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
At one time Burt Reynolds was a megastar. By 1987 the shine was thinning, as his hair piece was thickening. Just two years after his arch '70s box office king rival Clint Eastwood made his obligatory quasi-Shane remake Pale Rider (the least of the four Westerns Clint directed), Reynolds did his own less blatant variation of Shane, with an equally simple title: Malone. Updated, instead of an old-timey oater, Malone is more of an '80s muscle film. This could have been a by-the-numbers vehicle for any number of steroidy non-actors of the day; the ace up the sleeve here is the lovely British Columbia backdrop and Reynolds' considerable charm. Even when he seems to be barely trying he’s much more likable then most of the action stars of the period. Back in his salad days (the '70s) Reynolds starred in two bona-fide classics, Deliverance and The Longest Yard, and had a massive box office hit with Smokey and The Bandit. But by the '80s--though Reynolds was still a very popular personality--none of the vehicles really matched his talent. Looking back years later, as the smoke has cleared, Malone is probably his most entertaining film of the decade.
Burt plays Malone, an ex-CIA hitman trying to escape his past (is there any other kind?) and make a break from his sexy handler (Lauren Hutton). After hitting the open road, his car ends up breaking down in a small mountain town where he befriends a clean cut gas station owning family, the Barlows. Father and his teenage daughter (Scott Wilson and Cynthia Gibb) take him in and luckily for them Malone also happens to be handy with a wrench for fixing engines. It turns out Malone happened to show up in the knick of time, as the town is being bought up by a nasty rich guy, Delany ( the alway dependable Cliff Robertson). The Barlows won’t sell, even under pressure from the town’s corrupt cops (lead by Kenneth McMillan) and Delany’s own band of thugs, plus the usual suspects of '80s B-creeps--including many familiar faces such as Tracy Walter (Batman) and Dennis Burkley (the lovable big mute biker from Mask). The bad guys try to exert muscle and Burt kills a couple of them. Shane had that famous tree trunk digging scene, but Burt doesn’t exert much sweat. Although he does get shot, giving Hutton a chance to come back to bandage him up and have a quickie romance before the creeps kill her. This leads to an all out war as Malone is forced to use his considerable killing skills to take out the security team and finally have it out with Delany. And then, very abruptly, it ends. But this was the '80s. Who wanted to sit through a movie much longer then ninety minutes? We had to get to the arcade.Continue Reading
Like the documentary Lost in La Mancha, which tell the tale of Terry Gilliam’s never finished film adaptation of Don Quixote, Jodorowsky’s Dune appears to be a much more enjoyable ride as a lost film rather had it actually been made. After the midnight circuit cult success of his bizarro lo-fi films El Topo and Holy Mountain, Chilean filmmaker and all around artsy guru Alejandro Jodorowsky set out to adapt Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune to the big screen. He assembled a a group of holy warrior artists intent on helping him realize his vision, leading them like a prophet. The entire enterprise eventually collapsed when the need for Hollywood big money entered the story. But while his ideas could have been visually fascinating (much of it is too ahead of its time), the overall metaphysical philosophies he was cramming into the story might have only made it another cult curio. Certainly for my taste, the story of the making-of is much more watchable than what might have ended up on the screen. On the other hand, with Jodorowsky’s charismatic storytelling skills it’s hard not to root for his mad-man belief in his dream and for that passion to go beyond mere storytelling to world changing.
Jodorowsky's background in experimental and avant-garde theater in both Paris and Mexico led to an even more unlikely film career. His surrealist and druggy early films found admirers in the midnight filmgoers as well as in French producer Michel Seydoux, who asked the director what he would like to do next. Jodorowsky said Dune and then begun putting together a creative dream team. For his FX Supervisor he failed to convince Douglas Trumbull (2001 and Silent Running) to join the carnival (not a spiritual warrior), but instead landed Dan O'Bannon (fresh off of Dark Star with John Carpenter). He would also convince comic book artist Jean Giraud (Mœbius), the surrealist Swiss painter H.R. Giger and British science fiction book cover illustrator Chris Foss to join the fun. As Jodorowsky apparently worked out the script, he also worked out his visions for the characters and sets with his artists. The ideas came to him in dreams and the talented group came up with some truly astounding art work for what the film would look like. He also supposedly got major rock act Pink Floyd to work on some of the score (as well as goofy French prog rock band Magma). For the cast he managed to gather Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and Orson Welles (who besides his fee was also sold on the project by being guaranteed a free meal at his favorite French cafe every day of the shoot). The young hero of the film would be played by Jodorowsky‘s adolescent son Brontis (who at the age of seven was prominently featured in El Topo); he would take on around-the-clock sword and combat training for over a year in preparation. The documentary features many of the storyboards that were put in a large coffee table type of book to help sell the project to would-be investors. Needless to say, that book of art now looks like the ultimate Christmas present for any sci-fi geek.Continue Reading
In the States, after the critical and financial success of English movie imports like Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Full Monty, there was a tidal wave of working class Brits vying for their would-be places in the American cultural zeitgeist unfelt since The Beatles and The Stones landed on our shores. (The Snapper, Walking Ned, Still Crazy, Bend It Like Beckham, Shirley Valentine, anyone?) It helped us re-appreciate the old days of Bob Hoskins, when working class Brits were gangsters in films like The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa during that great British wave of the '80s. So you can understand why I felt so cynical back in 2000 when I heard that the latest British darling, Billy Elliot, earned a couple Oscar nominations (for its script, director and supporting actress Julie Walters)--and even worse, it was about some kid who was alienated from his working class family because he wants to be a dancer. Egads, that sounded like a load of goop to me. And like my own personal feel-good-story, eventually I caught up with the movie and was pleasantly surprised. As a matter of fact, I was shocked; I too was a sucker for the flick and on rewatching it some decade-and-a-half later, I again fell for its charms.
