One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
When it’s all said and done Jack Nicholson has probably had the most iconic film career of all time. He may have more important films and performances under his belt than any other American actor, including such film giants as Bogart or James Stewart. He helped to define the late '60s and '70s with roles in Easy Rider, Chinatown, and Five Easy Pieces. He’s worked with a diverse group of directors including Kubrick, Antonioni, Kazan, Ken Russell, Mike Nichols, and Arthur Penn (though the outcome was some of his least successful films of the era). Nicholson has continued through the decades since with relevant work in films like Reds, Terms Of Endearment, The Departed, Prizzi’s Honor, and About Schmidt, as well as the blockbuster, Batman. Even with such a giant filmography, one film still defines him and remains his most signature performance, Randle P. McMurphy in Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Producer Michael Douglas originally bought the rights to beatnik-turned-LSD-guru Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel as a vehicle for his father Kirk, who starred in a New York stage adaptation. As the years passed with the film not getting made, eventually Kirk was deemed too old and unbankable. In stepped Nicholson and Czechoslovakia-born director Milos Forman known for his two Czech new-wave flicks, Loves Of A Blonde and The Firemen’s Ball, as well as for his ultra-hip American debut, Taking Off. Like so many films before it (from Charlie Chaplin to Midnight Cowboy) it often takes a foreigner to appreciate and understand the American spirit.Continue Reading
Inspired by the critical and commercial success of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s arthouse shocker, Les Diabolique, Alfred Hitchcock took a break from his big budget Technicolor thrillers to make a little horror film called Psycho. Like the French film, he would shoot on a shoestring budget and in black & white. After the massive success of his previous film, North By Northwest, most of the suits at the studio thought their cash cow was off his rocker. Forgoing most of his big money crew he had worked with for years, he used the team from his anthology TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, knowing they could work fast and cheap and would be more open to some of the new radical tricks Hitchcock was hoping to try out. With no one understanding what the master had up his sleeve, in the end, Psycho has proved to be one his biggest hits and one of the most influential films of all time.
Perfectly taut and compact, every line of Pyscho's dialog, every camera movement, and even the casting is all carefully constructed for the scare and suspense payoffs to come. Based on a then little read novel with the same title by Robert Bloch (Strait-Jacket), Hitchcock burned through a couple of screenwriters before Joseph Stefano got the vibe he was looking for. Bloch was inspired by the horrific true-life serial killer Ed Gein (whose ghastly crimes would inspire a number of films from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Motel Hell).Continue Reading
Before the success of Fast Times At Ridgemont HIgh and John Hughes’ condescending acne epics, the teen movie genre barely existed. In the late 1970s, the early teen years were usually either scary (Over The Edge) or whimsical (A Little Romance). The terrific film, My Bodyguard, manages to combine both and then split the difference. Journeyman actor Tony Bill made a very effective directing debut with My Bodyguard, it’s now considered a minor classic of the teen genre. He would follow it up with the awful Dudley Moore/Mary Tyler Moore weeper, Six Weeks, but then redeem himself with the interesting cult flick, Five Corners. Since then he has become a reliable TV director.
Clifford Peache is a typical teen movie nerd - shy, sensitive, and unpretentious (played by Chris Makepeace who did an even wimpier version of this character a year earlier in Meatballs). Clifford’s father manages a fancy Chicago hotel where he lives with his kooky Grandma (played by Martin Mull and Ruth Gordon, their eccentricities are a little sitcomy and are the least memorable parts of the film). The good stuff happens at school where Clifford, the new kid, gets off to a rocky start with the resident bully, Moody (Matt Dillon), who continues to sadistically harass Clifford and the other school nerds. One kid at school has even the bullies spooked, Ricky Linderman (Adam Baldwin), a hulking outcast who was said to have killed his brother. After Clifford learns from a teacher that his brother died by accident, he begins to stalk Ricky, eventually employing him as his bodyguard against Moody. The two end up bonding and help each other become better people and all that.Continue Reading
A half decade before his breakthrough films Salvador and Platoon would make Oliver Stone a major director with a political conscience, The Hand proves to be an odd film for Stoneaphiles. It’s his second following his unwatchable low budget horror flick, Seizure, and it works well as a suspenseful psychological horror thriller, but more importantly it proves that no matter how ridiculous the material Michael Caine makes anything worth watching.
