The all-time great director Sidney Lumet is often associated with his ear for the New York streets (The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Prince of The City). He's also acclaimed for his skill at balancing his films’ often loud histrionics (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network). So, ironically, he hit a home run late in his career with a legal drama that actually gets its power through silence.
The film is written by a master of gritty verbal sparring, David Mamet. Upon its release in ’82, The Verdict instantly joined the ranks of the all-time great courtroom dramas — an elite company, with flicks like Anatomy of a Murder and Witness for the Prosecution. And the role of alcoholic lawyer Frank Gavin gave Paul Newman his best role in 15 years (at least since Cool Hand Luke in ’67).Continue Reading
Call me crazy, but recently I stumbled across the 1976 King Kong remake, the one that is now known as Jessica Lange’s first movie, and for some reason, I really enjoyed it. (I saw it years ago as a kid, but didn’t remember it too well.)
Don’t get me wrong—the original ’33 flick really is a classic, and if you have kids, it’s a great introduction to both older and adventure films. And everyone agrees, even with its archaic special effects, the film still holds up as a thing of beauty. Well, guess what—so does this version.Continue Reading
Addams Family Values
Since they all seemed to spring from The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy, early sitcoms mostly followed the same basic comedy concept: the battle-of-the-sexes, men-vs-women formula. Breaking that rule is one of the many traits that made The Addams Family TV show and the two big screen movies so different and special. Here instead of bickering and plotting against each other, the married couple have a passionate and deeply sexual love, leaving most comedy hacks at a loss for creating conflict. And in the case of the films directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, the even bigger ace-in-the-hole is the brilliant casting of the couple, Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston as Gomez and Morticia Addams (taking over for John Astin and Carolyn Jones who were pretty fantastic themselves on the small screen). The first Addams Family flick was the directing debut of Sonnenfeld, who had made a name for himself as the cinematographer of the first three Coen Brothers films (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing, which had a then completely fresh look to them). Here he combines his zapped-up camera energy with a Tim Burton-like appreciation for the comically macabre (the first film was written by some of the writers of Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice). That first Addams Family movie was good but the second one, Addams Family Values, proves to be one of the rare sequels that is even better than the original.
Based on Charles Addams' now legendary cartoon for The New Yorker depicting the bizarre and wealthy family that skewered traditional family values, they horrified all the straight people who encountered them, and although not self-aware were totally confident in their own beings. The first film gave us the basic update of the show; Gomez and Morticia are the heads of an eclectic family clan of eccentrics that includes their daughter, gloomy Wednesday (Christina Ricci, born to play the role), their son Pugsley (not as funny as the chubby kid on the show) and the witchy Grandmama (played by Judith Malina in the first one and Carol Kane in the sequel). Also hanging around are their Frankenstein’s monster-looking valet/butler Lurch (the film version is not nearly as memorable as the TV version played by the giant actor Ted Cassidy) and their devoted assistant Thing, a disembodied hand, who really gets to shine in the movies with the help of technology. Both films really revolve around Gomez’s brother, Uncle Fester, played here by Christopher Lloyd much more grotesquely then Jackie Coogan’s TV version. Lloyd, with his gravely voice, comes off like a sheepish version of Murnau’s Nosferatu as opposed to Coogan, who is just a fat guy with a high pitched voice, but who is very funny. The first film revolved around crooks trying to swindle the Addams’ fortune by having a guy pose as Fester (similar to the plot of the second Brady Bunch movie, A Very Brady Sequel), and in the end it turned out the impostor was actually the real Fester.Continue Reading
Che: Part One
Everyone can come up with their "overlooked for an Oscar nomination" mis-justice list. Such a list may start with the fact that Martin Sheen wasn’t nominated for Apocalypse Now. And if you want to dig deeper, my list would point out that Orson Welles’ brilliant performance (and direction) in Touch of Evil was overlooked by awards givers. But out of the last ten years the performance and film that had Oscar pedigree written all over it and got no love was Benicio Del Toro and the film Che: Part One. Frankly it barely even got a theatrical release. Of course Che was director Steven Soderbergh’s epic story of the revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara and, like Tarantino’s Kill Bill double bill, it was so big it was lopped into two different films (and its awards consideration, totally mishandled). They are two very different movies, and Part Two is worth seeing (though much harder terrain if you don’t already know the history of Che’s involvement in trying to bring a revolution to Bolivia). Like history itself, Part One is a more easily digestible piece of pure entertainment, though in the end, the two together help give Che a bigger arch. Like the Cuban revolution itself, the romance is in the buildup, the planning, and the underdog story. The actual governing, not so pretty. But don’t think this is some kind of boring homework assignment, it's wonderful filmmaking anchored by Del Toro’s brilliant performance as the future college dorm-room poster superstar.
