Sunday, May 17, 2020
(January 1948, U.S.)
John Huston's black and white classic THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE is officially described as an American western adventure drama. Typically, I don't go for the entire western genre because, in my opinion, the basic stories never change: small town, good guys terrorized by bad guys, lone hero, and final shoot-out that concludes everything. The western element for this film, however, merely lies in its historical era and its background, I think. Every plot point I just mentioned doesn't exist here, but rather an exploration into the period of history that was prospecting for gold, and the dark greed it brought out of the hearts of men.
In the year 1925, Fred C. Dobbs (played by Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (played by Tim Holt) are two unemployed American drifters trying to survive on the streets of Mexico. After a failed attempt as roughneck labor contractors on an oil rig, they meet up with old prospector Howard (played by John Huston's father Walter Huston) who tells them tales of gold prospecting and the inevitable consequences of striking it rich. The two young men are easily and quickly tempted by the promise of gold and its riches. With what little money they're able to scrape up, they pool their funds together to finance a gold prospecting journey into the remote Sierra Madre mountains.
Almost immediately, the group is not only challenged with outfitting the project, but also fighting off attacks by Mexican bandits. Howard proves to be the most knowledgeable and hardest of the three men, having lived through this entire experience multiple time before. After days of difficult travel and climbing, his keen and experienced eye recognizes the terrain that's laden with gold. The men begin extracting the riches of the land, living and working in harsh and primitive conditions. After time and hard work, they manage to collect a fortune of gold that brings with it the fear, paranoia and suspicion of theft and betrayal from each man, particularly Dobbs, who slowly loses his sanity. The of them agree to divide the gold so as to jealously conceal the whereabouts of their shares.
After Howard is summoned to assist local villagers to save the life of a little boy, they insist that he return to the village to be honored, and refuse to accept no for an answer. Howard entrusts his gold with Dobbs and Curtin, but Dobbs's paranoia continues, and he and Curtin are constantly at each other's throats, to the point where Dobbs holds Curtin at gunpoint and shoots him. Taking all the gold for himself, he doesn't live long, as he's ultimately slain by Mexican bandits. Curtin survives the shooting, but walks away with nothing, ending up right back as he was at the beginning of the film. Howard, on the other hand, is contented to spend the rest of his life as a welcomed medicine man in the village who accepted him.
THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE is a story of the influence of greed corrupting men's souls, though it doesn't say too much about the product of gold itself as a film character. The actions of three otherwise good men is driven by not only greed, but of fear of what the other man might do. The film makes a point of expressing their the events that question their human nature, particularly Dobbs. The toughness of a man like Humphrey Bogart shines as a man who's exactly such a good man from the beginning, and who only deteriorates into something much worse as the adventurous prospect of striking it rich takes shape throughout the film. It's also one of John Huston's best works in a string of films he made with Bogart that also included THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), KEY LARGO (1948) and THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951).
Favorite line or dialogue:
Mexican bandit: "Badges? We ain't got no badges! We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinking badges!"
(that's right, people - that line did NOT originate from Mel Brooks's BLAZING SADDLES).
Sunday, May 3, 2020
(September 2001, U.S.)
When I look back at the month of September 2001, it's almost impossible for me to recall exactly which movie were released and which weren't. In the weeks immediately following the events of September 11th of that year, Hollywood was being very careful about films featuring any excessive violence or reference to violence on American soil. TRAINING DAY, I know, saw no delayed release or cancellation because I recall seeing it in a Manhattan movie theater in its opening week. This American crime thriller starring Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke takes the traditional cop and crime story to new places we've likely never seen before.
Los Angeles police officer Jake Hoyt (Hawke) wakes up to a brand new day to begin his assignment of evaluation by his new superior, Detective Alonzo Harris (Washington), a highly decorated narcotics officer. Alonzo is hardly shy about the fact that he's a corrupt cop on the take, willing to do whatever is necessary to get his job done to clean up the streets. After confiscating some drugs from a group of college kids, Alonzo orders Jake to smoke it. Refusing at first, Jake is forced to comply when Alonzo (literally) puts a gun to his head and citing that Jake's refusal would get him killed on the streets. Turns out what Jake smokes is laced with PCP, now sitting in his blood and could easily compromise him later with his authorities. Despite being rather high right now, Jake still manages to do the right thing as a cop when he saves a teenage girl from being raped in an alley by a pair of addicts. Jake discovers and retrieves the girls wallet afterwards (this pays off considerably later).
