Saturday, March 30, 2013
(February 1941, U.S.)
For me, the great American screwball romantic comedy simply doesn't exist anymore...at least not on any reasonably intelligent level, it doesn't. Preston Sturges' THE LADY EVE doesn't just give us comedy, but gives us comedy with more than several plot twists attached to it. In just over ninety minutes of film, we watch a mismatched couple fall in love not once, not twice, but THREE times! And all along the way, our male protaganist just can't help but constantly trip all over himself.
Jean Harrington (played by Barbara Stanwyck) is a beautiful con artist who, along with her equally larcenous father, "Colonel" Harrington (played by Charles Coburn) are out to fleece very rich and very naive Charles Pike (played by Henry Fonda), the heir to the Pike Ale fortune, while on board a luxury ocean liner. Pike is a woman-shy snake expert just returning from a year-long expedition up the Amazon. Though surrounded by ladies desperate for his attention and his money, Charles is inexplicably putty in Jean's hands. And although Charles is intended to be a financial target, cliche dictates that Jean eventually realizes that she really loves Charles. That should be "happily ever after", yes? No. Upon realization of Jean really is, Charles terminates the relationship. Now it's onto Jean's revenge of "Phase 2" in which she assumes the completely new identity of Lady Eve Sidwich (without physically changing a thing) accompanied with an English accent and is reintroduced to Charles. Charles falls for it completely, the logic being that Eve looks so identical to Jean that they couldn't possibly be the same woman. In other words, it's so obvious that it couldn't possibly be...well, that obvious?? Love is followed by marriage which is inevitably followed by annulment when Charles learns that Eve has a notorious past involving other men (a story which is likely not true and only part of the ultimate plot). So having purposely failed Charles as Eve, Jean is now free to return to her identity as Jean again and collide with Charles for the second time ("Phase 3") on the same ocean liner so they may affirm their love for each other all over again (hence, the THIRD time!). This time it will work out and love will triumph for these two dopey people.
(did you get all that??)
For today's audience, THE LADY EVE is simple, light-hearted screwball comedy. Hard to believe, however, that back in the day the censors at the Hays Office initially rejected the script that was submitted to them, because of "the definite suggestion of a sex affair between your two leads" which lacked "compensating moral values" (whatever THOSE were supposed to be). One of these moments of suggestion that may have concerned the censors back then is a scene of Charles sitting on the floor while Jean seductively strokes his hair while verbally seducing him. Charles is clearly disoriented and filled head-over-heels with lustful thoughts of Jean and her actions (by today's standards, Charles would have a raging hard on!). Note carefully how the camera doesn't move off of these two characters the entire time, allowing the scene and the dialogue to be played out to its conclusion. In terms of a clear cinematic theme, it's very easy to pick out early in the film that it's of gender inversion. Stanwyck's Jean Harrington is clearly in total control of the situations for the majority of the film, until her unexpected genuine feelings get in the way of her previous, dubious intentions. Until she realizes that she really loves Charles, there is very little sense of the struggle between equals that typifies most romantic comedies. This may all sound a bit heavy-handed for a romantic comedy, but then again, sometimes romantic complexities can be funny in themselves. It's a thought, anyway.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Muggsy: "Positively the same dame!"
Friday, March 29, 2013
(January 1974, U.S.)
LADIES & GENTLEMEN: THE ROLLING STONES marks a new introduction to a particular genre of film in my collection; the rock and roll concert film. Mind you, I'm not talking about concerts released on VHS tapes, DVDs and Blue-Ray discs. I'm talking about theatrical motion pictures that depicted specific rock bands at a particular moment in their musical careers, relased during a time before videotapes and discs, when the only way you could experience your favorite rock band if you missed the concert tour was on film. As for the legendary band the Rolling Stones, if you look it up, you'll find they've been documented on film numerous times by some very high profile directors that include Jean-Luc Godard, Hal Ashby and Martin Scorsese.
The film is taken from two prime Rolling Stones concerts during their 1972 North American tour in support of their "Exile On Main Street" album, featuring Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood (the last of the four Stones today), Bill Wyman, Mick Taylor and backup musicians on the horns. Until the lights come up near the end, we see the Stones against a black background during the entire show. The camera stays mostly on Mick, though Keith is on screen for his duets with Mick and for some of his awesome guitar work on the final two songs of the set. For the Stones fan, it's great hard rock and blues music from start to finish. It's raw music without much of the huge production backdrops and backup singers (though not entirely unappreciated in concert) that would accompany the later Stones concerts of the last two decades. Keith, in particular, hits very detailed chords without the sloppiness that would develop later in his career.
Perhaps I should be clear that as a lover of the Rolling Stones, this film is NOT what I'd recommend as the best way to view the band on film in concert. For that, I highly recommend the 1998 DVD of the "Bridges to Babylon" tour (my personal favorite!). What this concert film does (as does many others) is take the viewer back to a time when rock and roll was raw, edgy, dangerous and it simply ruled the fucking world! I've often told people that I wish I'd been born ten years earlier than I was so I could have experienced rock and roll of the 1970s when it was new and fresh, and not decades later when it was played on classic rock radio and when the bands were touring well into their middle-age and senior years (perhaps then, I would've discovered the great music of the Stones before 1981!). The film also takes viewer back to a time when the release of a concert film was often heavily promoted through the use of innovative and realistic theatrical sound products and inventions. In its initial U.S. theatrical run, the film was released in something called "Quadrasound" which was a variation of the four-track magnetic sound format. Instead of the usual right, center, left and single surround tracks, Quadrasound fed right and left screen speakers and right and left (split surround) speakers, the objective being to transform the seats of the motion picture theater auditorium into the auditory phenomenon of something like a 10,000 seat rock and roll arena. That may be a difficult thing to visualize to the modern entertainment buff who owns all sorts of high-tech television bullshit in their own living room, but in 1974 it would have been considered a real big deal!
