King of the Gypsies
Due to a lack of high quality competition, King of the Gypsies is still the quintessential American fiction film about modern day gypsies, that is if you're old enough to think of 1978 as “modern day” (while the best non-fiction flick has to be Robert Duvall’s little seen documentary Angelo My Love). Based on a novel by Peter Maas (Serpico), King of the Gypsies reeks of importance and epic pretensions; but besides the cultural curiosity what actually makes the movie worthwhile and totally entertaining is the ham fisted act-off going on up on the screen. From Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire to Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River there’s a long tradition of method acting emoters chewing scenery and King of the Gypsies has its share of hungry thespians eager to chew. Heading the cast in his film debut the young pretty-boy Eric Roberts, pouting and brooding (but even under a teary-eyed tortured sulk the guy has chops and acts up a storm), doing what he can to keep up with his co-stars Susan Sarandon and Judd Hirsch who are totally over the top, with legendary ultra-hams Sterling Hayden and Shelly Winters nipping at their heels. Any film where Michael V. Gazzo (Frank Pentangeli in the Godfather: Part II) is an example of restraint in his one early scene, you know this is going to be some histrionic fun.
A New York and Pennsylvania gypsy clan is led by Zharko (Hayden); he claims to live like a millionaire who’s never done an honest day’s work in his life. The nomadic gypsies live without birth certificates, driver’s licenses, or paying taxes; they are proud criminal...
The Wild Bunch
As the western genre in America became more and more watered down by television, Sam Peckinpah singlehandedly turned the western on its head; his The Wild Bunch shocked 1969 audiences with its almost apocalyptic, misogynistic, and violent vision of a dying era. By today’s standards The Wild Bunch is still a nihilistic masterpiece. The action and graphic carnage on screen are still staggering and utterly exciting. And along with Battleship Potemkin, Psycho, and Bonnie and Clyde, it’s still one of the gold standards for incredible cutting-edge editing of violence and death. The film is bookended by two of the best pieces of choreographed mayhem ever put to screen where the Bunch engage in shootouts so violent and intense that the film got an X rating then and even got an NC-17 rating when it was re-released in the ‘90s (both ratings were negotiated down by the studios). The editing and mix of film speeds, including slow motion, have been ripped off and become a standard in operatic action scenes since—just check out all of John Woo’s best (Hong Kong) films; they’re direct grandchildren of The Wild Bunch.
The legend of director Sam Peckinpah has taken on mythical proportions; he was a man out of time, a hard drinkin’ visionary with a death wish. One fact is definitely true: he was an ex-TV western director trying to find a place in features. His Ride the High Country was considered a little gem while the financial disaster and critical drubbing of Major Dundee almost ended his film career (a half-cen...
Baby It's You
In 1966, Trenton New Jersey still seemed stuck in the cross hairs of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The British Invasion was in full effect and white kids were now listing to black music but the era of Frank Sinatra still held sway with some. For high school senior Jill Rosen (Rosanna Arquette) it’s a particularly confusing era; an aspiring actress, she is trying to embrace the times, find her own voice, and gain her independence, but when she is wooed by and then eventually gets in a relationship with an odd, new, rebelliously hunky greaser at school, known as Sheik (Vincent Spano), her place in the world, her values and aspirations, are challenged. Even after Jill goes away to college and her experiences are expanded, he still lingers in her mind as a representation of her past, a life she can’t quite outgrow.
Director John Sayles had been a wonderful screenwriter of campy B-movies (Piranha, Alligator and The Howling), but as a director he made a name for himself with his deeply personal, character-driven independent films Return of the Secaucus Seven (which The Big Chill has been accused of ripping-off) and Lianna. Though Baby It’s You brought the quality of his style up a few notches, it was still a very small-budget flick. The New Jersey connection explains why the film’s soundtrack is loaded with early Bruce Springsteen music, which unfortunately now gives the film a ‘70s vibe; but other than that the 1966 period detail is perfect, not just in the design but the characters’ emotional makeup.
