albert Brooks foresaw the coming of reality TV with his Real Life. What makes This is Spinal Tap especially impressive is that it keeps the documentary format the entire film, something most other mockumentaries rarely sustain (including Guest’s later work). Most of the other films often cheat and have moments to try and help the plot along that couldn’t have been documented by a pesky camera crew. Every moment in This is Spinal Tap keeps the documentary format humming. By 1984 the ego-driven rockumentary had been a standard cash generator for most megabands (peaking in the seventies before the music video came to dominate the self-promotion machine). Going at least as far back as Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Back in ’67 and the music festival docs Monterey Pop and Woodstock, it was really The Rolling Stones’ Cocksucker Blues and Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same that gave This is Spinal Tap its most potent fodder.Continue Reading
After Sean Penn’s solid supporting performance in Taps (as the sensitive guy, opposite Tom Cruise’s hothead), his now legendary scene stealing turn as stoner Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and then his work as Chicago juvenile delinquent Mick O’Brien in Bad Boys, Rolling Stone Magazine put him on the cover at the age of 23 and called him, “the next James Dean.” Since Dean only starred in three features, it's his cultural impact and dying young status that still make him a household name today. Dean also showed himself to be a gifted actor and it’s fascinating to imagine what his career would have been like had he not died so young. Penn has lived past those three early films (to some people’s surprise). He has had a long and eclectic filmography, with moments of pure acting brilliance (Carlito’s Way, Dead Man Walking, Sweet and Lowdown), while some critics have accused him of sometimes being a hammy overactor (I Am Sam, All The King’s Men, Mystic River). Either way the guy is easily a first-ballet hall-of-famer.
In addition to being a good jumping off point for any study of the truth and beauty in Penn’s acting, director Rick Rosenthal's Bad Boys is, for my money, the best American juvenile detention center flick. (Internationally you would have to add the British film Scum and Brazil's Pixote.) By 1983 Hollywood had only a spotty record grappling with teen crime flicks (the best at this point was Over The Edge) and Bad Boys sometimes feels a little overwrought with its occasional After School Special moments. On the other-hand it’s shockingly bleak and the violence is pretty brutal. Both teen prisons and the mean streets of Chicago are places full of predators - kill or be killed. Though Bad Boys doesn’t hit the exploitation highs of Class of 1984, it’s certainty much harder hitting and believable than most of the other teen dramas of its era.Continue Reading
Easily the most underrated film of the great Alfred Hitchcock’s massive career, Topaz is a perfectly constructed little cold-war thriller with many cool little filmmaking flourishes. It’s truly a wonder why this film has not been rediscovered by Hitchcockian enthusiasts and given its proper due. As a follow-up to his other cold war thriller in the '60s, the Paul Newman dud Torn Curtain, perhaps audiences were just weary of the subject matter. Perhaps because it had no stars it wasn’t taken seriously. Or maybe by the late '60s audience tastes had changed and by then the Grand Master was considered "old hat." Of course he would follow it with another often over-looked gem, Frenzy, which was his chance to finally go balls-to-the-wall with the sex and violence (and no stars). Like Billy Wilder’s cold-war comedy One Two Three, another lost gem, both films were financial flops, but both are actually great examples of what the two directors do best. In Wilder’s case, of course, it’s cynicism (though One Two Three was more slapstick than his usual cool) and with Topaz, Hitchcock again demonstrated how to create suspense with just camera pans and small pieces of information.
