The tough-minded vision of a master filmmaker fighting the odds to bring his vision to the screen has made for some truly memorable documentaries over the years. The almost mad mavericks Francis Ford Coppola directing Apocalypse Now in Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse and Werner Herzog’s epic struggle to make Fitzcarraldo in Burden Of Dreams - the documentaries are almost as good as the films themselves. Another interesting film is Lost In La Mancha which chronicles Terry Gilliam's attempt to get the unbearable looking The Man Who Killed Don Quixote started and completed, the latter never happened. These are three men devoted to filmmaking with grand goals. The documentary Overnight is about another filmmaker, Troy Duffy, trying to get his first film, The Boondock Saints, made. Unfortunately for this maniacal egomaniac his visions are mostly about himself and how cool his sunglasses are.
Back in the '90s Harvey Weinstein and his film company, Miramax Pictures, were riding a wave of good fortune and good will after making an overnight sensation out of a video store clerk turned happening director/screenwriter, Quentin Tarantino. Suddenly everybody had a script ready to go and were ready to be discovered by Weinstein. Unfortunately, it also made Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction two of the most imitated films of their day. Hip dudes spewing cool dialog and then nonchalantly taking part in extreme violence and gunplay. (Does anyone want to sit through Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead, Very Bad Things, Love & A .45, The Salton Sea or 2 Days In The Valley again?) One of the worst Tarantino clones was The Boondock Saints. Overnight is the story of how The Boondock Saints' production was hot, then cold, and then barely got made.Continue Reading
The Big Chill
Don’t get me wrong, I hate yuppies as much as the next guy. And the thought of two hours of white bread yuppies reconnecting while bemoaning their lost youth and wondering where the dreams went, I would agree, sounds painful. The idea had been filmed once before by indie maverick John Sayles with his very boring Return Of The Secaucus Seven in ’79. But for the much better The Big Chill, director/ screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was able to ensemble a dream cast of bright up and comers who brought magic to his incredibly complicated and witty script (written with Barbara Benedek).
Kasdan had been a hot go-to guy for scripts, having written The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders Of The Lost Ark. His first outing as a director was the steamy modern noir twister, Body Heat, starring the young William Hurt and Kathleen Turner (with an excellent little role for an even younger Mickey Rourke). The Big Chill was his personal take on a group of 1960s college friends reuniting fifteen years later for the funeral for their mutual bud, Alex (played in flashbacks by Kevin Costner, though those scenes were famously cut out of it. Kasdan would reward Costner with a plum role in his next film, the overrated gee-wiz Western, Silverado).Continue Reading
Once Upon A Time In The West
Sergio Leone's giant mega-Spaghetti Western is the ultimate Spaghetti Western. It may be the greatest Western of all time, period (it's at least up there with Shane and The Wild Bunch) and it’s one of my favorite films of all time. Like a novel, we are introduced very carefully to four separate characters, their motives and links to each other slowly come together. Like an opera, Ennio Morricone's masterful score gives each character their own theme. Once Upon A Time In The West is such a unique and fascinating film, it's no wonder that its influence can be seen in so many films after it, including the works of directors Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, Clint Eastwood, and Robert Rodriguez.
The Spaghetti Western is a term which refers to a genre of Westerns generally starting in the 1960s which were produced by Italians (but often shot in Spain). They usually had another Euro co-financier (usually Spain) and they would use an international cast (usually Italians and Spaniards and maybe an American) to sell the film in different countries. The '70s would also see the rise of sub-genres such as Spaghetti Gangster and Spaghetti Zombie flicks. A number of Spaghetti Western directors had an impact like Enzo Barboni (They Call Me Trinity), Sergio Sollima (The Big Gundown), Gianfranco Parolini (the Sabata trilogy), and Sergio Corbucci (Django). But the big dog, the Orson Welles of the genre, was Sergio Leone. He hit it big with his "Dollars trilogy" (Fistful Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly). Beside Leone himself the trilogy also made international stars out of the score's revolutionary composer, Morricone, and its star, Clint Eastwood, then only known as a hack American TV actor.Continue Reading
The Office Special
After only two seasons (twelve half hour episodes total) The Office returned for two more final episodes that beautifully wrap up the short-lived British series. The series had a massive influence on television, spawning a still on-going American version and made its star and creator, Ricky Gervais, into an instant comedy guru (he co-wrote and directed every episode with his partner, Stephen Merchant). Season Two ended on a rather depressing note. In the office of Wernham Hogg Paper Company blowhard boss David Brent (Gervais) had been fired. Everyman Tim (Martin Freeman) turned down the offer to take David’s job, leaving it open for David’s toadie, Gareth (Mackenzie Crook). Also Tim’s pursuit of Dawn (Lucy Davis) came to a fizzle as she and her fiancé, Lee, headed off for the United States. With The Office Special we pick up some time later. The Office had been a minor blip on the BBC TV schedule. David, by day, is now a cleaning supplies salesman, but in the evenings he is using his new minor fame (or infamy) to break into show business, doing the washed-up reality TV star circuit. Unfortunately it means appearances at rowdy bars with ex-Big Brother cast member types for a hostile crowd (they hate him). Not working at the office but spending much of his free time there, with Gareth’s help, he is also pursuing a relationship on an Internet dating site (so he can score a date to the Office’s Christmas party). David trying to find reasons to be back at the office is David at his most pathetic - all one can do is pity the man.
