Sunday, December 29, 2013

METROPOLIS (1927)



(March 1927, U.S.)

In the history of German expressionism, no film, perhaps other than THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920) has embedded itself as a stunning crown achievement than Fritz Lang's epic science fiction film of METROPOLIS. It's also possible that no other film in history has been so painstakingly restored over the decades. The particular version that I'm discussing now is the 2002 restored version released by Kino International. To its credit, the 2010 version restores a great deal of extra footage that was lost since its original release, but in my opinion, is practically unwatchable due to its poor picture quality. In other words, I'd rather be without parts of a film than have to sit through them in any sub-standard quality.

One need not exactly be a true sci-fi geek to genuinely understand and appreciate the influence METROPOLIS has had on many other science fiction classics over the course of time. One only need to study some of the film's stunning, iconic black and white images to understand its visual influences on the years of motion picture history that would inevitably follow. Here's a few photo examples...




Can you possibly imagine that the city of Los Angeles of 2019 in BLADE RUNNER (1982) would have looked the way it does without the influence of METROPOLIS? Would Gotham City in Tim Burton's original BATMAN (1989) look the way it does without the influence of METROPOLIS? Would the future of the city and society in THE MATRIX (1999) look the way it does without the influence of METROPOLIS? Hell, can you picture George Lucas designing See-Threepio to look the way he does without the influence of METROPOLIS (just look at the movie poster above to see what I'm talking about)? Sometimes I can't help but wonder if the Pink Floyd song, "Welcome to the Machine" would exist without the influence of METROPOLIS? Yes, it's safe to say that this film is nothing short of a pioneer work in science fiction and in visual storytelling; a true work of cinematic art at its best!

The time is the future (no specific year is given) and wealthy industrialists rule the vast city of Metropolis from high-rise tower complexes, while a much lower class of underground-dwelling workers toil painfully and constantly to operate the machines that provide the city's power. The Master of Metropolis is the ruthless Joh Fredersen (played by Alfred Abel), whose son Freder (played by Gustav Fröhlich) idles away his time in a pleasure garden with the other children of the equally rich. Freder is unexpectedly interrupted by the arrival of a young woman named Maria (played by Brigitte Helm), who has brought a group of workers' children to see the privileged lifestyle being led by the rich. Maria and the children are quickly ushered away, but Freder is fascinated by her, nonetheless, and descends to the workers' city in an attempt to find her. Finding himself in the machine rooms, he watches in horror as one of the machines explodes, causing injury and death to many. Appalled by this, Freder informs his father of the tragedy, who shows no signs of concern or remorse. As the wealthy ruler of the lower class, Fredersen believes in his own place at the top of the world while the lowly workers belong only at the bottom, their tragic plights not a concern of his. In an attempt to "find his place" among the common people, Freder trades clothes and lives with one of the workers. Like the workers, he also falls under the social spell of Maria, who preaches only for peace among all of society's people.

Now, like many other science fiction stories, enter the bad guy...the evil scientist! The inventor know as Rotwang (played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is also a man who'd been madly in love with a woman named Hel, who left him to marry Fredersen. She also died giving birth to Freder. As a result, he's since built a grand robot in order to attempt to "resurrect" her image and her memory. By kidnapping Maria and scientifically transferring her physical image and her mind into the robot, Maria is now re-created in the body of that robot with a message of hate and destruction rather than love and peace. It's here that we truly learn of humankind's basic need to be led. The workers of the city's underworld seem more than willing to be led by messages of social disorder by the "fake" robot-like Maria as much as they were willing to be led by messages of social harmony by the true Maria. Only Freder, who loves the real Maria, knows of the phony switch that's taken place at the hands of Rotwang.

(excuse me while I take a breath for a moment. This is a whole lot to take in and interpret!)

The themes of social order, disorder and revolution are more than clear in METROPOLIS in the message that those who control the machines of the functioning city have the power to destroy such machines, and as a result, destroy themselves, as well. Society's ignorance and deception by the machine (the fake robot Maria) leads to inevitable chaos and destruction of Metropolis, putting the lives of the children at risk along the way. It's only through patience and listening that the enraged mob of society can finally learn the truth of their situation and save the lives of their children, as well as their precious city. And like many other films where the plot yearns to teach valuable lessons, the man of power who controls the lives of those who have none inevitably comes to terms with the harmful consequences of his actions and rises above his own power to be at one with the people. The film itself preaches its own words, "The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!" The film's hero, Freder, serves as such a heart to join hands between the head of power and the hands of its workers.

Fritz Lang's influence for the film was born apparently from his first sight of the skyscrapers of New York City in 1924. Describing his first impressions of the city, Lang felt that its buildings seemed to be a "vertical sail, scintillating and very light, a luxurious backdrop, suspended in the dark sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotize". The appearance of the city in the film is strongly informed by the Art Deco movement; however it also incorporates elements from other architectural traditions that are equally eclectic. Its locales, such as Rotwang's archaic little house with its high-powered laboratory, the underground catacombs and the great Gothic cathedral represent a sense of "functionalist modernism". There are heavy Biblical sources at work here, as well. During her first sermon to the workers, Maria uses the story of the Tower of Babel to highlight the discord between the high intellectuals and the workers. Additionally, a delusional Freder imagines the fake , robot Maria as the Whore of Babylon, riding on the back of a many-headed dragon. Were I a religious man, I might have a better understanding of these Biblical references. However, as an atheist, I've only the teachings of cinema to inform me.

With enough research, one will discover many stories behind the making of METROPOLIS. One story in particular that's always fascinated me is that of Adolph Hitler's strong admiration and regard for this film. So strong it was that he desired Fritz Lang as his first choice to become the lead producer and studio head of films of Germany in 1933. Hitler felt that Lang's films, especially METROPOLIS, embodied the ideas that he (Hitler) wished to use within his propaganda campaign in order to promote himself and the rising Nazi party. Lang, fearing his life since his mother was Jewish, fled to America, loathing every ideal that Hitler and Nazi Germany represented. Lucky for him and lucky for Hollywood in the years to come.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Grot: "Who told you to attack the machines, you idiots?! Without them you'll all die!!"

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

MEN IN BLACK



(July 1997, U.S.)

Anyone who knows me well enough in life knows that I'm a truly cynical son-of-a-bitch (my wife will attest to this without hesitation!). And a partial reason for that rather negative outlook on life and especially other people just may have come from the movie MEN IN BLACK. Read this small piece of dialogue from the film and decide for yourself...

James Edwards: "Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it."
Agent Kay: "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it!"

Oh, never in my life did I agree with such descriptive words more! Yes, history may be filled to the brim with brilliant philosophers of the past, but it took Tommy Lee Jones, in my opinion, to nail the human race right on its fucking head!

When I look back on the Summer of 1997, I cannot, for the life of me, remember what attracted me to go and see MEN IN BLACK. Was it because it was based on a popular comic book? Probably not - that reason rarely did anything for me. Was it because I suspected that Will Smith would not only make me laugh, but continue to prove that he had the stuff of a great action star as he had previously done in BAD BOYS (1995) and INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996)? That's possible. Or was it simply because that I'd chosen to take the day off from work on a lovely summer day and decided to go to the movies in the middle of the work day when the theater would be more or less empty? Bingo!!!

MEN IN BLACK is just another Earth vs. Aliens story, yes? Not exactly. In this case, the plot follows two agents of a secret organization called "Men in Black" (M.I.B.) who supervise extraterrestrial life forms living on Earth and hiding their existence from ordinary humans. The agency operates from an underground base at the Tri-Borough Bridge and Tunnel Authority ventilation station in Battery Park in Manhattan and their members often use neuralyzers on witnesses' memories of alien sightings (I wouldn't mind having one of those things!). Agent K (played by Tommy Lee Jones) is the serious, by-the-book agent with no sense of humor that he's aware of whose job it is to find a brand new recruit who can handle the job. Enter New York City police officer-of-the-streets James Edwards, a.k.a. soon-to-be Agent J (played by Will Smith) who's cocky, arrogant and has no respect for authority; in other words, he's perfect for the job! His arrogance is only matched by his outrageous sense of humor that makes Will Smith's performance in such a role as funny and enjoyable as anything a younger Eddie Murphy did back in the 1980s. Suspicious of why extraterrestrials are suddenly leaving our planet, the M.I.B. investigate a farmer named Edgar (played by Vincent D'Onofrio), who's been acting strangely after an alien craft crashed on his farm. Edgar was killed and his skin has been used as a disguise by a very angry "Bug" who's a member of a giant cockroach-like species that are at war with several other alien races in the galaxy, including the Arquillians. An Arquillian prince hiding in Brooklyn (Brooklyn???), disguised as a human jewelry store owner who loves his cat is attacked, and tells Agent J as he dies that "the galaxy is on Orion's belt". The correct interpretation of this message will help to save Earth from eventual destruction by another alien race. While we wait to see what will ultimately happen, the film moves along at a nice pace with a perfect blend of sci-fi excitement and human comedy. For those of us who live in or anywhere near New York City, it's an interesting twist of events to see the observation towers of the New York State Pavilion at Flushing Meadows in Queens (made famous at the 1964 World's Fair) secretly disguised as two flying saucers to be used by the enemy "Bug" if he, indeed, gets away with his villainous deed! Well, since we all know that bad aliens almost never get away with it in the end, we can take comfort in knowing that the "Bug" is destroyed, the M.I.B. win the day, and we, as ordinary, stupid citizens of the world are all the better for never knowing just what sort of cosmic danger we were really in!

