Film Review: The Greatest Story Ever Told (dir by George Stevens)


The 1965 biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, tells the story of the life of Jesus, from the Nativity to the Ascension.  It’s probably the most complete telling of the story that you’ll ever find.  It’s hard to think of a single details that’s left out and, as a result, the film has a four hour running time.  Whether you’re a believer or not, that’s a really long time to watch a reverent film that doesn’t even feature the campy excesses of something like The Ten Commandments.

(There’s actually several different version of The Greatest Story Ever Told floating around.  There’s a version that’s a little over two hours.  There’s a version that’s close to four hours.  Reportedly, the uncut version of the film ran for four hour and 20 minutes.)

Max von Sydow plays Jesus.  On the one hand, that seems like that should work because Max von Sydow was a great actor who gave off an otherworldly air.  On the other hand, it totally doesn’t work because von Sydow gives an oddly detached performance.  The Greatest Story Ever Told was von Sydow’s first American film and, at no point, does he seem particularly happy about being involved with it.  von Sydow is a very cerebral and rather reserved Jesus, one who makes his points without a hint of passion or charisma.  When he’s being friendly, he offers up a half-smile.  When he has to rebuke his disciples for their doubt, he sounds more annoyed than anything else.  He’s Jesus if Jesus was a community college philosophy professor.

The rest of the huge cast is populated with familiar faces.  The Greatest Story Ever Told takes the all-star approach to heart and, as a result, even the minor roles are played by actors who will be familiar to anyone who has spent more than a few hours watching TCM.  Many of them are on screen for only a few seconds, which makes their presence all the more distracting.  Sidney Poitier shows up as Simon of Cyrene.  Pat Boone is an angel.  Roddy McDowall is Matthew and Sal Mineo is Uriah and John Wayne shows up as a centurion and delivers his one line in his trademark drawl.

A few of the actors do manage to stand out and make a good impression.  Telly Savalas is a credible Pilate, playing him as being neither smug nor overly sympathetic but instead as a bureaucrat who can’t understand why he’s being forced to deal with all of this.  Charlton Heston has just the right intensity for the role of John the Baptist while Jose Ferrer is properly sleazy as Herod.  In the role Judas, David McCallum looks at the world through suspicious eyes and does little to disguise his irritation with the rest of the world.  The Greatest Story Ever Told does not sentimentalize Judas or his role in Jesus’s arrest.  For the most part, he’s just a jerk.  Finally, it’s not exactly surprising when Donald Pleasence shows up as Satan but Pleasence still gives a properly evil performance, giving all of his lines a mocking and often sarcastic bite.

The Greatest Story Ever Told was directed by George Stevens, a legitimately great director who struggles to maintain any sort of narrative momentum in this film.  Watching The Greatest Story Ever Told, it occurred to me that the best biblical films are the ones like Ben-Hur and The Robe, which both largely keep Jesus off-screen and instead focus on how his life and teachings and the reports of his resurrection effected other people.  Stevens approaches the film’s subject with such reverence that the film becomes boring and that’s something that should never happen when you’re making a film set in Judea during the Roman era.

I do have to admit that, despite all of my criticism of the film, I do actually kind of like The Greatest Story Ever Told.  It’s just such a big production that it’s hard not to be a little awed by it all.  That huge cast may be distracting but it’s still a little bit fun to sit there and go, “There’s Shelley Winters!  There’s John Wayne!  There’s Robert Blake and Martin Landau!”  That said, as far as biblical films are concerned, you’re still better off sticking with Jesus Christ Superstar.

18 Days of Paranoia #13: They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (dir by Gordon Douglas)


The 1970 police procedural, They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, opens with a murder in San Francisco.

A prostitute has been found dead in a sleazy apartment building and, according to witnesses, she was visited, shortly before her death, by the Reverend Logan Sharpe (Martin Landau).  Rev. Sharpe is a prominent civic leader, an outspoken liberal who is a friend of the civil rights movement.  Sharpe is currently at the forefront of a campaign to pass a city referendum that will add a “mini city hall” to every neighborhood and will help to fight against the gentrification of San Francisco.  If Sharpe’s guilty, it will mean the death of the referendum.

