Monday, October 31, 2011
(December 1973, U.S.)
Those of you who may have been paying closer attention to my blog than others may have noticed that over the last several weeks I've been posting my films rather sparingly. I must confess that I've been doing that intentionally so that I may write about and discuss one of the scariest films of all time on the day of Halloween. Yes, that's extremely corny, but admitedly effective, nonetheless. So, here it is...the one...the only...the classic...the original 1973 version of THE EXORCIST!
To actually spend time discussing the basic plot of THE EXORCIST would likley be as productive as disussing the plot of JAWS or STAR WARS. It's just one of those films that everyone who's ever been to or watched movies has heard of and already knows what it's about. So, what I'd like to do instead is spend some time focussing on some elements, sequences and themes that make THE EXORCIST the truly powerful and effective film that it is. You see, what I've hoped to achieve with my blog is to not only inspire my readers, based on my writings, to see films they've never seen before, but to perhaps also watch films they HAVE seen before with a more critical eye to the specific. I hope.
What is it that truly scares us about THE EXORCIST? Yes, the idea of demonic possession is in itself a very scary thing (and also an overused theme in films during the 1970s), but let's consider some of the surrounding elements that go with it. The film's demonic possession scares us because it is truly an incomprehensible thing while being based on the very ideas of good and evil in the New Testament. The film scares us because this sort of incomprehensible evil is happening to an innocent little girl. The film scares us because we watch a team of medical physicians put this poor little girl through a series of painful procedures to uncover the secret of her personality changes when we, as the audience, know the truth. The film scares us with it's visual effects, and I'm not necessarily speaking of Regan's (played by Linda Blair) hideous physical transformation or her pea soup projectile vomit, though that is in itself unnerving. I'm speaking more of sequences like Father Damien Karras' (played by Jason Miller) frightening dream sequence when for just a flash moment we see the image of that evil white face with the red eyes. Take a look...
(Shit, if THAT image doesn't keep you up at night in bed with the shivers, I don't know what will!)
The film scares us because the tension, the fear and the drama build up to what will ultimately become a battle between two good men of God and the evil spirit of the Devil. The film scares us because during this battle we watch two seemingly gentle priests reach their point of absolute fury and rage as they repeatedly shout, "The power of Christ compells you!" to save the soul of the innocent girl.
Beyond the fear of THE EXORCIST also lies the incomprehensible ideas of real life that we've likely never seen before. I'm specifically referring to a pair of priest hanging out together in a college bar, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and listening to The Allman Brothers Band on the jukebox. Priests molesting children I can believe (because that happens!). Priests being hip and cool in the 1970s, not really. Also, have you ever wondered why all of Chris MacNeil's (played by Ellen Burstyn) servants did not get the hell out of that house when the evil possession took over? I mean, loyalty is one thing, but geez!
Now let me move onto a point that may border on the philosophical. And please remember that this theory is coming from a lover of film and NOT a man with any religious beliefs or practices or even one who believes in God (because I don't!). There is a specific line spoken in the film that I've never been able to get out of my head. During a scene when a doctor is trying to explain what exorcism is to Chris MacNeil, he says, "Well, it's a stylized ritual in which the rabbi or the priest try to drive out the so-called invading spirit." Did you catch the word RABBI? So, that got me thinking about a thing or two and it was almost exactly one year ago that I decided to discuss this point with my cousin Danny, who is lot more Jewish and religious than I'll ever want to be. My theory is this...somewhere in the New Testament is a section called "The Rite of Exorcism" which, to me, says that the Book is equipped with some sort of practical weapon of defense against evil, should a reality like that ever come to pass. So it occurs to me - what if a JEW were to become possessed by some evil spirit? What practical weapon against evil does the Old Testament hold? Well, as I suspected my cousin Danny would tell me - nothing, nada, zip! This is because (apparently) Jews do not believe in evil possession or Hell, for that matter. Okay, but if evil truly existed and could take the form of a human being, would it really discriminate between a Jew or a Gentile? Does one's non-belief in evil or Hell really mean that it may not exist? And if it does, how would we combat it? Again, I'm not a theologist or even a religious thinker. This is all coming from someone who just loves great films and spends some of his time developing his silly thoughts for discussion. But just take a moment to picture two angry Hasidic rabbis shouting in thick accents, "Ze power of Moses compells you!" over and over again to save the soul of a "nice Jewish girl". Sounds like something Mel Brooks would have done if he'd thought of it first.
