Friday, April 30, 2010

The Big Clock

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.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Silent Running

I am in the mood for some cheesy, 70's sci-fi.

I like this movie. I don't know why. It is fairly cheesy, somewhat preachy, the Joan Baez theme is dated and the story very simple. And yet, I really like Silent Running. Somehow, despite its shortcomings, it strikes a cord with me. I care how the story unfolds and what happens to the characters. If you can look past some minor defects I think you might enjoy Silent Running too. The film has quite a cult following. I guess I belong to that cult.

Bruce Dern portrays an astronaut on a special spaceship that contains the last remnants of plant life on Earth. He has cared for these forests for 8 years as people on Earth have "improved" life back home. There is no poverty, no disease, everyone gets along, it is always 75 degrees and most consider it to be paradise. Not Bruce Dern. He likes trees and flowers and squirrels and real fruit. His fellow astronauts think he is nuts. And he is, at least a little. But when Dern receives an order to destroy the ships, and with it all remaining plant life, he can not proceed. Can he save the forests?

Obviously, this is a metaphor for human destruction of our environment. Worries over the fate of humanity and Earth have run strong for a long time. This is a simple look at one man's desperation to do what he can to save the forests.

The writers include some who went on to fame and fortune. Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino and Stephen Bochco co-wrote the script. Bochco is one of television's biggest producers. His credits include 'LA Law', 'Hill Street Blues', 'NYPD Blue' and many more. Washburn and Cimino wrote 'The Deer Hunter' (a truly great and overpowering film) while Cimino directed 'The Deer Hunter' and the ill-fated 'Heaven's Gate'. That's a lot of chops for one cult sci-fi film. Douglas Trumbull debuts as a director with Silent Running. Best known for his special effects he worked on lots of movies including 'Close Encounters' and '2001'.

Silent Running is not a great film, but I find it to be interesting and appealing. I hope you do as well.

Filmed in 1971, directed by Douglas Trumbull, written by Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino & Stephen Bochco, starring Bruce Dern and 3 cute robots.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Battle of Algiers

Powerful story of the battle for independence by Algerian Muslims, against the French, in 1957. Although the film is fiction it plays, very much, like a documentary. Many have referenced this film as an allegory for Vietnam, Iraq and other places where locals have battled for independence from foreign powers. The French eventually win the battle of Algiers, but lose the war a few years later when another uprising leads to Algerian independence.

The film follows the story from both the Muslim terrorist/rebel perspective and that of the French colonial forces and army. The Algerian storyline is one of both sorrow and pride. They feel that they have been exploited and discriminated upon by the colonial French. The French believe that they have brought culture, stability and economic growth to an impoverished people. Of course, both are right!

This is the first time, that I can remember, where bombings of businesses and public gathering places were used as a terrorists device. The scenes of the Muslim women changing their appearance and smuggling the bombs into cafes and bars are riveting. The direction, script and acting are all fascinating. The documentary feel makes the impact all the more powerful. Whether it is locals being tortured or the French being bombed, the violence really strikes a cord. If I had been unaware I would swear that much of the film is based on news footage.

Fascinating look at a situation that holds as much truth today as it did in the 1950's. I can't say that I "enjoyed" The Battle of Algiers, but it is a first-rate film.

Filmed in 1966, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, written by Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas, starring Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin, Yacef Saadi and Fusia El Kader.

This is the only film to be nominated for Academy Awards in two years that are non-consecutive. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 1967 and for both Best Director and Best Screenplay in 1969.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Neil Simon

Neil Simon is one of the great American playwrights. My post about 'Barefoot in the Park' encouraged me to reflect upon his many terrific plays and movies. This is a quick look at 5 of my favorite films written or based-upon Neil Simon's work. All of these films are worth adding to your netflix or purchase list immediately. One personal request. Please get the originals not the remakes. Almost everything that Neil Simon has written has been remade. NONE of the remakes are anything close to the originals. You have been warned.