MEN IN BLACK ends up satisfying all of the text book requirements for an enjoyable summer blockbuster hit. However, a smart script, spectacular set pieces, and charismatic performances from its lead characters make it something more entirely. And of course, just like any other original hit mix, it's the inevitable fly in the ointment that end up ruining things - namely two completely forgettable sequels! Never did Lara Flynn Boyle look more like a pale skank than she did in MEN IN BLACK II (2002)! I mean, seriously, look at her...


Uugghh!!!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Zed: "May I ask why you felt little Tiffany deserved to die?"
James Edwards: "Well, she was the only one that actually seemed dangerous at the time, sir."
Zed: "How'd you come to that conclusion?"
James: "Well, first I was gonna pop this guy hanging from the street light, and I realized, y'know, he's just working out. I mean, how would I feel if somebody come runnin' in the gym and bust me in my ass while I'm on the treadmill? Then I saw this snarling beast guy, and I noticed he had a tissue in his hand, and I'm realizing, y'know, he's not snarling, he's sneezing. Y'know, ain't no real threat there. Then I saw little Tiffany. I'm thinking, y'know, eight-year-old white girl, middle of the ghetto, bunch of monsters, this time of night with quantum physics books? She about to start some shit, Zed. She's about eight years old, those books are WAY too advanced for her. If you ask me, I'd say she's up to something. And to be honest, I'd appreciate it if you eased up off my back about it...or do I owe her an apology?"

And with that...Merry Christmas, one and all!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

MEMENTO



(March 2001, U.S.)

When we finally reached the turn of the century nearly fourteen years-ago, I had an unusually optimistic sense of hope and expectations for what the movies were going to offer us in the years to come and it was primarily due to Christopher Nolan's film of MEMENTO. Because of this one independent film, I had every reason to believe that film makers were headed in a bold, daring and risky direction in storytelling and film structure. As it turns out, nothing could have been further from the truth as the movie business has proven, in my opinion, that it's ultimately capable of nothing more than churning out an endless array of comic book sequel blockbusters that offer nothing more than the ability to see just how fast things can move and how much financial intake can occur over the course of a single opening weekend. I have to say, though, for a brief time, my hopes and dreams looked pretty promising.

So let's explore just what I'm talking about for a moment and see why MEMENTO has had such a big impact on me. Now in terms of non-linear structure, I can't claim that this film has done something so original. Quentin Tarantino had perfected this storytelling with PULP FICTION back in 1994 and took the world by storm with it. So why is MEMENTO so damn unique? Let's start with its initial premise, in that we're experiencing the life of a somewhat ordinary man named Leonard Shelby (played by Guy Pearce) who appears to suffer from anterograde amnesia, which impairs his ability to store new explicit memories and who has developed a system for recollection using hand-written notes, tattoos on his body, and Polaroid photographs (remember those?). Consider for a moment life's true ramifications and consequences for a man living with such a condition. In Leonard's case, he's on a quest to find the man who raped and murdered his beloved wife; an event for which he's been unable to create new memories ever since. Consider also the fact that should Leonard achieve his ultimate victory, he won't even remember having done it. Consider finally that we as the audience are being asked to truly tap into our own patience and intelligence and follow the film's plot backwards! That's right, people, I said backwards! We're starting at the end and progressively working our way to the beginning!

When the film begins, during the opening credits, which (remember!) portrays the end of the story, it's shown that Leonard kills a man named Teddy (played by Joe Pantoliano, fresh off of THE MATRIX). The film suggests that this killing is the ultimate vengeance that Leonard seeks based on information that was previously provided by a woman named Natalie (played by Carrie-Anne Moss, also from THE MATRIX). Vengeance is never that simple, though. Now the film begins to move in reverse so we can see each and every event and episode that ultimately lead Leonard to this point. Along the way, the film features brief overlaps with just a little piece of the story's information, the purpose being to force the audience into a sympathetic experience of Leonard's defective ability to create new long-term memories, where prior events are not recalled, since the audience has yet to actually see them occur.

It's important to note that the film is shot in color and black and white. The color sequences are shown in the reverse chronological order I've already spoken about. The black-and-white sequences are shown with Leonard in a mysterious motel room speaking to an unnamed telephone caller who' not shown on-screen. He tells the story of when he was previously an insurance investigator and of one case by the name of Sammy Jankis, also diagnosed with the same condition he has now. Sammy's diabetic wife, who wasn't sure if her husband's condition was genuine, repeatedly requested insulin injections to try to get him to break his act. It didn't work and as a result she fell into a coma and died. Does the use of black and white filming suggest a solidity to Leonard's condition of life that we are forced to and determined to accept; as in everything in his life is as simple as black and white? Or does it serve to suggest a much darker mystery than what we're being lead to believe along the way? Such a paradox is not easy and perhaps best left to film scholars and journalists with more insight than myself.

By the time MEMENTO concludes itself, the final twist is revealed that I suppose is meant to shock us. Through Teddy's revelations, we learn that Leonard had already previously found and killed the real attacker over a year ago. Teddy claims that Leonard confused elements of his life with that of Sammy Jankis, who was, indeed, a con man and had no wife. Leonard's wife was diabetic, had survived the attack and was the one who had actually died in the insulin overdose. Teddy accuses Leonard of creating an intentional unsolvable puzzle to give himself a purpose in life and that he (Leonard) will continually forget what has happened, beginning his search all over again and that even Teddy himself may become a potential target for vengeance. After hearing Teddy's exposition, Leonard consciously makes the decision to do just what Teddy has revealed and which we've already learned at the beginning of the film, will lead to the events of Teddy's death. As previously cited, Leonard can't remember achieving vengeance, so it becomes necessary to start all over again...and again...and again.

(Wow! That's a lot to take in, but man, is it worth it!)

Having experienced MEMENTO (and if you're smart, you've experienced it more than once!), once can only come away praising its unique, nonlinear narrative structure and motifs of human memory, perception, grief, self-deception, and revenge. Guy Pearce gives a tight, outstanding and thoroughly convincing performance as a man on the loose and on the edge, and with no memory of any of it! Even many medical experts have cited this film as one of the most realistic and accurate depictions of anterograde amnesia in any motion picture. For myself, I can only conclude by saying that this sort of thought-provoking thriller is the kind of film that keeps reverberating in one's mind, and each iteration makes one examine any preconceived notions in a very different light. This is a film for anyone interested in the workings of human memory and, indeed, in what constitutes the makings of true reality. MEMENTO is also, again in my humble opinion, one of my top ten favorite films of the 2000s!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Natalie: "But even if you get revenge you're not gonna remember it. You're not even going to know that it happened."
Leonard Shelby: "My wife deserves vengeance. Doesn't make a difference whether I know about it. Just because there are things I don't remember doesn't make my actions meaningless. The world doesn't just disappear when you close your eyes, does it? Anyway, maybe I'll take a photograph to remind myself, get another freaky tattoo."


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

MEET JOHN DOE



(May 1941, U.S.)

With Christmas just around the corner, Frank Capra's MEET JOHN DOE may be about as close to a holiday film as I'll get to discuss during this time of year, and that's only because the final moment of the film takes places on a snowy Christmas Eve. The film itself can be described as a nothing short of a massive snowball effect in that what typically starts out as something simple and innocent becomes something much larger than itself in the end.

The story begins with a massive layoff at a large newspaper during a time that may be presumed as the Great Depression. Ann Mitchell (played by Barbara Stanwyck), having just been laid off herself, is forced to write one final column by her former employers. Infuriated, she writes a fictional letter supposedly by a fictional unemployed average American man, a "John Doe", who threatens suicide on Christmas Eve in protest of society's greats ills and injustices. When the letter causes a huge sensation and the paper's competition suspects fraud and starts to investigate, the newspaper editor rehires Ann who comes up with a scheme of hiding the fictional nature of "John Doe" while exploiting the sensation caused by the fake letter to boost the newspaper's sales. After reviewing a number of down-and-out derelicts who show up at the paper claiming to have penned the original suicide letter, Ann and her editor hire John Willoughby (played by Gary Cooper), a former baseball player and tramp who is in need of money to repair his injured arm, to supposedly play John Doe. A series of articles penned in in Doe's name begin circulating, elaborating on the original letter's ideas of society's disregard of people in need.

(Are you people getting all this??)

