Over the years, the question I’ve been asked the most is “What is your favorite movie?”
I always preface my answer with “This is not the best, but my favorite,” and the answer has been consistent for over 50 years. It’s The Time Machine from 1960, starring Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux.
Just thinking about it brings me great memories of my childhood, going to see it in a packed kiddie matinee, over and over again, usually at the Tyson Theater in Northeast Philadelphia.
I loved—and continue to love—everything about this adaptation of H.G. Welles’ 1895 novel from producer-director George Pal (1953’s The War of the Worlds). There are the heroics and smarts of rugged leading man Rod Taylor, the inventor of the titular contraption; the ethereal beauty and spirit of Yvette Mimieux, a member of the pacifist Eloi race; the horrific underground, light-fearing creatures known as the Morlocks; and the frightening depiction of a third world war in 1966. While the special effects now seem chintzy, they were state-of-the-art when the film was released. There’s also the stirring score by Russell Garcia, the detailed Victorian production design, memorable supporting turns by Alan Young, Sebastian Cabot, and Whit Bissell, and an intelligent script which offered fair warnings about the future. I can honestly say I don’t recall meeting anyone that didn’t at least like this movie very much. (See it on: Amazon, AppleTV, Xfinity)
Since this is my last “Irv on Film” column for the Mt. Laurel Library, I figure I’ll wrap up some loose ends by putting some other favorites out there. I appreciate the folks at the library for allowing me to write a weekly column, and I thank anyone and everyone out there for checking in on me and the column regularly or on occasion.
So, here goes:
My Favorite Film Critic: Aside from attending movies, I learned an awful lot about the art form from reading film criticism, either in periodicals or books and magazines. Andrew Sarris, the late, lamented Village Voice columnist, was a must-peruse every week. The film critic was brilliant at putting the classic and modern directors in perspective, providing an entertaining and informative ride through film history at times as well. His enlightened work accenting the directors of movies—aka “auteurs”—was always sparked a curiosity within me to look beyond the films he reviewed and check out the filmmakers’ other efforts. While Pauline Kael, writing in The New Yorker, sustained a long-running feud with Sarris over the authorship of films, I loved reading her work as well, usually in such review collections as “Reeling” or “When the Lights Go Down.”
My Favorite Film Book: I’ve read many, many books about film, ranging from biographies to screenplay how-to’s, from studies of directors, stars, producers and studios to surveys of particular types of films or specific periods in filmmaking. I think my all-time favorite, however, remains Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ (the title was changed when it was reissued as Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of ‘Heaven's Gate,’ the Film that Sank United Artists). Written by Steven Bach, an executive at United Artists, the studio the disastrous big-budget western helped bankrupt, the book is truly a stranger-than-fiction account of ego (in the guise of director Michael Cimino, an Oscar-winner for The Deer Hunter) running amok. The writing is riveting and the situations so comically absurd it’s difficult to believe that they really occurred.
My Favorite Western: This is a tough call. I love the genre and can rattle off many westerns hovering near the upper reaches of my list. But The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah’s game-changing 1969 masterpiece, is at the top. Known by many primarily for its over-the-top violence—rendered at times in slow-motion for maximum impact—the film cemented Peckinpah’s reputation as a two-fisted renegade director, a reputation that would constantly get him in trouble during his career. The story focuses on two aging friends, the outlaw William Holden and one-time partner-in-crime Robert Ryan, who find themselves facing off against each other near the U.S.-Mexico border in 1913. Crammed with indelible images and distinctively ornery characters (played by a rogue’s gallery of such great character performers as Warren Oates, Ernest Borgnine, Edmond O’Brien, Ben Johnson, Strother Martin and LQ Jones), The Wild Bunch is as thrilling, masterful and menacingly macho today as the day it was released. (See it on: Amazon, GooglePlay, Xfinity)
My Favorite Theatrical Experience: Theater-going is gone from our lives for now, but the Ziegfeld in Manhattan is gone forever. Named after the original showcase built by legendary Broadway impresario Flo Ziegfeld, this single-screen wonder opened in 1969 and shuttered as a picture palace in 2016. Along with a few friends, I saw Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now there in 1979. The Ziegfeld’s huge screen, the packed house—the place had a huge orchestra seating area and elevated seating at the rear of the house—and the astonishing sound system (so impressive you thought helicopters were about to land near you) were the key elements that made this showing a once-in-a-lifetime event for me and my friends. So entranced was the audience that when the 153-minute film ended, there was stone silence for several minutes—followed by a boo, then the sound of one person clapping. The capacity crowd, of 1,152 attendees, at the weekday matinee were blown away by the thrill of it all. (See it on: HBO, Amazon, Xfinity)
My Favorite Childhood Movie: As I wrote last week, The Alamo with John Wayne had a big impact on me when I was a kid. But the movie that I loved watching over and over again was Hans Christian Andersen (1952), the heavily fictionalized tale of the life of the famous 19th century Danish storyteller and writer. This is a musical fantasy using snippets of Andersen’s biography set to music and also dramatizing such tales as “Thumbelina,” “The Ugly Duckling” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” It’s a first-rate production with an engaging Danny Kaye playing the lead. The songs were penned by Frank Loesser (“Guys and Dolls”), and the script was written by Moss Hart and an uncredited Ben Hecht. The colorful film was something to look forward to, as it was broadcast on TV as a special event for years and hosted by Danish satirical piano great Victor Borge. (See it on: Amazon, Tubi, AppleTV)
My Favorite Philadelphia Movie: There have been lots of fine films shot in and around the Delaware Valley over the years, including the Rocky/Creed series, Philadelphia, Trading Places, The Sixth Sense, Silver Linings Playbook, 12 Monkeys and Blow-Out. But the Philly-set movie I really love is a documentary called My Architect: A Son’s Journey (2003). It was directed by Nathaniel Kahn, the offspring of Louis Kahn, a famous Philly architect, who happened to have two families, neither of which knew about the other. Here a son gets to investigate his both his father’s bizarre lifestyle as well as his incredible accomplishments. My Architect is a moving look at a troubled man who happened to be a genius. This Philly lover’s film is tough to track down but if you find it, you will be aptly rewarded.
And here are a few titles worth seeking out on streaming services or cable:
The Host (2006): Years before he found international success with 2019’s Parasite, filmmaker Bong Joon-ho delivered this exciting and provocative monster movie. A creature raised on formaldehyde dumped in South Korea’s Han River grows to monstrous proportions swipes a pre-teen girl, prompting members of her dysfunctional family to try to rescue her. (See it on: Kanopy, Hoopla, Tubi)
Dead Ringers (1988): Jeremy Irons is sensational in two roles in David Cronenberg’s perverse warped true saga of twin gynecologists whose competition for actress Genevieve Bujold leads to the deterioration of their relationship. (See it on: Kanopy, Tubi, Pluto)
Score: A Film Music Documentary (2017): The art of composing music for the movies is given a fine documentary in which several of film’s most acclaimed composers are covered and what goes into their remarkable work examined. Among the greats covered are John Williams, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, Rachel Portman, Jerry Goldsmith and Ennio Morricone. (See it on: Hoopla, Tubi and Amazon)
My Favorite Way to Say “Goodbye” to the “Irv on Film” Column: What else?
I’ve always had an affinity for westerns although I recognize the genre is not for everyone. One of the reasons I generally like westerns is because I was raised on them. When I was very young, Fess Parker playing the heroic, coonskin-capped Davy Crockett with his trusted sidekick George Russel (limned by a pre-Beverly Hillbillies Buddy Ebsen) was a big deal. I mean a really big deal.
The Disney-produced saga was shown in five installments originally over two years, much like the cable and streaming miniseries of today. There was Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter, released in 1954, followed in 1955 by Davy Crockett Goes to Congress, Davy Crockett at the Alamo, Davy Crockett’s Keelboat Race and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. They ran on ABC’s The Wonderful World of Disney originally but I wasn’t around then, so I likely caught Crockett fever when Disney put the first three segments together in feature form. (The others were shot a bit later to cash in on the public’s adoration for the character).
Crockett fever was actually an international phenomenon. There were trading cards, lunch boxes, costumes, tents, rings, buttons, pen knives, binoculars, toy soldiers, purses, patches, gun kits, rifles, picture books, comic books, action figures, coonskin caps and other types of memorabilia. My hunch is that George Lucas learned a thing or two from Disney’s merchandising ideas.
There was also the theme song, a hit single, called “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” recorded originally by The Wellingtons and played throughout the series. It was re-recorded several times by such diverse artists as bluegrass great Mac Wiseman, folksinger/actor Burl Ives, country-western star Tennessee Ernie Ford, singers Annie Cordy and Serge Singer (in French!), Tim Curry and Fess Parker himself. Even the legendary Louis Armstrong added his own jazzy version.
My fascination with all things Crockett continued with the John Wayne-directed film The Alamo, released in 1960. I took this as the real story behind the 1836 siege of the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. Of course, books like “A Time to Stand” by Walter Lord would eventually point to the film’s historical inaccuracies, but when you are 5-years-old and watch the incredible battle sequences on the big screen, with John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Chill Wills, and Philly’s own Frankie Avalon bravely trying to fend off the evil Santa Ana and his Mexican soldiers, you could care less about the real story.
Television along with films influenced my western movie habits as well. In the late 1950s and 1960s, there was no shortage of sagebrush sagas. Of course, there was The Lone Ranger with his trusted Native-American sidekick Tonto that I caught on Saturday mornings. And there were prime time staples like Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Rawhide and The Virginian, all of which aired for years, filling out 60-minute timeslots in the evening.
I’m not sure if it was because of my limited, young attention span, but I preferred the half-hour shows at night instead. There was The Rifleman with Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain, single parent to son Mark (Johnny Crawford), a quiet rancher and Civil War veteran, who always seems to know how to solve problems, whether they about dealing with the some of the ornery black hats he came up against or when it came to parenting. Usually, Lucas either learned or taught someone a lesson in the process.
When The Rifleman ended its run, the stalwart Chuck Connors, a former pro baseball player, returned to impress in Branded, playing a court-martialed cavalry officer mistakenly thrown out of the Army, who tries to make a life for himself outside of the military and restore his good name. Branded, created by “B” movie legend Larry Cohen (It’s Alive, Q: The Winged Serpent), has become a real cult item over the years, even referenced in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski. And like many westerns of the era, the list of guest stars glittered: Bruce Dern, Lee Van Cleef, Burt Reynolds, Martin Landau, Dolores del Rio, June Lockhart and John Carradine.
There was also Bat Masterson, with Gene Barry as the derby-wearing, cane-carrying gambling lawman in the fictionalized adventures of a real-life Western legend. The snappy-dressing dandy rarely used firepower to make his point—his intellect and occasionally his cane did the trick. True to the times, Bat Masterson had a great theme song, with lyrics in the opening credits that aptly introduced the audience to the character:
Back when the west was very young,
There lived a man named Masterson.
He wore a cane and derby hat,
They called him Bat, Bat Masterson.
A man of steel the stories say,
But women's eyes all glanced his way,
A gamblers' game he always won,
His name was Bat, Bat Masterson.
The trail that he blazed is still there.
No one has come since, to replace his name.
And those with too ready a trigger,
Forgot to figure on his lightning cane.
Now in the legend of the west,
One name stands out of all the rest.
The man who had the fastest gun,
His name was Bat, Bat Masterson.
