Friday, January 31, 2014
(June 2002, U.S.)
The line up of blockbuster films for the Summer of 2002 was particularly intriguing for me. You see, it was the first summer since the horrific events of September 11, 2001 and somehow, I (and all of America, I suppose) was counting on Hollywood to really take us out of our everyday lifestyles of grief, fear and concerns and show us all the forget-your-troubles-fun the movies could (hopefully) still bring us. Sure, there was no doubt that George Lucas' continuing STAR WARS saga of Anakin Skywalker in ATTACK OF THE CLONES would draw me into that galaxy far, far away. Sure, bringing SPIDER-MAN to the screen for the first time and a second installment of MEN IN BLACK (actually, that sequel sucked!) would likely put some sort of smile on my face. However, for a new film by the great Steven Spielberg, I was not only counting on some great fun on screen, but a chance to use my brain, as well. Only one year prior, the man had sparked my cinematic interest and intellect with the high concepts of A.I. and it looked very much like his new film, MINORITY REPORT, based on an original story by Phillip K. Dick (the man who inspired the stories for BLADE RUNNER and TOTAL RECALL) would very likely do the same. Remember, I'm a man who expects nothing but great things from Spielberg. I usually get it, as long as it's not stories about a grown-up Peter Pan or Indiana Jones doing battle with space aliens.
Science fiction is a genre that Spielberg has often never disappointed. MINORITY REPORT is a neo-noir sci-fi thriller set primarily in Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia in the year 2054, where an organization known as "PreCrime", a specialized police department, apprehends criminals based on foreknowledge of future crimes provided by three psychics called "precogs". The primary character of Captain John Anderton is played by none other than Tom Cruise; someone Spielberg confessed to always wanting to work with ever since seeing him in RISKY BUSINESS (1983). The police use visions of the future generated by the three "precogs", which are mutated humans with precognitive abilities, to stop murders before they actually happen. Because of this, the city has been murder-free for many years. Though John is a respected member of the force, he's also addicted to something called "Clarity", an illegal psychoactive drug he's been using ever since the disappearance of his son Sean. With the PreCrime force poised to go nationwide, the system is audited by Danny Witwer (played by Colin Farrell), a member of the United States Justice Department searching for flaws in the system. During the audit, the precogs predict that John himself will murder a man named Leo Crow in 36 hours. Believing the incident to be a setup to frame him, John to hide the case and quickly flees the area before a massive city-wide manhunt begins for him. While John is continuously on the run from the law, he slowly learns the history and the truth about Precrime technology through Dr. Iris Hineman (played by Lois Smith), its lead researcher. We learn that sometimes the three precogs see different visions of the future, in which case the system only provides data on the two reports which agree; the "minority report", which reflects the potential future where a predicted killer would have done something different, is then discarded. According to her, the female precog named Agatha (played by Samantha Morton) is most likely to be the precog that witnesses the minority report, as she is considered the most intelligent as the female. So as the clock continues to tick down to the moment where John is face-to-face with Leo Crow, we suddenly learn that Crow appears to be the man who took and murdered John's son. Whoahh! Now it all begins to come together and make sense. For the entire chase, we've come to believe that John is an innocent man, guilty-as-framed. Suddenly we can see why he would kill Leo Crow...and so can John! Up until the very last moment, we're convinced that the precog's prediction of the murder will come true, and like I said, it all makes sense.
(but hold the phone!)
