The Day of the Locust
Adaptations of quintessentially L.A. novels tend to either work marvelously, as with L.A. Confidential, or don't quite measure up to their source material (a category I’d lump Ask the Dust into). John Schlesinger’s adaptation of The Day of the Locust was a costly misfire for Paramount Studios which spent something like 6 months on the film and a whole lot of dough. It could have been as influential as Chinatown, but it was a flop upon release, though ultimately it had some enduring appeal as a cult film in later years. Nathaniel West’s novel is generally considered to be the very best novel on Hollywood, its more grotesque inhabitants, and its tragic allure as a festering dump where dreams go to die. That makes the novel sound sobering and self-serious but this is a story about fame whores, violently degenerate midgets, sociopathic child actors, cockfights, stag films, and a movie premiere that culminates in the apocalypse. It’s brutally dark and really, really entertaining.
The movie is essentially a literal adaptation of West’s novel and it came under criticism from some quarters for being too literal. Director John Schlesinger was taken to task for supposedly ignoring the arch satire of West's depiction of Hollywood as the epicenter of greed, desperation, and idiocy, and instead ratcheting up the cartoon nihilism to a fever pitch. But when you do a story about America’s pop cultural border town that ends with a murderous orgy of celebrity blood lust I’m not exactly sure "holding back" is the way to go. The Day of the Locust is about a particular kind of American tragedy that West found on Hollywood Boulevard during the 1930s. In the dive bars and diners that lined the boulevard were hundreds of desperate people without a nickel to their name, all drawn to Hollywood in the hopes of making it big. Most, West found, couldn’t even get work as extras. He saw them as a mass of human wreckage under the movie premiere kleig lights. The dark joke beneath the glittering dream that Hollywood came to embody was exquisitely rendered by West as it was happening. The film does justice to the novel with its horror show theatrics under the palm trees and sunny skies of Southern California and ultimately it’s more creepy than campy.Continue Reading
The Dead Girl
Broken down into roughly five stories, The Dead Girl is a film that intersects the lives of complete strangers in relation to the grisly murder of a young prostitute.
Toni Collette plays the unfortunate woman who has the displeasure of discovering a body on a hillside at an anonymous location. Her life is thrown into disarray as the local media and police swarm her once isolated life. As the caretaker of her extremely overbearing mother (creepily played by Piper Laurie), Collette realizes that with her new-found attention, she can move on and develop relationships with others, thus leading her into a strange encounter with a bag boy from the supermarket.Continue Reading
The Exploding Girl
Almost everyone has or has had that friend who feels like a soulmate; the one you think about daily and encourage--with some effort--in relationships, who just so happens to be the person that you cannot imagine life without. The Exploding Girl is a tender and offbeat little film about two friends whose love is too fragile to go beyond that title.
In her debut performance Zoe Kazan plays Ivy, a girl with epilepsy returning to her New York hometown for Spring break accompanied her best friend, Al (Mark Rendall). They've known each other since they were kids and each is more or less in a fickle college relationship that takes a surpsring amount of effort to keep afloat. Al discovers that his parents have rented out his room to for the summer and ends up spending his entire vacation living with Ivy and her mother (Maryann Urbano). The films spans the entirety of their summer vacation, taking the viewer through all their old haunts and small moments that leave an impression of timelessness within their friendship. The only interruption in their time together is Zoe's summer job as a youth counselor and her visits to the doctor to monitor her epilepsy.Continue Reading
Directed by Oscar nominated director David O. Russell, The Fighter tells the true story of Micky Ward's (Mark Wahlberg) rise to fame from a "stepping stone fighter" to WBU Light Welterweight Champion, and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), Ward's half brother. Known as the Pride of Lowell, Eklund rose to stardom for knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard on July 18, 1978 (where Eklund claimed it was a knock down, Leonard claimed he tripped). Unfortunately for Eklund, that was his crowning achievement. Subsequently, after having a fairly average career post Sugar Ray Leonard, Eklund turned to a life of drugs and reckless abandon. Despite Eklund's lifestyle, he trained Ward who eventually became a great welterweight contender.
