In 1981, with newly elected rah-rah American president Ronald Reagan taking office, an anti-Communist, anti-Soviet ardor was in full swing. So it was extra amazingly audacious that pretty-boy actor Warren Beatty was able to get his giant bio of Communist journalist John Reed made. Reed, the only American buried in Russia’s Kremlin, isn’t exactly a household name and Reds the movie, clocking in at an epic 194 minutes, wasn’t exactly a sure thing at the box-office (matter of fact, despite winning a bunch of awards, it was considered a financial disappointment in its day). Reds really is a tribute to the passion of Warren Beatty’s grand vision; he produced, directed, and co-wrote the screenplay with British playwright Trevor Griffiths (with uncredited contributions from Elaine May) and managed to put together an impressive cast to back him up (Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Edward Herrmann, Paul Sorvino, Maureen Stapleton, Gene Hackman, etc). Ironic: a rich movie star makes a big expensive movie (with corporate funds) about an anti-wealth guy. In the Doctor Zhivago tradition, Reds is one of those sweeping literate love stories which was shot for over a year in five different countries; but underneath that sweep it’s a very personal and intimate little movie.
After covering events in Russia, journalist John Reed (Beatty) returns to his home town of Portland to raise money for his ultra-left newspaper. There, he meets and has a fling with a married socialite named Louise Bryant (Keaton) and invites her back to New York's bohemian Greenwich Village where they both hang with many of the famous radicals of their day, like the outspoken anarchist Emma Goldman (Stapleton). Reed encourages Bryant to become a writer herself; she develops her own form of ahead-of- her-time feminism while he throws himself deeper into the Communist Party. After the couple moves to Provincetown, Massachusetts, Reed travels the country to cover the presidential election, while Bryant begins an affair with Reed’s friend, the tortured playwright Eugene O’Neill (Nicholson), the one intellectual who seems to respect her. Then, Reed and Bryant patch things up and first travel to write about the war in Europe (that would be WWI) and then to cover the revolution in Russia of 1917. And that’s just the first half.
Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt
Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt was a groundbreaking documentary made in 1989 about the AIDS crisis at the peak of its destruction. It’s a film that sheds light on the U.S. government’s bigoted and, for all intents and purposes, criminally negligent non-response to the epidemic when it was a disease disproportionately affecting gay men. More importantly it’s a film about the misery the disease caused for a cross-section of Americans either living with the disease or caring for people who were.
In the illustrious tradition of American documentaries giving voice to marginalized social classes such as Harlan County U.S.A., Common Threads is both a profile in ordinary human courage, featuring several people detailing their stories for the filmmakers as they struggled to face life head-on, knowing they didn’t have much time left. It’s also a profile in cowardice and how the Reagan Administration failed to respond to a health crisis that ultimately took more American lives than the Vietnam War. The filmmakers didn’t limit the scope of their film to just the gay community, though, and it’s to their credit. We also hear from an African American heterosexual woman who was infected by her male partner as well as the mother of a little boy who got the disease from a blood transfusion.
New Jack City
Going back all the way to the beginning of the talkies, the gangster flick, with its rise-and-fall narrative, has always been a dependable formula for Hollywood. And whether it’s Cagney or Pacino, the movies seem to have more fun with the “rise,” while the “fall” often feels like a tacked on message to mitigate how glamorous the first half may have seemed. The inner-city crime saga New Jack City is no different; though characters may take the high road and exclaim to the camera about how much the crack epidemic is ravishing the hood, really it’s an excuse to show the playas living large with their champagne in the pool, nifty guns, foxy ladies, and horribly colorful 1991 hip-hoppity fashions. And like so many gangster flicks before and since, New Jack City is a lot of fun and, as long as you don’t try to buy into its sermonizing, it holds up well as a cartoony period piece.
Here, the cops and dealers are showcased equally. For the good guys, you have undercover NY cop Scotty Appleton (rapper Ice-T, in his first lead acting role); he may be tough but he shows some heart to a junkie stick-up kid named Pookie, (comedian Chris Rock, in a rare dramatic performance that may’ve encouraged him to work on his stand-up more). Scotty helps him kick the dope after busting him. Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks, dealer Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) is able to enhance his business when he is introduced to a new cocaine concoction called “crack.” With his top lieutenants, Gee Money (Allen Payne) and Duh Duh Duh Man (Bill Nunn, Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing) they get the posse together (called the "Cash Money Brothers") and take over an apartment building, turning it into a successful crack assembly line and retail outlet.
It’s interesting to revisit Chuck Russell’s 1994 adaptation of The Mask, now almost 20 some-odd years later knowing that this was the second of three Jim Carrey movies (the other two being Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Dumb & Dumber) that would catapult the funnyman into super stardom. Also, considering that this is a far cry from the original comic book version of the character in which the Mask was conceived as a darker and more violent vigilante, who would’ve thought that when Dark Horse Comics first debuted the character he’d eventually spawn an animated series and kid friendly sequel?! But I digress…
In the movie, Jim Carrey plays Stanley Ipkiss, a mild-mannered, overly nice and yet kind-of nerdy bank teller who, for the most part, can’t catch a break anywhere in his personal life. His female co-workers don’t want to date him (and in fact, take advantage of his niceness); his boss is always riding him (despite him being a model employee), and he’s even getting ripped off by his local mechanics. His best friend Charlie (the late Richard Jeni) believes in him, though, and tries to boost his confidence by bringing him out to the hot new club in Edge City, the Coco Bongo. Meanwhile, gangster (and Coco Bongo manager) Dorian Tyrell (Peter Greene) is plotting the hostile takeover of city turf from mob boss Niko once he and his crew have established their cred by pulling off a risky bank robbery.