The Bat Masterson tone was more fanciful, similar to listening to a western yarn being spun by an adroit storyteller. The show F-Troop, however, was more farcical. A precursor to Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, F-Troop put a broad satiric spin on western tropes. It centered on Ken Berry’s clumsy cavalry officer, commissioned to Fort Courage, where underlings Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch are involved with all sorts of shifty dealings with the local Indian tribe, the Hekawais, fronted by Chief Wild Eagle (Frank de Kova). Like Blazing Saddles, it’s politically incorrect to the max, a tale of the Old West done with shady anti-heroic characters, but in its time, it sure was funny.
Introduced in 1965, smack dab in the middle of the James Bond-inspired secret agent delirium of the mid-1960s. The Wild, Wild West was definitely a horse of a different color, also on the tongue-in-cheek mold. In some ways, the show was every kid’s dream: A TV show that married the macho coolness of 007 with the wild and wooly adventures of a small-screen western. Robert Conrad portrayed James Gordon, a secret service operative who teamed with fellow agent Artemis Gordon (Ross Martin), a master of disguise, to thwart master criminals threatening the United States and President Ulysses S. Grant.
The Wild, Wild West, which was later turned into a misguided 1999 film adaptation starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline. But the series was hip and old-fashioned at the same time. It showcased impressive period 19th century detail and modern-day technology, often in the same scene. In retrospect, this was an early example of the steampunk style.
There was no shortage of diabolical villains, like the dastardly little person Dr. Loveless, played by Michael Dunn, or Count Maneppi, an imposing master of black magic played by Victor Buono. A catchy instrumental opening theme with illustrated boxed graphics was uniquely attention getting. Add attractive leading ladies, impressive stuntwork (Conrad did his own), stylish disguises (by way of Martin’s quick change character) and snappy scripting, and here was a package had every kid and their Dad could want.
“Yeh,” I rationalized. The Green Hornet and Tarzan were cool, too, but The Wild, Wild West was the bomb.”:
Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates are available on Disney-Plus.
The Alamo (1960) is available on Hoopla and Amazon.
The Rifleman is available on PlutoTV, Tubi and DirectTV.
F-Troop is available on Amazon, AppleTV and GooglePlay.
The Wild, Wild West is available on DirectTV
And here are a few titles worth seeking out on streaming services or cable
The Booksellers (2019): New York city’s rare book world is examined in this entertaining documentary featuring such guest stars as writer Fran Lebowitz and Gay Talese, actress Parker Posey snd many experts in the field. The Argosi, the Strand and Imperial fine books are just two of the stops where we examine rarities, meet he stores’ quirky staff members and learn more about the secrets of this fascinating market. (As seen on: Kanopy, Amazon, AppleTV)
The Underneath (1995): Steven Soderbergh’s much underrated fourth film is a stylish film noir, a reworking of sorts of the 1945 classic Crossfire. Peter Gallagher is a gambler who returns to his hometown after a long absence, and takes a job working for his stepfather’s armored car company. Soon, he finds himself cornered into a life of crime while trying to win back his ex-wife (Alison Elliott). (As seen on Hoopla)
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966): Hilarious adaptation of the hit Broadway show with music by Stephen Sondheim and book by Bert Shevelove and Larry Gelbart set in the time of the Roman Empire and featuring Zero Mostel as a crafty slave who tries to help a young man (Michael Crawford) find the woman of his dreams. Jack Gilford, Phil Silvers and Buster Keaton also star in Richard Lester’s frantic musical that offers “comedy tonight.” (As seen on Hoopla, Amazon)
Most movie and TV fans have their own little secret reservoirs that may confound others upon admission. These guilty pleasures are very personal and sometimes kept secret. They could be a certain actor, actress, director or type of film. They could be a particular film.
For example, a friend of mine admitted that he loved those hokey Hallmark Christmas movies. I never expected that, or his confession that he often cries throughout them. Some people watch the Hallmarks, to mock them for their maudlin, cliched storylines and less-than-Oscar-winning caliber performances. But not him.
I was surprised, but would never judge him, or anybody, for their cinematic or small-screen quirks. I know I have mine. Here are some. Don’t judge me, pretty please.
Jean-Claude Van Damme movies: “The Muscles from Brussels” will likely never win an Academy Award, but I’ve always admired his martial arts skills and onscreen determination. He’s had his ups and downs since he burst onto the scene in the mid-1980s, going from low-budget productions to studio-backed star quickly. To me he was always more likable than his brooding martial arts counterparts like lumbering Steven Seagal or the grimacing, cardboard-like Chuck Norris. Van Damme, a karate champion who specializes in the Shotokan discipline, has made some real stinkers, including an ill-fated mishmash called Double Team with a freaky, mumbling Dennis Rodman and surgically-re-sculpted Mickey Rourke. But Van Damme has attempted to be taken seriously, playing himself in the film JCVD and a short-lived Amazon series with the same name.
My Favorite Jean-Claude Damme film, however, is 1995’s Sudden Death, in which he plays a French-Canadian fireman in Pittsburgh. He has to rescue his daughter, who’s endangered by a rouge CIA agent during the seventh game of the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup finals. It’s essentially “Die Hard in a hockey arena.” Oh, by the way: The film has been remade with actor Michael Jai White in the lead and the new one is set during a basketball game. (See it on: AppleTV, Amazon, Xfinity)
1960s TV Shows with Memorable Theme Songs: This has been a thing of mine since I was a kid. I had an uncanny ability to remember the words and tune to the shows I watched and, in most cases, I can still sing them. I know many friends who can chirp out the words to The Addams Family or The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island or The Beverly Hillbillies. But how about The Pruitts of Southampton with Phyllis Diller, Car 54, Where Are You?, the superhero spoof Captain Nice, It’s About Time, or all of the Marvel superhero theme songs of 1960s animated fame? And then there’s the three connected shows from the same producers: The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction and Green Acres, all wonderful half-hours with memorable themes—at least to me.
Elliott Gould: Since his big break in Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol, Ted & Alice and Robert Altman’s 1970 smash M*A*S*H, Gould has made a career playing anti-authority iconoclasts, smart-alecking his way through tough situations with snark and a chip on his shoulder. The Brooklyn-born former Elliott Goldstein may have never got to work with first wife Barbra Streisand onscreen (although at one time he was slotted to star in What’s Up, Doc?), but did get to make other great films with Altman such as the gambling odyssey California Split and the Raymond Chandler detective riff The Long Goodbye. His career has had peeks and valleys, which has included working with Ingmar Bergman, starring in the Canadian sleeper thriller The Silent Partner and the big Hollywood productions Capricorn One and Bugsy. It’s great to see Gould keeping busy as his age advanced, taking parts in the Oceans 11 films, appearing as a semi-regular in Friends and playing a powerful attorney and close friend of Liev Schreiber’s Ray Donovan.
Casino Royale (1967): Maybe it was the fact it was James Bond—in fact, many James Bonds. Perhaps it was the bouncy score composed by Burt Bacharach (and lyricist Hal David) with contributions by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass as well as Dusty Springfield singing “The Look of Love.” Certainly, the cast was amazing: Peter Sellers, David Niven, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, Deborah Kerr and William Holden. And without a doubt the female parts were impressive with such stunners as Ursula Andress, Barbara Bouchet, Daliah Lavi, Joanna Petit and Jacqueline Bisset donning mini-skirts and often much less on the big screen. Whatever it was—and it was likely a combo of all of these elements—this unofficial Bond spoof appealed to med from the age of ten and still does. It’s loud, stupid, colorful, and senseless, but I never cared. And I still don’t.
Cameo Appearances: SPOILER ALERTS! In most cases, I love cameo appearances in movies. True, at times, they can take you out of the film, but when done well, I find them a real kick. Undoubtedly, the practice of spotting cameos began in my formative years with 1963 Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, a wild, all-star three-hour-plus romp in which the likes of The Three Stooges, Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante and Jack Benny show up throughout. It was around that time that I noticed director Alfred Hitchcock made a cameo in his film The Birds and tracked him down making humorous walk-throughs in many of his other films, going back to some of his earlier works. Fast forward to contemporary times and we have Tom Cruise unrecognizable as crass Hollywood studio executive Les Grossman in Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, Bruce Springsteen offering advice to lovelorn record store owner John Cusack in High Fidelity. Comic book impresario Stan Lee in just about every Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, and Carrie Fisher, George Lucas and Glenn Close (in beard and pirate garb) in Steven Spielberg’s Hook.
And let’s not forget that back in 1958, producer Michael Todd’s stargazing Oscar winner Around the World in 80 Days, boasting short surprise bits by Frank Sinatra, John Gielgud, Noel Coward, Charles Boyer, Cesar Romero, George Raft, Marlene Dietrich, Joe E. Brown, Glynis johns, Andy Devine and others who appear to bolster the formidable of leads David Niven, Shirley MacLaine, Robert Newton and Cantinflas. (See it on: AppleTV, Amazon, Xfinity)
And here are a few titles worth seeking out on streaming services or cable
Django (1966): In the wake of Clint Eastwood’s success in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns came this Italian-produced, Spanish-lensed shoot-‘em-up starring Franco Nero as a former Union soldier who joins forces with a prostitute to snag some gold during a conflict between Confederate renegades and Mexican revolutionaries. The first of at least 30 films in the Django canon, which inspired Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. (See it on: Hoopla, Tubi, Vudu)
Mutiny on the Bounty (1962): A majestic version of the famous seafaring story of the showdown between domineering Captain Bligh (Trevor Howard) and his first mate Fletcher Christian (Marlon Brando) over the commander’s cruel treatment of crew members aboard a ship on a mission in the South Pacific. Set in the 18th century, this epic offers lush, exotic locations and first-rate acting from a cast that also includes Richard Harris and Hugh Griffith. (See it on: Hoopla, Amazon, Xfinity)
Mr. Jealousy (1997): An early effort from writer-director Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story) centering on a substitute teacher (Eric Stoltz) who can’t shake his deeply rooted feelings of jealousy when he discovers the true nature of the relationship of his new girlfriend (Annabella Sciorra) and her ex-boyfriend (Chris Eigeman), a short story writer. A whip-smart romantic comedy set in New York City. (See it on: Kanopy, Amazon, Tubi)
We all have our favorites, actors, actresses, directors or otherwise, who we don’t want to miss when a new movie is released. It’s usually because they have because their track record has proven you can count on them.
Here are some of the folks I always look forward to checking out in pretty much everything they do. I’m sure you all have your own favorites—here are mine.
Martin Scorsese: Scorsese is undoubtedly one of the star directors who commands immediate attention among filmgoers. Now about to turn 78-years-old, Scorsese remains an indefatigable figure, directing major Hollywood films, producing or helming a steady flow of fascinating (usually) music-oriented documentaries, and serving as a spokesperson for film preservation. With 2019’s The Irishman receiving mixed reviews but 10 Oscar nominations and his upcoming Killers of a Flower Moon, an expensive thriller about real real-life murders on a Native-American reservation starring long-time thespian collaborators Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio, “Marty” seems to be centering on major big screen “dream projects” of late. With a plethora of projects in the pipeline and several recent stimulating outings under his belt recently (including Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band), this national treasure doesn’t appear to be settling down any time soon.
Julianne Moore: Since she made strong impressions in co-starring roles in such early twenties in such films as The Fugitive and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, this soap opera alumnus has shown her versatility in a wide variety of roles, and continues to impress by tackling parts that test her talent and range. She can do romantic comedy (Crazy Stupid Love), provocative, auteur-oriented enterprises (Short Cuts, Safe, Chloe), romantic drama (Gloria Bell), serious drama (playing an Alzheimer’s patient in Still Alice for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress), action (Non-Stop), weird (Map to the Stars) and biography (she plays feminist icon Gloria Steinem in the soon-to-be-released The Two Glorias and was perfectly cast as vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in HBO’s Game Change.) If Ms. Moore gave a bad performance, we aren’t aware of it.
