Jump started by the success of the movie Airport in 1970, the “disaster movie” was a 1970’s cultural phenomenon, taking the soap-opera mold of Grand Hotel and putting a bunch of actors, ranging from big stars to has-beens all eager to cash their checks, into a dangerous situation with now cornball special effects. The best was The Poseidon Adventure and the biggest was The Towering Inferno (which inexplicably got a Best Picture Oscar nomination). But the most ambitiously awkward may’ve been Earthquake. The film was originally released extra loud in something called "Sensurround” and featured cameramen shaking cameras while Styrofoam bricks fell on extras. It was directed by Mark Robson (Valley of the Dolls) and written by Mario Puzo (yes, that’s right, Mario–the Godfather–Puzo, and he’s not the only major talent slumming here), though someone named George Fox also got a screenwriting credit as well, the only film for which he’s credited. Earthquake may not have been very good but as a cultural curiosity it’s fascinating, as a travelogue of mid-’70s Los Angeles it’s invaluable, and as a piece of ridiculous pop-junk it’s totally entertaining.
The goofball introduction to the characters goes something like this... hunky architect Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston) is in a dead marriage to Remy (Ava Gardner) and having a boring affair with a young struggling actress, Denise (Genevieve Bujold, a sorta less sexy ’70s version of Audrey Tautou), who is a single mom with an annoying son, Cory (the terrible actor but cool...
The Incredible Hulk
After a long and rich 50-year history in the pages of Marvel Comics, The Incredible Hulk marks the second cinematic interpretation of the fan favorite titanic superhero. Abandoning all of what was established in Ang Lee’s 2003 version of Hulk, this version takes more of a cue from the original Incredible Hulk TV series of the late ’70s and is presented as a “reboot” rather than a sequel. Instead of spending an hour with exposition and showing a drawn out “origin” story like the other movie did (and as most superhero movies in general do these days), this version manages to encapsulate the birth of Bruce Banner’s alter ego in the span of a few minutes during a clever opening credits montage. Visually, it’s exactly what most casual fans of the TV show remember; Bruce is strapped down to a chair, the circular light beam from a giant machine shines down on his forehead and during his experimentation with gamma radiation he accidently over-exposes himself which turns him into the angry green goliath. As the credits unfold, Banner (Edward Norton) as the Hulk inadvertently hurts the love of his life, Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) and her father General ‘Thunderball’ Ross (William Hurt). And much like the TV series, Banner is then on the run and in hiding by the second scene of the movie, desperately trying to come to terms with his anger, find a cure, and keep the beast at bay.
When we find Bruce, he’s in Brazil working at a bottle plant factory by day and meeting with a yoga guru by night trying to learn how to control his inner hostilities. Meanwhile, he’s communicating with a mysterious scientist simply known only as Mr. Blue via the Internet and exchanging theories and notes regarding his condition. Ever since the incident we witnessed during the opening credits, General Ross has been on the hunt for Banner and the Hulk, and when Bruce accidently pokes his finger at work and inadvertently sheds a drop of his blood into one of the soda bottles headed for America, it eventually reveals his whereabouts. General Ross puts together a military team fronted by Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) to bring in Banner.
Needless to say, everything comes to a head when a group of Bruce’s co-worker thugs confront him at the plant just as the military team is prepping to make their move. They make him angry, he Hulk’s out and is yet again on the run, this time opting to find a way back to North America to track down Mr. Blue in person and hopefully come up with a cure based on both their expertise and research thus far. He reconnects with Betty and she fully insists on supporting him on his journey to New York to find Mister Blue and attempt to create a cure.
Blonsky is a truly passionate soldier, inspired by the thrill of the hunt, but perhaps a few years past his prime. When Blonsky reveals his obsession to track down Banner and the Hulk, General Ross enlists him for the “super soldier” program (originated by the original super soldier, Captain America during World War II!). It isn’t until Blonksy meets with Mister Blue, aka Samuel Sterns, that he gets the necessary dosage to transform him into the Hulk-like monster, “the Abomination,” who wrecks havoc and destruction on Harlem. With no choice, Ross sends in Banner as the Hulk to stop Abomination before he destroys the entire city.
