Friday, December 31, 2010

Sweet Smell of Success

This film features some of the slimiest, darkest, meanest and most manipulative characters ever captured on celluloid. I felt, just a little bit, dirty after watching this film recently. It is impossible to feel any other way!

Tony Curtis, in the finest performance of his career, plays Sydney Falco. Falco is a press agent attempting to gain fame and fortune for his clients. But, more importantly, is fame and fortune for himself. He attempts to curry the favor of big-time newspaper columnist/radio star J.J. Hunsecker. Burt Lancaster portrays Hunsecker with amazing evil and contempt in every word and movement. This film should be seen just to watch these two actors give the performance of their lives. Curtis plays the toady, kiss-ass with a level of sleaze that can almost be tasted as it drips off the screen. And Lancaster's manipulation knows no bounds. Acting magnificence!

The script is top-notch. Written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, it is wonderful in its evil. They do a terrific job of giving the viewer the feel of desperation for small-guy Curtis and corrupt power of Lancaster. Director Alexander Mackendrick, coming off the wonderful Alec Guinness film 'The Ladykillers', gives us the opportunity to share in the story without pause. He just keeps the film moving towards a fantastic finish. Also to be commended is cinematographer James Wong Howe. He moves the camera through the nightclubs and street life of New York City with ease and grace. Howe had a career that stretched for over 50 years and is remembered for wonderful photography in his films.

One last technical note. Sweet Smell of Success has terrific music and score. From the jazz in the clubs to the score by Elmer Berstein the music alone is well worth the viewing. This film is dark, manipulative and evil. Oh yeah, and terrific as well.

Filmed in 1957, directed by Alexander MacKendrick, written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, starring Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Martin Milner, Susan Harrison and Barbara Nichols. Master film transfer company Criterion has a new DVD set coming out in February for this film. "Light Me, Sydney"

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Panic in the Streets

Today is Richard Widmark's birthday. I decided to re-run this look at one of his early thrillers. Enjoy!

Before Elia Kazan directed 'East of Eden', 'On the Waterfront' and 'A Streetcar named Desire' he developed his dramatic chops with this bit of half medical thriller/half detective film noir. Richard Widmark plays Dr. Reed, a Doctor for the Public Health Service. A coroner in New Orleans finds something suspicious with a murder victim and calls in Reed to investigate. Reed believes this body is infected with pneumonic plague and that the city is under a major biological threat. Most of the brass for the city assume he is overly-dramatic, but the Mayor orders the police to help in every way possible. Paul Douglas portrays police captain Warren who has been given the task of solving the murder and containing the disease. Our two heroes have only 48 hours before the plague becomes contagious and spreads throughout the city. Thousands of lives are at stake.

Kazan understands the need for a story to move if we are to have drama. The conflict between Dr. Reed and Captain Warren is in the forefront of the film, but the underlying tension of the plague helps maintain an extremely crisp pace. I read a dozen other reviews of this movie and every single one of them used the word taut. Who am I to argue? Can the protagonists solve the murder and save the city? As viewers we know that the killer is local thug 'Blackie'. He is played, in his film debut, by one-armed push up master Jack Palance. His sidekick, the soft toady 'Fitch' is wonderfully acted by Zero Mostel. There are not a lot of films in which Mostel plays a criminal. It is refreshing casting. Both Palance and Mostel are terrific. Palance plays the evil heavy with aplomb while Mostel's whining lackey is spot-on.

Today, with the many threats facing our planet, the idea of a disease spreading "panic in the streets" is all too real. But before the debut of this film not much had been made of the possibility. Some of the science in this movie is less-than-perfect, but audiences were both entertained and disturbed by the film and its concepts. Writers Edna and Edward Anhalt, who wrote the story upon which this film is based, were awarded an Academy Award for their work in thrilling/terrifying the audience.

Panic in the Streets is a taut thriller. It is fast and most enjoyable.

Filmed in 1950, directed by Elia Kazan, written by Richard Murphy from the story by Edna and Edward Anhalt, starring Richard Widmark, Jack Palance, Barbara Bel Geddes, Paul Douglas and Zero Mostel. Towards the end of the film, Jack Palance's character climbs a boat rope in an effort to escape. He performed this stunt personally after two different professional stuntmen could not make it up the rope!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Out of the Past

Film noir at its best. This 1947 noir classic stars Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer. Mitchum plays small-town gas station owner Jeff Bailey. Mitchum makes a few bucks, fishes often and has a lovely girlfriend. A seemingly idyllic life. Then his past catches up with him. The past in the persona of Whit Sterling. Sterling is played, with his usual aplomb, by Kirk Douglas. Douglas has summoned Mitchum to his Lake Tahoe home for a "chat".

As with most film noirs, Mitchum spends his time on the way to this chat telling his story in the past tense. Whether it is Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity or Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce noir uses the lead character telling the story in flashback as a main device. Out of the Past is no exception. We learn of Mitchum's hiring by Douglas to locate Douglas's love Kathie Moffat. Kathie is played to evil temptress perfection by Jane Greer. Mitchum follows Greer to Mexico with the intent to bring her back to Douglas for a big payday. But, of course, plans go awry. Mitchum falls hard for Greer's feminine wiles and instead goes on the run with her. But that soon falls apart. Years later Douglas and Greer re-enter Mitchum's now Norman Rockwell' life with the intent to bring harm. But can Mitchum foil their plans?

