Tag Archives: Tribute

R.I.P. Mike Nichols

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 22, 2014)

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Mike Nichols passed away earlier this week. Perhaps more than any other film director I can think of, his catalog (stretching from 1966 to 2007) encapsulates the crucial paradigm shifts in America’s social mores (and to some extent, changes in the political landscape) over the past 50 years.

I also consider him one of the progenitors of the modern “dramedy”, enriched by his background in comedy improv (he was a key player in an early 60s troupe that would morph into Second City) and in his experience as a theater director. He was, in every sense of the term, an “actor’s director”, clearly evident from the iconic performances that he coaxed from the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. I don’t think he ever made  a “bad” film, which makes it difficult to narrow down favorites…but I’ll spotlight  my top three choices:

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – If words were needles, university history professor George (Richard Burton) and his wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) would look like a pair of porcupines, because after years of shrill, shrieking matrimony, these two have become maestros of the barbed insult, and the poster children for the old axiom, “you only hurt the one you love”.   Mike Nichols’ 1966 directing debut (adapted by Ernest Lehman from Edward Albee’s Tony-winning stage play) gives us a peek into one night in the life of this battle-scarred middle-aged couple.

After a faculty party, George and Martha invite a young newlywed couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) over for a nightcap. As the ever-flowing alcohol kicks in, the evening becomes a veritable primer in bad human behavior. It’s basically a four-person play, but these are all fine actors, and the writing is the real star of this piece.

Everyone in the cast is fabulous, but Taylor is the particular standout; this was a breakthrough performance for her in the sense that she proved beyond a doubt that she was more than just a pretty face. Don’t forget, the actress behind this blowsy, 50-ish character was only 34 (and, of course, a genuine stunner). When “Martha” says “Look, sweetheart. I can drink you under any goddam table you want…so don’t worry about me,” you don’t doubt that she really can.

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The Graduate- “Aw gee, Mrs. Robinson.” It could be argued that those were the four words in this 1967 Mike Nichols film that made Dustin Hoffman a star. With hindsight being 20/20, it’s impossible to imagine any other actor in the role of hapless college grad Benjamin Braddock…even if Hoffman (30 at the time) was a bit long in the tooth to be playing a 21 year-old character. Poor Benjamin just wants to take a nice summer breather before facing adult responsibilities, but his pushy parents would rather he focus on career advancement immediately, if not sooner.

Little do his parents realize that in their enthusiasm, they’ve inadvertently pushed their son right into the sack with randy Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), wife of his Dad’s business partner (the original cougar?). Things get more complicated after Benjamin meets his lover’s daughter (Katharine Ross). This is one of those “perfect storm” creative collaborations: Nichols’ skilled direction, Calder Willingham and Buck Henry’s witty screenplay, fantastic performances from the entire cast, and one of the best soundtracks ever (by Simon and Garfunkel). Some of the 60s trappings haven’t dated well, but the incisive social satire has retained its sharp teeth.

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Silkwood– The tagline for this 1983 film was intriguing: “On November 13th, 1974, Karen Silkwood, an employee of a nuclear facility, left to meet with a reporter from the New York Times. She never got there.” One might expect a riveting conspiracy thriller to ensue; however what director Nichols and screenwriters Nora Ephron and Alice Arden do deliver is an absorbing character study of an ordinary working-class woman who performed an act of extraordinary courage which may have led to her untimely demise.

Meryl Streep delivers a typically masterful performance as  Silkwood, who worked as a chemical tech at an Oklahoma facility that manufactured plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. On behalf of her union (and based on her own observations) Silkwood testified before the AEC in 1974, blowing the whistle on health and safety issues at her plant. Shortly afterwards, she tested positive for an unusually high level of plutonium contamination. Silkwood alleged malicious payback from her employers, while they countered that she had engineered the scenario herself.

Later that year, on the last night of her life, she was in fact on her way to meeting with a Times reporter, armed with documentation to back her claims, when she was killed after her car ran off the road. Nichols stays neutral on the conspiratorial whispers; but still delivers the goods, thanks in no small part to his exemplary cast, including Kurt Russell (as Silkwood’s husband), and Cher (who garnered critical raves and a Golden Globe) as their housemate.

Also recommended: Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge, The Day of the Dolphin, Working Girl, Primary Colors, Angels in America, Charlie Wilson’s War (my review).

I hope God has a sense of humor: R.I.P. Robin Williams

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 11, 2014)

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If there’s a comedy heaven, its headliner finally showed. But he won’t shut the fuck up.

In the introduction to my review of Where the Wild Things Are a few years ago, I wrote:

Why is “childish” such a dirty word, anyway? To paraphrase Robin Williams, what is wrong with retaining a bit of the “mondo bozo” to help keep your perspective? Wavy Gravy once gave similar advice: “Laughter is the valve on the pressure cooker of life. Either you laugh and suffer, or you got your beans or brains on the ceiling.” Basically (in the parlance of psycho-babble)…“stay in touch with your Inner Child”.

Earlier today, as I am sure you’ve heard, Robin Williams lost touch with his inner child. As Smokey sang, “…there’s some sad things known to man/But ain’t too much sadder than/ The tears of a clown/When there’s no one around.” As someone who used to work in stand-up comedy, I can attest that there’s something to that. A lot of comics are sad people. Humor is a self-defense mechanism for depressives. I can’t explain why, it just is.

There was a certainly lot of that manic quality on display in Williams’ stand-up work…in fact, we came to expect it from him; he was loved, lauded and lavished with lucre for acting out in public like an absolute fucking loon. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. It was his genius. It’s just that we rarely stop to think that some of these comic prodigies (like Williams’ idol Jonathan Winters) really do have a screw loose sometimes. For those like Jonathan and Robin, it may be their curse…but they made it our blessing.

