Just because Citizen Kane is often cited as the greatest film ever made or the most important film of all time and just because you might have had to watch it in an "intro to film" class does not mean it’s homework. Unlike other landmark filmmaking oldies such as Birth Of A Nation or Battleship Potemkin, Citizen Kane is not a snoozer - it’s really amazingly entertaining. (Actually the "Odessa Steps" scene in Battleship Potemkin is a rather gripping piece of editing, but the rest of it is rather boring.) With his first film, Citizen Kane, the twenty-something wunderkind, Orson Welles, took on the Hollywood establishment (as well as William Randolph Heart’s publishing empire) and changed film, but most importantly made a fun, fun movie that still holds up quite well today.
The complicated plot of Citizen Kane famously mirrors the life of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. As a boy Charles Foster Kane is taken from his mother when he inherits a small newspaper. Eventually he grows up to be Orson Welles. The film follows him from a cynical kid fresh out of college who thinks it would be fun to run a newspaper, to old age when he dies a miser and an extreme treasure hoarder. But what really made Citizen Kane revolutionary in 1941 was the way the story was told (besides Gregg Toland’s groundbreaking camera work). It opens with a long Newsreel documentary after Kane has died which tells his life story (though a press eye view). On his deathbed his last word was "Rosebud" and” a group of reporters sets out to find what or who was Rosebud. They interview the key people in his life, each telling different versions of Kane’s story, in flashbacks, from their perspective.Continue Reading
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Until the more recent Daniel Craig Casino Royal, it would have been easy to call On Her Majesty’s Secret Service the strangest James Bond film ever. This, of course, is not counting the original Casino Royal, a mostly unbearable, unfunny disaster. But like the original Casino Royal, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service almost plays like a spoof with its bizarre villains and story-lines, but it’s much more than that. It has some of the best action sequences of any Bond film. It has the most character driven story and romance (until the more recent Casino Royal). It’s considered a bona-fide cult film. And even with Sean Connery on a one-film hiatus, it deserves its more recent status as maybe the best Bond film ever.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the sixth film in the Bond series, it's said to follow Ian Fleming's 1963 book as closely as any of the films have. But it’s most famous as the film Connery sat out. A big shouldered Australian ex-car salesman, George Lazenby, with little acting experience, replaced him. One of the new Bond’s first lines of dialogue is, "This never happened to the other fellow," referencing what, at the time, was an abrupt shift in actors - something we have become accustomed to since. Lazenby would prove to be one and done as Connery would return for the weak Diamonds Are Forever and then years later repeat the role one last time with the utterly pointless Never Say Never Again, basically a remake of the much better Thunderball.Continue Reading
The Longest Yard (1974)
Along with Deliverance a few years earlier and Boogie Nights decades later, The Longest Yard is one the three best movies of Burt Reynolds' career (there are not a lot of good ones to choose from) and maybe his best performance. It’s the perfect role to show off his machismo sense of humor and the laid back, good-ol’ boy charm that made him a superstar in the '70s. He had his share of very successful films (Smokey and The Bandit, etc) and a few nice ones (Starting Over), but the trio of Deliverance, Boogie Nights, and especially The Longest Yard are about the only times he teamed with major directors and had perfect scripts to suit him. (By the time he did Nickelodeon with Peter Bogdanovich or Rough Cut with Don Siegel or Semi-Tough with Michael Ritchie those once great directors' shelf-lives had already expired.)
Director Robert Aldrich had a diverse and distinguished career - only a handful of home runs, but those hits were massive. Moving from television to film he would make one of the last great noir films, Kiss Me Deadly, and then the classily twisted What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?. He would direct a number of solid action films including Flight of The Phoenix, Too Late The Hero, and peak with the wildly popular rowdy WWII film, The Dirty Dozen. The Longest Yard would repeat the cynical formula, making the bad guys the heroes. And with it Aldrich would prove he still had one more great film in him (unfortunately after The Longest Yard the rest of his career was pretty much junk, including reteaming with Reynolds for the listless detective film Hustle).Continue Reading
Before director David Lynch got too carried away with his so-called genius, before his television show Twin Peaks brought him into the home and consciousness of the casually pretentious, before he would slap any old weird images together and have people call it art, back in ’86 he made his best film...Blue Velvet. It had much of the surreal oddball touches we’ve come to expect from a "David Lynch film," but instead of relying on hammy artifices, it’s just simply a haunting, funny, and beautifully crafted film. Though it’s challenging and can be considered an "art film," it’s still one of Lynch’s most accessible films and works just as well as a straight suspense movie.