And so, what starts out as a stunt to increase newspaper circulation soon becomes a social movement in which the little guy, the average "Joe" is suddenly not so small on the grand scale of society and strongly begins to matter in this harsh world; a theme that Frank Capra has touched upon repeatedly in films like MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939) and even IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). The "John Doe" philosophy spreads across the country, developing into a broad grassroots movement whose simple slogan is to, "Be a better neighbor". Far from being an altruistic philanthropist, however, the man who ultimately controls the newspaper and much of the city, D.B. Norton (played by Edward Arnold) plans to channel the support for Doe into support for his own national political ambitions. As a culmination of this plan, Norton has instructed Ann to write a speech for John in which he announces the foundation of a new political party that endorses D.B. Norton as its presidential candidate. Well, you can probably guess that's not going to fly in the name of all that is good and righteous with the "John Doe" movement and John himself. Now a strong believer in his own social deliveries (or bullshit, depending on how you look at it!), John attempts to strike back at those who would do harm to the good of the cause, but ultimately comes up defeated. So now, it looks as though the false front of a Christmas Eve suicide may actually come true as John reaches the end of his rope atop the roof of the newspaper building.

Hold on, though! This is a Frank Capra film! People don't commit suicide at the end of a Frank Capra film! People rarely even die! Yes, faster than you can say, "The good shall prevail!", the good...well...prevail, and big time! In the end, in that great Capra style, the powerful good of the people come together and display the mighty force that triumphs over the politically corrupt! And of course, the two people that are supposed to fall in love at the end do fall in love at the end, on a beautiful snowy night of Christmas Eve. Oh, that is SO Frank Capra...and we wouldn't have it any other way!

When I watched this film recently, I couldn't help but wonder what Capra would have thought of the "Take Back Wall Street" movement that took place in many parts of the United States during our most recent recession. He would have been proud and moved, no doubt. He probably would have also thought, "Hey, I made that movie already!" He would have been right. In real life, though, the power of the "little people" doesn't always win.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Ann Mitchell (pleading with John not to commit suicide): "Please don't give up! We'll start all over again. Just you and I. It isn't too late. The John Doe movement isn't dead yet. You see, John, it isn't dead or they wouldn't be here. It's alive in them. They kept it alive by being afraid. That's why they came up here. Oh, darling...we can start clean now! Just you and I. It'll grow John, and it'll grow big because it'll be honest this time. Oh, John, if it's worth dying for, it's worth living for! Oh please, John...you wanna be honest, don't ya? Well, you don't have to die to keep the John Doe ideal alive. Someone already died for that once. The first John Doe. And he's kept that ideal alive for nearly two thousand years. It was He who kept it alive in them. And He'll go on keeping it alive for ever and always - for every John Doe movement these men kill, a new one will be born. That's why those bells are ringing, John. They're calling to us, not to give up but to keep on fighting, to keep on pitching. Oh, don't you see darling? This is no time to give up! You and I, John, we...oh, no, no, John! If you die, I want to die too! Oh, oh, I love you!"

You know, for someone who's practically a die hard cynic, I must admit that speech is rather moving!





Saturday, December 14, 2013

MEDITERRANEO



(March 1992, U.S.)

Perhaps I've mentioned this before, but in case I haven't, it may interest some of you to know that I spent most of the decade of the 1990s multiplex movie-hopping. You see, this is what happens when you don't have a steady woman in your life - you have a lot of time to yourself and what better way to save money on high ticket prices than to see three (sometimes four) movies in one day. Security at most of these multiplexes, at least back in the day when I was still going to them, was total shit! And so, one Saturday night over Memorial Day weekend in 1992, I decided to take a drive from my beach house to a rather large neighborhood movie theater in Southampton, Long Island to see the first big blockbuster film of the summer, ALIEN 3. When it was over, I managed to convince myself that there was a fair amount of redeeming qualities for this sequel, though I'd later realize that I was wrong and that it was just another pointless Hollywood money maker and nothing else. Anyway, when this sci-fi dud was over, I wasn't quite ready to end the evening for myself. I decided to walk into another theater to sit down to watch whichever film was due to start right away. As it turned out, it was an Italian film I'd only vaguely heard about called MEDITERRANEO. I had no idea what it was about, but like I said, I wasn't about to go home with nothing more on my mind than Ripley's inevitable death in ALIEN 3. Besides, over the last couple of years, my interest in foreign cinema had started to peak upon seeing CINEMA PARADISO some years earlier. So I suppose anything was possible at this point.

Well, I can only say that my time and efforts for the evening had not gone to waste because this film is an absolute gem! It's a very simple story of a group of misfit Italian soldiers during World War II in 1941 who are sent to a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea for four months of lookout duty. The soldiers include a lieutenant who likes art, a macho sergeant, a farmer accompanied by his beloved donkey, and other quirky people. These men are not particularly good soldiers, but a cross section of average, independent, and quite likable men. During the time that they anticipate some form of attack by the enemy, they soon realize that it's not going to come. On top of that, their radio has been destroyed, cutting them off from the war and the world. This island of tranquility is soon and slowly populated with people, actually just women, children and the local priest because all of the men were previously deported by the German enemy. The local villagers decide to accommodate the Italian soldiers and welcome them into their community and their hearts. It isn't long before everyone's sunny nature and personality becomes apparent in this place of beauty. The soldiers are absorbed into the life, heat and landscape of this idyllic island. There's even a local prostitute who makes her availability to the men apparent from nearly the moment they arrive. And as beauty and simplicity would have it, it's the youngest and most naïve of the soldiers who inevitably falls in love with her, and in a rather amusing scene with a shotgun, openly declares that no other soldier is to touch her ever again. Now isn't THAT the perfect blend for a love story? Men meet hooker, men fuck hooker, man falls in love with hooker, man and hooker get married, other men never get laid again! Ah, love!!

By the time the men do leave the island, the war is over and the hopes of rebuilding a new Italy for the future are in the air. Hopes and history, however, don't always meet in the end. At the film's conclusion, several of the surviving soldiers are reunited as old men in the present day, having returned to the island that ultimately brought out the best in their lives. In a great sense, this small Italian film is a giant tribute to all those who secretly (or not so secretly) seek to abandon and escape from the grind of their existence and disappear into a land where the rest of the outside world no longer exists or matters. I understand that fantasy all too well. Despite being a man who loves his family, I often long for the pure solitude of the open air and the great sea. Sometimes I get it in very small dosages out in the Hamptons, but then again, I'm still surrounded by neighbors!

MEDITERRANEO won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 1991.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Nicola Lo Russo: "Life isn't enough. One life isn't enough for me. There aren't enough days. Too many things to do, too many ideas. Every sunset upsets me because another day has gone by."



Sunday, December 8, 2013

MEATBALLS



(June 1979, U.S.)

Would you believe that by the time MEATBALLS was released in the Summer of 1979, I was twelve years-old and had STILL not ever gone away to sleepaway camp?? This is what happens when you spend your childhood growing up in a beach house in the Hamptons; you miss out on other summer experiences. So until the time came that I actually did go away to camp for the first time at the age of fifteen, the only glimpse I had into that summer social world was through the first two FRIDAY THE 13TH films and this film MEATBALLS. The former example of slasher material aside, Bill Murray's crazy antics as camp counselor Tripper Harrison at Camp Northstar were a fantastic prelude to what I might or might not come to experience myself when I inevitably became a sleepaway camper in the near future.

As a young kid ready for the summer and ready for a good time, Tripper Harrison is exactly the kind of counselor we'd all likely want to have. He's young, he's crazy, he's mildly irresponsible and takes almost nothing too seriously. And yet, if you're a depressed and homesick kid away from your family for the first time, like Rudy Gerner (played by Chris Makepeace), he's just the kind of guy you want to be your friend and help you through the rough times. If you're a young and horny Counselor-In-Training (like I was!!), he's just the guy you'd like on your side when you're trying desperately to get somewhere with a girl. And if you want nothing more than to spend the summer tormenting the stiff-as-a-board-by-the-book camp director Morty Melnick ("Hi, Mickey!"), then Tripper's your man, for sure! There are things they all do to poor Morty that even baffles myself! Just how DO they get that bed of his all the way up into a tree without waking Morty?? I've heard of light sleepers, but geez!!

