Friday, October 29, 2010
(June 1980, U.S.)
How many films have they made based on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE skits or characters? Too many? Yes, too fucking many! THE BLUES BROTHERS is the one and only film of that genre that I own. And why not? John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd were an incredible team together, and the best of friends when Belushi was alive. This film has the kind of comedy, action, and even music that only director John Landis could once provide. I say "once" because their was a time when he was the king of comedy, with not only THE BLUES BROTHERS, but ANIMAL HOUSE (1978), TRADING PLACES (1983) and COMING TO AMERICA (1988). Sometime after that, his career died, in my opinion.
I was 13 years old when I saw THE BLUES BROTHERS on screen (only my third R-rated movie, by the way). When you're that age, it's like a rite of passage when you can occassionally see a movie with some added raunch and nastiness to it. Part of the comedy of Belushi and Aykroyd playing Jake and Elwood Blues is the subtlty of their actions. Not just in the way they calmly tear up the city of Chicago in their Mount Prospect police car when being chased by the cops (Hey, they HAVE to! They're on a misson from God!), but also in their facial gestures (check out the way they slowly look at each other whenever something out of the ordinary happens to them) and their bodily mannerisms. The two of them can dance, too, but it's still funny to watch even THAT (check out their outrageous moves in the baptist church as James Brown sings his lungs out). Oh, and Carrie Fisher is in this movie, too, as Jake Blues' vengeful ex-girlfriend, in a performance that I have found far more enjoyable than anything she ever did in her three STAR WARS films. Check her out! The girl does wonders with a blow torch and an M16 rifle! Oh, and by the way, just in case you never realized it; the man playing the county clerk at the end of the film is none other than the great Steven Spielberg himself!
It's impossible not to wonder how much more John Belushi could have given us had he not died from a drug overdose in 1982. The man WAS funny!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Elwood Blues: "It's 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses."
Jake Blues: "Hit it."
(July 1994, U.S.)
During a period of one year, from the Summer of 1994 to 1995, there were four action films that focussed on bombers. They were SPEED, THE SPECIALIST, DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE and BLOWN AWAY. For the pure action adrenalin rush that so many people love, SPEED is probably the film of choice - I would choose it, too, for the same reason. For story and performance, as well as action, BLOWN AWAY stands out, thanks primarily to its two stars, Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones.
Thinking back to the 1990's, it seems that I recall many terrorist enemies in films just happened to be Irish; IRA or some outside radicalist organization. This observation is not meant to be sterotypical. Just look at the film examples; PATRIOT GAMES (1992), Irish terrorists. THE CRYING GAME (1992), Irish terrorists. THE DEVIL'S OWN (1997), Irish terrorist played badly by Brad Pitt. And finally, BLOWN AWAY, Irish terrorist played very well by Jones. This is, I suppose, how moviemakers saw terrorist before Al Qaeda and Islamic extremists became a part of our 21st Century lives.
From a purely cinematic perspective, BLOWN AWAY is a spectacular action film with a reasonably intellignet, viable story to boot. Bridges plays Lt. Jimmy Dove, a veteran disposal technician for the Boston police bomb squad who knows his enemy, Ryan Gaerity (played by Jones), an Irish terrorist (with a rather sick sense of humor) who's recently escaped from a prison in Northern Ireland. Dove knows Gaerity's tactics well because he used to be with him in Ireland before he came to Boston to escape his violent past. So basically, you have a story about the good guy who was once a bad guy, but he's not bad anymore and now he has to stop the bad guy from taking personal revenge against the good guy by blowing up Boston and killing its cops. Understand?
Favorite line or dialogue:
Ryan Gaerity: "I've come here to create a new country for you called chaos, and a new government called anarchy."
Thursday, October 28, 2010
(January 1985, U.S.)
I love the Coen Brothers! Mind you, that doesn't mean I've loved EVERY film they've ever made. BARTON FINK (1991) was only okay. I didn't like BURN AFTER READING (2008) and I couldn't even get past the first 30 minutes of A SERIOUS MAN (2009); way too Jewish for my taste and my patience. I mean, I know their last name is COHEN, but...damn!
Except perhaps for the late Stanley Kubrick, there are virtually no directors who can call themselves totally original; everybody copies from someone else. Watching a neo-noir crime film like BLOOD SIMPLE means experiencing many twisted plot elements (the love triangle, the jealous husband, a brutal murder and the clean-up process afterwards, etc.) that the great Alfred Hitchcock used many times in many films. What you hope, though, is that perhaps new filmmakers can add something new and something different that will make their own film stand out. In BLOOD SIMPLE, what stands out is how violent murder is filmed as an art. Let me try to explain...