Watching the Rolling Stones on film, or in any concert, not only reaffirms my love for this legendary band of fifty years plus, but also increases my outright pity for today's youth that are being raised on musicians like Lady GaGa, Justin Timberlake and the huge assortment of pubescent kiddie singers and dancers spawning from the Disney Channel! These poor kids may never know the true experience of popular music when great albums like "Sticky Fingers", "Exile on Main Street" and "Some Girls" were being released. Kids, if you're reading this, take my advice and give your parent's record (that's right, I said RECORD) collection a chance! It's much better than the shit you're listening to now!
Favorite songs performed (and two of my favorite Rolling Stones songs in general): "Bitch" and "Happy".
Saturday, March 23, 2013
(September 1997, U.S.)
Curtis Hanson's film of L.A. CONFIDENTIAL was not the first time Hollywood had attempted a modern-day return to classic neo-noir in cinema. At least two previous attempts, DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS (1995) and MULLHOLLAND FALLS (1996) had failed to gain any recognition with the public and with the box office. Hanson's project was quite risky, at best, because it was not only based on an original novel by James Ellroy that was considered difficult to translate to film, but it also starred virtual unknowns (Kim Basinger and Danny DeVito being the exceptions) at the time. It not only worked perfectly, but it was (and still is!) one of the ten best films of the 1990s, in my opinion.
Set against the backdrop of Los Angeles in the year 1953, three LAPD officers become caught up in corruption, sex and murder following a multiple homicide at the Nite Owl coffee shop. Their story expands to encompass organized crime, political corruption, narcotics, pornography, prostitution, tabloid journalism and institutional racism. You see? Turns out the 1950s weren't as innocent as "the Beaver" lead us to believe! Again, unknowns at the time, Russell Crowe as Officer Wendell "Bud" White, Guy Pearce as Sergeant Ed Exley and Kevin Spacey as Sergeant Jack Vincennes are absolutely nothing short of miraculous in their roles and their character development as men you actually care about. With virtually nothing in common at first, the crimes and the cases of the film slowly draw them into each other as each one of their professional roles as cops slowly merge with each other. In their own way, each one of them is very corrupt, and yet the three of them never fail to remember the reason they became cops was to ultimately serve and protect. Bud White, being the most brutal and vicious in his methods of law enforcement is also a man who clearly has the biggest heart. It shows not only in his protective tendencies toward battered women, but also in the rather simple and innocent love he feels for Lynn Bracken (played by Kim Basinger), a Veronica Lake look-alike prostitute with ties to the case he and Ed Exley are independently investigating. Love is a dangerous game, though, when it's mixed up with prostitution, pornography and murder. And speaking of murder...well, what can I say? There's plenty of it to go around in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. By the time the film is over, just about every secondary character is dead. But being this is a police story at heart, cliche ultimately dictates that the good guys will win in the end and love will triumph. They do.
For a traditional crime film, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL unusually deals with the psychology of the main characters. While containing all the elements of traditional police action, it's brought to the screen in a more sharply clipped style and provides an arena for the personalities to grab hold of the viewer's interest. But aside from the actors themselves, the nostalgic city of Los Angeles shines as a big star itself. Just like Roman Polanski's depiction of 1930's Los Angeles in CHINATOWN (1974), the atmosphere and closely-detailed production design are a truly rich element where the strands of narrative form are obvious to those who can recognize the nostalga of classic film noir...except this time it's in color. It's also very safe to say that the film is not necessarily an easy one to follow along the way. As the viewer, you're asked to pay strict attention to the double-crossing intricacies of the plot. However, the reward for your two hours plus work is not only the dark and dirty fun you experience, but also the satisfaction of having been made a part of it all, particularly when you take some time afterwards to realize just how it all comes together in the end. Then you watch it again, and again, and again...and that, my friends, is where the real love for L.A. CONFIDENTIAL takes over and pays off.
Now here's a story for you. I went to see L.A. CONFIDENTIAL when it opened in 1997 at a small neighborhood movie theater in Southampton, New York. I went with an old female acquaintance. While we were sitting in the theater, who do we happen to see walk in but legendary actor Roy Scheider and his wife! Now get this - the girl I'm with just happens to tell me that many years prior, she had been nanny to Roy Scheider's kids when he was living in Los Angeles during the shooting of his television series SEA QUEST. Well, not being one who would waste coincidental information like THAT, I begged her to introduce me to him when the movie was over. She did. We had a short, but pleasant conversation outside the theater. In one particular moment that I'll never forget, I told Mr. Scheider that I was an architect and he seemed genuinely impressed. Holy shit! I'm standing here talking with the star of THE FRENCH CONNECTION and JAWS and he's impressed with ME?? What can I say? That's one of life's very rare celebrity moments that you never forget. And no, I did NOT say, "You're gonna need a bigger boat!" to him! I'm not that stupid! So thanks so much, Roy. You were truly one of the greats! Rest in peace.
(Oh, and my thanks to Kim Basinger and her cleavage for making a real great movie poster!)
And so, let me just conclude that while I have nothing but love and respect for James Cameron's TITANIC, it's L.A. CONFIDENTIAL that should have won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1997, in my humble and authoritative opinion!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Ed Exley: "A hooker cut to look like Lana Turner is still a hooker! She just looks like Lana Turner!"
Jack Vincennes: "She IS Lana Turner."
Jack: "She IS Lana Turner."
Monday, March 18, 2013
(December 1979, U.S.)
In the history of motion pictures...wait, let me rephrase that...in MY history of motion pictures, there were two that were so poorly timed in conjunction with the events of my own life, that the simple words of "bad coincidence" do not do it any real justice. The first was KRAMER VS. KRAMER in 1979. The second would not occur for another ten years and we won't be discussing that one until we reach the letter 'W' of my film collection. That's a very long way off.
