Wednesday, September 28, 2011
(October 1980, U.S.)
For some inexplicable reason, whenever I think about David Lynch's THE ELEPHANT MAN, the first thing I think about is not his impressive career, but rather THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (Exucse me?? Care to explain that one, Eric??). Well, it's not only because the film was released at the same time the second STAR WARS film was still going very strong, but it's also because during the previous Spring of 1980, the lead in the Broadway version of THE ELEPHANT MAN had been played by none other than Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) himself. Okay, I didn't say that my reasons would make a whole LOT of sense, but it's the way my twisted mind sometimes works.
Now is it just me or does Mel Brooks (producer of this film) have some kind of strange attraction to stories of human deformity? I mean, the guy produced the 1986 remake of THE FLY, too! Well, be that as it may, his venture into a non-comic tale couldn't have been more to the opposite side of his traditional comedic coin. The true story of John Merrick (his name was Joseph in real life) is disturbing, shocking, depressing and touching at the right times. David Lynch's choice to shoot 19th Century England is black and white is visual cinematic genius, to say the least. John Hurt plays Merrick, but you'd never know it without properly checking the film credits. In this story, Merrick is discovered in a Victorian freak show by surgeon Dr. Frederick Treves (played by Anthony Hopkins) and is so deformed that he must wear a hood and cap whenever he's in public. Treves is professionally intrigued by Merrick's condition and brings him to his hospital so that he can examine him. The ward nurses are horrified by Merrick's appearance, so Treves places him in a quarantine room under the watchful care of the formidable matron, Mrs. Mothershead (played by Wendy Hiller). As Merrick learns to speak and slowly discover his own identity as a man, it begins to appears as if he was rescued from the cruelty of one freak show only to be substituted for a kinder, more civilized, acceptable version of the same freak show. Merrick is still being shown off in public and other people are managing to benefit greatly from his presence. At one point in the film, even Dr. Treves himself questions his motives and loosely compares himself to those who had previously mistreated Merrick.
You recall earlier when I used the word "touching" as one of the many adjectives for this film? That can easily be claimed when the famous actress Mrs. Madge Kendal (played by Mrs. Mel Brooks herself, Anne Bangcroft) arranges an evening at the local musical theatre. Presented in full formal attive, Merrick rises in the Royal Box to a standing ovation of London's society, having had the performance dedicated to him from Mrs Kendal. That night, back at the hospital, he lies down (something he's not supposed to do given the enourmous size of his head) on his bed and dies peacefully, consoled by a vision of his mother whom we have frequently seen a photograph of during the course of the film.
Rest assured, though, as touching and moralizing as much of THE ELEPHANT MAN can be at times, it's still filled with the richly bizarre and surrealistic style of film making and storytelling that any David Lynch fan would come to expect from his work. And who can't give John Hurt the highest credit he deserves for being able to achieve such a performance under the heaviest, most grueling of make-up mask experiences? This is also the same man that gave birth to a small alien out of his stomach the year before in ALIEN (1979).
Favorite line or dialogue:
John Merrick: "I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!"
Monday, September 26, 2011
(December 1961, U.S.)
If film history has proven one thing, it's proven that just about any historical epic starring Charlton Heston is going a successful, spectacular screen experience. Anthony Mann's story of the life of the Christian Castilian knight Don Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (played by Heston), called "El Cid", who in the 11th Century fought the North African Almoravides and ultimately contributed to the unification of Spain, is filled with all the widescreen spectacle, action and romance that will please any true film lover.
One of the first things we immediately learn about Rodrigo is that although his intentions always seem noble enough, he is constantly a provoking instigator. In the beginning, while simply on route to see his beloved future bride Doña Jimena (played by the Italian beauty Sophia Loren), he becomes involved in a battle against an army of the Moors. Rodrigo releases several captured Emir prisoners on the condition that they never again attack King Ferdinand of Castile. For this act he's accused of treason against the King by Jimena's father, Count Gormaz. Rodrigo kills Gormaz in defense of his family honor and his true love (temporarily) becomes his true enemy. Not for long, though - she'll love him again. As cliche might expect, when the King dies, his two sons immediately go to war to see who will ultimately claim the rightful throne. In a plot right out of HAMLET, the eldest son King Sancho is king only for a short time until he's assassinated by his younger brother Alfonso's doing (you see - I told you that it's BROTHERS that always seem to want to kill each other!). In a particularly intruiging scene, Rodrigo commits another bold act of defiance when he publicly challanges King Alfonso during the royal coronation to swear on the Holy Books that he had no part in his brother's killing. He does convincingly, but we as the viewer no better and we know that a Prince who has stolen the power needed to become King is, indeed, a dangerous man.
Another sequence I've always found impossible to ignore is the moment before the final battle when we alreay know that Rodrigo is dead. However, in order to give his army the proper inspiration and morale, and to also disuade and push the enemy back into the sea, he is positioned on his horse with his eyes wide open in order to give the appearance that he's alive, strong and ready to do battle. It's a deception that grabs your attention and makes your own eyes open just a little bit wider.
EL CID can sit proudly alongside a line of epic films of history, battle and romance that include the likes of BEN-HUR (1959), SPARTACUS (1960) and even GLADIATOR (2000). When I watch a film like this, even while I'm enjoying it immensely, I still find myself drifting off into a fantasy of having been around back in the day to have been able to see it on the big screen during it's exclusive roadshow engagements. THIS was a period of cinema history that I consider quite underated. It was also the period of cinema history that just started to usher in the beginning of the end for the entire Hollywood studio system of the 1960s. But that's another piece of history.
Favorite line or dialogue:
King Alfonso: "Rodrigo of Vivar, called the Cid, why do you alone refuse me fealty?"
Rodrigo Diaz: "Sire, all those you see here, though none dare say so, harbor the suspicion that you may have counseled your own brother's death. Unless you can prove your innocence, you will have no loyal subjects. Your kingdom will be torn by doubt. Thus, I cannot give you fealty, nor own you as my liege."
Alfonso: "What will satisfy you of my innocence?"
Rodrigo: "Your oath upon the Holy Books!"
Alfonso: "You would ask me to swear?"
Rodrigo: "Sire, I DO ask it!"
Alfonso: "Very well!"