But back to the funny “ha-ha” part of this whole thing…the legacy. Can you imagine, if you added up all the people who ever fell out of their chairs watching him perform on stage, from the tiniest little comedy holes like The Holy City Zoo in San Francisco (where it sticks in my craw to this day that I would somehow keep “missing” him when I lived there in the early 80s… “Oh, man, you left at 10:30 last night? Shit, man, Robin dropped by and did a surprise set at 11!”) to the prestigious concert halls, and then throw in all the people who sat in their living rooms laughing their asses off at Mork and Mindy (and still do, in syndication), and then top it off with the millions who flocked to his movies (good or bad)…how much endorphin release would that add up to in megatons?

We’ll let the psychologists worry about why he did what he ended up doing to himself (if that is indeed the case; the whys and the wherefores are not definitive as of this writing). A close friend emailed me about it this evening, and he offered an insightful corollary with another cultural icon of note, beginning with this classic Hunter S. Thompson quote:

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back…

He went on to point out that “…that high that made (Robin and Hunter) feel that anything was possible has since rolled back…and the sad reality of our corporate controlled existence almost demands them stepping off…leaving the future to another generation to resolve.” (h/t to JBF). And they were both in their 60s. Jesus, I think I just got even more depressed. Let’s get back to the work. I will leave you with my favorite Williams scene. It’s from Terry Gilliam’s film, The Fisher King. It’s a perfect 4 minute showcase of everything Robin excelled at as an actor and comic. RIP.

R.I.P. Bob Hoskins

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 3, 2014)

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According to most of the perfunctory obits on the network newscasts and such over the past several days, the only work of note by the late great British actor Bob Hoskins was his starring role in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Yes, I’m sure we can all agree that was an entertaining romp (if a wee bit overrated) and Hoskins (who never gave a bad performance in his life, despite the material he may have had to work with at times) proved that he could hold his ground against a bevy of scene-stealing cartoon characters, but as far as I’m concerned, that was strictly a paycheck gig.

Granted, at a casual glance this guy may have reminded you more of your 10th grade shop teacher than say, George Clooney, but hand him a juicy character role that he could really sink his teeth into, and he’d go straight for the jugular, tearing up the screen like a fucking Cockney Brando. Standing 5 foot 6 and built like a fireplug, he could appear as huge and menacing as a killer grizzly, or as benign and vulnerable as a teddy bear. For a true appreciation of what Hoskins was “about”, just check out his more “actor-ly” movies…like my top five picks:

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Felicia’s Journey– Due to its disturbing subject matter, writer-director Atom Egoyan’s 1999 psychological thriller/character study does not make for an easy watch, but it does provide an ideal showcase for Hoskins to fully flex his instrument.

In this film, he plays an introverted, middle aged man named Joseph who works as a catering manager. He is obsessed with his late mother, who was a TV chef. He whiles away evenings in his kitchen, cooking in tandem with Mom via old videotapes of her program (while Egoyan’s film is not a comedy, Hoskins’ portrayal has echoes of Rod Steiger’s creepy “Mr. Joyboy” in The Loved One).

As he strikes up an unlikely friendship with an equally insular young Irish woman named Felicia (Elaine Cassidy), who is in search of the cad who left her in the lurch after getting her pregnant, there are disturbing reveals about Joseph’s past that will have you wishing that Felicia would get herself far away from this man, and quickly. As he does in most of his films, Egoyan uses a non-linear narrative and deliberate pacing to build up to a powerfully emotional denouement.

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Inserts-If I told you that Richard Dreyfuss, Veronica Cartwright, Bob Hoskins and Jessica Harper once co-starred in an “X” rated movie, would you believe me? This largely forgotten 1976 film from director John Byrum was dismissed as pretentious dreck by many critics at the time, but 42 years on, it begs reappraisal as a fascinating curio in the careers of those involved.

Dreyfuss plays “Wonder Boy”, a Hollywood whiz kid director who peaked early; now he’s a “has-been”, living in his bathrobe, drinking heavily and casting junkies and wannabe-starlets for pornos he produces on the cheap in his crumbling mansion. Hoskins steals all his scenes as Wonder Boy’s sleazy producer, Big Mac (who is aptly named; as he has plans to open a chain of hamburger joints!). Set in 30s Hollywood, this decadent wallow in the squalid side of show biz is a perfect companion for The Day of the Locust.

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The Long Good Friday– If I had to whittle it down to my “#1” favorite Hoskins performance (no simple task), it would be the one he gives as “Harold Shand”, in John Mackenzie’s 1980 Brit noir. Harold is a “hard” Cockney gangster boss, on the verge of forging an ambitious alliance with an American crime syndicate. Unfortunately, a local rival is bent on throwing a spanner in the works, using any means necessary. Harold finds himself in a race against time to find out who is responsible before “they” succeed in sabotaging the deal.

Screenwriter Barrie Keeffe has a keen ear for dialog, and applies dabs of dark humor throughout. Cinematographer Phil Meheux makes great use of London locales. Helen Mirren is a standout as Harold’s mistress, who also serves as his unofficial (and formidable) consigliere (Hoskins and Mirren reunited onscreen for the 2001 film Last Orders). In the film’s closing scene (a lengthy, uninterrupted close up of Harold’s face) Hoskins delivers a master class in acting, without uttering one word. Gritty, brutal and uncompromising, this ranks as one of the best British crime films of all time.

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Mona Lisa– Hoskins gives a nuanced, Oscar-nominated turn as a “thug with a heart of gold” in Neil Jordan’s brilliant crime fable. Fresh out of stir, Hoskins is offered a gig by his ex-boss, a London crime lord for whom he took the fall (Michael Caine). Hoskins becomes the chauffeur for a high class call girl (Cathy Tyson) who serves select clientele in discreet liaisons at posh hotels. The pair’s “oil and water” personality mix gets them off to a dicey start, but their relationship morphs into something unexpectedly rich and meaningful (and it’s not what you’re thinking). The twists and turns keep you riveted up to the end. Hoskins and Tyson have great screen chemistry (like a streetwise Tracy and Hepburn) which injects this otherwise unsettling tale with much genuine heart and soul.

