“Milius” (2013) dir. Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson

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Today, John Milius is probably most famous for being the inspiration for John Goodman’s character Walter Sobchak in the Coen Brothers’ 1998 cult classic “The Big Lebowski.” But Milius was arguably the first of the so-called “Hollywood Brats” of the 1970s to score big in Hollywood. Milius went to USC film school at the same time George Lucas (“Star Wars”) and Randall Kleiser (“Grease”) did and became one of the most in-demand screenwriters during the 1970s. His larger-than-life, gun-toting, right-leaning persona startled, but also fascinated many aspiring talents of the period, including Steven Spielberg, Paul Schrader, and Martin Scorsese. Milius has been credited for creating the “Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?” line from “Dirty Harry.” But he’s probably most famous for penning the script for Francis Ford Coppla’s legendary 1979 Vietnam epic “Apocalypse Now.”

Milius also became famous for directing the cult surfing film “Big Wednesday” as well as the box-office hits “Conan the Barbarian” and “Red Dawn.” However, despite the box-office success of “Red Dawn,” the film arguably also led to a reversal of fortune in Hollywood due to “Dawn’s” right-wing political leanings (the film’s political stigma alienated many in Hollywood). Coupled with an accountant friend who looted Milius’s vast earnings, Milius was eventually reduced to asking for a staff writing position on the HBO show “Deadwood” in order to pay for his son’s law school. “Deadwood” producer David Milch gave Milius the money and was shocked when Milius paid the entire amount back. Milius had a comeback of sorts creating the HBO series “Rome,” but then had another setback in 2010 when he suffered a stroke. Milius has fought valiantly back and was able to regain his mind and his writing abilities which he hopes to realize with his long-gestating “Genghis Khan” project.

Regardless of where you stand politically, “Milius” is one hell of a documentary about a true Hollywood character and survivor. The fact that so many famous people agreed to be interviewed for this documentary (including Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola, Schrader, Oliver Stone, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, George Hamilton, and many others) only demonstrates how much love and respect he has generated over the years. The one common denominator everyone praises is Milius’s gift for storytelling, which apparently hasn’t been destroyed by his stroke. Directors Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson do a splendid job of telling one of the most fascinating true Hollywood stories you’ll ever see. It’s now available for viewing on Amazon Prime.

You can also hear an interview with Figueroa on the excellent “Projection Booth” podcast:

http://www.projection-booth.com/audio/Epx31-Milius.mp3

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“Forkboy” – Lard

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Time to wake up! This is the lead-off track from Lard’s “The Last Temptation of Reid” album from 1990 and was later featured in the prison riot scene in Oliver Stone’s 1994 “Natural Born Killers” (though, you’ll hear more of it in the director’s cut which features a longer, more violent version of the prison riot among other scenes). Lard was a collaborative side project consisting of Al Jourgensen of Ministry and Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys … as well as others, including other members of Ministry.

Joe Pesci freaks out in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991)

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At some point, I’m going to write a lengthy essay on Oliver Stone’s 1991 conspiracy blockbuster “JFK.” I’m not going to argue what’s true or what’s not in this film. Mainly because I don’t know. I don’t buy everything in this film, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not one of the most brilliantly directed and edited political thrillers of all time.

One of my favorite scenes is when Joe Pesci’s David Ferrie character freaks out when being interrogated by Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison character and Garrison’s cronies. Yes, it’s over the top and hammy … but I freakin’ love it. The way Stone ratchets up the intensity while that brilliant John Williams’ score ratchets up the tension while Pesci’s character goes increasingly berserk and paranoid is a classic film moment.

“Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession” (2004) dir. Alexandra Cassevetes

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Z Channel was a Los Angeles-based cable-TV movie channel that was active during the 1970s and 1980s. What made Z Channel different from HBO, Showtime, and other popular movie channels at the time was their eclectic programming and willingness to show films no one else was showing on television, cable or otherwise. The programmer, a man by the name of Jerry Harvey, was a hardcore cinephile and was diligent about tracking down the most obscure cinematic gems.  His intelligence, intensity, and diligence impressed (and sometimes annoyed) a lot of filmmakers, studio executives, and other creative types in Hollywood.