Rodrigo: "Will you swear that you had no part in the ordering of King Sancho's death?"
Alsonso: "I so swear!"
Rodrigo: "Do you swear that you had no part by way of COUNSEL in King Sancho's death?"
Alfonso: "I so swear!"
Rodrigo: "Do you swear that you had no part by way of DESIGN in King Sancho's death?"
Alfonso: "I swear it!"
Rodrigo: "If you are foresworn, may you die such a death as your brother did! Struck from behind by the hand of a traitor! Say, "Amen'!"
Alfonso: "You press me too far, Rodrigo!"
Rodrigo: "Say 'Amen'!"
Sunday, September 25, 2011
(June 1963, U.S.)
If you're at the point in your life of film appreciation where you have yet to experience to world of Italian film maker Federico Fellini, then let me tell you that you'll be required to switch your brain into a mode of patience, tolerance and understanding that you may have never used before (and, frankly, a mode that most Friday night multiplex moviegoers NEVER use!). To experience the world of Fellini is to enter a level of fantasy and reality that can only best be described as pure artistic self-indulgence.
The title of 8 1/2 refers to Fellini's eighth and a half film as a director. His previous directorial work consisted of six features, two short segments, and a collaboration with another director, Alberto Lattuada, the latter three productions accounting for a "half" film each. By this point in his career, he'd reached a point where his ability for the proper inspiration and storytelling had reached a block. Solution? Make a black and white film about an Italian director named Guido Anselmi (played by long-time collaborator Marcello Mastroianni) who's reached a point where his ability for the proper inspiration and storytelling has reached a block. Get it? Stalled on his new science fiction film that includes veiled autobiographical references, Guido has lost all interest amid artistic and marital difficulties. As he struggles half-heartedly to work on his film, a series of flashbacks and dreams delve into his vivid memories and fantasies; however they are frequently interwoven with the reality he must contend with everyday. It's a film about the struggles involved in the creative process, both technical and personal, and the problems artists must face when expected to deliver something personal and profound with intense public scrutiny, on a constricted schedule, while simultaneously having to deal with their own personal demons. It is also, in a much larger sense, about finding true personal happiness in a difficult, fragmented life; something all of us probably deal with at one time or another.
All of these complex elements add up to, frankly, one of the most incomprehensible films you are ever likely to see in your life. But don't give up too quickly! Stay with it to fully absorb it's extraordinary black and white cinematography and to understand the above-mentioned themes. Let me tell you that when I first saw Fellini's 8 1/2, my initial reaction to its style and structure was, "Are you fucking kidding me??" Now I'm proud to actually call it my favorite foreign subtitled film of all time. How's THAT for improving one's maturity level when it comes to film? Let me also tell you that when my wife and I were dating back in 1999, I took her to see a special screening of 8 1/2 at the Paris Theatre in New York City. While being a very intelligent woman, let's just say she didn't exactly appreciate the film the way I did. As a matter of fact, she had this look on her face that suggested, "Are you fucking kidding me??"
This film, by the way, was inspiration to many other types of films, including American titles like ALL THAT JAZZ (1979), Woody Allen's STARDUST MEMORIES (1980) and most recently the musical NINE (2009).
Favorite line or dialogue:
Guido Anselmi: "I thought my ideas were so clear. I wanted to make an honest film. No lies whatsoever. I thought I had something so simple to say. Something useful to everybody. A film that could help bury forever all those dead things we carry within ourselves. Instead, I'm the one without the courage to bury anything at all. When did I go wrong? I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same."
Thursday, September 22, 2011
(March 1955, U.S.)
In 1981, there was a four-part ABC-TV mini-series that was very faithful to John Steinbeck's original novel. I mention this only because it was due to this TV version that I later learned that Elia Kazan's theatrical version is only loosely based primarily on the second part of the novel, focussing on the story of a wayward young man named Cal (played famously by the great James Dean) who, while seeking his own identity, competes for the affection of his deeply religious father against his favored brother Aron (played by Richard Davalos).
But before getting into the film itself, there's something about this tale that brings to mind a fact I've often noticed, and that's this - have you ever noticed that nearly all stories featuring sibling rivalry have almost always pit BROTHER AGAINST BROTHER? Really, think about it. Cain and Abel, Moses and Ramses, Mufasa and Scar (THE LION KING), J.R. and Bobby Ewing (DALLAS), etc. If you're a fan of the British rock band, The Kinks, then you know that Ray and Dave Davies can't stand each other. I could probably go on and on. My point is, you almost never see stories of sibling rivalry featuring two sisters and I have yet to EVER see a story where a brother and sister go to war against each other. I'm not saying it doesn't exist. I'm only saying I have yet to see it.
But back to EAST OF EDEN...
Set in the central California coastal towns of Monterey and Salinas during World War I, Cal and Aron are the young adult sons of a modestly successful farmer and wartime draft board chairman named Adam Trask (played by Raymond Massey). Cal is very moody and embittered by his belief that his father favors Aron (which he does). Although both Cal and Aron had long been led to believe that their mother had died, the opening scene of the film reveals that Cal has come to realize that his mother is still alive, owning and running a successful brothel in nearby Monterey. Not exactly the "fitting" wife for a religeous farmer, is it? Although Cal has many reasons to despise his father, he still years to please him and gain his acceptance. To do that, he seeks to profit from bean farming during wartime in order to earn back all the money his father lost during a refrigeration enterprise. Meanwhile, Aron's girlfriend Abra (played by Julie Harris) gradually finds herself attracted to Cal, who yearns to reciprocate her feelings (first rule of brotherly relations - don't steal his woman!). Anyway, getting back to the money...Cal's efforts to make his father happy with the money are actually quite touching, but it all ultimately turns tragic when his father refuses the money because he considers any sort of profiteering during wartime to be "blood" money, and he can't live with that. We watch on screen, James Dean being the 1950's cultural icon and heart-throb male that he was, break down like a weak, pathetic child when his father refuses his kind financial gesture. As a viewer, you can actually hear yourself thinking, "Oh, shit! This is all going to get so much worse!" It does.