The Odd Couple

This is the quintessential Simon work. Witty beyond belief with strong eccentric characters with which we can relate or sympathize. This pair the fantastic duo of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon for the second of their ten classic films together. The best buddy opposites of the clean freak Felix with the sloppy Oscar still ring true (and hilarious). You should watch this film every few years. Even though it was released in 1968 it remains funny and relevant today. It is based upon the hit Broadway sensation which starred Matthau and Art Carney. The studio felt that Carney could not draw in movie audiences and was replaced by Jack Lemmon. Enjoy every fantastic scene.

The Goodbye Girl

Please read my earlier post for an in-depth look at this fantastic romantic comedy. This movie is sweet, funny and heart-warming at different moments. It is a wonderful date movie as well. Lots of humor and laughter, but enough romance and poignant moments to warm any date.

The Out-of-Towners

This is the best of its genre. The story of people on the go whose trips become disasters. All things that can go wrong do. Even some that seem as if they can't possibly fail somehow manage to make things worse. Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis star as George and Gwen Kellerman. They fly into New York so the Lemmon can attend a big job interview the next morning. Things go from poor to bad to horrible to worse, all in the space of one night. Painfully funny! Every bad break movie made since, 'Plains,Trains and Automobiles', 'After Hours', even 'Home Alone' owe a huge debt to Neil Simon and this film.
IMPORTANT: Avoid at any and all costs the horrible remake starring Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn!

The Sunshine Boys

George Burns and Walter Matthau star in this quick-witted comedy about two vaudeville performs who are asked to appear an a television special. The only problem;they can't stand each other. Years of touring and working together have driven the two very far apart. Both want to be on this television special, but each has their difficulties in reuniting. Classic Neil Simon! George Burns won an Academy Award for his performance as Al Lewis.

Barefoot in the Park

Another film that I wrote about in an earlier post. Fantastic film with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda as newlyweds moving into their first apartment after returning to New York from their honeymoon. Having known each other for only a few days before the wedding, and being of entirely different personalities, Paul and Corie Bratter have more than their share of difficulties during a tumultuous first week of marriage. The beginings of every marriage have their moments, but this week is a doozy. Having to walk up the six flights of stairs probably didn't help. Shama-Shama!

Some other Neil Simon films you may enjoy as well:

Brigthton Beach Memoirs
Biloxi Blues
The Heartbreak Kid
Prisoner of Second Avenue
Last of the Red Hot Lovers

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Barefoot in the Park

I must admit to a personal bias towards this piece. I have seen the film about a dozen times plus 3 times on stage. The writing, by famed playwright Neil Simon, is top-notch. Barefoot in the Park tells the tale of young love. Robert Redford and Jane Fonda are newlyweds moving into their first apartment together. Fonda plays Corrie, a wild and free young woman, who falls for stuffy lawyer Paul Bratter (Robert Redford). They quickly marry and honeymoon. Upon their return to New York she has rented them a fifth-floor walk-up apartment. Barefoot in the Park covers their tumultuous first week together.

Redford played the part on Broadway before coming to the silver screen. He does an excellent job. Great timing and delivery are evidence of his hundreds of performances. Fonda was cast to bring more "star and box-office appeal". She replaced Elizabeth Ashley who played Corrie on Broadway. The chemistry between Fonda and Redford works throughout the film. Mildred Natwick, reprising her role as Fonda's mother, steals the show. She gets, and deserves, all the attention while she is on screen. Natwick was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Charles Boyer, as the unique neighbor, is also a delight. Director Gene Saks does a wonderful job of allowing cast and script to carry the film. His light touch is most appreciated.

Neil Simon is one of America's great playwrights. From 'The Odd Couple' to 'Sunshine Boys' to 'Brighton Beach Memoirs' his scripts are excellent. He has delighted audiences from Broadway to Hollywood for over 30 years. I make it a personal mission to see everything he has written.

Sit back and allow the dialogue, characters and actors to fill you with joy and laughter. After viewing Barefoot in the Park see if you think, as I do, that tv's 'Dharma and Greg' is a total revisiting of the concept and characters.

Filmed in 1967, directed by Gene Saks, written by Neil Simon, starring Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Mildred Natwick and Charles Boyer.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Forbidden Planet

This film is just plain fun! It has everything one could ask for in a 50s science fiction film. The greatest robot ever, a cool monster, psycho-babble (for relevance), lasers, flying saucers, a hot blonde and Shakespeare in space. The only thing missing is more. More robots, more lasers, more blondes!

