Tuesday, July 31, 2012

HEIRESS, THE



(October 1949, U.S.)

Watching William Wyler's THE HEIRESS is one of the most interesting examples of character transformation I've seen on film. In the beginning, Catherine Sloper (played by Olivia de Havilland) is a plain, painfully shy 19th Century woman whose emotionally detached father (played by Ralph Richardson) makes no secret of his disappointment in her and her life. About the only thing Catherine does have going for her is that she's an heiress to a great fortune when her father dies someday. When she unexpectedly meets the charming and good looking Morris Townsend (played by Montgomery Clift), she's immediately taken by the attention that he lavishes upon her; attention she so desperately seeks from her father but will never receive. As cliche would dictate, she falls madly in love with Morris and they plan to marry.

Her father, of course, won't have it because it's obvious to him that someone like Morris, a man without any financial prospects or future, is only after Catherine's fortune. As the viewer, we're not really meant to know if he is or he isn't until the end of the film. Any reasonable deducing, though, will put Catherine's father in the right, even if he is insensitive and cruel about it. Interestingly, though, during Catherine's initial heartbreak over her father's position, she raises a thought-provoking point, and that's this - even if she's deceived into paying for a man's love, has she not the right to even PAY for a love that just might make her happy? Hmmm...there's a mild twist to the age-old gold digging tale I never considered before.

So on the night Catherine and Morris are to elope, she eagerly waits at home for him to come and take her away, but (of course!) he never arrives, and the reason is painfully obvious. It's only years later, after her father has died and she's inherited all of it, that Catherine's strength, her resolve and even her cruelty come to form. She's not only able to face Morris and his bullshit explanation for running out on her, but she's also able to boldly deceive him in return and not permit him back into her life. Yes, Catherine may never love again, but she's become something a lot more important, perhaps, and that's a real SERIOUS BITCH with money!

Sometimes, as the J. Geils Band puts it, love stinks!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Catherine Sloper: "He came back with the SAME lies! The same silly phrases!
Aunt Lavinia: "Why, what are you saying?"
Catherine: "He's grown GREEDIER with the years! The first time he only wanted my money! Now he wants my love, too! Well, he came to the wrong house and he came twice! I shall see that he never comes a third time!"
Lavinia: "Catherine, do you know what you're doing?"
Catherine: "Yes!"
Lavinia: "Poor Morris. Can you be so cruel?"
Catherine: "Yes, I can be very cruel! I have been taught by masters!"


Friday, July 27, 2012

HEAVY METAL



(August 1981, U.S.)

There was a time during the 1970s when animated films geared toward adults was mildly popular. These titles like FRITZ THE CAT (1972) and WIZARDS (1977) were the products of film maker Ralph Bakshi. By the early 1980s, when I was just entering my teens, I was becoming familiar with the tail end of this trend with titles like AMERICAN POP and HEAVY METAL (not Ralph Bakshi's). Mind you, I wasn't permitted to actually go and see these R-rated cartoons in a movie theater, but if I was patient and waited about a year I was bound to catch bits and pices of them on cable pay channels.

Even before I actually got to see HEAVY METAL in its entirety, I was immediately captivated by that awesome movie poster (when I was in college, I OWNED that awesome movie poster!). Then there was that incredible movie soundtrack, but I'll get to that later. The film itself has no real single story structure, other than being centered on an evil and all-powerful green ball known only as the "Loc-Nar", and can only be described as an anthology of various science fiction and fantasy stories adapted from the popular "Heavy Metal" magazine and original stories in the same spirit. Like the magazine, it has a great deal of graphic violence, nudity, and sexuality (nothing wrong with the last two!). Listen carefully and you can clearly recognize the voices of John Candy, Eugene Levy and Harold Ramis in more than several characters. However, (and remember, we're talking about thrity-one years ago, before animation was done with computers!) from the opening sequence when the modern space shuttle flies overhead, the hatch doors open and releases an astronaut in a 1960 Corvette descending down towards Earth, we know we're in for an awesome (there's that word again!) treat of animation. It's this astronaut that first introduces us to the Loc-Nar (before being MELTED by it right in front of his young daughter!). From there, the green ball that is "the sum of all evil" takes on a journey through futuristic time and space, where it's influence is seen affecting and destroying the lives of many. There is, admitedly, an interesting twist toward the end when we realize that the daughter of the film's opening astronaut will not only survive the Loc-Nar's power, but will ultimately grow up to be the very sexy warrior maiden Taarna the Taarakian, the one who destroys the Loc-Nar in the end with her own self sacrifice.