So, my friends, the next time you decide to watch THE EXORCIST, watch it with an eye for some of the details I've pointed out. And if you happen to be Jewish, consider the other points I made, as well - just for the fun of it anyway. And by the way, Happy Halloween everyone!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Father Damien Karras: "Look, I'm only against the possibility of doing your daughter more harm than good."
Chris MacNeal: "Nothing you could do could make it any worse."
Damien: "I can't do it. I need evidence that the church would accept as signs of possession."
Chris: "Like what?"
Damien: "Like her speaking in a language she's never known or studied."
Chris: "What else?"
Damien: "I don't know. I'd have to look it up."
Chris: "I thought you were supposed to be an expert."
Damien: "There are no experts. You probably know as much about possession than most priests. Look, your daughter doesn't say she's a demon. She says she's the Devil himself. Now if you've seen as many psychotics as I have, you'd know it's like saying you're Napoleon Bonaparte. You asked me what I think is best for your daughter. Six months under observation in the best hospital you can find."
Chris: "You show me Regan's double, same face, same voice, everything. And I'd know it wasn't Regan. I'd know in my gut. And I'm telling you that thing upstairs isn't my daughter. Now, I want you to tell me that you know for a fact that there's nothing wrong with my daughter, except in her mind! You tell me for a fact that an exorcism wouldn't do any good! You tell me that!"
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
(December 1960, U.S.)
This post for Otto Preminger's film of EXODUS should probably have been ghost-written by my cousin Danny. He's a thousand times more the Jew than I'll ever want to be, he's half Isreali and he surely knows a lot more about the factual history behind the events that happened on the ship "Exodus" in 1947 and dealing with the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 than I'll ever be aware of. Still, it's my blog so I'll give it a go...
To begin with, I have to say that when considering the decade of the 1960s before about 1967, it's confusing to really know how the tide was turning in Hollywood. Film historians tell us that the entire major studio system was on the verge of total collapse. Yet despite that claim, we still had an array of incredible films like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, SPARTACUS, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, GRAND PRIX, THE GREAT ESCAPE and of course, EXODUS.
For this historical epic, we have the great stars Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan, a Haganah (look that up) rebel who previously was a captain in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army in World War II and Eva Marie Saint as Nurse Katherine "Kitty" Fremont, an American volunteer at the Karaolos Internment camp on Cyprus, where thousands of Jews - Holocaust survivors - are being held, as the British won't let them go on to Palestine. They're anxiously awaiting the day they will be liberated. Ari has obtained a cargo ship to smuggle 611 Jewish inmates out of the camp for an illegal voyage to Mandate Palestine before being discovered by military authorities. When the British find out that the refugees are in a ship in the harbor of Famagusta, they blockade the harbor. The refugees stage a hunger strike and Ari threatens to blow up the ship and the refugees. The British eventually relent and allow the "Exodus" safe passage to Palestine.
During this time, opposition to the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states is heating up. Young Dov Landau (played by Sal Mineo) proclaims his desire to join the Irgun, a radical Zionist underground network who devise a series of terrorist explosions in a crowded hotel. Terrorism is key here in that it not only represents the evil behind the murder of many hotel residents, but also the plot to free the captured terrorists. And yet even among this political turmoil and tragedy, there is still time in the film for two kids (Dov and a young Jewish girl named Karen) to fall in love. This love is ultimately doomed, though, during a time of war, destruction and death. For even as an independent Israel is now in plain view, it's the inevitable death of Karen and Taha (played by John Derek), an Arab village leader that will ultimately bring people together in the end with a message to the world. Karen and Taha (Jew and Arab) are buried together in one grave and at the Jewish burial ceremony, Ari swears on their bodies that someday, Jews and Arabs will live together and share the land in peace. I'm afraid that true history has taught us differently, though, hasn't it?
