The Maltese Falcon
Like John Ford & John Wayne or Scorsese & De Niro, John Huston & Humphrey Bogart's work together as director and star will be forever linked in audiences' subconscious. After years of being a happening screenwriter, Huston got his chance to direct his own adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's crime novel, The Maltese Falcon. The film would help make Bogart a leading man, would lead to a 50-year career for Huston, and set the standard for detective films to come.
Like many detective and crime films of the 1940s, The Maltese Falcon is often improperly lumped in with the Film Noir genre. At best, The Maltese Falcon could be deemed a kick-starter to the genre that actually peaked in the post-WWII years. With the exception of a femme fatale or a detective it has little in common stylistically with the best of Film Noir (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Out Of The Past, etc.). That's not to say that the film (and the book) were not hugely influential, they were.Continue Reading
Back in 1979, $31 million, much of it from director Francis Ford Coppola's own pocket, was considered overly indulgent by critics and poo-pooers, as was everything about Apocalypse Now. Many cinefiles were outraged over the vastness of the film and Marlon Brando's big paycheck for his supporting role. And then they were disappointed, calling the film empty and void of ideas or, worse, solutions. But now, decades later, it can be seen for what it is, a big, exciting masterpiece. Coppola was a major filmmaker working at the peak of his powers; the spectacle is as good as it gets, especially in a pre-computer manufactured effects era.
Kinda-sorta based on Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now opens with a distraught and drunken Captain Willard in a Saigon hotel room battling his demons. We now know from Eleanor Coppola's book on the making of the film and the brilliant documentary Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse that actor Martin Sheen was actually drunk on the set and fighting his own personal demons which helped lead to his astounding performance (he replaced Harvey Keitel two weeks into shooting). Willard is one of the black-op soldiers brought in to do dirty jobs for his handlers. After getting cleaned up, he is given a new assignment: get a boat crew together, travel up the river (into the heart of darkness), out of Vietnam and into Cambodia, and assassinate a decorated American Colonel, Kurtz (Brando), who, with a ragtag army of followers, has gone AWOL, gone native, and gone quite mad.Continue Reading
Billy Jack was a minor cultural phenomenon back in 1971. Written, directed, produced by, and starring Tom Laughlin, he probably made the set coffee in the morning as well. A vanity project, to say the least, but one that entertains and works as a document to the issues of the day, though the themes and ideas are incredibly muddled, which makes it all the more fascinating. Laughlin plays Billy Jack, a decorated Vietnam vet ("who turned his back on the war") and karate expert, he’s a "half-breed," hip to the philosophy and ways of the Native Americans. Billy rides around in his Jeep (and motorcycle and on horseback) toting a rifle - he uses violence for peace. Billy Jack, the film, has a lot of hippie mantra spoken, but underneath the grooviness it's actually a perfectly crafted, good, old fashion, revenge-driven, exploitation flick.
The character of Billy Jack first showed up with his badass black cowboy hat in Laughlin's earlier film, The Born Losers. In that one, Billy used his karate and his shotgun to protect a small town from a pack of scumbag bikers. Now he is protecting "The School," a different kind of educational institute, deep in the mountains of a hostile small Southwestern town. This is a place for hippies and pregnant girls and minority kids to learn chanting, ride horses, sing songs, and do groovy improv, questioning the man (led by Howard Hesseman, then of the far-out improv group, The Committee). The School is run by Jean and she is also Billy's girlfriend, or at least his biggest booster, though she digs his Indian mysticism she doesn't cotton to the violence. Laughlin’s real life old lady, Delores Taylor, plays Jean. She also co-wrote the script (under the pseudonym Teresa Christina), as well as its two unwatchable sequels, Billy Jack Goes To Washington and The Trial of Billy Jack. Taylor may know how to type pages but as an actress she is utterly uncomfortable in front of the camera, as if egged on by her boyfriend. Mercifully she has never appeared in any films outside the Laughlin canon.Continue Reading
Dog Day Afternoon
Known for his New York street realism, director Sidney Lumet opens Dog Day Afternoon with sunny shots of the streets of Brooklyn while Elton John's "Amoreena" plays on the soundtrack. Creating a documentary-like feeling under the fluorescent lights of an urban bank, Lumet creates a tense "you are there" feeling. Doing so, Lumet has made one of the great bank robbery films, as well as a powerful character study and a taut drama. Apparently based on a true story, it marks career peaks for Lumet and the young Al Pacino, in maybe his most likable performance.
