The Dirty Dozen
The Dirty Dozen, the granddaddy of action super-team flicks, took the sheen off the WWII big ensemble picture (The Longest Day, The Great Escape) and mixed in the military cynicism that was bubbling up (encouraged by doubt about the Vietnam War) with rowdy anti-heroics (MASH, Kelly’s Heroes). Like so many films to follow, the film breaks into two halves easily: first, assembling the team full of anti-authority types (Stripes); and second, the undercover suicide mission behind enemy lines (Inglourious Basterds). After years of dependable supporting performances in The Wild One, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Ship of Fools, this may be silver haired, tough guy actor Lee Marvin's signature role (with apologies to the great crime thriller Point Blank and his Oscar winning work in the otherwise forgettable Cat Ballou). The Dirty Dozen gives Marvin the perfect opportunity to showcase his brawn as well as his sense of humor. As Major Reisman, he is assigned the task of putting together a WWII team made of 12 creeps and criminals, many of whom are facing the noose, to first train and then sneak into France before D-Day to kill a group of high-end Nazis (with their dates) at a fancy chateau shindig.
The team is made up of many future stars, or at least interesting cinematic curios...Continue Reading
The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
Director Robert Wise’s 1951 Science-Fiction opus The Day The Earth Stood Still has always been the granddaddy of the friendly alien invasion genre. While the more popular “mean alien” genre dominated Sci-Fi in the decade (The War of the Worlds, The Thing From Another World, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), the peaceful alien is usually less exciting and harder to pull off. It wasn’t really for another 20-something years that it was done as well again (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Starman, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial and even the ’78 version of Superman). Like the best of Sci-Fi, The Day The Earth Stood Still reflects the paranoia of the period (the Cold War, the atomic bomb). What makes it so much more than the usual hokum of the '50s is the high caliber talent behind it. It has a groundbreaking and influential score by the brilliant Bernard Herrmann. Director Wise (after editing Citizen Kane) helped invent the Noir Horror genre with The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945). Afterward he did straight Noirs with films like The Set-Up (1949) and The House on Telegraph Hill (1951). Though The Day The Earth Stood Still has a black and white gloss to it, it also has shadows, lies, and typical Noir pessimism, making it maybe the first Noir Sci-Fi flick.
When a big flying saucer lands in Washington, DC, the handsome alien pilot Klaatu (Michael Rennie) emerges from it in peace but is shot by a jumpy soldier. In response, his big robot buddy Gort emerges and destroys all the weapons present with his head laser. After a debriefing by the military, Klaatu tells a White House official he has an important message for the leaders of the world. Instead he is pooh-poohed and locked up. He escapes and goes undercover as “Mr. Carpenter,” a dim-witted Earth nerd, taking a room in a boarding house to learn more about these strange Earth people. He hangs out with a science loving kid there named Bobby (Billy Gray) who gives him a walking tour of DC and a quickie lesson in Americanism. Bobby’s mom, Helen (the great Patricia Neal), works for Professor Jacob Barnhardt (played by Sam Jaffe), a math wiz, whom Klaatu eventually befriends and to whom he explains his intentions: Earth’s love of war and newly acquired atomic weapons have endangered the universe, and unless the powers that be dump their nukes, he will be forced to destroy the planet.Continue Reading
Though it almost shares a title (but little else) with director Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 spaghetti-war flick The Inglorious Bastards, which was just a dirtier Dirty Dozen knockoff, Quentin Tarantino knows a good title when he sees it. With a minor spelling change he gave us his own comic book WWII movie, Inglourious Basterds. With a definite nod to François Truffaut’s The Last Metro, it’s like a Powell & Pressburger (49th Parallel, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing) piece of propaganda, if those guys were still making those flicks in the 1970s. What at first glance may seem like a nasty and mean Nazi revenge fantasy is actually a tribute to the power of cinema and the power of Tarantino’s beautifully composed dialogue. This may be the most talky war script ever written, but unlike the pointlessly inane ramblings of the film he made two years before this, Death Proof (his half of the double feature movie Grindhouse), this dialogue is used to constantly build suspense, and in the hands of an expert actor like Christoph Waltz, it often sounds like an evil poetry. Aided by the clever score, pirated from other films, and the sharp period detail, Inglourious Basterds proved to not only be one of Tarantino's most ingenious creations, but is a film that has aged well (in the brief years since) and is sure to take its place with the best of the genre (lets call ‘em Naziploitation flicks).