In my opinion, there are three types of murder on film that can bring about three different types of reactions from a viewer. The first is the typical Bruce Willis/Sylvester Stallone-type action hero who shoots down his enemy like it was merely target practice. This kind of murder usually causes a reaction of enthusiastic excitement. The second would be a gory slaying from any number of horror film seial killers like Michael Myers (HALLOWEEN) or Jason Voorhees (FRIDAY THE 13TH). This kind of murder serves to playfully scare and shock us, which is why most people would watch a horror movie in the first place. The third type of murder is played out in BLOOD SIMPLE; it is murder that takes its time and succumbs to the the virtuosity of the camerawork. Take a long good look at the face of the private investigator (played chillingly by M. Emmet Walsh) as he shoots the jealous, vengeful, husband (played by Dan Hedaya) in the chest only one time, but then proceeds to just keep his gun pointed at his victim and stare at him, as if making a serious and valid point about what he's just done. The scene takes its time, murder takes its time, and death takes its time.
This film can be called a murder mystery, but not in the old fashioned "who done it" way. We know who done it! We've been watching it all along. The mystery lies in watching and wondering what's going to happen in the aftermath to those that were involved in murder. And in keeping with just a little bit of Hollywood happy ending tradition, the bad guy IS killed by the good guy (or woman, in this case) in the end.
BLOOD SIMPLE was the Coen Brothers directorial debut, and in my opinion, one of the best films of the 1980's.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Marty; "You think I'm funny, I'm an asshole? No no no... what's funny is HER... what's funny is, I had you two followed, because if it's not you she's sleeping with, it's someone else... what's funny is, when she gives you that LOOK, and says, 'I don't know what you're talkin' about, Ray, I ain't done nothin' funny'... but the funniest thing to ME is... you think SHE came back HERE for YOU... THAT'S what's FUCKIN' FUNNY!!!"
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
(February 1974, U.S.)
In my humble opinion, comic director Mel Brooks has produced three categories of films. There's the great; THE PRODUCERS, BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. There's the reasonably decent; HIGH ANXIETY, HISTORY OF THE WORLD-PART I and SPACEBALLS. Finally, there's the downright fucking awful; LIFE STINKS and DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT (it's such a shame that THIS was Brooks' film swan song). So I'm pleased to be able to focus on the great with BLAZING SADDLES.
It surprises me that many would credit AIRPLANE (1980) with creating the genre of the outrageous, spoof comedy that spawned other franchises like THE NAKED GUN and SCARY MOVIE. Really, it was this satirical western that started it all. Among other things, the film exposes the racism obscured by myth-making Hollywood accounts of the American West, but in a highly satirical way, with the film's hero, Sheriff Bart (played by Clevon Little) being black. The film is also full of anachronisms, from a Jazz band in the Wild West to a rustler referring to the Wide World of Sports to Nazis and a camel waiting in the line for villains to a Yiddish-speaking Indian chief (played hilariously by Brooks). Seriously, what's not to laugh at?
Now, once and for all, let's me clear up a common misconception that I've been hearing from fans of this film. The line that goes, "Badges? We don't need no stinking badges!" did not, I repeat DID NOT originate from BLAZING SADDLES. A variation of it was spoken in the Humphrey Bogart classic, THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948) and it goes like this, "Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges." BLAZING SADDLES is spoofing the line! Understand?
Favorite line or dialogue:
Gabby Johnson: "I wash born here, an I wash raished here, and dad gum it, I am gonna die here, an no sidewindin' bushwackin', hornswagglin' cracker croaker is gonna rouin me bishen cutter!"
Olson Johnson: "Now who can argue with that?"
Sunday, October 24, 2010
(June 1982, U.S.)
I am writing this post on Ridley Scott's 1982 original release of the film...
Do you know what a "Blade Runner Minority" is? No, of course you don't. You've never heard it before because it's a term that I invented. It's how I've referred to myself in relation to Ridley Scott's science fiction masterpiece, BLADE RUNNER, for over twenty-five years. I was one of the few who saw the film when it was orginally released in the Summer of 1982; that makes me a "Blade Runner Minority". I was one of the few who loved the film from the time of its original release; that makes me a "Blade Runner Minority". Finally, I'm one of the few who actually prefers the original 1982 version with the Harrison Ford voice-over narration and so-called happy Hollywood ending over the re-worked 1992 "Director's Cut" and the 2007 re-worked "Final Cut" versions; THAT, my friends, makes me a "Blade Runner Minority".
The first time I ever saw it in a small movie theater in Westhampton Beach, Long Island, when the opening credits began to the intense themes of Vangelis and the film opened with the awesome visual effects of a complex, dystopian Los Angeles in the year 2019, I knew I was in for something special and something significantly different from the years of special effects I had seen in STAR WARS films, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and the like. In this bleak and grim version of the future, engineered organic robots called replicants—visually indistinguishable from adult humans—are manufactured by the all-powerful Tyrell Corporation. Their use on Earth is declared illegal. Replicants who defy the ban and return to Earth are hunted down and "retired" by police special operatives known as "blade runners". Enter Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford). Through his eyes and ivestigation, we not only see the future for what it is, but we're also taken to the edge of human distinction. What makes us human? What makes us artificial? Can we tell the difference? Can we control our emotional responses and actions even when we discover the difference? Can we prevent falling in love against our better judgement? These are question only the appreciative viewer can answer for themselves.
