The Muppet Movie
Most television shows that make the jump directly to the big screen seem to also carry an inside-jokeyness about them -- at least, the best have (South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut, Strange Brew and the '60s pop art Batman). In so many ways, they announce to the audience that what you are now seeing is a film, not a TV show (though Batman is the closest to an actual long episode of the show). The Muppet Movie from 1979, in terms of postmodern meta-ness, is as self-referentially meta as a film can get. Like Strange Brew, it begins with a screening of the movie you are about to see. (Strange Brew’s is actually a homemade version before the actual film begins). As the world-famous Muppets sit in a packed screening room, eager to watch their own autobiographical movie, self-serious Sam the Eagle delivers one of the film's best deadpan lines when he asks Kermit, “Does this film have socially redeeming value?” And strangely we later find out, it does. What a perfect gem it proves to be because, like the syndicated TV series from which it sprang, The Muppet Show, the film version works perfectly as a good time for kids and for adults as a first-class musical.
Instead of the less cinematic story of how an inventive puppeteer named Jim Henson got together with a group of educators at the germinal government-sponsored PBS and created Sesame Street (which later begot The Muppet Show), this movie takes more inventive creative license to tell the Muppets' origin story. One day, while playing banjo in a swamp, Kermit The Frog was spotted by a Hollywood type (Dom DeLuise) who tells him about an opening in the picture business. So Kermit sets out for Los Angeles. On the way, he is joined by a Bob Hope wannabe bear named Fozzie and it becomes a road picture. Their crew keeps getting bigger as they are joined by a creature called Gonzo and his chicken girlfriend as well as the rock band Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem. The film really jumps up a notch when they meet Miss Piggy. She and Kermit have electric chemistry but her ambition throws some curves into their fledgling relationship. She is the most interesting Muppet because while most of her peers are kind-hearted and giving, she is completely selfish and self-absorbed (and obviously based on Barbra Streisand). Meanwhile, Kermit is pursued by a Colonel Sanders-type fast food entrepreneur named Doc Hopper (the great Charles Durning) who will stop at nothing to get Kermit to be the spokes-frog for his new chain of frog-leg restaurants.Continue Reading
Emperor of the North
Starting with Bonnie and Clyde in ’67 and throughout the '70s, the Depression in America became an exciting setting for a whole slew of films. That dark period of the 1930s sometimes became romantically re-imagined as a freewheelin’ adventure time or was used more dramatically as a metaphor for current times. Prime examples include The Sting, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, Paper Moon, Dillinger, Boxcar Bertha, and Hard Times. And though it does not get off to the most promising start, Robert Aldrich’s 1973 movie, Emperor of the North, ends up being one of the best action flicks of the decade, as well as an almost comic-book Valentine to the era.
After opening with a scroll about the history of hobos riding the rails, Emperor of the North then rolls into the most unfortunate film theme song with all-stars behind it, maybe ever. “A Man and a Train,” with lyrics by the great Hal David (partner of Burt Bacharach), music by the nearly legendary Frank De Vol (he scored most of Aldrich’s films and The Brady Bunch!) and sung by Marty Robbins (”El Paso”), features gems like “a man's not a train and a train's not a man. A man can do things that a train never can.” I’m not sure what the word is for homoeroticism between a man and a train, but this song is it.Continue Reading
I Wanna Hold Your Hand
I Wanna Hold Your Hand by the young first-time feature director Robert Zemeckis is officially the best non-documentary Beatles movie that does not actually feature The Beatles. (So A Hard Day's Night and Help! are out of the competition). No -- instead of being one of those Beatles bios this is actually about the fans and the frenzy the mop-topped boys caused on their first visit to the colonies. And hey, their backs, knees and shadows appear, as do some of their songs! Emerging in 1978 as part of a short wave of youthful period comedies that were pushed along by the success of National Lampoon’s Animal House (the genre hitting box office gold with Porky’s and critical & artistic silver with Diner), I Wanna Hold Your Hand was actually the first and best of many would-be biographies, re-imaginings and Beatles origin stories, including The Birth of The Beatles, The Hours and The Times, Backbeat and Nowhere Boy. Since it’s really just a sweet tribute to Beatlemania and the innocence of the era it may be the least ambitious, but it comes the closest to hitting its mark.
