Everything’s coming up sunshine and Santa Claus! I suspect lots of folks have been waiting for this film to come out of the vaults (closet?). I’m usually not a fan of broadly comic, door-slamming farce (is it necessary for the actors to always scream their lines?)-but I do make an exception for Richard Lester’s 1976 film adaptation of Terrence McNally’s stage play, because it always puts me in stitches, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. Jack Weston plays a N.Y.C. businessman on the run from the mob, who seeks asylum in what he figures will be the last place on earth that the hit men would think of to search for him-a gay bath house. And yes, hilarity ensues.
The cast includes F. Murray Abraham, Jerry Stiller, Kaye Ballard, and Treat Williams as a private detective with a very interesting speaking voice. They are all excellent, but ultimately upstaged by the lady who absolutely steals the movie-Rita Moreno as Googie Gomez, a sort of female version of Bill Murray’s cheesy lounge act character on those old SNL episodes. I have learned from experience to be sure not to be sipping a beverage or munching a snack when Googie launches into her interpretation of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, because otherwise, I will be passing some form of matter through my nose. The DVD features an excellent transfer.
Well, there’s good news and bad news here. The good news, of course is that this 1980 comedy gem starring Martin Mull and Tuesday Weld has finally been released on DVD. The bad news is that after the interminable wait, the releasing studio has done a less-than-stellar job with the transfer. The picture is adequate (and enhanced for 16×9) but really not that much of an improvement over previous VHS versions; the audio could have stood at least a minimum of EQ tweaking (it’s a bit muffled and thin). So why am I still recommending it? Because it’s a truly hilarious satire of California trendies, featuring a crack ensemble of screen comedy pros (Sally Kellerman, Tommy Smothers, Peter Bonerz, Bill Macy).
Based on Cyra McFadden’s 1977 book, the film is a pre-cursor to Michael Tolkin’s excellent 1994 L.A. satire, The New Age (which remains MIA on DVD, much to my chagrin). Serial takes a brisk stroll through California Yuppie Hell, with its barbs aimed at the late 70s Marin County crowd. Psycho-babblers blather, hot tubs gurgle, and razor-sharp one-liners are dispensed between gulps of white wine and bites of Brie. Almost worth the price of admission alone: the great Christopher Lee as the president of a gay biker gang!
When this film was originally released in 1959, the posters screamed “Out of the blizzard came the most feared killers who ever took over a town!” A tough, gritty and stark film noir, cleverly disguised as a western. Directed by the late Andre de Toth (House of Wax), who had a propensity for creating evocatively atmospheric B-films that belied their low budgets (like the 1954 film noir Crime Wave) Robert Ryan plays a hard-ass cattle rancher who is at odds with one of the neighboring farmers. Complicating things further is the fact that he has the hots for his rival’s wife, who is played by sexy Tina Louise. Just when you think this is going to turn into another illustration as to why the Farmer and the Cowman cain’t be fray-ends, the story heads into proto-Tarantino territory when some very nasty outlaws ride into town, led by Burl Ives. Ives is not so holly-jolly in this role; he convincingly plays a truly vile bastard. The nastiness that ensues, set in an unforgiving wintry Wyoming landscape, may have influenced the offbeat 1968 spaghetti western, The Great Silence. The DVD has no frills, but sports a good transfer.
William Friedkin’s groundbreaking 1970 adaptation of Mart Crowley’s off-Broadway play has made its belated DVD debut in 2008. A group of gay friends gather to celebrate a birthday, and as the booze starts to flow, the fur begins to fly. It may not seem as “bold” or “daring” as it was to viewers nearly 40 years ago, but the hard truths about human nature revealed here remain universal and timeless. It’s one of the best American dramas of the 1970s; a wickedly acidic verbal jousting match delivered by a crackerjack acting ensemble so finely tuned that you could set a metronome to the performances. The film is also unique for enlisting the entire original stage cast to recreate their roles onscreen.
The DVD features an enlightening commentary track from the always-chatty Friedkin, plus three featurettes including interviews with two surviving cast members (sadly, we learn all principal actors save for three have since passed away). Warning: Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” will be playing in your head for days on end.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith– Industrial Entertainment DVD
I had just about abandoned all hope that this 1978 sleeper from Australian writer-director Fred Schepisi would ever see the light of day on DVD, until I was pleasantly surprised to see it pop up on the “new release” rack of my favorite neighborhood independent video store last month (I quickly snapped up the last copy). Adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel (which was inspired by true events) this semi-epic tale concerns the travails of the title character, played with explosive intensity by non-professional actor Tommy Lewis. Jimmie is a half-caste Aboriginal, living in New South Wales in 1900.