Widely characterized as a "Zionist epic", EXODUS was identified by many commentators as having been enormously influential in stimulating Zionism and support for Israel in the United States. Although this film softens the anti-British and anti-Arab sentiment of the original Leon Uris novel, the film remains controversial for its depiction of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and for what some scholars have perceived to be its lasting impact on American conceptions (or MISconceptions) of what regional turmoil really is.
Cousin Danny, if you're reading this now, let me just say that you probably could've written this up just a little better than I. Oh, well.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Katherine "Kitty" Fremont: "Can't you understand that you make me feel like a Presbyterian when you can't, just for a minute or two, forget that you're a Jew?"
Friday, October 21, 2011
(March 1982, U.S.)
I've said this before and I'll gladly say it again - I'd love to see another star-studded Agatha Christie film on the big screen. EVIL UNDER THE SUN was the last one to be released in 1982 and my entire family went to see it at a small movie theater in Roslyn, New York. We all loved it. Like DEATH ON THE NILE preceeding it four years earlier, it was shot on location in exotic locales and featured the glorious cinematography and costume designs that would give it its lavish experience to the viewer. The character of Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played again by Peter Ustinov) returns to entertain us with his unigue brand of sleuthing. However, this time, unlike DEATH ON THE NILE, there is only one body, and the deceased in questions probably deserved her fate just as much as the others have in the past.
The murder victim (and a real bitch, too!) is the glamorous actress Arlena Marshall (played by Diana Rigg) on an Adriatic island in the fictional kingdom of "Tyrania" while on holiday with her new family, other assorted characters who each have individual reasons and motives to hate and kill her, and of course, the great Hercule Poirot (he just happens to be there). Arlena's been found alone on the beach strangled to death, but by all practical and logical purposes, NOBODY seems to have had the time or the opportunity to actually commit the murder. So we undeniably have a body, a list of viable suspects and yet it appears that no one did it (Hmmmmmm!). This sort of confusion and illusion of facts serves to be the perfect set up for what will ultimately become the great payoff when Hercule Poirot reveals to the entire cast not only who did it and why, but also the step-by-step process in which HOW they did it and how they were able to deceive not only the other suspects, but the audience, as well. It's the type of mysterious deception that can puts a big smile on your face in the end when you say to yourself, "Wow, I can't believe that's how they did it!"
Of course, don't expect me to tell you who did it and how. Not only would that be a real shitty thing to do to those who haven't seen the film and want to, but I also don't think I could explain it all with any reasonable justice. EVIL UNDER THE SUN is one of those entertaining film experiences you have to give to yourself. So enjoy it!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Arlena Marshall: "Linda do stop standing there like a coughdrop and say good morning to Monsieur Poirot!"
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
(March 2004, U.S.)
It's amazing what a cinematic sucker I am for something really fresh and original on screen. Nothing seduces me more than being taken in a story direction I've never been on before. That's probably why I love David Lynch so much. In fact, if I didn't know better, I'd swear that ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, a thought-provoking story of romantic fantasy that uses elements of science fiction, psychological thriller, and nonlinear narration to explore the nature of memory and romantic love, is likely to be pure "Lynchian" technique. Alas, though, the film is scripted by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry.
