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
The Cable Guy
Like a paranoid science-fiction film from the '70s, The Cable Guy pretends to be about the threat of technology and America's addiction to television. In the mid 1990s, was the developing "information super-highway" a potentially scary thing? This was Ben Stiller's directional follow up to Reality Bites, his would-be Gen-X anthem, and they both play almost like period pieces now. The Cable Guy's underlying messages may not be very convincing, but as a showcase for Jim Carrey's insane performance it hits its mark perfectly.
With TV's In Living Color Carrey had become a comedy name, but with the surprise hit, the messy Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and its even lazier sequel Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, he became a box office super star. With his rubber face and goofy physical comedy in films like The Mask and later Dumb & Dumber Carrey he was also becoming popular with the kiddies. Though he had played a villain with some great physicality as The Riddler in the otherwise forgettable Batman Forever, it surprised many audience members when he popped up in '96 in such a dark and mean-spirited comedy as The Cable Guy. (His $20 million paycheck at the time also got a lot of flack from those audiences who fret over actors' salaries.)Continue Reading
Stalag 17 is flawed, but entertaining Billy Wilder. It’s not in the great director’s top tier, which would include Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, and Some Like It Hot. Some might put The Apartment in that top group, but I would put it in the second group with Ace In The Hole, Witness For The Prosecution, and Stalag 17 (that third level of his films is also still very interesting and might include One, Two, Three, The Major And The Minor, Kiss Me, Stupid, Sabrina, and The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes).
Stalag 17 is the story of WWII American soldiers, prisoners of war in a Nazi camp, based on a popular play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski. In recent years there was talk that director Spike Lee was going to restage it on Broadway with British actor Clive Owen, but it never happened. The film adaptation by director Wilder and Edwin Blum is said to follow the stage version pretty closely. It’s been made less stagy by opening it up, out of the barracks and into the camp around them. The POWs live a boring and cramped life, working whenever possible to put one over on their German captors. One POW, Sefton (William Holden), is an "operator" trading favors with the guards, running a still and a betting track. He is a survivor, in it for himself. When he places bets against his fellow Americans it alienates him from his prison mates even more.Continue Reading
If you watch any of the terrific documentaries on films of the last fifty years (The Kid Stays In The Picture, A Decade Under the Influence, Visions Of Light, etc) you will notice there is ONE film that comes up over and over, its influence and success massive, the impact it had on the public and the industry indescribable. If you polled people, I bet it would make as many favorite ten-best lists as any other movie. If I happen upon it on TV I set sucked right in. It's the Gone With The Wind of its time.... Yes, you know what we are talking about, The Godfather. Perhaps the greatest movie ever made.
Of course this is the epic story of a post-WWII Italian American family. Vito, the Patriarch (Marlon Brando), is the head of the Corleone crime organization. The film opens at the wedding of his daughter, Connie (Talia Shire). His oldest son, Fredo (John Cazale), is a rather weakly type. His next son, Sonny (James Caan), a hothead womanizer, is the heir to take over the business. There is also an adopted Irish American son, Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall), who works as the family’s lawyer. His youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), is there with his new girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton). He is not part of the family business; as a collage graduate and a "war hero" there are expectations for greatness cast upon him. In a nutshell, The Godfather is a tale about how Michael evolves from clean-cut, all-American wanna-be to the head of the family when his father dies and his brother Sonny is murdered. And he ends up becoming even more ruthless than his father ever was.Continue Reading
E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial
Despite one of the worst movie titles ever, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial produced one of the most exceptional films about a child’s alienation from the adult world and the power of love, and is certainty on par with The Wizard Of Oz as an entertaining family film with much deeper meanings below the surface. Its massive success - at one time the highest grossing movie of all-time - brought on a wave of imitative clones (many produced by its director Steven Spielberg). But as the years and the hoopla have passed, it can now be enjoyed for what it is - irresistible.
An awkwardly adolescent suburban kid named Elliott (Henry Thomas), along with his younger sister and older bother (Drew Barrymore and Robert MacNaughton), are dealing with their preoccupied mother’s recent divorce from their father. She is played by Dee Wallace who went on to play the mother protecting her son from a psycho pooch in Cujo. Elliott comes upon a stranded space alien in his backyard whom he conveniently names E.T. (short for "Extra-Terrestrial," get it?). Employing his bro and sis they join the cute E.T on his quest to be reunited with his fellow spacemen, while having to hide him from their mom and the scary government officials who are searching for him. Oh, and earth's rotten atmosphere is slowly destroying him.Continue Reading
With Atlantic City the then 67-year-old Burt Lancaster gave the performance of his five decade long film career. And what an incredible career it was. As Lou, an over-the-hill, broken down loverboy who dreams of one big score and still fancies himself a player, telling tales of one-time peripheral ties to the mob, Lancaster is able to use the physical and emotional gifts that have defined him his whole career. Like many of his characters, Lou is all buff and gusto on the outside, while sensitive and gooey on the inside.