Jimmie struggles between the pull of his native culture and the insistence of white sponsors who want him to “do the right thing” and assimilate into “civilized” society. This is easier said than done; it seems that the harder he tries to please everyone, the more he is shunned by all. Jimmie sublimates his reaction to the enveloping systemic racism and roiling inner conflicts for too long, which eventually leads to a shocking explosion of violence. This is raw, powerful and disturbing stuff (not for the squeamish), but well worth your time. The DVD includes a recent interview with Lewis.
This lesser-known Warren Beatty/Goldie Hawn vehicle (from 1971) has been languishing in the vaults for a quite a while, and is due for rediscovery. Beatty is a bank security expert who uses inside “pillow talk” intel provided by his hooker girlfriend (Hawn) to hatch an ingenious plan to pinch three safety deposit boxes sitting in the vault of a German bank that she has confirmed as belonging to people associated with criminal enterprises (what are they going to do-go to the police for help?). The robbery scene is a real nail-biter. What sets this film apart from standard heist capers is its unique chase sequence, which seems to run through most of Germany and takes up a whopping 25 minutes of screen time (a record?). The cast includes Robert Webber and Gert Frobe (Mr. Goldfinger!). Great score from Quincy Jones, too. This DVD is part of a new series of reissues from Sony Pictures, which they have curiously labeled “Martini Movies”.
Touch of Evil (50th Anniversary Edition) – Universal DVD (2-discs)
Yes, this is Orson Welles’ classic 1958 sleaze-noir with that famous opening tracking shot, Charlton Heston as a Mexican police detective, and Janet Leigh in various stages of undress. Welles casts himself as Hank Quinlan, a morally bankrupt police captain who lords over a corrupt border town. Quinlan is the most singularly grotesque character Welles ever created as an actor, and certainly stands as one the most offbeat heavies in all of film noir. This is also one of the last great roles for Marlene Dietrich, who deadpans some classic zingers (“You should lay off those candy bars.”). The scene where Leigh is terrorized in an abandoned motel by a group of thugs led by a creepy, leather-jacketed Mercedes McCambridge could have been dreamed up by David Lynch; there are numerous such stylistic flourishes throughout that are light-years ahead of anything else going on in American cinema at the time.
Fans of the film have had to make do with an improperly matted and cropped DVD transfer-until now. Not only have those screen ratio issues been corrected, but we are also given a choice of viewing 3 different cuts in this new edition: the restored and re-edited 1998 version (re-cut to the specifications that Welles had requested in a 58-page memo to the studio that ultimately fell on deaf ears), the original theatrical version, and the preview version (which has a commentary track with Heston and Leigh). With extras galore.
I’m sure that you’ve heard the news about Michael Crichton’s passing. The prolific, Harvard-educated MD turned science fiction author/screenwriter/director/producer (and yes, yes, I know…global warming denier…but nobody’s perfect) invented the “techno-thriller” genre. He was the master of the science-gone-amuck/chaos theory narrative, a theme that informed his best books and screenplays. Crichton’s novels have become synonymous with edge of your seat thrills and nail-biting suspense, tempered with detailed and (mostly) plausible science. He also created the TV drama ER. He also has an impressive film legacy; here’s my Top 5 picks:
Westworld-This 1973 cult favorite marked Crichton’s first foray into film directing, and admittedly things feel a bit clunky in that department at times. But the film has two very strong suits in its favor: Crichton’s taut, sharply written screenplay and Yul Brenner’s memorable performance as a psychotic android gunslinger (the original Terminator!). James Brolin and Richard Benjamin also have an appealing on-screen chemistry, which livens things up (although Benjamin is an odd choice as an action hero). The “amusement park attractions killing the tourists” concept was an obvious warm up for Jurassic Park. Brenner reprised his role in the dicey 1976 sequel, Futureworld (watch at your own risk).
Jurassic Park-Is this movie really 15 years old? Crichton adapted the screenplay from his own original novel (with assistance from David Koepp). Years of re-watching on the home screen may have diminished the pure visceral thrill of drinking in the sheer cinematic artistry of several key scenes (that unforgettable T. Rex attack in the driving rainstorm, for starters) but this film undeniably remains a truly groundbreaking affair; thanks to the impressive pool of talent involved. My favorite line: “Must go faster.” Director Spielberg, Crichton and Koepp reunited for the sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park; while the special effects were impressive, it was a relatively tepid rehash.