Just when you think it's all wrapped up nice and tidy, Spielberg turns the tables on us. Not only does John make the conscious choice NOT to murder Leo Crow (apparently Crow was a set up to only APPEAR to be his son's murderer), but the original notion of John's set-up still manages to hold water. The chase resumes, followed by John's capture and then his subsequent escape from his own people, leading to the point where he'll discover the truth. This, my friends, is where the ol' fashioned concept of movie cliche clicks in where the one who set John up is the person he least likely suspected...namely his own boss and trusted friend Director Lamar Burgess (played by Max von Sydow). So while Burgess begins to hunt down John, a new PreCrime report is created in which John is the victim and Burgess is the murderer. By the end of the film, in what I can only compare to the "who dunnit" resolution of a great Agatha Christie story, John explains a rather impossible situation that goes something like this: if Burgess kills Anderton, he proves the system of PreCrime works but at the cost of a life sentence, while if he does not, the system will not have worked and the PreCrime division will be shut down forever (get it??). We all learn the fundamental flaw in the great system in that if one knows his or her future, he or she can actually change it. Perhaps its also here that the thought-provoking analysis of such a system come into question and whether or not its ethics are reasonably open for debate. One can claim that such a concept as a reality could work because it would save many lives. But how could we truly convict those who'd not actually committed the crime of their own freewill...yet.
And so, it's like I said. The Summer of 2002 gave us some great fun at the movies. But leave it to a thinking man like Steven Spielberg to ask us to take a moment to think, as well. Tall order, considering too many movies playing on multiplex screens today don't dare ask a member of its audience to think. No, that would just hurt too much!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Agatha: "Sean...he's on the beach now, a toe in the water. He's asking you to come in with him. He's been racing his mother up and down the sand. There's so much love in this house. He's ten years-old. He's surrounded by animals. He wants to be a vet. You keep a rabbit for him, a bird and a fox. He's in high school. He likes to run, like his father. He runs the two-mile and the long relay. He's twenty-three. He's at a university. He makes love to a pretty girl named Claire. He asks her to be his wife. He calls here and tells Lara, who cries. He still runs. Across the university and in the stadium, where John watches. Oh God, he's running so fast, just like his daddy. He sees his daddy. He wants to run to him. But he's only six years-old, and he can't do it. And the other men are so fast. There was so much love in this house.
John (crying): "I want him back so bad."
Agatha: "So did she. Can't you see? She just wanted her little girl back. But it was too late. Her little girl was already gone."
John: "She's still alive."
Agatha: "She didn't die, but she's not alive."
John: "Agatha, just tell me, who killed your mother? Who killed Anne Lively?"
Agatha: "I'm sorry John, but you're gonna have to run again. '
Agatha (screaming): "R-U-U-U-U-U-U-U-N-N-N-N-N-N-N-N-N!!!"
Sunday, January 26, 2014
(December 2004, U.S.)
Clint Eastwood's MILLION DOLLAR BABY is a boxing drama like no other. It's the story of an under-appreciated boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (played by Eastwood himself), his elusive past, and his quest for personal atonement by reluctantly deciding to help an underdog amateur boxer named Maggie Fitzgerald (played by Hilary Swank) achieve her dream of becoming a professional. While its principal plot line maintains many of the persistent cliches of all boxing films long before it, it is very key to keep in mind that this is the story of a female boxer. This sort of point is not meant to be sexist (at least I don't think it is). It's important because it seeks to clearly define the very unique relationship between boxer and trainer that's never existed (much) before on film.
In very blunt terms, Maggie comes from pure trailer trash, and she knows it. The rest of her family are such trash as well, and even though she seems ashamed of them, she still tries not to forget that family is family and needs looking after. Her background and her desire to rise far above it is what drives her to seek excellence. And while it may not be completely obvious in the beginning, the girl clearly has her "daddy issues" to resolve. That becomes much clearer later in the film, so we'll wait on that one a bit. For now, it's impossible to deny the cliches of boxing and its obvious presence here. Maggie starts as a complete amateur who can barely hit a punching bag. Frankie has no interest in her, but is also a man who's dealing with his own "daughter issues" in that they don't speak to each other. We're never quite sure whether his motive for finally taking Maggie on is because he has genuine faith in her or whether he's seeking his own previously-mentioned atonement. Perhaps it doesn't matter in the end, because as we'd expect, Maggie's professional skills improve over time and we as the audience and the boxing fan, watch her slow ascend to the higher ladder of the boxing world. In fact, her established reputation begins to equal that of Mike Tyson's during the 1980s in that she's constantly knocking her opponent out inside the first round. We don't get to watch a huge, climactic, it-all-comes-down-to-this championship fight in the spirit of ROCKY. Yet, somehow, the quick knockdowns are a thrill to watch and I honestly can't decide if that's only because you're watching one girl hit another (perhaps that is sexist!).