Although BLADE RUNNER is a futuristic film thriller, it operates on multiple dramatic and narrative levels; it's greatly indebted to classic film noir conventions: the femme fatale, protagonist-narration, dark and shadowy cinematography, and the questionable moral outlook of the hero. BLADE RUNNER is also a prime example where time has miraculously improved a film. Primarily disregarded and pull quickly from theaters in 1982, it's gained a worldwide cult popularity ever since. Today, many consider it a spectacular and intelligent film achievement. They're not wrong.
BLADE RUNNER - in my opinion, is the best film of Ridley Scott's career, one of the best science fiction films ever made and also one of the top ten films of the 1980's.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Roy Batty: "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain...time to die."
Rick Deckard (voice-over narration): "I don't know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life - anybody's life; my life. All he'd wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got? All I could do was sit there and watch him die."
(March 1977, U.S.)
Here's something you may have forgotten (or possibly never knew) about BLACK SUNDAY. The original 1975 novel was written by Thomas Harris, the same man who created the character of Hannibal Lecter. It's also the only story he's ever written that DIDN'T involve Hannibal Lecter. It's a story of terrorism that was inspired by the Munich massacre, a Black September attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics.
Michael Lander (played by Bruce Dern) is an American blimp pilot deranged by years of torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, a failed marriage, and a bitter military court martial. He longs to commit suicide and take as many people as possible with him. So he conspires with Dahlia Iyad (played by Marthe Keller), an operative from a Palestinian terrorist group known as Black September, to launch a massive suicide bombing on American soil. They plan to detonate a flechette-based bomb, housed on the underside of the Goodyear blimp, over the Miami Orange Bowl during the Super Bowl between Pittsburgh and Dallas. American and Israeli intelligence agencies, led by a Mossad agent (played by Robert Shaw) and an FBI agent (played by Fritz Weaver), race to prevent the horrific catastrophe. It's a Hollywood film, of course, so the good guys prevent the disaster, kill the bad guys and all is right with the world. It's a film that still holds up well today because when you watch it, your mind drifts back to September 11, 2001. You wish with all your heart that there might have been a touch of Hollywood storytelling in that event. In that story, our American government would have stopped Al-Qaeda, the Twin Towers and the Pentagon Building wouldn't have been attacked and thousands of lives would have been spared. All I can say about that, is that like it or not, Hollywood movies are not real life.
BLACK SUNDAY has been and remains my all time favorite film thriller.
Favorite line of dialogue:
Michael Lander: "My last Christmas in captivity, they allowed me one letter, from Margret, and in it was a photograph of Margret and the kids standing in front of the house, and the shadow of the person that took the picture was in the foreground, and it was wide and it fell on their legs, and all I could think about was who took the picture? I spent more time looking at the shadow than I did at my own wife or kids. I was just gonna give Margret and the kids somethin' to remember me by. I was just gonna give the guy that took the picture somethin' to remember me by. I was just gonna give this whole son-of-a-bitching country somethin' to remember me by! If they can do it to me, why shouldn't I be able to do it to them???"
Friday, October 22, 2010
(October 1979, U.S.)
Take a moment to consider every so-called family film you ever saw and I'd be willing to bet there was at least some part of it that was either very sad or even scary. Really, think about it; Benji's little white girlfriend doggie got kicked across the room by a mean kidnapper in 1974 (my younger brother is still feeling the scars from that one!), E.T. and Elliot said a tearful goodbye in 1982, Judge Doom tried to kill people and Roger Rabbit in 1988 and Hachi and his master both died in 2009. Just before watching THE BLACK STALLION again for the first time in years, I told my little boy that he would love this movie. After revisiting the film, I realized I spoke in haste. There are moments at the beginning of the film that a child might consider very frightening. Little Alec Ramsey (played by Kelly Reno) is almost killed on a burning, sinking ship, a desperate man steals his lifejacket during the ship's chaos and then he must somehow try to survive all alone on a deserted island. This all would have kept me awake for a few nights as a child.
Then, of course, Alec meets the Arabian black stallion (aka "The Black"). Fear and desperation are replaced by striking beauty and triumphant friendship. The beauty is everywhere; the beautiful black stallion, the beautiful island, the beautiful friendship between boy and horse. Really, it's enough to give you a cavity! Carmine Coppola's musical score adds to the beauty and knows extactly when to pick up the pace at certain key moments in the film. The score is quiet and gentle through most of the island sequence until the moment when Alec finally mounts the stallion and rides him. The score picks up then in a very triumphant melody.
