The canon of films (both documentary and dramatic) about the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali continues to grow and has to be richer than that of any other athlete in history. It helps that Ali had such a fascinating, controversial and (eventually) revered life. The list would start with Ali playing himself in the 1977 film The Greatest. Then, a curiosity: the TV movie Freedom Road, which Ali starred in as an ex-slave who became a senator. Ali even provided his own voice for the short-lived Saturday morning cartoon series I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali. Will Smith played him in the underrated Michael Mann bio Ali. And on TV, Terrence Howard took his swing in King of the World, as did David Ramsey (a college classmate of mine) in Ali: An American Hero. Actors also pop up playing him in supporting roles in Don King: Only in America and Phantom Punch, while he is only talked about in the more recent Stephen Fears film Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight (as his fight with the United States over his draft status for the Vietnam war is decided by the Supreme Court). The documentary front has too many films to list, going at least as far back as 1970 with AKA Cassius Clay. Other highlights include Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story, Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World and The Trials of Muhammad Ali from earlier this year. And of course, the greatest of all is still the Academy Award-winning When We Were Kings. And just about every documentary on the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements usually has a chapter on the guy.
Finding a different angle on telling the whole Ali story is Facing Ali from 2009. Director Pete McCormack interviews Ali’s boxing opponents and surprisingly creates about as all-encompassing a documentary as there has been on the man. Whereas When We Were Kings really centers on the Ali/ George Foreman “Rumble In The Jungle” bout and veers off occasionally for backstory, Facing Ali moves back and forth on the timeline and manages to include all his historical highlights: winning the gold in the 1960 Olympics, the mega upset against Sonny Liston, joining the Nation of Islam, changing his name from Cassius Clay and infuriating the white press and boxing establishment, and of course, his heroic battle against the Vietnam draft (which put his career on hold for many years during his peak). But where the movie goes that can really excite a budding Ali-phile are the details of the non-historic fights, especially after his return in the '70s when he re-won and then lost the title of champ and then won it back.Continue Reading
Escape from the Planet of the Apes
Once you can get past the absurdity of the set-up of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the movie turns out to be the best of the sequels to the original brilliant sci-fi film Planet of the Apes. To recap, in that first film, an American astronaut, Taylor (Charlton Heston) traveled through space and returned to earth deep into the planet’s future where apes ruled and humans were just stinky wild mutes. In the less exciting but still watchable first sequel, Beneath The Planet of Apes, another astronaut, Brent (James Franciscus) follows Taylor into the future as ape hostility towards man is growing. Brent and Taylor finally meet up in an underground city where humanoids worship an atom bomb. Eventually apes attack and a dying Heston sets off the bomb, destroying earth and seemingly putting an end to the franchise. But, like Rocky III, the third film found a fresh take on the story and turns out to have a lot of fun on its own terms.
In this one, to the shock of the world, three apes in space suits land on present-day Earth (a very groovy early 1970s) in Taylor’s spacecraft. It turns out it’s archaeologist Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and his wife, animal (human) psychologist Zira (Kim Hunter), the two humans who risked their careers to help Taylor in the first film, along with the brilliant Dr. Milo (Rebel Without a Cause’s Sal Mineo). (Okay, so get over the set-up.) The three apes somehow salvaged Taylor’s ship from the bottom of a lake, managed to re-blast-off, and while watching the earth’s destruction from the sky, were sent into a time warp back to modern day. Silly. But now the fun starts....Continue Reading
Super Duper Alice Cooper
Finally a quintessential documentary on Alice Cooper, rock’s original shock master, titled appropriately enough, Super Duper Alice Cooper. Unlike the usual quickie music doc (Behind The Music, etc.), this is a film edited with style and a totally engaging visual flare similar to the wonderful Robert Evans doc The Kid Stays in the Picture, with those three-dimensional cut outs and old-timey film footage mixed in to help tell the story. And Cooper himself, an engaging story teller, narrates. Of course I’m the target audience; I had a couple of his records as a kid, I went to an Alice Cooper concert in Detroit when I was in middle school and I have nostalgic pangs that get me a little giddy when I see those '70s clips. But I’m also thrilled to report that I watched this with a woman who was born long after Cooper’s heyday who had little previous knowledge about him or interest, and she thoroughly enjoyed the movie, too. Again, stylishly and narratively it can satisfy the old-school fan and intrigue a newbie.
