What can I say? I’m a sucker for court room, investigative drama; no matter how pedestrian. The ace-up-the-sleeve for True Believer is the dynamic performance by James Woods. Working at the peak of his acting powers, Woods plays a once celebrated, radical lawyer, now burned out and living on defending drug dealers. Woods, a wiry and intense actor, had spent years specializing in unhinged types, before he really came to the public's attention in the late '70s with his work (opposite Meryl Streep) in the TV miniseries Holocaust, and his searing performance as a petty criminal in The Onion Field. He spent most of the '80s in potentially important films that didn’t break him out (Once Upon a Time in America, Against All Odds), fascinating misses (Videodrome, The Boost), with some little seen gems mixed in (Fast-Walking, Split Image). In ’86 he finally broke through, winning every major TV award for the small-screen movie Promise and getting his first Oscar nomination for his powerhouse work in Oliver Stone’s Salvador. True Believer fell in the post-award buzz period, when he was scoring those big-star leading-man roles. Here he fully delivers on the promise.
Though wrapped up in a mystery, True Believer actually works better as one of those what-ever-happened-to-our-heroes-from-the-'60s? movies (The Big Chill, Running on Empty, etc.). The true believer in question here is Edward Dodd (Woods), a sorta William Kunstler like lawyer who once fought for civil liberties, civil rights and other groovy ideals, but now, even though he still has his long hair and openly smokes pot, prefers to defend whoever has the bread to pay him (usually real criminals). An idolizing, young law school graduate, Roger Baron (Robert Downey Jr, a couple years before his performance in Chaplin made him a major actor) volunteers to be his clerk, hoping to experience some of that '60s magic. He pushes Dodd to become better, until the older lawyer slowly comes to realize he has been cheating himself and his own ideals. Oh, and also there's some kind of loser case that Baron convinces him to take; something about a Korean-American kid wrongly convicted of murder that leads to the uncovering of all kinds of legal system corruption, as well as some suspense and some lawyerly heroics.Continue Reading
After the mania of Evel Knievel-style daredevils and stuntmen entered the pop culture imagination and the American lexicon, stuntmen became the subject matter of a string of films in the late '70s. This includes the Burt Reynolds opus Hooper (which was the directing follow up to Smokey & The Bandit by big time stunt coordinator Hal Needham) and finally the genre’s masterpiece, The Stunt Man in 1980, which earned three Oscar nominations, including one for the director Richard Rush. However most of the films from the stunt craze usually fell somewhere between forgettable, like Animal, with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Raquel Welch (how have I never seen this?) and the bizarre, like Stunt Rock, starring the prog band Sorcery! Stunts in ’77 fell somewhere between the two. But now almost forty years later, Stunts -- while ignored in its day -- is a fascinating look at the filmmaking process, the stuntman brotherhood and an entertaining scorecard for genre box checking.
Many years later Quentin Tarantino would famously resurrect Robert Forster’s sagging career with Jackie Brown, but in this era, he would often pop up in some glorious B movies like Alligator and Vigilante. Stunts is another high point during his low years, and though the material may be lacking, you can see his easy charisma on display here. If you grew up in the '70s and '80s the rest of the cast is a virtual all-star team of B actors who had some hits, but are maybe more recognizable from episodes of Police Story or Fantasy Island. The cast includes Ray Sharkey (later fantastic in The Idolmaker), Fiona Lewis (The Fearless Vampire Killers), Joanna Cassidy (Blade Runner), Bruce Glover (best known for playing one of the pair of oddball killers in Diamonds Are Forever), Darrell Fetty (Big Wednesday), Candice Rialson (the talking vagina epic, Chatterbox!) and finally the great character actor Richard Lynch. (Lynch has a massive midnight movie resume; he’s always watchable in oddball films like The Ninth Configuration, but is best known for, I guess, playing the bad guy in Invasion USA).Continue Reading
Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to Off the Wall
If only every great artist could have a film made about them like Spike Lee’s Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to Off the Wall. Instead of trying to tell the entire Jackson story in one long novelistic film, Lee wisely concentrates on a few chapters, which allows him to really dig deep. Like the Martin Scorsese doc Bob Dylan: No Direction Home that spent over three hours telling the story of the folk icon’s period only up until the late '60s, Lee’s film focuses on the relatively brief period from the late '60s to ’79. He takes on Jackson’s newfound stardom as part of The Jackson Five, culminating in the making and release of his pop/disco masterpiece album Off The Wall. Lee throws everything he can at the screen, creating a dynamic hodgepodge of images and commentary. In his growth from child to young man, Jackson's world was full of musical influences and there is a plethora of archival footage from Fred Astaire to fellow Motown artists to Studio 54 to illuminate Lee's points. The amount of material documenting Jackson’s personal and creative growth is staggering. There are all those Jackson 5 music and television appearances, collaborations with Motown, studio work and even a Saturday morning cartoon show. Lee incorporates a "then and now" bookend by weaving in footage from the later Jacksons Victory Tour, giving us a chance to see Michael interpret his songs as both a boy and a man.