Trying to raise money for his boyfriend's sex-change operation, Sonny (Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) rob a bank (there is a third cohort who gets cold feet and walks away at the start). After wasting time letting the bank employees use the bathroom, the police get involved and turn a simple robbery into a hostage situation. With news crews hovering, this was the beginning of instant news turning criminals into stars. Sonny plays to the crowds who have gathered to gawk outside the bank by yelling at the cops and shouting Attica (a prison riot that turned into a massacre by a trigger happy state trooper, that was still hot in the day, another reason for folks to question the authority of "the man."). The working class Sonny also has a big fat shrew of a wife (whom he abuses) and a ton of kids, as well as a pushy, emotional mother - you can see why this Vietnam vet is so tightly wound.Continue Reading
With Modern Romance, writer/director/star Albert Brooks was dubbed a West Coast Woody Allen and, like Allen, Brooks has one of those personalities that can alienate an audience. People usually love him or find him way too annoying to watch. In Modern Romance Brooks takes his neurotic persona to new daring heights of annoyance playing Robert Cole, a Hollywood film editor. When the film opens he's breaking up with his girlfriend, Mary (Kathryn Harrold), again, which seems to be a hobby for him. But like an addict for relationships it sends him into a torturous obsession over her, again. He tries to concentrate on his work and even tries dating others, but he can't, his obsession and jealousy get worse and worse. And with it Brooks turns the romantic comedy on its head, making one of the funniest films of the '80s.
Before moving into feature films Brooks was a cutting edge stand-up comedian. His style was almost a spoof of stand-up comedy and he was one of Johnny Carson's favorites, cutting his teeth on The Tonight Show. He made some brilliant short films the first season of Saturday Night Live (very unheralded in the show's history, they seem to never be acknowledged in the show's many retrospectives). Brooks has directed seven features since, the first four of which are gems. Real Life back in '79 foresaw the coming of reality TV early. It brilliantly teamed him with another underrated, acquired taste, Charles Grodin. Then Modern Romance, which could be considered his Annie Hall, took him in a new more sorta-mature direction. His next film, Lost In America, was an angst-epic and then Defending Your Life found Brooks romancing Meryl Streep in the afterlife. His next two films, The Muse and Mother, were forgettable at best and his last go as a director, Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World, was abysmal. As an actor outside his own films he's had an interesting career, with roles ranging from Taxi Driver to Out Of Sight, he was the voice of Nemo in Finding Nemo, and got an Oscar nomination for his hilarious turn in Broadcast News.Continue Reading
It’s A Wonderful Life
Somehow I never got hip to It’s A Wonderful Life until more recent years. Though it’s been a Christmas season staple ever since the 1970s when its copyright fell into the public domain, it managed to elude me my entire childhood. I think I may have blown it off as corny or lightweight, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s A Wonderful Life, besides being incredibly moving, has themes that still pack a wallop.
On first viewing it may take some nudging to get past the set up concerning stars talking and angels and what not. The Our Town piece of Americana, its lovable small town, seems overly clichÃ©d at first glance until you realize this is the movie that invented it. There is a reason these ideas are now called "Capraesque." This and other films (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Meet John Doe, etc.) established director Frank Capra and his wholesome characters whose decent values can take on the world as a style all its own. And then the great Jimmy Stewart enters the picture and anchors it with an epic performance.Continue Reading
Fast Times At Ridgemont High
Fast Times At Ridgemont High is The Godfather or the Gone With The Wind of '80s teenage sex comedies. It's bigger and better than its lesser peers including My Tutor, The Last American Virgin, Porky's, Losing It, and a list that goes on and on. Inspired by the success of the wonderful National Lampoon's Animal House as well as the ensemble attitude of American Graffiti, based on a book by Cameron Crowe, with an exceptional cast of then unknowns (including two of their generation's best, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Sean Penn), Fast Times At Ridgemont High is an epic study of Southern California teen suburban culture of the early 1980s.
The film really is more than just a teen sex comedy (which doesn't usually mean that sex is actually happening - it is generally more just being wished for - as well as preening and peeking for potential nudity). Besides being very funny there is some dramatic weight to the film and to many of the characters, mostly concerning an abortion. Other than a few teachers at Ridgemont High not many adults (parents) factor into the story (not including the 26-year old stereo salesman who seduces a teenager). This is a teen fantasy of laughs and sex all in a sunny, year-round location. It's the lighter side of the "burning the school down" fantasy of Over The Edge.Continue Reading
Michael Jackson Number Ones
After Michael Jackson's tragic death, it was interesting to hear about young kids who were exposed to him for the first time (no pun intended). The magic of his personality and performances, as well as the simplicity of his music was easy enough for another generation to grasp and embrace. Like The Beatles, Jackson potentially is an artist who will be able to find a new audience starting with the very young for decades to come. Though I would argue that while The Beatles may have two dozen or more songs that are still considered standards, MJ only has five or six tops.