HEAVY METAL uses a technique of animation known as rotoscoping in several shots. This process consists of shooting actual human actors, then tracing the shot onto film for animation purposes. The sequence featuring the B-17 bomber was shot using a large replica, which was then animated. Additionally, Taarna was rotoscoped, using a female model for the animated character. The whole system may seem ancient and even barbaric by today's animation standards, but really, does that not make it something to be appreciated and even treasured more? You see, HEAVY METAL may not be modern, but it's loud, it's nasty and it's still as classic and as awesome (again!) as ever!

And now, about that soundtrack...well, what can I say about a double record and CD set of killer rock music consisting of Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Sammy Hagar, Cheap Trick, Journey and Grand Funk Railroad (just to name some) except that, in my opinion, it represents what FM radio rock USED to sound like. Today, with the exception of classic rock stations, I don't know what the fuck FM radio means anymore!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Prosecutor: "You know the defendant Captain Sternn?"
Hanover Fiste: "Yes, I know Capatin Sternn and never did there live a kinder, more generous man."
Sternn: "I promised him 35,000 zuleks to testify on my behalf.
Fiste: "He's an overflowing cup filled with the very cream of human goodness. In all the time I've known him he's never done anything immoral."
Sternn: "See?"
(Hanover begins "changing" as a result of playing with a marble-size Loc-Nar)
Fiste: "Unless maybe the preschooler's prostitute ring!...(changes back)...And he's never done anything illegal...(changes)...Unless you count all the times he's sold dope disguised as a nun!...(changes)...He's always been a good, lawbiding citizen...(changes)...Aw, gimmie a break!"...(changes)...of the Federation, and, and...(changes)...Shut up, shut up!...(changes)...a community-conscious individual...(changes)...Sternn! He's nothin' but a lowdown, double-dealin', back-stabbin', larcenous, perverted worm! Hangin's too good for 'im! Burnin's too good for 'im! He should be torn into little bitsy pieces and buried alive!"
Sternn: "Hanover."
Fiste: "I'LL KILL HIM! KILL!"

Monday, July 23, 2012

HEAVEN'S GATE



(November 1980, U.S.)

It is virtually impossible for me to say anything about Michael Cimino's HEAVEN'S GATE without discussing the outright infamy that has always surrounded it. Briefly, let me just say that this film suffered major setbacks in production due to cost and time overruns, highly negative press, and rumors about Cimino's allegedly overbearing directorial style. It's generally considered one of the greatest box office bombs of all time, and in some circles, even considered to be one of the worst films ever made. It opened to very poor reviews, earned almost nothing at the box office and eventually contributed to the collapse of its studio, United Artists, the collapse of the independence and creative freedom many new, young directors had enjoyed during the 1970s and effectively destroyed the reputation of Cimino, previously one of the ascendant directors of Hollywood owing to his celebrated 1978 THE DEER HUNTER, which won the Oscar for best picture of the year. The reasons for it's failure are numerous, including its unusually long running time, highly negative critical reviews, and widespread accusations of animal abuse and subsequent boycotts by the Humane Society and other animal welfare organizations. It's often been cited in film history as the biggest example of how devastating a box office bomb can be, financially and economically.

Well, there you have it in a very tiny nutshell. I suggest, though, you take a little time to look up this film and the shit storm that surrounded it for absolute historical clarity to what I'm talking about. But now, you see, thirty-two years have passed and as I've previously said, nothing is kinder to any film (even HEAVEN'S GATE!) than time. Now it's possible to brush aside all of the brutal history and accusations and really just concentrate on the film's content and the creative intentions behind Michael Cimino. Because, truth be told, when all the bullshit is cleared away, HEAVEN'S GATE is not a bad film at all. That's right, I'll say it again! HEAVEN'S GATE is not a bad film at all!

