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
The all-time great director Sidney Lumet is often associated with his ear for the New York streets (The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Prince of The City). He's also acclaimed for his skill at balancing his films’ often loud histrionics (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network). So, ironically, he hit a home run late in his career with a legal drama that actually gets its power through silence.
The film is written by a master of gritty verbal sparring, David Mamet. Upon its release in ’82, The Verdict instantly joined the ranks of the all-time great courtroom dramas — an elite company, with flicks like Anatomy of a Murder and Witness for the Prosecution. And the role of alcoholic lawyer Frank Gavin gave Paul Newman his best role in 15 years (at least since Cool Hand Luke in ’67).Continue Reading
Call me crazy, but recently I stumbled across the 1976 King Kong remake, the one that is now known as Jessica Lange’s first movie, and for some reason, I really enjoyed it. (I saw it years ago as a kid, but didn’t remember it too well.)
Don’t get me wrong—the original ’33 flick really is a classic, and if you have kids, it’s a great introduction to both older and adventure films. And everyone agrees, even with its archaic special effects, the film still holds up as a thing of beauty. Well, guess what—so does this version.Continue Reading
Addams Family Values
Since they all seemed to spring from The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy, early sitcoms mostly followed the same basic comedy concept: the battle-of-the-sexes, men-vs-women formula. Breaking that rule is one of the many traits that made The Addams Family TV show and the two big screen movies so different and special. Here instead of bickering and plotting against each other, the married couple have a passionate and deeply sexual love, leaving most comedy hacks at a loss for creating conflict. And in the case of the films directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, the even bigger ace-in-the-hole is the brilliant casting of the couple, Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston as Gomez and Morticia Addams (taking over for John Astin and Carolyn Jones who were pretty fantastic themselves on the small screen). The first Addams Family flick was the directing debut of Sonnenfeld, who had made a name for himself as the cinematographer of the first three Coen Brothers films (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing, which had a then completely fresh look to them). Here he combines his zapped-up camera energy with a Tim Burton-like appreciation for the comically macabre (the first film was written by some of the writers of Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice). That first Addams Family movie was good but the second one, Addams Family Values, proves to be one of the rare sequels that is even better than the original.
Based on Charles Addams' now legendary cartoon for The New Yorker depicting the bizarre and wealthy family that skewered traditional family values, they horrified all the straight people who encountered them, and although not self-aware were totally confident in their own beings. The first film gave us the basic update of the show; Gomez and Morticia are the heads of an eclectic family clan of eccentrics that includes their daughter, gloomy Wednesday (Christina Ricci, born to play the role), their son Pugsley (not as funny as the chubby kid on the show) and the witchy Grandmama (played by Judith Malina in the first one and Carol Kane in the sequel). Also hanging around are their Frankenstein’s monster-looking valet/butler Lurch (the film version is not nearly as memorable as the TV version played by the giant actor Ted Cassidy) and their devoted assistant Thing, a disembodied hand, who really gets to shine in the movies with the help of technology. Both films really revolve around Gomez’s brother, Uncle Fester, played here by Christopher Lloyd much more grotesquely then Jackie Coogan’s TV version. Lloyd, with his gravely voice, comes off like a sheepish version of Murnau’s Nosferatu as opposed to Coogan, who is just a fat guy with a high pitched voice, but who is very funny. The first film revolved around crooks trying to swindle the Addams’ fortune by having a guy pose as Fester (similar to the plot of the second Brady Bunch movie, A Very Brady Sequel), and in the end it turned out the impostor was actually the real Fester.Continue Reading
Che: Part One
Everyone can come up with their "overlooked for an Oscar nomination" mis-justice list. Such a list may start with the fact that Martin Sheen wasn’t nominated for Apocalypse Now. And if you want to dig deeper, my list would point out that Orson Welles’ brilliant performance (and direction) in Touch of Evil was overlooked by awards givers. But out of the last ten years the performance and film that had Oscar pedigree written all over it and got no love was Benicio Del Toro and the film Che: Part One. Frankly it barely even got a theatrical release. Of course Che was director Steven Soderbergh’s epic story of the revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara and, like Tarantino’s Kill Bill double bill, it was so big it was lopped into two different films (and its awards consideration, totally mishandled). They are two very different movies, and Part Two is worth seeing (though much harder terrain if you don’t already know the history of Che’s involvement in trying to bring a revolution to Bolivia). Like history itself, Part One is a more easily digestible piece of pure entertainment, though in the end, the two together help give Che a bigger arch. Like the Cuban revolution itself, the romance is in the buildup, the planning, and the underdog story. The actual governing, not so pretty. But don’t think this is some kind of boring homework assignment, it's wonderful filmmaking anchored by Del Toro’s brilliant performance as the future college dorm-room poster superstar.
