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)
Irv Slifkin hosts the Foreign Film series at the Mount Laurel Library and teaches film and journalism classes at Temple University.