The Battle Of Algiers
Banned in France for five years, The Battle Of Algiers is the best pro-terrorism film ever made (yep, even better than V For Vendetta). Led by Ennio Morricone’s thrilling score, who wouldn’t root for those poor, but heroic Algerians in their struggle against the creepy militant imperialistic French? Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do to get all those pretentious cafes out of the Casbah. Told about ten years after the actual war, director Gillo Pontecorvo has crafted the definition of a "docu-drama," so well done it’s often mistaken for an actual documentary. Shot in grainy black & white in the actual locations of the real life events, Pontecorvo notes in the opening titles that not one foot of newsreel footage was used.
The Battle Of Algiers was released in the United States as the war in Vietnam was making many Americans sympathetic to the victims of colonialists. The film had a massive impact and scored awards all over the world. It would win the prestigious Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival and strangely, for technical reasons, it would be nominated in 1967 for the Best Foreign Film Oscar and two years later it would get nominated for Best Director and for Best Screenplay (I’m not sure if any other film has received three Oscar nominations in two different years, two years apart).Continue Reading
If nothing else, Marathon Man is relevant as British director John Schlesinger’s last important film. He had been a major force in English cinema in the '60s with Darling, Far From The Madding Crowd, and Sunday Bloody Sunday. In America he made one of the great "Los Angeles movies," Day Of The Locust, and one of the great "New York Movies," Midnight Cowboy (for which he won an Oscar). After Marathon Man his next dozen or so films before his death in 2003 would be completely unmemorable (with the exception of Sean Penn’s stellar performance in The Falcon and The Snowman), sadly ending such a promising career with the horrid Madonna vehicle, The Next Best Thing.
Based on a massive bestseller by William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid), Marathon Man is interesting because Schlesinger is able to use the docu-street style he perfected with Midnight Cowboy and his smart, gentle approach to grown-up literature to turn out a really cool, tough, and intelligent thriller. It’s a film with a number of twists, though they don’t always add-up, on the whole it's a taut, gripping, exciting film.Continue Reading
Sid and Nancy
Like most bios of contemporary controversial figures, Sid and Nancy has its naysayers. Some music historians and punk aficionados have claimed that the film misrepresents some of its real life characters and their time line. Those complaints may be true. But no one has a qualm with the two stunning lead performances by Chloe Webb as the beyond annoying groupie, Nancy, and Gary Oldman as the drugged out Sex Pistols bassist, Sid Vicious (actually just window dressing for the group, he had the look, but never played on the records). The two make for an insane couple; it's a deranged Romeo & Juliet, two lost souls in a sea of heroin and self-destruction. This is a love story, with some dark humor mixed in, like a gutter version of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?.
Coming off his cult hit Repo Man director Alex Cox beautifully captures the ugliness of the late '70s/early '80s punk and drug culture in London and New York. The film opens with Sid being arrested for murdering Nancy at The Chelsea Hotel (in real life many believed that he was genuinely innocent, done in by lazy New York cops who didn't want to search out the real killer). The film goes back and traces the two meeting as the Sex Pistols were taking off in London, the cover boys for the fledgling punk music scene. Nancy was an American, a stripper and a hooker who chased rock stars and drugs. After being rejected by the other Pistols, she found a willing victim in the rather naive and dim Sid. In the film she gets him hooked on the needle and becomes the voice in his head (a kinda less charming and less intelligent Yoko Ono).Continue Reading
Wow, check out this Oscar friendly cast...With a bunch of Oscar nominations and a win for Gandhi, there’s Ben Kingsley. And over there is Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker for his amazing performance as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Michelle Williams got a nod for Brokeback Mountain and Alfred Molina should have gotten one for Frida (or a number of other high caliber performances). It also has the cinematographer of Terms Of Endearment. Again… wow, this must be a classy film. This must be one of those Merchant Ivory flicks or something. Oh wait, Michael Madsen is in it. Halt the award talk. No, instead everyone is slumming, probably cashing a quick paycheck. It’s a kooky Sci-Fi flick called Species. And though it spawned a few straight to DVD sequels that no one ever saw, it’s actually a very watchable junky B-movie (make that an affectionate C+).
A teenage cutie, Sil (Williams), is raised in a glass bubble and is studied by Xavier Fitch (Kingsley). It turns out she is no ordinary teeny bopper… you see, radio telescopes picked up DNA from space, Fitch and the scientists at the lab combined it with human DNA to create her (choosing to create a female so she would be more docile - oh boy, were they wrong, right?). She grows up fast, they decide to put an end to their experiment and gas her, but she escapes the lab. Like The Terminator this moppet is a fish outta water in our world, but she’s a quick study. Oh, and underneath her beauty she’s actually a slithery spiked creature, a sorta Alien/Predator combo. Luckily for the censors she quickly grows into her adult form, the striking Natasha Henstridge. Although she stops aging, she does manage to get naked a lot.Continue Reading
Kramer vs. Kramer
The amazing early part of Dustin Hoffman's career was filled with so many showy roles - Midnight Cowboy, Lenny, Strawdogs, and Little Big Man - but he ended the 1970s with perhaps the best performance of his career in Kramer vs. Kramer. This little film actually beat Apocalypse Now for the Best Picture Oscar. Which film you prefer may be debatable, but what isn't is that Kramer vs. Kramer is more than a little film. Robert Benton (co-writer of Bonnie and Clyde) took a simple little story of a career man learning about domestic responsibility and gave it a wallop of emotion that has helped it last the test of time.
