Stories We Tell
They say history belongs to the victors, and right or wrong, the person who tells the story gets to make up their own version of history. Actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley’s brilliant (and frankly ingenious) documentary Stories We Tell uses fragments and pieces of memory to tell her own and her parents' story, but without giving away too much, there are many surprises and twists. With the opening narration by her father, actor Michael Polley (of the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows), you think the film is through his eyes, but eventually you come to realize he may be reading from a text written by Sarah. He tells the story of his relationship with Sarah’s mother Diane, also an actress (who passed away when Sarah was eleven), which fully comes to life, aided by wonderfully edited-in apparent home movies. But as other family members and family friends tell the same stories from different points of view, you also come to realize nothing is as it seems. Everyone has different memories and different points of view, some only coming in fragments. What starts out as a complicated tribute to an artistic family eventually becomes almost a mystery as major family bombs go off. In the end, Stories We Tell becomes one of the most gripping and unique personal documentaries ever made.
Growing up, everyone thought Diane was a “good time Charlie”--an attractive life-of-the-party, a loving free spirit--even though she had two young children from a previous marriage. Michael was a dynamic young British actor on stage, but off, more of an introvert. He was private and she was outwardly showy. Looking back, Michael is convinced Diane fell in love with the characters he played on stage, and was disappointed with who he really was. Nevertheless, the two got married and raised a family. But after some years the marriage grew stale, especially as Diane grew more frustrated with Michael’s lack of career ambition. To both of their relief, Diane was offered a play in Montreal, while Michael stayed back in Toronto with the kids. After a long separation, the two were reunited and were able to rekindle the romance briefly, even having another child together, who turned out to be Sarah. After Diane’s death from cancer, Michael fell into depression, but was forced to raise his little daughter alone. It’s about at this point in the documentary that it starts to come out through different memories that Sarah must have been conceived while Diane was in Montreal and that dear old Michael might not be her biological father. And here Sarah begins to track down all the men who conceivably may have had an affair with her mother while she was away. And then the film takes a big new turn....Continue Reading
Eyes on the Prize
The greatest documentary series in PBS history (or television history, for that matter) does not belong to Ken Burns (though arguably he would easily place a couple in the top ten). It belongs to the 1987 production Eyes On the Prize. The term "television landmark" may get overused, but this story of America’s mid-century Civil Rights Movement truly deserves that distinction. Produced for PBS by a little-known production company called Blackside Inc., the series can be broken down into two seasons: the original six episode masterpiece Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years 1954-1965 and then its less earth-shattering but still relevant follow-up Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965-1985 with eight episodes in 1980. With no credited director, it feels it like it directed itself, as if the world needed it and it sprang up (though Blackside founder Henry Hampton is credited as Executive Producer). The film is made up with talking heads of witness and historians and an avalanche of archival and news footage. There have been a number of significant documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement, including two other PBS docs, Citizen King and Freedom Riders, as well as the Spike Lee directed 4 Little Girls, but Eyes on the Prize is the official starting point, the all-encompassing encyclopedia on the subject.
Though there was an accompanying Eyes on the Prize book, the more in depth paper version would be Taylor Branch’s extra thick “America in the King Years” trilogy of histories. Like a book, Eyes on the Prize is made up of chapters (episodes) that unfold, building on each other and creating suspense and outrage. The first chapter, "Awakenings," is where the modern movement started with the Montgomery bus boycott (which in turn introduced the world to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.) and the murder of a young boy, Emmett Till, which stirred the conscious of so many. Episode Two, "Fighting Back," takes place after the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the battle of Southern school integration. Episode Three, "Ain’t Scared Of Your Jails," details the student takeover of the movement with their creation of The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the lunch counter sits-ins and the freedom rides. Episode Four, "No Easy Walk," sees King back in the leadership position as marches in Albany and Birmingham are finally met with the historic March on Washington. Episode Five, "Mississippi: Is This America?," focuses on activists trying to bring voting rights to the state; with the murder of the three civil rights workers and the assassination of Medgar Evers, peaceful activists are met with extreme violence. And finally "Bridge To Freedom," after King wins the Nobel Peace Prize, the fight moves to the streets of Selma and the back rooms of Washington, DC with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.Continue Reading
In the strange mega-career of Clint Eastwood, no matter what your overall opinion of the guy is, it can’t be argued that his choices have been fascinating. Before becoming the acclaimed and active old-man director of middle-of-the-road bores he is today, he was a huge super-duper action actor and in his heyday made some interesting zigs and zags (all from 1969-1973 when he made ten films).
