One of the lost near-great films of the '80s by a major director and writer remains mostly buried, but is due for a major reconsideration. Daniel, directed by Sidney Lumet with a script by E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime) based on his own novel, The Book of Daniel, got no love in its day and has received only a compulsory bare bones DVD release since. An easy description would be what happened to the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the real life Jewish couple who were railroaded by the US government and executed for being Soviet spies: a case that reeked of paranoia and anti-Semitism. Doctorow has created a story from pure imagination with the fictional Paul and Rochelle Isaacson sitting in for the Rosenbergs, who had two sons in real life. Doctorow's couple instead have a girl and a boy, Susan and Daniel, played by the fascinating Amanda Plummer and Timothy Hutton (a few years from his Oscar-winning, star-making performance in Ordinary People.) But instead of just being a character study, it’s also a history lesson in post WWII American radicalism, as Daniel, now a young man tries to understand what happened to his parents. As the 1980s were not a great decade for liberalism on film or in real life, spiritually and timeline-wise Daniel sits perfectly between Warren Beatty’s masterpiece, Reds, and Lumet’s own Running On Empty.
The Isaacsons were the classic NY liberal family, children of immigrants, with generations all living under one roof. Paul (Mandy Patinkin), a proud WWII vet and Rochelle (Lindsay Crouse) are naïve in their trust of the “American way,” taking part in causes, meetings and marches that usually involve their children, including free Paul Robeson concerts. (His deep voice fills most of the film's soundtrack). The film knocks back and forth from the '40s to the '50s as the couple grows more radical and eventually are arrested (for something having to do with atomic secrets, but clearly more to do with their outspokenness), and then to the late '60s as the orphaned but now adult Daniel and Susan adjust to life. Susan has become a hippie rebel open to any cause and eager to use her family’s street cred to advance it; a few years later, all that passion leads to a nervous breakdown and being institutionalized. Daniel, in the mean time, has grown into a coolly bearded and intensely angry young man with a wife (a young and adorable Ellen Barkin) and eventually his own kids whom he seems to ignore. Susan’s mental health issues lead him to finally begin exploring the mysteries of why his parents were punished so extremely.Continue Reading
Straight Outta Compton
The music biography has been a popular source of material for movies going back to the creation of the talkies. Even forgetting all the classical composers, the music of the last one hundred years--from jazz to rock and everything in between--seems to continually stir the imagination of filmmakers. And why not? The music bio is a tried and true genre that usually follows the same rags to riches formula and all the excesses that comes with it. From the Glenn Miller and Gene Krupa Stories through Lady Sings The Blues, The Buddy Holly Story, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Sid and Nancy, La Bamba, Great Balls of Fire, The Doors, Selena, What’s Love Got to Do with It?, Control, and of course Ray and Walk The Line, all these films offer different levels of entertainment value. And you can be sure many more are on their way as the greats of the 1960s and '70s continue to reach super-icon status and death.