Based on a novel by Leon Uris (Exodus) with a script by Samuel A. Taylor (Vertigo), Topaz jerks around in different directions and, at 143 minutes, is Hitchcock’s longest film. It opens in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1962 (pre-Cuban Missile Crisis), with a Soviet military bigwig, Boris Kusenov (Per-Axel Arosenius, a Swedish actor who in real life died setting himself on fire as a tax protest), his wife and teenage daughter sightseeing and are being followed by their KGB handlers. Aided by an American spy, Michael Nordstrom (played by John Forsythe who would become a big star on TV’s Dynasty), they make a daring escape, defecting and getting shipped out to Washington, DC. While debriefed the Americans learn of a pact between the Soviets and Cuba. Nordstrom hooks up with his French counterpoint, André Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), who is vacationing with his wife Nicole (Dany Robin), daughter and her UN reporter husband (Michel Subor) in New York. Here the film totally shifts and becomes Devereaux’s. A classically suave spy, he seems to be cozy with the Soviets but is still willing to help the Americans, even when his wife objects. In a great scene, Devereaux enlists the help of an undercover French florist, Philippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Browne), to steal some incriminating papers from a visiting Cuban delegate, Rico Parra (John Vernon, Dean Wormer of National Lampoon’s Animal House, here doing his best Che). In an effort to find out what’s really going on Devereaux jets off to Cuba where his beautiful mistress (Karin Dor, a Bond Girl in You Only Live Twice) also happens to the widow of a Cuban Revolutionary hero and secret leader of the anti-Castro forces. The two work to get evidence of Russian missiles and for a while the film becomes an escape from Cuba adventure.Continue Reading
Considered by some to be an interesting historical footnote as the film uber-nerd George Lucas directed before he became a zillionaire with Star Wars, American Graffiti is actually much more. Besides helping to usher in a nostalgia wave during the '70s for a more innocent time before the Vietnam War and playing like catnip for classic car geeks, American Graffiti is a perfect ensemble comedy with a then cutting-edge use of wall-to-wall classic Rock & Roll songs on the soundtrack and a wonderful piece of Americana. It’s Lucas’s homage to those years in Modesto, California when kids drank milk shakes at Mel’s Drive-In and then cruised up and down the boulevard all night with their radios blasting, looking for kicks. The film is set in 1962. JFK was still alive, most Americans couldn’t yet point out Vietnam on a map, the Beatles hadn’t even touched down yet, and the baby boomer youth culture was beginning to dominate but still looked a lot like leftover 1950s innocents.
In a now classic coming of age set-up, American Graffiti takes place one August night after high school graduation. With the summer coming to an end, four buds (and the women around them) face the dilemma of impending adulthood about to overtake them. The clean cut Steve (Ron Howard) is excited to be heading off to college but has to figure out how to break it off with his longtime girlfriend, Laurie (Cindy Williams of future Laverne & Shirley fame). The much more thoughtful Curt (Richard Dreyfuss, in a role that would jump start his career before Jaws would make him a superstar a few years later) isn’t so sure about leaving for college out East the next day and goes on a search for some kind of meaning to his life and for the beautiful blond (Suzanne Somers) he spotted cruising around in a T-Bird. Instead he ends up taking part in antics with a gang of Greasers known as The Pharaohs (lead by the hilarious Bo Hopkins). Steve leaves his beloved Chevy Impala in the hands of his nerdy pal Terry "The Toad" (Charles Martin Smith who would go on to play a similar bumbler in The Untouchables). Now sporting a bitchin’ set of wheels, Terry spends the evening wooing a much more experienced woman, Debbie, played wonderfully by Candy Clark who scored an Oscar nomination for the performance and went on to appear in The Man Who Fell to Earth. The fourth strand of the story follows the more blue-collar, street racing cool kid, John Milner (Paul Le Mat, an actor who had the charisma and looks to hit the big time, but unlike many of his costars, his career never really took off other than playing the lead in Jonathan Demme’s acclaimed flick Melvin and Howard). He is being pursued for a drag race by a new guy in town, Bob Falfa (a cowboy hatted Harrison Ford), but his nightly fun is interrupted when he gets stuck with an annoying "tweener" Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), the two start off at odds but end up with a sweet brother/sister like relationship. A final "where are they now" epilogue scroll tells us what happened to the guys, bringing the film even more powerful pathos.Continue Reading
After his great little run of action films from 1975 - 1982 that included The Driver, The Warriors, Southern Comfort and 48 Hrs, gritty director Walter Hill wandered in the wrong direction with the action musical Streets of Fire and the unfunny Richard Pryor comedy Brewster’s Millions. Even though he would go on to have a big hit with the Schwarzenegger muscle bore Red Heat, most of his flicks had potential but oddly fell short (Johnny Handsome, Wild Bill). He did do an underrated urban thriller, Trespass, but otherwise nothing reached that earlier high.
Hill started out as a writer and one of his first credited screenplays was for Sam Peckinpah’s mean spirited thriller, The Getaway. So Hill’s 1987 Tex-Mex action flick Extreme Prejudice, though completely ignored by audiences in its day, now plays as a perfect homage to his one-time boss, Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs), the master of masculine violence who had burned out and died a few years earlier. With about as good a cast of tough guy character actors you could find in 1987 (including Nick Nolte, Powers Boothe, Michael Ironside, Rip Torn, Clancy Brown and William Forsythe), time has been kind to Extreme Prejudice. Though it’s set in modern day, it’s now starting to look like one of the better “Westerns” made in 1980s.Continue Reading
Of all the so called Jaws rip-offs - and there were plenty - the best of the lot was The Deep. Most were just exploitation quickies (Great White, Barracuda and, of course, the very entertaining Piranha), but a few actually had classy casts (John Huston, Shelly Winters and Henry Fonda in Tentacles; Richard Harris and Charlotte Rampling in Orca). The Deep, besides having a distinguished cast (Nick Nolte, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Shaw, Louis Gossett Jr., Eli Wallach) and a credible action director, Peter Yates (Bullitt, The Friends of Eddie Coyle), most importantly, was written by Peter Benchley, the author who wrote the novel Jaws (though everyone agrees the movie Jaws was better than the book). The Deep was his follow-up and although much of it does take place underwater and it even has a nasty electric eel, it’s less a killer fish flick and more of a smuggling thriller (which makes sense since Jaws the novel had a minor but still awkward gangster subplot). But because Benchley and the producers were obviously trying to cash in on the Jaws phenomenon it still, fairly or unfairly, falls into the “rip-off” genre. But, hey, better to be the best “Jaws Rip-Off Flick” than nothing at all.
