As this year’s Academy Awards approaches I find myself trying in vain to understand how Public Enemies didn’t garner a single Oscar nomination. The film was gorgeous to look at, featured a career-best performance from Johnny Depp, and avoided the clichÃ©-ridden territory of the period piece biopic for something more ambiguous and relatively challenging. Was that why the film was a relative critical and box office disappointment? Clearly the film did not satisfy as Summer blockbuster entertainment. Universal Pictures didn’t quite know how to market the film and seemingly tried to sell it almost like a comic book adaptation a la The Dark Knight with a larger-than-life image of Depp in a trench coat and fedora, shotgun at his side, stretching the length of office buildings on the huge banner posters that draped L.A. prior to the film’s release. It didn’t work to sell the film because the film they were selling wasn’t exactly the movie that we got. It’s a movie with beautifully shot bank robberies, shootouts rendered in symphonic splendor, and plenty of compelling narrative, but somehow in its fly-on-the-wall approach to following Dillinger it left audiences cold.
That aforementioned coldness works both ways. Public Enemies is downright frosty and it’s to Michael Mann’s credit that he refuses to overdramatize the life of an infamous gangster in all-too-familiar ways. Let me explain myself. Mann gives us a completely new kind of period film. He junks the typical sepia-toned melodrama approach and instead, with his digital cameras, creates something immediate, taking us out of the realm of nostalgia and into a real world scenario that actually feels dangerous instead of merely nostalgic. If you are willing to accept the worthiness of this approach it is completely thrilling.Continue Reading
Back in ’77 the film Sorcerer was considered a mega-bomb, both artistically and financially. Coming off the mammoth success of both The French Connection and The Exorcist, it would mark the beginning of an enormous career decline for director William Friedkin. However in retrospect, Sorcerer is one badass action thriller and one of the most underrated films of the '70s.
By the end of the decade many of Friedkin’s peers, that great class of '70s film directors who set a new benchmark with their important and revolutionary films earlier in the decade, seemed to get bitten with the overindulgent bug. After years of hitting it out of the park, a number of these "geniuses" created what were considered duds with would-be epics. Spielberg had the loud 1941, Scorsese made the boring musical New York, New York, Coppola put forth the unwatchable One From The Heart, and Bogdanovich had a string of disasters. And of course Michael Cimino, after the success of The Deer Hunter, would help to sink a whole studio with his artsy Western Heaven’s Gate (which was derided for years, but more recently has found a new wave of critical support). Then it was Friedkin's turn to swing for his home run. For his epic he would do a remake of French director Henri-Georges Clouzot's adventure movie, Le Salaire de la Peur (The Wages Of Fear). Clouzot had of course also done the greatest French mystery thriller of all time, the more Hitchcockian than Hitchcock Les Diaboliques (Diabolique). Friedkin developed the remake for superstar Steve McQueen to head the international cast. Sorcerer was green-lighted with a budget that in its day made it a big, big event movie. But unfortunately McQueen got sick and then died and the film never made back its bucks. But what ended up on the screen is wildly spectacular filmmaking.Continue Reading
Kill Bill: Vol. 1
Director Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is pop culture in a blender and on speed, particularly the culture of violent 1970s B Movies and exploitation films. It’s a comic book for movie nerds. It’s a who’s who, name the movie, appreciate the genre, video store game. More importantly it goes beyond its exploitation genre - it’s actually a mesmerizing, funny, elegant film. It all works beautifully, unlike its sequel Kill Bill: Vol 2, which was a mess. KB:V1 is an epic, bloody, action masterpiece.