Viola Davis: This South Carolina native moves easily between two mediums and between serious acting-based ensemble work and broader audience-pleasing enterprises. On TV, she’s had stints on such shows as How to Get Away with Murder, The United States of Tara and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. She’s also set to play Michelle Obama in a small-screen series called First Ladies. Meanwhile, after garnering great reviews for her work in such films as The Help, Fences and Widows, Ms. Davis is already being talked-about for award possibility for playing opposite the late Chadwick Boseman in the upcoming screen adaptation of the August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and will be repeating her role as a ruthless government agent in a new comic book Suicide Squad movie.
Charlize Theron: It’s tough to believe that Charlize Theron has been around for 25 years. Hailing from South Africa, Ms. Theron has kept movie fans on their feet, surprising moviegoers with her unexpected acting choices. The first one came early in her career in 2003 when she captured the Academy Award as Best Actress for her transformative portrayal of notorious serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the disturbing Monster. Her triumph in the low-budget film gave Ms. Theron some clout: She began to produce projects for herself, which allowed her to retain control of her career. The outspoken Theron has made a mark as an action heroine in such genre outings as Mad Max: Fury Road, Atomic Blonde and now the Fast and Furious Movies. At the same time, she has dabbled in romantic political farce opposite Seth Rogan in the underrated Long Shot, political satire (playing Fox newscaster Megyn Kelly in Bombshell) and edgy, offbeat drama (Young Adult and Tully, both directed by Jason Reitman). Whether it’s a demanding physical role or something else, Ms. Theron can be counted on to deliver the goods.
Sam Rockwell: For years, Sam Rockwell seemed to be a “cult” actor, giving attention-getting performances in offbeat independent films like Lawn Dogs, Box of Moonlight and the hilarious heist movie Safe Men, all admired by a relatively small but enthusiastic group of followers. He started in low-budget horror films and offbeat indies, did lots of TV and theater, but finally garnered attention playing real-life game show host and possible CIA operative Chuck Barris in George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Scene-stealing support in Matchstick Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Frost/Nixon gave way to a tour-de-force near-solo performance as a lonely astronaut in the well-regarded sci-fi outing Moon. He later proved superb as the manager of a water park who mentors a distraught teenager in The Way, Way Back; won an Oscar for Best Supporting actor as a racist cop in Three Billboards Over Ebbing, Missouri and recently impressed as an enterprising, unconventional lawyer lending a helping hand to Richard Jewel after his client is accused of setting off bombs during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Also memorable was his satiric take on a Nazi officer in Jojo Rabbit, as the driven theater/film giant Bob Fosse in the mini-series Fosse/Verdon and as a KKK leader in Best of Enemies. Rockwell typically brings an uneasy, offbeat energy to his roles, whether playing it straight or a little on the goofy side. .
Alexander Payne: The subject of an unexpected recent controversy. Alexander Payne is one filmmaker whose output had remained impressively on target throughout his career. Except for his last film, the muddled satire Downsizing, the Omaha native’s excellent list of credits score high grades for witty dialogue; characters who find themselves in existential crises; unpredictable, incident-packed road trips; unconventional ensemble casts; and smooth, unobtrusive direction. If there’s an American director who has a track record of films as consistently terrific as Citizen Ruth, Sideways, About Schmidt, Election, The Descendants and Nebraska over the last 25 years, I’m not aware of them.
Nicole Holofcener: The stepdaughter of Charles Joffe, Woody Allen’s long-time producer, Holofcener grew up on and around film sets and, after graduating from New York University and Columbia University, made a name for herself with a distinctive voice as a writer and director in independent cinema, focusing on social issues and female protagonists. Among her triumphs are Walking and Talking. Lovely & Amazing and Friends with Money, all of which featured smart dialogue, sharp observations about male-female and female-female relationships and expert acting by the likes of Catherine Keener, Anne Heche, Emily Mortimer and Jennifer Aniston. After calling the shots on episodes of such acclaimed cable series as Sex in the City and Six Feet Under, Holofcener shifted her focus back to the big screen with Please Give, in which Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt face a worsening economy while owning an antique furniture store in Manhattan; Enough Said with Julia Louis-Dreyfuss as a massage therapist and a spry James Gandolfini as her client; and The Land of Steady Habits, in which middle-aged divorcee Ben Mendelsohn tries to steer his way through his newly single life. Ms. Holofcener also helped adapt Lee Israel’s memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me? for the screen, but opted out of directing this story of an impoverished writer who forges letters by famous deceased writers in order make some serious cash.
And here are a few titles worth seeking out on streaming services or cable:
The Grifters (1990): Pulp icon Jim Thompson’s dark crime story, adapted by thriller specialist Donald E. Westlake tells of some most unusual and treacherous relationships involving con artist Angelica Huston, whose strained kinship with low-level scheming son John Cusack becomes even more unsettling when Cusack begins a relationship with older, gold-digging Annette Bening. Directed by Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons) and produced by Martin Scorsese, this is modern film noir at its most emotional and disquieting. (See it on: Hoopla, Amazon, Cinemax)
Flirting with Disaster (1996): Because the style and quick pacing may appear antiquated to modern audiences, screwball comedies, which flourished in the 1940s, are tough to make today. But this raucous farce about a very dysfunctional family and their associates is genuinely funny. Directed by David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook), the movie stars Ben Stiller as a linguist out to find his real parents while on a cross-country trip with wife Patricia Arquette. Along the way the encounter a psychologist chronicling the couple’s journey (Tea Leoni) and two unpredictable special agents (Josh Brolin, Richard Jenkins) before Stiller tracks down his hippie birth parents played Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda. (As seen on: Hoopla, Amazon, Xfinity)
The Lavender Hill Mob (1951): Produced by England’s famed Ealing Studios, couples a wild heist farce with a subtle anti-conformity message and stars Alec Guinness as a shy bank teller who plots to swipe his firm’s gold bullion by having it turned into miniature souvenir Eiffel Towers. This classic, quick-paced folly also stars British greats Stanley Holloway, Sidney James and Alfie Bass as participants in the oddball plan. (A seen on: Kanopy, Amazon, Vudu)
Why are there so many documentaries being produced today? My hunch is there are three reasons. The first two have to do with technology and costs.
What used to be a costly proposition for filmmakers that involved buying or renting equipment, purchasing film, paying for lab fees and a sum for editing has now been severely reduced. Filmmakers are now capable of shooting films digitally a lot cheaper than before. Reasonably priced professional grade digital cameras are commonly utilized while editing is typically done by way of a program on a home computer. And since everything is being done digitally, there are no initial lab fees to contend with.
The other reason I suspect documentaries are plentiful has to do with access. There is a plethora of streaming and cable channels out there in desperate need for programming. And not only do documentary films comprise a decent part of the programming but longer form documentary series have been a hot commodity for a few years now.
Just over the last few years, documentaries have garnered plenty of attention. If we still congregated around our water coolers, they would probably be even more talked about.
In recent years, we’ve had such titles as The Jinx, OJ: Made in America, The Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, The Last Dance, Leaving Neverland, Surviving R Kelly. and Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich become not only widely-watched factual series, but also must-see productions drawing lots of attention for their news-worthy revelations.
But what is a viewer to do when faced with so many streaming and cable choices and a seemingly endless selection of documentary choices?
For one thing, I suggest coming aboard on September 25 at 7PM for a Zoom “Movie Club” meeting called “Documentaries We Love.” I’ll be hosting an hour-long discussion on docs. I welcome you to bring your own suggestions and to take notes detailing the new gems you’ll discover during the conversation. Just register here:
In the meantime, here are some documentary choices well worth your time.
Where’s My Roy Cohn? (2019): Probably because of Donald Trump’s presidency, there’s been a batch of stuff out on Roy Cohn, Trump’s former lawyer and mentor, ally of Roger Stone and Ronald Reagan, and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel during the blacklisting era and the Army-McCarthy hearings and beyond. This fine film examines his aggressive style, political maneuverings, and once secret lifestyle. In fact, more Cohn material can be found in the recent Broadway revival of the show Angels in America, in which Nathan Lane played Cohn, as well as Bully. Coward. Victim: The Story of Roy Cohn, an excellent survey of the man’s life from HBO, directed by the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for spying for Russia in 1943 in a case that Cohn prosecuted. (See it on: Starz, Amazon, AppleTV)
Mike Wallace is Here (2019): He started out as an announcer for popular radio shows, starred in a cop program in the early days of TV and made his name as a popular host on quiz shows and as a product pitchman. He eventually became a hard-edged newsman, master interviewer and a top investigative reporter on 60 Minutes for 37 years. Wallace’s no-nonsense grilling is on display here, proof he was adept at questioning world leaders, entertainers, politicians and criminals alike. Helping to make this effort so impressive is the archival footage from the CBS archives of Wallace’s one-on-ones with the likes of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, John Ehrlichman, Bette Davis, Kirk Douglas and Barbra Streisand. (See it on: Hulu, Amazon and Vudu. )
Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014): There are lots of fine documentaries about the world of movies and movie-making, but this may be the best yet. It depicts went wrong while making the 1996 adaptation of the 1896 H.G. Wells story about a diabolical doctor who attempts to create creatures that are half-man, half-animal. This doc chronicles the film’s production difficulties, from casting changes to weather challenges, and ongoing problems with the behavior of stars Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer. Thirty-year-old South African director Richard Stanley began the project, but was fired during filming and replaced by veteran John Frankenheimer. The Dr Moreau feature film ultimately became a critical and box-office disaster, sending the once-promising Stanley away from the industry for 20 years, but his behind-the-scenes story offered here is, simply, amazing. (See it on: Hoopla, Amazon, Tubi)
American Animals (2018): A truly unique meshing of drama and documentary centering on the plot hatched by four privileged college students to steal rare books from the library of a Kentucky college. Actors play the quartet of schemers in parts of the film while the real protagonists offer opinions and correct the mistakes presented onscreen as it unspools. It all adds up to an intense and fascinating dissection of a crime fueled by…boredom? (See it on: HBO Max, PopcornFlix, DirectTV)
Gilbert (2017): A surprisingly poignant look at comic Gilbert Gottfried presents a side to the loudmouth performer the public has rarely seen before. Along with footage from Gottfried’s standup routines and the eccentric comic’s life on the road, you’ll meet his loving wife, his two children and other family members. Also covered are examples of his politically incorrect behavior that landed him in hot water and testimonials from such comic friends and fans as Lewis Black, Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Burr, and Dave Attell. (See it on: Hoopla, Kanopy, Amazon)
Hitsville: The Making of Motown (2019): The ultimate documentary of the Motown Experience, complete with fantastic musical numbers, an array of interviews with artists, writers, performers and business people. At the center are recollections by Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, a Detroit native and former assembly line auto worker and songwriter, who began the label in 1959 with $800 and made it the most profitable African-American-owned business in the world. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and The Jackson 5 are just a few of the artists featured in this invigorating look at the art and economics of Gordy and Company. (See it on: Showtime, DirectTV, Fubo)
And here are a few titles worth seeking out on streaming services or cable:
Going Attractions: The Rise and Fall of the Movie Palace (2019): This wonderful salute to the great movie theaters of old is a lovingly produced trip back in time, crammed with terrific old footage, interesting interviews, and historical insight. Dazzling ornate movie houses from the past are visited as experts talk about the exciting rise and sad decline of a cultural and architectural phenomenon. (See it on: Kanopy)
Gulliver’s Travels (1939): In order to compete with Walt Disney, the Fleischer Studios, creator of the Popeye, Superman and Betty Boop cartoons, tried their hand in feature animation. This is the Fleischer’s first full-length effort, a colorful, song-filled version of Jonathan Swift’s 1726 political and social satire about a shipwreck survivor who washes ashore in a land of finicky tiny people. (See it on: Hoopla, Amazon, Tubi)
Goon (2011): If you’ve already seen Slap Shot 20 times and need another hockey movie to watch, consider this rollicking and somewhat raunchy icebound farce starring Seann William Scott as a bouncer at a bar who gets a new lease on life when he’s recruited to be an enforcer for the Halifax Highlanders, in the rough-and-tumble minor leagues. (As seen on: Hoopla, Tubi, Pluto)
The 1970 year in film was a transitional one for Hollywood. Old Hollywood was on the way out; New Hollywood was on the way in. The major film studios were in a state of flux. Some of them were still stinging from big-budget musical disasters like Doctor Doolittle, Star!, Finian’s Rainbow and Paint Your Wagon—long, big budgeted, big star offerings that cost a bundle, designed for families that didn’t show up.