The reason The Incredible Hulk works so well as a fun comic book movie should be credited to director Louis Leterrier, most well known for The Transporter movies starring Jason Statham. If you glance through his resume of films, it’s clear that the man knows how to shoot and stage his action set-pieces. The problem most filmmakers run into when it comes to making a movie of this magnitude is that the “Hulk” is primarily going to be an all CGI creation, so it takes a certain amount of meticulous planning and staging of the action to sell the illusion that the Hulk is interacting with the other characters and causing all the onscreen damage. Leterrier pulls this off in spades, not only with the fight sequence at the college campus but, in particular, the big climactic battle between Hulk and Abomination in the streets of Harlem. While the two fictitious characters are duking it out—hell, the Hulk breaks a police patrol vehicle in half and uses the pieces as boxing gloves at one point!—the surrounding action is real, exploding cars and all.
Also, this is the first Hulk movie to fully embrace the comic book counter-part of the character and give him worthy adversaries and challenges to fight! On the television show, the Hulk didn’t really do much other than come to the rescue when needed. In Ang Lee’s movie, if I recall correctly, he battles a tank an hour and a half into the movie? But in this, it’s several tanks and the freakin’ army. And finally he fights another creature of equal size and strength born from the same experimentation that he was born from. You get your full-on comic book-esque battle. You get your “Hulk Smash!” line of dialogue, and he does indeed smash. And you even get wonderful hints towards future villains like Mr. Blue, aka Samuel Sterns, slowly morphing into “the Leader,” a well known character in the comic book world of the Hulk. And for die-hard savvy fans, there are fun little cameos by the original Bruce Banner, Bill Bixby, via an old show on television as well as original Hulk, Lou Ferrigno, as the college security guard. Those always make for fun little nods to previous incarnations.
Casting-wise the film is pretty solid, especially considering we’d seen a lot of these characters played by other actors just a few short years back. But William Hurt as General Ross and Liv Tyler as Betty Ross are spot on and terrific in their respective roles, especially when showing the estranged relationship between the two. Edward Norton is not the ideal name I’d think of when it comes to casting Banner/Hulk, but he does a serviceable job of trying to evoke the same sympathy we felt for the Bixby version, which is why I think a lot of fans have always been drawn to the character. Looking at it now in retrospect, The Avengers proves that Mark Ruffalo was the perfect actor to play both Bruce Banner and the Hulk and, since this is intended to be the precursor to The Avengers, it’s a shame they didn’t cast Ruffalo sooner! But regardless, The Incredible Hulk manages to capture the fun and spirit of the original source material and it makes for a wonderful follow-up to Marvel’s other big hit prior, Iron Man.
Fun Fact: Both the Harlem battle with Abomination and Banner’s suicide attempt in the Arctic (an alternate opening provided on the DVD/Blu-Ray as a deleted scene) are both referenced by Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner in The Avengers!
The Great Escape
After putting together a super team for the exciting western The Magnificent Seven, director John Sturges assembled the rat-pack for the much duller western, Sergeants 3; so down but not out, Sturges reconvened some of his Magnificent Seven cast for his masterpiece, the WWII POW epic The Great Escape. With apologies to King Rat, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Empire of the Sun, The Hill, and even Victory, the official, no- arguments-allowed Big Three of POW flicks are (in order of release): Stalag 17 then The Bridge on the River Kwai, and finally The Great Escape; you can argue which of the Big Three is tops, but all three are wonderful and will rank in any war movie best-of list.
Like the recent action flicks The Expendables or The Avengers, The Great Escape is about assembling the team of super cool (now familiar) faces. The Magnificent Seven put the young supporting Steve McQueen on the A-List. Here, he’s the top dog and it may be his most memorable role; joined by two of the other Seven co-stars, Charles Bronson and James Coburn (who would both go on to be big stars in the years to come), with James Garner bringing his awe-shucks charm that would captivate TV audiences for decades and, rounding out the team, the British actors Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum, and James Donald (who was also in The Bridge on the River Kwai), lending some class to the team.