Hoffman plays Ted Kramer, a New York ad-man married to Joanna (Meryl Streep) with a little boy, Billy (Justin Henry). One night after securing an important new account he comes home to find Joanna all packed and heading out the door. She leaves him...and Billy. Father and son have to learn to coexist - the usually selfish Ted has to learn to become a caretaker to his son and Billy has to get used to living without a mum. At first Ted doesn’t even know what grade his son is in and is forced to do what were then considered feminine chores like picking his son up at birthday parties and grocery shopping. But he learns to be a father and he and Billy build a special bond. Hoffman’s Ted obviously has a strong character arc and with the help of his single mother neighbor, Margaret (Jane Alexander), he develops a nurturing side to his tightly wound personality. This, of course, leads to his losing his job and, worse, after finding herself out in California, the icy Joanna eventually returns and fights to regain custody of Billy (hence the "vs." in the title).Continue Reading
This early '70s British/Spanish co-production is more interesting than most of the other horror/sci-fi flicks its countrymen were putting out in its day. It’s also the best Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee flick of the '70s. Horror Express plays like a mad mesh-up of The Thing, Murder On The Orient Express, Night Of The Living Dead, and Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass series. It may be a wacky low-budget affair, but it’s actually an eerie little genre masterpiece.
Anthropologist Alexander Saxton (Lee) boards the Trans-Siberian Express in 1906 with a crated fossil of what he believe to be the "missing link." A mad Rasputin-like monk (Alberto de Mendoza) becomes obsessed with it, declaring it the devil and waking it from its deep slumber. When it escapes and starts killing passengers, Saxton must team up with his rival, Dr. Wells (Cushing), to destroy it. The scientists study its retina and learn that it came to ancient Earth from outer space a la The Thing. And also like The Thing it seems to be able to take the form of the people it mind-melds with, causing the killing to continue.Continue Reading
The Road Warrior
George Miller’s Australian gem, The Road Warrior, is hailed by most as one of the greatest action films of all time, especially since it’s a pre-CGI, stunt and stunt driver, driven thrill ride. Its vision of the post apocalyptic future has been ripped off as much as any film, usually badly (1990: The Bronx Warriors, Resident Evil, Doomsday, etc). It has echoes of Kurosawa’s early samurai films as well as John Ford’s cowboys or cavalry dramas. Here, the fort holds oil production so precious for driving around in your jacked-up automobiles; instead of Indians the attackers are mohawked punked-out brutes. This fairly low budget flick looks and feels like a big Hollywood spectacle (coming at the end of Australia’s golden age of stuntploitation films. See the wonderful documentary Not Quite Hollywood for more on this fascinating era).
The film is a sequel to the ultra low-budget Mad Max (in most of the world The Road Warrior was titled Mad Max 2). Mad Max got some mild play in the States but the strong accents were ridiculously dubbed with what sound like cartoon voice-over actors. The first one takes place "A Few Years From Now...” when the world has not fallen apart but seems to be on the brink and chaos rules. The high-speed police patrol seems to work as its own gang, taking on psychos and bikers. Max (Mel Gibson), a tough cop, is also a tender family man, and when a motorcycle gang kills his wife and child, he takes out his vengeance on them.Continue Reading
Richard Pryor Live On The Sunset Strip
It’s a given that Richard Pryor is one of the most influential stand-up comedians ever (along with Lenny Bruce or George Carlin or Mort Sahl or whoever you want to put on a short list). His feature length performance film, Richard Pryor Live On The Sunset Strip, along with Richard Pryor Live in Concert a few years earlier, are still the benchmarks for stand-up comedy films. Sunset Strip may be slightly stronger because of the incredible autobiographical detail and honesty. He might have been a train wreck in real life, but on stage he was completely self-assured - without being cocky - and utterly honest about his own shortcomings, not to mention his takes on sex and race. Besides being hilarious, this film stand as a documentary about the mind of Richard Pryor and the unique way he interprets the world.
Like Bruce and Carlin, Pryor started off a TV-friendly, joke man who evolved when he found himself, got dangerous, got dirty, and embraced the counterculture. On The Sunset Strip is almost like an autobiographical one-man show; he talks about growing up in a brothel, how going to Africa changes him, working for the mob, but, most revealing, his cocaine abuse. In an almost too honest moment he discusses his famous "blowing himself up" incident. At the same time he still hits some great standards like the differences between men and women and black and white people. He also does his down & out character of Mudbone, for what he claims, thankfully, is the last time.Continue Reading
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