Monday, June 10, 2019
(December 1997, U.S.)
For most of my blog posts, I usually re-watch the film I'm going to write about in order to gain a fresh perspective. I hardly needed to watch James Cameron's TITANIC again. I've seen it many times, and it was recently aired on Showtime for a month, so I was constantly catching bits and pieces of it here and there. Instead, I chose to watch the 1958 British film A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, and realized that Cameron (to his discredit) adapted many of the same camera shots, as well as numerous pieces of dialogue. However, regardless of any similarities or discrepancies between Cameron's film and the multitude of Titanic films that came before it, it's the TITANIC this generation of film fans has come to love the most, over and over again. I'm no different.
TITANIC - you've seen the film, you know the flawlessly-crafted story, you thought all of the performances were top notch, you love that it won Best Picture of 1997, you know that James Cameron was "King of the World", and if you're a red-blooded heterosexual male like I am, you probably built up many fantasies around seeing Kate Winslet naked for the brief moment we were treated to it during the sketching sequence...
(sorry. Couldn't resist. She was HOT!)
So what I'd like to try and do is discuss TITANIC just a little outside of the box, so to say. I'd like to take James Cameron's epic film and describe the social relations and conflicts on their socio-economic levels. Don't think I can? Stay with me a while and we'll see...
TITANIC was released after months of delay and high anticipation that it would be the most epic event in the world of film entertainment, as well as bringing new depths to the common disaster film. On its surface, it's a spectacular disaster film, as well as a heart-touching love story between two young adults who meet on the legendary ocean liner just days before it would meet its fate when colliding with an iceberg. It's a grand film of not only scale and size (like the ship itself), but also a breakthrough technological effort in the world of film sets and CGI. My post, however, is meant to focus more on not only the love story aspect of the film, but its depiction of social class relationships and conflicts aboard the great liner. Much like traditional travel even of today, one's place aboard the ship is solely dependent on what class level each passenger falls under. Aboard the RMS Titanic, one's class level is bought and paid for as commonly as any other commodity. Those of high end wealth and privilege are in the financial position to buy the best the ship can offer, whether it be their stateroom, the food they’re served, the deck level of the ship they're permitted to occupy or even the right to take part in the Sunday church services. Those who cannot afford such luxuries of the ship are placed in third class and must dwell within the ship's depths, grouped together like filthy rats.
Cameron makes a deliberate effort to distinguish both classes by first depicting the very elegant dinner of the first class passengers with all the items of the table in their proper place and the very fine food and drink they will dine on. Third class passengers, on the other hand, eat cheap food, drink cheap beer and dance themselves into exhaustion. These two distinctions, by comparison, not only depict the level of what is considered entertaining for each social class, but also makes a point that the third class are apt to loosen up and enjoy themselves more than the stuck-up first class. The love story of the film takes place when Jack Dawson (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) meets Rose DeWitt Bukater (played by Kate Winslet). Jack is a third class passenger, while Rose is a first class passenger. Jack is alone on the ship, while Rose is flanked by her fiancée Cal Hockley (played by Billy Zane) and her mother Ruth (played by Frances Fisher), both people of upper crust breeding who make no secret of looking down on and even despising the lower class elements that occupy the same ship as them. Even the employees of the ship are not exempt from their "holier-than-thou" attitude, as they are considered nothing more than mere servants in life who don't deserve equal respect. Because of Jack and Rose’s social class differences, it seems highly unlikely that the two of them would ever even meet because they're expected to occupy their own portions of the ship.
Through luck or perhaps even fate, they do meet when Jack saves Rose's life from an aborted suicide attempt on her part. Her stuck-up fiancée Cal, while outwardly grateful to Jack for saving Rose's life, dismisses the efforts of this lower class individual by simply paying him off with a twenty dollar bill. Rose, on the other hand, while being of the same upper crust breeding, is drawn to Jack's free spirit and apparent lust for life's daily pleasures. This is an unavoidable attraction for Rose because we learn that she is a prisoner of her own life of stuck-up privilege, as she is expected by her mother to marry Cal as a matter of convenience that will ensure her family’s name and security in high society's social order. Rose, by all practical definition, is a mail-order-bride, bought and paid for by a man who believes he can possess anything he wants in life simply because he has the means to do it. Jack, while falling for Rose, is not immune to the realities of their class levels and financial positions in life. By the time ship collides with the iceberg and destiny, the love story takes full effect as Jack and Rose come to realize that disaster and the potential for one’s own survival will make their love for each other stronger and more dedicated. Indeed, as the ship is in the process of sinking, Rose is forced to make the choice of possibly surviving with the rich man she doesn’t love, but who will give her everything in life, nonetheless, or the choice of possibly dying with the poor man she truly loves.