Throughout the day, Jake is unwittingly caught up in a series of corrupt busts, seizures, cash theft and the execution of a known drug dealer, for which Jake has been set up at the so-called "hero cop" of the shooting. We also learn that Alonzo is being hunted by the Russian mafia for an outstanding debt of one million dollars he incurred for killing one of their men in Las Vegas. It becomes very clear that Alonzo will use anyone and steal whatever he needs to keep himself alive and pay off his debt with the Russians. This is never more obvious when he and Jake make a stop to run an errand and Jake reluctantly plays poker with a group of gang members, waiting for Alonzo to return from the bathroom. Realizing that he's been abandoned and is now the intended target of the gang members, Jake is beaten and nearly executed in the bathtub when the teenage girl's wallet saves him. The girl, it turns out, is the cousin of the leading gang member. After confirming Jake's story of how he had saved her from being raped earlier that day, Jake's life is spared, though he's still determined to have his revenge against Alonzo.
After a gunfight and chase, Alonzo is subdued, while the entire ghetto neighborhood he has always controlled congregates to watch, refusing to help the corrupt and arrogant Alonzo now in his time of need. Jake shoots Alonzo in the ass and takes the money intended to pay off the Russians, intending to submit it as evidence against Alonzo. Alonzo, however, won't live to see the next day, as he's ambushed and executed by the Russians while driving to LAX airport. Jake returns home, a completely changed man after just a single training day.
From the day that the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King on video were shockingly acquitted in 1992, the police force and their charges of racism and corruption feel as if they've always been a part of my generation's environment. As a totally corrupt (and proud of it) L.A. cop, Denzel Washington shows us just how dark and brutal he can be as an actor, reminding us of the corrupt power, if not evil, a determined police officer can generate in his community. Among the people he controls, he proudly and forcefully declares that he is the police, and that, "King Kong ain't got shit on me!" The film as a whole is raw, gritty and dirty, showing us the city in a way that often reminds me of the New York city grime featured in much older crime thrillers like THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) and NIGHTHAWKS (1981).
Does Washington go a bit over the top as he ventures into the dark side? Perhaps, but sometimes over-the-top performances (think even Jack Nicholson in THE SHINING) can still win you the Oscar for best actor (though why he didn't win it for his performance in Spike Lee's MALCOM X instead, I'll never know).
Favorite line or dialogue:
Jake Hoyt: "That's street justice."
Alonzo Harris: "What's wrong with street justice?"
Jake: "Oh, what, so just let the animals wipe themselves out, right?"
Alonzo: "God willing!"
Saturday, April 25, 2020
(December 2000, U.S.)
I think I'm one of the few people in the world who didn't like Steven Soderbergh's ERIN BROCKOVICH or Julia Roberts's performance in it. In fact, I used to spitefully call the movie ERIN "BREATAVICH" because it seemed to me like Roberts was doing most of her acting through her tits (not that I have a problem with big tits, of course). Anyway, I couldn't help but wonder if I'd ever enjoy another Soderbergh film again after that one (despite its enormous popularity). TRAFFIC, released in the same year, was a refreshing return to the kind of storytelling and filmmaking I'd already enjoyed in his two previous films OUT OF SIGHT (1998) and THE LIMEY (1999). This American crime drama which explores the illegal drug trade from its numerous perspectives (including users, enforcers, traffickers and politicians - some of whom never actually meet each other in the film) is based on a 1989 British TV series called TRAFFIK (I've never seen it). The story's breakdown is as follows:
In Mexico, police officer Javier Rodriguez (played by Benicio Del Toro) and his partner are intercepted by a high-ranking Mexican general after they stop a drug transport and arrest its couriers. Javier is recruited to capture a well-known hitman working for the Tijuana drug cartel. Under torture, the hitman reveals the names of key members of the rival Obregón cartel. Turns out the entire Mexican anti-drug campaign is a fraud, as the General is secretly eliminating one cartel because he is in business with another for a profit. As Javier gets deeper into the heart of the drug trade, he eventually lends himself out to side with the American DEA, and feels like a traitor to his country in the process.