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Pennies From Heaven (Original BBC TV version)- Written by Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective), this 1978 production is rife with Potter’s signature themes: sexual frustration, marital infidelity, religious guilt, shattered dreams and quiet desperation…broken up by an occasional, completely incongruous song and dance number (Potter was a fabulous writer, but I would never want to be in his head).

Hoskins gives a superb, heartbreaking performance as a married traveling sheet music salesman living in Depression-era England. His life takes interesting turns once he is smitten by a young rural schoolteacher (Cheryl Campbell) who lives with her widowed father and two creepy brothers. It’s best described as a ‘film noir musical’. Far superior to the ill-advised U.S. feature film remake released several years later (with Steve Martin in the lead role).

 

Too soon: R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 2, 2014)

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You know how I know Philip Seymour Hoffman was a great actor? Because he always made me cringe. You know what I mean? It’s that autonomic flush of empathetic embarrassment that makes you cringe when a couple has a loud spat at the table next to you in a restaurant, or a drunken relative tells an off-color joke at Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a good sign when an actor makes me cringe, because that means he or she has left their social filter on the dressing room table, and shown up for work naked and unafraid.

And Hoffman did so without fail, in role after role, naked and unafraid. I’m sad beyond words that such a giant talent has left us so soon. Here are 10 “cringe-worthy” highlights:

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Almost Famous– Although it’s essentially a cameo, this is one of my favorite Hoffman performances.  He plays the late great gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s auto-biographical  dramedy about a teenage journalist hired by Rolling Stone magazine to tag along and formulate a “think piece” about a touring rock band.

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Boogie Nights– While he wasn’t the star, this was Hoffman’s breakout performance. It’s a real testament to Hoffman’s genius that he managed to leave such an impression on audiences and critics with his supporting role as “Scotty J.” in P.T. Anderson’s 1997 opus about the 70s porno film industry; especially considering the huge cast.

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Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead– Strongly recalling The King of Marvin Gardens, this nightmarish neo-noir-cum Greek tragedy, stars Hoffman as a stressed-out businessman with bad debts and very bad habits, which leads him to take desperate measures. He enlists his not-so-bright brother (Ethan Hawke) to help him pull an ill-advised heist involving a business owned by their elderly parents (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney). Things go horribly wrong. Great work from the entire cast, and superbly directed by Sidney Lumet.

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Capote- Undoubtedly the role Hoffman will be best remembered by, thanks to  his well-deserved Oscar-winning performance as Truman Capote in Bennett Miller’s 2005 film.  It’s a riveting dramatization about the complex friendship that developed  between the writer and  convicted killer Perry Smith  while Capote was researching his “true crime” masterwork, In Cold Blood.. Hoffman isn’t merely playing Truman Capote in this movie, he is Truman Capote.

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Happiness– This 1998 Todd Solondz film features one of Hoffman’s under-appreciated turns. Admittedly, Solondz’s films may not be everyone’s cup of tea (be prepared for that “cringe” factor) but if you’re OK with network narratives involving nothing but completely fucked-up individuals, this is your ticket. Brave performances all around in this veritable merry-go-round of modern dysfunction.

And rounding off the top 10, here are links to my full reviews of five more films featuring notable Hoffman performances:

The Savages

Synecdoche NY

Ides of March

The Master

Pirate Radio

Prince of the City: RIP Sidney Lumet

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 9, 2011)

I was saddened to hear the news about Sidney Lumet, who died earlier today at the age of 86. We have truly lost one of the great filmmakers of our time. The term “actor’s director” gets thrown around a lot, but he was the actor’s director.

With a Lumet film, you may not necessarily expect a lot of stylized visual flash, but you may always expect a cast working at 110% of their potential. He knew how to tell a good story, without relying on bells and whistles-and that takes someone supremely confident in their craft.

In his 50+ year long career (he cut his teeth working in television drama during its “Golden Age”) he managed to collaborate with almost everybody who was anybody in the acting world; indeed many clamored to work with him. It is possible, however, that the most  fruitful artistic partnership he had over the years was not with a person, but a city.

That would be New York, which served as the backdrop for so many of his classic films. Woody Allen, Abel Ferrara and Martin Scorsese aside, I can’t think of any other directors who have had such a symbiotic relationship with the Big Apple. At the end of the day, it’s about the work, so here are my picks for the Top 10 Lumet films:

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The Anderson Tapes-In Lumet’s gritty 1971 heist caper, Sean Connery plays an ex-con, fresh out of the joint, who masterminds the robbery of an entire NYC apartment building. What he doesn’t know is that the job is under close surveillance by several interested parties, official and private. To my knowledge it’s one of the first films to explore the “libertarian’s nightmare” aspect of  everyday surveillance technology (in this regard, it is  a pre-cursor to Francis Ford Coppola’s paranoiac 1974 conspiracy thriller The Conversation).

Nice ensemble work from a fine cast that includes Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Ralph Meeker, Alan King and Christopher Walken (his first major film role). The smart script was adapted from the Lawrence Sanders novel by Frank Pierson, and an exemplary Quincy Jones score puts a nice bow on the package.

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Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead-It’s a testament to Lumet’s gift that his last film (which he made in 2007, at the age of 82) was just as vital and affecting as any of his best work over a long career.

Strongly recalling The King of Marvin Gardens, it’s a nightmarish neo-noir-cum Greek tragedy, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a stressed-out businessman with bad debts and very bad habits, which leads him to take desperate measures. He enlists his not-so-bright brother (Ethan Hawke) into helping him pull an extremely ill-advised heist that involves a business owned by their elderly parents (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney). As frequently occurs in this genre, things go horribly wrong. Great work from the entire cast.

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Dog Day Afternoon-Attica! Attica! As far as oppressively humid hostage dramas go, this 1975 true crime classic from Lumet easily out-sops the competition. The air conditioning may be off, but Al Pacino is definitely “on” in his absolutely brilliant portrayal of John Wojtowicz (“Sonny Wortzik” in the film), whose botched attempt to rob a Brooklyn bank turned into a dangerous hostage crisis and a twisted media circus (the desperate Wojtowicz was trying to finance his lover’s sex-change operation).