The idea that one could possibly undergo a procedure where a person or event could literally be erased from one's mind and memory is absolutely mind-boggling because I can personally attest to the fact that I've fantasized about that idea myself (remember that girl I told you about in my post for DEAD POET'S SOCIETY?). Honestly, haven't you?? When emotionally withdrawn Joel Barish (played by Jim Carrey) and unhinged free spirit Clementine Kruczynski (played by Kate Winslet) strike up a relationship on a Long Island Rail Road train from Montauk, New York, they are inexplicably drawn to each other, despite their radically different personalities. What they don't realize is that they are actually both former lovers whose long relationship ended badly and that they BOTH decided to utilize the services of Lacuna, Inc. to each erase the other person from their own memory. Following this, so far?
For much of the film, we experience the flashback of Joel's erasing procedure through his own mind. As his memories are literally deleted, Joel finds himself revisiting them in reverse. Upon seeing happier times of his relationship with Clementine from earlier in their relationship, he struggles to preserve at least some memory of her and his love for her. Despite his efforts, the memories are slowly erased, with the last memory of Clementine telling him, "Meet me in Montauk". It works, because as stated above, they do meet again in Montauk (I've never seen the beach look so beautiful in the dead of winter before!) only to relive each other all over again despite each other's erasure. So what does this all mean? That we're destined to be with that one particular person whether we like it or not? I suppose that's a beautiful proposal, depending on who the person is.
In an interesting plot twist, Joel and Clementine happen to come upon their Lacuna records shortly after RE-encountering each other on the train. They react with shock and bewilderment, given that they have no clear memory of having known each other, let alone having had a relationship and having had their memories erased. Joel is convinced that they can start over, regardless and their relationship commences again, this time each of them knowing that the other person is very far from perfect. Certainly puts a new twist on the prospects of dating, doesn't it?
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND is not only one of the most original stories I've ever seen on film, but also one of the ten best films of the last decade, in my opinion.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Clementine Kruczynski: "Meet me in Montauk."
Monday, October 10, 2011
(June 1982, U.S.)
Anyone currently 35 years or older can probably look back on their childhood and find it difficult to remember a time when E.T. was not part of our popular culture. Seriously, take a moment and recall not only the film itself, but all that merchandising, the Reese's Pieces, the great flying theme by John Williams, that record with Michael Jackson, that really bad home video game from Atari, the theme park ride(s), and of course, the immortal line, "E.T. phone home." Yes, E.T. was more than just a blockbuster movie during a summer that also gave us the third ROCKY and second STAR TREK film, but a true pop culture icon of the 1980s. And despite the fact that the alien himself resembled nothing more than a sqashy-looking slug, the whole world found him irresistably cute, nonetheless. So did I.
Now while I can't claim that E.T. is my favorite Steven Spielberg film (that honor belongs to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND), I can claim that almost no other family film has ever put such a consistent smile on my face while I'm watching it as this has, and like many other fans, my smile easily turns to sadness during that classic goodbye sequence at the end when E.T. is going home. But in writing this post, I'd like to make an attempt to get past the general "feel good" family feeling of the film and see if there aren't more serious themes behind the story of E.T. It's a true celebration of one's childhood, yes, but even childhood has its many obstacles. Any Spielberg fan probably knows that the separation of Elliot's parents deeply reflects the divorce of Spielberg's own parents when he was a young boy. But consider, for a moment, who E.T. represents to Elliot beyond the obvious facade of friendship - is E.T. not truly a surrogate father figure to Elliot more than anything else? His little sister Gertie is still but a baby and his older brother Michael comes off as more of an immature, uncertain goofball more than a brotherly mentor. E.T., while lost and confused on our planet Earth, is, in my opinion, the symbol of the smarter, wiser adult that a growing child needs to bond to during a fragile time of questions and curiousity. The father is gone (he's in Mexico with Sally), so E.T. seems the worthy replacement. And yet, at the same time, E.T.'s vulnerability gives Elliot the adult strength to help him and save his life at the crucial moments of the film when our own "evil" government invades our homes and our lives and tries to take from us what we treasure most - our comfort and safety.