The film picks up almost where Walter Salles’ much more popular The Motorcycle Diaries ended. Exiled in Mexico the young Argentinian doctor, Che, is introduced to the budding Cuban intellectual revolutionary Fidel Castro (the also excellent Demian Bichir, who scored a forgotten Oscar nomination for the film A Better Life). Like everyone else Che is mesmerized by the charismatic leader and he agrees to join up. Cut to the jungles of Cuba where a weak Che eventually learns the ropes of a fighting guerilla (wonderfully spoofed in Woody Allen’s Bananas, thirty years earlier). He slowly earns the respect of his comrades and the peasants he meets along the way, to whom he gives free medical care and insists on educating. And though Che becomes a tough talker, he seems to be a poet at heart, a quality Del Toro always brings to his roles -- no matter the part there always seems to be a hipster softy lurking in there. Che also develops a relationship with a young protegee, Aleida March, who actually became his second wife (played by the beautiful Catalina Sandino Moreno, an Oscar nominee for her harrowing work in Maria Full of Grace).Continue Reading
Dawn of The Dead
The original Dawn of the Dead from ’78 is still best viewed at a midnight show in an afterhours crappy mall multiplex, the way most people saw it in the pre-VHS domination era. George Romero’s first and best sequel to his seminal, groundbreaking zombie flick Night of The Living Dead came out ten years later, with a much larger budget and an even grander eye for detail. (Hereafter the film will be referred to on this page in its shortened form, the way most Romeroites refer to it, as just Dawn.) Dawn owes more to 1970s post-apocalyptic films like The Omega Man and No Blade of Grass than the old school setup of victims trapped in a house waiting to be picked off one after the other, which the first film employed. Much of Dawn’s well earned reputation among gore-aficionados comes from the film's opening prelude, which is truly nasty, with many head explosions (Romero exploring an FX path he first ventured into earlier in the decade with his under-appreciated shot-gun-to-the-head epic The Crazies). The beauty of Dawn is though the draw may be the zombies (now in glorious color!), unlike the wave of imitations to follow, this is actually an existential, character-driven drama where the threat of the undead becomes secondary and humans prove to be much more dangerous (a concept finally realized again years later in the too-talky TV series The Walking Dead).
It was Night that gave us the zombie movie rules that have been followed like a bible ever since: the dead, now lumbering mummy-like bores, have come back to life to eat the living. The only way to stop them and send them back to a bag-of-bones state is to destroy their one-track brain. Apparently pretty soon after the first film ended, Dawn picks up. The world has plunged into anarchy. Two SWAT team officers, Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree ) become fast friends while trying to clear a zombie-and-resident-filled Philadelphia apartment building. (One guy is black, the other white--without vocalizing it--it continues some racial themes brought up most credibly in the first film.) Again the majority of the film’s gore content really does happen in that first scene. (The film was released without a rating to avoid the X it was threatened with.) Roger invites his new pal to join up with his buddy Stephen (David Emge, who later popped up in the under-seen horror masterpiece Hellmaster) and his girlfriend Francine (Gaylen Ross), two television station employees who have a plan to escape town in the station’s helicopter--after all, Stephen is known as “flyboy.” As pandemonium takes over the ground, the foursome take to the sky, eventually landing on the top of a suburban mall. Easily breaking in through the roof, they do a little exploring of the huge shopping mall to look for supplies; the place has been untouched so it’s complete with all supplies needed, including gun store and an ice rink!Continue Reading
Von Ryan’s Express
Two of the best action subgenres of the 1950s & '60s were the POW escape films (Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape) and train adventure flicks (Narrow Margin, The Train, Dark of The Sun). So what would happen if you combine the two? You get a really fun, utterly ridiculous, totally memorable movie from ’65: Von Ryan’s Express. Besides being a train adventure, what sets this one apart from other POW flicks is the adversary. While the prisoners of Stalag 17 and The Great Escape were housed in German camps and Kwai had Japanese overlords, the captives of Von Ryan’s Express are stuck in an Italian camp. And whether based on any kind of truth or not, Italian guards just don’t feel as cruel or deadly as their other Axis Powers partners. Based on a novel by David Westheimer (who also penned the novelization of Days of Wine and Roses), with the solid journeyman director Mark Robson (Earthquake, Valley of the Dolls) at the helm, this was made in the heyday of Frank Sinatra vanity projects and as usual he often feels miscast as an actual human being. On paper his role seems better suited for a more obviously physical presence, like a Lee Marvin. After all, Sinatra looks like he would be more comfortable with a martini in his hand than a machine gun, but his skinny frame in a wrinkled military outfit only lends to the absurdity and the fun.