The last major popular music genre to explode on to the scene has been rap or hip-hop. Though less than forty years old, it has already gotten its share of bios, mixing the “sorta fictional” with the more traditional “lets put on a show” type of music film (Krush Groove, 8 Mile, Get Rich or Die Tryin', Notorious and the lost & forgotten Run-D.M.C. flick Tougher Than Leather). But with Straight Outta Compton, the still young rap-bio has finally gotten its first nearly-great movie. It’s the mostly true story of a fairly diverse group of teens from the tough streets of Compton who came together to form N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit Attitudes). They had a quick and controversial rise and an even quicker implosion, but their impact is still felt today. They weren’t The Beatles of rap. They were more like The Sex Pistols, a band who came on later in the game and only briefly, but whose energy and rage helped make everything before them sound overly safe and instantly dated.Continue Reading
The Fallen Idol
Though Carol Reed strangely won an Oscar for his direction of the forgettable Oliver (in the '60s they gave lots of awards to those bloated musicals), he is actually best remembered for his bona fide masterpiece, The Third Man, which he made almost twenty years earlier. Wrongly many uninformed pseudo film historians often try to give Orson Welles credit for the film, even though he only popped on to the set for a few days to film his towering supporting performance. Yes, the film does have a "Wellesian" vibe stylistically, but the real truth is in the two movies Reed made just before it. They prove that he was already moving in a sorta Noir-lite direction, first with the acclaimed Odd Man Out and then his other great film, The Fallen Idol. Though one might describe the latter as a “little gem” it carries much more depth and style than most of the British-made thrillers of the day and in the end it can just about stand as an equal to the more beloved The Third Man. Both films are also part of Reed’s trilogy of films written by the great English novelist Graham Greene. (The trio also includes the lesser known Our Man in Havana). And though Reed would have an up-and-down career over the years--with solid films like Trapeze, many misses and the over-rated Oliver--it was the mega-bomb Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlon Brando that really sank him reputation-wise (a film I actually adore, but I’m in the minority). But that one-two punch of The Fallen Idol and The Third Man will always solidify him as one of cinema’s greats.
For The Fallen Idol, Greene adapted the script from his own short story “The Basement Room” and it’s a really nifty one. As the son of the French Ambassador living in London, little eight-year-old Philippe (the very good kid actor Bobby Henrey, in the first of only two feature film credits) has the run of the big embassy as his parents are usually away. He is more or less raised by the butler and maid, Mr. and Mrs. Baines (Ralph Richardson and Sonia Dresdel). The rambunctious French kid is always getting scolded by the uptight and abusive Mrs. Baines but he utterly adores Mr. Baines and his ridiculous stories of past adventures in the wilds of Africa. One day Philippe follows Mr. Baines out of the house and stumbles on him in the midst of an emotional scene with another Embassy employee, the pretty French secretary Julie (Michèle Morgan). Since the whole film is through the boy’s eyes, he doesn’t fully understand the two are in the midst of a torrid affair, complete with the drama of one of them being married. Hoping to help his friend, Philippe becomes the center of secrets between the adults, eventually leading to a stormy fight between the married couple and an accident that leaves Mrs. Baines dead, with Philippe confusedly thinking Mr. Baines did it. Unfortunately, as the police investigate the accident all the secrets and lies between Philippe and Baines confuse the kid more, and as he tries to cover for Baines he only helps to make the police think Baines murdered his wife.Continue Reading
Sense and Sensibility
After making a name for himself on the international art-house circuit with the Taiwanese dramedies The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, Ang Lee took on the Masterpiece Theater crowd with his first English language film, Sense and Sensibility. Actress Emma Thompson toiled on the script for five years and went on to win an Oscar for her troubles. The film is easily the best adaptation of any of Jane Austen’s musty novels (not my usual fare), but the combination of Thompson and Lee’s ability to make the usually stale material so relatable to modern audiences and the fantastic casting from top to bottom rockets Sense & Sensibility to the heights of the genre. The film is also aided by all-stars behind-the-scenes, including an often moving score by Patrick Doyle (Gosford Park, Rise of The Planet of the Apes, etc.), handsome cinematography by Michael Coulter (who has the market cornered on shooting British rom-coms, including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually) and simple but elegant art direction by Luciana Arrighi (whose work goes all the way back to Sunday Bloody Sunday in ’71 but who made his reputation designing the best of the Merchant/Ivory canon: Howard’s End and Remains of the Day). And of course Lee himself, who would further his diverse filmography over the years since with an incredible body of work including The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and The Life of Pi.
