I Am Legend
Is it possible to love a movie and recommend it but still advise to turn it off just after the half-way mark? The history of films with great Act Ones and maybe even Act Twos that then fall apart by Act Three constitutes a long list (Mulholland Dr., From Dusk Till Dawn, Full Metal Jacket, etc.). I Am Legend may be the most extreme case. It has a pretty spectacular first half that’s suspenseful, exciting, but by that last act things go terribly astray. Based on the classic novelette by the great writer Richard Matheson, it had been filmed twice earlier— first in the ‘60s as a dull low-budget Vincent Price flick called The Last Man on Earth and then the culty Charlton Heston early ‘70s vehicle re-titled The Omega Man. I don’t remember ever making it all the way through the Price version, but the beloved Heston flick had the same problem as the newest take; though the whole of the ‘70s film is so goofy that the plot twist in the second half is less abrupt and problematic than in the newer more “realistic” version, they both have great set-ups that couldn’t carry through to the end.
The new version opens with a TV broadcasting a news show; Doctor Krippin (an uncredited Emma Thompson) declares they have engineered a virus that will cure cancer. Cut: it’s three years later and an abandoned Manhattan looks straight out of the History Channel’s Life After People; nature has taken it back with plant growth covering Times Square and wild animals now living freely on the island (using both CGI and actual redressed New York locations). Robert Neville (Will Smith) seems to be the last man alive; he speeds around Manhattan with his dog Sam (or Samantha), hunting elk, losing out on his latest prey to a pack of lions. Neville was a military scientist and had worked with the team that invented the miracle drug that eventually wiped out civilization. Though he is immune, he looks for a cure by testing lab rats in the basement lab of his Washington Square brownstone, when he’s not hitting golf balls off a aircraft carrier and broadcasting his daily radio plea for any survivors to come find him.
Seven Days in May
With the Cold War in full swing, the saga of President Kennedy peaking, another potential war in Asia, and nuclear proliferation moving at a rapid pace, the early ‘60s inspired a slew of solid political flicks. From nuclear madness came Fail-Safe, Dr. Strangelove, and On the Beach. Political soap operas inspired Advise & Consent and The Best Man and from those, the deep paranoia of the right, and the “military industrial complex” came director John Frankenheimer’s twisted, sorta sci-fi nightmare, The Manchurian Candidate. For Frankenheimer’s follow-up he would combine all the genres (nukes, politics and right wing paranoia) for the slick White House thriller Seven Days in May which features Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas appearing together for the second time, after Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (not including Lancaster’s cameo in The List of Adrian Messenger). Just as he did brilliantly in Sweet Smell of Success this time Lancaster took the supporting bad guy role. It’s a great showdown between two of Hollywood’s most sculpted physiques of their era.
Based on a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey, Douglas plays Colonel Martin "Jiggs" Casey, a Pentagon Joint Chiefs of Staff aide to the powerful James Mattoon Scott (Lancaster). Jiggs is a moderate, more devoted to upholding the Constitution than playing politics, but the guys above him are stone-cold hawks and don’t like it when liberal President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) signs a nuclear disarmament agreement with the Soviets. Reading cables, hearing secondhand conversations, and finding an incriminating crumpled note leads Jiggs to deduce that Scott is planning a military coup against The White House. He takes his suspicion directly to the president and then begins a cat and mouse game of cloak n’ dagger, teaming with the most trusted members of the president's inner circle, including his top aide, Paul Girard (Martin Balsam), a crusty drunken Southern congressman played wonderfully by Edmond O’Brien (he won an Oscar ten years earlier for his performance in The Barefoot Contessa), and finally Jiggs cozies up to a boozy Washington socialite, Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner), who knows all the town’s players and harbors secrets.
Playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan has become one of the top chroniclers of odd-couple conflicts just below the surface of history's reach during the last couple decades. The Last King of Scotland was about the relationship between Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and his young Scottish doctor. Frost/Nixon chronicled the details of the famous filmed conversations between the broadcaster and the disgraced ex-president. Morgan's television movie, The Deal, directed by Stephen Frears, contrasted the difference between two British politicians, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. As a follow-up, Morgan, Frears, and actor Michael Sheen, who perfectly captures Blair in looks and spirit, re-teamed with The Queen. This time Blair is a supporting character on screen, though still a vital half of another mismatched odd couple with Queen Elizabeth II, played brilliantly by Helen Mirren. The Queen details how Blair just might have saved the royal family from total irrelevancy after their reluctance to acknowledge Princess Diana after her death.
After the humiliating divorce between Prince Charles and Princess Diana, England’s monarchy might need to ask itself some hard questions, but Queen Elizabeth won't have it. When the touchy-feely Tony Blair, England’s answer to Bill Clinton, was elected Prime Minister in 1997 with promises to modernize the country, it sent shivers up the spines of the royal family. A few months after getting elected and an awkward first meeting with the Queen, they are both at the center of a storm when Diana and her playboy boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, are tragically killed in a Paris car accident. The royal family have no idea how to react. The Queen resorts to her WWII “stiff upper lip” posture: say nothing, show no emotion, and just stay out of the public eye. Tradition! Diana was no longer part of the royal family, so it was not her concern. But Blair understood the modern sensibility of public mourning and after dubbing her “the People’s Princess” his numbers skyrocket while the Queen’s coldness sinks her.
