Tuesday, December 23, 2014

ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS (1961)



(January 1961, U.S.)

In the vast array of movies that I've been posting since launching this blog almost five years ago, there haven't been a whole lot of animated films, be they the modern musical kind, the computer-generated animated kind or even the legendary classics - top reason being, as you all know by now, that I don't particularly care for musicals. This perhaps, is why ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS is my favorite classic animated Disney film of all time, though it can be argued that there's a song, or two here and there. Besides, how can you resist an animated film filled with a whole bunch of cute, spotted puppies (that's the real soft side of me talkin' now!).

And yet, behind all of the cuteness that surrounds this great film is the element of pure evil in the character of Cruella De Vil who takes great pleasure in slaughtering adorable animals for the sole purpose of wearing them as coats (hey, I'm not exactly an anti-fur advocate, but even that seems totally extreme to me!). This, by the way, is one real ugly bitch with cheekbones that stick out at least ten inches from each side of her face...


By the way, she's identified as Anita's old school chum, but really, I'm seeing a major age difference here between the two women! Exactly what kind of school were they at together?? And exactly what sort of car does Cruella drive that enable her to repeatedly drive at top speed in thick snow without getting stuck or stranded?? Ah, only in a Disney movie!

Let's remember now, that this is a children's film and responsible parents don't tell their kids exactly what Cruella De Vil wants to do with all those puppies. We simply tell them that she's the bad one in this movie and she simply wants the puppies for herself (at least that's what I told my son when I first showed him this film at the tender age of two!). This also, unlike many of the other Disney animated films, is not exactly attempting to teach a valuable lesson here. It's a pure adventure film with enough laughs, excitement and rich animated colors and images to keep even mom and dad happy! Cruella is also the kind of woman you truly want to see suffer in the end because of her downright meanness! The two fools...idiots...imbeciles that she hires to kidnap and kill the puppies, Horace and Jasper, are also a treat to watch because of their downright...well, dumbness! The real pleasure for me in watching this film, though, is listening to the talents of Rod Taylor as the voice of Pongo, whom anyone of classic film appreciation, will know from great films like THE TIME MACHINE (1960) and THE BIRDS (1963), among others. All in all, this film is pure fun without having to deal with any real singing and dancing, and for a guy like me, that's what I call pure Disney magic!

Now, a few brief words about the 1996 live action film of ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS - I don't own it, so clearly I'm not posting it. But I'd be lying if I told you that I thought it was a bad film. Glenn Close was the most priceless choice to play Cruella De Vil and she nailed it perfectly! And if I thought all those running and jumping puppies were adorable as animation, imagine how my heart melted when I got to watch them as live animals (even if they were, at times, computer generated). Like so many others, I probably even thought it would be great to actually own a dalmatian, despite their reputation for being real wild and rambunctious. But the real pleasure for me in remembering the live action film is where I saw it - Thanksgiving 1996, I was visiting family in Los Angeles and I went to see this movie at the famous El Capitan movie theater (movie palace, actually). If you know this theater (Richard K.!), then you know why anyone would go see anything at a glamorous theater such as this. If you don't know it, here's a great image of it...


Is it possible I have more of a fondness for the 1996 live action film than I'm willing to confess to?? Perhaps I'll need to watch it again and get back to you.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Cruella De Vil: "When can the puppies leave their mother? Two weeks? Three weeks?"
Roger: "Never."
Cruella: "What?"
Roger: "W-w-we're n-not s-selling t-the puppies. N-n-not a sing...a single one. Do you understand?"
Cruella: "Anita, is he serious? I really don't know Roger."
Anita: "Well Cruella, he seems..."
Cruella: "Surely he must be joking!"
Roger: "No, no, no. I-I-I mean it. You're-you're not getting one. N-n-not one. And that's...that's final!"
Cruella: "Why, you horrid man! You...you...all right, keep the little beasts for all I care! Do as you like with them! Drown them! But I warn you, Anita, we're through. I'm through with all of you! I'll get even! Just wait! You'll be sorry! You fools! You...you idiots!"

Saturday, December 20, 2014

ONE HOUR PHOTO



(September 2002, U.S.)

This is the first Robin Williams film I'm posting since his tragic death last August. Normally, celebrity deaths don't phase me too much. Celebrities die all the time for many different reasons. Robin Williams' suicide affected me in the most unexpected way. His comedy styles and his unique ability to make us laugh meant so much to me, and despite the severe depression he was suffering from and despite the medical facts behind why he did what he did, to this day, I still can't get the idea of why he would take his own life out of my mind. I still can't wrap my head around why a man who took so much pleasure in making others laugh would want to end all of that. Like I said, I know there were complex medical reasons, but that doesn't mean I accept them, nor will I ever accept them. But that's just me.

And so it's with a small sense of irony that the first film I discuss following his death is one in which his principal role is anything but funny. ONE HOUR PHOTO was released during a year in which Robin Williams had accepted roles that explored his much darker side, including DEATH TO SMOOCHY and Christopher Nolan's remake of INSOMNIA (a great remake, by the way!). Even his look is far from the traditional and somewhat more disturbing to look at...


What's actually more disturbing about ONE HOUR PHOTO is not so much the sad, lonely and violently unstable character that Williams plays, but rather the profession he practices and the dark implications of our lack of privacy that it ultimately implies...but more on that later. As Sy Parrish, the photo technician at a local "Walmart" type establishment, he leads a solitary life outside of the hyperreality atmosphere of the department store. Every day he labors to ensure his customers get the best quality photos possible. His work is clearly his whole life, as he has no one and nothing to go home to at the end of each day. He's chosen as his favorite customers the Yorkin family of husband Will (played by Michael Vartan), wife Nina (played by Connie Nielsen), and their son Jake (played by Dylan Smith), having developed their photos for years and obsessing over idolizing their affluence and happiness, memorizing every personal detail about them through their photographs. Painfully shy and socially inept, he attempts to become closer to the family, but of course, is gently rebuffed. To the Yorkin family, Sy is just simply a nice man they refer to as "Sy the photo guy". The dangers of any idolization, however, is when you inevitably discover that those you worship as perfect are not so perfect, after all. When Sy discovers that Michael is cheating on his wife, he chooses to take the betrayal personally and reacts with unexpected actions. Despite the fact that he hurts no one, there is a frightening and violent measure to the way he simply "just takes pictures". Even so, by the time Sy has been caught and made his confession, we get a sense of who he was in his past life and the sexual abuse he endured from (very likely) his own parents. Having learned that at the end, it's perhaps no wonder Sy Parrish didn't turn out to be a full-fledged serial killer!

Williams proves he's just as versatile an actor as he ever was by taking on such a dark role. But as previously mentioned, it's the profession of his character that truly gives one pause for thought. Although we live in the digital age where many of our own photo tasks and techniques can be mastered in the privacy of our own homes with our own computers and printers, it wasn't so long ago that the art of film and the process of sending our film out to be processed and developed by others was still the norm. How many years of our lives have we been taking pictures, sending them out and getting them back (I started at the age of ten with a simple Kodak instamatic camera and the local Fotomat)? How many times have we ever really considered the fact that our private lives were being closely examined and studied by strangers on the outside before we got our pictures back? How many times have we ever really considered the possibility that maybe someone out there who was studying our lives so closely may not be altogether stable? Novelist Thomas Harris considered that question decades ago when he wrote the first Hannibal Lecter book RED DRAGON in which the serial killer was also a photo lab technician who was choosing his victims through their family photos. Sy, in a way, is a creepier notion because he doesn't keep himself so much buried in the shadows of his obsessions. He actually tries to make close contact with the family in question even to the point of feeling a lot like "Uncle Sy". The family, as expected, would never consider such an outsider as part of their own. This film also gives us pause to consider just how sloppy one can get with their photos and the secrets they willingly reveal. Remember, this is a film made before the introduction of Facebook and Instagram, where private photos are like a plague of death for those who want their secrets kept secret. As a man cheating on his wife, Michael doesn't seem to have enough brains to keep himself from being photographed in compromising positions with his mistress. He also doesn't have the brains to see to it that his mistress keeps the roll of film that those pictures are on away from the local photo developer (honestly, Michael deserves to get caught with his pants down!). The point is that our photos are also betrayals of our privacy if we carelessly allow them to be exposed to the public without any discrimination on our part - and this is coming from a man who doesn't own a smart phone and still uses an actual camera (digital) to take his photos. Perhaps this is why my photos tend to come out a lot better and clearer than those taken by people who need to have their hands surgically removed from their smart phones! Just sayin'...

Favorite line or dialogue:

Sy Parrish (voice-over): "And if these pictures have anything important to say to future generations, it's this: I was here. I existed. I was young, I was happy, and someone cared enough about me in this world to take my picture."


