Don't count New York Times film critic A.O.Scott among those who may be toasting the just-released remake of Arthur. Scott is so singularly depressed by the Russell Brand remake about a lovable alcoholic that he says it's driving him to drink. Click here to read.
In his review in the CNN, critic Tom Charity rightly calls out Hollywood for shamefully ignoring the Western film genre. He says the situation has at least momentarily been corrected with the release of True Grit. While Charity sells short the immense qualities of Henry Hathaway's original version of the film, he does say that the remake returns the genre to its former glory and ranks the film among the best of the year. Click here to read
Beneath the Dark is an ambitious new chiller that has been relegated to "premiering" on the Independent Film Channel this month. The movie falls short of its ambitions but still has enough strong points to have merited a theatrical release. Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Josh Stewart are an attractive couple driving across the Mojave Desert at night, en route to a wedding in California. A near fatal crash convinces them they should stay overnight at the first motel they come across. It will surprise no one to learn that the chosen place is run by a creepy eccentric and is virtually bereft of any other occupants. (Honestly, night clerks of motels across America should unionize to demand a better image on-screen.) The two hunker down in bed but Stewart begins acting strangely (how else can you describe behavior that finds him disinterested in sexual favors offered by Sigler?). The two begin to bicker and Stewart storms out to the deserted cafe, where he encounters a strange, almost mystical man (Afemo Omilami) who seems to inexplicably know a great deal about humiliating aspects of Stewart's past. This is coupled with him seeing strange messages and apparitions that are invisible to Sigler. The story is entertwined with the troubled life of the night clerk (Chris Browning), who is a perpetual loser, constantly humilated by his wife (Angela Featherstone) who has had to turn to stripping and bedding strangers in order to pay the rent.
Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy's take on the Coen Brothers' new version of True Grit is that it's impressively cast and enacted but lacks the humor of the source novel and John Wayne screen version. Click here to read
In his review of Tron:Legacy, Disney's sequel to its 1982 sci-fi film that introduced the CGI era, Variety critic Todd McCarthy says the movie is better than the lame original- hardly the type of praise the studio would put into ads. To read click here
New York Times film critic A.O. Scott is not an easy man to impress, but he's given an unqualified rave to Clint Eastwood's Hereafter, saying the veteran filmmaker continues to explore new territory in exciting ways- in this case, the realm of the supernatural. Click here to read
As I've often said, there are some excellent films being made nowadays - but most of them don't involve invading aliens, serial murderers or tortured teenagers. The independent film market is booming and there are some real gems currently in release- though you may have to have the skills of Sherlock Holmes to track them down. One such film is Cairo Time, a charming and intriguing love story that finds Patricia Clarkson as Juliette Grant, the middle-aged wife of a United Nations diplomat who flies to Cairo to meet him for what should be an enjoyable business conference at a swank hotel. When she gets there, she learns he has been indefinitely delayed due to a crisis in Gaza. He asks his old friend and colleague Tareq (Alexander Siddig) to show her the local sites and try to entertain her. Initially, Juliet feels awkward and attempts to go it alone - only to find herself the unwanted center of advances from the male locals. Over the course of several days, she and Tareq form a bond that is becoming uncomfortably close to crossing the line into romance.
In a harsh review, New York Times film critic Joe Nocera takes on director Oliver Stone for bunting when he could have swung for a home run with Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Nocera says the mercurial director missed an opporunity to take on the financial crisis head-on and instead concentrated on personal dramas with the crisis only serving as a backdrop. Stone says he had to compromise or else alienate his audience by making the film too tecnhical for mass audiences. Click here to read
The web site Bachelor's Degree Blog has a good article detailing their choices for 15 of the best "Coming-of-Age" movies. In addition to insightful analysis, they provide clips from the films to bolster their arguments. Click here to read
Sylvester Stallone's reunion of 80s action stars in The Expendables has failed to impress USA Today critic Claudia Puig, though maybe a female writer isn't the intended audience Stallone had in mind. Puig gives the film the kind of unreservedly awful review that you seldom come across, calling it "... truly a movie that nobody needs — gratuitously savage, implausible and sometimes incoherent." Click here to read
Director Richard Lester's post-apocalyptic satire The Bed Sitting Room enlisted the talents of many notable British actors including Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Ralph Richardson, Spike Milligan, and others. The film was released in 1969 and generally won respectable reviews, but died at the box-office, helping to end Lester's reputation as a new generation director who had his finger on the pulse of what young audiences wanted to see. The film has never been released on home video in the USA but last year Turner Classic Movies presented a rare showing. With great expectations, I began to watch ...but could not get past the first half hour. It was truly one of the worst movies I have ever seen, and - mind you- I'm a man who has found kind things to say about Ishtar and Heaven's Gate. Because I could not endure the entire film, I'm unqualified to make a complete judgment about it. I suppose it's possible that the movie became enchanting exactly at the point at which I turned it off - or it could be that the praise the movie has gained over the decades could be a cinematic case of The Emperor's New Clothes. Perhaps some people want to say they see subtle, hip qualities the average viewer doesn't perceive - even though the movie may just be an unintelligible mess. Writer Mike Watt, who runs the entertaining Movie Outlaw web blog, has a different take and defends the film's qualities. In the interest of being fair and balanced, click here to read his views.Click here to view trailer
Kung Phooey: The New York Times blasts The Last Airbender
By Lee Pfeiffer
Remember when a new film by director M. Night Shyamalan was perceived as an actual event? Films like The Sixth Sense, Signs and The Village gave his movies the aura of something special - and audiences anticipated being brought in unpredictable directions by the compelling storylines. Nowadays, Shyamalan is content to take the Nicholas Cage career path and trash his talents in return for a sizable paycheck. Shyamalan is now down to adapting cartoon series to the big screen with The Last Airbender, an effects-filled extravaganza designed to appeal to audiences who are glued to the fare on Saturday morning kid's TV stations. The New York Times critic A.O. Scott blasts the film in his review, saying "It’s all pretty silly, and handled with unrelenting solemnity. But
that in itself is neither unusual nor fatal. The problem — the
catastrophe — of “The Last Airbender” is not in the conception but the
execution. The long-winded explanations and clumsy performances are made
worse by graceless effects and a last-minute 3-D conversion that wrecks
whatever visual grace or beauty might have been there. The movie is so dim and fuzzy that you might mistake your
disposable 3-D glasses for someone else’s prescription shades. And Mr.
Shyamalan’s fondness for shallow-focus techniques, with a figure in the
foreground presented with sharp clarity against a blurred background, is
completely out of place in the deep-focus world of modern 3-D. The
format also has no place for one of this director’s major gifts, which
is his ability to use the implications of what is off camera to create a
mood of intrigue and suspense." For full review click here
Studios should stay away from certain titles. Back in 1946 Cary Grant starred in a widely-disdained, watered down version of Cole Porter's life titled Night and Day. Half a century later, with only the slightest variation, Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz star in the action flick Knight and Day. It's obviously geared for audiences dumb enough to consider The A-Team too Bergmanesque - and New York Times critic A.O. Scott lets loose, blasting the film as a brainless, incoherent excuse to waste money on CGI effects. To read click here
RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM CINEMA RETRO'S ARCHIVES.
(The following piece was the first film review posted on Cinema Retro on February 25, 2007)
"Bus Riley" and William Inge: or When Playwrights Are
By Joel Shatzky
Bus Riley's Back in Town is a
1965 Universal production that is vaguely based on a play written by William Inge (1913-1973) in the
early1950's bearing the same title. Because of the rewriting of the script and plot by the studio so
that the story could be more of a vehicle for Ann-Margaret, Inge removed his name from the credits and
not even the fact that the title was from an Inge play was mentioned. It is one of the few times, I
believe, that a prominent playwright
had his credits removed from a script that was based on his own
play. Even Tennessee Williams, who had every good reason to remove his name from the credits of A
Streetcar Named Desire due to the distorted ending, abstained from such a temptation.