Apparently Thompson’s script differs from Austen’s 1811 novel, and it's for the best. The center of the story is the difference between two adult English Dashwood sisters, the reserved Elinor (Thompson) and the dreamy Marianne (Kate Winslet) who are thrust into poverty when their father dies, leaving his estate to his only son (and the son's pushy, conniving wife). Elinor and Marianne, along with their mother and younger adolescent sister Margaret, are forced to live off of the goodwill of friends and relatives, even taking up residences in a countryside cottage without servants! Now penniless, the two sisters are no longer considered good catches for marriage and have to watch as most of their peers become engaged while they are ridiculed for their new lower status. Along the way they meet their sister-in-law’s brother Edward (Hugh Grant at his stumbling, stuttering best); he befriends the family and he and Elinor obviously make a potential romantic connection but are both too restrained and reserved to act on it. This is where much of the film’s comedy comes from: those English corked-up, controlled manners that leave people in a constant state of isolation. On the other hand, the beautiful and lively Marianne does find two suitors. The charismatic, dashing and handsome dream-beau John Willoughby (a solid, but very '90s looking Greg Wise) carries her home when a walk in the rain becomes too difficult; the two truly fall in love, but he is forced to scorn her because of her lack of a dowry, which leads to a Splendor in the Grass-like, deeply heartbroken depression for her. Also a rich neighbor befriends the family and falls for Marianne’s beauty: the much older, grave Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman in maybe his finest performance). He’s a good and sensitive bachelor, but utterly charmless. Through many misunderstandings our heroines' lives sink into more despair until an incredibly moving happy ending (albeit a rushed and perhaps a little too tidy one).Continue Reading
The print journalist drama is a bona fide subgenre; the most popular films like All The President's Men or, more recently, Spotlight are about the crusading journalist overcoming obstacles in pursuit of the truth. Often more interesting is the cynical side of the coin, about the corruption of truth, but those films don’t usually connect with the public or award-givers as easily. The best of the genre would be a couple of masterpieces -- Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole and to some extent Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane -- but one film that went under the radar upon release and holds up very well is Shattered Glass. The 2003 docudrama was written and directed by Billy Ray, based on the true story of Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen), a manipulative young reporter for the respected, 100-year-old highbrow magazine New Republic. When it appears that one of his stories was fabricated, an investigation by the editor, Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) leads to the embarrassing revelation that actually at least twenty-seven articles he wrote were completely made up.
Glass is the kind of passive aggressive guy who continually says "I’m sorry” or worse, asks his colleagues “Are you mad at me?,” putting them in the position to make him feel better, even when he’s wrong. He seems to have a knack for finding interesting characters and angles to political and cultural stories, and though he cozies up to anyone who could help his career, he’s especially cuddly to the women he works with (in an asexual way). But as a journalist he’s respected as a real wunderkind, apparently traveling the country finding witnesses to his colorful and offbeat pieces. When the beloved editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria) is fired for trying to overly defend his staff from management, he is replaced by the less lovable Lane. Glass writes an entertaining piece about a computer hacker convention that catches the admiring eye of the editor for Forbes Digital online magazine. He passes it to a writer, and here is where the Woodward and Bernstein of the story emerge. A pair of tech writers (Steve Zahn and Rosario Dawson) start to investigate Glass’ sources and find nothing but holes. While Glass can not account for all his shoddy note-taking, Lane becomes the only one who can take on the popular writer, as his colleagues, especially writer Caitlin Avey (indie darling Chloë Sevigny) have fallen under his spell.Continue Reading
Beastmaster is classic of early '80s swords and sorcery films. Providing all of the staples of the genre, as well as providing some head scratchingly original material. Although it's one of those action films that you really need a sense of humor to appreciate, (Beastmaster is a total B movie) there is a coherent enough story line, interesting characters, and some pretty decent effects for the time, making it clear why this film has, over the years, gained a growing cult following. The Beastmaster begins with 3 disfigured witches peering into a cauldron and casting spells. After seeing a vision, they inform Maax, an evil high priest (Rip Torn) that he will be slain by the king's unborn child. Maax, in order to sacrifice the baby, sends one of his witches late at night to the child's bedside with a cow. The witch transfers the baby into the cow's womb with magic and escapes with the child to a remote place. Just as the witch is finishing her ritual, about to deal the killing blow, she herself is killed by a passing peasant with a bladed boomerang.
