There has never been a screenplay quite like Charles Brackett and director Billy Wilder’s screenplay for their 1950 opus Sunset Blvd. It’s a macabre gothic noir comedy about the ghosts of Hollywood past. It’s one of those films, though a first-string classic, where the myths and back-stage stories are just as memorable as the film itself. For a legendary cynic like Wilder it was his ultimate drubbing of the hand that fed him. For star Gloria Swanson it was the ultimate film comeback (ten times more unlikely than, say, Travolta in Pulp Fiction). And for her co-star William Holden it began a decade of big performances in important films that cemented him as a major actor. In a time when the studios controlled their products as well as their own image with an iron fist, it’s shocking that Sunset Blvd. ever got made.
Narrating from a swimming pool of a rundown mansion, a floating corpse tells his story of how he ended up there. Down-and-out screenwriter Joe Gillis (Holden) can’t land a new assignment and is on the run from debt collectors. With a flat tire he hides his car in the garage of that rundown mansion. Invited in by the home’s butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim), to lend a hand for the funeral of a monkey Joe soon meets the mistress of the house, one-time silent film star, Norma Desmond (Swanson). She lives with only one foot in reality. Her decrepit house is filled with photos and mementos of her former self from her glory days 30 years earlier. Eventually she employs Joe to write her gaudy screenplay that she plans to use as a comeback vehicle. Joe also takes on the role of gigolo, becoming her lover as she keeps him dressed in tuxes and fancy gold watches.
The Blues Brothers
There was a time in 1978 when John Belushi had the number one movie in theaters— National Lampoon’s Animal House. He also starred on the massively popular Saturday Night Live and his band The Blues Brothers, a group he co-fronted along with SNL co-star Dan Aykroyd, had the number one album in the country. The success of their album Briefcase Full of Blues led to a film adaptation, The Blues Brothers—the first and still the best of many films to originate from SNL skits. It’s a loud musical-action-comedy film that works in all three genres while boasting some great car chases, stellar music, and staying very funny throughout.
Fresh from a stint in prison Jake (Belushi) reunites with his brother Elwood (Aykroyd). Spurred on by an old friend, Curtis (Cab Calloway) they visit their childhood orphanage and learn that it’s on the verge of being shut down for owing back taxes. After a vision “from God” in church they decide to reform their old blues band and raise money with a large charity concert. Most of their bandmates have contempt for them and need convincing to reunite. Along the way they tend to wreak havoc and leave large swaths of destruction wherever they go which leads the police after them. They also create foes with a country/western band, The Good Ol' Boys (led by Charles Napier), when The Blues Brothers steal their bar gig. They disrupt a Nazi rally and manage to put a carload of uniformed Nazis on their trail (led by the hilarious Henry Gibson of ...
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
The massive hit from 1969, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is often cited as a "Western that people love, who usually don’t like Westerns." But it also often makes "all-time most overrated" lists, especially from folks who do like Westerns. That contradiction may be because the film is completely carried by the charisma of its two superstars, Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Also it's closer in spirit to a light comedy or even the "outlaw reexamination" genre started by Bonnie and Clyde than the landmark Westerns of its era that Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone were directing at the same time. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is an incredibly simple tale, and regardless of its place on the Western checklist it’s perfect entertainment.
The script seems to have very little dialogue and often the same lines are repeated, "You keep thinking, Butch," which is ironic since the script by William Goldman (Marathon Man, All The President’s Men) has been hailed for its perfect three-act structure (pre-film school era Goldman wrote a number of books about screenwriting and the business which also helped elevate his status as a quintessential writer). Act One is an introduction to Butch (Newman) and Sundance (Redford), two charming but frustrated bank robbers who are now hitting trains. Butch is the brains and Sundance the gunman. They also share a woman, schoolteacher Etta Place (the mumbly Katharine Ross of The Graduate), Sundance is her lover, while Butch flirts but is more the big brother. Act Two is one long chase as a hardcore posse follows Butch and Sundance over miles of picturesque Western plains (shot by the legendary cameraman Conrad L. Hall), ending famously with the two jumping off a cliff into a raging river. Act Three has the heroes and Etta traveling to Bolivia where they work as muscle for a paymaster (Strother Martin) and culture clashes impede their bank robbing career, finally ending with a shoot out with the Bolivian army.Continue Reading
About the only thing this Shaft remake has in common with the original Richard Roundtree cop classic is that great Isaac Hayes theme song and similar funky score (and Roundtree pops up in a supporting role in this one). Both Shafts are swinging ladies men and both have to deal with race issues being African-American cops in a hostile world and working with a corrupt police force. What makes the remake stand out as more than just a serviceable late night TV time killer is the presence of two great unlikely villains teaming up, played by two great actors, Christian Bale and Jeffrey Wright, working at their scenery chewing best.
