Tuesday, April 30, 2013
(March 1992, U.S.)
Here's how THE LAWNMOWER MAN, perhaps the most dated computer technology-related film since WARGAMES (1983) begins with a title card over black:
"By the turn fo the millenium a technology known as VIRTUAL REALITY will be in widespread use. It will allow you to enter computer generated artificial worlds as unlimited as the imagination itself. ITs creators foresee millions of positive uses - while others fear it as a new form of mind control..."
Seeing those words on the big screen for the first time in 1992, I was immediately struck with the awe of wonder to imagine and question if such a thing were truly possible in real life. Twenty-two years later (my God, has it been that long??), I can only ask whatever happened to virtual reality?? Don't get me wrong - I'm sure it's still out there...somewhere...buried underground in secret worlds of computer technology that I wouldn't even begin to pretend to understand. I'm sure back then, such possibilities seemed like the reality of the future. But 'lo and behold...instead the world saw the creation and emergence of the internet, emailing and computer social networks. It's quite safe to say that the concept, hopes and dreams of virtual reality took a major backseat to all of that and eventually became about as obsoltete, unpopular and useless as say, the VCR and the cassette player. But again, remember, I'm no computer expert or computer geek, so perhaps I don't have all the facts on the matter. Perhaps I never will.
And so, having voiced my opinions and questions on the reality, let's jump into the fantasy of THE LAWNMOWER MAN. While the harsh reality of this world of today may have made this science fiction thriller very outdated, it's story and its computer effects are no less fun and entertaining to watch. Like Daniel Keyes 1959 novel FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, this story also deals with a mentally disabled man whose intelligence is technologically boosted to genius levels. Dr. Lawrence Angelo (played by a pre-James Bond Pierce Brosnan) works for Virtual Space Industries (aka "The Shop"), running experiments in increasing animal and human intelligence through the use of drugs and virtual reality. As a human test subject, he chooses Jobe Smith (played by Jeff Fahey), a local greenskeeper with an unknown learning disability, living in the garden shed owned by the local priest who's raised him (and abused him) since boyhood. Engaging in the games and the drugs, Jobe soon becomes smarter at an astounding rate. While discovering his brain potential, he also develops his body which leads to an intense sexual relationship with a young rich widow. Jobe also begins to display telepathic abilities accompanied with severe hallucinations. Despite the dangers, though, he continues his training as he slowly becomes something more intelligent and more powerful than what is considered human, including telekinetic and pyrokinetic powers. Eventually he suffers an inevitable psychotic breakdown that gives him the delusions of a Christ complex, or "Cyber-Christ, as he calls it. The change in this man is not only evident, but quite brutal, indeed. Consider the fact that at the film's beginning, Jobe is a simple man who looks like this...
...and by the film's end, he's been completely transformed, physically and mentally into this...
Jeff Fahey nails his role and his transformation perfectly. As the idiot, his character's innocence, both in voice and physical stature, envoke nothing but childlike sympathy from the viewer. As the transformation begins, so does Fahey's voice and stature, giving off not only intelleigence and confidence, but dangerous arrogance and evil, as well. The simple concept of a man in his before and after stages are clear and thought-provoking.
Now I have to admit, even in the 21st Century world of CGI effects that are up your ass in digital 3D in every movie theater you go to, the effects here are still not too shabby and are fun to watch, in a TRON-sort-of-way. In fact, the supervising sound editor was Frank Serafine, who was hired as a result of his sound creation work in the movie TRON (1982). So there you go. But beyond the effects and the thrills, this is what I would consider to (still) be an intelligent high-concept sci-fi story of man's wisdom, man's ignorance and man's madness in the hands of unexplored technological advances. Since the creation of fire, our first true technology, man's achievements have never ceased to evolve itself though his technology. Oh, but how little man himself has changed...and is very likely to ever change. While there are always arguments for both sides, sometimes I can't help but wonder how many horrific events of crime and terrorism may have been avoided had technology like the internet not been invented. On the other hand, how else would I get my concert tickets? And what about all that great internet porn??? Just sayin'...
Okay, so here's a quick story for you. I did go to see THE LAWNMOWER MAN when it was released with my college girlfriend and we loved it. The real story, though, comes months later when I acquired my own copy on VHS tape. Labor Day weekend 1992, I had a group of friends with me at my beach house for the holiday. One night, we all sat around to watch this movie and enjoyed it just a bit more when we all had a few extra drinks in our system. By the time the climax rolled around when Jobe is trying to permanently absorb himself into the computer mainframe and keeps hitting the walls of ACCESS DENIED, we were all cracking up. Even the girls who were staying with me started closing their legs real tight and saying, "Access denied!" Okay, I guess you had to be there, but take my word for it...it was funny at the time and the memory is still with me. Thanks, ladies!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Jobe Smith: "I realized that nothing we've been doing is new. We haven't been tapping into new areas of the brain - we've just been awakening the most ancient. This technology is simply a route to powers that conjurers and alchemists used centuries ago. The human race lost that knowledge and now I'm reclaiming it through virtual reality."
