The train movie has always been a favorite genre of mine (Horror Express, Runaway Train, Narrow Margin, Emperor of the North Pole, etc). Going back to the silents (The Great Train Robbery) the train trip has been used famously as a murder mystery setting (Murder on the Orient Express, The Lady Vanishes), a place for romance (North by Northwest), action (The Cassandra Crossing, Breakheart Pass), comedy (The General), and horror (Terror Train). In 1976 director Arthur Hiller wasn’t exactly sure what genre he wanted - romance, action, comedy. Though sometimes messy, his Silver Streak did mange to breathe some life into the train picture and it ended up being a perfect piece of genre-bending entertainment.
With a screenplay by Colin Higgins, who had written the cult flick Harold and Maude and would go on to write and direct another solid romantic-action-comedy, Foul Play with Chevy Chase, Silver Streak stars Gene Wilder. As one of the era’s most unique comic talents, the role feels very un-Wilder-like. Mater of fact it could have been Chase, Elliott Gould, George Segal, Burt Reynolds or any leading man of the mid '70s. It’s not until just over the half way mark when Richard Pryor enters and infuses the film with a fresh energy, bringing out the more manic Wilder that audiences had grown to love. After getting a co-screenwriting credit on the Wilder flick Blazing Saddles, but nixed as an actor, Silver Streak would mark Pryor and Wilder’s first onscreen comedy together. They would follow it with the sometimes hilarious Stir Crazy and then the mostly terrible Another You and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. But Silver Streak is the film that really best showcases the yin and yang of their different comic styles.Continue Reading
Most films about the future seem optimistic about human intelligence levels rising, with Mike Judge’s depressing comedy Idiocracy being an exception. Woody Allen’s Sleeper splits the difference: the technology and science have evolved but people have gotten shallower. Since ’73 his vision looks to be almost prophetic. As a follow up to Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know about Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask, Sleeper was his most polished film at that point. It was the peak of Woody’s slapstick phase, just four years before his evolutionary jump into the more mature filmmaker he would become with Annie Hall and Manhattan (both films co-written with Marshall Brickman, who also worked on the Sleeper script). Kinda, sorta, slightly based on H.G. Wells’s 1899 novel When the Sleeper Wakes, it’s a film that, because of the science-fiction element and the high laugh count, has always been considered one of his more admired and easily digestible films from his non-fans.
In 1973, Miles Monroe (Allen), owner of the Happy Carrot Health-Food store, is put into a scientific sleep chamber, without his knowledge, and finally revived two-hundred years later in 2173. He wakes up in a futuristic American police state (similar to so many movie future societies from Logan’s Run to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes to The Hunger Games). The rebels need him because he’s the only citizen without an identification number. He ends up helping them by posing as a robot servant for a dingy socialite, Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton, working wi...
What happened to Jonathan Demme? He used to make the best movies. I’m talking about the films he did before Silence of the Lambs changed his life and career options for good. Perhaps regretting his film's instigation of a wave of serial killer-based entertainments, he got very high-minded after Silence of the Lambs and kept returning with more Oscar bait in the form of Philadelphia, which continued his winning streak, and Beloved, which did not. Since then he has alternated between director-for-hire projects and small scale documentaries, before returning to something like his old style with last year’s Rachel Getting Married. But nothing he has done in years has been as good as the comedies he did in the late 1980s. They were exuberant life-affirming spectacles. He brought a New York downtowner’s aesthetic to mainstream comedy and lifted up a dreary end of the decade—a time best remembered for comedies that celebrated getting rich or blowing shit up—with an offbeat sensibility. He was like an American Pedro Almodovar in love with the idea of New York as a melting pot of bohemians and working class immigrants, all tuned in to the same Afrobeat soundtrack. His New York was full of loud colors, Jamaican beauty salons, and cool people—one big punky reggae party.
Something Wild is his best film. It’s a film that celebrates a life lived without rules before segueing into darker territory exploring the same themes. Jeff Daniels plays Charlie, a nice guy yuppie in Manhattan that gets his kicks walking out on his lunch bill. Melanie Griffith is Lulu—she’s got the famous Louise Brooks bob and lots of Voodoo priestess jewelry on. She’s an edgy chick who catches on to Daniels’s pathetic act of rebellion immediately. She threatens to rat him out if he doesn’t get in her car and see where the day takes them. She’s going to teach him a thing or two about wild. Pretty soon they’re naked in a hotel room and she’s making him call his office while she otherwise distracts him. The scene is playful and sexy, rather than obvious, because Lulu isn’t objectified as Charlie’s "manic pixie dream girl" who teaches him to live; instead she’s the one in charge. The scene is more about Lulu’s fetishizing of Charlie’s straightness than anything, though we get the feeling that Charlie has been looking for someone like Lulu all along. It’s the complete opposite of how most straight male directors would have played the scene and just one of the details that make this film unique.Continue Reading
Woody Allen’s most controversial film was hated by fans upon its release for its narcissism and disregard towards his loyalists, but time has made Stardust Memories a much more entertaining film than it was considered in 1980. It blatantly references Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, in both plot (a respected filmmaker trying to clear his mind while dealing with fans and women) and its look (shot in beautiful black and white photography which, like Feliini, includes grotesque close-ups of all manner of odd looking people). Woody actually comes off as one of the beautiful people compared to the faces on the extras. Though Stardust Memories is funny, it’s also deeply depressing. Woody plays Sandy Bates, maybe his most confident character, and though always surrounded by admirers, he may also be his loneliest.