Even though he had already done the first two Godfather films, this was the performance that put Pacino on the map. John Cazale is both scary and heartbreaking in his role as Sonny’s dim-witted “muscle”. Keep an eye out for Chris Sarandon’s memorable cameo. Frank Pierson’s whip-smart screenplay was based on articles by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore.

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Fail-SafeDr. Strangelove…without the laughs. There’s no fighting in this war room, but plenty of suspense. This no-nonsense thriller from 1964 takes a more clinical look at how a similar wild card scenario (in this case, a simple hardware malfunction) could trigger a nuclear showdown between the Americans and the Russians. The film’s haunting denouement is chilling and unforgettable.

Talky and a  bit on the stagey side; but riveting nonetheless thanks to Lumet’s skillful pacing (and that trademark knack for bringing out the best in his actors), Walter Bernstein’s intelligent screenplay (with non-credited assistance from Peter George, who had also co-scripted Dr. Strangelove) and a superb cast that includes Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Fritz Weaver, and Larry Hagman.

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Network– Back in 1976, this satire made us chuckle with its outrageous conceit-the story of a “fictional” TV network who hits the ratings g-spot with a nightly newscast turned variety hour, anchored by a self-proclaimed “angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisy of our time”.

Now, 35 years later, it plays like a documentary (denouncing the hypocrisy of our time). The  prescience of the infinitely quotable Paddy Chayefsky screenplay goes deeper than  prophesying the onslaught of news-as-entertainment (and “reality” television)-it’s a blueprint for our age.

In the opening scene, drunken buddies Peter Finch (as Howard Beale, respected news anchor soon to suffer a mental breakdown and morph into “the mad prophet of the airwaves”) and William Holden (as Max Shumacher, head of the news division for the “UBS” network) riff on an imaginary pitch for a news rating booster-“Real live suicides, murders, executions-we’ll call it The Death Hour.” A  punch line in 1976;  in 2011 we call it the “Nancy Grace Show”

The most famous scene is Beale’s “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” tirade, a call to arms (borne from a “cleansing moment of clarity”) for viewers to turn off the tube, break the spell of their collective stupor, literally stick their heads out the window and make their voices heard. It’s a memorable and inspired set piece.

For me, the most defining scene is between Beale and Arthur Jensen (CEO of “CCA”-wonderfully played by Ned Beatty). Jensen is calling Beale on the carpet for publicly exposing a potential buyout of CCA by shadowy Arab investors. Cognizant that Beale is crazy as a loon, yet still a cash cow for the network, Jensen hands him a new set of stone tablets from which to preach-the “corporate cosmology of Arthur Jensen”. It is screenwriter Chayefsky’s finest monologue.

Faye Dunaway steals all of her scenes as Diana Christenson, the soulless, ratings obsessed head of development who schemes to turn Beale’s mental illness into revenue (“You’re television incarnate, Diana,” Holden’s character tells her.) With its “evergreen” relevancy, I think Network will stand as Lumet’s most enduring film.

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The Pawnbroker– Rod Steiger delivers a searing performance as a Holocaust survivor, suffering from (what we now know as) PTSD. Hostile, paranoid and insular, Steiger’s character is a walking powder keg, needled daily not only by haunting memories of the concentration camp, but by the fear and dread permeating the crime-ridden NYC neighborhood where his pawnshop is located.

When he finally comes face-to-face with the darkest parts of his soul, and the inevitable breakdown ensues, it’s expressed in a literal “silent scream” that is the most astonishing moment in Steiger’s impressive canon. Morton S. Fine and David Friedkin adapted their screenplay from Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel. Lumet’s intense character study is a prime example of the “social realism” movement in  American film that flourished for a period in the early 1960s.

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Prince of the City-Lumet revisited the subject of New York City police corruption in this powerfully acted piece based on the true story of narcotics detective Robert Leuci (“Daniel Ciello” in the film), whose life got completely turned upside down after he agreed to cooperate with a special commission. Treat Williams delivers his finest dramatic performance to date as the conflicted cop, who is initially promised that he will never be forced to “give up” any of his partners in the course of the investigation. But you know what they say about the road to Hell being paved with “good intentions”, right?

This is one of the best films ever made about big city politics (prior to HBO’s outstanding series, The Wire, which I gleaned to be a direct descendant). Superb performances from everyone in the sizable cast (especially Jerry Orbach) Lumet co-wrote the screenplay with Jay Presson Allen, which they adapted from Richard Daley’s book.

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Serpico-Sidney Lumet and Al Pacino go together like soup and sandwich, and this 1973 collaboration between director and star (their first) was the one that set the table. Pacino gets to chew a lot of scenery here as Frank Serpico, an altruistic NYC cop who helps expose the rampant corruption within the department (much to the chagrin of his fellow cops, who come to regard him as a pariah).

As per usual, Lumet wrings top-notch performances from his actors, and makes excellent use of NYC locales (captured in all their gritty glory by DP Arthur J. Ornitz, who did the cinematography for a number of “quintessentially New York” films, including A Thousand Clowns, The World of Henry Orient, The Boys in the Band, Next Stop Greenwich Village and An Unmarried Woman). Writers Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler adapted from the book by Peter Maas.

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12 Angry Men-This is the film that put Lumet on the map as a feature film director. The narrative setup is simple. A Latino boy is on trial, accused of killing his father. His fate lies in the hands of a 12-man jury. Since we are not presented with many details about the trial itself, the film’s dramatic tension lies in the hands of the one juror who happens to hold a dissenting opinion (Henry Fonda). His subsequent attempt to bring the other eleven around to his way of thinking makes for an amazingly riveting drama (despite of how static it might read on paper).

The list of actors portraying the “angry men” reads like a Who’s Who of dramatic heavyweights-because it is (imagine Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden and Ed Begley all cooped up in a hot stuffy room, and all very cranky-can you just smell the ham burning?).

