After the current vogue for having famous people play eminent people has lost its cachet among Oscar voters, what roles will we remember the nominees for? From 1929 to1942, six of the thirteen Academy Awards for Best Actor were awarded to actors playing real historical personages, from Henry VIII to “Yankee Doodle Dandy” songwriter George M. Cohan. Occasionally flaring up once every decade, the trend of remunerating actors for successful impersonations had almost gone into remission until recently. In 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2006 the statue was awarded for the most uncanny imitation of a deceased celebrity. In the Best Actress category the statistics are even more consistent; during the 2000s only two of the past awards have gone to actresses playing fictional characters. This year celebrated stage actor Frank Langella is nominated for portraying Richard Nixon in Ron Howard’s screen adaptation of the play Frost/Nixon. Considering Howard is the first filmmaker to perfect a “direct-by-numbers” technique, the likelihood of the red-headed former star of Happy Days walking away with a little gold man looks likely.
Before Langella was Tricky Dick, he sailed the West Indies as the ruthless pirate Dawg Brown in the 1995 action swashbuckler Cutthroat Island. Dawg’s corsair father leaves Dawg and his brothers a massive hidden treasure as their patrimony, but divides the map to the loot amongst his sons to insure the fair division of the horde. But avaricious Dawg seeks to deprive his brothers of their inheritance and he urges his brother Harry to hand over his map or walk the plank. Harry dies, but not before passing on his map (hidden in a brainy location) to his voluptuous daughter Morgan Adams (Geena Davis). Morgan takes her father’s place as captain of his galleon, although most of the crew is skeptical of her competence. To gain their trust she promises them an equal share of the treasure. Unfortunately, Morgan’s section of the map is in Latin, forcing her to go ashore in Jamaica where she is a wanted woman. On land she finds a dashing con artist (Matthew Modine) who can read the map, but might also steal her heart. Together they try to escape the forces of Dawg and the larcenous Royal Navy conspiring against them to steal their treasure.Continue Reading
A writer (Duchovny) and his girlfriend-photographer (Forbes) make a cross-country trip documenting famous murder sites along the way. Their ride-share companions are two hillbillies (Pitt and Lewis) who add their own crime scenes along the way.
Dominic Sena (Gone in 60 Seconds), of music video fame, made his directorial feature debut with his hard-boiled tail of American crime and the obsession of the masses for bloodshed and carnage. He is successful in making a road film that feels unlike any other as we follow the foursome westward across the plains, leaving misery in their wake.Continue Reading
True Romance is the story of a young down-on-their-luck couple who comes across a suitcase full of cocaine and makes their way across America to sell it in Hollywood. As they do so a colorful group of cops and criminals hunt them down.
Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill) wrote the film with un-credited voiceover by his Pulp Fiction co-author, Roger Avery (Killing Zoe). As with all of Tarantino’s scripts, the story is filled with unique characters, explosive action, and very memorable dialogue.Continue Reading
Lord of War
Andrew Niccol (Gattaga) wrote and directed this darkly comic story of an international arms dealer. His screenplay is interesting, satirical, and well-paced. The film’s direction is stylish, quick, and greatly entertaining. Niccol has a sharp eye for details and finds the humor underlying the business of death -- or at least the irony of the lifestyle.Continue Reading
Based on a real criminal and inspired by his own TV movie, L.A. Takedown, Michael Mann directs one of the all-time great cop and robber films with Heat. He takes a highly established genre and digs in deeper—finding the truth and parallels between those who enforce the law and those who break it. Heat explores the sacrifices both sides have to make in order to do the job—mainly causing dysfunction at home. You can see years of preproduction that goes into Mann’s vision—building from earlier works as director of Thief (1981) and producer of TV’s Miami Vice.Continue Reading
The Professional (known as Leon in its European version) is the tale of a quiet, simple man who kills for a living. Once his drug dealing neighbors are executed by a gang of crooked cops, Leon takes their surviving daughter under his wing and begins teaching her the ropes of his business.
Writer-Director Luc Besson (The 5th Element) revisits the world of professional assassins that put him on the international map with his earlier tale, Le Femme Nikita. With The Professional, he gives a new and fresh take on the genre by exploring a strange and beautiful relationship between a hired gun and a little girl seeking revenge. The script is tight and well paced, while Besson’s direction is perhaps the best in his long career. The action direction is amazingly well done, most especially in the blaze of glory final act.Continue Reading
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