Writer Patricia Zohn takes a fascinating look at Otto Preminger's little-discussed, but interesting film Bonjour Tristesse, based on a best-seller by 18 year old author Francoise Sagan, who reflected on personal aspects of her life with this tale of a teenage girl (Jean Seberg) forced to compete with many women for the attention of her charismatic father (David Niven). Click here to read
Kimberly Lindbergs gives a valuable and insightful analysis into the 1970s Western Hannie Caulder in which Raquel Welch plays a woman who becomes a gunslinger in order to track down the men who raped her and killed her husband. The great supporting cast includes Robert Culp, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, Strother Martin and Christopher Lee. Click here to read on TCM's Movie Morlock's web site. The film is available on DVD in the UK, but not North America. Click here to order from Amazon UK
Cinematical columnist Jeffrey M. Anderson pays tribute to the 1945 "B" movie Detour, which was made for $30,000 and went on to be one of the most acclaimed low budget films ever made. Click here to find out why
RETRO ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM CINEMA RETRO'S ARCHIVE
P.B. HURST, AUTHOR OF THE NEW BOOK THE MOST SAVAGE FILM: SOLDIER BLUE, CINEMATIC VIOLENCE AND THE HORRORS OF WAR (McFarland) LOOKS BACK AT WHAT IS PERHAPS THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL WESTERN OF ALL TIME.
number of critics in 1970 believed that Soldier Blue had set a new mark
in cinematic violence, as a result of its graphic scenes of Cheyenne women and
children being slaughtered, and had thus lived up – or down – to its U.S.
poster boast that it was “The Most Savage Film in History.”
hit in Great Britain and
much of the rest of the world, Soldier Blue was, in the words of its
maverick director, Ralph Nelson, “not a popular success” in the United States.This probably had less to do with the
picture’s groundbreaking violence, and more to do with the fact that it was the
U.S. Cavalry who were breaking new ground.For Nelson’s portrayal of the boys in blue as blood crazed
maniacs, who blow children’s brains out and behead women, shattered for ever
one of America’s most enduring movie myths – that of the cavalry as good guys
riding to the rescue – and rendered Soldier Blue one of the most radical
films in the history of American cinema.The film’s failure in its homeland might also have had something to do
with the perception in some quarters – prompted by production company publicity
material – that it was a deliberate Vietnam allegory.
unaware of most of this in 1971 when, as a nervous fifteen-year-old English
schoolboy, I read about the film’s horrors in newspapers, and heard lurid
accounts of the cutting off of breasts from my classmates, who had illegally
seen the film at a cinema that wasn’t too bothered about the age of the patrons
(all of whom should have been at least eighteen to view what was then an X
managed to survive several Hammer horrors – Scars of Dracula, Lust
for a Vampire and Countess Dracula spring readily to mind – at the
very same cinema when I was underage.But
having been scared witless by the mutilation scene in Hush, Hush Sweet
Charlotte, when that gripping movie had played on TV several months
earlier, I wisely realised that any of the various cuts inflicted on the
Indians by the cavalry in Soldier Blue represented a mutilation too far
in terms of my well being.So I waited
for the picture to turn up on television (as it takes considerably more guts to
walk out of a packed cinema than to hide behind the sofa!).Waited and waited as it turned out.
viewed the picture, which stars Candice Bergen, Peter Strauss and Donald Pleasence, when ITV
transmitted it in 1980.However, there
was a small problem: the notorious massacre sequence, which is the picture’s
reason for being, had been removed virtually in its entirety (seemingly more
cuts had been inflicted on the film than had been perpetrated on the American
Indians!), as it was deemed too horrific for television.(It took another twenty-two years for the
film to be shown on British terrestrial television in something resembling its
theatrical release form!)So I still
hadn’t viewed the notorious scenes that had sparked, in conjunction with films
such as The Devils, Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange, the
screen violence inferno that engulfed Britain in the 1970s.
Long coats, loud ties and big fedoras: refreshing sights for retro movie lovers.
By Lee Pfeiffer
The bad buzz regarding Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island began even before the film was released. Paramount postponed the premiere from the height of Oscar season to the dog days of February, ostensibly for marketing purposes. In reality, most critics felt it signaled that the movie was not worthy of coughing up the cost of an Oscar campaign. Now the film has opened, and studio executives look vindicated: the movie is on track to being Scorsese's biggest hit. Reviewers weren't as kind. There were raves from the likes of Roger Ebert, but the New York Times called the movie "terrible". The consensus from most critics is that, while it isn't without value, in the end, it is a pretentious movie that falls short of its goals.I find the film to be atmospheric, rather than pretentious. At its heart, it's a movie about production design and Dante Ferretti, who is a long-time collaborator of Scorsese's, comes through with some triumphant set pieces. Some critics have attacked Scorsese for using a sledgehammer to remind audiences the film takes place in 1954, but I found the costumes and habits of the characters to be refreshing. It's hard to find movies where you can relish actors wearing long coats, fedoras, loud Hawaiian ties and proudly engaging in the politically incorrect habit of puffing away on cigarettes and cigars.
It's rare to see the word "terrible" linked to the work of Martin Scorsese, but New York Times film critic A.O. Scott does just that in his pan of the master director's new thriller Shutter Island. Scott claims the film is a jumbled mess of red herrings, pretentious special effects and plot distractions that wear viewers down and ultimately bores them. Click here to read
Given the long, troubled history of Universal's attempt to bring The Wolfman back to the screen as a big-budget remake, you may wonder how they were going to pull it off. According to Variety critic Todd McCarthy, the answer is simple: they didn't. McCarthy rips the production for lacking suspense and condemns director Joe Johnston for using quick cut-aways in the action sequences that not only become a boring technique, but gives the film a cheap look. To read the entire review click here (You may have to register with the Variety site)
Given the fact that the new medical drama Extraordinary Measures has received decidedly ordinary reviews, I wasn't particularly enthralled about seeing it. However, big screen appearances by Harrison Ford (who was executive producer on the film) are as rare as hen's teeth nowadays, so I thought I'd give it a try. The movie is the first to be released by CBS Films, the theatrical side of the TV network. The company intends to make modesty-budgeted films for wide audiences. The jury is still out as to whether the venture will succeed (Extraordinary Measures opened softly at the boxoffice). However, from an artistic standpoint, the company deserves praise for concentrating on stream-lined films that appeal to the intelligence of the audience, instead of bloated blockbusters. More importantly, the film - which has received modest praise for being workmanlike - is actually a completely engrossing and moving story that is wonderfully enacted under the direction of newcomer Tom Vaughan.
Those who frequently complain that today's movie stars don't compare with the legends from Hollywood's golden age, frequently make note of a few exceptions. George Clooney is generally put into the shallow pool of actors who have larger-than-life screen presence. The problem has been that his output of films has been wildly erratic in terms of quality. With writer/director Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, however, Clooney has finally found a film that suits him perfectly - and he may end up with a Best Actor Oscar in the bargain. Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, an ace representative of a company that specializes in firing hapless employees of large corporations when their bosses can't summon the courage to do so personally. It's a premise that fits perfectly into a modern society in which ogres and cowards generally deliver devastating news to folks via voice mails and text messages. Bingham never dwells much on the emotional devastation he causes. He's not without sympathy, but the dream job he has affords him to engage his primary goal in life: to acquire as many air miles and hotel points in the shortest period of time to set a world record. His life is a shallow one. Despite earning mega-bucks for doing the bidding of his soulless boss (Jason Bateman), Clooney lives in self-imposed exile. He dwells in a dingy, sparsely-furnished apartment, has only transient relationships with other chronic travelers and disdains any form of emotional or romantic commitment. Bingham's perfect, but shallow, universe is suddenly threatened by a new employee, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who impresses the boss with her cost-cutting methods of removing even the modicum of human dignity that the company's representatives afford employees who are being fired. Natalie devises a video conference system where the soon-to-be-unemployed are given the bad news without any in-person, human contact. The cost-saving measure delights the boss but devastates Bingham, who finds his very existence threatened by the end of his quest to gain airline miles.