Traversing between Ward's struggles with his family life as well as his professional career as a boxer, Russell successfully pulls off a "feel good film" without hitting the audience over the head with tactics that have commonly been employed when making a film belonging to the “boxing film” sub-genre. Illustrating the juxtaposition of loyalty and carving a path to a brighter future, Wahlberg doesn’t miss a beat as the title character. Mixing humor, drama, and a gritty aesthetic, The Fighter gains the championship title over films like Rocky, Cinderella Man, et al.Continue Reading
The Gathering Storm
What I know about history I learned from movies and documentaries. So whether the facts behind The Gathering Storm are accurate I can’t argue, but as a piece of entertainment this BBC/HBO telefilm is wonderful and certainty feels factual. Chronicling the years before World War II in the 1930s, the doddering Winston Churchill stands alone in The House Of Commons as he seems to be the one politician in England speaking out about the rise of Hitler. Played brilliantly by Albert Finney, Churchill begins the film an all but broken man and as England slowly catches on to his German paranoia he regains his footing as a visionary (the film only chronicles a few years and ends before he becomes Prime Minister and leads England though WWII).
A lifetime military man and vivacious history writer, Churchill was a disappointment to himself. He hadn’t amounted to the greatness he expected and is reduced to tinkering around the house, annoying his staff and his devoted wife, Clementine (Vanessa Redgrave), as well as his fellow Tory members in Parliament for his increasingly outdated views on India. But when a spook (or “civil servant”), Desmond Morton (Jim Broadbent), starts passing him disturbing documents that reveal the true nature of German industries, Churchill begins to speak out of place. Typical of politicians, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin (Derek Jacobi), wants to appease Hitler because opposing him could be bad for the British economy. Even in his old age, Churchill proves to be a total badass rebel, single-handedly pushing his country to prepare for war. Of course history was on Churchill’s side, now those like American Joseph Kennedy (JFK’s old man), who groveled to Hitler, would forever be remembered as cowards. If nothing else Churchill was no weakling.Continue Reading
If you watch any of the terrific documentaries on films of the last fifty years (The Kid Stays In The Picture, A Decade Under the Influence, Visions Of Light, etc) you will notice there is ONE film that comes up over and over, its influence and success massive, the impact it had on the public and the industry indescribable. If you polled people, I bet it would make as many favorite ten-best lists as any other movie. If I happen upon it on TV I set sucked right in. It's the Gone With The Wind of its time.... Yes, you know what we are talking about, The Godfather. Perhaps the greatest movie ever made.
Of course this is the epic story of a post-WWII Italian American family. Vito, the Patriarch (Marlon Brando), is the head of the Corleone crime organization. The film opens at the wedding of his daughter, Connie (Talia Shire). His oldest son, Fredo (John Cazale), is a rather weakly type. His next son, Sonny (James Caan), a hothead womanizer, is the heir to take over the business. There is also an adopted Irish American son, Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall), who works as the family’s lawyer. His youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), is there with his new girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton). He is not part of the family business; as a collage graduate and a "war hero" there are expectations for greatness cast upon him. In a nutshell, The Godfather is a tale about how Michael evolves from clean-cut, all-American wanna-be to the head of the family when his father dies and his brother Sonny is murdered. And he ends up becoming even more ruthless than his father ever was.Continue Reading
The Ice Storm
Set over 1973’s Thanksgiving weekend, The Ice Storm is the tale of a group of suburban families in Connecticut dealing with ever shifting social mores and sexual desires.
Based on the acclaimed novel by Rick Moody, James Shamus’ screenplay adaptation is a dark but truthful examination of the American family. It is well structured with highly dimensional characters, never bowing down to the oversimplification of human behavior. Rather, he gives them each their own voice and distinctive point of view.Continue Reading
The Last Picture Show
Once upon a time a guy name Peter Bogdanovich was on top of the movie world. In the very early '70s, along with Francis Ford Coppola, he was once considered the voice of a generation (but then again, so was Dennis Hopper, briefly). Following his solid Roger Corman-produced micro-budgeted thriller, Targets, Bogdanovich got thrown front and center onto the major filmmaker map with The Last Picture Show, a perfect piece of dust-bowl Americana. This is a film that would establish a number of actors: Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Timothy Bottoms, and Ellen Burstyn would all shine. While older cowboy actor Ben Johnson and ex-beauty queen turned character actress Cloris Leachman would win well-deserved Oscars for their performances.
