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
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