Set in the late 19th Century, the film tells a small piece of American history that I was never familiar with until I saw it. Kris Kristofferson plays Jim Averill, a marshal in the region of Johnson County, Wyoming, where European immigrants are in constant conflict with wealthy ranch owners belonging to the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, sometimes even stealing their cattle for food. Nate Champion (played by Christopher Walken) is a friend of Averill and an enforcer for the landowners. Early in the film, he kills a settler for suspected rustling and dissuades another from stealing a cow. At a meeting, the head of the Association, Frank Canton (played by Sam Waterston), tells members of their plans to effectively kill 125 named settlers, or "thieves and anarchists", in order to fix the problem. The marshall being the decent man that he is, will not allow the systematic murder of who he consideres to be innocent people. Amongst the list is Ella Watson (played by Isabelle Huppert), a bordello madam who accepts stolen cattle as payment for use of her prostitutes and is in love with Averill. In the final climax of a very long drama, Averill leads the settlers, with cobbled-together siege machines and explosive charges, in their attack against Canton's men and their makeshift fortifications. There are heavy and bloody casualties on both sides, before the U.S. Army arrives to stop the fighting and save the remaining besieged mercenaries. Ella survivs, but only briefly. As she and Averill prepare to leave for good, they're ambushed by Canton and two others who shoot everyone in their path. Avrill survives, only to live on as a rich man who has clearly never gotten over the historical chaos that changed his life forever.

If you know the history of HEAVEN'S GATE, then it becomes very necessary for the viewer to completely clear their mind and not allow the infamous controversy of its cinematic failure to give them any pre-conceived ideas of the film's potential. The film is definitely not perfect. It is very long and drawn out at times during sequences that don't necessarily require so much focus. There are other moments where the camera takes its time that serves to enhance the scene. This is particularly valid during the opening ceremony at the Harvard graduation when the men are dancing with the women to the tune of "The Blue Danube". It's nothing more than a stylish dance sequence, but Cimino's camera knows how to follow it along and provide a visual stunning sequence of beauty and music. It's long, but works very well, in my opinion. The film contains many other overlooked virtues that can only truly be experienced by those who have the time and patience to appreciate good filmmaking and the creative vision of the artist who gives it to us. It's a western, true, and we all know how I generally feel about westerns. It's a western, though, that did not follow any of the traditional western cliches and, dare I say, may have been the prerequisite to later films like DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990) and LEGENDS OF THE FALL (1994).

So, if you appreciate serious film, do yourself a favor - first look up all you can about HEAVEN'S GATE to know exactly what you're getting yourself into. Then clear your mind and about three and a half to four hours off of your calendar to give the film the appreciation it deserves, even after more than three decades.

Favorite line or dialogue:

John L. Bridges: "It's getting dangerous to be poor in this country."

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

HEAT



(December 1995, U.S.)

One of the disappointing things about doing a little extra research on a film I already think I know pretty well is that I sometimes find out that the film in question is actually a remake. As it turns out, Michael Mann's HEAT is actually a remake of a made-for-television film that he made in 1989 call L.A. TAKEDOWN. Well, I never saw it or even heard of it 'till now, so what say we just close our eyes and ears and pretend for pure convenient pleasure that HEAT is the great, original crime thriller that it comes off as.

Just the mere mention of the great Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro starring in a film together is all I need to hear to get my blood running! Sure, they were in THE GODFATHER-PART II together, but never actually shared any scenes because they played different characters of different time periods. Because they're playing on the two opposides of the law this time, Al Pacino playing Los Angeles PD Lieutenant Vincent Hanna and Robert DeNiro playing career criminal Neil McCauley, the two are destined not to have much screen time together. This isn't as disappointing as you might think because the two of them give such powerful, riveting individual performances on their own. When the two of them do finally come together at opposite ends of a coffee shop table, it's such a thrill to see them together that what they're actually saying to each other becomes nearly irrelevant. Mind you, this kind of passion can only come from your individual tastes and perceptions of both fine actors.