The end of the film plays out in symbolic tradion of life and death. The relationship between Aron and Cal is dead, as is Cal's relationship with Abra and his father, as well. Aron, bitter and spiteful, is off to fight in the war and will surely meet his death. Adam has suffered a serious stroke and will likely die. However, their is the birth of Cal and Abra's new love for each other, as well as a new love and understanding between Cal and his father. So, I guess one could claim, that amidst a domino effect of tragic circumstances, there is the birth of a happy ending, after all.
EAST OF EDEN was the first of only three films James Dean ever made.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Cal Trask: "I've been jealous all my life. Jealous, I couldn't even stand it. Tonight, I even tried to buy your love, but now I don't want it anymore...I can't use it anymore. I don't want any kind of love anymore. It doesn't pay off."
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
(September 2007, U.S.)
When you think about the career of director David Cronenberg, I suppose his film making reputation could be compared to that of Steven Spielberg. In the beginning, it appeared that the man was geared only toward one type of film - in Cronenberg's case, gory horror films that included RABID and the remake of THE FLY. But then, all of a sudden, he's changing his form and his style and suddenly you're getting titles like NAKED LUNCH (1991), M. BUTTERFLY (1993), A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005) and EASTERN PROMISES. But rest assured, though, that while I can't claim to have seen M. BUTTERFLY, the others that I mentioned are not without their share of unsettling gore. In fact, EASTERN PROMISES, a story about a British-Russian midwife's interaction with the Russian mafia in London and the subsequent sex trafficking of underage Russian girls, is one of the bloodiest crime films I've ever seen.
Viggo Mortensen's role of mob driver and "problem cleaner" Nikolai Luzhin comes off as pretty much the same kind of man you've seen ol' Viggo play before - the very silent and very deadly type. Anna Khitrova (played by Naomi Watts), is the above-mentioned midwife who finds a Russian-language diary on the body of Tatiana, a 14-year-old girl who dies in childbirth. She also finds a business card for the Trans-Siberian restaurant, which is owned by Semyon (played wonderfully by Armin Mueller-Stahl), a boss in the Russian Mafia or "vory v zakone" ("thieves in law"). Anna thus sets out to track down the girl's family so that she can find a home for the dead mother's baby girl. She risks her life in doing so because the mafia wants the incriminating diary destroyed and anybody who has any knowledge of it, as well.
Now in order to disucss this next part, I'm force to give away the fact that Nikolai is eventually revealed as an FSB agent who has infiltrated the mafia, working under license by the British Government. As part of his undercover duties, Nikolai was able to read Tatiana's diary before Semyon had it destroyed and hatched a plan to have Semyon arrested for statutory rape. However, I don't think it's particularly one hundred percent clear if his proposal to take over as "king" of the mafia sector is strictly a part of his cover or if he's suddenly decided to grab an opportunity to "turn to the dark side" and embrace the temptation of power. Listen to the dialogue and how it plays out in its applicable scene and you'll see what I mean.
With regard to the rather infamous knife fight in the sauna, I don't know what I find more unsettling - the excessive blood involved or the fact that I have to look at Viggo's totally naked ass and dick during the fight. I suppose straight women and gay men are getting a kick out of it, but for me...hmmmm.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Anna Khitrova: "Tell Semyon the baby I delivered last Sunday is his daughter."
Kirill: "What did she say?"
Nikolai Luzhin: "I don't know."
Anna: "When he raped her she was a virgin. They they gave her pills. He HAS to be the father!"
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
(December 1984, U.S.)
There are seven words that I want you all to get used to my repeating whenever applicable for my blog posts, and those words are, TIME CAN BE KIND TO ANY FILM, even to David Lynch's deliberately-bizarre and idiosyncratic "love it or hate it" version of Frank Herbert's acclaimed novel. DUNE is an ambitious, epic, completely mind-boggling, and, let's be honest, really fucking weird science fiction film and one of the most controversial films in the director's exceedingly provocative career. The story (if there is actually only ONE story) is quite complex and convoluted in the epic tradition, as it involvs political intrigue and the desert planet Arrakis that is home to a precious spice and gigantic sand worms.
To fully understand the controversy surrounding this film, I suggest you look it up. Let me just say, though, that prior to its release, Universal Pictures was quite confident it had their own STAR WARS saga on their hands, and marketed it as such. Did you know that David Lynch actually turned down the opportunity to direct RETURN OF THE JEDI in order to make DUNE instead (can you just IMAGINE the kind of Star Wars film David Lynch would have given us??). Needless to say, Universal didn't exactly get what they'd hoped for. DUNE was panned by critics and hated by audiences, as well. Was DUNE really such a bad film? Of course not, or I wouldn't have the film in my collection. In my humble opinion, I don't feel audiences and critics were ready to fully embrace the artistic style that David Lynch later became praised for in films like BLUE VELVET, MULLHOLLAND DRIVE and TV's TWIN PEAKS. In other words, people just might have been too impatient or too fucking stupid to get it. Over the years, though, DUNE managed to gain popular cult status following in the tradition of other intelligent, artistic science fiction films that failed to appeal to audiences at the time of their release - films like, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, THX-1138, SOLARIS and BLADE RUNNER, to name some. I'll be happy to admit that when I first watched DUNE on video in the 1980s, I didn't exactly walk away very pleased. I didn't hate it, but I didn't get it, either. Then some years later, after I became an avid fan of BLUE VELVET and TWIN PEAKS, I gave the film another look and fully appreciated the bizarre artistic style that Lynch was trying to convey.
Might DUNE have been a more popular film off the bat had the same exact film been released, say, seven-to-ten year later after TWIN PEAKS went off the air? Maybe. The fact remains that regardless of the history of DUNE, it's a dazzling and fascinating film with moments of action and cinematography that are not only fun to watch, but challenging to the eyes and the mind. The strangely whispered voice-overs that explain the characters' thoughts only require some patience and the ability to really listen. If you can manage to do that, then the film opens itself up even further beyond the tradition sci-fi sterotypes of good versus evil, space battles and giant monsters.
Let's not forget the great cast that was chosen for DUNE, also. Kyle Maclachlan in his debut film role as the hero Paul Atreides, Patrick Stewart in a pre-NEXT GENERATION sci-fi role, Max Von Sydow, Richard Jordan, Freddie Jones, Sean Young, Dean Stockwell, a very young Virginia Madsen and even Sting (right after The Police broke up). And hey, where else are you going to find an entire film scored by the rock band Toto?