So, in December 1979, not only was KRAMER VS. KRAMER, a story of a married couple's (Ted and Joanna Kramer, played by Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep) divorce and its impact on everyone involved, including the couple's young son Billy (played by Justin Henry), released in theaters, but personal events occurred that lead to my own parents splitting up for the second (yes, I said SECOND!) time! Enter the new year of 1980...a lot of bitterness and shouting between my parents and the first weekend my younger brother and I spend with my father finally arrives and we decide to go to the movies. Guess what we see?? You got it! KRAMER VS. KRAMER! We're we simply eager to engage ourselves with the top Oscar buzz in cinema of the time, or were we sado-masochistic gluttons for our own punishment?? Looking back on it more than thirty-three years later, I'd go with the latter, but at the time, I was a kid who simply wanted to go to the movies...any movie...whenever possible! Despite our family events, we loved the movie. We even stayed for it a second time. What'd I tell you? Gluttons for punishment!
Ted Kramer is a husband and father solely focussed on his own life and career. I suppose many marriages are like that, husband or wife. It's only when Joanna walks out on him without taking their son that he's suddenly forced to deal with Billy not just a son-by-name, but a child-in-need who must rely on his father as not only a supporter, but as a trusted friend. Ted Kramer's character is one of gradual change that's very clear as his relationship with his little boy blossoms into something very special. As a negative result, though, his work suffers and he's inevitably fired from his job just as he's about to go to court to fight for custody of his son. In a rather impressive and even miraculous turn of events, Ted is able to land another job in just twenty-four hours. It's a sad step down in his career in not only salary, but in reputation and privilege and one he's more than glad to accept if it means a chance that he'll get to keep his son. While the film clearly reflects the era of divorce in the 1970's, it also reflects the law's decision that traditionally tends to side with the mother in these situations. At the same time, the film reflects a cultural shift which occurred during the '70s, when ideas about motherhood and fatherhood were slowly changing.
KRAMER VS. KRAMER was widely praised for the way in which it gave equal weight and importance to both Joanna and Ted's points of view. The characters involved don't just talk to each other, but rather they reveal issues about themselves and can sometimes be seen in the act of learning about their own personal motives. It's a truly touching film that displays personalities changing and tough, life-changing decisions being made, particularly when Joanna decides not to take Billy with her at the end even after she's won the custody battle. It's a film I've seen many times through out my childhood and adult life. However, for the purpose of writing this blog with a fresh cinematic perspective, I watched it for the first time since becoming a father seven years ago. That makes my son the same age as Billy in the film. I can only attest that watching this film as the daddy of a little boy is far more emotionally gut-wrenching than watching it under any other circumstances. What father could not get choked up when Ted and Billy embrace each other in the kitchen while cooking french toast on the morning they're to separate and we hear Billy's soft cries of pain while Ted closes his eyes, feeling the same pain? Look at it and try to feel it's emotion...
This is, by far, one of Dustin Hoffman's greatest film achievements, right up there with THE GRADUATE (1967) and TOOTSIE (1982). It's also a true testament to the love and relationship between father and son. Every time I think I can't possibly love my own son any more than I do, I think of a meaningful film like KRAMER VS. KRAMER and I remind myself that I love him even more than I thought I ever could. So that being the case, I dedicate this post to my son Sam. Someday I hope he'll read this and know just where my heart is. I love you, buddy!
KRAMER VS. KRAMER won the Oscar for best picture of 1979. As great a film as it is, I think I would have personally chosen APOCALYPSE NOW myself. Oh, well.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Margaret Phelps: "Ted, you don't seem to realize, we have a serious problem."
Ted Kramer: "Wrong, Margaret! Me! I got the problem! All you gotta do is go out the door, go downstairs and go back to bed!"
Margaret: "Ted, the fact is, Joanna is..."
Ted: "Look, the fact is that for the last six months, I've been spitting blood to get this agency one of the biggest accounts it's ever had, and at five o'clock this afternoon, we got the account! At eight o'clock, I'm walking home with the vice president who tells me I'm, I'm gonna be the next creative director of this apartment! I come through this door to share with my with wife what promises to be one of the five best days of my life and she looks at me cool as a cucumber, tells me she doesn't wanna live with me anymore! Can't you understand what she's done to me?"
Margaret: "Yeah. She loused up one of the five best days of your life."
Saturday, March 16, 2013
(August 1947, U.S.)
Looking back at this particular letter category of my blog, it would seem the letter 'K" consisted primarily of film noir, with KISS OF DEATH completing that group and KING KONG movies. Go figure.
This film is considered a significant example of the gritty black and white film noir genre, just as you'd expect it with crime in the streets, the bad guy who perhaps wants to be good, the cops who will either help him or nail him and the beautiful woman who loves him. As our hero, ex-convict Nick Bianco (played by Victor Mature) seems to act out the events of his life based on desperation. He steals because he's desperate to support his family. He turns states evidence (or "squeals", as the movie puts it) to be reunited with his two little girls. He takes matters into his own hands to destroy his enemies and maintain a somewhat normal life with his girls and the woman he loves. He doesn't want to be on the wrong side of the law, but like I said, desperation always seems to take over his life.
The film is also notable as a breakout role for Richard Widmark in his screen debut, though for the life of me, based on his particular nasty character of Tommy Udo, it's really a wonder that Widmark ever became a movie star, because in my opinion, though vicious and psychopathic as it may be, his acting is rather bad and overplayed. And that persistent maniacal laugh of his is enough to make you wanted to reach into the TV screen and kill him yourself. There is one particular sequence where Tommy pushes a wheelchair-bound old woman down a flight of stairs and kills her, which I can only imagine being a truly shocking, even controversial moment back in 1947. By today's standards, of course, that's practically PG material. Apparantly, Widmark was a big fan of BATMAN and based much of his lunacy on the character of the Joker. Like I said, it seemed like an over-the-top performance to me, but it was evidently noteworthy enough to movie fans and critics to launch him into a successful career that spanned decades.