Caine plays a successful comic book artist in Vermont. He and his younger wife (Andrea Marcovicci) are having marital problems - his wife wants to go to New York City to study at a groovy yoga center, he just wants to be left alone. He loses his hand in a freak car accident, which is the worst thing that can happen to an artist. The hand is never found. He is forced to get a mechanical prosthetic glove. After his wife leaves him, he takes a job teaching at a central California college. He begins an affair with a student (Annie McEnroe) and gets a yahoo drinking buddy (Bruce McGill, D-Day in Animal House and later a respected character actor in films like The Insider). Suddenly people around him start to turn up dead (including director Stone playing a wino). They are murdered on screen by a walking hand, but it may all be in Caine’s head. Is he actually doing the killing?Continue Reading
Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying & Learned To Love The Bomb
In the heart of the Cold War, after the Cuban missal crisis, fresh from the assassination of President Kennedy, the world seemed to be on the brink of nuclear destruction. It was a tense era, as reflected by a number of the paranoid films that were produced - Fail-Safe, Seven Days In May, On The Beach, to name a few. Knowing the world it was released into makes the attitudes of the "black comedy" Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Learned To Love The Bomb, particularly black. While many Americans had fall-out shelters in their backyards, Stanley Kubrick's film was laughing at the ridiculousness of world annihilation, while wondering who are the hopeless leaders we have entrusted with our nukes and our planet’s future?
Kubrick co-wrote the script with satirist Terry Southern (The Loved One, Easy Rider), kinda sorta based on a novel Red Alert, an actual thriller by Peter George. Dr. Strangelove was the final film of Kubrick’s outstanding black and white period, following his other classics, The Killing, Paths Of Glory, and Lolita, a foursome as relevant and as diverse as any young American director has had. And like Lolita, Dr. Strangelove would be a showcase for the acting range of Peter Sellers. Here he would take on three utterly different roles, to much acclaim.Continue Reading
The Omega Man
In The Omega Man, as Robert Neville, Charlton Heston drives around an abandoned Los Angeles in his convertible. He steps into a torn out department store and grabs a new track suit; he gets the generator working on an old movie theater and watches Woodstock; then he chats and plays chess against a bust of Caesar. Spotting some hooded figures in the darkness, he pulls out his machine gun and opens fire, killing them - you see, as the poster proclaimed, “The last man alive…is not alone!”
Before The Omega Man, Richard Matheson’s brilliant 1954 post-apocalyptic mini-novel, I Am Legend, was adapted into a Vincent Price snoozer called The Last Man On Earth. More recently the book was the source for a Will Smith vehicle that kept the title but went overboard with the CGI (a fantastic first half, it loses its way by the third act). Though it may be closer in spirit to Matheson’s book than The Omega Man, for pure fun the Heston version is the most entertaining of the three.Continue Reading
The Grapes Of Wrath
When Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) returns to his Oklahoma farm after four years in prison, he learns that nothing is what it was. It’s the 1930s, the depression is on, and his family has lost their farm and home to the bank. So begins an amazing journey for Tom - as he sees the social injustice around him he grows from petty criminal to labor activist. The Grapes of Wrath is a monumental film by a monumental director, John Ford, based on a brilliant book by another monumental figure, John Steinbeck. The truths laid out in the book and film may be just as true today as they were then. Tom leads his family from the dustbowl in search of work and a promise for a better life in California, but all they find are lies, police corruption, and corporate exploitation of desperate workers. It sounds a lot like the plight migrant workers from Mexico and Central America still face in search of the supposed American Dream.