Z Channel was incredibly popular with the creative community in Hollywood.  Harvey was so well-respected, he was able to get the rights to show Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” during the 1977 Oscar season (while it was still in many theaters) which arguably led to its multiple Oscar nominations and wins.  He also championed Oliver Stone’s “Salvador,” which also led to its critical resurgence and subsequent Oscar nominations in 1986.  However, Harvey’s most important legacy was the promotion of the so-called “director’s cut” and “letterboxing,” which preserved the widescreen composition of films for viewing on non-widescreen TVs.  In 1983, he showed the original director’s cut version of Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate,” a film many considered a notorious flop, but a film that Harvey felt was a great film undermined by studio tinkering and the director’s own insecurity after the original director’s cut was severely criticized.  This led to premiering Bernardo Bertolucci’s 5 1/2 hour European (and in America, X-rated) director’s cut of his classic “1900,” as well as the European cut of Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece “The Leopard.”

Despite the professional respect he won by many in the creative community, Harvey was a very, very troubled man.  He eventually shot and killed his second wife, before committing suicide in 1988.

“Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession” is a great documentary not only about Z Channel and the early days of cable TV, but of Harvey himself.  It was directed by John Cassevetes’ daughter Alexandra Cassevetes and contains interviews with Quentin Tarantino, Robert Altman, Paul Verhoeven, Vilmos Zsigmond, Henry Jaglom, Jacqueline Bisset, Alexander Payne, Jim Jarmusch, Theresa Russell, James Woods, Penelope Spheeris and many, many other directors, screenwriters, and actors who testify about the importance and influence of Z Channel.

While a lot of it is sad, the documentary is an orgy for film buffs, with lots of great clips and interviews.  This is one of my desert island films.

The Warhol Party Scene from “The Doors” (1991) dir. Oliver Stone

Drug freakout scenes are one of my favorite cliches in movies.  My all-time favorite drug freakout scene (with the exception of Helen Hunt trying to fly in the 1982 CBS TV-movie “Desperate Lives”) is this scene from Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.”  With the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” and “Heroin” playing in the background, Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison takes a walk on the wild side with all kinds of Andy Warhol characters from Tom Baker (played by Michael Madsen), Warhol (played by Crispin Glover), Nico (played by Christina Fulton), and some unnamed Warhol assistant (played by Oscar winning 70s singer/songwriter Paul Williams).  Seeing this on home video doesn’t compare to seeing this film on a huge screen with booming stereo sound back in the day.  The wobbly, boat-in-a-tsunami camera movements are much more intense and caused me to have a major headache when I saw this in a theater.

“Midnight Express” (1978) dir. Alan Parker, scr. Oliver Stone

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When you’re making a feature film about a real-life event, it’s difficult to do justice to that event in just two hours.  People and events need to be combined, placed out of order, or removed entirely, in order to make a dramatically interesting film.  I understand that and am very forgiving most of the time… except I find it hard to do with “Midnight Express.”

“Midnight Express” is a 1978 film about Billy Hayes, an American college student who got arrested in Turkey trying to smuggle four pounds of hashish out of the country.  The film was highly praised, was nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Picture), won an Oscar for Best Musical Score and Best Screenplay (Stone’s first Oscar), and won Best Picture at that year’s Golden Globe Awards.  It’s an extremely riveting and disturbing film, not only for the horrors Hayes faces in a foreign prison, but also because of the Turkish justice system.   He was initially sentenced to five years in prison, but then laws changed while he was serving his time, was retried, and then given 30 years.  Hayes made a daring and harrowing escape into Greece (a country which has traditionally not gotten along with Turkey), who then deported him back to the United States.

If you know nothing about Hayes’s real story, the film will shock you to your very core and will leave you severely wrung out by the end.  The film plays like one of the scariest horror films ever created.  It’s expertly directed, edited, scored and acted, with a classic performance by Brad Davis, who plays Hayes.   However, if you read the original book on which the movie was based, you start to appreciate the film much less.  There’s many similar events, but the film reedits them, puts them in a different order, and then invents many events to make the film more interesting.  Per Wikipedia, here are some of the main differences:

  • In the movie, Billy Hayes is in Turkey with his girlfriend when he is arrested, whereas in the original story he is alone.
  • The attempted rape scene was fictionalized. Billy Hayes never claimed to have suffered any sexual violence at the hands of his Turkish wardens. He did engage in consensual sex while in prison, but the film depicts Hayes gently rejecting the advances of a fellow prisoner.
  • The scene where Billy attempts to escape from the Turkish police and is recaptured by “Tex”, the shadowy American agent, did not happen. ‘Tex’ was a real person Billy encountered after his arrest, who indeed pulled a gun on him, but that was when they were riding in the police car from the Istanbul airport to the police station after Billy attempted to sneak out of the car while it was stopped at a red traffic light. In the book’s account, Tex drove Billy to the police station where he dropped him off and Billy never saw him again. It was a Turkish policeman who translated for Billy during his interrogation with the Turkish detective.
  • Although Billy Hayes did spend seventeen days in the prison’s psychiatric hospital in 1972, Hayes never bit out anyone’s tongue, which led to him being committed to the section for the criminally insane in the film.
  • In the book’s ending, Hayes was moved to another prison on an island from which he escapes eventually, by swimming across the lake and then traveling by foot as well as on a bus to Istanbul and then crossing the border into Greece.  In the movie this passage is replaced by a violent scene in which he unwittingly kills the head guard who is preparing to rape him. In reality, Hamidou, the chief guard, was killed in 1973 by a recently paroled prisoner, who spotted him drinking tea at a café outside the prison and shot him eight times.

