I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the TV listings. At 2:05 a.m., TBS was airing a movie called “A Fistful of Dynamite,” a Sergio Leone Western I had never heard of. When Clint Eastwood Week would come around every six months on Denver’s local UHF channel I would dutifully watch all three Man With No Name movies, and I had later discovered the epic “Once Upon a Time in the West.”
But “A Fistful of Dynamite”? What was that?
I wasn’t sure what to make of the movie when I first came across it almost 30 years ago (and, given the start time, probably didn’t make it that far into before nodding off). Rod Steiger as a sort of Tuco knockoff, chewing up the scenery with glee. James Coburn with a soft brogue as an ex-IRA bomber looking to ply his trade in the Mexican Revolution. The tone was jaunty, yet melancholy at the same time, perhaps the slowest paced film that also features huge explosions.
Alfred Willer was extraordinarily lucky. But, in the context of the Holocaust, “extraordinarily lucky” still means living with almost unimaginable loss.
Marina Willer’s impressionistic documentary “Red Trees,” now out on Blu-Ray from Cohen Media Group, aims to tell the story of her father and her family’s Holocaust story in a highly unorthodox way. Its visual daring sets it apart from other documentaries about the Holocaust, and justifiably so, since it’s a very unusual story.
Watching the new Criterion Collection edition of John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club,” I was struck by something I had never noticed before. The opening credits list all the main actors in the film in alphabetical order, starting with Emilio Estevez as jock Andrew and ending with Ally Sheedy as “weird” kid Allison.
But there are seven names listed, not five. In between are Paul Gleason, who plays vice principal Richard Vernon, and John Kapelos, who played Carl the janitor. That seemed weird to me – “The Breakfast Club” is those five young actors, made iconic as the avatars of ‘80s teens. You don’t see Vernon or Carl peeking in on the movie posters – why would they be billed at the same level as Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson or Anthony Michael Hall?
Rewatching the film as a middle-aged man, it’s perhaps natural that I saw those two adult characters differently – or, indeed, I saw them at all. When I saw the film in 1985, the two adults just seemed to hover in the background, indistinct. Now I see their importance to “The Breakfast Club.”
As Hollywood desperately tries to find more and more properties to turn into movies (Board games! Apps! Emojis!) it’s surprising they don’t buy the rights to more poems to turn into blockbusters. How about a rip-roaring “Ozymandias” about a team of adventurers trying to find the “two vast and trunkless legs of stone?” Or Russell Crowe as the “Ancient Mariner,” beset on stormy seas by a giant CGI albatross?
Terry Gilliam beat them all to the punch with his first film as a director, a very loose – indeed, pretty much entirely unraveled – adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” The 1977 film was just released this past week on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.
We’re awash in Churchills right now in pop culture. There’s John Lithgow scowling away on Netflix’s “The Crown,” and later this month Gary Oldman will pile on the prosthetics in “Darkest Hour.”
But if there’s an actor who seems most suited to play the gruff but charismatic bulldog, called the greatest Briton of the 20th century, it would be Brian Cox. And he wouldn’t even need much makeup or prosthetics, having arrived to the set pre-jowled.
So it’s baffling, almost angering, that the movie “Churchill” so completely wastes Cox’s performance as Churchill. Cox’s performance is just fine in the movie (out now on DVD from Cohen Media Group). But the movie itself is so incredibly misguided, so willfully ignorant of the history both as it was and as the audience perceives it to be. It fails as drama because it fails at history.
In a new interview that’s one of the bonus features on the new Blu-ray Criterion Collection edition of “Lost in America,” Albert Brooks is asked about being cast as a villain by Nicolas Winding Refn in “Drive.”
Brooks says that Winding Refn first saw “Lost in America,” it scared him. He was particular unnerved by the anger in Brooks’ performance, as advertising executive David Howard who tries to “drop out” of society comfortably (in a Winnebago, with a comfortable “nest egg”), only to face real financial ruin when his wife Linda (Julie Hagerty) gambles away that nest egg.
It’s odd at first to think of Brooks’ performance as a scary one. But while watching the Criterion disc, I happened to mute the sound during the scene where David is excoriating his wife for losing all that money. And without hearing Brooks’ great, funny dialogue, without hearing him refer to a nest as a “round stick,” it really is startling how angry he is at his wife.
It’s an anger that comes from fear, a fear that we laugh at because we recognize it so deeply. “Lost in America”is one of the best comedies ever made. And it’s also a horror movie.
Garry Marshall once quite a TV writing job as a young man because he wouldn’t write what the producer called “schmunny” – i.e. schmaltzy and funny. Ironic, of course, since schmunny would sum up most of Marshall’s career as a director, sometimes tipping towards funny (“Overboard”), oftentimes tipping towards schmaltz (“Beaches”), but always somewhere in between the two.
His second film, 1984’s “The Flamingo Kid,” gets the balance just right, although I’d call it sentimental and nostalgic, but not schmaltzy. The underrated gem may get a second look now that it’s being turned into a Broadway musical next year, and is out this week in a new Blu-ray edition from Kino Lorber.
There are plenty of controversial movies. Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” is notorious.
How notorious? The new Criterion Collection Blu-ray of Peckinpah’s 1971 film is the first Criterion disc I know of that includes an extensive interview with a film critic who is not a fan of the movie. Actually, Linda Williams, who calls the film “deeply misogynistic,” likens “Straw Dogs” to D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” as a film that shouldn’t be buried or dismissed, but studied and talked about.
Others are more complimentary, of course. But Peckinpah’s film stills hits like a punch to the gut, leaving us queasy and unsettled. The home invasion thriller has become a genre onto itself over the years, from “The Strangers” to “The Purge” — one could see Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” as a bald rebuke to Peckinpah’s vision. But none are as disquieting.
Why isn’t Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” his cult classic? His 2002 curveball take on the romantic comedy seems like a perfect candidate for midnight-movie showings, Twitter bio quotations, and Threadless T-shirt designs. I’m surprised we don’t see more millennials getting married with the groom in a royal blue suit.
For fans of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” November is December and Thanksgiving is Christmas.
Since the show was originally on the air in the 1990s, MST3K fans have been trained to get hungry at Thanksgiving and the annual “Turkey Day” marathons that Comedy Central would put on. For a full day, the network would show non-stop episodes of the show, and for several years included bonus segments in between the movies. If you thought your relatives were insufferable before, wait until you had to entertain them in the living room (the one with the good furniture that you were normally banned from), knowing that the marathon was going on in the TV room upstairs.