It's not easy to heap praise on Mel Gibson. His apparent personal conduct and views are completely unappealing and, worse, totally offensive. On screen Gibson started out with a bang in the Mad Max films and was entertaining in the first Lethal Weapon movie, but otherwise his performances and choices of roles have not been very memorable. As a director, I couldn’t slog through his The Passion of the Christ; Man Without A Face was trite; and Braveheart was an overrated piece of hokum. All that aside, it’s easy to declare that his Mayan action adventure film, Apocalypto, is pretty damn brilliant, maybe even a sorta-whacked out masterpiece.
The film takes place in 16th century Central America near the end of the Mayan period, just before the arrival of the Spanish. It’s shot completely in the Yucatan Maya language with unknowns and non-actors, indigenous North Americans. In some ways the film is actually one long, exciting, and very brutal chase scene. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), low on his tribe's totem pole, witnesses his tribe being slaughtered and enslaved. He hides his wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez), and child and goes on an adventure worthy of Playstation. After killing of some of the raiders he is captured by the psychotic Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) and led to the Mayan city, a much more advanced and destructive place than anything the young villager had experienced before. Jaguar Paw manages to escape after much horrific torture and human sacrifices, and is chased as he tries to get back to save his family. It’s a delirious obstacle death course of horror, as he has to make his way through the jungle using all his survival skills to outwit his captors.Continue Reading
Over the decades, Tim Burton has made himself into a brand name (mostly off the success of his earlier films). While he is a master of images and ideas inspired by comic books, B-movies and campy pop culture, the story and payoff rarely lived up to the potential. After an impressive run of films about outsiders like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands (and the box office bonanza of Batman and Batman Returns), Burton peaked with what is still his best movie, a biography of the beloved, transvestite director of horrible films, Edward D. Wood, Jr., titled appropriately enough Ed Wood. The flick follows Wood in his “Golden Period” of the 1950s and his collaboration and friendship with has-been horror icon Bela Lugosi on three quickie cheapies, Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster and his Citizen Kane, Plan 9 from Outer Space. All three films are on the Mount Rushmore of so-bad-they-are-good movie classics. Wood’s best qualities may have been his enthusiasm and an ability to build a stable of oddball friends who took part in his projects. Burton has managed to craft both a moving tribute to a talentless dreamer and a perfect scene-for-scene recreation of those hilarious films.
The film is shot in gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Stefan Czapsky (Last Exit to Brooklyn), and instead of the usual Danny Elfman score this one is provided by Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings), who brings a fun mix of sci-fi and conga room. Based on the book Nightmare of Ecstasy by Rudolph Grey, the script was written by the screenwriting duo of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who were hot in the quirky bio business, also penning The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon, as well as the Problem Child movies and TV series). Ed Wood marks the second of at least seven films Burton has made with Johnny Depp. And the casting of Depp at the time was really ingenious; who knew the pretty-boy had such creative chops? Depp wonderfully infuses Wood with an ah-shucks charm; everything seems to give Wood zeal. Always the optimist, Wood believes in everything, whether it’s his inept actors, sets, shots or his girlfriend’s sweaters--or the belief in the stardom of Lugosi who, at this point, was a heroin addict with failing health and is played beautifully by Martin Landau. When Wood sees Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), a TV psychic, make ridiculous predictions, he believes him. He spots Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson (George "The Animal" Steele) in the ring, and instantly sees a great actor. And these random people that Wood meets along the way and in whom he believes join him in his own dream of making movies, and in turn believe in him. It's a motley group that includes Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray), a homosexual in search of a sex change operation who is most memorable as The Ruler in Plan 9 from Outer Space, and eventually the horror show hostess Vampira (Lisa Marie), plus assorted goofy crew members. They forge an "Island of Misfit Toys" style family; think Wes Anderson without all the preciousness.Continue Reading
Escape from the Planet of the Apes
Once you can get past the absurdity of the set-up of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the movie turns out to be the best of the sequels to the original brilliant sci-fi film Planet of the Apes. To recap, in that first film, an American astronaut, Taylor (Charlton Heston) traveled through space and returned to earth deep into the planet’s future where apes ruled and humans were just stinky wild mutes. In the less exciting but still watchable first sequel, Beneath The Planet of Apes, another astronaut, Brent (James Franciscus) follows Taylor into the future as ape hostility towards man is growing. Brent and Taylor finally meet up in an underground city where humanoids worship an atom bomb. Eventually apes attack and a dying Heston sets off the bomb, destroying earth and seemingly putting an end to the franchise. But, like Rocky III, the third film found a fresh take on the story and turns out to have a lot of fun on its own terms.