Fresh off of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, giving him international box office clout, he made the bizarre musical Paint Your Wagon (1969) with Lee Marvin. The same year Dirty Harry cemented him as America’s premier tough guy, he directed the female stalker thriller Play Misty For Me (1971). He followed that up directing the completely awkward Breezy (1973) about a romance between senior citizen William Holden and a teenage flower child. Also in 1973 High Plains Drifter, which may be his greatest directing accomplishment, was released. Eastwood plays a drifter in the old west and the film opens with him raping a woman (of course, she ended up falling for him). Right in the middle of those crazy four years he made the oddest and maybe most psycosexual film of his career, The Beguiled, a sorta Gothic Civil War almost-ghosty story (in the sense that people are haunted by memories), about female lust. It’s as if Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women went on a Picnic at Hanging Rock.Continue Reading
Important in the evolution (or devolution) of Sylvester Stallone is Nighthawks. From ‘81, it falls in that post-Rocky burst when Sly was still considered a legitimate actor. Though Paradise Alley, F.I.S.T or Rocky II didn’t threaten Hoffman or De Niro’s place as America’s top actor-laureates, Sly hadn’t yet become the steroidy, sequely crap machine he would come to be known as (of course with some quality films like Rocky III, First Blood to come and later Cop Land, but with mostly junk between). Today Nighthawks feels like a gritty '70s cop film. (It was originally developed to be French Connection 3.) It’s taut, strong but not overly muscular, and moves at a fast pace that you don’t notice till it’s over. Frankly, one of the most interesting aspects here is that Stallone in Serpico mode (bearded with longish hair) often wears glasses (big, clear disco-era glasses), which is something rarely seen in an action hero and symbolizes how the film was a leftover from the more character-driven film days (the glorious '70s) before guys like Schwarzenegger (and Sly) made them into total cartoons. Sly’s cop even pines for his ex-wife (played by TV’s Bionic Woman, Lindsay Wagner). The guy is vulnerable, not always successful and flawed. Nighthawks represents the end of an era, not just for Stallone but for the realistic action hero.
Actor Rutger Hauer made a name for himself on the international circuit from his work with director Paul Verhoeven in Turkish Delight, Soldier of Orange, Katie Tippel and Spetters. Nighthawks would be his first American film, though not his first English language one. (Earlier he had appeared in the British flick The Wilby Conspiracy.) Word from the set is that he and Stallone clashed. (More reason to love him!) Here the Dutchman plays a Euro terrorist known as Wulfgar who, after wearing out his welcome abroad, heads for the States. Meanwhile, New York street detectives Deke DaSilva (Stallone) and his partner Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams, fresh from The Empire Strikes Back introducing him to audiences outside of black '70s cinema, where he was already a superstar leading man) are being transferred from their play-by-their-own-rules undercover decoy work to a terrorist unit, which is already on the lookout for Wulfgar. Knowing he’s a sucker for foxy dancing queens, in a subtly intense scene, the eagle-eyed Deke manages to spot Wulfgar through the crowd at a discotheque, despite him getting face-changing plastic surgery, which leads to an exciting Friedkin-esque foot chase through lower Manhattan. Wulfgar manages to finally escape with a nasty knife slash to Fox’s face, making things personal now for Deke. And the cock-blocking Deke pulled makes things equally personal for Wulfgar. The one-upmanship eventually leads to an exciting highjacking showdown on the Roosevelt Island Tram and a crazy cross-dressing twist ending.Continue Reading
