Archive

Decade

I started watching Michael Mann’s Tokyo Vice on HBO Max, which is excellent, and then I noticed that his big screen directorial debut was on Amazon Prime for free (Mann also wrote the picture).

I remember Thief primarily because the bad guy was Robert Prosky, a then-legend in D.C. theater (I went to high school with two of his sons, both theater kids). As a seemingly civilized crime boss branching out into legitimate investment, Prosky does not disappoint. He’s a sharp mix of warmly urbane and brutal and is at his best when wooing the uber-independent professional thief Frank (James Caan) to join up with his outfit. Prosky offers Caan all the tools necessary for big heists – including the materials, targets and dental – all the while “respecting” Caan’s ability to opt out of the game at his whim.  Simultaneously, Caan is wooing diner hostess Tuesday Weld, dreaming of that last score and getting out.       

Mann’s stylish sequences make great use of a perpetually wet, gray and grimy 1980 Chicago, and the industrial score by Tangerine Dream (an edgier Vangelis, who just died) adds to the noir-ish moodiness.

Sure, it is a little dated. The slo-mo shootout at the end, in particular, does not travel well. But the heist scenes are exciting, and there is a real chemistry between Caan and the several-times-around-the block Weld (their momentous date over coffee, which becomes a lifelong bond, is credible, no mean feat). Caan is riveting as a distrustful loner frantically trying to wrap it all up and get free. He plays Frank at a slow simmer, a man for whom control is so seminal, it devours him.        

Willie Nelson has a very strong turn – one scene – as a desperate convict, and you can also spot Chicago regulars Dennis Farina and William Peterson in small roles (and Jim Belushi in a larger one).   

I regularly monitor the streaming services for late 60s and 70s flicks. I may have seen them on regular rotation growing up on the 4 o’clock movie. Or my father may have taken me to the theater on his semi-regular weekend visits. Some are solid pictures, enhanced by my own nostalgia. Some are complete and utter poop. Mr. Majestyk is in the latter camp.

Charles Bronson, who squinted through an inordinate amount of theses paychecks through the 70s (Telefon, Breakout, Love and Bullets), plays a Vietnam Vet who just wants to be left alone to chisel the hourly wage down for his immigrant work force and pick watermelons. Alas, local Colorado thugs who want the work for white bums (so they can take a portion of their wages) intercede, Bronson messes them up, and soon, he’s in jail, where he meets and elicits the ire of a hitman (The Godfather‘s own Virgil Solozzo, Al Lettieri, who overacts inversely proportional to Bronson’s napping). Leaden car chases, nonsensical shootouts and wooden dialogue (penned by Elmore Leonard, no less) ensue.

The picture is clearly influenced by Billy Jack, the independent film made a few years prior on a shoestring which racked up a surprisingly healthy box office. Billy Jack is also not very good, but at least it had some camp value and the virtue of originality.

Charles Bernstein’s score is an elongated intro for a Mannix or Banacek. Maybe a McCloud. Gruesome horn, spinet and wah wah guitar. I suppose it is fitting because there is not an episode of one of those shows that is as dumb and listless as this picture.

Though if machine-gunning watermelons is your thing, this one is for you.

From 'Basic Instinct' to 'Showgirls': The rise and fall of the erotic  thriller

We were sitting down last night to eat Chinese, ready to watch the finale of The Alienist on HBO Max, when this popped on.  As I looked at my kung pao, and then at my wife, none too proud of myself, I asked, “Can we keep watching this until we see Sharon Stone’s genitalia?”

She acquiesced.

Sadly, that scene had passed, but we did watch the rest of the picture.  A few thoughts:

1) This is a “pre-proliferation of-internet pornography” picture, and even without the glimpse of Stone’s privates, I was impressed by the ample nudity (a lot of Stone, her girlfriend, and tons of Michael Douglas butt) and the extended sex scenes.

2) The film has aspirations to Hitchcock, but it is weak and often, hilariously mannered, and it essentially phones in any real suspense, substituting beautiful, inconvenient San Francisco locales for people to meet.

3) It is also rife with tropes, like the drunken buddy cop partner (George Dzundza), the sex so good your back gets scratched by fingernails, the hard-bitten cop who doesn’t need pencil-pushing headshrinkers messing with gut street instincts, and various versions of, “You’re way over the line, mister!”