In San Diego, an undercover DEA investigation led by agent Montel Gordon (played by Don Cheadle) leads to a high profile arrest of a high stakes dealer posing as a fisherman. As he and his partner go to great efforts to keep their witness alive to testify against his employer, said employer is arrested in front of his pregnant wife (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) and his child. The arrest is intended as a loud message to the Mexican drug organizations. As the wife who is initially terrified and confused at the shocking disruption to her life and life style, she slowly evolves into a woman of strength and conviction, willing to pick up the illegal business where her husband left off in order to survive, even ordering the assassination of the one man who can testify against her husband.
Finally, conservative Ohio judge Robert Wakefield (played by Michael Douglas) is appointed to head the President's Office of National Drug Control Policy. This is expected to involve the traditional political bullshit, until Robert discovers that his own sixteen year-old daughter, an honor student, has become a drug addict. The line between what is political and personal comes into play, and Robert is forced to balance what is expected of him from his superiors and what he knows must be done as a concerned father, even to the point of dragging his daughter's boyfriend out of school to help find her in the big city of Cincinnati, eventually discovering her prostituting herself in a seedy hotel. Even after having rescued his daughter, he comes to realize just how futile his political intentions and plans are in the war on drugs - a war that must sometimes be fought at home against one's own family.
To call TRAFFIC ambitious would be a gross understatement. Even as we're watching three different stories that are ultimately connected somehow, we're forced to recognize issues in the drug world that are often grey, with no real identifiable "good guys" and "bad guys". TRAFFIC doesn't preach to us the immoral horrors of drugs, but rather allows its characters and their outstanding performances to do the talking and allow us as the viewers to think for ourselves. And still, it remains a haunting and gripping thriller meant to keep us on the edge of our seats, awaiting the next explosive resolution. It also reminds us to every once in a while forget crap like OCEAN'S TWELVE and THIRTEEN and remember the sort of independent and artistic filmmaking Steven Soderbergh has been giving us ever since SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE in 1989.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Robert Wakefield: "What's Washington like? Well it's like Calcutta, surrounded by beggars. The only difference is the beggars in Washington wear fifteen hundred dollar suits and they don't say please or thank you."
Tuesday, April 21, 2020
Wow! Has it really been ten years since I first launched my movie blog? Seems like it was only yesterday I posted my first blog for the first film in my extensive alphabetical collection - ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Seems I've come such a long way since. One thing is for certain, it's the personal stories behind many of the movies I've experienced and written about that ultimately led me to write my first published book (currently for sale on Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com & iTunesApple.com), IT'S STRICTLY PERSONAL: A Nostalgic Movie Memoir of 1975-1982...
...as well as the follow up book currently in publication.
My sincere thanks and appreciation to all who have read, followed and enjoyed my blog posts for the last ten years. Here's to many more years of movies and blogging!
- Eric Friedmann (Published Author)
Monday, April 13, 2020
(July 1983, U.S.)
By 1983, 48 HRS. may have been Eddie Murphy’s only previous film under his belt, but his years on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and his HBO comedy special DELIRIOUS solidified him as a major star. Beyond the promo spots on TV, I didn’t know what his new movie TRADING PLACES was about when I was a teenager, and I didn’t care. It was Eddie Murphy, for crying out loud, and I needed no other reason to get my butt into the theater as soon as possible to enjoy more of wild and vulgar antics.