Like Allen himself, Sandy is a beloved maker of comedies who longs to get more philosophical and serious in his work. While attending a film retrospective weekend of his work, he is bombarded by sycophant fans; every couple of minutes someone seems to be asking for his autograph or his attention for their cause or script idea or just heaping praise on him. Time jumps back and forth from the beachfront festival to his New York apartment, while past and present relationships are examined. He’s haunted by memories of his ex, Dorrie (the icy Charlotte Rampling), an insecure and possibly insane actress, and his current French girlfriend, Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault from Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s), who maybe he loves, but isn’t in love with. Meanwhile he strikes-up a friendship with an Annie Hall esque sincere violinist (Jessica Harper of Suspiria, who also appe...
Todd Solondz is, without a doubt, one of the best living American directors. His two works from the '90s, Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, served as groundbreaking material in terms of dark comedy and a ruthless exploitation of sorts. Some regard them as his best work with the knowledge that the films that follow only get harder to swallow. But it isn't just the steadfast exposure to topics such as backyard abortion and pedophilia that unsettles his audiences, but rather his approach. Through bright colors and jovial songs, Solondz mocks suburbia and the tortured souls of those suffering with mediocrity and mental illness to the point that it is hilarious. And while you feel bad, or perhaps uncomfortable with the development of each film, there is something about them that keeps you focused and satisfied. Storytelling is wedged in between Solondz's nastiest and most complex work, Palindromes, and those aforementioned ones that made him big. Being in the middle means that it is not as easy-going and lighthearted as the first two (if you could even call them that), nor is it as nuanced and off-the-walls as Palindromes. However, this is the movie in which no one is spared as he attacks the hidden comedy within racial taboos, servants, rich Jewish families, and our education system. To add to this lineup of targets was a fresh approach; the movie is split into two unrelated character developments, one called Fiction, and the other Non-fiction. The separation of these two storytelling methods was not only interesting in a way that pars with anthology Horror films, but gave meaning to such methods for anyone who fancies themselves a storyteller.
FICTION: In this segment we find Vi (Selma Blair), a pink-haired college student looking for substance in all the wrong places. She and her handicapped boyfriend Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick) have a writing course with a professor of great prestige. Vi is just short of obsessed with him, though not because he's won the Pulitzer Prize for his literature, nor because he's a brutally honest teacher. Now's the time to mention that her professor is black. Solondz exposes her loyalty as a sort of Mandingo fetish, which causes an outrage in Marcus when he discovers that she and other white girls on campus seem to be under the same spell. Meanwhile, we see their classroom atmosphere develop as Professor Scott ruins his classroom's general hope of becoming writers. From there, we follow Vi as she pursues her professor and receives the lesson of a lifetime that is nothing short of brutal.Continue Reading
The Blues Brothers
There was a time in 1978 when John Belushi had the number one movie in theaters— National Lampoon’s Animal House. He also starred on the massively popular Saturday Night Live and his band The Blues Brothers, a group he co-fronted along with SNL co-star Dan Aykroyd, had the number one album in the country. The success of their album Briefcase Full of Blues led to a film adaptation, The Blues Brothers—the first and still the best of many films to originate from SNL skits. It’s a loud musical-action-comedy film that works in all three genres while boasting some great car chases, stellar music, and staying very funny throughout.
Fresh from a stint in prison Jake (Belushi) reunites with his brother Elwood (Aykroyd). Spurred on by an old friend, Curtis (Cab Calloway) they visit their childhood orphanage and learn that it’s on the verge of being shut down for owing back taxes. After a vision “from God” in church they decide to reform their old blues band and raise money with a large charity concert. Most of their bandmates have contempt for them and need convincing to reunite. Along the way they tend to wreak havoc and leave large swaths of destruction wherever they go which leads the police after them. They also create foes with a country/western band, The Good Ol' Boys (led by Charles Napier), when The Blues Brothers steal their bar gig. They disrupt a Nazi rally and manage to put a carload of uniformed Nazis on their trail (led by the hilarious Henry Gibson of ...