The story of the reformed career criminal forced back into the criminal world seems to ring particularly true in KISS OF DEATH and is also filmed in a semi-documentary style with the use of authentic location shots in New York City to make it seem more realistic. In a level of consistency that I always tend to maintain whenever I'm discussing film noir, I always fall back on the word cliche, and not without reason. Film noir is all about cliche story elements and cinematic backgrounds, and that's perhaps just the way we want it. We also want the happy ending that will bring our hero, criminal or not, back together with the woman (or "dame") he loves so they may enjoy a happy, peaceful life together. That's just SO film noir...and I love it!
I'll add, finally, that I saw the 1995 remake of KISS OF DEATH when it was released in theaters before I'd ever seen the original classic. Not bad, but not great, either. Nicholas Cage as the psychotic criminal in place of Richard Widmark and David Caruso as the reformed criminal were both noteworty enough performances. However, it didn't stand out as a superior enough remake that would find its way into my film collection.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Nettie (narration): "Nick Bianco hadn't worked for a year. He had a record...a prison record. They say it shouldn't count against you but when Nick tried to get a job the same thing always happened: "Very sorry." No prejudice, of course, but no job either. So this is how Nick went Christmas shopping for his kids..."
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
(September 1990, U.S.)
During the Fall of 1990 (Oh man, what a totally HORRIBLE year for me!), it's a wonder that Abel Ferrara's KING OF NEW YORK even got noticed by moviegoers. It was given a limited theatrical release and it was heavily overshadowed by two other high profile gangster movies, Martin Scorsese's GOODFELLAS and Francis Ford Coppola's THE GODFATHER-PART III. I saw those two big movies on screen, of course, but living so close to New York City at the time afforded me the opportunity to frequent some of the smaller, more independent films whenever the chance arose. I also knew that any gangster movie that starred the great Chistopher Walken would very likely not disappoint. I was right. Hell, I even stayed in the theater to watch it a second time!
The title of the film alone pretty much spells out what you're going to be seeing. As drug lord Frank White, Christopher Walken plays him exactly like...well, Christopher Walken! White is quirky, eccentric, violent in nature, a man with a generously-soft side (for those who truly need it) and even loves to show off on the dance floor. He's exactly the kind of guy you'd expect to brandish a gun under his belt when confronted by a gang of muggers on the subway. Look at the movie poster and you can see he's also just the kind of man who can look out of his Plaza Hotel window at the nightime city lights and perhaps think to himself, "This city is mine!" Sounds just like Walken, yes? His crew, mostly African-American men, are criminals of a different breed in that they are adapt to the ways of the street and its emminent dangers. They live their lives large, like early rap stars of the 1990s, and bloody gun violence is nothing they're afraid of. In their world, one gets a perfectly good sense of just how seedy and violent New York City was during the last decade of the 20th Century before Mayor Rudy Giuliani stepped in and cleaned it all up (I wish he'd left the 42nd Street grindhouses alone, though). It was enough for someone like myself, who was still living in Brooklyn at the time, to still fear the city streets once the sun went down.
As with any crime thriller, the flip side of the criminal coin is always the cops. These men of the law that include worthwhile actors as Wesley Snipes and David Caruso are street protectors with a genuine, bloody taste to get rid of Frank White, even if means stepping above the law by attempting to assassinate him disguised as a rival street gang. Good, however, does not always triumph over evil, even in the movies. In a war that threatens to tear up the city with more ear-piercing gunfire than I've likely ever seen on screen, the good guys and the bad guys are systematically eliminated by each other until there is nothing left but Frank White in a taxicab, struggling to live through the night. Even if movie cliche were not invoked here with Frank dying in the end, what would really be left for his life and his ambitions were he to survive? The drug war in KING OF NEW YORK claims everybody and eveything in its path. Is that realistic? Is that justice? Perhaps...perhaps not. It is surely great entertainment of a fast-paced violent nature, though. What else would you expect from a gangster film (I mean, a GOOD, slightly artistic gangster film)?
Getting back to the criminal character for a moment, I call specific attention to Lawrence Fishburne (called Larry in this film) as Jimmy Jumps, an absolute psychopath killer here. The sequence that always grabs my attention is the scene in the neighborhood eatery when he generously gives money to an old woman and some small children so they can play video games. This is man who places no value on human life, yet he choses a moment to express generousity and kindness to strangers. Does this psychopath actually have a soft heart buried somewhere very deep inside him? Not at all. We must remember that Frank White is a killer who choses moments to give generously to those in need and Jimmy is, at the absolute minimum, a loyal employee and friend of Frank, so he's very likely only obeying the principles of his employer. Life can be strange that way.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Frank White: "When the D.A's office investigated the sudden death of Arty Clay, they found that he left a $13 million estate. How do you explain that? Then there's Larry Wong, who owned half of Chinatown when he passed away. Larry used to rent his tenements to Asian refuges, his own people, for $800 a month to share a single toilet on the same floor. How 'bout King Tito? He had thirteen-year-old girls hooking for him on the street. Those guys are dead because I don't want to make money that way. Emil Zappa, the Mata brothers, they're dead because they were running this city into the ground.
Roy Bishop: "You expected to get away with killing all these people?"
Frank: "I spent half my life in prison. I never got away with anything, and I never killed anybody that didn't deserve it."
Sunday, March 10, 2013
(February 1983, U.S.)
Martin Scorsese may be one of the most unpredictable and versatile filmmakers in existence today; you simply just never know what he's going to give you in between the material you come to expect from him. By 1983, with the Scorsese-DeNiro partnership firmly in place, film like MEAN STREETS (1973), TAXI DRIVER (1976) and RAGING BULL gave audiences a more than general idea of what these two could do together. But then, on the other hand, films like NEW YORK, NEW YORK (1977) and THE KING OF COMEDY would take you in a different direction, and yet, at the same time nothing would change. Let me try to explain in my own way...