As told by the film, Cooper’s story is the usual "sickly kid dreams of more and beats the odds" ode. Born Vincent Furnier in Detroit, Cooper’s pastor father and mother moved him out West to Phoenix to help his extreme asthma. He grew up a churchgoing all-American type, but like many kids in the '60s inspired by The Beatles, their music (and spoofing the Fab Four at a school talent show) led to him and his buds forming a band. Even as a bunch of suburban squares they found some success in their hometown under the name The Spiders; later encouraged by a message from a ouija board they changed the name of the band to Alice Cooper (slowly Vincent would actually take on the name himself and later legally change it when he dumped his bandmates) and set out for hippie filled Los Angeles. In California they fell under the tutelage of super weirdo Frank Zappa and became the brother act to his all-girl band The GTO’s. Besides giving pointers on partying, the fashionable ladies also helped them update their look (with thrift store women’s Ice Capades costumes). Though they signed with manager Shep Gordon (a pot dealer, for whom managing music was just a side gig) they didn’t find the success they craved and were even jeered at for their growing onstage theatrics. The band took off for middle America, playing small gigs until they finally settled in Detroit, a working class city that liked to rock and appreciated a hard-hitting band with a strong work ethic. Playing alongside bands like The MC5 and The Stooges, it has been said that this garage rock scene was the beginning of Punk Music (and Johnny Lydon AKA Rotten, adds his voice to the narration later, giving credence to this by admitting what a big influence Cooper was on his band, The Sex Pistols). The Alice Cooper act grew more and more outrageous and when they got to open for John Lennon at a music festival in Toronto, an incident that led to a chicken being murdered made them famous. They eventually broke big with hits “I’m Eighteen and then “School’s Out”, but Cooper fell deeper into a dark hole of alcoholism and celebrity trappings. Finally he dumped his high school pals and went solo, where his shows became a sorta vaudeville horror act, complete with a boa constrictor, a guillotine and dancers. (He married a young pretty one.)Continue Reading
The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming
Written by William Rose, who was also responsible for the loud, brash and big It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World a couple years earlier (as well as the overrated Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is also a big ensemble comedy, but much better executed and focused than his previous script, with more heart and less mean-spiritedness. It also helps that it has a very able director at the helm, the nearly forgotten Norman Jewison, whose socially-conscious films still hold up (In The Heat of The Night, A Soldier’s Story, The Hurricane; The Russians Are Coming could also be considered part of that group). He had a number of films which were popular and respected in their day (The Cincinnati Kid, The Thomas Crown Affair, Fiddler on the Roof, Agnes of God, Moonstruck) and some fascinating curios (Jesus Christ Superstar, Rollerball and F.I.S.T.). He falls into that group of directors who emerged in the sixties like Arthur Penn, George Roy Hill, John Boorman and John Schlesinger who had a lot of acclaim and made some classics, but never became brand names like Polanski and Coppola, or even to a lesser extent Mike Nichols and Sydney Pollack. Jewison has as many solid films as his peers, though looking back none reach that same level of transcendence as a Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy or Deliverance. For my money, though many would disagree, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is his film that holds up best today.
