Amidst all of the (well-deserved) praise for Judd Apatow's recent successes as a writer-director-producer, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that he's following a trail that was pretty well blazed by John Hughes twenty years ago. Like Apatow, Hughes made a name for himself by using a tight-knit group of collaborators to make a series of comedies that were at times slapstick, at times raunchy, at times high brow, and at all times built around a strong, essentially heartwarming story of personal growth.
Uncle Buck, Hughes' penultimate film, is a great example of this. John Candy, in one of his finest performances, plays Buck Russell, a proud bachelor that has built his life around having nothing and no one to weigh him down. After a family emergency, Buck is called upon to babysit his nephew Miles (Macaulay Culkin, at his most precocious) and nieces Maizy (Gaby Hoffmann) and Tia (Jean Louisa Kelly). He quickly gains the trust and love of the young Miles and Maizy, but teenaged neice Tia is old enough to recognize Buck for the black sheep that he is, and she intends to use Buck's stay as an opportunity to get away with things her parents wouldn't allow, especially with her boyfriend, "Bug."Continue Reading
This movie is not ranked on the top of AFI’s "Greatest American Movies" of all time for nothing. Every single aspect and element of this film - from its direction, cinematography, script development, performances, editing, to its art direction - is outstanding. When you take a director such as Roman Polanski, add a writer like Robert Towne, and have actors such as Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, it’s almost a done deal. What leads this film to excel beyond excellence is its profound content and complex, multi-leveled storyline. Its underlying historical significance concerning the 1930s water rights in Los Angeles has also earned the film to be selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1991.
The story is set in the 1930s. J.J. “Jakes” Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, is a Los Angeles private investigator hired by Evelyn Mulwray to spy on her supposed cheating husband, who is the city’s chief engineer for the water department. Soon after the initial investigation, Gittes finds that this woman is an impersonator of Evelyn Mulwray. He plunges into the case to discover the complex twists and turns of a murder involving incest and municipal corruption, which somehow all relate to the city’s water supply. How far do people in power go to keep themselves in that position? Follow Gittes’ investigation to find out.Continue Reading
Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn
Bold as it is to say, Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn is my favorite movie of all time. For me, it teeters in competition with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. And to be clear, just because it happens to be my favorite movie doesn’t mean that I think it’s the best acted, best scripted, best directed movie ever. (Although the directing is top-notch. More on that in a bit.) Movies are entertainment; their sole purpose is to entertain us. So for me personally, in terms of sheer entertainment value, I find nothing more entertaining than Sam Raimi’s sequel to his own break out independent hit, The Evil Dead.
The first Evil Dead was the culmination of years and years of Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Rob Tappert honing their filmmaking skills by cranking out numerous short films together in school. Pooling together a budget from investors primarily consisting of dentists, they managed to make a little indie movie touted as “the most grueling experience ever!” An endorsement from Stephen King early on solidified The Evil Dead’s cult status. So several years later, after Raimi and the Coen Brothers had a creatively unsuccessful studio experience making the feature Crimewave, Raimi went back to the ol’ cabin and decided to sequelize his big break out movie with Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn.Continue Reading
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
A deeply weird thriller as exotically perverse as they come, The Lady from Shanghai is a solitary entry in the exclusive canon of "maritime noir." Much like The Big Sleep -- in that the plot is so utterly convoluted it becomes impossible to figure out who is double crossing whom -- yet is doesn't matter because the film succeeds as a glamorous nightmare, a proto-Lynchian exercise in atmospheric dread. It is less than a full vision of Welles's inimitable imagination because, as usual, the studio hacked away at the movie, adding corny musical cues, and soft-focus close-ups of Rita Hayworth where they didn't belong. But it mostly works because the images are so original and inspired and because Welles and Hayworth bring a genuine spark of sexual chemistry to their roles. Even when it's painful to notice the studio's inane additions to the film in compromise of Welles's artistry it's hard to regard the intense, dreamy, fragmented bits of brilliance the film is comprised of as a complete tragedy.
Welles plays Mike "Black Irish" O'hara, an "able-bodied seaman" for hire in New York. Mike's a romantic - a tough guy who writes poetry and killed a Franco spy fighting in the Spanish Civil War. He's a brooding, sexy tough guy with depth. He meets Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth), the wealthy wife of a crippled trial lawyer, Arthur Bannister, one night in Central Park. After rescuing her from an attempted gang rape in the park he is later propositioned by her husband to work on their yacht as they sail to Mexico. Mike can't say no to Elsa and soon they're sailing to Mexico. It's here where the film is most memorable as the landscape changes from a back lot version of Manhattan to actual location shooting of the ocean and a Mexican fishing village. As the characters are revealed to be more sinister the cinematography gets more and more darkly beautiful. Welles gets great things out of his cast and crew, and the result is unlike any thriller from the period. It's noir but in Welles's hands it transcends genre trappings.Continue Reading
The Snowtown Murders
There is something quite terrifying about cult mentalities or any person—peaceful or otherwise—who can catch the attention, loyalty and obedience of another person or group of people. But where icons like Manson and Jim Jones had the ability to control large masses, real-life mastermind John Bunting closed in on a desperate and disadvantaged family. It could be argued that the group mentality gave Mason and Jones some assistance in the brainwashing process, but to destroy a family without any real dogma is miraculous and, to me, far more tragic.