So in short, film history can say whatever the fuck it wants to, but DUNE is one of the most intelligent, thought-provoking science fiction films ever made, in my opinion. David Lynch should feel nothing but pride for his achievement. Fuck the people if they didn't get it!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Princess Irulan: "A beginning is a very delicate time. Know then, that is is the year 10191. The known universe is ruled by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam the Fourth, my father. In this time, the most precious substance in the universe is the spice Melange. The spice extends life. The spice expands consciousness. The spice is vital to space travel. The Spacing Guild and its navigators, who the spice has mutated over 4000 years, use the orange spice gas, which gives them the ability to fold space. That is, travel to any part of the universe without moving. Oh, yes. I forgot to tell you...the spice exists on only one planet in the entire universe. A desolate, dry planet with vast deserts. Hidden away within the rocks of these deserts are a people known as the Fremen, who have long held a prophecy that a man would come, a messiah, who would lead them to true freedom. The planet is Arrakis, also known as Dune."
(December 1994, U.S.)
Well, I told you that the next film would be something we could all laugh at. And what better to laugh at than the insane slapstick and gross-out humor of DUMB AND DUMBER.
Let me start off by clarifying something. Over the course of this blog, I may have given the impression that I'm just too damn serious about film and not capable of enjoying some screen silliness once in a while. Not true. I have, in my course of film appreciation, enjoyed many stupid comedies. The trouble I have is that when I see today's stupid array films over the last decade like THE 40 YEAR-OLD VIRGIN, THE HANGOVER or any of the number of Will Ferrel-starred films, my first reaction is like, "Man, I saw all that shit thrity-some-odd years ago!" I saw it in the form of ANIMAL HOUSE, CADDYSHACK, PORKY'S and FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. If you're going to give me stupidity on the screen, at the very least give me SOMETHING I may not have seen already...something...anything!
So would I call the Farrelly brothers' DUMB AND DUMBER an example of true comedy originality? Of course not. But its premise of simply treating stupid guys like Lloyd Christmas (played outrageously by Jim Carrey) and Harry Dunne (played just as well by Jeff Daniels) as truly the stupid guys that they are without attempting to be sensitive or politically correct in nature is a stroke of comedic genius, in my opinion. It's a buddy movie and a road movie as our two would-be-heroes set off on a cross-country road trip in a van dressed up like a dog (the "Shaggin’ Wagon") to Aspen, Colorado ("Where the beer flows like wine.") to innocently return a suitcase to Mary Swanson (played by Lauren Holly), not knowing that the case is actually fully of ranson money that the bad guys will surely come looking for. Along the way, the two run into several misadventures, though they always manage to wriggle their way out of them. You see, even the most incredibly stupid of people can (rarely) display acts of cleverness when the need arrises. Just remember, though, that DUMB AND DUMBER is not a movie about plot. In fact, if it were anyone but crazy Jim Carrey, a movie filled with a series of instances where two men get to act like idiots would likely not hold up too long. But again, Carrey carries a role that he was born to play and he doesn't let up for even a moment of seriousness. And in all fairness to Jeff Daniels, the actor who has sported mostly dramatic roles, holds his idiotic end up well against Carrey. I can only just imagine the fun these two must have had with each other making this film. Just sitting together (mostly) naked together in a red heart-shaped tub drinking beers must have been cause for unbelievable laughter.
The timing of watching DUMB AND DUMBER was perfect for me, in a way, particularly after an entire day of solumn relfection on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Nothing keeps you in hysterical stitches like insanely-funny dialogue. And speaking of dialogue, I have to say that choosing my favorite line or dialogue for THIS one is going to be very tough, indeed, but I'll give it a go...
Favorite line or dialogue:
Lloyd Christmas: "I want to ask you a question... straight out, flat out... and I want you to give me an honest answer. What do you think the chances of a guy like you and a girl like me... ending up together?"
Mary Swanson: "Well, Lloyd, that's difficult to say. I mean, we don't really..."
Lloyd: " Hit me with it! Just give it to me straight! I came a long way just to see you, Mary. The least you can do is level with me. What are my chances?"
Mary: "Not good."
Lloyd: "You mean, not good like one out of a hundred?"
Mary: "I'd say more like one out of a million."
Lloyd: "So you're telling me there's a chance...YEAH!!! I read you."
Sunday, September 11, 2011
I hope you'll bear with me for a time while I pause during my blog posts to reflect and express myself in my own fashion on this day of rememberance and reflection...
You know, milestone anniversaries are a funny thing and I suppose each and every person has their own way of giving such events personal meaning. Take me for instance...on September 30th of this year I will have been married to the woman I (still) love for ten years. And what's more, she will having been putting up with the likes of ME for ten years, as well. In October of this year, I will have officially "gone DVD" for ten years (this blog of mine might never have been possible if I'd remained with VHS). But, of course, today being the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, we all may be taking a little time out of our lives to reflect on the past and what it's meant to our present and our future.
But I suppose it's impossible for me to talk about that tragic Tuesday ten years ago without telling you all where I was that morning. Where I was, was on my way to work in Greenwich Village when the subway train stopped at Christopher Street. The doors would not close and we were not moving for some time. Being the impatient person I can be sometimes, I decided to get out and walk the rest of the way to my office. As I made my way to Varrick Street I could see many people gathered in large masses on the street. I'm looking around and I can't account for a reason for any of this. I don't see a traffic accident, a fight breaking out, nothing. It actually doesn't occur to me to raise my head and look up for several minutes. When I do, I'm shocked to see that a huge plume of smoke is smouldering from the first tower hit by the plane at the World Trade Center. I should also clarify that from my perspective on the street, I could only see one tower, as the other one was directly behind it, hidden from my view. A short time later, I witnessed the great ball of fire that was the explosion of the second plane hitting the second tower. But I didn't know this yet. From my perspective, it appeared as if the explosion stemmed from the first building - a result of the ongoing fire, I imagined. By the time I'm in my office and listening to radio, I, like every other American that day, am learning what is happening to our beloved country. A short time later, I and many of my colleagues were standing in the conference room facing the buring towers. Try to imagine a roomful of architects discussing whether the steel structures would hold, when all of a sudden they come down. I believe my exact words were, "Holy shit, they're coming down!" By the time I left work after lunch, I ended up walking home in what seemed to be like a long exodus going north up the island of Manhattan. Once I reached home, my wife Beth (fiance at the time) held each other like we never had before. We were actually only about three weeks away from our wedding.
