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
Southside with You
Maybe the best thing to emerge out of the Armageddon that is our current state of politics is an exciting new budding movie subgenre: the Barack Obama dramas. (Remember kids, it only takes two films for an official subgenre to be declared). First up is the wonderful Southside with You, which chronicles one night in Chicago in 1989. As far as modern romance goes it's an important night, even if it’s just platonic at first. It’s the would-be first date between twenty-eight-year-old law firm summer intern Barack, on a break from Harvard Law, and his supervisor, law firm associate Michelle Robinson, then twenty-five (who, of course, would one day become superstar first lady Michelle Obama). And then rounding out the Obama origin story is another film: a Netflix original called Barry, which follows the young future president while attending graduate school at Columbia in New York. Both films give sneak peeks as to what would make our future hero tick.
The smooth-talking, street-smart and cigarette-smoking Barack (Parker Sawyers) had in mind a date; the much more serious and seemingly ambitious Michelle (Tika Sumpter) supposedly thought they were just going to a community meeting. Instead, Barack first leads Michelle on a stroll down Michigan Avenue and a stop at the Chicago Institute of Arts, where he impresses her with his knowledge of the work of black artist Ernie Barnes and his iconic piece The Sugar Shack (familiar to pop culture nerds from being featured in the credits to television's Good Times and on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s ’76 album, I Want You). But Barack really gets to impress when they get to the meeting, where black neighbors are disappointed the city has turned down their request for a community center. Barack woos the crowd with his speech-giving magic. Interestingly, instead of going for the usual and obvious us-vs-them take, he asks the crowd to think about the city’s point of view and what the two views have in common (shades of his famous 2004 Democratic Convention speech, that really put him on the map nationally). Here Michelle has two evolutionary moments -- and the film really is through her eyes -- first, she sees the political gifts that Barack has and secondly, after years at Princeton, Harvard and working corporate law, she realizes how out-of-touch she has become with the daily problems of the poor. Barack inspires her to get involved.Continue Reading
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.Continue Reading
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.Continue Reading
After the mania of Evel Knievel-style daredevils and stuntmen entered the pop culture imagination and the American lexicon, stuntmen became the subject matter of a string of films in the late '70s. This includes the Burt Reynolds opus Hooper (which was the directing follow up to Smokey & The Bandit by big time stunt coordinator Hal Needham) and finally the genre’s masterpiece, The Stunt Man in 1980, which earned three Oscar nominations, including one for the director Richard Rush. However most of the films from the stunt craze usually fell somewhere between forgettable, like Animal, with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Raquel Welch (how have I never seen this?) and the bizarre, like Stunt Rock, starring the prog band Sorcery! Stunts in ’77 fell somewhere between the two. But now almost forty years later, Stunts -- while ignored in its day -- is a fascinating look at the filmmaking process, the stuntman brotherhood and an entertaining scorecard for genre box checking.
Many years later Quentin Tarantino would famously resurrect Robert Forster’s sagging career with Jackie Brown, but in this era, he would often pop up in some glorious B movies like Alligator and Vigilante. Stunts is another high point during his low years, and though the material may be lacking, you can see his easy charisma on display here. If you grew up in the '70s and '80s the rest of the cast is a virtual all-star team of B actors who had some hits, but are maybe more recognizable from episodes of Police Story or Fantasy Island. The cast includes Ray Sharkey (later fantastic in The Idolmaker), Fiona Lewis (The Fearless Vampire Killers), Joanna Cassidy (Blade Runner), Bruce Glover (best known for playing one of the pair of oddball killers in Diamonds Are Forever), Darrell Fetty (Big Wednesday), Candice Rialson (the talking vagina epic, Chatterbox!) and finally the great character actor Richard Lynch. (Lynch has a massive midnight movie resume; he’s always watchable in oddball films like The Ninth Configuration, but is best known for, I guess, playing the bad guy in Invasion USA).Continue Reading
Sense and Sensibility
After making a name for himself on the international art-house circuit with the Taiwanese dramedies The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, Ang Lee took on the Masterpiece Theater crowd with his first English language film, Sense and Sensibility. Actress Emma Thompson toiled on the script for five years and went on to win an Oscar for her troubles. The film is easily the best adaptation of any of Jane Austen’s musty novels (not my usual fare), but the combination of Thompson and Lee’s ability to make the usually stale material so relatable to modern audiences and the fantastic casting from top to bottom rockets Sense & Sensibility to the heights of the genre. The film is also aided by all-stars behind-the-scenes, including an often moving score by Patrick Doyle (Gosford Park, Rise of The Planet of the Apes, etc.), handsome cinematography by Michael Coulter (who has the market cornered on shooting British rom-coms, including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually) and simple but elegant art direction by Luciana Arrighi (whose work goes all the way back to Sunday Bloody Sunday in ’71 but who made his reputation designing the best of the Merchant/Ivory canon: Howard’s End and Remains of the Day). And of course Lee himself, who would further his diverse filmography over the years since with an incredible body of work including The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and The Life of Pi.