The Office has always been about the slow burn. The humor is not in the immediate joke but in what the characters say, it may only be a funny line to someone who already understands the character, their motivations, and their insecurities. Like the influences Gervais has cited for his humor, the films of Christopher Guest (the one good one, Waiting For Guffman), This Is Spinal Tap (Guest co-wrote and co-starred in it, but it was actually directed by Rob "Meathead" Reiner), and the most obvious influence Garry Shandling’s brilliant inside Hollywood, character-driven The Larry Sanders Show. Both are giddy in the burning humiliation of their characters, but unlike the cruelty of much cynically spirited humor, it's obvious that Shandling and Gervais both have hearts and affection for the men they play and the characters around them.Continue Reading
Saturday Night Fever
At first glance what may appear to be a cultural relic from the disco '70s is actually a deeply sensitive star-making vehicle for the young John Travolta as a Brooklyn hot dog who is slowly realizing that everything in the world he knows - his unemployed and jealous father, his gooney Brooklyn buds, his life as the king stud on the dance floor, everything around him - is all bullshit.
Who would guess that a little script by Norman Wexler (Serpico) based on a New York Magazine article by Nik Cohn, "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," would be at the center of a cultural phenomenon? (The piece was said to be based on his reporting of real life characters he met in Brooklyn, but later it was revealed he made the whole thing up.) Everything about Saturday Night Fever became hot; Travolta’s white suit started a fashion trend, discotheques went from being an urban, ethnic or Euro trend to being found on main street in the middle of America. But hottest of all was the soundtrack, selling 20 million copies. Most was produced and performed by the Australian family band, The Bee Gees, the one time Beatles wanna-bees. The soundtrack scored them hit single after hit single, including "Staying Alive," "Night Fever," "How Deep Is Your Love," and "If I Can’t Have You" sung by Yvonne Elliman (who played Mary Magdalene in the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar).Continue Reading
The Cable Guy
Like a paranoid science-fiction film from the '70s, The Cable Guy pretends to be about the threat of technology and America's addiction to television. In the mid 1990s, was the developing "information super-highway" a potentially scary thing? This was Ben Stiller's directional follow up to Reality Bites, his would-be Gen-X anthem, and they both play almost like period pieces now. The Cable Guy's underlying messages may not be very convincing, but as a showcase for Jim Carrey's insane performance it hits its mark perfectly.
With TV's In Living Color Carrey had become a comedy name, but with the surprise hit, the messy Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and its even lazier sequel Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, he became a box office super star. With his rubber face and goofy physical comedy in films like The Mask and later Dumb & Dumber Carrey he was also becoming popular with the kiddies. Though he had played a villain with some great physicality as The Riddler in the otherwise forgettable Batman Forever, it surprised many audience members when he popped up in '96 in such a dark and mean-spirited comedy as The Cable Guy. (His $20 million paycheck at the time also got a lot of flack from those audiences who fret over actors' salaries.)Continue Reading
Stalag 17 is flawed, but entertaining Billy Wilder. It’s not in the great director’s top tier, which would include Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, and Some Like It Hot. Some might put The Apartment in that top group, but I would put it in the second group with Ace In The Hole, Witness For The Prosecution, and Stalag 17 (that third level of his films is also still very interesting and might include One, Two, Three, The Major And The Minor, Kiss Me, Stupid, Sabrina, and The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes).