If there's one constant in all of the Scorsese-DeNiro films, it's the psychological and rather creepy uncertainty that DeNiro's character persistently brings to the screen. Be it Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta, you simply never know what's going to provoke his character's persona and what the outcome (perhaps violent) may be. In this film which tells of celebrity worship and the American media culture, it's very clear that the ideas behind them are hanging by a very loose thread, even during a time before the internet and YouTube. Rupert Pupkin (played by De Niro), a stage-door autograph hound, is an aspiring stand-up comedian whose ambition far exceeds his paltry talent. After meeting his television hero Jerry Langford (played by Jerry Lewis), a successful comedian and talk show host, Rupert believes his big show business break has finally come to him. He attempts to get a place on the show, but is continually rebuffed by Langford's staff and, finally, by Langford himself. Along the way, Rupert indulges in elaborate and obsessive fantasies where he and Langford are colleagues and close friends. He even takes a date to Langford's summer home, uninvited, trying to impress her. The negative actions and rejections by Jerry are traditionally typical in the world of show business, I'm sure, but when you're dealing with a less-than-completely-stable character that Robert DeNiro is so gifted at portraying, you just don't know how Rupert will react or what he'll do to get what he wants (seriously, would YOU want to be the one to tell Robert DeNiro "no thank you" and ask him to leave the building??). It's also important to realize that Rupert is ultimately the "hero" of this film, and in the end, no matter how it might happen, we want him to succeed at his comedic dream. It's also a natural instinct or perhaps even a guilty pleasure to watch a snotty, stuck-up, inhuman celebrity like Jerry Langford get what's coming to him.
So, the question still remains - how do you finally get your big break when no one in the business will listen to you? Simple...you kidnap the big man himself (Jerry), bind him up with a hilariously-huge amount of duct tape, force your way onto the show with your act and then let the pieces fall where they may. Along the way, he also gets the help of fellow stalker and Langford-lover, Masha (played by the ever-annoying Sandra Bernhard). By the time the two of them have succeeded in their plan with Jerry, Rupert has made himself and his comedy routinge well known on late night television. Despite arrest and jail time, he's come out of it with a successful book and the notoriety he's always wanted.
Now, here's the real unexpected kick of the film. Having watched Rupert's rather unpredictable, unstable and over-the-top behavior throughout the film, it starts to become a predicted foregone conclusion that his comedy routine which he's become quite overconfident with, will very likely be terrible in the end, revealing to the audience that all we've witnessed was a complete waste of time and just the ramblings of a deluded nutcase. But guess what? He's actually good! Yes, it turns out that Rupert Pupkin and his less-than-conventional attitudes and actions are going to pay off in the end because the monologue that he delivers on television is funny...and it's funny with that extra added physical style of Robert DeNiro whick is always just a little thicker and a little more intruiging than the average man...and it's also got that great Scorsese flare that perfectly completes the cinematic team of Scorsese and DeNiro. I can only hope that CASINO (1995) was not the last time we'll see of them together.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Rupert Pupkin: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Let me introduce myself. My name is Rupert Pupkin. I was born in Clifton, New Jersey...which was not at that time a federal offense. Is there anyone here from Clifton? Oh, good, we can all relax now. I'd like to begin by saying...my parents were too poor to afford me a childhood. But the fact is that no one is allowed to be too poor in Clifton. Once you fall below a certain level, they exile you to Passaic. My parents did put the first two down payments on my childhood. Don't get me wrong, but they did also return me to the hospital as defective. But, like everyone else I grew up in large part thanks to my mother. If she were only here today, I'd say, "Hey, ma, what are you doing here? You've been dead for nine years!" But seriously, you should've seen my mother. She was wonderful. Blonde, beautiful, intelligent, alcoholic. We used to drink milk together after school. Mine was homogenized, hers was loaded. Once they picked her up for speeding. They clocked her doing fifty-five. All right, but in our garage? And when they tested her, they found out that her alcohol had two percent blood. Ah, but we used to joke together, mom and me...until the tears would stroll down her face... and she would throw up! Yeah, and who would clean it up? Not dad. He was too busy down at O'Grady's throwing up on his own. Yeah. In fact, until I was sixteen I thought throwing up was a sign of maturity. While the other kids were off in the woods sneaking cigarettes, I was hiding behind the house with my fingers down my throat. The only problem was I never got anywhere. Until one day my father caught me. Just as he was giving me a final kick in the stomach for luck, I managed to heave all over his new shoes! "That's it", I thought. "I've made it. I'm finally a man!" But as it turned out, I was wrong. That was the only attention my father ever gave me. Yeah, he was usually too busy out in the park playing ball with my sister Rose. But today, I must say thanks to those many hours of practice my sister Rose has grown into a fine man. Me, I wasn't especially interested in athletics. The only exercise I ever got was when the other kids picked on me. Yeah, they used to beat me up once a week, usually Tuesday. And after a while the school worked it into the curriculum. And if you knocked me out, you got extra credit. There was this one kid, poor kid, he was afraid of me. I used to tell him, "Hit me, hit me. What's the matter with you? Don't you want to graduate?" Hey, I was the youngest kid in the history of the school to graduate in traction. But, you know, my only real interest right from the beginning, was show business. Even as a young man, I began at the very top collecting autographs. Now, a lot of you are probably wondering, why Jerry isn't with us tonight. Well, I'll tell you. The fact is he's tied up. I'm the one who tied him. Well, I know you think I'm joking, but, believe me, that's the only way I could break into show business...by hijacking Jerry Langford. Right now, Jerry is strapped to a chair somewhere in the middle of the city. Go ahead, laugh. Thank you. I appreciate it. But the fact is, I'm here. Now, tomorrow you'll know I wasn't kidding, and you'll think I was crazy. But, look, I figure it this way. Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime! Thank you. Thank you."
Told you it was funny!
Wednesday, March 6, 2013
June 1963, U.S.)