Inglourious Basterds is an equally shared international ensemble piece divided into chapters. First you are introduced to a cat n’ mouse playing German SS man, "Jew Hunter," Col. Hans Landa (Waltz in a mannered piece of scenery chewing that deservedly won him an Oscar). The film opens with him interrogating a French dairy farmer who is hiding a neighboring Jewish family in his floorboards. He toys with the man before his soldiers shoot up the floor, but the teenage daughter Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) manages to escape into the countryside. Meanwhile an American unit commanded by a very Southern Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt acting like a cross between Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn) leads a group of Jewish soldiers known as the "Basterds" on a dirty trick mission to torture and wreak havoc on Nazis, becoming legends and the thing of nightmares to Nazis, including even a flummoxed Hitler (Martin Wuttke). A few years later, Shosanna, now known as "Emmanuelle Mimieux" (and resembling a young Catherine Deneuve), runs a hip cinema in Paris and is any movie geek’s dream girl. Unfortunately she has the unwanted attention of a young German war hero, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl of Good Bye, Lenin! and The Edukators). He is even starring as himself in a recently completed film about his sniper exploits called Nation’s Pride, directed by head Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth). Zoller convinces the higher-ups, including security-chief Hans Landa, to hold the premiere at Shosanna’s cinema, with the German high command in attendance, including the Führer himself. Shosanna and her boyfriend hatch a plan to burn the theater down during the screening.Continue Reading
The train movie has always been a favorite genre of mine (Horror Express, Runaway Train, Narrow Margin, Emperor of the North Pole, etc). Going back to the silents (The Great Train Robbery) the train trip has been used famously as a murder mystery setting (Murder on the Orient Express, The Lady Vanishes), a place for romance (North by Northwest), action (The Cassandra Crossing, Breakheart Pass), comedy (The General), and horror (Terror Train). In 1976 director Arthur Hiller wasn’t exactly sure what genre he wanted - romance, action, comedy. Though sometimes messy, his Silver Streak did mange to breathe some life into the train picture and it ended up being a perfect piece of genre-bending entertainment.
With a screenplay by Colin Higgins, who had written the cult flick Harold and Maude and would go on to write and direct another solid romantic-action-comedy, Foul Play with Chevy Chase, Silver Streak stars Gene Wilder. As one of the era’s most unique comic talents, the role feels very un-Wilder-like. Mater of fact it could have been Chase, Elliott Gould, George Segal, Burt Reynolds or any leading man of the mid '70s. It’s not until just over the half way mark when Richard Pryor enters and infuses the film with a fresh energy, bringing out the more manic Wilder that audiences had grown to love. After getting a co-screenwriting credit on the Wilder flick Blazing Saddles, but nixed as an actor, Silver Streak would mark Pryor and Wilder’s first onscreen comedy together. They would follow it with the sometimes hilarious Stir Crazy and then the mostly terrible Another You and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. But Silver Streak is the film that really best showcases the yin and yang of their different comic styles.Continue Reading
The great horror spoofs are far and few between. For every Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein or Shaun of the Dead (both excellent) there are at least a dozen Scary Movies, Saturday the 14ths or Vampire in Brooklyns, most tend to range from lousy to lame. Young Frankenstein falls in the excellent camp, working as both a laugh out loud comedy and a perfect dissection of the style used by Universal in their famous monster period, directly spoofing both Frankenstein and its sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein. For director Mel Brooks it would mark the apex of his career after The Producers and Blazing Saddles, all three films featuring Gene Wilder who cowrote the Young Frankenstein script with Brooks. Wilder went on to direct his own films and neither Brooks nor Wilder would ever make anything as inspired as the three films they made together. They would even both later direct lousy and lame horror spoofs: Haunted Honeymoon (Wilder... lame) and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (Brooks... lousy). But together, combining both men’s distinct comedy style, they created a film that is easily one of the two or three greatest horror comedies of all time.