Thursday, December 18, 2014

SONY PICTURES, "THE INTERVIEW" AND MOVIES AS OUR AMERICAN WEAPON



Ladies and gentlemen, I interrupt my usually-scheduled blogging (again - the last time was on September 11, 2011) in order to vent out and express some particular thoughts, feelings and emotions that on this day are getting the better of me. I'm overcome with an insatiable need to discuss recent events of the last twenty-four hours and I hope you'll grant me your patience and your feedback...

So, anybody who's been following even a little bit of the news lately is no doubt familiar with the recent computer hackings that have infested Sony Pictures all due to their planned Christmas distribution of the movie, THE INTERVIEW, an American political action comedy film directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. The film stars Rogen and James Franco as journalists instructed by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (played by actor Randall Park) after successfully booking an interview with him. The film has been subject to endless media attention due to its intentionally negative portrayal of Kim Jong-un. Threats of "merciless" action against the United States have been made should Columbia Pictures go ahead with the film's release. Last November, the computer systems of parent company Sony Pictures Entertainment were hacked by a group calling themselves "The Guardians of Peace" with suspected (and recently confirmed) ties to North Korea. After leaking emails of several other upcoming Sony films (including the next James Bond film), the group demanded that Sony pull the film, which it referred to as "the movie of terrorism". Just two days ago, the group threatened terrorist attacks against American cinemas that played THE INTERVIEW, and finally, yesterday Sony caved in and canceled the scheduled Christmas Day theatrical release of the film and stated that it has no plans to release the film in any form.

Wow! All I can initially say at first is, "Wow!" The second thing I can say (or ask) is, "What the fuck just happened?" Did WE, the free thinking, free speaking, free creative, free movie making society of the great country known as the United States of America actually allow ourselves to be dictated to by a foreign country as to what sort of movie we could and could not make and what sort of movie we can and cannot watch?? Again, by a foreign country, no less??? Granted, I have no reason to want to go and see, let alone defend a stupid, useless and mindless comedy like THE INTERVIEW, because you've been reading my blog long enough to know that I almost never support that sort of Hollywood crap. But people, something unprecedented and, indeed, tragic has taken place in our own country on December 17, 2014 and I just feel that I can't shut up about it!

Okay, so we all know it's our own government's policy to never, under any circumstances, negotiate with terrorists. However, it's pretty safe to say that our government is not going to give one rat's ass about what Hollywood chooses to do with itself. Films get shelved and releases get cancelled for all sorts of reasons, but until now, they've usually had to do with studio finances and what not. Still, as much as we enjoy picking on and targeting the moronic culture of the Hollywood studio producers, we can't ignore the the fact that these men and women are Americans also. What does it say to not only the film industry, but to the American movie going public when a film is cancelled because someone out there doesn't like it? And lets remember that we're not even talking about the average "Joe" who has a beef with a film. We're talking about a fascist dictator in a country overseas whom the United States would consider an enemy. Kim Jong-Un and North Korea have cried "foul" and "Hooray for Hollywood" has retreated in fear. Again, THE INTERVIEW as a film itself means shit to me. It's our American weakness that's really got me steamed! This is not who we are and this is not what we do!

Now let's dig back into a little bit of cinema history and ask ourselves this important question - had Charlie Chaplin and United Artists weakened and caved into political pressures and fears during a time of the late 1930s and early 1940s when Adolf Hitler was in full power and considered an enemy of the free world, would we have ever gotten the pleasure of Chaplin's film THE GREAT DICTATOR? This was the most perfect political comedy of its time that went right for Hitler's throat and summoned up wonderful laughs at his expense. Technically, we were not even at war yet until Pearl Harbor in December 1941, but we knew the power and weaponry of laughter as an attack against our enemies and against evil itself. Hell, even Warner Brothers got Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck into the act as they provided their own lunatic combat against the infamous dictator...


You go, Daffy! You see what I mean? It was fun and even politically correct to make fun of and laugh at Adolf Hitler! And when we weren't making fun of our enemies, it was Hollywood's responsibility and privilege to give us endless films in which our great American actors (usually John Wayne) went head-to-head with Germany and Japan! Yes, even when we were at war with Japan, animator Max Fleischer got involved and had Superman himself do battle with the Japanese soldier...


(I think you get the idea!)

This may have been a different age and a different era of war, but I've always believed that the spirit behind such cinematic rousing is one that should continue to live on even during these crazy modern times. We as free thinkers of creativity have every right to make movies that ultimately poke fun at the enemies and evils of the world. That is the power that movies have as a weapon for the everyday person! Where guns and violence may not be the answer at every political moment, then certainly laughter is! And now, we've tragically allowed the first instance where American laughter and free-thinking fun has been contained and repressed by a group of foreign terrorists (what have we done???) I don't rightfully know what the correct and logical answer is to all of this because I can't help but see both possible sides to Sony's final decision. Like it or not, we live in a post 9-11 world where every single threat of terrorism has to be taken seriously in order to protect human life. I get that, I really do, and I suppose the cancellation of one little movie is a very small price to pay for our safety and security. But is this just the beginning? How many more American movies will be destroyed out of fear of retaliation from those who feel they have a justifiable reason to be pissed off about it? As Americans, we love movies! They're our weapons against life's cruelties and tragedies. If we lose that weapon...what happens to us then?

Let me finally conclude all of this with what I personally think should happen next with Sony and THE INTERVIEW. Were I able to get on the phone with the CEO of Sony Pictures Michael Lynton, I would say this to him..."Mike, I can't say I fully support what you and the rest of the team have done here, but I'm hoping the ultimate reason is to keep movie patrons safe from physical harm. Okay, this all really sucks and it's a major financial loss to Sony that you're all going to have to deal with. But, Mike, you can all still come out of this winners! Do you remember what the band U2 did just a short time ago when releasing their new album? You remember how they gave it away as a free gift to all Apple iTunes subscribers? You need to do the same thing! Yes, Mike, you heard me right! I'm proposing that you offer THE INTERVIEW as a free download to all subscribers who are interested in seeing the film! Yes, you'll never see a dime on the film and yes, it's shit that you and Sony are going to have to eat! But, oh, the statement that you'll make! You will, in one brave act, declare to the world that American free thinkers, free speakers and free watchers of all movies will not be threatened by terrorists and will not be repressed from the art of cinema! We will not cave and we will not go quietetly into the night of the darkened movie theater! We will see THE INTERVIEW!"

Well, I won't personally...but I hope I've made my point here and I hope you'll all support me.

By the way, it suddenly occurs to me that if Kim Jong-Un and North Korea really wanted to start World War III over a movie, then quite frankly, they should have retaliated against George Lucas for what he did to the original STAR WARS trilogy instead of THE INTERVIEW! That would almost make sense, yes? LOL!!!

Good night and live free!



Saturday, December 13, 2014

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST



(November 1975, U.S.)

In the Spring of 1985, I was a high school senior faced with the task of preparing and writing my term paper for English class. I was also someone who had invested a large portion of his own money to buy blank video tapes (remember those??) to record full length, uncut movies from premium movie channels so as to start what would inevitably become a long line of movie collecting. I was also still a kid that didn't want to be bothered with reading a book that didn't interest me much. So what to do? Knowing that Ken Kesey's novel was a popular and important piece of literature and also knowing that Milos Forman's ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST was one of the films I'd recorded off of Cinemax about a year prior to this task, I decided to put my best foot forward and do all that I could to cheat the system! I watched the film again and dug deep into Encyclopedia Britannica and any other pre-internet material I could find that would give me solid insight into the essence of Kesey's novel. The result was a well-crafted, multiple page paper that I actually got an 'A' on! So either my extensive methods of "faking it" were right on, or my English teacher was just that stupid! I may never know but I'd like to think it was both! It may interest you to know that four years later, I was robbing the cradle a bit and dating a high school senior who, by nothing more than sheer coincidence, had chosen Kesey's same novel for her own term paper, as well. So, what's a good boyfriend to do? Give her the paper you wrote (and saved!) and maybe she'll get an 'A', too!

Since those irresponsible high school days of mine, I can say that somewhere along the course of my life, I did read Kesey's book (at least I think I did!) and I would have to confess that it did give me greater insight to the greater meaning of the film. At first glance, it's very easy to presume nothing more than its base story of committed anti-authoritarian criminal Randle Patrick McMurphy (played by the great Jack Nicholson) surviving on his wits and his own version of insanity inside an Oregon mental institution for the purpose of professional evaluation in the year 1963. It's also very easy to not look further beyond the story of McMurphy's own brand of insanity that brings some joy and hope to a group of mentally unstable men who, otherwise, have none. However, it's my own personal opinion that the true story of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST is that of the ultimate struggle between men and women (this, by the way, was my theme behind my high school term paper that got me that 'A'). I believe this story is just as much about Nurse Ratched (played by Louise Fletcher) as it is about McMurphy. When we first meet him, we pretty much know from the get-go that he's likely faking his mental instability in order to avoid prison work detail. Of course, we're talking about Jack Nicholson here, so how much could insanity truly be faked?? It's seems obvious, at first, that McMurphy's only real task at this place is to tolerate those nuts around him and just get through his time in order to obtain his freedom. What he doesn't expect, and can't seem to accept, is the strong psychological hold that Nurse Ratched has over the stability and confidence of these men to simply want to live their lives as men.

