For over thirty years director Errol Morris has been redefining the visionary guidelines of what a documentary is and can be. He brought a deeper understanding of visual and sound construction techniques that pushed the documentary into a more compelling medium than the films that preceded his work. In the ‘80s, his film The Thin Blue Line helped get a guy off death row, but maybe more importantly, it brought the documentary genre into the mainstream and helped expose a lot of audience members and future filmmakers to the new possibilities that documentaries can achieve both socially and technically. Where many of the acclaimed filmmakers of his generation have lost their golden touch, every few years he keeps turning out a new film and he may of peaked with his last one, Tabloid, an insanely epic story of love and loss and the seedy nature of our voyeuristic society.
Morris, at his best, finds grand stories of people who live on the fringe of our culture with twisted obsessions, whether pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven), holocaust denying (Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.) or mole rats and trapezes (Fast, Cheap & Out of Control). Morris has a canny ability to park his camera inside the brains of these kooks and come to understand or appreciate their causes. His best films have been his eccentric bios, also usually about a sort of obsession that eats at his subjects like Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time) and Robert S. McNamara (The Fog of War). Tabloid is almost an accumulation of his life’s work, combining all of what he does best and turning the dial up. It’s a bio of a former beauty queen named Joyce McKinney who sits on camera and tells her crazy and kinky story, aided by other talking heads and archive footage and a lot of press clippings. Without moralizing or taking sides, this is Morris’s most creatively laid-out spectacle, yet the quirkiness and perversion never outweigh the filmmaking.
The Adventures of Bob & Doug McKenzie: Strange Brew
Movies that originate as television sketches and skits usually lead to lame products: A Night at the Roxbury, The Ladies Man, Stuart Saves His Family (has anyone ever heard of or seen the Laugh-In spin-off The Maltese Bippy?), to name but a few of the forgettable titles. There have been a few good exceptions: The Blues Brothers and Wayne’s World, and even The Coneheads has its admirers. The most unusual adaptation of a skit and a very special movie in its own right is the Canadian flick The Adventures of Bob & Doug McKenzie: Strange Brew, which emanated from Saturday Night Live’s northern and usually better little cousin SCTV. The characters, Bob (Rick Moranis) and Doug McKenzie (Dave Thomas), became SCTV’s first breakout stars and even a minor cultural phenomenon with their catchphrase “take off, you hoser.” Like Wayne’s World years later, they were a couple hicks—brothers who hosted a public access cable show called “Great White North” and the jokes usually centered on Canadian stereotypes and their love of beer and hockey. Though their minor-hit song “Take Off” (with Geddy Lee of Rush) might have caused a bigger ripple then their movie did, over the years Strange Brew has found more fans and can now be appreciated for what it is, an incredibly goofy but lovable laugh-out-loud comedy.
Adding elements of science-fiction and thriller, while referencing everything from Omega Man to Hamlet to Star Wars to the early Canadian gross-out flicks of David Cronenberg, Strange Brew opens with a movie within a movie within a movie. Surrounded by cases of Canadian beer, Bob and Doug host their TV show “Great White North” on the big screen. They run a projector of their homemade “Max Maxy” post-apocalypse flick, which leads to pandemonium in the actual theater where now Bob and Doug sit watching. They refund a distraught father his admission money (his crying kids saved all year to go see the movie), and this gets the real plot rolling—that it was their father’s beer money (the father’s voice is supplied with an amazing voice-cameo by animation legend Mel Blanc).
My Dinner with Andre
French director Louis Malle’s incredibly diverse career ranged from the exciting rule-bending era of the French New Wave to his documentary period, his work during the cinema revolution of the ‘70s, and finally to his American phase. Perhaps no film was more ground breaking then his astonishingly simple, yet hugely entertaining My Dinner with Andre—what is essentially a couple hours of two men who hadn’t seen each other in some time having a fascinating discussion over dinner.
Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, both known from the New York cultural and theater scene, play “Andre Gregory” and “Wallace Shawn,” which is to say they play themselves or at least variations on themselves. In real life Gregory had made a name for himself as an experimental theater director, traveling the world in search of groovy artistic expression. (He was a sometimes actor post-My Dinner with Andre, most memorably as John the Baptist in The Last Temptation of Christ). Shawn, the son of legendary long-time New Yorker editor William Shawn (which gave him lifelong NY high-brow street-cred) had some success as an off-off Broadway playwright, but ever since Woody Allen cast him as Diane Keaton’s ex-husband in Manhattan he has worked steadily as a character actor. The two started to record their own conversations and then got director Malle involved to help shape it into a script.
