John Ford may have brought the Western out of the B-movie jungle and into the respected leagues (Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, The Searchers, etc.), but George Stevens took the workman’s template and made it beautiful. With his masterpiece, Shane—maybe the greatest American Western of all time—he infused the genre with even more mythology than it already relied on. Shane is the film that influenced the Western Revisionists and Postmodernists more than any other; Sergio Leone and his Italian friends in the Spaghetti Western scene were all obsessed with Shane and it shows in their work. If the plot of Shane sounds familiar that’s because it’s been recycled dozens of times in everything from Westerns (Pale Rider) to post-apocalyptic junk (Steel Dawn). Shane may have more to say about the Hollywood myth and romanticism of violence, and more poetically, than any film before or since.
Based on the novel Shane by Jack Schaefer, the film is seen through the eyes of a young farm boy, Joey Starrett (Brandon De Wilde), in the settled territory of Wyoming. Life’s a struggle for his proud but modest parents, Joe (Van Heflin) and Marian (Jean Arthur). Besides the usual struggles against nature in the tough terrain, the area is owned by the ruthless baron, Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), who is trying to force the Starretts and the other local homesteaders off their land. When a drifter named Shane (Alan Ladd) shows up on horseback, the Starretts take him on as a ranch hand and he gets involved in the conflict between the wholesomely innocent homesteaders and the greedy Ryker and his posse of hired goons.
Along with The Sting, Paper Moon, made a few years earlier, may be the quintessential Depression-era conman film. But while The Sting, though terrific, was more of a gimmicky star vehicle, Paper Moon has even more heart than con. In the best role of his career, Ryan O’Neal (once upon a time he was actually a superstar) stars opposite his real-life daughter Tatum O’Neal. At just eight-years-old, she gives one of the most acclaimed child performances ever. Director Peter Bogdanovich was working at the peak of his powers, fresh off the brilliant The Last Picture Show and the popular What’s Up, Doc? He vividly recreates the flat, lonely landscapes of 1930s Kansas; shooting in beautiful black & white, the period detail is as good as any modern film has ever done.
Paper Moon is based on the novel Addie Pray by Joe David Brown (Kings Go Forth), with the screenplay by Alvin Sargent, whose massive screenwriting career ranges from Ordinary People to the recent Spider-Man sequels. Moses Pray (Ryan) is a two-bit conman. He thinks he can make a buck when, after the funeral of a one-time lover, he agrees to accompany the woman’s eight-year-old orphaned daughter, Addie (Tatum), to the train station where she will be shipped off to a distant family. She realizes that he has scammed her out of her inheritance money, so to pay him back the two end up joining up on a cross-country con job. At first they’re at odds but eventually Moses ...
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Most of the talk surrounding Exit Through the Gift Shop was regarding whether it was a hoax or all real. But what was lost in the hoopla was what an incredibly entertaining and utterly fascinating film this documentary-within-a-
Part conman, part art enthusiast, Guetta is like a bloated Pepe Le Pew. He has a bunch of kids and owns a Melrose vintage clothing store, and he constantly has a camera filming every aspect of his life. While visiting France he begins filming his cousin, a famous graffiti artist known as Invader. So begins an obsession for Guetta. Back in Hollywood he hooks up with another famous artist, Shepard Fairey (who later would become famous for his Obama “Hope” posters) and then meets loads more. He goes with them and takes part in their illegal night painting activities. When the legendary Bansky (whose real identity has never been revealed) comes to town, Guetta becomes his wingman and films all of his illegal art installations. Guetta then travels with him to London and back to LA where he serves as lookout for a stunt Banksy pulls in Disneyland. Eventually Bansky gives him the assignment to finally take all that footage and edit it into a film about street art. But what he puts together, a hodgepodge of images he calls Life Remote Control, it’s a total unwatchable mess.
In terms of B-Movie all-star casts this crazy British flickVenom can’t be beat. All working at their highest ham level, you have the insane German method madman Klaus Kinski (Aguirre: The Wrath of God), and then there’s the American Sterling Hayden who in the fifties was a total stiff playing a lot of tough guys but then reinvented himself in the seventies as an solid character actor (The Godfather). Also on board is the great British actor Oliver Reed (The Devils) who was equally famous for his up and down career as he was for his drunken on-set behavior. Adding some more class to the cast is another terrific British actor Nicol Williamson who, other then his great performance as Merlin in Excalibur, never quite had the career he should’ve had. Rounding out the cast in the female roles, there’s swinging sixties British starlet Sarah Miles (Blow-Up), fashion-model-turned-actress Cornelia Sharpe (Serpico) and the always sexy Susan George (Straw Dogs). For a low budget flick Irwin Allen couldn’t have assembled a cooler line-up.
Director Piers Haggard was fresh off directing Peter Sellers’s final film, a horrible wreck called The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu. He replaced the American director Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) who was fired for creative reasons days into filming Venom. What’s ironic is that a few years later Hooper would make one of the craziest British genre mash-ups of all time, the zombie/alien/vampire flick Life Force. In the meantime Venom still stands as another solid genre mash-up; it’s both a kidnapping thriller and a snake-on-the-loose flick, and it does both very well.
The French Connection
Besides still being the quintessential “cop vs. international drug traffickers” flick and winning a boatload of Oscars, The French Connection also helped to establish director William Friedkin and star Gene Hackman as major talents. Hackman would hold onto his status for decades while Friedkin’s career would continue to rise before a major fizzle out.