Seriously, Forbidden Planet is a major sci-fi film. The first successful science fiction film that did not feature a previously known lead (like Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers). The audience had to be convinced to come to the theatre based upon their desire to experience a new kind of movie. Science fiction with intelligence and story not just monsters that eat people and destroy cities. I mention Shakespeare because this movie is 'The Tempest'. Take the story of 'The Tempest', move it to outer space and add some references to modern psychology (like "the superego"). Read the play and then watch this movie. Most of the major developments are lifted from the Bard.

Forbidden Planet is also important for 'Robby the Robot'. Far and away the most famous movie robot until the droids of 'Star Wars'. The robot became one of the biggest draws of people at theaters and businesses after the release of this film. Kids loved him! Women wanted him! Men wanted to be him! Okay, that may be a little strong, but Robby was popular (and still is). After the debut of Forbidden Planet, the robot would draw a large and vocal crowd any time he/it was scheduled to appear. A duplicate was later featured on the t.v. show 'Lost in Space', in part to draw in his fans. Robby is listed in the credits as "Robby the Robot as himself".

The movie deserves kudos for being intelligent. It is not just a western in space. Difficult subjects like runaway egos, interpersonal relationships and humanity's impact upon its own future are tackled. One of my favorite things about science fiction is its ability to handle strong ideas and questions and still be entertaining and popular. Films about the ego could turn viewers away, but make it the runaway ego of a space explorer playing God and the audience eats it up.

The plot is simple. A governmental ship makes a routine inspection visit at "Altair IV". Leslie Nielsen, back in the days when he made serious movies, is the space ship's Captain. They are checking on the status of a group of scientists that landed there years ago. They find that only one scientist remains. Walter Pidgeon plays Dr. Mobius. His daughter, played by the lovely and short-skirted Anne Francis, is the only other person alive. They have built Robby the Robot to help with their lives. Mobius warns the ship to leave immediately. He can't be held responsible for the safety of the ship nor its crew. Why is he so afraid? How did they, and no one else, survive? Each of the crew want to know how to get a date with Anne Francis. When the ship refuses to leave a monster attacks. An invisible, unstoppable monster. Who, if any one, will survive and how will they attempt it?

One other important note:the soundtrack and score for this movie are revolutionary. The composers Louis Barron and Bebe Barron changed movie music forever. This is the first film to feature a score that is entirely electronic. It is so different and unique that the musician's union refused them credit as "composers". Instead the score is called "electronic tonalities". This electronic score would blaze the trail for science fiction films to come.

An intelligent script (thanks Shakespeare), a story filled with surprises, an invisible monster and the best robot ever make Forbidden Planet science fiction fun for one and all!

Filmed in 1956, directed by Fred Wilcox, written by Cyril Hume, starring Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Richard Anderson, Jack Kelly,Warren Stevens and Robby the Robot.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

This post refers to the 1965 version and not the remake of 2004. However, the remake is one the few remakes I've seen that have been worthwhile, if not up to the original.

I remember, as a teen and young adult, being excited when I noticed that this would be rerun on television. It was appointment viewing for me. Today, luckily, I can just get the DVD whenever I want to watch this exciting and intriguing film. Jimmy Stewart stars as a pilot working for an oil company in the middle of the desert. He and his crew are flying a group of oil workers back to civilization when the plane experiences difficulties and crash lands. After the crash, the airplane is beyond repair and the survivors must decide upon their course of action. Some want to try to walk out of the desert. Perhaps hundreds of miles to safety. Others want to hunker down and wait for rescue. Still other options are suggested. The final decision on how to survive and escape the oppressive desert is fantastic. I always wondered, each time I viewed this film, what would be my decision? Could I handle the pressure of such a terrible plight?