The last decades haven’t been that great for real-life political radicalism, but in the movies it’s been extraordinary: Baader Meinhof Complex, Munich, Che, the cartoonish Eight Miles High, and now, Olivier Assayas’s extraordinary bio Carlos (epic is an understatement). Not since the glory days of The Battle of Algiers, State Of Siege, and Z have political terror cells been so damn entertaining. Even more thanV for Vendetta, Carlos is one of the giddiest pro-terrorism flicks ever made. Originally made for French television, the five-hour-plus Carlos has been released in theaters at different lengths; but The Criterion Collection DVD includes the three episodes, at their original length, spread over three discs (with a fourth disc containing an excellent French documentary that helps to fill in the holes). Carlos is so dense with history and international period detail that seeing those above-mentioned films (which have a number of crossover characters and references in Carlos) definitely helps make the film easier to follow. But that’s not to say you have to be a history major to appreciate Carlos; it’s so riveting and Carlos, the character, is so fascinating that just committing to it proves amazingly rewarding.
In Episode One we meet Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, AKA Carlos (Edgar Ramirez), a young Venezuelan man who claims to be a Marxist committed to the anti-imperialism and pro-Palestinian causes (though not always pro Arab). We get no back story; the film opens with Carlos already established in political terrorist circles. He’s no modern day religious zealot; he seems to just be a fearless, hunky, suave playboy who is socially connected to every radical group from Europe to the Middle East. While seducing a woman he plays with his guns and has her orally pleasure a grenade while telling her “weapons are an extension of my body.” He smokes and drinks; at first the operatives above him treat him like a kid, but as his criminal star rises they begin to fear him. He’s a would-be assassin, with more than nine lives under his belt. But unlike The Jackal in The Day of the Jackal he’s not in it for the money; he’s clumsy and his plots are not as well planned out. Though Carlos and his comrades kill a lot of people in many countries they often get killed a lot themselves. Many women come and go throughout his life; some join his struggle, while others are just lovers. Episode One ends on a suspenseful note as Carlos and a makeshift little international militant group are preparing to attack OPEC headquarters in Vienna.
Miracle on 34th Street
No other film in history has been able to capture the spirit of Christmas and toss cinders on the commercialism that the holiday has come to represent quite like Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street. At 60-something-years-old, the film is still just as relevant, funny, and, ultimately, moving as it ever was. Like How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the original animated version), It’s a Wonderful Life,and the more recent A Christmas Story, Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street has become standard, even compulsive, viewing during the holiday season. Today’s kids may think that Christmas is some kind of video game or a season to shop and spend money, but Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street has reminded generations what it’s supposed to be about. As Mr. Kringle says in the film, “Christmas isn’t just a day; it’s a frame of mind.”
The beautiful but icy Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) is a cynical single mom who works for the glamorous Macy’s Department Store in New York City. While handling the big Thanksgiving Day Parade she pulls a bearded old man (Edmund Gwenn) off the street to play Santa Claus. The twist is he actually claims to be the jolly toy maker and even calls himself Kris Kringle. The good-natured, but possibly delusional, old coot is so convincing Macy’s hires him to be their full-time in-store Santa. Meanwhile, Doris’s daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), is her mom’s mini-me, with equal disdain for childish things like make-believe. But when she befriends her do-gooder neighbor, a bachelor lawyer with the unfortunate name of Fred Gailey (John Payne), he encourages her to start to act like a kid and gets Doris to instantly open her heart to romance. All three befriend Kris, while he and Fred try to loosen up the two uptight females. Little Susan is taken aback when she see Kris speak Dutch to a peewee foreign girl, giving her the idea that maybe this guy is the real deal.