Dr. Lawrence Angelo: "You're moving too fast. Even with all these new abilities, there are dangers. Man may be able to evolve a thousand-fold through this technology, but the rush must be tempered with wisdom."
That wisdom, in my opinion, still doesn't exist!
Sunday, April 28, 2013
(December 2003, U.S.)
Well, here I go again...a Tom Cruise movie...a guilty pleasure...you've heard it all before. This time he stars in an epic drama that matches the plotline concept of DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990) with just about every samurai film of the legendary Akira Kurosawa you've likely ever seen before. There's no denying, though, that director Edward Zwick (GLORY, LEGEND OF THE FALL) gives us some intense drama mixed with some real spectacualr action sequences.
Cruise portrays American Captain Nathan Algren, whose personal and emotional conflicts from having served in the massacre of Native Americans in the Indian Wars brings him into contact with samurai warriors in the wake of the Meiji Restoration in 19th Century Japan. The film's plot was inspired by the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion led by Saigō Takamori, and on the westernization of Japan by colonial powers, though this is largely attributed to the United States in this film for the purpose of American audiences who very likely wouldn't be interested in it from any other point of view. It's also based on the stories of Jules Brunet, a French army captain who fought alongside Enomoto Takeaki in the earlier Boshin War and Frederick Townsend Ward, an American mercenary who helped Westernize the Chinese army by forming the Ever Victorious Army. In other words, we have many different points of world history mixed together for the sole purpose of a great Tom Cruise film to give it that right amount of Hollywood fun! I suppose I can't complain about that because it IS fun to watch! Captured during a bloody massacre and taken to a samurai village, Algren is treated by beautiful widow Taka and recovers from his trauma and injuries. He begins conversations with village leader Lord Moritsugu Katsumoto (played by Ken Watanabe) and also begins a study of swordsmanship, dicipline and deep spirituality under the samurai code and tradition. Growing closer to Taka and her children, he later helps defend the village from a night attack by ninja sent by the less-than-scrupulous businessman Mr. Omura (played by (Masato Harada) to assassinate Katsumoto. As mentioned above, like DANCES WITH WOLVES, Nathan slowly begins to side with the community that the Americans and Japanese have come to see as the enemy and will eventually go to battle against his own American people. Hell, the man even keeps a preciously-detailed journal just like Kevin Costner's character.
More than Cruise himself, the character of Katsumoto is quite complex. As a a warrior-poet who was once the great Emperor's most-trusted teacher, he's very displeased with Mr. Omura's bureaucratic reform policies of Japan, which leads him into organizing a revolt against the Imperial Army. The conflict between modern western influences and technologies, particularly those of lethal weaponry, and keeping with the honored traditions of Japan's ancestors is very clear. Regardless of who's right and who's wrong, it's almost tragic to watch soldiers of both sides, who are at heart good men, slaughter each other in battle. However, we expect to enjoy spectacualr scenes of battle and it's only natural that our hearts and minds side with those of honor and tradition, and of course, Tom Cruise!
THE LAST SAMURAI is beautifully designed, intelligently written, acted with true conviction and a genuinely-thoughtful epic. It's also a film that's a vast improvement over previous American attempts to portray Japan and her history. The director has clearly researched Japanese history, cast well-known Japanese actors and consulted dialogue coaches to make sure he hasn't confused the casual and formal categories of Japanese speech. The portrayals of the samurai can be accused of being idealistic and storybook-like and it's impossible to know without great research on my part whether or not that portrayel is truly accurate. Other films, even those of Kurosawa, portrayed the samurai as selfish and corrupt. History knows the real truth, but when you're watching an epic film of performance and thrilling action, absolute historical accuracy can feel free to bend itself a little bit.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Nathan lgren: "This is Katsumoto's sword. He would have wanted you to have it. He hoped with his dying breath that you would remember his ancestors who held this sword, and what they died for. May the strength of the Samurai be with you always."
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
(July 1956, U.S.)
If I was fortunate enough not to alienate too many of my readers during my last blog of the neo-realistic world of Federico Fellini with LA DOLCE VITA, then we continue now with another of his masterpieces, LA STRADA ("The Road"). The film portrays the journey of its two main characters: the brutish strongman Zampanò (played by Anthony Quinn) and thenaïve young woman Gelsomina (played by real-life wife of Fellini Giulietta Masina) whom he buys from her mother and takes with him to see the world and perform his traveling one-man circus-type show and their ultimate destructive encounters with a rival Il Matto, or "The Fool" (played by Richard Baseheart).