Now, if MILLION DOLLAR BABY did not propose a cinematic marketing scheme of asking the audience not to give away any of it's story secrets, then perhaps it should have. During what could be regarded as just another fight in the great career of Maggie Fitzgerald, there's a turning point in the story that I doubt anyone could see coming without a major spoiler alert beforehand in which she's unethically hit from behind with a sucker punch by her opponent after the round is over and lands hard on the corner stool, breaking her neck and leaving her a quadriplegic. This is the point where Frankie's presence in her life is no longer that of trainer, but of father-figure and guardian, at least in the spiritual sense. It's Frankie who will look after her care in the hospital, who will read to her, who will never leave her side, who will protect her against her own family when they seek to legally take control of her finances, and who will ultimately come to Maggie's rescue when she asks the ultimate favor of him. In case that favor isn't obvious enough to you, here it is - Maggie will ask Frankie to help her die while she can still remember the cheers she heard in the boxing ring, saying she ultimately got what she most wanted out of her life. Only through the battle of his own tormented soul will Frankie finally make the big sacrifice and perform what can only be done by the man Maggie has considered to be her father. Tell me that you don't feel a lump in your throat and a wellness in your eyes when Frankie sneaks into the hospital, kisses her goodbye and administers that fatal injection of adrenaline that puts her to sleep forever and I'll call you a damn liar!
As I've previously described to you, the directed films of Clint Eastwood have been hit and miss with me. For every major hit in my opinion, there's also a major dud. MILLION DOLLAR BABY could not have been more of a successful treat for me. Not only in its delivery of sports drama by some major acting players, including Morgan Freeman as Eddie Dupris, Frankie's partner, but as a rather touching love story between man and woman in the spirits of loving father and daughter. Freeman, I might add, serves as narrator, which is something I've come to believe he's especially talented at besides his own great acting. Just recall THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994), WAR OF THE WORLDS and and MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (both 2005) to know what I'm talking about.
MILLION DOLLAR BABY won the Oscar for best picture of 2004. There's no reason I can think of for why it shouldn't have. However, my own personal pick for best picture of that year was SIDEWAYS, and continues to be. Sorry, Clint!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Maggie Fitzgerald: "Momma, you take Mardell and JD and get home 'fore I tell that lawyer there that you were so worried about your welfare you never signed those house papers like you were supposed to. So anytime I feel like it I can sell that house from under your fat, lazy, hillbilly ass! And if you ever come back, that's exactly what I'll do!"
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
(September 1945, U.S.)
Like just about any other young movie fan in the early 1980s, my only real hint of the legendary Joan Crawford was watching Faye Dunaway play her as a raving psychotic bitch who would blow a gasket at the sight of a three hundred dollar dress on a wire hanger in the 1981 film MOMMIE DEAREST. To this day...well, not much has really changed. I haven't seen or come to appreciate much of Joan Crawford's work. I saw her in a wheelchair in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) and watched her swing an ax in STRAIGHT-JACKET (1964). Pretty grim stuff, to be sure. However, her most well-known and quintessential piece of work has been and continues to be MILDRED PIERCE, based on the original novel by James M. Cain, and I'm proud to own it as part of my classic film collection.