Despite the fact that there’s a ton of evidence piling up against him and he kind of comes across as being a little bit creepy (he is, after all, played by Martin Landau), Rev. Sharpe insists that he’s innocent.  Yes, he’s been visiting prostitutes but he’s not a client.  No, of course not!  Instead, Sharpe explains that he’s simply counseling them and praying for their souls.  In fact, as far as Sharpe is concerned, this whole thing is just an attempt by the establishment to discredit his efforts to help the poor and underprivileged.

Heading up the investigation is a friend and supporter of Sharpe’s, Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier).  That may seem like a good thing for Sharpe, except for the fact that Tibbs is an honest cop and he’s not the type to let friendship stand in the way of doing a thorough investigation.  Tibbs admits that he supports Sharpe’s campaign and he wants the reverend to be innocent.  But Tibbs is all about justice.  Whether it’s teaching his son an important lesson about smoking or tracking down a potential serial killer, Virgil Tibbs is always going to do the right thing.

There are other suspects, all of whom are played by suitably sinister character actors.  Anthony Zerbe plays a criminal who lived near the prostitute.  Ed Asner plays her landlord, who may have also been her pimp.  Is Sharpe being set up by the powers that be or is Tibbs going to have to arrest a man whom he admires?

They Call Me Mister Tibbs! was the second film in which Sidney Poitier played Virgil Tibbs.  The first time he played the role was in 1967, when he co-starred with Rod Steiger in the Oscar-winning In The Heat of the Night.  In that film, Poitier was a Philadelphia cop in the deep south who had to work with a redneck sheriff.  In They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, Virgil is now working in San Francisco and he has to work the case on his own.

They Call Me Mister Tibbs! is a far more conventional film than In The Heat of the Night.  Whereas In The Heat of the Night had a wonderful sense of place and atmosphere, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! could just as easily have taken place in Los Angeles, Phoenix, or even Philadelphia.  With the exception of some slight profanity, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! feels more like a pilot for a TV show than an actual feature film.  Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that there’s no real surprises to be found within the film.  You’ll guess who the murderer is within the first 10 minutes of the film and you’ll probably even guess how the movie will eventually end.

On the plus side, just as he did in In The Heat of the Night, Sidney Poitier brings a lot of natural authority to the role of Virgil Tibbs.  He’s actually allowed to show a sense of humor in this film, which is something that the character (understandably) couldn’t do while he was surrounded by bigots and rednecks during his previous adventure.  Virgil gets a few family scenes, where we watch him interact with his wife and his children.  The scenes feel out of place but, at the same time, Poitier plays them well.

With Sharpe attempting to get his referendum passed and the possibility that riots could break out if Sharpe is indeed guilty of murder, there’s a slight political subtext to They Call Me Mister Tibbs!  Sharpe’s argument that he was being set up by the establishment undoubtedly carried a lot of weight in 1970.  Still, this is ultimately a shallow (if adequately entertaining) film that, for the most part, is only made memorable by Poitier’s commanding performance.

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 
  10. The Quiller Memorandum
  11. Betrayed
  12. Best Seller

Black Gunn (1972, directed by Robert Hartford-Davis)


A war has broken out in Los Angeles.

The Black Action Group (B.A.G.) has robbed a Mafia bookmaking operation.  The Mafia, led by used car dealer Russ Capelli (Martin Landau, in his slumming it years), is less concerned with the money as they are with the fact that one of the militants, a Vietnam vet named Scott Gunn (Herbert Jefferson, Jr.), has also stolen a set of ledgers that could reveal every detail of their organization.  Capelli sends the psychotic Ray Kriley (Bruce Glover, father of Crispin) on a mission to track down Scott and kill him.