A Decade Under the Influence
Playing on the title of the groundbreaking John Cassavetes film A Woman Under the Influence, or maybe ’70s cokehead producer Julia Phillips’s memoir Driving Under the Affluence, the IFC-produced, three-part documentary A Decade Under the Influence is a fawning but wildly entertaining tribute to the films of the ’70s (actually 1967 onwards) and the maverick filmmakers who reinvented Hollywood. It’s the perfect film companion to Peter Biskind's incredibly readable book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which also spawned a BBC-produced documentary with the same name. The IFC series may come out slightly on top if only because it’s an hour longer and, at just 119 minutes, the BBC flick may not cover enough ground, while A Decade Under the Influence is crammed wall to wall with clips and interviews. For anyone who romanticizes this era in film (like me) this is three hours of pure, giddy love.
Episode One: Influences and Independents, begins with the big gaudy premiere of the crappy big gaudy musical Hello Dolly in ’69; the thesis: that bomb marked the end of the studio era. An intelligent group of interviewees, including Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, and William Friedkin, give us the set up: the civil rights movement, Vietnam War, the women's movement, ’60s innovative rock & roll and later Watergate, the formation of the counter culture, and youth movement had a generation of people asking why and breaking the rules. For filmmakers who were seeing the art house foreign films of Godard, Kurosawa, Truffaut, Antonioni, Bergman, and Fellini (and of course Julie Christie throws in the working class films of early ’60s England) the current beach flicks, musicals, and romantic comedies of Hollywood no longer seemed relevant. When Arthur Penn took influence from the French New Wave (who were influenced by American film noir and gangster flicks) and came up with his sexually frank and violent Bonnie and Clyde, it opened the floodgates for a new kind of American film. With Roger Corman and BBS (Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner) creating a new class of filmmakers who could work cheap while learning their trade and John Cassavetes making his homemade indie movies, the idea for the “’70s flick” was solidified. Those early influential flicks of the era are recalled and analyzed, including Easy Rider, Targets, Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, and The Last Picture Show. But it’s not all classics; less memorable movies like Joe and Hi, Mom! are also included and even Dirty Harry is given props as an obvious influence.
Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel
Even if you’re a casual film fan, you must have a general knowledge of who Roger Corman is and how important he’s been to the movie industry. You need look no further than the impressive roaster of names that speak about the prolific filmmaker in the documentary Corman’s World: Exploits Of A Hollywood Rebel. Jack Nicholson. Peter Fonda. Martin Scorsese. Peter Bogdanovich. Joe Dante. Ron Howard. Robert DeNiro. Bruce Dern. Dick Miller. William Shatner. And so on and so forth. Corman is responsible for helping to launch the careers of every one of those names I mentioned above and then some! So it’s somewhat of a surprise that a documentary of this type honoring the man and his large body of work has taken this long to come into existence.
Not that Corman hasn’t gotten due credit and praise in the form of supplemental material before. Over the course of the last year, Shout! Factory obtained the license for dozens of his famous films and has been putting out great special edition DVD’s and Blu-Ray’s with extensive retrospective documentaries covering the making of each of those individual movies. There was also the fantastic documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed released last year from filmmaker Mark Hartley (who also did Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation) which had a large segment talking about the low-budget “women in cages” movies that Corman produced in the Philippines, which also launched the acting career of Pam Grier. But as much as I thought I knew about Corman from the above mentioned sources, there was still plenty I learned from Corman’s World.