Benchley adapted his novel along with co-screenwriter Tracy Keenan Wynn (who wrote the great Burt Reynolds prison football flick The Longest Yard). Perhaps the personal histories and relationship dynamics between the characters were a little more fleshed out in longer book form, but on screen they are just touched on, teased out enough to make the movie feel a little more complicated than it probably deserves. Uber-sexy couple David (Nolte in his first big screen star vehicle after his brilliant performance in the TV mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man) and Gail (Bisset) are vacationing in Bermuda and while scuba diving they discover an abandoned old shipwreck, The Goliath. Among the artifacts they discover is a little vial of liquid. It turns out the cute bottle is filled with morphine and the bottom of the ship is covered in it (it was to be used as medical supplies during WWII). This gets the local drug kingpin, Cloche (Gossett Jr.), sniffing around them, knowing it could be worth millions up on the streets of New York. But they hook up with the local treasure-hunter, Treece (Robert Shaw of Jaws, in a less antisocial but equally knowing role), whose team includes his brutish bodyguard, Kevin (Robert Tessier, the often bald-headed tough guy familiar to '70s and '80s B-movie fans), and an untrustworthy old sailor named, oddly enough, Coffin (classic Actor’s Studio super ham Eli Wallach), who is the only survivor of The Goliath. Shaw and Nolte scuba dive and dig up the drug and also uncover another ship full of gold jewelry. There’s talk of some kind of old-timey conspiracy about the king of Spain and a noblewoman. There's a killer eel down there and some sharks make a dangerous cameo. Haitian voodoo comes into it and Bisset often flaunts a lovely wet T-shirt. It has a very “early James Bond” like score by John Barry and a discofied end-credits song by Donna Summer (though her vocals seem to be missing from the DVD version). Oh, and the underwater sequences are spectacularly shot.Continue Reading
Good Night, and Good Luck.
Most of the movies directly about the horrors and political terrorism of the McCarthyism of the 1950s usually center on a dim schmuck who accidentally finds himself involved in the blacklistings. They’ve ranged from the good (The Front with Woody Allen working as an actor-for-hire), the bad (Guilty by Suspicion, the beginning of Robert De Niro’s slid towards mediocrity) and the terrible (Frank Darabont’s awful The Majestic with Jim Carrey, a movie that makes “Capra-esqe” a mortal sin). The usually simplistic genre helps make mega-star actor George Clooney’s second directing effort, Good Night, and Good Luck. (after the interesting but far from perfect Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), seem positively genius in comparison. Instead of piercing the blacklisting from the streets he sets it upstairs in the newsroom of the TV show See It Now, where the legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow (played by David Strathairn in the performance of his career) dared to take on Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Committee on Un-American Activities. Clooney (who also wrote the script with another one-time journeyman TV actor Grant Heslov) not only makes one of the most pointed films about this ugly period in American politics but also gives us a fascinating glimpse into the working of 1950s television. Shot in color and then transferred to a stunning black & white in post by cinematography all-star Robert Elswit (he’s shot all the Paul Thomas Anderson joints up to There Will Be Blood), Good Night, and Good Luck. really is a marvelous film, beautifully realized in its simplicity and a triumph on all fronts.