Director Jacques Tourneur does a fantastic job with the simple noir plot. Greer's evil temptations pull good guy Mitchum over to the dark side. Douglas and his money are the bait, but it is the fabulous Greer that seals the deal. But it is the script, by Daniel Mainwaring from his own novel, that is the most important part of Out of the Past. It is biting, dripping in sarcasm and wit, and filled with classic film noir emotion. It seems that each sentence was crafted for maximum impact with minimum words. The script almost reaches out and grabs the viewer on its own. It is powerful and moves a simple story along to keep the viewer riveted.

Filmed in 1947, directed by Jacques Tourneur, written by Daniel Mainwaring with uncredited help from noir master James Cain, starring Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Jane Greer and Rhonda Fleming. If you like film noir, and I do, this is must-see! I have previously written about other noir classics like Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, The Big Clock and Chinatown.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Since today is Steven Spielberg's birthday I decided to re-run my article on his the first film he directed.

It is amazing how much suspense you can build with almost no dialogue or sets, just a car and a very menacing truck. This is the film that turned Steven Spielberg from a tv director into a wanted filmmaker. Dennis Weaver stars as a mild-mannered traveling salesman. Driving along a small, California two-lane highway he decides to pass a large truck. No big deal. Happens a million times a day, right? This time the trucker does not appreciate the action. The trucker decides to chase down Weaver. The ultimate in road rage!

Spielberg's storytelling mastery shows. In a stroke of genius we never see the truck driver. It is just a beat-up truck chasing down poor Dennis Weaver. Spielberg later uses this same technique, to great effect, with the shark in Jaws. Of course, with Jaws, the shark didn't work correctly, but why quibble? In Duel Spielberg tells the story with a minimum of effects, dialogue or explanation. Just a rogue truck chasing down our unsuspecting lead. Suspense builds until a satisfying final scene.

Duel was written by Richard Matheson. He is now best known as the author of 'I Am Legend'. He also wrote one of the scariest things I remember from my youth. 'The Trilogy of Terror'. Pick that one up too if you can find it!

Simple, straightforward and powerfully suspenseful. I find Duel to be quite satisfying as well!

Filmed for TV in 1971, directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Richard Matheson, starring Dennis Weaver, Eddie Firestone, and a very menacing truck. Spielberg subsequently directed two more films for television, Something Evil and Savage. Can anyone find a copy of either of those? They may be lost for the ages. Perhaps that can be the subject of the next 'Indiana Jones' movie?

Friday, December 17, 2010

North Face (Nordwand)

This movie is intense! Some of the reviews upon its release include quotes like "Heart Pounding" (Boston Herald), "Bone Chilling, Unbearably Riveting" (Chicago Sun-Times) and "The Suspense is Relentless" (Washington Post). And I concur with those comments 100 percent. The climbing sequences are intense, riveting, chilling and relentless. The tensions build throughout the film towards an amazing finish.

North Face is a German film that tells the true story of a group of mountain climbers in 1936. From across Europe, different teams of men attempted to become the first to climb the North Face of Eiger in the Alps. Two of Europe's most celebrated climbers had died attempting this climb the previous year. During 1936 the shadow of war was descending upon Europe as the Nazis continued to expand their power. Millions of people lived in fear of a possible war to come. The Nazis wanted a German team to be the first to conquer this mountain climb. They intended to use this as propaganda, further proof of the "superiority" of the German people. These events also take place just before the German Olympics in Berlin. If the German team attempting to climb the North Face could reach the summit first they would be celebrated across Germany.

However, the film uses the tensions in Germany and Europe as a backdrop for a story that is so intense that to include more could stifle the viewer's ability to relate. The film focuses upon the German climbers Toni Kurz, played by Benno Furmann, and Andreas Hinterstoisser, portrayed by Florian Lukas. Both actors do a fine job in the most difficult of cinema circumstances. But it is the directing and cinematography that dazzle. The story of the climb, the heights, the wind, the cold, the isolation, is what makes this movie so personal and so powerful. The director Philip Stolzl and the cinematographer Kolja Brandt do fantastic work. The story is riveting and they let the story unfold. The climbing scenes are fantastic. I felt as if I was on the side of that treacherous mountain. You will too!

Filmed in 2008, directed by Philip Stolzl, written by Stolzl, Christoph Silber, Rupert Henning and Johannes Naber, starring Benno Furmann, Florian Lukas, Johanna Wokalek and Ulrich Tukur. For a detailed look at the early climbers and what they faced at Eiger try 'The White Spider' by Heinrich Harrer. Harrer successfully summited the North Face in 1938.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Thing from Another World

This sci-fi classic is on TCM on Saturday. Don't miss it!

This is a wonderfully tense science fiction film. Made in 1951, it set the standard for dozens of film that followed. This movie has almost every character that would become so familiar in future films. The military officer that is sure the visitor from another world is hostile, the scientist that is sure that the visitor is wise, caring and misunderstood, the reporter that cares about nothing but getting the story, etc. They are all here. But when writer/producer Howard Hawks and director Christian Nyby made The Thing from Another World these characters weren't cliches. They had yet to become standards. This movie made them so.

The Thing is an alien who has crashed his spaceship in the arctic. A science outpost has witnessed the crash and they have called in the Air Force. Upon the military's arrival they "take over" and start running the show, much to the scientist's dismay. The air force and the scientists pull a "body", encased in a block of ice, from the crash site. They drag the ice-encrusted alien back to camp. And that is when the fun begins. The humans all believe the creature has died in the crash, but, of course, he springs back to life to terrorize the inhabitants of this outpost. A huge storm blows in and they are cut off from communicating and rescue. Is the alien dangerous or misunderstood? Should they kill the creature or, perhaps, sacrifice themselves to save our first contact with an alien race? How can you deal with a life form with which you can't communicate nor injure?