KB:VI and KB:V2 were apparently intended to be one film, but they grew so big they were separated. Luckily the best stuff is in KB:V1. Both films jump around in sequence, but can be viewed and followed separately. Unfortunately for KB:V2 the late actor David Carradine as Bill is required to give long and tedious monologues. He was not a very good actor and long lines of dialogue were not his strong suit. (Imagine how interesting it would have been if Tarantino had gotten his first choice for the role, Warren Beatty?) Also where KB:V1 is clearly a riff on pop culture (films and television) of the '70s and early '80s, it’s sharp and focused. KB:V2 is all over the place, even adding Film Noir to the mix, not to mention the amount of minor characters with pointlessly long scenes of their own.Continue Reading
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Until the more recent Daniel Craig Casino Royal, it would have been easy to call On Her Majesty’s Secret Service the strangest James Bond film ever. This, of course, is not counting the original Casino Royal, a mostly unbearable, unfunny disaster. But like the original Casino Royal, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service almost plays like a spoof with its bizarre villains and story-lines, but it’s much more than that. It has some of the best action sequences of any Bond film. It has the most character driven story and romance (until the more recent Casino Royal). It’s considered a bona-fide cult film. And even with Sean Connery on a one-film hiatus, it deserves its more recent status as maybe the best Bond film ever.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the sixth film in the Bond series, it's said to follow Ian Fleming's 1963 book as closely as any of the films have. But it’s most famous as the film Connery sat out. A big shouldered Australian ex-car salesman, George Lazenby, with little acting experience, replaced him. One of the new Bond’s first lines of dialogue is, "This never happened to the other fellow," referencing what, at the time, was an abrupt shift in actors - something we have become accustomed to since. Lazenby would prove to be one and done as Connery would return for the weak Diamonds Are Forever and then years later repeat the role one last time with the utterly pointless Never Say Never Again, basically a remake of the much better Thunderball.Continue Reading
On paper the first Rocky may be a better film than Rocky III - and don't let the fact that Sylvester Stallone would become a muscle-headed goon persuade you that he didn't once have talent. The original Rocky was a moving film and Stallone gave a nice performance - though not sure if it deserved to win the Best Picture Oscar over All the President's Men, Network and Taxi Driver - but still, it was a film to admire. Rocky II was a dull follow up that stuck to the formula. Rocky III sticks to the formula and gives it some twists. In terms of sheer entertainment it's a knockout (that's a boxing term, get it?) and at a compact 100 minutes it's a fast and easy ride.
Bill Conte's infectious "Rocky Theme" opens the film and a recap of the final fight from the previous movie as Rocky predictably finally beats Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Then BAM! It’s the rockin' sounds of Survivor's "Eye Of The Tiger" and a montage of Rocky living the celebrity life while busting heads in the ring. Meanwhile a new Mike Tyson-type of up & comer, Clubber Lane, is demolishing opponents (played very well by Mr. T). After a wild charity match against a pro wrestler, Thunder Lips (Hulk Hogan looking like a giant), Clubber publicly pressures Rocky into meeting him in the ring. Clubber trains hard and Rocky trains soft. Before the fight Rocky learns from his manager, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), that he's not as good a fighter as he thinks he is - since fighting Apollo those were all tomato-cans he has been beating up on. And then in a twist to the Rocky formula Clubber gives Rocky a real whuppin', so bad in fact it kills Mickey and Clubber becomes the new champ.Continue Reading
10 to Midnight
Before there were hot-shot police officers - predominately played by Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson - there was Charles Bronson, and before there was American Psycho, there was 10 to Midnight. Like the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard sagas, this film functions as an action movie with lots of tongue-and-cheek dialogue that is more genius than the explosions, though not nearly as ridiculous as an Andy Sedaris film, for example. Unlike your typical action flick, 10 to Midnight is double-layered. On one hand, you’ve got the story of a cop trying to get to the bottom of a case that has become a personal interest; and on the other, you have a serial killer who slays his beautiful female victims while naked, as in a slasher. Similar to American Psycho, it boasts a young and attractive egomaniac and leaves most of its suggestive elements in the form of phallic symbols, like knives and cigarettes.
Charles Bronson plays Leo Kessler, a cop who is easing up toward retirement and is appalled at the new supposed ideas of justice, where "the law" can now be used to protect people who are most likely guilty. His newest case surrounds a murderer who kills young girls and likes to harass his victims over the phone, using a Mexican accent and talking dirty in Spanish. The only lead they have is the first victim’s diary, which contains a detailed account of every man she ever dated or went to bed with. Among them is Warren Stacy (Gene Davis) whose description after a first date is simple: "What a creep."Continue Reading
2 Fast 2 Furious
The Fast And The Furious is a guilty pleasure of mine; this amped up, goofy remake of Point Break is actually a ridiculously fun adrenaline rush. As a sequel, 2 Fast 2 Furious is pointless (it’s sorely missing the presence of the first film's co-star, Vin Diesel). As an exciting action film it’s just lacking. As a fun-dumb genre movie, it doesn’t deliver. HOWEVER, as apparently lame a movie as it is, it does work as a touching gay love story between two men whose macho cultures suppress them from revealing their true feelings and stop them from acting on their apparent lust. In that context this is powerful, beautiful film. 2 Fast 2 Furious is like a sexless, jacked-up Brokeback Mountain on speed.