While my personal reactions aren't in the movie, the script provides for a plethora of personalities. Jimmy Stewart as Towns is his usual strong self. He always demands and deserves attention no matter in what picture he stars. But the story is in the supporting cast. And this film has one of the deepest and finest casts ever assembled. Among the actors are Sir Richard Attenborough, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, Peter Finch, Oscar nominated Ian Bannen and Hardy Kruger. The actors are superb. Difficult situations and hard choices are presented in this story and this cast does them justice. Acclaimed director Robert Aldrich uses the talents of the actors in conjunction with a terrific script by Lukas Heller. Aldrich has done many terrific "guy" movies including 'The Dirty Dozen', 'The Longest Yard' and 'Twilight's Last Gleaming'. He made The Flight of the Phoenix and then rushed to make 'The Dirty Dozen'. Not too bad a double feature of directing!

The script is excellent and avoids most of the survival cliches. Heller adapts Elleston Trevors' terrific first novel with suspenseful results. The fine script allows Director Aldrich to use his excellent cast to make a remarkable film.

Filmed in 1965, directed by Robert Aldrich, written by Lukas Heller, starring Jimmy Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Ian Banned, George Kennedy, Peter Finch, Ernest Borgnine and Hardy Kruger.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Thing from Another World

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.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Panic in the Streets

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!

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Walter Matthau plays 'Kendig' a CIA field agent demoted after allowing a Russian to go free. His supervisor, portrayed by a foul-mouthed Ned Beatty, decides to humiliate him and orders him to "supervise the file room". Kendig hopes to reap his revenge by publishing his memoirs. Those memoirs expose his supervisor as a buffoon and give away some spy secrets to all the other world powers. Beatty orders Kendig's protegee, a young Sam Waterston (Law and Order), to track down this "rogue" agent and terminate him.

The plot reads like a hundred spy thrillers, but Hopscotch is different. There is almost no violence. It is a battle of smarts not guns. The dialogue is long on wit. There are lots of sly jokes and references to keep you entertained. The plot is winding, but still, somehow, believable. After all, Kendig has trained almost everyone that is chasing him. Can he escape, embarrass his boss and remove himself from the most wanted list all in one go? You will have to watch to find out.

Matthau plays the everyman to perfection. From the transit cop in 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three' to the irascible Oscar in 'The Odd Couple' to the thief in 'Charlie Varrick' Matthau always seems like a guy that you know from work. He is interesting, charming and bright, but is never above the audience. You almost can't go wrong if you pick up a random film of his. (warning:be sure to avoid 'First Monday in October') The rest of the cast does a fine job. Glenda Jackson as his love interest/accomplice, Ned Beatty and Sam Waterston all do fine jobs.

The script, by Brian Garfield from his own novel, is quick and witty. This is a fun movie that should keep you guessing and entertained.

Filmed in 1980, directed by Ronald Neame, written by Brian Garfield, starring Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson, Ned Beatty and Sam Waterston.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Mister Roberts

This is a film for everyone who likes movies. Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Jack Lemmon and William Powell. Great Cast! Directed by John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy. Fantastic Directors! Based upon the hit Broadway play written by Joshua Logan and Thomas Heggen. Great Script! All that talent shows up on the screen each time I watch Mister Roberts. It is funny and sad all during the same movie. Many films are called "Dramedy" because they want you to believe that the film is both a comedy and a drama. This is one of the few films that honestly deserves the title. You will be laughing during many scenes and then your heartstrings will be pulled in others.

Mister Roberts is played by Henry Fonda. He is a cargo officer on a supply ship during World War Two. The Captain of the ship, portrayed by James Cagney, is a tyrant who rides the men to their breaking point. None of the men have been off the ship in 14 months. Fonda acts as a buffer between the men and the Captain. Jack Lemmon, in one of his earliest big parts, plays Ensign Pulver. Pulver means well but is quite afraid of the Captain. He has many big plans for upsetting the status on board, but he never seems to follow through. Lemmon won the best supporting actor academy award for this film. William Powell portrays the ship's Doctor and is Fonda's lone confidant. Fonda reprises the role that he originated on Broadway. He won the Tony Award in 1948 for playing Mister Roberts.

The film follows the battle between Fonda and Cagney, but also shows the boredom and tedium that many people experienced behind the lines in the War. They all served important roles in the fight, but many felt that they had been "left behind". Mister Roberts desperately wants to "get into the war". We recognize the men and women who fight on the front, but often forget all those behind the scenes that carry on as well.

