Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Film #60: Sophie's Choice

Alan J. Pakula, the man who produced To Kill a Mockingbird and directed, among others, All The President's Men and The Parallax View, wrote and directed this majestic, extremely faithful adaptation of
Pulitzer-Prize-winner William Styron's stunning semi-autobiographical novel. In it, Peter MacNichol endearingly plays Stingo, a young 40s-era Southerner who journeys to "a place as strange as Brooklyn" where, while trying to compose the Great American Novel, he befriends his neighbors: Sophie Zowistowska (Meryl Streep), a beautiful Polish survivor of the Nazi death camps, and her lover, Nathan (Kevin Kline), a moody Jewish chemist obsessed with the Nazis' escape from justice. Through this relationship, the hungry, naive Stingo receives his first all-important contact with the forces of love and death, but in very unexpected ways.

This is certainly one of my very favorite movies; I could quote its dialogue from beginning to end, I love it so. Streep rightfully garnered every award in the book for portraying the complicated, frightened Sophie. The actress shaved her head, lost 30 pounds, gained them right back again and then some, and learned both German and Polish in order to play the role, and it proved conclusively to the world in 1982 that there was a new queen of acting with which to contend. Kline, following a successful stage run that earned him two Tony awards, made quite a notable screen debut with his showy, moving role as the mercurial Nathan. And the wide-eyed MacNichol is very likable foil to the couple, his loyalties battered between the two like a play-toy. I should also say some kind words about Josef Sommer, the terrific character actor who vibrantly narrates the movie as an older Stingo.

Pakula lifted much of his dialogue directly from Styron's book, creating a beautifully literate and intelligent screenplay that earned him his third Oscar nomination. Photographer Nestor Alamendros cleverly contrasts the bright colors of Brooklyn with the washed-out tones of Nazi Germany, and composer Marvin Hamlisch adapted the works of Mozart, Beethoven and Johann Strauss to great emotional effect. It should be said that Sophie's titular choice isn't as obvious as it may seem; to say the least, when it comes time to be made, it is one of film history's most devastating moments.

I'd like to note that I found this photo of the regal Brooklyn home that was used (and, I believe, painted pink) for the apartment house in Sophie's Choice. It's located at 101 Rugby Road in Flatbush, in the Victorian-era neighborhood of Prospect Park South.

Film #59: Of Unknown Origin

Greatest rat movie ever made? Forget Willard! Get outta here, Ben! Don't even think about mentioning Ratatouille! Instead: check out Of Unknown Origin, the killer rat extravaganza to beat all! The late George Pan Cosmatos (Tombstone, Cobra) directed this 1983 Canadian production starring Peter Weller as a successful white-collar executive with a hot wife (Shannon Tweed), a little tyke, a new brownstone, and a helluva problem. When the wife and kid go out of town, he's starts noticing little details...scratching behind the walls, a turd here and there, a chewed-through box of oatmeal,
that sort of thing. Doesn't take Weller long to figure he's got a non-paying roommate in his picture-perfect home. Wait...did I say little? Make that BIIIG--a roommate with a tail that I'd say was, oh, maybe an inch or two in circumfrence.

So he does the usual--lays out traps and so forth. Nope. The thing's too smart for that! So he goes and gets advice from a super exterminator (Louis Del Grande from Scanners), who tells him he's got have a female rat in his perfect house, and that means awful trouble. Thus begins this all-out war between man and rodentia! It's a smash-up, I hafta say.  Let's just say the place is gonna a little retouching when all is done.

Peter Weller delivers a strong performance in the frustrating and very physical role as the stressed-out husband (his long dinner table monologue about the history of the rat is both informative and creepy). One could look at Of Unknown Origin as really being about Weller's surpressed anger at his own demanding domesticity; his war with the rat could be his boxed-in male rage coming out full-force (on a female rat, at that). Supposedly set in New York but obviously filmed in much cleaner Montreal (the presence of Canadian actors Del Grande and Maury Chaykin confirm that), the film looks sharp, with some very eerie close-ups of our furry heroine. Of Unknown Origin is edited effectively by Robert Silvi; largely a film without dialogue (thought it has some great lines here and there), it'll leave you wondering what's behind YOUR walls. Just try not to think about it, okay, or you might end up as crazy as this guy!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The beginnings of my Web TV career

Well, since it's now history, I should include the three clips of me on The Latest Show on Earth, Joe Hendel's now kaput web TV program. Joe, it turns out, just didn't have the energy for an almost daily talk show (it IS a lotta work), so it's permanently on hold. It's too bad, but I'll continue onward, and probably launch a web TV thing of my own soon enough. RIP The Latest Show on Earth. But still, go to its website! Lots of great stuff to view there. Anyway, here are my appearances, just for posterity's sake. First is my commentary on the 2008 Oscars and the second is my predictions on what MIGHT be good in the spring 2008 movie season. The final one is my recommendation for three movies for Joe (and for you) to watch! Happy viewing!