All the on-screen witnesses speak of the young Michael’s ambition, watching closely and questioning the adults he was surrounded by. That ambition led to the family leaving Motown while Michael was in his teens; the group became the more disco-infused The Jacksons and paved the way for Michael to slowly take on a stronger role in shaping the music his own way. He ventured away from his brothers first by recording the theme song for the killer rat movie Ben (and getting an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song for it) and by appearing as the Scarecrow in Sidney Lumet’s film adaptation of the Broadway smash The Wiz. Eventually everything he gleamed along the way led to the Off The Wall album.Continue Reading
A "Ken Burns joint" may be brushed off by some as academic homework, but a deeper inspection reveals not just a great historian, but an important filmmaker (albeit usually for the small screen). The guy’s body of work is astounding, almost always with documentaries airing on PBS (and usually as part of their brilliant American Experience series). In the '80s he was responsible for a half dozen memorable films including The Brooklyn Bridge, The Statue of Liberty and Thomas Heart Benton. But it was in the ’90 that he really exploded with his nine-part Civil War documentary, a subject that even when not appealing managed to be totally compelling with just photographs and voiceover narration. All of his very long-form pieces since have been about more recent subjects, allowing him to move beyond archival still photos and include actual moving film. His work has become the benchmark and the ultimate chronicle of the American twentieth century, with a number of masterpieces including Jazz, Unforgettable Blackness: The Rise of Jack Johnson, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, Prohibition, The Dust Bowl and what may be his best, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. (And also his one theatrical documentary, the brilliant The Central Park Five). He’s apparently working on a ten episode history of the Vietnam War. I can’t wait.
With Baseball in ’94 Burns made the most all-encompassing chronicle of any sport ever committed to film. Two of the ten episodes had a major emphasis on the first black player to he hired by the then all-white major leagues; now with his 240 minute Jackie Robinson he gives the ball payer his own series. Made with credited co-directors Sarah Burns and David McMahon, Jackie Robinson is as interesting as anything he has ever made before.Continue Reading
You Only Live Twice
It’s hard to pick a favorite of those first five James Bond films starring Sean Connery. Goldfinger and Thunderball have their fans. Dr. No is also a blast and the locations and Robert Shaw as the bad guy in From Russia With Love make it pretty special, but I would go with You Only Live Twice. It‘s the last of the 1960s Connery Bonds before he came back for the series' official jumping-of-the-shark four years later in the disappointing Diamonds Are Forever (in between being replaced by George Lazenby for one film, ironically, maybe the best Bond flick, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). All of the Bond flicks of the period work as fascinating international travelogues (wow look at Istanbul in ’63!), butYou Only Live Twice’s Asian setting (mostly Japan), is particularly compelling. Besides Japan’s sexism matching and even topping Bond’s usual misogyny -- I point this out as an anthropologist, not a critic, and as a fan of Japanese cinema, especially Seijun Suzuki’s Yakuza flicks -- it’s fun seeing Connery walk (or run) through similarly blocky industrial locations, that look so familiar from other films. Though Twice’s fantastical centerpiece is its most dated aspect (a stolen rocketship from outer space), what works best is the pure procedural detective work Bond is forced to do and some of the best action set pieces of the franchise. Though Connery donning a bad haircut and slight eye makeup to go undercover as a Japanese man is less shocking then, say Marlon Brando actually playing Japanese in Teahouse of the August Moon and not as completely offensive as Mickey Rooney’s hateful caricature in Breakfast at Tiffany's, it still is a little off-putting, saved only because his eye makeup is less Japanese and more Vulcan.
