The Iron Giant
1999 was about as exciting as it gets for feature film animation with such diverse highlights as Walt Disney’s better than expected Tarzan, the jump from TV to the big screen South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Pixar’s great sequel Toy Story 2, and the American release of Hayao Miyazaki’s Japanese mind-bender Princess Mononoke. Out of nowhere came one of the most unique, stylish and moving animated flicks ever, The Iron Giant, from a Simpsons executive consultant named Bill Bird (who famously would go on to direct two of Pixar’s best, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and then the live action Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol).
Taking place in the chilly Cold War year of 1957, The Iron Giant works as both an allegory to America’s heightened paranoia and a stylistic tribute to the imagination those jitters created. It’s sort of a cross between The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (with some Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot in there too). With a theme of embracing what you don’t understand, it may sound like just another “boy and his giant robot” story, but it’s much richer than a simple pitch and it may just bring a tear to even the most cynical of viewers.
At one point Sylvester Stallone was considered a real actor, bursting into superstardom with the original Rocky flick, becoming a household name and even winning an Oscar for his original screenplay. He would continue to stay popular with its first two sequels, as well as some interesting (though less popular) movies like the quasi Hoffa bio F.I.S.T and the underrated terrorism thriller Nighthawks. He would hit box office gold again in 1982 with an intelligent action flick, First Blood, and though he would go on to become a global brand, First Blood would be more or less the last time he would push himself as an actor (though about once a decade he has managed to pop up in thoughtful, quality non ‘roid roles like Cop Land in ’97 and Rocky Balboa in ’06). Though some of his roles from the '80s have become almost camp classics of bad (Cobra, Tango & Cash), First Blood was about the last time he was able to combine both muscle and a quality script to perfectly suit his oversized ego and release a flick that still holds up today.
Ted Kotcheff was a television director in the '60s, but by the next decade he hit the big screen with a string of fairly popular flicks (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Fun with Dick and Jane and North Dallas Forty). In ’82 he made the little seen but admirable cult deprograming drama Split Image as well as First Blood. It would be his peak both commercially and critically before slowly moving back to TV assignments. Still it's an interesting filmography and important to explain why First Blood works so well. Kotcheff was a character driven director, not an action hack.
In a bleak, warless future society that stylistically looks a lot like the 1970s, corporations have taken over for governments. But without war the people are still bloodthirsty so they get their kicks from a sport called rollerball, a male version of roller derby, but way more violent and even deadly. Besides guys zipping around a track on roller skates, punching each other out, there are motorcycles too. Worrying that a player can get too popular, corporate head honcho Bartholomew (John Houseman) informs Houston’s star player, the he-man Jonathan E. (played by he-man actor James Caan, a couple years after The Godfather made him a big star), that he needs to retire, but Jonathan E. plays by his own rules and will do what it takes to not be a lackey for the man.
Rollerball director Norman Jewison had a long and respected career moving easily between comedy (The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming), social drama (In the Heat of the Night) and even musicals (Jesus Christ Superstar), but his work usually had a liberal take to it (A Soldier's Story, ...And Justice for All) and though he was no stranger to straight entertainment (The Thomas Crown Affair) he must have looked a little miscast as a sci-fi action director. Luckily the action is well shot and the rollerball game sequences are still amazingly exciting, but there are only a couple of those games so, at over two hours long, there’s a lot of exposition in between. As a kid, all the talk was boring and confusing, but now I can appreciate what Jewison was driving at. There is definitely a rebellious anti-corporate spirit at work here and a prophetic vision of corporate dominance over sports and everyday life to come.
Strangers on a Train
Coming off a string of underwhelming flicks (The Paradine Case, Under Capricorn and Stage Fright), Alfred Hitchcock would kickstart a decade of unparalleled creativity with Strangers on a Train, a nasty little piece of amoral pulp, delightfully mean spirited and loaded with cruel dark humor. This is textbook Hitchcock, full of as many classic set-pieces as any of his films and a must for anyone who wants to learn about the simplicity of creating genuine tension from dynamic camera moves and clever editing. Besides the master director, the other highlight of the film is Robert Walker who gives the performance of his short career as the one of the great conniving psychopaths in film history. Unfortunately not long after the film was completed Walker died, at the age of 32, from an apparent fatal combination of alcohol and prescription drugs. Also of note, any documentary or academic study on the history of homosexuality in film will certainly cite Walker’s character’s obvious closeted sexuality (and maybe for shame because, like many gay characters on the screen back then, his possible homosexuality is linked to his disturbed nature).