Much is made of the question Who actually directed this movie? Veteran Howard Hawks co-wrote and produced this film. It came from his company. This is credited director Christian Nyby's first film. It is far and away the best thing he ever did. Nyby had worked as an editor and cinematographer for Hawks for years. Nyby won an Academy Award for editing Hawks fabulous 'Red River'(see my earlier blog). At the time, science fiction was looked down upon by Hollywood executives and critics. Did Hawks want to avoid the criticism for making a sci-fi film? Was he hoping to boost his friend's career? Neither of them ever answered the question directly. After watching it is clear that Hawks' influence can be seen throughout the movie. The tense storytelling, the simultaneous speaking of multiple characters, the linear plot and the use of unseen images to heighten suspense are all marks of Hawks.

Whom ever did the work, or perhaps the teamwork itself, he/they created one of the great science fiction films. A true cult classic. Also, give a listen to the score. 4-time Oscar winner Dimitri Tiomkin's eerie score is also a precursor for much of the music used in science fiction films to follow.

Filmed in 1951, directed by Christian Nyby, written by Howard Hawks and Charles Lederer, starring James Arness, Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan and Robert Cornthwaite.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tora Tora Tora

An intense look at the buildup and attack at Pearl Harbor told from both the U.S. and Japan perspectives. Tora! Tora! Tora! is the best film showing the intensity, hardship and action of World War Two. The American story was performed and directed by an American crew, while the Japanese side of the story was done by a Japanese crew. This includes the actors speaking in Japanese. This provides an authentic feel that is missing from many war films.

The sequence that dramatizes the actual attack upon Pearl Harbor is technically awe-inspiring. It is quite dramatic and intense. I am amazed that, even though I know the history, how nervously I view this film. Telling both sides of the story makes this film much more intriguing than the over-the-top treatment given by Michael Bay in his Pearl Harbor.

A very deep cast includes veteran actors Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, Soh Yamamura, Eijiro Tono, Jason Robards, James Whitmore and Tatsuya Mihashi. They performed well, but are slightly overshadowed by the technically amazing production values. With an excellent script written, in English, by Larry Forester and, in Japanese, by Hideo Oguni and Ryuzo Kikushima this is the film to see about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the best film about World War Two.

Filmed in 1970, Directed by Richard Fleischer, Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasuka, starring Martin Balsam, Soh Yamamura, Joseph Cotton, Tatsuya Mihashi, E.G. Marshall, Takahiro Tamura, James Whitmore, Eijiro Tono and James Whitmore.

An interesting film note. During the attack sequence, a plane blows-up while moving along the ground. The propeller flies off and "rolls" toward some people. Those stunt people appear to run for their lives. This is not acting, but the result of a malfunction of the stunt plane. It was exploded much sooner than planned and the explosion caused pieces to fly towards the stunt actors. It views as extremely realistic because it is!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Thin Man

This is on TCM today. Enjoy!

Never before nor since have two people consumed so much alcohol so successfully. William Powell and Myrna Loy team-up as the mystery solving sleuths Nick and Nora Charles. This film is based upon a novel by Dashiell Hammett. He is also the creator of the hardboiled detective Sam Spade (best portrayed by Humphrey Bogart). But in The Thin Man his crime fighters are a wealthy socialite and her former detective husband. The only things that Nick and Nora like more than solving murders are drinking and witty banter. And there is plenty of both here.

Powell and Loy are so fabulous together that most other screen couples pale in comparison. Critics loved their on-screen chemistry. Audiences so enjoyed them together, along with their dog 'Asta', that the studio made 5 more movies in this series. The thin man in the title is the victim of a murder. Nick, who has "retired" after marrying Nora, is roped into helping solve the murder. He eventually does. But the murder plot, while interesting and clever, is just the vehicle for us to enjoy this pair. Both Powell and Loy give the performances of their careers. They are fine actors with a full and rich body of work, but I don't think they could ever escape the pressure of such successful teamwork. Their timing is exquisite, their chemistry divine and their delivery perfection. Sometimes I watch The Thin Man just to enjoy their work.

Veteran Director W.S. Van Dyke wisely lets Powell and Loy go for it. He seemingly allows two master actors who work magnificently together to run free. But unlike much of today's "improv" comedy, The Thin Man is crisp and quick. No pauses to stare into the camera nor slow deliveries here. Script writers Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich gave them so many great lines for us to enjoy that you may miss some of them the first time through. When you enjoy this movie be sure to wait a few weeks and then try it again. I guarantee that you will then realize how much fun you missed the first time. So pull up a chair and pour yourself a stiff martini. You may not need it, but you sure are going to want one!

Filmed in 1934, directed by W.S. Van Dyke, written by Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich, starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Sullivan, Nat Pendelton and Cesar Romero.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


In honor of screenwriter Robert Towne's birthday, here is a look at his most powerful film!

The most important thing that I can say about this movie: I was thinking about the events, how and why they happened, as if I was the lead character. Chinatown pulls you in and makes you feel like a part of the story. Writer Robert Towne, who won an Academy Award for his script, does a superb job of involving the viewer. Throughout the movie I was wondering what each clue might mean, what would be the next step and how could everything be linked. To me, that is the sign of a fantastic script. Towne has done terrific scripts like 'The Parallax View' (see my blog), 'Bonnie and Clyde' and 'Tequila Sunrise', but this is his best work. The script would make Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett proud.

Chinatown tells the story of Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson). He is a private detective in 1930's Los Angeles. He is hired by a wife to investigate the activities of her husband. She is suspicious of infidelity. He finds what he believes to be proof of the cheating. But he has been used and lied to and everything blows up in his face. This is insulting to our lead detective and he is off on a chase for "the truth". The search for evidence leads him to the halls of power within LA. He becomes involved with what he believes to be a vast conspiracy. But, as we all know, when you mess with those in power they mess back. Things don't always work out for Jake. But, in true film noir tradition, nothing will stop our lead from pursuing the facts. No matter where they lead and no matter the consequences.

