It's not easy to heap praise on Mel Gibson. His apparent personal conduct and views are completely unappealing and, worse, totally offensive. On screen Gibson started out with a bang in the Mad Max films and was entertaining in the first Lethal Weapon movie, but otherwise his performances and choices of roles have not been very memorable. As a director, I couldn’t slog through his The Passion of the Christ; Man Without A Face was trite; and Braveheart was an overrated piece of hokum. All that aside, it’s easy to declare that his Mayan action adventure film, Apocalypto, is pretty damn brilliant, maybe even a sorta-whacked out masterpiece.
The film takes place in 16th century Central America near the end of the Mayan period, just before the arrival of the Spanish. It’s shot completely in the Yucatan Maya language with unknowns and non-actors, indigenous North Americans. In some ways the film is actually one long, exciting, and very brutal chase scene. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), low on his tribe's totem pole, witnesses his tribe being slaughtered and enslaved. He hides his wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez), and child and goes on an adventure worthy of Playstation. After killing of some of the raiders he is captured by the psychotic Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) and led to the Mayan city, a much more advanced and destructive place than anything the young villager had experienced before. Jaguar Paw manages to escape after much horrific torture and human sacrifices, and is chased as he tries to get back to save his family. It’s a delirious obstacle death course of horror, as he has to make his way through the jungle using all his survival skills to outwit his captors.Continue Reading
Roger & Me
Forgetting Michael Moore’s politics, his sometimes annoying personality, and his questionable fact-checking skills, the guy has done more than any other director to bring the art form of documentary filmmaking into the mainstream. His first film, Roger & Me, is still probably his best film. It caused a major stir in the world of documentaries, established the format he has continued to use for decades, and has since been ripped-off and copied by numerous other documentary makers. No documentary before Roger & Me instantly gave its maker such a strong brand name.
Before the breakthrough of Roger & Me in 1989, the documentary field was mostly dominated by concert films, nature, travelogue, and straight political docs, or film theory class usual-suspects like the works of Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies). Though there were a number of important documentarians on the scene with vital careers like Albert and David Maysles (Grey Gardens), Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA), D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back), Rob Epstein (The Times Of Harvey Milk), and even Michael Apted with his ongoing Up Series for British television. Then in the mid '80s Errol Morris really broke through with his minimalist true-crime saga, The Thin Blue Line, as did Ross McElwee with his very personal history lesson, Sherman’s March. They all led the way for Michael Moore to infuse blue-collar liberal politics with his personal and humorous slant.Continue Reading
Thirty-something years later, the little Canadian gem Meatballs is still the quintessential rowdy summer camp movie. It’s one of those flicks that if you saw it for the first time as a kid you still love, while later generations may have a hard time getting into its '70s groove. In his first real post Saturday Night Live break out role, Bill Murray carries Meatballs as the camp's head counselor. He and director Reitman would go on a comic rampage with their next couple of films, dominating early '80s comedy. This was an era in movies when nerds were nerds, everyone just wanted to get laid, and sexual harassment was considered comedy not bad behavior. For my generation this was the film that made you fantasize about going to summer camp, an unfulfilled fantasy I still carry.
Meatballs goes for an Altman-like ensemble, splitting between the counselors and the young campers at Camp North Star. But two characters eventually become the main focal point, the goofy but charismatic head counselor, Tripper (Murray), and a wimpy first time camper, Rudy (Chris Makepeace who plays almost the exact same character a few years later in the equally memorable My Bodyguard). Most of the counselors and their love life issues are interchangeable, except for the often cruelly pathetic escapades of ultra nerd Spaz (Jack Blum) and his overweight buddy Larry Finkelstein (Keith Knight who later played a tough punk in Class Of 1984). Spaz’s goal is "scoring" but in a sweet moment he does find some satisfaction in holding a girl's hand.Continue Reading
The Gathering Storm
What I know about history I learned from movies and documentaries. So whether the facts behind The Gathering Storm are accurate I can’t argue, but as a piece of entertainment this BBC/HBO telefilm is wonderful and certainty feels factual. Chronicling the years before World War II in the 1930s, the doddering Winston Churchill stands alone in The House Of Commons as he seems to be the one politician in England speaking out about the rise of Hitler. Played brilliantly by Albert Finney, Churchill begins the film an all but broken man and as England slowly catches on to his German paranoia he regains his footing as a visionary (the film only chronicles a few years and ends before he becomes Prime Minister and leads England though WWII).