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The Verdict– Lumet returned to the courtroom in this outstanding 1982 drama, armed with an incredible cast and a killer David Mamet screenplay.

Paul Newman gives one of his career-best performances as a burned-out alcoholic “ambulance chaser” who gets a shot at redemption when he takes a medical malpractice case to trial (after initially planning to take the path of least resistance by going for a quick and dirty settlement).

Jack Warden also shines as his best friend and fellow lawyer who helps him build his case (“That guy’s the Prince of fuckin’ Darkness,” Warden warns Newman, in a wonderfully droll Mamet line reading). James Mason is also at the top of his game as the opposing attorney. Charlotte Rampling is on hand as well, playing her duplicitous character with aplomb. Nice use of the autumnal Boston locales by DP Andrzej Bartkowiak.

Encore! 10 more: Q&A, Family Business, Running on Empty, Garbo Talks, Deathtrap, Equus, Murder on the Orient Express, The Offence, The Deadly Affair, The Hill.

Big Star in heaven: RIP Alex Chilton

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 20, 2010)

O My Soul:  Alex Chilton, 1951-2010

In the early to mid 70s, a then yet-to-be-named rock ‘n’ roll subgenre emerged. It was a sound that took chiming Beatlesque harmonies and jangly Roger Mcguinn chord shapes, threw in a dash of The Who, Small Faces and the Kinks, plugged it all into a Marshall stack and said all that it had to say in 3 minutes. Thusly, “power pop” was born. For my money, the Holy Trinity of its first wave was Badfinger, The Raspberries, and Big Star. The latter outfit proved to be the most influential, paving the way for bands like Cheap Trick, The Flamin’ Groovies and Pezband, kicking the door open for early 1980s New Wave power poppers like The Plimsouls, 20/20, The Records, The Shoes and The dBs.

Big Star co-founder Alex Chilton may not be a household name, but to power pop aficionados, he is an icon; I was saddened to hear of his death this week at age 59. I still get a warm and fuzzy feeling whenever a Big Star staple like “When My Baby’s Beside Me”, “September Gurls”, or “Back of a Car” pops up in my mp3 player’s shuffle. Anyone who has heard “The Letter” by his first band, the Boxtops will surely recognize his voice (unbelievably, the owner of those soulful pipes was only 16 at the time).

I once had the pleasure of seeing Chilton perform here in Seattle during a Big Star revival tour, with a lineup that included original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, along with local musicians Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies (one of the better contemporary power pop bands). It was a magical evening, with the 50-ish Chilton demonstrating to the crowd that he still had “it”. Please join me, as we bow our heads for a four-chord salute:

Two new stars in heaven: Tony Curtis and Arthur Penn

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 2, 2010)

Match me, Sidney: RIP Tony Curtis 1925-2010

Tony Curtis was likely better known to the general public in recent years from his appearances on TV talk shows (and as Jamie Lee Curtis’ dad), but for those of us “of a certain age” he was, and will always remain, a Movie Star-in the classic sense. He may not have vibed the smoldering, “Method” intensity of contemporaries like Monty Clift, Brando or James Dean, but there was no denying that he was ridiculously handsome, charismatic, and possessed of an effortless versatility (the latter of which many critics seemed to overlook-undoubtedly due to that Bronx honk). Granted, the bulk of his best work may have been behind him by the late 60s, but it’s still an impressive body of work.

I’m sure that the majority of people would say that his memorable pairing with Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s wonderful and riotous 1959 screwball romp Some Like It Hot rates as their favorite Tony Curtis performance, but for me, that runs a close second to his role as the slime ball press agent Sidney Falco in the 1957 film noir, The Sweet Smell of Success. Curtis gives a knockout performance as the toady who shamelessly sucks up to Burt Lancaster’s JJ Hunsecker, a powerful NYC entertainment columnist who can launch (or sabotage) show biz careers with a flick of his poison pen .

Although it was made 50 years ago, the film retains its edge and remains one of the most vicious and cynical ruminations on America’s obsession with fame and celebrity. Alexander Mackendrick directed, and the sharp Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman screenplay veritably drips with venom. Lots of quotable lines; Barry Levinson paid homage in his 1982 film Diner, with a character who is obsessed with the film and drops in and out of scenes, incessantly quoting the dialogue.

Rounding off my Top 10: The Boston Strangler (Curtis received a Golden Globe nomination), The Defiant Ones, Operation Petticoat, Spartacus, The Great Imposter, Houdini, The Vikings, and Insignificance (1985 Nicolas Roeg sleeper-highly recommended!).

American maverick: RIP Arthur Penn 1922-2010

And alas, more sad news-we also lost an artist of note from the other side of the camera this week. Director Arthur Penn was responsible for crafting some of the most significant films of the late 60s to mid 70s (America’s “golden age” of the maverick moviemakers). He was a filmmaker of great intelligence and vision, with deep roots in the theater (which I’m sure is what helped make him such a great “actor’s director” as well).

Most of the more perfunctory obits floating around the last several days might give casual film goers the impression that the only movie he ever made was 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde; and while the importance of that breakthrough work cannot be overstated, one certainly cannot ignore a resume that also includes The Miracle Worker, Alice’s Restaurant and Little Big Man (in which Penn reinvented the western just as surely as he reinvented the crime drama with his 1967 masterpiece). My personal favorites by this director, however, are two less-heralded efforts, which I feel are also two of the best post-1950s film noirs.

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Mickey One –Penn’s 1965 existential film noir stars Warren Beatty as a standup comic who is on the run from the mob. The ultimate intent of this pursuit is never made 100% clear (is it a “hit”, or just a debt collection?), but one thing is certain: viewers will find themselves becoming as unsettled as the twitchy, paranoid protagonist. It’s a Kafkaesque nightmare, with echoes of Godard’s Breathless. A true rarity-an American art film, photographed in expressive, moody chiaroscuro by DP Ghislain Cloquet (who also did the cinematography for Bresson’s classic Au Hasard Balthazar and Woody Allen’s Love and Death).

