Walter Hill’s long directing resume had a number of interesting genre movies early in his career (Southern Comfort, The Warriors, The Driver, The Long Riders) but 48 Hrs. stands out not only as a gritty piece of cop pulp, but as the slam bang debut of the then edgy 21-year old Eddie Murphy, transforming the usually dour Hill formula into a funny, action comedy and one of the best films of both Hill and Murphy’s career. And frankly neither has ever lived up to the promise 48 Hrs. showed for both of them. Murphy has enjoyed some massive mainstream success but for the most part, both he and Hill most have spent the last couple decades treading between mediocre, dull, and lame.
Writing the screenplay for tough guy director Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway in the early '70s got Hill going in the business. He got his start directing soon after with the Bronson/Coburn fight fest Hard Times. He would carry on the Peckinpah legacy with films about badass guys who live in a hard-boiled world under a certain violent code (with underwhelming women’s roles, usually as hookers). With The Warriors Hill would score a bonafide hit, though it’s dark and ugly it would turn away from the Peckinpah realism into comic book territory, a style Hill would take to the max with his 48 Hrs. follow up, the action rock ‘n roll musical dud Streets Of Fire. With 48 Hrs. Hill would go back to gritty realism but find some humor, mostly because of his intensely funny actor discovery.Continue Reading
Long before writing the novel Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton created another futuristic amusement park where everything goes wrong. Directing his first feature, Westworld, the result is much more credible than the later Spielberg directed flick. Closer to the vibe of cult-television show, The Wild, Wild West, than the Gene Autry serial Phantom Empire, Crichton’s film may be the best science-fiction / western Hollywood has ever produced.
A new high tech adult playland offers vacationers the choice between Medievalworld, Romanworld or Westworld. Vacationers get to enjoy exotic pleasures both in danger and even sexual, interacting with perfectly human looking androids. Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and his much cooler pal John Blane (James Brolin) opt for Westworld. It’s an Old West experience straight out of Bonanza, with saloon fights, shootouts, and robot brothels (though the guys are usually left to wonder if that was a human or a droid). The cowardly Martin has a run in with a gunfighter of few words, likely a droid, played by the famously shaved headed Russian tough guy Yul Brynner (wearing his same cool black outfit from The Magnificent Seven), killing him gives Martin some new found bravado.Continue Reading
The Deer Hunter
The Deer Hunter - a film about three Pennsylvania steel worker buds who go off to fight in Vietnam, and how the war affects them and the people around them - was massively praised on release back in '78. Time has been a mixed bag for the film, though everyone would agree the acting, with Robert De Niro leading a cast of then mostly unknowns, is exceptional; it’s the film’s murky politics and point of view that has been put into question. Much of the reevaluation has arisen with the epic rise and brutal fall that director Michael Cimino went through. But regardless of what the film was trying to convey, what is on screen is a stunning looking piece of filmmaking. Like a great symphony, it is often gentle and quiet, but still emotional and then loud with a horn section of shocking violence, giving the film a massive punch to pack.
The first third of the film’s three-hour running time follows a group of steel workers first preparing for Steven’s (John Savage) Russian Orthodox wedding and then a deer hunting trip as Steven, Michael (De Niro), and Nick (Christopher Walken) are about to be shipped out to Vietnam. They are joined by three other friends played by George Dzundza (Basic Instinct), Chuck Aspegren in his only film role, and the great John Cazale (Fredo of The Godfather and Sal of Dog Day Afternoon in his fifth and final film role before he died). The overly tense Michael also has a little thing for Nick’s girlfriend, Linda (Meryl Streep), but acting on it would play against his machismo code.Continue Reading
Magic And Bird: A Courtship of Rivals
From Leni Riefenstahl‘s controversial Olympia to Pumping Iron to Hoop Dreams, great sports documentaries often tell us more about society and the times than the actual sport. Ken Burns' epic Baseball is equally important as a history of 20th century America as it is for its bats and balls. In recent years ESPN and HBO have been at the forefront of excellent sports documentaries, ESPN with their outstanding 30 For 30 series and HBO has continually produced great feature length docs, Magic And Bird: A Courtship of Rivals is no exception.