Strangely enough, for someone like myself who knows Crawford best as the infamously portrayed MOMMIE DEAREST, it's her role here as a mother that's made the film so focal of her very long career. When we first meet Mildred, she's a woman quietly on the edge...literally! She's on the verge of ending her life but instead decides to frame her business partner and would-be lover inside her beach house where a corpse lies waiting. It would appear from the beginning that Mildred Pierce is no mommy! When she's taken to the police station supposedly announce her confession, it's here that her story unfolds in flashback form. We go back four years to when Mildred was just a simple, rather common California housewife who's only function was to make her husband happy, raise their two daughters and spend her days baking pies (why aren't there MORE woman like that today? Just kidding!). A sudden divorce and a realization that she's dead broke sets Mildred off on a personal journey that starts her out in the world of employment (for the first time) as a simple waitress in a diner and eventually leads to her ultimate destiny as a wealthy owner of a franchise of California restaurants filled with fried chicken, potatoes and grease. From housewife to business mogul, it would seem the story of Mildred Pierce is a happy, successful one.
Not so fast...
Remember, this is classic black and white film noir, so things are destined to get a bit ugly. For starters, let's go back to the fact that Mildred has two daughters. The oldest one is named Vida (played by Ann Blyth) who is, in relatively kind terms, an ultra-bratty social climber who's only concerns in life are money, material possessions and the people who can give them to her. In more honest and blunt terms, Vida Pierce is the best cinematic example I can think of to never, ever have any children! The girl is a monster and we as the audience are meant to understand that very early in the film. What we may never come to understand is why Mildred can't see this for herself! Her entire purpose behind her business success appears to be only that she can provide for Vida the things in life she insists on having. Her second daughter, having died at a very young age of pneumonia, may serve as some explanation to Mildred's need to hold onto Vida at all unreasonable costs. Still, though, you can't help but long to see Vida get her just dues much earlier in the film than she inevitably does. At one moment, Mildred does catch onto things, slaps Vida's face hard (THAT'S our Mommie Dearest!) and orders her out of the house (You GO, Mildred!). That maternal sensibility doesn't last long, though. Within months, the desperate need to cling to her daughter and continue to be her sap and sucker returns and there's nothing anybody can say about it. Mildred may be a successful business woman, but she's not a particularly smart business woman. By the end of the film, her businesses have been bled dry by not only Vida's financial needs, but her crooked husband's needs as well. It's her crooked husband who's actually the corpse at the beginning of the film and by the end we learn that it was Vida who shot him. You see, this is what happens when you fuck your wife's daughter behind her back (Woody Allen, take note!). Rest assured, though, that Mildred Pierce finally learns her valuable lesson by the end and permits her own daughter to "go down" and "take the rap". And believe you me, after witnessing the horrors of a kid like Vida for two hours, you can't help but hope that she gets brutally gang-banged by a bunch of hard time prison lesbians! Just sayin'.
Just a couple of years ago, I did get caught up in HBO's mini-series remake of MILDRED PIERCE with Kate Winslet in the starring role. It was admirable and had some good moments and is more faithful to the original novel, which to be clear, did not feature a murder by Mildred or anybody else. It was pure, dark drama that pays closer attention to structure and detail, including sex! It's a good film. It's not a great film. I still prefer a little, juicy murder added to the mix now and again. Keeps things spicy!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Ida: "Personally, Veda's convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young."
Saturday, January 18, 2014
(July 1949, U.S.)
One of the first things that strikes me as personally interesting or ironic is that MIGHTY JOE YOUNG was released during the Summer of 1949. From my own personal memories of growing up as a kid, this film was usually only shown on television once a year during a Thanksgiving Day film festival (see my post for the original 1933 version of KING KONG for more details on that), so to try and associate this film as a so-called summer blockbuster is unusual, indeed.