In this one, to the shock of the world, three apes in space suits land on present-day Earth (a very groovy early 1970s) in Taylor’s spacecraft. It turns out it’s archaeologist Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and his wife, animal (human) psychologist Zira (Kim Hunter), the two apes who risked their careers to help Taylor in the first film, along with the brilliant Dr. Milo (Rebel Without a Cause’s Sal Mineo). (Okay, so get over the set-up.) The three apes somehow salvaged Taylor’s ship from the bottom of a lake, managed to re-blast-off, and while watching the earth’s destruction from the sky, were sent into a time warp back to modern day. Silly. But now the fun starts....Continue Reading
After his great little run of action films from 1975 - 1982 that included The Driver, The Warriors, Southern Comfort and 48 Hrs, gritty director Walter Hill wandered in the wrong direction with the action musical Streets of Fire and the unfunny Richard Pryor comedy Brewster’s Millions. Even though he would go on to have a big hit with the Schwarzenegger muscle bore Red Heat, most of his flicks had potential but oddly fell short (Johnny Handsome, Wild Bill). He did do an underrated urban thriller, Trespass, but otherwise nothing reached that earlier high.
Hill started out as a writer and one of his first credited screenplays was for Sam Peckinpah’s mean spirited thriller, The Getaway. So Hill’s 1987 Tex-Mex action flick Extreme Prejudice, though completely ignored by audiences in its day, now plays as a perfect homage to his one-time boss, Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs), the master of masculine violence who had burned out and died a few years earlier. With about as good a cast of tough guy character actors you could find in 1987 (including Nick Nolte, Powers Boothe, Michael Ironside, Rip Torn, Clancy Brown and William Forsythe), time has been kind to Extreme Prejudice. Though it’s set in modern day, it’s now starting to look like one of the better “Westerns” made in 1980s.Continue Reading
No Blade of Grass
For hardcore moviephiles the Warners Archive Collection has been a godsend. Instead of mass producing everything the company owns, many titles have been released as VOD (Video On Demand) and, because of the lower demand, these are titles that may not have otherwise ever seen the light of day. These are DVDs that include no extras and usually haven’t been remastered, but are still very watchable and often have never been available in any form in the home viewing marketplace. Titles range from Hollywood classics (Tea and Sympathy) to both live action (Sheena) and animated television series (Pac Man the TV show!). But where they have really excelled is in films from the golden period of the '60s and '70s that have never had much home viewing distribution, ranging from the great (Dark of the Sun), the bad (Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze), and the weird (Brewster McCloud) to the culty (You’re a Big Boy Now), the gritty (The Outfit), and the forgotten hits (Freebie and the Bean, The Fish that Saved Pittsburg). Many of these have been films I saw and even obsessed over as a kid (I was dreaming for the Dark Of The Sun release). Most excitingly I’ve finally been given a chance to catch up with a post-apocalypse flick I vaguely remember from an old grainy bootleg VHS copy I saw many years ago. (My memories of No Blade of Grass have haunted me). This most recent viewing reconfirmed the scary power this movie still carries.
Hungarian born Cornel Wilde was a long time pretty boy jock actor. He got an Oscar nomination early in his career for playing Frederic Chopin in A Song to Remember in 1945, but besides a nice supporting turn in The Greatest Show On Earth most of his career was awash in B-swashbuckling adventure flicks. He had dabbled in directing throughout the '50s but it wasn’t until 1965 when he fully connected the dots with his survival action masterpiece, The Naked Prey (a film that has gotten the full bells and whistles treatment from the high-end DVD distributors Criterion). Five years later No Blade of Grass, continues on much of those same themes of man vs. his savage impulses, going even further with the violence and throwing in deeper groovy environmental paranoia.Continue Reading
After his death, Steve McQueen reached rebel-cool icon status based on his off-screen machismo (racing cars and motorcycles, martial arts with Bruce Lee, stealing Robert Evans’ wife) and partly on his actual film resume, which in retrospect isn’t as great as you would expect. His peak years start in ’63 with his one masterpiece, The Great Escape (he did the overrated but still influential Western The Magnificent Seven a few years earlier), a couple of big hits that now feel more like remake-bait time capsules (The Thomas Crown Affair and The Cincinnati Kid), and of course there is also Bullitt, largely famous for its amazing high-speed San Francisco auto chases. But for the most part the late sixties were rounded out with forgotten melodramas (Love with the Proper Stranger, Baby the Rain Must Fall and The Sand Pebbles). The early seventies include a couple lesser collaborations with Sam Peckinpah (Junior Bonner and The Getaway) and the super cast/super dud The Towering Inferno. But besides appearing as himself in the Oscar-winning motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday, McQueen’s best film since The Great Escape is the epic Papillon, a film that has been written off by some as overly long and cold. But for my money it’s one of the best prison escape movies ever, as well as an eye-opening look at worlds I knew little about. (ALSO OF NOTE: I first saw it as a very young kid, in its second run at a drive-in, and there are some moments of violence that then confused me, but have stuck with me ever since.)