The glimmer of a new and exciting Hollywood that dealt with issues, as opposed to escapism, was on the horizon as studios such as Universal began divisions catering to college-age audiences and employing young filmmakers, many of them graduates from film schools that were opening around the country.
In 1970, however, not all “Old Hollywood” films were met with the derisive reviews or bad box office takes.
Airport, an old-fashioned drama based on a best-selling book by Arthur Haley, played like Grand Hotel in the sky. It featured an impressive all-star cast—Dean Martin, Burt Lancaster, Jean Seberg, Jacqueline Bisset, George Kennedy, Van Heflin and the scene-stealing, Oscar-winning Helen Hayes—battling the elements and the possibility of a passenger with a bomb aboard a Boeing 707 attempting to land during a blizzard. (See it on: AppleTV, Amazon, Xfinity)
And, in a time when the war in Vietnam divided the nation, the big-screen military biopic Patton was a huge hit and brought Oscars home in major categories including Best Picture and, for George C. Scott, Best Actor (which he refused). Coincidentally, the original screenplay, co-written by soon-to-be New Hollywood superstar Francis Ford Coppola, won the Academy Award. Ironically, Richard Nixon said it was his favorite film. (See it on: Cinemax, Amazon, Xfinity)
There were other films in the more traditional mold released that year as well: Tora! Tora! Tora!, an expensive look at the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, showing the conflict from both the American and Japanese sides; Ryan’s Daughter, a sweeping David Lean epic; and Love Story, a tear-jerker that fit the mold of an old-fashioned melodrama starring young stars Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw.
The unexpected success of Easy Rider paved the way for Hollywood to take a look at the youthful audience that attended the film and open the gates for new filmmakers, screenwriters and performers.
Jack Nicholson, nominated for his first Oscar for his supporting part as a rebellious lawyer in Easy Rider, scored his first Best Actor nomination for Five Easy Pieces, playing a master pianist working on an oil rig taking a trip to see his dying father. The drama from relative newcomer Bob Rafelson, best known at that point as one of the auteurs of The Monkees TV Show, featured the famous scene in a diner where Nicholson berates a waitress about a chicken salad sandwich, was a critical and financial triumph. It showed that younger audiences were into the movies, especially those tackling serious issues. (See it on: Amazon, Vudu, AppleTV)
M*A*S*H, released by 20th Century Fox, the same studio that brought us Patton, was the flip side of a war film. It was both hilarious and disturbing, often at the same time, as a group of Army medics, with unorthodox methods of goofing off, survive amidst gunfire, chaos, and military incompetence. The setting may have been Korea but the feeling was definitely Vietnam and the “New Hollywood” director this time was a surprise; Robert Altman was older than the others making an impact in the film world, a seasoned TV veteran whose career dated back to the 1950s. Oddly enough, the militaristic Patton often ended up double-billed by the studio with counterculture anti-war shenanigans of M*A*S*H. (See it on: Amazon, AppleTV, Xfinity)
The world of rock and roll was well represented in 1970 on several fronts. First, there was the release of Woodstock, the chronicle of the landmark concert that took place in New York. This three-hour opus, edited in part by Martin Scorsese, presented the multi-day festival in all its mud and glory. Along with memorable performances by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, Ten Years After, Crosby Stills and Nash (Neil Young didn’t want to be filmed), Santana, Richie Havens and Joan Baez, Woodstock took audiences behind-the-scenes and into the crowds where, with the help of split-screens. (See it on: Amazon, Vudu, AppleTV)
Performance, directed by Donald Cammell and former cinematographer Nicholas Roeg, offered a different take on the rock theme by giving Mick Jagger a major role in a major studio film. Right out of the gate this British effort was a magnet for controversy as Jagger played a reclusive, androgynous rock star whose life is upended when a gangster on the lam takes residence in his home. The avant-garde influence of its presentation of decadence borders on hallucinatory, heavily spiked with sex, drugs and rock music. Warner Brothers was reluctant to distribute the envelope-pushing film at first, but when it finally got release following a delay, critics called it brilliant and baffling—often at the same time. (See it on: AppleTV, Amazon, GooglePlay)
There were new sensitivities in the country that clearly struck a chord with moviegoers, in particular younger moviegoers. Interest in the gay lifestyles led to the filming of Mart Crowley’s landmark 1968 off-Broadway play The Boys in the Band by director William Friedkin, just before he won the Oscar for The French Connection and turned the supernatural thriller The Exorcist into an international sensation. The story concerns Harold, a young man in Manhattan celebrating his birthday, who has difficulty coming to terms with his friends and himself at his party. (Incidentally, a revival of the play last year was filmed for a release on Netflix in late September.)
Racial tensions were in the air as well, and Melvin Van Pebbles, an African-American filmmaker, musician, composer, actor and writer was enlisted by Columbia Studios to call the shots behind the camera for Watermelon Man, a biting farce with Godfrey Cambridge as a suburban white liberal who wakes up one day to discover his skin pigment has darkened. The situation leads him to experience prejudice first-hand and witness how race affects his life, friends and family. The movie did well, but Van Peebles decided to go independent after it was released, taking on a multitude of roles and scoring big with the revolutionary Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song a year later. (See it on: Amazon, Vudu, appleTV)
A term often used in the late 1960s and 1970s was “The Generation Gap,” defined as the struggle between younger and older age groups, usually between children and parents. While 1967’s The Graduate shed a sharp, satiric light on the ongoing struggle of age and ideals, 1970’s Joe tackled the subject with serious and tragic results, and added the uncomfortable topic of prejudice for good measure. Philadelphia’s own Peter Boyle portrayed the title character, a hippie-hating factory worker who teams with a wealthy advertising executive to track down the executive’s daughter who has fled to a commune. The low-budget film from Rocky director John Avildsen was a huge hit, but Boyle was so upset at the positive reaction during some of the film’s most unsettling scenes, that he vowed to steer away from taking roles in violent movies in the future. For this reason, Boyle turned down the part of “Popeye Doyle,” which Gene Hackman took and won the Academy Award for in The French Connection.
(See it on: Amazon, Tubi)
New awareness of the treatment of the United States’ treatment of Native-Americans was also a subject that was being more broadly discussed at the time, and in the latter part of the 1960s, Hollywood began producing “revisionist westerns”—films that questioned and addressed the mythic nature of traditional Hollywood westerns and, in process, attempted to set the record straight for the young audience seeking s more truthful telling of the taming of the West. Little Big Man from Bonnie and Clyde director Arthur Penn boasted Dustin Hoffman, aging from 17 to 121 years old, as a white man raised by Native-Americans who is the only living survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn. The fanciful but ultimately disconcerting saga was lightyear’s away from 1941’s exciting but heavily fictionalized They Died with Their Boots On, which presented Errol Flynn’s Custer as a heroic, innocent figure and the Native-Americans as strictly savages who ambushed the general and his troops. (See it on: Amazon, Xfinity)
So, 1970s was quite a year, when struggles, restlessness and uncertainty were met head-on by the two clashing schools of Hollywood, and projected onto the silver screen for audiences young and old to see.
And here are a few titles worth seeking out on streaming services or cable:
99 Homes (2014): Andrew Garfield is a construction worker who is evicted from his home along with his mother and son, then takes a job with ruthless real estate agent who ordered the removal of him and his family. This lacerating look at day-today financial struggles of Americans from director Ramin Bahrani (Goodbye Solo) also stars Laura Dern (See it on: Hoopla, Amazon, Xfinity)
The Assistant (2019): A few harrowing days in the life of a young female assistant (Julia Garner) working for a powerful independent producer who encounters subtle threats, insidious office politics and a general uneasiness when she discovers that her boss is taking advantage of others in the company and women coming in for interviews. The shadow of Harvey Weinstein and his abuses hangs over this film, making it an unsettling, forceful drama. (See it on: Kanopy, Hulu, Amazon)
The Naked Kiss (1964): This lurid, over-the-top melodrama centers on a former prostitute (Constance Towers) who seeks to start a new life in a small town, but after she takes a job working as a nurse at a children’s hospital finds that her new home’s seemingly “normal” residents have their own share of serious issues. (See it on: Kanopy, Amazon, HBO Max)
As a hobby, I keep track of the odd movie ideas coming out of Hollywood. Barely a week goes by when something is mentioned that I simply can’t believe, whether it’s a sequel to a film I thought bombed, an out-there adaptation of a TV series, or just some idea that’s been laying around for a long time that was suddenly resurrected.
Welcome to Movieland. Here are some notes on a few upcoming cinematic surprises that have potential to be good, bad or ugly…
What in the Wide, Wide World of Sports…?
Because Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks’ ever-popular, raucous western spoof from 1974 starring Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder, is considered so politically incorrect these days (was it ever?), revisiting it seemed impossible. Mel went to the Broadway well with Young Frankenstein and The Producers, which got a 2005 film reworking nobody cared for or about. So now Saddles will ride again, reworked as Blazing Samurai, an animated film that will be released in 2021. Here the humans will be replaced by cartoon cats and dogs and it will take place in the time of the Japanese Samurai, and voices are provided by Michael Cera, Samuel Jackson, Ricky Gervais, Michelle Yeoh and Mel himself. It’s a bizarre premise but you have to admire the chutzpah.
The Jackson Two
Mahalia Jackson was one of the most successful gospel singers ever, breaking through to mainstream music audiences with her stirring contralto renditions of “Go Tell it to the Mountain” and “Amazing Grace.” Following the recently completed film about the life of Aretha Franklin starring Jennifer Holiday, we are in the early stages of putting together a new biopic about Jackson starring Philadelphia-born singer/actress Jill Scott in the lead. Queen Latifah and Jamie Foxx are among the producers. A Lifetime Channel movie that will likely be issued earlier for broadcast as well. Danielle Brooks, best known for her work in Orange is the New Black and on Broadway’s “The Color Purple,” will star for Lifetime.
