Tuesday, January 31, 2012


My favorite Bob Fosse film is All That Jazz. Of all the choreographer's directorial efforts, All That Jazz is the one that I go back to the most. In 1979, Fosse's structure was already ushering in a new cinematic vision; a time when non-linear filmmaking wasn't the norm in mainstream movies.

And, on a personal level, at that time, I struggled to figure out why Fosse had chosen Roy Scheider, an actor defined by tough guy New York cop roles, to play the main character, Joe Gideon. Couldn't figure it out until I saw a photo of Fosse...

Subsequently, Scheider was perfect for the role of Gideon (who is Fosse's alter-ego), a womanizing, pill-popping, hyper-macho, choreographer/filmmaker who pretty much uses his position to seduce women. But the film is a confessional, with Gideon professing his sins (and guilt) to an angel (Jessica Lange) while he falters in that netherworld between life and death after experiencing a final (he's had a series of them) heart attack.

Gideon is overworked but driven, designing the choreography for - as well as directing - a new stage musical (that's probably destined for failure but based on innovation) and editing his latest film, which is about a stand-up comedian who's on the verge of total annihilation.

Its a bizarre and musically attuned excursion into a man's driven psyche that is wired to keep pushing beyond the fray. All That Jazz is about a man who loves what he does with an intense yet chaotic passion. Gideon embraces life to its extremes.

Fosse weaves a documentary style into All That Jazz, utilizing interview techniques while delving into a sort of first person expose. Its a style Fosse adopted for Lenny and his last film, Star 80.

Star 80, released in 1983, was about the murder of Dorothy Stratten, a Playboy Playmate who married the wrong guy - a destructive, intensly jealous psychopath named Paul Snider. While Mariel Hemingway captured the soft-spoken, indecisive but driven, Stratten - it was Eric Roberts' portrayal of Snider that makes the film so frightening and compelling.

Star 80 was photographed by Sven Nykvist, the director of photography who was best known for his work with Ingmar Bergman. Nykvist's eye in Star 80 captured the glossy, cocaine-fueled and decadent late 1970s (concluding in 1980), where bright color is eventually overtaken by the blackest shadows.

Sadly, Fosse died in 1987, having never directed another film after Star 80.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

They don't do trailers like this anymore...

...And that is putting it lightly. Black Angels was released in 1970 actually subverting the already subversive sub-genre biker flick. The trailer alone is balls to the wall, jaw dropping, not for the weak of heart, misogynist action with an impossible to beat off the cliff voiceover.

This fantastic 2 minute, 12 second thrill ride to hell trailer simply dares you NOT to see this crazy film.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Al Pacino or Al Capone?

While its common knowledge that Brian De Palma's 1983 Scarface was 'influenced' by the 1932 Howard Hawks directed Scarface (which was based on the real Al Capone), I believe Al Pacino's performance in the De Palma film was more akin to Rod Steiger's in Richard Wilson's 1959 Al Capone than to Paul Muni's performance in the Hawks movie.

Steiger chews up the scenery - and his lines - in Al Capone, swaggering, spitting nails, sputtering a Chicago accent that almost verges on Pacino's over-the-top Cuban accent in the 1983 Scarface. Steiger's macho gait is also emulated by Pacino throughout Scarface and you almost find yourself picturing Tony Montana while watching Steiger in Al Capone.

Wilson's Al Capone is loaded with incredible black and white imagery captured by cinematographer Lucien Ballard, who worked on other visually stunning films such as The Killing, True Grit, The Wild Bunch, What's the Matter with Helen?, Mikey and Nicky, among others. Chicagoans will appreciate how Ballard captured the look of the city (and suburban Cicero), in all of its bleak, prohibition-era glory (though its likely Al Capone was shot on a soundstage).

Al Capone has been playing on TCM lately and its worth seeking out. Its violent (though no blood is shed), funny and brutal - despite its do-nothing voiceover (by the great timbre of James Gregory, who plays a Chicago detective obsessed with taking Capone down), and a safe, socially-conscious ending - an ending that states Capone died broken-down of an "incurable disease," that pretty much ate away the gangster's brain.

Even at that point in time when the film was released, everyone knew Capone had suffered from syphilis and ended up dying of cardiac arrest.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

40 times seems excessive

I watch Jaws every 4th of July. Its a tradition that probably started back in 1975, the year the film was released (June 20, 1975) and the year I first saw it. Me and two friends waited 3 hours in line to see the Spielberg film. While waiting in the lobby, you could hear screams coming from the theater. I had never experienced that before.

But seeing Jaws once wasn't enough for me. That summer I saw Jaws every weekend until I started school in September - probably 10 times.

Jaws was re-released in May, 1979, and I'm sure I saw it another three or four times during that period. And, shortly after, MCA released Jaws on VHS in 1980. But I probably didn't see it on tape until 1983, as that was the year I purchased my first VCR.