The most famous scene is when Jake gets his nose sliced. The man with the knife is played by director Roman Polanski. This is the first film Polanski made in the U.S. after the terrible tragedy of Sharon Tate. Producer Robert Evans wanted a European to direct this film. He wanted the look and feel to be that of someone who did not grow up in America. Polanski did a fantastic job and received an Oscar nomination. The film is gritty and very intriguing. I especially liked the few moments of introspection that Polanski allows detective Jake Gittes. Those small pauses give us, the viewers, the chance to contemplate events while the lead does as well. It is an excellent touch. Sometimes directors are in such a hurry for the next "exciting effect" that they don't give us time to enjoy what is going on. Thankfully Polanski does not fall into that trap.

This film is a slight twist on classic film noir. It is set in the 30's, but has some modern twists to traditional noir. It is more in the modern style and provided the springboard for the resurgence of noir. This movie provided much of the basis for films like 'L.A. Confidential', 'Memento' and 'The Grifters'. Faye Dunaway, portraying Evelyn Mulwray, is a fantastic Femme Fatale. She entices Nicholson into moving over to the "dark side". The viewers can never be sure when she is honest and manipulative or dishonest and manipulative. But like all noir femmes she is manipulative. Both Dunaway and Nicholson received well-deserved Oscar nominations for their work. I believe that this is the film that established Jack Nicholson as a leading man. He had been a character actor, but his fine work here propelled him to super stardom.

Chinatown has an unexpected ending and shockers of details along the way. It is intelligent, well-acted, directed and written and is most entertaining. Be sure to netflix, download, rent or buy this great movie!

Filmed in 1974, directed by Roman Polanski, written by Robert Towne, starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston and John Hillerman. For further ruminations upon film noir see my blog about 'Double Indemnity'. This is the last film that Polanski shot in the United States. He chose to flee to avoid jail time.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Big Clock

At 10 AM, Eastern time, this film is being shown on cable great TCM. I wanted to share why I like the movie so much.

Fantastic film noir! Ray Milland plays the editor of the largest crime magazine in America. He is ultra-career orientated. So much so that he has missed his honeymoon 5 years in a row. Charles Laughton plays the owner/publisher of the magazine for which Milland works. He has used his immense power and wealth to manipulate Milland into working to the point of destroying his personal life and marriage. Rita Johnson portrays Laughton's long-time mistress. They are having a difficult time in their relationship and she attempts to use Milland to blackmail Laughton. After Milland and Johnson spend the night barhopping she turns up dead. Laughton, in a jealous rage, has murdered his mistress in her own apartment. Milland saw Laughton at her apartment just before the time of her death.

Publisher Laughton also noticed someone leaving his mistress's apartment just as he arrives. He uses his staff, not knowing that his own editor, Milland, witnessed him at the crime scene, to find this missing witness. Laughton wants to frame him for the murder. Milland is forced to find himself to aid in his own framing. Can he elude the massive efforts of the Publishing millionaire? And, can Milland somehow find enough evidence to prove that his boss is the murderer? Before his own time runs out?

The Big Clock is classic film noir. A good man, played by Ray Milland, is tempted by a femme fatale, portrayed by Rita Johnson. Although he resists her temptation, he still ends up on the dark side and in massive trouble. Everything points to him, even witnesses, as the murderer. We know he did not do it, but the publisher's power and money are all working against him in a race against time. Evil, using a beautiful woman, is tempting good. Classic film noir.

Director John Farrow does a nice job of keeping the movie moving. The novel, by Kenneth Fearing, is much longer and more detailed. I like both, but for different reasons. This film is taut and suspenseful. The first half sets up the crime and all the participants. The second half races us toward the confrontation we all know is coming. The script adaptation, by Jonathon Latimer, aids in keeping the movie tight. Milland, Rita Johnson and Director Farrow's wife Maureen O'Sullivan all do fine jobs in their performances. But Charles Laughton steals the show. He is at his creepy best. Constantly checking the time and his schedule, harassing his employees and stroking his mustache all serve to make him even creepier. He is terrific here.

The Big Clock is a fine example of a 1940s film noir. Tight direction and script with classic characters and story line. And a running time of just an hour and a half. A wonderful diversion on a lonely night.

Filmed in 1948, directed by John Farrow, written by Jonathan Latimer, starring Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Sullivan and Rita Johnson. Look for a pre-Dragnet and MASH Henry Morgan. Also, check out the woman operating the elevator in the first sequence. She went on to be Lois Lane in the Superman tv series. Remade in the 80s as 'No Way Out' with Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman and Sean Young. The original is much better, but the remake has its moments.

Friday, November 19, 2010


This film is on TCM tonight. Don't miss it!

I found I had a great deal of difficulty getting to sleep after watching Gallipoli. Director Peter Weir did such a magnificent job of bringing me into the story of young men caught up in a national passion for war that I found myself restless, almost upset. The characters in Gallipoli come to find that a national fervor does not always look-out for the interests of the participants. Many men and women have suffered in the name of national pride.

Mel Gibson, in one of his earliest roles, and Mark Lee portray two young men in Australia in 1915. Lee plays Archy, an underage volunteer desperate to fight for his country. Gibson plays Dunne, a man from the city who wants to avoid the conflict. Both are world-class sprinters who meet on the race track. They build a friendship as Archy tries to enlist even though he is too young. Archy eventually convinces Dunne to enlist with him. Dunne forges a new birth certificate and they attempt to join up. The "Light Horse", Australia's cavalry, only want Archy and the two are separated. Archy goes off to Egypt to train to fight in Turkey. Dunne joins the infantry and the two are reunited in Egypt. They join forces and are sent to the Gallipoli Peninsula to fight the Turks.