Based on the questionable autobiography of French petty criminal Henri “Papillon” Charrière, (played by the very American McQueen and shot in exotic locations all over the world) the script is credited to blacklisted legend Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (one of the creators of the '60s Batman TV series). The film begins in pre-WWII France with Papillon and other convicted criminals being marched through town and on to a boat to be shipped off to a French penal colony work camp. On the long and brutal ship ride, Papillon strikes a deal with a wealthy and rather famous forger, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman in full nebbish mode), for protection. With a promise to keep the meek embezzler alive, Dega will finance any escape attempts. Through the course of time, the two strike up an unlikely friendship (a prison adventure Midnight Cowboy). The film covers years in swampy, tough malaria-plagued conditions, finally ending on the infamous Devil’s Island. The film is loaded with wonderful set pieces, including long and short escape attempts, a leper colony, sadistic guards, creepy prisoners, solitary confinements and lots of double crosses (even a nun stabs Papillon in the back). It’s a survival saga and a friendship story, though the survival aspect is the highlight.Continue Reading
Planet Of The Apes (1968)
This is a rant. Make your kids watch Planet Of The Apes. If you have not seen it yet, then you watch it. It is the greatest Science-Fiction film of all time. Some will argue for Blade Runner or 2001 or maybe an old timer would vote for Metropolis, maybe a hipster would call out Solaris (the Russian version from the '70s). But me? I’ll take Apes.
Just check out the crazy all-star pedigree it carries: - Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner who, on his next film, Patton, would win the Oscar. - Written by Michael Wilson (Lawrence Of Arabia) and the legendary Rod Serling, creator and sometime writer of the cult TV series, The Twilight Zone. - Based on a novel by the acclaimed French writer Pierre Boulle, author of The Bridge On The River Kwai. - Starring Moses himself, Charlton Heston, Oscar winner for Ben Hur. This would start his run of action and Sci-Fi flicks that would make him almost a combination of Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger of the early '70s. - An exotic original score by Jerry Goldsmith and make-up by the innovative designer of the Star Trek TV series, John Chambers. Etc. Etc.Continue Reading
Soylent Green, completing the Charlton Heston dystopian future trifecta of Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man, may be spiritually closer to Douglas Trumbull's ecological space flick from 1972, Silent Running, and the much more recent gloomy Children of Men, than the flat out entertainment adventures of Chuck’s earlier walk down the roads of things to come. The film is based on the novel Make Room! Make Room! by respected sci-fi writer Harry Harrison, with a screenplay by Stanley R. Greenberg (who was a career TV scribe until he hit the big screen with another Heston flick, the less memorable Skyjacked). With Soylent Green underrated director Richard Fleischer continued to develop one of the most diverse film resumes ever. His bizarre career started in noir (Narrow Margin); included dramas (Compulsion); sci-fi (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Fantastic Voyage); some great little thrillers (The Boston Strangler, 10 Rillington Place and See No Evil); as well as a number of legendary misfires (Doctor Dolittle and the Neil Diamond opus The Jazz Singer). Fleischer manages to sprinkle a little of all of the above into Soylent Green.
If you already know the slight twist ending, Soylent Green can play like a long Twilight Zone episode, but beyond the Rod Serling influence (he came up with that great twist at the end of The Planet of the Apes), this is an interesting take on the future, which was certainly more fresh in 1973. It’s now 2022 in New York and the world is overpopulated (44 million in NY alone) and poverty stricken. Due to the “greenhouse effect” it’s awfully hot, the world is polluted, the oceans are dead, and food is scarce. The Soylent Corporation produces food wafers to feed the masses: soylent red, yellow, and the new and improved delicious green. But when one of the company's owners, William Simonson (Joseph Cotton), is murdered NYPD detective Robert Thorn (Heston) investigates. Thorn is lucky enough to have his own teensy tenement apartment he shares with his buddy Sol (Edward G Robinson in his last film role), one of the few old timers who remember how the world once was - he even once tasted a strawberry! Most of the masses live on the street (or his building’s stairs), but Thorn and Sol live not much better. Like a classic noir character, when Thorn investigates the wealthy man’s death he helps himself to his stuff (food, soap, booze, even the dead man’s hooker companion).Continue Reading