(so what the hell do I mean by that? Glad you asked!)

Consider that the year is 1963 and what honestly constitutes the ideas of what makes men real men (it wasn't eating quiche, I can tell you that!). Real men love to be men by watching baseball on TV, by freely smoking their cigarettes, by engaging themselves in card games, by going fishing, by drinking and by fucking! Nurse Ratched seems to deliberately go out of her way to sabotage these simple pleasures by denying the men the chance to watch the World Series and by unfairly rationing their cigarettes. What's particularly infuriating is that Nurse Ratched doesn't appear to be that evil a person. Study carefully the face of Louis Fletcher in her infamous role and you'll see that her face is quite kind, gentle and even gives a false impression of being fair and impartial. You see, Nurse Ratched isn't really mean...she just does mean things with a very pleasant look on her face...and that, perhaps, is what makes it all the more evil. It would seem the men, all except McMurphy, are so mentally fucked up that they can't even recognize when they're being played like this. Or if they do recognize it, don't have the courage or the strength to combat it. McMurphy has that courage and strength and does all that he can to break the rules and give these men the joyous freedoms to act like men, even if it means a certain degradation to women. Hell, especially if it means a certain degradation to women (we're talking about Jack Nicholson here!)! But this is not to say that McMurphy doesn't have a heart. He's particularly sympathetic to Billy Bibbit (played by Brad Dourif), a stuttering recluse who's still a virgin and is terrified of his own mother. Nurse Ratched, by the way, knows this all too well and uses every means to take advantage of that situation...but more on that later.

Okay, later just arrived now! I want to really focus on one of the final sequences that involves Billy Bibbit. His character is truly a boy among men, not just because of his virginity, but also his fear of authority, perhaps particularly female authority. As men who were once boys, we can all likely claim that one of the true rites of passage to manhood (if not THE rite of passage to manhood!) was when we finally lost our virginity. McMurphy knows this and can't help but offer his own assistance in getting poor Billy laid, even at the cost of delaying his perfect opportunity to escape from the institution. It's the morning after the men have thrown themselves a wild party with liquor and women. Nurse Ratched has returned and all hell is about to break loose. We see Billy exit the room from where he's just "become a man" and is being cheered on by his committed peers. Despite being caught with his pants down (literally) by the great woman in charge, Billy's not ashamed of what he's done and he's even proud enough to admit it. This is a great moment for a young man who afraid of his own shadow and in the blink of an instant, it all comes crashing down for him when Nurse Ratched threatens to tell his mother what he's done. The rites of manhood have just been destroyed by a woman who's sole purpose in this facility has been to persistently destroy the rites of manhood. And again, it's not even done with malicious and threatening volume, as if she were saying, "Billy, I'm going to tell your mother what you did!" No, as I previously mentioned, such acts are committed with gentle tenderness in voice and even a slight hint of regret in manner. However, to the stuttering and scared Billy Bibbit, pride and self-accomplishment (because getting laid is an accomplishment when it's the first time!) have just been replaced by fear and a sense of moral terror at the thought of his mother knowing what he just did. Before the scene is over, Billy's newly-found manhood has been reduced to that of a shameful, whining little boy begging his female authority figure for mercy and forgiveness. The entire moment is quite honestly tragic, as are the final results of Billy's bloody suicide.

Ken Kesey was a product of a simpler time and also a time when the feminist movement was on the rise when he wrote ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST. His story involves a situation where the woman is the dominant figure over the man, and remember that during that era, such a situation was not the norm. There are those who could view such a situation as just dues for all that women have had to struggle with in their competition against men in this world. There are those who could view such a situation as one where man must fight with all his strength and all his will to defend that which makes him a man against those who would deny him such matters. As an anti-hero of such, McMurphy not only stands for the freedoms and the rights of manhood, but also the dignities that stand not only behind our manhood, but our daily stability, as well. As a film that's meant to imply triumph, it's impossible to ignore the fact that the story of its characters goes horribly wrong in the end. But even though it all does go wrong, Forman's film also insists on making greater points than its story initially carries, so that in the end, the human qualities of these characters don't get lost in any of its significance.

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST won the Oscar for best picture of 1975. Did it deserve it over JAWS or DOG DAY AFTERNOON? Honestly, even after nearly forty years, I still can't make up my mind. Anyway, it's been a pleasure more or less RE-writing the contents of my personal views to this story which don't seem to have changed since I was a high school senior in 1985. Like I said, it got me an 'A'!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Billy Bibbit (after being caught in bed with a woman): "Um, I can explain everything."
Nurse Ratched: "Please do, Billy. Explain everything."
Billy (stuttering): "Everything?"
Ratched: "Aren't you ashamed?"
Billy (NOT stuttering): "No, I'm not."
Rathced: "You know, Billy, what worries me is how your mother's going to take this."

(YOU BITCH!!!)

Billy (stuttering): "Um, well you don't have to tell her, Miss Ratched."
Ratched: "I don't have to tell her? Your mother and I are old friends, you know that."
Billy (stuttering): "Um, please don't tell my moth..."
Ratched: "Don't you think you should have thought of that before you took that woman in that room!?"
Billy (stuttering): "No, I didn't."
Ratched: "You mean she dragged you in there by force?"
Billy (stuttering): "She did. Everybody did."
Ratched: "Everybody? Who did? You tell me who did!"
Billy (stuttering): "McMurphy. Miss Ratched, please don't tell my mother, please."
Ratched: "Mr. Warren, would you see that the men are washed and ready for the day."
Billy (stuttering): "Miss Ratched, please, please, please don't tell my..."
Ratched: "Mr. Washington, put Billy in Dr. Spivey's office."
Billy (stuttering): "No, no, no, no...!"
Ratched: "Stay with him 'till the doctor arrives."
Billy (stuttering being dragged away): "NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO...!!!""





Sunday, December 7, 2014

ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA



(June 1984, U.S.)

I hadn't seen Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA since I initially bought the DVD many years ago and had forgotten it was originally a summer release; this being an epic gangster film that likely would have fared better in the Fall for better box office receipts. I can't help but wonder how this film stacked itself up against summer release that involved INDIANA JONES, STAR TREK, GHOSTBUSTERS and GREMLINS.

Having originally been offered the director's chair for THE GODFATHER back in the 1970s, Sergio Leone (made famous for his spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood) likely had a lot to make up and compensate for more than ten years later. So the big question is how do you make a worthy epic gangster film (with Robert DeNiro, I might add) and not leave yourself open to having copied two previous GODFATHER films prior? The answer is that you do your damnedest not to come too close and specifically come up with something original in you story. Whether Leone succeeds in that task is completely up to the viewer. For starters, this is an American gangster story that originates from the poverty-stricken streets of the lower east side of New York City and contains many traditional themes such as the ambition and dream of rising to power, friendship and betrayal. Sounds an awful lot like THE GODFATHER-PART II at first glance, doesn't it? Well, let's face it - gangster films are a tough genre to change very much. Power, violence, greed, friendship and betrayal and just inevitable and unavoidable contents of the recipe. So what this films attempts to offer its viewer is an experience in non-linear, non-chronological (GODFATHER II does do that, though) and flashbacks as told through the viewpoints of one particular character known simply as "Noodles" (played by DeNiro). The other slight twist here is that our protagonists are a product of the Jewish ghetto rather than the traditional Italian origin of many other gangster films. Yes, we have a here a story of less-than-traditional Jews as told through the perspective of an Italian director. Ah, yes, ain't America grand!