What the Mafia didn’t count on is that Scott’s older brother, Gunn (Jim Brown), is the owner of Los Angeles’s hottest nightclub.  When Scott approaches his brother, Gun tells him that he doesn’t care about the B.A.G. or any of their politics.  Still, Gunn allows Scott to stash the ledgers at his club and to hide out at his place.  When Scott still ends up getting murdered by Kriley, Gunn sets out to get revenge.

For the most part, Black Gunn is a standard blaxploitation movie with all of the usual elements, a cool nightclub, the mob, black militants,an anti-drug scene and a speech about why it’s important to not sell out to the man, and a hero played by an actor who may not have been able to show much emotion but who still radiated coolness.  Not surprisingly, Jim Brown is the main attraction here and he delivers everything that his fans have come to expect from him.  Blaxploitation regulars Bernie Case and Brenda Sykes also appear in the film.  Casey plays the head of B.A.G. while Sykes is wasted in a one-note role as Gunn’s girlfriend.  Among the villains, it’s fun to watch the glamorous Luciana Paluzzi plays a gangster’s niece and Bruce Glover is just weird enough to make Kriley interesting.  Though Martin Landau would end his career with a deserved reputation for being one of America’s greatest character actors, he spent most of the 70s sleepwalking through roles in low-budget action and horror films and his performance in Black Gunn is no different.  Having Capelli be both a car salesman and a gangster is a nice touch but otherwise, he’s just not that interesting of a character and Landau is only present to get a paycheck.

Black Gunn has some slow spots but the final shoot-out between the militants and the gangsters is exciting and so brutal that it will be probably take even the most jaded blaxploitation fan by surprise.  Black Gunn is hardly a classic but, like its hero, it gets the job done.

Horror on the Lens: Without Warning (dir by Greydon Clark)


For today’s horror on the Shattered Lens, we have 1980’s Without Warning.  

In this horror/sci-fi hybrid, humans are hunted by an alien hunter who uses a variety of weapons and … what was that?  No, we’re not watching Predator.  We’re watching Without Warning.  For the record, Without Warning and Predator may have almost exactly the same plot but Without Warning came out long before Predator.

(Interestingly enough, Kevin Peter Hall played the intergalactic hunter in both films.)

Anyway, Without Warning is probably the best film that Greydon Clark ever directed.  Some would say that’s not saying much but seriously, Without Warning is a surprisingly effective film.  It also has a large cast of guest stars, the majority of whom are killed off within minutes of their first appearance.  That alien takes no prisoners!  (I especially feel sorry for the cub scouts.)

Of course, the main characters are four teenagers.  One of them is played by David Caruso, which I have to admit amuses me to no end.

Enjoy!

An October Film Review: Ed Wood (dir by Tim Burton)


From start to end, the 1994 film Ed Wood is a nearly perfect film.

Consider the opening sequence.  In glorious black-and-white, we are presented with a house sitting in the middle of a storm.  As Howard Shore’s melodramatic and spooky score plays in the background, the camera zooms towards the house.  A window flies open to reveal a coffin sitting in the middle of a dark room.  A man dressed in a tuxedo (played to snarky and eccentric perfection by Jeffrey Jones) sits up in the coffin.  Later, we learn that the man is an infamously inaccurate psychic named Criswell.  Criswell greets us and says that we are interested in the unknown.  “Can your heart handle the shocking facts of the true story of Edward D. Wood, Jr!?”

As streaks of lightning flash across the sky, the opening credits appear and disappear on the screen.  The camera zooms by tombstones featuring the names of the cast.  Cheap-looking flying saucers, dangling on string, fly through the night sky.  The camera even goes underwater, revealing a giant octopus…

It’s a brilliant opening, especially if you’re already a fan of Ed Wood’s.  If you’re familiar with Wood’sfilms, you know that Criswell’s appearance in the coffin is a reference to Orgy of the Dead and that his opening monologue was a tribute to his opening lines from Plan 9 From Outer Space.  If you’re already a fan of Ed Wood then you’ll immediately recognize the flying saucers.  You’ll look at that octopus and you’ll say, “Bride of the Monster!”