Stalag 17 is the story of WWII American soldiers, prisoners of war in a Nazi camp, based on a popular play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski. In recent years there was talk that director Spike Lee was going to restage it on Broadway with British actor Clive Owen, but it never happened. The film adaptation by director Wilder and Edwin Blum is said to follow the stage version pretty closely. It’s been made less stagy by opening it up, out of the barracks and into the camp around them. The POWs live a boring and cramped life, working whenever possible to put one over on their German captors. One POW, Sefton (William Holden), is an "operator" trading favors with the guards, running a still and a betting track. He is a survivor, in it for himself. When he places bets against his fellow Americans it alienates him from his prison mates even more.Continue Reading
If you watch any of the terrific documentaries on films of the last fifty years (The Kid Stays In The Picture, A Decade Under the Influence, Visions Of Light, etc) you will notice there is ONE film that comes up over and over, its influence and success massive, the impact it had on the public and the industry indescribable. If you polled people, I bet it would make as many favorite ten-best lists as any other movie. If I happen upon it on TV I set sucked right in. It's the Gone With The Wind of its time.... Yes, you know what we are talking about, The Godfather. Perhaps the greatest movie ever made.
Of course this is the epic story of a post-WWII Italian American family. Vito, the Patriarch (Marlon Brando), is the head of the Corleone crime organization. The film opens at the wedding of his daughter, Connie (Talia Shire). His oldest son, Fredo (John Cazale), is a rather weakly type. His next son, Sonny (James Caan), a hothead womanizer, is the heir to take over the business. There is also an adopted Irish American son, Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall), who works as the family’s lawyer. His youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), is there with his new girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton). He is not part of the family business; as a collage graduate and a "war hero" there are expectations for greatness cast upon him. In a nutshell, The Godfather is a tale about how Michael evolves from clean-cut, all-American wanna-be to the head of the family when his father dies and his brother Sonny is murdered. And he ends up becoming even more ruthless than his father ever was.Continue Reading
E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial
Despite one of the worst movie titles ever, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial produced one of the most exceptional films about a child’s alienation from the adult world and the power of love, and is certainty on par with The Wizard Of Oz as an entertaining family film with much deeper meanings below the surface. Its massive success - at one time the highest grossing movie of all-time - brought on a wave of imitative clones (many produced by its director Steven Spielberg). But as the years and the hoopla have passed, it can now be enjoyed for what it is - irresistible.
An awkwardly adolescent suburban kid named Elliott (Henry Thomas), along with his younger sister and older bother (Drew Barrymore and Robert MacNaughton), are dealing with their preoccupied mother’s recent divorce from their father. She is played by Dee Wallace who went on to play the mother protecting her son from a psycho pooch in Cujo. Elliott comes upon a stranded space alien in his backyard whom he conveniently names E.T. (short for "Extra-Terrestrial," get it?). Employing his bro and sis they join the cute E.T on his quest to be reunited with his fellow spacemen, while having to hide him from their mom and the scary government officials who are searching for him. Oh, and earth's rotten atmosphere is slowly destroying him.Continue Reading
With Atlantic City the then 67-year-old Burt Lancaster gave the performance of his five decade long film career. And what an incredible career it was. As Lou, an over-the-hill, broken down loverboy who dreams of one big score and still fancies himself a player, telling tales of one-time peripheral ties to the mob, Lancaster is able to use the physical and emotional gifts that have defined him his whole career. Like many of his characters, Lou is all buff and gusto on the outside, while sensitive and gooey on the inside.
Lou spends his days running numbers and looking after his sugar-mama Grace (Kate Reid), a decrepit ex-mob moll who came to Atlantic City during WWII for a Betty Grable look-a-like contest. The highlight of his life is lusting after his younger neighbor, Sally, a casino waitress and wanna-be blackjack dealer (an outstanding Susan Sarandon). Lou peeps at her through the windows as she gets topless and erotic with a lemon, rubbing it on herself to get rid of the restaurant's clam smell. When Sally’s lout ex-husband stashes a huge bag of cocaine in his pad and then gets killed by mobsters, Lou is able to woo Sally and become the true gangster he always fantasized about being. Meanwhile the city of Atlantic City in the background represents the foreground - it’s an aging, crumbling dinosaur being torn down by developers and being rebuilt with slick new buildings.Continue Reading