So now you know where I was and what I was doing. What I'd like to do now is give you a sense of what went through my mind at certain times and the feelings I was experiencing in terms of movies and how I allowed them to enter and affect my life. To begin with, when I saw that second explosion occur from the street, I swear on my son that the first thought that went through he head was that I had just witnessed a scene directly out of INDEPENDENCE DAY. Because downdown Manhattan was closed below 14th street for several days, I was home glued to the television like many others. When I could no longer take the stories and images anymore, I switched channels and found myself consoled by a broadcast of one of my favorite films, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (thank you Steven Spielberg, for saving me that night). When I could no longer take the confinements of my apartment any longer, I walked to the local movie theater to see THE OTHERS. Not an uplifting film, but a good, solid ghost story that helped take my mind off things. By that weekend, Beth and I went to see an outrageous French comedy called THE CLOSET. The following weekend, when we were back in the Hamptons, we went to laugh at the likes of SHREK on screen for the second time. Some time later, I even remember thinking about and anticipating EPISODE II of the STAR WARS saga due out next summer. I remember thinking to myself, "George Lucas, we need you now more than ever!" Yes, it's very safe to say that in the short time following 9/11, the movies helped to save my fragile state of mind.
But there's also something very specific that comes to my mind in terms of the motion picture industry and how movies were being handled and marketed in the wake of the 9/11 tragedies. Hollywood displayed a very rare (and very TEMPORARY) sensitivity to any form of violence and destruction on the screen and attempted to do what little they could to raise the spirits of the American people. They began by immediately pushing back the release of the Arnold Schwarzenegger terrorist-action vehicle COLLATERAL DAMAGE to Spring 2002. A scheduled airing of PASSENGER 57 on Cinemax was cancelled (for obvious reasons) and even an NBC-TV airing of BACK TO THE FUTURE was sensitive to the use of the word "terrorist" and actually deleted it from the film's dialogue. Frankly, I think that may have been taking things a little too far, but there you have it. Hollywood even shocked me by simultaneously re-releasing nearly every comedy that had already been on the screen during the entire Summer of 2001 because nothing can heal like the power of laughter on screen. Yes, it appeared that the insensitive money-whoring pigs who run Hollywood were actually capable of acting like human beings when national tragedy called for it.
Like I mentioned, though, it all didn't last long. Before we knew it, movie makers were up-and-running again in an effort to destroy as many of our American cities as box office tickets would allow. Whether through natural causes in THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, invading aliens in WAR OF THE WORLDS, giant robots in TRANSFORMERS, a videotaped monster in CLOVERFIELD and more recent forms of Earthly destruction like 2012 and BATTLE: LOS ANGELES. Shit, I haven't seen this much destruction on the screen since the Summer of 1998 when New York City was being clobbered by a giant coment, an asteroid the size of Texas and Godzilla himself! Obviously, nothing sells movie tickets to the common multiplex moron like good ol' fashioned self-destruction.
Now take a moment, if you will, to think back to the state and mood of our country immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. We can remember the enourmous amount of war films released only months after the attack. American heroes like John Wayne lit up the screen to fight for our country and our lives. Yes, there was violence and destruction on the screen, but it was targeted against our ENEMIES overseas and not our own cities here at home. Why is it so impossible to think that this patriotic film formula would not have worked on us today? I mean, if there HAD to be another John Rambo film in this new century, would it not have been truly exciting to see Stallone kick some royal Al Qaeda ass?? Maybe it's just me, but not only would I have paid good money to see this kind of sequel, but I would have cheered my fucking American ass off!
So now let me put forth this question - is it going to take another fatal tragedy on our beloved American soil before the powers-that-be of Hollywood once again wake up and realize that movies CAN be meant to serve a much higher purpose and responsibility than the usual Friday night crap box office intake? I've said this before and I'll gladly repeat it now...movies, when done with a certain degree of intelligence and sensitivity, have the power to reach us, teach us, and perhaps every so often, give us some positive meaning and inspiration in our lives. I've kept a pretty close eye on the big studio's releases over the past decade and I can't claim inspiration from anything! I'm sorry, but endless superhero sequels just aren't going to cut that sort of mustard!
What's the answer then? Are movies EVER going to be great again? Will they ever "save" our lives again? I honestly don't know what the answers are. Perhaps the answers can only depend on us, as human beings and how we choose to embrace the films out there today. If we choose NOT to invest our time, money and minds on crap, then perhaps Hollywood will get the message and start using their imaginations of originality again and treat their audiences with a little more respect and a little less insult. That's unrealistic, I'm sure, but the change can, at the very least, start with ME. It HAS started with me.
Finally, I'd like to dedicate this 9/11 post to my Uncle Steven (on my mother's side), who through luck or whatever good fortune or power he and others may choose to believe in, walked out of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 and home to his beloved family.
And now, let's continue with the next film in my collection, and this time we'll all try to laugh a little...
Saturday, September 10, 2011
(November 1971, U.S.)
For the benefit of those possible few that aren't widely familiar with Steven Spielberg's career, let's make this perfectly clear - JAWS was not his first film! Got that? Like many other struggling new film directors, the man had to start out at the bottomless pit of television. DUEL was his first film and it was made for the ABC-TV Movie of the Weekend. Look at the film today, though, and you'll likely agree it had all the spectacular makings for a theatrical feature, or at the very least as part of a double bill at the local drive-in movie theater. Actually, it was released as a theatrical feature in Europe.