After the success of student lunch counter sit-ins, anti-segregation forces, led by a little know group called CORE (Committee of Racial Equality), decided to push the envelope in an attempt to secure their rights and bring attention to the discrimination of black Americans in the psychotically racist American South. PBS’s American Experience does it again! Freedom Riders is another historical masterpiece; with spectacular archive footage and engaging talking heads, director Stanley Nelson perfectly lays out this dangerous and complicated story. Along with the epic Eyes on the Prize, Freedom Riders is essential viewing for anyone interested in the civil rights movement or just a fascinating and entertaining slice of brutal American history.
In a post-World War II America, blacks were experiencing new gains both economically and socially in much of the country. By the mid-'50s the Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education brought a new promise for equal rights in schools, but the South was doing everything it could to stifle integration in education leading to a number of famous conflicts. In Montgomery a young pastor named Martin Luther King became an international superstar of peace leading their city’s bus boycotts. By 1960 black Southern college students took up the call first in Greensboro and then Nashville, doing lunch counter sit-ins to desegregate the powerful downtown department store restaurants. This all led to a discussion by a bi-racial Northern group called CORE to test the limits of a federal order to desegregate interstate bus travel including Southern bus station waiting rooms, cafeterias, and bathrooms that still had signs declaring “white” and “colored.” The South was not going to let the Federal Government tell them to change their culture and Kennedy’s White House had no interest in getting involved and alienating Southern white Democrats.
CORE’s leader James Farmer put together a motley mixed-race, mixed-sex crew of pacifists, liberals, and college students (including Nashville student sit-in veteran John Lewis, who would become one of the movement’s most visible leaders) to test the laws. Mixed-race groups, known as Freedom Riders, would sit together on the buses (illegal in most of the South) and then test the limits of the restroom racial laws. They put two groups on two buses setting out from Washington, DC heading to New Orleans. They would travel through the milder Eastern South and then hit Alabama and Mississippi, two quasi-police states, where violence against activists was sanctioned by all levels of their state governments. If any violence came to them, they hoped that it would force Washington to enforce federal laws.
As soon as the buses hit Alabama the violence ignited. One bus was burned down as the passengers were attacked out on a country road. The other bus arrived in Birmingham and the Freedom Riders were attacked by a massive mob out for blood. Even a Kennedy Administration official, John Seigenthaler, (who was keeping tabs on the riders) was attacked and ended up in a hospital after getting hit by a pipe. The beaten, bruised, and defeated Freedom Riders eventually were taken by plane out of Alabama as no bus driver would drive them, fearing more violence (their airplane was threatened by bomb threats delaying their journey even longer).
As it began to look as though extreme violence was the only way to stop the movement, Lewis and his Nashville colleagues, lead by the courageous Diane Nash, came down to Birmingham and took over the Freedom Rides, bringing an even bigger spotlight to the action and an even bigger threat of violence to the new recruits. They wanted the country to know that no matter how much pain was inflicted, the movement couldn’t be stopped. Martin Luther King, The Kennedys, Alabama Governor John Patterson, and the state military all became players in an ever growing story. They saw the jails fill up as more and more people came south to join the Freedom Ride and eventually brought an end to Jim Crow for interstate bus travelers.
The Freedom Riders may be the single top accomplishment for the fledgling Civil Rights Movement. It’s about the last time that a quick direct action would pull the nation together and force the government to act. The next few years would see the movement change its focus to voter rights in the South. It would be a long-suffering struggle that depended on a slow bureaucratic process to create and enact new laws culminating in a more symbolic than actual accomplishment. The Freedom Rides also created a new generation of full-time activists who were no longer afraid of going to jail in the name of human rights. The young people spread out with the creation of their own organization, SNCC, which continued to train students in activism. This is where many of the anti-Vietnam War leaders first got a taste of rebellion and America would never be the same.
The PBS American Experience series of documentaries, most available on DVD, has become the best archive of 20th century American life and Freedom Riders is no exception. All the available witnesses and performers in this real-life drama are present on camera to reflect and tell their side of history. These include Farmer, Lewis, Nash, Seigenthaler, and even Patterson who, in an effort to cover his own diabolical politics, now seems to claim that segregation was not about race or racism, but was instead a state’s rights issue. It should be stressed that watching Freedom Riders is not a dull homework assignment but an enjoyable fast ride—a ride I would recommend and urge everyone to take.