Fascinating as both a study of two athletes, complete opposites who went from mortal enemies to friends, it also establishes how their rivalry helped to transform the NBA and save it from financial disaster. It also sharply touches on hot button issues that the two men represented or found themselves thrust into the middle of, race and race relations and later, tragically, AIDS.Continue Reading
Rich Man, Poor Man
The "mini-series" was a cultural phenomenon on late '70s and early '80s television. With the massive success of Rich Man, Poor Man (followed by the even more popular Roots a year later), it became a rite of passage for television executives to find a thick book and a match it with a classy cast for a rating bonanza. Finally out on DVD, Rich Man, Poor Man is the epitome of the mini-series epic, 12 one-hour episodes spanning 25 years in the life of the Jordache brothers. It made a star of the then unknown actor Nick Nolte and gave a bunch of out of work ex-TV stars a chance to chew on some scenery. And though at times it may feel dated, it still makes for some gripping, addictive watching.
Based on novelist Irwin Shaw’s (The Young Lions) massively long best seller, the enormous scope of the cast of characters would put a paycheck in a lot of mid-'70s actor pockets. Along the way a who’s who of names pop up in supporting roles including Gloria Grahame, Dick Sargent, Talia Shire, Ray Milland, Lynda Day George, Norman Fell, Fionnula Flanagan, Dorothy Malone, Van Johnson, Murray Hamilton, and Kim Darby (the original True Grit girl).Continue Reading
Back in 1958 Vertigo was considered a misfire from the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, but now over 50 years later, with a strong restoration and a number of clever reissues, many deem it one of Hitch’s best films and maybe his most personal. Like Notorious before it, underneath the suspense it’s a love story, but a twisted kind of love, obsession. Jimmy Stewart finishes off his Hitchcock trifecta after The Man Who Knew Too Much and Rear Window (not counting the much earlier Rope), putting a twist on his everyman and giving one of the most complicated psychological performances of his career. Vertigo also proves to be career peaks for the stunning Kim Novak and for film composer Bernard Herrman. If you can get past some of the plottyness of the film's first act Vertigo proves to be a film worth obsessing over.
The film is based on the novel The Living And The Dead by the French writing team of Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud, who also wrote the deliberately Hitchcockian thriller Les Diaboliques (whose film version by Henri-Georges Clouzot had a big impact on Hitch and helped to push him in the more shocking direction that lead to Psycho and later Frenzy).Continue Reading
On paper Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan could be considered nothing more than a bold stunt, but in actuality it’s one of the more subversive and gutsy “mainstream” films of recent years and one of the funniest. Borat was one of the three alter egos that actor Sacha Baron Cohen played on his television program, Da Ali G Show (first in England and then for HBO). Cohen would slip into these extremely absurd characters and interact with real people, unaware that they were being put on. Like the old show Candid Camera, half the comedy comes from people’s reactions to the often crude character's comments, but the best laughs come from the intense commitment that Baron Cohen gives these characters. Borat may say inane things, but the intelligence creating what he says is at the highest level.
Like the show, the movie Borat uses a lot of real people and improvised situations. But to fill it out, some actors and a cast have been added, and it works. Part of the fun is trying to figure out what’s real and what was staged. Borat is a clueless, almost sweetly innocent yet completely misogynistic, homophobic, and anti-Semitic Kazakhstan reporter. The film begins as a mockumentary as he leaves his third-world village for some reporting in New York with his rotund producer Azamat (American actor, Ken Davitian). In New York he interviews some saps on American customs, and engages in some classic “fish outta water” comedy (he thinks the hotel’s elevator is his actual room). Eventually, after seeing an episode of Baywatch, he becomes obsessed with Pamela Anderson and the two set out for California so Borat can bag her as his new wife.Continue Reading
Three The Hard Way
One of the goofiest flicks of the Back Exploitation era, for gratuitous comic book quality, Three The Hard Way features the superstar teaming of Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and Jim Kelly, who manage to shoot and karate chop dozens of people in the process of trying to stop a neo-Nazi millionaire’s plot to poison the water supply with a serum that kills blacks (whites are immune to it). As imagined, everything about this film is over the top; it’s Shaft times three, but director Gordon Parks Jr. is not his father, so it’s actually an entertainingly epic, low-rent affair (Parks Sr. directed Shaft and was a majorly acclaimed photographer). Don’t question the plot too closely or look under the rug, just sit back and enjoy the inane violent fun.