The beautifully crafted screenplay is credited to two nobodies (Czenzi Ormonde and Whitfield Cook) and the great crime writer Raymond Chandler (Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep). It was based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith whose series of books about the psycho Tom Ripley was the source for the excellent Hitchcockian French thriller Purple Noon as well as the notable The American Friend and The Talented Mr Ripley. Instead of Ripley, the deadly mind at work here is Bruno Anthony (Walker). When Bruno recognizes a local tennis playing celebrity, Guy Haines (Farley Granger), on an East Coast train, he seems to know everything about the guy. Bruno is fully aware that Guy is stuck in a loveless marriage to the frosty Miriam (Laura Elliott) and wants to get rid of her so he can upgrade to the more beautiful Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), who comes from a respected rich family which could help in Guy’s future prospects. Bruno suggests to Guy, hypothetically, they do “criss-cross murders” - Bruno will bump off Miriam and Guy can kill Bruno’s father for him. Since they don’t know each other, they would never be suspects. Guy excuses himself from the stalker, but for Bruno, maybe this wasn’t hypothetical.
The Ninth Configuration
The small list of novelists turned movie directors would include Maya Angelou helming Down in the Delta, Stephen King doing Maximum Overdrive, Thomas McGuane's Ninety-Two in the Shade, Michael Crichton directing half a dozen flicks (including Westworld and Coma), and Paul Auster doing a couple as well. Dalton Trumbo’s adapted his own anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun, but by then he was known more as a screenwriter than a novelist. The most famously embarrassing film might be Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance, while the strangest might be by William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, who also wrote the screenplay (and was credited as a producer on the mega hit). For his directing debut seven years later he would adapt his bizarre, surreal, novel “Twinkle, Twinkle, 'Killer' Kane,” later retitled The Ninth Configuration. The movie was labeled brilliant by a few and a flop by most. While it’s certainty interesting, wildly ambitious and definitely uncommercial, if nothing else, it has the wildest bar room brawl fight scene in movie history, and that makes the whole experience worth the price of admission.
The Ninth Configuration is kind of a cross between One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and MASH (with a little King Of Hearts, Catch 22 and The Ruling Class mixed in). It takes place in a military mental hospital - actually an old castle deep in the mountains of the pacific Northwest - which houses a group of eccentric oddball patients, including an insane astronaut, Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) and other assorted movie quoting, costume wearing, cut-ups (Moses Gunn, Robert Loggia, George DiCenzo and Jason Miller who played Father Karras in The Exorcist). Miller himself was a successful playwright with That Championship Season and he also directed its film version. A new doctor, the ultra intense Col. Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach) arrives to check on the progress of Dr. Fell (Ed Flanders). Through the course of events it becomes clear that Kane is maybe just as crazy as the crazies (and not a Patch Adams kinda fun crazy, relating to his patients with a clown nose, but a deeply violent and dangerous crazy). The film is making a statement about the meaning of insanity. Isn’t war itself more insane than reality (or something like that)? And if that’s not enough there are also religious overtones about the meaning of good and evil. OK, SPOILER ALERT for anyone who can’t see it coming, but yes, we eventually find out that Kane is there for treatment, he is not a doctor but a bad ass psycho marine, and Fell is actually his brother treating him. Reviewing the plot is almost as tedious as the movie itself; what matters is that great bar room scene.