The movie poster tagline for HEAT calls it "A Los Angeles Crime Saga". I mention this because Michael Mann's direction makes the city of L.A. itself a huge part of the story. If you're an outsider to that famous city (as I am), you can actually feel its glamour, it's pressure and its impact on those who suffer to keep it safe and those who take pleasure in robbing from it. It's one of the few films that I feel truly captures the essence of Los Angeles without being one of those cheesy films depicting Hollywood or one of those raw films of South Central L.A. that were popular in the early 1990s. HEAT is an action film, of course, but more than that, it's a film with dialogue that's complex and intense enough to allow the characters (both cops and criminals) to say what they're thinking and to act on what they say. In other words, they're not necessarily trapped with traditional cliches of action moviemaking and that's good.

As expected with any film of this sort, there is much violence. However, the specific detailed attention that's paid to the war zone shoot-out that takes place in the street after the big bank robbery has gone wrong is, without question, one of the best sequences of the film (or any crime film, for that matter). From the moment the robbery begins and it's moving along to the steady pulse of Elliot Goldenthal's intense soundtrack, you can just feel that something is inevitably going to go very, very bad. From the moment Val Kilmer is about to get into the getaway car and his face changes from victory to violence, his machine gun is off and running and we're in the shitstorm of a lifetime! These are important details one pays attention to when either analyzing a scene or just trying to enjoy it a little more than the next guy. That gun battle, by the way, is probably the LOUDEST one I've ever heard on screen in my life. I recall seeing HEAT just days after it opened at a multiplex in New York City that featured an awesome Dolby sound system. I actually had to insulate my ears for a short time during that gun battle. Yes, it was that incredible! Specific circumstances actually had me seeing HEAT again the very next day at a different theater with different people. It was a pleasure still!

HEAT, in my opinion, was not only one of the best films of 1995, but the best crime thriller I've seen since THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971).

Favorite line or dialogue (not an easy task because just about every word that comes out of Al Pacino's mouth is classic! And despite the fact that the coffee shop scene with Pacino and DeNiro has much to offer, here's what I eventually chose:)

Vincent Hanna: "I'm angry. I'm very angry, Ralph. You know, you can ball my wife if she wants you to. You can lounge around here on her sofa, in her ex-husband's dead-tech, post-modernistic bullshit house if you want to. But you do NOT get to watch my fucking television set!"







Saturday, July 14, 2012

HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER'S APOCALYPSE



(November 1991, U.S.)

This documentary film about the production of Francis Ford Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) originally aired on the Showtime network back in 1991 but then had a very limited screen engagement in one or two art house theaters. Since I didn't have cable back then and was dying to see what was behind one of the most infamous and also one of the best war films ever made, I decided to pay my ticket price to have a look. I didn't regret it because this is one of the best documentaries about filmmaking that I've ever seen.

Using behind the scenes footage originally shot by and narrated by Coppola's wife Eleanor, it chronicles how production problems in the Philippines including typhoon weather, Martin Sheen's heart attack and other unforseen issues delayed the film, greatly increased costs and nearly destroyed the life and career of Coppola, despite having been responsible for the worldwide success of two previous GODFATHER films. As fans of Coppola's work, it's intruiging and even frightening at times to watch the filmmaker suffer throughout production just to bring his visions and his dream to the screen. One particular piece of information that was new to me at the time was learning that Martin Sheen's opening sequence of the film was very much real. Sheen WAS really drunk off his ass, he really DID smash his fist into the mirror and really DID confront the worst side of himself through his intoxication and his pain. It was shortly after that incident that he had his heart attack which he (thankfully) survived. In this documentary, we also get a look at the French Plantation sequence which never made it into the final film but did eventually make it into the REDUX version of the film released in 2001, a version I was finally able to see on the big screen because my parents were not about to let a twelve year old boy in 1979 see APOCALYPSE NOW.