The Boys & Girls Guide to Getting Down
Are you one of those people who drives past a club and sees all the scantily clad ladies and roguish gents lined up outside a club and wonder, “Is that really their idea of a good time?” I've never understood the thrill of clubbing and, upon seldom experience, always walked away with anxiety over the smell of sweaty bodies and hard liquor. Clubs are often featured in films as this oasis of sexy young 20-somethings and pulsating music to which anyone with pizazz and the right clothing can go and have a great time. This movie not only takes you into the cliched world of nightlife in Los Angeles, but it also sheds a light on the absurdity and downright funny aspects of partying. By mocking those who thrive on heavy drinking, narcotics and noisy music, it presents the party-hardy lifestyle as something to experience, if only for the opportunity to marvel at mankind in one of its most praised, and yet semi-barbaric, rituals.
The movie supports an extremely large cast and focuses on no one in particular. It begins with several groups of friends and roommates choosing where to hang out in Hollywood. The goal for most of the men is to get laid, while the women, the narrator claims, act as if they are hanging out with their girlfriends but are really after the same thing. It then differentiates between clubs, house parties, and after parties when the dreaded last call has been shouted. Mixed into the action is a series of energetic doctors who are “researching” clubbers in their natural habitat. The club sequence is short, and of course we never see the inside of them.Continue Reading
The Brady Bunch Movie
When I lived in Chicago there was this Johnny Rockets in the city’s “Gold Coast” area that had a painted mural near the entrance depicting an assortment of yuppie types seated at the diner’s counter enjoying milkshakes and hamburgers. I always thought it was kind of fascinating because the mural had clearly been painted sometime in the 1980s. One of the women depicted in the mural had kind of a big perm hairdo and her young son had on a sweater with an Esprit logo on it. I assume the mural was painted to showcase how a cross-section of then-modern society would have tons of fun hanging out in a fake '50s diner. Once the cultural attributes endemic to the 1980s started to look dated it gave that Johnny Rockets a doubly anachronistic atmosphere.
The Brady Bunch Movie has a similarly surreal kind of effect because the whole conceit behind the film is that standard comedy trope of the fish-out-of-water scenario wherein the Bradys and their perversely naive and dorky ways are transplanted from the 1970s sitcom world – where they belong – to the cynical world of mid-1990s Southern California. The film manages to serve as both a time capsule of '70s cheese and '90s-ness. In an ironic twist, the way the film depicts the “gritty” '90s as chock full of grungy attitude actually seems almost as quaint as the Bradys.Continue Reading
The Cable Guy
Like a paranoid science-fiction film from the '70s, The Cable Guy pretends to be about the threat of technology and America's addiction to television. In the mid 1990s, was the developing "information super-highway" a potentially scary thing? This was Ben Stiller's directional follow up to Reality Bites, his would-be Gen-X anthem, and they both play almost like period pieces now. The Cable Guy's underlying messages may not be very convincing, but as a showcase for Jim Carrey's insane performance it hits its mark perfectly.
With TV's In Living Color Carrey had become a comedy name, but with the surprise hit, the messy Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and its even lazier sequel Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, he became a box office super star. With his rubber face and goofy physical comedy in films like The Mask and later Dumb & Dumber Carrey he was also becoming popular with the kiddies. Though he had played a villain with some great physicality as The Riddler in the otherwise forgettable Batman Forever, it surprised many audience members when he popped up in '96 in such a dark and mean-spirited comedy as The Cable Guy. (His $20 million paycheck at the time also got a lot of flack from those audiences who fret over actors' salaries.)Continue Reading
During one of the ugliest periods in American political history, as the Cold War hit hysteria, a drunk congressman named Joseph McCarthy managed to destroys thousands of American lives and careers with his House Un-American Activities Committee. HUAC would accuse people of being Communists (many of the accused at one time may have belonged to the then totally legal Communist Party or donated to causes that were Russian-related—this was years earlier when Russia was our ally against Germany). To clear your name you needed to name names and praise HUAC. Most famously many in Hollywood (almost always Jewish folks) were called to testify; some played ball with McCarthy and were considered “friendly witnesses” (Sterling Hayden, Elia Kazan) while many others refused to testify and either went to jail or were blacklisted from working.
Screenwriter Walter Bernstein was one of those blacklisted, but by the end of the ‘50s many gutsy producers began to break the blacklist by hiring the recently unemployable. Bernstein made a comeback writing the script for Fail-Safe and eventually wrote The Front, a semiautobiographical memoir of the period. Besides Bernstein the film is full of blacklisted talent on both sides of the camera, including actor Zero Mostel and Director Martin Ritt (Hud, Norma Rae).
Howard Prince (Woody Allen) is a two-bit Brooklyn hustler; he’s in constant gambling debt and is a schmuck in every way. When he’s approached by a childhood friend, blacklisted television writer Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy, who would play Allen’s old pal again a few years later in Manhattan Continue Reading