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 mostly 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 & 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 & 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 whom he believes in 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
Lady Sings the Blues
The most celebrated singer-turned-actor performance ever might be Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. It revived his career and was a turning point in his legacy as he moved from a teenybopper idol to the more mature crooner he is best remembered for today (and he followed it shortly with another important performance in The Man with The Golden Arm). But Sinatra had been acting in musical films for years (On The Town). In terms of degree of difficulty, for a first major role Bjork’s performance in the torture-fest sorta-musical Dancer in the Dark is certainly impressive and many singers have gone on to have their film careers eclipse their singing success (Cher, Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith, and to some extent Bing Crosby and Barbra Streisand). But the most audacious acting debut from a mega-star singer has to be Diana Ross taking on the role of troubled iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. Directed by journeyman director Sidney J. Furie (The Ipcress File, The Boys in Company C) and based on Holiday’s own (said to be mostly fictional) autobiography, Ross throws herself into the role with aplomb, having to go to emotional depths that would challenge even the most veteran thespian. The film also made a kinda-star of her leading man, Billy Dee Williams, and helped establish a movie career for stand-up comedian Richard Pryor. Executive produced by Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr, it was the first flick made under the Motown banner and it would also prove to be the apex of the the historic record company’s forays into filmmaking.
Lady Sings the Blues is a mostly typical music bio in that it's one of those classic “rags-to-riches-to-total self destruction” stories. No matter how many times I’ve seen this kind of tale, if the lead performance is dynamite, I’ll buy in. I don’t know how much of it is actually true but it’s still a doozy of a rollercoaster ride. After being raped as a girl, Billie took the only jobs that seemed to be available for a young black woman during The Depression: a cleaning woman and a prostitute. She eventually talked her way into singing in a little smokey nightclub where she meets her dream man, Louis (Williams), and catches the attention of a couple of white musicians who take her on the road to build up her name and also turn her on to drugs. The film seems to be more fascinated with Billie’s messy and ugly personal life than her voice, which most experts rate as one of the most seminal and important of the twentieth century. As Billie climbs the stardom ladder she is met with racism and humiliation, with her devoted but frustrated husband Louis lending support. (Though he comes off as Mr Wonderful here, it’s been reported that in real life Billie’s husband was just as much of a creep as the other men who exploited her. Ironically he was a technical advisor for the film, which may explain the whitewash.) Billie continues to sing her way to the top, but she falls deeper and deeper into heroine addiction. Her only friend appears to be her piano player (real life junkie Pryor, excellent here in a supporting role). Of course Pryor would reveal his own special kind of genius later with his two landmark concert films, Richard Pryor Live in Concert and Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip. Hospital stays, arrests and even true love aren’t enough to end the torture for Billie. Though she does have a triumphant Carnagie Hall comeback show, it’s still a story of another legend dying young.Continue Reading
Situated somewhere in the middle of two closely related movie trends of the 1970s - the "All-Star Cast Disaster Movie" (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake) and the "Terrorist Disaster Movie" (Two-Minute Warning, Skyjacked, Black Sunday) - Rollercoaster from 1977 nestles nicely in its own netherworld, not realizing that the genre was running out of steam (Beyond The Poseidon Adventure anyone?). Although the "Disaster Movie" would continue to reemerge in Hollywood for decades under new guises (Independence Day, 2012, Dante’s Peak, etc.), its Golden Age was really when a guy like George Kennedy or Charlton Heston was at the rudder and stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age were still available to be carted in on their wheelchairs to make an appearance and collect their checks. Rollercoaster did manage to dig up a couple of legends (Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda) and a sorta cult name actress (Susan Strasberg, maybe more famous as the daughter of Actor’s Studio guru Lee Strasberg), along with a pair of '70s names (George Segal and Timothy Bottoms). Director James Goldstone, whose most important credit may actually be the second pilot of the Star Trek TV series, manages to employ some Alfred Hitchcock cat-and-mouse tricks to generate suspense and give a dying genre a last gasp of breath.
To think that Bottoms started the decade off with two great movies (The Last Picture Show and The Paper Chase), in Rollercoaster he plays “Young Man,” a zombie-like psycho who is blowing up rollercoasters around the country in order to extort a million dollar ransom from the companies that own the parks. After an explosion on a rollercoaster, ride-inspector Harry Calder (Segal) is the first to figure out that this was no accident. He’s a regular guy with a teenage daughter (Helen Hunt, in her first movie) whom he often pawns off on his girlfriend (Strasberg), and a deep anti-authority complex, to the chagrin of his hateful boss (a brief Fonda clearly trying to up his SAG pension numbers). Bottoms makes Segal his point man as he threatens more bombings and the FBI joins him, with the angriest FBI head-man of all time (played by the one time great Widmark, who just spews intensity here) who seems to hate Segal even more than Fonda. The highlight is an intense scene in an amusement park, as Segal is forced to deliver money to Bottoms and instead ends up carrying a bomb onto a coaster. It all leads to Segal having to argue with the dumbbells in charge of the investigation and a showdown with the terrorist who looks to ruin the upcoming 4th of July festivities at one of the many possible amusement parks in America (and he does end up slightly disrupting the big Sparks concert at Six Flags Magic Mountain).Continue Reading
The DVD of the 1953 Hollywood version of Julius Caesar directed by the underrated Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve) has been relegated to old-time Shakespeare buffs and students not wanting to sludge through actually reading the play. And yes, it looks a little stagey and feels a little dated and stiff, but it’s still a politically relevant play and has one of the most fascinating casts ever assembled for a Shakespeare adaption. Headlined by a young buck in only his fourth film, Marlon Brando absolutely dominates the veteran cast around him and proves his genius. His performance alone makes the film more than watchable, and luckily there are a few other treasures to be found in it.
