The 1999 political comedy Dick is a hilarious film. An absolute bomb in theaters (it grossed $6.2 million domestic), this is one of those films that’s found a long shelf life on cable, movie channels, and DVD (no Blu available as of yet). Reimagining Watergate-era Richard Nixon shenanigans through the prism of the “dumb-blonde” comedy, the film was energetically directed by Andrew Fleming (The Craft, Hamlet 2) from an extremely clever screenplay that he co-wrote with Sheryl Longin, and has a ridiculous cast top-lined by the terrifically funny duo of Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst as two clueless high-school girls who get pulled into political conspiracies and life at the White House. Dan Hedaya was priceless as Tricky Dick, getting a chance to flex his sharp comedic muscles, and the obscene supporting cast includes highly amusing work from Will Ferrell, Dave Foley, Jim Breuer, Teri Garr, Bruce McCulloch, Harry Shearer, Saul Rubinek, and Ryan Reynolds. Despite favorable reviews with some critics REALLY going to bat for it, teens weren’t interested, probably unimpressed by the period/political context, and adults were confused as to who the film was “for.” It was likely overshadowed, to a certain degree, by the high-school satire Election, which had been released a few months earlier to overwhelming critical acclaim but to even less box-office; the emergence of Alexander Payne and Reese Witherspoon was still fresh on many people’s cinematic minds. Regardless, Dick is one of those comedies where so many jokes hit and hit hard, with a plot that never stalls out, with genuinely smart comedy ruling the day rather than cheap gags taking central stage.
Off-kilter, extremely quirky, cheerily violent, sexy when and where it counts, and just a ton of unexpected fun, the 1990 genre-skewing Miami Blues slipped in and out of theaters back in the day, grossing less than $10 million domestic, despite some strong reviews and a final package that constantly subverts our expectations for the milieu. Had this curiously strange movie been released now, I think it would have found a much more willing and appreciative audience. Originally a project for filmmaker Jonathan Demme (who would go on to produce), the film was adapted for the screen and directed by odd-ball-filmmaker specialist George Armitage (Grosse Pointe Blank, The Big Bounce, Vigilante Force) and was based on the novel by Charles Willeford, and centers on a deranged criminal named Fred Frenger “Junior” (Alec Baldwin in one of his loosest and most unpredictable performances), who upon being released from prison, jets down to Miami in search of a fresh start. However, immediately upon landing, he’s up to his old tricks again, never able to leave his past behind. He breaks the fingers of (and inadvertently kills) a pestering Hare Krishna, and from there, embarks on an increasingly violent crime spree involving hold-ups, random robberies, and lots and police impersonation so that he’s able to make off with big scores under the pretense that he’s a lawman. He meets a perky and naïve college student/prostitute named Susie (an extra cute and sassy Jennifer Jason Leigh), and a romance blossoms, despite Junior never fully exposing all of his secrets, and Susie becoming quickly attached both emotionally and physically. An aging cop named Moseley (a very funny and weathered Fred Ward) is on Junior’s trail, trying to put all of the pieces together in the wake of all of the madness that Junior is leaving behind. Moseley is in real trouble after Junior breaks into his place, assaults him, and steals his gun, badge, and dentures, which results in a film-long joke about Moseley’s teeth and gums and Junior’s enjoyment of flashing a real police badge that’s not his.
This is the sort of film that mixes comedy and violence in a unique way that produces a tone that’s hard to pin down. There’s an eccentricity to the material (thus luring the mind of Demme to the endeavor) that feels at odds with the demands of the studio thriller, so it’s not surprising to notice in retrospect that audiences were dismissive of it at the time of its initial release. Baldwin, who was hot off the success of The Hunt for the Red October with a tremendously appealing movie star performance, did a total 180 with his work in Miami Blues, balancing menace and sex appeal in a way that few others would have been able to pull off, resulting in a turn that feels alive and as different as anything he’s ever attempted. For her part, Leigh is all cutesy charm and innocent fun, and her frequent nudity felt bracing to witness given the relative prude qualities of today’s young starlets. Ward brought a grizzled manliness to the role of his “seen-too-much” cop, a guy with a set of false teeth but proper convictions. The snappy editing by Craig McKay allows the film to move at a brisk but never frenetic pace, while the cinematography by Tak Fujimoto opts for the gritty rather than the slick, with locale work also being a standout. The energetic musical score by David Chang rounds everything out. Shout! Factory has recently released a new Blu-ray of this forgotten about flick, and it’s one that’s definitely worth catching up with if you missed it 25 years ago.