The original Shaft, directed by Gordon Parks is usually unjustly labeled "blaxploitation," but it’s degrading because Shaft was actually much closer in class and style to an acclaimed crime film like The French Connection than say, some jive like Superfly. Shaft became a minor cultural phenomenon, birthing two decent sequels and even a short-lived television series. The inevitable remake comes 30 years later, and though it might not have delivered as a franchise starter, it does deliver perfectly as a solid action guilty pleasure.Continue Reading
Out of the Past
Of that post-WWII generation of male actors who came of age in war flicks but really defined themselves in the Film Noir genre, none was cooler than Robert Mitchum (and that was a group of cool dudes that included Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Sterling Hayden, Robert Ryan, and his co-star here Kirk Douglas). Whether playing a hero or a villain, Mitchum reeked of both danger and manly charm even when he spewed indifference. His career spanned decades with a number of signature roles and important films, but of the Noir period none was better than that of ex-detective turned gas station owner Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past.
Director Jacques Tourneur is more known today for his groundbreaking horror flicks with producer Val Lewton: Cat People, The Leopard Man and I Walked With a Zombie. Though in retrospect those eerie and strange shadowy black n’ white flicks could be called horror noir, making the Frenchman the perfect director to bring his almost Expressionistic approach to a crime mystery in what was then considered a B-genre. Like much gothic horror, Jeff Bailey is a guy haunted by his past, trying to escape from his own mind and hide from his own instincts.Continue Reading
On first appearance what could be just another high school comedy is actually much, much more. From Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, the directing and writing team later responsible for About Schmidt and Sideways, Election is a wonderfully smart political satire as well as a rich character study of suburban Omaha, full of truths about both teen and adult life. Reese Witherspoon, in her best performance and perhaps best role, brilliantly plays Tracy Flick, an ambitious high school overachiever, so driven she mostly comes off as unlikable and vindictive, but her back story proves to be much more complicated.
Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) seems perfectly content in his life; his marriage may be stale, but he finds an almost smug satisfaction in being a beloved teacher. Tracy is running unopposed for student body president in the upcoming school election and the inevitable outcome starts to grate on Jim, not just because he finds her generally annoying as a student but also because he knows a secret about her. His one time best teaching bud, Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), had an affair with Tracy. After some manipulation she told her mother, which inevitably led to Dave’s firing and his wife, Linda (Delaney Driscoll), leaving him. Jim and his wife Diane (Molly Hagan) are trying to get pregnant, but with Dave now out of the picture, Jim has developed an attraction for Linda and tries to have an affair with her.Continue Reading
Based on Nicholas Pileggi’s real life true crime book on minor criminal Henry Hill, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas marks the last great film for the director and for most of the high caliber talent on both sides of the camera. Spanning three decades, this epic is the ultimate and maybe final word on the world of organized crime. These guys don’t seem to be as politically connected as the Corleones of The Godfather or even the Jersey gangsters of The Sopranos (which carries many crossover cast members), they are a petty crime crew of thieves and are willing to use extreme violence to protect their interests and egos. However as the culture of the '70s takes root in their old-world existence, though warned by their highest authority, Pauley (Paul Sorvino), not to get involved with drugs, they eventually lead to Henry’s downfall. It’s an amazing journey made more amazing by the brilliant filmmaking style of director Scorsese working at the peak of his creative powers.