And if you’re not an Ed Wood fan, fear not.  The opening credits will pull you in, even if you don’t know the difference between Plan 9 and Plan 10.  Between the music and the gorgeous black-and-white, Ed Wood is irresistible from the start.

Those opening credits also announce that we’re about to see an extremely stylized biopic.  In the real world, Ed Wood was a screenwriter and director who spent most of his life on the fringes of Hollywood, occasionally working with reputable or, at the very least, well-known actors like Lyle Talbot and Bela Lugosi.  He directed a few TV shows.  He wrote several scripts and directed a handful of low-budget exploitation films.  He also wrote a lot of paperbacks, some of which were semi-pornographic.  Most famously, he was a cross-dresser, who served in the army in World War II and was wearing a bra under his uniform when he charged the beaches of Normandy.  Apparently, the stories of his love for angora were not exaggerated.  Sadly, Wood was also an alcoholic who drank himself to death at the age of 54.

Every fan of Ed Wood has seen this picture of him, taken when he first arrived in Hollywood and looked like he had the potential to be a dashing leading man:

What people are less familiar with is how Ed looked after spending two decades on the fringes of the film business:

My point is that the true story of Ed Wood was not necessarily a happy one.  However, one wouldn’t know that from watching the film based on his life.  As directed by Tim Burton, Johnny Depp plays Ed Wood as being endlessly positive and enthusiastic.  When it comes to determination, nothing can stop the film’s Ed Wood.  It doesn’t matter what problems may arise during the shooting of any of his films, Wood finds a way to make it work.

A major star dies and leaves behind only a few minutes of usable footage?  Just bring in a stand-in.  The stand-in looks nothing like the star?  Just hide the guy’s face.

Wrestler Tor Johnson (played by wrestler George “The Animal” Steele), accidentally walks into a wall while trying to squeeze through a door?  Shrug it off by saying that it adds to the scene.  Point out that the character that Tor is playing would probably run into that wall on a regular basis.

Your fake octopus doesn’t work?  Just have the actors roll around in the water.

The establishment won’t take you seriously?  Then work outside the establishment, with a cast and crew of fellow outcasts.

You’re struggling to raise money for your film?  Ask the local Baptist church.  Ask a rich poultry rancher.  Promise a big star.  Promise to include a nuclear explosion.  Promise anything just to get the film made.

You’re struggling to maintain your artistic vision?  Just go down to a nearby bar and wait for Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio) to show up.

Personally, I’m of the opinion that Ed Wood is Tim Burton’s best film.  It’s certainly one of the few Burton films that actually holds up after repeat viewings.  Watching the film, it’s obvious that Wood and Burton shared a passionate love for the movies and that Burton related to Wood and his crew of misfits.  It’s an unabashedly affectionate film, with none of the condescension that can sometimes be found in Burton’s other film.  Burton celebrates not just the hopes and dreams of Ed Wood, Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson and Criswell but also of all the other members of the Wood stock company, from Vampira (Lisa Marie) to Bunny Breckenridge (Bill Murray), all the way down to Paul Marco (Max Casella) and Loretta King (Juliet Landau).  Though Ed Wood may center around the character of Wood and the actor who plays him, it’s a true ensemble piece.  Landau won the Oscar but really, the entire cast is brilliant.  Along with those already mentioned, Ed Wood features memorable performances from Sarah Jessica Parker and Patricia Arquette (one playing Wood’s girlfriend and the other playing his future wife), G. D. Spradlin (as a minister who ends up producing one of Wood’s films), and Mike Starr (playing a producer who is definitely not a minister).

For me, Ed Wood is defined by a moment very early on in the film.  Wood watches some stock footage and talks about how he could make an entire movie out of it.  It would start with aliens arriving and “upsetting the buffaloes.”  The army is called in.  Deep delivers the line with such enthusiasm and with so much positive energy that it’s impossible not get caught up in Wood’s vision.  For a few seconds, you think to yourself, “Maybe that could be a good movie…”  Of course, you know it wouldn’t be.  But you want it to be because Ed wants it to be and Ed is just do damn likable.