Let me ask you all a blunt question? Have you ever been driving on the highway and come into contact with a real asshole driver? Or have you ever acted like one yourself? My own answer to that is 'yes' on both accounts? I mean, come on, even the best of us can get a little impatient and angered on the road, and as a result we just might piss somebody off. It can happen. However, you don't want what happens to mild-mannered Los Angeles salesman David Mann (played by Dennis Weaver) to happen to you on the road...ever! All HE did was encounter a grimy and rusty Peterbilt 281 tanker truck, traveling slower than the speed limit and expelling thick plumes of sooty diesel exhaust. Mann passes the unsightly truck, which promptly roars past him and slows down. David passes the truck a second time and is startled when it suddenly issues a long air horn blast. In short, the truck driver (a truck driver that we, the viewer, NEVER get to see!) gets awfully pissed and decides that David will now be his new target in a game, or "duel" of cat-and-mouse wits on the road. Wits will eventually evolve into many attempts of murder as the "Goliath" truck overpowers the "David" (hey, did you get that one, too?) small, red Plymouth Valiant. On paper, the premise may sound a bit mild, but when you watch the film and incredible fear involved in the life of this ordinary man, you can feel the terror happening.
Think back now to the monsterous moments of Spielberg's films when the leviathan of the great white shark in JAWS (1975) stalked it's prey, or when the man-made dinosaurs did the same in JURASSIC PARK (1993). Now consider that the menacing truck in DUEL was the prerequisite to all of that. The monster can come in many forms. For us, the reality of the unstable driver may be a lot more reality to bear than the shark or the dinosaur.
Favorite line or dialogue:
David Mann: "Come on you miserable fat-head, get that fat-ass truck outta my way!"
(I know just how he feels!)
Friday, September 9, 2011
(November 1933, U.S.)
It's funny how time can be kind to a film. Considered a classic now and my personal favorite Marx Brothers film of their entire career, DUCK SOUP was a considered a box office and critical disappointment back in 1933. I can't possibly imagine why. The outrageous dialogue and anarchy of Groucho, Chico and Harpo (Zeppo was just simply NOT funny!) must have been a comic miracle during the time of the Great Depression when Americans desperately needed to laugh their troubles away for a time. For my own tastes, this is the film that has the most memorable quotes and it's one of the few where I don't have to sit through Harpo playing the harp. Remember, I'm not to keen on musicals in general.
Besides being a classic comedy, DUCK SOUP is considered to be an anti-war film of its time in which wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (played by Margaret Dumont) insists that Rufus T. Firefly (played by Groucho) be appointed leader of the small, bankrupt country of Freedonia before she will continue to provide any more financial assistance. Meanwhile, neighboring Sylvania is attempting to take over the country. Sylvanian ambassador Trentino (played by Louis Calhern) tries to foment a revolution and attempts to dig up dirt on Firefly by sending in kooky spies Chicolini (played by Chico) and Pinky (played by Harpo). As neighboring countries at odds with each other, they will surely inevitably go to war, which I suppose is exactly the point in getting the valid anti-war message across to audiences. War is, in fact, declared and everyone is overcome by "war frenzy", breaking into outrageous song and dance. The message at the time clearly was that war was so ridiculous that it was cause enough to sing, "We go to war!" and play music on the helmets of soldiers. In 1933, the mesaage just might have worked because there were many who thought the United States should not have been involved in World War I. The film would have been ineffective after World War II, though, as America was justifyably gung-ho to go to war against Japan. Regardless, at the time only the legendary Marx Brothers could have pulled it off. They did, in my opinion.
Let's talk about that great "mirror scene" for a moment. Groucho and Harpo, dressed exactly the same, pretend to be each other's reflection in a missing mirror, matching each other's every move — including absurd ones that begin out of sight — to near perfection. In one particularly surreal moment, the two men swap positions, and thus the idea of which is a reflection of the other. It's been copied many times, from Bugs Bunny to I LOVE LUCY (with Harpo as a guest star, I might add).
Rufus T. Firefly: "Not that I care, but where is your husband?"
Mrs. Teasdale: "Why, he's dead."
Firefly: "I bet he's just using that as an excuse."
Teasdale: "I was with him to the very end."
Firefly: "No wonder he passed away."
Teasdale: "I held him in my arms and kissed him."
Firefly: "Oh, I see, then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first."
Teasdale: "He left me his entire fortune."
Firefly: "Is that so? Can't you see what I'm trying to tell you? I love you!"
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
(January 1964, U.S.)
Stanley Kubrick is my favorite film director of all time. I think I've been pretty clear about that in the past. DR. STRANGELOVE is one of those rare films that I'm, frankly, very much in love with. One of those rare films I couldn't live without if I were stranded on a desert island. One of those rare films that I have so much to say about, that I find myself almost stuck with how to begin or what to actually say. But, rest assured, I eventually shut up, wise up and speak up so I can effectively express myself the way I seek to with my blogs (that's why we're both here!).
This was a film I discovered by accident on television when I was a teenager and just starting to learn about Kubrick's career as well as the appreciation for black and white classic films. Let's begin with a question that requires a little imagination - what must it have been like to try and make a black comedy film which satirized the American nuclear scare during the early 1960s that was dominated by the threat of the Cold War? Imagine what it must have seemed like to pitch that idea to Columbia Pictures. My only possible answer to all of this is, "Hey, it's fucking Stanley Kubrick! Anything's possible!" The story (if you're really THAT clueless!) concerns the very unhinged United States Air Force general Jack Ripper (played by Sterling Hayden) who orders a first strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Why? Because he's deluded himself into thinking that a secret Communist plot of introducing a foreign substance into the drinking water and into his "precious bodily fluids" is responsible for his impotence and possibly his tendency toward homosexuality (yes, that's right - the world is about to end because a potential gay man can't get it up!). It also follows the President of the United States (played by Peter Sellers), his advisors, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a Royal Air Force (RAF) officer as they try to recall the bombers to prevent a nuclear apocalypse. It also separately follows the crew of one B-52 bomber as they try to ultimately deliver their nuclear payload against their target in Russia. Sounds pretty grim and frightening, right? Well, fear not because it's funny, funny, funny! It's funny dialogue that never gets boring and never disappoints. It's funny because Peter Sellers famously plays three roles effectively (the President of the United States, the Royal Air Force exchange officer and the ever-crazy Dr. Strangelove himself!) and you can't decide which character is more loony that the other. It's funny because George C. Scott as the gung-ho, "let's kill em' all!" General Buck Turgidson is in his best role that easily surpasses PATTON (1970). It's funny because the above-metnioned B-52 aircraft commander Major T. J. "King" Kong (played by Slim Pickens) is just as gung-ho crazy as Turgidson whose final act before the world ends is riding the missle striking Russia like a wild bronco. Now THAT'S what I call a true American patriot! The film's final montage of nuclear detonations across the world, accompanied by Vera Lynn's recording of "We'll Meet Again" is not quite as funny as the rest of the film, but a grim and harsh reminder of what we were and what we're still capable of doing to this planet of ours.