The Andromeda Strain-What’s the scariest monster of them all? It’s the one you cannot see. I’ve always considered this 1971 Robert Wise film to be the most faithful Crichton book-to-screen adaptation. A team of scientists race the clock to save the world from a deadly virus from outer space that reproduces itself at an alarming speed. With its atmosphere of claustrophobic urgency (all the scientists are ostensibly trapped in a sealed underground laboratory until they can find a way to destroy the microbial “intruder”) it could be seen as a precursor to Alien. It’s a nail-biter from start to finish. Nelson Gidding adapted the script from Crichton’s novel. The 2008 TV movie version was a real snoozer.
The Terminal Man-Paging Dr. Jekyll! This is the real sleeper in the Crichton film catalog, IMHO. George Segal is excellent in the lead as a gifted computer scientist who has developed a neurological disorder which triggers murderously psychotic blackout episodes. He becomes the guinea pig for an experimental cure that requires a microchip to be planted in his brain to circumvent the attacks. Although it’s ostensibly “sci-fi”, this 1974 effort shares some interesting characteristics with the post-Watergate paranoid political thrillers that all seemed to propagate around that same time (especially The Parallax View, which also broached the subject of mind control). Director Mike Hodges (who directed the original version of Get Carter) adapted his screenplay from Crichton’s novel.
Twister-I admit, I went into the theater with low expectations, but this 1996 popcorn adventure about storm chasers tearing through Tornado Alley turned out to be quite the guilty pleasure. Crichton co-scripted with Anne-Marie Martin. The film doesn’t have any threatening reptiles or rogue androids, and the science isn’t as complex as the typical Crichton story, but some of his signature themes are there (the violent unpredictability of a tornado-there’s your “chaos theory” at work!). Also, note that the protagonists (Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt) have the same dynamic as Sam Neill and Laura Dern’s scientist couple in Jurassic Park. Action director Jan de Bont (Speed, Lara Croft Tomb Raider) isn’t a very deep filmmaker, but he certainly knows how give you a cinematic thrill ride.
Also worth a peek:The 13th Warrior, Sphere, Disclosure, Rising Sun, Looker, Coma.
I was originally going to do a post this week about my “top 10 Thanksgiving movies”, but after pondering it for a spell, all I could come up with was The House of Yes, Hannahand Her Sisters, The Ice Storm, Planes Trains and Automobiles and Alice’sRestaurant. After that, I had nuthin’ (A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving? But TV doesn’t count.) Oh, I suppose there are many more titles out there (wasn’t there a Walton family Thanksgiving thingie?) but apparently they are not amongst my favorites. One theme that I can easily relate to, however, are movies about food (or with at least one memorable eating scene). Hey, everyone’s gotta eat, right? So, chew on these:
Big Night-This is one DVD that I have repeatedly foisted on friends and relatives, because after all, it’s important to “…take a bite out of the ass of life!” (as one of the film’s characters points out with great veracity). Two brothers, one an enterprising businessman named Secondo (Stanley Tucci, who also co-wrote and co-directed) and his older sibling Primo (Tony Shalhoub), a gifted chef, open an Italian restaurant but quickly run into financial trouble. Possible salvation arrives via a dubious proposal from a more successful competitor (played with much aplomb by Ian Holm). The fate of their business hinges on Primo’s ability to conjure up the ultimate feast. And oh, what a meal he prepares-especially the timpano (you’d better have some pasta and ragu handy-or your appestat will be writing checks that your duodenum will not be able to cash, if you know what I’m saying). The wonderful cast includes Isabella Rossellini, Minnie Driver, Liev Schreiber, Allison Janney, and Campbell Scott (who co-directed with Tucci). Look for a mute Marc Anthony (the Latin pop superstar) lurking throughout as the kitchen assistant.
Comfort and Joy– Another quirky trifle from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth. An amiable Glasgow radio personality (Bill Paterson) gets unceremoniously dumped by his girlfriend on Christmas Eve, which throws him into an existential crisis, causing him to take a sudden and urgent inventory of his personal and professional life. Soon after lamenting to his GM that he wants to do something more “important” than his chirpy morning show, serendipity drops him into the middle a of a hot scoop-a “war” between two rival ice-cream dairies. Chock full of Forsyth’s patented low-key anarchy and extremely dry one-liners. As a former morning DJ, I can tell you that the scenes depicting “Dickie Bird” doing his show are very authentic, which is rare on the screen. One caveat: It could take several days to get that ice cream van’s loopy theme music out of your head.