Director Weir really makes two films. The first is a sweet and endearing coming of age, buddy picture. The camaraderie between Archy and Dunne develops and I feel almost like one of the gang. Weir's second film is about the horror that is war. In this case World War One. The true story of Gallipoli is considered to be one of the great tragedies in Australian history. Thousands of young Australian men met their death 5,000 miles from home to almost no result. Director Weir brings home the day of greatest tragedy in gut-wrenching fashion.

Film teachers and critics make much of the final, freeze-frame shot of Gallipoli. It is quite a powerful ending. But I find that the picture of abject frustration and horror on the face of Gibson to be the film's finest moment. His look brings home the Gallipoli tragedy in a very personal way.

Filmed in 1981, directed by Peter Weir, written by David Williamson, starring Mel Gibson, Mark Lee, Bill Kerr and Harold Hopkins. The screenplay is adapted from a book, 'The Broken Years', by Bill Gammage. The book is out-of-print.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Fabulous documentary that provides an in-depth look at boxing great Mike Tyson. Tyson is undergoing a bit of a resurgence now. He is filming 'The Hangover 2' and received nice comments about his work in 'The Hangover'. While that film is one of the funniest of the decade, this film is intense and very personal.

Tyson provides a great deal of personal information for this documentary. He has a "no-holds barred" approach and is both honest and self-critical. I have a much different opinion for Tyson after viewing this film. Writer/Director James Toback deserves credit for allowing Tyson to tell his own story. We see the highs of his boxing career sink to the lows of his rape conviction, bankruptcy and public humiliation. The end of the film, in which Tyson speaks about his own desire to change and improve, is moving. I know Tyson the boxer, but now I feel I know, at least a little, Tyson the person.

One moment that I found particularly enlightening. Tyson sued his boxing promoter Don King. He does not speak well of King. The court awarded Tyson a large sum of money, but Tyson does not know how much. "20 million or maybe 30 million dollars". He is not sure. But he is sure that it "wasn't much money". Perhaps to Mr. Tyson that's not much money, but to me it sounds pretty good!

Tyson is an insightful documentary that was nominated for many critical awards. I believe you will find much of interest in this strong film.

Filmed in 2008, written and directed by James Toback, starring Mike Tyson, Cus D'Amato, Mills Lane and many boxing greats.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Parallax View

Since this Warren Beatty gem is on TCM tonight, I thought we should take a quick look!

After viewing this film for the first time I found myself amazed and let the credits roll-by without a glance. It took me a few minutes to get my brain around the ideas and cinematography of The Parallax View. It is not what I expected in any way, shape or form. Surprising, a little disturbing and quite unique. I usually enjoy movies when they can surprise me and this one sure did.

Warren Beatty plays a minor reporter in 1970s Seattle. He is one of a group of 18 people who witness the assassination of a U.S. Senator. 3 years later another of the witnesses searches him out. She is petrified because the witnesses are being killed-off. She fears for her life. Beatty thinks she is paranoid and ignores her information. Until she turns up dead. He then takes off on a search for the truth behind the assassination. This leads him to the Parallax Corporation. He believes they orchestrated the killing and subsequent cover-up. He decides to infiltrate Parallax and expose their ways.

The script, written by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple, Jr., is complex. But it is the directing of Alan J. Pakula and the cinematography/photography of Gordon Willis that define this film. For the first 45 minutes or so I was frustrated with the directing and editing. They did not allow me to comprehend a situation before jumping to another part of the story. I then realized that is the plan. Pakula and Willis use the lighting, editing and photography to keep the viewer slightly off-balance. Just like the reporter Joe Frady (Beatty). This works to great effect as the story develops. I was unsure what was happening and, more importantly, what would happen. These techniques make the movie so much more than the usual conspiracy film. Don't miss it!

Filmed in 1974, directed by Alan J. Pakula, written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Giler, starring Warren Beatty, Hume Cronyn, Paula Prentis and William Daniels.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

In the Heat of the Night

There are two scenes that are etched into my memory with no hope of ever removing them. First, there is a moment when the Police Chief, played perfectly by Rod Steiger, asks Sydney Poitier's character what people call him up North? Poitier responds "They call me Mister Tibbs!". Being a black man in the South he was being called many other things by the local residents and police. The power and frustration that comes through as Tibbs, a Philadelphia Police Detective, finally gets to be acknowledged is overwhelming. So strong that they named the sequel 'They Call me Mister Tibbs'. Second is an interchange when the local bigshot and plantation owner, who is white, slaps the "uppity" Poitier. Poitier slaps him right back. The bigshot is surprised beyond belief. So is Police Captain Gillespie. The thought that some black person wouldn't just take the abuse is something they never considered. Priceless.

In the Heat of the Night is fantastic from start to finish. Two powerful storylines converge in a big finish. We have the plot line of the black, Northern police officer struggling to deal with racism. All the while he has been enlisted by local police to aid in capturing a murderer. Most of the local police are quite disturbed by the idea of a black man, and a "Yankee" at that, to be part of the team. Rod Steiger is terrific and his performance as Police Chief Gillespie won him an Academy Award. You can see the tension that this unique situation causes portrayed upon his face. His mannerisms, inflection and body language play a major part in his performance. Equally wonderful is Sydney Poitier. He shows the frustration and difficulty of being considered inferior, but sublimates that to help solve a murder. The supporting cast, featuring Warren Oates, Lee Grant and Larry Gates add to this rich cinema experience.