Film #58: Foolin' Around

One of the ultimate "Saturday Afternoon" movies for me is what looked to me to be a waste of time at first glance--and this was when I was 15 or so! I know. Foolin' Around looks terrible. But I was quite smitten with HBO back in 1981 or so, and would watch anything they showed. And I'm glad because I love Foolin' Around. It's a dumb li'l movie following Texas architechture student Gary Busey as he arrives at a Minnesota school for his studies. Volunteering for a science experiment that goes nutso, our hero meets rich girl science student Annette O' Toole. He falls for her and she for him, but she's engaged to be married to ultra-blonde asshole John Calvin. What's more, her father is architect Eddie Albert, and her mother is the shrewish Cloris Leachman. The mother loves the blonde asshole, the father hates him. (Leachman, it should be said here, is having an affair with the butler, well-played by Tony Randall.) So Foolin' Around here turns into a hybrid of The Graduate, where it's up to Busey to disrupt the inevitable don't-do-it wedding scene.

I know it sounds like I hate this movie. I would count it in the "guilty pleasures" category. But I watched it numerous times, even once in my 20s, and I still loved it, so I don't know why I should feel so guilty. I always like Gary Busey's aw-shucks style, and I think the very pretty Annette O'Toole really takes a shine to it as well, making the love story quite believeable (and that's a feat). I like Eddie Albert in a role that would have you thinking he was going to be the bad guy, but the director, Richard T. Heffron, had enough sense to cast Albert against type (he'd been playing villains in movies all throughout the 1970s). Albert's chemistry with Busey is tops as well--they have a terrific scene together on the top of an in-progress building, where Albert puts an engagement ring on the end of a steel girder to test Busey's committment to his daughter. (I need to mention that the movie features two very catchy songs by Seals and Crofts--strangely, just like another Annette O'Toole movie reviewed here recently, One on One).

It's just a warm-hearted trifle, Foolin' Around. That's all it is. But I LIKE warm-hearted trifles. So sue me. This is definitely one of my put-it-on-DVD wishes. To see Busey in his prime again, playing his only real romantic lead, and to see the young Annette O'Toole cavorting with him would somehow--don't ask me how--be ecstacy to me. (By the way, the Busey illustration is by Brooklyn's own "Caricature King" Dan Springer; filmicability has linked to his amazing visual blog everybody's gotta be in a gang. Check it out!

Film #57: The Verdict

Paul Newman delivers a career-best performance in this comeback film from director Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Prince of the City, Network). In it, he plays Frank Galvin, an alcoholic, ambulance-chasing lawyer
whose recent string of lost cases has put him in a desperate situation. He's given one last chance at a moneymaker by a working class family who're suing a powerful, Catholic-run hospital for rendering a pregnant relative comatose. The case is barrelling for an out-of-court settlement, but Galvin senses something bigger afoot. His snooping into the details of the case send shockwaves through the Boston courtrooms and the Archbishop's august chambers.

Scripted by David Mamet, The Verdict is occasionally ignorant of the letter of the law, but it's nonetheless compelling mainly due to Newman's riveting, clawing performance and the imposingly somber atmosphere created by director Lumet. In 1982, the year that brought us E.T., Toosie, and Gandhi, The Verdict didn't have much of a chance at the Oscars, even though it was obvious this was Newman's finest hour (three years after the Academy gave the Best
Actor award to Ben Kingsley for Gandhi, the Academy guiltily gave Newman a special Oscar and THEN awarded Best Actor to him the following year, 1986, for The Color of Money). Newman, for maybe the first time in his career, looks beaten, old, tired--I mean, THIS is Butch Cassidy? No way!! He's magnificent throughout, in voice and in movement. Frank Galvin is an incompetent lawyer, no doubt, but Newman alone makes us care whether he wins or loses. He just wants to do one good thing in his life.

The tony supporting cast--Jack Warden, Charlotte Rampling (looking as beautiful as ever), Joe Seneca, Wesley Addy, Edward Binns, Milo O'Shea (memorable as the case's crappy, crooked judge), Julie Bovasso and Lewis Stadlen--features two more notable performances: James Mason as the hospital's cocky defense lawyer and a small but pivotal role for Lindsay Crouse as the reluctant star witness for the prosecution (her scene is my favorite in the film). The Verdict, Sidney Lumet's quiet, autumnal character study, is given an aged, wood-hewn look by photographer Andrzej Bartkowiak and production designer Edward Pisoni. It's all I can do to hold back from providing you with Galvin's incredible summation speech. But I think I'll let you discover that for yourself. Here's the trailer instead...

Film #56: They Live

Scaremeister John Carpenter called the shots on this massively entertaining (and overlooked) variation on the Invasion of the Body Snatchers theme. World Championship Wrestling staple "Rowdy" Roddy Piper stars in They Live as an L.A. drifter who uncovers an alien takeover of earth after stumbling upon a pair of glasses that allows the wearer to see both the aliens and the Big-Brother way they've started to transform Earth. Keith David throws out very memorable support as Piper's disbelieveing associate; their six-minute fight in a deserted alleyway stops this 90 minute movie cold, but in a hilarious fashion. I leave it to you to find that scene. Here's where Rowdy Roddy first discovers what the glasses can do:

Writing under the nom de plume "Frank Armitage," John Carpenter delivers here a film that has genuine affection for the underdog facing an impossible fight (They Live often seems to be dramatizing the way all liberals felt at the end of the Reagan era, when this 1988 film was made). Doom seems to follow wherever Piper goes, and "winning" the
war never seems like a viable option. Throwing a strong follow-up punch is the best he can do (his famous line "I came here to kick ass and chew bubble gum...and I'm all out of bubble gum" is one that's supposed to have come from Piper himself, but I think it was stolen from some western; no matter--it works). Piper's no-name character is a steel-willed humanist who can't live with himself if he doesn't do something about this scourge. You really end up rooting for him; it's a fine performance (the best one ever by a former wrestler)! Excellent make-up and art direction plus Carpenter's trademarked widescreen look are some more of the major assets belonging to They Live, a surprisingly important, unfortunately precient, and yet fun science-fiction actioner.