The massive career of Alfred Hitchcock can be broken down into three sections. There’s his early British career (that includes both silent films and talkies) that ends with Jamaica Inn in 1939. Then there’s the first half of his American period; he crossed the ocean and found instant success with Rebecca and continued to hone his craft and try out different genres during the 1940s and early ‘50s. And then finally there’s his most celebrated period beginning around ’54 with Rear Window and Dial M for Murder, where the name Hitchcock became a brand and most of his films were events in themselves. Of that middle period, besides Rebecca there are a number of celebrated and still admired flicks including Spellbound, Shadow of a Doubt, and Strangers on a Train. But one film that really stands out, less flashy than the others but more emotionally devastating, is Notorious. On paper it’s an espionage thriller, but it’s actually one of the great heartbreaking love stories of the era.
Just after WWII, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the party girl daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, is recruited by an American Intelligence agent, T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant), to prove her love to the red, white, & blue by infiltrating a group of Nazis who are hanging out in Brazil, planning a little postwar revenge against the USA. Things get complicated when, while waiting for the job to start, the two beautiful people fall in love. When the details arrive, it’s ugly; she has to go seduce an older ex-boyfriend, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), and find out what he and his cronies have in mind. She desperately wants Devlin to stand by and trust her; but though he does genuinely love her, he’s too cool to put down his guard and too professional to stop his bosses from deploying her. Still hoping to end up with Devlin, the dutiful Alicia takes the job and seduces Sebastian so well that he asks her to marry him, even while knowing she may be setting him up. It’s a love triangle, but in a twisted kind of knot that only Hitchcock could devise.
Though they hit the big-time as screenwriters and directors with their first film, Dumb & Dumber, the Farrelly brothers, Peter and Bobby, peaked commercially and critically with their third film, There’s Something about Mary. Their gross-out, dumb humor mixed with lazy sentiment became the standard for turn-of-the-century-era comedy; however, it was actually their less popular second film, Kingpin, which remains their best and funniest flick. It has the raunch, it has some heart, but most importantly, what makes the film special is the outstanding casting of its three leads: Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid, and Bill Murray. Their performances, along with some of the supporting character actors, help the film rise above its sometimes weak script. Kingpin may not always bowl strikes but it is at least good enough to share a lane with the other best bowling movie ever, The Big Lebowski.
Back in the disco days of the late ‘70s, a young Iowan man, Roy Munson (Harrelson), looked like he was on his way to becoming a bowling god, until he hooked up with a conniving pro-bowler named Ernie McCracken (Murray) for a little hustling. The naive Roy didn’t realize that the sleazy Ernie, who drinks Tanqueray & Tab, was threatened by the younger bowler’s talent and leading him astray. A bad con with the wrong guys leads to Roy getting his hand cut off and the end to his promising bowling future. CUT TO: 17 years later. Roy now sports a prosthetic hand (over a hook) and a bad comb over haircut. He’s down and out, a drunk and bad conman forced to sleep with his hideously haggish landlady (Lin Shaye, brilliant) to cover his rent. Roy has hit the bottom until he happens upon a naive young Amish bowler, Ishmael Boorg (Quaid, the 40-something actor seems to be playing about 20). After much coercing and posing as an Amish cousin Roy finally convinces Ishmael to hit the bowling road with him to learn the con and eventually play for the big-time, where Ishmael can earn money to save the family farm.
The Magnificent Ambersons
Aside from the missing, approximately 9 hour cut of Erich Von Stroheim’s silent epic Greed, Orson Welles’sThe Magnificent Ambersons is easily the most mythologized lost American film ever made. To recap the essential narrative of how this tragic loss for American film history occurred, unlike with Citizen Kane, Welles did not have final cut on his second film for RKO, an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s turn of the century American family saga The Magnificent Ambersons. Because the studio brass at RKO didn’t like or trust Welles they were happy to wrest his opus from his chubby little fingers and—since he was in Brazil at the time filming the festivities of Carnival as an emissary of the federal government as part of a North American goodwill gesture towards South America—there wasn’t much he could do about it. His absence from Hollywood during the editing stage of the film and his lack of artistic control over the end result cost him dearly. After the Ambersons debacle Welles would never regain his wunderkind status that preceded his arrival in Hollywood. He was unjustly portrayed as unprofessional, someone who couldn’t bring a project in on time. After all, he might run off to Brazil.
The original running time of Ambersons was just over two hours but it did not test well with a preview audience and, by the time RKO dumped it onto the market, it had been butchered to 88 minutes. So what was cut? Robert Carringer’s essential chronology The Magnificent Ambersons: a Reconstruction goes a long way towards explaining what we are missing. Using the original screenplay and stills from the scenes that were cut Carringer pieces together a “reconstruction” to give us a semblance of what watching the original Welles cut would have been like. Some of Welles’s amazingly complicated tracking shots had been junked in favor of artless insertions done by studio hacks. Scenes that went a long way towards explaining how the Amberson fortune dwindled to nothing were also cut. Scenes dealing with the rise of the automobile and how it led to a lowering of property values in the oldest and grandest section of the Midwestern city where the story takes place were taken out. These cuts hinder the cohesion of the story while a chopping up of what Welles maintained to his death was the single greatest shot he had ever pulled off—a breathtaking single-take, multi-level tracking shot through the Amberson Christmas ball—is surely the worst thing to ever happen anywhere to anyone or anything ever.