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The other Penn film that I feel compelled to return to now and then is Night Moves. In this 1975 sleeper, which you could call an existential noir, Gene Hackman gives one of his best performances as a world-weary P.I. with a failing marriage, who becomes enmeshed in a case involving battling ex-spouses, which soon slides into incest, smuggling and murder. Alan Sharp’s multi-layered screenplay cleverly parallels the complexity of the P.I.’s case with ruminations on the equally byzantine mystery as to why human relationships, more often than not, almost seem engineered to fail.

More Penn to explore: Four Friends, The Missouri Breaks, Target, The Chase.

 

In a rit of fealous jage: A tribute to Blake Edwards

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 18, 2010)

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When I heard that director Blake Edwards had died earlier this week, at 88, I felt like I had lost an old friend. I grew up watching his films. He dabbled in many genres, and was proficient in all, but especially adept at comedy. He was one of a handful of filmmakers who could sell me on slapstick; he had a knack for choreographing sequences of pratfalls (executed with balletic precision) that became funnier and funnier the longer they ran on. He was a superb screenwriter as well. Here are my top ten picks from the Blake Edwards oeuvre (37 feature films from 1955-1995), alphabetically:

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s-Edwards turned Truman Capote’s novel about a farm girl who moves to the Big Apple and reinvents herself as a Manhattan socialite into a damn near perfect film (Mickey Rooney’s unfortunate role as a  racial stereotype aside). Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard (both at the peak of their attractiveness) are a stunning screen couple. A funny, sophisticated, and bittersweet story, wonderfully directed, acted, written (George Axelrod adapted) and set to a great Henry Mancini score (it wasn’t the first time Edwards collaborated with the composer, and certainly not the last-they worked together on close to 30 films over several decades).

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Days of Wine and Roses-This shattering drama was jarring for its time (apparently prompting a rash of opening-week walkouts by Jack Lemmon fans expecting another comic role). The film still packs a wallop in its depiction of a couple (Lemmon and Lee Remick) and their descent into a co-dependent alcoholic hell. Lemmon and the frequently underrated Remick deliver their finest performances.

Everyone remembers the  “greenhouse scene”, but for me the most memorable moment arrives in the “padded room” scene, with a sweating, screaming, strait-jacketed Lemmon writhing in withdrawal. Call it “method” or whatever, but it remains one of the top examples of an actor completely “in the moment” ever captured on film. Henry Mancini won an Oscar for the lovely theme song.

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The Great Race– While this 1965 Edwards comedy-adventure about a turn-of-the-century New York to Paris auto race begins to overstay its welcome about 2/3 of the way through, after revisiting it recently, I have to say that the laughs have held up quite well. Clocking in at a whopping 160 minutes, it was released at a time when overblown, big-budgeted comedies with huge international casts were in vogue (especially in the wake of the mega-hit It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World in 1963). But what a cast-Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Peter Falk and Keenan Wynn  (to name a few).

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The Party-Director Edwards and mercurial acting genius Peter Sellers paired up many times, but I think this 1968 gem is not only their best collaboration, but frame-for-frame, one of the all-time great screen comedies.

Sellers is Hrundi V. Bakshi, an Indian actor with a bit part in a Hollywood war epic who somehow manages to ruin an expensive day of shooting by (riotously) overplaying his death scene. The exasperated director calls for the actor’s head, and Bakshi’s name ends up on a studio exec’s hurriedly scribbled “to do” list. Through a comedy of errors, Bakshi’s name is instead added to a guest list for a party being organized by the executive’s wife. The bumbling (if well-meaning) Bakshi proceeds to make a riotous shambles of the event.

Sellers’ knack for physical comedy is right up there with the best of Chaplin and Keaton. A guitar-wielding Claudine Longet is also on board as the love interest, and purrs a jazzy number in one scene.

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S.O.B.-Whereas The Party was a relatively benign poke at Tinseltown, this 1981 dramedy offers a  more jaundiced view of the Hollywood machine, which has chewed up and spit out a producer (Richard Mulligan). He flips out after his latest film, a high-budget, G-rated musical starring his singer-actress wife (Julie Andrews) tanks with critics and flops at the box office.  Desperate to salvage it, he comes up with an idea to buy the film back from the studio, and “sex it up” by convincing his wife to re-shoot her part, including nude scenes, which would turn her “wholesome” image on its head.

Edwards’ screenplay is supposedly laced with autobiographical touches (as you may well  know, Edwards was married to a certain singer-actress…whose name rhymes with “Julie Andrews”). It’s Edwards’ most cynical film, but also quite funny. The great cast includes William Holden (sadly, his final role), Robert Vaughn, Robert Webber, Larry Hagman, Loretta Swit, and Shelly Winters. Robert Preston is priceless as a “Dr. Feelgood” MD. It’s worth the price of admission to hear a ‘luded-up Andrews utter her immortal line: “Oh…Hi, Polly! Come to see my boobies?”

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A Shot in the Dark-This second outing in the “Pink Panther” series is my favorite entry. The fact that the lovely Elke Sommer is in this film has no bearing on my appraisal. I wanted to make that clear. Okay, maybe it has a little bearing. Sommer is Maria Gambrelli, the maid who might have “dunnit”. That is, shot her rich employer’s limo driver. Or did she? It’s up to Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers) to figure that out, as more victims start dropping like flies.

There are so many great gags and classic exchanges in this one, including a memorable sequence in a nudist colony. Herbert Lom (who had previously co-starred with Sellers in several classic Ealing Studios comedies) introduces the character of Chief Inspector Dreyfus, who would become a fixture in subsequent sequels.

I feel this is the best one of the series because it strikes a perfect middle ground between the first film (which actually played it more sophisticated and fairly straight, as did Sellers) and the later films, which, while quite entertaining, became more and more far-fetched and cartoon-like as the franchise found more box office success.