Indeed, in TITANIC, love does triumph above all others, which is why perhaps I still consider it the greatest love story every put on screen. But it's when the ship is slowly and progressively meeting its doom that we come to realize just how far and to what extent the order of social classes will take its toll. Early in the film, we learn that there are not enough lifeboats to accommodate every passenger aboard the ship should they be required. When the time comes that they are required, it's not necessarily the traditional law of "woman and children first" that comes into play, but rather the more socially-accepted law of the time when first class women and children shall come first. The notion of all human beings having their own right to survival has just gone out the window simply because many of the ship’s first class passengers shall be deemed "the better half", as Cal puts it. Even Rose's mother is not shy about blatantly asking if the lifeboats shall be seated according to class. This is not only the social order of Cameron's film, but also the historical order of the time it actually happened. Many of the seven hundred plus survivors of the RMS Titanic were of the first class passengers and the social order of the time simply had the odds of survival stacked higher in their favor. The film deems this order as seemingly acceptable by not only the first class, but among the third class passengers, as well, because they don't think to question the injustice of it. When asked by her little girl what is going on, her mother, a third class foreign immigrant tells her that the ship is calling upon first class passengers to the lifeboats first and then will eventually be getting around to the third class passengers, and that they’ll want to be ready to go. Her facial expression, however, tells us that she knows differently and that she, her children, and all the other third class passengers are likely going to die.
Upon watching TITANIC, audiences are likely to walk away with only the gratification that true love did, indeed, triumph above all odds and that even though Jack Dawson did die in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, Rose never let go of his love and his memory. While not as gratifying on the level of pure entertainment, it might also be deemed necessary to realize that such social class orders of the time not only defined who had the right to live and who had the right to die, but also that time and change would inevitably pass laws of travel that would not only provide enough lifeboats on luxury ocean liners for all passengers concerned, but perhaps even do away with factors of class existence and class conflict that would decide a person's ultimate fate in the face of disaster.
TITANIC won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1997. I loved the film immensely, but I personally thought L.A. CONFIDENTIAL should have won instead. But that's me!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Cal Hockley (to Rose): "Where are you going?! What, back to him?! To be a whore married to a gutter rat?!"
Rose DeWitt: "I’d rather be his whore than your wife!"
Saturday, June 1, 2019
(April 1953, U.S.)
Do the research and you'll find there are a lot more films and documentaries (both theatrical and television) about the sinking of the RMS Titanic than you might imagine, including the very first ten minute silent film called SAVED FROM THE TITANIC, released only twenty-nine days after the actual sinking in 1912, and a 1943 German Nazi propaganda film bearing the same name as this. Of course, my generation as well others before will likely most equate the legendary tale with James Cameron's 1997 Oscar-winning epic. As time went on, and each film became just a little more sophisticated in its filming and its special effects, movie audiences got more of a sense, or at least imagined they did, of what occurred on that fateful night of April 15, 1912.
By the 1950s, an American drama like TITANIC would not only rely heavily on whatever special effects could be achieved by then, but also on its star power. Stars like Barbara Stanwyck, Clifton Webb, Thelma Ritter and Robert Wagner were likely as important to a box office draw, as well as the powerful events of history unfolding on the big screen. As an estranged married couple sailing on the ill-fated maiden voyage of the great ocean liner, Webb and Stanwyck have great chemistry together, if for nothing else, in their ability to display great bitterness and animosity toward each other. At the last minute, Richard Sturges (Webb), a wealthy European socialite, manages to buy a steerage-class ticket in order to seek out his runaway wife Julia (Stanwyck) and their two children. He learns that she intends to take their children back to her home state of Michigan, where they'll be brought up as down-to-earth Americans rather than spoiled socialites, like their father. Learning of her mother's intentions, the oldest daughter Annette (played by Audrey Dalton), she insists she'll return to Europe with her father to continue the life she's been brought up on. Julia concedes that she's old enough to make her own decisions, but insists on keeping custody of their son Norman. Richard, unwilling to accept this, learns the shocking truth that Norman is not his child, but rather the result of a one-night stand after one of their many bitter arguments. Upon hearing that, he agrees to give up all claim and emotional ties to Norman.
