American director Brian De Palma has a long and often controversial filmography. He started out doing counterculture social satires but found his true calling as cinema’s foremost Hitchcock imitator and made a name for himself with his generous use of fake blood and topless women in danger. In the beginning he was often associated with his pals the movie brats (Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese, etc.) who stormed the gates of Hollywood and took advantage of the brief period in the '70s between the era of the studio system and corporate conglomeration, when directors ruled with more personal projects. While many of his peers dominated the awards and critics' lists, De Palma was more of a B-movie director who well into the blockbuster '80s had a hit-and-miss record, which in retrospect, is at least always interesting. Directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow create the perfect tribute with their endlessly fascinating documentary De Palma: no talking heads, just the always-bearded director discussing each film, year-by-year with plenty of clips to accompany him.
De Palma began his career in academia and on the fringes, a true independent director, doing unfunny comedies. His peak of unfunniness came with his first studio picture, the horrible Tommy Smothers vehicle Get to Know Your Rabbit. It bombed and De Palma reinvented himself with the bizarre cult musical Phantom of the Paradise and the very Hitchcockian thriller Sisters (which still stands up today, for me, as maybe his best film). Its mild acclaim and success got him a chance to direct the high profile adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie. The film was a smash and De Palma became a brand name. He has had some hits: Dressed to Kill, Scarface (which mostly found its audience later via cable and videotape), The Untouchables and Mission Impossible (more a Tom Cruise production than a De Palma joint). He made a pretty good movie, Carlito’s Way (mostly memorable because of Sean Penn’s brilliant performance as Al Pacino’s coked-out lawyer), but most of his other films have ranged from forgettable to not very good.Continue Reading
Deliverance is a wholly original American film, directed by a Brit, an action survival thriller in the Straw Dogs mode. Ahead of its time in ’72 it precluded a number of genres that would emerge over the decades from “hillbillyxploitation” of the '70s to “torture porn” of more recent years. Films from Southern Comfort to The Descent have been explained and pitched as “Deliverance with…” No film since has been able to combine the stunning filmmaking and the shock, but not just for shock's sake. This isn’t an exploitation film, beneath the horror there is great and powerful purpose, when man takes on wild nature, he also finds out what is buried in his own nature.
Instead of an easy weekend of golfing, four Atlanta white collar guys get out of their depth with a canoe trip on a river that is slowly being damned up deep in the Appalachian mountains. The trio are linked by the family man Ed (Jon Voight); he is joined by two cronies completely out of their comfort zone, Bobby (Ned Beatty in his film debut) and Drew (Ronny Cox, Richard “Dick” Jones of Robocop). Luckily joining them in the adventures is he-man Lewis (Burt Reynolds), who seems to know what he’s doing and who is quite the Hemingwayesque philosopher as well, “sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything.”Continue Reading
At one time Burt Reynolds was a megastar. By 1987 the shine was thinning, as his hair piece was thickening. Just two years after his arch '70s box office king rival Clint Eastwood made his obligatory quasi-Shane remake Pale Rider (the least of the four Westerns Clint directed), Reynolds did his own less blatant variation of Shane, with an equally simple title: Malone. Updated, instead of an old-timey oater, Malone is more of an '80s muscle film. This could have been a by-the-numbers vehicle for any number of steroidy non-actors of the day; the ace up the sleeve here is the lovely British Columbia backdrop and Reynolds' considerable charm. Even when he seems to be barely trying he’s much more likable then most of the action stars of the period. Back in his salad days (the '70s) Reynolds starred in two bona-fide classics, Deliverance and The Longest Yard, and had a massive box office hit with Smokey and The Bandit. But by the '80s--though Reynolds was still a very popular personality--none of the vehicles really matched his talent. Looking back years later, as the smoke has cleared, Malone is probably his most entertaining film of the decade.
Burt plays Malone, an ex-CIA hitman trying to escape his past (is there any other kind?) and make a break from his sexy handler (Lauren Hutton). After hitting the open road, his car ends up breaking down in a small mountain town where he befriends a clean cut gas station owning family, the Barlows. Father and his teenage daughter (Scott Wilson and Cynthia Gibb) take him in and luckily for them Malone also happens to be handy with a wrench for fixing engines. It turns out Malone happened to show up in the knick of time, as the town is being bought up by a nasty rich guy, Delany ( the alway dependable Cliff Robertson). The Barlows won’t sell, even under pressure from the town’s corrupt cops (lead by Kenneth McMillan) and Delany’s own band of thugs, plus the usual suspects of '80s B-creeps--including many familiar faces such as Tracy Walter (Batman) and Dennis Burkley (the lovable big mute biker from Mask). The bad guys try to exert muscle and Burt kills a couple of them. Shane had that famous tree trunk digging scene, but Burt doesn’t exert much sweat. Although he does get shot, giving Hutton a chance to come back to bandage him up and have a quickie romance before the creeps kill her. This leads to an all out war as Malone is forced to use his considerable killing skills to take out the security team and finally have it out with Delany. And then, very abruptly, it ends. But this was the '80s. Who wanted to sit through a movie much longer then ninety minutes? We had to get to the arcade.Continue Reading
On a first peek the Golan/Globus produced Runaway Train looks like it could be a standard prison-break action flick, but further along the viewer realizes it’s much more.Though it has slam-bang action and some spectacular stunt work, it’s actually some kind of thought-provoking, oddly foreign feeling (meaning perhaps, intellectual) character study. Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus' company Cannon Films made its name in the '80s with loud action movies like the Missing in Action flicks, the Sly Stallone steroidy Cobra, Breakin’ (and its sequel Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo) and the unwarranted sequels to Death Wish (including the so-bad-it’s-good Death Wish 3). On paper Runaway Train should have been just more adrenaline-sploitation, but the back story alone led it in a direction that made it totally unique. It's based on a screenplay by Japanese filmmaking legend Akira Kurosawa (and his long time collaborators Hideo Oguni and Ryuzo Kikushima), who had been hoping to make it back in the late '60s. Instead veteran Russian director Andrey Konchalovskiy took it over, while Kurosawa got a “based on a screenplay by” credit and the final script credits went to the odd threesome of Djordje Milicevic (a Serb), Paul Zindel (famous for writing the play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds) and the very interesting Edward Bunker, who turned his own criminal life into a successful writing and acting career. (Books he wrote were adapted into the underrated movies Straight Time and Animal Factory, and as an actor he appeared in many films including Runaway Train. Most famously he played Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs. What a long strange trip it’s been, indeed.)
