Panic in Year Zero!

Dir: Ray Milland, 1962. Starring: Ray Milland, Jean Hagen, Frankie Avalon, Mary Mitchell. Mystery/Thriller.

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."

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Sean Sweeney
May 18, 2017 1:21pm

Au Revoir Les Enfants

Dir: Louis Malle, 1987. Starring: Gaspard Manesse, Raphael Fejto. Foreign.

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.

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Sean Sweeney
Mar 30, 2017 12:46pm

O.J.: Made in America

Dir: Ezra Edelman, 2016. Documentaries.

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.

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Sean Sweeney
Mar 3, 2017 2:24pm

Viva Las Vegas

Dir: George Sidney, 1964. Starring: Elvis Presley, Ann-Margret, Cesare Danova. Comedy.

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.

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Sean Sweeney
Feb 10, 2017 12:11pm

Nashville

Dir: Robert Altman, 1975. Starring: Lily Tomlin, Keith Carradine, Ronee Blakley, Ned Beatty, Henry Gibson. Drama.

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.

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Sean Sweeney
Feb 3, 2017 1:03pm

The Long, Hot Summer

Dir: Matrin Ritt, 1958. Starring: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Orson Welles, Anthony Franciosa, Lee Remick. Classics.

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.

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Sean Sweeney
Nov 7, 2016 3:36pm

Shattered Glass

Dir: Billy Ray, 2003. Starring: Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard, Chloë Sevigny, Hank Azaria. Drama.

The print journalist drama is a bona fide subgenre; the most popular films like All The President's Men or, more recently, Spotlight are about the crusading journalist overcoming obstacles in pursuit of the truth. Often more interesting is the cynical side of the coin, about the corruption of truth, but those films don’t usually connect with the public or award-givers as easily. The best of the genre would be a couple of masterpieces -- Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole and to some extent Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane -- but one film that went under the radar upon release and holds up very well is Shattered Glass. The 2003 docudrama was written and directed by Billy Ray, based on the true story of Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen), a manipulative young reporter for the respected, 100-year-old highbrow magazine New Republic. When it appears that one of his stories was fabricated, an investigation by the editor, Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) leads to the embarrassing revelation that actually at least twenty-seven articles he wrote were completely made up. 

Glass is the kind of passive aggressive guy who continually says "I’m sorry” or worse, asks his colleagues “Are you mad at me?,” putting them in the position to make him feel better, even when he’s wrong. He seems to have a knack for finding interesting characters and angles to political and cultural stories, and though he cozies up to anyone who could help his career, he’s especially cuddly to the women he works with (in an asexual way). But as a journalist he’s respected as a real wunderkind, apparently traveling the country finding witnesses to his colorful and offbeat pieces. When the beloved editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria) is fired for trying to overly defend his staff from management, he is replaced by the less lovable Lane. Glass writes an entertaining piece about a computer hacker convention that catches the admiring eye of the editor for Forbes Digital online magazine. He passes it to a writer, and here is where the Woodward and Bernstein of the story emerge. A pair of tech writers (Steve Zahn and Rosario Dawson) start to investigate Glass’ sources and find nothing but holes. While Glass can not account for all his shoddy note-taking, Lane becomes the only one who can take on the popular writer, as his colleagues, especially writer Caitlin Avey (indie darling Chloë Sevigny) have fallen under his spell.

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Sean Sweeney
Oct 13, 2016 12:07pm

Night Moves

Dir: Arthur Penn, 1975. Starring: Gene Hackman, Susan Clark, Jennifer Warren, Melanie Griffith. Mystery/Thriller.

Like the original noir of the 1940s, the later '70s neo-noir, (if it’s fair to call it that, admittedly the definition is being stretched pretty thin), is a direct reflection of its times: Vietnam, Watergate, institutional paranoia. (The original noir often reflected the crumbling American dream). Chinatown, The Long Goodbye, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Prime Cut, and Taxi Driver might represent one end of the '70s noir spectrum while institutional paranoia can be found more handily in All The President's Men, The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and even Jaws. Arthur Penn’s Night Moves falls somewhere in the middle. Gene Hackman takes on a Sam Spade/Mike Hammer role, a cynical tough guy who thinks he knows all the answers, but his latest case makes him realize the world is a lot more unpleasant than even he thought. And like one of the seminal '40s noir flicks, The Big Sleep, here all the pieces don’t always add up. But what is especially fun when the film is over is the discovery that what often felt like overwritten '70s mumbo-jumbo dialogue proves to have its purpose as all the pieces fall into place in the grand puzzle.