As the film begins, one must only presume the practical cause with which why Gelsomina would ever go away with Zampanò which is to feed her mother and sisters with the 10,000 lire he gives them. From the moment they set off together, it's clearly a relationship of harsh cruelty. Gelsomina, though clearly a grown woman, has the heart and mind of a child. By that account, her innocence is quite pure and touching to those with sensitive hearts. When she's performing her act with Zampanò, she experiences her theatrical surrounding like that of a gitty child at play. Despite the daily cruelty of her "master" that she must live with, she loves the escapism of performing her acts and playing her music. Like a child also, she experiences joy for the smallest reasons and respectively experiences pain and sadness over the smallest reasons, too. Cliche dictates that she inevitably feels genuine love for Zampanò, but it's hard to imagine why. This is a man who has literally purchased her like a slave, treats her like a dog and runs around with other women at every chance he gets. He's an angry man; angry at Gelsomina, angry at the world around him and seemingly incapable of love. Again I ask, what exactly is there to love about this man??
Gelsomina's difficulties with her forced partnership are the subject of frequent soul searching. Upon Il Matto's release from prison for a physical altercation with Zampanò, he proposes that there are alternatives to her cruel servitude with him and imparts his philosophy that everything and everyone has a purpose, even a seemingly worthless pebble, even her and her existence. A nun suggests that Gelsomina's purpose in life is comparable to her own. However, when Gelsomina offers the possibility of marriage (WHAT???), Zampanò brushes her off with indefference. The separate paths of Il Matto and Zampanò cross for the last time on an empty stretch of road, when Zampanò comes upon Il Matto fixing a flat tire. As Gelsomina watches in horror, Zampanò kills Il Matto, hides the body and pushes the car off the road. The killing finally breaks Gelsomina's spirit, leaving her flat and lifeless. Years later we (and Zampanò) learn that Gelsomina died of a fever and very likely a broken heart and spirit. When Zampanò gets drunk and wanders to the beach, he breaks down and cries uncontrollably and the viewer can only presume that this is the ultimate redemption of a cruel individual who has spent his entire life on the wrong side of human goodness. Is it really, though? This is what many filmmakers and film scholars believe, but I would raise the question that any supposed redemption under the heavy influence of alcohol is not a true redemption at all. I myself am sure I've occasionally felt many deep emotional thoughts and feelings after a few drinks, but did I still feel that way in the morning? Forgive me...for I can very liekly be accused right now of reducing a cinematic climax of deep, personal and spiritual meaing into nothing more than a passing emotional crisis...but, hey...in this particular case, I think I'm simply calling it as I think I see it.
Like many of Fellini films of this sort, the black and white photography of the post-war Italy that the director came to love during his life in LA STRADA is purely stunning to watch. For the film's story, this is "the road" and we, like the innocent Gelsomina, are invited to see the world through the eyes of two travelers. Sometimes it's fun, sometimes's it's cruel and sometimes it's fatal (such is the road of life, I suppose). This is also a film that one may be tempted to watch the English-dubbed version of the DVD (something I NEVER usually do!) because as it happens to be, two of the three central characters are American. Therefore watching the English-dubbed version allows you two hear Quinn's and Baseheart's voices as they're meant to be. When you watch the film in Italian with English subtitled (as ALL foreign films should traditionally be watched!), you experience only Giulietta Masina's native tongue, as well as other Italians. So, I suppose the viewer is left to make whatever intelligent choice they must to enjoy the film as it's meant to be. For myself, I believe I've made my choice clear.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Gelsomina (staring out at the ocean): "Which way is my home?"
Saturday, April 20, 2013
(Ocotber 1971, U.S.)
In my time, films like AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973), GREASE (1978), DINER and PORKYS (both 1982) and even BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985) have given me a cinematic glimpse of the lives of the American youth during the 1950s (AMERICAN GRAFFITI actually took place in 1962, but whose nit-picking?). These films have given us a very colorful, glorified look and feel for a decade that many who are old enough to remember look upon with great affection and remembrance. In another related matter, I've visited the state of Texas twice in my life; once to Dallas in December 1999 for the Millenium and then again to Austin in March 2003 just as the second Gulf War was commencing. Before these visits, movies like GIANT (1956) and TV's DALLAS (long live J.R. Ewing!) glorified the great state with its glamour and its relentless power. Having pointed those two facts out, this post for Peter Bogdanovich's THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (based on Larry Larry McMurtry's book) completely goes against everything that has glorified (there's that word again!) not only teen life in the 1950s, but Texas, as well. This is a film in dreary black and white that takes place in the very small town of Anarene, Texas where there's not much to do, nothing much happens and nothing really changes. The high school football team is hopelessly shameful to the town and the only real activities are the local pool hall, the local diner and the Royal movie house that looks like this...
