The third and the best of the four movies Burt Reynolds directed and starred in, Sharky’s Machine is often written off as Burt’s attempt at a Dirty Harry like franchise starter since he and Clint Eastwood were often linked as rival '70s macho mega-stars. But where Clint would go on to reinvent himself as an awards bait elder statesman of economical directing, this would unfortunately be Burt’s last memorable movie as a major leading man. (Of course, sixteen years later he would score his only Oscar nomination for his great supporting performance in Boogie Nights). Sharky’s Machine now feels more reminiscent of '70s Italian crime flicks known as Poliziotteschi films than it does Dirty Harry, as these films often dealt with dirty and violent cops in the seedier side of politics, organized crime and prostitution. As Sharky, it’s one of those rare, less winky performances from Reynolds. Though he can’t help but ooze charm, he also creates a sometimes unlikable character as the film veers fairly effortlessly from rowdy Joseph Wambaugh type police station mayhem picture to a Rear Window inspired erotic thriller to a very gripping final confrontation.
Based on a book by the gritty novelist William Diehl (Primal Fear), Burt actually took over direction when his Deliverance helmer John Boorman got stuck finishing Excalibur. Atlanta narcotics cop Tom Sharky is one of those plays-by-his-own-rules badasses who has been bumped downstairs to vice when a sting goes wrong. He's surrounded by a motley crew of great character actors including Bernie Casey (Revenge of The Nerds), Richard Libertini (Fletch), John Fiedler (12 Angry Men and the voice of Piglet in Winnie the Pooh), Brian Keith (The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, the original The Parent Trap) and the great Charles Durning (Dog Day Afternoon, Tootsie, at his most “Durningist”). They are stuck busting hookers to make the town look presentable to a candidate for governor, Donald Hotchkins (Earl Holliman of TV’s Police Woman). It turns out the politician is tied to a high-priced call girl ring led by the Italian sleazoid, Victor D'Anton (Vittorio Gassman, a major Italian actor whose resume before Sharky’s Machine spanned from Big Deal on Madonna Street to the Get Smart movie, The Nude Bomb!), who is killing off his own women with a hitman played by the always reliably creepy Henry Silva (one of the original Ocean’s Eleven!)Continue Reading
Even assuming director Elia Kazan’s 1952 film biography of the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata only has a passing accuracy to the man’s real story, it’s still a very unusual picture for its day and still incredibly compelling. However, Viva Zapata! is most noted as the third film from the young actor Marlon Brando and it’s more evidence of his acting genius. In the title role, it’s the followup to his groundbreaking, earth-shattering, art-changing performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, and whereas his Stanley Kowalski was a lot of exciting scenery chewing, Zapata is intense minimalism (and of course Kazan was the director of both). If you can get past the “ethnic” makeup and the accent that skews close to Vito Corleone with a hint of Cheech & Chong (and if you can’t get past it, I understand), it reveals a twenty-eight-year-old actor with the chops of a seasoned professional. Whereas so many actors before him would have let themselves fall into caricature, Brando brings a complicated self-torture and his esteemed methody-ness, which elevates the film to essential viewing for any fan of great acting.
