Film Review: Cannonball! (1976)

Also known as: Carquake! (UK)
Release Date: July 6th, 1976
Directed by: Paul Bartel
Written by: Paul Bartel, Donald C. Simpson
Music by: David A. Axelrod
Cast: David Carradine, Bill McKinney, Veronica Hamel, Gerrit Graham, Robert Carradine, Belinda Balaski, Mary Woronov, James Keach, Dick Miller, Paul Bartel, Joe Dante, Allan Arkush, Jonathan Kaplan, Roger Corman, Don Simpson, Martin Scorsese (uncredited), Sylvester Stallone (uncredited)

Cross Country Productions, Harbor Productions, New World Pictures, 90 Minutes

Review:

“I thought this car could beat anything on the road.” – Linda Maxwell, “This car’s a winner.” – Coy ‘Cannonball’ Buckman

A year after Paul Bartel directed the cult classic Death Race 2000, he made a very similar film with a lot of the same core cast members, as well as producer and B-movie legend, Roger Corman.

In this film, take the Death Race 2000 concept and strip away the futuristic sci-fi setting, the slapstick uber violence and the plot to assassinate a corrupt president and you’ve essentially got the same film.

Granted, Cannonball! isn’t as good and I kind of blame that on stripping away the things that made Death Race 2000 so unique. This is still really enjoyable, though, and fans of that more beloved flick will probably dig this one too.

The race car driving hero is still David Carradine and he’s re-joined in the cast by Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel (the director), Sylvester Stallone in an uncredited cameo, as well as some of the other bit players.

Like Death Race, the film follows a cross-country auto race, all the wacky characters involved and all the crazy shenanigans of racers trying to sabotage and outperform one another.

I like a lot of the new additions to the cast like the always great Gerrit Graham, Robert Carradine, Bill McKinney, Belinda Balaski and the inclusion of Dick Miller, Joe Dante, Allan Arkush, Jonathan Kaplan, Roger Corman (the producer), Don Simpson and Martin Scorsese, who is also uncredited for his appearance here.

The action is good, the comedy still works and this film has that unique Paul Bartel charm.

In the end, this isn’t quite a classic but it did help pave the way for all the other movies like it that followed for years to come.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000, as well as other cross-country racing movies of the ’70s and ’80s like the Cannonball Run films, The Gumball Rally and Speed Zone.

Film Review: The King of Comedy (1982)

Release Date: December 18th, 1982 (Iceland)
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Paul D. Zimmerman
Music by: Robbie Robertson (uncredited)
Cast: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Tony Randall, Diahnne Abbott, Sandra Bernhard, Ed Herlihy, Shelley Hack, Kim Chan, Joyce Brothers (cameo), Martin Scorsese (cameo), Liza Minnelli (credit only)

Embassy International Pictures, 20th Century Fox, 109 Minutes

Review:

“Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime.” – Rupert Pupkin

From the opening scene and into the unique credits sequence, this movie kind of just sucks you in. You’re pulled into a zany world where your primary companions are two nutcases played by the legendary Robert De Niro and the vastly underrated Sandra Bernhard.

De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin a stand-up comic that wants the fame that his idol Jerry Langford has. He obsesses over the famous late night television host, tries to get him to listen to his material, stalks him incessantly and eventually, abducts him in exchange for an opening monologue spot on his show. Pupkin succeeds and even if you kind of know he will, to some extent, it’s the journey from point A to point B that makes the story so engaging.

In a lot of ways, this has some similarities to another Scorsese and De Niro collaboration: Taxi Driver. I guess that is why both movies are being heavily borrowed from for the upcoming Joker movie.

Both films follow a man losing himself within New York City. Both men also go to extremes by the end of the film. Neither are really good men but it’s hard not to cheer for them at the same time.

While this is not the near masterpiece that Taxi Driver was, it’s still a visually stunning and dramatic film that is boosted by its onscreen talent.