And, hey! Look what I found! I suspected this all along!

Film #55: Sharky's Machine

All Atlantans of a certain age have a soft spot for this Burt Reynolds movie that, like it or not, remains one of the best ones ever shot in the ATL. I think it's a lotta fun and probably Reynolds' finest directorial outing. It's adapted from Georgia author William Diehl's best seller
about Tom Sharky, an Atlanta homicide detective obsessively tracking a local mobster (a slimy Vittorio Gassman). He keeps on with this even after being busted down to the city's seedy vice department, where Sharky starts recruiting members of his machine (including old guy Brian Keith, goofy technician Richard Libertini, vice chief Charles Durning, mousy forensics expert John Fiedler, and cool black dude Bernie Casey). Beautiful British model Rachel Ward made her feature film debut playing Gassman's premier $1000-a-night call girl (with whom Reynolds naturally falls in love). The scenes with the Machine provide a lot of good comic relief that matches nicely with the more violent portions of the film (highlighted by a deliciously over-the-top bad-guy turn from coke-snortin' Henry Silva).

A former Georgia native, Burt Reynolds has an affinity for Atlanta that shines right through on Sharky's Machine. The city's 1982-era locations are put to optimal use, from the opening shootout outside City Hall to
the climactic race to the top of the 72-story Peachtree Plaza Hotel (the closing scene features a stunt by Dar Robinson that still holds the record for longest free-fall stunt in motion picture history). The opening image of the hotel, set to Randy Crawford's "Street Life," gives me chills especially when the helicopter shot centers in on a tough Reynolds navigating the city's train tracks. Sharky's Machine looks good, having been
photographed by William A. Fraker (1941, WarGames), and it sounds good, too, scored with an energetic collection of jazz standards and originals by Mel Torme, Sarah Vaughn, Peggy Lee, and The Manhattan Transfer. Violent yet often quite funny, I think Sharky's Machine has had a big influence on Quentin Tarantino, for one; it's filled with the sort of cheeky banter and bravado that runs all through his films (plus he used "Street Life" as a song in Jackie Brown). I'm curious to see if anyone out there agrees that it must be a Tarantino favorite. Just look at this clip and tell me this doesn't feel like something Q.T. ate up as a kid.

Film #54: The Secret of NIMH

Former Disney animator Don Bluth was so fed up with how the pre-Little Mermaid animation department was going that he broke away and formed his own animation studio, with The Secret of NIMH being their first offering. At a time when Disney animation seemed dead--the early 80s--Bluth's first solo effort was an extremely welcome pleasure that trumpeted a new force in the animation field.

But, while Bluth went on to bigger box-office success with The Land Before Time, his subsequent films largely failed to match the appeal of this wonderful adaptation of Mrs. Brisby and the Rats of NIMH, Robert C. O'Brien's children's novel about a band of ultra-intelligent rodents scrambling to relocate before a farmer plows over their turf. Elizabeth Hartman (A Patch of Blue, The Beguiled) provides the voice of Mrs. Brisby, a desperate mother mouse trying to locate an antedote to cure her dying son, and Dom Deluise does stand-out work as the voice of Jeremy, the clumsy black crow who comes to the family's aid. Peter Strauss and Derek Jacobi provide the voices of two opposing elder statesmen in the rat council, John Carridine assays the role of a wise old owl, and two notable child actors--Shannon Dougherty and Wil Wheaton--play Mrs. Brisby's older children. One very refreshing aspect of this movie: no clunky songs to get in the way. But the Jerry Goldsmith score is still very nice. Gather the kids and check it out.

Film #53: One on One

This is one of those "Saturday Afternoon" movies I like so much--sort of funny, sort of dramatic, a little romantic, not too demanding but not totally stupid either. Just real breezy and simple. Star Robby Benson co-wrote this likable story of a pampered high school basketball star who gets a scholarship to play with UCLA, but finds himself overwhelmed by a backbreaking practice regimen, a full class load, and the insults from the school's hard-assed coach (played with muscle by G.D. Spradlin). I like that the movie has a lot the say about the general overreaction to the talents of sports stars (though it throws in the towel and gets behind our boy Benson in the end). And I think this is the sort of movie role that made Benson a star in the 1970s--he's an innocent, but he's not totally stupid (at least, not by the final reel).

Annette O'Toole, having been a guest star on numerous television shows for ten years, got her first big movie role here as Benson's anti-jock tutor who agrees against her better judgement to help Benson with
the books. Her red hair, blue eyes and saucy spirit are enough to make One on One a movie worth watching. Spradlin, too, is a big draw (most may remember him as the general who gives Martin Sheen the orders to terminate Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now or as the crooked senator in The Godfather Part II). His coach is a mean ol' cuss, that's for sure. '70s songsters Seals and Crofts had a Top 40 hit with "My Fair Share" and warble the title tune as well. One on One is directed by Lamont Johnson, who'd won a Emmy a few years earlier for directing the downbeat Execution of Private Slovik. Both that and this charming sports drama should be released on DVD as soon as possible. Here's a great scene with G.D. Spradlin trying to make Benson's life very difficult.