In The Heat Of The Night
The racial politics of In The Heat Of The Night may not be as shocking or edgy today as they were back in the bad old days of 1967. Matter of fact, it may even be a little corny and perhaps the drama can feel obvious, but as a piece of detective pulp it’s solid, and as a showcase for the great Rod Steiger at his scenery-chewing best it’s more than watchable. This was a period full of Southern dramas with some then socially hot elements - Hurry Sundown, ...tick…tick… tick…, The Liberation Of L.B. Jones, The Klansman, even The Chase. While those films are all utterly dated (they would seem a little more brave if they had been produced ten year earlier), In The Heat Of The Night holds up fairly well, because it’s a mystery film first, with a lot of style, and an all-star team behind the camera. It’s also the best of Sidney Poitier’s groundbreaking run of films in the '60s that made him the first black box office superstar.
In Sparta, Mississippi patrolman Sam Wood (the great character actor Warren Oates) makes his nightly rounds, after peeping at a topless woman he makes a startling discovery – the murdered body of wealthy Industrialist, Philip Colbert. Newly installed police chief Bill Gillespie (Steiger) sends him to check out the pool hall and bus station for any drifters, and wouldn’t you know it, Wood finds a well-dressed black man with a wallet full of bills waiting for a bus. The cops think they have an open and shut case, until they find out the black man, with a clear alibi, is actually Virgil Tibbs (Poitier), a Philadelphia homicide detective just p...
Plan 9 From Outer Space
In the world of bad movies, most are boring and just unwatchable - lazy filmmakers just trying to slap something together to make a buck or ambitious filmmakers overreaching and missing, big time. Every once in a while a movie comes along that splits the difference and is so bad it becomes a wonderful experience. Director Edward D. Wood Jr.’s now legendary would be sci-fi flick Plan 9 From Outer Space has become the Citizen Kane of bad, so amazingly inept, yet so innocently earnest and good-natured that it’s not hard to kind of love it. Literally every scene in its 79 minutes is filled with amazingly laugh-out loud, quotable dialogue, horrible acting, ridiculous special effects and utterly inane directing. Ben Hur might have won the Best Picture Oscar in 1959, but Plan 9 From Outer Space is way more memorable and special.
Originally titled Grave Robbers from Outer Space, a plot recap goes something like this, bear with me now...The film opens with a narrator ("The Amazing Criswell") telling us, among much gobbledygook, that what we are about to see is true. Then in a cemetery two gravediggers are killed by the zombie corpse of a woman they just buried. She is played by the thin-wasted, TV personality Vampira; her still living husband, known as the “Old Man,” is played by the half-dead looking, one time Dracula sex-symbol, Bela Lugosi (unfortunately he died after shooting just a few minutes of random footage, strangely he was wearing his Dracula costume for some of it). Then a few moments after being introduced, Legosi’s "Old Man" character is hit by a car and killed (we don’t see this, the narrator tells us). Later in the cemetery Vampira and her husband, ...
Woody Allen’s most controversial film was hated by fans upon its release for its narcissism and disregard towards his loyalists, but time has made Stardust Memories a much more entertaining film than it was considered in 1980. It blatantly references Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, in both plot (a respected filmmaker trying to clear his mind while dealing with fans and women) and its look (shot in beautiful black and white photography which, like Feliini, includes grotesque close-ups of all manner of odd looking people). Woody actually comes off as one of the beautiful people compared to the faces on the extras. Though Stardust Memories is funny, it’s also deeply depressing. Woody plays Sandy Bates, maybe his most confident character, and though always surrounded by admirers, he may also be his loneliest.
Like Allen himself, Sandy is a beloved maker of comedies who longs to get more philosophical and serious in his work. While attending a film retrospective weekend of his work, he is bombarded by sycophant fans; every couple of minutes someone seems to be asking for his autograph or his attention for their cause or script idea or just heaping praise on him. Time jumps back and forth from the beachfront festival to his New York apartment, while past and present relationships are examined. He’s haunted by memories of his ex, Dorrie (the icy Charlotte Rampling), an insecure and possibly insane actress, and his current French girlfriend, Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault from Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s), who maybe he loves, but isn’t in love with. Meanwhile he strikes-up a friendship with an Annie Hall esque sincere violinist (Jessica Harper of Suspiria, who also appe...