As I said before, Ed Wood is a highly stylized film.  It focuses on the good parts of the Ed Wood story, like his friendship with Bela Lugosi and his refusal to hide the fact that he’s a cross-dresser who loves angora.  The bad parts of his story are left out and I’m glad that they were.  Ed Wood is a film that celebrates dreamers and it gives Wood the happy ending that he deserved.   The scenes of Plan 9 From Outer Space getting a raptorous reception may not have happened but can you prove that they didn’t?

I suppose now would be the time that most reviewers would reflect on the irony of one of the worst directors of all time being the subject of one of the best films ever made about the movies.  However, I’ll save that angle for whenever I get a chance to review The Disaster Artist.  Of course, I personally don’t think that Ed Wood was the worst director of all time.  He made low-budget movies but he did what he could with what he had available.  If anything, Ed Wood the film is quite correct to celebrate Ed Wood the director’s determination.  Glen or Glenda has moments of audacious surrealism.  Lugosi is surprisingly good in Bride of the Monster.  As for Plan 9 From Outer Space, what other film has a plot as unapologetically bizarre as the plot of Plan 9?  For a few thousand dollars, Wood made a sci-fi epic that it still watched today.  Does that sound like something the worst director of all time could do?

Needless to say, Ed Wood is not a horror film but it’s definitely an October film.  Much as how Christmas is the perfect time for It’s A Wonderful Life, Halloween is the perfect time for Ed Wood.

An Actor’s Actor: RIP Martin Landau


cracked rear viewer

If he had only played Bela Lugosi in the marvelous Tim Burton film ED WOOD and nothing else, Martin Landau would hold a special place in the hearts of film lovers everywhere. But Landau, who passed away July 15 at age 89, was so much more than a one-note actor, leaving behind a body of work that saw him putting his personal stamp on every role he took. He worked with some of the giants of cinema, and slummed it with dreck like THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS ON GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. Mostly, he worked at what he loved best, the craft of acting.

                                         In Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959)

Landau’s breakout role was in the Hitchcock classic NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), as the sinister sidekick of foreign spy James Mason, menacing stars Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Hollywood directors certainly took notice of his talents and cast Landau in some great films…

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A Movie A Day #89: Paint It Black (1989, directed by Tim Hunter)


This month, since the site is currently reviewing every episode of Twin Peaks, each entry in Move A Day is going to have a Twin Peaks connection.  Paint In Black was directed by Tim Hunter, who directed three episodes of Twin Peaks, including the one that I reviewed earlier today.

Jonathan Dunbar (Rick Rossovich) should have it all.  He is an acclaimed sculptor but he’s being cheated financially by his dealer and sometimes girlfriend, Marion Easton (Sally Kirkland).  Things start to look up for Jonathan after he has a minor traffic accident with Gina (Julie Carmen).  Not only are he and Gina immediately attracted to each other but it turns out that Gina is the daughter of Daniel Lambert (Martin Landau), who owns the most prestigious art gallery in Santa Barbara.  It appears that Jonathan is finally going to get the big show that he has always dreamed of, but only if he can escape from Marion’s management.

One night, Jonathan helps out a man who was apparently mugged outside of an art gallery.  The man, Eric (Doug Savant), says that he’s an art collector and that he is a big fan of Jonathan’s work.  When Jonathan opens up about his problems with Marion, Eric decides to return Jonathan’s favor by killing Marion and anyone else who he feels is standing in the way of Jonathan’s success.  Because of the way that Eric artistically stages the murders, the police suspect that Jonathan is the murderer.

