After his death, Steve McQueen reached rebel-cool icon status based on his off-screen machismo (racing cars and motorcycles, martial arts with Bruce Lee, stealing Robert Evans’ wife) and partly on his actual film resume, which in retrospect isn’t as great as you would expect. His peak years start in ’63 with his one masterpiece, The Great Escape (he did the overrated but still influential Western The Magnificent Seven a few years earlier), a couple of big hits that now feel more like remake-bait time capsules (The Thomas Crown Affair and The Cincinnati Kid), and of course there is also Bullitt, largely famous for its amazing high-speed San Francisco auto chases. But for the most part the late sixties were rounded out with forgotten melodramas (Love with the Proper Stranger, Baby the Rain Must Fall and The Sand Pebbles). The early seventies include a couple lesser collaborations with Sam Peckinpah (Junior Bonner and The Getaway) and the super cast/super dud The Towering Inferno. But besides appearing as himself in the Oscar-winning motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday, McQueen’s best film since The Great Escape is the epic Papillon, a film that has been written off by some as overly long and cold. But for my money it’s one of the best prison escape movies ever, as well as an eye-opening look at worlds I knew little about. (ALSO OF NOTE: I first saw it as a very young kid, in its second run at a drive-in, and there are some moments of violence that then confused me, but have stuck with me ever since.)
Based on the questionable autobiography of French petty criminal Henri “Papillon” Charrière, (played by the very American McQueen and shot in exotic locations all over the world) the script is credited to blacklisted legend Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (one of the creators of the '60s Batman TV series). The film begins in pre-WWII France with Papillon and other convicted criminals being marched through town and on to a boat to be shipped off to a French penal colony work camp. On the long and brutal ship ride, Papillon strikes a deal with a wealthy and rather famous forger, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman in full nebbish mode), for protection. With a promise to keep the meek embezzler alive, Dega will finance any escape attempts. Through the course of time, the two strike up an unlikely friendship (a prison adventure Midnight Cowboy). The film covers years in swampy, tough malaria-plagued conditions, finally ending on the infamous Devil’s Island. The film is loaded with wonderful set pieces, including long and short escape attempts, a leper colony, sadistic guards, creepy prisoners, solitary confinements and lots of double crosses (even a nun stabs Papillon in the back). It’s a survival saga and a friendship story, though the survival aspect is the highlight.Continue Reading
It’s called The Doors but director Oliver Stone’s hyper-bonkers bio of the band should have just been called Jim Morrison. Because the real show here is Val Kilmer’s brilliant performance as the self-destructive lead singer, while the rest of the guys--Ray Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan), Robby Krieger (Frank Whaley) and John Densmore (Kevin Dillon)--spend most of the movie standing around scolding Jim and telling him to grow up. As usual, Stone hits his points with a sledge hammer, and Doorsaphiles may take issue with the actual facts. I mean, was Jim’s LSD-inspired obsession with an Indian shaman a Morrison or a Stone concoction? But that’s neither here nor there; like Stone’s greatest film, JFK (also released in ’91), in the end the actual facts don’t matter. What does matter is the incredible filmmaking skills on show here. From the camera work to the editing to the use of sound, Stone is in his element with his usual all-star crew at their most dizzying and superfluous. If Morrison was one of music’s most self-indulgent windbags--some love The Doors while others call them overrated--Stone is in a similar boat. The guy has won a couple Oscars and penned a couple kinda-classics (Midnight Express, Scarface) but often gets eye rolls when his name is mentioned. And that proves to be part of the beauty here; the excess of Morrison’s short life is perfect for Stone’s excess on film.