Looks like a real shithole, yes, but inside the magic and escape of movies like Vincente Minnelli's FATHER OF THE BRIDE and Howard Hawks' RED RIVER are a very necessary and blessed option for these high school seniors who are very likely not going to achieve much of the so-called American dream from a small town like this. These kids are, if nothing else, a conformity to a typical sterotype of high schools of another era. Duane Jackson (played by a very young Jeff Bridges) is the good-looking, amusing and very popular star of the football team who, of course, is going steady with the prettiest (and richest) girl in school Jacy Farrow (played by an also very young and gorgeous Cybill Shepherd). Duane's best friend Sonny Crawford (played by Timothy Bottoms) is the real focus of the film as he continuously strives to makes his simple and boring life in Anarene a bit more interesting. He's not the only one, though, and it's this longing for life's little differences that makes these kids less ordinary than you might imagine. When we think of youth in the 1950s, we're likely to conjour up thoughts of simple pleasures like drive-in movies, malt shops, sock hops and clean-cut, wholesome values. That's the images we've been sold on the movie screen and in the house of "the Beaver", though. The kids of Anarene, while simple, have their dark sides. Sonny makes his life more interesting by having an affair with the depressed, middle-age wife of the high school coach. Jacy is just dying to loose her virginity and we presume it will be with Duane. Not so...not during the first attempt, anyway. Seems that poor 'ol Duane can't get it up! "I don't know what happened.", he keeps repeating to his poor, disappointed and angry would-be lover. Jacy, once her virginity IS lost, seems to want to have sex with just about everybody, including the town nerd (played by a very young Randy Quaid) and her mother's lover on top of the pool table. Oh, and it seems that many of these kids enjoy getting naked for a late night swimming pool party. This many not seem at all racy by today's standards of youth and morality, but you have to consider that in the 1950s, acts such as these by supposedly simple kids of American values would have been considered dark and naughty. And yet despite the underground secrets and sins of the citizens of Anarene, Texas, well...like the movie poster says, nothing much has changed.
This Texas drama, while appearing dull and ordinary at first glance, is actually quite stunning, not only in it's black and white cinematography, which was certainly the best option for capturing a town of pure desolation, but also in its exploration of youth and the choices they face in not only living their lives in a town that offers little future, but which directions they'll take should they actually be lucky enough to get out. We get a small sense of hope for Duane as he decides to leave town to join the military. Will he return one day? Will he be sent to Korea? Will he live or will he die? The viewer is left with questions of uncertainty not only for Duane, but for the other kids, as well. When the film ends, we are still focussed on Sonny who, now having inherited the town pool hall, it seems will not get much further than he is right now. Because as I've repeatedly pointed out, nothing much changes.
I would point out to you now that the questions we're left with at the end of THE LAST PICTURE SHOW may be only temporary, at best. In 1990, there was a sequel called TEXASVILLE (also based on McMurtry's book), also directed by Bogdanovich which reunited much of the central cast. To this day, I still haven't seen it. Perhaps by the time I get to the letter 'T' in my film collection, I will. Perhaps by then, some or all of our questions will be answered.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Jacy Farrow (to Duane, as they're leaving motel room after having sex for the first time): "Oh, quit prissing! I don't think you done it right, anyway!"
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
(June 2006, U.S.)
In 1983, 20th Century Fox released a film called TWO OF A KIND. At the time, the big hype surrounding it was the fact that it reunited the two mega-stars of GREASE (1978), John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Trouble was, it had been over six years since GREASE, and frankly, nobody gave a shit any more. As a result of that, and the fact that it was just a terrible movie, it bombed both critically and financially. I bring this up simply because for a summer that was delivering the third X-MEN movie and the return of Superman, to get people interested in devoting their time and money to THE LAKE HOUSE, the hype clearly had to rely on the return of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, the two stars of SPEED (1994). Again, the trouble here is that there was a twelve year period between SPEED and THE LAKE HOUSE and I honestly don't think people gave a shit anymore. While the box office intake was respectable, critical reaction was mostly negative. Hell, there's even a particular episode of TV's THE BIG BANG THEORY in which Sheldon Cooper makes it very clear to Penny that it was bad enough that she made him watch that movie (ha, ha, ha!!).
Okay, so you're probably scratching your head right now wondering what the hell I find so damn redeeming and pleasurable about THE LAKE HOUSE that I would include it in my film collection. Well, my only defense I can claim is that I've always been very partial to stories about people who connect personally with their house. Titles like this one, LIFE AS A HOUSE (2001) and UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN (2003) will give you a general idea of what I'm talking about. With regards to my own life, I've been personally connected and dedicated to my beach home in the Hamptons ever since I was a kid. Therefore, it stands to good reason that I would connect with a story like THE LAKE HOUSE, which by the way, it turns out it's an American remake of a South Korean motion picture called IL MARE (2000). Beyond the personal connection to house and home, this romantic drama tells the story of Alex Wyler (Reeves) and Kate Forster (Bullock), respectively an architect living in the year 2004 and a doctor living in the year 2006. The two of them meet via hand-written letters left in a mailbox at said lake house they have both lived in at separate points in time; they carry on this sort of old fashioned correspondence over two years, remaining separated by their original difference of two years. For Alex the time goes from 2004 to 2006 and for Kate the time goes from 2006 to 2008. The question (and the ultimate goal of the film) is how and when will these two potential lovebirds eventually meet in person in real life.