I don't think you could ever have a movie about a horse without the inevitable cliche horse race in it. THE BLACK STALLION has one, of course, and I'm sure you can immediately guess who wins it. Cliche or not, I can't help but produce a big smile on my face when The Black races to his exciting victory. I'm such a sentimentalist that it's almost disgusting!
By the way, whatever happened to Kelly Reno? Anyone know?
Favorite line or dialogue:
Alec Ramsey: "We're gonna show everybody that he's the fastest horse in the world."
Thursday, October 21, 2010
(October 1929, U.S.)
Alfred Hitchcock was unquestionably one of the greatest film directors that ever lived. His name is synonomous with films like PSYCHO, THE BIRDS, REAR WINDOW and VERTIGO. It's also important to remember that before he made his first film in America in 1940, he had an 18 year career of silent and sound films in Great Britian. This part of his career gave us films like THE 39 STEPS (1935), THE LADY VANISHES (1938) and the original version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934).
So now lets talk about BLACKMAIL. This is an odd film because the first eight minutes of it plays as a silent film before eventually turning to sound. The film began production as a silent film, but in order to cash in on the new found popularity of "talkies", the film's producer gave Hitchcock the go-ahead to film a portion of the movie in sound. Hitchcock thought the idea absurd and surreptitiously filmed almost the entire feature in sound along with a silent version for theatres not yet equipped for talking pictures (you have to admire that kind of artistic stubbornness, right?). Even in his earliest work, Hitchcock manages to make a film filled with the kind of story twists that define his genre. The detective hero of Scotland Yard must protect his girlfriend whom he knows to be guilty of murdering her would-be attacker in self defense. He must also protect her from the petty, sleazy witness who found her glove at the scene of the crime who now wants to extort money from the both of them in exchange for his silence. In an interesting twist, there was another witness who saw the blackmailer at the scene of the crime, as well, and now Scotland Yard is looking for HIM instead of the girlfriend he seeks to blackmail.
(take a deep breath and then take all of that in for a moment)
In a modern film, the subject of attempted rape and murder with a knife would be shown in much more graphic detail. In 1929, though, that would have been forbidden. So Hitchcock effectively only shows us the large curtain where all of this is taking place. The woman is being attacked and we only see her hand from behind the curtain reach for the nearby knife and stab her attacker to death. After that, we only see his dead hand appear from the curtain. What follows this is her eerie and almost catatonic exit from the crime scene. She is mortified over what she's just done and she can't help but think she sees the dead man's hand and knives everywhere when she walks the streets of London afterwards. It's pure Hitchcock suspense, even in its earliest stages.
Alfred Hitchcock's cameo, a signature occurrence in many of his films, shows him being bothered by a small boy as he reads a book on the London Underground. This is probably the lengthiest cameo appearance he ever performed in his film career. As he became better-known to audiences, especially when he appeared as the host of his own television series, he dramatically shortened his on-screen appearances.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Det. Frank Webber: "You haven't seen "Finger Prints." I'd like to see that. Uh, still, it's about Scotland Yard. Might be amusing. They're bound to get all the details wrong."
Alice White: "I don't see why. I did hear they got a real criminal to direct it, so as to be on the safe side."
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
(December 1979, U.S.)
Let's all go back to the year 1979 for a moment. For over two years now, STAR WARS (1977) had taken control of the entire world. Everybody was drooling to cash in on the latest sci-fi craze. ABC-TV had BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. Ridley Scott made ALIEN. James Bond gave us MOONRAKER. STAR TREK had it's first motion picture. And finally, Disney gave us THE BLACK HOLE. This was also the very first film Disney put out that had a rating of PG.
Admittedly, THE BLACK HOLE can be accused of ripping off too many character elements of STAR WARS; the three heroes of the spaceship Palomino (two men, one woman; sound like Luke, Han and Leia?), the older sidekick with all the advice (sound like Obi-Wan Kenobi?), the evil robot villian with the big helmet (sound like Darth Vader?) and the small robot with wit and intelligence (sound like R2-D2?). To its credit, though, there is no climactic space battle or great explosion at the end. Oh yeah, and the film stars Anthony Perkins, too - Norman Bates in space! Cool!
THE BLACK HOLE, for me, it a movie of pure childhood memories that I've chosen to embrace. My stricter standards of moviegoing today would deem much of the acting and dialogue in this film less than wonderful (corny, too). The special effects and visual effects, however, do not fail to entertain and impress the eyes and mind. There is a particular sequence when an asteroid crashes into a part of the spaceship Cygnus and rolls towards our heroes who must get across a long bridge before it hits them that is stunning to watch (I wonder if Speilberg and Lucas were inspired by this scene when they created the famous similar opening sequence in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK)? John Barry's musical score is rather dark and menacing, and that's good. There's also the visual reference to DANTE'S INFERNO. In a long, dialogue-free final sequence, the travelers reach the bottom of the black hole in a probe ship and appear to enter Hell, then Heaven. That alone could warrent a PG rating, as I can't imagine any small child understanding any of that. I was 12 years-old when I saw it and I didn't get it.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Lt. Charlie Pizer: " Vincent, were you programmed to bug me?"