In February of 1964, as The Beatles first touch down in America, four young women from New Jersey make their way to Manhattan to try and see them perform live on The Ed Sullivan Show. Wannabe journalist Grace (Theresa Saldana) is a big fan but her pushy friend Rosie (Wendie Jo Sperber) is psychotic about the band. They are joined in their adventure by Janis (Susan Kendall Newman, Paul’s daughter), who prefers folk music to rock & roll (she’s going along just to put up a folkie protest) and Pam (Nancy Allen), only a casual fan, more excited about her upcoming marriage. They have an idea to rent a limo and try to drive The Beatles to the show, but they settle for a hearse, driven by their shy friend, the undertaker’s son, Larry (Marc McClure, who also that year would play Jimmy Olsen in the Christopher Reeve Superman movie). Along the way they also pick up the cynical tough kid, Tony (Bobby Di Cicco), who is less about The Beatles and more into bedding the girls. The gang get split up and end up in adventures and compromising positions around The Beatles’ hotel and The Ed Sullivan Theater. Rosie meets her male equal in obnoxious Beatles obsession, the hotel’s bellboy, Richard "Ringo" Klaus (Eddie Deezen). Think of it as a good version of what Detroit Rock City was trying to do -- or how about The Hangover Lite.Continue Reading
Southside with You
Maybe the best thing to emerge out of the Armageddon that is our current state of politics is an exciting new budding movie subgenre: the Barack Obama dramas. (Remember kids, it only takes two films for an official subgenre to be declared). First up is the wonderful Southside with You, which chronicles one night in Chicago in 1989. As far as modern romance goes it's an important night, even if it’s just platonic at first. It’s the would-be first date between twenty-eight-year-old law firm summer intern Barack, on a break from Harvard Law, and his supervisor, law firm associate Michelle Robinson, then twenty-five (who, of course, would one day become superstar first lady Michelle Obama). And then rounding out the Obama origin story is another film: a Netflix original called Barry, which follows the young future president while attending graduate school at Columbia in New York. Both films give sneak peeks as to what would make our future hero tick.
The smooth-talking, street-smart and cigarette-smoking Barack (Parker Sawyers) had in mind a date; the much more serious and seemingly ambitious Michelle (Tika Sumpter) supposedly thought they were just going to a community meeting. Instead, Barack first leads Michelle on a stroll down Michigan Avenue and a stop at the Chicago Institute of Arts, where he impresses her with his knowledge of the work of black artist Ernie Barnes and his iconic piece The Sugar Shack (familiar to pop culture nerds from being featured in the credits to television's Good Times and on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s ’76 album, I Want You). But Barack really gets to impress when they get to the meeting, where black neighbors are disappointed the city has turned down their request for a community center. Barack woos the crowd with his speech-giving magic. Interestingly, instead of going for the usual and obvious us-vs-them take, he asks the crowd to think about the city’s point of view and what the two views have in common (shades of his famous 2004 Democratic Convention speech, that really put him on the map nationally). Here Michelle has two evolutionary moments -- and the film really is through her eyes -- first, she sees the political gifts that Barack has and secondly, after years at Princeton, Harvard and working corporate law, she realizes how out-of-touch she has become with the daily problems of the poor. Barack inspires her to get involved.Continue Reading
Panic in Year Zero!