Before Blue Velvet helped push David Lynch further into the "auteur" big leagues, he had already had some major artistic success. His first feature film, the horror, sci-fi, surreal Eraserhead became an instant cult film for both its disturbing imagery as well as the humor in its strange pacing. He got an Oscar nomination for his next film, the beautiful and disturbing studio picture, The Elephant Man. He was miscast as blockbuster director for Dune; the adaptation of the popular sci-fi novel was a massive bomb, both financially and creatively. Though Blue Velvet was produced by the big-time producing Dino De Laurentiis Company and was even originally sold as a mainstream thriller, it was Lynch’s return to his roots with an original screenplay, not developed for him, but by him and his own weird mind. Lynch and the film were obviously embraced by Hollywood. With Blue Velvet he would score another Oscar nomination for directing, but it meant he would never go back to being a "director for hire."Continue Reading
The writer, Meyer Levin, had attended the University of Chicago at the same time as Leopold and Loeb. Compulsion, his "non-fiction novel" (years before Capote coined the phrase) renamed all the players and was seen through the eyes of a school reporter, Sid (Levin himself?) and his innocent girlfriend. As adapted for the screen by Richard Murphy (Panic In The Streets), Artie Strauss (Bradford Dillman) and Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell) are a pair of well off college brats with brilliant minds. Artie is the more outgoing, while the even more genius Judd is an introvert. They plan and almost pull off the "perfect crime," the murder of a young neighbor. Unfortunately, Judd leaves his glasses at the crime scene and Sid (Martin Milner) finds them. As the young men think they are toying with the cops using Nietzsche's superman theory, they slowly spins more webs, getting themselves in deeper and deeper, until finally the cops crack them.Continue Reading
The tough-minded vision of a master filmmaker fighting the odds to bring his vision to the screen has made for some truly memorable documentaries over the years. The almost mad mavericks Francis Ford Coppola directing Apocalypse Now in Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse and Werner Herzog’s epic struggle to make Fitzcarraldo in Burden Of Dreams - the documentaries are almost as good as the films themselves. Another interesting film is Lost In La Mancha which chronicles Terry Gilliam's attempt to get the unbearable looking The Man Who Killed Don Quixote started and completed, the latter never happened. These are three men devoted to filmmaking with grand goals. The documentary Overnight is about another filmmaker, Troy Duffy, trying to get his first film, The Boondock Saints, made. Unfortunately for this maniacal egomaniac his visions are mostly about himself and how cool his sunglasses are.
Back in the '90s Harvey Weinstein and his film company, Miramax Pictures, were riding a wave of good fortune and good will after making an overnight sensation out of a video store clerk turned happening director/screenwriter, Quentin Tarantino. Suddenly everybody had a script ready to go and were ready to be discovered by Weinstein. Unfortunately, it also made Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction two of the most imitated films of their day. Hip dudes spewing cool dialog and then nonchalantly taking part in extreme violence and gunplay. (Does anyone want to sit through Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead, Very Bad Things, Love & A .45, The Salton Sea or 2 Days In The Valley again?) One of the worst Tarantino clones was The Boondock Saints. Overnight is the story of how The Boondock Saints' production was hot, then cold, and then barely got made.Continue Reading
The Big Chill
Don’t get me wrong, I hate yuppies as much as the next guy. And the thought of two hours of white bread yuppies reconnecting while bemoaning their lost youth and wondering where the dreams went, I would agree, sounds painful. The idea had been filmed once before by indie maverick John Sayles with his very boring Return Of The Secaucus Seven in ’79. But for the much better The Big Chill, director/ screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was able to ensemble a dream cast of bright up and comers who brought magic to his incredibly complicated and witty script (written with Barbara Benedek).
Kasdan had been a hot go-to guy for scripts, having written The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders Of The Lost Ark. His first outing as a director was the steamy modern noir twister, Body Heat, starring the young William Hurt and Kathleen Turner (with an excellent little role for an even younger Mickey Rourke). The Big Chill was his personal take on a group of 1960s college friends reuniting fifteen years later for the funeral for their mutual bud, Alex (played in flashbacks by Kevin Costner, though those scenes were famously cut out of it. Kasdan would reward Costner with a plum role in his next film, the overrated gee-wiz Western, Silverado).Continue Reading
Once Upon A Time In The West
Sergio Leone's giant mega-Spaghetti Western is the ultimate Spaghetti Western. It may be the greatest Western of all time, period (it's at least up there with Shane and The Wild Bunch) and it’s one of my favorite films of all time. Like a novel, we are introduced very carefully to four separate characters, their motives and links to each other slowly come together. Like an opera, Ennio Morricone's masterful score gives each character their own theme. Once Upon A Time In The West is such a unique and fascinating film, it's no wonder that its influence can be seen in so many films after it, including the works of directors Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, Clint Eastwood, and Robert Rodriguez.