Though living members of The Doors at different points of production were consulted, in the end they all publicly disavowed the final movie, claiming Stone ignored their suggestions. So in Stone’s world, the story of The Doors goes something like this. Transplanted from a nice all-American, middle class childhood, Jim was a groovy, shirtless UCLA film student, influenced by Literature 101 (The Beats, Nietzsche, Rimbaud, etc.), making ridiculous overly arty student films. After discussing his coolness with a classmate, Manzarek, they decide to form a band. They add the less hip, but apparently talented Krieger and Densmore to the band and pretty quickly start to gain a rep on the Sunset Strip club scene for their rulebreaking improvised style. Jim, in full swagger, also stalks and then seduces a young flower child, Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan), and she becomes his old lady. The band navigates the swirling waters of the swinging sixties rock scene, having hit records, meeting Andy Warhol (Crispin Glover), dealing with police arrests and a general far-outness. Meanwhile the more successful they get, the more Jim alienates Pam and his band with his excessive egomania and drug and alcohol abuse, until he finally overdoses in Paris at the age of twenty seven, just after the publication of his poetry book.Continue Reading
Produced by Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler (Rocky, Raging Bull, etc.), The Split is a lost relic. Besides being the first film to ever receive an “R” rating by the ratings board, it’s a nifty heist film with a great cast full of fascinating credentials. Because it stars football star turned actor Jim Brown (and has Diahann Carroll as his ex-wife and a funky-lite Quincy Jones score), it’s often lumped in as an early blaxploitation flick. It’s not. Directed by a Scotsman, Gordon Flemyng, (who did a lot of '60s Dr. Who) and written by the great crime writer Donald Westlake (credited in the script under his equally known alias Richard Stark), this is the guy who wrote the books that became Point Blank (and later Payback), as well as The Hot Rock and The Outfit, and later wrote the script for The Grifters. So The Split could have easily been a vehicle for Lee Marvin, Rock Hudson, James Coburn or any other leading man of the era. It just so happens that Brown took the role. It’s a gritty little crime flick. It barely even qualifies as crooksploitation. Yes, it’s an imperfect film (chunkily directed), but it's still entertaining with some nice ’68 Los Angeles locations and some wild twists.
Fresh out of the slammer McClain (Brown) is recruited by Gladys (Julie Harris) to pull a big heist at the Los Angeles Coliseum (shades of the race track robbery in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing). McClain gathers an all-star cool cast to take part in the caper: tough guy Ernest Borgnine, escape artist/racist Warren Oates (a little less oily than he was a year earlier in In The Heat of the Night), limo driver Jack Klugman and creepy hit-man Donald Sutherland (still two tears before MASH made him a star). In a very complicated robbery and clever escape, the gang gets away with over a half-million bucks. But it’s after the heist when the real drama starts. It’s what happens to the loot before “the split” that cause the usual problems of greed and suspicion. First, the ex-wife has a sadistic, rapey landlord (James Whitmore) who kills her and steals the money, and then a crooked cop, Walter Brill (the great Gene Hackman pre-testing for Popeye Doyle) gets involved. The film becomes a stand-off for the money between McClain, Gladys, the gang and Brill.Continue Reading
Usually when movie lovers talk about legendary lost works in which auteur directors had their films taken from them and butchered by the American studios that produced them, they’re referring to “holy grails” of cinema such as Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) or Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). But I recently stumbled across an account of another supposed lost classic, Swing Shift—Jonathan Demme’s tribute to America’s “Greatest Generation” of World War II and the women on the home front who found a new sense of self and independence by working for the war effort in the factories.
I actually really love the movie Swing Shift as it is but I hadn’t seen it in years. I remember my mom taking her mother to see it and letting me tag along. My grandma was part of that generation of women who did what they could for the war effort, whether it meant volunteering at the local USO or planting a Victory Garden in their backyards. By 1984, when the movie was released, that generation was elderly while I was only six. Seeing the movie as a kid, I think I just really loved the sentimental look at the U.S. during the 1940s. Taking place in Southern California, in Santa Monica, between the attack on Pearl Harbor and VJ Day, the film has a melancholic feel, with the sky looking perpetually overcast and the music usually something slow and beautiful, such as one of Jo Stafford’s torch songs. And though I don't remember if Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" is on the soundtrack it really should be.Continue Reading
No one has heard of Director Pino Amenta. The name John Waters has always brought to mind the Baltimore cult director instead of the English actor. Almost everyone has heard of Guy Pearce, who was introduced in Heaven Tonight—a dated melodrama circulating a strained relationship between a father and his son. The weight of their troubles doesn't have anything to do with your standard fare of family drama, like one of the members abusing substances to the point of domestic strife. The issues that Johnny Dysart (John Waters) and his teenage son, Paul (Guy Pearce), are having are based on talent. Johnny is a failing musician and a has-been after a short-lived but illustrious career 20 years prior. Like many bands from the '60s, his was one that was going to become the next Beach Boys or Beatles—hitting the top of the charts and soon to tour the world. All it took was for his best friend and bandmate to become a junkie and the band collapsed. Now young Paul is climbing to the top with his electro group and doing so without the help of his father. His determination and position as the leader of other young men who are keen on success is not only impressive, but the target of envy and resentment from his displaced father.