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The Tamarind Seed-A largely forgotten, but absorbing and worthwhile Edwards film from 1974, this was his nod to cold war spy thrillers like From Russia With Love, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Deadly Affair and Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (the latter film which, interestingly, also featured Julie Andrews). Andrews co-stars here with Omar Sharif. She is a British civil servant, he is a Russian spy, and, well, you can guess what happens next. And yes, it does create “conflicts of interest” for the lovers, which makes for intrigue and suspense, with a sultry Caribbean backdrop. Edwards adapted the screenplay from the novel by Evelyn Anthony. Unfortunately, there is no Region 1 DVD release; perhaps there will be now?

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10– Talk about a “perfect” storm-Blake Edwards’ writing and directing skills, Dudley Moore’s impeccable comic timing, and Bo Derek’s, erm, well…Bo Derek-ness. Moore is a 40-something L.A. songwriter with a devoted girlfriend (Julie Andrews) and a long time friend/songwriting partner (Robert Webber) who both dutifully warn him that they can see signs of a looming mid-life crisis. After spotting  a beautiful young woman (Derek), he becomes obsessed with her. Temporarily insane with unrequited lust, he decides to follow her (and her boyfriend) to Mexico, where they are headed for a holiday. Much middle aged craziness (and hilarity) ensues.

Moore is so dead-on funny that you don’t really stop to consider that his character can be seen as a creepy stalker at times. The narrative does take an interesting about-face about 2/3 of the way through, turning into an introspective and melancholic morality tale. It is vastly entertaining, however, with excellent performances by all. Brian Dennehy is a standout as a philosophical bartender.

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Victor/Victoria-A fluffy but entertaining rom-com starring (wait for it) Julie Andrews, who plays an underemployed, classically-trained soprano scraping by in 1930s Paris. She befriends another unemployed singer (Robert Preston), who was recently booted from his gig at a cabaret. He cooks up a scheme that he is convinced will get them both out of the poorhouse: He will be her manager, and she will pose as a “he”, who impersonates a “she” onstage. Get it? Genius! Are there complications? Of course there are-and that’s when the fun starts. James Garner and Lesley Ann Warren are wonderful. Henry Mancini is on board again with a great musical score. Triple-threat Andrews sings, acts and dances with her usual aplomb.

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Wild Rovers-Blake Edwards made a western? Yes, he did, and not a half-bad one at that. A world-weary cowhand (William Holden) convinces a younger (and somewhat dim) co-worker (Ryan O’Neal) that since it’s obvious that they’ll never really get ahead in their present profession, they should give bank robbery a shot. They get away with it, but then find themselves on the run, oddly, not so much from the law, but from their former employer (Karl Malden), who is mightily offended that anyone who worked for him would do such a thing. Episodic and leisurely paced, but ambles along quite agreeably, thanks to the charms of the two leads, and the beautiful, expansive photography by Philip Lathrop. Ripe for rediscovery.

10 more to explore: Operation Petticoat, Experiment in Terror, The Pink Panther, What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, The Carey Treatment, The Return of the Pink Panther, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, Micki + Maude, Blind Date, Switch.

Nice sweaters: Adieu to TV’s At The Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 21, 2010)

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Being a renowned film critic on the blogosphere, I am often stopped by strangers on the street; and if there is one question that I am inevitably going to be asked, it is this one:

“Sir? Would you know if the Route 27 bus stops here?”

Maybe after that question, the one I am most frequently asked is:

“What ever made you think other people might care about your opinions on cinema?”

Well, if you must pry (“I must! I must!”), there are a couple pop cultural touchstones that nudged me toward upgrading from Annoying Movie Geek Who Never Shuts Up at Parties to Aspiring Film Critic. First, there was this 1985 panel by Matt Groening:

Depending on your screen size, the graphics may not be 100% legible, but here’s the gist:

 Are you qualified to be a clever film critic?

  • Did you have no friends as a child?
  • Do you salivate at the smell of stale popcorn?
  • Do you thrill at the prospect of spending a career writing in-depth analyses of movies aimed at subliterate 15-year-olds?
  • Do you mind being loathed for your opinions?

The four types of clever film critics: Which do you aspire to be?

  • Academic type: boring, unreadable
  • Serious type: reveals endings
  • Daily type: nice plot summaries
  • TV clown: nice sweaters

For advanced clever film critics only:

Can you use “mise-en-scène” in a review that anyone will finish reading?

“Hey,” I thought, after passing milk and Cocoa Puffs through my nose, “I could do that!” Unfortunately, however, the internet hadn’t quite taken off yet, and if you wanted to be a clever film critic you still had to try to get a job at like, an actual newspaper or something. Besides, I was too busy at the time chasing a broadcasting career (funnily enough, after 35 years in the business, I’m still “chasing” it).

All kidding aside, there was a more significant touchstone for me, which preceded Groening’s satirical yet weirdly empowering observations. In the late 70s, I was living in Fairbanks, Alaska. This was not the ideal environment for a movie buff. At the time, there were only two single-screen movie theaters in town. To add insult to injury, we were usually several months behind the Lower 48 on “first-run” features (it took us nearly a year to even get Star Wars).

Also keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and the video stores were a still a few years down the road. There were occasional screenings of midnight movies at the University of Alaska, and the odd B-movie gem on late night TV, but that was it. Sometimes, I’d gather up a coterie of my fellow culture vulture pals for the 260 mile drive to Anchorage, where they had more theaters.

Consequently, due to the lack of venues, I was reading more about movies, than actually watching them. I remember poring over back issues of The New Yorker at the public library, soaking up Penelope Gilliat and Pauline Kael, and thinking they had a pretty cool gig; but it seemed requisite to  live in NYC (or L.A.) to be taken seriously as a film critic (most of those films just didn’t make it out to the sticks).

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Then, in 1978, our local PBS television affiliate began carrying a bi-weekly 30-minute program called Sneak Previews. Now here was something kind of interesting; a couple of guys (kind of scruffy lookin’) casually bantering about current films-who actually seemed to know their shit. You might even think they were professional movie critics…which it turned out they were.