In still maybe his greatest role, Hackman plays the doggedly determined New York narcotics detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle. Even when off work having drinks (and like most movie cops he has lots of them) he’s putting a tail on potential dope-peddling mobster creeps. He plays his hunches, which have paid off before, but more often than not have gotten him in trouble or made him look foolish. He’s a new kind of film cop—he’s as hard-boiled as Bogart but less heroic and certainly less likable. With his overt racism and lack of ethics, he’s all about busting the bad guys at any cost. With his slightly more rational sidekick Russo (Roy Scheider, in the first of his many cop roles in the ‘70s), they have a natural inclination to fight their bosses as much as the criminals. (Interestingly this was the same year that Dirty Harry was released, another famous rebel-cop.)
The Psycho Legacy
With so many books and documentaries made over the decades covering every aspect of Alfred Hitchcock’s amazing career and more specifically his masterpiece Psycho, what more can possibly be said about the subject? Director Robert V. Galluzzo manages to find a new and surprisingly fresh angle— instead of mulling over the influences on Hitchcock, we are reminded of the massive influence Psycho had. With an interesting group of talking heads, all obvious enthusiasts, they first contemplate the mythology that Psycho brought to cinema, but quickly they get to what makes the documentary most unique which is the study of the Psycho film sequels that sprung up some years later. Though not as commercially successful as many current horror film series, Galluzzo’s posse does manage to convince that they are worth a look.
Though the documentary only uses quick muted clips from the films, the stills and the talking heads are engaging enough that you may not even notice. It mentions early on, briefly, that William Castle spent a decade trying to rip-off Psycho (Straight-Jacket, Homicidal, etc.), but the dozens of French thrillers and Italian horror flicks that were directly influenced by Hitchcock are ignored. Hell, if you want to talk about Psycho’s legacy (and Hitchcock’s) Brian De Palma’s had a whole career doing bad Hitchcock (until later when he discovered other genres to steal from). The Psycho Legacy also avoids Gus Van Sant’s pointless scene-for-scene remake and the short-lived Bud Court TV Series The Bates Motel. No, the Psycho legacy these guys are itching to rap about are the three “sequels.”
The Island of Dr. Moreau
In terms of guilty pleasures, John Frankenheimer’s 1996 kinda/sorta adaptation of H.G. Wells’s novel The Island of Dr. Moreau may elicit the most guilt but certainly a lot of pleasure. By most standards the film is a complete mess with a legendarily ugly story of getting to the screen. It’s utterly indulgent and over the top, but it also has a giddy grotesqueness that makes it completely entertaining. Like its characters it reeks of madness, in one of those “what were they thinking” kinds of ways. Much more interesting than the ‘70s Burt Lancaster version, this later edition plays like a long, drug-fueled trip you wish would end but that the next day you think back and decide maybe it wasn’t so bad after all.
After surviving a plane crash and now lost at sea, United Nations worker Edward Douglas (David Thewlis) ends washed up on some kind of hidden private island (the kind that may have existed in H.G. Wells’s day). It’s actually an experimental playground for ex-respected superstar mad scientist Dr. Moreau (Marlon Brando). He was once on the cover of Newsweek but his crazy ideas had him laughed out of academia. Slowly Edward begins to grasp what is happening here, with the help of his zonked-out, druggy assistant, Montgomery (Val Kilmer). Moreau has been playing with DNA and turning exotic wild animals into half-men, some more successfully than others. His father/god complex has alienated the wilder ones who feel enslaved; they put together a rebellion against their full human captors.
Reversal of Fortune
For any lawyer wannabes, Reversal of Fortune works as a thrilling look at how you build a legal case and, at the same time, it’s a fascinating and often darkly humorous peek into the bizarre world of the Waspy jet set scene. And it’s all apparently a true story, based on the book by lawyer and Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz (played by Ron Silver) who documented his work on the acquittal case of the creepy rich slime bag Claus von Bulow (Jeremy Irons). Claus was originally found guilty in the attempted murder of his drug addicted heiress wife, Sunny (Glenn Close). For actors Irons and Silver Reversal of Fortune provided them with the best performances of their careers. (Irons won a well-deserved Oscar for his brilliant work, though truthfully it was a weak year.) For Iranian-born director Barbet Schroeder, who originally made his mark in French cinema, it’s his best English language non-documentary film (with Barfly being a close second).
Showing his ultimate admiration for the legal system, attorney Dershowitz comes off as very compelling and very righteous (in real life, he has since become a high profile celebrity ambulance-chaser and staunch anti-Palestinian bulldog). He explains to his team, made up of current and ex-students, including his ex-girlfriend (Annabella Sciorra), his reasons for agreeing to defend someone as unlikable as von Bulow by reasoning that even rich people deserve fair trials. Also, his high fees will pay for their more sympathetic pro bono cases.
That period in American history as the country moved from the Eisenhower conformism of the ‘50s to the freedom of the ‘60s has made for some wonderful films (American Graffiti, Baby It’s You), even if they often prove to be overly wistful. The Philip Kaufman film The Wanderers, based on Richard Price’s great novel, captures this period perfectly. It takes place in 1963 and though these teenagers of the Bronx who are the film's subject do stop to watch some JFK assassination news, they have no idea that a cultural youth quake could soon open them up to a whole new world. Not since West Side Story had gang life been as romanticized as it was in the ‘70s with the T-Birds of Grease, The Warriors, The Hollywood Knights andThe Lords of Flatbush (only of note because of the presence of a pre-stardom Henry Winkler and Sylvester Stallone). Though perhaps now a cult film because of years of people discovering it on cable, The Wanderers really is a lost gem and the best of its genre.
In a newly integrated Bronx neighborhood, Ritchie (Ken Wahl, an actor who had the toothy good looks and acting chops to be a big star, but his personal life derailed his career) leads the Italian American gang the Wanderers. He’s a stud and has his sights on bohemian chick Nina (played by the adorable Karen Allen), but when he ...
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.