Meanwhile, as many of us already know from countless other film versions (including Cameron's), the Titanic is picking up speed as she sails closer to iceberg territory. Believing clear skies and calm seas will be their ally, they cannot foresee their dangerous fate ahead. At the moment of impact, the ship is gashed below the waterline and immediately begins taking on water. Remembering that this is a civilized film from the 1950s, there is order and reason aboard between all men, women and children, unlike the chaos we've witnessed before (again, think Cameron). Lifeboats are filled in an orderly fashion and are detached from the ship without incident. Tears are shed, lovers part, and lives are lost with great honor. The most surprising, and I suppose heartfelt, piece of drama is when Richard and Julia, at their moment of facing pending doom, experience a tearful reconciliation on the boat deck, re-declaring their original love for each other. There's great sadness in watching Stanwyck realizing that despite years of hate between them, their true love shines through at the moment when it really matters.
The sinking of Titanic is hardly that of epic proportions. Remember, this is prior to the actual discovery of the sunken vessel by the American and French expedition in 1985, so it was still presumed that the ship went down in one piece. In her final moments, Richard discovers that he truly loves Norman, regardless of biological issues, and declares the great pride he feels toward him now, and always. The two of them join the rest of the doomed passengers and the crew in singing the Welsh hymn "Nearer, My God, to Thee". As the last of the ship's boilers explodes, Titanic's bow plunges, pivoting her stern high into the air while the ship rapidly slides into the icy water (again, the way it was presumed to have sunk in real life). As dawn approaches, the remaining survivors wait in their lifeboats for the inevitable rescue from the RMS Carpathia to arrive.
Like Shakespeare's HAMLET or even Bram Stoker's DRACULA, time and history inevitable gets you caught up in countless versions of the same story to the point where you're not sure just how to interpret each and every one of them. One has to wonder what would make a person choose one version of TITANIC over another as compared to say, A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (1958) or even a 1979 ABC-TV movie entitled S.O.S. TITANIC. Movie stars surely count for something, and a woman like Barbara Stanwyck shines as not only one trying to break free of a bad situation, but also embracing her own emotions at the point of disaster. Clifton Webb is a perfect English gentleman who knows how to behave not only in life, but also at the point of death, too. Like many tales of the great ship, one must contend with at least an hour or so of prerequisite drama and personal stories of those on board before disaster finally strikes. From then on, its a matter of filming, photography and special effects that will determine just how much the disaster takes a firm grip on our imagination and emotions. Historically, we can never truly count on everything being completely accurate. Certain events and specific passengers (including the names Astor, Guggenheim, and Margaret Brown) have become known as fact, as well as the heroics of Captain Edward Smith and the ship's orchestra continuing to play on the deck during the sinking. Whatever remains as historical nonsense, we must still continue to interpret TITANIC on film as a functional and entertaining story of human drama and survival during what has come to be one of the most historical events of the 20th century.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Richard Sturges: "We have no time to catalog our regrets. All we can do is pretend twenty years years didn't happen. It's June again. You were walking under some Elm trees in a white muslin dress, the loveliest creature I ever laid eyes on. That summer, when I asked you to marry me, I pledged my eternal devotion. I would take it as a very great favor Julia, if you would accept a restatement of that pledge."
Oh, man, that gets me every time!
Tuesday, May 28, 2019
(March 1971, U.S.)
As much as I love all STAR WARS movies (except SOLO!), there came a point in the 1990s when I lost my respect for George Lucas, as did many other fans, when he shamelessly raped the original trilogy to death and gave us the SPECIAL EDITIONS. So, whenever I need to remind myself of just who Lucas used to be, I watch AMERICAN GRAFFITI and, of course, his feature debut film THX 1138. It goes to show you that even the man who created the galaxy far, far away started small at another time and another place.