V.I.N.CENT: "No, sir, to educate you."
(December 2001, U.S.)
I hadn't seen BLACK HAWK DOWN in nearly ten years and I'd forgotten what a virtual all-star cast of our time it features; Josh Hartnett, Ewen McGregor, Eric Bana, Orlando Bloom, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, Jeremy Piven, Ewen Bremner and Sam Shepard. Did you know that four of these guys had been together in PEARL HARBOR only seven months earlier? Did you know that as much as I hate to give an actor like Josh Hartnett credit for anything he does, his performance as a modern United States soldier is as good as any other military portrayel I've seen on screen? Who would have thought?
Except for APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), every war film I've discussed to date has been of World War II. To watch BLACK HAWK DOWN is to watch a different kind of war with a different kind of soldier. The American soldier of 1993 at the Battle of Mogadishu is angrier for being involved in this bloody civil war of Somalia and he's more pissed off at the enemy that wants to kill him. The one thing that doesn't change, however, is that he's just as determined to do the right thing for his fellow soldier and for the honor of his country. Watching this film is also a change in my attitude toward the enemy in question. Although our German and Japanese enemies are clear in films of World War II, it becomes easy after a while to remind one's self that these enemies are also soldiers of their country doing the job they've been ordered to do, whether they support it or not. The enemy in BLACK HAWK DOWN are violent, bloodthirsty Somali militias who provoke the dark, ugly part of myself which cannot help but silently cheer, "Die, you motherfuckers!" every time one of our boys takes them down.
Director Ridley Scott takes us right into the gut of battle like I've never seen before. The bullets and the blood fly endlessly in front of your eyes without ever letting up. At times, this doesn't feel like a motion picture at all, but rather a documentary that's been captured right in the heart of battle. I also couldn't help but notice an obvious homage to APOCALYPSE NOW with a scene of battle helicopters flying over the ocean like angry hornets.
A final interesting observation - in a period of just over one year, from 2000 to 2001, Ridley Scott made three films - GLADIATOR, HANNIBAL and BLACK HAWK DOWN; all of them box office hits. Not too shabby.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Hoot: "When I go home people'll ask me, "Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?" You know what I'll say? I won't say a goddamn word. Why? They won't understand. They won't understand why we do it. They won't understand that it's about the men next to you, and that's it. That's all it is."
Friday, October 15, 2010
(December 1984, U.S.)
I have to be honest with you - I am not a great lover of birds. Considering this is the third film in a row about birds, frankly, I'm getting a little tired of the subject. But anyway...
Despite the fact that Nicolas Cage won the Oscar for best actor for his performance in LEAVING LAS VEGAS (I hated that movie!) and despite the fact that he's had a long and popular film career, there are only three that I consider to be GREAT films; they are WILD AT HEART (1990), RAISING ARIZONA (1987) and BIRDY. His performance as the best friend of a young man we only know as Birdy is one of the best of his career. This was before he sold himself to the typecast of mindless action hero.
Birdy (played by Matthew Modine) has a disturbing fixation with birds and flying. That coupled with his horrific Vietnam experiences push him over the edge. When he returns from the war, he's sent to a mental hospital for assessment and his friend Al (Cage) stays with him to try to reach him before he's separated from Birdy, leaving him alone and lost inside his mind. The film contains many flashback scenes of their life together as teenagers in 1960's Philadelphia, their developing friendship and their views of life. The film's musical score by Peter Gabriel adds a great degree of intensity to the story, giving the viewer a feeling that anything bad can happen at the turn of the next corner.
Director Alan Parker, whom many may associate with musicals like FAME and EVITA has also dove into the mind's madness (see MIDNIGHT EXPRESS and PINK FLOYD THE WALL). It's intruiging to watch BIRDY and wonder along the way what drives a young man's world into total madness and despair, and will he ever break free of it? Birdy does triumphantly break free of it at the end, but it may only be temporary. As soon as he's standing on the roof of the hospital, his first thought is to try and fly again.
I think we've all heard R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly". Watching BIRDY can definitely make you wonder if it's possible (without intense drugs, I mean).
Favorite line or dialogue:
Birdy [to a surprised Al, who was expecting to see Birdy dead]: "What?"
Thursday, October 14, 2010
(March 1963, U.S.)
Ah, finally! We begin with the first film in my collection by one of the greatest directors of all time! The man known as the "master of suspense", the great Alfred Hitchcock!