Film #52: The Naked Jungle

Producer George Pal rarely strayed out of the fantasy/sci-fi genre. He pioneeered animated shorts by creating the Puppetoon series of stop-motion animation shorts (he adapted two Dr. Seuss stories into shortform: I Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street and The 500 Hats of Batholomew Cubbins). His films won four Oscars for special effects (The War of the Worlds, When Worlds Collide, The Time Machine, tom thumb) and one, The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, won the first Oscar ever given for make-up. So, in going over his ouvre (which also includes Destination Moon, Conquest of Space, and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm), it's surprising to find a film like 1954's The Naked Jungle amongst his works. It's just so out of sorts...

This memorable adventure picture has Charlton Heston playing a hard-hearted cocoa plantation owner who's farming near South America's Amazon Jungle. He's got a newly arrived mail-order bride to deal with (Eleanor Parker) and a crop to bring in when, without warning, the plantation is threatened by a massive influx of red fire ants. Homes, vegetation, animals, people--nothing can withstand the onslaught of this march. In this clip (filled with really fun overacting and overbaked dialogue), William Conrad, as the local commissioner, tries to get Heston outta the area after the first ant attack. But ol' Heston wants to fight the ants anyway, of course. You know that's right...

Byron Haskin is the director--a George Pal regular (he also did The War of the Worlds). Haskin is a fascinating character, actually. Before he hit the director's chair, he had a much earlier, more interesting career as
the special effects guy on such movies as The Sea Hawk, Knute Rockne All-American, Dive Bomber, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Later on, in the 1960s, he directed six episodes of the anthology TV show The Outer Limits and even produced the first episodes of Star Trek! Anyway, on The Naked Jungle, he keeps things slow, even a little dull, at the beginning as the film focuses on the arrival of spitfire Parker and her deflected attemts to cozy up to a work-obsessed Heston (when he protests after finding out she's not a virgin, she coos "If you knew anything about music, you'd know that the best piano is one that's been played").

But the ruthless ant attacks, courtesy of special effects supervisors John Fulton and Farciot Edouart, are completely unforgettable. The film is vibrantly photographed by Ernest Lazlo (Kiss Me Deadly, Fantastic Voyage), so those little red guys really pop out at you. One only wonders what could be done with the concept these days...hey, The Naked Jungle would be a great movie to remake! Good story, with a treatment that could be improved upon...wonder how long it'll take all those Hollywood ants to pick this idea to the bone.

Film #51: Muertos de Risa (Dying of Laughter)

Muertos de Risa (Dying of Laughter) is wildman Spanish director Alex de la Iglasia's raucous comedy about an Abbott and Costello-esque comedy team (expertly overplayed by El Gran Wyoming and Santiago Segura) who shoot each other dead on live TV, then are eulogized by their manager (Alex Angulo, the priest from de la Iglasia's equally accomplished Day of the Beast). Through flashbacks it's revealed to us how their festering hatred for each other reached such deadly intensity (having identical and connected houses couldn't have helped). Insightful about the frustrating nature of co-dependant relationships, yet never less than hysterical in its utter chaos (the final half hour is a bash!), Muertos de Risa is fine, shocking fun.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Film #50: The Killing Fields

British documentarian Roland Joffe made his narrative filmmaking debut in 1984 with The Killing Fields, a devastating and suspenseful film about a real-life friendship. Sam Waterston plays Sidney Schanberg, an obsessive New York Times reporter stationed in Cambodia during the last days of the Vietnam War. Dr. Haing S. Ngor, in an Oscar-winning performance, plays Dith Pran, Schanberg's trusted translator and photographer. When Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge overtake the country, all foreigners must leave, and all who are left behind are to buckle under to the new regime's personality-erasing laws. Schanberg's unrelenting quest for headline-making news forces Dith Pran to remain in Cambodia, despite the best efforts of his friends to save him (this accounts for some of the movie's best scenes, taking place in a run-down British embassy as a group of journalists try and fake a passport for Pran).

Meanwhile, Schanberg escapes unharmed and, now back stateside, is working frantically to uncover news of Pran's whereabouts. But Pran is caught in the unforgiving, hellish world of the Khmer Rouge, in which it is now Year Zero and normal life has turned into a charnel house. Ngor, a Los Angeles gynecologist who went through similar ordeals himself as a Cambodian refugee, most deservedly won his acclaim for a dignified, natural and moving performance. The doctor went on to a short film career and a continuing medical practice until he was brutally murdered in a drive-by outside his home in 1995. Pran himself (who was the one who coined the phrase "the killing fields") went on to a successful career as a photojournalist before dying in New York City in early 2008.

Waterston, black-bearded and hypertensive, has never had a film role as meaty as Sidney Schanberg (he was nominated for Best Actor, but I believe Ngor has the lead here). And we have one of the first film roles for John Malkovich, explosive as a photographer who blames Pran's life-threatening problems on Schanberg. The great supporting cast also
includes South African playwright/actor Athol Fugard, Scotsman Bill Peterson, British Julian Sands, and Craig T. Nelson (as American as you can get). This was also the first film for monologist Spalding Gray, who launched another stage of his career with Swimming to Cambodia, a stage piece about his involvement with the film. Gray went onto an enviable career as a supporting player in a lot of fine movies (somehow King of the Hill and How High stand out right now), and as the creator of such monologues as Gray's Anatomy and Monster in a Box. He died of an apparent suicide in 2003, a great loss for everyone who loves fine theater and movies (I saw him four times, including once as the Stage Director in an early 90s Broadway version of Thornton Wilder's Our Town.)

