Sunday, December 29, 2013
(March 1927, U.S.)
In the history of German expressionism, no film, perhaps other than THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920) has embedded itself as a stunning crown achievement than Fritz Lang's epic science fiction film of METROPOLIS. It's also possible that no other film in history has been so painstakingly restored over the decades. The particular version that I'm discussing now is the 2002 restored version released by Kino International. To its credit, the 2010 version restores a great deal of extra footage that was lost since its original release, but in my opinion, is practically unwatchable due to its poor picture quality. In other words, I'd rather be without parts of a film than have to sit through them in any sub-standard quality.
One need not exactly be a true sci-fi geek to genuinely understand and appreciate the influence METROPOLIS has had on many other science fiction classics over the course of time. One only need to study some of the film's stunning, iconic black and white images to understand its visual influences on the years of motion picture history that would inevitably follow. Here's a few photo examples...
Can you possibly imagine that the city of Los Angeles of 2019 in BLADE RUNNER (1982) would have looked the way it does without the influence of METROPOLIS? Would Gotham City in Tim Burton's original BATMAN (1989) look the way it does without the influence of METROPOLIS? Would the future of the city and society in THE MATRIX (1999) look the way it does without the influence of METROPOLIS? Hell, can you picture George Lucas designing See-Threepio to look the way he does without the influence of METROPOLIS (just look at the movie poster above to see what I'm talking about)? Sometimes I can't help but wonder if the Pink Floyd song, "Welcome to the Machine" would exist without the influence of METROPOLIS? Yes, it's safe to say that this film is nothing short of a pioneer work in science fiction and in visual storytelling; a true work of cinematic art at its best!
The time is the future (no specific year is given) and wealthy industrialists rule the vast city of Metropolis from high-rise tower complexes, while a much lower class of underground-dwelling workers toil painfully and constantly to operate the machines that provide the city's power. The Master of Metropolis is the ruthless Joh Fredersen (played by Alfred Abel), whose son Freder (played by Gustav Fröhlich) idles away his time in a pleasure garden with the other children of the equally rich. Freder is unexpectedly interrupted by the arrival of a young woman named Maria (played by Brigitte Helm), who has brought a group of workers' children to see the privileged lifestyle being led by the rich. Maria and the children are quickly ushered away, but Freder is fascinated by her, nonetheless, and descends to the workers' city in an attempt to find her. Finding himself in the machine rooms, he watches in horror as one of the machines explodes, causing injury and death to many. Appalled by this, Freder informs his father of the tragedy, who shows no signs of concern or remorse. As the wealthy ruler of the lower class, Fredersen believes in his own place at the top of the world while the lowly workers belong only at the bottom, their tragic plights not a concern of his. In an attempt to "find his place" among the common people, Freder trades clothes and lives with one of the workers. Like the workers, he also falls under the social spell of Maria, who preaches only for peace among all of society's people.
Now, like many other science fiction stories, enter the bad guy...the evil scientist! The inventor know as Rotwang (played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is also a man who'd been madly in love with a woman named Hel, who left him to marry Fredersen. She also died giving birth to Freder. As a result, he's since built a grand robot in order to attempt to "resurrect" her image and her memory. By kidnapping Maria and scientifically transferring her physical image and her mind into the robot, Maria is now re-created in the body of that robot with a message of hate and destruction rather than love and peace. It's here that we truly learn of humankind's basic need to be led. The workers of the city's underworld seem more than willing to be led by messages of social disorder by the "fake" robot-like Maria as much as they were willing to be led by messages of social harmony by the true Maria. Only Freder, who loves the real Maria, knows of the phony switch that's taken place at the hands of Rotwang.
(excuse me while I take a breath for a moment. This is a whole lot to take in and interpret!)