When I was a kid in the '70's, the annual airing (sometimes more than once) of THE BIRDS on WPIX-Channel 11 was a movie event to look forward to as much as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS on ABC-TV or THE WIZARD OF OZ on CBS-TV. As a kid, I knew very little about Alfred Hitchcock. I knew THE BIRDS and I'd already heard of the famous shower scene in PSYCHO. So naturally my first presumption about the man was that he was a maker of horror movies. I would discover later in life how wrong I was.
One of the key elements that makes a film like THE BIRDS frightening is that we are given absolutely no explanation whatsoever as to why the birds of Bodega Bay, California are suddenly attacking people. It starts with very little warning and it shows no signs of resolution even when the film is coming to an end. There is also no musical soundtrack to the film. There is only sound effects of the high-pitched wailing noises of crows, blackbirds and sea gulls when they strike at our fear of them. Keep in mind also that is not some cheap monster movie, either. Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren (Melanie Griffith's mother), Jessica Tandy and the rest of the supporting case are outstanding in their roles.
Now there are a couple of moments I'd like to focus on. The first one is a very visually frightening scene when Melanie Daniels (Hedren) is waiting outside the school and unbeknowst to her, the birds are slowly accumulating on the playground jungle gym behind her. She sees nothing, but the viewer does. You cringe and find yourself wanting to shout at her, "Look behind you, for God sakes!" Take a look...
(To make matters worse, you're forced to listen to an incredibly obnoxious song the children are singing inside the school.)
The second one is a scene at the end of the film when Melanie is being bandaged up by her new love interest (and hero of the film), Mitch Brennen (Taylor). As he helps her to sip some brandy, there is a look in her eyes that I cannot forget. They've only known each other two days, but as she stares into his eyes, you can tell that she has decided right there and then that she will love and honor this man forever. Like I said, it's only been two days but it's real nice to imagine love and devotion like that.
Some of my favorite scary films have taken place in quiet seaside communities; THE BIRDS, JAWS (1975) and THE FOG (1980) being three examples. For me, there is something extra frightening about the tranquility of that sort of community being threatened by a menacing force. You know, back in 2008, something like this actually happened to me. For about one hour a swarm of small birds mysteriously decided to encircle my house in the Hamptons. I was forced to go inside and wait until they left. Weird, huh?
Finally, since I'm not going to be getting up to another scary movie in the 'Bs' anytime soon, let me wish all my readers a very Happy Halloween to come!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Mother in Diner (to Melanie Daniels): "Why are they doing this? Why are they doing this? They said when you got here, the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you're the cause of all this. I think you're evil! EVIL!!!"
(July 1962, U.S.)
The one interesting thing I've noticed about prison films over the years is that the protaganist of the film is always either innocent of the crime that put them in prison, or the crime they're guilty of was a sympathetic one. The viewer cannot feel any heart or sympathy for an inmate who's guilty of rape, child molestation or anything else considered hideous by society. The real life subject of this film, Robert Stroud, allegedly killed a man who had viciously beaten his girlfriend. It's up to view to decide if he/she can find sympathy in a crime like that. Persoanally, I can.
Robert Stroud was known as the "Birdman of Alcatraz" because of his life with birds. In spite of the film's title, much of the action is set at Leavenworth prison where Stroud was jailed with his birds. When moved to Alcatraz he was not allowed to keep any pets. Burt Lancaster plays Stroud and he was one of our most gifted actors, right up until his last appearance in FILED OF DREAMS (1989). He plays a hardened criminal, for sure, but there is such a gentleness to his mannerisms, his relationship with his birds and his longing for knowledge that you have to remind yourself of his incarceration. As the years pass, Stroud becomes an expert on bird diseases and even publishes a book on the subject. His writings are so impressive that a doctor describes him as a "genius". So why is it that all the geniuses in life are either convicts or schizophrenic nutcases (remember A BEAUTIFUL MIND?)?
Let me now talk about director John Frankenheimer for a moment, who was always hit and miss with me. He made some incredible films in his lifetime, but for as many hits as he had (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, BLACK SUNDY, RONIN), there were just as many misses (FRENCH CONNECTION II, PROPHECY, THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU remake). I have to say, also, that it's a real fucking shame that his final theatrical "swan song" had to be the Ben Affleck movie, REINDEER GAMES (1999). Oh man, why did he have to go out like that??
Favorite line or dialogue:
Robert Stroud: "Tom? You know what they used to call Alcatraz in the old days?"
Tom Gaddis: "What?"
Robert: "Bird Island."
Tom (narrating): "Robert Stroud's petition for parole has been denied annually for 24 years. Age 72, he is now in his 53rd year of imprisonment."
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
(March 1996, U.S.)