A book by Scotty Bowers called “Full Service,” about the author’s adventures as the, um, procurer of romantic partners for some legendary Hollywood celebrities, was published in 2013 . Readers seemed both fascinated by the revelations and appalled that these peoples’ personal lives were being made public. But the book’s popularity led to a well-reviewed 2018 documentary called Scotty and The Secret History of Hollywood, which introduced the world to Bowers and his wife of many years, and allowed him the opportunity to spin his tales of Tinseltown’s wild, often kinky past. Now, a feature film is in the works, presenting an opportunity for some unexpected partners to get together. Seth Rogan and production ally Evan Goldberg, recently of A Jewish Pickle, Long Shot and The Disaster Artist, plan to bring the story to the big screen with Italian director Luca Guadagnino (Suspiria, Call Me by Your Name) at the helm. The teaming of the folks behind a series of raucous comedies and the filmmaker of serious art films seems unusual, but good things happen when you least expect it.
Sam Wasson’s recent book “The Big Goodbye” chronicled the story behind the making of the classic film noir Chinatown, one of the great films of the 1970s, focusing on four prominent talents involved: cocaine-inhaling producer Robert Evans, haunted perfectionist director Roman Polanski, drug-addled screenwriter Robert Towne, and ever-determined star Jack Nicholson. Despite some oddly overlooked historical mistakes in the book, it’s a humdinger-- a highly entertaining piece of well-researched material written with flair that reads like a novel. It’s a Hollywood story, though, filled with stories of jealousy, personality conflicts, drugs and, in the case of Polanski and his late wife Sharon Tate, murder.
Frankly, I’m surprised that the plans are to turn it into a feature film with Ben Affleck involved at least as a director, but possibly as a screenwriter and actor (playing flashy maverick producer Robert Evans we assume) as well. There are a few reasons why the idea of this project doesn’t make sense. First, it deals with folks still around like Nicholson, who comes off well, and Towne, who comes off looking awful. Also it offers a warts-and-all inside look at the machinations of a Hollywood studio—in this case Paramount, the studio that bought the rights to the book. And who would or could play Polanski or Nicholson or leading actress Faye Dunaway? How or if this will come to fruition remains a mystery.
New Musical Revue
This year we were supposed to see the release of two major musicals. One has been re-scheduled while the other’s release is in jeopardy. In the Heights, written by and starring Lin Manuel-Miranda of Hamilton fame as a bodega owner contemplating a move back to his Dominican Republic homeland, has had its theatrical release pushed back until next summer. And in the “still on schedule but who knows?” department is Steven Spielberg’s new version of West Side Story. Both were penciled in for Oscar possibilities at the beginning of the year.
In the meantime, other musicals are in the stages of being prepped for release in theaters and otherwise. There’s the Netflix production of The Prom, based on the surprise critical darling of theater last year, starring James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Kerry Washington, and Meryl Streep, in a story about how an Indiana high school student is helped by Broadway stars when he’s unable to take his girlfriend to the prom. Production is about to begin again. There is also Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, about a bullied gay teenager who takes to drag to overcome his issues.
Further down the road, look for:
-A live-action adaptation of Disney’s The Little Mermaid with Melissa McCarthy as the villainous Ursula, directed by musical specialist Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods).
-Tick, tick…BOOM!, with Lin-Manuel Miranda directing and starring in the Tony-winning work by the late Jonathan Larson (Rent). It’s about a young composer who questions his involvement in the performing arts.
-American Idiot, based the Green Day album, from the group’s leader Billie Joe Armstrong’s hit show, centers on three disgruntled young men from the suburbs who have a series of impactful experiences as they try to get away from their stifled lives. Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening), who worked on the stage show, directs.
-Wicked, the long-in-the-works film version of the smash Broadway show with music by Stephen Schwartz, is still a long way off, but a director has been chosen: Stephen Daldry, the British filmmaker with Billy Elliott and the recent TV adaptation The Crown to his credit. Anticipation is high on who will be cast.
-Dear Evan Hansen is slated for production sometime in 2021 with Tony-winning star Ben Platt in the lead. The musical drama concerns the life of a socially awkward high school senior.
-Little Shop of Horrors will be the second musical adaptation of the Roger Corman 1960 low-budget classic about a people-eating plant that gains notoriety, size, and victims in a New York flower shop located in the seedier part of town. Greg Berlanti, whose credits include TV’s Dawson’s Creek and Love, Simon, is slated to direct.
And here are a few titles worth seeking out on streaming services or cable:
Hal (2019): An entertaining and informative survey of the topsy-turvy life and career of Hal Ashby, the Oscar-winning editor-turned-iconoclastic director behind such films as Shampoo, The Last Detail, Coming Home and Being There. Featured in the doc are loving insights from Jeff Bridges, Judd Apatow, and Jane Fonda. (See it on: Kanopy, Amazon, Xfinity)
A History of Violence (2005): Based on a graphic novel, this Oscar-nominated drama from edgy cult director David Cronenberg (The Fly) stars Viggo Mortenson as a small-town café owner who is put on the spot when he and his family are threatened by hoods from Philadelphia. Co-starring Maria Bello and Ed Harris, the film soars as an intense thriller that considers the place of violence in society. (See it on: Kanopy, Amazon, Xfinity)
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010): Exceptional study of the unsung British cinematographer whose credits include some of the most stunning movies ever filmed including A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The African Queen, and The Vikings. Sharing in the well-deserved celebration are Martin Scorsese, Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Charlton Heston, and Cardiff himself. (See it on: Hoopla, AppleTV, Amazon)
Many psychologists point to taking attention away from personal and wide-ranging problems by focusing on your pet. And we believe it’s a good idea. Watching a beautiful creature unaffected by the issues facing the world can give people a sorely-needed respite. If you don’t have a pet or animal to focus on, that’s ok, too, because the movies have plenty for you to focus on.
Here are some suggestions of great animal-oriented movies to take your troubles away. Not all of these are happy-go-lucky efforts that ignore the reality of how animals or owners live or relate. But we think they all expertly mix serious and lighter moments and offer an appreciation for all creatures, great and small.
Lassie Come Home (1943): The original cinematic saga of the celebrated Collie is a major MGM production in luxurious color starring Roddy McDowell as the British lad who is grief-stricken after father Donald Crisp, citing lack of funds, sells Lassie, McDowell’s beloved dog, to a wealthy Scottish family. But Lassie decides to escape and faces a series of obstacles as she attempts to return to MacDowell. Featuring an 11-year-old Elizabeth Taylor as the granddaughter of the pooch’s new rich family, the success of this film spawned sequels and inspired a show that ran an amazing 20 years on television.(See it on: AppleTV, Amazon, Xfinity)
Old Yeller (1957): In 1860s Texas, father Fess Parker returns to his farm with a Labrador retriever. His boys, Kevin Corcoran and Tommy Kirk, quickly make friends with the dog, who soon causes all sorts of problems. Eventually, Old Yeller learns his lesson and heroically helps his newfound family until it faces its toughest test yet. This Disney production showed the studio didn’t have to stick to animation to be successful and gave moviegoers a major cry in the process. (See it on: DisneyPlus, Amazon, Comcast)
One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961): One of Walt Disney’s enduring animated classics tells of London-based dogs Pongo and Perdita who let out a call to arms to their animal friends to help them retrieve their ever-growing litter of puppies. They’ve been stolen by the evil Cruella de Ville and her henchmen, who plan of make coats out of them. Exciting, colorful, and funny…plus those evil cats that are Siamese…if you please. (See it on: DisneyPlus)
Born Free (1964): A true story, based on a bestselling book, centers on Joy and George Adamson’s adventures in raising a baby lion cub named Elsa in Kenya and their efforts to retrain the cub in order to release her back into the wild. Along with impressive African landscapes and a stirring and serious approach to the material, the film offers the memorable Oscar-winning title song. (See it on: Criterion, Amazon, Xfinity)
Flipper (1964): Ivan Tors, the man behind other animal-oriented efforts like Zebra in the Kitchen and the TV show Daktari! was the mastermind behind this family adventure, so popular it led to a sequel, a reboot with Paul Hogan, and a hit TV series. Small-screen stalwart Chuck (The Rifleman) Connors plays the fisherman father of teenage Luke Halpin, who befriends a wounded dolphin that can do some surprising feats and helps the teen when confronted by sharks. (See it on: AppleTV, Amazon, Xfinity)
The Black Stallion (1979): Francis Ford Coppola produced this poetic, stunningly photographed film based on Walter Farley’s acclaimed novel. Set in the 1940s, it tells the story of a boy who cares for an Arabian black stallion after he is shipwrecked. Upon bringing the animal back to New York, the boy discovers the horse runs extremely fast and, along with help from a veteran jockey and trainer (Mickey Rooney), prepares him to race against two of the country’s top stallions. From the same creative team who gave us Fly Away Home. (See it on: Hoopla, Amazon, Xfinity)
Babe (1995): How did a movie about an underdog pig avoiding slaughter that becomes an ace sheep herder become such a sensation? A great story and a lot of whimsy. While Chris Noonan directs, producer George Miller, of Mad Max fame, has his quirky sensibility stamped all over this production, and his vision is brought to life by miraculous special effects work from Jim Henson’s company. (See it on: HBO, Hulu, Amazon)
Fly Away Home (1996): A gorgeous and touching true story from the Black Stallion director Carroll Ballard, starring Jeff Daniels as an eccentric inventor who, along with estranged daughter an Ana Paquin, helps Canadian geese migrate from Canada to Florida by using a special ultralight aircraft. Caleb Deschanel provides stunning cinematography. (See it on: Amazon, Hulu, Showtime)
Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009): A true story, which took place in Japan in the 1920s, has its setting changed to contemporary New England, where a music professor takes in a stray Akita dog, which becomes his close and incredibly loyal ally. Richard Gere, Joan Allen and Jason Alexander star in this warm and fuzzy film from Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog). Watch with tissues nearby. (See it on: Hulu, Starz, Amazon)
Kedi (2016): The ultimate cat lover’s film. This amazing documentary depicts the adventures of cats living in Istanbul, Turkey. Some fend for themselves. Others depend on people for care. The filmmakers follow the creatures’ daily routine and interaction with humans. (As seen on: Kanopy, AppleTV, Amazon)
And here are a few titles worth seeking out on streaming services or cable:
The Killers (1946): If you’re looking for where such modern crime films like Pulp fiction and A History of Violence got their ideas, this film noir has lots to offer. Burt Lancaster is the washed-up boxer in a small Jersey town who becomes a target for mobsters after a losing appearance in the ring. Based on an Ernest Hemingway short story, the film also stars Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien and Sam Levene. (See it on: Criterion, Amazon, Vudu)
Welcome to Sarajevo (1997): A true story of war and journalism with Woody Harrelson as a hot-shot American reporter who teams with British journalist Stephen Dillane to get the story of the conflict in Sarajevo in 1992 onto the news. (See it on: Hoopla, Hulu, Amazon)
Anthropoid (2016): This riveting, overlooked World War II drama, based on true events, showcases Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dorman as soldiers who parachute into Czechoslovakia with a plan to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the architect of the “final solution” and leader of the Nazi’s operations in the country. (See it on: Kanopy, Hulu, Amazon)
Over the last several years, I have lamented the loss of the double-feature. Younger readers probably have never heard the term double-feature before. There was a time, believe it or not, where you could see two films for the price of one—and you didn’t have to “hop” theaters, either.
Yep, before Beta, VHS, Laserdiscs, Divx, DVDs, Blu-rays or streaming was not even a gleam in Hollywood’s eye, the movie studios figured out a way to squeeze more money out of their movies by keeping them in theaters longer, paired with usually with a newer release.
Of course, the distributor would not be the only person who benefitted from this practice. The longer time in a theater for patrons meant more transactions of Hot Buttery Popcorn, Refreshing Beverages and yummy Milk Duds. Double-features have remained staples of drive-in and repertory movie theaters-going since their inception.