The themes of social order, disorder and revolution are more than clear in METROPOLIS in the message that those who control the machines of the functioning city have the power to destroy such machines, and as a result, destroy themselves, as well. Society's ignorance and deception by the machine (the fake robot Maria) leads to inevitable chaos and destruction of Metropolis, putting the lives of the children at risk along the way. It's only through patience and listening that the enraged mob of society can finally learn the truth of their situation and save the lives of their children, as well as their precious city. And like many other films where the plot yearns to teach valuable lessons, the man of power who controls the lives of those who have none inevitably comes to terms with the harmful consequences of his actions and rises above his own power to be at one with the people. The film itself preaches its own words, "The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!" The film's hero, Freder, serves as such a heart to join hands between the head of power and the hands of its workers.
Fritz Lang's influence for the film was born apparently from his first sight of the skyscrapers of New York City in 1924. Describing his first impressions of the city, Lang felt that its buildings seemed to be a "vertical sail, scintillating and very light, a luxurious backdrop, suspended in the dark sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotize". The appearance of the city in the film is strongly informed by the Art Deco movement; however it also incorporates elements from other architectural traditions that are equally eclectic. Its locales, such as Rotwang's archaic little house with its high-powered laboratory, the underground catacombs and the great Gothic cathedral represent a sense of "functionalist modernism". There are heavy Biblical sources at work here, as well. During her first sermon to the workers, Maria uses the story of the Tower of Babel to highlight the discord between the high intellectuals and the workers. Additionally, a delusional Freder imagines the fake , robot Maria as the Whore of Babylon, riding on the back of a many-headed dragon. Were I a religious man, I might have a better understanding of these Biblical references. However, as an atheist, I've only the teachings of cinema to inform me.
With enough research, one will discover many stories behind the making of METROPOLIS. One story in particular that's always fascinated me is that of Adolph Hitler's strong admiration and regard for this film. So strong it was that he desired Fritz Lang as his first choice to become the lead producer and studio head of films of Germany in 1933. Hitler felt that Lang's films, especially METROPOLIS, embodied the ideas that he (Hitler) wished to use within his propaganda campaign in order to promote himself and the rising Nazi party. Lang, fearing his life since his mother was Jewish, fled to America, loathing every ideal that Hitler and Nazi Germany represented. Lucky for him and lucky for Hollywood in the years to come.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Grot: "Who told you to attack the machines, you idiots?! Without them you'll all die!!"
Tuesday, December 24, 2013
(July 1997, U.S.)
Anyone who knows me well enough in life knows that I'm a truly cynical son-of-a-bitch (my wife will attest to this without hesitation!). And a partial reason for that rather negative outlook on life and especially other people just may have come from the movie MEN IN BLACK. Read this small piece of dialogue from the film and decide for yourself...
James Edwards: "Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it."
Agent Kay: "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it!"
Oh, never in my life did I agree with such descriptive words more! Yes, history may be filled to the brim with brilliant philosophers of the past, but it took Tommy Lee Jones, in my opinion, to nail the human race right on its fucking head!
When I look back on the Summer of 1997, I cannot, for the life of me, remember what attracted me to go and see MEN IN BLACK. Was it because it was based on a popular comic book? Probably not - that reason rarely did anything for me. Was it because I suspected that Will Smith would not only make me laugh, but continue to prove that he had the stuff of a great action star as he had previously done in BAD BOYS (1995) and INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996)? That's possible. Or was it simply because that I'd chosen to take the day off from work on a lovely summer day and decided to go to the movies in the middle of the work day when the theater would be more or less empty? Bingo!!!