I’ve never been a fan of Jerry Lewis’ style of comedy but seeing him get to be dramatic and play his role more like a straight man than a buffoon was really damn cool. Also, Lewis is a talented guy, even if his comedy doesn’t resonate with me. The guy is a legend for a reason and seeing him basically play a fictionalized version of himself, here, was refreshing and he certainly impressed me.

I think the real scene stealer though is Sandra Bernhard. Man, she is so damn good in this and she plays crazy well. She’s mostly an obsessed groupie but you can sympathize with her. And a lot of that is due to the writing and the direction of Scorsese but I don’t know who else could’ve pulled her character off with the right sort of personality and tone that Bernhard has.

Initially, when this film came out, it bombed pretty hard. And even though it has built up a good reputation in the years since, it isn’t one of Scorsese’s best. It is still a very good film, though, and I don’t think that it should be overlooked for those trying to experience more of Scorsese’s older oeuvre. It has similarities to his other early works and feels like a natural extension of them. It certainly taps into the same sort of ’70s (and into the early ’80s) New York City vibe that his films from this era had.

Plus, the performances in this really make it worth your while.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: the other Scorsese films starring Robert De Niro: Taxi DriverRaging Bull, etc.

Documentary Review: Spielberg (2017)

Release Date: October 5th, 2017 (New York Film Festival)
Directed by: Susan Lacy
Cast: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Richard Dreyfuss, John Williams, J.J. Abrams, James Brolin, Bob Balaban, Tom Hanks, Drew Barrymore, Peter Coyote, Leonardo DiCaprio, Harrison Ford, Oprah Winfrey, Frank Marshall, Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Robert Zemeckis, Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter, Dustin Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tom Cruise, Eric Bana, Daniel Craig

HBO Documentary Films, Pentimento Productions, 147 Minutes

Review:

This was a pretty stellar documentary for fans of not just Steven Spielberg but filmmaking and film history in general.

It reminded me a lot of the 2001 documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures, in that this spent a lot of time breaking down most of the key movies in Spielberg’s oeuvre.

Every segment here was rich, detailed and featured interviews with some major directors, actors and producers. But the film also gets into Spielberg’s personal life and how real life experiences influenced his movies.

This was a lengthy documentary, just as the Kubrick one was and rightfully so. In fact, this could have been the length of a ten part, two hour apiece Ken Burns documentary and I still would have been fully engaged.

Spielberg’s career has been long and full of at least a dozen classic films that will be remembered forever. Each segment could’ve been it’s own documentary film and it actually kind of sucks that a few films were mentioned but not given as much detail, most notably A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, the Jurassic Park sequels and some of his production work like Back to the Future.

Still, this is pretty thorough and there is so much to unpack and take away from this. It is one of the best documentaries on a filmmaker’s life and career.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: other documentaries on specific directors but this reminded me a lot of Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures.

Documentary Review: Val Lewton: The Man In the Shadows (2007)

Release Date: September 2nd, 2007
Directed by: Kent Jones
Narrated by: Martin Scorsese, Elias Koteas

Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Turner Entertainment, Sikelia Productions, 77 Minutes

Review:

I remember seeing this on television a decade ago and it is where I really discovered who Val Lewton is and why his contribution to the film industry was so important.

When I was a kid, I discovered classic film early, as my mother and grandmother were both avid watchers of AMC, which at the time still stood for American Movie Classics. I also watched a lot of TCM, or Turner Classic Movies, when that cable network debuted. I got pulled in to old school horror, as I loved the Universal Monsters movies, Vincent Price’s Edgar Allan Poe pictures and the movies put out by Hammer with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. I didn’t quite experience Val Lewton’s body of work though, until years later.

My appreciation for all that other stuff, really gave me the foundation to appreciate and understand what Lewton was trying to do for RKO Radio Pictures. His mission was to run the B-movie unit for the studio, where he and the artists he brought in, would create films to rival what Universal was doing with all their successful Monster franchises.

I’m glad that I found this on television a decade ago and it was really fantastic revisiting it now, as it is streaming on FilmStruck.