4) It tries for a Suspicion-like ending but fails, with unintended comic results (how many times can Sharon Stone have an orgasm and at its peak, throw her hands down towards Douglas as if she were going to stab him with an ice pick?)

5) Michael Douglas has to be the most successful dick of a leading man in history,  Granted, he got his Oscar as Gordon Gekko, a true villain, but by leading man, I mean someone who is supposed to engender a smidgeon of empathy.  Sure, you felt bad for him in Fatal Attraction, but not really bad, even though a woman boiled his pet rabbit, kidnapped his child and tried to murder his family. He’s always at least half a dick.

6) The film has innumerable lazy turns, but my favorite is how no one ever takes Douglas “off the case” (sure, he is suspended, but he’s really up in the investigation all the way to his naked butt), despite sleeping with the suspect; killing her girlfriend (and providing a wildly implausible lie about how that happened); sleeping with his psychological counselor who works for the police; and beating up a colleague who later that night is found with a bullet in his temple.

Yet, the one time he is sidelined by his partner (“hey man, you can’t come up there with me, you’re suspended”), Douglas agrees and the partner gets fileted.

Plus, apparently, Douglas has “history” – 5 shootings in 6 years, two of which were tourists “caught in the crossfire.”

That’s one helluva a police union.

Anyway, the movie is bad, guilty pleasure watchable, and, as noted, overly dependent on Sharon Stone’s vagina.

Amazon.com: The Sand Pebbles [DVD] [1966]: Movies & TV

They really don’t make these kinds of films anymore. The broad, historical sweeping epics which found fashion in the 80s were for the most part not very good and none had any of the leisurely quiet moments or ambiguity of this picture. They blared big budget bloat and were neither smart or interesting. If you don’t believe me, give Gandhi, The Last Emperor, A Passage to India, The Mission, or Out of Africa another whirl without getting heavy-lidded. And if you want to venture into the 90s, three words of warning: Oliver Stone’s Alexander.  Or, Braveheart, The Patriot, Gangs of New York, Rob Roy, all blood and volume and ghastly excess. Titanic, beautifully photographed, with a script written for the mind of a chipmunk. Dances with Wolves? Lush, dull and uninvolving.

The 2000s? They remade Ben Hur into Grand Theft Chariot.

There are outliers. The Last of the Mohicans is very good and Master and Commander stellar. Gladiator is fun, but the fights and the CGI are what you remember.  

That’s about it.

The decline of the historical saga makes sense. The universality of social media and technology supplanted the novelty of on-site location in foreign, exotic locales, and today,  perhaps the quickest way to shut down a pitch meeting would be to explain that your film opens in/with “China 1926” and is 3 hours long.

The story revolves around the American naval presence in China in the 1920s and the travails of one particular vessel, the San Pablo (think hard to an old history course and see if you can dredge up “gunboat diplomacy”). Steve McQueen is the quiet, unsophisticated engineer, a grit-under-your-fingernails loner who has a good heart. An impossibly young Candice Bergen is an American missionary schoolteacher who takes a liking to him. Their relationship is interrupted by her missionary father, who believes the  American presence is creating havoc and, naively, that they are immune to the brutalities of war, and McQueen’s captain (Richard Crenna), a by-the-book leader losing his grip on the men with a vainglorious streak that proves lethal. Then, there are the tensions amongst the crew (which includes Richard Attenborough, Simon Oakland and the just recently deceased Gavin MaCleod), as some settle on McQueen as their own bad juju Jonah.

The visuals are stunning, the drama authentic, even in the show-ier style of the time. There’s also great but subtle cynicism in the picture, which quietly indicts American imperialism and cultural bigotry while reinforcing its values, and it has a decided championing of the little guy, be he Chinese or American.

But what really struck me were the visuals and the leisurely pace.  To watch a movie on the big screen where the grandeur and beauty of a foreign land was a star equal to the actors and 3 hours at the movies was just ducky must have been quite something in 1966.

An aside; when I was was a kid, I’d come from grade school and religiously watch the 4 o’clock movie, which included this picture. To be precise, it included parts of this picture, because you had to fit it into 2 hours, with commercials.

The movie, directed by Robert Wise, was nominated for best picture, cementing McQueen as a star (he was nominated for best actor his one and only time here).