During the filming of DR. STRANGELOVE, Kubrick learned that another film, FAIL-SAFE (1964), with a similar theme, was being produced. Although Sidney Lumet's film was to be an ultra-realistic thriller, he feared that its plot resemblance would damage his film's box office potential, especially if it were released first. Kubrick decided to throw a legal wrench into the other film's production gears and it worked, too. FAIL-SAFE opened eight months behind DR. STRANGELOVE, to critical acclaim but (unfortunately) mediocre ticket sales. Almost reminds me of the battle of asteroid films between two studios during the Summer of 1998 (DEEP IMPACT and ARMAGEDDON).
When I was a freshman in college, I took a class called History After 1945. It was an excellent class that often focussed on media and pop culture as well as political and historical events. One night, the professor showed us DR. STRANGELOVE during the period of discussion that involved the Cold War. When it was over, the essay question was simply, "Why did I show this film?" Well, d-u-u-h-h! You'll be happy to know I got an A (minus) on the paper (pat on my back!)
DR. STRANGELOVE is my second favorite Stanley Kubrick film. We still haven't gotten to my favorite yet. Stay with me to find out...
Favorite line or dialogue:
President Merkin Muffley (to Soviet Premier Kissoff): "Hello?...Uh...Hello D- uh hello Dmitri? Listen uh uh I can't hear too well. Do you suppose you could turn the music down just a little?...Oh-ho, that's much better...yeah...huh...yes...Fine, I can hear you now, Dmitri...Clear and plain and coming through fine...I'm coming through fine, too, eh?...Good, then...well, then, as you say, we're both coming through fine...Good...Well, it's good that you're fine and...and I'm fine...I agree with you, it's great to be fine...a-ha-ha-ha-ha...Now then, Dmitri, you know how we've always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb...The Bomb, Dmitri...The hydrogen bomb!...Well now, what happened is...ahm...one of our base commanders, he had a sort of...well, he went a little funny in the head...you know...just a little...funny. And, ah...he went and did a silly thing...Well, I'll tell you what he did. He ordered his planes...to attack your country...Ah...Well, let me finish, Dmitri...Let me finish, Dmitri...Well listen, how do you think I feel about it?...Can you imagine how I feel about it, Dmitri?... Why do you think I'm calling you? Just to say hello?...Of course I like to speak to you!...Of course I like to say hello!...Not now, but anytime, Dmitri. I'm just calling up to tell you something terrible has happened...It's a friendly call. Of course it's a friendly call...Listen, if it wasn't friendly...you probably wouldn't have even got it...They will not reach their targets for at least another hour...I am...I am positive, Dmitri...Listen, I've been all over this with your ambassador. It is not a trick...Well, I'll tell you. We'd like to give your air staff a complete run-down on the targets, the flight plans, and the defensive systems of the planes...Yes! I mean i-i-i-if we're unable to recall the planes, then...I'd say that, ah...well, ah...we're just gonna have to help you destroy them, Dmitri...I know they're our boys...All right, well listen now. Who should we call?...Who should we call, Dmitri? The...wha-whe, the People...you, sorry, you faded away there...The People's Central Air Defense Headquarters...Where is that, Dmitri?...In Omsk...Right...Yes...Oh, you'll call them first, will you?...Uh-huh...Listen, do you happen to have the phone number on you, Dmitri?...Whe-ah, what? I see, just ask for Omsk information...Ah-ah-eh-uhm-hm...I'm sorry, too, Dmitri...I'm very sorry...All right, you're sorrier than I am, but I am as sorry as well...I am as sorry as you are, Dmitri! Don't say that you're more sorry than I am, because I'm capable of being just as sorry as you are...So we're both sorry, all right?...All right".
(October 1962, U.S.)
Your personal interpretation of the very first James Bond film ever, DR. NO, may depend entirely on what generation you're from. Perhaps you're old enough to have seen the first film on screen back in 1962 and then all the others that followed in their theatrical release order. If that's the case, then you got to witness the character's development over time. However, if you're in my age bracket (late thirties to early forties), you very likely got your first taste of James Bond on screen in the 1970s in the form of Roger Moore and perhaps managed to catch GOLDFINGER or THUNDERBALL on the ABC Sunday Night Movie. That being the case, it's a considerably different experience to go back to the first Bond film and see Sean Connery bring the character to life for the first time.
If you were to watch DR. NO, CASINO ROYALE or even THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, it would be very easy to see that author Ian Flemming had a much different idea of James Bond in mind that doesn't even come close to the silly campiness displayed in many other films by men like Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan. Connery's very first portrayel of James Bond is a much tougher, grittier and cold-hearted spy, and I might also add, a much faster talker. Watch the film and you'll what I'm talking about; at times, the man is speaking at a hundred miles an hour. But I suppose like any other film franchise, a character like his needs a little time to be well seasoned.
The film, too, is just getting started and the stories, too, need time for seasoning. In this film, James Bond is sent to Jamaica on an investigation into the death of a fellow British agent. The murder trail leads him to the underground base of the villian Dr. No (played fiendishly by Joesph Wiseman), who is plotting to disrupt an early American manned space launch with a radio beam weapon. Not a terribly exciting plot and there are no over-the-top gadgets or cars to marvel at. For it introduction, DR. NO serves more to introduce us to the English gentleman spy who is licensed to kill and to learn what exactly makes the man tick. We know from many films of the future that he kills anyone, anytime without hesitation and that monogomy doesn't exactly work out for him. In fact, there's a moment in DR. NO when Honey Ryder asks Bond if he has a woman of his own. Just take a long look at Bond's face as he hesitates at the question and ultimately never answers it.
