For Czech director Milos Forman, in that brief 10 year period between his two masterpieces, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, he took on two monumental American mini-institutions as sources. Hair, his film version of the groovy stage musical about the Age of Aquarius, is mildly memorable, while Ragtime, his big adaptation of E.L Doctorow’s hugely popular and influential novel, was largely ignored in its day; but 20-something years later it holds up and now looks like one of the most overlooked historical dramas of the decade. Ragtime is a film about the small details and how little incidents can grow and change history and people’s lives. With a fascinating cast and some interesting, ahead-of-its-time politics, Ragtime is truly an original and entertaining movie.
The film begins like the book: a sprawling story of scandal and trouble in the first decade of the 20th Century. It mixes real-life characters with fictional creations (similar to HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, the pulp work of James Ellroy, and countless books and films since). The famous murder trial of Harry Kendall Thaw (Robert Joy), who shot architect Stanford White (played well by overly macho writer Norman Mailer) over an affair with his wife, the showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (fresh out of Ordinary People, Elizabeth McGovern), dominates the first act. Meanwhile, a nice family just north of Manhattan in New Rochelle goes through massive changes. Mother (Mary Steenburgen) and Father (James Olson, an actor I wasn’t familiar with, who’s outstanding in this) try to keep their dignity while their Victorian values are constantly challenged. Her weird sibling, Younger Brother (Brad Dourif, less weird than usual, but still odd), works for Father at the fireworks factory and is obsessed with Evelyn, but she is too much the starlet for him. Meanwhile, Mother has taken in a black woman, Sarah (Debbie Allen), and her new baby. This is the thread plot that overtakes and dominates the story.
Though “X-rated” means something different than it did in 1969, it’s still a badge of honor that Midnight Cowboy is the only film with that “for adults only” label to have won the Best Picture Oscar (Last Tango in Paris being the other great “X-rated” flick of the era). Midnight Cowboy is less shocking today; sexually, it’s not the graphic images that provide the punch it’s the intellectually complicated nature of the characters’ sexuality that still can move an audience. As a follow up to The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman proved he was more than a one-hit wonder and instead that he had a long and vital career ahead of him. It also deservedly made a star out of a little known pretty-boy actor named Jon Voight. And it also put British director John Schlesinger on the American A-list, a guy whose deep sensitivity and open homosexuality put him ahead of his time. The film’s theme song, “Everybody’s Talkin’” performed by Harry Nilsson, has become the iconic standard bearer for images of a lonely guy walking the streets of New York. Midnight Cowboy also is a fascinating peek at an era both for representation for how an artist works at a time when the movie studios were willing to take a chance on a grubby flick about a would-be male prostitute and his new BFF while also revealing a dark side to the Big Apple during what has sometimes been considered a golden age of self-expression.
Apparently screenwriter Waldo Salt (who was just emerging from two decades of being blacklisted) took a lot of liberties with James Leo Herlihy’s undergrou...
One of the best examples of docu-realism in the Battle of Algiers-mode, Bloody Sunday, from director and writer Paul Greengrass, was originally made for Granada Television (a high quality UK outfit) but after an acclaimed screening at the Sundance Film Festival it got its theatrical run and instantly made Greeengrass a director in high demand. He went on to direct the final two Bourne flicks as well as another outstanding docu-drama, United 93. Bloody Sunday tensely recreates the events of the 1972 peace march in the Bogside of Derry, Northern Ireland that spiraled out of control as itchy trigger fingered British paratroopers opened fire on marchers killing 14 and then covering their own actions. The film tries to show the points of view of both sides, but no matter how even-handed the film intended to be, and even with the usual IRA types running around looking for a fight, it’s impossible to see it as anything less than a British massacre of the innocent.
Inspired by the American civil rights movement, the Catholics of Northern Ireland lived in a near police state under British control; the marchers even used “We Shall Overcome” as their theme song. The march was led by their local MP, Ivan Cooper, ironically a Protestant himself leading a peaceful Catholic rebellion. As played brilliantly by James Nesbitt, Cooper is the epitome of good intentions in a bad situation; he often references his idol Martin Luther King and does everything he can do to keep his marchers peaceful, but unfortunately for him this is Northern Ireland not Selma. The Northern Ireland-born Nesbitt, a staple on UK TV, was mostly known for lightweight fare like the show Cold Feet; here he gives the performance of his career. It’s a stunning piece of acting; Cooper is desperate to lead, but the weight of events is just too overpowering for him and Nesbitt earns the viewer’s respect while our hearts go out to him.
Like a stunned archaeologist I happened upon a relic from the past that may be a Holy Grail for shining light on an era and a people; it’s a little movie called Tuff Turf. Perhaps it can be used not to tell us about life in 1985 — I imagine that any relation to actual life is purely coincidental — no, it tells us more about the hack filmmakers of that period. Like so many films about young people in that period, the filmmakers are highly influenced by the worst qualities of music videos and seem intent on filling the movie with banal musical interludes. It’s a mix of Class of 1984 and Footloose (which obviously includes some Rebel without a Cause), mixing in live performances but without the skill of Streets of Fire. Yes, it’s supposed to be a gritty school gang vs. the new guy flick, but where flicks like Class of 1984 and even Bad Boys were legitimately disturbing, even with some heavy moments of violence Tuff Turf carries the influential stamp of Grease 2, or worse, ‘60s beach movies. There’s actually a shocking moment when the kids break out in a spontaneous, highly choreographed dance number (no, really); any state of edge in the film is an accident. Oh, and the editing and timing are completely stilted and awkward. However, these minor grievances aside, Tuff Turf is a bad film; as a matter of fact its severe mediocrity actually makes it all the more fascinating and entertaining.