Do you know what a guilty pleasure is? You probably do. For the record, Wikipedia defines GUILTY PLEASURE as something one enjoys and considers pleasurable despite feeling guilt for enjoying it. The "guilt" involved is sometimes simply fear of others discovering one's lowbrow or otherwise embarrassing tastes, such as campy styles of entertainment. That being defined, what's your guilty pleasure? Is it reality TV shows? Is it Justin Bieber music? Is it Lindsay Lohan movies? Well, if you answered YES to any of those three examples, then I have nothing but absolute pity for you (but that's besides the point right now)!! In the world of movies, you've probably also heard the expression, "It's so bad, it's good!" For some, there are films that clearly define motion picture silliness, campiness, stupidity and mediocrity that somewhere along the way they become these rather bizzare cult classics that are enjoyed by many over and over again. One of the most popular examples I can think of (though not on my own film list) is the 1980 film FLASH GORDON. I saw it upon release when I was a kid. It sucked then and it still sucks now, though I do love the title song by Queen during the opening credits.
So, for my own tastes, it's become clear that the Japanese monster movie (with traditional poorly-dubbed English) KING KONG VS. GODZILLA is my personal guilty pleasure. Is it really that bad? Well, one look at the incredibly cheap King Kong suit will immediately tell you that this was NOT a high budget film...
(poor Merian C. Cooper must have shit several bricks when he saw what his famous creation has turned into!)
So clearly budget is out the window, dialogue is out the window and performance is out the window. What's left but two things, in my opinion. First, the concept itself. Bringing together the two mightiest of monster to fight each other is exciting in itself and surprisingly, the fight sequences in this film are not as bad as you'd expect. Because we're basically talking about grown humans inside monster suits, the physical contact has the potential to be extreme in some sequences. There are also more than several moments of photography and cinematography, particularly involving the city of Tokyo (where else?) and Mt. Fuji that don't disappoint (too much). The film takes some very silly liberties, though, such as a red berry juice causing a sleep effect on Kong, as well as lightning bolts giving the big ape unusual strength...just when he needs it. This film is perhaps the only "Godzilla Vs" movie where the giant, fire-breathing lizard actually loses his big battle against his enemy. Just goes to show you that in the end, no one is mightier than the great King Kong!
Oh yeah, so I mentioned there were TWO things to make this film worthwhile for me. The second is pure, unaltered childhood memories. You'll recall in my post for the original 1933 KING KONG, I described a two day annual film festival of monster movies shown every Thanksgiving on an east coast tri-state area local TV station. Thursday was ape day and Friday was Godzilla day! KING KONG VS. GODZILLA was a popualar favorite of this festival and kids of all ages during this era of the 1970s would never miss their chance to see the great monsters fight. When you're a kid, you almost never recognize what makes a movie good or bad, particularly when it involves monsters. So there you have it...what was once great fun for me as a kid is now a shameful guilty pleasure for me as an adult. And yes, I still watch it every year at Thanksgving time (sue me!)! Fact it, this film is, I believe, the most popular of all the Japanese Godzilla films and it's the only one that I own after the original black and white debut film with Raymond Burr.
Not that I'm in the habit of condoning such actions by modern day Hollywood, but I'm really quite surprised that none of the big studios have come up with some collosal, over-budgeted, digital 3D remake of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA. Such a battle would likely take place in New York City...because Hollywood simply cannot resist repeatedly destroying New York City! Apparently, that poor city didn't suffer enough on 9-11!
Favorite line or dialogue:
United Nations Reporter Eric Carter: "Godzilla has disappeared without a trace. As for King Kong, our international communications satellite is following him. And strangely enough, we wish him luck on his long, long journey home."
Monday, March 4, 2013
(December 1976, U.S.)
What was the one film you saw as a kid that may have changed your entire perspective and experience of going to the movies? Was there even such a film? Anyone in my age bracket (40s) whose childhood was part of the 1970s could very easily claim that JAWS (1975) or STAR WARS (1977) would fill that honorable position. And why not? I can't imagine any kid back then who wasn't affected by those films the first time they saw them on the big screen. But there was another film in between those two that took a very high honor and priority in terms of box office grosses and blockbuster thrills. And for this particular writer and film fan, it was an experience that ultimately changed the way he would experience the movies.
It started with an advance poster in December 1975 that promised something really, really big was coming, and it would arrive in just one year. All you had to do was wait. Take a look...
(that's funny - I don't remember the Twin Towers being constructed of so much continuous glass!)
Now we jump several months ahead to the Summer of 1976 when I was spending the better part of it with my dad and his girlfriend in New York City. In the newspapaers and in the magazines, the Hollywood buzz on the new film version of KING KONG was impossible to be missed. On telelvision, they spoke of thousands upon thousands of people showing up at the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center to try and be a part of the climactic moment of the film as an extra. Yes, folks, it was in the air - the new Dino DeLaurentiis remake of KING KONG was coming! When it was finally released that December, it was to be the first PG-rated film I would to see on the big screen at the age of nine years-old after having experienced nothing but Disney re-relases, wilderness family films and the first "Benji" film. Not exactly thrill-a-minute movies, yes? So there I am with my family sitting inside the Astor Theater in New York City (this was a really, huge screen!) seeing the great, legendary monster in all his colorful glory and roaring to a volume that could surely bring the house down. For the first time in my life, I was witnessing a motion picture that could easily classify itself as a blockbuster event film. Suddenly, the movies were not so innocent for me anymore. They were now bigger and more spectacualr. KING KONG was surely a rite of passage from family innocence and purity to a new world of thrills, danger and fear.
Not to say, of course, that bigger is necessarily better. Anyone with half a brain of appreciation for quality cinema would surely agree that the original 1933 version of KING KONG surpasses any remake. Remember, though, we're talking about a writer with very strong, detailed memories of his moviegoing childhood, so it's more than safe to say that the '76 remake of KING KONG hold a very specific and special place in my heart and thoughts. On the other hand, however, there are also sequences in the '76 KING KONG that I actually DO feel exceed the original black and white film in superiority. Here's what they are...