MEN IN BLACK is just another Earth vs. Aliens story, yes? Not exactly. In this case, the plot follows two agents of a secret organization called "Men in Black" (M.I.B.) who supervise extraterrestrial life forms living on Earth and hiding their existence from ordinary humans. The agency operates from an underground base at the Tri-Borough Bridge and Tunnel Authority ventilation station in Battery Park in Manhattan and their members often use neuralyzers on witnesses' memories of alien sightings (I wouldn't mind having one of those things!). Agent K (played by Tommy Lee Jones) is the serious, by-the-book agent with no sense of humor that he's aware of whose job it is to find a brand new recruit who can handle the job. Enter New York City police officer-of-the-streets James Edwards, a.k.a. soon-to-be Agent J (played by Will Smith) who's cocky, arrogant and has no respect for authority; in other words, he's perfect for the job! His arrogance is only matched by his outrageous sense of humor that makes Will Smith's performance in such a role as funny and enjoyable as anything a younger Eddie Murphy did back in the 1980s. Suspicious of why extraterrestrials are suddenly leaving our planet, the M.I.B. investigate a farmer named Edgar (played by Vincent D'Onofrio), who's been acting strangely after an alien craft crashed on his farm. Edgar was killed and his skin has been used as a disguise by a very angry "Bug" who's a member of a giant cockroach-like species that are at war with several other alien races in the galaxy, including the Arquillians. An Arquillian prince hiding in Brooklyn (Brooklyn???), disguised as a human jewelry store owner who loves his cat is attacked, and tells Agent J as he dies that "the galaxy is on Orion's belt". The correct interpretation of this message will help to save Earth from eventual destruction by another alien race. While we wait to see what will ultimately happen, the film moves along at a nice pace with a perfect blend of sci-fi excitement and human comedy. For those of us who live in or anywhere near New York City, it's an interesting twist of events to see the observation towers of the New York State Pavilion at Flushing Meadows in Queens (made famous at the 1964 World's Fair) secretly disguised as two flying saucers to be used by the enemy "Bug" if he, indeed, gets away with his villainous deed! Well, since we all know that bad aliens almost never get away with it in the end, we can take comfort in knowing that the "Bug" is destroyed, the M.I.B. win the day, and we, as ordinary, stupid citizens of the world are all the better for never knowing just what sort of cosmic danger we were really in!
MEN IN BLACK ends up satisfying all of the text book requirements for an enjoyable summer blockbuster hit. However, a smart script, spectacular set pieces, and charismatic performances from its lead characters make it something more entirely. And of course, just like any other original hit mix, it's the inevitable fly in the ointment that end up ruining things - namely two completely forgettable sequels! Never did Lara Flynn Boyle look more like a pale skank than she did in MEN IN BLACK II (2002)! I mean, seriously, look at her...
Favorite line or dialogue:
Zed: "May I ask why you felt little Tiffany deserved to die?"
James Edwards: "Well, she was the only one that actually seemed dangerous at the time, sir."
Zed: "How'd you come to that conclusion?"
James: "Well, first I was gonna pop this guy hanging from the street light, and I realized, y'know, he's just working out. I mean, how would I feel if somebody come runnin' in the gym and bust me in my ass while I'm on the treadmill? Then I saw this snarling beast guy, and I noticed he had a tissue in his hand, and I'm realizing, y'know, he's not snarling, he's sneezing. Y'know, ain't no real threat there. Then I saw little Tiffany. I'm thinking, y'know, eight-year-old white girl, middle of the ghetto, bunch of monsters, this time of night with quantum physics books? She about to start some shit, Zed. She's about eight years old, those books are WAY too advanced for her. If you ask me, I'd say she's up to something. And to be honest, I'd appreciate it if you eased up off my back about it...or do I owe her an apology?"
And with that...Merry Christmas, one and all!
Saturday, December 21, 2013
(March 2001, U.S.)
When we finally reached the turn of the century nearly fourteen years-ago, I had an unusually optimistic sense of hope and expectations for what the movies were going to offer us in the years to come and it was primarily due to Christopher Nolan's film of MEMENTO. Because of this one independent film, I had every reason to believe that film makers were headed in a bold, daring and risky direction in storytelling and film structure. As it turns out, nothing could have been further from the truth as the movie business has proven, in my opinion, that it's ultimately capable of nothing more than churning out an endless array of comic book sequel blockbusters that offer nothing more than the ability to see just how fast things can move and how much financial intake can occur over the course of a single opening weekend. I have to say, though, for a brief time, my hopes and dreams looked pretty promising.