This is truly a family film where we see the world through the eyes of children more than anything else. But consider, for a moment, the strong governmental character that actor Peter Coyote plays. A man with no name, he's dubbed simply as "keys" due to the jangling keys hanging from his pants. The question, I feel, is not so much who is he, but rather who WAS he? He says to Elliot in the film, "He came to me, too. I've been wishing for this since I was ten years-old." Was E.T. here before and did he discover "keys" as a young boy, as well? What sort of childhood must "keys" have been harboring having met and lost E.T. and then waited and waited for that miracle moment when E.T. might return to him? If all of this speculation is relevant, is it any wonder why "keys" would grow up to become a government official who spends his life seeking out extra terrestrial life? Makes you think that perhaps Elliot will inevitably grow up to be the same kind of man as "keys". It would certainly make sense.
Speilberg once said in an interview that E.T. is one of the two film he'd like to be rembered for the most. He'll very likely get what he wants. E.T. not only touched the world back in the 1980s when I was a teenager, but has continued to touch the hearts of generations since then. Stronger than the memory of seeing E.T. on screen for the first time myself is the memory I keep of showing E.T. to my little boy for the first time and watching his face light up with joy. And as the 2012 approaches, and with it the 30th anniversary of the film, I can only hope there there will be a special screen re-release engagment to celebrate. I'd like to take my son to see it.
Finally, I'd like to tell you about a man that I know named Steven (NOT Spielberg, but oh man, how I wish that were the case!). This man Steven was (and still is) the creator of undoubtedly the best fan-based web site of Steven Spielberg films out there called Speilbergfilms (look for it on Facebook). Now while I can't claim to know Steven personally, it became obvious over the years as a web fan that he not only seems not only the true authoritative fan on Spielberg and his work, but I also surmised that E.T. THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL is his favorite Spielberg film of all time. He's discussed it with great passion and has often spoke of hom much pride he's taken in watching the film with his kids. So it is to Steven that I dedicate this post. Thank you for giving THIS Spielberg fan, who thought he knew a lot about the great film maker, just a little bit extra insight.
And THANK YOU, Steven Spielberg for the true magic and joy you gave me and the rest of the world when you gave us the immortal E.T.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Elliot: "He's a man from outer space and we're taking him to his spaceship.'
Greg: " Well, can't he just beam up?"
Elliot: "This is REALITY, Greg."
Friday, October 7, 2011
(July 1981, U.S.)
When I first saw John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK as a young pre-teenager, the idea that the island of Manhattan could one day in the dystopian future of 1997 actually become a walled maximum security prison did not seem so far-fetched to me. After all, it was 1981 and New York City was a frightening crime-ridden shit hole (parts of it still are, in my opinion). That in mind, the film for me has always seemed a lot more terrifying than your average futuristic science fiction film. Even today, look at the blacked-out deserted city streets, the underground-dwelling "crazies" and especially that wild looking street punk with the crazy laugh who looks like a cross between German actor Klaus Kinski and British rocker Billy Idol and tell me if don't start to feel the shivers coming on. The entire film, in fact, feels like one of those low budget, terrifying grindhouse movies you might watch in the middle of the night on 42nd Street.
Back in the day, it seemed that ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK was the coolest movie out there for young kids (despite the R rating) and Kurt Russell's character of Snake Plissken was the coolest character in movies. It was even cool just to say the name...SNAKE PLISSKEN! He's a sentenced criminal, but he's also the anti-hero given the challenge of rescuing the President of the United States (played by Donald Pleasence) whose aircraft just crashed in New York City after a terrorist takeover of Air Force One...and he has just twenty-four hours to do it. Oh, the President's still alive, by the way, because he escaped in the aircraft pod before the plane went down. Just thought I'd make that clear. So, Snake makes his way through the Hellish worlds inside the city to eventually find the President and take on the self-proclaimed, A-Number One, "Duke of New York" (played by Issac Hayes). Now keep in mind as you view this futuristic world of New York City that it becomes pretty damn obvious that this was NOT filmed on location (St. Louis, actually). Regardless, though, there are enough subtle landmarks of the city to temporarily convince you, otherwise - the World Trade Center, the New York Public Library, Central Park and the 59th Street Bridge (69th in the film for some reason), all of them looking quite post-apocalyptic and menacing in appearance.