Based on his own original student film, this dystopian science fiction film set in the 25th century features an underground society in which its citizens are not only required by law to keep themselves on a regular regimen of mind-altering and emotion-suppressing drugs (even the medicine cabinets ask, "What's wrong?" when opened), but are also forbidden to commit acts of sexual intercourse and reproduction. Like George Orwell's 1984, it's a future where everyone is being watched and all activity is recorded. Law and order is maintained through almost unreasonably-calm android police officers who are easy replicas of real-life traffic cops. The mandatory drugs ensure that all working citizens can conduct their demanding and dangerous tasks. Everyone is clad in identical uniforms and all heads have been shaven (male and female) to emphasize absolute uniformity. There are no names, only prefixes followed by four digits. The man known as THX 1138 (played by Robert Duvall) is called by what sounds like the name "Thex" by his roomate LUH 3417 (played by Maggie McOmie). Their relationship is considered normal and conforming. Like Winston Smith in 1984, the story reaches a point where THX begins to wonder and question things. It begins when he realizes that he and LUH have genuine feelings for one another beyond the conforming roomate requirements. Suddenly, life begins to appear to expand itself beyond what he has always been told and encouraged to believe when he goes to his confession booth and confesses his concerns to the portrait of OMM 000 and is repeatedly soothed with a parting salutation of, "You are a true believer, blessings of the State, blessings of the masses. Work hard, increase production, prevent accidents and be happy".
Eventually confronted by SEN 5241 (played by Donald Pleasence), THX is pressured into becoming SEN's new roomate, though he resists and files a complaint for illegal housing mate change. The sexual relationship between THX and LUH is eventually discovered and the two of them are arrested. LUH, it turns out, is pregnant and THX is put on trial for his crimes. The trial, if you really want to call it that, is quick and to the point, resulting in THX being sentenced to a term of reconditioning through negative reinforcements and torture by the android police...
These images are simple, in a background of nothing but white, but chilling, nonetheless, especially when you consider that the acts of the police of the future still ring true with the unfortunate current events surrounding American police officers against African-Americans that has penetrated our consciousness since 1992 and the Los Angeles Rodney King beatings. Finding a hidden exit, THX escapes his prison (with the help of a hologram) and continues his escape by stealing a car. Now pursued by two police androids on motorcycles, THX attempts to flee the city. In a bizarre way, time is on his side, because the police are ordered to maintain their pursuit only for as long as the expense of such a pursuit remains within the allocated budget. Once the expense of his capture has exceeded the budget, the police are ordered to cease the pursuit, and THX is free. Thought what sort of freedom has THX really achieved? Once removed from the underground city, he reaches the surface and watches the orange sun setting. This is where Lucas ends the film, leaving us only with questions about what truly exists on the planet Earth outside the city, and what sort of history has brought our world to this existence. That sort of ambiguity and its effect can be argued and debated by those who watch, I'm sure.
I'll be the first to admit that I love, love, love high-concept science fiction. From 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), to PLANET OF THE APES (1968), to BLADE RUNNER (1982), to DUNE (1984), to SOLARIS (2002), to THX 1138 - the more thought it requires, the more I embrace it into my life. These are the kind of films you surely need to watch multiple times to fully understand and appreciate its art and its intelligence. The storyline of dystopia, conformity and control may seem a simple enough tale of a bleak and grim future. But it's truly the film's visual imagination that haunts us, not only in the underground city, with its endless tunnels, corridors and crowds, but also in its people, living in a time of tyrannical technology, and their physical and mental state in which conformity is forced through drugs. One has to admire young Lucas for achieving such visual effectiveness of light, color and sound effects with a budget that must have been small. It's sci-fi art without going out of its way to be too commercial (perhaps this is why Warner Brothers hated it and didn't give it its due respect until after STAR WARS became a big hit in 1977).
Lucas is not so much delivering a political message with THX 1138, but rather showing us how he can use his camera to share a credible experience of a future world that is both fantastic in its visuals, and scary in its oppressive dictatorship. This concept would, of course, lead his imagination to the Galactic Empire and the Rebellion that fights against it. Unfortunately, like STAR WARS in the '90s, Lucas just couldn't keep his hot hands off one of his past projects and chose to shamelessly re-edit and interject moments of new CGI effects into a new Director's Cut he released in 2004. This is the only version you can get on DVD and Blu-Ray, though thankfully, I still maintain a working VCR in my life, and can occasionally watch the original cut of the film (original as it was for its 1977 re-release, anyway) on VHS tape. Call me old school, but I generally don't condone films of the past being messed with years later. It destroys history.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Voice in medicine cabinet: "If you feel you are not properly sedated, call 348-844 immediately. Failure to do so may result in prosecution for criminal drug evasion."