On Amazon Prime. Turn the phone off, order Chinese and give it a go.

the gambler james caan – FM For Music

Meditative and deliberative, Director Karel Reisz gives us entree’ into the world of Axel Freed (James Caan), college literature teacher by day and degenerate gambler by night. Though it may be too much of a throwback for some, writer James Toback paints an anguished and multi-faceted portrait of a moth perpetually drawn to flame, a man who has internalized his addiction as a statement of freedom, verve and iconoclasm. However, Caan seems to sense he is a fraud, and as the film progresses, he gets himself into the kind of trouble where his family and not even his sympathetic bookmaker (a young, manic Paul Sorvino) can help.  It is here where the heart of the picture beats.  You watch Caan agonize, humbled, and then terrified as the wise guys become menacing rather than an ornament to his cool. Soon, there is a dawning, if not the expected one.

Caan is unsympathetic yet engaging, and he is always a star. He’s the grandson of a furniture magnate, and his mother is a doctor, and when things get very bad financially, he always has them as a crutch, an out, making his consort with flashy thugs and the more dangerous element of 1970s New York City a bit of a conceit. No matter what he wagers, his philosophizing about risk and chance is just so much b.s. because he high wires with a net.

But his net are people of substance – an up-by-your-bootstraps Lithuanian immigrant and a physician tending to the poor – and you can see his shame in comparison. It is Caan’s mother who, when bailing him out, reminds him of where his money is going, into a criminal element that preys on the weak.

It nags him, but he seems to revel in slumming, which includes his relationship with his Texas girlfriend, a very good Lauren Hutton, a good time gal who has been around the block and down into the sewer with an addict before. Her revelation of that journey and her eventual, limp, exhausted rejection of a spiraling Caan are piercing.

Caan is compelling as a self-deluding addict desperate to survive his debts and his own moral rot (he was struggling with cocaine when he made the picture). Toback smartly gives us the opportunity to watch him teach. Caan seems like a really good professor of literature, which is important because there has to be some “there” there in which to invest. When I heard they remade this film with Mark Wahlberg, I assumed the script was revised so he was a high school shop teacher.

Jerry’s Fielding’s soundtrack is spot on, evoking the dread and juice of gambling.

The ending is a bit rushed, but otherwise, this is a solid picture and a worthy third of the triple feature of California Split and Mississippi Grind. On Amazon Prime.

De Palma a la Mod

A behind-the-scenes vignette from this film distorts its true putrescence. As the story goes, before scenes, serious actor Sean Penn kept whispering to the out-of-place and in-over-his-head small screen star Michael J. Fox the words “television actor”, to either torment him or to rally him.

It didn’t work. 

That said, while there is no question Fox is terrible, his awful performance serves the purpose of obscuring a host of other faults in this debacle.

There are, for example, hideous performances all around. Penn is execrable, delivering a turn of overacting so extreme you can almost smell it. He’s like a whirling dervish of beef, brew and Old Spice. Young John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, and Ving Rhames are near incompetent and, like most everyone, entirely unconvincing.

But no one was given anything very good to say anyway. The script by playwright David Rabe is so overt it hits like an ABC “After School Special.” A stagey “What are we doing here, Sarge?” is pretty much every line of the picture.

Rabe served in Vietnam as a medic, which just goes to show that experience isn’t always the best progenitor of art.

Watch and see if you can hold your breakfast. 

Brian DePalma’s direction is also inapt and self-indulgent. I can think of few directors less suited for the material. There is a scene where Fox’s fellow soldiers attempt to frag him by putting a grenade in the latrine where, for no reason other than an ostentatious build-up, Fox has gone to attempt to light a cigarette, interminably. Because, when you want to smoke, no place is better than a Vietnam shithouse surrounded by big pails of excrement to enjoy it.  His lighter won’t work and after trying it for the umpteenth time (maybe more than 15, he really wants that smoke), he drops it, and lo and behold, the grenade is reflected off of the lighter’s stainless steel.

A Vietnam picture is no place for mimicking Hitchcock badly.

It gets worse. When Fox survives, he sees one of his tormentors, Reilly, peeking at him from behind sandbags, and all I could think of was 

The film also sports terrible art direction and location scouting. Vietnam looks like Disney’s Jungle Cruise, an incredible feat given some of it was shot in Thailand. Wherever they were, the actors were serviced by some of the best spas and salons available to them. I just never knew the combat experience in Vietnam was so tidy. Fox in particular looks like he was steam cleaned in every scene. Even when he has a head wound, his bandage is so brilliant white, it almost looks like a headband missing a feather. 