Mister Roberts is highly entertaining. Both funny and dramatic, it will entertain you from start to finish.

Filmed in 1955, directed by John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy, written by Frank Nugent and Joshua Logan, starring Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Jack Lemmon and William Powell.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Sorry to have been away the last few days. Tax time can be very taxing!

"Any similarities to real persons and events is not coincidental. . . it is intentional."

The emotions for this film are set in the opening moments of Z. That quote sends us off on a voyage of discovery. This movie plays as part historical record and part detective novel. Director Costa-Gavras tells the true story of the assassination of a Greek politician/doctor by thugs hired by the military. Although the film is set in an unnamed country, by opening with the quote above, Costa-Gavras makes clear he is referencing this modern Greek tragedy. Unlike so many film makers who hide behind disclaimers Costa-Gavras challenged the military to sue him for this film. They, wisely, chose not to attempt to silence this intelligent and compelling film.

Occurring in the sixties, Yves Montand portrays a physician who has entered the political arena. He champions the cause of disarmament and peace and an end to repression by the military. A large segment of the population is rallying to his call. The forces within the government are becoming quite uncomfortable with his popularity and they arrange for his public murder. Jean Louis Trintignant plays the magistrate that is in charge of investigating the crime. He is under tremendous pressure to shelter the military from any mention of involvement. But, undeterred, he finds proof of the connections and issues charges against many high-ranking government and military officials.

Z is factually-based on the assassination of Gregoris Lambrakis, a Greek politician, in 1963. The murder and subsequent investigation lead to the downfall of the ruling government, its replacement with a liberal one, which was then ousted by a military coup. 20 years later, the magistrate character, who was revered for his insistence upon the truth and then jailed for that insistence, becomes President of a modern, democratic government. Because this film is so accurate I find it quite compelling. The mystery element is important as a story-telling device, but the facts of the murder, cover-up and long-term effects are what interested me the most. Montand is solid, as usual, but Trintignant's work as the pressured and embattled investigator is fantastic. I find myself emotionally rooting for him to persevere in the face of fantastic opposition from the powerful. I am a sucker for the justice-seeking David vs. corrupt Goliath story. Costa-Gavras, with the aid of the truth, uses that storyline to perfection.

Powerful and still poignant, Z is wonderful history and intriguing mystery.

Notes: the letter Z became the rallying graffiti for the movement in Greece after the assassination. Z is the first letter in "Zei", which is ancient Greek for "he is alive". Also, this film was nominated for Best Picture. It won Oscars for best editing and Best Foreign Film.

Filmed in 1969, directed by Costa-Gavras, written by Jorge Semprun and Costa-Gavras, starring Yves Montand, Irene Papas, Jean Louis Trintignant and Jacques Perrin. Based on the novel 'Z' by Vasilis Vasilikos.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Car Chase

After reviewing 'Vanishing Point' yesterday, I started thinking about the great car chases in cinema. While the car chase goes back to almost the beginning of movies, it wasn't until the 60s that film makers found the full potential for drama of a great automobile sequence. Think about some of the moments in movies that caused your heart rate to go up while the speedometers went up as well. The evolution of film technology has pushed directors away from a car chase into more "modern" techniques. But, as I watch these films today, I find myself greatly entertained and amazed by the car chases in the films I list below. If you would like more information, Jesse Cross has written a fantastic book about the history of car chases. 'The Greatest Car Chases of all Time' is well worth the read.

Gone in 60 Seconds

I am referring to the ultimate car chase film ever made. NOT the horrible, awful, disgusting and putrid remake with Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie. Avoid the remake like the bubonic plague! The 1974 original is the most amazing authentic car chase. This film is 97 minutes long and crashes 93 cars. All real cars in real crashes being driven by real stunt people! The final 40 minutes are one long chase. Better than any other chase filmed. Early in the movie a tow truck that is towing a car attempts to elude the police in a sequence filmed, I think, in Long Beach, CA. You must respect any director that films a tow truck chase.