The New York Times is generally not very effusive in its praise of movies it likes. A look at reviews of films now regarded as classics shows that the Old Gray Lady's film critics almost always are cautious and reserved in doling out the compliments. What makes critic Manohla Dargis' review of James Cameron's Avatar so unique is his unbridled enthusiasm. Dargis virtually swoons over the mega-budgeted sci-fi epic. Click here to read
Variety critic Todd McCarthy gives a positive review of director Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr. as a buff, hip master detective. The review says that the film is certainly geared toward pleasing young male viewers, but is clever and entertaining. The review also gives kudos to Hans Zimmer's atmospheric score. To read click here
I saw a UK preview of Clint Eastwood's new movie
Invictus last night, and I now have a new hero - Nelson Mandella. Of
course, this new found view point of the man totally relies on the the
suppostion that Mandella's actions during the eighteen-month period the
story is set in are factual, and not the creation of Hollywood scribes. However,
that aside, Eastwood has come up with another totally original film to add to
his resume that just seems to get better with every effort. Now I am not
particularly interested in politics, and know nothing about rugby, yet this 2-
hour movie had me on the edge of my seat come the final 18-20 minutes - as were
the rest of the audience. Who, but Eastwood, would approach a subject like this
- and deliver the goods? It proves once again he really is one
of the most intelligent directors in the world and at the top of
his game. Unlike Million Dollar Baby, Changeling and Gran
Torino, where the subject matter was dark, this is a "feel good" film that
broaches the appalling history of the country's race problems thoughtfully and,
at times, humourously. Although the cast are predominantly unknowns (and
excellent), the lead roles taken by Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon are faultless
- and Freeman is given some wonderful lines. Don't let the title or the
subject matter put you off seeing this thoroughly entertaining and moving film.
You'll come out of the cinema feeling much better for it.
Variety critic Todd McCarthy gives thumbs up for the Clint Eastwood film Invictus starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. The review says the movie succeeds on all major levels and that Eastwood continues to surprise audiences with off-beat topics. The film will have it's Hollywood premiere on December 3 at A.M.P.A.S. Eastwood, Freeman and Damon will attend. To read click here
On the anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Cinema Retro columnist Graham Hill addresses the debate over the most famous murder of the 20th century - and how the 1973 film Executive Action dared to suggest a conspiracy.
by Graham Hill
When the very subject of conspiracy is brought up in
polite conversation these days, it’s usually aimed at the policies and
administration of whoever happens to be in power.And since Vietnam, Watergate, 9-11 and the
whole Iraq War issue, conspiracy in itself is not as far-fetched and
dismissible as an Elvis or UFO sighting would be.Almost a half-century after the event, over 70% of Americans still believe there
was a conspiracy in the death of President John F. Kennedy. Those who dismiss the conspiracy theory, in essence, believe:
·the official Warren Commission report
conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing President John
·that the single “magic” bullet did all the
damage and was found pristine on the hospital stretcher
·that the bullet could have only come from
the Texas Schoolbook Depository to the rear, when so many witnesses and the
infamous Zapruder film show indicate Kennedy being fatally hit from the front
·that an ex-marine, who just so happens to
speak fluent Russian and who also monitored the U-2’s over Russia and knew all
classified codes and call signs for NORAD, could afford to fly to the Soviet
Union and receive a precious visa to enter the country, then renounce his U.S.
citizenship; then marry a KGB colonel’s daughter and be allowed to return to
·that the Dallas police department could issue
an APB under Oswald’s name, coupled with a full description, less than fifteen minutes after the
·that when Oswald was captured, the police
kept no transcript or record of his time
·that so many material witnesses could
coincidentally suffer fatal accidents
Whether you believe conspiracy one way or another, the
1973 movie Executive Action makes a
case for one, or at the very least the possibility for one –and it makes it
beyond a reasonable doubt and to a moral certainty.
In a movie industry obsessed with producing CGI-packed epics and animated family films, there doesn't seem to be much enthusiasm for quality films about real people. Last year saw an outstanding slew of intelligent films like Revolutionary Road, The Reader and The Wrestler, but their primary audiences never extended much beyond the urban art cinema crowd.There's no way around the simple fact that the public would rather see a brainless Transformers movie than any tale that might speak to the human heart or condition. Nonetheless, credit must be given to studios that still take the plunge and finance distribution of intelligent, well-made films.Case in point: Fox Searchlight's Amelia, which celebrates the life of Amelia Earhart. The film provides yet another solid role for Hillary Swank, who continues to impress as one of the most exciting actresses on screen today. The diversity of the roles she takes on is testimony to her talents and an indicant as to why she has already been awarded two Oscars.
Gelbart contests Dustin Hoffman's statements that he was the driving force behind the success of Tootsie.
Larry Gelbart, the late great comedy writer, gave what turned out to be his final interview to Vanity Fair. In it, there are some refreshingly candid admissions: he came to detest his TV series M*A*S*H because CBS insisted upon using a laugh track over his objections. Regarding the smash big screen comedy Tootsie, it's clear that Gelbart had no love for Dustin Hoffman, who he accused of trying to hog the credit for the film's success. Click here to read.
The Sexuality and Spirituality of a Porn Priestess
By Graham Hill
Having already paid tribute to Georgina Spelvin and
Juliet Anderson, I now complete my Cinema Retro porn legends trilogy by introducing you to another sexual superstar
from the “Golden Era” – Kay Taylor Parker. Naturally, as you might expect, all three
ladies have moved on from those bygone days of love and lust on the big screen.And just as Georgina and Juliet are so different
and fascinating, so is Kay.In fact, Kay is completely different in that her status as a porn star is just one
of many lives that the now sixty-five year old beauty has experienced.I will
not attempt to explain each and every
one of them, but I will acquaint you with her body and soul.
It may be a taboo subject for some, but Taboo (1980) is the movie that Kay Parker is best remembered for.You could say that she was one of the first
to launch the mature woman/ younger man trend that is so prevalent today.Once upon a time, before
X-rated movies became totally obsessed with Botoxed beauties sporting
store-bought breasts and pre-pubescent genitalia, the actresses in the industry
relied on their natural assets – including Kay, whose 38-DD bust line made her
an instant superstar in the X rated film business.Entering the adult scene at age 33, she
exuded not just maturity, but a sense of warmth and charm that elevated any scene
she was in. Kay was born in Birmingham,
England in 1944.The middle child of a typical
working class British family, with her father being a sailor in the Royal Navy,
she unfortunately didn’t have many fond childhood memories.She recalls her father being a harsh
disciplinarian who oftenaccused her of “acting
up.”To say that Kay is a believer in
re-incarnation and the metaphysical world is an understatement for someone who believes she has lived 182
lives.She is totally and completely
convinced of having been born in Atlantis 48,000 years ago.For a better understanding, I refer you to
her book Taboo –Sacred Don’t Touch or
to her website.Kay is not your
usual porn-star profile, she’s very much her own person and is extremely beautiful, highly intelligent
and ultra compassionate.
Movie lovers have always taken a shining to the deceased twins from Stanley Kubrick's only horror flick.
The fun folks at the addictive web site www.onlygoodmovies.com have an amusing homage to the creepiest kids to ever appear in movies. (No, it doesn't cover home movies, so don't look for your siblings here.) Click here to read
In a previous article, I introduced you to Georgina
Spelvin –the Devil in Miss Jones
star.From the feedback I received, I
gather there are quite a few Cinema Retro readers out there who not only long
for the days of mainstream classic cinema –but classic porn as well.As your wish is our command, you’re about to
meet another icon of porn’s “Golden Age” –Juliet Anderson.She may not sound as familiar to some of you
as Georgina or Marilyn Chambers, but to her many devoted fans throughout
the world she was incomparable.Whether
billed as Juliet Anderson or her often used screen persona “Aunt Peg”,here was a mature, sexy and sensual woman who
could take on the best studs and the best beauties in the business - and enjoy the sex just as much as any of us who were eagerly
watching her. With her short, swept back blonde hair and her trademark black
stockings, garter belt and neck scarf, Juliet was the most seductive, teasing
temptress to ever grace the adult screen.Her orgasms were real, evidenced by that wicked smile on her face, every
time she was about to devour that particularly lucky guy or gal.Her energy was electrifying and explosive.