Whenever I think of The Killing Fields, I can't get my mind past its fantastic look. Chris Menges, its cinematographer, also took home an Oscar for his richly colored frames and his realistic battle photography (the Cambodian fields look beautiful, for all their horror). I love those opening shots of the orange sun setting over the rice fields; the intensity of the greens in the Cambodian countryside; the grey look of the destroyed villages, where the only thing that's survived is a Coca-Cola bottling plant. (Photographer Menges, a collaborator with many great British directors such as Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Lindsay Anderson, and Peter Watkins, went on to a directing career himself, garnering acclaim for South African drama A World Apart). With incisive editing by Jim Clark, haunting music by "Tubular Bells" composer/performer Mike Oldfield, and absolutely fresh direction by Roland Joffe, The Killing Fields is the harrowing last word on the Vietnam conflict as well as on the lengths most of us will go to keep a friendship alive.

Film #49: The Hudsucker Proxy

1994's The Hudsucker Proxy is still Joel and Ethan Coen's gentlest, most magical movie. Its fairy-tale ambitions mix tastefully with good ol' Capra-corn and the Coens' own brand of hyperkinetic filmmaking, resulting in a gigantic comedy with philosophical musings on time and fate. Tim Robbins plays bumbling mailroom nebbish and aspiring inventor Norville Barnes. After mere hours on the job at the Hudsucker Corporation--and after the joyous suicide of its president, Wareing Hudsucker (Charles Durning)--Barnes is promoted to president of the company by the scheming head of the Board of Directors (Paul Newman, in a rare villainous role). His plan is to drive the stock down so low that he and the board of directors can buy it out cheap. But Norville surprises the fatcats and rescues the company by inventing something, so fun, so nifty, that every kid in American has to get it. Enter here a nosy reporter (Jennifer Jason Leigh doing her fast-talking Kate Hepburn thing) who tries to unmask Norville but ends up falling for him instead (scored by Carter Burwell's take on Aram Khachaturian's theme to his 1957 classical ballet Spartacus, their first kiss is one of my favorite romantic moments in screen history).

After helming slower-paced films like Barton Fink and Miller's Crossing, Joel Coen's direction slipped into fifth gear with this goofy, visually nimble work. The physical comedy is over-the-top (the scene with Robbins trying to put out a trash fire in Newman's office is a riot); the verbal comedy is Howard Hawks-quick and cutting (especially in the newsroom with Leigh, editor John Mahoney and fellow reporter Bruce Campbell). And one of the film's most memorable moments has a pretty talented little kid taking a shine to Norville's new toy invention (watch the invention and marketing of the scene below). Random note: The shape of a circle is this Coen Brothers movie's reoccurring visual motif; every one of their films has Barton Fink, for instance, the motif is heads--heads are mentioned in almost every scene, and John Turturro's performance is all head / no body. In Hudsucker, the circle is represented not only in the hoop, but in the huge clock that tops the Hudsucker building, and in the talk about the "circle of life" that goes on in the film. Circles all over the place...

As always with Coen films, there's incredible art direction by Dennis Gassner and photography by Roger Deakins. But Hudsucker has one more thing up its sleeve: extraordinary special effects. No descriptions here, but when you see them, notice not just their verisimilitude but their colorful artistry. Certainly one of the most overlooked films of the 1990s, The Hudsucker Proxy was an $35 million box-office dud when released (still the Coens' most expensive film, I'd reckon), but surely it's achieved cult status by now. Look close for cameos by Peter Gallagher and Steve Buscemi, and even CLOSER for ones from the late Anna Nicole Smith and Hudsucker co-writer / Evil Dead director Sam Raimi!

Film #48: The Fly (1986)

David Cronenberg's unique take on the 1958 sci-fi staple The Fly stands as one of the few remakes that actually improves upon its predecessor, chiefly because of its superb lead performances and the infusion of Cronenberg's singular, biology-obsessed worldview into the story. Jeff Goldblum expertly portrays eccentric scientist Seth Brundle, whose invention of "telepods" goes horribly awry when he decides to test the invention out, unaware that a housefly has joined him for the journey. When their atoms are all lined up in the other pod...well, "Seth Brundlefly" is born, right in full view of his new journalist girlfriend (played equally well by Geena Davis).