So let's explore just what I'm talking about for a moment and see why MEMENTO has had such a big impact on me. Now in terms of non-linear structure, I can't claim that this film has done something so original. Quentin Tarantino had perfected this storytelling with PULP FICTION back in 1994 and took the world by storm with it. So why is MEMENTO so damn unique? Let's start with its initial premise, in that we're experiencing the life of a somewhat ordinary man named Leonard Shelby (played by Guy Pearce) who appears to suffer from anterograde amnesia, which impairs his ability to store new explicit memories and who has developed a system for recollection using hand-written notes, tattoos on his body, and Polaroid photographs (remember those?). Consider for a moment life's true ramifications and consequences for a man living with such a condition. In Leonard's case, he's on a quest to find the man who raped and murdered his beloved wife; an event for which he's been unable to create new memories ever since. Consider also the fact that should Leonard achieve his ultimate victory, he won't even remember having done it. Consider finally that we as the audience are being asked to truly tap into our own patience and intelligence and follow the film's plot backwards! That's right, people, I said backwards! We're starting at the end and progressively working our way to the beginning!
When the film begins, during the opening credits, which (remember!) portrays the end of the story, it's shown that Leonard kills a man named Teddy (played by Joe Pantoliano, fresh off of THE MATRIX). The film suggests that this killing is the ultimate vengeance that Leonard seeks based on information that was previously provided by a woman named Natalie (played by Carrie-Anne Moss, also from THE MATRIX). Vengeance is never that simple, though. Now the film begins to move in reverse so we can see each and every event and episode that ultimately lead Leonard to this point. Along the way, the film features brief overlaps with just a little piece of the story's information, the purpose being to force the audience into a sympathetic experience of Leonard's defective ability to create new long-term memories, where prior events are not recalled, since the audience has yet to actually see them occur.
It's important to note that the film is shot in color and black and white. The color sequences are shown in the reverse chronological order I've already spoken about. The black-and-white sequences are shown with Leonard in a mysterious motel room speaking to an unnamed telephone caller who' not shown on-screen. He tells the story of when he was previously an insurance investigator and of one case by the name of Sammy Jankis, also diagnosed with the same condition he has now. Sammy's diabetic wife, who wasn't sure if her husband's condition was genuine, repeatedly requested insulin injections to try to get him to break his act. It didn't work and as a result she fell into a coma and died. Does the use of black and white filming suggest a solidity to Leonard's condition of life that we are forced to and determined to accept; as in everything in his life is as simple as black and white? Or does it serve to suggest a much darker mystery than what we're being lead to believe along the way? Such a paradox is not easy and perhaps best left to film scholars and journalists with more insight than myself.
By the time MEMENTO concludes itself, the final twist is revealed that I suppose is meant to shock us. Through Teddy's revelations, we learn that Leonard had already previously found and killed the real attacker over a year ago. Teddy claims that Leonard confused elements of his life with that of Sammy Jankis, who was, indeed, a con man and had no wife. Leonard's wife was diabetic, had survived the attack and was the one who had actually died in the insulin overdose. Teddy accuses Leonard of creating an intentional unsolvable puzzle to give himself a purpose in life and that he (Leonard) will continually forget what has happened, beginning his search all over again and that even Teddy himself may become a potential target for vengeance. After hearing Teddy's exposition, Leonard consciously makes the decision to do just what Teddy has revealed and which we've already learned at the beginning of the film, will lead to the events of Teddy's death. As previously cited, Leonard can't remember achieving vengeance, so it becomes necessary to start all over again...and again...and again.
(Wow! That's a lot to take in, but man, is it worth it!)