In fact, they were professional rivals; Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel wrote for competing Chicago dailies, the Chicago Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune . This underlying tension between the pair was always bubbling just under the surface, but imbued the show with an interesting dynamic (especially when they disagreed on a film).

Still, I always got a vibe that they treated each other with respect (if begrudging at times) and most importantly, treated the viewers with respect as well. You never felt like they were talking above your head, like some of the traditional film essayists who were “boring, unreadable” (as Matt Groening describes the “academic types” in his panel above). Nor did they condescend, either.

This is where I part ways with Groening; his “TV clowns” reference above is clearly directed at Siskel & Ebert, but I would reserve that description for someone more along the lines of a Gene Shalit. One thing these two did share was an obvious and genuine love and respect for the art of cinema; and long before the advent of the internet, I think they were instrumental in razing the ivory towers and demystifying the art of film criticism (especially for culturally starved yahoos like me, living on the frozen tundra).

Last weekend, with minimal fanfare, A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips, the most recent hosts of At the Movies (the long-running weekly syndicated review show that Siskel & Ebert created after they parted ways with the producers of Sneak Previews back in 1982) each gave their farewell soliloquy and quietly closed up the balcony for good.

That’s too bad, because during their relatively brief tenure, Scott and Phillips brought an erudite and thoughtful discourse to the show that had been sorely lacking for some time. To be sure, the program went through a lot of personnel changes over the years, and not always for the best (would it be tacky to mention Ben Lyons by name?). Although Ebert remained a stalwart fixture until health issues precipitated his 2006 departure, I thought that the show never quite recovered from the absence of Siskel (who died in 1999).

As Scott and Phillips rolled a collage of vintage Siskel & Ebert clips, I found myself unexpectedly choking up a little. Granted, the model pioneered by Siskel and Ebert may now seem staid and hoary in the era of Rotten Tomatoes, but its historical importance and effect on some of us “of a certain age” cannot be overlooked.

So Roger, should you happen to be reading this (not likely, but I can dream, can’t I?) and to Gene, wherever you may be, somewhere out there in the ether: FWIW, I humbly offer my two enthusiastic thumbs up.

RIP David Carradine: All life is precious…

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 6, 2009)

…nor can any be replaced.

I was sad to hear about David Carradine’s passing . He may not have always been discriminating in his choice of roles (like Michael Caine, it seemed that he never met a script that he didn’t like) but he had a unique screen presence, and with well over 100 films to his credit over a 46-year career, was obviously dedicated to his craft.

According to the Internet Movie Database, there were six films in post-production and one in pre-production at the time of his death. He’s even in a SIFF film (screening next week) called My Suicide (I know what you’re thinking…but we still don’t know for sure at the time of this writing, so let’s not go there).

I don’t think I’ve met anyone in my age group who doesn’t have a certain nostalgic affection for Carradine via the character he created in the TV series Kung Fu (which I’m pretty sure was your average ‘murcan teevee watcher’s first exposure to Zen philosophy). Here’s a few film recommendations:

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Box Car Bertha-This 1972 Bonnie and Clyde knockoff (produced on the cheap for Roger Corman’s American International Pictures) was the launching pad for a  fledgling director named Martin Scorsese. It is also one of the 4 films in which Carradine co-starred with Barbara Hershey (the two had a longtime off-screen romantic partnership as well). Carradine also landed a small part in Scorsese’s breakout film, Mean Streets.

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Americana– David Carradine and Barabara Hershey star in this unique, no-budget 1973 character study (released in 1981). Carradine, who also directed and co-produced, plays a Vietnam vet who drifts into a small Kansas town, and for his own enigmatic reasons, decides to restore an abandoned merry-go-round. The reaction from the clannish townsfolk ranges from bemused to spiteful. It’s part Rambo, part Billy Jack (although nowhere near as violent), and a genre curio in the sense that none of the violence depicted is perpetrated by its war-damaged protagonist. Carradine also composed and performed the song that plays in the closing credits. It’s worth noting that Americana predates Deer Hunter and Coming Home, which are generally considered the “first” narrative films to deal with Vietnam vets.

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Death Race 2000 At first glance, Paul Bartel’s film about a futuristic gladiatorial cross-country auto race in which drivers score extra points for running down pedestrians is an outrageous, gross-out cult comedy. It could also be viewed as a takeoff on Rollerball, as a broad political satire, or perhaps a wry comment on that great, timeless American tradition of watching televised blood sport for entertainment. One thing I’ll say about this movie-it’s never boring! Carradine is a riot as the defending race champ, “Frankenstein”.

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Bound For Glory-You can almost taste the dust in director Hal Ashby’s leisurely, episodic 1976 biopic about the life of Depression era songwriter/social activist Woody Guthrie. Carradine (as Guthrie) gives his finest performance, and does a very credible job with his own singing and playing (music was his first love).

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The Long Riders-An underappreciated western from  action film maestro Walter Hill. One of the more entertaining renditions of the oft-filmed tale of Jesse James and his gang, largely due to the stunt casting. Three sets of well-known acting siblings (the brothers Keach, Quaid and Carradine) portray three sets of legendary outlaw siblings (the brothers James, Miller and Younger, respectively).

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Q, The Winged SerpentI know this darkly comic horror flick from psychotronic writer-director Larry Cohen isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it actually contains one of my favorite Carradine performances. He plays a New York police investigator looking for the nest of a flying lizard randomly terrorizing the city. Michael Moriarty (a demented performance) is the star, but Carradine’s straight-faced character gets to deliver some wry lines; in fact I think he displays his knack for  subtle comedy throughout the whole film. Also look for Richard Roundtree and Candy Clark.

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Kill Bill, Vol 1 / Kill Bill Vol 2-Ever since Jules told Vincent (in Pulp Fiction) that his “retirement” plans were to “…just walk the Earth. You know, like Caine in Kung Fu…” you knew at some point, Quentin Tarantino and David Carradine were going to work together. It took 10 years, but it landed Carradine one of his most plum late-career roles, as the bad, bad, man at the top of Uma Thurman’s hit list.