Unfortunately, the remastered DVD has slaughtered the original film. They removed all the original songs, covered up the authentic sound effects and have made it most disappointing. I have not provided a link because the new DVD is not worth watching. Hopefully, someday, the original will be released for all to enjoy!

The French Connection

Anyone who has seen this movie remembers the fantastic footage of Gene Hackman (Popeye Doyle) driving his car beneath the elevated train in a mad race to capture the suspect. Most cinemaphiles consider this to be the greatest car chase sequence filmed. I can feel my blood pressure rise throughout the chase. The crash at the end was unplanned. The poor driver of the other car was not involved with the film and had just left home. He was reimbursed for his troubles.


I rambled on about Bullitt in an earlier post. But the car chase, featuring Steve McQueen in a fabulous Mustang, is worth the price of admission. Fast and fantastic!

To Live and Die in L.A.

William Friedkin finds two of his films on this short list. He directed 'The French Connection" and, 15 years later, this film. Both contain magnificent car chases. The sequence in this film finds our drivers on and off the Los Angeles freeways in rush hour. My hands are still a little sore from gripping the chair so tightly while watching this chase.


John Frankenheimer, director of the cinema masterpiece 'The Manchurian Candidate', shows off his skills with the chase sequence in this movie. He retells the Japanese story of the 47 Ronin using the cold war as his backdrop. The movie is solid, but the car chase is fantastic!

Some other terrific car chases:

Mad Max - set in a post-apocalyptic future, this film brought Mel Gibson to the world's forefront.
Against All Odds - if you want to see a great movie watch the original 'Out of the Past' with Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer. If you want a great car chase get this movie!
The Blues Brothers - this is not so much a car chase as a car destruction. Fun for everyone.
The Gumball Rally - semi-true story of illegal road race across America. For more info read the fantastic book by Brock Yates, Cannonball! World's Greatest Outlaw Road Race. One of the most entertaining books I have ever enjoyed.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Vanishing Point

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the evolution of the car chase in cinema. Chase cinema evolved from films like 'Bullitt' (my post) and 'The French Connection', which used car chases to develop tension and continue the drama, to later films, like 'Gone in 60 Seconds' and 'Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry' (my post) in which the car chase was the drama and the story was just to get to the action. Some of the biggest directors of today got their start on just such films. Oscar winner Ron Howard started with 'Grand Theft Auto' while multi-Oscar winner Steven Spielberg first directed 'Duel' (my post). They may be making much more cerebral cinema today, but, as young directors, they loved a great car chase! I find that car chase films offer film makers the opportunity to discuss the classic individual vs. society storyline. The driver wants to be free to travel as they wish while the police want them give up their freedom and obey the rules. That is a plot, in one form or another, that goes back as long as stories have been told.

Vanishing Point is from the later group of car chase movies. The storyline is to get us interested in the characters, but the action of the automobiles is what keeps us watching. In this case, it is a 1970 supercharged Dodge Challenger. Barry Newman plays Kowalski, a former cop who has fallen upon hard times. Through a series of short flashbacks, we learn that he was a decorated war hero and police officer who was removed from law enforcement and tried to make a living racing cars. After a personal tragedy his driving career fails and he turns to delivering cars from one city to another. It is on such a trip, from Denver to San Francisco, that our story unfolds.

He meets many characters along the way. This movie being made in 1971, those characters include hippies, racist cops, drop-outs, motorheads, faith healers and a large assortment of the 60s crowd. Clevon Little, of 'Blazing Saddles' fame, stars as 'Super Soul'. He is the dj of a Nevada radio station who deeply empathizes with Kowalski. He is doing his best to assist our driver as he attempts to allude police on a four state chase. One advantage to having a radio dj in the film in the opportunity to include some great soul music. The soundtrack alone makes this a film worth enjoying.

I will not spoil it with details, but film aficionados have been debating the ending since the premiere. I find it to be a fantastic climax while others complain and offer alternate endings. Car chase films have but two possible endings. One, the driver, our hero, escapes the police and goes on to drive another day. Or two, the police, the symbol for the end to freedom in our lives, stop the car from proceeding and imprison the driver. I won't tell you which ending Vanishing Point has, but, after viewing, drop me a line and tell me what you think. I look forward to your opinion.