Having experienced MEMENTO (and if you're smart, you've experienced it more than once!), once can only come away praising its unique, nonlinear narrative structure and motifs of human memory, perception, grief, self-deception, and revenge. Guy Pearce gives a tight, outstanding and thoroughly convincing performance as a man on the loose and on the edge, and with no memory of any of it! Even many medical experts have cited this film as one of the most realistic and accurate depictions of anterograde amnesia in any motion picture. For myself, I can only conclude by saying that this sort of thought-provoking thriller is the kind of film that keeps reverberating in one's mind, and each iteration makes one examine any preconceived notions in a very different light. This is a film for anyone interested in the workings of human memory and, indeed, in what constitutes the makings of true reality. MEMENTO is also, again in my humble opinion, one of my top ten favorite films of the 2000s!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Natalie: "But even if you get revenge you're not gonna remember it. You're not even going to know that it happened."
Leonard Shelby: "My wife deserves vengeance. Doesn't make a difference whether I know about it. Just because there are things I don't remember doesn't make my actions meaningless. The world doesn't just disappear when you close your eyes, does it? Anyway, maybe I'll take a photograph to remind myself, get another freaky tattoo."
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
(May 1941, U.S.)
With Christmas just around the corner, Frank Capra's MEET JOHN DOE may be about as close to a holiday film as I'll get to discuss during this time of year, and that's only because the final moment of the film takes places on a snowy Christmas Eve. The film itself can be described as a nothing short of a massive snowball effect in that what typically starts out as something simple and innocent becomes something much larger than itself in the end.
The story begins with a massive layoff at a large newspaper during a time that may be presumed as the Great Depression. Ann Mitchell (played by Barbara Stanwyck), having just been laid off herself, is forced to write one final column by her former employers. Infuriated, she writes a fictional letter supposedly by a fictional unemployed average American man, a "John Doe", who threatens suicide on Christmas Eve in protest of society's greats ills and injustices. When the letter causes a huge sensation and the paper's competition suspects fraud and starts to investigate, the newspaper editor rehires Ann who comes up with a scheme of hiding the fictional nature of "John Doe" while exploiting the sensation caused by the fake letter to boost the newspaper's sales. After reviewing a number of down-and-out derelicts who show up at the paper claiming to have penned the original suicide letter, Ann and her editor hire John Willoughby (played by Gary Cooper), a former baseball player and tramp who is in need of money to repair his injured arm, to supposedly play John Doe. A series of articles penned in in Doe's name begin circulating, elaborating on the original letter's ideas of society's disregard of people in need.
(Are you people getting all this??)
And so, what starts out as a stunt to increase newspaper circulation soon becomes a social movement in which the little guy, the average "Joe" is suddenly not so small on the grand scale of society and strongly begins to matter in this harsh world; a theme that Frank Capra has touched upon repeatedly in films like MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939) and even IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). The "John Doe" philosophy spreads across the country, developing into a broad grassroots movement whose simple slogan is to, "Be a better neighbor". Far from being an altruistic philanthropist, however, the man who ultimately controls the newspaper and much of the city, D.B. Norton (played by Edward Arnold) plans to channel the support for Doe into support for his own national political ambitions. As a culmination of this plan, Norton has instructed Ann to write a speech for John in which he announces the foundation of a new political party that endorses D.B. Norton as its presidential candidate. Well, you can probably guess that's not going to fly in the name of all that is good and righteous with the "John Doe" movement and John himself. Now a strong believer in his own social deliveries (or bullshit, depending on how you look at it!), John attempts to strike back at those who would do harm to the good of the cause, but ultimately comes up defeated. So now, it looks as though the false front of a Christmas Eve suicide may actually come true as John reaches the end of his rope atop the roof of the newspaper building.
Hold on, though! This is a Frank Capra film! People don't commit suicide at the end of a Frank Capra film! People rarely even die! Yes, faster than you can say, "The good shall prevail!", the good...well...prevail, and big time! In the end, in that great Capra style, the powerful good of the people come together and display the mighty force that triumphs over the politically corrupt! And of course, the two people that are supposed to fall in love at the end do fall in love at the end, on a beautiful snowy night of Christmas Eve. Oh, that is SO Frank Capra...and we wouldn't have it any other way!