A lifetime military man and vivacious history writer, Churchill was a disappointment to himself. He hadn’t amounted to the greatness he expected and is reduced to tinkering around the house, annoying his staff and his devoted wife, Clementine (Vanessa Redgrave), as well as his fellow Tory members in Parliament for his increasingly outdated views on India. But when a spook (or “civil servant”), Desmond Morton (Jim Broadbent), starts passing him disturbing documents that reveal the true nature of German industries, Churchill begins to speak out of place. Typical of politicians, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin (Derek Jacobi), wants to appease Hitler because opposing him could be bad for the British economy. Even in his old age, Churchill proves to be a total badass rebel, single-handedly pushing his country to prepare for war. Of course history was on Churchill’s side, now those like American Joseph Kennedy (JFK’s old man), who groveled to Hitler, would forever be remembered as cowards. If nothing else Churchill was no weakling.Continue Reading
1978’s Superman began to the era of the superhero film. It would still be another decade before they would become a summer rite of passage at the box office, but Superman helped usher them from small screen, low budget affairs to big splashy tent poles with classy casts. Its first and only watchable sequel, Superman II, has had a fascinating history. It was already in production while the first film was being made and its director was fired halfway through, replaced by journeyman Richard Lester. Superman II may be the last of the quality “comic” comic book films, before the much darker Batman would change the landscape.
You may recall at the beginning of the first Superman flick Marlon Brando as Superman’s old man, Jor-El, sentenced three criminals - General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and the big mute, Non (Jack O’Halloran) - to a life of hurling through space stuck in a square bubble (the kind Queen used in their Greatest Hits album cover). Superman II opens with Superman (Christopher Reeve) making a big boo-boo. He tosses a terrorist’s hydrogen bomb into space and its explosion frees the prisoners who make their way to Earth. But first, back on Earth, Lex Luther (Gene Hackman) escapes from prison, finds Superman’s North Pole getaway, and learns much of his secret history. Meanwhile, on a trip to Niagara Falls, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) finally looks past Clark’s Kent’s glasses and realizes he’s Superman, they go back to his ice pad and get jiggy.Continue Reading
Just as sound film was putting an end to Hollywood’s silent era, the opening scene of City Lights has two people speaking in synched gibberish (a cross between the adults of the Peanuts cartoons and a jacked-up kazoo) - this was Charlie Chaplin’s way of thumbing his nose at the new invention. Sound horrified Chaplin, and with good reason as it was already putting an end to the career of many silent stars. Chaplin knew giving a voice or a language or worse his strong British accent to his internationally beloved Little Tramp character could kill it. The Tramp doesn’t speak, nor does anyone else; instead Chaplin composed a massive score that went with the film.
City Lights opens with a title card, calling itself a "comedy romance in pantomime." It’s also a fable about the heartlessness of urban life, almost a gentle version of Fritz Lang’s much darker Metropolis. Chaplin’s Tramp may be at his saddest and most pathetic. As the Great Depression rages the homeless Tramp searches for compassion in his trademark oversized shoes, ill fitting suit, bowler hat, and Hitler mustache. Like Frankenstein’s Monster and that little girl, The Tramp makes a connection with a beautiful blind flower girl, played movingly by Virginia Cherill in her first film; she would be equally remembered briefly as a real-life Mrs. Cary Grant. She mistakes The Tramp for a rich man and he finds out she and her kindly Grandmother (Florence Lee) are going to be evicted from their hovel. The Tramp takes on a series of humiliating jobs, including street sweeper and prizefighter, to try and help the two women. He also befriends a drunken Millionaire (Harry Myers) who invites The Tramp into his home at night while under the influence, but the next day, once sober, kicks him out. Eventually he convinces The Millionaire to pay for an operation to give The Blind Girl sight. Later The Tramp is mistaken as a robber who robbed The Millionaire and is sent off to prison.Continue Reading
As a follow-up to director Joe Carnahan’s crazy action indie Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, he chose to write and direct one of the grittiest, low down cop flicks in recent years, if not ever, Narc. It’s the story of two cops (Ray Liotta and Jason Patric) investigating the death of one of their colleagues. The investigation leads them deep into the heart of Detroit’s brutal drug trade (though most of the film was actually shot in Toronto). Each has their own heavy cop baggage and demons that they must tote with them through the brutal streets.