(I really hope that made some sense to you because I can't explain it any better than that!)
By the way, here's what the lake house looks like...
(I'd live in it!)
So this is where romantic fantasy and some major suspension of disbelief have to play a part in your mind (and your heart) in order to begin some level of appreciation for a love story that attempts to go beyond the traditional bullshit Friday night-multiplex romantic comedy. Really, it's easier than you might think. If you've seen enough movies in your life as I have, you can recall story elements of films like AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (1957), BEST DEFENSE (1984), FIELD OF DREAMS (1989) and SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE (1993), all the while remembering, as Dr. Emmett Brown puts it in BACK TO THE FUTURE-PART III (1990), to think "fourth dimensionally". Put all of this in your mind and your imagination, and THE LAKE HOUSE is a lot more plausible as fantasy fiction than you might think. That being the case, the film takes on a truly fundamental romantic impulse, regardless of any of its logical inconsistencies. I mean, really, think about...we spend much of our lives contemplating how loves makes no sense anyway...so why not here on screen, too??
As an element of strong irony and intruigue, there's the repeated sequence at Chicago's Daley Plaza that I would call your attention to. When the film begins, a man has been hit by a bus and killed, dying in Kate's arms as it turns out. By the end of the film, that tragedy is about to seemingly happen all over again, but this time we know a few things about Alex and Kate and the journey that has brought them to their ultimate destiny. Having pointed that out, I hardly need clarify that Alex's life is forever changed (and saved!) by Kate at the end thanks to the benefit of two year's time and knowledge. Remember, in the end this is still a nice love story starring the two people from SPEED and love always conquers in the end, yes? And despite my negative opinion of a twelve year gap in time between films, Reeves and Bullock DO seem to have a nice chemistry together. Nothing wrong with that.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Kate (voice-over): "Alex, I know why you didn't show up that night. It was you at Daley Plaza that day. It was you. Please don't go. Just wait. Please. Don't look for me. Don't try to find me. I love you...any it's taken me all this time to say it, but I love you. And if you still care for me, wair for me. Wait with me. Just wait. Wait. Wait two years, Alex. Come to the lake house. I'm here."
Sunday, April 14, 2013
(April 1991, U.S.)
I suppose that motion pictures supporting idea of transforming misfits, rejects and total losers into lethal military or government killing machines could be attributed back to a film like THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), but I'm sure if I did some extra homework and research, I'd find that popular theme dating back to earlier World War II films of the era or perhaps earlier. So it's safe to say that prospect is nothing too original for the big screen. This time, though, French filmmaker Luc Besson is centering that theme around a young teenage female criminal Nikita (played by Anne Parillaud) who is recruited to work as an assassin for the French government.
When we first meet Nikita, one can't help but wonder how she's managed to live as long as she has. This girl is one serious and psychotic junkie! Even when she's captured and sentenced to death (supposedly), her reaction is violent and almost incomprehensible. When given to the option of death or government service, she's not exactly keen on either option. When she does finally come around, we're taken ahead by serveral years so see how she's progressed. Rather than be shown how she's developed as a physical specimen of govermental assassination skills, we're rather given a glimpse of her physical beauty; she hasn't just cleaned up her act, but rather been transformed from a sick junkie to a true femme fatale! As her female trainer explains early in the film, it's her beauty and femininity that will act as her ultimate weapon in life.
As action film cliche would dictate, Nikita (code name: Josephine) doesn't disappoint in blasting the shit out of her targets. What really surprises us the first time around is to learn that her planned escape route has been intentionally compromised by a brick wall outside a window to see if she'll ultimately "sink or swim". She swims, of course, but not without getting real pissed off in the process. Nonetheless, Nikita has finally "grown up", graduated and is ready to be releases unto the unsuspecting world. As a private citizen of Paris, she lives a quiet, modest life with her fiancé Marco (played by Jean-Hugues Anglade). However, whenever the phone rings and the voice on the other end says, "Josephine", the smile of happiness and contentedness immediately vanishes and it's time for this serious bitch to go to work. The viewer is left to not only enjoy the action and the thrills, but also to wonder how long it's going to be before Nikita's two lives come crashing into each other. When that finally does happen, it would appear that Nikita will simply vanish into the wind, never to be seen again. That's a fine, ambiguous premise and it's one that I would have been perfectly happy to accept. However, Hollywood couldn't resist giving us their inferior American version called POINT OF NO RETURN (1992) with Bridget Fonda in the title role. USA Network television couldn't resist their own series of the same name in 1997. The CW network had their own version of the premise in 2010. For Christ sakes, how many times can you tell the same damn story over and over, people??? The line must be drawn somewhere!