It is produced and narrated by Martin Scorsese with Elias Koteas jumping in to narrate Val Lewton’s actual words.

It is a nice and quick documentary that covers a lot of ground and gives a good amount of time to each of Lewton’s pictures. It also gets into how his collaborations with Boris Karloff came to be and how Lewton initially didn’t want to work with Karloff but quickly grew to love the man’s work, as he helped contribute to these films, which were much more psychological and intelligent than the majority of Universal’s horror pictures.

Lewton created horror movies that had a noir style about them. In fact, his films sort of built a bridge between German Expressionist horror movies like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the film-noir movement of the 1940s.

If you love classic horror or film-noir and haven’t seen Lewton’s films, you need to. You should also check out this documentary, which is a great primer on the man and his work.

Rating: 8.75/10

Film Review: Taxi Driver (1976)

Release Date: February 8th, 1976
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Paul Schrader
Music by: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel, Leonard Harris, Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd, Joe Spinell, Martin Scorsese

Bill/Phillips, Italo/Judeo Productions, Columbia Pictures, 113 Minutes

taxi_driverReview:

Martin Scorsese is one of my favorite directors. I was thinking about his work and then it dawned on me that I haven’t yet reviewed a Scorsese film for Cinespiria. Since I hadn’t seen Taxi Driver in a really long time, I decided to revisit it.

As great as Robert De Niro is, this is the film I most remember when thinking about his acting prowess. It is hard for me to envision how this film played for theatergoing audiences when it was released almost three years before I was born but when I discovered it as a teenager in the 90s, I was enchanted by De Niro’s Travis Bickle.

Taxi Driver is a film that is incredibly well-acted, and not just by De Niro, but by the entire cast all the way down to the smallest part. Even Scorsese’s small cameo in the film, as a taxi passenger admitting that he is going to kill his wife violently, is so chilling that it made me want to see more of Scorsese as an actor.

Martin Scorsese, as director, created a fabulous work of art and social commentary with Taxi Driver. Despite being modern for the mid 1970s, when it was released, the film doesn’t feel dated or ineffective. The picture is still very compelling and unsettling due to the harsh reality of its subject matter. No matter how many times I see this film, I will never be comfortable with Jodie Foster’s portrayal of a 12 year-old prostitute or Harvey Keitel’s sick obsession with her. But that’s the point, really.

Taxi Driver shows us the worst parts of American society and it deliberately makes us uneasy and angry at the world around us. Travis Bickle is our eyes, ears and an extension of how we feel. His fall into what some may deem is madness, isn’t completely implausible. There are reasons why the Bickle character is considered an anti-hero and why we, the American people, cheer for characters like this. He is a person with some emotional and social issues but isn’t that most people, to some degree? And don’t we accept him because he does what we all wish we could do in similar circumstances? He is a character that encapsulates justice in a world where none seems to exist. He takes the bull by the horns and runs with it.

Granted, I can’t get behind his attempt at assassinating a powerful political figure, which he fails to carry out, mind you. However, I can understand his reasoning, even if he has slipped into the realm of the mad and extreme.

Scorsese created a violent and dark world but it is really a reflection of our culture. He created an instrument of justice that was fitting for that world. The real magic, is looking back at it over 40 years later and seeing how it still reflects aspect of our current society and how it is still a film that works today.

Now there are things I didn’t like about the movie but they don’t detract from the overall package or the legacy of this being one of the greatest American movies ever made.

For one, I wasn’t a fan of the ending. Although, I understand that it shows America’s obsession with celebrity and that Old West mentality that will probably never go away. To be more specific, Bickle survives, he isn’t arrested and he is deemed a hero by the public, despite the violent way he took justice into his own hands. In a way, it seems to reward Bickle for what he did. But I also don’t think that such a situation is implausible.

Any other issue I have is just sort of nitpicky and isn’t that important to the overall experience.

Taxi Driver is a fine film. It is still an effective film. In the sea of great motion pictures that Martin Scorsese has directed, this is in the upper echelon and possibly his greatest.

Rating: 9.25/10