Saturday, May 25, 2019
(December 1965, U.S.)
James Bond aficionados greater than myself (like my friend in California, Richard K.) will give you every reason in the world why GOLDFINGER (1964) should be and is the greatest Bond film in the history of the fifty-seven year franchise. Their reasons will be valid, well-defended and clearly deserving of respect. Unfortunately, leave it to me to stand alone as a minority in the great scheme of things. When I was a kid, my favorite Bond film was MOONRAKER (1979), and I'm sure that would have many shaking their heads is wonder and disbelief. But then I got older and (hopefully) more mature in judging what makes a great Bond film beyond the outer space action that made its mark on the cusp of the success of STAR WARS. And guess what - the result still wasn't GOLDFINGER. It was THUNDERBALL. I will do my best to explain why my own reasons are valid, well-defended and deserving of respect.
In effect, THUNDERBALL, in my opinion, has everything I hold to be true and dear in any James Bond film. It begins with Sean Connery (the best Bond, of course) and his Aston Martin DB5 making its second appearance on film. It features an opening credits song by Tom Jones with a little more epic bite than its three predecessors, and of course, an original score by longtime (and best) Bond composer John Barry. It continues to expose us to the threat of SPECTRE and the global armageddon they're capable of. It features the classic Bond girl Domino (played by Claudine Auger), who in my opinion, is one of the most beautiful and well-built ladies to grace the screen with her shapely curves and large breasts very often glistening wet...
Not nearly as self-sufficient and hard edge as say, Pussy Galore, she is, in fact really, nothing more than James's "kept woman", as she describes her relationship with Bond villain and operative Number Two with SPECTRE, Emilio Largo (played by Adolfo Celi). Largo himself is one of the more colorful threats Bond is pitted against and perhaps it merely begins with the sinister physical appearance of the single, black patch over one eye (think also of Snake Pliskin in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK). The threat itself by SPECTRE is, by far, the most sinister in that the organization has devised a diabolical plot to steal a strategic jet bomber loaded with two atomic bombs and hold them for a monetary ransom demand against Great Britain. The jet's pilot François Derval has been murdered and replaced with an exact double through plastic facial surgery. The rest of the crew poisoned, Derval's double flies the jet to the Bahamas, landing it in the shallow waters near Largo's ship, the Disco Volante. SPECTRE scuba divers camouflage the plane and retrieve the atomic bombs and then proceed to dispose of the false pilot, eliminating the key connection between himself and his superiors.
Like nearly every other Bond film, this film excites the mind and the senses with the traditional action, thrills, chases, gun battles and promiscuous sex we've come to expect and enjoy since it all started in 1962. For myself, however, what THUNDERBALL delivers for me above all others is the visual excitement of the world underwater, both in its beauty off the islands of Nassau, and the climactic battle between good and evil with knives, spear guns and man eating sharks. THUNDERBALL is, in fact, the first Bond film in the series to feature an epic, well-choreographed battle under Terence Young's direction (he did DR. NO and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, too). It's also, I might add, the only Bond film in the entire franchise (as far as I'm aware) in which our hero, the great James Bond himself, actually cries out for help when he's strapped on an out of control spinal traction machine. In the end, the plane is found, the bombs are recovered and Largo is defeated (blown up is more accurate), but we're still aware that the threat of SPECTRE's existence still remains, and will remain through the next three Bond films to follow, and even be reborn in the 2015 film SPECTRE with Daniel Craig.
Agree with me or not, THUNDERBALL, if nothing else, cures any hints of dullness that may be experienced with the first three films. Sean Connery has the character in perfect form by now, establishing himself not only as the confident and heroic English spy, but forever as the connoisseur playboy gentleman who loves his cars, his women, his guns and is also seemingly undefeatable at the game of Baccarat (he's played that game a lot). Even the inevitable puns we've come to expect in these films is spoken with just a little more quickness and to the point, even when Bond himself declares, "He got the point." when killing Vargas with a spear gun. Aside from the physical beauty of Claudine Auger, there's also the femme fatale wickedness of fiery SPECTRE agest Fiona Volpe (played by Italian actess Luciana Paluzzi), who's just as busty, pleasurable and delicious to gawk at as Domino is...