Monroe Feather (Jay Robinson, better remembered as Dr. Shrinker from the Saturday morning Krofft Supershow) wants to be known as more than just an evil fascist industrialist, so with the aid of Dr. Fortrero (Richard Angarola) and their seemingly giant army of gunmen, they put their poison water plan into effect, going after the water supply of Los Angeles, Detroit, and DC. Luckily music mogul Jimmy Lait (Brown) gets wind of it and tracks down the two baddest dudes he knows, a player with a big gun, Jagger Daniels (Williamson), and a kung fu master, Mister Keyes (Kelly). Somehow Feather hears about our heroes and sends his goons after the badass trio and seems to be aided by the corrupt honky police force, as well. Out of nowhere a massive shoot out takes place in a car wash, the super friends take a goon prisoner and with the help of three motorcycle riding, topless dominatrixes (a black, white and Asian woman) get the full lowdown on the which water supplies they need to protect. In a couple of cool action scenes, each guy fights off a Nazi army in each of the three cities (three the hard way!). Finally leading to a showdown with Feather himself.Continue Reading
The Loved One
Besides being one of the funniest, yet strangest comedies ever made, The Loved One may be the greatest satire of life in Los Angeles during the 1960s and has one of the most eclectic, but well used casts of all time (including Jonathan Winters in dual roles, Robert Morse, Milton Berle, Rod Steiger, John Gielgud, Paul Williams, Tab Hunter, Roddy McDowall…oh, and Liberace). Morse plays Dennis Barlow, a young British poet who shows up in Los Angeles to visit his uncle, Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud), a film studio worker. After the uncle dies Dennis gets involved with Aimee (Anjanette Comer), an employee at the sinister funeral home, Whispering Glades.
Based on the book by the big-time British novelist Evelyn Waugh (Brideshead Revisited), The Loved One was adapted for the screen by the American satirist Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove) and the haughty author and critic Christopher Isherwood (A Single Man). To make this motley crew even more improbable it was directed British filmmaker Tony Richardson who arose to much acclaim during the “angry young man” movement of British filmmaking in the late '50s and early '60s and won an Oscar for Tom Jones. But after The Loved One, he was never able to find his filmmaking footing. The film was shot beautifully in black and white, giving a crisp, yet gothic look to the Los Angeles locations, by legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, Bound For Glory) and it was edited by the soon-to-be-major director of the '70s, Hal Ashby (Harold And Maude, Coming Home). All of these very improbable voices came together to create one of the more unique films of the decade.Continue Reading
Gone With The Wind
For 40 years, until of the era of the blockbuster (beginning with Jaws, Star Wars, E.T., and perhaps The Sound Of Music and The Godfather before them), Gone With The Wind was the ultimate blockbuster. Other films may have passed it in overall box office, but that’s because ticket prices have risen. No film had more people go see it in its day than Gone With The Wind. And yes, it’s a melodramatic soap opera with an eerie romantic schoolgirl crush on the Old South, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it is impeccably crafted with one of the most stunning performances by an actress in film history.
Based on Margaret Mitchell’s massive Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the fall of the antebellum American South, Gone With The Wind follows the young Southern belle, Sacrlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), through her many marriages, before, during, and after the Civil War. The dashing and worldly Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) is the man for her, but like any spoiled creature, she wants what she can’t have. The stiff, but proud Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) is the object of her near obsession, but he is engaged to her kindly cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland).Continue Reading