American lecturer and doctor, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Wilder) can’t live down his famous mad doctor grandfather (Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein) and is truly embarrassed by his roots. When he inherits the family property in Eastern Europe he leaves behind his icy fiancée, Elizabeth, played by Madeline Kahn, on her own roll of big time performances in the period, including Blazing Saddles and Paper Moon. At the castle, he meets his new hunchbacked manservant, Igor (bug-eyed British comedian Marty Feldman), his sexy young laboratory assistant, Inga (Teri Garr) and the creepy maid, Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman). After reading his grandfather’s journals, Frederick becomes convinced he can reanimate life and sets about recreating his experiments. Like the original Frankenstein story, he brings a patched together man back to life but the man (Peter Boyle, very crafty casting) is accidentally given an abnormal brain and is a relegated to being a monster.Continue Reading
No Blade of Grass
For hardcore moviephiles the Warners Archive Collection has been a godsend. Instead of mass producing everything the company owns, many titles have been released as VOD (Video On Demand) and, because of the lower demand, these are titles that may not have otherwise ever seen the light of day. These are DVDs that include no extras and usually haven’t been remastered, but are still very watchable and often have never been available in any form in the home viewing marketplace. Titles range from Hollywood classics (Tea and Sympathy) to both live action (Sheena) and animated television series (Pac Man the TV show!). But where they have really excelled is in films from the golden period of the '60s and '70s that have never had much home viewing distribution, ranging from the great (Dark of the Sun), the bad (Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze), and the weird (Brewster McCloud) to the culty (You’re a Big Boy Now), the gritty (The Outfit), and the forgotten hits (Freebie and the Bean, The Fish that Saved Pittsburg). Many of these have been films I saw and even obsessed over as a kid (I was dreaming for the Dark Of The Sun release). Most excitingly I’ve finally been given a chance to catch up with a post-apocalypse flick I vaguely remember from an old grainy bootleg VHS copy I saw many years ago. (My memories of No Blade of Grass have haunted me). This most recent viewing reconfirmed the scary power this movie still carries.
Hungarian born Cornel Wilde was a long time pretty boy jock actor. He got an Oscar nomination early in his career for playing Frederic Chopin in A Song to Remember in 1945, but besides a nice supporting turn in The Greatest Show On Earth most of his career was awash in B-swashbuckling adventure flicks. He had dabbled in directing throughout the '50s but it wasn’t until 1965 when he fully connected the dots with his survival action masterpiece, The Naked Prey (a film that has gotten the full bells and whistles treatment from the high-end DVD distributors Criterion). Five years later No Blade of Grass, continues on much of those same themes of man vs. his savage impulses, going even further with the violence and throwing in deeper groovy environmental paranoia.Continue Reading
Searching for Sugar Man
Like a real life Eddie & The Cruisers this British documentary by a Swedish director (Malik Bendjelloul) about a Detroit folk singer named Sixto Rodriguez who became an icon to a generation of white South Africans is both an in-search-of mystery and an inspirational tome to the power of music and survival. Searching for Sugar Man is another one of those documentaries that if it didn’t have “true story” stamped on it might be too crazy to believe. Not to mention that for someone my age to know that this person existed (and in my own childhood backyard of Detroit) and, like most of the world, am only now becoming aware of the stunning music that he created, it’s sad that Sixto Rodriguez's beautiful songs haven’t been on my heavy rotation all my life. But since seeing this movie they have become ingrained in my head and will never leave.
Coming out of nowhere for a handful of music business types in the late sixties, Mexican American Detroiter Sixto Rodriguez sounded like he could be the next big thing. He had a clear voice (that reminds me of Donovan) with sophisticated lyrics about love, heartbreak and socio-political ills in the Bob Dylan tradition. He recorded two albums and both were commercial flops. So Rodriguez (as he was known) went back to being an inner-city guitar-toting day laborer (and, of course, was screwed out of royalties for his songs). And that’s the end of that story. Or was it? Copies of the albums made their way into South Africa where they became massively popular to a generation of white Afrikaners who were coming of age and questioning the system of apartheid in which they grew up. A total police-state boxed-out from the rest of the world, South Africa was a little behind the times culturally and cut-off when it came to music information. The rebellion and loneliness in Rodriguez’s lyrics spoke to them. The rumor was that Rodriguez had dramatically killed himself on stage, putting an end to any kind of personal contact South Africans might have hoped to have with their idol. But the music lived on and came to define the decade for many.Continue Reading
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot
Clint Eastwood hit the big time with his trio of Sergio Leone-directed genre-bending spaghetti westerns and then propelled to superstardom with the vigilante-cop Dirty Harry flicks. But even while playing the mega-star in commercial fare he still managed to make a number of unusual flicks you wouldn’t expect from an actor riding such a glorious wave. Films like the gothic, civil war, teen lust thriller The Beguiled or playing a sociopathic rapist gunmen in the western High Plains Drifter (both great flicks) matched by what could only be called a homoerotic, action, road, buddy-dramady called Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, it’s like Midnight Cowboy but with fast cars and guns. The other thing that makes the movie so unique in Eastwood’s filmography; it was the only time in the era that he was paired with a co-star with so much measurable talent. In his best performance after his debate in The Last Picture Show, Jeff Bridges gives a fascinating performance and shows why he would also eventually reach iconic status (he also got well-deserved Oscar nominations for both films). Thunderbolt and Lightfoot provides Eastwood fans with the expected muscle, but also an odd dose of heart.