The now familiar plot goes something like this... worried the head dog of Rome, Julius Caesar (Louis Calhern), was getting a little too powerful, his fellow politicians decide to kill him, led by the conniving Cassius (John Gielgud). Even Caesar’s good friend Brutus (James Mason) is convinced to join in the plot for the best of the Republic. The Senators all take turns stabbing Caesar (done mostly just off screen). After his death, Mark Antony (Brando), who was not part of the cabal and admired Caesar, is allowed to give a speech at his funeral only after agreeing to not implicate anyone. Brutus must deal with the nagging guilt, his still conspiring allies, and his wife Portia (Deborah Kerr). When Antony delivers the famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears speech” he convinces the crowd, using pure sarcasm and coded words, who is to blame for the murder. The speech is the centerpiece of the film and then it becomes a literal war between Antony and the conspirators who are all turning on each other.Continue Reading
Lost In America
Three comic masterpieces in a row is enough to put you on the higher rung of American humorists. The Marx Brothers had that run with Horse Feathers, Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera. Mel Brooks had The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (with the less vital The Twelve Chairs mixed in). WC Fields had that amazing trifecta of You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Preston Sturges, Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen are three more legends whose hot streaks went beyond three. Albert Brooks, an underrated comic genius of recent generations, is the forgotten man. Throughout the '70s he shined as a cutting edge stand-up comic and made groundbreaking short films for that first season of Saturday Night Live. He made his writer/director feature film debut in 1979 with Real Life, a wonderfully uncomfortable comedy that predicted the coming of reality TV. He followed it with Modern Romance, often called Brooks’ Annie Hall, a deadeye take on both Hollywood and love. And then finally maybe his most perfect gem, Lost in America, the most biting satire of Ronald Reagan’s "greed is good" 1980s yuppie culture. (A less sophisticated comic mind like Steve Martin poked fun at the culture with L.A. Story, but was actually embracing the superficiality.)
The first step in embracing an Albert Brooks film is deciding whether or not you can stomach him. The guy plays some of the most neurotic and deeply insecure characters in movie history, and as David Howard in Lost in America, he’s as obnoxious as ever. The movie opens with him laying in bed with his wife, Linda (Julie Hagerty, fresh off another comic masterpiece, Airplane!). He can’t sleep; he has second thoughts on the much bigger house they just bought and he’s excited with anticipation for the big promotion he is expecting to get at the advertising agency he has worked at for eight years. He assures her once that promotion comes he will no longer be the uptight husband he can’t help being. Linda is a study in understanding, but the next day she breaks down to a co-worker wondering if she can go on like this. To his shock and disappointment, instead of the promotion, he is transferred to New York. He throws a massive tantrum and is fired. In a sorta melt down, he convinces himself that he has been freed from the rat race and talks Linda into quitting her job too. They make a plan: sell the new house, cash out all their stocks and bonds, leaving them with $180,000 to live on for the rest of their lives (this was considered a lot in 1985), buy a motor home to escape from Los Angeles and travel the country (just like Easy Rider!), and maybe settle in a lighthouse in Connecticut where they can paint and write and no longer have to worry about ambition. Deal! First stop, Las Vegas, for a wedding vowel renewal. A monkey wrench is thrown into the works though. While David sleeps, Linda gambles away their entire fortune in a casino. It’s even more downhill from there as they head East and now must rediscover themselves without the comfort of the nest egg.Continue Reading
Dances with Wolves
It’s easy to be cynical about Dances with Wolves. Some might call it a three hour goody-goody vanity project for director and star Kevin Costne. Some may laugh at his blown-dry '80s mullet. For most, its worst crime was beating Goodfellas for the Oscar for Best Picture back in 1990. It’s no Goodfellas, but don’t blame Costner; blame the stupid Oscar voters and take Dances with Wolves for what it is. For the less cynical it’s hard not to be totally engrossed, even mesmerized, and eventually heartbroken by the film. Dances with Wolves was beautifully shot by cinematographer Dean Semler, who earlier shot the amazing The Road Warrior (1981) and would later shoot the stunning Apocalypto (2006). The film uses its South Dakota/Wyoming landscapes beautifully to elicit the loneliness of the frontier and the self-reliance of Native American culture.
I’m not sure if there ever was a “Western” before that so strongly presented such a powerful Native American point of view. After decades of offensive Indian stereotypes and John Wayne, by the late '60s attitudes were changing and the Western was evolving. Even John Ford tried a sympathetic approach to the plight of the Indians with Cheyenne Autumn (1964). There was Paul Newman’s half-breed gunslinger, Hombre (1967). Richard Harris was a Brit who took over a tribe in A Man Called Horse (1970). Dustin Hoffman brought a pro-Indian satire to the genre as Little Big Man (1970). Sergio Leone had a lot to say with Duck, You Sucker (1971). Ulzana's Raid (1972) went out of its way to showcase the brutality of the white man, and Clint Eastwood had an interesting fresh take on old stereotypes with The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Since that golden age of “revisionist Westerns,” Jim Jarmusch got all post-moderny (or something) with his Dead Man (1995). Now, generally, the Indian is no longer automatically the bad guy or a monster. But what really makes Dances with Wolves notable is, though it stars a white man and the Indians are supporting characters, the film still manages to bridge cultural divides as well, if not better than any of its predecessors.Continue Reading
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