There is one particular scene that continues to give me an unsettling feeling. Take a look at the moment when Air Force One is headed straight toward the lower part of one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center just before it crashes into another building. John Carpenter filmed this just over twenty years before the events of September 11, 2001 would take place. If ever there was a moment where world history imitated art, it's this. Very frightening, indeed.
Finally, let me just say that when 1997 did finally arrive, New York City, under then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's rule, was not a prison. In fact, it went completely the other way with the demolition of 42nd Street's grindhouse movie theaters and replaced by Broadway theaters and Disney family shows, as well as the expulsion of all the hookers (too bad for that!). It was also in 1997 that I tried to watch the film's sequel, ESCAPE FROM L.A., on HBO. I didn't get past thirty minutes of it. How can any film be considered terrifying when it takes place during the day under the bright California sunshine?? Didn't work for me.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Narrator: "In 1988, the crime rate in the United States rises four hundred percent. The once great city of New York becomes the one maximum security prison for the entire country. A fifty-foot containment wall is erected along the New Jersey shoreline, across the Harlem River, and down along the Brooklyn shoreline. It completely surrounds Manhattan Island. All bridges and waterways are mined. The United States Police Force, like an army, is encamped around the island. There are no guards inside the prison, only prisoners and the worlds they have made. The rules are simple: once you go in, you don't come out."
And thus, the future is NOW.
Thursday, October 6, 2011
(November 1996, U.S.)
You wanna know how silly the human brain can work itself sometimes? Anyone who's seen THE ENGLISH PATIENT knows what a wonderful film it is and that it won best picture of its year, etc., etc., etc. Yet every time I think of that film the first thing that keeps popping into my mind is that episode of SEINFELD where Elaine goes to see THE ENGLISH PATIENT with her boyfriend, she hates it, and as a result of that her boyfriend breaks up with her. I'm sorry, but I just can't help it. That's how fucked up the human brain can be sometimes!
Okay, so now for the film itself. Set before and during World War II, it's a story of love, fate, misunderstanding, healing and redemption. The film depicts a critically burned man, at first known only as "the English patient," who's being looked after by Hana (played by Juliette Binoche), a French-Canadian nurse in an abandoned Italian monastery. The mysterious patient is reluctant to disclose any personal information about himself, but through a series of film flashbacks, we're allowed into his past. It's slowly revealed that he is in fact a Hungarian geographer, Count László de Almásy (played by Ralph Fiennes), who was in the process of making a map of the Sahara Desert, and whose affair with a married English woman, Katharine Clifton (played by Kristin Scott Thomas), ultimately brought about his present situation. Ironically, when the two lovers first meet, he's almost repelled by her presence and seemingly wants nothing to do with her. Is it because she's married or is it because he's incapable of real love? We're never sure. Ultimately, love, erotic passion and personal sacrifice cannot be denied. When Katharine is critically injured in a plane crash and brough to a cave by her lover, his undying affection for her is brought to the test when he must walk through the scorching desert to find help and then escape his enemies in order to return to her. By the film's end, all principle characters have found reconciliation, including Katharine and Count László, even in their own deaths.
Shot on location in Italy and the deserts of Tunisia, the exterior cinematography of the film (particularly the deserts) could easily be compared to David Lean's work in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. That's a pretty bold comparison and I don't suppose there'll ever be another film that could be compared to LAWRENCE OF ARABIA in that respect. THE ENGLISH PATIENT, however, under the late Anthony Minghella's direction, can at best, be deemed a very worthy homage. It's a film you should definitely see more than once. The first time you may accumulate many questions. The second time you're likely to get some answers.