Now let's take a moment to talk about Honey Ryder (played by the sultry Ursula Andrews), shall we? Bond fans and even Bond historians (is there really such a thing??) have often called her the best "Bond girl" ever. Is she really? Well, I suppose that would depend on what you're personally grading her on. If we're talking about character strength, personality and performance, then my answer is definitely "no". On the other hand, if we're talking about the hottest piece of "Bond girl" ass you've ever seen on screen, then I have to definitely give Honey Ryder two big thumbs way up! Truth be told, I've never really had a favorite "Bond girl". Most of them (even the more independent, intelligent ones) seem to follow the same persistent formula. I can tell you that I consider Denise Richards in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (1999) the absolute WORST "Bond girl" of the entire film franchise! Most people would agree with me.
As a quintessential "Bond villian", I have to say that Dr. No rates as one of the best I've ever seen in the franchise. He's cunning, diabolical and evil without being entirely over-the-top in his personality and mannerism. I would call him the silent-but-deadly type, which I consider to be a more frightening character that the villian who's constantly shooting off his mouth and laughing like some stereotypical "mad scientist" or something. Many other Bond fans would likely tell you that Goldfinger is the best "Bond villian", but maybe that's simply because he says the best line to come from a villian, which is, "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!" Who knows.
Favorite line or dialogue:
James Bond: " I admire your courage, Miss...?"
Sylvia Trench: " Trench. Sylvia Trench. I admire your luck, Mr...?"
James: "Bond. James Bond."
And with those immortal words, a film legend is born...
Monday, September 5, 2011
(August 1941, U.S.)
One of the great disadvantages of watching three versions of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE in a row and having never read the original work by Robert Louis Stevenson is that you can never be totally sure of the author's original intention for the characteristics of Mr. Hyde. Was he meant to be a physically grotesque monster as portrayed in some film versions or was the physical transformation meant to be just subtle enough to make its philosophical point of man's inner conflict of good versus evil? Well, it's the latter point that Spencer Tracy expresses as Mr. Hyde. The physical tranformation in this 1941 version are actually no more than thicker hair and eyebrows, bigger eyes and a wider grin.
It's Spencer Tracy, though, that truly attracts one to this version of the story. He's a legendary actor that brings a strong sense of drama to the roles that call for it, and that dramatic passion comes through as Dr. Henry Jekyll. And while not particularly frightening as Mr. Hyde, that same passion comes through when his evil side is revealed and he murders his victims, dance hall girl Ivy and his would-be father in-law when provoked by rage. While Ingrid Bergman is suitably cast as Ivy, it's a role that could just as easily be as good or as bad as anything else she's done. In other words, it's NOT CASABLANCA! Lana Turner as Jekyll's fiance is, frankly, quite forgettable.
Now I have to give a director like Victor Flemming tremendous credit here. After having directed both THE WIZARD OF OZ and GONE WITH THE WIND (both released in 1939), you'd think he'd have taken a long hiatus just to recover from that kind of film making stress. Instead, he gives us a very credible film version of a great literary classic. It's an understandably light-hearted film, even for it's scary premise. This, however, is far from being a horror film. In fact, given a few very mild edits, it could almost pass for a family film...almost.
Well, I have to say that after three versions in a row of this film, I'm quite jekyll'd out of my hyde!
(Okay, that was bad. Sorry.)
Favorite line or dialogue:
Dinner Guest: "But, but, but aren't you a bit presumptuous in assuming that there's evil in all men?"
Dr. Jekyll: "Oh, but isn't that true? Wouldn't we be hypocrites if we didn't admit that? After all, we've all had thoughts that we, uh, didn't want published or shouted out loud and we certainly have had desires that are not confined to a drawing room. Why, as Christians, we admit that man is created weal. That's a perfectly honest problem. Why don't we face it?"
Friday, September 2, 2011
(December 1931, U.S.)
By the time 1932 rolls around, the so-called "talkie" is all the rage and so is the monster movie. Universal Pictures commands the reigns with hits like DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY and THE INVISIBLE MAN. So naturally, Paramount Pictures would likely compete with their latest version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE; this time with Frederic March playing the good (and bad) doctor.
By now, this is the EIGHTH version of Robert Louis Stevenson's famed novel to come to the screen. So perhaps I won't even bother going into the plot because I think I can safely assume you're all familiar, right? Instead, with this version, what I'll try to do is focus more on the psychology and philosophy behind its premise of man's dual persona of decent morality and the uninhibited desire to express his dark and ugly side. From the beginning, Dr. Henry Jekyll (pronounced "Jeekyll" for some mysterious reason in this version - don't know why) is very clear on his theories and philosophies of man's dual or "split" personality and I have to say that it's almost conspiracy-like in the way that all those around him refuse to believe such propositions of man's being. The decent man that we know Dr. Jekyll to be is conflicted with not only the need to prove those around him wrong, but to also reject the lust he feels towards women of less desirability simple because it's the decent thing to do (or not do) or as those around him put it, "It isn't done." Well, once he's transformed into Mr. Hyde, not only is it DONE, but you can almost condone the mischief and mayhem he cause because it's a rage against the moral machine of conformity that seeks to dominate his existence.
There are two particular works of the camera that I'd like to focus on for a moment and they both involve the "disolve" shot. The first one disolves from Dr. Jekyll's fiance Muriel and stays there for a long moment into the next scene, reminding the audience that Dr. Jekyll is constantaly bound to the decent moral complexities of love, marriage and honor. The second one disolves from the cheap dance hall girl Ivy and stays there for the same moment into the next scene to remind us that Jekyll is also a man conflicting with the hidden lustful desires he has for this girl and can only express when he's transformed into Mr. Hyde. It's imagery that easily captures the classic conflict of good versus evil within our souls.
As for the physical monster that is Mr. Hyde, it's difficult to judge just how scary he is. In my opinion, he looks like a cross between Lon Channey Jr. in THE WOLFMAN (1941) and the tasmanian devil from CREEPSHOW (1982). That, of course, is a scary looking monster, but it's easy to get past it because Mr. Hyde seems to come off as more of a comical mischief-maker rather than a frightening murder (but murder he does!). In watching Frederic March play Mr. Hyde, you can almost presume that Jim Carrey studied this role when he prepared to play his role in THE MASK (1994).
Favorite line or dialogue:
Mr. Hyde: "Perhaps you prefer a gentleman. One of those fine-mannered and honorable gentlemen. Those panting hypocrites who like your legs but talk about your garters."