The double-feature was usually conceived through a process where films matched each other in some way. The similarity was often measured by a theme, genre, or movie audience’s sex—there were distinctively “women’s pictures” and “men’s movies” and they were presented as such.
But sometimes double-features were mismatched, especially when they played in indoor auditoriums. The reasons could have been because the studio wanted to squeeze every last nickel out of a movie that had been in the theaters for a while or because someone in distribution or the theater chain screwed up or simply didn’t care. “After all,” they must have thought, “product is product.” It makes sense double-features were typically a big thing in the summer. More leisure time, later hours.
For a trip down memory lane, here, then, are some fondly-remembered double features of the past, most of them experienced in Philadelphia theaters as noted:
Texas Across the River (1966) and Strait-Jacket (1964): This is the first double-feature I remember. My mother took me to the Benner Theater and, as was common at the time, we came in the middle of one movie and planned to stay over to see what we missed after sitting through the entire movie. Or so she told me. In this case, we saw half of Texas Across the River, a pseudo Rat Pack western comedy starring Dean Martin and Joey Bishop. But we only made it through the first few minutes of Strait Jacket, a William Castle production involving Joan Crawford and axe murderers, as my mother grabbed me by the hand and fled the theater, frightened by the creepy vibe of the beginning of the picture.
Thunderball (1965)/You Only Live Twice (1967): James Bond films were so popular in the 1960s and 1970s that were regularly doubled-up and brisk business was had by all. Sean Connery’s Agent 007 heads to the Caribbean and then Japan to tackle arch-villains, seduce women, and essentially save the free world with wits, brawn, and gadgets.
The Odd Couple (1968)/Rosemary’s Baby (1968): Talk about films with different moods! Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are, respectively, fussy Felix and sloppy Oscar in this terrific adaptation of Neil Simon’s hit play about polar opposite pals becoming roommates. Add to this laugh fest Roman Polanski’s eerie essay on motherhood and witchcraft and you have one eclectic double-bill. Well, they are both set in primarily in and around Manhattan apartments.
What’s Up Doc? (1972) and The Candidate (1972): Two Warner Brothers hits from ’72 featuring two big stars individually before their romantic pairing in 1973’s The Way We Were. First, Barbara Streisand and Ryan O’Neal are sublime as a wacky couple at a San Francisco convention in Peter Bogdanovich’s salute to 1940s screwball comedy. And in Michael Ritchie’s insightful dark political comedy, Robert Redford is the title character, an idealistic activist who gets a rude welcoming into the world of politics when he runs for a California Senate seat against a powerful incumbent opponent.
The Godfather (1972) and The Longest Yard (1974): Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning epic was at the end of its third year in theaters when Paramount decided to attach the Burt Reynolds football farce to it. Seen at the Orleans Theater, this was likely a “Sneak Preview” situation—the studio would offer a double-feature highlighting a new film that was set to make their general cinematic debut a week or two later. Clocking in at five hours in total, one had to leave the theater more macho than they arrived.
The Conversation (1974) and The Parallax View (1974): The ultimate paranoid double feature! Somebody at Paramount was using their noodle when they matched Francis Ford Coppola’s Watergate Era drama about haunted surveillance expert Harry Caul (brilliantly played by Gene Hackman) with Alan J. Pakula’s political thriller featuring Warren Beatty as an investigative reporter looking into the assassination of a senator. I was walking out of the Leo Theater…looking over my shoulder.
Wicked, Wicked (1973)/Private Parts (1972): Talk about “Motel Hell”! That’s what it felt like at the Benner Theater, when I spent an evening checking out this oddball thriller match-up. First, a Psycho-styled murder-mystery set at a beachfront resort filmed in “Duo-Vision”—aka split-screens--featuring former TV idol Edd “Kookie” Byrnes, “B” movie queen Tiffany Bolling and a witchy pipe organist playing silent movie music throughout. Then, enjoy an unsettling tale about a teenage girl who discovers some creepy neighbors when she takes residence at her aunt’s hotel in a bad part of town. It’s the first feature from director Paul Bartel of Eating Raoul fame.
And here are a few titles worth seeking out on streaming services or cable:
Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015): A series of interviews in 1962 at Universal studios between movie masterminds Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut led to a landmark 1967 book and, over 50 years later, this documentary. The conversations encompass the entire career of “The Master of Suspense,” while contemporary filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, David Fincher, Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese add their insights. (See it on: Kanopy, Amazon, GooglePlay)
The Doors (1991): Oliver stone pulls out all the stops to tell the story of the meteoric rise and fall of rock great Jim Morrison, leader of The Doors. Val Kilmer turns in a memorable performance as the unpredictable poet/singer/writer known as “The Lizard King.” (As seen on: Kanopy, Amazon, Xfinity)
Brazil (1985): An epic futuristic dark comedy from Terry Gilliam focusing on an emotionally blank government clerk who finds his life turned into a nightmare after a case of mistaken identity has him tagged as an enemy to the repressive government. With Robert De Niro, Kim Greist and Ian Holm. (See it on: Hoopla, Pluto, Amazon)
Sometimes you just have to escape from reality, I guess. And what better way to do that than watching a movie? But I’m not thinking of funny movies or romantic movies or even necessarily suspenseful movies today. I’m talking about weird movies.
Weird movies can be fun, they can be perplexing, they can be nerve-jangling. They evoke both love and disdain from audiences. They are an individual viewer’s own private Iowa. Here are a few—most of them recently released—I suggest. Please don’t hold me responsible, however, if you hate them. When it comes to weird movies, “to each, their own” is the aphorism to follow.
After the critical success of The Disaster Artist, director-star James Franco goes down the “inside Hollywood” rabbit hole again with this ambitious adaptation of Steve Erickson’s 2007 novel. Set in Hollywood just after the Manson murders, this long-in-the-works film makes for a fascinating addendum to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, taking place in the same time frame as Once Upon a Time. Franco plays a Hollywood novice with a bald head tattooed with images of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift on the back. He works his way from studio carpenter to ace film editor in the New Hollywood. There are inside references galore and a surprising cameo-filled cast. Far from perfect, but far from uninteresting, too. (See it on: Kanopy, Amazon, Comcast)
The Color Out of Space (2019):
After decades virtually out of sight following his dismissal while directing 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, director Richard Stanley makes a triumphant return to genre filmmaking with this trippy take on an H.P. Lovecraft story. Nicolas Cage and Joely Richardson play a married couple with an alpaca farm (we couldn’t make this stuff up) and two kids who find themselves adversely affected by a meteorite that landed nearby. The incident leads the entire family to act oddly—both physically and emotionally—and, in the film’s second half, Cage goes outrageously off the rails. If it's trippy, creepy horror you like, try this. (See it on: Hoopla, Amazon, Vudu)
Forbidden Zone (1982):
It’s like a Max Fleischer (think Betty Boops and the original Popeyes) cartoon coming to life. Sort of. OK, let’s try again: It’s a group of musical videos strung together with weird otherworldly characters, Herve Villechaize and a person with a frog face. All right, one more time: It’s the big screen adaptation interpretation of a bizarre stage review that features the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo (led by Danny Elfman, movie composer extraordinaire later in his career). Let’s ditch the plot—we’re not sure there is one, really. But there is a lot of energy thanks to oddball animation, old-time music and freaky visuals. In other words, you’re on your own. (See it on: Hoopla, Amazon, Tubi)
Here’s a film that is truly one-of-a-kind: A movie that is downright disturbing yet mesmerizing at the same time. It’s also a film that could easily be spoiled by too much information, so let’s tread gingerly: An unhappy Swedish border agent with an unusual appearance and odd habits thinks she meets the right companion when encountering a man with similar physical features. As the The New Yorker put it: “Border is a furnace of unfiltered, wild expression, an attack on normalcy and complacency, a jubilee of mystery and weirdness.” We’ll leave it at that. (See it on: Hulu, Amazon, Vudu)
Three Women (1977):
Not too many directors of any era in Hollywood could get away with having a dream, then making a movie about it. But Robert Altman, still riding high seven years after his M*A*SH smash and not soon after the critical acclaim for Nashville, managed just that. The titular trio are Shelley Duvall, a socially awkward therapist at senior center in the California desert; Sissy Spacek as Duvall’s shy, oddball new roommate; and Janice Rule as their landlady who paints murals on the bottom of swimming pools. The women’s personalities appear to change as do the roles they take in their relationships with each other. What we see on the screen is puzzle-like and open for interpretation, but it’s fruitless to try to solve the puzzle or make a conclusive analysis. (See it on: Amazon, Vudu, AppleTV)
We really don’t know where to begin describing the only collaboration between short-lived couple director Darren Aronofsky and actress Jennifer Lawrence. Ok, we’ll try: Javier Bardem is a poet struggling to finish his latest work, married to Jennifer Lawrence. They live in a beautiful home in the woods, which the pregnant Lawrence restored. The couple is visited by a mysterious fan (Ed Harris) and his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose presence eventually conjures wild, hallucinogenic images, violence and even a monstrous mosquito. Is it illusion or reality? This movie has divided audiences. Some admire its surreal ambitiousness; others call it out for offering a plethora of disturbing images, references to other films (Rosemary’s Baby in particular) and allegorical strains—i.e. birth, nature, etc.—that makes it difficult to watch. Either way, this is “Weirdsville” with a capital “W.” (See it on: Amazon, Vudu, Comcast)
Kevin Smith is best known for his brand of raunchy, dialogue-oriented films like the two Clerks movies and Chasing Amy. This change-of-pace is a deeply disturbing saga of a podcaster (Justin Long) whose journey to Canada turns horrific when the subject of the podcast—a demented, elderly sailor (a quietly menacing Michael Parks) —begins the process of turning him into a…walrus! There’s an unusual cameo appearance in the film by a major star, too, that adds another level of curiousness to the whole sordid affair. (See it on Kanopy, Showtime, Amazon)
And here are a few titles worth seeking out on streaming services or cable:
The Circus (1928):
Charlie Chaplin didn’t have great memories of this film because of personal tumult he was experiencing at the time of production, and the title is rarely mentioned when discussing his greatest achievements. But this is a bona fide gem in which his “Little Tramp” becomes a clown at a circus and a series of hilarious predicaments ensue. A great introduction to the producer-writer-director-actor’s work. (See it on: Hoopla, Kanopy, Amazon)
The Wrecking Crew! (2008):
A loving salute to the under-the-radar world-class session musicians who provided the instrumental work on top hits of the past performed by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Cher, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and many others. (See it on: Hoopla, Hulu, Tubi)
King Cohen (2017):
Larry Cohen, a top TV writer-turned-low-budget film director is the focus of this informative and breezy documentary. See and hear with fascinating detail how such “B” movie classics as Q: The Winged Serpent, God Told Me To, the It’s Alive movies and The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover were created on the cheap. (See it on: Kanopy, Amazon, Vudu)
There’s an elephant in the room that needs to be addressed, and discussing it will not lead to any easy answers, if any answers at all.The elephant in the room is going back to the movies—as in “when” and “how” and even “if.”
A few months ago—say, back in April—moviegoers figured “OK. So, we’ll miss a few films that were going to be released in the beginning od the summer. Maybe catch them on a streaming website. By summer’s end we’ll get to watch the summer biggies like Mulan and Tenet in the theater.”