Now despite Camp Northstar being a place of pure zaniness, the film is not about to let its audience get away without sending out some sort of viable message of love, friendship, lessons learned and an ultimate victory for the underdogs. As pure forms of cliché are concerned, everything you might expect in a light-hearted summer camp story like this is here; kids who might not have liked each other during the camp's off-season become friends in the end, the wild and crazy counselor who can seemingly go through girls like a revolving door actually learns to love in the end, and most of all, the lonely, depressed kid Rudy finally triumphs in the end by winning the big running race that wins camp Northstar the entire Olympiad against their arch, cheating rivals on the other side of the lake, Camp Mohawk. Yes, in the end, it's all fine and beautiful...maybe too beautiful. What I mean is that when watching MEATBALLS, I'm doing my best to keep in mind that this is supposed to be a wacky comedy at heart. So it would be much easier to do so if there weren't these periodic soft and sappy songs during the story that are supposedly meant to bring a touch of heartwarming goodness to the whole thing. Seriously?? Does heartwarming goodness belong in a movie called MEATBALLS?? Consider that question and consider the same reason why John Belushi smashes that guitar against the wall in ANIMAL HOUSE when Stephen Bishop begins to sing about giving his love a cherry!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Tripper Harrison: "And even if we win, if we win, HAH! Even if we win! Even if we play so far above our heads that our noses bleed for a week to ten days; even if God in Heaven above comes down and points his hand at our side of the field; even if every man woman and child held hands together and prayed for us to win, it just wouldn't matter because all the really good looking girls would still go out with the guys from Mohawk because they've got all the money! It just doesn't matter if we win or we lose! IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER!!"

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

MEAN STREETS



(October 1973, U.S.)


Apart from his first actual feature film, WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967) and a directing project given to him by Roger Corman, BOXCAR BERTHA (1972), MEAN STREETS was Martin Scorsese's first feature film of his own personal design. It was a sign of things to come, because, really, who else other than Martin Scorsese has given us a true insight and feeling inside the world of the Mafia (Francis Ford Coppola being a very close second!)? When you enter the world of MEAN STREETS, GOODFELLAS and even CASINO, you're not only getting a look inside a world that most of us are ignorant about in real life, but also a strong taste of an environment Scorsese clearly spent some around growing up and in his adulthood, particularly in the city of New York. Unlike GOODFELLAS and CASINO, however, the gangsters we come to know in this film are NOT men of power. These local thugs don't do much more with there corrupt lives than run numbers, lend out money and pretend to sell illegal fireworks to naïve teenagers.

Scorsese begins the film with the intent of clearly wanting his audience to know his characters well. These men are identified on screen by their first name the moment we see them. These are not intelligent men. They live by the rules and language of the mean streets (there - I said it!); language that very often consists of dialogue that doesn't go beyond statements like, "What?", "Whatsa matter wit you?" and "Forget about it!" Charlie (played by Harvey Keitel) is a man who's trying to move up in the local New York Mafia but is hampered by his unavoidable feelings of responsibility towards his reckless friend, Johnny Boy (played by Robert De Niro in his first collaboration with Scorsese), a small-time gambler who owes money to many loan sharks all over the city. It's important to also note that Charlie is a religious man who can't seem to take lesson from the proper teachings of Catholicism. He's a man who sins on an almost daily basis and then seeks penance inside the local church. Yet despite all the "Hail Mary's" and "Our Father's" he recites and accepts, he never repents for his sins and continues to seek out his personal and immoral Mafia ambitions. Yet, somehow, he's determined to convince himself, God, and the audience watching him that's he's sincerely trying his best to move along the path of righteousness. In simpler words, Charlie is the perfect example of pure hypocrisy.

In watching De Niro in the role of Johnny Boy, it's almost a wonder he continued on to have such an illustrious and important career with Scorsese that included TAXI DRIVER (1976) and RAGING BULL (1980), because his character in this film is really nothing more than an unintelligent, twisted and desperate thug who can't seem to realize he's on a suicidal spiral to what will ultimately end in his own death (the man who kills him is played by a young Scorsese in an uncredited cameo role). One can't help but wonder if Charlie's loyalty to keep Johnny Boy out of trouble is admirable or downright stupid. It would seem that there comes a point in life when one must release another person from their life if that person has become too destructive. Friends and family are important, yes, but sometimes they're the first ones who will take you down with them if you hang on too tight.

MEAN STREETS is, indeed, an example of true personal filmmaking with acting and editing that have an original, tumultuous and gripping force behind it. It's the first cinematic look inside a world that we've seen many times under Scorsese's direction; a world filled with crime, violence and quite often, a touch of heartfelt drama and emotion behind it. That, perhaps, is what the Mafia really is like, inside and outside the big movie screen. Scorsese seems to know.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Johnny Boy: "You too good for this ten dollars? It's a good ten dollars. You know Michael, you make me laugh. You see, I borrow money all over this neighborhood, left and right from everybody, I never pay them back. So, I can't borrow no money from nobody no more, right? So who would that leave me to borrow money from but you? I borrow money from you, because you're the only jerk-off around here who I can borrow money from without payin' back, right? You know, 'cause that's what you are, that's what I think of you: a jerk-off. You're a fucking jerk-off! You're laughing 'cause you're a jerk-off. I'll tell 'ya something else...I fuck you right where you breath, because I don't give two shits about you or nobody else!"

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

MATRIX, THE



(March 1999, U.S.)

Back in the Spring of 1999, my wife (girlfriend at the time) lived on East 86th Street in New York City within a very short walking distance of four, count 'em, FOUR movie theaters! This afforded us untold opportunities to see just about every film that was being released at the time. Sometimes we planned far in advance to see something that was real hot on our "must see" list. Sometimes it just happened to be a restless Saturday night for both of us and we were simply looking to get out and go to a movie...any movie. On those nights, anything was possible for me, particularly since I still had an open mind when it came to Hollywood mainstream movies. Therefore, when we both decided to see what looked like to be a new science fiction/action movie called THE MATRIX, it seemed that anything was possible. Hell, it practically didn't matter to me considering that the only film I could focus any concentration on during the Spring of 1999 was the upcoming return of the STAR WARS universe in a film to be called THE PHANTOM MENACE. So, really, at that point in time, THE MATRIX could have blown me away or it could have really sucked. It didn't really matter to me.

Well, in the words of Keanu Reeves' most often repeated expression of awe..."Whoah!" THE MATRIX not only proved to provide some incredible and spectacular action, but it introduced its audience to a new level of film making effects that hadn't been see before. The film's incorporation of something known as Wire-Fu techniques, including the involvement of top fight choreographers with backgrounds in Hong Kong action cinema, affected the approaches to fight scenes taken by subsequent Hollywood action films, moving them towards more Eastern cinematic styles. These sophisticated techniques from such choreographers, that also including slow motion and spinning camera work, would later influence such works of wire in other films like CHARLIE'S ANGELS and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (both 2000). The "bullet time" effect on the screen during a sequence of spectacular shooting is particularly noteworthy for a striking visual effect without being too cheesy. So, there you have it - the visual effects for THE MATRIX speak for themselves just by watching and appreciating them.

But what about story? Well, can we honestly claim that the concept of the post-apocalyptic world of tomorrow is anything new? No. Can we honestly claim that the world of tomorrow where human beings are dominated by artificial intelligence or machine technology is anything new. No (Hell, just look around you today and you'll see that the majority of the human race have become helpless slaves to everything ever invented by the late Steve Jobs!). What THE MATRIX seeks to introduce to its audience is the idea that our world has not only been scorched by "the big one", but that the human race is living under the influence of a computer-generated simulation (known as the "Matrix") of what the world was like before it all went to Hell! The film's hero, Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) has lived in this false world since birth. However, he is believed to be "the One" by a band of resistance fighters led by Morpheus (played by Lawrence Fishburne) who believe he's the man prophesized to ultimately end the war between humans and machines. And like any computer program that has it's bad side, glitches, or bugs, the film features dark-suited men known as "Agents", led by Agent Smith (played by Hugo Weaving) who seek to destroy the human resistance fighters. Bear in mind, that most of the action we witness in this film takes place inside the world of a computer program (think of TRON with a lot more violence and a lot more at stake for the world!). However, if you die in the Matrix, you die for real, because if the brain dies, so does the body...or something like that.

(hey, I'll be honest with you - a true sci-fi and computer geek could explain all of this a lot better than I could. I'm just a film guy, for crying out loud!)

Beyond the inevitable science fiction concept of humanity versus machine intelligence, THE MATRIX also offers high concepts in the world of dreams versus reality. As Morpheus asks, "Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?" As a man who has bizarre dreams on this planet during the present day, I can only say that such a concept is more than though-provoking, it's downright frightening! But if the world of what is approximated as the year 2199 is scorched beyond recognition by the inevitable nuclear fires, is ignorance not, indeed, truly bliss in this case?? Would we honestly choose the dark, grim and desolate world of reality's truth instead of the blissful world of the simulated? Would we honestly rather not be seated at a restaurant's fancy table eating a juicy steak and drink a fine red wine instead of fighting for our lives against the deadly machines of the underworld?? I guess what I'm trying to say is that I would have chosen to swallow the blue pill. No question!

For me THE MATRIX begins and ends with the first film. THE MATRIX RELOADED and THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS (both 2003) may have had its moments, but in the end it was just more of the same shit and not nearly as good.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Neo: "This...this isn't real?"
Morpheus: "What is real? How do you define 'real'? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain."

Friday, November 22, 2013

M*A*S*H



(January 1970, U.S.)

