To Kill A Mockingbird
One of the great American books, To Kill A Mockingbird, makes for one of the great American films. Horton Foote (Tender Mercies) compactly adapts Harper Lee’s dense semi-autobiographical novel. Now an adult, Scout Finch recounts two summers in her childhood during the Depression in a sleepy little Alabama town. She and her brother Jem befriend a boy named Dill (based on Lee’s lifelong friend, Truman Capote), while her father Atticus, a righteous lawyer (righteous, in an admirable way), defends a black man accused of rape. Scout learns many simple lessons and the film, with such simple qualities, packs a gentle emotional wallop.
This was 1962 disguised as the Depression. An innocent ‘62, pre-assignation of JFK and MLK; pre-Vietnam War making the front pages; pre-Black Panthers and "black power." When the naÃ¯ve still believed that one crusading white man could potentially save a black man’s life. And though in the end Atticus doesn’t actually succeed (thematically it has something to do with why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird), it has enough of an impact on a child that she could grow up to be a great writer. Though in real life, unfortunately, Harper Lee would never write another book again, instead becoming Capote’s babysitter (Lee, along with Emily Bronte and John Kennedy Toole, would be one of the great one-hit wonders in literature history).Continue Reading
The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters
Going back to Grey Gardens in 1975, so many successful and fascinating documentaries have been about misfits in their exotic sub-culture world. Through Gates Of Heaven, The Cruise, American Movie, and Hell House the viewers are given a glimpse into a unique world that they may not have otherwise known exists. Not only do these often oddball worlds exist, but the people who live in them are completely passionate or even obsessed with maintaining their status in them. One such "world" is the competitive classic arcade game scene. It started - and maybe peaked - in the '80s but according to the fascinating documentary, The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters, it still continues and the nerds who occupy this world are obsessed with it.
Like many amazing documentaries, The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters has a plot so complete and ready-made, with a clear hero and a villain, it gives the impression that it could only have been concocted by a screenwriter. But no folks, it’s real.Continue Reading
Ever since Marlon Brando’s Johnny in The Wild One was asked, "What are you rebelling against?" and he answered, "What have you got?" youth rebellion has been a mainstay in movies, making for some good, bad, and often subversive films. From Rebel Without A Cause to Wild In The Streets to Rock & Roll High School and Over The Edge -- all films that have elements of screwing the man. Altamont Now, directed by Joshua Brown, is more of a spoof of the genre but still keeps the spirit alive.
Like the late '60s films of Peter Watkins (Privilege, Punishment Park) or Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, Altamont Now has faux-documentary elements and mixes in a lot of old B-roll using numerous film sources. Unlike the acid pace of those films, this has a more modern, hyper visual and editing style that helps contribute to the movie's anarchy. The film opens a la Blair Witch Project, reporting to be lost footage; luckily that angle is never really pushed (unlike the recent fake doc Catfish where the directors are still doing press claiming the obviously staged film is real). The "this is lost footage" claim is actually making fun of an already stale storytelling element. We never for a second believe that it works as a documentary; when only two people are in a room, there always seems to be a third person in the room working the camera.Continue Reading
The Day Of The Jackal
I often recommend The Day Of The Jackal to people and they always come back and say the same thing, “That was great. What are some more movies like that?” I’m hard-pressed to answer because there are none as good of the type (maybe in the general ballpark: State Of Siege, Z, Black Sunday, The Manchurian Candidate - I don’t know). The Day Of The Jackal is the best assassination thriller ever made. Ever. Not to be confused with the Bruce Willis sorta remake Jackal, which sucked. This, the original version based on the great novel of the same name by Frederick Forsyth (The Dogs Of War), is a taut, textbook example of how to make an exciting, sophisticated, suspense film with a cast of non brand-names and without having to rely on overblown action sequences.
After France ended their occupation of Algeria their military was left with a number of pissed off killers (the O.A.S.) who wanted revenge against their president, Charles de Gaulle (see the brilliant docudrama Battle Of Algiers for further study on that subject). So they hire the world’s greatest assassin - code-named "The Jackal" (Edward Fox) - to kill him. Traveling all over Europe, the film meticulously follows the small triviality of how The Jackal puts together his plan (the goal is not only to shoot and kill de Gaulle, but to escape alive, without getting caught). He’s British, but can slip into any country; he’s an enigma and sleeps with both men and women if they fit into his plan. The film details everything in his plan, including the ways he obtains forged passports and even has specially designed bullets made.Continue Reading
How The Grinch Stole Christmas
Based on a book by Dr. Seuss (Theodore "Ted"’ Geisel), this little 26-minute television special has been a holiday tradition since it first aired in 1966. But it’s more than just a Christmas cartoon. Besides being a moving story about the power of love, it may be the greatest animated (long) short ever made. It really is a tribute to three unique talents coming together: the prose of author Dr. Seuss, the voice of actor Boris Karloff, and the vision of the legendary animation director Chuck Jones (co-director Ben Washam was also a very respected animator and a long time collaborator with Jones).
The Grinch is a grumpy, old, green, Scroogey creature with a heart "two sizes too small" who lives with his sweet little mutt, Max, atop a mountain overlooking Whoville (though his actual color varies on different DVD versions). In a spat of bitterness listening to the Whos prepare for their Christmas festivities, he decides to ruin their Christmas. Disguised as Santa he descends on Whoville in a sled, with poor Max dressed as a reindeer and forced to pull the sled down the steep, snowy ledge. Then he slithers around the homes of the Whos and steals everything Christmas related, including trees, candy, gifts, and even burning fire logs.Continue Reading
On paper the first Rocky may be a better film than Rocky III - and don't let the fact that Sylvester Stallone would become a muscle-headed goon persuade you that he didn't once have talent. The original Rocky was a moving film and Stallone gave a nice performance - though not sure if it deserved to win the Best Picture Oscar over All the President's Men, Network and Taxi Driver - but still, it was a film to admire. Rocky II was a dull follow up that stuck to the formula. Rocky III sticks to the formula and gives it some twists. In terms of sheer entertainment it's a knockout (that's a boxing term, get it?) and at a compact 100 minutes it's a fast and easy ride.
Bill Conte's infectious "Rocky Theme" opens the film and a recap of the final fight from the previous movie as Rocky predictably finally beats Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Then BAM! It’s the rockin' sounds of Survivor's "Eye Of The Tiger" and a montage of Rocky living the celebrity life while busting heads in the ring. Meanwhile a new Mike Tyson-type of up & comer, Clubber Lane, is demolishing opponents (played very well by Mr. T). After a wild charity match against a pro wrestler, Thunder Lips (Hulk Hogan looking like a giant), Clubber publicly pressures Rocky into meeting him in the ring. Clubber trains hard and Rocky trains soft. Before the fight Rocky learns from his manager, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), that he's not as good a fighter as he thinks he is - since fighting Apollo those were all tomato-cans he has been beating up on. And then in a twist to the Rocky formula Clubber gives Rocky a real whuppin', so bad in fact it kills Mickey and Clubber becomes the new champ.Continue Reading
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