Films that have a moral condemnation about the seedy underbelly of life but still try to offer up a little titillation along the way have been around since the beginning of cinema. Sleazeploitation, if you will. Think of all those sexy pre-Code films and then consider the gangster and later noir period when the arousing exploits of a hatcheck girl would be stymied by the censors, making sure we knew this was amoral behavior. By the '70s and Midnight Cowboy, the sex industry had become a full-fledged and often legal enterprise and shock was less easy. Sleazeploitation films often deal with an innocent seeing the seedy world that has been around him all this time (and usually in such sleaze capitals as New York or Los Angeles). It's most interesting when big name directors make these films; of course when guys like Brian De Palma (Body Double) or Paul Schrader (Hardcore) make films about such subject matter it’s not shocking because they have a dark history in exploitation-ish cinema. That’s what make one of the great sleazy thrillers of the '80s, 52 Pick-Up, all the more interesting. It was directed by the great John Frankenheimer, a guy who was an innovator in the early dawn of live television and by the '60s was a major director of classics The Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds and Seven Days in May. In the '70s he generally moved to straight but tasteful thrillers like French Connection II and Black Sunday, but he ended the decade on a sour note with the mutant bear horror dud Prophecy. The '80s meant mostly forgettable work for hire, including 52 Pick-Up, which in ’86 was a box office bust and mostly written off by critics as trash--and I can sorta see why. But on a recent screening, I was struck with just how intense and exciting it actually is; this is a film that may have a cornball dated score and we may laugh at the clothes, but it actually ages well and deserves reexamination as a possibly important film by an important director.
If the name Frankenheimer wasn’t enough to bring some class to 52 Pick-Up, consider this; it’s based on a book by one of America’s all-time great crime novelists, Elmore Leonard. At this point only his early Western novels had transferred well to film (3:10 to Yuma, Hombre). 52 Pick-Up had just been adapted into a film called The Ambassador with Robert Mitchum and Ellen Burstyn to little notice in ’84, and the following year Burt Reynolds would star in the horrible Leonard adaptation Stick. It really wasn’t until the '90s that Leonard adaptations would hit their zenith with the trifecta of Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Jackie Brown. For Frankenheimer, Leonard adapted the book himself (with John Steppling), changing the setting from his hometown of Detroit in the book to, of course, the more glamorously seedy Los Angeles.Continue Reading
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution
The opening title card of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution reads: “In 1891, Sherlock Holmes was missing and presumed dead for three years. This is the true story of that disappearance. Only the facts are made up.”
This clever welcoming very much sums up the kitschy and revisionist way the story of literature’s greatest detective is treated. One-time dance choreographer turned director Herbert Ross created a near-brand for himself in the '70s with his theatrical adaptations, with films like Funny Lady and Play It Again, Sam, and Neil Simon scripts including The Goodbye Girl, California Suite and The Sunshine Boys. But it is with this adaptation from the popular novel by Nicholas Meyer that Ross really gets to break away from his more stagebound roots, taking advantage of actual European locations and a very exciting cast to tell this tale of Holmes being treated by Sigmund Freud. (Later he would have success going back to his dancy roots with films like The Turning Point and Footloose.)Continue Reading
When I was ten years old I declared Foul Play to be the funniest movie ever made. Maybe now it’s not quite as amazing as I thought it was then, but it’s still pretty entertaining. After hitting gold with the scripts for Harold and Maude and Silver Streak, screenwriter Colin Higgins made his directorial debut with Foul Play. Like Silver Streak, Foul Play is a sorta romantic-comedy (slash) mystery-thriller hybrid. It both romanticizes the old style of Cary Grant and accepts the newer Saturday Night Live inspired raunch that has dominated American film comedies ever since. This was Goldie Hawn’s peak years, coming off of Shampoo and just before her signature performance as Private Benjamin. In her mid thirties, she was still playing the big eyed pixie to perfection and she matched Chevy Chase, in his first lead role (he had played some bit parts in The Groove Tube earlier). The film is definitely a time-capsule of disparaging styles, jumping between slapstick sex comedy and violent Hitchcock spoof, there is more would-be suspense than comedy, but when the comedy works I can see why ten-year-old me got so excited.