A depressed group of mainly British prisoners in an Italian camp get a load of energy into their squalid existence when American Colonel Ryan (Sinatra) shows up, having been shot down in Italy. The highest ranking officer before him showing up was the very English Major Fincham (the always watchable Trevor Howard, in the more hammy late phase of his impressive career), who doesn’t like being pushed around by the runty Yank. When Ryan sees the poor condition of the health of the men, he rats out the tunnels they’ve been digging, in order to get the medicine the wacky Italians have been holding from them. But Ryan slowly earns the Brit’s respect by getting them new clothes and taking his punishment in the “sweat box.” Later, when it appears the war is coming to an end, the Italian guards flee giving the POWs free reign. They take off through Italy but are eventually caught again and put on a train headed for Rome, which is now overseen by nasty Germans who kill all the sick men. This is where the more original action setpieces start, as Sinatra and the boys take over the train and then have to ride it out of Italy while posing as Germans. In maybe the most bizarre scene, a British doctor (Edward Mulhare) who speaks some German poses as a Nazi high command to get the clearance for the train trip to continue and the two fifty-somethings, Howard and Sinatra, dress up like Nazi soldiers to accompany him. They must be the two oldest looking privates in the German army and actually resemble the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow when they dress up as flying monkey soldiers in The Wizard of Oz. What a sight for sore eyes!Continue Reading
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
Obviously Martin Scorsese is one of the most accomplished filmmakers of his generation, now into his sixth decade with a fairly diverse body of work. He has his great masterpiece, Goodfellas, and his next tier of classics: Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and maybe even The King of Comedy. All five of those are with his methody, then alter-ego, Robert De Niro; though not as extraordinary but still of note is his later Leonardo DiCaprio period. Interestingly, between all these films Scorsese has also unleashed many notable documentaries. After being one of many editors on Woodstock, he started with shorts, including a great bio/interview of a druggy hustler (who played the gun dealer in Taxi Driver) called American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince. But since his feature-length docs have mostly been made for television (with subjects ranging from film history to the New York Review of Books to Elia Kazan), his best have been about music. From his first feature doc, the concert film The Last Waltz, through the mini-series The Blues to his more recent outstanding George Harrison: Living in the Material World, the guy proves he loves and understands the world of musicians. It’s his respect for the little details and the big picture that make No Direction Home: Bob Dylan his true documentary masterpiece, and maybe secretly as great as anything he has directed (or at least right under Goodfellas).
Made for PBS’ American Masters series (the source of so many brilliant documentaries of the last thirty years), the film clocks in at over 200 minutes and was shown in two parts. Instead of his famous, show-offy visual flair, more than anything else he has ever done, No Direction Home shows off his storytelling skills. All of the footage was shot before he came on board, so in some ways his role as director was really that of lead editor (though the actual editor job is credited to David Tedeschi, who later was promoted to co-director with Scorsese on his NY Review of Books doc, The 50 Year Argument). Besides the incredible plethora of material (film footage and music, much not even of Dylan), the great choice Scorsese made is that instead of an entire overview of Bob Dylan’s life, he kept it small. After a quick run-through of Dylan’s childhood in Minnesota, the film ONLY really details his New York years from 1961 when he first hit Greenwich Village, until his famous motorcycle accident in ’66 (which let to a brief retirement and then a career reboot). But what an amazing five years that was. The film is also about the other music that was happening at the time that influenced Dylan (and which he would go on to influence) and really works as a history of folk music as well.Continue Reading
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