THE ENGLISH PATIENT won the Oscar for best picture of 1996.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Hana: "There's a man downstairs. He brought us eggs. He might stay."
Count Laszlo: "Why? Can he lay eggs?"
Hana: "He's Canadian."
Laszlo: "Why are people always so happy when they collide with someone from the same place? What happened in Montreal when you passed a man in the street? Did you invite him to live with you?"
Monday, October 3, 2011
(March 2001, U.S.)
From one war film right into another...it's happened before...it could happen again. However, this is one of the few war films I own where our heroes are not our beloved Americans. In a definite indication that the Cold War is long gone and the Russians are no longer to be feared, Jean-Jacques Annaud's ENEMY AT THE GATES has us rooting for the Russians in a story that describes the events surrounding the Battle of Stalingrad from 1942 to 1943. It's based on a cat-and-mouse duel developed between the legendary Soviet sniper Vasily Grigoryevich Zaitsev (played by Jude Law) and his German counterpart, Major Erwin König (played by Ed Harris), as they stalk each other during the long battle. Zaitsev uses impressive marksmanship skills—taught to him by his grandfather from a young age to save himself and his commissar Danilov (played by Joseph Fiennes). But even as his skills progressively improve the fighting morale amongst the Russian soldiers, there is still great human fear and doubt behind his actions. Zaitsev and Danilov also both become romantically interested in Tania (played by Rachel Weisz), a citizen of Stalingrad who's become a Private in the local militia. Of course, you have to have a love triangle in a war film, right?
Perhaps the most interesting element of any one-on-one battle between two men of equal stature during a time of war is that they're placed in a situation where they have to try to use their intelligence and skills to ultimately kill each other. If you're a fan (or extremely hopeful) of traditional cliche, then you know the good guy will likely emerge victorious (and alive!) in the end. That, however, doesn't mean you won't be on the edge of your seat with viewer's tension until it all climaxes on screen. And like any other war film I've discussed in the past, this film is not without its thrilling share of battle warfare and political intruigue. The twist here is to take your mindset away from the traditional gung-ho American spirit and appreciate a time when a country that was once our Cold War enemies is forced to defend their city, their honor and their freedom.
I can't help but have a rather different view of war films that were released just before the events of 9-11, including this film and PEARL HARBOR (2001). When you consider that these films were only months before our own country would be horribly attacked by a destructive force, it makes such films just a little more thought-provoking (yes, even a film by Michael Bay!).
Favorite line or dialogue:
Nikita Khrushchev: "My name...is Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. I've come to take things in hand here. This city...is not Kursk, nor is it Kiev, nor Minsk. This city...is Stalingrad. Stalingrad! This city bears the name of the Boss. It's more than a city, it's a symbol. If the Germans...capture this city...the entire country will collapse. Now...I want our boys to raise their heads. I want them to act like they have balls! I want them to stop shitting their pants! That's your job. As political officers...I'm counting on you. You...what's your suggestion?"
Officer #1: "Shoot all the other generals who have retreated, and their chiefs of staff, too."
Officer #2: "Make some examples. Deport the families of the deserters..."
Krushchev: "Yes, that's all been done."
Danilov: "Give them hope! Here, the men's only choice is between German bullets and ours. But there's another way. The way of courage. The way of love of the Motherland. We must publish the army newspaper again. We must tell magnificent stories, stories that extol sacrifice, bravery. We must make them believe in the victory. We must give them hope, pride, a desire to fight. Yes...we need to make examples. But examples to follow. What we need...are heroes."
Krushchev: "Do you know any heroes around here?"
Danilov: "Yes, comrade. I know one."
Sunday, October 2, 2011
(December 1987, U.S.)