Perhaps the most key word I can use to initially describe ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is ambiguity. As the film's title would suggest, we are being offered a story of boys who grow up to be men over the course of several decades that include important pieces of American history that include the Great Depression and Prohibition. That's easy enough to understand. The classic elements of the traditional gangster film are also easy to understand if you've seen enough of them. What this film attempts to do is to deliberately not give us all the answers to some key questions as it rolls along and allow it's ambiguity to give us the option and the power to make up our own minds. For instance, what is the 1968 Frisbee scene supposed to mean when it immediately cuts to another sequence and gives no further resolution? Is it merely an establishment of the time frame and nothing more or is there a deeper threat to "Noodles" at that moment as he walks through the streets with a suitcase that we're not meant to see? Then there is the ultimate plot between "Noodles" and the girlfriend of his longtime friend and partner Max (played by James Woods) to set him up for arrest and prison in order to keep him from being killed by police in an outlandish scheme to rob the federal reserve. We listen to the plot between conspirators and we fully understand the purpose behind such a betrayal, but at no time do we get to witness the attempted crime itself or the ultimate outcome. Then there is the suitcase filled with the cash that all the film's friends and business partners agreed to contribute to and divide equally when the time came that sits quietly in a bus station locker. Even though we see the cash, there is a strange mystery to this suitcase that one can't help but wonder if it influenced Quentin Tarantino when he gave us the same mysterious suitcase element in PULP FICTION ten years later. What is the final outcome of that suitcase? We watch "Noodles" retrieve it from the locker, but does he actually get away with it safely, as the strange Frisbee scene may suggest that he doesn't. Again, we're not sure. And finally (but not necessarily limited to), there's the end resolution where we learn that Max, presumed dead for many years, is not dead and has been assuming an alternate identity as Secretary Christopher Bailey. When he and "Noodles" confront each other after years of absence and betrayal, what is Bailey's ultimate purpose? Is it to really have "Noodles" kill him and put him out of his misery or is it really to gloat to his one-time friend and trusted partner of his financial success, power and the fact that he managed to take and live "Noodles" life by stealing and marrying the woman that he ("Noodles) always truly loved Deborah (played by Elizabeth McGovern and Jennifer Connelly, respectively). Deborah, the woman "Noodles" has always loved, by the way, is also a woman he violently rapes in one scene, totally inexplicably. Again, the ambiguity and mystery of why a man like this would do such a thing is perhaps beyond our comprehension. "Noodles" is a violent man, by nature, yes, but the explanation as to why he would deliberately hurt a woman he's worshiped since childhood is puzzling to us, to say the least. As I watched that particular rape scene, I couldn't help but shake my head and ask, "Oh, man, why are fucking this all up?"

But wait, I suppose "finally" was not so final after all. What is the true meaning of the final shot of the film in which we see DeNiro lying down in an opium-soaked high with a huge smile on his face. This is how such a long film ends and we're meant to wonder why. Was the entire story nothing more than a drug-induced dream, with one man's vision's of his past and his unknown future? As I said and will repeat now, I believe that Leone knows very damn well that he cannot hope to match the artistic successes of the previous two GODFATHER films, so he offers the ambiguity of unexplained and unresolved issues of not only the boys and men in the story, but also their ultimate outcomes of life and survival. I can only say that for what is meant to be the traditional gangster film, Sergio Leone offers his own artistic poem to a classic genre...and it works for me!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Noodles: "Today they asked us to get rid of Joe, tomorrow they ask me to get rid of you! Is that okay with you? 'Cause it's not okay with me!"




Saturday, November 29, 2014

OMEN, THE (1976)



(June 1976, U.S.)

Tell me something? Is it just a wild coincidence that on the day I choose to write my post for Richard Donner's THE OMEN, I also start my day off by watching Johnny Carson's interview with Gregory Peck in July 1976 following THE OMEN's original theatrical release on Turner Classic Movies? Or is it something else...???

(Nah! Just a silly coincidence!)

Those of us who know our history of 1970's films, know that it was JAWS in the Summer of 1975 that officially kicked off that season as the blockbuster period of every year, though non-summer films like THE GODFATHER (1972), THE EXORCIST (1973) and THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974) had accomplished the same sort of box office business prior to the great shark fin breaking though the water. But what, other than THE OMEN, did the Summer of 1976 really offer us? Not very much, in my opinion. THE BAD NEWS BEARS was still doing very respectable business, but that had been in release since the previous April. In other words, it would seem that in between JAWS (1975) and STAR WARS (1976), summer didn't offer too much except the Devil's child himself! But if you do your research, you'll find that following the success of THE EXORCIST, Devil-oriented suspense and horror films were all the rage up until John Carpenter's changed things by launching the teenage slasher film with HALLOWEEN in 1978.

THE OMEN begins with the tragedy of the death of a new born, which in of itself, is an unsettling way (though necessary) way to start this film. Distraught father and American diplomat Robert Thorn (played by the great Gregory Peck), chooses to adopt an alternate baby boy that was born at the same moment his own child died and in the process, also chooses not to tell his wife Kathy (played by Lee Remick). It would seem that on this night, as the hospital's Catholic priest puts it, "God has blessed you with a son." We know different, of course. Still, it would appear that the first five years of little Damien Thorn's life are truly joyous ones with his loving mother and father. It's on the child's fifth birthday that things change when his lovely nanny hangs herself in front of the entire birthday party crowd. This is what will now launch the mystery of who Damien really is and what his ultimate purpose will inevitably be. The mystery, however, lies in Robert's Thorn's ability to make the crucial discoveries. Again, we as the audience know what's going on and who Damien Thorn is. Still, any mystery can be entertaining even when all we can do is sit back and take a journey with the film's protagonist and follow the trails to its final conclusion and destiny. Through a very creepy priest called Father Brennan and a committed photo journalist named Keith Jennings (played by David Warner), Robert will inevitably realize that he's raising the Antichrist and that all the so-called "accidents" surrounding his life and those he loves are no accidents at all. These accidents are the true shocker of the film that we're meant to take in with all our attention and our fears. Watch the animals at the drive-through safari break into a fit of insanity in the presence of Damien and tell me if you'll ever want to drive though one of those things in real life ever again? Watch Damien ride his tricycle straight into the table that his mom is standing on at the top of the stairs just before she falls to the floor below (resulting in a full body cast) and tell me if you won't cringe just a little the next time your small child stares at you with a real angry look? Finally, watch the decapitation of Jenning's head by a sheet of window plate glass in the city of Megiddo and then wonder if you only believe in mere "accidents"? Yes, of course we do! THE OMEN is pure devilish entertainment only, unless you actually believe in any of this Antichrist crap! By the end of the film, our hero now believe in all of what the dark side of life has shown him and vows to terminate young Damien through the use of rather special daggers he's received from Bugenhagen (played by Leo McKern), an archaeologist and exorcist who's instructed Robert on just how the child must be killed. One can't help but continuously hear his stern warning of, "This is not a human child" repeat itself in our heads. Still, Devil's child or not, it would seem that Hollywood is not about to have us witness a father stabbing his own child (sort of) to death inside the walls of holy ground (a church). Damien survives, smiles at us in front of his father's grave, and thus, a franchise and a future remake (2006) is born, like it or not (NOT!!!)...


Now returning to the subject of the Summer of 1976 for just a moment, I have to say that particular one somehow managed to pass me by in terms of movies. I was nine years-old and was spending most of my time in Manhattan and on the beach with my father. I believe I went to only one movie that summer and it was a re-release of Disney's PETER PAN (yeah, I know - real lame!). As a matter of fact, that summer, the only movie I could really think about was the color remake of KING KONG on its way for the upcoming holiday season. My father wouldn't take me to see THE BAD NEWS BEARS because of its foul language and I'd never even heard of THE OMEN. It wasn't until two years later, the Summer of 1978, that I saw newspaper movie ads for DAMIEN: OMEN II and that some level of familiarity began to creep in. Still, I kept wondering with a title like OMEN II, what was the first OMEN film called? These are the questions a nine year-old film fan asks himself decades before the convenient research of the internet is invented. I wouldn't finally see the original film until my college years, and even then, it was an edited version on late night television (I was still a few years away from an extensive movie collection of my own, even on VHS). Needless to say, it's the original film of THE OMEN that not only exceeds all of its sequels and the remake, but also launched the career of the man who would one day give us SUPERMAN-THE MOVE (1978) and the LETHAL WEAPON films (the first two being the only good ones, in my opinion!).

Favorite line or dialogue:

Keith Jennings: "But the really important items are here if we're to get to the bottom of this, we've got to start here. This first clipping is from the Astrologer's Monthly...reports an unusual phenomenon. Comet changes shape into a glowing star like the Star of Bethlehem two thousand years ago, only this one was on the other side of the world, the European continent five years ago...the sixth of June, to be exact. Does that date mean anything to you?"
Robert Thorn: "Yes."
Jennings: "Then you'll recollect this other clipping...it's a birth announcement from a Roman newspaper, also dated the sixth of June, five years ago, the day your son was born. Sixth month, sixth day. Was your son born at six am? Yes, I'm sorry, I'm just trying to work out this birthmark with the three sixes."
Robert: "My son is dead. I don't know whose son I'm raising."
Jennings: "If you wouldn't mind, Mr. Thorn, I'd like to help you try and find out."
Robert: "It's my problem."
Jennings: "No, sir, you're wrong. It's my problem, too..."

Sunday, November 23, 2014

OF MICE AND MEN (1939)



(December 1939, U.S.)

During my middle school and high school years, I was not exactly what you'd call an enthusiastic reader of the required material given to us in English class. However, every once in a while, one of the required books would catch my attention long enough to warrant my full intention to read the entire book rather than simply skim through it just enough to enable me to pass the inevitable quiz or test on the material (that's if I passed!). John Steinbeck's OF MICE AND MEN did not impose a great demand on my reading time as it was a simple enough story contained in the limited size of a novella. Needless to say, I enjoyed the book and didn't get the opportunity to experience a screen adaptation until Gary Sinise's remake version in 1992. The original version of 1939 with Burgess Meredith as George Milton and Lon Chaney Jr. as Lennie Small, I didn't get to see until I became a subscriber and avid fan of Turner Classic Movies. And although the remake is a credible version, the classic black and white film manages to capture the experience and emotion of the Great Depression much better, in my opinion. Perhaps it's because that back in 1939, the Depression was not yet history.