Kinda-sorta based on Edgcomb Pinchon's book Zapata the Unconquerable, with a screenplay by one of America’s greatest novelists, John Steinbeck, Viva Zapata! is a straight biopic. Though the young Zapata originally had his eyes on a normal working-class life, when he stands up to the longtime Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz in defense of poor farmers he is slowly pulled into the life of a revolutionary. Aided by his more colorful and reactionary brother, Eufemio (Anthony Quinn, terrific in an Oscar-winning performance and thankfully half Mexican in real life), while also trying to woo a merchant's daughter, Josefa (Jean Peters, best remembered as the sexy femme fatale of Pickup on South Street as well as briefly being the second wife of Howard Hughes -- and like Brando completely not Mexican), the brothers fight for the well-meaning and academic Francisco Madero (Harold Gordon). After overthrowing Díaz and a military assassination of Madero, Zapata endures a number of unethical generals who fear the respect he has earned from the people, even with a true Marxist advisor, Fernando Aguirre (Joseph Wiseman, most famous for playing Dr. No in the first James Bond flick) always lurking around. Eventually his fellow soldier, Pancho Villa (Alan Reed, the voice of Fred Flintstone!), names Zapata president but he ends up choosing the people over the power.Continue Reading
The Trouble With Harry
If it’s not Alfred Hitchcock’s most underrated film, than The Trouble With Harry is certainly his most unusual opus. In 1955, Hitch was in the midst of his unprecedented commercial and artistic hot streak; from '51 to '63 - Strangers on a Train through The Birds - he directed twelve films, a run that also included unquestionable masterpieces Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest, and Psycho (as well as a couple misfires, most disappointingly I confess). Somewhere in the middle is this odd little black comedy about murder, shot in lush autumn Technicolor by the great Robert Burks. It feels like both an Ealing comedy (the little English studio that made stars of Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers) and a precursor to the lighter fare of the French New Wave. It’s both romantic and filled with a sort of light suspense. Though very much American, the film is based on a British novel by Jack Trevor Story and that quirky '50s English humor is evident (think of The Lady Killers). It’s not a style you see very much on this side of the Atlantic in that decade.
Besides the lush photography, The Trouble With Harry has two very special tricks up its sleeve:Continue Reading
While Saturday Night Live has been a talent generator for the last forty-something years, as a sketch show it usually sticks with the obvious and the more tried and true formulas. On the fringes of television (usually cable) is where one finds the sketch shows that truly innovate and surprise: Mr. Show, Kids in the Hall, Chappelle’s Show, and The Ben Stiller Show, to name a few. But for my money, Comedy Central’s Key & Peele is the best sketch show since the era of SNL. Besides the outstanding and committed performances the two actors Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele give, the skits always seem to go down the least obvious route. Interestingly, the biggest influences on the show don’t seem to be the golden age of television’s Your Show of Shows or England’s Monty Python, but instead The Twilight Zone.
There’s an eerie element to the humor of Key & Peele and often an M. Night Shyamalan-like twist at the end of each bit. So it’s not surprising that for Peele’s directing debut (which he also wrote), he would make a proto-horror flick. Get Out is definitely less Lorne Michaels and more Rod Serling -- and even more Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, Deathtrap) with a sprinkling of Blaxploitation’s most outrageously paranoid thrillers (Ganja & Hess, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and especially J.D.’s Revenge).Continue Reading
The Big Sick
Almost all of the better Judd Apatow joints (Cable Guy, Knocked Up, Superbad, Trainwreck, etc) have two big flaws in common: after some uproarious comedy, they end up going for the heart, therefore selling out the earlier, better raunch. They are also often ten minutes too long. In other words, Apatow’s world usually has third-act issues. The Big Sick, written by married team Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, and directed by Michael Showalter - Apatow is one of eight listed producers - finally breaks this third-act curse and ends beautifully. It may become the first Apatow flick to garner a bunch of well-deserved Oscar nominations. In an era of funny but sloppy and rushed comedies, this is a perfect movie. It achieves the status of being “more than just a comedy,” like Annie Hall, for example, which is something that Apatow has been reaching for in recent years.
Co-writer Nanjiani stars as a struggling Chicago comedian who shares his first name, Kumail, and yes (SPOILERS), this is apparently a pretty-much, kinda-sorta, true story about how he and his wife Emily met and fell in love. Emily is played by Zoe Kazan, always an interesting actress, and her performance is so lived-in and real, it’s easy to overlook the casual brilliance of it. The conflict is that Kumail is a Pakistan-born American, and while his charming family humors his stand-up comedy dreams, they are insistent that he eventually marry a Pakistani woman. So when he meets and falls for Emily, he has to keep it a secret from them, and later, under the pressure of being disowned, he breaks up with her. But when an infection causes her to be forced into a controlled coma, he becomes attached to her hospital bedside, along with her complicated parents, the high-strung Southerner Beth (acting hall-of-famer, Holly Hunter) and the more laid-back and passive Terry (Ray Romano, in a new career-defining role).Continue Reading
American director Brian De Palma has a long and often controversial filmography. He started out doing counterculture social satires but found his true calling as cinema’s foremost Hitchcock imitator and made a name for himself with his generous use of fake blood and topless women in danger. In the beginning he was often associated with his pals the movie brats (Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese, etc.) who stormed the gates of Hollywood and took advantage of the brief period in the '70s between the era of the studio system and corporate conglomeration, when directors ruled with more personal projects. While many of his peers dominated the awards and critics' lists, De Palma was more of a B-movie director who well into the blockbuster '80s had a hit-and-miss record, which in retrospect, is at least always interesting. Directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow create the perfect tribute with their endlessly fascinating documentary De Palma: no talking heads, just the always-bearded director discussing each film, year-by-year with plenty of clips to accompany him.