In other words, the film’s most dramatic moments were either completely fictionalized or distorted to such a degree that the alterations significantly sour whatever power these moments had.  In addition, the way in which the Turks are portrayed by the filmmakers (corrupt, sadistic, sexually violent) is scarcely better than the way Southern whites were portrayed in “Deliverance” or African-Americans were portrayed in “The Birth of a Nation.”

What’s particularly interesting is that even Hayes’s original book doesn’t even tell the complete story.  Hayes has recently given a new version of events that paints a different picture than the one he gave in the book.  Per Hayes’s most recent account, the time he got arrested was not his first time smuggling drugs out of Turkey.  He actually had done it several times before.  Also, one of his friends was murdered trying to get Hayes out of prison.  I would imagine these things were left out because Hayes was very afraid of being brought up on new charges, but given the statute of limitations, he has now told the complete story, which can be seen here in its entirety (from National Geographic’s “Locked Up Abroad”):

Hayes has now expressed deep regret with how the movie distorted his story and even returned to Turkey to publicly apologize for how the film painted their country in such a bad light.  In 2010, Hayes, Stone, and Parker returned to Turkey to watch the film with Turkish prisoners and discuss the film.   It’s a good thing the filmmakers have taken responsibility for this, but it’s unfortunately too little, too late.  The film’s popularity over the years has done a lot of damage to the world’s view of Turkey.

“The Way I Walk” – Robert Gordon and Link Wray

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Before the Tuff Darts recorded their first album for Sire, Robert Gordon left the group and arguably had greater success as a rockabilly singer. This cover of Jack Scott’s “The Way I Walk” with 50s guitar legend Link Wray is a masterpiece of swagger and menace.  Wray’s guitar on this track must rank among the sickest solos ever recorded. In 1994, this was used during the pre-credits sequence of Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers.”

“Salvador” (1986) dir. Oliver Stone

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Made in the same year as Oliver Stone’s breakthrough “Platoon,” “Salvador” is arguably Stone’s best film. The late, great critic Pauline Kael described the directorial style of this film as someone putting a gun to the back of Stone’s neck and shouting “GO!!” That’s pretty much the long and short of it. The most exciting political thriller since Costa-Gavras’s “Z,” “Salvador” is like a Hunter S. Thompson story in hell.

James Woods gives his all-time best performance as sleazebag photographer Richard Boyle.  Apologies to Paul Newman, but he should have gotten the Best Actor Oscar for “Hud,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Verdict,” or “Nobody’s Fool.”  Sorry, Woods deserved the Oscar in 1987.  If there was any role Woods was born to play, it’s Boyle.  And the supporting performances, from James Belushi to Elpidia Carillo to Micheal Murphy to John Savage to Tony Plana are all magnificent.

This is political cinema as an action film.  You can really see Kathryn Bigelow taking notes (Stone produced her 1989 thriller “Blue Steel”) for her later work on “Strange Days” and “The Hurt Locker.”

 

Eric Bogosian in “Talk Radio” (1988) dir. Oliver Stone

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One of the most ferocious performances I have ever seen on film is Bogosian’s turn as talk radio host Barry Champlain in Oliver Stone’s film “Talk Radio.” Like Andy Griffith’s performance in Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd” and Ryan Gosling’s performance in Henry Bean’s “The Believer,” these are performances so frighteningly intense that they seem to come from another planet. Tellingly, none of these performances were ever nominated for any major awards.

Unfortunately, all I’m able to post here is the original trailer.  The stunning monologue / freak-out Bogosian does near the end of the film that I originally posted has since been taken down by YouTube.  To be fair to this trailer, this was one of the first uses of George Thoroughgood’s “Bad to the Bone” in a film (after its use in John Carpenter’s “Christine” and a film called “Slayground” from the mid-1980s) before it got overused during the 1990s.

Why Bogosian never became a bigger star is beyond my comprehension. If you ever have the chance to see him live, do yourself a favor and go. I saw him in 2001 in Albany, NY and it was one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen. Also recommended, his performance film “Wake Up and Smell the Coffee.”