Duck, You Sucker (AKA A Fistful of Dynamite)
If Once Upon a Time in the West was Sergio Leone’s North by Northwest or Rear Window, then Duck, You Sucker (AKA A Fistful of Dynamite) was his Vertigo. It was a misunderstood film in its day; fans were startled by the director breaking from his formula and actually trying to say something. But like Hitchcock, what he had to say also didn’t satisfy what audiences wanted to hear, and the pace didn’t give them the thrills they were used to. With Duck, You Sucker, Leone was working on a potentially bigger canvas than Once Upon a Time in the West. Working with his biggest budget yet meant that Leone did have to concede his casting choices to the studio. Rod Steiger and James Coburn were hardly Leone’s first choices to play the leads, but United Artists considered both big stars while Jason Robards wasn’t bankable enough and Clint Eastwood was no longer available.
Throughout Leone’s Eastwood “Man with No Name” trilogy, each film was made back-to-back-to-back (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad & the Ugly) and each got more progressively ambitious in both scope and ambition as their popularity grew. Finally, the director peaked with his follow-up, Once Upon a Time in the West, an accumulation of all the ideas he had been building towards and both the ultimate post-modern western and one of the true film masterpieces of the 1960s. He finally took a break (three years) before returning to the screen with the eccentric Duck, You Sucker (afterwards he would take an even longer break, not being a credited director for 11 years). In some territories the film was titled Once Upon a time in the Revolution or A Fistful of Dynamite but it would not fully fit with his first four flicks (we all tend to ignore his unrecognizable debut The Colossus Of Rhodes in ’61). Everything about this new film felt slightly tweaked. Its tones moved from comic to dramatic to sentimental to tragic to cartoony much less gracefully than in his past work. The setting moved south to Mexico and the period moved up a couple decades. Where Once Upon a Time in the West had a deliberate pace, the strands perfectly came together and justified their speed, while at almost 160 minutes Duck, You Sucker sometimes just feels long and, worse, indulgent. But luckily that indulgence and the hint of a director slightly lost in his creation proves to be both fascinating and entertaining. And just as westerns had been reinvented in the ‘60s, the ‘70s saw another seismic shift where movies as diverse as Duck, You Sucker, El Topo, The Missouri Breaks, and, finally, Heaven’s Gate would help to kill the genre for a generation.
It’s not an overstatement to say that Jean-Luc Godard’s noiry, crime-romance Breathless (À bout de souffle) may be one of the most important films of a very important film era—a game changer. For the film critic turned filmmaker, Breathless Godard’s first feature and it helped to define an exciting new cinema movement that was brewing among young cinephiles in France now known as The French New Wave. With its hand-held photography, jump cutting, improvised script, and natural lighting, it carefully broke many rules of formal cinema. Inspired by American crime films, mostly the B-movies that that generation of the French critics came to appreciate long before their American counterparts, it romanticized the underworld, without the moral lessons of so many similar American movies. The film also gives a shout-out to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur, another film inspired by American Noirs. Playing the film’s lead, a small-time crook with a death wish, Breathless put actor Jean-Paul Belmondo on the map. His gripping and charismatic performance reeks of his influences, most notably Humphrey Bogart and Marlon Brando. Like so many filmmakers to come, from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino (who both cite Breathless as a major influence), Godard’s work, and Breathless in particular, was a tribute to the movies that came before that the director admired.
After Michael (Belmondo) steals a car and then shoots a cop, he finds himself on the run. Still always playing it cool, he hides out in Paris with an American girl, Patricia (Jean Seberg), a New York Herald Tribune street vendor. Like the best of French couples they smoke a lot of cigarettes, have sex, and talk philosophically about themselves. She is in love with him, but he is selfish and utterly self-obsessed, as he makes Bogart-like faces in a mirror always trying to perfect his gangster persona. She knows he’s bad news but maybe that’s what makes her even more devoted. She may be a naive waif, but she’s also college bound; she’s not a simpleton like Sissy Spacek in Badlands, she just wants a classic bad-boy lover. Her love and her own need to survive eventually lead her to rat him out to the cops. In a long famous death scene he is shot and killed before falling breathless.
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.