- To begin with, Jessica Lange as Dwan (what the fuck kind of a name is DWAN anyway??) is a far more interesting character to watch that Fay Wray's Ann Darrow; her strongest point being that she actually takes the time to talk to and and learns to trust the big ape, whereas Fay Wray does nothing but scream throughout the entire film. I realize it's that endless screaming that made her so damn famous for that role, but truth be told, it always kind of annoyed me after a while.
- Dwan's sacrifice and Kong's arrival afterwards. This entire sequence is far more epic in scope, choreography, cinematography and musical score. It's nothing short of dark, menacing and terrifying as you watch poor Dwan await the arrival of the great beast, apparantly so high on native drugs that she's barely aware of what's happening to her. Then the trees begin to rustle, the camera gets in real close to the ape's eyes and mouth, the musical score of John Barry gets louder and louder and we know the great monster is coming closer and closer!
- Kong's breaking through the great wall. Like the previous scene described, this, too, is shown at a great epic scale. Rather than simply try to push the big doors open as in the original version, Kong unleashes all of his anger and his roaring as he smashes the wall and doors, bit by bit, piece by piece until he's finally broken through and raises his arms in a loud, great victory. We don't get to see him destroy the village, but since that was done in such detail in 1933, perhaps a remake is best suited not to copy every sequence as it was previously done.
Now then, this KING KONG is hardly perfect. It's greatest flaw is surely the ape suit worn by Rick Baker which is undenyably cheap-looking by today's standards. But one needs to consider the fact that stop-motion animation had been played-to-death in the original KONG and computer generated imagery was still decades away. I believe, cheap monkey suit or not, the filmmakers did the best they could do with the technologies of the time and cheapness can often be easily compensated by good acting, fine photography and a killer musical score. Also, in terms of technological achievement...well, let's just say that where the 1933 KONG may have achieved great stop motion animation and the 2005 KONG may have achieved great CGI, the 1976 KONG is truly an impressive achievment in the use of hydraulics for the great ape's arms and legs. On the not-so-plus side, though, I've been known to have some very serious geographical issues with the entire New York City sequence. First of all, as best as I can make out, Kong crosses the East River into Manhattan somewhere near the Queensboro Bridge. When he's close to reaching the shore, however, the Twin Towers appear to be right in front of his point of vision (the towers were nowhere near the Queensboro Bridge!). Also, when Kong retrieves Dwan from the abandoned Manhattan bar, he appears to be headed straight for the towers. However, in a scene almost immediately following, it appears that Kong has mysteriously traveled UPTOWN before finally arriving at the towers when a National Guardsman declares that he's "coming down Fifth Avenue, almost at 42nd Street". Talk about your inexplicable detour!
This remake of KING KONG is perhaps the one film that truly glorifies the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center more than any other film in history. You can tell just by looking at the great movie poster. To watch it all again since the events of September 11, 2001 gives the towers whole new meaning for this film. They're more than just the great ape's climing destinations, but characters in themselves for the thrilling and bloody climax of Kong's demise. In the 1970s, it seem to make perfect sense that Kong would climb the World Trade Center tower rather than the Empire State Building all over again. They towers had just opened in 1973 and had been made world famous when French high wire acrobatic performer Philippe Petit walked between the towers on a tightrope in 1974. Yes, the timing seemed just perfect to feature the towers in the new KING KONG movie!
If you ever saw KING KONG when it made it's NBC television debut in 1978 and subsequent repeats that followed in the 1980s, then you'd know there was nearly forty minutes or so of extra footage not seen in theaters. Some of it was really good and expanded the film's story a good deal. To date, this material has yet to be released on any United States DVD or Blu-Ray disc. Fans of this lost footage are still waiting for Paramount Pictures to get their asses in gear!
Now then, take a look at this movie poster for a very badly-dubbed Japanese monster movie called GODZILLA VS. MEGALON...
You see what's depicted there?? Two monsters fighting to death, each of them standing on one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Now I ask you, if you were a nine year-old kid and saw this movie poster, wouldn't you be dying to see a movie that would promise a spectacular sequence like that?? Well, I found out later from seeing it on television that such an event was not to be. Clearly the American distributors of this film were simply cashing in on the popularity of KING KONG and the infamous poster of him on the towers. No such sequence takes place in the Godzilla film. It was the first time I learned the concept of movie poster fraud (damn them!!!)! But seriously...is that a real wicked movie poster, or what??
Finally, let me just say a few things about Peter Jackson's 2005 version of KING KONG right here and now because it's not included in my film collection. It was once, but not anymore. When I first saw LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING in 2001, during a sequence in which a large monster tries to kill our hobbit heroes, I remember thinking that if they were to make another remake of KING KONG, then Peter Jackson would be the perfect man for it. Lo and behold, four years later, my idea was right on the money! Like 1976, I looked forward to a new version of KONG with great, childlike anticipation. When it was released, I saw it twice and I loved it (for a while, anyway). After I bought the DVD and watched it again, something strange happened in that I seriously began to question the contents of this film. Although the 2005 KING KONG has some pretty awesome CGI sequences, particularly the final battle atop the Empire State Building, I couldn't help but ask this important question; what had Peter Jackson honestly achieved here other than to pay great homage to a great classic film of 1933 that clearly had great influence on his life and career as a filmmaker? The story, the characters, the settings, the time period, even a good portion of the dialogue - nothing has changed! Time period, in particular, is where I think KONG 2005 suffers the most. KONG 1976 clearly updates itself to a post-Vietnam, post Watergate era that had also seen its share of oil crisis. Would KONG 2005 not have been greatly improved were it part of a modern, post 9-11 world of New York City and its citizens who reside there? I say, most definitely YES (and quite frankly, having to sit through three hours of Jack Black is more than should be required of anyone!)! Of the 1976 version of KING KONG, Peter Jackson himself called it "just bloody awful" in an interview. Really, Mr. Jackson?? Do YOU think you could have done a better job way back in 1976?? I doubt it.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Jack Prescott: "Dammit, do we have a deal?"