When I watched this film recently, I couldn't help but wonder what Capra would have thought of the "Take Back Wall Street" movement that took place in many parts of the United States during our most recent recession. He would have been proud and moved, no doubt. He probably would have also thought, "Hey, I made that movie already!" He would have been right. In real life, though, the power of the "little people" doesn't always win.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Ann Mitchell (pleading with John not to commit suicide): "Please don't give up! We'll start all over again. Just you and I. It isn't too late. The John Doe movement isn't dead yet. You see, John, it isn't dead or they wouldn't be here. It's alive in them. They kept it alive by being afraid. That's why they came up here. Oh, darling...we can start clean now! Just you and I. It'll grow John, and it'll grow big because it'll be honest this time. Oh, John, if it's worth dying for, it's worth living for! Oh please, John...you wanna be honest, don't ya? Well, you don't have to die to keep the John Doe ideal alive. Someone already died for that once. The first John Doe. And he's kept that ideal alive for nearly two thousand years. It was He who kept it alive in them. And He'll go on keeping it alive for ever and always - for every John Doe movement these men kill, a new one will be born. That's why those bells are ringing, John. They're calling to us, not to give up but to keep on fighting, to keep on pitching. Oh, don't you see darling? This is no time to give up! You and I, John, we...oh, no, no, John! If you die, I want to die too! Oh, oh, I love you!"
You know, for someone who's practically a die hard cynic, I must admit that speech is rather moving!
Saturday, December 14, 2013
(March 1992, U.S.)
Perhaps I've mentioned this before, but in case I haven't, it may interest some of you to know that I spent most of the decade of the 1990s multiplex movie-hopping. You see, this is what happens when you don't have a steady woman in your life - you have a lot of time to yourself and what better way to save money on high ticket prices than to see three (sometimes four) movies in one day. Security at most of these multiplexes, at least back in the day when I was still going to them, was total shit! And so, one Saturday night over Memorial Day weekend in 1992, I decided to take a drive from my beach house to a rather large neighborhood movie theater in Southampton, Long Island to see the first big blockbuster film of the summer, ALIEN 3. When it was over, I managed to convince myself that there was a fair amount of redeeming qualities for this sequel, though I'd later realize that I was wrong and that it was just another pointless Hollywood money maker and nothing else. Anyway, when this sci-fi dud was over, I wasn't quite ready to end the evening for myself. I decided to walk into another theater to sit down to watch whichever film was due to start right away. As it turned out, it was an Italian film I'd only vaguely heard about called MEDITERRANEO. I had no idea what it was about, but like I said, I wasn't about to go home with nothing more on my mind than Ripley's inevitable death in ALIEN 3. Besides, over the last couple of years, my interest in foreign cinema had started to peak upon seeing CINEMA PARADISO some years earlier. So I suppose anything was possible at this point.
Well, I can only say that my time and efforts for the evening had not gone to waste because this film is an absolute gem! It's a very simple story of a group of misfit Italian soldiers during World War II in 1941 who are sent to a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea for four months of lookout duty. The soldiers include a lieutenant who likes art, a macho sergeant, a farmer accompanied by his beloved donkey, and other quirky people. These men are not particularly good soldiers, but a cross section of average, independent, and quite likable men. During the time that they anticipate some form of attack by the enemy, they soon realize that it's not going to come. On top of that, their radio has been destroyed, cutting them off from the war and the world. This island of tranquility is soon and slowly populated with people, actually just women, children and the local priest because all of the men were previously deported by the German enemy. The local villagers decide to accommodate the Italian soldiers and welcome them into their community and their hearts. It isn't long before everyone's sunny nature and personality becomes apparent in this place of beauty. The soldiers are absorbed into the life, heat and landscape of this idyllic island. There's even a local prostitute who makes her availability to the men apparent from nearly the moment they arrive. And as beauty and simplicity would have it, it's the youngest and most naïve of the soldiers who inevitably falls in love with her, and in a rather amusing scene with a shotgun, openly declares that no other soldier is to touch her ever again. Now isn't THAT the perfect blend for a love story? Men meet hooker, men fuck hooker, man falls in love with hooker, man and hooker get married, other men never get laid again! Ah, love!!