Juliet knew what her fans wanted and delivered it every time.She never gave a bad performance and
consequently saved many a lackluster movie with her wild improvisational and
comedic style. Miss Anderson wasn’t just in control –she took control, as her
various directors discovered early on. She knew how to get the action going,
making up dialogue and bits of business on the spot.We’ve all heard a lot of dirty talking in
porn movies –but no one could do it sexier and sincerer than our Juliet.
She’s the kind of “Aunt” that many of us in our
misspent youth, always lusted for. Juliet was the oldest actress to enter the
business, which in those days was still a small cottage industry financed by
mobsters, dentists and others who would rather not reveal their real
names.In the early 1970’s, adult films
like Deep Throat, Devil in Miss Jones and Behind the Green Door had kicked the door in as far as acceptance and censorship were concerned.The adult bookstore, peepshow arcade and
movie theatre were now a part of the urban landscape throughout the
country.The term “porn chic” was on
everyone’s lips thanks to the so-called “In Crowd” and even the monologues on
Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show”.Hollywood stars were watching X-rated movies alongside the usual men
with raincoats on their laps. However by 1978, the “chic” part of porn was
wearing a bit tawdry with the “In Crowd”, but certainly not with the “raincoat
crowd”.Business was booming, adult
films were still being shot on film, even with Panavision cameras in some
cases.There was at least the pretense of
a story or plot to all the screwing going on up on the big screen.The mob family “wise guys” couldn’t believe
their luck.For mere peanuts, they could
find so many beautiful people willing to have sex on film, without incurring those bothersome health or pension benefits let alone
residuals. Whilst Hollywood was going through the usual rollercoaster ride of
box-office profits, the porn moguls couldn’t count all their money quick
The Times of London takes a look at the director Sam Peckinpah's off-beat action film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia starring Warren Oates. The article examine's the film's merits and why it was dismissed by critics and the public when first released in the 1970s. To read click here
Variety has reviewed director Michael Mann's Public Enemies starring Johnny Depp as Depression era gangster legend John Dillinger. The verdict is mixed, as reviewer Todd McCarthy says the production values are fine, the script is intelligent but Depp's portrayal of Dillinger is too restrained and under-played. To read click here
As the new Star Trek film surpasses the box-office gross of all its predecessors, critic William Bradley - a dyed in the wool Trekker- reflects back on the history of the series and how its recent rebirth mirrors that of the James Bond franchise. He provides plenty of interesting film clips of how Trek continues to influence everything from pop culture to politics. (President Obama recently gave the Vulcan salute on two occasions at one event!) To read click here
Well, it's midnight and I've just returned from attending the world's first showing of the new Star Trek film in IMAX format in New York City at the Loews Lincoln Center. When Paramount sent me the invitation, I confess I thought twice about attending. The reason is that I'm probably the only baby boomer who grew up in the 1960s and managed to emerge knowing almost nothing about Star Trek. Although I have seen some of the first feature films based on the show, I have never seen a complete episode of the original series. Nor have I seen any of the sequels, prequels or spin-offs. Wait - it gets better. Some years ago, I was introduced to Leonard Nimoy and only chatted briefly about films he directed, with nary a mention of his pointy-eared alter-ego (I think he was grateful, actually). Finally, back in 1990s, I was in L.A. to appear on a TV program and found myself backstage in the green room with a wonderfully witty gentleman whose face looked familiar, but whose name I couldn't place. After talking for about an hour about WWII history and the injuries he sustained in the war, I asked him what he did for a living. "I'm an actor", he said. "My name is James Doohan and you probably know me from Star Trek". Doohan was kind enough to say that my ignorance was refreshing, as it afforded him a rare opportunity to discuss something unrelated to the series, but I justifiably felt like an idiot. I tell you all of this because it is important for you to know that when I attended the Star Trek premiere, I had little interest in the film, and was far more intrigued by the prospect of simply enjoying the IMAX experience. Two hours later, I emerged from the theater a full-fledged Trek enthusiast, now determined to catch up with what others had the foresight to appreciate nearly a half century ago. The new Star Trek is a modern sci-fi classic and a personal triumph for director J.J. Abrams, who has reinvigorated the series in the way that both James Bond and Batman have been revitalized. This is your father's Star Trek - and that's meant as a compliment.
This is a movie so filled with energy, creativity and surprises that I will refrain from spilling most of the specifics here. Suffice it to say, you don't have to be a Trekker to appreciate its merits. While I am generally pretty grumpy about the overuse of CGI in films, this is a case where it is obviously merited - and they are the best CGI effects I have ever seen onscreen. However, Abrams- working with a literate and witty script by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman - has not lost sight of the fact that the series was about the human element (or Vulcan element, as the case may be.) The story tells how all the aspects of the original series came into being. I have no idea whether these plot developments have been explored previously in various Trek films and series, but they were new to me, including the surprising revelation that Kirk and Spock started their relationship as adversaries. The film traces how Kirk progressed from a brilliant but rebellious troublemaker into commander of the Enterprise - and how he assembled the now legendary crew. No one envies actors who take over legendary characters played by other beloved actors, but the most exciting revelation about the new movie is the brilliant casting. Virtually every role is a gem and is played by actors with extraordinary talent and charisma. Topping the list, of course, are Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, playing Kirk and Spock respectively. Both were unknown to me, though I understand Quinto is one of the stars of Heroes. (Since I haven't watched episodic TV since Mr. Ed was ratings gold, I was unfamiliar with his work.) Both actors generate the kind of chemistry enjoyed by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy in the original series. Amusingly, now freed by the constraints of TV censorship of the 1960s, Kirk's horndog instincts are on full display in funny sequences in which he tries to seduce the fetching Uhura (Zoe Saldana).We also get fascinating insights into Spock's motivations and background, extending to his early years on the planet Vulcan. The script hits all the right notes and Pine and Quinto (along with the rest of the cast), pay homage to their predecessors by invoking just enough familiar mannerisms without delving into cheap imitation.
Once upon a time…When Hollywood movies were actually
made in Hollywood, finding a suitable filming location was never a
problem.The movie makers simply went
out to their own backyard and started shooting!
Welcome to the place that got “shot-up” the most, the
mother of all movie ranches – Iverson’s.Return with us now, to those thrilling matinee days of yesteryear.Where the “Duke” boarded a particular Stagecoach (1939) that would go on to
take him to stardom.Where The Lone Ranger (1949) could be found
riding up to that certain rock each week to rear his horse.On screen, Iverson’s could be both the Wild
West and India, too.From hard riding,
two-fisted westerns to death-defying cliff hanging serials, in over 3,000
movies and TV shows, the ranch became one of the industry’s most recognizable
This photo from Jerry England's web site www.cowboyup.com is one of many that provide fascinating "then-and-now" records of the Iverson Ranch. England's photo caption reads: (Above) In the center of this photo is the construction site for the Toll Brothers condominiums. The Middle Iverson Ranch was (#5) the apartments to the right. The Garden of the Gods (#3) were located on the Lower Iverson Ranch. The 118 Freeway (can't be seen in photo) separates the Middle and Lower Iverson Ranch areas. The Iverson western street was located where (#2) the Indian Hills Mobile Home Village sits today. The eastern edge of the Bell Moving Picture Ranch was (#4) and the Chatsworth Reservoir is (#1).