Actor Ray Milland is best known for his Oscar-winning performance as the tragic drunk hero in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (and as Grace Kelly’s unlikely murderous husband in Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder) plus about 100 other flicks going back to the end of the silent era up until his death in ’84. But surprisingly to many, he also did some directing -- mostly television -- and also five cheapie features in the '50s & '60s. His ’62 entry, Panic in Year Zero!, is the one still of some note today. What was just a low-budget, obviously economical, double bill throwaway then, now feels weirdly powerful and very influential. It was the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis, when America and the Soviet Union were as close to nuclear war as we’ve ever gotten and the world was on edge. So this was a timely, life-after-Armageddon movie. It’s stagey and sometimes awkward, but it’s so cold and vicious that it actually often feels too authentic. It’s almost as if it were a '50s sitcom family (though completely devoid of humor) written by Rod Serling and produced by the NRA. (Yes, when the bombs drop, this movie makes it clear you want to be armed to the tee).
The Baldwins are (I suppose) a typical suburban Los Angeles family, headed by the bossy, gruff dad, Harry (Milland), and his minion wife Ann (Jean Hagen, brilliant as movie star Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain). Harry’s second-in-command seems to be his teenage son, Rick (Frankie Avalon, a year before he would break though and become a big star in a number of beach blanket bikini movies) and rounding out the family is his useless teeny-bopper sister, Karen, played by Mary Mitchell. (She went to school with Francis Ford Coppola and a year later would appear in his Dementia 13. She would be done acting by the end of the decade, but would later compile a long list of credits as a script supervisor). While the family sets out pulling their camper for a little fishing vacation, nukes torch LA and suddenly their trip becomes a fight to survive. Harry goes all in. The film plays like a real how-to, as Harry and son take to the road, robbing for guns, gas and groceries, before setting up a makeshift home in an abandoned cave. Along the way they are forced to confront some James Dean mannered-creeps and rescue the creeps’ sex slave (Joan Freeman), though sister Karen does get raped. And if all of this does not sound grim enough, the film ends on a title card that reads "There must be no end – only a new beginning."Continue Reading
Au Revoir Les Enfants
The great director Louis Malle is so often overshadowed by his cultier French New Wave colleagues. His The Lovers and Elevator to the Gallows, both made in ’58, preceded Godard’s Breathless and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows by a year. But while both directors were heavily inspired by him, their film debuts are always much higher ranked by film historians. After Malle’s first two near-classics he had some hits but didn’t start making timeless films until the '70s, with his fearless Murmur of the Heart (still cinema’s best coming-of-age incest flick) and Lacombe, Lucien (about a Nazi-loving French kid). Malle went on to do something none of his peers did; he made several American masterpieces, his quick trilogy from '78-'81 including Pretty Baby, Atlantic City and My Dinner With Andre. They were some of the best films of the era. He also married American actress Candice Bergen (though his woeful follow-up, Crackers, with Sean Penn, is thankfully forgotten). Finally, after a few documentaries, he returned to France for one of his best films, the apparently autobiographical WWII youth drama Au Revoir Les Enfants (“Goodbye, Children").
Malle’s younger self can be seen in the hero of the movie, the twelve-year-old Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse). This is the kind of three-dimensional child character that cinema rarely gets right; he’s certainty an equal to François Truffaut’s alter ego Antoine Doinel. He’s cool, he’s kind of a rebel, but he’s also an observer, a reader and a thinker. These are traits that we are never told about, but we are able to see with small gestures. And to make things even more complicated, underneath his confident class clown act he’s also a deeply sensitive mama’s boy. He slowly befriends the new kid at their Catholic boarding school, the shy but obviously very intelligent Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), whom it turns out is actually Jewish (posing as a Protestant). He’s one of three students being hidden by the priests from the occupying Nazis. They develop an interesting bond and the usually selfish Julien comes to empathize with Jean, but like many young people, he still has to overcome his own issues and insecurities before it’s too late.Continue Reading
O.J.: Made in America
For nearly ten years ESPN’s documentary series 30 for 30 has been the source of some of the most important docs on sports ever made. What usually makes them transcend the sports doc genre is the complexity of the subjects beyond athletics. And now, turning that transcendent quality up to an eleven in ESPN’s nearly eight hour, Academy Award-winning epic O.J.: Made in America they have created a true all time masterpiece. It's directed by Ezra Edelman, who previously made the terrific basketball doc Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals for HBO Films, another good source for sports docs. Beyond the story of a trial, this is the story of a culture and its obsessions with race, celebrity, lust and politics. It's so rich in detail and history, it takes a couple hours before we even get to the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman.