This was, I think, the first time I’d seen the city of Philadelphia on screen since three ROCKY movies. There were the same landmarks to look at like the Liberty Bell and the famous museum steps that made Rocky Balboa so famous. This time, the camera also focuses on sections of the city that define the wealthy and successful, including Dan Aykroyd’s character of Louis Winthorpe III as a spoiled rotten and prissy little man who couldn’t even get dressed in the morning without the help of his faithful butler and servant, Coleman (played by Denholm Elliot). I'm actually surprised to see that Louis has a job requiring him to show up to work every morning. I suppose that was part of what makes him a funny guy. When Eddie Murphy finally arrives on the scene, he's just as insane as he ever, pretending to be a blind man with no legs. There isn’t just some good physical comedy happening here, but also the spontaneous dialogue spitting out of Eddie’s mouth when he's busted by the police. Listening to him rant and rave about how happy he is to have his sight and the use of his legs back is laughter no one can resist. Before we know what's happening, Winthorpe’s encounter with Eddie’s character Billy Ray Valentine results in Winthorpe being arrested for a theft he didn’t commit, and Billy Ray getting sucked into the rich life once belonging to Winthorpe. The two of them are now unwillingly part of a one dollar bet and experiment made between the two wealthy Duke Brothers to see what will happen if Winthorpe and Valentine’s lives are switched, and what will happen to each of them.
As we can easily expect, a street hustler like Valentine takes to his wild new life of money very quickly and easily. He also becomes a better and more honest human being as time goes on. Winthorpe, on the other hand, becomes more of the criminal type who’ll stop at nothing to prove himself innocent against everything that's happened to him. He also gets help from Jamie Lee Curtis, now playing a hooker named Ophelia. Turns out she can be a funny woman, as well as the "queen of scream" in two HALLOWEEN movies. We also get to see her topless for just a brief moment (no complaint about that)...
TRADING PLACES is one of the earliest comedies in which I learned about the art of cliché in the movies. After watching it for some time, it becomes pretty obvious how things will turn out. It's not surprising when Dan and Eddie realize what's happening to them and decided to team up to get even with the Duke Brothers. It's not surprising to see that their plan to get rich while putting the Duke’s in the poor house is an easy and welcomed success. It's not surprising to see that Dan and Jamie end up together on a tropical island in the end after he was previously dumped by his fiancée Penelope, who was all-too-ready to disbelieve his innocence and leave him forever (perhaps we also learn about the realities of human loyalty from this movie, as well). I'd say the real surprise of this movie comes five years later with another John Landis/Eddie Murphy comedy, COMING TO AMERICA, when we're reunited with the Duke Brothers, still living on the streets in poverty.
This was the second Dan Aykroyd film released after he lost his best friend John Belushi in March 1982 (the first was a dud called DOCTOR DETROIT). His return is refreshing in a way because it displays his genuine joy toward comedy that one would expect from Aykroyd from his years on SNL, as well as his screen work. The interplay between himself and Eddie Murphy not only serves up the good laughs, but also makes for entertaining socio-economic social satire with a good heart, as well, despite any signs of character stereotype it displays (successful comedy has no rules, or at least it shouldn’t have any rules). The skills of these two young actors is both quirky and odd, defining each of their personalities and telling us who they truly are. It’s because of who they truly are as opposites that makes them so funny, I think. This is a film that easily echoes an old black and white classic like Preston Sturges’ 1941 film THE LADY EVE, in which opposing identities also conflict with each other, resulting in comic outcomes, if not genius.
And hey, I'm sure I'm not the only one who still likes to do this every New Year's Eve...
Favorite line or dialogue:
Billy Ray Valentine: "Merry New Year!"
Clarence Beeks: "That's "happy." In this country we say "Happy New Year."
Billy Ray: "Oh, ho, ho, thank you for correcting my English which stinks!"
Saturday, April 4, 2020
(June 2010, U.S.)
TOY STORY 3 was the first movie my wife and I ever took our son to see on the big screen when he was just four years-old. So the third installment in this franchise could've sucked, and I still would've had fond memories of it simply by recalling the look of awe and wonderment on my little boy's face while he looked up movie screen. But it didn't suck. In fact, I considered it an fresh and original take on story of our beloved toys for the first time since 1999.
Well, it's finally happened. Andy is grown up and preparing to leave for college. His old toys have gone unplayed with for years, and they're getting desperate, to the point of staging a cell phone call in order to get his attention, though it fails. Still, Andy intends to take Woody to college with him, while the rest of the gang will be put in storage in the attic. But something goes wrong, and Andy's mother mistakes the trash bag they end up in as actual trash and puts it on the curb. The toys escape, but believe that Andy finally threw them away, and decide it would be best to move on by putting themselves in the box being donated to the local Sunnyside Daycare center. Woody follows them, desperate to convince them of Andy's true intentions.