Besides a few Japanese films from John Woo's early career, I must confess I haven't seen nor have I come to expect too many subtitled action thrillers, particularly from the French. If Luc Besson's original film of LA FEMME NIKITA is the only example I'm ever likely to see of its sort, then I'll be happy to walk away with the memories of the hardcore action and intense thrills it provides. I need no other versions!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Bob: "You died Saturday at five pm. The prison doctor confirmed suicide after an overdose of tranquillizers. You're buried in Maisons-Alfort, row 8, plot 30."
Nikita: "Titi. That's Titi!"
Bob: "I work, let's say, for the government. We've decided to give you another chance."
Nikita: "What do I do?"
Bob: "Learn. Learn to read, walk, talk, smile and even fight. Learn to do everything."
Nikita: "What for?"
Bob: "To serve your country."
Nikita: "What if I don't want to?"
Bob: "Row 8, Plot 30."
Tuesday, April 9, 2013
(April 1961, U.S.)
It wasn't until just about the time I turned thirty years-old in the late 1990s that I began discover subtitled art films, particularly the classic black and white genre of Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and, of course, the great Federico Fellini. By this time in my life, I'd tried real damn hard to watch his landmark film 8 1/2 and it would take a few more viewing before I realized what a masterpiece of world cinema it was (and still is!). My interest in his other landmark film, LA DOLCE VITA ("The Sweet Life"), came from two sources. First, my uncle and one of my first cousins would not stop raving that I was a film I absolutely had to see. Second, my employer at the time whom I will call Steve (because that's really his name) told me of the rather infamous opening scene where a helicopter transports a statue of Christ over an ancient Roman aqueduct outside Rome while a second, journalist Marcello's (played by Marcello Mastroianni) tabloid news helicopter, follows it into the city. The news helicopter is momentarily sidetracked by a group of bikini-clad women sunbathing on the rooftop of a high-rise apartment building. Hovering above, Marcello uses rude gestures to elicit phone numbers from them but fails in his attempt. Steve described what was supposed to be a comic genius in this. To this day, I'm not sure I've ever agreed with him, but it was enough to allow me the nearly three hours required to watch the film. I didn't rent the double cassette tapes, though. Rather, back then, this film was broadcasted on the Bravo cable network, before NBC aquired it and turned into nothing but shit reality show (but that's another gripe for another time!)! That's when I finally discovered LA DOLCE VITA and I haven't turned away since.
Essentially, the film tells the story of Marcello's passive week in postwar Rome, and his search for both happiness and love that will ultimately never come to him. Along the way, there endless celebrities of music and film, plently of women and elements of sin that very likely caused quite a bit of controversy for its day. And of course, there's the matter of his aggressive, jealous, rather insane wife who just won't give the man a moment's peace. The key word, however, to really describe Marcello is "passive" because as we watch him go about the routines of his daily and nightly business, we are given the feeling (and perhaps even the deliberate illusion by Fellini himself) of a dream in progress. The people around him, the games they play and the endless dialogue that continuously erodes from their mouths are meaningless chatter for him. There is talk, talk, talk amongst the population of Rome and the party spirit they inhabit, but very little is truly said. Even the parasitic paparazzo (this is the Italian word that brought "Paparazzi" into the common language, by the way) are not professional men who can relate to Marcello's rather calm, subdued approach to life. Indeed, Marcello is a working man like all others, but we don't sense true happiness in his profession. He walks among the people, even "floats" around with them as they move from one naughty incident to another (including a drunken beach house orgy!), but always appears disconnected and disenchanted with them. Perhaps it's like the old song goes, "Looking for love in all the wrong places." The only real instance in which we truly get a sense of who Marcello is is during the chance meeting with his father (who clearly has no idea of the sort of people his son hangs out with) and the time they spend together at a local nightclub. There's an obvious sense of tenderness and love that he feels for his father, and in a way, from the viewer's perspective, perhaps it's just enough to redeem the man's soul in the wicked world of Rome's social decay that he's willingly succumb to.
Now I previously mentioned endless celebrities parading throughout Rome, but anyone who's seen this film knows the real star of this vehicle is not even an Italian actress; yes, it's American-Swedish actress Anita Ekberg who steals the show! Why does she steal the show? Shit, just look at this picture and you'll know why...