Podcasting Them Softly is proud to present a chat with the unwitting Godfather of our podcast, producer Bill Johnson from Lotus Entertainment. Bill‘s company was responsible for helping to produce THE GREY, SOUTHLAND TALES, THE KILLER ELITE, MAGGIE, SONG ONE, and most importantly to us, the Andrew Dominik directed crime film KILLING THEM SOFTLY, which is the movie that brought Frank and Nick together as one, movie-loving unit. An entrepreneur, philanthropist, and all around movie-buff, Bill‘s company has some very exciting projects on the horizon, and we were honored that he found some time in his busy schedule to chat with us. We hope you enjoy!
Wholly staggering and wildly undervalued, the 2004 film A Very Long Engagement is a masterpiece of storytelling and filmmaking, representing the greatest and grandest achievement yet for visionary filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet. And I feel that’s saying something, as this is the man responsible for Amelie, City of Lost Children, and Delicatessen, to name just a few (the latter two being collaborations with Marc Caro). Melding the bubbly romantic whimsy of Amelie to the gritty and grimy battlefields of WWI, this is a true genre-bender, a war film with a bleeding, aching heart, boasting a finale that’s incredibly poignant without being overly sentimental; it never fails to devastate during the final moments. It’s utterly criminal that this massive piece of work was lost during the holiday movie blitz that year, and it’s a joke that the film is only available on DVD in America or as a Region B Blu-ray (thankfully, I have a Region Free player). Hollywood has long held a fascination with all aspects of WWII, with modern WWI movies in relative short supply by comparison; every future film to explore the rigors of trench war fare should be compared to this one. Jeunet co-adapted the storybook-style screenplay with Guillaume Laurant from the original novel by Sébastien Japrisot, and he brought his handmade style to every facet of this enormous and elaborate production. I adored his idea to shoot some of the flashback scenes in Academy Ratio 1.33:1 black and white, which gives those beats the sense of archival footage, when in reality, they feel like their own short film embedded into this grand canvass of people, places, and things.
The busy narrative of A Very Long Engagement pivots on five French soldiers, all of whom have been convicted of self-mutilation in an effort to ditch their remaining service time and be sent home and away from the horrors of battle. One of these soldiers, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), is engaged to his childhood sweetheart (Audrey Tautou), and all he can do to mentally survive is continually think of her and how strong the love is between the two of them. Sent to “no-man’s land” (the highly dangerous and deadly area of land in between the French and German lines), Manech and the other solider-prisoners meet their individual fates in ways that I won’t dare spoil, but I will allow that the tale is told in slight Rashomon style, with various versions of the events explained to Mathilde as she works to put the mysterious pieces together of her future husband’s whereabouts. She sets off on an epic quest with the help of a private investigator to collect information and meet the wives of the other four soldiers that Manech was condemned to death with, leading her to some truly dark and upsetting revelations, but despite all of the sadness around her, she never gives up hope in finding the one person she loves the most. There’s a poet’s sense of the fragility of life on display all throughout this carefully mounted film, and the intricate storyline engrosses the audience immediately from the start, with the startlingly beautiful images washing over the viewer like a suffocating lather of exquisiteness. Bruno Delbonnel’s bronze-tinted and utterly ravishing cinematography, is, simply put, some of the best I’ve ever seen on a big screen, small screen, whatever size screen. Each shot is post-card ready, boasting immaculate vistas, raw and immediate battle footage with lots of graphic carnage, a sumptuous color palette, and grand and sweeping camera movements that defy logic and give you perspectives that you’d never expect. A late set-piece involving an exploding hydrogen blimp inside of a makeshift triage center is horrifying and beyond comprehension, and the various sequences of bloody combat are handled with extreme technical finesse without ever sacrificing grit and muck.
The performances are all uniformly excellent, with the appropriate supporting actors hitting their moments of expertly placed comedy in perfect ways to lighten the dramatic load, while Tautou and Ulliel are left to do the majority of the heavy emoting and dramatic lifting, and both are more than up to the task. Exuding a palpable chemistry and a deep longing for each other that’s wonderful and heartrending, the two of them were a perfect match. Marion Cotillard and Jodie Foster both have knock-out extended cameos, especially Foster, and Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon makes his customary appearance. A Very Long Engagement would only be nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Production Design at the Oscars (rightfully so, but predictably, it won neither award; The Aviator took both), which seems massively shortsighted, but because this film wasn’t a true Hollywood production, it was up to the French government to select their country’s film for Academy consideration, and they didn’t go to bat for A Very Long Engagement. I’ll never understand why. The film grossed $70 million theatrically worldwide, with only $6.5 million of that total coming from United States ticket buyers, a fact that makes me sick to my stomach. This is truly epic filmmaking of the highest order, made by an artist who is totally in love with all of the visual and narrative possibilities of the filmic form, and I’ll always be blown away by the handcrafted feel that A Very Long Engagement possesses. It’s so enormous yet at the same time feels so intimate and fragile, an attribute that’s incredibly hard to find.