The rights to make the film were released shortly before the film was made in 2011 and, most likely, were difficult to come by. It surrounds the true story of a family in the run-down suburb of Adelaide in Sailsbury North, Australia. Elizabeth (Louise Harris) is the mother of four sons, several of whom are being sexually abused by her boyfriend. The oldest, Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), is exposed to countess accounts of depravity and violence in the house and desperately needs an outlet. In comes John (Daniel Henshall), the handsome and outspoken lad who hates pedophiles and homosexuals and urges the family to stand up and lash out at her former boyfriend.Continue Reading
Of all the so called Jaws rip-offs - and there were plenty - the best of the lot was The Deep. Most were just exploitation quickies (Great White, Barracuda and, of course, the very entertaining Piranha), but a few actually had classy casts (John Huston, Shelly Winters and Henry Fonda in Tentacles; Richard Harris and Charlotte Rampling in Orca). The Deep, besides having a distinguished cast (Nick Nolte, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Shaw, Louis Gossett Jr., Eli Wallach) and a credible action director, Peter Yates (Bullitt, The Friends of Eddie Coyle), most importantly, was written by Peter Benchley, the author who wrote the novel Jaws (though everyone agrees the movie Jaws was better than the book). The Deep was his follow-up and although much of it does take place underwater and it even has a nasty electric eel, it’s less a killer fish flick and more of a smuggling thriller (which makes sense since Jaws the novel had a minor but still awkward gangster subplot). But because Benchley and the producers were obviously trying to cash in on the Jaws phenomenon it still, fairly or unfairly, falls into the “rip-off” genre. But, hey, better to be the best “Jaws Rip-Off Flick” than nothing at all.
Benchley adapted his novel along with co-screenwriter Tracy Keenan Wynn (who wrote the great Burt Reynolds prison football flick The Longest Yard). Perhaps the personal histories and relationship dynamics between the characters were a little more fleshed out in longer book form, but on screen they are just touched on, teased out enough to make the movie feel a little more complicated than it probably deserves. Uber-sexy couple David (Nolte in his first big screen star vehicle after his brilliant performance in the TV mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man) and Gail (Bisset) are vacationing in Bermuda and while scuba diving they discover an abandoned old shipwreck, The Goliath. Among the artifacts they discover is a little vial of liquid. It turns out the cute bottle is filled with morphine and the bottom of the ship is covered in it (it was to be used as medical supplies during WWII). This gets the local drug kingpin, Cloche (Gossett Jr.), sniffing around them, knowing it could be worth millions up on the streets of New York. But they hook up with the local treasure-hunter, Treece (Robert Shaw of Jaws, in a less antisocial but equally knowing role), whose team includes his brutish bodyguard, Kevin (Robert Tessier, the often bald-headed tough guy familiar to '70s and '80s B-movie fans), and an untrustworthy old sailor named, oddly enough, Coffin (classic Actor’s Studio super ham Eli Wallach), who is the only survivor of The Goliath. Shaw and Nolte scuba dive and dig up the drug and also uncover another ship full of gold jewelry. There’s talk of some kind of old-timey conspiracy about the king of Spain and a noblewoman. There's a killer eel down there and some sharks make a dangerous cameo. Haitian voodoo comes into it and Bisset often flaunts a lovely wet T-shirt. It has a very “early James Bond” like score by John Barry and a discofied end-credits song by Donna Summer (though her vocals seem to be missing from the DVD version). Oh, and the underwater sequences are spectacularly shot.Continue Reading
Easily the most underrated film of the great Alfred Hitchcock’s massive career, Topaz is a perfectly constructed little cold-war thriller with many cool little filmmaking flourishes. It’s truly a wonder why this film has not been rediscovered by Hitchcockian enthusiasts and given its proper due. As a follow-up to his other cold war thriller in the '60s, the Paul Newman dud Torn Curtain, perhaps audiences were just weary of the subject matter. Perhaps because it had no stars it wasn’t taken seriously. Or maybe by the late '60s audience tastes had changed and by then the Grand Master was considered "old hat." Of course he would follow it with another often over-looked gem, Frenzy, which was his chance to finally go balls-to-the-wall with the sex and violence (and no stars). Like Billy Wilder’s cold-war comedy One Two Three, another lost gem, both films were financial flops, but both are actually great examples of what the two directors do best. In Wilder’s case, of course, it’s cynicism (though One Two Three was more slapstick than his usual cool) and with Topaz, Hitchcock again demonstrated how to create suspense with just camera pans and small pieces of information.