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover-A gamey, visceral and perversely piss-elegant fable about food, as it relates to love, sex, violence, revenge, and Thatcherism from writer-director Peter Greenaway (who I like to refer to as “the thinking person’s Ken Russell”). Michael Gambon really chews up the scenery (figuratively and literally) as a vile and vituperative British underworld type who holds nightly court at his “front” business, a gourmet restaurant. When his bored trophy wife (Helen Mirren) becomes attracted to one of the regular diners, a quiet and unassuming bookish fellow, the wheels are set in motion for quite a twisty tale, culminating in one of the most memorable scenes of “just desserts” ever served up on film. The opulent set design and cinematographer Sacha Vierny’s extraordinary use of color combine to lend a rich Jacobean texture to the proceedings. Look for the late great pub rocker Ian Dury as one of Gambon’s associates.
Delicatessen-This film is so…French. A serio-comic vision of a food-scarce, future dystopia along the lines of Soylent Green, directed with great verve and trademark surrealist touches by co-directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (The City of Lost Children). The pair’s favorite leading man, Dominique Pinon (sort of a sawed-off Robin Williams) plays a circus performer who moves into an apartment building with a butcher shop downstairs. The shop’s proprietor seems to be appraising the new tenant with, shall we say, a “professional” eye? In Jeunet and Caro’s bizarro world, it’s all par for the course (just wait ‘til you get a load of the vegan “troglodytes” who live underneath the city streets). The film’s most memorable sequence, a wildly funny, imaginatively staged sex scene, stands on its own as a master class in the twin arts of film and sound editing.
Diner– This slice-of-life dramedy marked writer-director Barry Levinson’s first feature film in 1982, and remains his best. A group of 20-something pals converge for Christmas week in 1959 Baltimore. One is recently married, another is about to get hitched, and the others are still playing the field and deciding what to do with the rest of their life. They are all slogging fitfully toward adulthood. The most entertaining scenes take place at the group’s favorite meeting place, a local diner, where the comfort food of choice is French fries with gravy. Levinson has a true gift for writing sharp dialog, and it’s all the little details that make the difference here; like a cranky appliance store customer who refuses to upgrade to color TV because he saw Bonanza at a friend’s house, and decided that “…the Ponderosa looked fake”. This film was more influential than it tends to ever get credit for; Tarantino owes a debt of gratitude (see below) as do the creators of Seinfeld. It’s hard to believe that Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern, Timothy Daly, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser were all relative unknowns at the time!
Eat Drink Man Woman– Or as I call it: “I Never Stir-Fried for My Father”. This was director Ang Lee’s follow-up to his crowd-pleaser The Wedding Banquet (another good food flick). It’s a well-acted dramedy about traditional Chinese values clashing with the mores of modern society. An aging master chef (losing his sense of taste) fastidiously prepares an elaborate weekly meal which he requires his three adult (and single) daughters to attend. As the narrative unfolds, Lee subtly reveals something we’ve suspected all along: when it comes to family dysfunction, we are a world without borders.
My Dinner with Andre– This one is a tough sell for the uninitiated. “An entire film that nearly all takes place at one restaurant table, with two self-absorbed New York intellectuals pontificating the whole running time of the film-this is entertaining?!” Actually…yes, it is. Director Louis Malle took a bold artistic here that pays off in spades. Although essentially a work of “fiction”, the two stars, theatre director Andre Gregory and actor-playwright Wallace Shawn are playing themselves (the pair collaborated on the screenplay). A rumination on art, life, love, the universe and everything, the film is not so much about dinner, but rather a mash note to the lost art of erudite dinner conversation.
