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
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