THE BIRDCAGE is director Mike Nichols' American version of the French comedy, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES (1978). It is also one of the very rare examples of the American version surpassing (in my opinion) the original foreign subtitled version of a film. Believe me, that doesn't happen too often.
Robin Williams and Nathan Lane play off each other's comic chemistry in the best tag-team (or should I say, "DRAG-team"!) example I've seen since Abbott and Costello. Nathan Lane's outlandish, effeminate mannerisms as a screaming drag queen absolutely shines with comic genius. The insanity begins when their son, Val, is going to be married to a girl whose ultra-conservative father (played by Gene Hackman) is seeking reelection as the co-founder of the "Coalition for Moral Order", which by the way, the founding member has just died in the bed of an underage black prostitute. Everyone involved on Val's side of the family is then put in the dire position of having to play it straight during a highly tense dinner to appease their would-be conservative in-laws. The results are absolutely...well, insane! Really, it's like something out of your favorite episode of I LOVE LUCY or THREE'S COMPANY!
Talking about Mike Nichols for a moment, he is probably one of the most diverse directors of our generation. His is a career that has included the funny (THE GRADUATE, THE BIRDCAGE), the dramatic (SILKWOOD, CLOSER) and even the monsterously terrifying (WOLF). Someone like Michael Bay could take a lesson or two and stop blowing up shit so much.
This film met with mixed reviews ranging from praise to condemnation in both the mainstream press and the gay press for the portrayals of its gay characters. Okay, not to sound too politically incorrect (or something like that), but there are certain comic themes in film that have always proven successful in the past. Like it or not, one of them is men in drag acting like women. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis (he just died) pulled it off in SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959). Dustin Hoffman pulled it off in TOOTSIE (1982). It seems that more often than not, if you're going to make somebody laugh, somebody else is going to likely be offended along the way. Get over it, will you!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Armand: "Al, you old son of a bitch! How ya doin'? How do you feel about that call today? I mean the Dolphins! Fourth-and-three play on their 30 yard line with only 34 seconds to go!"
Albert (effeminate voice): "How do you think I feel? Betrayed, bewildered... wrong response?"
Armand: "I'm not sure."
Friday, October 8, 2010
(August 1946, U.S.)
Consider, for a moment, the numerous celebrity marriages and relationships over that last three decades that movie studios have tried (in vain) to hype up the film they were making together; Sean Penn and Madonna, Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Ben Affleck and Jennifor Lopez (Uuggh!!!). Consider how all of those films flopped on their miserable asses!
Now consider Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In their day, they were the real deal; happily married 'till the day "Bogie" died and all four of their films were big successes. THE BIG SLEEP (their second film together) has all of the traditional elements one would expect from a film noir detective thriller; the private dick, the femme fatale, the snappy dialogue, the dark alleys, the shadows, the gunfire, and the dead bodies. THE BIG SLEEP also (unfortunately) features a very convoluted plotline which can be very difficult to follow at times. There are also more character names to remember than a typical Agatha Christie novel. Allegedly during filming, neither the director, Howard Hawks, nor the screenwriters knew whether the chauffeur, Owen Taylor, was murdered or had actually killed himself. They sent a cable to Raymond Chandler (author of the original 1939 novel of the same name), who told a friend in a later letter: "They sent me a wire ... asking me, and dammit I didn't know either".
Being fully aware that a film like this is full of confusion, you have to simply decide to just sit back, turn out the lights, and enjoy the pleasure of glorious black and white film noir entertainment with two huge (married) movie stars of the "golden age of cinema". As the old saying goes, they don't make 'em like that any more. They never will.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Eddie Mars: " Convenient, the door being open when you didn't have a key, eh?"
Philip Marlowe: "Yeah, wasn't it. By the way, how'd you happen to have one?"
Mars: "Is that any of your business?"
Marlowe: "I could make it my business."
Mars: "I could make your business mine."
Marlowe: "Oh, you wouldn't like it. The pay's too small."
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
(July 1980, U.S.)
When you've watched a good amount of World War II films, after a while you find yourself in the position of asking yourself, "What makes this one different from all the others?" On the surface, THE BIG RED ONE is no different than all the other World War II films I've seen with the traditional excitement of blood, guts, action and explosions. The privates are also the usual bunch of boys who do not possess any special character that a viewer would want to get close to or come to care about.
THE BIG RED ONE is a World War II tale, yes, but in a way, the film seems very 1980. In fact, there are things about Sam Fuller's style of filmmaking, the dialogue and even the musical score that almost give the film the flavor of a 1980 CBS-TV movie of the week. To be perfectly honest with you, the one real thing that first attracted me to want to see this film was the fact that it starred Mark Hamil (yes, Luke Skywalker himself!). Sometimes I have to remind myself that the man did actually do some work that wasn't STAR WARS related. And is it just me, or does Lee Marvin seem like the most effeminate tough guy that ever lived? I mean, have you ever really listened to the guy's voice??