In considering Coppola's uphill battle to make his precious Vietnam film, it's very easy to put him and his efforts alongside director Michael Cimino and his infamous making of HEAVEN'S GATE (1980). The difference being, of course, that APOCALYPSE NOW went on to be a cinematic success. HEAVEN'S GATE, on the other hand...well, I'll have more to say on that subject later.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Francis Ford Coppola: "My greatest fear is to make a really shitty, embarrassing, pompous film on an important subject, and I am doing it. And I confront it. I acknowledge, I will tell you right straight from...the most sincere depths of my heart, the film will not be good."

Thank goodness he was dead wrong!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

HARVEY



(October 1950, U.S.)

You've previously read (more than once) that Al Pacino is my favorite actor of all time. However, I can safely say, without hesitation, that my favorite classic film actor of all time is Jimmy Stewart. Whether he's working with Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock or whomever, the man's blend of lighthearted humor and tense drama has held my enthusiasm ever since I first saw him in REAR WINDOW (1954) long ago. His character of Elwood P. Dowd in HARVEY is one of his most popular (and one of Stewart's own favorite) roles. And if it's innocent lightheartedness you're looking for in a story of man who believes he has a friendship with a six-foot tall invisible white rabbit named Harvey, there's no one better than Jimmy Stewart.

So if you've never seen this film (or even heard of it), then you heard me correctly! Elwood P. Dowd is a grown man who firmly believes that his best friend in life is a six-foot tall invisible white rabbit. To those around him, it seems clear enough that Elwood is a man just a few cans short of a six pack. The innocence of the story, however, attempts to convey the concept that his delusions are to be considered not only acceptable, but even refreshing in a world that, even at the start of the 1950s, is filled with hostility and cynicism. Elwood doesn't attempt to conceal his bogus friendship with Harvey. He freely introduces the invisible rabbit to nearly everyone he encounters and never fails to befriend those around him, from mailmen to taxi drivers to bartenders. He even has business cards ready for those moments and loves to invite much of the riff-raff he meets over to his house for dinner. He's a man with a realively simple philosophy of life that goes something like this: "Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, "In this world, Elwood, you must be" – she always called me Elwood – "In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant." Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me". Sounds very Jimmy Stewart, doesn't it!

Delusional as his friendship may be, the film takes the opportunity to induce a touch of magic into the story by tempting the viewer to open their mind and suggest the possibility of Harvey's reality, invisible or not. Simple, subtle hints like a hat with two holes cut out for rabbit ears and doors opening and closing by themselves are enough to tempt us and raise our eyebrows. Harvey may not just be a rabbit, but a symbol of something that can bring out the best in all of us as human beings. The idea seems to work for those who want to "let the rabbit in" because apparantly the flipside of the coin would be people who are impatient, unpleasant and arrogant. In other words, everyday normal people.

You know, I have to say it's a wonder that I really like HARVEY the way I do. Sure, it's Jimmy Stewart and sure, he's one of the greatest actors that ever lived, but his character of Elwood P. Dowd is probably one of the least types of people I could ever relate to. While I would personally consider myself a reasonably friendly and courteous person, I do NOT go out of my way to make friends with strangers the way Elwood does. In fact, if you're ever stuck sitting next to me on a long plane ride, you'd do very well NOT to engage me in any pointless conversation. It's simply not my style (to put it mildly!). What can I say? Some of us are people persons, some of us are not, and invisible white rabbits aren't going to change that.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Taxi Driver: "I've been driving this route for fifteem years. I've brought 'em out here to get that stuff, and I've drove 'em home after they had it. It changes them. On the way out here, they sit back and enjoy the ride. They talk to me; sometimes we stop and watch the sunsets, and look at the birds flyin'. Sometimes we stop and watch the birds when there ain't no birds, and look at the sunsets when its raining. We have a swell time. And I always get a big tip. But afterwards, oh oh..."
Veta Simmons: "Afterwards, oh oh"? What do you mean, "afterwards, oh oh"?"
Taxi Driver: "They crab, crab, crab. They yell at me. Watch the lights, watch the brakes, watch the intersections. They scream at me to hurry. They got no faith in me, or my buggy. Yet, it's the same cab, the same driver. and we're going back over the very same road. It's no fun. And no tips. After this he'll be a perfectly normal human being. And you know what stinkers they are!"