The Spaghetti Western is a term which refers to a genre of Westerns generally starting in the 1960s which were produced by Italians (but often shot in Spain). They usually had another Euro co-financier (usually Spain) and they would use an international cast (usually Italians and Spaniards and maybe an American) to sell the film in different countries. The '70s would also see the rise of sub-genres such as Spaghetti Gangster and Spaghetti Zombie flicks. A number of Spaghetti Western directors had an impact like Enzo Barboni (They Call Me Trinity), Sergio Sollima (The Big Gundown), Gianfranco Parolini (the Sabata trilogy), and Sergio Corbucci (Django). But the big dog, the Orson Welles of the genre, was Sergio Leone. He hit it big with his "Dollars trilogy" (Fistful Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly). Beside Leone himself the trilogy also made international stars out of the score's revolutionary composer, Morricone, and its star, Clint Eastwood, then only known as a hack American TV actor.Continue Reading
The Office Special
After only two seasons (twelve half hour episodes total) The Office returned for two more final episodes that beautifully wrap up the short-lived British series. The series had a massive influence on television, spawning a still on-going American version and made its star and creator, Ricky Gervais, into an instant comedy guru (he co-wrote and directed every episode with his partner, Stephen Merchant). Season Two ended on a rather depressing note. In the office of Wernham Hogg Paper Company blowhard boss David Brent (Gervais) had been fired. Everyman Tim (Martin Freeman) turned down the offer to take David’s job, leaving it open for David’s toadie, Gareth (Mackenzie Crook). Also Tim’s pursuit of Dawn (Lucy Davis) came to a fizzle as she and her fiancé, Lee, headed off for the United States. With The Office Special we pick up some time later. The Office had been a minor blip on the BBC TV schedule. David, by day, is now a cleaning supplies salesman, but in the evenings he is using his new minor fame (or infamy) to break into show business, doing the washed-up reality TV star circuit. Unfortunately it means appearances at rowdy bars with ex-Big Brother cast member types for a hostile crowd (they hate him). Not working at the office but spending much of his free time there, with Gareth’s help, he is also pursuing a relationship on an Internet dating site (so he can score a date to the Office’s Christmas party). David trying to find reasons to be back at the office is David at his most pathetic - all one can do is pity the man.
The Office has always been about the slow burn. The humor is not in the immediate joke but in what the characters say, it may only be a funny line to someone who already understands the character, their motivations, and their insecurities. Like the influences Gervais has cited for his humor, the films of Christopher Guest (the one good one, Waiting For Guffman), This Is Spinal Tap (Guest co-wrote and co-starred in it, but it was actually directed by Rob "Meathead" Reiner), and the most obvious influence Garry Shandling’s brilliant inside Hollywood, character-driven The Larry Sanders Show. Both are giddy in the burning humiliation of their characters, but unlike the cruelty of much cynically spirited humor, it's obvious that Shandling and Gervais both have hearts and affection for the men they play and the characters around them.Continue Reading
Saturday Night Fever
At first glance what may appear to be a cultural relic from the disco '70s is actually a deeply sensitive star-making vehicle for the young John Travolta as a Brooklyn hot dog who is slowly realizing that everything in the world he knows - his unemployed and jealous father, his gooney Brooklyn buds, his life as the king stud on the dance floor, everything around him - is all bullshit.
Who would guess that a little script by Norman Wexler (Serpico) based on a New York Magazine article by Nik Cohn, "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," would be at the center of a cultural phenomenon? (The piece was said to be based on his reporting of real life characters he met in Brooklyn, but later it was revealed he made the whole thing up.) Everything about Saturday Night Fever became hot; Travolta’s white suit started a fashion trend, discotheques went from being an urban, ethnic or Euro trend to being found on main street in the middle of America. But hottest of all was the soundtrack, selling 20 million copies. Most was produced and performed by the Australian family band, The Bee Gees, the one time Beatles wanna-bees. The soundtrack scored them hit single after hit single, including "Staying Alive," "Night Fever," "How Deep Is Your Love," and "If I Can’t Have You" sung by Yvonne Elliman (who played Mary Magdalene in the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar).Continue Reading