The other day Christopher Nolan—director of The Dark Knight films, Inception, Interstellar, and Dunkirk—and the creator of Tenet, a new, very expensive science-fiction distributed by Warner Brothers, said that his new movie will be released in theaters this summer. Well, folks (and Chris), I think it’s safe to say that ain’t happening. Blame it, and a lot of other things, on the pandemic. Big theater chains, little chains, and even the independent movie theaters came out with plans a little while ago. They involved, masks, social distancing rules and cleaning policies. Was there, in fact, a possibility that this could happen? There was some optimism but not without a healthy dose of skepticism. The optimism, however, didn’t last.
There was some interesting stuff that occurred behind-the-scenes. The country’s top movie chain, AMC, released their “New Moviegoing Policies,” in which the company stated they were not going to enforce mask wearing. When Regal and other competing chains emphasizing that they adapted a “no mask/no entrance” strategy, AMC went scurrying back to the drawing board and, a day or two after their announcement, reconfigured their policy to: “We Love Masks!”
At around the same time, some smaller chains attracted desperate audiences by showing classic films, often double features. Most of the theaters, which totaled a few hundred for the entire country at one time, were forced into closing based on their area’s laws pertaining to the pandemic. Meanwhile, pop-up drive-ins showed favorite family films in parking lots and traditional drive-ins found a brisk business exhibiting some recent independent titles or features like “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park.”
So where are we now? OK, let’s not make that a philosophical question. Let’s keep it to movies. I believe we are farther away from opening theaters than we were months ago. The reasons are obvious, so I won’t reiterate them here. (And I’ll lay off the politics for both or our benefits.)
Here are some observations/predictions from where I sit, which is usually in my living room, longing for the good, old days of nine months ago.
1: Sorry, Christopher Nolan. Your film Tenet will not be opening this summer, same for Mulan or anything else from a major studio. We’ve already seen such theater-bound films as The King of Staten Island, Irresistible, Palm Springs and Greyhound land on streaming platforms, and more movies in the future will undoubtedly do the same. As far as big productions are concerned, my expectations are that Tenet will be a summer movie—the summer of 2021. And in what could be considered “somewhat ironic,” the new James Bond film, No Time to Die, slated now for a November 20 release this year, could very well compete against Tenet in multiplexes next summer.
2: Steaming was becoming the new “go-to” avenue for movies for many people before the pandemic reared its ugly head, and the last few months have made it an even stronger attraction. As much as I miss going to a theater—and this has been the longest I’ve gone without seeing a movie theatrically since I was a kid—I am likely to stay with the streaming option until I am confident the theater chains have things under control. This may be a case of trial and error: sampling the new theatrical experience is one thing, but feeling comfortable about it is another story. Some may adapt easily to the new process of moviegoing. But my bet is many won’t for a long time.
3: It had been easy to figure out what’s playing at the movies. While I lament the loss of movie listings in a newspaper, there are internet and smartphone options for tracking down movie times today. The same is not true of streaming. It seems like not a week or two goes by and there are new players in the market, and it’s been difficult to not only figure out the players but the movies as well. I think I have found something to help you sort it out. (This is not a paid endorsement…I repeat, this not a paid endorsement!) It’s a website called www.justwatch.com. Type in a film’s name, and it will tell you where you can find it, whether it’s free anywhere, and what it costs to rent or buy. It has become a great resource. I wish I did have stock in it.
4: The practice of studios selling off their theatrically-designed films for TV screen exposure has yielded two different models. Titles like Greyhound, Hamilton, and Palm Springs were sold so they can show on particular websites exclusively. You need subscriptions in order to see them. But titles such as Scoob, The King of Staten Island, and Irresistible have gone the pay route, demanding $19.99 a rental. The success of kid-friendly films such as Scoob and the Trolls World Tour pointed to that amount being an OK price point. But charging that same price for other new films appears to anger some movie fans, who claim the amount is way too much. It will be interesting to see if these prices settle into a more comfortable $10-$15 range. And if not, there’s always room for rationalization. It usually starts with: “If we were going to the movies…” Then you add the cost of gas, parking refreshments, maybe babysitter and end with “I guess we’re ok with spending “$20 to watch that movie at home after all.”
5: Many of the aforementioned factors and situations have been mashed together and presented in a recent article in Variety, the entertainment industry’s trade publication. Warner Brothers, the company behind Tenet, may offer the film on its new streaming service HBO-plus. But in addition to being a subscriber to this service (which comes as part of an HBO package to most), people who want to watch Tenet must pay an additional fee of, say, $10. So, it’s a double whammy of sorts: to see Tenet, you must have some form of HBO to get an opportunity to watch a particular film, then you have to pay extra to actually see it. If Warners decides to follow this route, it will be something of a test case, and if it works look for James Bond to step in line for November, not in the theaters, but as part of the MGM-owned Epix channel with an additional fee on top of a subscription.
Let’s face it: to paraphrase a famous Disney song “It’s a whole new world.” And if you’re one who likes to go out to the movies, it’s going to stay that way for a while.
And here are a few titles worth seeking out on streaming services or cable:
Ace in the Hole (1951): Also known as The Big Carnival, this Billy Wilder film abounds with thought-provoking situations and cynicism in its tale of a desperate newspaper reporter using the story of a man stuck in a New Mexico cave to further his career. Kirk Douglas and Jan Sterling star. (See it on: Kanopy, Pluto, Amazon)
Southern Comfort (1981): Gripping suspense highlights Walter Hill’s saga of a group of Louisiana National Guardsman battling Cajun mercenaries, who confound them with their tactics and firepower. An all-male cast headed by Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, and Fred Ward excel, as does furious action and Ry Cooder’s appropriately moody score. (See it on Kanopy, Hoopla, Amazon)
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957): If you want to have fun, just check out this made on pennies sci-fic epic considered by many to be among the worst movies of all-time. Ed Wood Jr. wrote and directed this zombie movie in which aliens invade Earth. There’s no shortage of chintzy special effects or idiotic dialogue, and the one-of-a-kind cast includes a sickly Bela Lugosi (and his obvious stand-in), psychic Criswell, horror movie hostess Vampira, and wrestler Tor Johnson. (See it on: Hoopla, Kanopy, Tubi)
To many filmgoers or music fans, Ennio Morricone was known as the guy who gave us the eternally hummable, whistle-friendly theme to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Sergio Leone’s 1966 spaghetti western, starring Clint Eastwood.
You know the song: A march, really, complete with a jangly guitar solo, high-pitched screeches and a chorus of “Hup-Two Three-Four.” It was a rare instrumental smash, hitting number four on the American pop charts while the film’s soundtrack album finished in the top 10 for the year.
While Italian composer Morricone wrote the piece as part of his score for the film, he did not record the popular American version. The popular version of the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was actually a cover performed by Hugo Montenegro, best known for his I Dream of Jeannie theme song. As a replacement to Morricone’s trademark wide array of instruments featured in the original composition, Montenegro used a moog synthesizer to soften the blow a bit from Morricone’s grittier, more elemental creation.
Still, the music’s success brought Morricone lots of work and attention. But it’s not that he ever lacked for work. By the time Morricone died in Italy at the age of 91 on July 6 of this year, he had composed over 500 soundtracks. It’s an astounding number, really. Morricone’s nickname could have been “Have Soundtrack Will Compose…And Travel,” so prolific was his output, so international were his assignments.
No matter what the country he was working in, or what director he was working for, Morricone always delivered the goods. His soundtracks were commonly met with as much anticipation as the films they adorned.
He appeared perfectly comfortable working either end of the movie business spectrum. It was not unusual for him to compose a score for a major filmmaker’s expensive political epic or a gory, low-budget Italian thriller within months of each other.
Of course, Morricone is best known for his work on the three Leone efforts with Eastwood, which include A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good the Bad and the Ugly (1966). The series, knowns as “the Dollars trilogy,” turned the little-known Leone into a world-recognized western auteur and transformed Eastwood, a then-journeyman actor recognized mostly for parts, into an international superstar. But the public and the industry paid much notice of the films’ idiosyncratic music as well.
Morricone and Leone, who were attended classes together while growing up in Rome, collaborated on other films as well. Both had a fondness for opera, which found its way into Leone’s images and Morricone’s sounds.
Among their other unions were the glorious Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) with Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda; the James Coburn/Rod Steiger seriocomic Mexican Revolution saga A Fistful of Dynamite (AKA Duck, You Sucker) (1971), and the Jewish gangster saga Once Upon a Time in America, starring Robert DeNiro and James Woods.
To these and other scores, Morricone brought unusual harmonicas, Jew’s harps, the melodica, the theremin, military drumming, whip cracking, screeching, and wild vocalizing.
Born in Rome in 1928, Morricone wrote his first compositions when he was six-years-old and entered a musical conservatory when he was twelve. He wrote operas, classical pieces and music for radio, and, by the early 1960s, was writing pop music songs recorded around the world, including by America’s Paul Anka.
While Morricone’s name is most closely associated with westerns—he did scores of them with many of Leone disciples and impersonators—he was egalitarian when it came to genres. Along with the westerns, he also made himself at home with contemporary comedies like La Cage Aux Folles and political satires (Warren Beatty’s Bulworth), period gangster films Bugsy and The Untouchables, many horror outings, and steady streams of work with Quentin Tarantino (Morricone finally won his Best Score Oscar after five nominations for The Hateful Eight), Giuseppe Tornatore (Malena), Roland Joffe (The Mission) and Dario Argento (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage).
Director John Carpenter, who has composed many of the scores for his own films such as Halloween and Escape from New York, enlisted Morricone to score his 1982 horror film The Thing.
Said Carpenter of Morricone: “He has done so many different kinds of scores. He was a traditional composer but with a layer on top that is difficult to describe. He had the knack. The music would go deeper into whatever the movie was; it would bring out something in depth, a theme, a feeling. He was like an X-ray composer. He brought out a part of the theme of the movie that hadn’t been thought of before.”
Dormi Bene, Il Maestro!
Ennio Morricone may be gone, but his legacy of fantastic movie scores live on. Here are a few examples of his impressive body of work:
“The Theme to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966): directed by Sergio Leone. This is the original, more ethereal version of the hit single from the beloved Western starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach. (See it on: Netflix, Amazon, Comcast)
A Fistful of Dynamite (Duck, You Sucker) (1971): Directed by Sergio Leone. The urgency of the string section leads to a beautiful, peaceful theme that segues into operatic vocals reflecting the film’s many sorrowful flashback sequences. James Coburn plays an explosives expert from Ireland pairing off with gruff Mexican outlaw Rod Steiger in this truly unpredictable film. (See it on: Amazon, AppleTV, Comcast)
“The Theme to The Thing” (1982): Directed by John Carpenter. This gory remake of the 1950s science-fiction classic was enhanced immeasurably by Morricone’s pensive music, which helped build the tension and the suspense. Oddly enough, unused parts of the score found their place in Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” decades later. (See it on: Starz, Amazon, Comcast)
The Mission (1986): Directed by Roland Joffe. This impressive tale of Jesuit priests trying to convert the Guarani community of Argentina to Christianity stars Robert DeNiro, Jeremy Irons and Liam Neeson. You can hear Morricone’s masterfully combining Spanish and Guarani themes, creating elaborate orchestrations with soaring vocal work in this live performance. (See it on: Amazon, Vudu, Comcast)
The Untouchables (1987): Directed by Brian DePalma. Here’s a soundtrack suite from the gangster film with Kevin Costner, Sean Connery and Robert DeNiro. This link gives you a sampling of the range of the composer’s work, which ranges from urgency to pastoral to over-the-top raunchy (the theme used for the al Capone sequences) to triumphant end credits. (See it on: Starz, Amazon, Comcast)
“Love Theme” from Cinema Paradiso (1988): Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. Perhaps Morricone’s most touching work, the film and its music captures the glories and pains of youth, lost loves, and memory. Here is a clip of Morricone leading the orchestra featuring memorably lush violin and cello arrangements. (See it on: Hoopla, HBONow and Comcast)
And here are a few other titles worth seeking out on streaming services or cable:
Night Catches Us (2010): Shot mostly in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, this thought-provoking drama centers on a member of the Black Panther group returning to his home and tries to change his life while getting involved with a lawyer who knew him years before. Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington star. (See it on: Hoopla, Tubi, Amazon)
Blow Out (1981): John Travolta is the Philly sound editor working on a horror movie who mistakenly captures a shotgun sound that leads him into a web of political conspiracy and skullduggery. Brian DePalma masterfully directs this intense suspenser. (See it on: Hoopla, Amazon, Comcast)
The Hero (2017): Sam Elliott delivers a warm and understated performance as a western screen actor coming to terms with his family, his work and his life during the twilight of his career. (See it on: Hoopla, Kanopy, Hulu)
She was born Ruby Stevens. To friends, she was “Missy” But for decades, filmgoers knew her by her screen name: Barbara Stanwyck. To fete Missy would be to celebrate one of Hollywood’s most versatile actresses, adept in just about every genre. She delivered pretty much all of the time, usually playing tough, independent women with a strong sexual side and, although her warmth shone through in many parts, she was always capable of being duplicitous and/or ruthless.