Based on a novel by Leon Uris (Exodus) with a script by Samuel A. Taylor (Vertigo), Topaz jerks around in different directions and, at 143 minutes, is Hitchcock’s longest film. It opens in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1962 (pre-Cuban Missile Crisis), with a Soviet military bigwig, Boris Kusenov (Per-Axel Arosenius, a Swedish actor who in real life died setting himself on fire as a tax protest), his wife and teenage daughter sightseeing and are being followed by their KGB handlers. Aided by an American spy, Michael Nordstrom (played by John Forsythe who would become a big star on TV’s Dynasty), they make a daring escape, defecting and getting shipped out to Washington, DC. While debriefed the Americans learn of a pact between the Soviets and Cuba. Nordstrom hooks up with his French counterpoint, André Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), who is vacationing with his wife Nicole (Dany Robin), daughter and her UN reporter husband (Michel Subor) in New York. Here the film totally shifts and becomes Devereaux’s. A classically suave spy, he seems to be cozy with the Soviets but is still willing to help the Americans, even when his wife objects. In a great scene, Devereaux enlists the help of an undercover French florist, Philippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Browne), to steal some incriminating papers from a visiting Cuban delegate, Rico Parra (John Vernon, Dean Wormer of National Lampoon’s Animal House, here doing his best Che). In an effort to find out what’s really going on Devereaux jets off to Cuba where his beautiful mistress (Karin Dor, a Bond Girl in You Only Live Twice) also happens to the widow of a Cuban Revolutionary hero and secret leader of the anti-Castro forces. The two work to get evidence of Russian missiles and for a while the film becomes an escape from Cuba adventure.Continue Reading
Al Pacino played his first cop in Serpico and, by my count, would go on to do it six more times in Cruising, Sea of Love, Heat, Insomnia, Righteous Kill, and something called The Son of No One. (He’s played a criminal in twice as many films.) It’s fair to say that at the time Serpico was released there had never been an on screen cop like this one. It was Pacino’s most Dustin Hoffman-like performance (back in those days they were compared to each other, for good reason). In Serpico, Pacino seemed shorter than usual, his back was humped, his voice more nasally, and his Elliott Gould mustache early in the film grows into a full on scraggily beard. Serpico was an oddball cop who liked ballet, lived with the freaks in the Village, had a dog instead of a baby, and most weird of all, wouldn’t take a payoff. In New York that was enough to almost get you killed.
Serpico’s story take place in the '60s, which was a time of unprecedented police brutality. In the South civil rights workers were being abused by cops. In the North racist big city cops were continually harassing black citizens which led to many major uprisings (or riots). Vietnam protesters in Chicago were faced with Gestapo tactics on national television. The film was an unflinching look at the underbelly of a police force that differed so much from the propaganda Hollywood had given us about cops on TV and films for decades. The film was based on the hard-hitting, best-selling biography of Detective Frank Serpico by Peter Maas (King of the Gypsies), with a screenplay by Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy) and Norman Wexler (Saturday Night Fever). The great New York director Sidney Lumet (Network) took over production after John G. Avildsen (Rocky) was fired. Lumet brought his signature grit to the look and, as usual, elicited truthful performances from the cast.Continue Reading
In the States, after the critical and financial success of English movie imports like Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Full Monty, there was a tidal wave of working class Brits vying for their would-be places in the American cultural zeitgeist unfelt since The Beatles and The Stones landed on our shores. (The Snapper, Walking Ned, Still Crazy, Bend It Like Beckham, Shirley Valentine, anyone?) It helped us re-appreciate the old days of Bob Hoskins, when working class Brits were gangsters in films like The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa during that great British wave of the '80s. So you can understand why I felt so cynical back in 2000 when I heard that the latest British darling, Billy Elliot, earned a couple Oscar nominations (for its script, director and supporting actress Julie Walters)--and even worse, it was about some kid who was alienated from his working class family because he wants to be a dancer. Egads, that sounded like a load of goop to me. And like my own personal feel-good-story, eventually I caught up with the movie and was pleasantly surprised. As a matter of fact, I was shocked; I too was a sucker for the flick and on rewatching it some decade-and-a-half later, I again fell for its charms.
My Darling Clementine
It’s sometimes hard to write or discuss what made John Ford one of the greatest cinematic artists. He avoided deeper analysis of his films, refused intellectualizing characters and in interviews, not only dodged questions, but made the interviewer feel like a fool for even trying. He famously stood up at a Director’s Guild of America meeting and only introduced himself as “My name's John Ford. I make Westerns,” underplaying his Oscars and Hollywood status. But decades later, reflecting on his work means seeing the master approach art with the humble nature of a craftsman, creating distinct and immense visions that could be described now as “Fordian.”
And without a single iota of hyperbole or exaggeration, My Darling Clementine isn’t only one of the (many) great films by John Ford, but one of the preeminent masterpieces of art of the post-war era. After the war, Westerns seemed to lose their jingoistic American values and abandon the portraits of brave handsome men and the women they love. Stagecoach, directed by John Ford only seven years earlier, is an ensemble film with clear antagonists, a hero who’s the classic “good bad man” trope and a tremendous amount of fun on top of everything, a film which sees endless enthusiasm and optimism for the growing country. My Darling Clementine is far more complicated, with characters who should be villains proving they have a sense of pride and dignity, and societal problems attached to class and love and complex ideas of civilization. Still, Ford hasn’t reached quite the cynical edge and distrust in the world that The Searchers has, but it certainly has that foreboding sense of darkness after America’s victory overseas.Continue Reading