LBJ (The American Experience)
Whether it’s the Kennedys, Nixon, or FDR you can’t go wrong with any of the thoroughly epic political biographies produced by PBS for their American Experience television series. To understand the turbulent sixties no documentary gives a better overview than the exhausting, yet exuberant, Lyndon Johnson bio called, simply enough, LBJ. Johnson’s life was full of both contradictions and surprises; in the end he both represents and played a major hand in both the best and worst legacies of the decade.
The film unfolds in four hour-long chapters. Episodes one and two cover a lot of ground: LBJ’s early years as the son of a Texas politician, his marriage to Ladybird, and his wins and losses in the rough world of Texas politics. He became a grand deal-making charmer first in the House of Representatives and then in the Senate. His humbling run as JFK’s vice president ended after those gunshots rang out in Dallas simultaneously throwing history a curve ball and making Johnson the president. Finishing Kennedy’s term he out-Kennedyed the Kennedys by passing loads of important legislation and was overwhelmingly reelected by the American people. And that’s when the second half kicks in, covering those disastrous last four years and beyond as his amazing social triumphs were overshadowed by the escalating war in Vietnam—a war which he inherited but naively continued to send the country deeper into.
The Day of the Triffids
Though not in the same league with John Wyndham’s brilliant sci-fi novel that it’s based on, the low budget 1962 film version of The Day of the Triffids is still a heady piece of post-apocalyptic entertainment and still one of the best and most influential end-of-the-world films ever. A more faithful to the book version was made for BBC TV in 1981 and it’s also essential “survivor movie” viewing. (A more recent TV version in 2009 was terribly disappointing.) But while this first on-screen edition may veer from the book, it was a landmark in British B-movie sci-fi and in a lot of ways it still packs a wallop.
With all of London excited about watching an astounding meteor shower outside, American merchant seaman, Bill Masen (Howard Keel) is stuck in a hospital bed with his eyes bandaged after surgery. The next day he awakens to find that the hospital staff and then the entire town are now blind (everyone who watched the sky that night at least). If having to navigate among the desperately blind isn’t apocalyptic enough, it seems a deadly plant known as a Triffid is also on the loose—these are walking shrubs that shoot a poisonous stinger at their victims and if that’s not bad enough they have the ability to verbally communicate with each other. Eventually Bill comes across a little girl (Janina Faye) who can see and the two have to fight their way out of England and make it to France. Once there they help a group of blind women, including a pretty love interest (Nicole Maurey), while trying to escape a group of violent convicts as they head for Spain.
The Bridge on the River Kwai
After his weepy romantic travelogue Summertime, director David Lean took an evolutionary jump with The Bridge on the River Kwai, the first part of his super epic trilogy (followed by Lawrence Of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago). If The Great Escape is the ultimate German prisoner of war flick (with apologies to Stalag 17) then Kwai is the quintessential Japanese POW story. The performances are top notch—the British chameleon Alec Guinness deservedly won an Oscar for his powerful performance. As both a human drama, a giant war spectacular, and just a kick-ass action flick Kwai is still a hair-raiser with a famously shocking ending.
A cynical American POW named Shears (William Holden, cynical was his trademark in the fifties) watches Colonel Nicholson (Guinness) lead his British regiment into a Japanese camp deep in the harsh jungles of Burma (while whistling the “Colonel Bogey March” which became a hit record). There the prisoners working as slave laborers are building a military bridge, but Nicholson will not work and demands to keep his rank among his men. A battle of wills takes place between the overly proud Brit and the camp’s Japanese command...
As opposed to being a dated period piece from 1984, Purple Rain is more like a time capsule from another planet. A truly ambitious film debut for funk ‘n rock star Prince, the success of both the film Purple Rain and its soundtrack helped send Prince’s career into another stratosphere. This kinda sorta autobiography of Prince’s early days playing at Minneapolis music venue First Avenue focuses on the struggles of the brooding and mopey musician as he tries to navigate his domestic abuse impulses and his love of frilly shirts. Though completely entertaining it’s actually maybe more depressing than the Eminem flick 8 Mile though not even close to the mental anguish that the Bjork film Dancer in the Dark can cause. At the time of release Purple Rain was a massive hit but it was also justly scorned for its misogynistic attitudes towards women. Luckily now the film feels so over the top that instead of being offensive it plays more like a glammed-out cartoon.