Finally, there is Fox’s height. In the old days, an actor’s short stature was taken into consideration. They’d put him on a hidden box, or shoot him from an angle that would favor him. Hell, in a tracking shot, they’d even build a trench for his leading lady as they ambled down the street.

Most film actors are short. 5’7″ seems to be the norm , but at 5’4″, Fox is diminutive, near tiny. Yet DePalma offered him no help. In the scene above, he grabs a taller soldier, a “cherry”, by the lapels to chew him out. He looks like a toddler clinging to an adult’s overalls, which is fitting, because for most of the film, with his childish, plaintive-comic mien, Fox presents like he lost his Mommy in aisle five of the Long Binh PX.  Yes, he’s short, but that’s not the whole of it. There is not an ounce of gravitas in the actor. “Oh, Jeez” sounds perilously close to “Oh Jeez, Mallory.”

The film is based on an actual war crime. What a woeful remembrance. 

With The Way of the Gun, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie assuredly expended the juice he’d earned writing The Usual Suspects to helm this noir-ish tale of a couple of fuck-ups (Benicio del Toro and Ryan Phillipe) who engineer a kidnapping with slapdash bravado and brutality. They have no idea the forces at play, and the greatest joy in the flick is their dogged aplomb as shit just gets worse and worse. These two losers are decent in the moment, but as exemplified in the movie’s best exchange, not exactly master planners:


Scenes like this one exemplify McQuarrie’s insistence on rejecting the cool in favor of the absurd. But that doesn’t mean he can’t direct an action sequence, and the final shootout is one for the ages. The film is also aided by Joe Kraemer’s moody, understated and anticipatory soundtrack (one of his firsts).

In America (2002) directed by Jim Sheridan • Reviews, film + cast •  Letterboxd

Ireland week continues in the Filmvetter household. Tuesday was Philomena. Last night, In America. Between them, I’ve crammed enough emotion in the pit of my stomach to fashion a golf-ball-sized tumor.

At least with Philomena, there were respites, where I could alleviate my welling up with some levity between Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.

Not so last night. I’ve seen many movies with incredibly poignant scenes and heartbreakingly rendered familial dynamics. There are scenes in Terms of Endearment that still create a lump in my throat. A friend, without warning, once recommended a Kevin Kline film, Life as a House, that I don’t know whether it was good or bad, but I do know it shattered me. And he knew my particular vulnerabilities. He knew I cried at Cocoon. He knew I cried harder at the Star Trek movie where Spock died, such that my wife was reduced to soothingly (no doubt, eyes rolling, as they should have been) imparting, “It’s alright. He comes back in the sequel.” But no warning was given, and Kevin Kline loses his job and gets a cancer diagnosis in the first 10 minutes, whereafter he reunites with his wayward son, and they build a house and Kline dies. Brutal. I hold the recommendation against him to this day.

I digress.

Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father, My Left Foot) portrays an Irish family escaping a tragedy to come to New York City in 1980. The parents, Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton, each deal with the loss in their own way; he shuts it off and turns inward, she insists the tragedy in no way hurt her daughters. They land at a run-down tenement where the drug addicts inhabit the stoop and an artist neighbor (Djimon Hounsou) screams and pounds the wall, plagued by his own tragedy. Given their innocence, their assimilation is nerve-wracking (the most harrowing scene being the playing of a carnival game) and uplifting, as they integrate into a community that is alternatively welcoming and hostile. It ends as an unforgettable fable, which allows for acceptance.

It’s the most beautiful film I’ve ever seen. I know I had seen it before, but I didn’t remember much of it, which seems impossible. I now assume it was so heart wrenching and piercing the first time that I probably wept uncontrollably and then did everything I could to ban it from my consciousness. Sheridan wrote it with his two daughters after his own personal tragedy, and their pain and tribute is stitched in the film’s marrow.

The performances are flawless (Morton and Hounsou were Oscar-nominated). The two girls who play the daughters (Sarah and Emma Bolger) give the most natural turns I’ve ever seen.

A gem.

The Parallax View (1974) - IMDb

A regional reporter (Warren Beatty) stumbles on not so much a plot as an institutionalized corporate conspiracy of assassination.  The closer Beatty gets to the source, the more he realizes that what he initially deemed ludicrous is in fact a chilling reality.  