Subsequently, starting in 1986, I started to watch Jaws every summer around the 4th of July. I've never missed a year. So, home viewing alone, I've watched the movie 26 times. And a couple years ago, it was screened at the Hollywood Palms Cinema in Naperville, IL, with Richard Dreyfuss in attendance. Naturally, I was there.

In total, I've probably seen Jaws 40 times. I can repeat lines, name side characters (Ben Gardner...Polly ["Let Polly do the printing!"], Harry ["That's some bad hat, Harry."]), hum all the variations of the John Williams score.

But one line I continued to miss - until recently (like maybe a year or so ago) was the penultimate line of the film, uttered as Sheriff Brody points his rifle at the rampaging Great White:

"SMILE you son of a bitch!"

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Is it a Kilgour suit?

North By Northwest is my 4th favorite Alfred Hitchcock film right after (in order): Vertigo, The Birds and Psycho. Why I like the first three more is because no matter how many times I've seen them (dozens each), they manage to surprise me with an image I'd never noticed, a strange edit, a sting of music not previously picked up. North By Northwest, on the other hand, is too predictable and I find Eva Marie Saint to be one of the coldest of Hitchcock's notorious blondes. She's not as indelible as Kim Novak (Vertigo) or as opulent as Tippi Hedren (The Birds); she plays too forced and arctic. 

What I do like about North By Northwest is its eye-popping palette dominated by tones of grey punctuated by endless variations of red (and Eva Marie Saint's black and red dress is jaw dropping). But in the realm of grey, check out how Cary Grant's suit literally emerges from the screen.

Though debatable, some sartorial camps claim the suit was designed by Kilgour, French and Stanbury, despite the fact that Grant typically had his suits tailored by Hawes & Curtis, Norton & Sons, Cordings, among others. This blog, however, states it wasn't a Kilgour suit at all and this forum says that is was built by Quintino, Grant's Beverly Hills tailor. We may never know...

Also endlessly debated is the suit's color, which has been erroneously designated as one-tone grey. More than likely (according to an article by Richard Torregrossa, who also says it was, indeed, a Kilgour), Grant's suit was a two-tone blue with a "charcoal background," which is what gives it such rich life on screen. Ultimately, the suit is of impeccable taste, masterfully constructed and timeless.

What's amazing about the suit is how seemingly indestructable it is. Grant wears it throughout most of the film including during the famous dusty cornfield crop duster scene. Grant stumbles and falls in dry dirt - and the suit is covered in it - but all he merely needs to do is brush himself off and the damn thing still looks great! And yes, there were multiple suits (possibly as many as six) used during the shooting of North By Northwest but the impression left is one of awe.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Montgomery Ward paint supervisor

One of the first - and worst - jobs I had (I was 16 years old) was working in the paint department at Montgomery Ward. It was a horrible job and I lasted one day - a six hour shift. The job required mixing paint in one of those paint shakers.

Easy right? But the few customers I encountered were not only rude, they were cruel. One man spent a couple hours bickering with me about the inaccuracies of the color that I was trying to achieve through painstaking, wildly imprecise blending (I had no real training. My supervisor, probably 17, sat in the breakroom and smoked). The customer became so pissed that his face turned blood-red as he he leaned toward me demanding that a manager do the mix job.

My supervisor - with slicked back black hair, red silk shirt, tight black bell bottoms, Kool dangling from the corner of his mouth - strutted out from the break room, grabbed a can of white and a small can of base, and measured - eye and hand - the exact amount of base color to add to the white and placed the can in the shaker and let 'er rip. He was grinning and proud.

After the shaking was done, my supervisor opened the can, showed the contents to the customer who slapped him on the back and laughed, "Well its about time!"

The customer walked out of the store a happy man. Me, on the other hand? Miserable. The next day I called the store and quit.

A few nights later, mid-December 1977, I was standing in line with a couple friends to see Saturday Night Fever. As the theater was emptying from an early showing of the film, out walked my old Montgomery Ward paint supervisor. He recognized me. He smiled and held out a hand.

"That," he said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder back toward the theater, "was the greatest movie you'll ever see. I've seen it 10 times."

I settled in one of the theater's fabric seats as the film started.

Tony Manero strutting down a crowded NYC street. Struts to "Stayin' Alive." Paint can in hand. Strut. Hot chick toward him. Paint can. Strut. Silk shirt lay away. Strut. Music. Another hot chick. Strut. Paint can.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Last 10 Films I Saw

I like Film Comment's column "The Last 10 Films I Saw" because it provides insight into the listmaker's (typically a filmmaker or actor/actress) psyche.

Here are the last 10 films I saw:

War Horse - 2011
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher version) - 2011
The Great Ziegfeld - 1936
Bellflower - 2011
The Outlaw Josey Wales - 1976
The Philadelphia Story - 1940
Oliver! - 1968
Scrooge (aka A Christmas Carol) - 1951
Oliver Twist - 1948
A Fistful of Dollars - 1964