It's fair to say that The Mission is an underrated film. Unlike Raging Bull or Blue Velvet it does not appear on many lists of the best films of the '80s (though any such list that does not have the Russian war flick Come And See on it is completely invalid anyway). The Mission doesn't even get mentioned in most Robert De Niro retrospectives. But this physically demanding, yet subtle role is one of De Niro's best. This was back when De Niro was still "Robert De Niro - all time great actor." Back in the good old days when he was still trying, before he became "That hammy actor from Meet The Parents and other comedies." The Mission was derided by most critics when it was released as overblown, as was De Niro’s performance (though the film did score a bunch of Oscar nominations thanks to a pricey ad campaign). But The Mission may actually be a lost gem that needs to be rediscovered and reevaluated; perhaps it could use the three-disc Criterion treatment.
Written by Robert Bolt (Lawrence Of Arabia), The Mission, at first glance, seems like a sweeping saga, but on closer inspection, it’s a small story with large mountains behind it. Jeremy Irons plays Gabriel, a Spanish Jesuit priest building a mission in the rain forest of South America in the 18th century. He is able to win over the natives with his groovy oboe playing. The natives become fully invested in the creation and running of the mission - it’s like a small co-op of social peace - as the natives are converted to Christians. Until a menacing slave trader, Mendoza (De Niro), arrives, ensnaring natives and selling them on the open market. Mendoza is a man with no moral center. However, later when he kills his brother (Aidan Quinn, sporting very '80s hair) in a jealous quarrel, Mendoza finds God and serves his penance by joining Gabriel’s order and hauling all his armor and weapons through the mountains. Moved by the native people's acceptance of him, he becomes a fierce protector of the mission and its people.Continue Reading
Love And Death
I’m not enough of an expert in Russian literature to give Woody Allen’s Love And Death it’s full due, intellectually. I do know there's some Crime And Punishment, some Brothers Karamazov, some War And Peace, and some Chekhov being spoofed. Visually there are references to Allen’s Swedish idol, Ingmar Bergman, with The Seventh Seal and Persona, and as well as some Charlie Chaplin. Allen also borrows healthily from his wisecracking forbearers, The Marx Brothers and Bob Hope.If Woody Allen’s directing career can be broken into three sections - his early slapstick comedies, his middle important films, and his later mostly forgettable busts that he’s been marred in for almost the last 20 years - then Love And Death marks the end of that first period. It would be his final "straight comedy" before making his evolutionary leap with his next film, the masterpiece Annie Hall. Love And Death ended his six-year period of comic experimentation following the hit and miss joke epics Take The Money And Run, Bananas, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex, and Sleeper. Hard to believe at one time a film critic argued who was the more important comic filmmaker: Allen or Mel Brooks (after making the classics Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein)? Allen went on to do Annie Hall and Manhattan and about a ten more relevant films while Brooks did Dracula: Dead And Loving It. Woody was always growing, while Brooks peaked early. That is not to say Love And Death is only important as a growth record. It’s also a great comedy on its own merits. It’s beautifully shot in Hungary by cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet (Au hasard Balthazar, Tess, etc.). Also it’s been cleverly scored with the music of 20th century Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (later The Ren & Stimpy Show would use his music as well).
Like Allen’s Latin American revolution comedy, Bananas, a lot of the fun is putting Woody in an absurd situation and letting him be Bob Hope. During the Napoleonic era, Allen, sporting his trademark horn rimmed black glasses, plays Boris Grushenko, a Russian coward ("Yes, but I'm a militant coward"). As his two virile brothers enlist in the military, Boris is too busy fretting about life and trying to get laid. The object of Boris's lust is his independent cousin, Sonja (Diane Keaton), however she is engaged to the herring merchant. Eventually Boris enlists in the army, becomes a hero, and then he and Sonja set out to assassinate Napoleon (played wonderfully by James Tolkan).Continue Reading
In 1982 when Diner was released it may have been confused with Porky's, another film about the nostalgic sexual misadventures of young men in the 1950s. Porky's, though a big hit in its day, was actually a pretty lousy movie and now completely forgotten. Diner, on the other hand, gets better with age. It's not just because of the smart dialog, complicated relationships, and impressive core of young actors who would go on to substantial careers; it's also a rather powerful film about growing up and coming to terms with lost youth and adult responsibilities.
Diner is the story of a group of early twenty-something young men in 1959 suburban Baltimore and is said to be semi-autobiographical for writer and director Barry Levinson. Having written scripts for Mel Brooks (Silent Movie and High Anxiety), as well as the oddball dramedy Inside Moves, Levinson was an established writer making his directing debut. Levinson would, of course, go on to have a prolific hit and miss directing career (hitting often with Rain Man, The Natural, Bugsy, and Wag the Dog; but missing even more often with junk like Toys, Man Of The Year, and Envy). Diner has proved to be the high point for originality and earned pathos in Levinson's career.Continue Reading
2 Fast 2 Furious
The Fast And The Furious is a guilty pleasure of mine; this amped up, goofy remake of Point Break is actually a ridiculously fun adrenaline rush. As a sequel, 2 Fast 2 Furious is pointless (it’s sorely missing the presence of the first film's co-star, Vin Diesel). As an exciting action film it’s just lacking. As a fun-dumb genre movie, it doesn’t deliver. HOWEVER, as apparently lame a movie as it is, it does work as a touching gay love story between two men whose macho cultures suppress them from revealing their true feelings and stop them from acting on their apparent lust. In that context this is powerful, beautiful film. 2 Fast 2 Furious is like a sexless, jacked-up Brokeback Mountain on speed.
Returning from the first film Paul Walker (a not very impressive pretty boy actor) plays Brian O’Conner, once an undercover cop who used his love of cars and drag racing to do some deep cover, infiltrating a ring of racing crooks. Now pushed by the Florida State cops to crack a ring of drag racing drug dealers led by the evil Carter Verone (Cole Hauser, star of the entertainingly awful Paparazzi, channeling fellow actor James Remar in his younger 48 Hrs days). Brian recruits Roman Pearce (Gibson), his childhood homie and the love of his life. Roman blames him for his prison stint some years ago, but after seeing each other for the first time, they roll around on the ground together and Roman completely agrees to work with Brian. As Monica, Eva Mendes is the low-cut top wearing, undercover Fed who tries to come between them.Continue Reading
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