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

HARDER THEY FALL, THE



(May 1956, U.S.)

One of the most consistent elements of most (or all) boxing films, or "fight pictures" that were released during the Golden Age of cinema was that the sport was always connected with some form of corruption and racketeering. This is, perhaps, not more painfully obvious than in THE HARDER THEY FALL, the last film of the great Humphrey Bogart before his death in 1957. It's also a true account of real life fighters and a real life sports writer, thought the film would only claim that it's a "thinly disguised" version of the real stuff.

Bogart plays sportswriter Eddie Willis, whose broke after the newspaper he works for goes under. He's hired by crooked boxing promoter Nick Benko (played by Rod Steiger in one of his best roles of the time) to publicize his new boxer, a huge, but dumb-witted and untalented Argentinian named Toro Moreno (played by Mike Lane). But unbeknownst to Toro, every one of his fights are fixed to make the ignorant public believe that he's for real. As cliche would often have it, Eddie begins to feel the inevitable guilt about his work, especially after coming to genuinely like the good-natured, but stupid giant. Although, the unhappy boxer seems smart enough to want to quit this corrupt racket and just go home to his family, but Eddie talks him out of it so all that are involved can keep earning their big bucks off of the fighter's pain. Eddie's guilt and good natured heart shows a real surprising twist when at the end he decides to give his entire take of $26,000 to Toro as it appears that Nick has rigged the accounting books to show that Toro will end up getting paid only a pittance amount of money after all of his sweat and suffering. Honestly, I don't know whether to consider Eddie a real saint or a real schmuck on that account.

This is black and white film noir as good as it can get to portray the ugly world of boxing, the corrupt men who control destinies and the boxers who are treated like inhuman pieces of meat. The climactic fight (because EVERY fight picture has a climactic fight!) is surprisingly one of the bloodiest, most violent screen depections I've seen for that time period before ROCKY ever came into our lives. Humphrey Bogart is exactly what you'd expect Humphrey Bogart to be; tough, unafraid, unflinching and ultimately destined to do the right thing in the end.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Nick Benko: "The people, Eddie, the people! Don't tell me about the people, Eddie. The people sit in front of their little TVs with their bellies full of beer and fall asleep. What do the people know, Eddie? Don't tell me about the people, Eddie!"

Sounds like Nick Benko is about as much of a people lover as I am!



Sunday, July 8, 2012

HANNAH AND HER SISTERS



(February 1986, U.S.)

At the absolute minimum, Woody Allen's film career can perhaps be called consistently predictable. If you were to take a close look at his filmography, you'd probably agree that many of the films he made which seemed to get released nearly one after the other, were cinematic fillers (depending on your personal tastes) that merely took up screen space until he scored a major critical and audience hit. I'm talking about titles like A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S COMEDY (1982), THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985) and RADIO DAYS (1987). Then you get films like HANNAH AND HER SISTERS that truly mark Allen's territory as a filmmaker and an actor. It's a film that falls under his most popular and credible category of neurotic, insecure characters whose entire world rests on the island of Manhattan.

This film tells the intertwined stories of an extended family over a two year period that begins and ends with a family Thanksgiving dinner hosted by Hannah (played by Mia Farrow) and her husband, Elliot (played by Michael Caine). Hannah serves as the stalwart hub of the narrative; her own story as a successful wife, mother and actress; a woman who has become so dependable to others that her own needs in life (if any) have become completely hidden to those around her; a woman who can give but can't receive very well. Her own world and who she is seems almost completely dependent on what her two sisters Lee (played by Barbara Hershey) and Holly (played by Dianne Wiest) have going on in their lives. It's Lee's adulterous affair with Elliot that may or may not ultimately destroy Hannah. It's Holly's financial dependence on Hannah and her (Holly's) inability to get her life together that also take its toll on Hannah's own life.