Apparently Thompson’s script differs from Austen’s 1811 novel, and it's for the best. The center of the story is the difference between two adult English Dashwood sisters, the reserved Elinor (Thompson) and the dreamy Marianne (Kate Winslet) who are thrust into poverty when their father dies, leaving his estate to his only son (and the son's pushy, conniving wife). Elinor and Marianne, along with their mother and younger adolescent sister Margaret, are forced to live off of the goodwill of friends and relatives, even taking up residences in a countryside cottage without servants! Now penniless, the two sisters are no longer considered good catches for marriage and have to watch as most of their peers become engaged while they are ridiculed for their new lower status. Along the way they meet their sister-in-law’s brother Edward (Hugh Grant at his stumbling, stuttering best); he befriends the family and he and Elinor obviously make a potential romantic connection but are both too restrained and reserved to act on it. This is where much of the film’s comedy comes from: those English corked-up, controlled manners that leave people in a constant state of isolation. On the other hand, the beautiful and lively Marianne does find two suitors. The charismatic, dashing and handsome dream-beau John Willoughby (a solid, but very '90s looking Greg Wise) carries her home when a walk in the rain becomes too difficult; the two truly fall in love, but he is forced to scorn her because of her lack of a dowry, which leads to a Splendor in the Grass-like, deeply heartbroken depression for her. Also a rich neighbor befriends the family and falls for Marianne’s beauty: the much older, grave Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman in maybe his finest performance). He’s a good and sensitive bachelor, but utterly charmless. Through many misunderstandings our heroines' lives sink into more despair until an incredibly moving happy ending (albeit a rushed and perhaps a little too tidy one).Continue Reading
The Fallen Idol
Though Carol Reed strangely won an Oscar for his direction of the forgettable Oliver (in the '60s they gave lots of awards to those bloated musicals), he is actually best remembered for his bona fide masterpiece, The Third Man, which he made almost twenty years earlier. Wrongly many uninformed pseudo film historians often try to give Orson Welles credit for the film, even though he only popped on to the set for a few days to film his towering supporting performance. Yes, the film does have a "Wellesian" vibe stylistically, but the real truth is in the two movies Reed made just before it. They prove that he was already moving in a sorta Noir-lite direction, first with the acclaimed Odd Man Out and then his other great film, The Fallen Idol. Though one might describe the latter as a “little gem” it carries much more depth and style than most of the British-made thrillers of the day and in the end it can just about stand as an equal to the more beloved The Third Man. Both films are also part of Reed’s trilogy of films written by the great English novelist Graham Greene. (The trio also includes the lesser known Our Man in Havana). And though Reed would have an up-and-down career over the years--with solid films like Trapeze, many misses and the over-rated Oliver--it was the mega-bomb Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlon Brando that really sank him reputation-wise (a film I actually adore, but I’m in the minority). But that one-two punch of The Fallen Idol and The Third Man will always solidify him as one of cinema’s greats.
For The Fallen Idol, Greene adapted the script from his own short story “The Basement Room” and it’s a really nifty one. As the son of the French Ambassador living in London, little eight-year-old Philippe (the very good kid actor Bobby Henrey, in the first of only two feature film credits) has the run of the big embassy as his parents are usually away. He is more or less raised by the butler and maid, Mr. and Mrs. Baines (Ralph Richardson and Sonia Dresdel). The rambunctious French kid is always getting scolded by the uptight and abusive Mrs. Baines but he utterly adores Mr. Baines and his ridiculous stories of past adventures in the wilds of Africa. One day Philippe follows Mr. Baines out of the house and stumbles on him in the midst of an emotional scene with another Embassy employee, the pretty French secretary Julie (Michèle Morgan). Since the whole film is through the boy’s eyes, he doesn’t fully understand the two are in the midst of a torrid affair, complete with the drama of one of them being married. Hoping to help his friend, Philippe becomes the center of secrets between the adults, eventually leading to a stormy fight between the married couple and an accident that leaves Mrs. Baines dead, with Philippe confusedly thinking Mr. Baines did it. Unfortunately, as the police investigate the accident all the secrets and lies between Philippe and Baines confuse the kid more, and as he tries to cover for Baines he only helps to make the police think Baines murdered his wife.Continue Reading
Straight Outta Compton
The music biography has been a popular source of material for movies going back to the creation of the talkies. Even forgetting all the classical composers, the music of the last one hundred years--from jazz to rock and everything in between--seems to continually stir the imagination of filmmakers. And why not? The music bio is a tried and true genre that usually follows the same rags to riches formula and all the excesses that comes with it. From the Glenn Miller and Gene Krupa Stories through Lady Sings The Blues, The Buddy Holly Story, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Sid and Nancy, La Bamba, Great Balls of Fire, The Doors, Selena, What’s Love Got to Do with It?, Control, and of course Ray and Walk The Line, all these films offer different levels of entertainment value. And you can be sure many more are on their way as the greats of the 1960s and '70s continue to reach super-icon status and death.