This is one of the classic car chase films. Remember that this was made before computers took over movies. All the driving, crashing, jumping and more was done by real people in real cars. Oh how I long for the days of stunt people!

Filmed in 1971, directed by Richard Sarafian, written by Guillermo Cain, starring Barry Newman, Clevon Little, Dean Jagger and Gilda Texter as the nude motorcycle rider.

Harlan County U.S.A.

After viewing the fictional coal miners in 'How Green was my Valley' I decided to check out the real thing. This film is one of the most gut-wrenching and powerful documentaries I have seen. Harlan County U.S.A. is the academy award winner for Best Documentary that chronicles the 3 year struggle for union representation for coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky. Their battle took place in the early 70's and became a national event. The filmmakers were granted full access to the union organizers in chronicling their efforts. They observed meetings in halls, rallies in churches and they visited homes throughout the region. Filmmakers also labored to record and preserve the rich history of song that miners and organizers wrote and sung about their conditions. There is a CD that contains much of this folk music history.

This film has amazing footage of the desperate conditions in which many of these miners and their families lived. It is stupefying that these conditions existed in the U.S., not in some undeveloped country. The mine provided housing to workers that had no electricity, heat or running water. There is fantastic footage of the President of the mine company complaining that the strike has interfered with the company's plans to upgrade the housing. As the dispute grew longer the tactics became more violent. Beatings, intimidation and shootings became frequent. A mine accident that kills 78 people galvanizes the press and the workers in their fight for better pay and working conditions.

The people who labored for years to make this documentary deserve all the credit anyone can possibly earn. Faced with physical and psychological intimidation themselves, they persevered in their fight to show the world what was happening.

Harlan County U.S.A. is unnerving, powerful, intimidating, depressing and uplifting all in one experience. Don't miss it.

Filmed in 1972-1976, directed by Barbara Kopple, written and starring the people of Harlan County, Kentucky.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

How Green was my Valley

'Citizen Kane' is considered by many to be the finest film ever made. This is the film that beat 'Kane' for the Academy Award for Best Picture! It won 4 other Oscars including Best Director for John Ford. How Green was my Valley is the touching story of the Morgans, a Welsh family in a coal mining town. Set in the heart of the industrial revolution, the Morgans must battle all kinds of adversity and hardships. Donald Crisp plays Mr. Morgan, the head of the family. He was awarded the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for this film. Sara Allgood does an excellent job portraying his wife.

The film tells their story from the perspective of the youngest child, Huw Morgan. Huw is played by Roddy McDowall. He may be best known today for the 'Planet of the Apes' series, but he had a wonderful career that was kicked off in fine fashion with this masterpiece. The Morgans face the dangers of being a coal mining family. Accidents at the mine along with union-organizing activities take their toll. Also, an accident injures Mrs. Morgan and young Huw. But through all this the Morgans persevere. There is love and joy in this large family. And singing. Lots and lots of singing.

Director John Ford uses all his skills to craft this monumental movie. He gets terrific performances out of Crisp, Allgood and McDowall as well as from Maureen O'Hara and Walter Pidgeon. The script is very strong. We learn so much about family, commitment and personal strength that applies to all families. As the Morgan children grow they must move to make their place in the world. Will the coal mining tradition continue or will they move on? Daughter Angharad (O'Hara) must choose between her love for the village reverend and the son of the mine owner. Huw faces the decision of an education or staying with the family and working in the mine. While the details may be different, today's families face similar choices.

How Green was my Valley also won academy awards for art direction and cinematography. Both are well-deserved. This film is visually rich, especially for a film in black-and-white. The town, coal mine, the village street and the Morgan's home become characters in the story. The valley is transformed from a beautiful, rich homeland to a dirty wasteland over the life of Huw. The impact of this transformation due to industrial use is one our society and planet face today.

This is a magnificent film. Move it to the top of your Netflix queue today.