While this film won Best Picture, director Norman Jewison did not receive the Best Director statuette. That went to Mike Nichols for 'The Graduate'. But In the Heat of the Night did win five total Oscars. That credit falls firmly on the shoulders of Jewison. He took a taut script from Stirling Silliphant that is based upon the novel by John Ball. Silliphant would later write one of the great disaster films 'The Poseidon Adventure' (read my post). But what 'Poseidon' has in over the top fun, this film has in tension and rich characters. Jewison then adds the deep cast to the script and turns them loose. But all the while he forces the pace. There is little down time here. Just excellent writing, acting and directing that move us ever forward toward the exposing of the murdered.

In the Heat of the Night is powerful. An intriguing murder mystery, the story of the difficulties of racism and the growing admiration between lead characters make for terrific viewing. This film would go on to inspire a long-lived television version starring Carroll O'Connor. Why the tv show is not out on DVD remains a mystery to all.

Filmed in 1967, directed by Norman Jewison, written by Stirling Silliphant, starring Sydney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant and Larry Gates. Jewison also directed another film highlighted here at Steve the Movie Guy. You can read my post on 'Rollerball' here. Trivia Note:Steiger resisted the idea of chewing gum and only adopted the practice upon the insistence of director Jewison. Eventually he grew to appreciate it and went through 263 packs of gum during filming.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

One, Two, Three

Three are 3 fantastic reasons to see One, Two, Three.

One:The script

This hilarious film is based upon a play by Ferenc Molnar and was adapted for the screen by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. It is tight, quick and quite funny. The lines are thrown at the viewer in rapid-fire succession. The first time you watch the film you will miss some of the jokes because you are chuckling, snorting or laughing out loud at the joke previous. The second half of this film reminds me of 'Airplane' by Zucker/Abrams/Zucker. They just throw joke after joke at you and let you pick out what you enjoy. The film has intellectual jokes, political puns and slapstick humor all combined. Diamond and Wilder collaborated on some of our greatest films. They combined on 'Some Like it Hot', 'The Apartment', 'Irma La Douce' and 'The Fortune Cookie' among others. Great fun!

Two:The direction

Directed by master film maker Billy Wilder, the pace of One, Two, Three is frenetic in its slow parts. There is so much energy going that I feel for the actors during filming. But instead of pausing for laughs, as so many modern "comedies" do, Wilder just keeps the jokes coming. Missed one? Don't worry, there are more on the way. Quickly! He uses a deep cast to move the story along. Anne Francis, as the executive's wife, is put to particularly good use. Extremely dry, almost dead-pan, in the delivery of biting social satire. Fabulous!

Three:James Cagney

Cagney is best known for dramas. But his comic timing here is fantastic. It is his power, on screen, that keeps the movie jumping. No time to revel in the punchline, it is on to the next moment. He is loud, obnoxious, overbearing and perfect for this role. It is wonderful to see an actor best known for heavier roles pull off a comedy with such apparent ease. 1962 was a deep year for acting Oscar nominations with 'Judgement at Nuremberg' and 'The Hustler' both having terrific performances, but Cagney deserves mention for this film. Comic performance rarely get notice by the Academy. That is too bad.

Filmed in 1962, directed by Billy Wilder, written by Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond from the play by Ferenc Molnar, starring James Cagney, Anne Francis, Horst Buchholz and Pamela Tiffin. For an amazing look at Billy Wilder get the book 'Some Like it Wilder:The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder' by Gene Phillips. It makes for fascinating reading for any film aficionado.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


I am a huge fan of John Cleese. Just check out the autographed 'Fawlty Towers' stuff on my office wall. From television to the movies, his manic energy is hilarious. This is one of his lesser-known films. Enjoy! Also, today is his 71st birthday. Happy Birthday John!

I love British comedies. Especially 'Monty Python'. One of the greatest gifts I ever received is the '16 ton Megaset' of DVDs which I got for my birthday. (My birthday is September 4th just in case you want to send gifts!) And of all the cast of 'Python' John Cleese is my favorite. His manic energy and always "ready-to-explode" personality are hilarious. From 'Monty Python' to 'Fawlty Towers' to 'A Fish Called Wanda' Cleese delivers laughs. Which is why I was so excited to go see Clockwise when it first arrived in Los Angeles in 1986. I never understood why it received so little attention in the U.S. It was a big hit in England, but never caught on here. It should have!

This film tells the story of one ill-fated day for a British school headmaster that is obsessed with punctuality. Headmaster Stimpson, played by Cleese, is to travel 150 miles to become the chairman of the national headmaster organization. He, and his students and family, are most proud. Of course, the journey is filled with nothing but problems. Everything that can go wrong does. Travel problems, luggage issues, a visit to a monastery and many other roadblocks stand between Headmaster Stimpson and his moment of glory. You can see the pressure building within Cleese every step of the way. His fans know that you can only hold John Cleese in for so long. How and when that massive pressure gets released is the question.

Clockwise is one of the few times that Cleese neither writes nor directs his appearance. Writer Michael Frayn does a wonderful, if at times painful, job of destroying each new chance at success for our beleaguered Headmaster. Each obstacle is small and can be overcome, but the succession of events builds throughout. Director Christopher Morahan does a terrific job at the helm. He allows Cleese to be Cleese, but insists he stay within reasonable bounds. At least most of the time.

Clockwise is manic, pressure-filled laughs as only John Cleese can deliver. If you are a fan of John Cleese, this is must see. If not, you should probably avoid this movie. It might not work for you.