Alan Pakula’s paranoid thriller was probably more relevant upon its release.  With the shooting of JFK in ’63, Malcolm X in ’65, RFK and MLK in ’68, George Wallace in ’72 (a mere 2 years before the picture’s release), political assassination was preeminent in the mind of your average filmgoer.  And no one does paranoia quite a well as Pakula (Klute, All the President’s Men, Presumed Innocent). 

The picture is creepy and certainly makes the viewer feel anxious,. In particular, the movie potential assassins are required to watch in order to gauge their suitability/brainwash them is in and of itself overpowering.

But the film suffers from two significant handicaps.  First, the Beatty character is a cypher.  He is dogged and cynical, but he is invested with no backstory, motive or any other compelling feature.  Given how things turn out, this may be part of the message, but it makes for some stifled yawns as we travel his route to dawning.  Second, the plot is a mess.  Sure, I fully understand an assassination corporation maybe knocking off a true existential political threat once a decade. The Parallax Corporation, however, kills two United States senators and attempts to kill a third, in the space of three years, and even when they have done the good work of pinning it on a brainwashed loner stooge (the corporation’s m.o.), they threaten their entire operation by wiping out potential witnesses after the deed.  I’m not talking one or two witnesses.  After the film’s opening a scene (a gripping assassination on top of Seattle’s Space Needle), nine “witnesses” (it’s not clear they actually see anything) are taken out, a number extraordinary enough that Beatty is drawn in to dig deeper. In the final assassination, a sniper takes down a senator in front of an entire marching band.  That is going to be one helluva cleanup.

This is no way to run a railroad.           

Image result for the magnificent seven

My father introduced me to The Magnificent Seven when I was 7 years old.  We were channel flipping, and we sat back on his big red sectional and settled in with a bowl of candy corn and circus peanuts.  He told me the music was Elmer Bernstein doing Aaron Copland (he used to wake me and my brother up with “Fanfare for the Common Man” blasting from the hi-fi speaker set tailored made for a newly divorced man) and that the picture was based on a Japanese film. These tidbits were of no particular interest to me at the time. I was too busy trying to figure out who of the seven gunmen I wanted to grow up to be, and as the film progressed, I became increasingly alarmed at the potential demise of any or all of them. Indeed, as aptly put by one fan, “This is the sole reason we spent half of our preadolescence prancing around our houses with plastic guns, cowboy hats and an overwhelming desire to become heroes. Just like them.” 

50 years later, I have come to the somewhat disheartening realization that I grew up to be none of the characters.  Certainly not Yul Brynner, the cool as a cucumber King of Siam refashioned as a man in black.  Nor Steve McQueen, the steady, wry “talker” of the crew (I can talk, but rarely in McQueen’s pithy homilies). 

I never neared the lanky, laconic quick draw that was James Coburn, who utters the coolest line in film history

It gets no better than that, at 7 or 57.

Nor was I the brawny, decent Charles Bronson; the gold-greedy, laugh-having Brad Dexter; or the hot-headed kid who idolizes the crew (Horst Bucholz).  Now, there are times I have felt as cowardly and unsure as Robert Vaughn, but in reality, I ended up being none of those dudes. 

Half a century later, where mowing the lawn and an occasional campout are as close as I get to the frontier, I feel more like bad guy Eli Wallach, who runs into seven hired guns and damned is they didn’t all find Jesus at the same time. Wallach is a middle-management crook who steals what he wants from the peasants but otherwise, seems affable enough. And he can’t comprehend his bad luck. His last words, to Brynner:

“You came back for a place like this. Why? A man like you? Why?”


If you don’t know the film, the plot is simple.  Six professional gunmen and one wannabe sign up for a pittance to protect a poor Mexican town that is being repeatedly ransacked and worse by a band of thugs led by Wallach.  It is the best of 60s Hollywood.  Strong characters, tight dialogue, solid action, sweeping cinematography, a rousing score, liberal sentiments (“You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground”) presented in conservative reality (“We deal in lead, friend”), and, to boot, a girl and a boy fall in love

Two asides.  First, one has to hand it to director John Sturges for dexterous casting.  A Russian Brynner plays a Cajun, and proud sons of Berlin (Bucholz) and Red Hook (Wallach) play Mexicans. Ah. Simpler times.

Second, they loosely re-made this picture and the result was a filmic carbuncle.

On Hulu and sporadically, everything else.