It’s called The Doors but director Oliver Stone’s hyper-bonkers bio of the band should have just been called Jim Morrison. Because the real show here is Val Kilmer’s brilliant performance as the self-destructive lead singer, while the rest of the guys--Ray Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan), Robby Krieger (Frank Whaley) and John Densmore (Kevin Dillon)--spend most of the movie standing around scolding Jim and telling him to grow up. As usual, Stone hits his points with a sledge hammer, and Doorsaphiles may take issue with the actual facts. I mean, was Jim’s LSD-inspired obsession with an Indian shaman a Morrison or a Stone concoction? But that’s neither here nor there; like Stone’s greatest film, JFK (also released in ’91), in the end the actual facts don’t matter. What does matter is the incredible filmmaking skills on show here. From the camera work to the editing to the use of sound, Stone is in his element with his usual all-star crew at their most dizzying and superfluous. If Morrison was one of music’s most self-indulgent windbags--some love The Doors while others call them overrated--Stone is in a similar boat. The guy has won a couple Oscars and penned a couple kinda-classics (Midnight Express, Scarface) but often gets eye rolls when his name is mentioned. And that proves to be part of the beauty here; the excess of Morrison’s short life is perfect for Stone’s excess on film.
Though living members of The Doors at different points of production were consulted, in the end they all publicly disavowed the final movie, claiming Stone ignored their suggestions. So in Stone’s world, the story of The Doors goes something like this. Transplanted from a nice all-American, middle class childhood, Jim was a groovy, shirtless UCLA film student, influenced by Literature 101 (The Beats, Nietzsche, Rimbaud, etc.), making ridiculous overly arty student films. After discussing his coolness with a classmate, Manzarek, they decide to form a band. They add the less hip, but apparently talented Krieger and Densmore to the band and pretty quickly start to gain a rep on the Sunset Strip club scene for their rulebreaking improvised style. Jim, in full swagger, also stalks and then seduces a young flower child, Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan), and she becomes his old lady. The band navigates the swirling waters of the swinging sixties rock scene, having hit records, meeting Andy Warhol (Crispin Glover), dealing with police arrests and a general far-outness. Meanwhile the more successful they get, the more Jim alienates Pam and his band with his excessive egomania and drug and alcohol abuse, until he finally overdoses in Paris at the age of twenty seven, just after the publication of his poetry book.Continue Reading
On a first peek the Golan/Globus produced Runaway Train looks like it could be a standard prison-break action flick, but further along the viewer realizes it’s much more.Though it has slam-bang action and some spectacular stunt work, it’s actually some kind of thought-provoking, oddly foreign feeling (meaning perhaps, intellectual) character study. Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus' company Cannon Films made its name in the '80s with loud action movies like the Missing in Action flicks, the Sly Stallone steroidy Cobra, Breakin’ (and its sequel Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo) and the unwarranted sequels to Death Wish (including the so-bad-it’s-good Death Wish 3). On paper Runaway Train should have been just more adrenaline-sploitation, but the back story alone led it in a direction that made it totally unique. It's based on a screenplay by Japanese filmmaking legend Akira Kurosawa (and his long time collaborators Hideo Oguni and Ryuzo Kikushima), who had been hoping to make it back in the late '60s. Instead veteran Russian director Andrey Konchalovskiy took it over, while Kurosawa got a “based on a screenplay by” credit and the final script credits went to the odd threesome of Djordje Milicevic (a Serb), Paul Zindel (famous for writing the play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds) and the very interesting Edward Bunker, who turned his own criminal life into a successful writing and acting career. (Books he wrote were adapted into the underrated movies Straight Time and Animal Factory, and as an actor he appeared in many films including Runaway Train. Most famously he played Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs. What a long strange trip it’s been, indeed.)