The DVD Number Ones, which has 15 Michael Jackson music videos, may not be enough for the hardcore Michael Jackson fan. I'm sure they could complain about what's missing (mercifully we are spared those songs he did with Paul McCartney, but it's also missing "Scream" with Janet Jackson and "Remember The Time" with Magic Johnson at his most magical). The DVD has no extras, no frills, just an easy menu that says, "play all."Continue Reading
The Last Picture Show
Once upon a time a guy name Peter Bogdanovich was on top of the movie world. In the very early '70s, along with Francis Ford Coppola, he was once considered the voice of a generation (but then again, so was Dennis Hopper, briefly). Following his solid Roger Corman-produced micro-budgeted thriller, Targets, Bogdanovich got thrown front and center onto the major filmmaker map with The Last Picture Show, a perfect piece of dust-bowl Americana. This is a film that would establish a number of actors: Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Timothy Bottoms, and Ellen Burstyn would all shine. While older cowboy actor Ben Johnson and ex-beauty queen turned character actress Cloris Leachman would win well-deserved Oscars for their performances.
The film is based on an excellent mini-novel by Larry McMurtry (later writing Lonesome Dove and Terms Of Endearment). Shot in beautiful black & white, The Last Picture Show takes place in a sleepy little Texas town in the early '50s. Main Street seems to be dying, going the way of the cinema (with television supplanting it). Everything seems to be slowly fading away. Two high school football players, Sonny (Bottoms) and Duane (Bridges), hang around the local pool hall, owned by the wise Sam The Lion (Johnson). Sam owns most of the businesses on the abandoned Main Street, including the cinema and the diner. He also looks after a retarded kid, Billy (Sam Bottoms; Lance in Apocalypse Now!). They have taken Sam’s head waitress, Genevieve (Eileen Brennan of The Sting), under their wings and she seems to look after all the males. Duane dates the town’s rich-girl, a calculating beauty named Jacy (Shepherd). Sonny gets into an illicit affair with his football coach’s lonely, middle-aged wife Ruth (Leachman). Sam passes away, but not before giving Sonny a great monologue about old times and a woman he was once crazy about when he was young. It’s a powerful scene. With age comes regret. Cinemas, shops, and towns can fade away, but memories don’t (it’s shot amazingly in one long take as the camera moves in and then out on Johnson’s glorious aged cowboy face).Continue Reading
March Of The Wooden Soldiers
There’s a strange history of strange little holiday/family/fantasy films where the concepts were so "out there" you have to wonder, what were they thinking? From Santa Claus Conquers The Martians to that Michael Keaton reincarnated as a snowman flick, Jack Frost, there's a long list of these oddities. Perhaps one of the first and best is the bizarre Laurel & Hardy vehicle March of the Wooden Soldiers (originally it had the same title as Victor Herbert's 1903 operetta it's kinda-sorta based on, Babes in Toyland). For decades this has had perennial holiday showings on television (with different versions, all with different lengths) so now it's probably one of the best known Laurel & Hardy feature films.
The plot goes something like this... Living in a Shrek-like Mother Goose all-star fantasy town called Toyland, Laurel & Hardy play two men who share a bed named Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee. Their neighbors include the creepy looking Cat (with the fiddle) and the Three Little Pigs and an even more disturbing looking version of Mickey Mouse (played by a monkey in a costume). Stan and Ollie live with Widow Peep (Florence Roberts) and her daughter Little Bo (Charlotte Henry). Unfortunately, even in Toyland reality can set in. Peep is going to loose her pad - the mortgage is owned by the vile Silas Barnaby (one of film history's great villains). Little Bo has a relationship brewing with Tom-Tom, The Piper's Son, but Barnaby will forget the back money owed him if she will do the unimaginable - marry him. Meanwhile, hoping to score the cash from their boss, the Toymaker, Stan and Ollie lose all hope of that when they piss off Santa Claus, messing up his order for wooden soldiers (he didn't want life size ones). Eventually, after numerous frame-ups and punishments, Barnaby is exposed as a criminal. Barnaby leads an attack on Toyland by the scary monsters who live on the outskirts of town, Bogeymen. Stan and Ollie fix their blunder by using their oversized wooden soldiers to fight off the Bogeymen.Continue Reading