Much of the same creative team that had given us the legendary KING KONG sixteen years prior were also responsible for this giant ape film, as well, including actor Robert Armstrong in a starring role and its release by RKO Radio Pictures. To even bother to make such a film as this must have been considered a risk, if not totally redundant gamble. After all, KING KONG was already deeply solidified in the annals of history and a cheap attempt at making the film SON OF KONG had proven a failure. Yet somehow, with just a few changes and a few finesses, the new hero ape of this film is not only embracing, but also as much fun to watch as Kong himself. Joe is smaller, more playful, and more personally mischievous, but rest assured, also just as destructive as his simian predecessor. The expedition this time is to the jungles of Africa where nightclub mogul Max O'Hara (played by Armstrong), along with his cowboy sidekick Gregg (played by Ben Johnson) are in search of a spectacular animal to headline a new act for a new club to be opened in Hollywood. They stumble upon mighty Joe through his young keeper and friend Jill (played by Terry Moore). Jill has raised Joe since he was just a baby gorilla and is the only one who can keep him under tamed control. Much like KING KONG, the story is easily predictable. Man meets ape, man takes ape to a modern civilization (where he doesn't belong!), ape gets really pissed off by man in a modern civilization, ape breaks loose and wreaks havoc on modern civilization, ape must ultimately survive modern civilization. During a course of this film, we get a rather good look at just how cheap and humiliating show business life can be to not only an animal, but to Jill, as well. We watch Joe cooperate and participate in a series of silly stage acts that ultimately treat him like...well, just a dumb gorilla. When he's humiliated by a bunch of drunken morons, he breaks free of his cage and proceeds to systematically destroy the entire club, which I must confess, is still a lot of fun to watch. Following his captivity and his escape, the film is hell-bent on seeing whether or not Joe will escape those who wish to see him shot. Much like Steven Spielberg would do thirty-three years later in E.T. (1982), it's a race against time to see if Joe will get out of his troubles alive and in one piece. The final climactic sequence of the great fire at the isolated orphanage seeks to prove that Joe will not only prevail, but will touch our hearts as a great hero and rescuer of children in this film, as well. This sequence, I might add, really kind of freaked me out as a kid because I'd never seen such a massive and frightening inferno on film before. I found it even more tense than watching THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974)!. Years later, it's still a bit unsettling to see such a raging blaze in a place that houses many children. What I also find a bit unsettling is the idea that the studio that owns the rights to the film these days decided to add a red tint to the entire fire sequence like this...
Seriously, I fail to see the relevance and validity of such a change in film stock as much as I can understand the same act when done to classic silent films. What do these color tints really achieve?? Sure I know the color of fire, but adding a red tint to the scene doesn't necessarily force me to understand or appreciate the moment any further! In other words, please leave well enough alone!
This original black and white version of MIGHTY JOE YOUNG continues to remain a beloved stop-motion classic favorite of mine that I still insist on watching loyally every Thanksgiving weekend, just like when I was a kid. These are the viewing memories that continue to keep me young...well, younger!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Nightclub patron: "Gee, this looks just like Africa."
Her escort: "How would you know? You've never been out of the state!"
Wednesday, January 15, 2014
(June 1976, U.S.)
There was a time during the course of my blog when it seemed as if I was posting many war films. These titles often started with the words "battle" or "bridge". After some time, it became a bit of a writing struggle to try and come up with new and insightful view and opinions that would distinguish one war film from another. How much really changes, when you think about it? You have soldiers that you can only hope are memorable character and historical battle sequences that are meant to excite the eyes and the senses. Perhaps each film offers a different piece of world history, world war or drama on the home front. MIDWAY offers all of it (well, not really much on the home front scene), but what clearly distinguishes this film from other combat films is just how 1970s this World War II action film really is. Its stars include the modern performances of classic movie stars like Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, Robert Mitchum and Hal Holbrook. The musical score is by John Williams during his time in between JAWS and STAR WARS. The marketing campaign of the day tied it's combat action in with the continued growing popularity of 70's disaster films and it was theatrically presented in a rather silly and short-lived cinematic gimmick called Sensurround which was meant to augment the physical sensation of engine noise, explosions, crashes and gunfire. MIDWAY was one of only four films to ever use this (look up the other three!).