By the time the men do leave the island, the war is over and the hopes of rebuilding a new Italy for the future are in the air. Hopes and history, however, don't always meet in the end. At the film's conclusion, several of the surviving soldiers are reunited as old men in the present day, having returned to the island that ultimately brought out the best in their lives. In a great sense, this small Italian film is a giant tribute to all those who secretly (or not so secretly) seek to abandon and escape from the grind of their existence and disappear into a land where the rest of the outside world no longer exists or matters. I understand that fantasy all too well. Despite being a man who loves his family, I often long for the pure solitude of the open air and the great sea. Sometimes I get it in very small dosages out in the Hamptons, but then again, I'm still surrounded by neighbors!
MEDITERRANEO won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 1991.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Nicola Lo Russo: "Life isn't enough. One life isn't enough for me. There aren't enough days. Too many things to do, too many ideas. Every sunset upsets me because another day has gone by."
Sunday, December 8, 2013
(June 1979, U.S.)
Would you believe that by the time MEATBALLS was released in the Summer of 1979, I was twelve years-old and had STILL not ever gone away to sleepaway camp?? This is what happens when you spend your childhood growing up in a beach house in the Hamptons; you miss out on other summer experiences. So until the time came that I actually did go away to camp for the first time at the age of fifteen, the only glimpse I had into that summer social world was through the first two FRIDAY THE 13TH films and this film MEATBALLS. The former example of slasher material aside, Bill Murray's crazy antics as camp counselor Tripper Harrison at Camp Northstar were a fantastic prelude to what I might or might not come to experience myself when I inevitably became a sleepaway camper in the near future.
As a young kid ready for the summer and ready for a good time, Tripper Harrison is exactly the kind of counselor we'd all likely want to have. He's young, he's crazy, he's mildly irresponsible and takes almost nothing too seriously. And yet, if you're a depressed and homesick kid away from your family for the first time, like Rudy Gerner (played by Chris Makepeace), he's just the kind of guy you want to be your friend and help you through the rough times. If you're a young and horny Counselor-In-Training (like I was!!), he's just the guy you'd like on your side when you're trying desperately to get somewhere with a girl. And if you want nothing more than to spend the summer tormenting the stiff-as-a-board-by-the-book camp director Morty Melnick ("Hi, Mickey!"), then Tripper's your man, for sure! There are things they all do to poor Morty that even baffles myself! Just how DO they get that bed of his all the way up into a tree without waking Morty?? I've heard of light sleepers, but geez!!
Now despite Camp Northstar being a place of pure zaniness, the film is not about to let its audience get away without sending out some sort of viable message of love, friendship, lessons learned and an ultimate victory for the underdogs. As pure forms of cliché are concerned, everything you might expect in a light-hearted summer camp story like this is here; kids who might not have liked each other during the camp's off-season become friends in the end, the wild and crazy counselor who can seemingly go through girls like a revolving door actually learns to love in the end, and most of all, the lonely, depressed kid Rudy finally triumphs in the end by winning the big running race that wins camp Northstar the entire Olympiad against their arch, cheating rivals on the other side of the lake, Camp Mohawk. Yes, in the end, it's all fine and beautiful...maybe too beautiful. What I mean is that when watching MEATBALLS, I'm doing my best to keep in mind that this is supposed to be a wacky comedy at heart. So it would be much easier to do so if there weren't these periodic soft and sappy songs during the story that are supposedly meant to bring a touch of heartwarming goodness to the whole thing. Seriously?? Does heartwarming goodness belong in a movie called MEATBALLS?? Consider that question and consider the same reason why John Belushi smashes that guitar against the wall in ANIMAL HOUSE when Stephen Bishop begins to sing about giving his love a cherry!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Tripper Harrison: "And even if we win, if we win, HAH! Even if we win! Even if we play so far above our heads that our noses bleed for a week to ten days; even if God in Heaven above comes down and points his hand at our side of the field; even if every man woman and child held hands together and prayed for us to win, it just wouldn't matter because all the really good looking girls would still go out with the guys from Mohawk because they've got all the money! It just doesn't matter if we win or we lose! IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER!!"
