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
Country music fans will get a bang out of this well-acted 1972 feature, an unfairly neglected picture (happily just issued on DVD) with a terrific high-energy performance at its heart.
Rip Torn stars as Maury Dann, a second-rate country singer whose life is playing out like one of his songs. The film follows Maury over the course of a couple of days, as he, his band, his devoted driver (Cliff Emmich), his manager-fixer (Michael C. Gwynne), and his blowsy girlfriend (Ahna Capri) travel from a low-rent honky-tonk gig to a marquee show in Nashville. Along the way, Maury gobbles speed (and shares some with his mother!), guzzles whiskey, screws anything that moves, picks up a dimestore clerk turned neophyte groupie (Elayne Heilveil), and generally rampages over everyone in his path.Continue Reading
If I had a dime for every time I had to defend this brilliant film, I’d be a millionaire. The film is set in the red-light district of the early 1900s in Storyville, New Orleans—a time when prostitution was beginning to be looked upon as foul by the community. Brooke Shields plays Violet, one of three children who are being raised in the brothel in which her mother Hattie (Susan Sarandon) works and resides. The house also serves as a sort of hotel for passing travelers and is stumbled upon by a photographer named Bellocq (Keith Carradine). At first, he is only interested in the women in order to study how they live and to capture their beauty and charismatic wonder with his camera. But when the 12-year old Violet begins her initiation to join the ranks of the women there, he becomes trapped in a battle with his conscience to both stop the girl from having a future in the house and to hold off his desire to keep her for himself. As for Violet, she is, after all, only a child and offers no aid in helping Bellocq make the right decision. She plays on his affection as one would expect a vain, spoiled, and fatherless girl to do. The resolution that comes to these characters does so without any sort of satisfactory closure. You’ll still be thinking about the future of people like this long after you’ve finished the film.
Now, let’s get past the controversy quickly before continuing. Yes, Brooke Shields is a 12-year old portraying a child prostitute who is artistically nude in some shots, though never performing a sexual act on screen. To most, this would be considered child pornography. But let us remember this is Louis Malle we’re talking about—a brilliant director who has a gift for delivering complex coming-of-age films as honestly and true to life as one can in cinema. Let us also remember that this film was made in the '70s when artistic expression without limitations was soon to come to an end, especially in America. Lastly, for a person in this time period, the social requirements for whom you could marry and sleep with was as far removed from today’s standards as you could imagine. With that said, I believe there is a lot more than what meets the eye with this film. I believe that it is still relevant and important in our society, and is perhaps a visual image that pairs well with songs like "House of the Rising Sun."Continue Reading
Quiz Show is a quintessential tragic American story. The great subject of the film is television and the point at which it came to define American culture for better or worse (mostly worse). With television itself having an almost operatic power as a thematic backdrop, the film tells the story of a son tarnishing his family’s good name, the architects of television’s pop cultural dominance cynically duping an entire nation, the casual anti-Semitism of the 1950s, the cultural clash of WASPs and ethnic New Yorkers, and a young Washington investigator who wants to make a name for himself and winds up destroying his friend in the process.
The year is 1958. An NBC quiz show called 21 is a national obsession that 50 million people tune into each week to see what they think is an honest display of intellectual acumen and knowledge. What they don’t know is that the show’s producer, Dan Enright (played by character actor David Paymer), in cahoots with the show’s principal sponsor Geritol and with the implicit approval of NBC itself, is fixing the results of the show to boost the ratings. The film begins as the current reigning champ of 21, Herbert Stempel (played with wiry desperation by John Turturro), is given the boot for being too goofy looking, too unrefined, and, though they won’t say it, it’s clear that he is too Jewish. As the president of NBC muses, they want a guy on 21 who looks like he can get a table at 21. Enter the elegant, educated, and super dreamy Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes playing the Ralph Fiennes type) who innocently drops by NBC to try out for a different game show at the behest of his friends. When Enright and his sleazy sidekick Albert Freedman (played by Hank Azaria) spot him, they can barely contain themselves. Charles Van Doren is from a celebrated American literary family. His father Mark (played by the recently deceased Paul Scofield) is an English professor at Columbia University, where Charles also teaches. Charles has amazing hair and Ivy League manners. He is the perfect little lamb for Enright to lead to the proverbial slaughter.Continue Reading
Rachel Getting Married
So, I'll go ahead and use a fussy distinction, and call Jonathan Demme's film cinema direct, rather than cinema verite, since it calls more attention to its subject than itself. It's grueling enough to deserve the three accent marks, however. Unlike the use of the shaky-cam in Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield, Demme and his cinematographer, Declan Quinn, always keep the camera in the objective, 3rd-person tense. They also, thankfully, keep it more transparent than Paul Greengrass's more navel-gazing camera eye. While moving room to room, the audience floats along, but when the wedding party guests are talking, the filmmakers fix the shot, remembering that modern cameras can re-focus on stuff in the background without having to move. Whatever you call it, Rachel Getting Married is realism at its squirm-inducing most direct.