So this war film chronicles the Battle of Midway Island, a turning point in World War II in the Pacific. The Imperial Japanese Navy had been undefeated until that time and greatly out-numbered the American naval forces. The story follows two threads; one is centered around the Japanese chief strategist Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (played by Toshiro Mifune, made famous by Akira Kurosawa films), and the other around two fictional characters: Captain Matt Garth (played by Heston) and his grown son, Ensign Thomas Garth (played by Edward Albert), both naval aviators. Matt, a senior officer, is involved in various phases of the United States planning and execution of the battle, while Tom is a young pilot who's also, by horribly-timed coincidence, romantically involved with an American-born daughter of Japanese immigrants, who's been interned with her parents since the attack on Pearl Harbor. Matt, in an effort to assist his son, investigates the charges against the Japanese family, but it seems that this "Romeo and Juliet" forbidden love between these two kids is ultimately doomed due to the perils of battle and war. The film also depicts the creation of a complicated battle plan. Unknown to the Japanese, American signals intelligence has broken the Japanese Naval encryption codes and they now know ahead of time that the ambush will take place at Midway Island which includes tricking the Japanese into confirming it. American Admiral Chester Nimitz (played by Fonda), plays a desperate gamble by sending his last remaining aircraft carriers to Midway before the Japanese to set up his own ambush. Success comes to those who fight to save Midway, but not without heavy cost. By the end of the film, our own military leaders reflect that the enemy had everything going for them and still lost the battle. Were the Americans better than the Japanese or just luckier? Those who know and have studied the history of World War II will ultimately answer that one a lot better than I ever could.
In terms of pure combat film clichés, MIDWAY can easily be accused of violating everything from its dialogue to perhaps its overuse of authentic combat stock footage. The film makes a bold attempt to capture the glories of World War II in a radically altered geopolitical era that was the 1970s. This is not necessarily a bad thing if you're a general fan of war films. If nothing else, MIDWAY may be considered a crucial and necessary rung in a ladder of war films throughout the decades that seek to define history and our brave American soldiers. Without MIDWAY and titles that came before and after it like BATTLEGROUND (1949), THE LONGEST DAY (1962), TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970) and PLATOON (1986), we might never have eventually been given Steven Spielberg's SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), perhaps the last truly great war film ever made!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Miss Haruko Sakura: "Damn it, I'm an American! What makes us different from German-Americans or Italian-Americans?"
Captain Matt Garth: "Pearl Harbor, I guess."
(our own generation may very well ask the same question about September 11, 2001)
Wednesday, January 8, 2014
(July 1988, U.S.)
The so-called "buddy road movie" can be traced as far back as Laurel and Hardy, if not earlier. In most cases, comedy is the key element, though one can easily claim that one of the best films ever made of that genre, THELMA & LOUSIE (1991) was hardly funny. Still, we're talking about a film of this kind with Robert DeNiro, so we're likely not only guaranteed funny, but some memorable lines, as well, in that rather infamous DeNiro fashion.
DeNiro is bounty hunter Jack Walsh (strong name, yes?) who's enlisted by bail bondsman Eddie Moscone (played by Joe Pantoliano) to bring accountant Jonathan "The Duke" Mardukas (played by Charles Grodin) back to Los Angeles from New York. "The Duke" has embezzled fifteen million dollars from Chicago mob boss Jimmy Serrano (played by Dennis Farina) before skipping out on the bail posted to get him out of jail. Realizing that nobody gets away with stealing money from the mob, "The Duke" is a prime target by Serrano's men. This assignment comes with a deadline, too. Jack has to bring "The Duke" back within five days, or Eddie defaults on the bond and Jack won't get his money. The job should be easy, but of course, as any road movie would dictate, problems arise with travel beginning with "The Duke's" claim that he's afraid to fly. And so, we move from air travel, to train travel, to bus travel, to stealing cars, trucks and even a biplane...all so one determined man can claim one hundred thousand dollars to open a coffee shop and so one man can just survive the hits against him.