Prince plays “The Kid,” and though his band The Revolution seems to have a loyal following, the club owner (Billy Sparks) thinks they aren’t drawing the crowds they should be. He seems to side with The Kid’s chief rival, the zoot-suited Morris Day and his band The Time. He wants the Kid to stop doing that “one song shit” and making the kind of music that only he understands, or he’s going to be axed from the club’s roster. When a foxy new Russ Meyer-esqe babe, Apollonia shows up on the scene, The Kid woos her with motorcycle rides and by ogling her from behind his oversized sun glasses. Strangely he still lives with his parents, where his washed-up musician father (Clearance Williams III of ...
After his massive debut film Sex, Lies, and Videotape helped jump start the impressive independent film movement of the 1990s, director Steven Soderbergh had a rough go in the world of filmmaking. Though his follow-ups King of The Hill, Kafka, and The Underneath were all interesting, none lived up to the promise shown earlier. It wasn’t until the end of the decade that Soderbergh started to really find his stride with a pair of terrific crime thrillers, Out of Sight and The Limey. Often working as his own cinematographer his films developed a grainy, handheld look and an almost docudrama feel. In 2000 Soderbergh peaked critically with the solid drama Erin Brockovich and his two-and-a-half hour epic Traffic, a truly outstanding look at the drug trade in both the United States and Mexico.
A remake of the British TV mini-series Traffik, Soderbergh’s film follows the original very carefully, but expands on the political potholes faced by the politicians while changing the land of the traffickers from Pakistan to Mexico. It all adds up to a more complex tale. The film follows three stories taking place in Tijuana, San Diego, and Ohio. Each story is given a different look and color scheme—Ohio looks cold and blue, while Mexico is washed out and yellow. The film is giant with over a hundred speaking roles, and even includes actual politicians Barbara Boxer and Orrin Hatch playing themselves for added realism.
At the peak of the disco era, the film version of the so-so Broadway musical Grease managed to be the perfect vehicle to celebrate 1950s nostalgia while becoming an iconic relic of '70s pop culture. Since its release it has become a rite of passage for young people—a romanticized version of teen rebellion and young love. It’s surprisingly raunchy, but very funny, with great music and very energetic choreography. More then Rebel Without a Cause or Blackboard Jungle it has actually taken over as the ultimate representation of 1950s teen life. While the earlier films were made by people who were afraid of that generation’s American teenager, Grease was created to celebrate them.
After his breakout performance that turned him into a massive superstar in Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta was as hot as could be. Grease proved to be an almost equally popular follow-up for him (through critically it took a drubbing). In the role of Danny Zuko, high school greaser and heart throb, Travolta was able to continue to showcase his flashy dance moves and add “passable singer” to his resume. More importantly he showed his flare for light comedy. As time passes it's easier to recognize the fun Travolta was having with his own image. He's kinda a mix of Elvis and TV’s Fonzie, but much more charming than both and, though cool, much more vulnerable. (Vulnerability proved to be a staple of Travolta’s acting bag of tricks.)
Australian transplant Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) is just trying to fit in to her new Southern California school, Rydell High. Though she had ...
Before novelist Thomas Harris created the character of Hannibal Lecter for his Red Dragon book series, he had written one other novel entitled Black Sunday. It was a terrorist thriller obviously inspired by the massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. The adaptation for the screen by legendary screenwriter Ernst Lehman (North by Northwest, Sweet Smell of Success) provides the setting for one of the best action flicks of the 1970s and another cool movie notch in the belt for director John Frankenheimer. Along with The Deep released the same year (’77), Black Sunday would provide the peak role for actor Robert Shaw as a big star leading man, before tragically dying of a heart attack the following year.
A kinda sexy Palestinian terrorist, Dahlia (Marthe Keller, who played a similarly spooky Euro a year earlier in Marathon Man) finds the perfect boyfriend—Vietnam Vet Mike Lander (Bruce Dern, in his full whacked-out mode) who works once a week as a Goodyear blimp pilot for the NFL. To make a point about America’s support for Israel, she convinces him to fill the blimp up with explosives and blow up the Super Bowl. (Oh yeah, the President is going to be attending the game, too). Luckily, badass Israeli intelligence agent David Kabakov (Shaw) is on her tail.
Like the adaptation of Frederick Forsyth&r...
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