Woody Allen's character as Hannah's ex-husband Mickey is exactly the kind of insecure, neurotic loose cannon you'd expect from him. For this role, we can also add hypochondria to the list of character flaws. An unexplained hearing loss in one ear leads Mickey into a frenzy in which he's not only traumatized by the fact that he's going to die someday, but also by the fact that the answers of life, death and God seem completely out of his reach. One of the funniest moments in the film is when he attempts to convert to Catholicism and comes home one day with a grocery bag filled with what he perceives as the textbook shopping list of items a good Catholic requires; a crucifix, a Bible, a framed picture of Jesus Christ, a large loaf of plain white Wonder bread and a large jar of Hellmann's regular mayonaise. I suppose you have to be Jewish to truly find that funny. Who knows. And how many men do you know whose entire outlook on life can change for the better with a simple viewing of the Marx Brothers in DUCK SOUP?

Like many others stories of family and circumstance, time and change are key elements. At the start of the first Thanksgiving, we have a first act of characters that are more or less stable and content with their existences. By the second act, most everyone is experiencing their own form of personal chaos, making an irony of a holdiay where we're supposed to give thanks for our blessings. By the third Thanksgiving at the end, all is well again, people are happy and we find that Mickey's life has changed so much to the extent of marrying Hannah's sister Holly, who is also pregnant.

In my opinion, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS is not only one of Woody Allen's best films but also one of his best New York films.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Mickey: "Mom, come out!"
Mother: "Of course there's a God, you idiot! You don't believe in God?"
Mickey: "But if there's a God, then wh...why is there so much evil in the world? Just on a simplistic level. Why...why were there Nazis?"
Mother: "Tell him, Max!"
Father: "How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don't know how the can opener works!"

Friday, July 6, 2012

HAMLET (1996)



(December 1996, U.S.)

The decade of the 1990s saw much in the form of Shakespeare on film. However, some of the films came with an updated twist of setting the story in a more modern time period than the original plays, most notably RICHARD III (1995) whick took place in the 1930s and ROMEO AND JULIET (1996) which took place in the present day. This, in my opinion, was not only a bold and original move, but it also brought the world of Shakespeare to a more modern and perhaps even a more comprehensible level to most audiences.

Kenneth Branagh's version of HAMLET is, without a doubt, the most ambitious Shakespearean undertaking I've ever seen on film. It not only follows the trend I mention above by setting it in the late 19th Century, but it's also the first unabridged theatrical film version of the play, running just over four hours, and features a huge international cast that includes Branagh himself as Hamlet, Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi, Kate Winslet, Jack Lemmom, Charlton Heston, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and more. Frankly, this is the largest notable cast I've seen on screen since THE LONGEST DAY (1962) and THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974).

Despite using the full original text, Branagh's film is also very visual; it uses very long single takes for numerous scenes and also makes frequent use of flashbacks to depict scenes that are either only described but not performed in Shakespeare's play, such as Hamlet's childhood friendship with Yorick, or scenes only implied by the play's text, such as Hamlet's sexual relationship with Ophelia (played by Kate Winslet). You certainly can't argue with a version of HAMLET that contains female nudity! Special effects even come into play particularly when Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his dead father.

By now, having reached the third version of HAMLET in my film collection, there's very little I can say about the famous Prince of Denmark that I haven't already covered in my two previous posts. What I can say is that Branagh's film is, by far, my favorite version, despite it's four hour running time. Actauuly, I can say even BECAUSE of it, because the drama is so intense and so gripping, that time length barely matters.

What I can also do is tell you a story about my experience in seeing this film. This film was about as close as I ever came to experiencing an epic film in a limited roadshow engagement, much like what was popular in the 1950s and 1960s. When released, it played in only one movie theater in all of New York City, the Paris Theater located next door to the once famous Plaza Hotel. This was the only film that I EVER purchased advance tickets for over the phone. I went with a good friend of mine on a cold Saturday night in January 1997. We brought a bag into the theater with us containing a bottle of wine and various snacks, making a real epic evening out of it. It was one of those nights at the movies where not only the film itself was a true experience, but the movie theater, as well. This is a moviegoing experience that, in my opinion, simply doesn't exist anymore in large multiplexes that seem more like cheap amusement parks than movie theaters.