The film picks up almost where Walter Salles’ much more popular The Motorcycle Diaries ended. Exiled in Mexico the young Argentinian doctor, Che, is introduced to the budding Cuban intellectual revolutionary Fidel Castro (the also excellent Demian Bichir, who scored a forgotten Oscar nomination for the film A Better Life). Like everyone else Che is mesmerized by the charismatic leader and he agrees to join up. Cut to the jungles of Cuba where a weak Che eventually learns the ropes of a fighting guerilla (wonderfully spoofed in Woody Allen’s Bananas, thirty years earlier). He slowly earns the respect of his comrades and the peasants he meets along the way, to whom he gives free medical care and insists on educating. And though Che becomes a tough talker, he seems to be a poet at heart, a quality Del Toro always brings to his roles -- no matter the part there always seems to be a hipster softy lurking in there. Che also develops a relationship with a young protegee, Aleida March, who actually became his second wife (played by the beautiful Catalina Sandino Moreno, an Oscar nominee for her harrowing work in Maria Full of Grace).Continue Reading
Dawn of The Dead
The original Dawn of the Dead from ’78 is still best viewed at a midnight show in an afterhours crappy mall multiplex, the way most people saw it in the pre-VHS domination era. George Romero’s first and best sequel to his seminal, groundbreaking zombie flick Night of The Living Dead came out ten years later, with a much larger budget and an even grander eye for detail. (Hereafter the film will be referred to on this page in its shortened form, the way most Romeroites refer to it, as just Dawn.) Dawn owes more to 1970s post-apocalyptic films like The Omega Man and No Blade of Grass than the old school setup of victims trapped in a house waiting to be picked off one after the other, which the first film employed. Much of Dawn’s well earned reputation among gore-aficionados comes from the film's opening prelude, which is truly nasty, with many head explosions (Romero exploring an FX path he first ventured into earlier in the decade with his under-appreciated shot-gun-to-the-head epic The Crazies). The beauty of Dawn is though the draw may be the zombies (now in glorious color!), unlike the wave of imitations to follow, this is actually an existential, character-driven drama where the threat of the undead becomes secondary and humans prove to be much more dangerous (a concept finally realized again years later in the too-talky TV series The Walking Dead).
It was Night that gave us the zombie movie rules that have been followed like a bible ever since: the dead, now lumbering mummy-like bores, have come back to life to eat the living. The only way to stop them and send them back to a bag-of-bones state is to destroy their one-track brain. Apparently pretty soon after the first film ended, Dawn picks up. The world has plunged into anarchy. Two SWAT team officers, Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree ) become fast friends while trying to clear a zombie-and-resident-filled Philadelphia apartment building. (One guy is black, the other white--without vocalizing it--it continues some racial themes brought up most credibly in the first film.) Again the majority of the film’s gore content really does happen in that first scene. (The film was released without a rating to avoid the X it was threatened with.) Roger invites his new pal to join up with his buddy Stephen (David Emge, who later popped up in the under-seen horror masterpiece Hellmaster) and his girlfriend Francine (Gaylen Ross), two television station employees who have a plan to escape town in the station’s helicopter--after all, Stephen is known as “flyboy.” As pandemonium takes over the ground, the foursome take to the sky, eventually landing on the top of a suburban mall. Easily breaking in through the roof, they do a little exploring of the huge shopping mall to look for supplies; the place has been untouched so it’s complete with all supplies needed, including gun store and an ice rink!Continue Reading
Von Ryan’s Express
Two of the best action subgenres of the 1950s & '60s were the POW escape films (Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape) and train adventure flicks (Narrow Margin, The Train, Dark of The Sun). So what would happen if you combine the two? You get a really fun, utterly ridiculous, totally memorable movie from ’65: Von Ryan’s Express. Besides being a train adventure, what sets this one apart from other POW flicks is the adversary. While the prisoners of Stalag 17 and The Great Escape were housed in German camps and Kwai had Japanese overlords, the captives of Von Ryan’s Express are stuck in an Italian camp. And whether based on any kind of truth or not, Italian guards just don’t feel as cruel or deadly as their other Axis Powers partners. Based on a novel by David Westheimer (who also penned the novelization of Days of Wine and Roses), with the solid journeyman director Mark Robson (Earthquake, Valley of the Dolls) at the helm, this was made in the heyday of Frank Sinatra vanity projects and as usual he often feels miscast as an actual human being. On paper his role seems better suited for a more obviously physical presence, like a Lee Marvin. After all, Sinatra looks like he would be more comfortable with a martini in his hand than a machine gun, but his skinny frame in a wrinkled military outfit only lends to the absurdity and the fun.