To watch this woman long enough in the film is an exercise in indecisive behavior in terms of what turns you on the most. Is it the long, luscious blonde hair? Is her sexy dancing at the Baths of Caracalla? Is it her wet skin as she wades into the Trevi Fountain? Oh, come on, let's be real honest here...it's definitely those perfectly large round breasts men like me can't take their eyes off of!
Strangely, I can't help but consider that despite the fact that it was the description of the opening scene (thanks, Steve!) that first peaked my interest in LA DOLCE VITA, it's the final sequence that stays with me the most. An adolescent waitress from the local seaside restaurant in Fregene, calls to Marcello from across an estuary but the words they exchange are lost on the wind at the beach and drowned out by the crash of the waves. He signals his inability to understand what she is saying or interpret her gestures. Rather than pursue it any further, he shrugs and returns to his latest group of partygoers. One of the women joins him and they hold hands as they walk away from the beach. In a long final close-up, the waitress waves to Marcello then stands watching him with an enigmatic smile. I don't know what gets me more; the true poignancy of the entire sequence or the dream-like feeling of the isolated beach the sounds of mother nature preventing any real contact between two human beings. Perhaps in the expressionistic and neo-realistic black and white world of Federico Fellini, we're never meant to know for sure. If that's the case, I'll take it because it works for me.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Sylvia: "Marcello! Come here! Hurry up!"
Not much of a line, but when you're watching her in the fountain when she says it, it's a wonderful invitation for a very wet sexual encounter!
Saturday, April 6, 2013
(November 1938, U.S.)
In the 2005 thriller FLIGHTPLAN, Jodie Foster plays a woman flying on a passenger aircraft with her young daughter who falls asleep and awakens to find her daughter missing. She begins to question her own sanity when everyone on the plane agrees that she never had a daughter and has imagined the entire event. We further learn that just about everyone on the plane is in on the ultimate conspiracy against her and that she is, in fact, not crazy and DOES have a daughter who's disappeared. I start by pointing this out because it's my bet that this particular inferior film is about as close as today's generation of moviegoers are likely to get to the appreciation of Alfred Hitchcock's THE LADY VANISHES. Yes, people, FLIGHTPLAN was hardly very original. It was based on the original premise of THE LADY VANISHES.
For Hitchcock's film, which I might point out is a wonderful piece of his early British period of films, the case in question is the beautiful English tourist named Iris Henderson (played by Margaret Lockwood) who's traveling home by train to be married to a man she doesn't love. En route, she meets the kindly elderly former governess Miss Froy (played by Dame May Whitty) and the rather irritating English gentleman Gilbert (played by Michael Redgrave), a young musicologist who is studying the folk songs of the local European region (people actually DO that??). En route, Iris is also struck on the head by a falling planter meant for Miss Froy, who takes on the role of kind stranger aboard the train and helps Iris recover with a spot of tea and some kind friendship. Iris eventually falls asleep for a long time. When she wakes up...well, can you guess it...yes, Miss Froy has disappeared and no one else on the train will support Iris' claim that she's disappeared. The general opinion is that the injury to her head has caused the imagined halucination of Miss Froy and everything that took place between them. The only one on board who will believe her story and help her to find Miss Froy is, of course, the irritating Gilbert, whom as I'm sure you can already guess, she will fall in love with before she arrives home to marry the wrong man.
While the early cloak and dagger mystery of this story can hardly be compared with that of later Hitchcock films like VERTIGO (1958) and NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), the premise of political intruige and espionage is very clear and work well, even when the secret agent in question is a gently, kindly old lady. There are still some very bad people aboard this train who mean to commit some very harmful actions against her and it's up to the persistence of the two good samaritans to do their job right until the very end, even when the bad guys start shooting their guns! The story is further blessed by great characters and many witty and imaginative touches, in particular the conceit by which the passengers are each given selfish motives for refusing to verify Iris' story, as well as the general chemistry between the two leads. And as always, there's the appreciation of good ol' fashioned classic black and white photography to take into account with any film of this nature. There's a reason Alfred Hitchcock was called "the master of suspense" and the craft and sophistication of THE LADY VANISHES was only just the early reason he rightfully desereved that cinematic honor.
Again, I urge you, if you haven't yet experienced Hitchcock's early period of British films, you're missing some great titles like THE 39 STEPS (1935), SABOTAGE (1936), his original version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934), and of course, the film I've just discussed. Give them the chance they deserve, dammit!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Iris Henderson: "I've no regrets. I've been everywhere and done everything. I've eaten caviar at Cannes, sausage rolls at the dogs. I've played baccarat at Biarritz and darts with the rural dean. What is there left for me but marriage?"