The Wild One
Though that amazing string of performances in A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar, and On the Waterfront earned Marlon Brando four straight Oscar nominations (finally winning for Waterfront) and made him the most celebrated acting talent of his generation, it’s actually his work as Johnny in The Wild One that made him an icon of rebellion and helped inspire the youth culture that was just beginning to emerge in America (and abroad). The Wild One was the first “biker picture” to penetrate mainstream consciousness, a genre that would become very popular in independent film ten lean years later.
Though produced by issue-director/producer Stanley Kramer, giving the film an overly dramatic “this is important” vibe, it’s actually a really fun B-movie, carried by Brando’s cocky performance. His Johnny leads his biker gang almost like a cult leader. The gang, with their rowdy antics, tries to impress their messiah, but Johnny, with his southern/ be-bop accent, is a man of few words. Hitting the road looking for kicks, Brando and his gang stumble on a small town where they instantly catch the attention of the law and some uptight citizens, and a saloon owner invites them to stay for beer and sandwiches. The innocent young barmaid Kathie (the very beautiful Mary Murphy) catches Johnny’s eye. It doesn’t help when he declares “I don’t like cops,” even though her dad is the town’s sheriff (Robert Keith, father of Brian), and is actually very evenhanded and sympathetic to Johnny and his pals.
In the film’...
Class of 1984
As a remake of Blackboard Jungle, with a lot of A Clockwork Orange thrown in, the ’82 punk rock revenge flick Class of 1984 is still a surprisingly effective piece of exploitation pulp. With a theme song called “I Am the Future” sung by Alice Cooper (shockingly written by long time film and TV composer Lalo Schifrin!) prophetically announcing its intentions— this is a new youth nightmare. Entering the school through metal detectors (now a standard in many urban schools) the hero/teacher in this story, Andrew Norris (Perry King), is shocked at the conditions at his new school, and the kids are much more aggressive and nasty. Blackboard Jungle’s Glenn Ford had it easy compared to this guy. Yes, these aren’t your father’s punk kids anymore.
Shot in Toronto, but sitting in as any mixed-race urban jungle USA, Mr. Norris just wants to teach the good kids music (including a nerdy young Michael J. Fox). But the school seems to be dominated by a punk rock gang led by its genius psychopathic pretty boy, Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten), who instantly takes a dislike to Norris for having the gall to want to teach while other teachers like Mr. Corrigan (Roddy McDowall) have just given up. Norris wants to put together a classical music school band and though Stegman can play the piano like that dude in Shine, Norris denies him a spot because of his bad attitude. This begins a deadly showdown between the two.
Unlike the antics of most tough youths in older films, Stegman and his crew are not laughably dated. Their “punk” outfits may look clowni...
In what may be the Citizen Kane of xenophobia-ploitation flicks of the ‘70s, no matter how manipulative, hateful, and offensive Midnight Express may be, it’s also some amazingly intense filmmaking. After his first feature film, the misfire kiddie musical Bugsy Malone, British director Alan Parker announced himself as a major talent with Midnight Express, as did the obscure screenwriter Oliver Stone, who won an Oscar for his adaptation of Billy Hayes’ autobiographical account of his traumatic years in a Turkish prison. Though Stone famously spiced up the account to make it even more dramatic and has since even apologized to the people of Turkey for making them look like slimy monsters, the film is still an edge-of-your-seat piece of entertainment.
Along with his compatriots Ridley Scott and Adrian Lyne, director Parker would usher in a new era of filmmakers who came out of a commercial background. Like most of his pals’ films of the era, though, Midnight Express and a number of his other films are heavy on grit and realistic detail but there still seems to be a slight gloss over their work that sometimes makes their films, no matter how gritty, look like champagne commercials. But still Parker has had a most fascinating career, peeking early with Midnight Express and then following with a run in the 1980s with Fame, Shoot the Moon, Pink Floyd The Wall, Birdy, and then Angel Heart and Mississippi Burnin...
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
It turns out that the granddaddy of torture-porn and Slasher-poitation, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, isn’t as exploitive or graphic as its reputation would make you think. It’s actually just some good old fashioned psychological horror, much closer to the economically controlled thrills of Hitchcock than the splatter flicks of Herschell Gordon Lewis. The film is kinda-sorta based on the misdeeds of serial killer Ed Gain (also an inspiration behind the book Psycho), but perhaps more of a direct result of the graphic violence from the Vietnam War seen nightly on television news. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre may have a set-up that now seems overly familiar, but where it goes was wholly original and how it gets there is utterly horrifying. Shot in a docudrama style, its ultra realistic feel makes it seem even more real; it’s like The Battle Of Algiers meets The Hills Have Eyes.