One thing about a film of this sort is the cliché of characters. As most of them go, the two principal characters involved in the trip will often start out not liking each other; just think Clark Gable/Claudette Colbert in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934) and Steve Martin/John Candy in PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES (1987). With enough time, travel and adventure, even the most unpleasant of enemies like DeNiro and Grodin can inevitably become friends, or at the very least, learn to be civil with each other. In the case of MIDNIGHT RUN, friendship is reached and triumph prevails in that Jack gets the money he dreamed of, "The Duke" walks away alive and well, and the mod bad guy is arrested by the good guys. Yes, it's all cliché and formula and I suppose it usually works well if the script justifies itself. In this case, however, Robert DeNiro and some real sharp and witty dialogue in a film directed by the man who gave us BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984) and SCENT OF A WOMAN (1992), Martin Brest (he also gave us GIGLI, too, but we won't talk about that!). DeNiro is clearly having the time of his acting life lightening up and sending up all those "raging bulls" that won him that Oscar eight years prior. Grodin, though not my favorite actor in the world, having a good time with the double-takes and the slow burns is a good, light-hearted character of comedy much in the style of classic funny man Jack Benny (look up who he was!).
Favorite line or dialogue:
Jack Walsh: "Where am I? I'm in Boise, Idaho; no, no, no, wait a minute, I'm in Anchorage, Alaska. No, no, wait, I'm in Casper, Wyoming. I'm in the lobby of a Howard Johnson's and I'm wearing a pink carnation."
Eddie Moscone: "What the fuck are you talking about?"
Jack: "I am not talking to you, I am talking to the other guys!"
Eddie: "What other guys?"
Jack: "Well, let me describe the scene to you! There are these guys, see? They've probably been up for like two days, they stink of B.O., they have coffee breath, they're constipated from sittin' on their asses for so long, they're sitting in a van, and they're probably parked right up the street from your office! Eddie, YOUR PHONE IS TAPPED!
Saturday, January 4, 2014
(October 1978, U.S.)
"Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?"
That line, of course, is from the classic 1980 comedy AIRPLANE! I begin this blog with that rather infamous quote only to point out that had I not already been familiar with the harsh contents of Alan Parker's film MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (screenplay by Oliver Stone) by the time I saw AIRPLANE!, that question would've had no comic meaning for me. Just sayin'...
So let me start with a small story. One night in late 1978 (or was it early 1979?), my parents decided to go to a movie. As was my usual manner, I asked if I could go with them. The said no because the movie they were about to go to was R-rated and for grown-ups only. The next morning at the breakfast table, both of my parents seemed to be in a rather grim mood. My mother, in particular, was not smiling and didn't want to talk very much. I asked how the movie was. My mother replied that it was terrible and was the most disturbing thing she'd ever seen. So, even then, at the tender age of just eleven years-old, I'd just received my first critical review of MIDNIGHT EXPRESS. Thirty-six years later, very little has changed. This film, which depicts the true story accounts of a young American man's experiences in a Turkish prison during the early years of the 1970s, is indeed, still one of the most disturbing films I've ever seen. How disturbing? Well, I watched it last night for the first time in years to gain a fresh perspective for the purpose of writing this blog. As a result, I'm committed to watching nothing but lighter film material for the rest of the weekend!
Anytime you're watching a film that's "based on a true story", you need to, of course, keep an open mind to just how much is true and how much isn't. The basic account of Billy Hayes (played by Brad Davis) is that in 1970, he was arrested in Istanbul, Turkey for attempting to smuggle two kilos of hashish blocks strapped to his chest before boarding a plane out of the country. Immediately, as the film begins, you're already aware of what Billy is going to try to do and also that he's going to be caught doing it. Knowing this already, you can't help but become overwhelmed with an emotional feeling of trying to stop him. You can actually hear yourself saying things to yourself like, "Don't do it, stupid!" Regardless of forewarned facts, you can't help but feel the horror of watching Billy get padded down by Turkish security and ultimately busted for his crime. You can feel the pain of watching him get taken away by foreign officials in a country where he doesn't speak the language and has absolutely no idea of what's going to happen to him next. In the moments that follow, it would seem that Billy just might get out of this if he keeps his head together and cooperates. But then that moment of, "Don't do it, stupid!" returns as you watch him attempt to escape through the streets of Istanbul. He's recaptured and is now about to begin his new life as a prisoner in Turkey.