Even within its first two hours the film stands up to the measure of greatness, explaining O.J. Simpson’s story, his relationship to fame and racial conflict in America (especially in Los Angeles) -- a conflict he does everything he can to stay away from. For all intents and purposes the story begins with O.J. becoming a superstar college running back at USC. His life as a young black man in Los Angeles comes on the heels of the Watts Riots (or uprisings, if you will). While the backdrop of political assassinations and the Vietnam war dominates most university experience in this era, the mostly white and well-off world of USC is deep into O.J.-mania. And O.J., a kid fresh out of a San Francisco housing project, adapts perfectly. He has a million dollar smile and articulates all the right clichés, including a clean-cut marriage to his high school sweetheart, Marguerite, making Madison Avenue advertisers drool. As a pro player stuck in Siberia (or Buffalo, NY), it takes a few seasons for O.J. to break out, but when he does, he becomes a superstar player and an early icon of athlete-as-advertising-pitchman. He also dabbles in film, taking not-too-embarrassing supporting roles with the all-star casts of The Towering Inferno, Roots and The Cassandra Crossing and the solid B-casts of The Klansmen and Capricorn One. By the time O.J. retired from the game at the end of ’79, he had a number of NFL records on his resume, as well as a solid looking post-football life lined up.Continue Reading
Viva Las Vegas
Elvis Presley’s film career can be seen in two halves. The first half is the '50s. It consists of just four films. It’s interesting. Elvis showed some potential and even ambition to become a serious actor. The second half is the '60s. Elvis made over twenty films in the decade: two or three a year. They’re not as interesting; most were totally forgettable, formulaic vanity projects. Elvis appears to have lost his ambition to be a real actor and was willing to accept any cookie-cutter musical as long as a paycheck was involved. However, many of those second-half films still have their fans. The one standout for me is Viva Las Vegas. It’s another cut-and-paste job. It’s fluff. But besides a couple of catchy songs and some fun actual Vegas locations, it has one very special thing going for it -- Elvis’ co-star.
Love Me Tender was Presley’s first film in ’56. He got third billing. It’s actually a pretty effective Civil War drama with Elvis also crooning the title song. His third film, Jailhouse Rock, was a solid B-movie drama/musical. His final film of the decade, King Creole, co-starred Carolyn Jones and Walter Matthau and was directed by Michael Curtiz -- you know the guy who directed Casablanca. When Elvis emerged in films, still at the height of Elvis-mania, it looked like he was going to carry on the Marlon Brando/James Dean torch of misunderstood youth rebellion and alienation as he tried to pattern his acting after them: mumbling, blatant sexuality, a coyness with the camera. But by the sixties, any pose of artistic rebellion had given way to capitalist goals. Elvis had done his stint in the army, he was now married and hanging around with Sinatra on television. And by the time we get to Viva Las Vegas in ’64, The Beatles are now king and Elvis is just a dated caricature of himself.Continue Reading
Even casual film historians know that the 1970s was the decade with the most creative freedom afforded to the director. Just as studios were beginning to become just pieces of larger corporate empires and the blockbuster became the only goal, filmmakers were given unprecedented access to seeing out their visions. No director took advantage of the era as unusually as Robert Altman managed to. After exploding as a brand name director with his huge hit MASH in ’70 he spent the decade exploring a plethora of film quirks, with such notable titles as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye and California Split, as well as a number of oddities and misfires, ending the decade with the utterly unwatchable sci-fi bomb Quintet. But Altman’s greatest masterpiece (with apologies to MASH and The Player) came in the middle of the decade: Nashville, a film that truly stands alone as one of those films that could never be repeated (and still proves very challenging to even write about) and, in the end, is the most Altman-y film Altman ever made.