Punisher: War Zone
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wished for a proper Punisher movie. As a diehard comic book reader and collector, there was a point where I discovered the idea of vigilantism and The Punisher immediately became my favorite superhero (actually, more like an anti-hero and minus the “super” part since he has no legitimate powers other than being a complete and total badass). With over 30-some-odd years of history and through various directions that comic creators have taken the character, it would seem that there are plenty of great stories to cull from in order to make a solid movie adaptation. But for whatever reason, while all the Punisher movies have incorporated different aspects of the original source material, none of the cinematic translations have been 100 percent successful, either financially at the box office or critically among both reviewers and fans. However, if you’re well-versed in the run by writer Garth Ennis over the course of the last decade or so, then Punisher: War Zone comes pretty darn close to capturing the over-the-top gory lunacy of Ennis’s books.
The movie wastes little time in getting right into the violent action. After a brief title sequence, the film opens at a grand dinner gala with several heads of the mob congregating to discuss business and celebrate with Uncle G, the Godfather-esque elder of the East Coast mafia. But their dinner is cut abruptly short when the Punisher drops in and literally slaughters just about all 30 of these bad guys in the span of a few short minutes. The action is brutal, highly stylized, fast in pace, and so over the top that you won’t be able to process everything going on with just one viewing. The Punisher manages to cut a head off, break a neck, lodge his hunter knife into a skull, kick a chair leg into the eye of a thug, then hang upside down from the chandelier where he unloads a never-ending spray of bullets from his machine guns into whomever is left in the room, as well as anyone else stupid enough to enter it. Did I mention this is all just in the first 10 minutes?
The Music Man
When I was a kid I looked to movie characters for whom to emulate. There really wasn’t a common thread between them except some magnetic quality my impressionable 6-to- 12-year-old self was able to discern. It also really helped if they wore good clothes. It didn’t even matter whether they were the heroes or the villains of their stories. I really liked Corey Haim's incredibly gay wardrobe in The Lost Boys just as much as I liked Kiefer Sutherland’s menacing hair metal vampire look in the movie. I started playing racquetball, as well as slicking my hair back, and wearing suspenders to be more like Gordon Gekko after I saw Wall Street. I began pretending to be sick to get out of going to school (and thinking I was really, really clever) while also becoming obsessed with owning argyle socks (which I had never heard of) after seeing Matthew Broderick wear them in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
I was certainly impressionable, also maybe kind of weird. Still, the character that made, maybe, the biggest impression on me was that of Robert Preston’s Professor Harold Hill in the movie adaptation of Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. He was a dapper con artist, a larcenous gent selling dreams to gullible townsfolk and making them feel like a million bucks as he fleeced their Edwardian era pockets. If you haven’t seen the film he probably sounds like a terrible person but the genius of The Music Man is that, though he is thoroughly dubious, he’s also the greatest thing to ever happen to the Iowa town that he storms right in to in order to swindle. Also, his red and white marching band uniforms are fantastic.
Once upon a time in the golden period of films known as the 1970s, Mel Brooks was, along with Woody Allen, the biggest directing name in comedy. Both had been on the legendary writing staff of Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows in the '50s (along with Neil Simon and Carl Reiner) and both brought a distinctly Jewish tone to their slapstick. While Allen represented the Manhattan highbrow, Brooks’s style lurked more in the offensively low end Borscht Belt style. By the '80s, when Allen's status raised to the level of genius, Brooks’s comedy had already become passe and completely juvenile, working in the obvious (Spaceballs, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, etc.). But his early string of comedies, from The Producers through High Anxiety, created a lot of laughs, peaking in 1974 with two comic masterpieces: Young Frankenstein and, maybe even better, the bawdy western spoof Blazing Saddles.
The western spoof is almost as old as the western itself—you had Laurel & Hardy in Way Out West, The Marx Brothers in Go West, Mae West and W.C. Fields did My Little Chickadee, and Bob Hope had The Paleface and then Son of Paleface, not to mention Destry Rides Again with Marlene Dietrich (which Blazing Saddles actually directly spoofs). The '60s saw an examining of the western most directly through the Italian spaghetti westerns and American western comedies such as Cat Ballou and Support Your Local Sheriff! In the '70s, the reexamining went to the extreme as the western was turned in on itself and poked at by post-modernists with films as broad as Jodorowsky’s El Topo, Altman&rs...