Above all, THUNDERBALL is, in my humble Bond opinion, the best and most epic film beginning a series of filming and storytelling traditions that would continue under the direction of others like Lewis Gilbert, John Glen and Martin Campbell. Is it any wonder that when they chose to return Sean Connery to the famous role in the 1983 dud NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN, they chose to remake THUNDERBALL?
And now, if you'll all kindly direct your attention to the comments below, Richard K. will humbly and faithfully explain why my opinion of THUNDERBALL being the best James Bond film ever is incorrect. Read carefully, because he may just be right, even if I don't agree with him. Cheers, my friend!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Fiona Volpe: "Vanity, Mr Bond, something you know so much about."
James Bond: "My dear girl, don't flatter yourself! What I did this evening was for Queen and country! You don't think it gave me any pleasure, do you?"
Fiona: "But of course, I forgot your ego, Mr. Bond. James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman, and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing! She repents, and turns to the side of right and virtue...but not this one! What a blow it must have been, you having a failure!"
James: "Well, can't win them all."
Sunday, May 19, 2019
(November 1961, U.S.)
Over the last few years, aside from the movies I've discussed on my blog, my time and efforts have been largely concentrated on the movies of my childhood released during the late 1970s and early 1980s. My commitment to these films is what has enabled me to write and publish my first book, IT'S STRICTLY PERSONAL: A Nostalgic Movie Memoir of 1975-1982 (available now for purchase on Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com and iTunes.Apple.com). Somewhere along the way, though, I lost sight of the films that hold a great deal of importance to not only myself, but the world of cinema, in general. The great works, particularly the early black and white classics, by men like Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa cannot be ignored, and I decided it was time for me to revisit these important pieces of art. As timing would have it by way of the alphabetical order in which my blog functions, Kurosawa's THRONE OF BLOOD is the first film I'm rediscovering among the many art house essentials that I own on DVD.
Like me, you probably had to read four years of Shakespeare in high school. MACBETH may have been one of them (it was for me in the tenth grade). THRONE OF BLOOD, which translates into "Spider Web Castle" in Japanese, is a samurai film based on ol' William's tragic work about the consequential physical and psychological effects of political ambition on those who seek power for their own ambition. In Kurosawa's translation, the models of "Macbeth" and "Lady Macbeth" are played by Toshiro Mifune (a longtime Kurosawa collaborator) and Isuza Yamada and the time is feudal Japan instead of Medieval Scotland. Like the great tragedy, the film tells the story of a warrior, who through the manipulation of his ambitious and calculating wife, plots to assassinate his sovereign lord. What makes the role of "Lady Macbeth" so intriguing is that through most of her constant manipulation of her husband, she manages to maintain a persistent stoic look on her face. The face would suggest a passive and even obeying wife who has been trained to know her rightful place with her domineering husband, all the while cleverly twisting and turning her husbands thoughts and feelings into intents of violence and betrayal in order to achieve a higher status in the kingdom, which of course, will bring about a higher level of existence to the wife, as well.
All of this ambition and betrayal is first foretold by an old and dark spirit in the forest who is meant to adapt the three witches of the original MACBETH. This old spirit is a rather freaky looking image that one might equate with a B-movie horror story on late night TV instead of a literate Shakespearean tale...
Throughout the film, the spirit's predictions of lust and power are fulfilled and blood is spilled. And as "Lady Macbeath" herself become engrossed more deeply into the oncoming tragedies, the blood cannot wash from her hands. Unlike the original play whereas the simple dialogue of "Out damn spot!" is enough to suffice the torment of one's crimes, Kurosawa's heroine (so to say) is frantic with grief and panic as she continuously struggled to remove the blood-soaked stains from her hands of sin.
Like any tale of the samurai, the film is not without its great photography of great warriors riding into battle and fighting to their death. The end of "Macbeth" himself is a rather graphic and terrifying one as the great master's troops turn on him for his treachery and begin firing a multitude of arrows at him from seemingly every direction and every corner (real arrows, by the way, shot by skilled archers). One cannot help but feel the horror of one's oncoming and ultimate demise as we study the look of terror on Mifune's face as he watches the arrows hit the wall nearby, barely missing him...
Inevitably, however, the great king succumbs when an arrow leaves a mortal wound and his enemies approach the castle gates to secure their victory.