Friday, April 5, 2013
(June 18, 1942 - April 4, 2013)
I'll keep my words brief because anything I can say about this famous (and infamous) film critic has likely already been said by more qulaified film aficionados than myself. I will say that he had a voice and he had opinions that were always heard and more often than not, taken seriously by those who had a reasonably intelligent appreciation in the world of film. I first discovered him in 1982 on the local PBS television station when he had the audacity to give BLADE RUNNER his "thumbs down" and I've routinely followed his voice and his words ever since. Sometimes I agreed with him and sometimes I didn't. And so now, his passing marks the end of an era for myself and those truly appreciated all that he had to offer lovers of film.
By the way, in case you're interested, here were Roger's top ten favorite films of all time (in alphabetical order, just like my blog titles):
1. Aguirrre the Wrath of God (1972)
2. Apocalypse Now (1979)
3. Citizen Kane (1941)
4. General, The (1926)
5. La Dolce Vita (1960)
6. Raging Bull (1980)
7. Tokyo Story (1953)
8. Tree of Life, The (2011)
9. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
10. Vertigo (1958)
One thing's for sure, the man's taste in films certainly cannot be argued! Thanks for all the memories, Roger! Say hi to Gene for us!
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
(June 1948, U.S.)
What did Sean Penn & Maddona, Tom Cruise & Nicole Kidman and Ben Affleck & Jennifer Lopez all have in common? Well, with the exception of Stanley Kubrick's EYES WIDE SHUT (1999), they all made perfectly terrible movies together. Back during the golden age of cinema and film noir, though, real life Hollywood couples from Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall to Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton made films that would one day become cinematic classics. For THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, we have real life married couple (at the time) of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. Real life Hollywood couples should either take serious notice of the past, or just not get married to each other in the first place.
Watching this film requires a rather serious appreciation of Orson Welles as an actor, a director and a gifted artist in general. On its surface, it's film noir that follows many of the textbook rules of plot, including the naive protaganist, the slightly less-than-stable criminal element and the beautiful femme fatale who inevitably turns out to be the killer in the end. In this story, Michael O'Hara (Welles) meets the beautiful blonde Elsa (Hayworth) and is immediately hooked by her beauty, charm and wickedness. He reveals that he's a seaman and learns that Elsa and her husband, a disabled criminal defense attorney Arthur Bannister (played Everett Sloane - also in CITIZEN KANE), are newly arrived in New York City from Shanghai. They're on their way to San Francisco via the Panama Canal via Arthur's yacht. Michael, helplessly attracted to Elsa despite serious misgivings, agrees to sign on as an able seaman. Thus, the trouble begins. The murders of two men will shortly follow, for which Michael shall be accused of, and Arthur will defend him in court, despite knowing full well what he (Michael) and his wife are doing behind his back. In the end, just about everyone will meet their fate except Micahel who'll walk away free and hopefully having learned to stay away from those wicked femme fatales.
Now perhaps you've heard of the famous and sureal climactic "hall of mirrors" sequence. My simple written description cannot possibly do it true justice, but imagine if you will two betrayed lovers pointing guns at each other but not quite seeing which image is the true person. Imagine bullets flying and glass shattering everywhere and not knowing when and if the bodies have been hit until the lights come. The camera tricks and the illusions are quite an amazing sight to see, particularly in black and white imagery. An image like this may give you a somewhat general idea...
Woody Allen apparently loved this sequence so much, he payed direct homage to it (ripped it off directly is more like it!) during the climax of his 1993 film MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY.
As a stand alone film, there are many reasons to nitpick and criticize this film. For starters, it's not some of the best performances I've ever seen on film. There's dialogue that's either very wooden, very tin pan alley, very overacted or just plain bad. The true challenge of THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is to take into account that Orson Welles is starting with the basic, tongue-in-cheek approach to the premise of film noir story-telling and either intentionally making a farce out of it, or he's simply deciding to have a little fun with the subject by turing things completely upside down on its ass to a rather silly extreme. For it's elements of photography, cinematography, muliple-perspective camera shots, tricky backgrounds and overlapping and rambling dialogue, it's pure Orson Welles filmmaking all the way. When you're watching and you find yourself getting rather irritated by it's negative aspects, your reaction can be one of two choices - you can either consider the idea of the film's subject and how the director's artistic vision is helping to shape it, revise it and ultimately pay some sort of personal homage to it...or you can simply turn off the movie in frustration. Don't. Give it a chance. It's worth it.
Favorite line or dialogue:
George Grisby: "You know, the law's a funny thing, fella. The state of California will say I'm dead...officially dead...if somebody'll say they murdered me. That's what I'm paying you for."
Michael O'Hara: "To murder you?"
George: "To say you did."
Michael: "What happens to you really?"
George: "I disappear."
Michael: "What happens to me?"
George: "Nothing. That's the choker. You swear you killed me, but you can't be arrested. That's the law. Look it up for yourself. There's no such thing as homicide unless they find a corpse. It just isn't murder if they don't find a body. According to the law, I'm dead if you say you murdered me. But you're not a murderer unless I'm dead. Silly, isn't it?"