Based on a novel by Nathaniel Benchley (whose son Peter wrote the novel Jaws), set in a little New England beachy island community (very similar looking to that one in Jaws, though surprisingly actually shot in Northern California), where a Russian submarine gets stuck in a sandbar, leading to havoc in the town. This was a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, so this was the height of cold-war hysteria (think Dr. Strangelove), so even just having likable Russian characters was enough to make this film subversive to some. The film has dozens of characters, with top character actors of the day in peak form.Continue Reading
With post-Vietnam War movies there is a “Vietnam Vet taking down his enemies” genre that would include the pulp biggies Taxi Driver, Billy Jack and First Blood, as well as pure vigilante exploitation films like Eye of the Tiger, Vigilante Force, The Exterminator, The Annihilators and Gordon’s War (not to be confused with the ‘Nam vets that appear as crazies in Targets, Black Sunday, Skyjacked and Earthquake or the zombie vets of Cannibal Apocalypse). Somewhere between pulp and vetploitation lays the very intense and violent Rolling Thunder. This was director Joe Flynn’s followup to his interesting crime thriller The Outfit. Paul Schrader (most famous for writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) wrote the screenplay though he claims it was reworked away from his original intention by credited co-writer Heywood Gould (Fort Apache the Bronx and Cocktail). Either way Rolling Thunder definitely carries Schrader’s signature theme of the lonely loner on a self-destructive path against society while seeking his own kind of redemption.
The film opens with Denny Brooks’ ballad “San Antone,” which was used similarly in The Ninth Configuration (he also sang the theme to the Chuck Norris choppy-socky Breaker! Breaker!). After spending years as POWs, Major Charles Rane (William Devane) and Sergeant Johnny Vohden (a very young and very intense Tommy Lee Jones) finally return home to Texas. Of course, we know from our film studies, going as far back as William Wyler’s WWII drama The Best Years of Our Lives, that returning vets have a tough time readjusting. And Rane is no different. His pretty wife Janet (Lisa Blake Richards of TV’s Dark Shadows) tries to help him ease back into civilian life, but he senses she has moved on (it’s obvious she has been involved with a local cop), and his son doesn’t even remember him. Rane suffers from PTSD and is emotionally distant, even turning down the advances of a young military groupie, Linda (Linda Haynes). The town tries to make him feel welcomed with a parade, a new car and over two grand in silver dollars (one for every day he was in captivity).Continue Reading
Soylent Green, completing the Charlton Heston dystopian future trifecta of Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man, may be spiritually closer to Douglas Trumbull's ecological space flick from 1972, Silent Running, and the much more recent gloomy Children of Men, than the flat out entertainment adventures of Chuck’s earlier walk down the roads of things to come. The film is based on the novel Make Room! Make Room! by respected sci-fi writer Harry Harrison, with a screenplay by Stanley R. Greenberg (who was a career TV scribe until he hit the big screen with another Heston flick, the less memorable Skyjacked). With Soylent Green underrated director Richard Fleischer continued to develop one of the most diverse film resumes ever. His bizarre career started in noir (Narrow Margin); included dramas (Compulsion); sci-fi (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Fantastic Voyage); some great little thrillers (The Boston Strangler, 10 Rillington Place and See No Evil); as well as a number of legendary misfires (Doctor Dolittle and the Neil Diamond opus The Jazz Singer). Fleischer manages to sprinkle a little of all of the above into Soylent Green.