Again, this is a simple story of two simple California migrant field workers just trying to survive during a time of economic turmoil. George is a quick-witted and somewhat intelligent man, while Lennie is a mentally-disabled large man of great size and strength. This is why he makes a great field worker in that he simply (I am using that word a lot, aren't I?) does what he's told to do. This is also why he needs constant tending, so to say, by George to make sure he doesn't get into trouble, which judging by the film's opening, has happened already at another job location, which is why when we first meet these two men, they're running for their lives in a forest from angry men with shotguns. So immediately, the film is about second chances and the hopes of simple-minded men who only want a chance at a better life for themselves. In a world where working another man's ranch and farmland often means harsh and cruel treatment by the bosses, it's no wonder a simple (there it is again!) dream is for one to get enough money together to buy their own house on their own farm and, as George and Lennie put it, "live off the fat of the land". For George, who's in charge of not only the dreaming, but the money, too, this requires the discipline of not blowing his wages in town on a Saturday night where the temptation of liquor and women (who also want liquor) exist. George is focused and committed, but even that can be difficult when you're constantly keeping your eye on a mentally-limited dolt like Lennie.

Even as women are a likely threat outside the ranch life, the existence of Mae (played by Betty Field) as the ranch boss' son's wife is a constant threat for not only her beauty and loneliness, but also for the jealous rage of her husband Curley (played by Bob Steele) who's constant battle in life is making sure his wife isn't speaking with or even looking at any of the other ranch hands rather than actually doing his job to tend the ranch. Still, he's the boss' son and his jealous rages can get a man fired in this place. Curley, as a secondary character, is a loathsome man who we can't wait to see get his just dues in life when he pushes someone too far. Our hopes and dreams for that fantasy come true when Lennie, under orders from George, crushes Curley's hand in self-defense after Curley repeatedly hits him for laughing at a joke at Curley's expense. It's also important to note that Curley simply hates large men in general because he himself is a short man. This particular sequence is also very noteworthy in the fact that George is played by Burgess Meredith. What do I mean by that? Watch carefully the moment that George comes up alongside Lennie's face as he's being repeatedly hit by Curley and finally tells him to fight back. Those of my generation who grew up with ROCKY films will immediately recall with great reminiscence the images of Meredith's character Mickey and his ongoing demands to Rocky Balboa to get in the ring and crush his opponent. Perhaps Sylvester Stallone was greatly inspired by this sequence in OF MICE AND MEN when casting for Mickey. How could he not be?

One question that has repeatedly occupied my mind at the end of the film is whether or not the ultimate dream does come true in the end? Shortly before Lennie gets into trouble again by accidentally killing Mae, we see George mailing a cash deposit for the house and farm he has in mind. The dream is set in motion up until Lennie is once again a scared fugitive from angry men with shotguns. It's George who finally puts Lennie out of his misery and also spares him the lynching he'd likely get from this angry mob. Lennie is dead now and George is free of the burden as his keeper. Will George eventually go on to achieve his dream of ownership and independence? We're never told and I don't rightly know if John Steinbeck ever knew himself. The film's ending is not a happy one, but in a world where optimism is sometimes very difficult, it would be nice to consider the dream's possibilities.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Mae: "Who busted your hand, Curley?"
Curley: "I told ya, I got it caught in a machine!"
Mae: "I saw that machine last night!"
Curley: "They told ya?"
Mae: "Why didn't you tell your old man, so he could can him?"
Curley: "The double crossin'...!"
Mae: "I'll tell you why! Cause you were scared, if you'd talk, they'll talk too! You were scared you'd get the horse laugh, like I'm giving ya now! Just a punk with a crippled hand!"
Curley: "I ain't even gonna slug ya! I'm going upstairs and pack your junk! You're gettin' out of here! You and me are through!"


Sunday, November 16, 2014

OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, AN



(July 1982, U.S.)

It's really a wonder that Taylor Hackford's AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN got any recognition or popularity at all during a summer than meant going head-to-head with blockbusters like E.T.-THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN and ROCKY III. This type of drama would have likely fared better at the box office as a Fall release, after all the summer hype had died down. Even its star Richard Gere could not be considered a big star yet, having only a few films under his belt prior to this one. Even though the man will likely go down in history as being remembered best for films like PRETTY WOMAN (1990), PRIMAL FEAR (1996) and CHICAGO (2002), AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN is by far his best screen performance, in my opinion. When we first meet Gere's character of Zack Mayo, his appearance is that of a tatoo-wearing bum with no hope for a future in the Navy's Aviation Officer Candidate School. His father, who's not that much more of an improvement, even tells him that he's not officer material. So already, we're en route to rooting for the underdog who wants to fly jets for his country. Still, his character is that more of the anti-hero; a man whom we know to be good at heart and will do the right thing in the end, but one who will also break the rules and come into conflict with those who would make his life less than comfortable. Thus, enter drill instructor Foley (played by Louis Gossett, Jr.).

Before proceeding any further, having mentioned the character of Foley, let me share with you, for a moment, a discussion I once had about this film with a friend during the latter years of my college youth. In the Fall of 1987, some months after Stanley Kubrick's FULL METAL JACKET had been released, my friend accused Kubrick of writing practically the entire first half of his film by ripping off Foley's character and his harsh treatment of the officers candidates. At the time, his accusations may have been on target. However, after a little research (in a time before the internet), I discovered that Foley's character was not only based on, but also influenced under the consulting role of former United States Marine Corps Staff Sergeant and actor R. Lee Ermey, who also played Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in FULL METAL JACKET. So you see, even though AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN was released five years prior to FULL METAL JACKET, the character of Foley was inspired by "the man" himself who would later go on to play his own persona in Kubrick's classic Vietnam tale. And that, my friends, is how I prove my former college friend's accusation to be incorrect and, in effect, exonerate Mr. Kubrick from any ripping off of anybody or anything!

Predictably, as Zack Mayo conflicts more and more with his drill instructor and bears the butt of his "master's" rage and abuse, the more his true heart and character is revealed. Zach Mayo (ridiculed as "mayonaise" by Foley) is, at heart, a man of honor, principles and friendship. He's also a man who can fall in love, if he only gives himself the chance and doesn't run away from it's possibilities. When he meets one of the local girls Paula (played by a very young and hot Debra Winger, whom we get to see naked, by the way!), it's easy to see how quickly she's capable of falling in love with him upon first meeting him. But as much as Zack is determined to avoid the mature responsibility of love and commitment, she, too, keeps her distance so as not to turn into one of those local girl reputations, as they've been known to do whatever they have to in order to land themselves a naval aviator husband, even if it means allowing themselves to get pregnant in order to trap the poor bastard! But this, of course, is the shit that happens to "other" people and not the two we want to see come together. It happens to Zack's best friend Syd and Paula's best friend Lynette and the complications of this relationship and her false pregnancy ultimately lead to Syd's suicide. I point out that little spoiler alert only to stress the impact that this tragedy has on Zack and his feelings of true friendship toward Syd, as we've also learned that Zack's mother committed suicide when he was a boy.

Bearing in mind that in the end, like most people, I'm a real sucker for true love that rings true in the end, this full-blooded heterosexual male can't help but get a little choked up when Zack finally comes through at the film's climax and shows up at the paper factory to claim the woman he loves (AWWWWWW!!!). Those of us who remember this film well when it was new and popular in the early 1980s can clearly recall that great and final image that freeze-frames with Gere holding Winger in his arms and exiting the factory just as she puts his officer's hat on her head. We may also recall how annoyed we got having to hear Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes sing "Up Where We Belong" over and over again on the radio! AAAUUGGHHHH!!!!!!!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Emil Foley: "Now why would a slick, little hustler like you wanna sign up for this kind of abuse anyway?"
Zack Mayo: "I wanna fly jets, sir!"
Foley: "My grandmamma wants to fly jets!"
Zack: "I wanted it since I was a kid!"
Foley: "We're not talkin' about flyin' here, we're talkin' about character!"
Zack: "I've changed! I've changed since I've been here!"
Foley: "The hell you have!"
Zack: "I've changed, sir!"
Foley: "No. You just polished up your act a little bit. You just shined it up! Don't tell me what I wanna hear! I want your D.O.R.!"
Zack: "No, sir!"
Foley: "I want your D.O.R.!"
Zack: "I ain't gonna quit!"
Foley: "Spell it! D.O.R.!"
Zack: "I ain't gonna quit!"
Foley: "Yes, then you can be free and you and your daddy can get drunk and go whore-chasin' together, huh?"
Zack: "No, sir!"
Foley: "D.O.R.!"
Zack: "I ain't gonna quit!"
Foley: "Alright, then you can forget it! You're out!"
Zack: "Don't you do it! Don't...you...! I got nowhere else to go! I got nowhere else to go! I got nothin' else. I got nothin' else."