The peasant then returns to his village with the child and begins to raise the boy. In his childhood the boy, now named Dar, discovers that he has a telepathic ability to speak with animals and see through their eyes. Soon after the boy Dar becomes a fully grown Beastmaster, played by Marc Singer, his entire village is destroyed by savage, animalistic, barbarians. Dar then does the only thing any respectable Barbarian, animal controlling, orphan would do. He begins a quest for revenge.Continue Reading
THIS JUICE BUGZ Somewhere between Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Batman there is Tim Burton’s feature length sophomore effort, Beetlejuice. Upon a recent rewatch, I realized I’d forgotten how truly amazing, wildly inventive and original this phantasmagoric odd-ball comedy was! It’s quite frankly the purest Burton experience for me. It’s just silly how much of JUICE’s visual language oozes with Burtonisms! Add to that the sweet (as in cool) dialogue and characters created by co-authors Michael McDowell and Larry Wilson. I’m kinda in love with it lately!
THE DIRT ON THE DEAD… Adam and Barbara Maitland just died. Played with great wholesomeness by Alec Baldwin (Adam) and Geena Davis (Barbara). So they die. But for a while they don’t know it. It becomes more apparent to them when they find a copy of the Handbook For The Recently Deceased laying around the house and the rude awakening that the Deetz’ are the new occupants and owners of their house! The Deetz family comprises of the artistically manic Delia (Catherine O’Hara), her uptight hubby Charles (Jeffrey Jones), and their ever morbidly morose daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder).Continue Reading
Clash of the Titans (1981)
CLASH DANCE The well known and much revered stop-motion special effects guru Ray Harryhausen has brought numerous beings of various shapes and sizes to life over his career (The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, Jason and the Argonauts, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger). In the mythological world of Clash of the Titans there are many interesting characters and creatures. Playing God behind the camera one frame at a time, Harryhausen has brought some of his most memorable offspring to life (Medusa, Pegasus, Giant Scorpions, the Kracken).
STORYLINE OF THE GODS Here’s the deal, Zeus (Laurence Olivier), in one of his many amorous exploits, has had a son named Perseus (Harry Hamlin). Due to Zeus’ favoritism of Perseus over the Goddess Thetis’ (Maggie Smith) son Calibos, a clash begins [insert opening credits and dramatic musical score here]. From that point on Perseus sets out on a quest to "fulfill his destiny" by defeating numerous obstacles, slaying fantastic beasts, and winning the hand of the doll-faced Andromeda (Judi Bowker). The script was penned by Beverly Cross who also scripted other Harryhausen films such as Argonauts and Eye of the Tiger.Continue Reading
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
GILLIAM’S ISLAND From the clunky, cluttered, and effectively eclectic mind of director Terry Gilliam comes this fabulous wunderkind of a film known as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. One of my personal favorites indeed! Munchausen comes as the third installment of Gilliam’s unofficial trilogy. The previous two films include Time Bandits and Brazil.
A CITY UNDER SIEGE In the midst of a war-torn city its residents are struggling for survival. Momentarily distracting themselves from their distraught surroundings they watch a depiction of Baron Munchausen’s adventures being put on by a local theatre company, Henry Salt And Son [“It’s traditional”]. However this reenactment becomes interrupted by the authentic Baron Munchausen (John Neville) himself! He’s old and cranky and he clamors onto the stage to set the record straight about himself and his adventures. Did I mention he’s a liar? Or is he?Continue Reading
Call me crazy, but recently I stumbled across the 1976 King Kong remake, the one that is now known as Jessica Lange’s first movie, and for some reason, I really enjoyed it. (I saw it years ago as a kid, but didn’t remember it too well.)
Don’t get me wrong—the original ’33 flick really is a classic, and if you have kids, it’s a great introduction to both older and adventure films. And everyone agrees, even with its archaic special effects, the film still holds up as a thing of beauty. Well, guess what—so does this version.Continue Reading