Some movies merit a second viewing to get a better sense of what’s going on. There aren’t a lot of films I’d lump into this category but Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg is one of them. When I saw it during its original theatrical release I thought it fell flat. I was expecting a sharp-as-a-blade deconstruction of the kind of guy who, in Baumbach’s own words, seems to perpetually get in his own way. Ben Stiller’s character, Roger Greenberg, is a hyper-critical, excruciatingly self-centered guy aimless and adrift in a Los Angeles completely familiar to anyone who lives here—a place that seems to always have the lonely haze of a Sunday afternoon. Greenberg is a quintessential 21st century miserablist. None of his problems should chart on a list of the biggest issues facing society but in his own way he epitomizes the neurotic, existential crisis surrounding a particular stratum of our white western culture of insane privilege. Greenberg is paralyzed by how his actions make him seem to the outside world. He is obsessed with what people say about him. He is so busy avoiding the things he doesn’t want to do that he ends up not really doing anything with his life. He takes out his anger on justifiable targets—Starbucks, rude drivers—but lacks the self-awareness to see where all this self-obsessive behavior has gotten him. If this sounds unpleasant I assure you it’s actually pretty hilarious but the subtlety of Stiller’s performance caught me off guard the first time.
Roger Greenberg is a New Yorker in his 40s who has just gotten over some kind of vaguely alluded to nervous breakdown. He is offered his brother Phillip’s palatial house in L.A. to recuperate in while Phillip and his family are off in Vietnam on a work-related trip. Greenberg (as Stiller’s character is known) shows up after they leave and meets their personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), who agrees to get a drink with him. Their banter is suitably awkward. Greenberg often wears the expression of a trapped animal; his eyes dart around and he doesn’t so much engage in conversation as let you in on what one assumes is his constant, torturous inner monologue: a litany of complaints and contrarian opinions on every subject conceivable. Somehow this charms Florence or at least piques her curiosity. She’s a girl just out of college who is sleepwalking through young adulthood, a nice kid who doesn’t have her shit together and for whatever reason likes Greenberg. Greenberg, though, has a habit of letting people who care about him down. Whether it’s Florence or his former band mate, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), he can’t seem to move beyond his own baggage and he inevitably hurts the people closest to him. Misery, after all, loves company.
When We Were Kings
More than just a documentary about boxing or a boxer or a fight, Leon Gast’s astoundingly epic documentary When We Were Kings captures a fascinating period of history and tells the story of how a cocky young fighter named Cassius Clay became the worldwide icon known as Muhammad Ali. The biggest event in boxing history—and maybe the biggest event of the decade—was when boxing promoter Don King got the latest champ, the hard-hitting monster George Foreman, to take on the supposedly washed up 33-year-old ex-champ Ali in Zaire in ’74, in the event known as “the rumble in the jungle.”
For Czech director Milos Forman, in that brief 10 year period between his two masterpieces, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, he took on two monumental American mini-institutions as sources. Hair, his film version of the groovy stage musical about the Age of Aquarius, is mildly memorable, while Ragtime, his big adaptation of E.L Doctorow’s hugely popular and influential novel, was largely ignored in its day; but 20-something years later it holds up and now looks like one of the most overlooked historical dramas of the decade. Ragtime is a film about the small details and how little incidents can grow and change history and people’s lives. With a fascinating cast and some interesting, ahead-of-its-time politics, Ragtime is truly an original and entertaining movie.
The film begins like the book: a sprawling story of scandal and trouble in the first decade of the 20th Century. It mixes real-life characters with fictional creations (similar to HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, the pulp work of James Ellroy, and countless books and films since). The famous murder trial of Harry Kendall Thaw (Robert Joy), who shot architect Stanford White (played well by overly macho writer Norman Mailer) over an affair with his wife, the showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (fresh out of Ordinary People, Elizabeth McGovern), dominates the first act. Meanwhile, a nice family just north of Manhattan in New Rochelle goes through massive changes. Mother (Mary Steenburgen) and Father (James Olson, an actor I wasn’t familiar with, who’s outstanding in this) try to keep their dignity while their Victorian values are constantly challenged. Her weird sibling, Younger Brother (Brad Dourif, less weird than usual, but still odd), works for Father at the fireworks factory and is obsessed with Evelyn, but she is too much the starlet for him. Meanwhile, Mother has taken in a black woman, Sarah (Debbie Allen), and her new baby. This is the thread plot that overtakes and dominates the story.
Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park
At the height of their superstardom in 1978 it was time for the Kabuki make-up sporting rock band Kiss (Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Peter Criss, Ace Frehley) to branch out into the movies. After all, it was the same year that The Bee Gees starred in the super dud, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Instead of going the way The Beatles did 14 years earlier when they hooked up with an acclaimed young director, Richard Lester, to helm their little masterpiece A Hard Day’s Night, Kiss wanted an easier cash-in, or so the story goes. So instead of doing an edgy film to keep up with their violent, hard rockin’ persona, they hooked up with TV cartoon producers Hanna-Barbera (The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, etc.) in the hopes of selling their products to a much younger audience and ended up with a disastrous TV-movie that the band has more or less disowned. Though not as campy as The Ramones in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School or as weird as The Monkees in Head or as boring as Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer, it is a few levels better than The Village People opus, Can’t Stop the Music. Kiss Meets The Phantom of the Park is truly one of the great oddities in the mixing of rock stars and celluloid; it can be hard to find on DVD as it’s only available in different bootleggy editions (and surprisingly a European cut is on a Kiss anthology DVD), but as a pure piece of cultural fascination and laugh-out-loud absurdity it’s worth seeking out.
The opening credits include Kiss performing their mega-hit “Rock and Roll All Nite,” but then they take a breather, absent from the movie’s incredibly long-feeling first act. California’s Magic Mountain amusement park employs a brilliant inventor with a high-tech lab; unfortunately, though, the hype around Kiss performing at the park has turned Abner Devereaux (Anthony Zerbe, who played the similarly creepy Matthias in The Omega Man) into some kind of mad doctor. Doctor Abe builds lifelike cyber robots that appear all over the park, but when a pesky employee, Sam (Terry Lester fresh from TV’s Ark II), takes a break from wooing his girlfriend, Melissa (Deborah Ryan), to asks Abe a few questions the mad man turns him into some kind of robotic zombie with a mind control switch attached to his neck. The doc then has fun messing with a trio of rowdy bikers: Chopper, Slime, and Dirty Dee, before his robots attack them. Also about every 10 minutes the screen dramatically fades to black for commercial breaks.
Morgan Stewart's Coming Home
Bold as it is to say, if you’re a horror fan and you appreciate the style of teen comedies that were often made in the ‘80s, then I think Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home is pretty much the most romantic movie ever made. What follows is my evidence to support this statement.
Jon Cryer (Pretty in Pink’s Duckie, as most of you know him) plays 16-year-old Morgan Stewart, a sweet prankster currently serving time at his 10th prep school who just also happens to be a huge horror fanatic. The opening shot of the movie starts out on a close-up of his vintage theatrical one-sheet poster for Lucio Fulci’s Zombi and then pulls out and pans across his room to reveal a barrage of masks, a mechanic moving severed hand, and a slew of posters ranging from Dawn of the Dead to Tales of Terror to The Exorcist. He ends up meeting the girl of his dreams, Emily, (Viveka Davis) while waiting in line at a mall to get George A. Romero’s autograph. She insists on being called “Em,” “just like in Dial M for Murder, the only film Hitchcock ever did in 3D.” Their first date is to see a late night screening of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Hell, even Em’s parents are cool and give her crap over her choice of a date movie, "when William Castle’s Strait Jacket is playing at the Inner Circle!" (And clearly it’s the better choice.) She convinces Morgan to jump into the shower with her while wearing Halloween masks in a wonderful nod to Psycho, which of course always warms my black and bitter little heart. See? Most romantic movie ever, right? Oh wait; there is a story and a plot here, too!
"It's human to lie. Most of the time we can't even be honest with ourselves."
—The skeptical commoner's response to the conflicting testimonies sums up the plight of man in Akira Kurosawa's multilayered film.
God Bless the “Czar of Noir,” Eddie Muller, for he has single-handedly rescued America’s noir heritage from the dustbin of history. Eddie is the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, a non-profit that raises money to preserve old noir films whose surviving negatives are on the verge of being lost forever all so that future generations can enjoy these seedy little tales of B-movie heaven. One recent rescue was of Joseph Losey’s The Prowler, a sweaty, kinky thriller that also serves as a vituperative denunciation of capitalism and its effects on people. Van Heflin plays Webb Garwood, a pervy cop with a chip on his shoulder and a peeping tom fetish. He snoops around the outside of a stately home after dark while on his beat “perving on the woman” as James Ellroy suitably and salaciously puts it on one of the DVD’s extras. The woman is housewife Susan, a trapped trophy wife stuck pacing the halls of her mansion, in limbo while her husband works nights as a radio DJ. Her husband’s voice fills the house from the radio and gives off an ominous echo to Webb’s creepy spying as Susan never really seems to be alone.