The ultra low budget flick opens with a somber voice-over narration (read by John Larroquette) announcing that the film is all true (and also giving the impression that it’s deeply important). Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her group of groovy twenty-something friends in their mystery-machine like van are on their way to visit her rural grandfather’s house. Stupidly they pick up a straight razor wielding loony (Edwin Neal) who should have been the first warning that this is one part of Texas you might be advised to stay out of. Eventually they each make their way to a creepy old farmhouse nearby where they are killed off, except for Sally; as the last survivor she’s in for a long night of terror.
Night Catches Us
The low-budget period piece, Night Catches Us, is a rare kind of film these days - a complex, quiet, adult drama. More rare it’s about black people, and though it’s intense, the intensity comes from the characters' personal torment, not on-screen violence. In a perfect world Night Catches Us would catapult its first time feature director, Tanya Hamilton, as a major new relevant voice in film, but unfortunately there are no robots or superheroes in this story. The two lead performances by Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington reaffirm their standing as two of the most reliable actors of their generation.
What happened to the “Movement” and how does that generation of black revolutionaries learn to live in a world after the revolution has fizzled out? The film slowly opens up and unfolds. It’s 1976, after years of being in exile as a snitch, ex-Black Panther Marcus Washington (Mackie) returns to his Philadelphia neighborhood to confront his past. The word on the street was that he got his best friend killed by the cops, which makes him an enemy to the folks in the hood, except that friend’s ex-wife Patricia Wilson (Washington). Also once a radical, she’s now a respectable lawyer raising a daughter as a single mother. She and Marcus seem to have something between them. Is that why her husband was killed? Or are they both just haunted by the death of a man and the loss of a way of life? What's left to fight for or stand for? These are two people lost in the past desperate to find a future. Though they do come together, there are too many ghosts between them to let them really fall in love, which in an Ibsen-like twist is what creates their bond.
Though there’s already been about a dozen since and dozens more to come, Kick-Ass could be considered the final word on the superhero movie; it neatly puts an end to the myth and redefines the genre perfectly. Based on a comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., and directed by Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, X-Men: First Class), Kick-Ass is vivaciously violent and proudly R-rated. It plays as both an action movie and a send-up of the clichés of superheroes and vigilantes flicks. But this is no Hero At Large (a lame John Ritter would-be superhero flick from 1980), though it's humorous and ultra creative, by the end its grim tone moves it closer to the V For Vendetta or even Watchmen heaviness territory.
The film follows three separate New York kid storylines which eventually come together in a most surprising way. Teenage comic-book geek Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), out of loneliness and an urge to make something of himself, dons a superhero costume, names himself Kick-Ass and sets out to fight crime. His first attempt to take on street punks puts him in the hospital, the good news, though, is he comes out with some actual kinda super-powers; severe nerve damage gives him the capacity to endure extreme pain. His next go at taking on petty criminals is captured on camera and makes the antics of Kick-Ass an Internet sensation.
The most compelling story line is that of an eleven-year-old girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) and her ex-cop father (Nicolas Cage). He has trained her to be a killing machine in both martial arts and weaponry. Using the names Hit-Girl and Big Daddy, their goal is revenge against the mobster Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong) whose criminal empire got Big Daddy kicked off the police force. Now he is a man utterly obsessed, and they wreak havoc on Frank’s criminal enterprises, killing his crew slowly. They even rescue Kick-Ass from a jam, creating a minor alliance with him and a common enemy in Frank.
Meanwhile, Frank’s misfit teenage son, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, famous for playing McLovin in Superbad) eager to gain his father’s respect and entrance into the family business, convinces his dad that he can lure in the vigilantes with his own superhero persona. He becomes Red Mist and does manage to befriend Kick-Ass, which leads to the gangsters capturing Big-Daddy and then an all out spectacular battle with Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl taking on Red Mist, Frank and his entire criminal team.
Most controversial, like a mini version of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, little Chloe Grace Moretz is a killing machine who kills gleefully (at one point the theme to the Banana Splits plays while she goes on a rampage). She also has a foul mouth (raunchy-mouthed kids have come a long way since The Bad News Bears); strangely some critics were more outraged by her naughty language than her actions.
In an era when superhero flicks seem to be dominating both film and culture, Kick-Ass has the nerve to show the effects that pain and violence can have of the psyches of the heroes. Dave often rues the pain he has caused and the aftermath of his work. Nicolas Cage, in his more rare under control acting mode, brings a lot of sympathy to his on-paper unlikable role, a guy who has taken his daughter’s childhood from her. His outcome is eventually tragic, but the film is so exciting that the audience never has time to be mired in too much sadness. Though Kick-Ass is truly a live action comic book, it has the heart and emotional sophistication of a great novel.