The plot is some kind of murder mystery that has something to do with an assassination attempt on the Pope or something. It really doesn’t matter. Goldie plays a beautiful San Francisco librarian, one of those unlikely lonely hearts who goes to see old movies by herself. Through a number of contrivances she ends up with a dead man as a date which puts her into a vast conspiracy including an albino hitman working for a corrupt Catholic church until bumbling cop Chevy Chase comes to her rescue. The two eventually put the case together (along with his trench-coated partner Brian Dennehy) and, of course, fall in love. And in-between their Charade-like pleasantries, there’s Burgess Meredith as her wacky karate-chopping neighbor, Dudley Moore as a sex crazed swinger, Billy Barty as a dwarf door-to-door salesman, a laughing snake, opera, car chases, murders, and an Oscar-nominated theme song by Barry Manilow. I may sum this up shallowly, as if I’m poo-pooing, but it’s actually with much affection.Continue Reading
After his death, Steve McQueen reached rebel-cool icon status based on his off-screen machismo (racing cars and motorcycles, martial arts with Bruce Lee, stealing Robert Evans’ wife) and partly on his actual film resume, which in retrospect isn’t as great as you would expect. His peak years start in ’63 with his one masterpiece, The Great Escape (he did the overrated but still influential Western The Magnificent Seven a few years earlier), a couple of big hits that now feel more like remake-bait time capsules (The Thomas Crown Affair and The Cincinnati Kid), and of course there is also Bullitt, largely famous for its amazing high-speed San Francisco auto chases. But for the most part the late sixties were rounded out with forgotten melodramas (Love with the Proper Stranger, Baby the Rain Must Fall and The Sand Pebbles). The early seventies include a couple lesser collaborations with Sam Peckinpah (Junior Bonner and The Getaway) and the super cast/super dud The Towering Inferno. But besides appearing as himself in the Oscar-winning motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday, McQueen’s best film since The Great Escape is the epic Papillon, a film that has been written off by some as overly long and cold. But for my money it’s one of the best prison escape movies ever, as well as an eye-opening look at worlds I knew little about. (ALSO OF NOTE: I first saw it as a very young kid, in its second run at a drive-in, and there are some moments of violence that then confused me, but have stuck with me ever since.)
Based on the questionable autobiography of French petty criminal Henri “Papillon” Charrière, (played by the very American McQueen and shot in exotic locations all over the world) the script is credited to blacklisted legend Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (one of the creators of the '60s Batman TV series). The film begins in pre-WWII France with Papillon and other convicted criminals being marched through town and on to a boat to be shipped off to a French penal colony work camp. On the long and brutal ship ride, Papillon strikes a deal with a wealthy and rather famous forger, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman in full nebbish mode), for protection. With a promise to keep the meek embezzler alive, Dega will finance any escape attempts. Through the course of time, the two strike up an unlikely friendship (a prison adventure Midnight Cowboy). The film covers years in swampy, tough malaria-plagued conditions, finally ending on the infamous Devil’s Island. The film is loaded with wonderful set pieces, including long and short escape attempts, a leper colony, sadistic guards, creepy prisoners, solitary confinements and lots of double crosses (even a nun stabs Papillon in the back). It’s a survival saga and a friendship story, though the survival aspect is the highlight.Continue Reading
Based on Patricia Highsmith's book The Talented Mr. Ripley (the first of her five Ripley novels known as the "Ripliad," she is also the author of the book that became Strangers on a Train), which of course was also filmed later by Anthony Minghella in ’99, the French version Purple Noon (Plein Soleil) proves to be a much more entertaining ride. That’s not to say that the American version isn’t also very good. I like it a lot and I don’t know which version is closer to Highsmith’s book, but where Minghella tried to ring psychological complexity out of simplicity, often making it feel overstuffed, director René Clément (most famous for Forbidden Games from ’52) goes for a more straightforward suntanned noir. And as much as I admired Matt Damon as Ripley, Clément’s ace-in-the-hole is the young French superstar Alain Delon who doesn’t wear his acting on his sleeve like Damon did--instead he just naturally oozes charisma, making the character less a super-geek psycho and more a smooth criminal.