Like a life in crime itself the film sucks you in, showing you the highlights then becoming increasingly dangerous, and eventually you're searching for a way out. As far back as Henry can remember he wanted to be a gangster. The young Irish-Italian kid gets a job working for the mob at their cabstand. They take him under their wing, teaching him the ways of a criminal, as well as the philosophy (most importantly “never rat on your friends”). With an unhappy home life, the gangsters make Henry feel a part of something bigger than him. Eventually he grows up to be played by the actor, Ray Liotta. Coming off of strong good guy and bad guy performances in Field Of Dreams and Something Wild, Liotta proves to be ingenious casting by Scorsese. Though handsome and charming in a rogue way he’s an offbeat leading man who brings a lot of danger to every role (peaking as the aging, corrupt cop in Narc). As an adult Henry becomes a part of the crew led by Jimmy The Gent (Robert De Niro) and his psychotic nephew, Tommy (Joe Pesci, brilliant in an Oscar winning performance). The film follows their ever-escalating crime schemes peaking with a famous Air France robbery.Continue Reading
RFK Must Die: The Assassination of Bobby Kennedy
As a hardcore JFK assassination buff (what red-blooded American kid didn’t go through that phase and read Mark Lane’s amazing book Rush To Judgment?), I have to admit, I generally thought that it was kind of a given that Sirhan Sirhan was the lone gunman in brother Bobby’s murder. There have been some swirling conspiracy theories in the back of my head but I never acknowledged them, thinking the assassination of RFK was pretty much an open and shut case. But Shane O’Sullivan's documentary on everything you could ever want to know about the case is very persuasive in making its claim that there is more than meets the eye. Like the JFK case, what makes it more suspicious is the effort that was put forth by law enforcement (LAPD and the FBI) to convince witnesses that they didn’t actually see or experience what they think they saw and experienced. RFK Must Die: The Assassination of Bobby Kennedy may be the quintessential document on the case with some stunning information and footage that I had no idea was available to the public.
Director O’Sullivan proves to be a smart unbiased filmmaker; he lets some of his dramatic conclusions contradict themselves when they don’t fully add up as neatly as a Hollywood story. He’s not fully sure where the information will take him so therefore he does not appear to be driving the story in one direction. The material just so happens to lead to the conclusion that something odd happened that night at the Ambassador Hotel.Continue Reading
Play It Again, Sam
If Play It Again, Sam looks a little more like a generic 1970s romantic comedy than the usual Woody Allen flick of the period, that’s because Allen didn’t direct it. But it was based, seemingly line-for-line, on his own popular Broadway play with the three stars (Allen, Diane Keaton & Tony Roberts) reprising their roles. Allen was still early and raw in his directing career, so the much blander Herbert Ross (The Goodbye Girl), an ex-theater choreographer, took the helm. But it still has Allen’s incredibly funny script, showing many signs of the more mature style that would explode into Annie Hall, later in the decade.
Woody plays Allan, a San Francisco film fanatic and writer. Recently dumped by his wife, he’s even more of a mess than usual and in need of constant consolation from his friends, the married couple Dick and Linda (Roberts and Keaton), though Dick always seems to be preoccupied with work. Allan is hoping to score with a chick to help mend his broken heart, but he’s more comfortable watching movies than talking to a woman. Like a classic film geek, his life and his relationship to the world are based on a pose he has seen in films (usually the classics). He’s so lonely and extreme in his film obsession that he has developed an imaginary friend, Humphrey Bogart in his full Casablanca trench coat and hat get up. Bogart imparts two-bit noir advice, "I never saw a dame yet that didn't understand a good slap in the mouth or a slug from a .45." Allan usually ignores the advice and does the opposite or when he tries to obey, it usually goes hopelessly wrong.Continue Reading
Once upon a time a little French film shot in Algeria by a Greek director became a massive international hit, winning a bunch of awards including a couple of Oscars. Z may actually be left wing propaganda, but it plays brilliantly as a fast paced piece of suspense pulp. Oh the 1960s! What an amazing time for filmmakers and film watching, you were. In the docu realism tradition of The Battle Of Algiers, the unnamed country of Z may look a lot like Greece or even Italy, but it could anywhere. The shooting at Kent State was just two years away, and much of the world appeared to be in political turmoil. Z plays like a "how to" guide for both sides: how to start a left-wing revolution and, for the people in charge of keeping the status quo, how to squash it.
Z opens with a title card reading, "Any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is INTENTIONAL." This tells you that director Costa-Gavras is willing to wear his politics (or his bias) on his sleeve. The military dictators are worried about political protests from “beatniks” and foreigners, and they commit to shutting down any outside agitation. As a left wing political leader known as both Deputy and Z (the all-time great French actor Yves Montand) prepares for a rally for nuclear disarmament, while the Russian ballet performs across the street, Government thugs carrying bats continue to harass and beat his supporters. Trying to cross the street the Deputy is walloped by a guy with a baseball bat - though fake witnesses say a drunk driver hit him - he sustains injuries that eventually kill him.Continue Reading