If you already know the slight twist ending, Soylent Green can play like a long Twilight Zone episode, but beyond the Rod Serling influence (he came up with that great twist at the end of The Planet of the Apes), this is an interesting take on the future, which was certainly more fresh in 1973. It’s now 2022 in New York and the world is overpopulated (44 million in NY alone) and poverty stricken. Due to the “greenhouse effect” it’s awfully hot, the world is polluted, the oceans are dead, and food is scarce. The Soylent Corporation produces food wafers to feed the masses: soylent red, yellow, and the new and improved delicious green. But when one of the company's owners, William Simonson (Joseph Cotton), is murdered NYPD detective Robert Thorn (Heston) investigates. Thorn is lucky enough to have his own teensy tenement apartment he shares with his buddy Sol (Edward G Robinson in his last film role), one of the few old timers who remember how the world once was - he even once tasted a strawberry! Most of the masses live on the street (or his building’s stairs), but Thorn and Sol live not much better. Like a classic noir character, when Thorn investigates the wealthy man’s death he helps himself to his stuff (food, soap, booze, even the dead man’s hooker companion).Continue Reading
Witness for the Prosecution
Almost forty years after her death in 1976, Agatha Christie is still the queen of the mystery novel. Her characters, including Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, are seemingly just as popular and prolific today (mostly on television now) as they were when she first invented them. Though many of her stories have been adapted for film, only two--by my recollection--have lasted the test of time. In '74 Sidney Lumet made a solid Poirot story, Murder on the Orient Express, thanks to a great cast led most memorably by Albert Finney. But even better was back in ’57 when Witness for the Prosecution was directed by the superstar director Billy Wilder. First appearing as a short story, Christie later turned it into a play. But Wilder and his two co-screenwriters, Larry Marcus (who would go on to co-write the brilliant screenplay for The Stunt Man) and Harry Kurnitz (the play A Shot in the Dark) would open it up for the screen and add the wonderful role of Miss Plimsoll for actress Elsa Lanchester, giving her an opportunity to share the screen with her husband Charles Laughton. Ironically, a TV remake and most stage adaptions of the play since have included the role, a Wilder invention, not a Christie one.
In England, big-time defense attorney (barrister) Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton) is on the verge of forced retirement due to health issues. He has a full-time nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Lanchester), on his case, nagging him to rest and give up his vices. But when Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) appears at his door, about to be indicted on murder charges, Sir Wilfrid is too intrigued to pass the case up. Vole, a handsome and married playboy (and American, though that is never acknowledged), is accused of murdering a much older woman who took a shine to his charms and conveniently had just changed her will, making him the beneficiary to her fortune. Vole reasonably explains his side, and it does appear to be circumstantial evidence stacked up against him. Vole's passionate German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) backs up his story. But when the trial comes along, strangely Christine is called by the prosecution, claiming Vole admitted to killing the old lady and painting a terrible picture of both herself and her husband. The great Wilfrid looks to be defeated until a greedy Cockney woman sells him some current love letters exchanged between Christine and her secret lover. The new evidence shows that the wife lied and it is enough to prove Vole’s innocence and end the trail. But Sir Wilfrid knows it was all too easy and there is something amiss. And here we get the great, shocking M. Night Shyamalan twist that Agatha Christie and her ilk specialized in.Continue Reading
Over the decades, Tim Burton has made himself into a brand name (mostly off the success of his earlier films). While he is a master of images and ideas inspired by comic books, B-movies and campy pop culture, the story and payoff rarely lived up to the potential. After an impressive run of films about outsiders like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands (and the box office bonanza of Batman and Batman Returns), Burton peaked with what is still his best movie, a biography of the beloved, transvestite director of horrible films, Edward D. Wood, Jr., titled appropriately enough Ed Wood. The flick follows Wood in his “Golden Period” of the 1950s and his collaboration and friendship with has-been horror icon Bela Lugosi on three quickie cheapies, Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster and his Citizen Kane, Plan 9 from Outer Space. All three films are on the Mount Rushmore of so-bad-they-are-good movie classics. Wood’s best qualities may have been his enthusiasm and an ability to build a stable of oddball friends who took part in his projects. Burton has managed to craft both a moving tribute to a talentless dreamer and a perfect scene-for-scene recreation of those hilarious films.