Now before we set foot on the ranch, it’s important
that you understand what the Hollywood Studio Zone is all about and how it
relates to Iverson’s.The Studio Zone is
an area that takes in everything within a 30-mile radius of the Hollywood
studios and basically includes all of
greater Los Angeles.The Zone’s
northwest corner is primarily where, once upon a time, some two dozen movie
ranches were located.It was and still
is the place where you found the wild open spaces, the dusty trails, the rocky
canyons - all within an easy drive of
studio soundstages.It’s one of the
reasons why the movie industry moved here in the first place.Still, the industry producers and the unions
needed to mark out a work zone.From a
location standpoint, everything outside of the zone was considered a “distant
location”, which translated to more expensive hotel stays, per-diem costs and
so on.Locations within the zone were
considered “local”, thus were favored by studios and producers. Location!Location! Location! is the byword
in real estate.However in Hollywood,
it’s more a case of “A tree is a tree. A
rock is a rock. Shoot it in Griffith Park”.At least three Hollywood producers are credited with saying that.A good many more , though, said simply “Let’s shoot it at Iverson’s.”
Located at the very northwestern tip of the zone, where
the famed San Fernando Valley meets the Simi Valley, is the Santa Susana Pass
and that’s where you would have found the Iverson Ranch.In the business it was known as Iverson’s
because there were two Iverson Ranches, the “upper” and the” lower”.The “upper” belonged to Aaron Iverson and the
“lower” to his brother Joe.There was no
dividing physical fence even though the brothers were not the best of friends,
as that would have hindered filming and affected their income.Back in the days of the “real” West, the
Santa Susana Pass was one of the main routes the stagecoach used to travel over
the mountains and into Los Angeles.In
1880, a stagecoach brought a Swedish immigrant named Augusta Wagman to the San
Fernando Valley and the small frontier-like community of Chatsworth.She purchased a 160-acre piece of rocky,
hilly land that was not at all suited to farming.Augusta’s homestead was remote and seemed to
be even hotter in the summer and colder in the winter, than any of her
neighbors.Needing help as well as
company, she went on to marry a Norwegian immigrant Karl Iverson and started a
family.This was many years before the
San Fernando Valley became the cement prairie of tract homes and shopping malls
it is today - long before it ever became known as “The Valley”. This 22
mile-long stretch of flatland, all 177 square-miles of it, was mostly worthless
and dried-up desert.But all that
changed in 1913, when city engineer William Mulholland built a 223 mile-long
aqueduct to bring water to an ever thirsty Los Angeles. Suddenly, when that
mighty faucet was turned-on, the land wasn’t so worthless anymore. Almost
overnight, things began to grow and the “valley” started to turn green.However, for the Iverson family -now with two
sons- things had already started turning green the year before.
In 1912, a movie location scout happened by and
introduced the Iverson’s to a new cash crop called movie ranching. This
peculiar new enterprise involved renting out land not for planting, but for
making movies.The Iverson’s decided to
give movie location-ranching a try and at first, Karl and Augusta supervised
the needs of the visiting movie companies themselves.By the mid-1920’s, their sons Aaron and Joe
also became involved.Upon the death of
Karl Iverson in 1947, his will dictated that the now 500-acre property be
divided between them.Aaron got the “upper” ranch and Joe the
“lower”.Like the brothers themselves,
each ranch had its own characteristics or features that movie companies
sought.The main attraction at Iverson’s
period and the sole location star was on the “lower” ranch –a place nicknamed “The
Garden of The Gods”.This “rock star”
(pardon the pun) has made so many appearances in movies and television shows,
it’s just about the most photographed piece of sandstone on the planet.It’s believed that these two strange and
imposing rocks were named by an early location scout who thought they rather
resembled a similar rock formation in Colorado.Oddly enough years later, they were prominently featured in the Glenn
Ford western The Man from Colorado (1948).In John Ford’s classic Stagecoach (1939), the “Gods” are seen
in the background as the stage pulls into the Apache Wells relay station.Earlier in an area adjacent to the “Gods”, is
where John Wayne first boards the stage - and close to that is the location of
the burned-out ferry scene. John Ford, who always knew the value of a good
location, had previously used the ranch to stand-in for India for the Shirley
Temple picture Wee Willie Winkie (1937).For that film, he had a British colonial fort
set constructed at great cost. Speaking
of colonial India, the Lower Iverson was a star in both Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936).Apart from having the most photogenic rocks
and the original Iverson homestead, the lower ranch was also famous for its
canyon trails.In the $2 million
production of They Died with Their Boots
On (1941), star Errol Flynn as General Custer escorts a wagon train through
the Black Hills… only to be ambushed by Indians near “The Garden of The
Gods”.In another Warner Brothers
western Carson City (1952) with
Randolph Scott, viewers will recognize a rock cliff formation with a solitary
tree growing out of the top known as “Nyoka Rock”.Yes –all the great rocks have names, but this
one is named for one of the many literally cliff-hanging Republic serials Perils of Nyoka (1942).However, in numerous westerns including Carson City (1952), the panoramic view
from “Nyoka Rock” is even more enhanced, when a period locomotive is seen on
the Southern Pacific train tracks of the Santa Susana Pass in the distance.Before serial actor Clayton Moore put on a
mask for good, he was wearing it for the usual bad reasons, as when he starred
in Republic’s Adventures of Frank &
Jesse James (1948).When, as kids,
we attended those Saturday matinees at our local theaters, we didn’t pay much
attention to the backgrounds in action-packed movies; if we had we would have
noticed the curious rock formation that Clayton Moore was standing on.On television each week, he would go on to rear
his white horse up by another rock
whilst letting out with the words “Hi –Yo- Silver -Away”.Through one of television’s earliest hits, The Lone Ranger (1949), the aptly named
“Indian Head Rock” would forever become immortalized.
Indian Head Rock became immortalized by The Lone Ranger TV show.
The rock today as photographed by Kevin Closson, whose blog provides a great history of the site along with many contemporary photos and film clips from movies shot at the location. Click here to visit.
The real beauty of independent movie ranches like
Iverson’s and those that the studios owned themselves, is that anything shot
there could be easily intercut with footage from distant locations like Lone
Pine and Monument Valley.A rider could
leave town, usually a set on a studio backlot, ride across the prairie of one
particular movie ranch, get ambushedby
the rocks at Iverson’s and get taken into another town, which is yet another
set on the backlot of yet another studio.It would all be edited seamlessly and you’d assume it was all a
continuous shot.Even “poverty row”
productions filmed this way.Basically,
all the scenery they could ever want was in the Studio Zone.If it wasn’t –well there was always stock footage
that could be cut in to make it all seem even grander than it actually
was.The movies by definition are an
illusion and nobody understood that better than cost conscious Hollywood.Again –“A tree is a tree. A rock is a rock.
Shoot it” in the Studio Zone.That was
the prevailing philosophy up until the late 1960’s.
In our continuing look at films nominated for major Oscar awards, Cinema Retro editor-in-chief Lee Pfeiffer weighs in on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Although it's not fashionable to say so, I really loved Forrest Gump. The movie worked for me on every level and, at the risk of sounding like I've been Oprahized, I found it to be very touching and immensely moving. That should really get me kicked out of the Sam Peckinpah Society, but so be it.Thus, I had been entranced with the teaser trailer for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the David Fincher film that boasts a screenplay by Eric Roth, who also wrote the script for Gump. The premise of a story in which the main character ages backwards seemed very intriguing and I tried to overcome my innate prejudice against Brad Pitt's performances in the hopes that this rich, character-driven role would inspire something akin to his early promise. The result is a mixed bag.The story traces the bizarre case of a baby who is born with the physical characteristics of an old man. His mother dies in childbirth and his father abandons the baby to the care of a kindly black woman who runs a nursing home. It is here that Benjamin grows up, trying to cope with the ravages of old age while still technically a toddler. His life takes an equally unexpected turn when it is discovered that he is growing younger. The revelation is welcomed on one level: his health and looks improve over the years, but leads to the inevitable quandry of the people he loves most dying off as he regresses in age.The scenario is a fascinating one and director Fincher unfolds the tale in a lyrical and sensitive way. The movie's extended running time (166 minutes) is also most welcome, as this is a story that introduces many main characters and shows how each impacts Benjamin's life.