THRONE OF BLOOD is a brilliant visual descent into the jaws of ambition, greed and spiritual superstition. Like all of Kurosawa's black and white films, the simple cinematography of natural elements like trees, fog, mist, wind and rain doesn't fail to compliment the story it's telling. While it may not exactly be Shakespeare's MACBETH, per say, it's one of the most graphic and powerful versions of the play that would surely make even Orson Welles himself stand up and take notice.
And so, my quest to replenish my life with the essential art films that really matter begins with Akira Kurosawa and THRONE OF BLOOD...
Favorite line or dialogue:
Lady Asaji Washizu: "It won't go away! The blood won't go away!"
Saturday, May 11, 2019
(September 1975, U.S.)
The decade of the 1970s was many things to many people in the world of motion pictures. For myself, I suppose it was literally everything the decade had to offer; from the fear and terror of THE EXORCIST (1973), JAWS (1975), THE OMEN (1976) and HALLOWEEN (1978), to the music of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977), GREASE (1978) and HAIR (1979), to the sci-fi wonderment of STAR WARS (1977), CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) and ALIEN (1979), to the police and political thrills of THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971), THE SEVEN-UPS (1973), THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974) and THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, based on the 1974 novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady. In fact, in the wake of the Watergate scandal finally coming to end with Richard Nixon's resignation, Sydney Pollack's film could not have been more timely.
Set mainly in New York City and Washington D.C., Robert Redford's character of Joe Turner, with the code name of "Condor", a CIA analyst and researcher who reads books for a living in order to find hidden meanings, messages and other useful information, perfectly captures the fear and paranoia of a man who doesn't know who he can trust, as he's caught in a web of governmental lies an deception. On what is otherwise an ordinary workday with heavy rainfall outside, Joe files a routine report to CIA headquarters on a thriller he's been reading with strange plot elements, noting the unusual language assortment it's been translated into. While awaiting a response to his report, he (quite literally) steps out to lunch, only to return to find all of his coworkers murdered in cold blood. Panicked, he grabs a gun from a desk drawer and is now on the run for his life. As would any CIA agent, his first instinct is make an emergency phone call and ask to be brought in to safety. Believing he can still trust his superiors, he agrees to a secret rendezvous, only to discover that those he works for are out to kill him in order to finish the job they started back at his office.
Desperate for help, Joe forces a woman at random, Kathy Hale (played by Faye Dunaway) to take him to her apartment so can hide and get his thoughts and actions together. In what I suppose can be considered pure cliché, Kathy slowly comes to trust her captor, even to the point where they become lovers, at least for one night. Still, they're both targets now, not only by those involved in the CIA, but by a hired foreign assassin Joubert (played by Max von Sydow). Joubert, like an other assassin, has no prejudices either way against his targets. He's simply a man getting paid to do a job. Though, oddly, one can't help but notice that deep down, Joubert appears to genuinely like and respect Joe Turner, if for no other reason, Joe appears to have the cleverness and the tactical skills to stay alive and evade his hunters, despite being a CIA agent who only reads books, and has no field experience. Even when asked how he's able to survive in certain situations, Joe bluntly replies, "I read books!"
No longer trusting anyone withing the CIA, or "The Company", Joe continues his cat-and-mouse games with the New York deputy director Higgins (played by Cliff Robertson) and inevitably learns that the report he'd filed provided links to a rogue operation inside the CIA to seize Middle Eastern oil fields. Fearful of its disclosure, Joe and his coworkers were ordered killed. During Joe's final meeting with Higgins, Joe is brazenly informed that the oilfield plans are merely a contingency "game" planned within the CIA without approval from above. Higgins defends the project, suggesting that when oil shortages cause a major economic crisis, Americans everywhere will demand that their comfortable lives be restored by any means necessary. Joe, in turn, calmly points to The New York Times building, disclosing that he's been there and he's given them a story. Whether they'll actually print it or not, we're left unsure of, as Joe disappears into the New York City crowd, destined to become a very lonely man.
(at this point, I invite you to return to my blog post for Tony Scott's 2001 thriller SPY GAME, also featuring Robert Redford, in which I discussed how cool I thought it would have been if his character has also been Joe Turner, returned to the screen twenty-six years later. I stand by that opinion now, as well).
