The Omega Man
In The Omega Man, as Robert Neville, Charlton Heston drives around an abandoned Los Angeles in his convertible. He steps into a torn out department store and grabs a new track suit; he gets the generator working on an old movie theater and watches Woodstock; then he chats and plays chess against a bust of Caesar. Spotting some hooded figures in the darkness, he pulls out his machine gun and opens fire, killing them - you see, as the poster proclaimed, “The last man alive…is not alone!”
Before The Omega Man, Richard Matheson’s brilliant 1954 post-apocalyptic mini-novel, I Am Legend, was adapted into a Vincent Price snoozer called The Last Man On Earth. More recently the book was the source for a Will Smith vehicle that kept the title but went overboard with the CGI (a fantastic first half, it loses its way by the third act). Though it may be closer in spirit to Matheson’s book than The Omega Man, for pure fun the Heston version is the most entertaining of the three.Continue Reading
The Grapes Of Wrath
When Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) returns to his Oklahoma farm after four years in prison, he learns that nothing is what it was. It’s the 1930s, the depression is on, and his family has lost their farm and home to the bank. So begins an amazing journey for Tom - as he sees the social injustice around him he grows from petty criminal to labor activist. The Grapes of Wrath is a monumental film by a monumental director, John Ford, based on a brilliant book by another monumental figure, John Steinbeck. The truths laid out in the book and film may be just as true today as they were then. Tom leads his family from the dustbowl in search of work and a promise for a better life in California, but all they find are lies, police corruption, and corporate exploitation of desperate workers. It sounds a lot like the plight migrant workers from Mexico and Central America still face in search of the supposed American Dream.
The Grapes Of Wrath almost plays like a post-apocalyptic adventure as Tom, along with his Ma (Jane Darwell), Pa (Russell Simpson), and the preacher, Casey (John Carradine), pack the entire Joad clan into the truck and head west, where the world they encounter is a hostile and burnt out place. They are encouraged by pamphlets to head to California, but they get there to find themselves hoarded like cattle in a police state where their every move is monitored (another piece of futureshock, the dystopian state). Tom, at first naive, then confused, slowly realizes that all the cards are fixed against him and all the little people of the country. By the end, on the run from the cops, he tells his Ma in one of the great speeches in film history, "Wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there..." It’s a dark conclusion for the Joad family (and for the American Socialist dream, as WWII and then the Cold War are just around history’s corner).Continue Reading
The Poseidon Adventure
After the phenomenal success in 1970 of Airport (“Grand Hotel on a Airplane”), disaster films became all the rage of '70s pop cinema. The formula consisted of a melodramatic, soapy script with a handful of Oscar winners slumming, stuck in some kind of disastrous situation ranging from earthquakes to meteors. The best of the genre was The Poseidon Adventure, about a luxury liner that gets toppled by a tidal wave and the group of passengers trying to escape (by reaching the bottom of the boat). Besides excellent special effects and a great cast, what makes The Poseidon Adventure especially unusual is the underlying religious subtext; in some ways it’s also an allegory about the story of Jesus Christ and his followers.
On its final voyage across the Atlantic, passengers celebrate New Year's Eve on the SS Poseidon. We are introduced to a cross section of archetypes that will become the group we will stick with as they are all invited to sit at the captain’s dinner table (played with a straight face by Leslie Nielsen). A teenage girl (Pamela Sue Martin) and her obnoxious little brother (Eric Shea) travel without their parents; a brash New York cop (Ernest Borgnine) and his ex-hooker wife (Stella Stevens), on their way to meet their grandson in Israel (via Greece?); a sweet, old retired Jewish couple (Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson) play to the appropriate clichÃ©s; a lonely, soft-spoken bachelor (Red Buttons); and, most importantly, an outspoken renegade priest, Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman). Eventually, after being forced to fall in love with the cast, a massive tidal wave strikes the ship, flipping the boat upside down; a great scene of destructive mayhem follows, with some amazing stunt work.Continue Reading
After his ultra low-budget, indie caper comedy Bottle Rocket, director Wes Anderson (along with co-writer Owen Wilson) peaked with Rushmore, developing a formula and a brand that he has continued to hammer into the ground, with less and less success. But with Rushmore, the story of an eccentric high school underachiever and his relationship to the people around him, Anderson found the right level of quirk without going over the annoyance line and in the process made one of the best comedies of the '90s, a truly unique and special film.
In the teenage mind of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), he’s a scholastic genius, admired by his classmates at his beloved upscale private school, The Rushmore Academy. But in truth he’s a below average student and not very liked by his peers. Max is a different kind of outcast than we usually find in teenage nerds. Instead of rebelling against the school, his goal is to fit in, but his grandiose ideas and belief in himself makes him stand out. His lower income also keeps him at a distance from his peers. Max’s gentle father (Seymour Cassel) is a low-key barber, but Max claims his old man is a brain surgeon. Also at odds with Max is the school’s headmaster (Brian Cox). Max’s enthusiasm seems to be a constant source of stress for him, including Max’s effort to keep Latin in the school’s curriculum, his ambitious school theater production of Serpico, and his efforts to build an on-campus aquarium in a bid to impress a lovely widowed teacher, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams).Continue Reading
City Of God
Carrying the torch for Brazilian cinema and then running ten miles with it, lugging it into the new century, Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund’s epic masterpiece, City Of God, still stands as one of the best films of the 21st century so far. Picking up the torch from Hector Babenco’s 1981 film, Pixote, another film about children in Brazil’s crime-ridden ghettos, City Of God deserves ranking with the best of epic crime cinema. A shallow, but apt comparison may be a kiddie Godfellas with the razzmatazz style of Boogie Nights.