Harry Moseby (Hackman, in his mustache and hairpiece years), an ex-football player and now down-on-his-luck Los Angeles private detective, is hired by a rich retired actress, Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward, excellent in just a couple scenes) to find and bring back her sixteen-year-old daughter, a baby-voiced nympho, Delly (played by the very young Melanie Griffith back when her voice matched her face). Like in the best of noir, the missing person is only a small part of a bigger picture. Following the swath of young men Delly has left in her path (including James Woods, still looking like a juvenile, but as intense as ever), fairly quickly Harry finds the teen in hiding in Florida, with one of her mother’s exes ('60s & '70s TV staple John Crawford) and his girlfriend (Jennifer Warren). Meanwhile, he has to deal with his own crumbling marriage; his wife ('70s B-actress Susan Clark, sporting a David Bowie haircut) wants him to be more ambitious, but he lives by his own code and has to be true to himself. Like Nicholson in Chinatown, Hackman’s pursuit takes him way out of his comfort zone, as he is exposed to a new world that includes movie stuntmen, statutory rape, dolphin breeding and finally the smuggling of ancient Yucatan artifacts which all stem from the ugly underbelly of the institution known as Hollywood (with creepy Florida also playing a role).

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Sep 29, 2016 12:26pm

Burnt Offerings

Dir: Dan Curtis, 1976. Starring: Oliver Reed, Karen Black, Bette Davis, Lee Montgomery. Horror.

Dan Curtis is an unsung television legend. He cut his teeth as the creator of the beloved spooky soap opera Dark Shadows that ran from 1966-1971. He also wrote and directed it. Then he produced the two classic TV movies The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler (directing the second) which eventually evolved into the cult series Kolchack: The Night Stalker. He went on to direct more '70s horror films for the small screen that today are looked back on as seminal and groundbreaking, including The Norliss Tapes, Trilogy of Terror, Dead of Night and Dracula (with Jack Palance). By the '80s he would also make his mark producing the enormous WWII miniseries The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. But surprisingly, other than a pair of quickie Dark Shadows spin-off movies made to cash in on the success of the show, he only directed one theatrical film, his own adaptation of Robert Marasco’s 1973 best-selling horror novel Burnt Offerings. Seeing it today, it is hard to believe it was a theatrical film, with its washed out colors and fade-outs after each act as if commercials are about to come on. It looks just like one of Curtis’ '70s TV movies -- and that’s just one of the reasons I love it.

Marasco’s novel and Curtis’ film predate two massive books and movies with similar threads, The Shining and The Amityville Horror, by a few years. In fact, along with titles like Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, The Legend of Hell House, Let's Scare Jessica to Death, The Sentinel and (from Japan) Nobuhiko Obayashi‘s House, as well as countless TV movies, they help make the '70s the golden age of haunted house flicks. One of the many points that gives Burnt Offerings the edge over its competition is its cast made up of all-time scenery chewers; as the nice family in peril you have Karen Black, Oliver Reed and Bette Davis. Yes, Bette Davis! And she’s fairly contained compared to the other two. As the kid you have perennial '70s TV kid Lee Montgomery. (At this point, the fifteen-year-old was already an on-set veteran and probably ready for Reed’s mugging, having acted alongside George C. Scott in his self-directed vanity ham-off The Savage is Loose).

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Sean Sweeney
Sep 15, 2016 12:22pm

Son of Saul

Dir. László Nemes 2015. Starring Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn. Foreign.

Any list of the most audacious feature film directing debuts would be headlined by Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Continuing on it would probably include John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Charles Laughton’s The Night of The Hunter, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, David Lynch’s Eraserhead, The Coen Brother’s Blood Simple and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and maybe even Mel Brooks’ The Producers, Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Only Laughton and Hopper did not go on to have major directing careers, but since their reputations were equally made as actors, they still fit on the list. Time will tell, but Hungarian director László Nemes’ debut, Son of Saul, the Academy Award winning for Best Foreign Film, one day may be included on said list. It’s certainly the very definition of audacious.

The Holocaust film does not usually inspire as fresh material. Since Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List in ’93, the most notable title would be the totally over-rated Life is Beautiful. The most embarrassing would be the Robin Williams opus Jakob the Liar, and maybe the best would have been the German film The Counterfeiters. That is until Son of Saul came along. Nemes’ film, which he co-wrote with Clara Royer, brings a totally fresh approach to the material. Though only covering a 24-hour period, this is a new side of the Holocaust I have never seen in a film before. Set in the Auschwitz concentration camp, the film, shot in mostly moving long takes, follows a Jewish-Hungarian prisoner, Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig, powerfully played, an actor and poet who had previously only appeared a couple of films in the '80s) who works cleaning up dead victims in a crematorium, hiding the burnt evidence of the mass murder that is taking place daily. He is constantly shoved around, if not by the Nazi guards, then by his fellow Jews, who scramble to stay alive with a sort of command pecking order. His life appears to be a daze of a nightmare, with constant suffering, trauma and the a wait to join the others in the ashes.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Sep 13, 2016 3:11pm
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