Mayor of NYC: "Yes, Professor, we have a deal. Where is Kong headed?"
Jack: "There's one place in Manhattan that looks like a certain part of his native habitat. Let him though to it and you can trap him there. Let him climb to the top of the World Trade Center."
Saturday, March 2, 2013
(March 1933, U.S.)
Pay strict attention to the date of this post, people! It's important because I've spent the better part of the last two months timing my film viewings and postings just right so that I would be prepared to write these words to you on this very date. You see, it was exactly EIGHTY years ago on this very date that the immortal classic, the one and only KING KONG premiered at Radio City Music Hall and the RKO Roxy in New York City. Yes, the big guy is eighty years-old today! Needless to day, the film was a gigantic box office success, even during the worst part of the Great Depression when money for movies, even at a mere ten cents a ticket, was scarce. But the need for pure escapism was never more crucial than during that time in American history, so it's no wonder that movies flourished. Over the past eighty years, KING KONG, both the film and the character, have become one of the most, if not THE most iconic figure in the history of cinema.
This is one of those rare films that I hardly need describe to all those reading me now. This black and white monster/adventure film's story, it's photography, its effects and it's world famous climax atop the Empire State Building and Fay Wray's ongoing ear-piercing screams are legendary with all movie-loving generations who have seen it (or even just heard about it) and seen its remakes in 1976 and 2005. KING KONG is distinguished for its stop-motion animation by Willis O'Brien and its musical score by Max Steiner. These are all indisputable film facts. What interests me a great deal more, however, are the little facts and the personal stories and opinions that I can share with you now for this film.
Let's start with effects. Think of literally any monster, fantasy or science fiction film that you know and love for it's (so-called) ground-breaking special effects and I guarantee you, one way or another, the origins of those effect can be inevitably traced back to KING KONG. Never fully appreciated during his time, Willis O'Brien's inventive techniques of stop-motion was the birth of fantastic movie making that would ultimately inspire men like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. What still intuiges me, though, after all these decades is that the effects don't seem all too old, outdated or boring to watch. Today's younger generation raised on nothing but computer generated imagery (the poor little bastards don't know any better!) would likely disagree with me, but when you get right down to it, there is, in my opinion, a vast and significant difference between EFFECT and ACHIEVEMENT. A spectacular movie effect, by today's standards, is wonderous to watch, but honestly, where is the true achievement in something that is strictly being created with a keyboard and a monitor?? For true achievement, one has to think back to the year 1932 when the effects of KING KONG were being created, perfected and ultimately brought to the screen for a viewing public that had never seen the likes of such things before. As much as I love films like JURASSIC PARK, AVATAR and THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, none of those modern technical effects will ever impress or enthrall me as much as the technical achievements of the past like KING KONG. Does that make me old or outdated? Hardly. It simply means that I'm far more impressed with effects that are much harder and require a lot more work to achieve. Perhaps you've heard expressions that go something like, "They did it better back then" or "They don't make 'em like they used to". All true!
You see what I mean? Effect versus achievement!
As a film of the pre-code era, KING KONG also stands out as a film that (unfortunately) suffered a great deal of cutting and editing as a result of censorship rules of strict decency for the time. Each instance when the film was re-released in theaters throughout the decades since 1933, it was censored further, with several scenes being either trimmed or excised altogether. These scenes included:
- A Brontosaurus eating crewmen in the water, chasing one up a tree and eating him.
- Kong undressing Ann Darrow and sniffing his fingers.
- Kong biting and stepping on natives when he attacks the village.
- Kong biting a reporter in New York.
- Kong mistaking a sleeping woman for Ann Darrow and dropping her to her death after realizing his mistake.
Thankfully, though, those scenes were re-instituted back into the film long ago and can be enjoyed as they were supposed to be. But perhaps the most famous scene to be cut from the theatrical release version is the infamous "Spider Pit" sequence, following the scene where Kong shakes his human pursuers off the log bridge and the men fall into the ravine below. In that deleted sequence, the men survive the fall, only to be set upon and devoured alive by giant spiders and other giant-sized vermin. The scene was originally included in the first test screening, but was deleted right afterwards. On the original 2-disc DVD set of KING KONG, Peter Jackson attempts to pay homage to this be re-creating a black and white sequence to honor the original visions of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. I'll spare you my disparaging opinions of such a pointless effort, but let's just say that some things in cinema history should be left well enough alone.
After it's final theatrical re-release in 1956, KING KONG was sold to television and was the premiere airing for New Jersey's WOR-TV Channel 9 "Million Dollar Movie". That being mentioned, here's where my real personal story comes in for this film. As a child who grew up in New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s (and anyone who grew up in the tri-stare area of the eastern United States will remember this, too), the annual holiday of Thanksgiving and KING KONG were synonymous with each other. For Thanksgiving was the time of the annual holiday TV festivals of monster movies on WOR-TV Channel 9! Thursday was traditionally "ape day" with an afternoon of KING KONG, SON OF KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. Friday was traditionally GODZILLA day, with any number of poorly-dubbed Japanese monster movies, including KING KONG VS. GODZILLA. Sure, turkey, gravy, stuffing and pumpkin pie were all fine and good, but when you're a young kid and the VCR hasn't been invented yet, two days of no school and monster movies are what you truly look forward to! Today, even as a mature grown-up (sort of), I still make it an annual movie ritual to watch KING KONG on Thanksgiving Day, just as if I were watching HALLOWEEN on Halloween, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE on Christmas Eve or JAWS on July 4th. There are some important childhood movie memories that are worth maintaining in your adulthood and this is one of them.
And so, after eighty long years of a film that has come to perfectly symbolize thrills, fear, fantasy, effects and achievement, I can only say one last thing...HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BIG GUY!!!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Female Theater Patron: "Say, what is it, anyhow?"
Male Theater Patron: "I hear it's a kind of a gorilla."
Femaile: "Gee, ain't we got enough of them in NEW YORK??"