Webb likes what he sees from his pervy perch in the front yard. He wants the life of a well-to-do loafer with an easy job and easier money. He fetishizes Susan’s good looks but also the wealth she has acquired by marrying her absentee husband. Webb and his partner are the cops called when Susan spots the prowler so you know this isn’t going to turn out well. Soon, though, Webb and Susan are spending their nights together and the illicit romance is their escape from their mutual dissatisfaction with life. The murder of the inconvenient husband and its cover-up briefly solves Webb’s problems but eventually his crime catches up with him culminating in a beautifully stark desert showdown between Webb and the police. A pregnant Susan is left behind in a dinky shack, forced to accept that her two timing with a guy like Webb led to her husband's murder.
Though “X-rated” means something different than it did in 1969, it’s still a badge of honor that Midnight Cowboy is the only film with that “for adults only” label to have won the Best Picture Oscar (Last Tango in Paris being the other great “X-rated” flick of the era). Midnight Cowboy is less shocking today; sexually, it’s not the graphic images that provide the punch it’s the intellectually complicated nature of the characters’ sexuality that still can move an audience. As a follow up to The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman proved he was more than a one-hit wonder and instead that he had a long and vital career ahead of him. It also deservedly made a star out of a little known pretty-boy actor named Jon Voight. And it also put British director John Schlesinger on the American A-list, a guy whose deep sensitivity and open homosexuality put him ahead of his time. The film’s theme song, “Everybody’s Talkin’” performed by Harry Nilsson, has become the iconic standard bearer for images of a lonely guy walking the streets of New York. Midnight Cowboy also is a fascinating peek at an era both for representation for how an artist works at a time when the movie studios were willing to take a chance on a grubby flick about a would-be male prostitute and his new BFF while also revealing a dark side to the Big Apple during what has sometimes been considered a golden age of self-expression.
Apparently screenwriter Waldo Salt (who was just emerging from two decades of being blacklisted) took a lot of liberties with James Leo Herlihy’s undergrou...
One of the best examples of docu-realism in the Battle of Algiers-mode, Bloody Sunday, from director and writer Paul Greengrass, was originally made for Granada Television (a high quality UK outfit) but after an acclaimed screening at the Sundance Film Festival it got its theatrical run and instantly made Greeengrass a director in high demand. He went on to direct the final two Bourne flicks as well as another outstanding docu-drama, United 93. Bloody Sunday tensely recreates the events of the 1972 peace march in the Bogside of Derry, Northern Ireland that spiraled out of control as itchy trigger fingered British paratroopers opened fire on marchers killing 14 and then covering their own actions. The film tries to show the points of view of both sides, but no matter how even-handed the film intended to be, and even with the usual IRA types running around looking for a fight, it’s impossible to see it as anything less than a British massacre of the innocent.
Inspired by the American civil rights movement, the Catholics of Northern Ireland lived in a near police state under British control; the marchers even used “We Shall Overcome” as their theme song. The march was led by their local MP, Ivan Cooper, ironically a Protestant himself leading a peaceful Catholic rebellion. As played brilliantly by James Nesbitt, Cooper is the epitome of good intentions in a bad situation; he often references his idol Martin Luther King and does everything he can do to keep his marchers peaceful, but unfortunately for him this is Northern Ireland not Selma. The Northern Ireland-born Nesbitt, a staple on UK TV, was mostly known for lightweight fare like the show Cold Feet; here he gives the performance of his career. It’s a stunning piece of acting; Cooper is desperate to lead, but the weight of events is just too overpowering for him and Nesbitt earns the viewer’s respect while our hearts go out to him.
Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon
If you ever sought to find a modern day horror film that both celebrated and homaged the great "slasher" era of the '80s, while simultaneously adding something new, fresh and unique to that particular sub-genre, then you need look no further than Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon.
In the world of the film, our modern day real life boogeymen don’t exist. There’s no Charles Manson or John Wayne Gacy or Jeffrey Dahmer. But the cinematic baddies that we’re all well versed in – Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers – all exist in the world of Behind The Mask. They are in fact folklore. Camp fire tales. Legends. The next great killer to join their ranks, whose name will evoke terror and fear to the small, little town of Glen Echo, will be Leslie Vernon. To document both his training and first onslaught, Vernon (Nathan Baesel) has invited a small crew of college filmmakers, fronted by aspiring journalist Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethels), to join him as he becomes the sure-to-be-legendary masked maniac. The results are both frightening and hilarious.