Lou spends his days running numbers and looking after his sugar-mama Grace (Kate Reid), a decrepit ex-mob moll who came to Atlantic City during WWII for a Betty Grable look-a-like contest. The highlight of his life is lusting after his younger neighbor, Sally, a casino waitress and wanna-be blackjack dealer (an outstanding Susan Sarandon). Lou peeps at her through the windows as she gets topless and erotic with a lemon, rubbing it on herself to get rid of the restaurant's clam smell. When Sally’s lout ex-husband stashes a huge bag of cocaine in his pad and then gets killed by mobsters, Lou is able to woo Sally and become the true gangster he always fantasized about being. Meanwhile the city of Atlantic City in the background represents the foreground - it’s an aging, crumbling dinosaur being torn down by developers and being rebuilt with slick new buildings.Continue Reading
Kill Bill: Vol. 1
Director Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is pop culture in a blender and on speed, particularly the culture of violent 1970s B Movies and exploitation films. It’s a comic book for movie nerds. It’s a who’s who, name the movie, appreciate the genre, video store game. More importantly it goes beyond its exploitation genre - it’s actually a mesmerizing, funny, elegant film. It all works beautifully, unlike its sequel Kill Bill: Vol 2, which was a mess. KB:V1 is an epic, bloody, action masterpiece.
KB:VI and KB:V2 were apparently intended to be one film, but they grew so big they were separated. Luckily the best stuff is in KB:V1. Both films jump around in sequence, but can be viewed and followed separately. Unfortunately for KB:V2 the late actor David Carradine as Bill is required to give long and tedious monologues. He was not a very good actor and long lines of dialogue were not his strong suit. (Imagine how interesting it would have been if Tarantino had gotten his first choice for the role, Warren Beatty?) Also where KB:V1 is clearly a riff on pop culture (films and television) of the '70s and early '80s, it’s sharp and focused. KB:V2 is all over the place, even adding Film Noir to the mix, not to mention the amount of minor characters with pointlessly long scenes of their own.Continue Reading
If someone told me they found Bulworth, filmmaking wise, to be a little lazy and, comedy wise, not all that funny, I wouldn’t argue with them. If they found it a touch offensive, maybe I could be persuaded to concede their point. But for me, though flawed, Bulworth is one of the most audacious political satires ever made. And for star and director Warren Beatty it’s one of his gutsiest moves in a long and fascinating career of audacious moves. Bulworth is one of the few modern political films that is actually political - it names names.
Beatty’s first starring role was in Elia Kazan’s soapy teen love classic Splendor In The Grass (1961). He would surround himself with major directors for the next two decades, working with John Frankenheimer, Robert Rossen, Robert Altman, George Stevens, Richard Brooks, and Mike Nichols. They would all be unmemorable films with the exception of Altman’s talkie, cult Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. He would fare much better working as his own producer and later as a director. As producer and star Beatty helped start a filmmaking revolution in Hollywood, with the masterpiece Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The French New Wave inspired period piece, with its frank sexuality and startling violence, would influence a generation and help to jumpstart the golden age of auteurism in Hollywood of the 1970s. He would star and produce Shampoo (1975) and add director to his resume with Heaven Can Wait (1978). Both comedies were massively popular in their day with audiences and critics alike, though maybe not as "hip" in today’s light.Continue Reading
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
It was a great year for movies period…Election, Being John Malkovich, The Insider, Boys Don’t Cry, One Day In September, The End Of The Affair, All About My Mother, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Topsy-Turvy, just to name a few.Continue Reading
Along with the original versions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night Of The Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby was one of the most frightening film-watching experiences of my life. And what really makes Rosemary’s Baby an even more special film is that if you took the "horror" elements out of it and you just had a film about a young couple in New York City in the late '60s it would still be completely entertaining. It’s a great lesson in storytelling: interesting characters first will make the "horror" more powerful.
The perfectly taut screenplay credited to director Roman Polanski follows Ira Levin’s novel almost scene for scene, line for line. There is not a loose shred in the script, which may sound simple enough on paper - newlyweds Guy (John Cassavetes) and Rosemary (Mia Farrow) move into an old Manhattan building where they become friends with the elderly couple next door (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer). Slowly the pregnant Rosemary begins to suspect that they and their creaky posse are part of a witch’s covenant of devil worshippers who are hungry for her unborn baby.Continue Reading