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
(October 1973, U.S.)
Apart from his first actual feature film, WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967) and a directing project given to him by Roger Corman, BOXCAR BERTHA (1972), MEAN STREETS was Martin Scorsese's first feature film of his own personal design. It was a sign of things to come, because, really, who else other than Martin Scorsese has given us a true insight and feeling inside the world of the Mafia (Francis Ford Coppola being a very close second!)? When you enter the world of MEAN STREETS, GOODFELLAS and even CASINO, you're not only getting a look inside a world that most of us are ignorant about in real life, but also a strong taste of an environment Scorsese clearly spent some around growing up and in his adulthood, particularly in the city of New York. Unlike GOODFELLAS and CASINO, however, the gangsters we come to know in this film are NOT men of power. These local thugs don't do much more with there corrupt lives than run numbers, lend out money and pretend to sell illegal fireworks to naïve teenagers.
Scorsese begins the film with the intent of clearly wanting his audience to know his characters well. These men are identified on screen by their first name the moment we see them. These are not intelligent men. They live by the rules and language of the mean streets (there - I said it!); language that very often consists of dialogue that doesn't go beyond statements like, "What?", "Whatsa matter wit you?" and "Forget about it!" Charlie (played by Harvey Keitel) is a man who's trying to move up in the local New York Mafia but is hampered by his unavoidable feelings of responsibility towards his reckless friend, Johnny Boy (played by Robert De Niro in his first collaboration with Scorsese), a small-time gambler who owes money to many loan sharks all over the city. It's important to also note that Charlie is a religious man who can't seem to take lesson from the proper teachings of Catholicism. He's a man who sins on an almost daily basis and then seeks penance inside the local church. Yet despite all the "Hail Mary's" and "Our Father's" he recites and accepts, he never repents for his sins and continues to seek out his personal and immoral Mafia ambitions. Yet, somehow, he's determined to convince himself, God, and the audience watching him that's he's sincerely trying his best to move along the path of righteousness. In simpler words, Charlie is the perfect example of pure hypocrisy.
In watching De Niro in the role of Johnny Boy, it's almost a wonder he continued on to have such an illustrious and important career with Scorsese that included TAXI DRIVER (1976) and RAGING BULL (1980), because his character in this film is really nothing more than an unintelligent, twisted and desperate thug who can't seem to realize he's on a suicidal spiral to what will ultimately end in his own death (the man who kills him is played by a young Scorsese in an uncredited cameo role). One can't help but wonder if Charlie's loyalty to keep Johnny Boy out of trouble is admirable or downright stupid. It would seem that there comes a point in life when one must release another person from their life if that person has become too destructive. Friends and family are important, yes, but sometimes they're the first ones who will take you down with them if you hang on too tight.
MEAN STREETS is, indeed, an example of true personal filmmaking with acting and editing that have an original, tumultuous and gripping force behind it. It's the first cinematic look inside a world that we've seen many times under Scorsese's direction; a world filled with crime, violence and quite often, a touch of heartfelt drama and emotion behind it. That, perhaps, is what the Mafia really is like, inside and outside the big movie screen. Scorsese seems to know.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Johnny Boy: "You too good for this ten dollars? It's a good ten dollars. You know Michael, you make me laugh. You see, I borrow money all over this neighborhood, left and right from everybody, I never pay them back. So, I can't borrow no money from nobody no more, right? So who would that leave me to borrow money from but you? I borrow money from you, because you're the only jerk-off around here who I can borrow money from without payin' back, right? You know, 'cause that's what you are, that's what I think of you: a jerk-off. You're a fucking jerk-off! You're laughing 'cause you're a jerk-off. I'll tell 'ya something else...I fuck you right where you breath, because I don't give two shits about you or nobody else!"