After the syrupy theme song by Paul Williams called “Where Do I Go From Here?” Eastwood first appears on screen as a minister giving a sermon in a church. When an assassin tries to shoot him, clearing the church, he takes off on foot and is saved when an ecc...
Who would have guessed that an American Idol type of singing competition show could bring enlightenment, democracy and change to a nation? Of course not in the U.S. - our version only inspires cruelty and insipid syrupy belted versions of stale Whitney Houston songs. But in Afghanistan, their version of the show, Afghan Star, may just be dragging a country that has been plagued by decades of wars, poverty and tribal fighting into the twentieth century where everyone believes that becoming famous is the goal of life.
Directed by Havana Marking, the documentary Afghan Star is the most fascinating peak into Middle Eastern media since Control Room five years earlier. Here we follow four contestants, each with different ethnicities from different parts of the country who risk their lives to sing on television. If you think the divisions of the States or regions in U.S. can be tense, Afghanistan's animosity between neighbors keeps the country constantly on the brink of a mini-civil war. But after years of Taliban repression (where television and singing were banned) and still a strong conservative Muslim arm in the country, the contestants and the show’s producer/host Daoud Sediqi are convinced that what their country needs is music and they are eager to give it. Even having a woman sing on TV is still considered radical and leads to a number of dangerous incidents which are well covered in the documentary. The film also does a great job of humanizing the Afghan people who show that no matter how dire the country seems to be, the contestants and the show's audience (at least a third of the country are regular watchers) are still so full of hope. On Afghan Star the theme songs from The Sound Of Music and Footloose are still alive, playing out with life and death consequences.
The Long Good Friday
The DVD box has a blurb from an old review that compares it to The Godfather, but in all actuality the very British pulp gangster flick The Long Good Friday is much closer in spirit to TV’s The Sopranos. Matter of fact, it’s fair to say that The Sopranos is a direct descendent of this crime and politics saga. Bob Hoskins, in a brilliant, star-making performance, carries the film as Harold Shand and, like Tony Soprano, he’s a two-bit street punk who has worked himself up the criminal food chain; instead of New Jersey he runs London. Like Tony, Harold fancies himself an ambitious businessman. He thinks the gaudy opulence he surrounds himself with gives him class and makes him legitimate. Also like the TV show, his wife plays a key role in his life - she’s almost a First Lady of the underworld. Unlike Tony, Harold seems to be devoted to his wife Victoria (played by the great Helen Mirren, just hitting her stride in her important run of great film and TV roles). She seems to be a little more posh than him and like his fancy boat, helps him feel like he’s arrived. Harold also has a crew of devoted lieutenants, the younger ones treat him like a father figure. Although maybe what makes these husky, bearish gangsters resemble each other most is the complicated rage that they desperately try to control. Even when they know revealing their true sociopathic nature can be bad for business, they just can’t help themselves.
With The Long Good Friday, British television director John Mackenzie, on a very modest budget, inexplicably made probably the best English gangster film ever. Inexplicable because though the guy continued to work in film and TV for decades he never made anything else of note. Nor did screenwriter Barrie Keeffe, who also came from the small screen, and who, after the acclaim for The Long Good Friday, never had another screenplay produced (he went back to TV). These two guys, along with the strong collaboration from Hoskins (who also came from TV at the time), would create such a special little gem that would help usher in a mini resurgence in home grown independent British film in the '80s (British film meaning paid for by the pound, not the dollar).