The first glimpse of Sunnyside is a calm, tranquil place where children play nicely with the toys. The toys are greeted and welcomed by other toys, led by Loto-Bear (voiced by Ned Beatty - remember him as Otis in SUPERMAN?), and Barbie meets her Ken doll counterpart (voiced by Michael Keaton), who about as effeminate as we ever imagines, complete with a full wardrobe of disco-related clothing and dream house. Woody tries to go home, but is discovered by a little girl named Bonnie, who brings him home and plays with him and her other toys. Realizing that Woody just came from Sunnyside, they have their own stories to tell, including how Lotso was abandoned by his owner and forgotten about. This traumatic event made Lots-O bitter and he ended up taking over Sunnyside as absolute ruler.
At Sunnyside, Andy's toys discover the truth about how rough it is when played with by the toddlers, in which they're licked, kicked, banged, and beaten for fun. This is their life now, and Lots-O and his "henchtoys" are keeping them prisoner. Buzz Lightyear has been switched to his original mode and is now acting as prison keeper, until he's overtaken by our hero toys and switched again...accidentally to Spanish mode. This is, perhaps, one of the more original and humorous switches the story in takes by keeping the laughs fresh particularly for adults who can read subtitles on the screen (my four year-old son could not). The toys eventually manage to escape and end up in a dumpster, but are cornered by Lotso and his gang. Woody reveals Lotso's lies and deception, and Lotso ends up in the same life and death predicament, as they toys are headed for the local landfill, where they're swept onto a conveyor belt and headed straight toward the burning incinerator. This is a moment many fans have found worthy of tears, as the toys hold hands, believing that their doom in finally at hand.
But wait, this is a TOY STORY movie, which means they don't end in fiery tragedy! They're rescued at the last minute by those annoying little, green aliens operating the crane claw ("The claw!"). The gang is saved and Lotso ends up tied to the front radiator grille of a truck, destined to ride forever swallowing highway flies. Woody and the other toys hitch a ride on another garbage truck to get back to Andy's house.
Now the final moment is at hand. What will Andy do with his beloved toys? He donates them to Bonnie, and in the process, tells her of what their playful purpose is and what each of them meant to him as a child. There's actually an unforgettable moment when he realizes that Woody is mistakenly in the box and wants to retract from giving him to Bonnie. Once the hesitation passes, the camera is carefully focused to show that the time has come for Andy's greatest toy to be passed down to another child who will love him as much he did. When Andy finally leaves, he turns and thanks his toys. They've always been there for him, and we'll never forget that, either.
There's probably nothing I can say about TOY STORY 3 that I haven't already said about the first two, so I won't even try. What I will talk about is something none of the first three films have ever bothered to mention, and that's the fact that Andy does not have a father. We don't know what happened to him, death or abandonment, but I think we can safely say that whatever did happen, happened shortly before his little sister Molly was born. The fact that Andy has no father is important because I believe it justifies not only the tight bond he has with his toys, but also the adventures he allows himself to be sucked into with those toys. Woody is not just a favorite toy, but perhaps even so much as a father figure for Andy; a strong, courageous presence to look up to while growing up, and one to finally say goodbye to when it's time for him to venture out into the world and his future.
For me, it will always be about a precious memory of taking my son to the movies for the first time. Thanks for that memory, Sam. Your dad loves you.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Andy (to Bonnie): "Woody's no ordinary toy. He's brave. But the thing that makes Woody special is he'll never give up on you...ever."
Wednesday, April 1, 2020
(November 1999, U.S.)
Well, the decade and the entire century were coming to an end, and I was dating the woman who would one day become my wife. We went to a lot of movies together, and one day decided that the new TOY STORY movie was well worth a bus trip across Central Park shortly following a recent snow storm. Since the original 1995 film, there'd been a wave of computer-animated movies here and there. Most of them went right passed me because it simply wasn't the genre I cared for, though I recall having a genuine fondness for Woody Allen's performance in ANTZ (1998). Still, the comic talents of Tom Hanks couldn't be ignored and TOY STORY 2 was on my (sorry, our) list of movies to see during the 1999 holiday season.