EMPIRE OF THE SUN is what I personally like to refer to as Steven Spielberg's "inevitable" film. It was inevitable because even after he got totally fucked at the 1986 Academy Awards for THE COLOR PURPLE, Spielberg was still determined to make a film that would explore his ability to grow up. It was inevitable because Spielberg is known to have had a personal connection to the films of the great director David Lean, so a version of his own British film was...well, inevitable. This coming-of-age war film is based on J. G. Ballard's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name and stars newcomer (at the time) thirteen year-old Christian Bale. The film tells the story of Jamie Graham, a young boy who goes from living in a wealthy British family in Shanghai, to becoming a prisoner of war in the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center, a Japanese internment camp, during World War II.
But let's start by talking about Christian Bale for a moment. He's spent the better part of the last two decades making quite an actor's name for himself, even in roles that don't necessarily include the likes of Batman. It particularly does my heart some good to see that this guy made real good on his career and didn't end up like too many so-called child stars and actors out there who fade away into oblivion. It would have been such a shameful waste to see such a performance that he gives in EMPIRE OF THE SUN never go any further than that film. That said, let me just say now that I personally consider Bale's performance in this film the greatest I've ever seen by a child on screen. That's a tall victory to give to just one child actor, but if you've seen him in this film, you know what I'm talking about and just might agree with me.
Bale's character of Jamie is one of the most complex children I've even seen. Not merely for his impressive knowledge of war planes and bridges, but even just his passive daydreaming of God and what he might have said while "playing tennis". But when he's separated from his parents during an attack on the city of Shanghai, he's as confused and terrified as any small child would be. Quickly, though, the concept of his own day-by-day survival during a time of war becomes apparant. As he grows up during the years at the Japanese prison camp, he's not only a survivor, but one who's learned to trade, sell and even con his way through the camp to not only ensure his own survival, but to ensure a position of acceptance among the American men he admires the most, particularly that of his caregiver, Basie (played by John Malkovich). These are the necessary skills needed for the boy to become a man. During this time of war, innocence is destroyed forever, which is a theme that actually contradicts Speilberg's previous effort to celebrate childhood in E.T. (1982). Yet on the other hand, childhood is once again rediscovered at the end when Jim is finally reunited with his parents (parents he can't even immediately recognize due to the scars of his war experiences) in a tradition theme of reunions that we'd previously seen in other Spielberg works like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) and THE COLOR PURPLE (1985). The act of flying symbolizes Jamie's possibility and danger of escape from the prison camp. His growing alienation from his pre-war child self and society is reflected in his hero-worship of the Japanese aviators based at the airfield adjoining the prison camp. He's constantly identifying himself, first with the Japanese, and then with the Americans when they start flying over in their Mustangs and B-29s.
My love for Spielberg's film making has never been a kept secret. However, there are several particular camera shots in EMPIRE OF THE SUN that I am particularly drawn to where we see Jamie in the forefront and the explosive action of battle taking place behind him in the background. There are moments where the madness of war takes its toll on young Jamie to the point where he's too excited about witnessing war planes in action to be too scared about risking his life in the middle of it all. But the one scene I've never been able to get out of my head is during the exodus march toward the end of the film when Jamie witnesses a flash from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki hundreds of miles away, and hears news of Japan's surrender and the final end of the war. The white light we see in the sky from Jamie's point of vision is quick and rather simple, but extraordinarily chilling when you consider what his just happened in our world history.
When EMPIRE OF THE SUN was first released in 1987, I was attending college in Buffalo, New York. Across the street from my dormitory building was a triplex that showed mostly independent and foreign films (films I had yet to really appreciate). So in order to satisfy my determination to see Spielberg's latest film on the big screen, I had to walk a considerable distance to a bus stop and then take TWO buses to the nearest town multiplex. I can still remember thinking to myself, upon leaving the theater, "That was totally worth the trip!". And it was, too.
Let me say, finally, that with all due respect to Bernardo Bertolucci, EMPIRE OF THE SUN is the film that I think SHOULD HAVE won the Oscar for best picture of 1987. Those bastards at the Academy didn't even nominate it!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Jamie Graham: "I learned a new word today...atom bomb. It was like a white light in the sky. Like God taking a photograph. I saw it."