In a nasty, damp Alaskan prison, superstar criminal bank robber (Jon Voight) has won his state appeal. Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan) is forced to remove him from solitary confinement, where his cell was welded shut. He's a legendary badass and the prisoners are excited to have him back in the population, especially his brother, Jonah (Bunker) and a young boxer, Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts) who's in on a statutory rape conviction and who takes hero worship to a new level. Manny wants to escape with his bro but when Ranken sends a killer after Manny, Jonah ends up getting messed up bad. So by default Manny hooks up with the annoying Buck instead. The two escape through a drain pipe and then make an impossible trek through a freezing Alaskan wasteland and eventually hop a freight train...home free. Somehow the train conductor dies and the train becomes a runaway, barreling through another train and making a deadly derailment the only possible option for the befuddled group of train dispatchers (C.K Carter, Kenneth McMillan and Kyle T. Heffner, the nerd from Flashdance). It turns out the train does have another passenger, a railroad worker named Sara (Rebecca De Mornay, a few years after her breakthrough in Risky Business, still looking for the role that should have taken her to the next level--something that unfortunately never quite happened for this talented actress).Continue Reading
Produced by Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler (Rocky, Raging Bull, etc.), The Split is a lost relic. Besides being the first film to ever receive an “R” rating by the ratings board, it’s a nifty heist film with a great cast full of fascinating credentials. Because it stars football star turned actor Jim Brown (and has Diahann Carroll as his ex-wife and a funky-lite Quincy Jones score), it’s often lumped in as an early blaxploitation flick. It’s not. Directed by a Scotsman, Gordon Flemyng, (who did a lot of '60s Dr. Who) and written by the great crime writer Donald Westlake (credited in the script under his equally known alias Richard Stark), this is the guy who wrote the books that became Point Blank (and later Payback), as well as The Hot Rock and The Outfit, and later wrote the script for The Grifters. So The Split could have easily been a vehicle for Lee Marvin, Rock Hudson, James Coburn or any other leading man of the era. It just so happens that Brown took the role. It’s a gritty little crime flick. It barely even qualifies as crooksploitation. Yes, it’s an imperfect film (chunkily directed), but it's still entertaining with some nice ’68 Los Angeles locations and some wild twists.
Fresh out of the slammer McClain (Brown) is recruited by Gladys (Julie Harris) to pull a big heist at the Los Angeles Coliseum (shades of the race track robbery in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing). McClain gathers an all-star cool cast to take part in the caper: tough guy Ernest Borgnine, escape artist/racist Warren Oates (a little less oily than he was a year earlier in In The Heat of the Night), limo driver Jack Klugman and creepy hit-man Donald Sutherland (still two tears before MASH made him a star). In a very complicated robbery and clever escape, the gang gets away with over a half-million bucks. But it’s after the heist when the real drama starts. It’s what happens to the loot before “the split” that cause the usual problems of greed and suspicion. First, the ex-wife has a sadistic, rapey landlord (James Whitmore) who kills her and steals the money, and then a crooked cop, Walter Brill (the great Gene Hackman pre-testing for Popeye Doyle) gets involved. The film becomes a stand-off for the money between McClain, Gladys, the gang and Brill.Continue Reading
The canon of films (both documentary and dramatic) about the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali continues to grow and has to be richer than that of any other athlete in history. It helps that Ali had such a fascinating, controversial and (eventually) revered life. The list would start with Ali playing himself in the 1977 film The Greatest. Then, a curiosity: the TV movie Freedom Road, which Ali starred in as an ex-slave who became a senator. Ali even provided his own voice for the short-lived Saturday morning cartoon series I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali. Will Smith played him in the underrated Michael Mann bio Ali. And on TV, Terrence Howard took his swing in King of the World, as did David Ramsey (a college classmate of mine) in Ali: An American Hero. Actors also pop up playing him in supporting roles in Don King: Only in America and Phantom Punch, while he is only talked about in the more recent Stephen Fears film Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight (as his fight with the United States over his draft status for the Vietnam war is decided by the Supreme Court). The documentary front has too many films to list, going at least as far back as 1970 with AKA Cassius Clay. Other highlights include Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story, Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World and The Trials of Muhammad Ali from earlier this year. And of course, the greatest of all is still the Academy Award-winning When We Were Kings. And just about every documentary on the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements usually has a chapter on the guy.