Let me begin this post with a personal story first. When I was just a young child, roughly around seven years-old, my favorite TV night of the week was Saturday night on CBS. Those who remember it well will recall the following lineup beginning at 8 pm: ALL IN THE FAMILY, M*A*S*H, THE MARY TYLER MORRE SHOW, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW and finally THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW (if I was able to con my parents into letting me stay up that late, that is). Trouble was, I didn't like, nor did I understand M*A*S*H at the time. What I would do is watch the opening credits because I liked the instrumental theme (little did I know it was an instrumental version of a song called "Suicide is Painless") and then find something else to watch for half an hour before returning to CBS at 9 pm. Now jump ahead about two years to when Robert Altman's original film of M*A*S*H is re-released in movie theaters based on the runaway success of the TV show. My father decides he wants to see the movie (probably for the second time) and packs his two young kids up in the car and heads for the local Long Island drive-in movie theater where M*A*S*H is playing as a double feature with Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. From my child's inexperienced, uninformed and confused mind, I truly believed I was watching a movie of M*A*S*H that was based on the TV show. Hell, I even recognized Gary Burghoff who played the character of "Radar". But I was only seven years-old, so you really think I had any clue as to what I was watching on the screen in front of the car's windshield?? At that age, you're just glad to be taken to the movies! Still, now you know that one of my earliest experiences (if not THE first experience) at the movies was a double feature of M*A*S*H and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Not too shabby, huh?

And so, with the age of the "New Hollywood" breaking out of its shell, bold and daring directors like Robert Altman chose to give the world a satirical, black comedy that depicts a unit of medical personnel stationed at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH - get it?) during the Korean War; the subtext clearly launching a full-frontal attack on the Vietnam War at the time and the public outcry against it. It was an outrageous assault on the true absurdities of war, in general. It jolted a new generation of moviegoers with its irreverence and seditiousness. While mixing dark humor with shocking surgical realism, it also called into question issues of sexually-charged antics and underlying morality during a time of an unpopular war. It was, in a word, insanity!

The time is Korea of 1951 and the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital is assigned two (supposedly) top surgeons that go by the name of Captain "Hawkeye" Pierce (played originally by unknown Donald Sutherland) and Captain "Trapper" John McIntyre (played originally by unknown Elliot Gould). From the moment we both of them, it's clear that their sole purpose in the army, when they're not saving lives, is wreaking as much havoc whenever possible. It's a film version of the American army where the respectful are disrespected and tormented. Inferior surgeon and religious man Major Frank Burns (played by Robert Duval) and chief nurse Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan clearly don't stand a chance in a setting like this one. Like TV's "Seinfeld", M*A*S*H is, essentially, a non-linear story about nothing. This is a war film (or ANTI-war film, actually) that has no thrilling combat, no moral message, none of that "gung-ho" spirit that made World War II films so popular in American culture and no glorious victories. It's simply men and woman trying to survive the harsh (and bloody) realities of war by acting as chaotic as possible with each other. So in other words, war may be Hell, but M*A*S*H makes its concepts and messages wild and rather fun! One scene, in particular, is the rather infamous "Last Supper" spoof in which the entire unit is in on a gag to make one of their members think he's actually committing suicide when he concludes that his incompetence must be attributed to hidden latent homosexuality. Suicide (painless) as a solution to homosexuality may be very un-PC by today's bullshit standards, but it was funny in this film, nonetheless. That's the whole point of this film, though; to slap everything that's decent, respectful and politically correct into the face of Hollywood and its audience with a great big "fuck you"! It's also particularly interesting to note that in a film that's this non-linear, it's something as simple as a loudspeaker and a rather nervous voice making announcements that manages to put the entire film together as somewhat of a saga. By the end of the film, unlike the highly-watched final episode of the TV show in 1983, the Korean War does not come to an end. Instead, "Hawkeye" is given the green light to finally go home and simply says goodbye without any sort of sentimental emotion, and it's just the way things should be. Robert Altman's M*A*S*H does not achieve it's notoriety by being nice to us or filling our heads with war-torn emotion and drama...thank goodness!

It's curious to note that in 1970, Twentieth Century Fox also released two other war films; PATTON and TORA, TORA, TORA. Although PATTON is a great film and won the Oscar for best picture of that year, it's M*A*S*H, in my opinion, that should have taken that high honor!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Trapper John: "Look, mother, I want to go to work in one hour. We are the Pros from Dover and we figure to crack this kid's chest and get out to golf course before it gets dark. So you go find the gas-passer and you have him pre-medicate this patient. Then bring me the latest pictures on him. The ones we saw must be 48 hours old by now. Then call the kitchen and have them rustle us up some lunch. Ham and eggs will all right. Steak would be even better. And then give me at least ONE nurse who knows how to work in close without getting her tits in my way!"

Saturday, November 16, 2013

MARGIN CALL



(October 2011, U.S.)

Before I even get into what may be considered the best movie about Wall Street ever made, I want you to first take a look at this picture of one of its stars, Zachary Quinto (you sci-fi geeks may know him best as Spock in the current STAR TREK movie re-boots)...


Taken a good look? Okay, now I want you to take another good look at this picture of my younger brother, Kevin...


People, I kid you not! Although one is smiling and one is not and both hair styles are a bit different, it's the same eyes, same eye brows, same facial structures, same ears, same body hair, etc.! I see it, my mother and father see it, my family sees it, my friends see it, my brother's partner sees it, my in-laws see it, my seven year-old son sees it and even fucking KEVIN sees it! The only one who refuses to see it is my wife! Somebody please talk to the woman because she damned well won't listen to me!

(okay, now that THAT'S out of my system...)

Released in the Fall of 2011, it's hard to imagine that it had only been about three years since our entire economy collapsed into oblivion in what could only be closely compared to the legendary market crash of October 1929. What MARGIN CALL forces the viewer who remembers that time well is to envision and imagine the late night meetings that must have taken place between the corrupt and not-so-corrupt "powers that be" of Wall Street just before the shit all came down while the rest of America's working class citizens slept peacefully in their beds, completely unaware of what was about to happen to them and their financial world. This film takes place over a 36-hour period at a large Wall Street investment bank (supposedly based on firms like Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns) and highlights the initial stages of the financial crisis that took place in 2007 and 2008. The film focuses on the actions taken by a small group of employees during the subsequent financial collapse and the less-than honorable action they'll take to save the future of their firm.

When the film begins, you already get that sick feeling in your senses because you're watching an unannounced mass layoff taking place at the start of an otherwise normal business day. It makes you uneasy because you already know from history what this sort of action was all about and how much worse it got after that. Perhaps you were one who got laid off yourself (I did!). Now I had to research this a bit, and I'll be damned if I understand one word of it, but as Zachary Quinto's character, Peter Sullivan, discovers it, the current volatility in the firm's portfolio of mortgage backed securities is about to exceed the historical volatility levels of the positions at the firm. Because of excessive leverage, if the firm's assets decrease by twenty-five percent in value, the firm will suffer a loss greater than its market capitalization. He also discovers that, given the normal length of time that the firm holds such securities, this loss must inevitably occur. Ultimately, the firm's plan is to very quickly sell all of the "toxic" assets before the market learns of their worthlessness, thereby limiting the firm's exposure, a course favored by all involved except by Sam Rogers (played by Kevin Spacey, one of my favorite actors of today!). He caves in though, and before the markets opens the next day, Rogers tells his traders they'll receive seven-figure bonuses if they achieve a ninety-three percent reduction in certain asset classes in a "fire sale". He admits that the traders are effectively ending their careers by destroying their relationships with their clients, but it appears that this is the only way the firm will survive this financial holocaust. And like many of us who already lived through the actual event, we know that the rich got richer and most of the rest of us got royally fucked! For myself, I was out of work for several months, but thanks to my wife's employment and non-panicking, cool heads all around, we managed to survive the turmoil without losing anything or borrowing money from anybody...thank goodness!

Getting back to something I mentioned earlier, and with all due respect to the great Oliver Stone and Michael Douglas, MARGIN CALL achieves a victory in portraying the fears and actions of Wall Street in a far superior, yet more subtle manner than both WALL STREET films. It's very smart, tightly bound, thought-provoking and solidly acted by some great talents (even Demi Moore!). As viewers, we know from history what's about to happen and how bad it really was. But as I also previously mentioned, it's strange to think about all the things we didn't know before the shit came down. How many meetings, how many discussions, how many immoral and illegal plans of action took place in the night while we remained completely unaware of what was about to happen to us? Such is history, I suppose. Such is life. It's happened before. It'll happen again. In the meantime, it's much easier to watch it on film than to experience it yourself.

Oh, and note to my brother Kevin - start taking acting classes now! Sooner or later Zachary Quinto may need an understudy or a stand-in and you'll want to be ready! Just sayin'!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Peter Sullivan: "Look at these people. Wandering around with absolutely no idea what's about to happen."

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

MARATHON MAN



(October 1976, U.S.)