(Please join us Friday, July 17 at 7PM for our film club discussion focusing on Barbara Stanwyck. You can register here
Right from her start in show business, the Brooklyn-born Stanwyck drew attention. An orphan at an early age, she made her way to speakeasies where she performed, then onto Broadway, where she debuted in 1926 as a dancer in The Noose.
Other parts in plays led her to screen roles in silent films. At the behest of her new husband, comedian Frank Fay, she got some work at Columbia. Frank Capra enlisted her in 1931 for Ladies Of Leisure, an all talking drama of New York’s night life, in which she played a party girl hired as a model by wealthy artist Ralph Graves. Critics gave the movie so-so reviews, but Stanwyck got rave notices, and Harry Cohn signed her to a Columbia contract.
Warner Brothers, who originally rejected the actress as a contract player, borrowed her that same year for Illicit, a drama rife with pre-code “adult” material, in which Stanwyck, draped most of the time in a sexy kimono, plays a woman who refuses to marry her live-in boyfriend (James Rennie) because she opposes the idea of marriage. Photoplay Magazine called the role “another big triumph for that perfectly grand actress.”
Stanwyck’s star was obviously on the rise and, after Ten Cents A Dance (1931), in which she played a taxi dancer, she sued Columbia for more cash. The settlement allowed Stanwyck to be under concurrent contract with both Columbia and Warner–something pretty rare in Hollywood history. She seesawed for years between the studios, making such Capra films at Columbia such as The Miracle Woman (1931) and The Bitter Tea Of General Yen (1933), and such scandalous Warner social dramas as William Wellman’s Night Nurse (1931) opposite Clark Gable, and Baby Face (1933), in which she plays a barmaid who becomes a no-nonsense gold-digger upon moving to the Big Apple.
Throughout the rest of her career, the four-time Oscar nominee Stanwyck–who was later married to actor Robert Taylor from 1939 to 1951–was a star to be reckoned with, both on the silver screen and, later, on TV in The Barbara Stanwyck Show, The Big Valley, The Colbys, and the miniseries The Thorn Birds.
In addition to Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941), in which she stars as a con artist drawing the attention of wealthy Henry Fonda on an ocean liner, Missy had a parade of other memorable film roles, including:
Stella Dallas (1937): A classic soap opera with the Oscar-nominated Stanwyck as a floozy who marries a man of high social standing, and eventually endangers that marriage, and the love of her daughter, by hanging out with undesirable locals. Stanwyck’s moving performance, in which she’s asked to age several years, got her an Oscar nomination. (See it on: Amazon, Comcast)
Union Pacific (1939): In this Cecil B. DeMille production, Stanwyck is given a romantic lead, playing the daughter a railroad engineer who falls in love with line troubleshooter Joel McCrea. Gambling, robbery, and an Indian attack are encountered by Ms. S., along with the affections of McCrea and gambler Robert Preston. (See it on: Comcast)
Meet John Doe (1941): Underrated Frank Capra story with Stanwyck again the conniver, this time as a newspaper reporter who fakes a letter denouncing the state of the world in order to keep her job. When the letter brings attention, she must find someone to portray the author. Her pick is down-on-his-luck baseball player Gary Cooper, who goes along with the charade–until he discovers the motives of unscrupulous newspaper owner Edward Arnold.
(See it on: Hoopla, Kanopy, Tubi)
Double Indemnity (1944): Billy Wilder’s great film noir offers Stanwyck as the ultimate femme fatale. Playing the wife of a once-prosperous oilman, she enlists the help of insurance salesman Fred MacMurray to kill her hubby and collect on his policy. But not all is what it seems in this crackling suspenser, with Stanwyck stunning as the duplicitous dame, and Edward G. Robinson terrific as the determinedly dogged investigator from Fred’s firm. (See it on: TCM, Amazon, Comcast)
Christmas In Connecticut (1945): Breezy farce with Stanwyck playing a life columnist who purports to offer tips about marriage, cooking, and romance from her New England abode, even though she’s single, can’t boil an egg and lives in Manhattan. Stanwyck is put on the spot and has to scramble when sailor Dennis Morgan, a big fan, is invited to spend Christmas at her New England cottage. (See it on: Amazon, AppleTV, Comcast)
The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers (1946): Set in a small Midwestern town during the late 1920s, this crackerjack noir stars Stanwyck as woman with a troubled, secret past married to district attorney Kirk Douglas (in his screen debut). When old acquaintance Van Heflin returns home, the secrets of the past begin to surface. Stanwyck shows off her spit and charisma in this gothic suspenser.
(See it on: Hoopla, Kanopy, Epix)
The Furies (1950): Stanwyck plays the feisty daughter of powerful rancher Walter Huston who is excommunicated from her family by her father and left out of his fortune. She later plots revenge against him with help from his rival Wendell Corey. (See it on: Hulu, Epix, Amazon)
Forty Guns (1957): Samuel Fuller directed this wacked-out western with Stanwyck as the clad-in-black matriarch of an Arizona county who has a legion of gunmen at her disposal. Barry Sullivan, John Ericson, and Gene Barry are the men involved with her in this unusual effort that shows Missy could still be a force to be reckoned with at the age 50. (See it on: Comcast)
And here are a few other titles worth seeking out on streaming services or cable:
The Big Combo (1955): Tough-as-nails noir with Cornel Wilde obsessed with catching mob kingpin Richard Conte while romancing the hood’s girlfriend, played by Jean Wallace. Joining Conte is a rogue’s gallery of bad guys played by Lee Van Cleef, Earl Holliman, and Brian Donlevy. (See it on: Kanopy, Amazon, Fandor)
Big Fan (2009): Patton Oswalt is an obsessed fan of the New York Giants who lives for watching his team on TV from the stadium parking lot and calling into radio talk shows to express his opinions. His lonely life changes after he has a run-in with one of his favorite players in a club. (See it on: Hoopla, Kanopy, Amazon)
CSNY/Déjà Vu (2008): A chronicle of supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s controversial 2006 “Freedom of Speech” tour in which they performed such fan favorites as “Ohio” and “Carry On” along with material in protest of George W. Bush and his Middle East policies. (See it on: Hoopla, Tubi, Vudu)
You don’t know it but you have free access to a gold mine. It’s actually two gold mines. And you don’t need a treasure map to find it. That’s because the gold mines are named “Kanopy” and “Hoopla” and they are available for free on this very website, using your library card. Every few days I go into these treasure chests and find movies that are long gone, tough-to-find, and just plain buried. They may be out-of-print on DVD or sometimes were never released—yet here they are, available to stream on these two platforms.
Ahoy, mateys! These thar video gems are more valuable than gold doubloons! Yonder they are!
Jazz Ball (1956): An amazing collection of jazz greats do their thing in this collection of early music videos (called “Soundies”) from the 1930s to the 1950s. Among the performers are Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis, Jr., Gene Krupa and Peggy Lee.
(See it on: Hoopla, YouTube, Amazon)
Hear My Song (1991): One of my favorite little films, this movie showcases character actor great Ned Beatty as world famous Irish tenor Josef Locke who has disappeared because of tax issues. Trying to track him down is Adrian Dunbar, a floundering Liverpool club owner, who hopes to resurrect the great singer’s career. This is a whimsical film highlighted by quirky characters and great musical numbers. (See it on: Hoopla)
Elvis Meets Nixon (1997): A hilarious based-on-the-facts story in which Elvis Presley decides he wants to be deputized as a government agent, so he decides to head to Washington, DC and meet president Richard Nixon. Not to be confused with a film based on the same incident from 2016 with Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey, this effort is filled with spot-on satirical moments and tour-de-force acting turns by Rick Peters and Dan Hedaya as Elvis and Nixon, respectively. (See it on: Hoopla, Amazon, Vudu)
Who Am I This Time? (1982): Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s short story inspired this film, directed by Jonathan Demme (Philadelphia) for the first year of the “American Masters” show on PBS. Christopher Walken plays a man with a double life—he’s a shy hardware store clerk by day who comes out of his shell as an actor in regional theater at night. His latest thespian assignment is production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” with a part played by telephone company executive Susan Sarandon, who falls in love with Walken’s onstage persona. (See it on: Hoopla, Amazon, Fandor)
Peeping Tom (1960): This disturbing thriller cost beloved British director Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, The Thief of Bagdad) his career in his homeland. Carl Boehm is a photographer, troubled by his tortured upbringing, who begins killing models in most unusual ways. There are striking similarities between this film and Psycho, which was released the same year. (See it on: Hoopla, Tubi, Amazon)
Comfort and Joy (1984): Scottish director Bill Forsythe’s impossible-to-find follow-up to Local Hero is a fanciful tale of a depressed Glasgow disc jockey (wonderfully played by Bill Paterson), who gets in the middle of a war between two mobile ice cream companies owned by rival Italian families. (See it on: Hoopla)
The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011): Landmark documentary survey of the history of movies, available in 15 one-hour episodes. Irish film critic Mark Cousins looks at movies and the fine balance between art and economics, from its earliest pioneers to contemporary times. (See it on: Kanopy, Hoopla, Hulu)
And here are a few other titles worth seeking out on streaming services or cable:
The Lighthouse (2019): It’s best if you bring an open mind to this eerie, idiosyncratic black-and-white saga set in New England during the late 19th century. Willem Dafoe is the crusty lighthouse keep who has an uneasy time with new assistant Robert Pattinson during and after a tenacious storm. (See it on: Kanopy, Amazon, Hudu)
The Future (2011): Performance artist and experimental filmmaker Miranda July stars in a truly unique and ironic tale of a thirtysomething couple (played by July and Hamish Linklater) who, after adopting a sickly cat, find their lives changing in unusual, sometimes inexplicable ways. (See it on: Kanopy, Tubi, Amazon)
The Florida Project (2018): A powerful drama about life on the skids in the shadow of Disneyworld, with an Oscar-nominated Willem Dafoe as a maintenance man at a low-end motel inhabited by down-and-out families, including an exotic dancer and her resourceful young daughter. (See it on: Hoopla, Kanopy, Netflix)
Irv Slifkin hosts the Foreign Film series at the Mount Laurel Library and teaches film and journalism classes at Temple University.