De Palma began his career in academia and on the fringes, a true independent director, doing unfunny comedies. His peak of unfunniness came with his first studio picture, the horrible Tommy Smothers vehicle Get to Know Your Rabbit. It bombed and De Palma reinvented himself with the bizarre cult musical Phantom of the Paradise and the very Hitchcockian thriller Sisters (which still stands up today, for me, as maybe his best film). Its mild acclaim and success got him a chance to direct the high profile adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie. The film was a smash and De Palma became a brand name. He has had some hits: Dressed to Kill, Scarface (which mostly found its audience later via cable and videotape), The Untouchables and Mission Impossible (more a Tom Cruise production than a De Palma joint). He made a pretty good movie, Carlito’s Way (mostly memorable because of Sean Penn’s brilliant performance as Al Pacino’s coked-out lawyer), but most of his other films have ranged from forgettable to not very good.Continue Reading
Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words
With The Criterion Collection’s release of the wonderful box set 3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman (Stromboli, Europe ’51 and Journey To Italy), a little seen documentary that would have made a perfect supplement instead has been given its own stand-alone release -- because it’s that good. Director Stig Bjorkman’s 2015 Swedish doc Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words actually proves to be just as compelling and well made as anything in the more celebrated box set. This is as good a documentary about a monumental film actress as has ever been produced, thanks to a treasure trove of correspondence, home movies, and, of course, footage from her own films and news reels (since she was the original international paparazzi prey). Ingrid Bergman was a complete original. Besides having a hall-of-fame film career she also lived one of the most interesting offscreen lives that often played out like a Douglas Sirk melodrama.
Ingrid grew up in a family of people who died young, which gave her extra drive. While still a teenager, she become a popular film actress in her homeland of Sweden. She was brought to America by big-time movie producer David O. Selznick to star in a remake of her own film, Intermezzo. In ’39, the film ended up being a big hit and -- bang! -- she was a star. An astonishing run of films would make her the most important film actress of the 1940s. She would get four Oscar nominations in the decade for The Bells of St Mary’s, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Joan of Arc and Gaslight, for which she won the award. She was in the popular Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as in Hitchcock films Spellbound and Notorious (his greatest movie, so says I). Most famously, she would play Ilsa in quite possibly the most beloved film of the decade, Casablanca. All this before the age of thirty-three!Continue Reading
When we think of Woody Allen’s evolutionary assault on film history, we think of his amazing one-two-punch of Annie Hall in ’77 and Manhattan in ’79 (and some may add Stardust Memories to the streak in ’80). But usually forgotten (and some would say for good reason) is the little film in between them in ’78 called Interiors. After years of slapstick, the comic/director’s Annie Hall surprised audiences with a more mature and almost serious direction (and won lots of awards for it). But with Interiors, Allen turned the seriousness up to an eleven.
This was his bold attempt at a Bergmanesque (a term invented because of this movie) cold, depressing family drama; there’s not a joke in sight, not even a smile. It couldn’t be more bleakly Scandinavian, as heartbreak, envy, divorce, adultery, rape, icy silence and of course, suicide by drowning take their turn on the screen. Allen puts together an interesting cast of actors at their most introspective. Leading the way is his then-muse, Diane Keaton, along with Geraldine Page, Mary Beth Hurt, Sam Waterson, E.G. Marshall, Maureen Stapleton as well as impressive newcomer Kristen Griffith and, in a stroke of inspired casting, the great B-Actor Richard Jordan. At the time, not only was this a new direction for Allen, it was unlike anything any major American directors were doing.Continue Reading
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