Despite those qualities, I had mixed feelings after viewing the movie. It's hard to say where it goes wrong, because most of the main ingredients (the performances, production design, music, etc) are all impressive. Perhaps it's the oft-criticized aspects of the script, which sometimes feels as though this should be titled Forrest Gump Light. Roth's parallels to the earlier film are so prevalent that they become a distraction. The script throws in a abundance of wise-cracking southern belles, including Benjamin's adoptive mother, who, like Forrest's, has a witticism and home spun advice for every occasion. However, unlike the character of Forrest Gump, Benjamin Button never resonates with the audience on an emotional level. He seems to be the catalyst for far more interesting characters to interact around him - an opaque observer of his own life. Part of the problem is the casting of Brad Pitt. As I've often stated, Pitt is a highly competent actor who never gives a bad performance. However, he also rarely connects with viewers in an emotional way. Pitt gets the technical challenges of playing the character down pat (with the help of excellent makeup artists), but the younger he gets, the less interesting his performance becomes. In contrast Cate Blanchett as the woman who loves him despite knowing of the inevitable tragedies that lie ahead, dominates the film with a powerful and touching performance.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has been nominated for an astounding 13 Oscars - but the critics have been split on the film since the day it opened. It's a noble attempt to tell an intelligent story and is well worth seeing - but I predict there won't be any Oscar wins except in technical categories.
They were legendary collaborators who teamed for some of the greatest films of all time. Alfred Hitchcock and his favorite composer Bernard Hermann joined forces to create the masterpieces Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho and others. However, their friendship became strained when Hitchcock approached Hermann to score his 1966 spy thriller Torn Curtain. Hitchcock, whose box-office standings had slumped in recent years, had been bullied by Universal mogul Lew Wasserman to produce a more contemporary style of music that would be in keeping with the spy movies of the era. Hermann largely ignored this demand and produced what he felt was a very suitable score. This resulted in his being fired from the film and replaced by composer John Addison. The strain between the two creative geniuses would never been resolved, though both men would have a creative renaissance: Hitchcock with his last great film, Frenzy, and Hermann through his collaborations with a new generation of filmmakers like Brian DePalma and Martin Scorsese. Writer Steve Vertlieb has an excellent essay that tells of the rise and fall of the Hitchcock/Hermann creative partnership. To read, visit the web site dedicated to Hermann by clicking here
In a dumbed-down world, it's truly gratifying that director Ron Howard managed to convince a major studio (Universal) to back his screen adapation of the stage play Frost/Nixon. The play centered on the bizarre pairing of chat show host David Frost with former President Richard M. Nixon, who had resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal in 1974. In the ensuing years, Nixon kept a low profile and took only limited responsibility for the cover-up of the bugging of Democratic campaign headquarters. Nixon presented his main flaw as being too loyal to errant staff members, but never really apologized for his actions or spoke candidly about the fact that he was front-and-center in masterminding the cover-up. Howard's film presents Frost's painstaking efforts to convince Nixon to sit down for a series of in-depth interviews. At the time, Frost was considered a lightweight, amiable talent with no credentials for such a task. His star had begun to erode and he was presently hosting an embarrassing "Believe It-Or-Not"-type program for Australian TV. Ever the optimist, however, Frost was convinced that landing Nixon would be the coup of a lifetime - and he was smart enough to hire aggressive politicos as producers, who kept reminding him of the gravity of his responsibility. If he were to ask lightweight questions or let Nixon control the interviews, his reputation would have been permanently damaged.
Frost managed to basically bribe Nixon into doing the interviews by offering the money-hungry President a (then) whopping $600,000 fee. However, Nixon was more motivated by his opportunity to manipulate Frost into allowing the sessions to present revisionist history that would take the tarnish off his reputation. After landing the deal, Frost found out to his amazement that none of the American TV networks were interested in broadcasting the pieces. Even then, the networks were more concerned about presenting money-making entertainment shows than informing the public. The film presents Frost's panic-stricken attempts to salvage the project by getting independent financing and selling the interviews as syndicated specials. In fact, he shot the interviews before even closing the deal on how to pay for them. In the first three of the four interviews, Frost allowed the media-savvy Nixon to take control. The result was a boring rendition of history from Nixon's viewpoint, as the former President practically did cartwheels to avoid hard questions. Ron Howard's film really comes alive when Frost realizes that he has one opportunity left to nail Nixon to the floor by soliciting an admission of guilt in the cover-up and an apology to the American people. It's amazing how much suspense Howard wrings out of a scenario in which most politically-informed people already know the conclusion. Howard also does yeoman work in transporting the audience back to the 1970s. Everything feels genuine: the wide ties, peasant dresses, floppy hats and ugly furniture and wallpaper.
The centerpiece of the film, of course, are the performances of the leads: Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost. Both are simply brilliant. In viewing the trailer, one might think otherwise about Langella. At first glance, he doesn't look too much like Richard Nixon, however, within minutes you realize he wasn't setting out to do a cheap imitiation of the man like a drunk with a lampshade on his head. Langella captures every nuance of the Nixon's gestures, mannerisms and speech. It's an astounding achievement and should earn Langella the Oscar. As for Sheen, he is equally good, but once again, this superb actor is overshadowed by a more attention-getting co-star, as he was with Helen Mirren in The Queen. Yet, he's fascinating every step of the way, transforming Frost from a shallow skirt-chaser to a man who matures literally overnight in the wake of his greatest career crisis. The film also points out that both Nixon and Frost had much to gain or lose from this bold attempt to salvage their reputations. The screenplay does indulge in a bit of anti-Nixon wet dreaming with an epilogue that suggests he basically remained in shame and oblivion until his death in 1994. In fact, the Frost interviews were the first step in his long return to the public forum. Every president who followed him consulted him about foreign policy, even Bill Clinton who extolled Nixon's undeniable achievements in that area when he delivered his eulogy. Nevertheless, Nixon, who was perhaps the most complex political figure of the 20th century, never did escape his crimes and was haunted by his status as the only president to ever resign from office.
The movie's greatest pleasure is the build-up to the climactic interview, which centers on the Watergate crime. Both Nixon and Frost are prepped by their handlers as though this is a heavyweight boxing match. When the two men do finally confront each other over the most important topic, it's like watching Sherlock Holmes pitting himself against Prof. Moriarty. Both men consider the other their enemy, but there is a grudging mutual respect. The film, which is certainly anti-Nixon, never makes the mistake of making him into a cartoon villain. As with Oliver Stone's biopic about him, Nixon emerges as a somewhat sympathetic character - a man whose obsession with showing off the snobs that he could succeed, ultimately led him to prove their predictions of failure to come true.
Frost/Nixon is just one of a crop of refreshingly intelligent films released in 2008. Let's hope the trend continues.
(The film has been nominated for five Oscars: Best Director, Best Actor, Screenplay and Editing)
In a column for the New York Times, writer Brent Staples offers some insightful opinions about how the recent remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still falls flat when compared to Robert Wise's original film. Staples points out that the recent obsession with all things CGI has robbed the sci-fi film genre of the key ingredient of character development. To read click here
I caught up with Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino at Robert DeNiro's Tribeca Screening Room in New York the other night. I have to admit I was optimistic, given the fine reviews the movie has received. While in production, it didn't sound very promising. The title alone is rather vague with its bland reference to a 1972 car, which I learned to drive in (Not very well at the time, which may have explained my skepticism). However, Eastwood is a master at surprising the audience. Million Dollar Baby came out of nowhere with no fanfare and a title that made it sound like an old Busby Berkeley musical. Yet, it received universal critical acclaim and won the major Oscars that year. Gran Torino is a similar experience. Shot in a little over a month with very little publicity, this is the film that lured Eastwood back to acting after stating that Million Dollar Baby would be his last time before the cameras. Good thing he had a change of heart, as this is the performance of his career. Having grown up (literally) on Eastwood's films - and having been an childhood addict of the Leone Dollars films - I have always been an admirer of the iconic star. However, with few exceptions, I would not say any of his performances have been worthy of Oscar consideration. Certainly, he earned his nominations for his superb work in Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. However, I always felt that -like John Wayne and Cary Grant- he was such a towering screen presence that audiences would never be able to accept him playing an everyday character like the guy next door. In Gran Torino he proves otherwise and delivers a performance of great depth and skill. He should be the front runner for the Best Actor Oscar, but his failure to nab a Golden Globe nomination may not bode well for the honor.