Finding a different angle on telling the whole Ali story is Facing Ali from 2009. Director Pete McCormack interviews Ali’s boxing opponents and surprisingly creates about as all-encompassing a documentary as there has been on the man. Whereas When We Were Kings really centers on the Ali/ George Foreman “Rumble In The Jungle” bout and veers off occasionally for backstory, Facing Ali moves back and forth on the timeline and manages to include all his historical highlights: winning the gold in the 1960 Olympics, the mega upset against Sonny Liston, joining the Nation of Islam, changing his name from Cassius Clay and infuriating the white press and boxing establishment, and of course, his heroic battle against the Vietnam draft (which put his career on hold for many years during his peak). But where the movie goes that can really excite a budding Ali-phile are the details of the non-historic fights, especially after his return in the '70s when he re-won and then lost the title of champ and then won it back.Continue Reading
Escape from the Planet of the Apes
Once you can get past the absurdity of the set-up of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the movie turns out to be the best of the sequels to the original brilliant sci-fi film Planet of the Apes. To recap, in that first film, an American astronaut, Taylor (Charlton Heston) traveled through space and returned to earth deep into the planet’s future where apes ruled and humans were just stinky wild mutes. In the less exciting but still watchable first sequel, Beneath The Planet of Apes, another astronaut, Brent (James Franciscus) follows Taylor into the future as ape hostility towards man is growing. Brent and Taylor finally meet up in an underground city where humanoids worship an atom bomb. Eventually apes attack and a dying Heston sets off the bomb, destroying earth and seemingly putting an end to the franchise. But, like Rocky III, the third film found a fresh take on the story and turns out to have a lot of fun on its own terms.
In this one, to the shock of the world, three apes in space suits land on present-day Earth (a very groovy early 1970s) in Taylor’s spacecraft. It turns out it’s archaeologist Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and his wife, animal (human) psychologist Zira (Kim Hunter), the two apes who risked their careers to help Taylor in the first film, along with the brilliant Dr. Milo (Rebel Without a Cause’s Sal Mineo). (Okay, so get over the set-up.) The three apes somehow salvaged Taylor’s ship from the bottom of a lake, managed to re-blast-off, and while watching the earth’s destruction from the sky, were sent into a time warp back to modern day. Silly. But now the fun starts....Continue Reading
Super Duper Alice Cooper
Finally a quintessential documentary on Alice Cooper, rock’s original shock master, titled appropriately enough, Super Duper Alice Cooper. Unlike the usual quickie music doc (Behind The Music, etc.), this is a film edited with style and a totally engaging visual flare similar to the wonderful Robert Evans doc The Kid Stays in the Picture, with those three-dimensional cut outs and old-timey film footage mixed in to help tell the story. And Cooper himself, an engaging story teller, narrates. Of course I’m the target audience; I had a couple of his records as a kid, I went to an Alice Cooper concert in Detroit when I was in middle school and I have nostalgic pangs that get me a little giddy when I see those '70s clips. But I’m also thrilled to report that I watched this with a woman who was born long after Cooper’s heyday who had little previous knowledge about him or interest, and she thoroughly enjoyed the movie, too. Again, stylishly and narratively it can satisfy the old-school fan and intrigue a newbie.
As told by the film, Cooper’s story is the usual "sickly kid dreams of more and beats the odds" ode. Born Vincent Furnier in Detroit, Cooper’s pastor father and mother moved him out West to Phoenix to help his extreme asthma. He grew up a churchgoing all-American type, but like many kids in the '60s inspired by The Beatles, their music (and spoofing the Fab Four at a school talent show) led to him and his buds forming a band. Even as a bunch of suburban squares they found some success in their hometown under the name The Spiders; later encouraged by a message from a ouija board they changed the name of the band to Alice Cooper (slowly Vincent would actually take on the name himself and later legally change it when he dumped his bandmates) and set out for hippie filled Los Angeles. In California they fell under the tutelage of super weirdo Frank Zappa and became the brother act to his all-girl band The GTO’s. Besides giving pointers on partying, the fashionable ladies also helped them update their look (with thrift store women’s Ice Capades costumes). Though they signed with manager Shep Gordon (a pot dealer, for whom managing music was just a side gig) they didn’t find the success they craved and were even jeered at for their growing onstage theatrics. The band took off for middle America, playing small gigs until they finally settled in Detroit, a working class city that liked to rock and appreciated a hard-hitting band with a strong work ethic. Playing alongside bands like The MC5 and The Stooges, it has been said that this garage rock scene was the beginning of Punk Music (and Johnny Lydon AKA Rotten, adds his voice to the narration later, giving credence to this by admitting what a big influence Cooper was on his band, The Sex Pistols). The Alice Cooper act grew more and more outrageous and when they got to open for John Lennon at a music festival in Toronto, an incident that led to a chicken being murdered made them famous. They eventually broke big with hits “I’m Eighteen and then “School’s Out”, but Cooper fell deeper into a dark hole of alcoholism and celebrity trappings. Finally he dumped his high school pals and went solo, where his shows became a sorta vaudeville horror act, complete with a boa constrictor, a guillotine and dancers. (He married a young pretty one.)Continue Reading