The film starts right off with two American buddies (strangely, played by the French stars) living the cafe life in Italy. It’s casually mentioned that the father of the rich one, Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), has hired the other, Tom Ripley (Delon), to convince his party-boy son to return home to San Francisco (?!) and finally face his adult responsibilities. Of course, Minghella’s Ripley starts in the States, with the setup played out on camera; score this to Purple Noon for cutting to the chase. None of Philippe’s other rich friends care much for Tom, including his girlfriend Marge (Marie Laforêt) and his pal, Freddie Miles (Billy Kearns, an actor actually born in America, though most of his career was in French cinema. He’s fine but the American version’s Philip Seymour Hoffman steals the movie in the role). But the ever cruel Philippe enjoys having Tom around where he can pick on him and taunt his lack of sophistication. (Ronet is much more mean-spirited and less charming than Jude Law’s take on Dickie). Ripley envies Philippe’s lifestyle, his money, his clothes, his freedom and his relationship with Marge. The American version gives Ripley an obvious homosexual obsession with his idol. Here it’s only lightly hinted at; Ripley’s main obsession is more financial and materialistic. The French version does not linger on their relationship long enough to get into those matters, and by the end of the first act, Ripley has purposely killed Philippe in order to steal his money and even woo Marge. The murder in the American version is a fit of passion; here it’s premeditated. The suspense comes in how he covers it up. It’s on a boat and it’s not easy. And the rest of the film is a cat and mouse game between Ripley and the police investigating the murder (and later Ripley is forced to kill Freddie), as Ripley pretends to be Philippe to keep the investigators and Marge off his trail.Continue Reading
Let me just lay it out there: not only is Kate Winslet the best actress of her generation, she’s probably reached all time top ten for me. After some British TV work she burst in to movies while still a teenager with her haunting performance in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures and then established herself as a major young adult actress with her wonderful work as Lucy in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. Winslet then capped off this early period of art house auteurs with Michael Winterbottom’s adaption of another victorian novel Jude the Obscure (shortened to just Jude for the screen) and the best on-camera interpretation of the role of Ophelia in Kenneth Branagh’s underrated Hamlet. And then her career exploded with the cultural and box office goliath Titanic making her a giant international star. But she did an interesting thing; she didn’t chase the money, and (until recently) she mostly stuck to smaller character driven films, never again working with another A-list brand name director like James Cameron or even Lee. (With smaller exceptions being Nancy Meyers, Michel Gondry and Jane Campion, while directors like Philip Kaufman and Roman Polanski were well past their primes. She only had a small role as part of a large ensemble in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion.)
With Hideous Kinky in ’98, (Winslet’s first post-Titanic role) she really laid down the gauntlet for the kind of career she would map out for herself: challenging, surprising, anti-star and often unsympathetic. Based on Esther Freud's autobiography about her childhood being raised with her sister by her free-spirited British mother in Morocco, Winslet plays the mom, Julia. Disillusioned by life in stuffy London and with a hippie attitude, in a search for some kind of spiritual enlightenment, she packs her eight and six year-old daughters up for a Middle East quest. The two little girls are played by Bella Riza and Carrie Mullen, and they deliver a pair of outstanding performances. Julia, though loving, is also young and selfish, with only fleeting concern for her children’s needs for stability. The girls actually want to go to school, but Mom keeps whisking them off on busses across the desert landscape to romance her Moroccan boyfriend, Bilal (the charismatic Said Taghmaoui), who also seems to be a lost soul, unwilling to live up to his community's expectations. It’s never fully clear if Julia is truly spiritual (her enthusiasm usually feels naive) or if it’s all a pose to rebel against her family and the girls’s father, a London poet. (The question of their marriage is also blurry.) The film provides an insightful and fascinating look at Moroccan city life; this, of course, is before the full-blown Islamic revolutions would make Westerners a little less comfortable being strangers in a strange land.Continue Reading