In one of the more comprehensible Bond plots, the secret agent is forced to go poke around Tokyo, after an American and then a Soviet spaceship are hijacked. Only the British don’t get caught up in the Cold War politics, believing neither super power is responsible since they have reason to believe the ships touched down off the sea of Japan. Bond infiltrates corporate Japan aided by the very beautiful Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) -- who more than once saves him in her bitchin’ convertible Toyota -- and a Japanese Secret Service man, Tiger Tanaka (Tetsurō Tamba), one of the rare second fiddles who seems to be an equal with Bond in both brains and chauvinism. With a script by the great Roald Dahl (most famous for his children’s books including Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, although he also had a background in Britain’s intelligence offices), this was apparently the first Bond script that veered strongly from Ian Fleming’s original source material, which may be why it plays so well. Eventually Bond's snooping leads him to a secret volcano base where the nasty head of SPECTRE, Ernst Blofeld, is stealing the rockets in an effort to start a world war. Along the way there are some classic moments, including a brutal fight between Bond and a sumo wrestler, a dog fight in Bond’s gyrocopter “Little Nellie” and a great attack on the volcano base by ninjas. The lair is as spectacular a set as ever was constructed at that point, complete with Blofeld’s escape monorail and a man-eating piranha pond. Along the way Aki is killed but Bond quickly replaces her with the equally cute Kissy Suzuki (in the book she gives birth to Bond's child); she seems uptight at first but loosens under Bond’s charm, even wearing a bikini while volcano climbing. Bond also has a great run-in with an evil businessman’s killer secretary, Helga Brandt (Karin Dor), who though assigned to kill Bond, first turns him into her boy-toy before leaving him to die in a plummeting airplane.Continue Reading
Sense and Sensibility
After making a name for himself on the international art-house circuit with the Taiwanese dramedies The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, Ang Lee took on the Masterpiece Theater crowd with his first English language film, Sense and Sensibility. Actress Emma Thompson toiled on the script for five years and went on to win an Oscar for her troubles. The film is easily the best adaptation of any of Jane Austen’s musty novels (not my usual fare), but the combination of Thompson and Lee’s ability to make the usually stale material so relatable to modern audiences and the fantastic casting from top to bottom rockets Sense & Sensibility to the heights of the genre. The film is also aided by all-stars behind-the-scenes, including an often moving score by Patrick Doyle (Gosford Park, Rise of The Planet of the Apes, etc.), handsome cinematography by Michael Coulter (who has the market cornered on shooting British rom-coms, including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually) and simple but elegant art direction by Luciana Arrighi (whose work goes all the way back to Sunday Bloody Sunday in ’71 but who made his reputation designing the best of the Merchant/Ivory canon: Howard’s End and Remains of the Day). And of course Lee himself, who would further his diverse filmography over the years since with an incredible body of work including The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and The Life of Pi.
Apparently Thompson’s script differs from Austen’s 1811 novel, and it's for the best. The center of the story is the difference between two adult English Dashwood sisters, the reserved Elinor (Thompson) and the dreamy Marianne (Kate Winslet) who are thrust into poverty when their father dies, leaving his estate to his only son (and the son's pushy, conniving wife). Elinor and Marianne, along with their mother and younger adolescent sister Margaret, are forced to live off of the goodwill of friends and relatives, even taking up residences in a countryside cottage without servants! Now penniless, the two sisters are no longer considered good catches for marriage and have to watch as most of their peers become engaged while they are ridiculed for their new lower status. Along the way they meet their sister-in-law’s brother Edward (Hugh Grant at his stumbling, stuttering best); he befriends the family and he and Elinor obviously make a potential romantic connection but are both too restrained and reserved to act on it. This is where much of the film’s comedy comes from: those English corked-up, controlled manners that leave people in a constant state of isolation. On the other hand, the beautiful and lively Marianne does find two suitors. The charismatic, dashing and handsome dream-beau John Willoughby (a solid, but very '90s looking Greg Wise) carries her home when a walk in the rain becomes too difficult; the two truly fall in love, but he is forced to scorn her because of her lack of a dowry, which leads to a Splendor in the Grass-like, deeply heartbroken depression for her. Also a rich neighbor befriends the family and falls for Marianne’s beauty: the much older, grave Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman in maybe his finest performance). He’s a good and sensitive bachelor, but utterly charmless. Through many misunderstandings our heroines' lives sink into more despair until an incredibly moving happy ending (albeit a rushed and perhaps a little too tidy one).Continue Reading
It’s rare when you can so clearly see it, but when that monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey dropped in on Hollywood in 1968, the police film also made a clear evolutionary jump with Bullitt. The year before is often cited as the year "New Hollywood" fully kicked off, with the releases of The Graduate and Bonnie & Clyde. That same year the police drama would get the mixed-race/cop-buddy film In The Heat of The Night, as well as the "ultra-violent criminal as hero" in Point Blank. The big screen cops of that era, though, were still closer in spirit to TV's Jack Webb busting hippies on Dragnet 1967 than they were to the characters in the French New Wave inspired Bonnie & Clyde. With the old studio system dying a slow death, the standards were relaxing a bit; therefore actors like Richard Widmark in Madigan, Clint Eastwood in Coogan’s Bluff, David Janssen in Warning Shot, and Aldo Ray in Riot on The Sunset Strip may have seemed a little edgier than usual (Frank Sinatra in The Detective even added an [in its day] shocking homosexual plot line), but those cop flicks still felt closer in style to the ones of the '50s with Glenn Ford or Kirk Douglas. Like an atom bomb Bullitt changed everything, and the policeman movie was never the same.