The film finds Eastwood, who refreshingly always plays his true age, as Walt Kowalski, a grumpy recently-widowed man who lives in a suburban Michigan neighborhood that is gradually being overtaken by Hmong immigrants. Kowalski, who worked fifty years on a Ford assembly line, can barely hide his disgust at feeling like a stranger in his own land. He mutters racial insults every time his neighbors set foot on is property and seems content to seal off the world and live out the rest of his days sitting on his front porch drinking cheap Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and smoking cigarettes. When some Hmong gangbangers try to forcibly recruit his teenage neighbor Thao (charismatic Bee Vang), Walt reluctantly intervenes, thus making him a hero to his grateful neighbors. He wants no part of them and shuts out their attempts to show their gratitude. When Thao is forced into making an ill-fated attempt to steal Walt's prized Gran Torino, the family makes the young man redeem his honor by having him work at odd-jobs at Walt's house. A tense relationship ensues, but ultimately Walt sees that the sensitive young man is doomed if he falls under the spell of the gangbangers. He gradually becomes a mentor and father figure to the young man and his older sister (superbly played by Ahney Her) and before long, Walt is a welcome, if awkward presence in his neighbor's house. Eastwood milks the subtle humor of this situation for all it's worth as he tries to open his eyes and accept the value of another culture. He realizes the Hmong are good people with the same values he has, but they are being terrorized by wayward members of their own community. When the threat becomes so implicit that it will destroy the young man he has mentored, Walt decides to take drastic action to resolve the situation in a highly creative manner.
Eastwood the director is at the top of his game here and does not spare Eastwood the actor any semblance of vanity. Almost defiantly proud of his 78 years of age, Eastwood has the camera focus in intense close-ups on his face, making it appear like a weather-beaten sail. The excellent script by novice screenwriter Nick Schenk has many parallels to John Wayne's final film The Shootist - and I'm amazed that no other critic I'm aware of has yet to point them out. The homage is certainly intentional. Consider:
In both films, an aging tough guy forms an unlikely friendship with a young man (Ron Howard in The Shootist) who is being lured into a wayward life style.
There is the presence of a strong female family member who encourages him to act as a mentor. (In the Wayne film, Lauren Bacall played Howard's mother). In Gran Torino, the role is given to Thao's sister.
In both films, the aging hero just wants to be left alone to live out his remaining days in solitude, but he becomes reluctantly drawn into a world of violence in order to protect the people he cares about.
There are also key scenes set in barber shops. In The Shootist, there is a humorous sequence in which Wayne's character humiliates a vulture-like undertaker played by John Carradine. In Gran Torino, the barber (John Carroll Lynch) is a friend of Walt's who helps him "initiate" young Thao into the world of real men by hurling good-natured, filthy ethnic insults at one another.
Finally, in The Shootist, the distressed Wayne character gets some solace and advice from a sympathetic doctor (James Stewart). In Gran Torino, it's a young priest (an excellent Christopher Carley) who manages to finally break through to Walt Kowalski.
The most obvious parallel to The Shootist is that it afforded John Wayne perhaps his greatest performance in the last movie he ever made. Fortunately, Eastwood is in able enough shape to continue directing films, but there is a real chance this might be his last acting role. If not, it will be hard to top. He magnificently manages to convey the image of an every day working stiff - and I knew he had succeeded when it didn't look silly or pretentious to see Clint Eastwood mowing a lawn (with a push mower, yet!). The film succeeds beautifully on all levels and puts to shame the over-produced, over-budgeted hokum coming out of most studios. Working mean and lean with members of his fabled Malpaso Productions, Eastwood manages to get superb performances from his entire cast. The ending is emotionally riveting, even when it takes a surprising turn. To top it off, Eastwood also wrote the haunting title song and croaks out part of it as well. Back in the early 1980s I wrote a book called The Films of Clint Eastwood. I remember my editor being astounded at its success. He said to me, "But you treated him like he was some kind of world-class filmmaker". I'd like to find that editor today and take him to a screening of Gran Torino to see his response. I'm not one for saying "I told you so" but in this case, it would be merited.- Lee Pfeiffer
Michael Russnow of The Huffington Post doesn't consider himself a huge fan of Clint Eastwood's acting, saying most of his performances have been non-distinguished. However, Russnow is gushing over Eastwood's work in Gran Torino, calling it a superb achievement and comparing this late career role to that of Rooster Cogburn, the role that won John Wayne his only Oscar. For more click here
Writer David Cairns extolls the virtues of Billy Wilder's ill-fated, but remarkably entertaining The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes by focusing on a very brief, but memorable sequence that most viewers would overlook. The master detective would have been proud! To view click here
The outstanding British retro web site www.zani.co.uk has some excellent essays about films of the 1960s. Check out Spencer Hawken's review of the 1962 "kitchen sink" drama The L-Shaped Room starring Leslie Caron as a down-and-out-young woman trying to survive in London amidst a social circle of fellow misfits. The film caused a sensation in its day with its candid views of sexuality. To read click here
In 1971, 20th
Century-Fox scored a huge commercial and critical hit with The French Connection,
a hard-boiled thriller about the largest heroin bust in New York City’s history. Directed by William
Friedkin and starring Gene Hackman as Det. Eddie “Popeye” Doyle, the picture
presented a gritty, but idealized portrait of the police at work. In 1972,
wanting to capitalize on the picture’s success, Fox decided to produce a
sequel, a continuation of Doyle’s pursuit of Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), the
French drug lord who eludes capture at the end of Friedkin’s film. The studio decided to have the picture
shot in Marseilles, a port city in the south of France where
heroin production thrived in the early Seventies. Friedkin, however, was
uninterested in working on a sequel and so the chiefs at Fox approached John
Frankenheimer, who had lived in France
and spoke the language fluently. Although Frankenheimer had enjoyed a great
deal of success in the Sixties with pictures like The Manchurian Candidate, Seven
Days in May and Grand Prix,
nearly a decade had passed since he’d scored a box office hit. The opportunity
to work on a high-budget picture of this sort aroused his interest and he
accepted the offer.
The original script for French Connection II was prepared by
Robert Dillon, whose previous credits included, most notably, Roger Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. Once production commenced in the summer of
1974, however, Frankenheimer decided that he needed to have his script
re-worked. For the job, he recruited the novelist Pete Hamill, who’d actually known
Eddie Egan, the New York City
police detective upon whom Hackman’s character Popeye Doyle was based. In 2006,
Hamill recalled his involvement in the project:
[When Frankenheimer] called me from Marseilles, asking me to help, I said I would
try to get there within two days. "Why not one?" he said, and laughed
nervously. I never asked why he called me. Someone hand-delivered a script to
my place in New York
and I read it on the plane.
John, at that
time, had a major problem. He had already shot nine days of the existing script.
He had developed a reputation for going over budget, so had no flexibility. He
couldn't re-shoot what was already in the can.
That gave me a
problem too, since I had to write around the existing pieces, which, as always,
had been shot out of order. It was like working on a jigsaw puzzle. The basic
problem was that Hackman, a great movie actor, had nothing to act. And the
reason for that was that Roy Scheider was not in the sequel, and Hackman had
nobody to bounce his lines off. He would never talk to a French cop the way he
talked to Scheider in the Billy Friedkin original.
first work was on the following day's pages, trying to make the character sound
like Popeye Doyle….Within a day-and-a-half (with naps in between) I had
written enough for them to keep shooting for six or seven days….Hackman was
ecstatic. He had something to act!