Pulp Fiction-Although the universal popularity of this Quentin Tarantino opus is owed chiefly to its hyper-stylized mayhem and the iambic pentameter of its salty dialogue, I think it is underappreciated as a foodie film. The hell you say? Think about it: The opening and closing scenes take place in a diner, with characters having lively discussions over heaping plates of food. In Mia and Vincent’s scene at the theme restaurant, the camera zooms to fetishistic close-ups of their all-American eats (“Douglas Sirk steak, and a vanilla coke.”). Mia offers Jules a sip of her 5 Dollar Milkshake. Vincent and Jules ponder why the French refer to Big Macs as “Royales with cheese” and why the Dutch insist on drowning their French fries in mayonnaise. Jules voraciously hijacks the doomed Brett’s “Big Kahuna” burger, then precedes to wash it down with a sip of his “tasty beverage”. Pouty Fabienne pines wistfully for blueberry pancakes. Even the super efficient Mr. Wolfe takes a couple seconds out of his precisely mapped schedule to reflect on the pleasures of a hot, fresh-brewed cup of coffee. And “Don’t you just love it when you come back from the bathroom and find your food waiting for you?”
Tampopo-Self billed as “The first Japanese noodle western”, this 1987 entry from writer-director Juzo Itam is all that and more. Nobuko Niyamoto is superb as the title character, a widow who has inherited her late husband’s noodle house. Despite her hard work and sincere effort to please customers, Tampopo struggles to keep the business afloat, until a deux ex machina arrives-a truck driver named Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki). After one taste, Goro pinpoints the problem-her noodles are bland. No worries-like the magnanimous stranger who blows into an old western town, Goro takes Tampopo on as a personal project, mentoring her on the Zen of creating the perfect noodle bowl. A delight from start to finish, offering keen insight on the relationship between food, sex and love.
Tom Jones-Do I really need to explain? Watch this morsel and enjoy:
No film festival would be complete without a fistful of entries from the Hong Kong action factory. One of the more visually stylish genre pics I’ve seen so far at this year’s SIFF is from first-time director Alexi Tan. Although the story is pure pulp and could have stood a little script doctoring, it’s shot with the rich tones of a Bertolucci film and plays like a 90-minute dance mix of Sergio Leone’s greatest hits. Produced by Hong Kong cinema legend John Woo, Blood Brothers is a noodle western posing as a gangster saga, with a narrative more than a tad reminiscent of Woo’s 1990 classic, Bullet in the Head.
It’s a story setup that you may have seen once or twice. Two brothers, Feng (Daniel Wu) and Hu (Tony Yang) make a pact with their lifelong buddy Kang (Liu Ye) to break out of their backwater hick village and head off to an exotic and sophisticated metropolis to find fame, fortune and, uh, exotic and sophisticated babes. Think HBO’s Entourage, substituting the race to the top of the criminal underworld of 1930s Shanghai for success in present day Hollywood as the brass ring of the tale. Handsome and charismatic Kang is the babe magnet of the trio (he would be the “movie star”, the Vincent Chase if you will). His younger brother Hu is the frequently overshadowed and more chronically underachieving of the two siblings (there’s your Johnny Drama). And last but not least, there is the physically intimidating, fiercely protective Kang, who is thuggish but cunningly “street smart” (sort of a morph between Eric and “Turtle”). Or, perhaps we could just refer to them as Michael, Fredo and Sonny Corleone? Naw…that’s too easy!
To carry the Entourage analogy further, the “Man” in Shanghai who can make or break the three friend’s fortunes happens to be (wait for it)…a movie producer. In actuality, Boss Hong (Sun Honglei) is more adept at producing piles of bullet-riddled corpses than he is at producing films; it’s a ruthless propensity that has made him one of Shanghai’s most successful and feared crime lords. Among his many enterprises is the Paradise Night Club, which is where Hu finds a job and brother Feng spots an object of instant desire: the lovely Lulu (Shu Qi), Boss Hong’s squeeze and the requisite femme fatale of the piece. Serendipity lands all three pals into Boss Hong’s employ, and eventually into his most trusted inner circle, where friendship and blood ties get sorely tested by the corruption of power (see Godfather II, Scarface, Once Upon a Time in America, etc).
Despite the fact that this is a somewhat cliché gangster tale, and has a lot of plot points that don’t bear up so well under closer scrutiny, I really enjoyed this film because it is executed with such panache. I don’t know what it is about those Hong Kong directors, but they’ve got some kind of cinematic Kavorka that just oozes “cool”. Just watch any of John Woo’s pre-Hollywood era classics, and it’s easy to see why Tarantino and his contemporaries geek out so much over this genre and do their best to ape it in their own work (although the American imitators, try as they might, can never quite match the effortless vibe of their overseas inspirations; I liken it to comparing Kansas with Yes). Genre fans will want to keep an eye out for a possible release-or at least a DVD, I hope.