Trivia Note: The school in this film is named Thomas Thompion. He was a pioneer of clock and watchmaking in the 17th Century. Quite fitting for a movie about being on time.

Filmed in 1986, directed by Christopher Morahan, written by Michael Frayn, starring John Cleese, Penelope Wilton, Sharon Maiden and Stephen Moore.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Baader Meinhof Complex

During the 1970s, West Germany was worked into a state of near panic by a terrorist organization known as The Red Army Faction (RAF). This fantastic film tells the story of their "rise" to prominence, the massive efforts of the German government to arrest them and the eventual fate of the major players. The attention to detail and accuracy are fairly strong, which is something I appreciate. To often film makers will change history to "make it more interesting". Not too much in this film. Just a gritty and horrifying story of murder, fear and crime run amok.

Director Uli Edel does a wonderful job in telling a complex story. With the focus on not just the terrorists, but their pursuers, we get a rich and deep story of corruption. The corruption of idealists who say they want to change the world for the better, the corruption of the police who say they want to protect freedom and the corruption of the public in their ever-increasing demand for "safety". Over the last 40 years many aspects of life have been radically and permanently altered in the name of safety. I don't know how much safer we may be, but massive terror activities of the RAF helped to start us down this road.

Martina Gedeck portrays Ulrike Meinhof. She is one of the leaders of the RAF and is, perhaps, the soul of the group. Gedeck's acting helps viewers understand what could push someone into terrorist activities. For me, she is the focal point of the film and really held the story together. Moritz Bleibtreu plays the other half of the leadership Andreas Baader. While Meinhof pulled at my empathy, Baader repelled me with his petty crimes and desire for blood. I found myself both sympathizing with and abhorring the RAF simultaneously. An odd emotional concept, but an interesting one.

The Baader Meinhof Complex is a fascinating look at the repulsive activities of the RAF and the German government's effort to capture them. It also holds many parallels for society today.

Filmed in 2008, Directed by Uli Edel, written by Stefan Aust and Edel, starring Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanan Wokalek and Bruno Ganz. This film was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film as well as German Film Awards for Best Film and Best Director.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Informer

While The Informer is a film worth seeing, it is the cinema history and technical innovation that set this film apart. This film won director John Ford the first of his record 4 Academy Awards for Best Director. Ford his famous primarily for films that came after this ground-breaking drama. But it is in this film that you see his transition, as a director, from silent films to "talkies". He still uses many silent film techniques including long close-ups and exaggerated facial expressions. But here, in The Informer, he uses the musical score like no film had before. So much of the mood is set by the music. Max Steiner also won an Academy Award for the score of this film. Also, the lighting and camera work are all precursors to techniques that would dominate film making to come.

The Informer tells the story of a down-on-his-luck Irishman in Dublin in 1929. He is broke, hungry and a victim of the British occupation of Ireland. He has been working for the IRA in their effort to free Ireland. Victor McLaglen portrays Gypo Nolan. McLaglen becomes a regular in the John Ford troupe of actors and wins an Oscar for Best Actor for this film. Gypo is not-so-bright, but good with his fists. For six months Gypo has been sheltering his friend, Frankie McPhillip, from the British authorities who want him for murder. But the lack of opportunity, the poverty, the despair finally catch up with Gypo. He turns in his best friend for the reward money. The film tells the story of how Gypo deals with the guilt of informing and his effort to avoid the suspicions of the IRA.

This is not a perfect film. Some of the tone is dated and the acting is a little stiff. However, it is an important film. Well worth seeing to view the blossoming of the amazing talent that is director John Ford. He also won Best Director Oscars for 'How Green was my Valley', 'The Grapes of Wrath' and 'The Quiet Man'. He is in the discussion for best American film director.

One other Oscar note about The Informer. Screenwriter Dudley Nichols won the Oscar for Best Writing for this film. He goes down in Academy history as the first person to refuse his award.

Filmed in 1935, directed by John Ford, written by Dudley Nichols, starring Victor McLaglen, Wallace Ford, Heather Angel, Una O'Connor and Preston Foster. For John Ford buffs, such as myself, you can look for many of the John Ford regulars throughout this film. This movie was a box-office bust upon its release. But it was re-released after winning 4 Oscars. It then grossed in the millions. It was only 1935, but the Academy Awards were already proving their financial worth to the studios.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Thank You for Smoking

Since today (Oct. 19th) is director Jason Reitman's birthday, it only seemed appropriate to write about this fantastic satire.

This is laugh-out-loud satire. It is biting in its sarcasm and bulls eye accurate in its spoofing of the political correctness movement. The humor is dark, which is just the way I like it! There must have been a dozen moments in which I thought "thank you for saying that". Too much of our society has been cast asunder in an effort to never offend, bother or upset another person. I welcome offense, celebrate bother and, to anyone who wishes to offend me, I say "good luck". Let's celebrate our differences, even those that are upsetting. It is our differences that make life interesting.

Thank You For Smoking follows a tobacco lobbyist/spokesperson as he attempts to persuade the public that smoking just might not be as bad as everyone wants you to believe. Aaron Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, the lobbyist for tobacco companies. He travels America, giving speeches, debating on television and all-in-all battling for the right to smoke. A fictional Vermont Senator, portrayed by William H. Macy, decides to put a poison label on every pack of cigarettes. The two of them battle for public opinion. Naylor takes up with an attractive reporter, played by Katie Holmes, who later betrays his trust and spills all of his dark secrets. Naylor does his job and spins the tobacco story while trying to remain a role model for his twelve year old son.