Jenny Lumet's script rarely hits a wrong note in analyzing a particular bourgeois Connecticut family's power struggles that are inherent to most families. Whereas my family get-togethers center on frito-pie and football, Rachel's wedding involves Indian attire and cuisine with Robyn Hitchcock and Cyro Baptista supplying the entertainment. All attention is being paid to Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt) until her younger sister, Kym (Anne Hathaway), shows up with a weekend pass from court-mandated rehab. What follows is the gentrified version of the Electra Complex. The sisters compete for attention from Dad (Bill Irwin) using what they have: Rachel is the perfect daughter with some undefined perfect job, perfect friends (successful musicians and writers) and a perfect fiance, whereas Kym is the classic second-child fuckup, with drug addiction being her calling card.Continue Reading
In 1981, with newly elected rah-rah American president Ronald Reagan taking office, an anti-Communist, anti-Soviet ardor was in full swing. So it was extra amazingly audacious that pretty-boy actor Warren Beatty was able to get his giant bio of Communist journalist John Reed made. Reed, the only American buried in Russia’s Kremlin, isn’t exactly a household name and Reds the movie, clocking in at an epic 194 minutes, wasn’t exactly a sure thing at the box-office (matter of fact, despite winning a bunch of awards, it was considered a financial disappointment in its day). Reds really is a tribute to the passion of Warren Beatty’s grand vision; he produced, directed, and co-wrote the screenplay with British playwright Trevor Griffiths (with uncredited contributions from Elaine May) and managed to put together an impressive cast to back him up (Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Edward Herrmann, Paul Sorvino, Maureen Stapleton, Gene Hackman, etc). Ironic: a rich movie star makes a big expensive movie (with corporate funds) about an anti-wealth guy. In the Doctor Zhivago tradition, Reds is one of those sweeping literate love stories which was shot for over a year in five different countries; but underneath that sweep it’s a very personal and intimate little movie.
After covering events in Russia, journalist John Reed (Beatty) returns to his home town of Portland to raise money for his ultra-left newspaper. There, he meets and has a fling with a married socialite named Louise Bryant (Keaton) and invites her back to New York's bohemian Greenwich Village where they both hang with many of the famous radicals of their day, like the outspoken anarchist Emma ...
Requiem for a Dream
Based on the novel by American writer Hubert Shelby Jr. (Last Exit to Brooklyn), Requiem is about the struggle of vice in the existence of four people. Aronofsky writes a tight and interesting screen adaptation with a strange timelessness, keeping much of the slang used decades before. Look for a great cameo by Shelby as a sadistic white-trash prison guard.Continue Reading
Shortly after the release of Durston's cult classic, I Drink Your Blood, another movie was crafted with a rampant disease as the focal point. Seeing as how I Drink Your Blood was so ridiculously good and over the top, I imagined this to be similar in plot, but I was wrong. A young doctor named Calvin Crosse (Philip Michael Thomas) is released from prison, his crime being an illegal abortion he performed as a med-student in which the woman did not survive. Dr. Thor, his old professor, has called him to the city of Stanford in order get his help with a disease that might be affecting the town. While hitchhiking he meets Billy (Harlan Cary Poe), a handsome soldier who is returning from duty and grew up in Stanford. The two arrive and part, Billy being smothered by his family and Calvin being met with hostility from locals who don’t like newcomers, especially black ones.
Upon arriving at Dr. Thor's house, Calvin finds him dead and has nothing to go on except a tape recording left for him should the old man die before he arrived, and a note on his desk that reads "D-D?" Sheriff Whitehead (Peter Clune) moseys over to the house and meets Calvin, who becomes his mortal enemy at sight. Their issues are put on hold and Calvin gets to work trying to figure out why he was requested from his old friend. He is visited by a mysterious girl named D.D. (Josie Johnson) who was receiving help from the doctor and is distraught by the news of his death. She just so happens to be the daughter of the menacing sheriff and the new girlfriend of Billy, who turns out to be the only friend Cal has in the town.Continue Reading
Edward Bunker is probably one of the most criminally (no pun intended) neglected writers in American history. Best known for his role as Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs, the character wasn't a huge stretch for him. He worked as a career criminal from the time he was a teenager up through his forties. He also wrote a slew of books that depict convict life with searing realism--real ball-kickers of stories that remain thrillingly authentic today. In the late '70s he helped adapt his novel, No Beast So Fierce, for the screen, which resulted in this somewhat shockingly little-known film starring Dustin Hoffman. Why such little fan-fare for it? My guess is that it was just a bit too real at the time.
Hoffman plays Max Dembo, a convict freshly released from prison for armed robbery. He meets with his sociopath of a parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh), who reminds him that just one step out of line will earn a one-way trip behind bars again. Max insists he's ready to play it straight in a newly reformed life--and we believe him. He speaks earnestly, and a few minutes later in screen time he lands a job at a recycling plant, and even scores a date with a sweet-natured secretary (Theresa Russell). But it doesn't take long for his chances at a normal life to crumble; a meeting with a buddy from the old days (played brilliantly by a doe-eyed Gary Busey) sets off a heart-breakingly unfair chain of events. I'll only mention a few keywords that should drum up some interest for the last two-thirds of the movie: "shotguns," "Harry Dean Stanton," "jewelry store heist," and "freeway nudity."Continue Reading
If you like your ultra-violence with a pulse, you must see Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs—the tale of David and Amy Sumner, played with fervor by Dustin Hoffman and Susan George. Unlike Hoffman’s more well-known portrayals of a man with wisdom and/or humor, his performance in the film produces a chill and admiration that could rival with any cold-blooded killer onscreen. He plays a mathematician who, with his wife, decides to take up residency in her native village of rural England. A place that seems peaceful, yet is nothing but—occupied with Cornish thugs, rat-breeders, tyrants and more than one sexual deviant.
While trying to find relaxation and work on their marriage and his profession, the two find themselves in a vicious and animalistic race to restore peace, David’s masculinity, and to survive. After days of passive-aggressive plots, spiteful conversation, and violence against women, a local girl goes missing. The man suspected of her demise, Henry Niles (David Warner), the town metal-handicap, winds up in the Sumner’s custody one evening. While protecting him in his home, a war unfolds between Sumner and the village thugs, unleashing a competition of wit vs. experience that sends more than one man to their graves.Continue Reading