As previously mention, Watergate was still a fresh piece of American history by 1975, making the tensions and thrills of THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR all too real and believable as it exposes a variety of CIA misconduct. On the other hand, one may have easily considered it nothing more than political propaganda disguised under the blanket of Sydney Pollack's taut direction and excellent performances by well-known political liberals like Redford and Dunaway. Make these convicted judgments, if you wish, or simply accept it as Hollywood entertainment of the 1970s. For myself, it's both, everything, all of it. That's how I like it!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Joe Turner (to Kathy): "Listen, I work for the CIA! I am not a spy! I just read books! We read everything that's published in the world, and we...we feed the plots...dirty tricks, codes, into a computer, and the computer checks against actual CIA plans and operations. I look for leaks, I look for new ideas. We read adventures and novels and journals. I...I...who'd invent a job like that?"
Monday, May 6, 2019
(August 1999, U.S.)
THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR was one of those rare instances in which I didn't know it was a remake at the time of its release. After seeing John McTiernan's film version in 1999, I immediately rented the original 1968 version with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. I only watched it once, but from what little I remember of it at this time, I found myself rather bored. That was nearly twenty years ago, so maybe it's time for a fresh perspective...maybe.
As in any heist movie, you look for and hope to hell you'll get something fresh and original that hasn't been done before. The heist that opens the film, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, is about as traditional and cliché as anything you've ever seen before, I suppose, though one can argue the idea of the Trojan horse used to enable the thieves to infiltrate the museum is a pretty original idea. Their attempted (and failed) theft is only a diversion, however, so the real theft of the priceless painting of San Giorgio at Dusk by Monet...
...can be masterminded by Thomas Crown (played by Pierce Brosnan), a billionaire businessman and playboy with a high class taste that includes stolen art which he never tries to sell, but keeps for his own enjoyment. For a man like him, it's the sheer thrill of the job that drives him. For Catherine Banning (played by Rene Russo), an insurance investigator, it's the thrill of catching her prey. I suppose the real twist of this film lies in that hunter and hunted and being drawn closer and closer to each other's "scent", so to say. The heat rises between them, not just in their ongoing cat-and-mouse relationship, but also in the thrills they both share that are often motivated by money. Crown's the sort of man who will crash his expensive boat simply because he years for the thrill of such a crash against the waves. But even while he still remains under Catherine's suspicions, he donates a Picasso painting to fill the void that's been left by the stolen Monet. This is a simple set up that will pay off beautifully later on in the film.
Tensions rise and so does the passion between Crown and his new lover. In fact, it's this film that reminds me why I always thought Rene Russo was one of the hottest middle-aged women I'd ever seen on screen (at least I did twenty or so years ago. Today, not so much). Accompanying Crown on a trip to his house in Martinique, Catherine realizes he's preparing to flee and rejects his offer to join him when the time comes, despite her falling deeper and deeper for him. In an effort to try and hold onto her, he offers her his trust by confiding that he plans to return the stolen Monet back to the museum. And yet, he clearly knows he'll be betrayed by her because he already has another masterminded plan in motion involving multiple lookalikes wearing bowler hats (designed to resemble the same figure in The Son of Man by LaMagritte) when he returns to the museum and it's filled to the brim with police and surveillance. This is where it's the viewer's job to remember the Picasso that Crown donated earlier in the film because the pay off is now - just keep your eye on the water, and don't forgot about it, even when you're watching Crown and Catherine passionately reunited in the end.
I suppose there's little I can say about THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR that you haven't heard me say before with other heist films, other than the fact that I consider this one of the rare cases when I consider the remake to be superior to the original. Brosnan and Russo share good chemistry and better heat together in a film that's (happily) rated R to satisfy my desire to see Russo naked. I must confess, I also find an extra thrill in the heist sequences themselves when they're accompanied by the hard pulse piano keys of Nina Simone's "Sinnerman", which I've only previously heard in David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE. In the world of cinematic crime when we're very often meant to sympathize with the criminal, the thrill of the theft and the chase involving priceless art that's often meant only to cater to the super rich, seems like a more or less harmless vice in the eye of the criminal who commits it. As Dennis Leary so blatantly puts it to Catherine when it appears that Crown has gotten away, "I don't give a shit."
Favorite line or dialogue:
Thomas Crown (concluding his business deal): "Have you figured out what you're going to say to your board when they realize you paid me thirty million more than others were offering?"