Actor Steve McQueen was already a big star with The Great Escape and The Cincinnati Kid, and a year earlier he got his only Oscar nomination for The Sand Pebbles. But ’68 was the year he became a mega-star thanks to the two giant hits: Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair. With Bullitt, McQueen’s own production company bought the rights to Robert L. Fish’s novel Mute Witness, and then brought in the little known director Peter Yates, having seen his minor heist film Robbery. Here McQueen plays the very cool San Francisco police Lieutenant, Frank Bullitt (with a name like that, how could he not be cool?). He and his guys are given the assignment of babysitting a minor criminal who is going to be the star witness against the mob in a Senate hearing (staged in San Francisco, for some unclear reason) that is being run by an ambitious politician (Robert Vaughn). While Bullitt is out wooing his pretty British girlfriend (Jacqueline Bisset) the safe-house is hit, and a cop and the star witness are fatally wounded. After the witness dies in the hospital, Bullet and his sidekick, Delgetti (Don Gordon), sneak the body out to the morgue so the hit-men will think he’s still alive, turning the film into a series of chases: on foot through the hospital, outside an airport, and most famously in cars through the hilly streets of San Francisco, which is what the film is still mostly remembered for. Along with The French Connection, any great car chase list will forever include Bullitt’s ten minute game of cat and mouse, which brought an authenticity to the car chase using real locations and cameras in the cars. The car chase alone helped win editor Frank P. Miller an Oscar and is still studied today by many a fledgling film maker.Continue Reading
The Fallen Idol
Though Carol Reed strangely won an Oscar for his direction of the forgettable Oliver (in the '60s they gave lots of awards to those bloated musicals), he is actually best remembered for his bona fide masterpiece, The Third Man, which he made almost twenty years earlier. Wrongly many uninformed pseudo film historians often try to give Orson Welles credit for the film, even though he only popped on to the set for a few days to film his towering supporting performance. Yes, the film does have a "Wellesian" vibe stylistically, but the real truth is in the two movies Reed made just before it. They prove that he was already moving in a sorta Noir-lite direction, first with the acclaimed Odd Man Out and then his other great film, The Fallen Idol. Though one might describe the latter as a “little gem” it carries much more depth and style than most of the British-made thrillers of the day and in the end it can just about stand as an equal to the more beloved The Third Man. Both films are also part of Reed’s trilogy of films written by the great English novelist Graham Greene. (The trio also includes the lesser known Our Man in Havana). And though Reed would have an up-and-down career over the years--with solid films like Trapeze, many misses and the over-rated Oliver--it was the mega-bomb Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlon Brando that really sank him reputation-wise (a film I actually adore, but I’m in the minority). But that one-two punch of The Fallen Idol and The Third Man will always solidify him as one of cinema’s greats.