The Grapes Of Wrath almost plays like a post-apocalyptic adventure as Tom, along with his Ma (Jane Darwell), Pa (Russell Simpson), and the preacher, Casey (John Carradine), pack the entire Joad clan into the truck and head west, where the world they encounter is a hostile and burnt out place. They are encouraged by pamphlets to head to California, but they get there to find themselves hoarded like cattle in a police state where their every move is monitored (another piece of futureshock, the dystopian state). Tom, at first naive, then confused, slowly realizes that all the cards are fixed against him and all the little people of the country. By the end, on the run from the cops, he tells his Ma in one of the great speeches in film history, "Wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there..." It’s a dark conclusion for the Joad family (and for the American Socialist dream, as WWII and then the Cold War are just around history’s corner).Continue Reading
The Poseidon Adventure
After the phenomenal success in 1970 of Airport (“Grand Hotel on a Airplane”), disaster films became all the rage of '70s pop cinema. The formula consisted of a melodramatic, soapy script with a handful of Oscar winners slumming, stuck in some kind of disastrous situation ranging from earthquakes to meteors. The best of the genre was The Poseidon Adventure, about a luxury liner that gets toppled by a tidal wave and the group of passengers trying to escape (by reaching the bottom of the boat). Besides excellent special effects and a great cast, what makes The Poseidon Adventure especially unusual is the underlying religious subtext; in some ways it’s also an allegory about the story of Jesus Christ and his followers.
On its final voyage across the Atlantic, passengers celebrate New Year's Eve on the SS Poseidon. We are introduced to a cross section of archetypes that will become the group we will stick with as they are all invited to sit at the captain’s dinner table (played with a straight face by Leslie Nielsen). A teenage girl (Pamela Sue Martin) and her obnoxious little brother (Eric Shea) travel without their parents; a brash New York cop (Ernest Borgnine) and his ex-hooker wife (Stella Stevens), on their way to meet their grandson in Israel (via Greece?); a sweet, old retired Jewish couple (Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson) play to the appropriate clichÃ©s; a lonely, soft-spoken bachelor (Red Buttons); and, most importantly, an outspoken renegade priest, Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman). Eventually, after being forced to fall in love with the cast, a massive tidal wave strikes the ship, flipping the boat upside down; a great scene of destructive mayhem follows, with some amazing stunt work.Continue Reading
After his ultra low-budget, indie caper comedy Bottle Rocket, director Wes Anderson (along with co-writer Owen Wilson) peaked with Rushmore, developing a formula and a brand that he has continued to hammer into the ground, with less and less success. But with Rushmore, the story of an eccentric high school underachiever and his relationship to the people around him, Anderson found the right level of quirk without going over the annoyance line and in the process made one of the best comedies of the '90s, a truly unique and special film.
In the teenage mind of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), he’s a scholastic genius, admired by his classmates at his beloved upscale private school, The Rushmore Academy. But in truth he’s a below average student and not very liked by his peers. Max is a different kind of outcast than we usually find in teenage nerds. Instead of rebelling against the school, his goal is to fit in, but his grandiose ideas and belief in himself makes him stand out. His lower income also keeps him at a distance from his peers. Max’s gentle father (Seymour Cassel) is a low-key barber, but Max claims his old man is a brain surgeon. Also at odds with Max is the school’s headmaster (Brian Cox). Max’s enthusiasm seems to be a constant source of stress for him, including Max’s effort to keep Latin in the school’s curriculum, his ambitious school theater production of Serpico, and his efforts to build an on-campus aquarium in a bid to impress a lovely widowed teacher, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams).Continue Reading
City Of God
Carrying the torch for Brazilian cinema and then running ten miles with it, lugging it into the new century, Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund’s epic masterpiece, City Of God, still stands as one of the best films of the 21st century so far. Picking up the torch from Hector Babenco’s 1981 film, Pixote, another film about children in Brazil’s crime-ridden ghettos, City Of God deserves ranking with the best of epic crime cinema. A shallow, but apt comparison may be a kiddie Godfellas with the razzmatazz style of Boogie Nights.
Based on a novel by Paulo Lins, spanning from the '60s through the early '80s, City Of God tells the story of the drug wars in the urban sprawl around Rio de Janeiro. Apparently based on the real life story of a Brazilian photographer named Wilson Rodriguez - here renamed Rocket (and acted well by Alexandre Rodrigues) - the story moves back and forth in time as we follow Rocket and the different young people he gets involved with over the years. Growing up in a more rural slum, Rocket’s brother Goose and his little crime posse get involved with a botched motel robbery that turns into a murder massacre when an 11-year old psycho named Li’l Dice gets his hand on a gun. Trying to escape with his girlfriend, Goose’s partner Shaggy is killed by the "shoot first" cops, while Goose is killed by Li’l Dice.Continue Reading