Friday, November 14, 2014

OCTOPUSSY



(June 1983, U.S.)

You know, looking back on the Summer of 1983, it's really a wonder that any other films even had a reasonable shot of competing with RETURN OF THE JEDI at the box office. I mean, there were some solid stinkers like SUPERMAN III and STAYING ALIVE (the sequel to SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER). On the other hand, others like WARGAMES, FLASHDANCE and TRADING PLACE did some real respectable performance with fans and critics. In a way, the thriteenth James Bond film of OCTOPUSSY seemed to arrive as no more than an on-schedule release, as James Bond films had become an expectation every two years during the summer blockbuster season ever since THE SPY WHO LOVED ME in 1977.

Before getting into this discussion of OCTOPUSSY, you might want to take a moment to backtrack yourself and review my post for THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1987) in which I specifically discuss "the John Glen period of James Bond films" and how they specifically represented the decade of the 1980s, in general. Having done that, the relevance of OCTOPUSSY and it's story during an era when the Cold War period of the Ronald Reagan years was still in full force becomes clear. Despite being made during a period when director John Glen's Bond films could be accused of achieving their ultimate goal of cheesiness, OCTOPUSSYis still rather a very serious Cold War story, perhaps the most direct take on what was considered present day political paranoias since FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE in 1963. From the moment the film opens in East Berlin (back when it still existed before the wall came down twenty-five years ago in 1989) and an MI6 agent (dressed as a circus clown) is assassinated, the stage is set for what will appear as nothing more than a jewelry smuggling operation and inevitably lead to a threat by the Soviet Union (back when it still existed before...well, you know) that could ultimately lead to nuclear war. Thus, we're taken to exotic India where the ladies are enticing as ever for Roger Moore's 007 and the dangers are just as attractive. Like many other Bond films, the "super villain", or the criminal with an odd sense of strength and power, i.e. Oddjob and Jaws, is present in a very large Indian man wearing a turban who persistently stares at those he considers a threat and can easily crush a pair of loaded backgammon dice with his bare fist. As a classic Bond villain, it's very likely that the character of Kamal Khan (played by Louis Jordan) will not be remembered as anything particularly special. Compared to the likes of Dr. No, Goldfinger, Blofeld, Scaramanga (THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN) and even Drax (MOONRAKER), Jordan falls very short of achieving any real sense of threat or menace, despite his evil intentions of mass murder through the use of a bomb in a circus tent that would kill thousands of innocent people. Not to say that Kamal Khan is not just as suave and charming as many other Bond villains, it's just that...how can I put this without appearing too crass...the man is a pussy(there, I said it!)! But while I consider that there's always room for the good side of negativity, I do consider Khan a somewhat improvement over other villains like Aristotle Kristatos (FOR YOUR EYES ONLY), Renard (THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH) and Gustav Graves (DIE ANOTHER DAY). As for the Bond girl, Maud Adams is just fine as Octopussy herself. Fine; no better and no worse than some others.

(anyway, enough of comparing apples with oranges and Coke with Pepsi! I think you get my point and perhaps many Bond aficionados out there will agree with me.)

As a Bond film of action and suspense, OCTOPUSSYdelivers as well as many others prior to and following it. John Glen may have permitted too much cheesiness in his films, but the man knew how to deliver some solid action also. For this film, the opening as well as the final climax both offer some wild stunts in the air and conclude with the classic explosion that our hero always manages to survive. Unfortunately, I have to deduct some serious points for that silly jungle manhunt sequence (taken right off of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME) that include Bond getting a ferocious tiger to "sit" at his command and that ridiculous Tarzan yell (oh, brother!). However, despite the Bond balance sheet of what works and what doesn't, it's important to remember that in a world of Bond films that occasionally sacrifice viable story for cheap thrills, OCTOPUSSY succeeds in staying (somewhat) true to a period of political history that still caused Americans to fear the bomb and the horrible repercussions of the nuclear threat. Of course, when it's done in the style of James Bond, it's all still a whole load of fun. And I've said before, Roger Moore Bond films may not have been as popular as Sean Connery's or Daniel Craig's, but they were, in my humble Bond opinion, the most fun!

Now, one final comment, actually question, that I need to offer. Don't you all think it's time we had another Bond girl with the word "pussy" in her name? First we had Pussy Galore in GOLDFINGER and then Octopussy herself. Don't you all think the trilogy of "pussy" Bond girls should finally be completed? I'm sure it would make Daniel Craig very happy!

What do you think, Richard K.?

Favorite line or dialogue:

General Orlov: "Who are you?"
James Bond: "I'm British Secret Service."
Orlov: "You should be more concerned about getting out of here alive."
Bond: "I am more concerned about an atomic bomb exploding on a US Air Force base in West Germany! You surely can't be inviting a nuclear war? What happens when the U.S. retaliates?"
Orlov: "Against whom?
Bond: "My God...of course! Our early-warning system will rule out the bomb having come from Russia or anywhere else. Everyone will assume incorrectly that it was a American bomb triggered accidentally."
Orlov: "Yes, that would be the most plausible explanation."
Bond: "Europe and NATO will then insist on full nuclear disarmament and leaving every border undefended for you and the Warsaw Pact to walk across at will! And I suppose it doesn't matter a damn to you that thousands of innocent people will be killed in this little "accident" of yours!?"
Orlov: "Better than letting a handful of old men in Moscow bargain away our advantage in disarmament talks!"


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

OCEAN'S ELEVEN (2001)



(December 2001, U.S.)

Christmas 2001 was perhaps the most fragile holiday period I'll ever recall, having just come off of the horrors of September 11, 2001. Americans needed movies perhaps more than they ever had before since the days of the Great Depression. For those who needed fantasy, there was the first HARRY POTTER and LORD OF THE RINGS films. For those who needed something deep and serious, there was A BEAUTIFUL MIND and IN THE BEDROOM. For those, like myself, who just wanted to have some fun and put a smile on his face, there was Steven Soderbergh's remake of OCEAN'S ELEVEN, one of the few remakes that I feel surpasses the original film of 1960 (there was also the re-release of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, which I went to see on the big screen twice, but that's another matter entirely!). Hell, I didn't even really like the original film. Perhaps I'm just not of the age and generation where I can fully appreciate any of those Rat Pack movies, though I did appreciate the final outcome when the money that Frank Sinatra and his crew had stolen got accidentally cremated with the body and they were left with nothing (ha, ha, ha!).

If you've seen enough heist films in your time, then it's very likely that you eventually reach a point where you're not going to be very surprised any more. As a heist film, the ultimate caper works well in that slick con man Danny Ocean (played by George Clooney) and a crew that includes the likes of Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Elliot Gould and Carl Reiner plan to knock off not one, but three Las Vegas casinos on the same night and in the process, take down the man who controls it all, Terry Benedict (played by Andy Garcia), a man who's also a personal rival of Danny's because he lost his wife Tess (played by the ever-big-teethed Julia Roberts) to Terry. As a film of surprise, it's rather minimal because instead of learning how the entire caper managed to take place at the crucial climax, we're let in on most of what's going to happen as we watch it along the way. But don't be discouraged - there's still a few surprises left at the end to tantalize you! What's really fun here is the perfect blend of snappy, quirky dialogue and chemistry between all members of the eleven. Writer Ted Griffin has crafted a script that allows each character to feed off of each other perfectly, including those that are outside the crew like Tess and Terry. From the moment the plans are made between these men, we're fully confident that they'll get away with it. The question is how close will they come to almost not getting away with it? In other words, anything that can go wrong with the perfect plan likely will go wrong, whether it's dead batteries, smudged ink on one's hand or actually getting lost somewhere in the casino. Any caper that we're invited to go along with is a step-by-step procedure that we're meant to enjoy watching and listening to. We're also meant to sympathize with those who are committing the caper, who are, let's face it, the bad guys according to the law. But again, like most caper and heist films, the bad guys are our friends who are more often than not, stealing from those who we're meant to despise as real bad guys; in this case, a gangster like Terry Benedict who stole Danny's wife.

As a film that's meant to be nothing more than light-hearted fun, OCEAN'S ELEVEN is filled with high spirits that move along well like fingers snapping a cheery tune. Like the Cohen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh is a man who, while capable of making very serious films like TRAFFIC (2000), SOLARIS (2002) and THE GOOD GERMAN (2006), can also get a bit silly and give us something to smile at. Unfortunately, like most Hollywood film makers, Steven did not know when to leave a good thing along and just walk away. I'm talking about OCEAN'S TWELVE (2004), which I saw and didn't like and OCEAN'S THIRTEEN (2007), which I didn't even bother with! Honestly, were two sequels really necessary?? I mean, not only did the entire crew get away with their elaborate theft in the end, but Danny even got his wife back. All's well that ended well and there was nothing more to tell!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Danny Ocean: "Okay. Bad news first. This place houses a security system which rivals most nuclear missile silos. First, we have to get within the casino cages which anyone knows takes more than a smile. Next, through these doors, each of which requires a different six-digit code changed every twelve hours. Past those lies the elevator, and this is where it gets tricky - the elevator won't move without authorized fingerprint identifications..."
Rusty Ryan: "...which we can't fake."
Danny: "...and vocal confirmations from both the security center within the Bellagio and the vault below..."
Rusty: "...which we won't get."
Danny: "Furthermore, the elevator shaft is rigged with motion detectors..."
Rusty: "...meaning if we manually override the lift, the shaft's exit will lock down automatically and we'll be trapped."
Danny: "Once we've gotten down the shaft, though, then it's a walk in the park. Just three more guards with Uzis and predilections toward not being robbed, and the most elaborate vault door conceived by man. Any questions?"