Alternately moving, disgusting, terrifying and funny, The Fly packs an emotional and visceral jab that transcends the genre's emotional chill factor and enters into true tragedy. The love story here is more effective than perhaps in any other movie of its kind; you really get the feel that Davis and Goldblum have hit on something really special (which, actually, they had, since they were married for a few years after this film was released). When it comes time for Brundlefly to start falling apart, I am extremely sorry for the fella; no one deserves to see his teeth and fingernails fall out, or to sink to throwing up acid on their food in order to digest it ("Oh, that's disgusting," Brundle says to his girl, embarrassed at his tableside manners). And I'm extra-sorry for Davis's character, who has to stand by and watch this go forth while coming up with some pretty heavy concerns of her own. Somehow, Davis and ESPECIALLY Goldblum were passed up for Oscar nominations, but the gloriously ghastly make-up effects from Chris Walas and Stephen Dupuis had no match in 1986 and won the award hands down. Icy dark photography from Mark Irwin and bombastic music from Cronenberg regular Howard Shore round out the form of this magnificent genre entry. And, hey, look for Cronenberg in a memorable cameo as a horrified gynecologist! NOTE: Cronenberg is currently mounting a staged opera based on The Fly, to open in America in 2009!!!

Film #47: Dragonslayer

This Disney/Paramount co-production was almost completely overlooked when released in the summer of 1981--it was eclipsed by a little film called Raiders of the Lost Ark. But it deserves an unearthing, and a nicer DVD release that acknowledges its quality. In it, then-newcomer Peter MacNichol plays an inept sorcerer's apprentice who takes on the responsibility of slaying the massive fire-breather who's been terrorizing his medieval village. After a lifetime of great film performances, Sir Ralph Richardson was somehow denied an Oscar nomination playing MacNichol's magical master, but he got one in 1984 for portraying the patriarch in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (which was very nearly his final film performance).

The direction and scripting by Matthew Robbins is crisp, the moody Industrial Light and Magic special effects are phenomenal (especially the stop motion animation by Phil Tippett), the accurate art direction and photography provide a convincing backdrop for the action, and Alex North's music is quite menacing. This was one of the final works from North, the man who gave us the music for Spartacus, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and A Streetcar Named Desire. His forboding score is a big reason why Dragonslayer is as fine a fantasy movie as it is. Here's a pretty good fan-made trailer that gets the movie down pat (though it doesn't feature the music from the film, darn it).

Film #46: Coal Miner's Daughter

Sissy Spacek rightfully won an Oscar for her portrayal of country music legend Loretta Lynn in this smartly-produced bio-pic directed by British filmmaker Michael Apted (the man behind the 7 Up series of documentaries). The film follows her from her life as the oldest of a brood of kids belonging to a Kentucky coal miner and his wife, to her marriage at 14 to a self-assured WWII vet named Doolittle Lynn (Tommy Lee Jones, in a performance equal to Spacek's) who lovingly guides her to success as the most popular female country singer/songwriter of all time.

 It's a perfect bio-pic in that it covers only a small portion of Lynn's life, but it really hits the stratosphere because it chooses to focus on the love affair the Lynns shared together, rather than the usual music bio trappings--you know, drugs, affairs, that sort of thing (which do make small appearances here, I must admit). With the two leads at the top of their game, it's easy to believe we witnessing one of the greatest partnerships ever, filled with passion and respect. Spacek is completely believeable as both a 13- year-old and a 30-year-old woman (the makeup and hairstyling here is a very important element, though); I find her incredibly adorable in this film, particularly the scene where she makes her stage debut singing "There He Goes" at a local honky tonk. Photographed in a smoky haze by Ralf Bode, this is my absolute favorite scene in the movie, because we get the whole story here: Loretta's nervousness, Doo's confidence, and then Loretta's willingness to be the great performer she is.

Levon Helm, the former lead singer and drummer for The Band, makes a lasting impression as Loretta's stern but loving father (Helm would go on to do a few more roles, most notably as Chuck Yeager's second in The Right Stuff, but we haven't gotten nearly enough on-screen action from this amazingly natural performer). And Beverly D'Angelo also excels as Loretta's best friend Patsy Cline. Both Spacek and D'Angelo did their own singing for the film, and did so superbly (D'Angelo used to be the lead singer for a rock band back in the late 60s, and Spacek had released a solo album three years before Coal Miner's Daughter was shot, so they were both well-prepared). For die-hard country fans, the film even has cameos by Grand Ole Opry staples Ernest Tubb and Minnie Pearl. Nominated for seven additional Oscars including Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Editing and Sound, Coal Miner's Daughter is a must for all fans of great music and great filmmaking.

Here, we have Sissy Spacek performing the title song, with the actor playing her father, Levon Helm, at the drums. This is transcendent.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Side Orders #3

Okay, this isn't really an opening to a movie I like, but it does feature a favorite opening song of mine---I mean, it rocks, and you can't get it out of your head!! A real earworm. Anyway, this is sort of a fan vid for a movie called The Sheriff and the Satellite Kid (El sheriff y el pequeño extraterrestre in Italian!). I have an interesting little story about this movie under my belt, but for right now, just enjoy the theme to this 1979 romp starring Italian superstar Bud Spencer as a Southern U.S. sheriff trying to protect a little E.T. tyke (played by former Close Encounters of the Third Kind kid Cary Guffey) from evil, black-suited U.S. forces. (Do you think it's possible Spielberg just saw this on TV one day and said "Heyyy, I think I can make something of this...")

Oh, boy, does this screenplay pop. Paper Moon, Peter Bogdanovich's fine blend of retro-comedy trappings with disarmingly modern touches, also has one of the best scripts around. It's written by Alvin Sargeant, who's also provided the screenplays for Julia (Fred Zinnemann, 77), Dominick and Eugene (Robert M. Young, 88), Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 80), and the last two Spiderman movies by Sam Raimi. This scene, adapted from Joe David Brown's novel Addie Pray, is one of his career best. In it, Tatum O'Neal plays the watchful Addie, a worldwise moppet who meets up with conman Ryan O'Neal at her mother's funeral ("Baby, I bet your ass is still warm," O'Neal whispers into her grave). He agrees to drive her to an aunt in Missouri, but not before deciding to make a little money off the girl. What follows is the explosive, rightfully famous "Nehi and Coney Island scene."