A thrilling chase movie, an affecting romance, an anti-war statement, a rousing action picture, and a sturdy drama about drugs and addiction, Karl Reisz’s 1978 film Who’ll Stop the Rain is a film that would never get made in today’s Hollywood studio system. It effortlessly blended multiple genres into a complicated, provocative mix, and it’s a film that I’ve viewed a few times this year after not being familiar with it. Released as the Vietnam war was coming to a close, it’s a work that boldly explored the fresh societal wounds that were still raw and exposed after a decade of fighting, and the power that the film ultimately achieves extends to any number of sequences that may feel jumbled together at times, but finally coalesces into something unique and satisfying and distinctly 70’s in feeling, atmosphere, and style. Reisz, a Czech-born British filmmaker with an interesting array of credits which included The Gambler with James Caan and The French Lieutenant’s Woman with Meryl Steep and Jeremy Irons, weaves this compelling film via an intricate narrative which was based on the Robert Stone novel Dog Soldiers, and adapted by Stone himself and screenwriter Judith Rascoe (Havana, Endless Love). When the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, it screened under the novel’s original title, but the studio later changed it due to fears that the public wouldn’t be interested in a “war” film so close to the end of Vietnam, and also probably to cash in on the popularity of the Credence Clear Water Revival smash hit that plays repeatedly throughout the film.
With the war waging on, a jaded and tired war journalist named John Converse (a sweaty, paranoid, thoroughly excellent Michael Moriarty) crosses paths with an old buddy, a Marine named Ray Hicks (Nick Nolte, fresh off The Deep, here making his first big attempt as a serious dramatic leading man in a feature film after years in the TV trenches), and asks him if he’ll help smuggle heroin from the jungles of Vietnam to the streets of San Francisco. A one time score, get rich, get quick, screw the Government. Hicks will meet up with Converse’s wife, Marge (Tuesday Weld, terrific), make the drugs/cash exchange, and be on his way. But when Hicks shows up to meet Marge, he discovers that she’s been popping pills while her husband has been overseas, and before long, Hicks realizes that he’s being followed by a pair of goons (Richard Masur and Ray Sharkey) who are either connected to Converse or to the drug suppliers. Hicks and Marge form an unlikely partnership with the potential for unexpected romance, and the two of them hit the road just as they become pursued by a corrupt DEA agent played by Anthony Zerbe. Marge suffers withdrawl as she becomes cut off from her pill stash; it’s then that Hicks decides to use some of the heroin to ease Marge out of her volatile state. After a series of action sequences and chases, Converse re-appears in the story, and the film climaxes with an elaborate shoot-out. The film’s final moments are tough and sad in the ways that the best films from the 70’s were. And the Neal Cassady connection to author Stone informs the story in many ways which make it an even richer experience in retrospect.
While well respected critically at the time of its release, Who’ll Stop the Rain failed to garner attention from the Academy, though it was up for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Nolte was nominated for Best Actor by the National Society of Film Critics, and the writing team of Stone and Rascoe were nominated by the Writer’s Guild. Probably a bit to topical and angry with the war still a sensitive topic during the late 70’s, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it wasn’t a smash at the box office (it’s final dollar performance is underreported on-line). But what makes the film so spectacular was the way that Reisz infused all of the elements with a sense of realism and purpose, never focusing too hard on one aspect, and allowing all of the pieces to naturally come together. The big action set-pieces are extremely well handled, and the final moments are appropriately heartbreaking. Nolte is sensational, giving an animalistic performance in the prime of his on-screen youth, his voice nowhere near total gravel just yet, with his wild hair swinging one way this minute and the other the next. He had terrific chemistry with Weld, who had the right combo of sass and class, sexy but seemingly approachable, and damaged in a way that cries out for help. And Moriarty cuts a convincing portrait of a man so crushed by war that he feels the need to take action for himself, despite the potentially deadly consequences. Who’ll Stop the Rain is a film that I can’t wait to explore again and again, as it gives off the fumes of great films from the past (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre kept coming to mind) and seems like a precursor to many action dramas that would lead the way in the 80’s, films that would mix topical action with relatable themes of heroism, sacrifice, and sorrow.
Gran Torino is a sensational entertainment and a true testament to Clint Eastwood’s power as an artist. The film is blunt, impactful, and direct, and Eastwood’s performance is one for the ages. A screen icon for over 50 years, took his leathery persona to a new level in Gran Torino in the role of Walt Kowalski, a bitter, racist, Korean war veteran, seemingly tailored made for Eastwood. He’s part Dirty Harry, part Archie Bunker, and all sorts of manly. The didactic yet extremely effective screenplay by Nick Schenk is an angry piece of work. The film is essentially a dissection race (a theme that Eastwood has touched upon his entire career), of different cultures, the mentality of different generations, and how everyone has an idea in their head of how their life is supposed to progress. Eastwood’s simple and unfussy direction is a perfect match for the script. Gran Torino seemed to be speaking for an entire generation of older American males, men who are disgusted by the disintegration of the American heartland and the rapid deterioration of old-school family values. And no matter how misguided the Kowalski character is at various points in the narrative, Eastwood brings his character full circle in a believable fashion. This film is a lot of stuff all at once – it’s wickedly funny, casually racist, always compelling, and strangely moving by its conclusion.