Based on a novel by Paulo Lins, spanning from the '60s through the early '80s, City Of God tells the story of the drug wars in the urban sprawl around Rio de Janeiro. Apparently based on the real life story of a Brazilian photographer named Wilson Rodriguez - here renamed Rocket (and acted well by Alexandre Rodrigues) - the story moves back and forth in time as we follow Rocket and the different young people he gets involved with over the years. Growing up in a more rural slum, Rocket’s brother Goose and his little crime posse get involved with a botched motel robbery that turns into a murder massacre when an 11-year old psycho named Li’l Dice gets his hand on a gun. Trying to escape with his girlfriend, Goose’s partner Shaggy is killed by the "shoot first" cops, while Goose is killed by Li’l Dice.Continue Reading
National Lampoon’s Animal House
The impact that National Lampoon Magazine had on American comedy during the 1970s was enormous, eventually spawning the massively ripped-off comedy movie National Lampoon's Animal House (as well as the Vacation series and some crappy forgettable flicks). You could say that the long running sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live symbolically evolved from National Lampoon (as well as from the Second City comedy clubs in Chicago and Toronto). Following the success of SNL's first breakout star, Chevy Chase, John Belushi would earn a cult following from his performance in Animal House that would last past his untimely death four years later from a drug overdose, leading the way for SNL alumni to dominate comedy for decades.Animal House follows two freshmen, Pinto (Tom Hulce) and Kent (Stephen Furst), "a wimp and a blimp," at Faber College in 1962. After being turned away from the elite fraternities they end up joining "the worst house on campus," Delta House. These campus outlaws are in constant trouble with Dean Wormer (brilliantly played by the snaky John Vernon of Point Blank), as they are placed on “double secret probation.” Eschewing academics or athletics, Delta members are either out to get wasted or laid, lead by would-be playboy, Otter (Tim Matheson), and super slob, Bluto (Belushi). There are a number of memorable scenes including Pinto and fellow Delta, Boon (Peter Riegert), along with his girlfriend, Katy (Karen Allen), being introduced to pot by a professor (Donald Sutherland); Belushi's stroll through the cafeteria line hoarding food and then his zit imitation; the guys' trip to a Rhythm N Blues club where Otis Day and the Knights perform (a scene ripped off in Weird Science). After the fraternity is expelled their revenge on the sc...Continue Reading
East Of Eden
Just scratching the surface of John Steinbeck's massive novel, the film version of East Of Eden is most important as a introduction to James Dean and as another notch in director Elia Kazan's impressive film belt. Though the story can be a little melodramatic, concentrating on two brothers - one good, Aron (Richard Davalos), and one bad, Cal (Dean) - and and their relationship to their father, Adam (Raymond Massey) during the WWI years in Salinas, California. Adam is an overly moral man while the boy's mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) is a brothel owner. If the biblical good and evil imagery sounds heavy-handed, it is, but for James Dean's fascinating performance the film's soapy elements are well worth slogging through. With only three films before his death at the age of 24, Dean's impact on film and film acting cannot be understated. Early in the decade Dean worked as a film extra in Hollywood, before moving to New York, where he began studying with famed acting guru Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, like his idols Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando before him. He made some minor noise working on the stage and on live television, before he was plucked up by Kazan for the role that would make him an instant star and begin an iconic legend that still continues almost 60 years after his death. As the moody Cal, Dean uses every kind of slump and mumble known to man. In the first half of the film, as he seeks to reconnect with his long lost mother, he always looks like he is going to tumble over, as if he's walking on his tip-toes. His face always seems on the brink of tears. Later, his character gains some confidence and seems to have a stronger control of his body until, after one last grasp at connecting with his father, rejected, he flips out and goes into histrionics (as do the camera angles). Dean wears...Continue Reading
The Stunt Man
Not to be confused with the awful swell of stunt man flicks that arose in the late '70s and early '80s (Hooper, Stunts, Stunt Rock, etc), nope, Richard Rush's The Stunt Man is a genre all itself. It's a playful film about the magic of movie making, but its depiction of a film set is closer to the episode of The Flintstones when Fred becomes Stony Curtis's stand-in, then, say, Francois Truffaut's on-set Day For Night. Like a Christopher Nolan film, it's a puzzle in a box, but unlike Inception the characters never stop to explain it to you. What's real and what's make believe is up to the viewer's imagination, like film itself.
Vietnam vet Cameron (Steve Railsback) is on the run from the cops, stumbles onto a film set, and may or may not be responsible for the death of the movie's top stunt man. The film's egomaniacal director, Eli Cross (Peter O'Toole), takes the fugitive under his wing, agreeing to hide him out but Cross will have to replace him as the film's stunt man. While shooting a ridiculous looking WWI flick at San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado (the location of Some Like It Hot as well) Cameron's view of reality becomes more blurred (as does the audience's). Cross puts him in more and more dangerous situations (just like that Flintstones episode). Is Cross trying to kill him? Did Cross have Burt, the former stunt man, killed? Besides stepping into Burt's stunt shoes, Cameron also takes up with his girlfriend, Nina (Barbara Hershey), the film's leading lady. And again, a sexual relationship with a self-centered actress can also blur the lines of reality, maybe even more powerfully.Continue Reading
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