The last major popular music genre to explode on to the scene has been rap or hip-hop. Though less than forty years old, it has already gotten its share of bios, mixing the “sorta fictional” with the more traditional “lets put on a show” type of music film (Krush Groove, 8 Mile, Get Rich or Die Tryin', Notorious and the lost & forgotten Run-D.M.C. flick Tougher Than Leather). But with Straight Outta Compton, the still young rap-bio has finally gotten its first nearly-great movie. It’s the mostly true story of a fairly diverse group of teens from the tough streets of Compton who came together to form N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit Attitudes). They had a quick and controversial rise and an even quicker implosion, but their impact is still felt today. They weren’t The Beatles of rap. They were more like The Sex Pistols, a band who came on later in the game and only briefly, but whose energy and rage helped make everything before them sound overly safe and instantly dated.Continue Reading
One of the lost near-great films of the '80s by a major director and writer remains mostly buried, but is due for a major reconsideration. Daniel, directed by Sidney Lumet with a script by E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime) based on his own novel, The Book of Daniel, got no love in its day and has received only a compulsory bare bones DVD release since. An easy description would be what happened to the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the real life Jewish couple who were railroaded by the US government and executed for being Soviet spies: a case that reeked of paranoia and anti-Semitism. Doctorow has created a story from pure imagination with the fictional Paul and Rochelle Isaacson sitting in for the Rosenbergs, who had two sons in real life. Doctorow's couple instead have a girl and a boy, Susan and Daniel, played by the fascinating Amanda Plummer and Timothy Hutton (a few years from his Oscar-winning, star-making performance in Ordinary People.) But instead of just being a character study, it’s also a history lesson in post WWII American radicalism, as Daniel, now a young man tries to understand what happened to his parents. As the 1980s were not a great decade for liberalism on film or in real life, spiritually and timeline-wise Daniel sits perfectly between Warren Beatty’s masterpiece, Reds, and Lumet’s own Running On Empty.
The Isaacsons were the classic NY liberal family, children of immigrants, with generations all living under one roof. Paul (Mandy Patinkin), a proud WWII vet and Rochelle (Lindsay Crouse) are naïve in their trust of the “American way,” taking part in causes, meetings and marches that usually involve their children, including free Paul Robeson concerts. (His deep voice fills most of the film's soundtrack). The film knocks back and forth from the '40s to the '50s as the couple grows more radical and eventually are arrested (for something having to do with atomic secrets, but clearly more to do with their outspokenness), and then to the late '60s as the orphaned but now adult Daniel and Susan adjust to life. Susan has become a hippie rebel open to any cause and eager to use her family’s street cred to advance it; a few years later, all that passion leads to a nervous breakdown and being institutionalized. Daniel, in the mean time, has grown into a coolly bearded and intensely angry young man with a wife (a young and adorable Ellen Barkin) and eventually his own kids whom he seems to ignore. Susan’s mental health issues lead him to finally begin exploring the mysteries of why his parents were punished so extremely.Continue Reading
The all-time great director Sidney Lumet is often associated with his ear for the New York streets (The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Prince of The City). He's also acclaimed for his skill at balancing his films’ often loud histrionics (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network). So, ironically, he hit a home run late in his career with a legal drama that actually gets its power through silence.
The film is written by a master of gritty verbal sparring, David Mamet. Upon its release in ’82, The Verdict instantly joined the ranks of the all-time great courtroom dramas — an elite company, with flicks like Anatomy of a Murder and Witness for the Prosecution. And the role of alcoholic lawyer Frank Gavin gave Paul Newman his best role in 15 years (at least since Cool Hand Luke in ’67).Continue Reading