Still, things in the Dysart household have stayed relatively steady over the years. Everyone gets along for the most part and Johnny's wife, Annie (Rebecca Gilling), is waiting patiently, and with great understanding, for her husband to put away his guitar and settle down into middle age. Johnny, oblivious to the strain his nonexistent career is putting on his family, is waiting for his last chance to come through. He's finished another album and chases after an old colleague in the business to give him an answer in terms of releasing it. Annie has been the major breadwinner of the family, and with a new business opportunity on her hands she's ready to take a risk and wants her husband to be included. Meanwhile young Paul and his group starts to really become popular and he desperately wants his father's approval and attention. All of this is put to the side when Johnny's troubled old friend and former bandmate, Baz (Kim Gyngell), comes crawling back into their lives and leaves an impact that has the potential to destroy their progress as a family unit.Continue Reading
Redemption is a complex thing. Our quest to find and observe it is even more multifaceted and often biased. We are drawn to stories where characters have redeeming qualities or, at the end of some relevant venture, find redemption in an act, thought, or belief. Usually this is something that your average person can relate to; a person coming into the dizzying territory of adopting a sense of selflessness or virtue—maybe making some wrong right. But who can relate to a story where someone who has done something as deplorable as molesting a child strives to find a way to redeem himself? Who even thinks they can sit through a film where this is obviously the end goal? Unfortunately the answer could very well be not many, but The Woodsman, should one feel comfortable enough with their own sense of self, is one of the finest stories about this quest that is not only overlooked, but avoided.
Kevin Bacon takes on the most dynamic role of his career thus far as Walter, a man just released from a 12-year prison sentence for molesting pre-teen girls. He finds work at a lumber yard run by Bob (David Alan Grier), who takes him on simply because he inherited the company and knows that Walter gave years of excellent service to his father. Though he has the jaded look of a man who has obviously come from prison, his coworkers are unaware of his crimes and don't care to pry except for Mary-Kay (played by singer-songwriter Eve), the office secretary who wants to know everyone's business and makes false friends in order to do so. In the midst of his daily routine Walter meets Vicki (Kyra Sedgwick), a spunky blonde struggling to hold her own in a male-dominated field. Her seen-it-all demeanor and harmlessly invasive conversation leads her to be his only confident and, in time, lover.Continue Reading
Few would dare to say that the films of Vincent Gallo are romantic. Certainly not when it comes to the ghostly plot of The Brown Bunny, and perhaps is even a stretch with Buffalo '66. Supposing you've seen these films (and this is more the case with Buffalo '66), you will have one of two reactions that says a lot about your own romantic relationships and you as a person. This, among other things, is something that brings me to view them more than any other drama. In all seriousness, Gallo's character studies—while vain due to the fact that he plays the leading male—are absolute works of genius; where transgression finds forgiveness and those of us who pine about the seemingly impossible task of finding someone just as strange as you can find solace and, I dare say, hope.
In the film we find Billy (Vincent Gallo), a young man released from prison after a five year stretch and understandably numb due to this experience. He seems to be someone who is cursed with bad luck and for a moment you're under the impression that his angst will lead him back to prison within a day. His first order of business is to call his mother to bring closure to a grandiose lie. He's informed his parents throughout his stint that he's actually been away on a top secret government assignment. Being a compulsive liar, he's also told them that he's married and promises to visit with his new wife. Through a random circumstance he meets Layla (Christina Ricci) and kidnaps her, though his efforts are more desperate and childish than violent. Intrigued by his efforts, and perhaps a bit smitten, Layla puts up a modest fight before hearing out his plea to get her assistance. He wishes to see his parents, which would mean introducing them to his non-existent wife. She agrees to play the role, and here their bizarre romance begins.Continue Reading
After Sean Penn’s solid supporting performance in Taps (as the sensitive guy, opposite Tom Cruise’s hothead), his now legendary scene stealing turn as stoner Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and then his work as Chicago juvenile delinquent Mick O’Brien in Bad Boys, Rolling Stone Magazine put him on the cover at the age of 23 and called him, “the next James Dean.” Since Dean only starred in three features, it's his cultural impact and dying young status that still make him a household name today. Dean also showed himself to be a gifted actor and it’s fascinating to imagine what his career would have been like had he not died so young. Penn has lived past those three early films (to some people’s surprise). He has had a long and eclectic filmography, with moments of pure acting brilliance (Carlito’s Way, Dead Man Walking, Sweet and Lowdown), while some critics have accused him of sometimes being a hammy overactor (I Am Sam, All The King’s Men, Mystic River). Either way the guy is easily a first-ballet hall-of-famer.