Aaron Eckhart says that after he read this script he dropped out of another project to play Nick Naylor, heroic tobacco spin-doctor. I believe that almost every actor involved felt the same way. So much of this script is fabulous. Every character has at least a few terrific lines to excite the actor. This film was written and directed by Jason Reitman. He has since gone on to write and/or direct the box office hits 'Juno' and 'Up in the Air'. The hard-hitting sarcasm in this movie is fantastic. But the film also has a personal and sentimental side. The relationship between father and son is touching.

The film is based upon the best-selling novel by Christopher Buckley. Both Reitman and Buckley are the sons of big names in their fields. Jason is the son of Writer/Director Ivan Reitman while Christopher is the son of Author/Columnist William F. Buckley. Perhaps there is genetics at work? Even though the novel was a best-seller it took almost 15 years for the book to hit the big screen. The Hollywood studios must have decided that it was too "sensitive" a subject about which to make a film. There have been six disgusting films in the 'Saw' series, but a look at lobbying, tobacco and political correctness is too sensitive? In what world do movie executives live?

There are many wonderful performances in supporting roles. Besides Eckhard, Holmes and Macy, JK Simmons, Robert Duvall, Sam Elliott and Rob Lowe all have terrific parts. I am certain that they all jumped at the chance to be in Thank You For Smoking. This kind of ensemble film, with a fantastic script, must be an actor's dream. I believe they enjoyed being in this movie as much as I enjoyed watching.

Writer/director Jason Reitman has a wonderful quote about his films. "I don't want to make films that give you the answer. If there is a message to my films - and I hope there isn't - it's to be open-minded." I couldn't agree more!

Filmed in 2005, directed and written by Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Christopher Buckley, starring Aaron Eckhart, William H. Macy, Katie Holmes, Sam Elliott, Rob Lowe and Robert Duvall.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

King Rat

George Segal portrays Corporal King. King is an American POW in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War Two. The camp has no fences nor wires. Just an impenetrable jungle from which there is no escape. Cpl. King decides to try to make the best of a horrific situation. He is a street hustler extraordinaire and he uses those skills to obtain small luxuries. Like food. King Rat focuses upon the trials of life within a POW camp.

King finds he has not one, but two enemies. The Japanese guards are one, but the jealous British prisoners within the camp also become a source of difficulty. Most of the camp is British and they prefer a more traditional view of relations with the Japanese. King is always "working the angle" to find a way to make life more bearable. Many other prisoners become more of an obstacle than the guards themselves. With the British prisoners on one-side and the Japanese guards on the other, King must walk a fine line between them if he is to survive.

This film also has a secondary storyline about the role of class in our society. Most of the British POWs are officers of fine breeding while King is an enlisted man of a questionable background. Some of the "upper-crust" British feel it is beneath them to work with someone like Cpl. King, let alone be bested or dependent upon him. This class-warfare intrigue is still in question today. Are some people better than others because of who they are? Rich vs. poor, male vs. female, white vs. black, educated vs. street smarts are all still issues plaguing humanity.

This film is based upon a best-selling novel by James Clavell. Clavell spent much of his literary life writing a series of best-selling novels about Asia and its interaction with the West. From 'Shogun' to 'Noble House' to 'Gai-Jin' all of Clavell's novels about Asia are intriguing. The mini-series based upon 'Shogun', starring Richard Chamberlin and Toshiro Mifune, is still one of my favorite television events. And this novel is one of his best.

Whether you like intense drama or prefer intellectual action, King Rat will provide some enjoyable entertainment. Upon viewing please keep one question in the back of your mind. If you were in a similar situation, would make a deal for food or would you starve for principle and honor?

Filmed in 1965, directed by Bryan Forbes, written by Forbes from the novel by James Clavell, starring George Segal, John Mills, Tom Courtenay, James Fox and Denholm Elliott.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Art of the Steal

This 2009 documentary not only fascinated me, but it enraged me. It is the story of the fantastic art collection of Dr. Barnes. Dr. Barnes passed away in 1951 and was one of the first Americans to bring post-impressionist and modern art over from Europe. In the early 1920s he organized a showing of his large collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. That exhibit was ridiculed and insulted by the established art world in and around Philadelphia. He then created an art school, moved his collection to a large mansion in the suburbs and sheltered it from large public displays. Upon his death his only request was that the art "never be moved or sold" and that it not be shown to large crowds.

Fast-forward to the 1990s. Now his collection is one of the most revered in the world. The Philadelphia art establishment that ridiculed and insulted him now want to get their greedy, grubby paws on all that art. Lawyers are hired, stooges are put in place, trusts are busted and wills are ignored. Oh well, who cares? Dr. Barnes is dead and the powerful and famous want the art.

The Art of the Steal documents the history and future of this fabulous art collection. As I said, I got a little angry while viewing this film. My wife left the room and told me not to tell her what happens. But, in many ways, that is the sign of a great documentary. I think you too will be angry, frustrated and/or sad by the goings-on documented here. One thing you won't be is bored!

One note about the Dr. Barnes collection. I have traveled to many parts of the world to see great, and not-so-great, art. I have never seen this collection and would love to. But, I respect the wishes of the man who worked so hard to put this collection together more than I desire to see the art. A dying man's wishes, spelled out to the letter in his will, should be followed.

The collection is perhaps the greatest private art collection in the world. It contains, among other pieces:

181 pieces by Renoir, 69 by Cezanne, 59 by Matisse, 46 by Picasso, 21 by Soutine, 18 by Rousseau, 16 by Modigliani, 11 by Degas, 7 by Van Gogh, 6 by Seurat as well as pieces by El Greco, Gaugin, Manet, Goya and Chirico. Amazing.

Made in 2009, directed by Don Argott.