For The Fallen Idol, Greene adapted the script from his own short story “The Basement Room” and it’s a really nifty one. As the son of the French Ambassador living in London, little eight-year-old Philippe (the very good kid actor Bobby Henrey, in the first of only two feature film credits) has the run of the big embassy as his parents are usually away. He is more or less raised by the butler and maid, Mr. and Mrs. Baines (Ralph Richardson and Sonia Dresdel). The rambunctious French kid is always getting scolded by the uptight and abusive Mrs. Baines but he utterly adores Mr. Baines and his ridiculous stories of past adventures in the wilds of Africa. One day Philippe follows Mr. Baines out of the house and stumbles on him in the midst of an emotional scene with another Embassy employee, the pretty French secretary Julie (Michèle Morgan). Since the whole film is through the boy’s eyes, he doesn’t fully understand the two are in the midst of a torrid affair, complete with the drama of one of them being married. Hoping to help his friend, Philippe becomes the center of secrets between the adults, eventually leading to a stormy fight between the married couple and an accident that leaves Mrs. Baines dead, with Philippe confusedly thinking Mr. Baines did it. Unfortunately, as the police investigate the accident all the secrets and lies between Philippe and Baines confuse the kid more, and as he tries to cover for Baines he only helps to make the police think Baines murdered his wife.Continue Reading
Straight Outta Compton
The music biography has been a popular source of material for movies going back to the creation of the talkies. Even forgetting all the classical composers, the music of the last one hundred years--from jazz to rock and everything in between--seems to continually stir the imagination of filmmakers. And why not? The music bio is a tried and true genre that usually follows the same rags to riches formula and all the excesses that comes with it. From the Glenn Miller and Gene Krupa Stories through Lady Sings The Blues, The Buddy Holly Story, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Sid and Nancy, La Bamba, Great Balls of Fire, The Doors, Selena, What’s Love Got to Do with It?, Control, and of course Ray and Walk The Line, all these films offer different levels of entertainment value. And you can be sure many more are on their way as the greats of the 1960s and '70s continue to reach super-icon status and death.
The last major popular music genre to explode on to the scene has been rap or hip-hop. Though less than forty years old, it has already gotten its share of bios, mixing the “sorta fictional” with the more traditional “lets put on a show” type of music film (Krush Groove, 8 Mile, Get Rich or Die Tryin', Notorious and the lost & forgotten Run-D.M.C. flick Tougher Than Leather). But with Straight Outta Compton, the still young rap-bio has finally gotten its first nearly-great movie. It’s the mostly true story of a fairly diverse group of teens from the tough streets of Compton who came together to form N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit Attitudes). They had a quick and controversial rise and an even quicker implosion, but their impact is still felt today. They weren’t The Beatles of rap. They were more like The Sex Pistols, a band who came on later in the game and only briefly, but whose energy and rage helped make everything before them sound overly safe and instantly dated.Continue Reading
One of the lost near-great films of the '80s by a major director and writer remains mostly buried, but is due for a major reconsideration. Daniel, directed by Sidney Lumet with a script by E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime) based on his own novel, The Book of Daniel, got no love in its day and has received only a compulsory bare bones DVD release since. An easy description would be what happened to the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the real life Jewish couple who were railroaded by the US government and executed for being Soviet spies: a case that reeked of paranoia and anti-Semitism. Doctorow has created a story from pure imagination with the fictional Paul and Rochelle Isaacson sitting in for the Rosenbergs, who had two sons in real life. Doctorow's couple instead have a girl and a boy, Susan and Daniel, played by the fascinating Amanda Plummer and Timothy Hutton (a few years from his Oscar-winning, star-making performance in Ordinary People.) But instead of just being a character study, it’s also a history lesson in post WWII American radicalism, as Daniel, now a young man tries to understand what happened to his parents. As the 1980s were not a great decade for liberalism on film or in real life, spiritually and timeline-wise Daniel sits perfectly between Warren Beatty’s masterpiece, Reds, and Lumet’s own Running On Empty.
The Isaacsons were the classic NY liberal family, children of immigrants, with generations all living under one roof. Paul (Mandy Patinkin), a proud WWII vet and Rochelle (Lindsay Crouse) are naïve in their trust of the “American way,” taking part in causes, meetings and marches that usually involve their children, including free Paul Robeson concerts. (His deep voice fills most of the film's soundtrack). The film knocks back and forth from the '40s to the '50s as the couple grows more radical and eventually are arrested (for something having to do with atomic secrets, but clearly more to do with their outspokenness), and then to the late '60s as the orphaned but now adult Daniel and Susan adjust to life. Susan has become a hippie rebel open to any cause and eager to use her family’s street cred to advance it; a few years later, all that passion leads to a nervous breakdown and being institutionalized. Daniel, in the mean time, has grown into a coolly bearded and intensely angry young man with a wife (a young and adorable Ellen Barkin) and eventually his own kids whom he seems to ignore. Susan’s mental health issues lead him to finally begin exploring the mysteries of why his parents were punished so extremely.Continue Reading