So, to do a brief recap, everything I've written so far seems quite negative, doesn't it? Despite it all, though, THE BIG RED ONE doesn't fail to entertain as a war film. It doesn't fail to remind the viewer of who the real heroes and enemies of World War II were and what the spirit of the American soldier has always meant to this country. That is probably the most important element that any war film can hope to achieve. I should also point out that this film has what I would consider to be the SECOND best filmed sequence of the Battle of Normandy on Omaha Beach (the first being, of course, Steven Spielberg's SAVING PRIVATE RYAN).
Favorite line or dialogue:
Griff: "I can't murder anybody."
Sergeant: "We don't murder; we kill."
Griff: "It's the same thing."
Sergeant: "The hell it is, Griff. You don't murder animals; you kill 'em."
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
(March 1998, U.S.)
Jeff Bridges is Jeff Lebowski. Lebowski is "The Dude". Who is The Dude? "The Dude" is the laziest excuse for a California slacker you ever did meet who spends his days dressed in his favorite robe, smoking marijuana, drinking White Russians and bowling with his pals. His sole purpose in life is to seek compensation for his favorite rug that was pissed on by two thugs who mistook him for a different and significantly wealthier Jeff Lebowski. The Dude makes Kramer from "Seinfeld" seem productive. Seriously, what's not to love about the guy??
Now let's talk about John Goodman as Walter Sobchak, The Dude's best friend. This nutcase places the rules of bowling second in reverence only to the rules of his adopted religion, Judaism, as evidenced by his strict stance against "rolling" on Shabbos. He has a violent temper, and is given to pulling out a handgun (or crowbar in another case) in order to settle disputes and constantly (and pointlessly) mentions Vietnam in his conversations. Hey, what can you possibly expect from a guy that had to act against Rosanne Barr for so many years?? I'd probably be a total whackjob, too!
Joel and Ethan Coen are two of the most gifted filmmakers of the last 25 years who have shown us the dark macabre of their work in films like BLOOD SIMPLE (1984), FARGO (1996) and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007) and the outrageous comedy in films like RAISING ARIZONA (1987), THE HUDSUCKER PROXY (1994) and this film discussed now. To watch a film by the Cohen brothers is not knowing what to expect next and then deciding whether to be shocked by what you've just seen or to laugh with hysteria. An odd combination, indeed. The gifted ones are usually the oddest ones, too, aren't they?
At it's heart, THE BIG LEBOWSKI (aside from the great comedy) can easily be compared to the classic structure of thrillers by Alfred Hitchcock and the film noir era where the innocent man is a victim of mistaken identity and must experience a personal journey to exonerate himself and seek justice for whatever has been taken from him, even if it's a pissed-on rug that "tied the room together". The film's structure has actually been compared to Raymond Chandler's novel, "The Big Sleep". I didn't read it, but I saw the Humphrey Boagrt film and it's coming real soon to this blog!
Favorite line or dialogue:
The Big Lebowski: " What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski?"
The Dude: "Dude."
Dude: "Uhh... I don't know sir."
Lebowski: "Is it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost? Isn't that what makes a man?"
Dude: "Hmmm... Sure, that and a pair of testicles."
Sunday, October 3, 2010
(April 1948, U.S.)
Did you ever see 1987's NO WAY OUT with Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman? Did you think it was an original story? Sorry to burst your bubble, but it was a remake of THE BIG CLOCK. The original film is closer to the novel. The remake, on the other hand, updated the events to the United States Department of Defense in Washington D.C. during the Cold War period of the 1980's. But we're not here to talk about that story right now.
The era of the 1940's was prime for film noir thrillers. Some of these stories could get a little redundant after of these movies. The plot of THE BIG CLOCK seems simple enough is which the editor-in-chief of a popular crime magazine, George Stroud (played by Ray Milland) is charged by his tyrannical publishing boss, Earl Janoth (played by Charles Laughton) with the assignment of finding an accused murderer of a young woman. The twist is that we already know that Janoth is the murderer and Stround was a witness to Janoth leaving the scene of the crime, though Janoth doesn't know that. So Stroud is racing the clock (the big one) as he outwardly appears to diligently lead Janoth's investigation and, at the same time, tries to prevent that investigation from uncovering the fact that it is he who is the very target of it. Meanwhile, he must also secretly carry out his own investigation to gather the evidence necessary to prove who the real murderer is.
Confused yet? Well, look at it this way, sometimes a little confusion helps to make a story more original. That's when you have to watch the film more than once. Trust me.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Don Klausmeyer: "I'm Don Klausmeyer, from Artways magazine."
Louise Patterson: "Yes. Oh, yes. Didn't you review my show in '41?"
Don: "I think I did."
Louise: "Oh, come in, Mr. Klausmann."
Louise: "I've been planning to kill you for years."