I should point out that just a mere four years after this film there was yet another version of HAMLET (2000) that starred Ethan Hawke in the title role and took place in the present day. While the film does possess many credible qualitites, particulary the use of a student film rather than a play to "catch the conscience of the King", it was not a film I chose to include in my collection. Perhaps I'd simply had enough of Hamlet in my life after three films. That being said and having just recently sat through more than eight hours of HAMLET in a row to bring you these writings, I have to say that I'm not only exhausted with the subject, but have very likely earned an honorary scholarship on the subject, as well. I practically feel intellectual now! Perhaps I'd better watch the sequel to THE HANGOVER this weekend on HBO just to bring myself down to a more common, perhaps even stupid, moviegoing level. On second thought...

And so...good night, sweet Prince!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Hamlet: "Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew! Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd his canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O GOD! GOD! How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, seem to me all the uses of this world! Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden, that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature possess it merely. That it should come to this! But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two: so excellent a king; that was, to this, hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother that he might not beteem the winds of Heaven visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth! Must I remember? why, she would hang on him, as if increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on: and yet, within a month-- let me not think on't--frailty, thy name is woman! A little month, or ere those shoes were old with which she follow'd my poor father's body, like Niobe, all tears:--why she, even she, Oh, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason, would have mourned longer--married with my uncle, my father's brother, but no more like my father than I to Hercules: within a month: ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears had left the flushing in her galled eyes, she married. Oh, most wicked speed, to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets! It is not nor it cannot come to good, but break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue."

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

HAMLET (1990)



(December 1990, U.S.)

Mel Gibson as Hamlet??? The star of three MAD MAX and two LEATHAL WEAPON (by that time) movies as the Prince of Denmark??? Twenty-two years ago, I suppose that made about as much sense as Edward G. Robinson playing Rhett Butler in GONE WITH THE WIND. Now I didn't fully realize it at the time, but it was only three years later that I'd learn a new perspective of Hamlet's character and persona that I'd never contemplated before, and it would come from a truly unlikely source; an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie! In late 1993, I rented LAST ACTION HERO and there was a scene where little Danny's elementery school teacher (played by Joan Plowright) introduces her students to the concept that Hamlet can be interpreted as the first true action hero. Hold the phone! That may not sound as stupid as you might think! Let's break it down, shall we. Hamlet is a man driven by some very ugly human emotions and actions including fear, rage, jealousy and a profound desire to committ bloody murder in the name of vengeance. So, that in mind, let's take another look at the idea of Mel Gibson starring in Franco Zeffirelli's version of HAMLET. In 1990, was there possibly anyone else on the big screen who could have inhabited those intense qualities better than Mel Gibson? Possibly not, so the concept of his own take on Hamlet is a lot more than plausible, isn't it. And as it turned out, it was also quite enjoyable.

So what we're really talking about here is an action film genre version of HAMLET (the fencing climax between Hamlet and Laertes is just one sample of that). I dare to say the idea work very well with a man like Gibson who plays the dark side of Hamlet more than adequately, but can also deliver a performance that's sensitive and painful when it needs to be at the right moments. Through Gibson's pain, we come to understand just how much Hamlet loved his father and how infuriating it is to watch his mother marry his father's brother within just two months of his passing (murder, actually...most foul!). Aside from Gibson and Glenn Close as Queen Gertrude, the rest of the cast brings the true British flavor that has come to define Shakespeare in cinema. Gibson and Close, as un-British as they may be, carry themselves beautifully in what must be incredibly challenging roles for them.

Mel Gibson (regardless of his off screen insanity during this century) is a strong and intelligent actor and HAMLET shines because of it. The film under Zeffirelli's direction is emotionally-charged and naturalistic. By the original play's definition, nearly half of it has been deleted to secure a more respectable cinematic running time. Somehow, you don't feel cheated, though. Hamlet is a character whose strength, weakness, pain, joy and indecisiveness keeps your attention the entire time, whether content is missing or not. Though not my absolute favorite, this 1990 "action" version of HAMLET is very much worth a serious look.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Polonius: "What do you read, my Lord?"
Hamlet: "Words...words...WORDS!"