In addition to being a good jumping off point for any study of the truth and beauty in Penn’s acting, director Rick Rosenthal's Bad Boys is, for my money, the best American juvenile detention center flick. (Internationally you would have to add the British film Scum and Brazil's Pixote.) By 1983 Hollywood had only a spotty record grappling with teen crime flicks (the best at this point was Over The Edge) and Bad Boys sometimes feels a little overwrought with its occasional After School Special moments. On the other-hand it’s shockingly bleak and the violence is pretty brutal. Both teen prisons and the mean streets of Chicago are places full of predators - kill or be killed. Though Bad Boys doesn’t hit the exploitation highs of Class of 1984, it’s certainty much harder hitting and believable than most of the other teen dramas of its era.Continue Reading
Great Balls of Fire!
Great Balls of Fire!, the sort of tragic but really fun story of Jerry Lee Lewis, is a movie as bonkers as its hellcat hero. Lewis was a first class creep who made enough bad decisions to fill up a whole heap of country records many times over but he has more scorching Lucifer-bestowed talent than you, me, and all of our friends put together, probably. He got the biopic he deserved in this cranked up Southern exploitation romp that manages to both vilify and celebrate “the Killer” at the same time without any useless moral handwringing that would’ve sounded an insufferably false note anyway.
Dennis Quaid is a terribly wonderful, terribly underrated actor and he goes all out with his Killer. Looking like a Deep South doppelganger of Cesar Romero’s the Joker from the 1960’s Batman TV show, he’s a demonic pretty boy in a yellow suit who knows he can steal the show from anyone he’s put onstage with. He charms and infuriates all the people hitched to his star, be it Sam Phillips of Sun Records (played by the late, great Trey Wilson) or his bandmates (including John Doe from X). Alec Baldwin plays his (later to be notorious) cousin, preacher Jimmy Swaggart. Everyone seems to want a piece of Jerry Lee, from a groupie who makes off with a lock of his golden hair to his “man of God” cousin who even then was a terrible hypocrite while up there on his bully pulpit.Continue Reading
Good Night, and Good Luck.
Most of the movies directly about the horrors and political terrorism of the McCarthyism of the 1950s usually center on a dim schmuck who accidentally finds himself involved in the blacklistings. They’ve ranged from the good (The Front with Woody Allen working as an actor-for-hire), the bad (Guilty by Suspicion, the beginning of Robert De Niro’s slid towards mediocrity) and the terrible (Frank Darabont’s awful The Majestic with Jim Carrey, a movie that makes “Capra-esqe” a mortal sin). The usually simplistic genre helps make mega-star actor George Clooney’s second directing effort, Good Night, and Good Luck. (after the interesting but far from perfect Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), seem positively genius in comparison. Instead of piercing the blacklisting from the streets he sets it upstairs in the newsroom of the TV show See It Now, where the legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow (played by David Strathairn in the performance of his career) dared to take on Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Committee on Un-American Activities. Clooney (who also wrote the script with another one-time journeyman TV actor Grant Heslov) not only makes one of the most pointed films about this ugly period in American politics but also gives us a fascinating glimpse into the working of 1950s television. Shot in color and then transferred to a stunning black & white in post by cinematography all-star Robert Elswit (he’s shot all the Paul Thomas Anderson joints up to There Will Be Blood), Good Night, and Good Luck. really is a marvelous film, beautifully realized in its simplicity and a triumph on all fronts.
Murrow and his trusty producer, Fred Friendly (Clooney), fluctuate their television news magazine show between lightweight celebrity interviews (Liberace!) and more meaningful political pieces, where their heart really is - the fluff is a way to appease their sponsors and the higher-ups at CBS. Knowing that it could start a battle, they decide to take on the dangerous bullying tactics of Senator McCarthy, who was at the height of his powers. He was ruining careers of American citizens by accusing them of being Communists unless they groveled and told McCarthy what a great job he and his Committee where doing, and they were often forced to name others who may be Communists, just to give more names and more power to the often drunk lout Senator. Murrow and Friendly have to walk a tightrope when the Government begins to hint at an investigation of the station's employees and McCarthy himself falls on his old standby trick, accusing Murrow of being a Communist. Meanwhile the head of CBS, William Paley (Frank Langella, wonderful in the role), is forced to defend his star but also tries to keep him on a short leash (the moments between Langella and Strathairn are the best in the movie). The staff is under their own pressure. Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson play a secretly married couple (CBS policy did not allow employees to wed), and in another captivating performance, Ray Wise plays CBS News Correspondent Don Hollenbeck who admires Murrow but lives in terror of having his own lefty political background exposed.Continue Reading