I was a child of the movies of the 1970s. So, like any film fan who grew up in any given decade, there was lots of diversity to be noticed and appreciated. For those who understood the decade better than I did, it was a time of the so-called "New Hollywood" dominated by new talents as Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Altman and DePalma. For myself, it was disaster films, it was demonic horror films, it was science fiction blockbusters, and every once in a while, it was a solid thriller with intense performances from its stars. I'm talking about films like THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971), DEATH WISH (1974), JAWS (1975), BLACK SUNDAY (1977) and MARATHON MAN, based on William Goldman's original novel and screenplay and directed by John Schlesinger, who'd also directed Dustin Hoffman in MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969).

Dustin Hoffman as Thomas "Babe" Levy is an extraordinarily unique role for a man who may best be remembered for more simple, subdued characters as in THE GRADUATE, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and KRAMER VS. KRAMER. "Babe" is a dark character, who not only possesses the instincts and convictions for revenge, but can also express deep and uncompromised fear when his life is in mortal danger (just listen to him scream for help). He's a somewhat ordinary man who's working toward his doctrine in history at New York City's Columbia University who's also living with the haunted past of his father's suicide during the Joseph McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s, and as the title suggests, he's also training to run a complete marathon (presumably the New York City one). This is why he can run so fast in the streets when his life is in danger. Before he can even figure out what's happened to his life, he's being pursued by various bad guys who all come under the control and direction of Dr. Christian Szell (played wonderfully by Laurence Olivier), a Nazi war criminal who's forced to come out of hiding to New York City in order to retrieve a large quantity of diamonds that were in his brother's possession (also a Nazi war criminal) before he was killed in a car accident. "Babe" has nothing really to do with all of this except for the fact that his brother Henry (played by the great Roy Scheider) was involved with these guys, then got killed, and presumably said something to "Babe" before he died in his arms. We, as the audience, know that he didn't, but the bad guys don't. So all of this leads to capture, torture, escape, and the ultimate climactic revenge. Even the woman he loves, Elsa (played by Marthe Keller), is also in on the whole thing (the poor man just can't catch a break!).

Now, having mentioned the word torture, I can't discuss MARATHON MAN without getting into what can only be called the infamous dental scene. If you've seen this film, then you know damn well what I'm talking about! What is it exactly that creeps us out the most about this sequence? Is it the persistent, unreasonable repeated question of "Is it safe?" from Szell? Is it the horrible anticipation of what Szell is planning to do to "Babe" when he displays his dental equipment on the table for us to see? Or is it simply that horrible shriek that comes from sweet Dustin Hoffman when that dental pick finally finds its target inside the poor man's unwilling mouth? Whatever it is, I, like so many others shudder at the entire sequence and the horrible implications of such torture. To this day, my friends, whenever I sit in the dentist's chair, I have to literally force myself NOT to think of that infamous scene in MARATHON MAN. Shit, I think I even shared that fact with my dentist, too! He laughed because he's seen the film, too.

When considering this film and it's place in the decade of the 1970s, I'm also confronted with the memory of a decade that also gave us a number of films that very clearly depicted the grim ugliness of the city of New York. Two of them include the above mentioned THE FRENCH CONNECTION, DEATH WISH and also include other titles such as SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and THE WARRIORS. Yes, the city was damn ugly and disgusting back then (sometimes I think it still is!) and Hollywood knew damn well how to use it to its advantage to not only give us some great thrillers, but even some great dramas, too (Hell, even Superman was flying over the city in 1978)! I've also found it particularly intriguing that during the sequence when Szell is trying to get his diamonds appraised in the Diamond District on 47th Street, it's by sheer chance and incredible memory that he's recognized by not one, but two Holocaust survivors. I don't know whether I find the recognitions more fascinating or the fact that one of them is killed (by Szell) and the other is run down by a car only moments later. Life is certainly strange, especially on film.

Favorite line or dialogue:


Peter Janeway: (in the car with Babe): "All right, things are starting to come together. Keep your head down before you get it blown off. Those two guys I just wasted work for a man named Christian Szell. Does that name mean anything to you?"
Babe: "No."
Janeway: "He ran the experimental camp in Auchswitz, where they called him "The White Angel" - "Die Weisse Engel" - because he has this incredible head of white hair. He's probably the most wealthy and most wanted Nazi alive. And he's hiding out somewhere in Uruguay. In 1945, Szell let it be known around Auschwitz that he could provide escape for any Jew who is willing to pay the price. He started with gold naturally, but very quickly worked his way up to diamonds. You heard any of this before?"
Babe: "No."
Janeway: "Szell saw the end early. They snuck his brother into America with his diamonds. They're right here in New York in a safe deposit box. Szell's brother had the key. The only other key kept by Szell in Uruguay. And now, if he has to come out of hiding to use it, he's gonna expose himself to incredible risk. Well, everything worked out fine until his brother got killed in a head-on collision with an oil truck."
Babe: "Why did you say "naturally" when you said it started with gold?"
Janeway: "Because he knocked it out of the Jews' teeth before he burned them. Szell was a dentist."
Babe: "He's not coming to America, Mr. Janeway. He's here."
Janeway: "He can't be here. We'd already know of it."
Babe: "He's here. He was the dentist that almost killed me. He kept saying, "Is it safe?, is it safe?" over and over."
Janeway: "Did he have white hair? Keep your head down! Did he have white hair?"
Babe: "He was bald."
Janeway: "Bald? The son-of-a-bitch has shaved his head! He's here! And he's panicked."
Babe: "Why is he after me?"
Janeway: "Because your brother was one of the couriers that transported the diamonds to Paris and, obviously, Szell thinks Doc said something to you before he died. Now did he say anything to you?"
Babe: "What do you mean my brother? You saying my brother worked for Szell?"
Janeway: "No! He worked for us! Everything we do cuts both ways. Szell ratted on all of his buddies. He kept track on all of the old matches throughout the world. Whenever we want to bring one of 'em in, we went to Szell. Now listen, Babe. You gotta do one thing for me, just one thing!"
Babe: "Name it. What?"
Janeway: "Quit protecting Doc!"
Babe: "I'm not!"
Janeway: "He kept himself alive long enough to tell you something! Now what did he say to you?"
Babe: "He didn't say anything!"
Janeway: "He must've said something! Tell me what he said!"
Babe: "Nothing!"
Janeway: "Shit!"

Sunday, November 10, 2013

MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, THE



(December 1974, U.S.)

For the absolute die-hard, no bullshit James Bond fan (like my fellow blogger and friend in California, Richard), there are, understandably, many reasons not to like the ninth Bond film, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN. To begin with, the concept of silly is definitely starting to set in here. As an example, I could likely go on forever about the Bond villain's car with wings soaring into the air, which in my opinion, is second in stupidity only to the invisible car driving on the ice in DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002). And really, are any of us supposed to take the likes of little Hervé Villechaize seriously as a Bond villain; even a sidekick Bond villain?? Finally, in terms of the ol' Bond girl-o-meter, I highly doubt that Britt Ekland as Goodnight will go down in Bond history as nothing more than an astoundingly stupid blonde British agent, and that's very likely being kind! Finally, as LIVE AND LET DIE seemed to take advantage of the popularity of 1970's Blaxploitation films, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN doesn't miss a chance to pay homage to 1970's martial arts films, à la Bruce Lee, with a sequence of its own.

(okay, I know...I'm dwelling on the Bond negative here!)

To it's credit, though, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN takes on a rather serious tone in it's mission of not only figuring out the mystery of Francisco Scaramanga (played by Christopher Lee in a villainous role he was simply made for) and his personal mission to gun down the great James Bond, but also the strong issue of the energy crisis which plagued a good portion of the 1970s. While many fans might disagree with me, this is also one of Roger Moore's strongest performances as Bond and by far, one of the more serious. This is the only Bond film of his where he actually hits a woman across the face and threatens to break her arm. Those who may remember Maud Adams better in her lead role in OCTOPUSSY (1983) can take note that she gives a noteworthy performance in a lesser role as Scaramanga's frightened mistress, who, like many other secondary Bond girls, ends up dead about midway through the film.

From Beirut to Bangkok, we follow Bond's thrills and adventures in bringing down Scaramanga's evil and dastardly plan for wealth and domination over the world's solar energy. The final duel of pistols on the beach between Bond and Scaramanga is particularly original in that it attempts to bring the good and the evil to a closer and more personal level, and you know who ultimately wins, don't you?? The exotic island serves as a lush and tranquille background for what will inevitably turn into a war zone as Bond brings his inevitable destruction with him that more often than not, ends with the sort of climactic explosion that this Bond films particularly loves to see! But I have to say, if for no other reason at all, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN pays off when we get to experience the character of Louisiana Sheriff J.W. Pepper (played again by Clifton James) from LIVE AND LET DIE all over again, though I must confess, what this redneck version of Americana is doing vacationing in an exotic land like Bangkok is beyond me! Still his racist, very un-pc character is lots of fun to watch and listen to, particularly when he refers to every man as, "Boy!" And while many may consider the scene of the AMC Hornet leaping in mid-air at 360 degrees over a broken bridge an over-the-top stunt that exploits the actions of Evel Knievel of the time, just keep in mind that the stunt was all real and all genuine performed by a real stunt man. In other words, no computers and no special effects! So stupid or not, that has to count for something, doesn't it?