Murrow and his trusty producer, Fred Friendly (Clooney), fluctuate their television news magazine show between lightweight celebrity interviews (Liberace!) and more meaningful political pieces, where their heart really is - the fluff is a way to appease their sponsors and the higher-ups at CBS. Knowing that it could start a battle, they decide to take on the dangerous bullying tactics of Senator McCarthy, who was at the height of his powers. He was ruining careers of American citizens by accusing them of being Communists unless they groveled and told McCarthy what a great job he and his Committee where doing, and they were often forced to name others who may be Communists, just to give more names and more power to the often drunk lout Senator. Murrow and Friendly have to walk a tightrope when the Government begins to hint at an investigation of the station's employees and McCarthy himself falls on his old standby trick, accusing Murrow of being a Communist. Meanwhile the head of CBS, William Paley (Frank Langella, wonderful in the role), is forced to defend his star but also tries to keep him on a short leash (the moments between Langella and Strathairn are the best in the movie). The staff is under their own pressure. Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson play a secretly married couple (CBS policy did not allow employees to wed), and in another captivating performance, Ray Wise plays CBS News Correspondent Don Hollenbeck who admires Murrow but lives in terror of having his own lefty political background exposed.Continue Reading
Woody Allen: A Documentary
At over three hours Robert B. Weide's documentary (originally shown as part of PBS’s American Masters series) is almost “everything you always wanted to know about Woody Allen - but were afraid to ask." As a rabid fan I still have some unanswered questions, but I couldn’t ask for a more entertaining examination of the fascinating career of one of cinema’s true masters. Though autobiographical snippets have appeared in most of Allen’s films, he has remained massively private and almost mythically close-mouthed about his filmmaking (for instance never giving any DVD extras), though in recent years he has done more film promoting and made more public appearances (as have guys like Robert De Niro, as the economics of promoting films have gotten more intense and needy). In ’97 Allen was the subject of a fun, lightweight documentary, Wild Man Blues, which was more about his clarinet playing career and his bizarre relationship to his one time step-daughter and now wife, Soon-Yi Previn. For fans that was the closest glimpse into the man (along with Eric Lax’s 1991 book of conversations with Allen). But with Woody Allen: A Documentary, Weide (mostly known as a TV director with credits that include Curb Your Enthusiasm) has gotten the most in depth, on camera heart-to-heart with Allen. Filled with wall to wall clips, the film mercifully spends most its time on the rarer early career of Allen and less on the stink he has mostly been putting out for the last 20 years.
Woody’s life growing up in Brooklyn is now the stuff of legend. As a teenager he started giving jokes to newspaper columnists, which led to some writing gigs that eventually put him in a room with future celebrated writers Neil Simon, Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart writing for Sid Caesar. He would continue writing for comedians until hooking up with high-end managers Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe who talked him into hitting the stage and telling the jokes himself. A neurotic and shy young man, Allen never dreamed of being a performer and it often showed. It was a slow rise but eventually, as cerebral comics like Mort Sahl were coming into fashion, Allen found his voice and an eager audience in the groovy coffee house scene of New York’s Greenwich Village at clubs like The Bitter End. Allen soon became a showbiz fixture on the TV comedy circuit; exposure was the goal and here Allen admits nothing was beneath him (the documentary even includes a bizarre clip of Allen boxing a kangaroo a show called Hippodrome).Continue Reading
Run for The Sun
Richard Widmark got his only Oscar nomination playing one of the great psycho creeps in film history, Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death. It was his first film and it made him an instant star, most famous for that scene where he pushes a woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs while giggling hysterically. Though he was ruggedly handsome with sweepy blond hair, he was never fully able to drop that creepy Klaus Kinski quality, even as he gradually moved into heroic leading man roles, but it helped make even the most generic film a little more interesting. Widmark was part of that impressive group of leading men who emerged after WWII, mostly in Film Noir. Though he starred in a number of significant films including Panic in the Streets, Night and the City, and Pickup on South Street, he is not remembered today with the same iconic status as his contemporaries, such as Lancaster, Mitchum or Kirk Douglas, who all had more important roles on their resume. But with MGM releasing a little known gem, Run for the Sun, on their Limited Edition DVD Collection, perhaps it will help Widmark’s career get more reevaluation.
Though British director Roy Boulting did over 20 movies, he might be best known for making Disney child actress Hayley Mills his fourth wife (he directed her in the oddball horror flick Twisted Nerve). Run for the Sun may prove to be his lost almost-masterpiece (okay, I’m exaggerating. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s very watchable). The script is credited to Boulting and Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach) but the credits say it was based on a story by Richard Connell, making it another kinda-sorta version of his famous short story, "The Most Dangerous Game." Connell's story had been adapted before as a classic with Fay Wray in 1932 and then less memorably in a Robert Wise directed flick retitled A Game of Death in 1945 (and much later and more loosely in the John Woo/Jean-Claude Van Damme collaboration, Hard Target, and the Ice-T trash epic, Surviving The Game). In the end Run for the Sun is about as close to "The Most Dangerous Game" as The Hunger Games is; that is to say, there are some plot crossovers, but not much more.Continue Reading