Understanding what motivates the lead character Morgan Hiller is a challenge for viewers because he’s played by a young James Spader, who even in his best performance (Sex, Lies, and Videotape) can come off as aloof and odd, as if he’s Christopher Walken’s prettier younger brother. After a long music video credit sequence, the film opens with a group of Los Angeles Valley teen toughs straight out of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video, mugging a civilian. The hair-sprayed bandanna gang is led by big-chested Nick (thirty-something looking Paul Mones) and his devoted main squeeze, Frankie (child star later turned reality TV mess, Kim Richards). Morgan rides his bike, whistling past the gang spray painting their faces and ruining their crime. Is he some kind of teen vigilante? Nope, just an East Coast rich kid who relocated to L.A. after his family fortune went bust. Now this former prep school rebel has to figure out how to fit in at a rough public school; it didn’t help to make enemies with Nick and his crew. Even after they publicly mess up his bicycle the nearly fearless Morgan continues to woo the much more “street” Frankie, pushing Nick’s wrath even further.
The King of Marvin Gardens
"Get your ass down here fast. Our kingdom has come."
—Jason Staebler's enthusiastic message to his younger brother David characterizes the delusions of grandeur in Bob Rafelson's 1972 film.
When it comes to reinterpreting a classic Joan Crawford movie involving murder I just think—why mess with success? Todd Haynes has made a career out of deconstructing his campy pop cultural obsessions for his own films with pretty mixed results. Whether he’s aping Douglas Sirk, badly, as in the highly overrated Far From Heaven or making David Bowie and glam rock seem about as sexy and exotic as a night out with Adam Lambert (the atrocious Velvet Goldmine) he doesn’t pay homage to his influences and radically reinterpret their art so much as apply some critical theory ideas, slow everything down, and just kind of ruin what makes them fun in the first place. It has always been my suspicion that Haynes is rewarded more for his good taste than his skills as a filmmaker. He spends too much time focusing on things like “post-structuralism” and “the male gaze” when maybe he should think about things like “narrative cohesion” and “three dimensional characters.”
When the HBO mini-series of Mildred Pierce was announced I figured it would be lame. Haynes was going to take one of the great American novels of the WW2 era (which had already been turned into an immortal film in 1945) and do his graduate school thesis thing and, I figured, just flat out ruin it. The first reports about the project were not encouraging. It was going to be a 5-part miniseries, he was getting rid of the crime element (unique to the movie version), and it was going to star Kate Winslet—a good actress, admittedly, but wouldn’t it have been more inspired to get someone kind of nuts like Lara Flynn Boyle for instance? That would have been fun. Once again I figured Todd Haynes was going to needlessly cool down a prime slab of overheated melodrama into something “respectable.” But then I watched it and *shocker* but it was actually really good.
The culty acclaim of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver is mostly deserved; the film is made up of some of the greatest scenes and moments of the decade. But with that there are some scenes and moments that don’t work as well. Really what Taxi Driver is is a good ol’ fashioned 70s exploitation flick, gussied up with a big-time director and cast. It’s a perfect combination of two of the era’s most potent B-movie formulas, “the crazy Vietnam vet” flick and “the New York city loner vigilante” saga. Two genres of exploitation pulp that go together like peanut butter and chocolate, after a while you can’t imagine one without the other. Like Scarlet O’Hara or Forest Gump, the name Travis Bickle has become a cultural definition of a type. Robert De Niro, at the peak of his thespian prowess, plays the lonely city taxi driver who prowls the street in search of some kind of meaning for his life. Teaming with Scorsese for the second time (after the brilliant Mean Streets, and with six more collaborations to come), it’s one of the great actor’s most iconic roles, and still a signature film for the director.
As a guy who doesn’t need sleep and doesn’t mind venturing in to the rougher sides of town, Travis is instantly hired as a cabbie. He learned some of the ropes from colleagues over late night coffee stops, led by Wizard (go-to working class character actor Peter Boyle). His clientele ranges from the high end to creeps (Scorsese in a fantastic scene), and pimps and hookers—that’s where he meets and becomes kinda obsessed with Iris (Jodie Foster), a teenage hooker who was briefly fleeing her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel). He also strikes up a near romance with a beautiful campaign worker, Betsy (Cybill Sheperd), who works for senator Palantine (Leonard Harris). Though her coworker (Albert Brooks) has his doubts about Travis, she agrees to go out with him. He blows it when he idiotically takes her to see a porn movie. Getting blown off by her gives him more time to fret over Iris; his obsession with her does not seem to be sexual, he just has a high moral code and feels like he can help her. And he sinks deeper into a type of self-obsessed heroic fantasy. After killing a guy who attempts to rob a grocery store his itch for more action grows so he gives himself a Mohawk hairdo and makes a feeble attempt at shooting Palantine. Instead, when that doesn’t work out he goes after Iris’s pimp, culminating in an extremely bloody shoot-out with him and the whorehouse manager in front of Iris, where he kills both of them and gets shot up himself.
Playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan has become one of the top chroniclers of odd-couple conflicts just below the surface of history's reach during the last couple decades. The Last King of Scotland was about the relationship between Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and his young Scottish doctor. Frost/Nixon chronicled the details of the famous filmed conversations between the broadcaster and the disgraced ex-president. Morgan's television movie, The Deal, directed by Stephen Frears, contrasted the difference between two British politicians, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. As a follow-up, Morgan, Frears, and actor Michael Sheen, who perfectly captures Blair in looks and spirit, re-teamed with The Queen. This time Blair is a supporting character on screen, though still a vital half of another mismatched odd couple with Queen Elizabeth II, played brilliantly by Helen Mirren. The Queen details how Blair just might have saved the royal family from total irrelevancy after their reluctance to acknowledge Princess Diana after her death.
After the humiliating divorce between Prince Charles and Princess Diana, England’s monarchy might need to ask itself some hard questions, but Queen Elizabeth won't have it. When the touchy-feely Tony Blair, England’s answer to Bill Clinton, was elected Prime Minister in 1997 with promises to modernize the country, it sent shivers up the spines of the royal family. A few months after getting elected and an awkward first meeting with the Queen, they are both at the center of a storm when Diana and her playboy boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, are tragically killed in a Paris car accident. The royal family have no idea how to react. The Queen resorts to her WWII “stiff upper lip” posture: say nothing, show no emotion, and just stay out of the public eye. Tradition! Diana was no longer part of the royal family, so it was not her concern. But Blair understood the modern sensibility of public mourning and after dubbing her “the People’s Princess” his numbers skyrocket while the Queen’s coldness sinks her.
In The Heat Of The Night
The racial politics of In The Heat Of The Night may not be as shocking or edgy today as they were back in the bad old days of 1967. Matter of fact, it may even be a little corny and perhaps the drama can feel obvious, but as a piece of detective pulp it’s solid, and as a showcase for the great Rod Steiger at his scenery-chewing best it’s more than watchable. This was a period full of Southern dramas with some then socially hot elements - Hurry Sundown, ...tick…tick… tick…, The Liberation Of L.B. Jones, The Klansman, even The Chase. While those films are all utterly dated (they would seem a little more brave if they had been produced ten year earlier), In The Heat Of The Night holds up fairly well, because it’s a mystery film first, with a lot of style, and an all-star team behind the camera. It’s also the best of Sidney Poitier’s groundbreaking run of films in the '60s that made him the first black box office superstar.
In Sparta, Mississippi patrolman Sam Wood (the great character actor Warren Oates) makes his nightly rounds, after peeping at a topless woman he makes a startling discovery – the murdered body of wealthy Industrialist, Philip Colbert. Newly installed police chief Bill Gillespie (Steiger) sends him to check out the pool hall and bus station for any drifters, and wouldn’t you know it, Wood finds a well-dressed black man with a wallet full of bills waiting for a bus. The cops think they have an open and shut case, until they find out the black man, with a clear alibi, is actually Virgil Tibbs (Poitier), a Philadelphia homicide detective just passing through. The fact that he makes more money than them, is obviously smarter and is black throws these backwoods hicks for a loop. Tibbs wants to leave town but after clearing another wrongly accused guy, he impresses the deceased man’s wife, Leslie Colbert (Lee Grant), and she puts pressure on Gillespie to keep Tibbs on the case. And of course, Tibbs’ super-sleuthing leads to budding respect from the otherwise racist cops.
All The President’s Men
Watching the recent excellent documentary, Page One: Inside The New York Times, which questioned the potential end of print media and mature fact-based journalism, made me hanker to rewatch the greatest film about how journalists can seek the truth, and the standards and hoops they need to jump through in order to have their stories reported. Based on the true-story, autobiographical, political thriller by journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, All The President’s Men details the young reporters' involvement in the Watergate scandal that worked its way through the cover-ups run by President Nixon’s staff, eventually reaching him and ending his presidency prematurely. All The President’s Men is a riveting account of the Watergate story from war zone reporters covering it, but today it’s also a reminder of the hard work and fact checking that goes into the coverage by these old dinosaurs, in this case the Washington Post, and the good that old media can sometimes bring to our democracy.
Aggressive young reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) is put on the story of a small time, but suspicious burglary of the Democratic party headquarters at the Watergate Building in Washington DC. What makes the case more intriguing to Woodward and his superiors at the Washington Post is that the burglars all have pre-arranged high powered lawyers. He then discovers that the burglars have ties to the CIA and White House, meaning this wasn’t any old burglary; it was an attempt to bug the Democrats. Always poking his head in at the news room is the sloppier, but equally driven reporter, Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman). He eventually gets himself teamed up with Woodward and as the t...