I always think the best trailers are the ones in which at least some of the footage is specifically shot for the advert. Case in point: many of the the opening shots of this preview for Bob Fosse's All That Jazz don't appear in the movie (though they were obviously part of the shoot for the short opening credits sequence). Definitely in hindsight, such a trailer makes the movie AND the preview more special, if not more symbiotic. The editing here is superb, and it's already a wonderfully edited (by Alan Heim) movie! My advice is to see All That Jazz, even if you think you won't like it. Believe me, it's a weird trip--very sobering, energetic, cynical, and stunning to look at. A life-changing movie for me.

It's rare a movie has a scene in it that sticks out so perfectly and unusually as does this one from Michael Mann's The Insider (1999). What's unusual about it? Well, it stands out largely on the backs of two actors who barely have another moment in the film. Here, Russell Crowe is Jeffery Wigant, a "big tobacco" scientist about to take the stand to say that cigarette companies knew nicotine was addictive. But Crowe is in the background only here as two character actors--Wings Hauser as the tobacco lawyer, and Bruce McCall as the Wigant lawyer--battle it out, with McCall making a VERY memorable one-scene impression in The Insider, a film that gets better and better each time I see it.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Bet 100 on The Flaming Nose

This is the intro to a ten-part series I'm contributing to The Flaming Nose, the web's premier website devoted to television. With each of my introductory articles, I'll be covering my very personal choices for my 100 favorite TV series of all time. I'm about to post #70-61, so if you haven't checked all three previous articles out, do. And make time for everything else TV-related at The Flaming Nose. All the contributors there are proven experts in their field! I'm proudly a junior amongst them now.

Anyway, here the intro to my first appearance on The Nose:

I’m not in the habit of writing about TV. Movies are my thing, really. But so much of television has truly shaped my tastes that it’s hard to ignore its influence.

The greatest thing, as all of you know, about TV shows is their ability to envelope you, week after week, so completely you get to know every tiny detail of the on- and off-air personalities that make it live. And the best narrative TV shows are the ones in which you cannot, absolutely cannot believe that there are actually actors playing these roles. This, too, goes for the variety, news and game show personalities. I mean, if you saw Alex Trebek walking down the street, you’d simply have to drop your jaw because he’d be so out of his element. You’d be, like, “Heyyyy, Potent Potables for 500, Alex!” It's got something to do with watching this stuff in our shorts, eating chili with our fingers—we figure if these guys are with us through those moments, we must be pretty close buds!

My association with Lisa, the one of the mistresses of The Flaming Nose--the world’s finest TV-related website--is a long one. No one loves TV more than Lisa. Years ago, when we worked together at Turner Network Television, I’d be talking about movies
with her and, though she always took my opinions truly to heart, I could tell that, deep in the center of her being, she’d way rather be watching a TV show than any ol’ movie. This mystified me then, but it got me to thinking in the years since we’ve worked together that TV is pretty amazing. Its pacing is exquisite. TV shows are designed to sink their hooks into you, to keep you watching through the commercials or even from show to show, so it therefore has a snappiness, a rhythm and flavor all its own. If the average Joe were shown 30 seconds of a TV show he’d never heard boo about, and then shown a similar 30 second clip of a movie (both with equal production values), I guarantee Joe would be able tell which one belonged to which medium, just because of this intrinsic pacing.

Because of this quality, I’ve found myself in recent years taking more and more refuge in a lot of television. I find I can’t watch an endless array of movies like I used
to, not only because most of them now are terrible or simply boring, and not only because I’ve seen almost everything already, but because I find myself longing for the companionship of characters I get to know intimately, bit by bit, and thoroughly, too. Given this newfound appetite for boob-tubeage, I thought I would, for the first time in my life, compose a list of my 100 favorite TV shows. And I thought I’d offer it to Lisa to publish on The Nose while I stick mostly to film on my own movie-related blog, filmicability. Since the list is so long, only ten entries only will be published at a time (and only two articles a week). And at the end of this five-week series? A television smorgasbord!

So if you wanna see more, go to The Flaming Nose and look for

Dean's List: My 100 Favorite TV Shows (#100 - 91)
Dean's List: My 100 Favorite TV Shows (#90 - 81)
Dean's List: My 100 Favorite TV Shows (#80 - 71)
Dean's List: My 100 Favorite TV Shows (#70 -61)
Dean's List: My 100 Favorite TV Shows (#60 - 51)


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Film #45: The Celebration

The Dogme 95 film movement was the brainchild of Danish directors Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, who, on a spring day in 1995 Copenhagen, penned a filmmaking "Vow of Chastity" as a laugh and a liberating gesture from the expensive technologies and tired formulas that plague many filmmakers. Then, along with fellow Danes Soren Kragh-Jacobsen and Christian Levring, they created Dogma 95, the strict yet freeing film movement whose works pulse with vitality, all while sticking to this "Vow of Chastity," which prohibits Dogma-bound filmmakers from using artificial light, weapons (as plot elements), music scores, make-up, sets (all films are shot on location), props and costumes (to be owned by the actors themselves) and which demands that Dogma films be shot on digital video, with on-location sound and hand-held cameras. If a Dogma filmmaker achieved these goals (and if the list of any broken rules was approved by the four filmmakers on the board), then they got a certificate like this one awarded to Von Trier for his difficult but rewarding The Idiots:

The idea behind all this is that, if a filmmaking team could concern itself less with complicated production concerns, then emphasis would naturally shift back to a film's really important elements -- story and performance. Von Trier and company maintain they did this as a joke assignment for themselves, but the idea took an insane root (to the point where Dogma wanna-be Harmony Korine tried to get then-girlfriend Chloe Sevigny pregnant so she could play a pregnant character!). To date, though, the movement has, alas, contributed only one masterpiece.

But the first Dogma 95 movie is an undisputed stunner. The Celebration , coming across like a distaff version of Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, tells the story of a well-to-do family who, having just returned from the funeral of the patriarch's suicidal daughter, launch too
soon into a 60th birthday party for Father (chillingly played by Henning Moritzen). As the "celebration" gets underway, the dead girl's twin brother (a tricky Ulrich Thomsen) lets loose with some shocks that leave the party's guests -- and the viewer -- questioning their loyalties. No more will be revealed, for this is arguably the most suspenseful movie ever made that doesn't have a bloody death threatening its characters. The whiff of a gloomy supernatural presence, though, does spook The Celebration, which is given a distinctively hazy look through the use of digital video noise. Immediate and alive, 1998's The Celebration, directed by Thomas Vinterberg, has rightfully ascended as a crown jewel in the Danish film output. See it immediately.

Film #44: Straight Time

Since 1972, Dustin Hoffman had been obsessed with making Straight Time, an adaptation of ex-convict Ed Bunker's novel No Beast So Fierce. It was meant to be the actor's directorial debut but, concluding that directing and performing were chores too big for him to handle in tandem, he brought in British director Ulu Grosbard to helm things behind the camera. Good move, because in 1978's sadly forgotten Straight Time Hoffman was obviously able to concentrate heavily on his
character. He's at his best as Max Dembo, a small-time thief who, upon his prison release, tries mightily to straighten up while fighting a bureaucracy that's cruelly written him off as a lost cause. Gary Busey (who appears with his then-young son Jake) is the lovable "Big Bear" whose kindness and slow-witted speed get the best of him. And Harry Dean Stanton hits a career high with a knotted-up portrayal of a restless ex-con who joins forces with Max in what is surely one of the most tense jewel heist scenes ever filmed. M. Emmett Walsh is a VERY assholish probation officer who gets his comeuppance. Kathy Bates (thin!) is Busey's long-suffering wife. And the crown of ALL these great performances here goes to the beautiful, smart, transfixing Theresa Russell, whose showing as Dembo's understanding---maybe TOO understanding--girlfriend was a career-maker. I could watch Russell all day, because there's something there behind those beautiful eyes!

The writer, Ed Bunker, also cameos quite stunningly in Straight Time as Mickey, one of Dembo's shadowy associates. People should know that the autobiographical novel this was based on was written by Bunker while he was still in prison (he wanted to give the cons out there something to read about, so he says)! Bunker followed this movie with appearances in Miracle Mile, The Running Man, Walter Hill's The Long Riders and, most famously, as the ill-fated, under-used Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. With its accuracy, grittiness, intimacy and cruelty, his Straight Time is one of the greatest crime films ever made.

Film #43: Trans

Florida filmmaker Julius Goldberger's Trans splashed down at 1999's Sundance festival like a minor post-French New Wave masterwork unearthed decades after being inturred, mysteriously, near the swampy Everglades. Plainly influenced by Truffaut's The 400 Blows -- Goldberger obviously wanted more after Antoine Doniel reached the ocean tide -- Trans follows juvenile prison escapee Ryan Kazinski (played with haunting blankness by Ryan Daugherty) as he traverses southern swamps, suburbs and city streets, driven only by an over-percolated need to keep moving, keep going, keep going on... Trans takes extra inspiration from Godard (in its disjointed editing and sound) and Cassevetes (in realistic but short scenes like Ryan's jittery powwow with overly curious locals lumbering outside a country mart). All the while Goldberger's quietly affecting movie astutely, colorfully dissects a young Turk who, even out of the klink, remains jailed in his own restless skin.

Film #42: Sisters

This is the first in a promised series of shorter posts, for those of you who don't have no durn time...

Made back when De Palma’s Hitchcock-cribbing packed more charm than it did in later years, Sisters stars Margot Kidder as surgically-separated Siamese twins, one of whom is degenerating into a knife-wielding killer. Jennifer Salt is the newspaper columnist who witnesses one of Kidder’s murders and tries to blow the whistle on her. Clever and creepy, the film’s best moments feature De Palma’s simple but effective use of split-screen effects--a visual pun in a movie about twins--to wickedly spice up crucial scenes, like the murder and its clean-up. Goosed up by an urgent Bernard Herrmann score (now, there’s someone who knew how to do horror movie music, from Hitchcock's Psycho to De Palma's Obsession ) and one of the oddest endings for any movie ever. Sisters is a great ‘70s-flavored horror staple.