A depressed group of mainly British prisoners in an Italian camp get a load of energy into their squalid existence when American Colonel Ryan (Sinatra) shows up, having been shot down in Italy. The highest ranking officer before him showing up was the very English Major Fincham (the always watchable Trevor Howard, in the more hammy late phase of his impressive career), who doesn’t like being pushed around by the runty Yank. When Ryan sees the poor condition of the health of the men, he rats out the tunnels they’ve been digging, in order to get the medicine the wacky Italians have been holding from them. But Ryan slowly earns the Brit’s respect by getting them new clothes and taking his punishment in the “sweat box.” Later, when it appears the war is coming to an end, the Italian guards flee giving the POWs free reign. They take off through Italy but are eventually caught again and put on a train headed for Rome, which is now overseen by nasty Germans who kill all the sick men. This is where the more original action setpieces start, as Sinatra and the boys take over the train and then have to ride it out of Italy while posing as Germans. In maybe the most bizarre scene, a British doctor (Edward Mulhare) who speaks some German poses as a Nazi high command to get the clearance for the train trip to continue and the two fifty-somethings, Howard and Sinatra, dress up like Nazi soldiers to accompany him. They must be the two oldest looking privates in the German army and actually resemble the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow when they dress up as flying monkey soldiers in The Wizard of Oz. What a sight for sore eyes!Continue Reading
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
Obviously Martin Scorsese is one of the most accomplished filmmakers of his generation, now into his sixth decade with a fairly diverse body of work. He has his great masterpiece, Goodfellas, and his next tier of classics: Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and maybe even The King of Comedy. All five of those are with his methody, then alter-ego, Robert De Niro; though not as extraordinary but still of note is his later Leonardo DiCaprio period. Interestingly, between all these films Scorsese has also unleashed many notable documentaries. After being one of many editors on Woodstock, he started with shorts, including a great bio/interview of a druggy hustler (who played the gun dealer in Taxi Driver) called American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince. But since his feature-length docs have mostly been made for television (with subjects ranging from film history to the New York Review of Books to Elia Kazan), his best have been about music. From his first feature doc, the concert film The Last Waltz, through the mini-series The Blues to his more recent outstanding George Harrison: Living in the Material World, the guy proves he loves and understands the world of musicians. It’s his respect for the little details and the big picture that make No Direction Home: Bob Dylan his true documentary masterpiece, and maybe secretly as great as anything he has directed (or at least right under Goodfellas).
Made for PBS’ American Masters series (the source of so many brilliant documentaries of the last thirty years), the film clocks in at over 200 minutes and was shown in two parts. Instead of his famous, show-offy visual flair, more than anything else he has ever done, No Direction Home shows off his storytelling skills. All of the footage was shot before he came on board, so in some ways his role as director was really that of lead editor (though the actual editor job is credited to David Tedeschi, who later was promoted to co-director with Scorsese on his NY Review of Books doc, The 50 Year Argument). Besides the incredible plethora of material (film footage and music, much not even of Dylan), the great choice Scorsese made is that instead of an entire overview of Bob Dylan’s life, he kept it small. After a quick run-through of Dylan’s childhood in Minnesota, the film ONLY really details his New York years from 1961 when he first hit Greenwich Village, until his famous motorcycle accident in ’66 (which let to a brief retirement and then a career reboot). But what an amazing five years that was. The film is also about the other music that was happening at the time that influenced Dylan (and which he would go on to influence) and really works as a history of folk music as well.Continue Reading