French Connection II begins shortly after the first film ends, with Doyle arriving in France on April
Fool’s Day. As the only person who can identify Charnier, Doyle has been sent
by his supervisors to assist the Marseilles
police as they search for the elusive kingpin. Vulgar and loud, Doyle alienates
himself quickly from his counterparts in Marseilles,
a group of “narcs” led by the level-headed Henri Barthelmy (Bernard Fresson).
Annoyed by Barthelmy’s cautious approach to law enforcement, Doyle soon sets
out on his own. In his porkpie hat and Hawaiian shirts, he cuts a clownish
figure on the foreign city’s streets and he is quickly spotted and subsequently
abducted by Charnier’s men. Imprisoning him in a slum hotel for three weeks,
Charnier injects Doyle with heroin, with the hope that this will loosen his
lips. The tactic breaks the detective, transforming him into a helpless addict.
But it doesn’t yield any helpful information and Charnier returns the captive
to the police. As he explains to Doyle, just before he frees him: “We
take you back, Doyle, to your friends. They are looking for you everywhere and
making it difficult for me to operate.”
Renewal invariably follows
demoralization in many of Frankenheimer’s pictures and the same happens here.
Forced by Barthelmy to quit his addiction “cold turkey,” Doyle suffers
horribly, bursting into tears at one point. But he makes it through and sets
out on his own to locate the hotel where he was kept prisoner. Once he finds
it, he sets the building on fire and snags one of Charnier’s men. The goon
provides information which eventually leads Doyle and his French counterparts
to the lab where Charnier’s people process heroin. Charnier rushes off, though,
as the police close in, just as he did in the first movie. But Doyle, weak and
limping, runs after him and a chase commences through the congested city,
ending when the detective spots his adversary sailing out of the harbor on a
yacht. Drawing his gun from the holster he wears on his ankle, Doyle fires two
shots into Charnier’s chest, presumably killing him. But Frankenheimer closes
the movie at this point, denying his viewers a denouement of any sort, leaving
open the possibility that the pursuit may continue in the future.
French Connection II is an
often harrowing examination of the dangers that result when people flout the
law for personal gain. Charnier, of course, may be the most offensive example
of this criminal self-centeredness. A bon vivant, he uses the money he earns
from his drugs business to make his life exceedingly comfortable, spending it
on fine clothes, hunting trips and beautiful women. His success, however, rests
upon a willingness to exploit human weakness, a great sin in itself. Yet, as
Frankenheimer shows us, it also has a terrible, imitative effect, breeding a
culture of addicts and thieves who, like Charnier, seize upon the weak. Such is
the case with an old woman in the hotel, who steals Doyle’s watch. The problem
not only transcends gender, age and nationality, but occupation, too. A sleazy
U.S. Army general (Ed Lauter) is one of Charnier’s collaborators.
Though Doyle has no apparent
interest in financial gain, he is similarly guilty of flouting the law for
private reasons, sidestepping civil liberties and human rights when they
interfere with his pursuit. To some degree, this brutal approach is effective,
leading him and Barthelmy to Charnier’s heroin. But it is also ugly. Early in
the film, for instance, Doyle amuses himself as he explains to a suspect:
I’m going to work on your arms. I’ll
set ’em over a curb. And I’m going to use them for a trampoline. I’m going to
jump up and down on them. Right? Then your kneecaps. One. Two. Kneecaps.
Oatmeal. I’m going to make oatmeal out of your…kneecaps. And when I get done
with you, you are going to put me right in Charnier’s lap.
Yet Doyle, despite
these repellant qualities, is difficult to reject completely. Far from his New York City stomping
grounds, the detective, like the fish on the tables that appear at the
beginning of the film, is out of his element, completely separated from people
who think, act and speak like him. Certainly, he behaves in a ludicrous manner
frequently, translating the word “mayonnaise” into French and ordering “el
scotcho” at a bar. But the character’s basic problem, the alienation felt by
the émigré, is hardly unique or strange; and because of this, in spite of his
many defects, he is recognizable, understandable and sympathetic.
Like the first French Connection,
Frankenheimer’s picture is a “police procedural,” a film that traces the
efforts of law enforcement officials as they conduct an investigation. In the
middle of this movie, however, the director breaks from the genre’s most
important convention by halting the detective hero’s pursuit, confining him
first to the cell-like room of the hotel and then the basement jail of the
Marseille police station. Some critics have maligned this turn in the
narrative. Roger Ebert, in his 1975 review, complained that it brings “the
movie to a standstill. The plot, the pursuit, the quarry, are all forgotten
during Hackman’s one-man show, and it’s a flaw the movie doesn’t overcome.”
These sequences do slow the story’s pace a bit, but they nevertheless
serve an important thematic function. In many of Frankenheimer’s films, extreme
suffering gives rise to important changes in his protagonists’ personalities.
For Doyle, the dialectal torture of addiction and withdrawal restores the drive
and commitment that characterized his pursuit of Charnier in the first film.
During the first third of French Connection II, that is, Doyle is
distracted and ineffectual, spending much of his time drinking, carousing and
picking fights with the people who can help him. But following the experience
with heroin, he returns to the dirty Marseilles
streets single-minded, not only avoiding drink and women, but working closely
with Barthelmy. He may or may not capture Charnier—we aren’t allowed to
know—but he certainly scores his revenge, besting him with the two bullets he
fires into his chest.
Though French Connection II is one of
the bleakest pictures Frankenheimer made, it is also one of the most thrilling,
thanks to spectacular sequences like the burning of the slum hotel and the
final chase, when Doyle runs after Charnier along the Marseilles harbor. The director realized that
the exaggerated quality of these scenes could arouse disbelief and thus he
tried to make them seem as authentic as possible. He explains on the commentary
he recorded for the film’s DVD release:
The key to doing a movie like this is to make every incident,
every moment of the movie as real and believable as you can. Once you, the
audience, feel betrayed by me, once you feel out of the movie, once you
feel,‘Oh these are only actors and this
is fake and this doesn’t look right,’ then the movie’s over for you, then
everything that happens after that doesn’t work. But if I can keep you involved
and keep you believing this looks rights this looks real, then I’m doing my
job. And that goes for the costumes, that goes for the sets, that goes for the
extra that’s way in the back of the room. One little thing that’s not right can
turn you off the whole movie.
To achieve the
verisimilitude he needed to make these scenes work, the director used several
tactics. He and his cameraman Claude Renoir employed shooting techniques
borrowed from cinéma-vérité, filming Marseilles’ buildings, its streets and its
citizens with handheld cameras and hidden cameras. He and production designer
Jacques Saulnier built sets which they modeled after real places, like the
city’s police station, a jail and the bottom-rung hotel. And Charnier’s lab,
incredibly, was built under the guidance of a group of Corsican heroin dealers
who had taken an interest in the film. The director also hired non-actors
whenever he could. The doctors who treat Popeye after his abduction, for
instance, were real doctors.
When French Connection II opened
in the spring of 1975, the reviews it received were generally favorable and its
performance at the box office was strong. The
New York Times’ Vincent Canby, for instance, wrote:
"The concerns of “French Connection II”
are not much different from those of
old Saturday-afternoon movie serials that used to place their supermen in jeopardy and then
figure ways of getting them out. The difference is in the quality of the supermen and in
is a colorful and interesting — though hardly noble — character, and when the Marseilles drug people
kidnap him, forcibly create a heroin habit in him, and then release him, you
have a very special kind of jeopardy that the film and Mr. Hackman exploit most
effectively. The perverse intensity and the anguish in these sequences recall some
of Mr. Frankenheimer's best work in “The Manchurian Candidate”.
Stephen B. Armstrong teaches writing at Dixie State College in St. George, Utah.
He is the author of Pictures About Extremes: The Films of John Frankenheimer
(McFarland, 2008).Click here to order from Amazon.