Friday, November 7, 2014

NUMBER 17



(July 1932, U.S.)

Alfred Hitchcock's NUMBER 17 is actually one of the more frustrating films I've ever had to watch! Don't get me wrong - it's not a bad film (I wouldn't be discussing it if it were). The problem is that the film falls into the category of Hitchcock's array of early British films that have fallen into the public domain of DVD release, which unfortunately, leaves many versions of this black and white classic very grainy and a little tough (and frustrating!) to watch, particularly in the era we presently live in where the high definition experience of Blu-Ray discs are the norm for watching films. Nonetheless, once you can settle your eyes, ears and mind on the film and take in the suspense that Hitchcock was infamous for, it actually becomes quite an entertaining experience, and all in the running time of just sixty-four minutes.

Admittedly, there is another source of frustration with this film and that's plot and characters. Again, not that they're bad in any way, they're just about as difficult and confusing to keep up with as any complex Agatha Christie agenda. Believe it or not, I actually had to re-familiarize myself with the basic synopsis on the web before sitting down to take this film in. At the heart of the story is the simple case of a jewelry heist already taken place and a group of people who are on the trail of a valuable, stolen necklace. It begins with a lone detective by the name of Barton (played by John Stuart - NOT the political satirist!) entering an ordinary London house that appears to be for sale or rent. Once inside, though, the atmosphere is dark and rather creepy, complete with the sound of howling winds and close-up shots of mysterious hands reaching for door knobs and staircases, even reminiscent of German Expressionist films. Here's a sample...


Oh yeah, and did I mention that there's also what appears to be a dead body at the top of those stairs? Enter now a very strange vagrant who's squatting inside the house by the name of only Ben (played by Leon Lion - no joke, that's really his name!). Ben appears to be a simple idiot who happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. He's a man who's clearly meant to be the film's comic relief and social lap dog as he continuously follows those who are smarter than him and repeatedly calling every other man, "Guv'nor" in that thick cockney accent of his. So what's started out as one man, leads to two and inevitably leads to a whole group of people who have entered this strange house in search of the same stolen necklace, including the thieves themselves. It would also appear that nearly everyone is not exactly who they really claim to be (I told you the characters were confusing!) and even one woman who is supposed to be deaf and dumb ends up surprising everyone (and us) by talking when the moment call for it. The thieves themselves are also not even your traditional thieves. Remember, this is an English film, so believe it or not, we're dealing with very proper, well dressed thieves who are very particular in their manners, remembering to say please when they pull a gun on their targets and also apologize for the inconvenience. Ah yes, only in Great Britain!

Despite its charm and its class, Hitchcock reminds us that this is still a suspense film with good folks and bad folks. For its time, there is violence and gunshots, but they're either very subdued or even sped up in the film to include it as almost part of the dreary atmosphere itself. Atmosphere is what Hitchcock clearly intends to give us here, nearly making the action and suspense almost secondary...in all but one sequence, though. For its getaway climax, the thieves are prepared to board and hijack a moving train out of London, and I must say, for an early black and white film of 1932, this is a better and more exciting action sequence that one might expect, particularly when the train is running out of control and inevitably crashes in the end. One can't help but wonder if director Brian DePalma was inspired by this film when he created his own speeding train climax in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996). The sequence is playfully frantic and can even make some of Michael Bay's modern work appear lame (I guess that's just how much I detest most of Michael Bay's work!).

Now, you remember when I previously described the character of Ben as just a mindless oaf who only appeared to be in this film for comic relief? Well, I still stand by that, but it's also important to remember that in any traditional suspense film, nothing is how it first appears. That in mind, guess who actually ends up with the stolen, valuable necklace at the end of the film! So you see - there's dumb and there's not quite so dumb!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Ben: "Ya don't have to do nothin' in this 'ere house! Ya stand still and things happen!"




Tuesday, November 4, 2014

NOW VOYAGER


(October 1942, U.S.)

Were it not for the 1971 film SUMMER OF '42, I might never have exposed myself to the Bette Davis film of NOW VOYAGER, as there is a movie house sequence where the young kids of a small coastal town are spending a night at the movies and watching NOW VOYAGER from the balcony while trying to get "frisky" with each other. Though, notice that the film was released in October of 1942. So how could the film be released for viewing during the Summer of '42?? This, my friends, is just one of the many film flubs that exist throughout cinema history.

And so, having been directed to NOW VOYAGER through the use of film within a film and constant exposure to Turner Classic Movies, I'm finally aware of not only a great black and white classic, but also one of the best screen love stories I've ever seen. It's a film of extraordinary transformation as we slowly watch a very drab, overweight, ugly duckling spinster in the form of Charlotte Vale (Davis) break through the barriers of ongoing repression at the hands of her brutally dictatorial and dominating mother whose verbal and emotional abuse of her daughter has contributed to Charlotte's complete lack of self-respect and self-confidence. Fearing that she's on the verge of a nervous breakdown, her sister-in-law Lisa (played by Ilka Chase) introduces her to psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith (played by Claude Rains), who recommends she spend time in his Vermont sanatorium in order to save her sanity. Charlotte blossoms away from her mother's daily control. The transformed woman opts to take a lengthy cruise rather than immediately return home. On board the ship, she meets a married man, Jerry Durrance (played by Paul Henreid), who is traveling with his friends. We eventually learn of Jerry's devotion to his young daughter Tina and how it keeps him from divorcing his wife, a manipulative, jealous woman who doesn't love Tina and spends her life promoting her own martyrism. And so, when you have two lonely people battling their own demons on board the same cruise liner...well, faster than you can say, "The Love Boat", the two become closer and inevitably fall in love, though they decide it would be best not to see each other again.

Arriving home to Boston, this is the moment where we, the audience, look forward to Charlotte shining in her new light and finally tell her no-good mother where she can go! Her mother, however, is still determined to once again destroy her daughter, but Charlotte is resolved to remain independent (you go, girl!). The memory of Jerry's endearing love and devotion help to give her the strength she needs to remain resolute. It pays off in part that she does (gently) tell her mother to back off and also in part that her mother finally dies of heart failure (good riddance, bitch!). Now with independence comes the inherited wealth that Charlotte likely deserves after so many years of emotional hell. Rather than live in spoiled fashion, Charlotte decides to devote herself to helping Jerry's troubled daughter Tina without her knowing of Charlotte's past relationship with her father. One cannot help but feel the genuine tenderness from watching a woman who has triumphed over her own feelings of self-worth pass along what she's achieved onto another young ugly duckling whom Charlotte can perfectly relate to.

Having previously mentioned that NOW VOYAGER is one of the best love stories I've ever seen, it's important to note that the love of Charlotte and Jerry never actually reaches it's full potential. For whatever reasons we're never meant to truly understand, the two of them do not "officially" come together in the end, though their love and devotion to each other through Charlotte's care for Tina is very clear. Cinematically, there is probably nothing more touching and intriguing than forbidden love, or in this particular case, love that cannot fully come together. Like I said, we may not clearly understand the reasons why not, but sometimes in life we may only reach out and achieve what is considered second best compared to what we'd truly like to achieve, or as Charlotte beautifully puts it to Jerry at the end of the film, "Oh, Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars." It's also noteworthy that throughout the film Paul Henreid uses the familiarity of sharing a cigarette, with a rather famous two-cigarette scene, being used as his introduction to this lonely woman...


In fact, during a time when smoking on the movie screen was not considered risky or dangerously sending the wrong message to its younger viewers, the cigarette serves as a strong tool of true sexual seduction, though it's impossible to recognize it by today's standards. You need to go back to an era of wartime and imagine a period when film censors forbade anything directly linked to sexual activity or intention. It's all subtle but clearly powerful, nonetheless. Hell, at that time, it may have been incentive enough to take up smoking!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Charlotte Vale: "Jerry, Dr. Jaquith knows about us. When he said I could take Tina, he said you're on probation. Do you know what that means? It means that I'm on probation because of you and me. He allowed this visit as a test. If I can't stand such a test, I'll lose Tina and we'll lose each other. Jerry, please help me."
Jerry Durrance: "Shall we just have a cigarette on it?"
Charlotte: "Yes."
Jerry: "May I sometimes come here?"
Charlotte: "Whenever you like. It's your home too. There are people here who love you."
Jerry: "To look at you and Tina, and share with you peace and contentment."
Charlotte: "Of course. And just think, it won't be for this time only. That is, if you will help me keep what we have. If we both try hard to protect that little strip of territory that is ours. We can talk about your child."
Jerry: "Our child."
Charlotte: "Thank you."
Jerry: "And will you be happy, Charlotte?"
Charlotte: "Oh, Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars."