So now it's just a few years later, and Andy is prepared to take Woody with him to cowboy camp. But while getting just one last playtime session in before leaving, he accidentally tears Woody's arm, and Woody ends up on the dusty shelf where toys have the past have gone forgotten. After rescuing Wheezy the penguin from a yard sale, Woody himself is discovered and stolen by a fat, greedy toy collector named Al (devilishly voiced by Wayne Knight). Witnessing the theft, Buzz and the rest of the toy entourage set out on their mission to rescue Woody. It's at Al's apartment that Woody learns his true identity in that he's part of Woody's Roundup along with cowgirl Jessie (voiced by Joan Cusack), Bullseye the horse, and still mint-in-box Stinky Peter (voiced by Kelsey Grammer). The Roundup was a national 1950's phenomenon that included a hit TV show (ultimately cancelled) and vast assorted merchandise, which Al has collected all of. Now that the vintage set is complete with Woody in it, Al prepares to take the entire collection with him to a museum in Japan for big, big bucks. Intending to return to Andy at first, Woody reconsiders when he realizes that the museum is only interested in the collection if it's complete, but also because he realizes that his time left with Andy is destined to be short-lived as Andy continues to grow up, and grow out of his toys. Woody's arm is accidentally ripped off completely, and like Harvey Keitel in PULP FICTION, the "toy cleaner" is brought in to not only fix Woody, but make him look as brand new. While still conflicted about returning to Andy, Jessie reveals she once belonged to and was deeply loved by Emily, who eventually outgrew her and gave her away to charity (sad, indeed).
Meanwhile, Buzz and the others reach Al's Toy Barn as they continue their search. Tour guide Barbie makes an appearance to entice the other toys, and Buzz is caught and imprisoned by another Buzz Lightyear action figure, who thinks he's the real space ranger (sound familiar?). One can't but laugh a little extra when original Buzz #1 says to himself, "Man, tell me I wasn't this deluded." Buzz #2 eventually joins the group, and head for Al's apartment after discovering his plan. Reunited, Woody continues to be reluctant in returning to Andy, thus looking forward to his trip to Japan. But of course, Buzz reminds Woody of their true purpose is to be there for Andy for as long as possible. Woody changes his mind, and convinces Jessie and Bullseye to go with him, but Pete is determined to get to Japan, even if it means holding the rest of the Roundup gang against their will.
Bound for the airport now, the toys remain in pursuit to get Woody and his new friends back. The scene into the baggage handling system and the multitude of suitcases is quite a visual feast in that you not only wonder how the toys will be rescued, but also in the knowledge that it's just that busy and insane inside that thing. Pete is defeated and ends up in a little girl's backpack who likes to paint her toy's faces. Woody rescues Jess from the airplane as it's taxiing down the runway and eventually all of them are home again awaiting Andy's return from cowboy camp. Whatever time they'll all have with Andy, they'll enjoy while it lasts, thus giving us all the Hollywood happy ending we need in a movie like this. Oh, and don't forget to stay for the closing credits so we can all enjoy the toys in their own hilarious bloopers.
Speaking as a sequel four years later, the quality of the animation of TOY STORY 2 is surely improved to look a lot more crisp and detailed, thus abandoning any bright and colorful hues of the first film. Still, the second go-around makes it a point of not simply being a remake of the first film, but rather exploring the characters as toys just a little deeper while never forgetting to maintain the same fun spirit of a toy's story. One also can't help but consider the world of the toy in not only its purpose of being loved and played with by its child owner, but also their place in the world as a collector's items intended never to be played with. For any of us who are adult toy collectors (I'm not...not really), we're reminded of the true value of toys and what they mean to not only our childhood past, but how we perceive ourselves today as grown-ups. Whatever my personal reasons may ultimately be, TOY STORY 2 remains my favorite film of the franchise (it was also a memorable and snowy date with my future wife).
Favorite line or dialogue:
Woody: "What's that? Jessie and Prospector are trapped in the old abandoned mine and Prospector just lit a stick of dynamite thinking it was a candle and now they're about to be blown to smithereens?"