Returning from the first film Paul Walker (a not very impressive pretty boy actor) plays Brian O’Conner, once an undercover cop who used his love of cars and drag racing to do some deep cover, infiltrating a ring of racing crooks. Now pushed by the Florida State cops to crack a ring of drag racing drug dealers led by the evil Carter Verone (Cole Hauser, star of the entertainingly awful Paparazzi, channeling fellow actor James Remar in his younger 48 Hrs days). Brian recruits Roman Pearce (Gibson), his childhood homie and the love of his life. Roman blames him for his prison stint some years ago, but after seeing each other for the first time, they roll around on the ground together and Roman completely agrees to work with Brian. As Monica, Eva Mendes is the low-cut top wearing, undercover Fed who tries to come between them.Continue Reading
ELEC-TRON-IC A cheated and spurned former computer programmer, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), of computer company ENCOM has become an arcade owner and operator. While trying to reclaim his stolen work he enlists the help of two former coworkers and current employees of ENCOM, Lora (Cindy Morgan) and Alan (Bruce Boxleitner). However they are up against Dillinger (David Warner), ENCOM’s unrightfully elected man in control, and the even more controlling super computer known as Master Control Program (MCP). Master Control has been absorbing other programs, thus becoming stronger and stronger.
Flynn, Lora, and Alan break in to ENCOM and attempt to distract Master Control while Flynn hacks into Master Control’s system long enough to find his stolen work and get back out again. However, things take a turn when Master Control uses an experimental laser to literally digitize Flynn into the cyber world of its inner workings. Welcome to the world of TRON!Continue Reading
Billy Jack was a minor cultural phenomenon back in 1971. Written, directed, produced by, and starring Tom Laughlin, he probably made the set coffee in the morning as well. A vanity project, to say the least, but one that entertains and works as a document to the issues of the day, though the themes and ideas are incredibly muddled, which makes it all the more fascinating. Laughlin plays Billy Jack, a decorated Vietnam vet ("who turned his back on the war") and karate expert, he’s a "half-breed," hip to the philosophy and ways of the Native Americans. Billy rides around in his Jeep (and motorcycle and on horseback) toting a rifle - he uses violence for peace. Billy Jack, the film, has a lot of hippie mantra spoken, but underneath the grooviness it's actually a perfectly crafted, good, old fashion, revenge-driven, exploitation flick.
The character of Billy Jack first showed up with his badass black cowboy hat in Laughlin's earlier film, The Born Losers. In that one, Billy used his karate and his shotgun to protect a small town from a pack of scumbag bikers. Now he is protecting "The School," a different kind of educational institute, deep in the mountains of a hostile small Southwestern town. This is a place for hippies and pregnant girls and minority kids to learn chanting, ride horses, sing songs, and do groovy improv, questioning the man (led by Howard Hesseman, then of the far-out improv group, The Committee). The School is run by Jean and she is also Billy's girlfriend, or at least his biggest booster, though she digs his Indian mysticism she doesn't cotton to the violence. Laughlin’s real life old lady, Delores Taylor, plays Jean. She also co-wrote the script (under the pseudonym Teresa Christina), as well as its two unwatchable sequels, Billy Jack Goes To Washington and The Trial of Billy Jack. Taylor may know how to type pages but as an actress she is utterly uncomfortable in front of the camera, as if egged on by her boyfriend. Mercifully she has never appeared in any films outside the Laughlin canon.Continue Reading
The Poseidon Adventure
After the phenomenal success in 1970 of Airport (“Grand Hotel on a Airplane”), disaster films became all the rage of '70s pop cinema. The formula consisted of a melodramatic, soapy script with a handful of Oscar winners slumming, stuck in some kind of disastrous situation ranging from earthquakes to meteors. The best of the genre was The Poseidon Adventure, about a luxury liner that gets toppled by a tidal wave and the group of passengers trying to escape (by reaching the bottom of the boat). Besides excellent special effects and a great cast, what makes The Poseidon Adventure especially unusual is the underlying religious subtext; in some ways it’s also an allegory about the story of Jesus Christ and his followers.
On its final voyage across the Atlantic, passengers celebrate New Year's Eve on the SS Poseidon. We are introduced to a cross section of archetypes that will become the group we will stick with as they are all invited to sit at the captain’s dinner table (played with a straight face by Leslie Nielsen). A teenage girl (Pamela Sue Martin) and her obnoxious little brother (Eric Shea) travel without their parents; a brash New York cop (Ernest Borgnine) and his ex-hooker wife (Stella Stevens), on their way to meet their grandson in Israel (via Greece?); a sweet, old retired Jewish couple (Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson) play to the appropriate clichÃ©s; a lonely, soft-spoken bachelor (Red Buttons); and, most importantly, an outspoken renegade priest, Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman). Eventually, after being forced to fall in love with the cast, a massive tidal wave strikes the ship, flipping the boat upside down; a great scene of destructive mayhem follows, with some amazing stunt work.Continue Reading