The film is based on an excellent mini-novel by Larry McMurtry (later writing Lonesome Dove and Terms Of Endearment). Shot in beautiful black & white, The Last Picture Show takes place in a sleepy little Texas town in the early '50s. Main Street seems to be dying, going the way of the cinema (with television supplanting it). Everything seems to be slowly fading away. Two high school football players, Sonny (Bottoms) and Duane (Bridges), hang around the local pool hall, owned by the wise Sam The Lion (Johnson). Sam owns most of the businesses on the abandoned Main Street, including the cinema and the diner. He also looks after a retarded kid, Billy (Sam Bottoms; Lance in Apocalypse Now!). They have taken Sam’s head waitress, Genevieve (Eileen Brennan of The Sting), under their wings and she seems to look after all the males. Duane dates the town’s rich-girl, a calculating beauty named Jacy (Shepherd). Sonny gets into an illicit affair with his football coach’s lonely, middle-aged wife Ruth (Leachman). Sam passes away, but not before giving Sonny a great monologue about old times and a woman he was once crazy about when he was young. It’s a powerful scene. With age comes regret. Cinemas, shops, and towns can fade away, but memories don’t (it’s shot amazingly in one long take as the camera moves in and then out on Johnson’s glorious aged cowboy face).Continue Reading
The Longest Yard (1974)
Along with Deliverance a few years earlier and Boogie Nights decades later, The Longest Yard is one the three best movies of Burt Reynolds' career (there are not a lot of good ones to choose from) and maybe his best performance. It’s the perfect role to show off his machismo sense of humor and the laid back, good-ol’ boy charm that made him a superstar in the '70s. He had his share of very successful films (Smokey and The Bandit, etc) and a few nice ones (Starting Over), but the trio of Deliverance, Boogie Nights, and especially The Longest Yard are about the only times he teamed with major directors and had perfect scripts to suit him. (By the time he did Nickelodeon with Peter Bogdanovich or Rough Cut with Don Siegel or Semi-Tough with Michael Ritchie those once great directors' shelf-lives had already expired.)
Director Robert Aldrich had a diverse and distinguished career - only a handful of home runs, but those hits were massive. Moving from television to film he would make one of the last great noir films, Kiss Me Deadly, and then the classily twisted What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?. He would direct a number of solid action films including Flight of The Phoenix, Too Late The Hero, and peak with the wildly popular rowdy WWII film, The Dirty Dozen. The Longest Yard would repeat the cynical formula, making the bad guys the heroes. And with it Aldrich would prove he still had one more great film in him (unfortunately after The Longest Yard the rest of his career was pretty much junk, including reteaming with Reynolds for the listless detective film Hustle).Continue Reading
It's fair to say that The Mission is an underrated film. Unlike Raging Bull or Blue Velvet it does not appear on many lists of the best films of the '80s (though any such list that does not have the Russian war flick Come And See on it is completely invalid anyway). The Mission doesn't even get mentioned in most Robert De Niro retrospectives. But this physically demanding, yet subtle role is one of De Niro's best. This was back when De Niro was still "Robert De Niro - all time great actor." Back in the good old days when he was still trying, before he became "That hammy actor from Meet The Parents and other comedies." The Mission was derided by most critics when it was released as overblown, as was De Niro’s performance (though the film did score a bunch of Oscar nominations thanks to a pricey ad campaign). But The Mission may actually be a lost gem that needs to be rediscovered and reevaluated; perhaps it could use the three-disc Criterion treatment.
Written by Robert Bolt (Lawrence Of Arabia), The Mission, at first glance, seems like a sweeping saga, but on closer inspection, it’s a small story with large mountains behind it. Jeremy Irons plays Gabriel, a Spanish Jesuit priest building a mission in the rain forest of South America in the 18th century. He is able to win over the natives with his groovy oboe playing. The natives become fully invested in the creation and running of the mission - it’s like a small co-op of social peace - as the natives are converted to Christians. Until a menacing slave trader, Mendoza (De Niro), arrives, ensnaring natives and selling them on the open market. Mendoza is a man with no moral center. However, later when he kills his brother (Aidan Quinn, sporting very '80s hair) in a jealous quarrel, Mendoza finds God and serves his penance by joining Gabriel’s order and hauling all his armor and weapons through the mountains. Moved by the native people's acceptance of him, he becomes a fierce protector of the mission and its people.Continue Reading