So if THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN is not your favorite cup-of-tea-James Bond, you've probably got justifiable reasons for feeling that way. Look at it this way, though; if you're looking for others to compare it to in terms of "not-so-great" Bond films, just consider ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, the bulk of Pierce Brosnan's Bond films and the tragedy that was QUANTUM OF SOLACE! Just sayin'...

Favorite line or dialogue:

Sheriff J.W. Pepper (just before Bond jumps his car over a bridge): "You're not thinkin' a...?
James Bond: "I sure am, BOY!"

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

MAN WHO WASN'T THERE, THE



(November 2001, U.S.)

When you seriously consider the long career of the Coen Brothers, there are some films that have achieved worldwide attention like RAISING ARIZONA (1987), FARGO (1996), THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998), NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007), their 2010 remake of TRUE GRIT and some that just sort of get lost in the big shuffle like MILLER'S CROSSING (1990), BARTON FINK (1991) and their 2004 remake of THE LADY KILLERS. When you also consider that much of their art and material follows a classic pattern of film noir, it's a small wonder that more of their films were not shot in black and white, as THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE is. It's one that, unfortunately, got lost in the big shuffle, but it's quite an extraordinary film.

In the neo-noir year of 1949, Ed Crane (played by Billy Bob Thorton) is a small town barber who simply does his job and doesn't talk much. He and his bookkeeper wife Doris (played by Frances McDormand), who's also a drinker, are about as happily married as...well, as MY parents were when I was growing up! Ed suspects that Doris is having an affair with her loud and boisterous department store-owner boss "Big Dave" Brewster (played by James Gandolfini). In an attempt to get revenge and to also give himself a financial boost in his life, Ed deceptively and creatively seeks to anonymously blackmail Brewster for $10,000 for which he will invest in what appears to be the next big thing known as dry cleaning. Like BLOOD SIMPLE and FARGO, what starts out as a simple scheme of blackmail and extortion inevitably turns to murder. In this case, we can perhaps call it involuntary manslaughter as Ed's fatal act against Brewster is justified in self-defense. No matter, though. Before we know it, it's Doris who's being charged with his murder and Ed in a rather surprising move, appears to be coming to her aid with support and the best legal defense that money can buy. But as many of the films of the Coen Brothers, things are not destined to end well. Just when we think Doris might actually get off for a murder her husband committed, she ends up committing suicide. Just when we think Ed may come out clean from all of this by not only getting away with murder, but with also being rid of his cheating wife, we witness the offer of a blowjob from an underage girl named Birdy (played by Scarlett Johansson) inevitably result in a horrible car crash which then results in the arrest of Ed for a completely different murder that we, as the viewer, know he did not commit. By the time we've seen it all come down on this unassuming barber who's spent his life invisible to the rest of the world, he's being put to death in the electric chair.

While Billy Bob Thorton may be best remembered for his role in SLING BLADE (a film I did not like, by the way), it's his role as Ed Crane is the one I'd prefer to let stand as the quintessential role of his career. His character's affectlessness is not a quality very much sought out or prized in film protagonists, but he manages to do it perfectly in his role as nothing more than an unimportant small-town barber in an era long gone. The cinematography is straightforward and traditional for black and white. Most of the shots are made with the camera at eye level, with normal lensing and a long depth of field. The lighting can be considered rather textbook, with quarter-light setups. When Ed Crane appears onscreen, he's almost always shown smoking an unfiltered cigarette, which may be considered another detail true to the era in which the film is set. It's wonderful homage to the art of black and white film noir, and it's all Coen Brothers!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Ed Crane (narrating): "It was only a couple weeks later she suggested getting married. I said, "Don't you want to get to know me more?" She said, "Why? Does it get better?"

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, THE (1934)



(March 1935, U.S.)

Even if none of you film fans are too familiar with Alfred Hitchcock's early British period, you've likely heard of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH because he remade it himself with James Stewart and Doris Day in 1956 (but we'll get to that later). The original black and white film is quite different in setting, tone and plot details, and in my humble opinion, it's better than the remake (but we'll get to that later).

The film opens with the snowy mountains of Switzerland where British married couple Bob and Jill Lawrence (played by Leslie Banks and Edna Best) are vacationing with their daughter Betty (played by Nova Pilbeam). They subsequently befriend a foreign gentleman named Louis Bernard (played by Pierre Fresnay), who is staying in their hotel also. One evening, as Jill dances with Louis, she witnesses his assassination as a French spy when a shot penetrates the glass pane and then his body. Before he dies, the spy passes on to them some vital information that must be delivered to the British consul. Before the couple can act on this, they learn that Betty has been kidnapped in order to keep them quiet. These criminals are lead by Abbott (played by Peter Lorre) and we eventually learn that their ultimate plan is to have the head of state of an unidentified European country assassinated during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Lorre, by the way is just as sinister looking (and acting) as any other film who may have seen him in like Fritz Lang's M, CASABLANCA or THE MALTESE FALCON. Take a look...


And so, unable to go to the police, Bob and Jill pursue leads that will help rescue their daughter and prevent the assassination. While this film doesn't move at a particularly quick pace, nor does it have any sort of musical soundtrack to accompany the story, their is, to its credit, a rather intense shootout between the bad guys and the police on the street (but again, to no music). In an interesting twist, it's Betty's mother (a crack shot with a rifle) who takes down the criminal bent on capturing her daughter on a rooftop. The bad guys are defeating and the child is reunited with her parents. Happy ending, indeed!

Although an enjoyable film, it's not my favorite of Hitchcock's British film (I still can't make up my mind if that honor goes to THE 39 STEPS or THE LADY VANISHES). What actually succeeds in holding my interest to this film is the considerable disappointment that I hold with the 1956 remake; in other words, the bad makes the good look better. The plot is more or less the same and James Stewart remains my favorite classic actor of all time. The real problem for me is Hitchcock's rather cheap shot at plugging Doris Day's singing abilities with her repeated performance of her song, "Kay Sa Ra Sa Ra". Seriously?? A Hitchcock with musical numbers in it?? This is not only unacceptable, in my opinion, it's downright tragic and completely ruins the film for me. Frankly, with the exception of Cecil B. Demille and his 1956 version of his own THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, I've never really understood the concept of directors remaking their own films. Really, what's the point? Move on, I say! The original film of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH also has that exciting climactic shootout I mentioned, which brings the excitement of the plot full circle.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Jill Lawrence: "Ah, my love!"
Clive: "Ah, my darling!"
Bob Lawrence: "My lunch!"

Thursday, October 17, 2013

MANHUNTER



(August 1986, U.S.)

One night in August 1986, after having given my movie time and efforts to mega-blockbusters like ALIENS, THE FLY and TOP GUN, I decided to go see a movie that I knew absolutely nothing about with no prior knowledge of story, concept or stars. The result was Michael Mann's MANHUNTER, and in a way, my perception of big screen crime thrillers hasn't been the same since. During that summer, I was also in the process of attempting to write my first novel, also a crime thriller, and had reached a point where writer's block was getting the better of me. Then I went to see MANHUNTER and something inside of me clicked and within a couple of months, I'd finished the first draft of what would, indeed, go on to become my first novel. Many years later when I reached full adulthood (whatever the hell THAT is!), I realized that what I'd written was a completely amateurish (not that I consider myself a pro now!) piece of shit! No, really - this thing I wrote during my college youth is so bad that I refuse to even show it to my wife! In fact, the only evidence left that the thing was ever written is the one original hard copy that I've never been quite able to bring myself to throw away!

(but I've digressed long enough)

I can't help but wonder if the last twenty years of moviegoers raised on the over-exploitations of Dr. Hannibal Lecter (spelled LECKTOR in this film - don't ask me why) would have even heard of MANHUNTER otherwise? Yes, it's the first thriller (and the best) written by author Thomas Harris' novel RED DRAGON to feature the notorious flesh-eating psychiatrist, but the character in this story is somewhat minor. This film focuses almost entirely on FBI criminal profiler Will Graham who's brought out of retirement to help catch a serial murderer who slaughters entire families in their homes. Graham explores the evidence by also attempting to get deep into the mind of the killer and his potential motives and fantasies. As we follow along, we also listen to the profiling process as Graham speaks his thoughts and words into a microcassette recorder and expresses himself quite vocally as he watches video tapes of the victims before their unfortunate demise. Graham is an emotional man who not only feels for the victims he's never known, but is often overcome with anger and rage when realizing just how and why the killer operates the way he does. A contributing factor to Graham's psyche is the fact that he'd allowed the twisted thoughts of Hannibal Lecktor to remain in his head, even after being responsible for finally capturing the mad doctor.