From the moment his sentence begins, he learns the hard, brutal life of his sentence. He's beaten early on for merely helping himself to a blanket when he's cold. Like any other prison film, Billy makes friends and learns just how the "system" of his incarceration works and doesn't work; how rules and laws are changed at anybody's whim and just how horrible punishments can get. By 1974, Billy's sentence is overturned by the Turkish High Court in Ankara after a prosecution appeal (the prosecutor originally wished to have him found guilty of smuggling and not the lesser charge of possession), and he's ordered to serve at least a thirty year term for his crime. His stay becomes a living hell, to say the least. There are terrifying scenes of physical and mental torture that follow one another culminating in Billy having a breakdown and beating his fellow prisoner Rifki nearly to death. Following this breakdown he's finally sent to the prison's ward for the criminally insane. It's here where it appears that Billy may finally cave in to the madness of his prison life. Coincidentally, it's also here at the darkest hour that hope finally rises for Billy when he's visited by his girlfriend who brings him a hidden sum of cash to be used to bribe his way out of prison. This visit also provides another scene that has become rather infamous in itself when she offers her breasts against the glass window so that Billy can masturbate and relive (for a moment) the visual pleasures of another woman (geez, no wonder why my mother hated this movie!). Any of you who saw and liked the movie THE CABLE GUY (1996) will remember Jim Carrey's insane homage to this scene when he visits Matthew Broderick in jail (oh, man!!!).
As horrifying and disturbing as MIDNIGHT EXPRESS is to watch, we're actually meant to remember that this is ultimately a movie of hope and triumph. In what can only be described as a freak stroke of luck, Billy kills the head brutish and sadistic guard (played by Paul Smith) by pushing him onto a coat hook. He then seizes the opportunity to escape by putting on the guard's uniform and managing to walk out of the front door. In the epilogue, it's explained that on the night of October 4, 1975 Billy Hayes successfully crossed the border to Greece, and arrived home at JFK airport three weeks later. Triumph wins the day, and as an American movie viewer, one can't help but feel a sense of heroic pride knowing that sometime ago in history, an American put one over on the brutally sadistic criminal justice system of a foreign country. Is that a particularly PC attitude to have these days? Who gives a shit! In the end, I'm just glad that Billy Hayes sent out a great big "fuck you!" to the country of Turkey!
Although MIDNIGHT EXPRESS has received critical praise since its release, it's also often suffered negative criticism for being "anti-Turkish". All Turks in this film, whether guardian or prisoner, are portrayed as swine, degenerate losers and stupid slobs. One, of course, can easily argue that Billy Hayes could've been arrested anywhere in the world and that such negative adjectives could be applied to any nation, even our own. This, perhaps, is where the question of accuracy of "based on a true story" can come into play. Were the Turks this brutal and terrifying? Were they, perhaps, a more animated people as depicted in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)? True accuracy can only really lie with those who experience these events for themselves (like Billy Hayes). The rest of us are just clueless, everyday schmucks who go to the movies to gain a sense of worldly experiences. We have only what Hollywood will tell us in order to sell movie tickets. The rest of our own knowledge must rely on reading, research and (I suppose) our own sense of fairness and prejudices (good or bad, right or wrong). One thing's for sure...that great line from AIRPLANE! didn't come from being one hundred percent PC about things. That's why it's so damn funny!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Billy Hayes (voiceover): "To the Turks, everything is "shurla burla", which means "like this, like that". You never know what will happen. All foreigners are "ayip", they're considered dirty. So is homosexuality, its a big crime here, but most of them do it every chance they get. There are about a thousand things that are "ayip". For instance, you can stab or shoot somebody below the waist but not above because that's intent to kill. So everyone runs around stabbing everyone else in the ass. That's what they call Turkish revenge. I know it must all sound crazy to you, but this place is crazy."