Filmed in 1941, directed by John Ford, written by Philip Dunne, based on the novel by Richard Llewellyn, starring Donald Crisp, Sara Allgood, Walter Pidgeon, Roddy McDowall and Maureen O'Hara. One note: This was filmed entirely in Southern California. Because of German bombing of England, studio execs were worried about filming there.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Right at Your Door

The tagline for this film is "Terror just hit home". A dirty bomb is exploded in downtown Los Angeles. Brad, played well by Rory Cochrane, is at home during the morning of the blast. His wife Lexi, portrayed by 'In Plain Sight' star Mary McCormack is at work in the blast area. Brad can not reach her after the explosion. Understandably, every phone line is down and Brad is panicking. Is she all right? Where is she? The governmental authorities instruct everyone downwind of the blast to use their duct tape and close off their homes. Use plastic sheets and tape up the house. Keep out the radiation and/or germ warfare that the bomb has spread. Reluctantly, since Lexi is still not home, Brad closes off the house. When his wife returns she is covered in debris. Possibly contaminated with radiation or disease. Should he let her back into his safe haven? Would you?

The premise of Right at Your Door should strike a cord in anyone. With the possibility of terrorist attack in all of our lives, our response to such an intense situation is something to consider. How far does someone go to protect themselves and their families? Both Rory Cochrane and Mary McCormack do fine jobs within the characters. They come across as real people faced with an unreal world. The film was written and directed by Chris Gorak. Earlier in his career Gorak served as the art director on some big Hollywood films like 'Tombstone', 'Fight Club' and 'Minority Report'. Some of that attention to detail shows in his direction of this movie. But with this being his first directorial work he occasionally sets up the photographic part of the movie at the expense of the story. Some of the visual images are striking. The images of dust-covered survivors is haunting. However, the most jaw-dropping moments in this film come at the end. I will not say how the film ends, but it is most definitely a powerful twist. This film is worth watching just for the ending.

Right at Your Door is an intriguing plot with a fantastic finish. The acting from the leads is solid and the film is visually appealing. It is not the best movie I have ever seen, but I enjoyed most of it. Especially the final minutes. Wow!

Filmed in 2006, written and directed by Chris Gorak, starring Rory Cochrane and Mary McCormack.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Marlon Brando

Today is Marlon Brando's birthday. I wanted to post some info about his films. I consider him to be America's preeminent actor. Many have seen his films and know much about his enigmatic life. Below are some of my favorite Brando films with links to his work.

On the Waterfront

Brando's work as Terry Malloy is the finest piece of acting I have ever witnessed. This is a film that is powerful in its message, but should be seen just to watch Marlon Brando. He won a Best Actor Oscar and this film won Best Picture as well. Budd Schulberg also won the Best Screenplay award. There is a line, towards the end of the film, that is often quoted. Brando says "I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am." Any other actor would have put the emphasis on "been" as the focal point of the line. Instead, Brando forces our attention on "somebody". He wanted to be somebody and through that one choice of emphasis we can feel his pain and anguish. Perfect.

The Wild One

Marlon Brando vs. Lee Marvin as the heads of rival motorcycle gangs who battle in a small town in the 50s. Is any more information necessary?

The Chase

Marlon Brando portrays a small town, Southern Sheriff on a hot night. Local criminal 'Bubber Reeves' has escaped from prison and the entire town is on edge. This film is best known for its amazing cast. Along with Brando, there is Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Robert Duvall, E.G. Marshall and Angie Dickinson. Worth a look just for the cast!

Mutiny on the Bounty

Brando plays Fletcher Christian. Christian leads a mutiny on her majesty's ship The Bounty against the domineering Lt. Bligh. Brando portrays Christian unlike any other performer. His Fletcher Christian is more feminine, more emotional and more racked with angst than the portrayals by Clark Gable or Mel Gibson. He shows us that there is more to Fletcher than a man pushed to the edge.

Other Marlon Brando Films:

The Godfather: perhaps the film for which he is now best known. Another Best Actor Oscar for his work as 'Vito Corleone'.
Apocalypse Now: Brando dominates the second half as 'Colonel Kurtz'. "The Horror"
A Streetcar named Desire: his breakthrough role. "Stella!"
The Young Lions: Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift in the same movie, but not seen together. Brando portrays a German officer becoming disillusioned with World War II.

Friday, April 2, 2010


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.