As Graham continues to desperately try and figure out a connection between the murdered families, he soon realizes that he killer must have somehow seen their home movies before targeting them. This is a point that's actually quite frightening to consider because it turns out the killer Francis Dollarhyde (played by Tom Noonan) is an employee at a photo processing lab. Dollarhyde has been casing the victims' homes through home movies, enabling him to prepare for the break-ins in extreme detail. Most viewers may be willing to simply dismiss this fact as trivial or no more than an interesting twist in the process to catch a killer. But consider for a moment the idea that there are total strangers out there that we willingly invite into our private world every time we put in that order for hard copy photographs. Certain film makers in Hollywood recognized this chilling concept and gave us the Robin Williams film ONE HOUR PHOTO (2002), but that's a blog for another time.

Now let's talk about the infamous characgter of Dr. Hannibal Lecter for a moment. Yes, no one can deny that Anthony Hopkins is responsible for making the character legendary. But was he necessarily better at it? I would challenge fans of Hopkins to consider the very subtle intensity that Brian Cox originally brought to the role. Does a gifted actor necessarily portray an insane man by such obvious gestures as widening his eyes, licking his lips and speaking of fava beans and a fine chianti? Cox has a deeper voice and never smiles once in the role. He judges Will Graham with very harsh eyes and dead-on honesty with an ability to get deep inside Graham's head without the overkill of being too devilishly nasty, as I felt Hopkins did. Being purely evil does not necessarily constitute acting like a complete loon. Sometimes the art of intense silence and a brooding facial expression can perfectly personify evil. So, there it is, people - it may be an unpopular opinion, but I've always preferred Brian Cox over Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter! And as Will Graham, William Peterson is absolutely perfect in the role! It's no wonder that he was chosen for his role on CSI. It's also no wonder that MANHUNTER can claim responsibility for inspiring many of the criminal and forensic science investigative TV shows that are all over the air today.

MANHUNTER is one of the most unique crime thrillers I've ever seen, for more reasons than just a chilling story and very fine acting. In a way, it's quite the MTV thriller of the 1980s due to a soundtrack that explicitly dominates the film. This is almost easy to appreciate considering that Michael Mann also created TV's MIAMI VICE. Before this film, I never would have imagined Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" could be used so effectively during the climactic moment when a serial killer is finally brought down. Visually, the film is also driven by strong color cues and the use of tints. Different tints are used to evoke different moods for the audience. A "romantic blue" is used during the intimate and tender scenes of Will Graham in bed with his wife, while a rather "subversive green" brings out a moment of Francis Dollarhyde's evil intents. It may be safe to suggest that the elements of music and color, indeed, attempt to depict MANHUNTER as art. It's something to consider, anyway.

Now let me get back to the first time I saw this film on screen back in 1986. I loved it immediately, but then again, I've often had an immediate appreciation for films that haven't been well received at the time of their theatrical release and then go on to be so-called cult classics (ORCA: THE KILLER WHALE, BLADE RUNNER and DUNE, just to name some examples. When I returned to college less than a month after seeing this film, I learned that a very good friend of mine at the time whom I shall call INGRID (because that's really her name) had also seen it, too, over the summer. In fact, she was probably the only other person I knew in my life who had seen MANHUNTER (let's face it - this was not a well known film before SILENCE OF THE LAMBS!). Anyway, she was the only person I could have any deep discussions about this film with. When it was released on VHS for the first time, I think we even watched it together. Oh yeah, did I mention that I had the most enormous crush on this girl, too?? Well, all these years later, that's neither here nor there. In fact, other than a brief look at her Facebook profile a few years ago, I have no idea what's become of this woman (nor do I really give a shit!). So it's to Ingrid that I dedicate this post. Thanks for the memories of past friendship, Ingrid! Thanks for that night we made out when you came back to the dorm late at night drunk off your ass! Thanks for being the only person I could discuss and appreciate MANHUNTER with before Anthony Hopkins brought Thomas Harris' stories into a whole new world. And thanks for being nice enough (or stupid enough) to tell me that you actually liked that piece of shit novel I was writing during those college years! Thanks, Ingrid!

Oh, and just a final quick word about the 2002 remake known as RED DRAGON. Most audiences and critics preferred it over it's predecessor, but what the fuck do they know?? For me, it was like watching an inferior school play of something that was considerably superior sixteen years prior. Stop fixing what ain't broke, Hollywood!!!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Will Graham: "This started from an abused kid, a battered infant. My heart bleeds for him, as a child. Someone took a kid and manufactured a monster. At the same time, as an adult, he's irredeemable. He butchers whole families to pursue trivial fantasies. As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks!"

Sunday, October 13, 2013

MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY



(August 1993, U.S.)

The prospect of Woody Allen teaming up with Diane Keaton again for the first time since MANHATTAN (though she did have a small singing cameo in RADIO DAYS) must have looked very financially promising to TriStar Pictures because without doing any serious research into it, it's the only Woody Allen film to be released during the summer blockbuster season, as far as I'm aware. For this Woody Allen fan, it was a return to the "mother's milk" of on-screen Woody Allen film chemistry because in my opinion, Woody never worked better with any co-star than Diane Keaton! It was also the return of writer Marshall Brickman, the other half of Woody Allen that had made previous films like SLEEPER (1973), ANNIE HALL (1977) and MANHATTAN (1979) so successful. On screen, Allen and Keaton have always been made for each other and in MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY, they still strike wonderful sparks of ditziness.

Allen and Keaton Manhattan married couple Larry and Carol who meet their next-door neighbors Paul and Lilian House (yes, I said HOUSE) for the first time after returning home from a Ranger hockey game at Madison Square Garden. Their encounter starts off pleasantly enough when they join them for coffee and conversation, but things turn the very next day when they learn that Lilian has died from an apparent heart attack. As in many mysteries, suspicions begin when Carol catches Paul in a lie when she discovers an earn filled with cremated ashes in his kitchen after he claimed his wife had been buried. Now although it may not seem all that deliberate, Woody begins to dive into the realm of Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW (1954) whereas one neighbor suspects another neighbor of foul play and the one closest to the suspicious one just cannot agree or conceive of the same act. Carol suspicions continue to mount and Larry continues to downplay or disregard the entire idea of murder in that infamous Woody Allen style of nervous, paranoid and neurotic behavior. Marital jealousy also develops when Carol's best friend Ted (played by Alan Alda) not only supports her suspicious theories of murder, but also tries to help her solve the ultimate mystery. Larry, of course, suspects that Ted is attracted to his wife, which he's not wrong about. Larry, on the other hand, is getting closer to one of his clients, author Marcia Fox (played by Angelica Houston). She's not only very attractive and highly sexual, but also very intelligent and very keen on trying to catch a potential murderer herself; hence the jealousy on Carol's side.

So by a certain point in the film, all four key members are working together to try and trap Paul into falling victim to his own guilt. They have no proof, mind you, so they can only rely on some very strategic bluffing and some carefully constructed tape recordings. One scene in particular, is very reminiscent of some great early classic Woody Allen comedy of the 1970s when the group's plan with the telephone and the tape recordings starts to go wrong and Larry is desperately and very sloppily trying to put the tape ribbon back together again. Watch him go at it and tell me you don't start having these great memories of him in SLEEPER or LOVE AND DEATH. It's classic, it's funny and you wish you could see more of it on screen! By the time the film climaxes, the murdering neighbor is caught (and killed) and the ultimate plot behind his crime is revealed to the audience (don't worry...I won't spoil it for you now), all to the backdrop of Orson Welles' film noir classic, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947). As you watch this little bit of screen farfetchedness, you can't help but take Larry's thought on it to heart in which he states that he's never say that life doesn't imitate art again. Here, though, it's life and art Woody Allen style!

By the time MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY was released, the world and the press was still reeling from the crazed family scandal between Woody Allen, Mia Farrow and Soon Yi-Previn. Fans were faced with having to simply forget their personal woes over the man and his immoral actions in life and embrace the art as it was and give it its fair shot. The film may certainly come off as no more than a dated detective story, but it manages to achieve a rather gentle, nostalgic grace and a hint of un-self-conscious wisdom in its story and performance. One could also claim that Allen and Keaton are essentially playing ANNIE HALL's characters of Alvy Singer and Annie Hall gone middle-aged many years later. Well, even if such a claim is true, in my opinion, it's still an on-screen chemistry that's absolutely priceless, no matter what the interpretation. I only wish it hadn't ended with this film. Perhaps there's still hope for one more, as long as the two of them are alive and willing!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Larry Lipton (to his wife): "No, no, I forbid you, I forbid you to go! Is...I...I'm forbidding! Is that what you do when I forbid you? If...if that's what you...? I'm not gonna be forbidding you a lot, if you do..."