Depending on the source, Paint It Black’s original director was either fired or walked off the project and Tim Hunter was brought in to hastily take his place.  According to Hunter, he spent the production “shooting all day and rewriting all night.”  Paint it Black is a standard late 80s, direct to video thriller but it is interesting as a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock.  Hunter taught a class on Hitchcock at the University of California at Santa Cruz and Paint it Black is full of shout outs to the master of suspense.  Marion’s murder is staged similarly to a murder in Frenzy.  There are frequent close-ups of scissors, a reference to Dial M For Murder.  Probably the most obvious homage is the character of Eric, who appears to be based on Robert Walker, Jr’s character from Strangers on a Train.

Rick Rossovich was best known for playing cops, firemen, and soldiers in movies like Top Gun, Navy SEALS, and Roxanne.  He’s not bad in Paint it Black but he is still not the most convincing artistic genius.  Doug Savant and Sally Kirkland were better cast and more enjoyable to watch.  In fact, Kirkland is killed off too early.  The movie loses a lot of its spark once she is gone.

Paint It Black may not live up to being named after one of the best songs that the Rolling Stones ever recorded but Tim Hunter took unpromising material and shaped it into something that is far more watchable than anyone might expect.

 

A Movie A Day #69: Intersection (1994, directed by Mark Rydell)


This one is just dumb.

Vincent Eastman (Richard Gere) and his wife, Sally (Sharon Stone), own an architectural firm.  Vincent is supposed to be creative and passionate but mostly he’s just Richard Gere in mom jeans.  Sally is a brilliant businesswoman but she is also emotionally repressed to the point of being frigid.  Vincent eventually starts having an affair with a travel writer named Olivia (Lolita Davidovich), who is everything that Sally is not.  Despite Martin Landau telling him that he has to make a decision because, and I quote, “Keep everything under one roof. That’s a basic rule of architecture,” Vincent cannot choose between his hateful wife and his loving mistress.  First he writes a letter to Olivia, telling her that he can not leave his wife.  Then, he sees a little girl who, like Olivia, has curly red hair and he takes that as a sign that he should leave his wife.  He calls Olivia and leaves a gushing message on her machine, telling her that he’s leaving Sally.  But before the letter is sent or the message is heard, Vincent is in a car crash that leaves him in a coma.  As both his wife and his mistress wait outside his hotel room, Vincent has visions of his two lovers swimming by him and struggles to decide who to follow.  Even in a coma, Vincent is an indecisive prick.

Intersection was on HBO while I was sick.  I watched it and it just made me feel worse.  Intersection was made during a weird period of time when Richard Gere was a romantic star and Sharon Stone was trying to prove that she was a serious actress.  Stone lobbied to be cast against type as Sally but she plays the role as so hard and bitchy that there’s never any question as to whether or not Vincent should leave her for Olivia.  Lolitia Davidovich (whatever happened to her?) does what she can with Olivia but the character never has any existence beyond her relationship with Vincent.  As for Richard Gere, when he starts hyperventilating about seeing a little girl who looks like his mistress, you’ll want to report him to social services.

Sadly, Intersection was directed by Mark Rydell and written by Marshall Brickman, two people who did great work before Intersection and have done very little since.

METEOR is a Crashing Bore (AIP 1979)


cracked rear viewer

meteor1

American-International Pictures had gotten pretty fancy-schmancy by the late 70’s. The studio was leaving their exploitation roots behind and branching out to bigger budgeted films like FORCE TEN FROM NAVARONE, LOVE AT FIRST BITE, and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, with bigger name stars for marquee allure. Toward the end of 1979 they released METEOR, a $16 million dollar, star-studded, special-effects laden, sci-fi/ disaster film spectacle that bombed at the box-office and contributed to the company’s demise.

meteor2

Coming at the tail end of the disaster cycle, METEOR is formulaic as hell. Take a group of well-known stars (Sean Connery, Natalie Wood , Karl Malden , Brian Keith , Martin Landau, Henry Fonda ), give them a disastrous menace to combat (in this case a five-mile wide meteor hurtling toward Earth), add some conflict (US/USSR Cold War relations), and some scenes of destruction, and voila! instant disaster movie! Unfortunately, by 1979 audiences had already grown tired…

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