Over the years Carnahan has been linked to a number of high profile projects that have either vanished or come to fruition with other directors at the helm (ranging from Mission Impossible III to adaptations of Killing Pablo and James Ellroy’s White Jazz with George Clooney). In recent years he made the overly hyper action comedy Smokin’ Aces and the decent but forgettable restaging of TV’s The A-Team. Narc has been the peak of Carnahan’s career; it’s the film that is still getting him attached to so many high profile projects. It showed so much potential; time will tell if he is ever able to match it in quality. He was able to bring an arresting visual style, emphasizing the cool blue streets of Detroit in winter (similar to the hues Steven Soderbergh shot Detroit with in Out of Sight). The city is made to feel frigid, not just in the air, but also in the hearts of the players on both sides of the law.Continue Reading
The Sound Of Music
Once upon a time in Hollywood, in the 1960s, big lavish adaptations of Broadway musicals were the hot ticket in movies, not just at the box-office but on Oscar night as well. Luckily Easy Rider, young driven counterculture, and the fall of the big studios eventually put an end to the era. Though I’m not generally a fan of musicals, I do have a lot of affection for The Sound Of Music. The film is carried by the charmingly virginal Julie Andrews as Maria, whose beautiful singing voice and pleasant manner take her from a charming nunnery to being nanny to a bunch of Austrian would-be Shirley Temples, and through song she cools the heels of their stern father Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), eventually wedding him. By Act Two, hours later, the happy Partridge-esq family now must flee Nazis taking over their beloved Alps homeland, but not before singing a few more songs to an adoring public. As hard as it may be to believe, shot by director Robert Wise in big, brash 70mm style, this is incredibly entertaining fluff.
Mother Abbess (Peggy Wood) is in a huff because the rebellious Maria is bringing chaos to the Abby with her constant singing, so she wisely sends her off to bring her pep to the gloomy widowed Von Trapp and his passel of blond haired marching children. When around he treats his kids like young cadets, even the teensy ones, although he is usually hanging with the Baroness (Eleanor Parker, who later played three different characters on three episodes of TV’s Fantasy Island), a middle aged divorcee on the make with her scheming partner, the music promoter Max (Richard Haydn of Young Frankenstein). Maria quickly figures out all these young scamps need is love…. and music. Before you can say "Do-Re-Mi" she has them in Tabernacle Choir shape. At first Von Trapp is put off by Maria’s groovy ways but when he hears his kid’s powerful acapella version of “The Sound Of Music” this breaks the ice and he becomes a father of the year candidate. All is going well, Max even offers to manage the new musical family act. But the baroness feels threatened by the obviously younger and less leathery Maria, and convinces her to pack her bags, leave the family, and go back to Nunville. Dramatic! End of Act One.Continue Reading
The summer of 1975 saw a decline in beach activity and beach resort profits, not because of anything that happened in real life, but because what happened in the cinemas that summer. It was a little film, by a twenty-something director, that due to technical problems was barely able to get out of the water. At the time of its release Jaws may have been the biggest cultural blockbuster since Gone With The Wind. It was all the talk, all the rage, and its effect on beach life and the reputation of sharks is still felt today. But more importantly, hype aside, Jaws is also some good old-fashioned filmmaking, and is still one of the greatest adventure, horror films ever.
In the mid '70s it was rare for a director of a major studio movie to only be in his 20s, but after a string of acclaimed TV movies, including the landmark thriller Duel, Steven Spielberg was called a wunderkind. His first go at the big screen, The Sugarland Express with Goldie Hawn, was a well done road picture. Though it was steeped in '70s rebellion, it didn’t come close to revealing just how in touch with the pulse of audiences Spielberg would prove to be.Continue Reading
The Beatles Anthology
The Beatles Anthology is everything you need to know about The Beatles. For die-hard fan it seems to have a clip from almost every recorded performance of theirs. And for the casual fan it tells the Fab Four’s back-story and then that incredible run of music from ’63 to ’70, it’s such a huge story for only seven years of life. The three surviving Beatles - Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison - are exhaustedly interviewed with very candid memories (Harrison passed away after this was made), and preexisting interviews with John Lennon are incorporated. Also of interest, adding to the conversation is their long time producer George Martin who seems to set the record straight when the boys are confused about a recording fact. It really is amazing that these four lads from modest backgrounds in Liverpool, England were able to have such a giant impact on popular culture all over the world and create some of the still greatest music in rock 'n roll history.
Originally airing on television, The Beatles Anthology was released in conjunction with a massive book and CD set covering the same ground. The documentary is told in eight episodes, each covering a year or two and each running over an hour, putting the whole thing at over ten hours long. Like a Ken Burns film (The Civil War, Baseball), it uses still photos and archival footage to set up The Beatles in their youth, but quickly jumps right into the formation of the band and their early career playing Hamburg nightspots. The first two episodes may be for the fanatics as there is a lot of rare material (recording demos and British television appearances) but by the end of Episode Two the Beatles have become a phenomenon in the UK. Then Episode Three begins with their famous landing at JFK and first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show; their conquering of America is when things get really fun.Continue Reading