In a nasty, damp Alaskan prison, superstar criminal bank robber (Jon Voight) has won his state appeal. Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan) is forced to remove him from solitary confinement, where his cell was welded shut. He's a legendary badass and the prisoners are excited to have him back in the population, especially his brother, Jonah (Bunker) and a young boxer, Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts) who's in on a statutory rape conviction and who takes hero worship to a new level. Manny wants to escape with his bro but when Ranken sends a killer after Manny, Jonah ends up getting messed up bad. So by default Manny hooks up with the annoying Buck instead. The two escape through a drain pipe and then make an impossible trek through a freezing Alaskan wasteland and eventually hop a freight train...home free. Somehow the train conductor dies and the train becomes a runaway, barreling through another train and making a deadly derailment the only possible option for the befuddled group of train dispatchers (C.K Carter, Kenneth McMillan and Kyle T. Heffner, the nerd from Flashdance). It turns out the train does have another passenger, a railroad worker named Sara (Rebecca De Mornay, a few years after her breakthrough in Risky Business, still looking for the role that should have taken her to the next level--something that unfortunately never quite happened for this talented actress).Continue Reading
The third and the best of the four movies Burt Reynolds directed and starred in, Sharky’s Machine is often written off as Burt’s attempt at a Dirty Harry like franchise starter since he and Clint Eastwood were often linked as rival '70s macho mega-stars. But where Clint would go on to reinvent himself as an awards bait elder statesman of economical directing, this would unfortunately be Burt’s last memorable movie as a major leading man. (Of course, sixteen years later he would score his only Oscar nomination for his great supporting performance in Boogie Nights). Sharky’s Machine now feels more reminiscent of '70s Italian crime flicks known as Poliziotteschi films than it does Dirty Harry, as these films often dealt with dirty and violent cops in the seedier side of politics, organized crime and prostitution. As Sharky, it’s one of those rare, less winky performances from Reynolds. Though he can’t help but ooze charm, he also creates a sometimes unlikable character as the film veers fairly effortlessly from rowdy Joseph Wambaugh type police station mayhem picture to a Rear Window inspired erotic thriller to a very gripping final confrontation.
Based on a book by the gritty novelist William Diehl (Primal Fear), Burt actually took over direction when his Deliverance helmer John Boorman got stuck finishing Excalibur. Atlanta narcotics cop Tom Sharky is one of those plays-by-his-own-rules badasses who has been bumped downstairs to vice when a sting goes wrong. He's surrounded by a motley crew of great character actors including Bernie Casey (Revenge of The Nerds), Richard Libertini (Fletch), John Fiedler (12 Angry Men and the voice of Piglet in Winnie the Pooh), Brian Keith (The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, the original The Parent Trap) and the great Charles Durning (Dog Day Afternoon, Tootsie, at his most “Durningist”). They are stuck busting hookers to make the town look presentable to a candidate for governor, Donald Hotchkins (Earl Holliman of TV’s Police Woman). It turns out the politician is tied to a high-priced call girl ring led by the Italian sleazoid, Victor D'Anton (Vittorio Gassman, a major Italian actor whose resume before Sharky’s Machine spanned from Big Deal on Madonna Street to the Get Smart movie, The Nude Bomb!), who is killing off his own women with a hitman played by the always reliably creepy Henry Silva (one of the original Ocean’s Eleven!)Continue Reading
The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming
Written by William Rose, who was also responsible for the loud, brash and big It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World a couple years earlier (as well as the overrated Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is also a big ensemble comedy, but much better executed and focused than his previous script, with more heart and less mean-spiritedness. It also helps that it has a very able director at the helm, the nearly forgotten Norman Jewison, whose socially-conscious films still hold up (In The Heat of The Night, A Soldier’s Story, The Hurricane; The Russians Are Coming could also be considered part of that group). He had a number of films which were popular and respected in their day (The Cincinnati Kid, The Thomas Crown Affair, Fiddler on the Roof, Agnes of God, Moonstruck) and some fascinating curios (Jesus Christ Superstar, Rollerball and F.I.S.T.). He falls into that group of directors who emerged in the sixties like Arthur Penn, George Roy Hill, John Boorman and John Schlesinger who had a lot of acclaim and made some classics, but never became brand names like Polanski and Coppola, or even to a lesser extent Mike Nichols and Sydney Pollack. Jewison has as many solid films as his peers, though looking back none reach that same level of transcendence as a Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy or Deliverance. For my money, though many would disagree, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is his film that holds up best today.
Based on a novel by Nathaniel Benchley (whose son Peter wrote the novel Jaws), set in a little New England beachy island community (very similar looking to that one in Jaws, though surprisingly actually shot in Northern California), where a Russian submarine gets stuck in a sandbar, leading to havoc in the town. This was a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, so this was the height of cold-war hysteria (think Dr. Strangelove), so even just having likable Russian characters was enough to make this film subversive to some. The film has dozens of characters, with top character actors of the day in peak form.Continue Reading