Some Like It Hot
Easily the best drag-comedy ever made, nudging just past Tootsie, Some Like It Hot confirms that Billy Wilder was one of the two greatest directors in America of his generation, alongside fellow non-American born filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Besides its ranking as a terrifically entertaining comedy, it also has cultural importance as the best flick Marilyn Monroe had starred in (she only had one scene in the masterpiece All About Eve). Following her earlier collaboration with Wilder, The Seven Year Itch, this film was sold to the public as a Monroe vehicle. She handles the comedy splendidly and oozes sex deliciously (in some outfits that even by today's standards would be considered kinda hootchie), but it’s the rest of the cast that Wilder surrounds her with who make it more than just your average sex farce. Pretty boy Tony Curtis and young funnyman Jack Lemmon (who won an Oscar a few years earlier for Mister Roberts) are exceptional spending a majority of their on-screen time dressed as women. There’s also gangster tough-guy, George Raft (a sorta comeback for him), bizarre super-ham Joe E. Brown (who you could say steals the film), and the great journeyman character actor Pat O’Brien rounding out the cast. Wilder co-wrote the script with I.A.L. Diamond for the second time after Love In The Afternoon and together they create real magic; taking a plot that would be considered a third tier sitcom idea and ended up setting the blueprint for what is now considered a perfect and smart comedy. Wilder and Diamond would go on to collaborate on ten more films together, including The Apartment, but Some Like It Hot is the script that still influences films today (not that Cameron Crowe and others haven’t ripped off The Apartment a number of times).
Opening like a send up of Warner’s black & white gangster films, it’s 1929 Chicago and the town is jumping. At a speakeasy, two musicians, Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon), are in a dire financial predicament, especially when their latest gig is broken up by a police raid. Under their nose Detective Mulligan (O’Brien) is busting big time underworld figure Spats Colombo (Raft, back in his full mean gangster persona), which leads to the now famous Saint Valentines’s Day Massacre (where a bunch of gangsters got machine gunned down in cold blood). Unfortunately Joe and Jerry witness it and now have to go on the run. Solving both their financial problems and a way to hide out, they join an all girls band heading to Florida (completely wigged, made-up and dolled out). Now under their new female aliases Josephine and Daphne, they take a long train ride South with their new band, both becoming infatuated with their ditzy new lead singer, Sugar (Monroe). In awe of her sexy, curvy walk and insecure about their new guise, Lemmon declares the obvious, “I tell you, it’s a whole different sex.”
Most films about the future seem optimistic about human intelligence levels rising, with Mike Judge’s depressing comedy Idiocracy being an exception. Woody Allen’s Sleeper splits the difference: the technology and science have evolved but people have gotten shallower. Since ’73 his vision looks to be almost prophetic. As a follow up to Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know about Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask, Sleeper was his most polished film at that point. It was the peak of Woody’s slapstick phase, just four years before his evolutionary jump into the more mature filmmaker he would become with Annie Hall and Manhattan (both films co-written with Marshall Brickman, who also worked on the Sleeper script). Kinda, sorta, slightly based on H.G. Wells’s 1899 novel When the Sleeper Wakes, it’s a film that, because of the science-fiction element and the high laugh count, has always been considered one of his more admired and easily digestible films from his non-fans.
In 1973, Miles Monroe (Allen), owner of the Happy Carrot Health-Food store, is put into a scientific sleep chamber, without his knowledge, and finally revived two-hundred years later in 2173. He wakes up in a futuristic American police state (similar to so many movie future societies from Logan’s Run to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes to The Hunger Games). The rebels need him because he’s the only citizen without an identification number. He ends up helping them by posing as a robot servant for a dingy socialite, Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton, working wi...
The Baader Meinhof Complex
Stunningly shot and perfectly conceived, the best historical political thriller in recent years is director Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex, a film about the West German radical group, the RAF—Red Army Faction—who reigned from 1967–77. Inspired by cultural revolutions in Paris and Czechoslovakia they took the baton from American outfits like the Black Panthers and the Weathermen and raised the stakes by about a hundred. Unlike other great political films like Z, State of Siege, Bloody Sunday, Che, and even Munich, Edel, best known for his American film Last Exit to Brooklyn back in ’89, does not go with the traditional handheld docu-realism style but a slick look, with long dolly shots (ala Boogie Nights) and a smooth editing style. In this age of terrorism paranoia, here is a film like Battle of Algiers that tries to explain the motives behind the action, but not justify them or even glamorize them. These were true believers in the cause but also groovy party rebels who just didn’t want to be like their parents and broke from the longstanding rule of German conformity.