All The President’s Men
Watching the recent excellent documentary, Page One: Inside The New York Times, which questioned the potential end of print media and mature fact-based journalism, made me hanker to rewatch the greatest film about how journalists can seek the truth, and the standards and hoops they need to jump through in order to have their stories reported. Based on the true-story, autobiographical, political thriller by journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, All The President’s Men details the young reporters' involvement in the Watergate scandal that worked its way through the cover-ups run by President Nixon’s staff, eventually reaching him and ending his presidency prematurely. All The President’s Men is a riveting account of the Watergate story from war zone reporters covering it, but today it’s also a reminder of the hard work and fact checking that goes into the coverage by these old dinosaurs, in this case the Washington Post, and the good that old media can sometimes bring to our democracy.
Aggressive young reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) is put on the story of a small time, but suspicious burglary of the Democratic party headquarters at the Watergate Building in Washington DC. What makes the case more intriguing to Woodward and his superiors at the Washington Post is that the burglars all have pre-arranged high powered lawyers. He then discovers that the burglars have ties to the CIA and White House, meaning this wasn’t any old burglary; it was an attempt to bug the Democrats. Always poking his head in at the news room is the sloppier, but equally driven reporter, Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman). He eventually gets himself teamed up with Woodward and as the t...
King of the Gypsies
Due to a lack of high quality competition, King of the Gypsies is still the quintessential American fiction film about modern day gypsies, that is if you're old enough to think of 1978 as “modern day” (while the best non-fiction flick has to be Robert Duvall’s little seen documentary Angelo My Love). Based on a novel by Peter Maas (Serpico), King of the Gypsies reeks of importance and epic pretensions; but besides the cultural curiosity what actually makes the movie worthwhile and totally entertaining is the ham fisted act-off going on up on the screen. From Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire to Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River there’s a long tradition of method acting emoters chewing scenery and King of the Gypsies has its share of hungry thespians eager to chew. Heading the cast in his film debut the young pretty-boy Eric Roberts, pouting and brooding (but even under a teary-eyed tortured sulk the guy has chops and acts up a storm), doing what he can to keep up with his co-stars Susan Sarandon and Judd Hirsch who are totally over the top, with legendary ultra-hams Sterling Hayden and Shelly Winters nipping at their heels. Any film where Michael V. Gazzo (Frank Pentangeli in the Godfather: Part II) is an example of restraint in his one early scene, you know this is going to be some histrionic fun.
A New York and Pennsylvania gypsy clan is led by Zharko (Hayden); he claims to live like a millionaire who’s never done an honest day’s work in his life. The nomadic gypsies live without birth certificates, driver’s licenses, or paying taxes; they are proud criminal...
The Wild Bunch
As the western genre in America became more and more watered down by television, Sam Peckinpah singlehandedly turned the western on its head; his The Wild Bunch shocked 1969 audiences with its almost apocalyptic, misogynistic, and violent vision of a dying era. By today’s standards The Wild Bunch is still a nihilistic masterpiece. The action and graphic carnage on screen are still staggering and utterly exciting. And along with Battleship Potemkin, Psycho, and Bonnie and Clyde, it’s still one of the gold standards for incredible cutting-edge editing of violence and death. The film is bookended by two of the best pieces of choreographed mayhem ever put to screen where the Bunch engage in shootouts so violent and intense that the film got an X rating then and even got an NC-17 rating when it was re-released in the ‘90s (both ratings were negotiated down by the studios). The editing and mix of film speeds, including slow motion, have been ripped off and become a standard in operatic action scenes since—just check out all of John Woo’s best (Hong Kong) films; they’re direct grandchildren of The Wild Bunch.
The legend of director Sam Peckinpah has taken on mythical proportions; he was a man out of time, a hard drinkin’ visionary with a death wish. One fact is definitely true: he was an ex-TV western director trying to find a place in features. His Ride the High Country was considered a little gem while the financial disaster and critical drubbing of Major Dundee almost ended his film career (a half-cen...
Baby It's You
In 1966, Trenton New Jersey still seemed stuck in the cross hairs of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The British Invasion was in full effect and white kids were now listing to black music but the era of Frank Sinatra still held sway with some. For high school senior Jill Rosen (Rosanna Arquette) it’s a particularly confusing era; an aspiring actress, she is trying to embrace the times, find her own voice, and gain her independence, but when she is wooed by and then eventually gets in a relationship with an odd, new, rebelliously hunky greaser at school, known as Sheik (Vincent Spano), her place in the world, her values and aspirations, are challenged. Even after Jill goes away to college and her experiences are expanded, he still lingers in her mind as a representation of her past, a life she can’t quite outgrow.
Director John Sayles had been a wonderful screenwriter of campy B-movies (Piranha, Alligator and The Howling), but as a director he made a name for himself with his deeply personal, character-driven independent films Return of the Secaucus Seven (which The Big Chill has been accused of ripping-off) and Lianna. Though Baby It’s You brought the quality of his style up a few notches, it was still a very small-budget flick. The New Jersey connection explains why the film’s soundtrack is loaded with early Bruce Springsteen music, which unfortunately now gives the film a ‘70s vibe; but other than that the 1966 period detail is perfect, not just in the design but the characters’ emotional makeup.