Clocking in at 159 minutes, Nashville is a sorta satire, but also a real tribute to country music. The film takes place during a political rally for the Replacement Party presidential candidate that coincides with a number of musicians coming to town to record and play at the rally. With over twenty main characters coming and going, it’s almost impossible to keep up with on a first viewing. The standout story lines start with Lily Tomlin as Linnea (outstanding in her first film), a gospel singer and mother to a pair of deaf kids, and her husband (Ned Beatty), a political operative for a campaign operator (Michael Murphy) who is putting together a fundraiser at Opryland. Meanwhile, country legend Haven Hamilton (the always entertaining Henry Gibson) is sought after by both the politicians, after he records a tribute to the bicentennial (“we must be doing something right, to last 200 years”) and a fish-outta-water British journalist (Geraldine Chaplin) who has an affair with his son. Another country music star, the very damaged Barbara Jean (Ronee Sue Blakley, who then was known more as a singer, but proves herself as an actress wonderfully here) seems to be having a nervous breakdown and is followed by a lurking uniformed Vietnam vet (Scott Glenn). Up-and-coming singer Tom (Keith Carradine) has all the women chasing him, including a spaced out groupie (Shelly Duvall), but he appears to make a real connection with married mother Linnea. And that's just a taste of the story lines, which also includes a motley crew of characters giving fully lived-in performances, including Keenan Wynn, Gwen Welles, Barbara Baxley, Barbara Harris, Bert Remsen, Karen Black, Jeff Goldblum, Allen Garfield and cameos by Elliott Gould and Julie Christie as themselves. It’s almost like a hee haw version of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.Continue Reading
The Long, Hot Summer
At first glance The Long, Hot Summer looks like some tossed-out Tennessee Williams pages run through a Hollywood blender, but it’s actually a lot more fun then most of Williams’ stiff adaptations. Though, for literary street cred, it’s title card reads William Faulkner’s The Long, Hot Summer, because apparently it’s kinda-sorta, but just barely, based on his novel The Hamlet. It doesn’t come close to the emotional depth of Williams’ or Faulker’s best work, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Directed by Martin Ritt, who would go on to a long and distinguished career, the film sports an exciting cast of scenery chewers having a chance to do their corniest Southern accents. The Long, Hot Summer is a classic mash-up of contemporary Southern pulp and suppressed sexuality (think Cat on a Hot Tin Roof meets Picnic, or a much more entertaining version of The Fugitive Kind).
Emerging superstar Paul Newman (who also the starred in the similar, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the same year) stars as Southern bad boy Ben Quick, a rogue con man and known arsonist who, after being run out of a town, wanders into another and quickly moves up the food chain of the local fat-cat, Will Varner (Orson Welles, only 42 years young at the time, forced to play much older, which explains his bizarre makeup job which looks almost like he is doing blackface, and may explain why his ham-level is turned up to eleven). Verner, a widower, owns the town and sees in the hotshot Quick a younger version of himself, something he’s doesn’t see in his own son, Jody (the even more miscast Anthony Franciosa). Jody may be married to the town beauty, Eula (Lee Remick), but he’s too spoiled and emotionally weak to carry out the legacy Verner dreams for his family. His daughter Clara (Joanne Woodward) is smart and modern, not the shallow belle her father can relate too. She has been limply wooed for years by momma’s boy Alan (Richard Anderson, a secret 50s supporting actor superstar who specialized in boring businessmen, but is probably best known for playing Oscar on TV’s The Six Million Dollar Man). By '50s movie standards Alan is probably gay and does not have the sexual desire to ever make Verner a grandfather (more echo’s of Tennessee Williams). So Quick quickly works his way up through the family business. Verner cuts a deal with him: wed Clara, give him grandchildren, and he will be comfortable for life. Clara doesn’t fall for Quick’s good ol’ boy charm, but hey, it’s Paul Newman, so eventually she has to give in, that is if his reputation for starting fires doesn’t get him first.Continue Reading