Kowalski has just lost his beloved wife at the start of the film. A war vet who worked for decades at the major Ford plant in Detroit, he’s unimpressed with the remnants of his family and the rapid decline of his city and neighborhood. His grandchildren are slobs and show no respect for their dead grandmother. His sons are foreign car-driving yuppies who would rather put him in a retirement home than do the proper thing and take care of him. But worst of all are the family of Hmong immigrants who have moved into Walt’s neighborhood, which used to be made up of Irish and Italians. Kowalski, who openly insults his neighbors with racial slurs, is revolted by what’s become of his immediate surroundings. Asian and African-American gangs cruise the streets, sparking menace on every corner. It’s the end of an era for men like Kowalski, guys who were raised in a hardscrabble but spirit-defining generation, and Kowalski isn’t going anywhere, no matter how tainted, in his eyes, things have become. The narrative gets complicated when Walt’s neighbor, Thao (Bee Vang), a somewhat directionless teenager being bullied by his gang-member cousin, attempts to steal Walt’s vintage 1972 Gran Torino, as part of a gang-initiation. Walt breaks up the attempted theft and then steps in when the gang members continually harass Thao and his pretty sister Sue (Ahney Her), thoroughly kicking one of the gang member’s asses, thus sparking a potentially violent feud.
One of the many surprises of Gran Torino is how brutally funny it is. Yes, the humor tends to be a bit awkward because of the virulent racism that Kowalski spews. But what Schenk’s screenplay gets so right is the anger that a veteran like Kowalski would feel after watching his neighborhood fall into a massive state of spiritual and moral decline. I have no doubt that there is a huge swath of America that resembles what’s on screen in Gran Torino, and for better or for worse, that’s the country that some of us inhabit each and every day. And there is a sad, honest truth to the film that is at turns biting and deceptively sentimental. Eastwood growls and snarls many of his lines, not as a stunt, but as a way of expressing his inner turmoil and seething rage. The other actors who surround Eastwood do a solid job, and while the overall lack of experience on the part of both Vang and Her is obvious at times, over the course of the film, they both improve, especially when paired with Eastwood in the same scene. And in many spots, this amateur quality makes for a more natural feeling resulting in a more emotionally resonant viewing experience.
Gran Torino is, in the end, a movie about tolerance, change, and respect. It doesn’t speechify, it doesn’t preach too hard to its audience, and while the film sometimes feels a bit too schematic at times, it knows what it wants to say and how to say it with force and clarity. There are a few moments with Kowalski where you peer into the soul of a haunted man, and because Eastwood is such a sharp performer, you’re always rooting for him despite his numerous shortcomings. As the film speeds along to its inevitable climax, one gets the sense that this was the role that Eastwood had been leading up to at that point in his career. His legacy as an artist is undeniable, and throughout the years, he’s provided audiences with no shortage of intelligent, thoughtful explorations of America and the people that inhabit this country, their various obsessions and pre-occupations. He’s also a filmmaker with an inherent understanding of violence and the power and impact of the violent cinematic image, and as a result, his films frequently carry an intense emotional force that Gran Torino certainly possesses. This is an instant classic and an almost perfect distillation of the epic screen mythology of Clint Eastwood as a storyteller and actor.
There isn’t a single film from Alan Pakula that I’ve seen and not enjoyed on some level, and revisiting Klute recently was something of a personal revelation. I hadn’t seen this amazing thriller in a long time (at least 15 years…) and I had totally forgotten about how sketchy and seedy and slow-burn it is, and how creepy and oddly sensual that musical score was; this is one of those total-package thrillers that delivers the aesthetic goods on every level, while still paying attention to character development, motivation, and narrative intent. Gordon Willis literally crafted a film born out of shadow and the night; his moniker “The Prince of Darkness” couldn’t have been more spot-on, and in this film, there are shots that look like they have 10 different shades of black in them. Jane Fonda was super sexy and totally riveting to watch, confident one moment and vulnerable the next. Donald Sutherland did some solid if subdued supporting work, letting Fonda come to him in an effort to maximize the dramatic potency of each of their scenes together. The screenplay by Andy and Dave Lewis allowed for some great monologues for Fonda, and I’d like to think that this film was considered a triumph for cinematic feminism back in 1971. Roy Scheider delivered colorful character work, the hat-tips to noir from Pakula and the Lewis brothers were studied and well-informed, and again, the level of Gordon Willis POWER can never be underestimated.