German counter-culture radicals of the ’60s and ’70s have been portrayed in both real life and fictional accounts in films a number of times before; most famously there was Volker Schlondorff's The Legend of Rita and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Third Generation. Schlondorff also directed with his then wife, Margarethe von Trotta, the classic The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, while Marco Bellocchio’s Good Morning, Night covered the Italian counterparts in the same period. And more recently the story of Uschi Obermaier, the ’70s German terrorist/supermodel, had her wild life made into a movie, Eight Miles High. And then there was Olivier Assayas’s epic Carlos about the international super criminal. So this is fertile ground that has been covered from many angles for the last 30-something years, but The Baader Meinhof Complex feels like the most authoritative, final statement on the subject, at least from the German side of history.
Terms of Endearment
Sometimes films about women are unfairly called “chick flicks,” or more recently, if it involves illness, it can be written off as a Lifetime flick or disease-of-the-week TV movie. Terms of Endearment is neither, though it’s sometimes too elegantly clean in its look; in its heart it’s a big, complicated story with multi- dimensional characters that works perfectly as both a smart comedy and a moving drama. Following mother and daughter, Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) and Emma (Debra Winger) over decades, their tricky relationship to each other and others, like a ‘70s-style flick, sometimes it’s hard to like these women or fully understand their motives, just like real people, not movie creations. Besides MacLaine and Winger giving the performances of their careers, the film is loaded with pedigree behind it. Making his directing debut is the legendary TV writer and creator, James L. Brooks (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant,Taxi) and it has his now familiar fingerprints on every frame. Brooks also wrote the script, based on a book by the great novelist Larry McMurtry (Hud, The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove). It was shot by the respected Polish cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak (Prince of the City, The Verdict), the crisp look now the standard for these kinds of movies. The great Polly Platt (Paper Moon) designed it, Richard Marks (The Godfather Part II) was the editor, and Michael Gore (Fame) provides the dainty score. Oh, and in a big supporting performance Jack Nicholson wanders in and devours the screen, brilliantly.
The wealthy widow Aurora is a deeply caring but overly needy mother to her only daughter, Emma. She doesn’t approve of Emma’s choice of husband, the skirt-chasing college professor Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels) who drags Emma from one sleepy Midwest college town after another and, over the course of several years, they have three kids together. While a half-assed father, he usually also has an attractive young coed on the side. Everything Emma does doesn’t seem to meet Aurora’s high expectations; out of desperation and loneliness in her lousy marriage she even has a brief affair with a nerdy married banker (John Lithgow, who had become a major character actor after a bravura performance in The World According to Garp).
Death Wish 3
The first three Death Wish films can easily be categorized as the good, the bad, and the ugly. The first one was a good, quality piece of exploitation pulp. The second is bad because it was dull and boring. The third is the ugly and isn’t ugly usually more interesting? In this case, it is. Death Wish 3 could be called bad because it’s so ridiculous and over the top but that’s also what makes it so good—it’s ridiculous and over the top. And any resemblance to the realism of the first film has been totally thrown out the window and now plays like a cartoon spoof of the vigilante genre. And forget the later Death Wish flicks to come; still starring Grandpa Charles Bronson, Death Wish 4: the Crackdown and Death Wish 5: the Face of Death, they are utterly forgettable and worse, unwatchable. But the middle child, Death Wish 3, is something special in a lovably ugly dog way.
In the first flick, Death Wish back in ’74, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) was a respectable NY architect, but when his wife was murdered by some savage street brutes he became a stone cold vigilante, knocking them off. While less credibly in Death Wish II, Bronson was in LA and got all killy again to avenge the memory of his maid. By the time 3 begins he seems to be a guy who just casually kills goons at will. Hoping to take a relaxing vacation in the projects of Brooklyn by visiting his old war buddy, he arrives to find his friend dying, having just been beaten to a pulp by the local street creeps. The cops arrest him for the murder; after giving him a working over, Chief Shriker (the great B-movie actor, Ed Lauter of The Longest Yard) cuts a deal with him, letting him go if he will go knock off some of the ‘hood rats (a multi-racial gang of central casting punkers, biker types, and “Beat It” dancers).