The film is shot in gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Stefan Czapsky (Last Exit to Brooklyn), and instead of the usual Danny Elfman score this one is provided by Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings), who brings a fun mix of sci-fi and conga room. Based on the book Nightmare of Ecstasy by Rudolph Grey, the script was written by the screenwriting duo of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who were hot in the quirky bio business, also penning The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon, as well as the Problem Child movies and TV series). Ed Wood marks the second of at least seven films Burton has made with Johnny Depp. And the casting of Depp at the time was really ingenious; who knew the pretty-boy had such creative chops? Depp wonderfully infuses Wood with an ah-shucks charm; everything seems to give Wood zeal. Always the optimist, Wood believes in everything, whether it’s his inept actors, sets, shots or his girlfriend’s sweaters--or the belief in the stardom of Lugosi who, at this point, was a heroin addict with failing health and is played beautifully by Martin Landau. When Wood sees Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), a TV psychic, make ridiculous predictions, he believes him. He spots Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson (George "The Animal" Steele) in the ring, and instantly sees a great actor. And these random people that Wood meets along the way and in whom he believes join him in his own dream of making movies, and in turn believe in him. It's a motley group that includes Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray), a homosexual in search of a sex change operation who is most memorable as The Ruler in Plan 9 from Outer Space, and eventually the horror show hostess Vampira (Lisa Marie), plus assorted goofy crew members. They forge an "Island of Misfit Toys" style family; think Wes Anderson without all the preciousness.Continue Reading
We Are The World: The Story Behind The Song
Billy Joel famously told Rolling Stone magazine that most of the singers didn’t actually like the song and that “Cyndi Lauper leaned over to him and said, 'It sounds like a Pepsi commercial.'" Of course the song is pretty lame, but the spectacle of the one-night-only super-group, USA For Africa, recording the otherwise forgettable song, “We Are The World,” is one of pop music's most bizarre and fascinating stories. The infomercial/documentary We Are The World: The Story Behind The Song, hosted by Jane Fonda in the same stagey '80s home-video visual style as her hot selling aerobicizing videos, runs at a sparse 52 minutes (though the DVD is packed with extras on two discs), but I could have easily watched three more hours. It’s truly the greatest line-up in music history.
Back in 1984 Bob Geldof of the British band The Boomtown Rats became aware of the horrible starvation going on in Ethiopia and he gathered a bunch of his countrymen (and a few Americans) to record the wonderful little song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Calling themselves Band Aid, the super group was made up of then hot singers including Sting, Bono, George Michael, Phil Collins, Boy George, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, Jody Watley, and a couple guys from Kool & The Gang. There were no older British super legends, it was the kids. No Bowie, no Elton John, no Jagger, not even a Ringo Starr. The song helped raise money and brought attention to the issue of African famine and, at the time, was the biggest selling UK single ever.Continue Reading
Al Pacino played his first cop in Serpico and, by my count, would go on to do it six more times in Cruising, Sea of Love, Heat, Insomnia, Righteous Kill, and something called The Son of No One. (He’s played a criminal in twice as many films.) It’s fair to say that at the time Serpico was released there had never been an on screen cop like this one. It was Pacino’s most Dustin Hoffman-like performance (back in those days they were compared to each other, for good reason). In Serpico, Pacino seemed shorter than usual, his back was humped, his voice more nasally, and his Elliott Gould mustache early in the film grows into a full on scraggily beard. Serpico was an oddball cop who liked ballet, lived with the freaks in the Village, had a dog instead of a baby, and most weird of all, wouldn’t take a payoff. In New York that was enough to almost get you killed.
Serpico’s story take place in the '60s, which was a time of unprecedented police brutality. In the South civil rights workers were being abused by cops. In the North racist big city cops were continually harassing black citizens which led to many major uprisings (or riots). Vietnam protesters in Chicago were faced with Gestapo tactics on national television. The film was an unflinching look at the underbelly of a police force that differed so much from the propaganda Hollywood had given us about cops on TV and films for decades. The film was based on the hard-hitting, best-selling biography of Detective Frank Serpico by Peter Maas (King of the Gypsies), with a screenplay by Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy) and Norman Wexler (Saturday Night Fever). The great New York director Sidney Lumet (Network) took over production after John G. Avildsen (Rocky) was fired. Lumet brought his signature grit to the look and, as usual, elicited truthful performances from the cast.Continue Reading