Monday, October 27, 2014

NO WAY OUT (1987)



(August 1987, U.S.)

For every hardcore cinematic conviction of mine, there's usually an exception or two. You've heard me rant and rave about my general distaste for remakes, and yet I can't help but confess that there do exist some remakes that I actually feel outsoar the original, though many of them fall into the genre of horror and monster movies, i.e. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978), DRACULA (1979), THE THING (1982) and THE FLY (1986). When I went to see NO WAY OUT on screen in August 1987 before returning to another year of college, I had absolutely no idea that it was a remake of a 1948 film called THE BIG CLOCK (a film I've previously discussed, by the way). By the end of that summer, I would have seen just about anything Kevin Costner was starring in, having already been blown away by THE UNTOUCHABLES just a couple of months prior (I went to see it twice!). Besides, the trailer looked real good and Sean Young is rather sexually smokin', despite the big 1980's hairdo...


Whereas the original film of THE BIG CLOCK was more of a direct domestic crisis of murder and deception within the walls of a powerful newspaper, NO WAY OUT is more of a modern political thriller and its focus on the corrupted figures and their abuse of powers. Similarly to the original film, there is a secret, scandalous affair and a mistress who ultimately ends up dead. For this film, we have a love triangle between said mistress Susan Atwell (Sean Young), commander Tom Farrell (Kevin Costner) and Secretary of Defense, David Brice (played by Gene Hackman). While Susan is seeing both men, it would appear that sex (including some hot backseat limo sex!) and love are only being given to Tom. It's David, though, who accidentally kills her when he jealously hits her and she falls to her death. The ironic twist here is that Tom's secret identity becomes the prime suspect here and it's specifically Tom who must lead the investigation into the mystery of who killed Susan.

(you getting all of this??)

So while Tom must appear to be making progress with Susan's murder, he must also undertake the painstaking task of hiding himself from his own investigation. It should also be noted that throughout the film's story, we're made aware of a phantom character by the name of Yuri, who's been identified as only a secret Soviet Union spy within the midst of our own United States government. Remember, this is still two years before the Cold War would officially end, so this sort of threat could still hold water on the American movie screen. As the film moves forward, Tom sets about proving that David Brice was involved with Susan by searching computer files for evidence that Brice gave her a government-registered gift he received from Morocco. Tom presents the gift-registry printout to David who shifts the blame to Pritchard, his rather disgustingly loyal assistant (played by Will Patton) arguing that Pritchard was jealous of his relationship with Susan (because Pritchard is gay and probably wants David for himself!). A devastated Pritchard ends up committing suicide and is falsely exposed as "Yuri" to the police by Brice, hoping to avoid blame for Susan's death. Who Yuri really is, we learn only at the very conclusion of the film. Guessed it yet? Well, consider how easy it is never to suspect the film's hero of being something other than what he appears to be. Guessed it yet???

NO WAY OUT is one of those films that can really give you cause to miss the 1980s, in that we simply don't see much by way of the cat-and-mouse labyrinth of political thrillers and the effective use of Washington D.C. and its government corruption anymore. Those simple intriguing thrills by way of classic Alfred Hitchcock have been (unfortunately) replaced by the harsh realities of terror attacks on our government soils, which is why when we're offered political thrillers in this day and age, it's more in the form of crap like OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN and WHITE HOUSE DOWN! It's enough to make you miss the Cold War!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Schiller (speaking Russian): "We thought we'd never see you again."
Tom Farrell (speaking Russian): "So did I."
Schiller: "Couldn't you have manage this better?"
Tom: "Not so fast, it's difficult for me to follow in Russian.
(switches to English)
Tom: "It's been very long for me."
Schiller: "How thirsty you must be for the sound of our language. Yevgeny Alekseevich, wouldn't you love to hear Russian again? Imagine Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy..."
Tom: "...Solzhenitsyn, Aksyonov."
Schiller: "Even them, always the sense of humor. In the Philippines, when you passed a bag of underwear, Moscow wasn't amused. I should've acted then. In any case, it's not possible for to remain in the United States. This bizarre incident has given them their Yuri. Yevgeny, think. THINK! You're a hero of the Soviet Union!"
Tom: "I'm not a hero."
Schiller: "Be that as it may, you must return!"
Tom: "I came here! I thought I owed you that, but you can't make me go back!"

Thursday, October 23, 2014

NOTORIOUS



(August 1946, U.S.)

Alfred Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS marks a watershed artistic moment for the famed film maker, and represents a level of heightened thematic maturity. It's an American spy thriller and a serious love story in which three people's lives become intimately entangled during an espionage operation. For its specific genre, the film combines elements of gothic fiction (an imprisoned Ingrid Bergman), a woman's story of a love triangle with unworthy men, a spy film, and film noir with the classic femme fatale protagonist (Bergman again).

From its beginning the character of Alicia Huberman (Bergman) is portrayed as a helpless victim of circumstance, as her father, a convicted Nazi spy, has just been sentenced to imprisonment. Her shame and weakness are immediately apparent by her tendencies to drink heavily and even attempting to drive under the influence (possible suicide attempt?). However, even as we immediately get to know her personality, we're also immediately introduced to her male counterpart in the film by watching the back end of the mysterious man who sits in her chair at her party, studying her. Enter T.R. Devlin (played by Cary Grant in his second of four films with Hitchcock) who recruits Alicia to infiltrate an organization of Nazis who have moved to Brazil after World War II. When Alicia refuses to go along at first, Devlin plays a recording (on an actual vinyl record) of her fighting with her father and insisting that she loves America. It would seem that patriotic duty will win over in this situation, as well as the fact that Alicia and Devlin are slowly falling in love.

Now, if you've seen MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II, tell me if this sounds familiar - the assignment is for Alicia to seduce and infiltrate the life and home of Alex Sebastian (played by Claude Rains), a leading member of the Nazi spy group and discover what their ultimate plot is. Alex also happens to be a former relationship of Alicia's that he took seriously, but she did not. Ringing a bell? Yes, it would seem that John Woo liked these Hitchcock elements enough to virtually duplicate them in his 2000 Tom Cruise action sequel. Even the sequence at the race track is a direct copy (or homage, if you will). Learning of Alex's previous love interest toward Alicia, Devlin puts up a stoic front when he informs her about the mission. She concludes that he was merely pretending to love her as part of his job. Maybe true, maybe not.

Love interest and spying inevitably go all the way when Alicia agrees to marry Alex. This will give her full access to the home, but clearly drive a tighter wedge between herself and the man she truly loves (Devlin). However, because this is primarily a spy film, there are key elements in both story and filming that one cannot ignore. In one of his most famous shots, Hitchcock starts the camera high and wide on a second floor balcony overlooking the great hall of a grand mansion. Slowly, he tracks down and in on Alicia and finally ends with a tight close-up of a key tucked in her hand; a key that will ultimately grant her access to a locked wine cellar where the true diabolical secrets lie. And that secret...well, let's just say by our modern film standards of today, it may seem rather lame. But bearing in mind that this is the year 1946, a time after World War II and before the Cold War, the idea of hidden mineral ore that can be used to make potential deadly weapons by our enemies, would have been considered an element of pure intrigue back during that era.

Any spy thriller also always means the danger of our hero becoming exposed. It's not too long before Alex realizes his stupidity in marrying an American agent and must now plot to do away with her, with the help of his diabolical, old mother. Slow poisoning through coffee seems to work here and it's now a race against time to see if Alicia will be rescued by the man who truly loves her. Cinematic cliché clearly dictates the answer to that question, but when it's done in the great tradition of Alfred Hitchcock, it's always just a bit more relevant and enjoyable than what the surface generally offers.

The plot line of NOTORIOUS is the old, classic conflict between honorable duty to one's country and old fashioned love. Devlin's job, in a rather strange twist of irony, is to push Alicia into Alex's arms and into his bed. So one can hardly blame him for turning bitter and resentful throughout the film, whereas Alex is rather appealing in his figure, both because of his love for Alicia and the fact that he also knows he will ultimately be betrayed by her, as well. These elements feature psychological drama that have been woven into the traditional spy story. It's key to remember, though, that Hitchcock was also a master storyteller of psychology, as well as suspense. The dramatic action is smooth and very sure of itself with its characters and the intensity of their emotional appeal towards each other. It's one of Hitchcock's best during his early period as a director in America, during a time when America and patriotic attitude toward America was about to come into question by those who occupied its soil.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Alex Sebastian: "I am married to an American agent."