Wednesday, May 28, 2014

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935)



(November 1935, U.S.)

The story behind MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY has been seemingly told and repeated in so many forms of literature, pop culture and folklore, that it's almost very easy to remember that it's primarily based on real incidents that took place aboard the real ship the Bounty in 1789. I can recall my first exposure to the story in some form or another by a satirical reference in an episode of The Flintstones, and long before I'd ever see this stunning black and white classic version of the original novel, I recall seeing bits and pieces of the 1981 film THE BOUNTY on HBO. Although its historical accuracy has been questioned (inevitable as it's based on a novel about the facts and not the facts themselves), film critics generally consider this adaptation to be the best cinematic work inspired by the real life mutiny.

At its heart, the film's story of the mutiny aboard a British naval ship also dives deep into the dignity and tolerance of men against the vicious cruelty of one man's dictatorship; namely the ship's captain William Bligh (played superbly by Charles Laughton). The true irony, however, is that all of Bligh's actions against the men under his command are perfectly legal and permissible by the English law of the sea at the time. If one were to research the facts and take them to heart, it was this particular mutiny aboard the Bounty that inevitable lead to a better understanding and level of respect between those who sailed these great ships and those who commanded them. For the viewer of this 1935 film, the harshness and cruelty displayed against these men seems unbelievably intolerable. One can only wonder why it takes as long as it does for the film's main protagonist Fletcher Christian (played by Clark Gable with his shirt off throughout most of the film - take note, ladies!) to form the inevitable uprising against not only Bligh but the entire system of cruel naval discipline that has claimed too many lives and too much of man's spirit. Despite committing an act of treason, Mr. Christian does retain a level of humanity and refuses to allow any more bloodshed by seeing Bligh killed. Bligh and his supportive commanders are instead cast adrift to survive on their own against the madness of the sea. What once began as the dutiful rights of a captain's privilege have now become a personal vendetta for Bligh as he vows to find Mr. Christian and see him hanged from the highest yardarm. It doesn't happen, though, and Bligh's greatest defeat is not only Mr. Christian's freedom but a change in the ripple of naval law and what it means to be a free-spirited man and perhaps a proper Englishman.

Seriously, though, watch this film and tell me that despite the fact that the film is dated for its era, you don't watch and listen to a horribly disgusting little man like Captain Bligh and think to yourself, "What an asshole!"

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY won the Oscar for best picture of 1935.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Captain William Bligh: "Mr Byam, if you were loyal when Christian escaped, I should have found you DEAD!"

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS



(November 1974, U.S.)

Before I discuss this great Agatha Christie film, I would ask those who are old enough and who have the memory for it to think back to the last few months of the year 1974 and consider some of the great films that were released besides this one. By Christmas of that year, you could open up the local newspaper and choose from great titles like THE GODFATHER-PART II, CHINATOWN, THE TOWERING INFERNO, THE CONVERSATION, LENNY, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and even a couple of bad disaster films like EARTHQUAKE and AIRPORT 1975.

So now, having just gotten all deep and serious with my previous blog for Steven Spielberg's MUNICH (2005), it's a small relief to discuss something lighthearted and fun. While I suppose the subject of murder can never really be considered light material, in the hands of an Agatha Christie whodunit and the great Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, it's always fun. The film doesn't start off particularly fun, though. The opening sequence is a rather eerie montage depicting the kidnapping and murder of a little girl in 1930 by the name of Daisy Armstrong which is inspired very heavily by the real-life kidnapping of American aviator Charles Lindbergh's baby in 1932 (look this up!). Cut to five years later and Poirot (played by Albert Finney) finds himself on the Orient Express (look that up, too!) en route to London with an entire entourage of interesting characters. Like many Christie stories, the murder victim is a less-than-likable character and everyone has reason to be suspect. The victim here is American business tycoon, Mr. Ratchett (played by Richard Widmark). While he definitely comes off as a big hard-ass, he hardly seems evil or worthy of murder before he's actually killed. It's only after his body has been discovered poisoned and with twelve stab wounds that we learn his true identity and that he was the man behind the kidnapping and murder of baby Armstrong. Thus, in the fine tradition of the classic whodunit, our hero detective questions everybody and deduces his own conclusions. This is where you, as the film viewer, start to open your eyes and ears just a little bit more to try and see if you can catch on to the assortment of clues that are handed down before you. Interestingly, throughout the investigation process, the secrets revealed are less about murder motives of each suspect, but rather their true identity and how each of them relate to the Armstrong case. As each person's true nature and past life is revealed, we learn why each of them had a reason to personally hate Mr. Ratchett...and still, it seems that no one did it because each person appears to have an iron-clad alibi.

(but not for long!)

Like true Agatha Christie tradition, you wait with patience for the latter part of the film when the great detective will assemble all suspects together in the same room and reveal his discoveries and conclusions. He'll go step-by-step and you'll scratch your head because you totally understand it all or you're still in the dark. For this mystery, the revelation doesn't come in the form of one murderer, but ALL!

(major spoiler alert!)

That's right, you heard me! Turns out every passenger on the train is in cahoots with each other to execute the murder of Mr. Ratchett! Orchestrated by baby Armstrong's surviving grandmother Harriet Hubbard (played by Lauren Bacall), each train passenger takes a turn at stabbing the already poisoned body of Mr. Ratchett to take revenge for the murder of a little girl they each had a connection to; from the butler, to the aunt, to the nurse, to the chauffeur, it's an all-out stab fest in the name of revenge, justice and honor...and in the end, none of them will be arrested and go to jail.

Okay, so it seems I've spoken of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS with great enthusiasm, but I can hardly call the film perfect. To begin with, Albert Finney is definitely no Peter Ustinov! This is the Hercule Poirot I grew up and still the best, in my opinion! While Finney clearly has fun with the role, their are times when subtlety and charm seem to be replaced by extravagant wildness and overacting. And seriously, what is up with that shiny, greasy black hair of his?? Also, I have to take a moment to pick on Martin Balsam's character performance and his constant repetition of "He did it!" or "She did it!" for each and every suspect that Poirot interrogates. The intended comic relief element of such a character just doesn't work with me.

So having said all that, let me conclude with a shout-out to Hollywood - it's been thirty-two years since the last Agatha Christie theatrical film (EVIL UNDER THE SUN was the last one in 1982)! It's time for another one with a great all-star cast! Hell, you even have my blessing to remake MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS! Alfred Molina played Hercule Poirot in a 2001 TV movie of the same film (of which I have yet to see!), so why not recast him since he seems to fit the bill! Or, perhaps Ralph Fiennes can put on a few pounds because I think he'd be perfect in the role, too! Are you listening???

Favorite line or dialogue:

Bianchi: "You mean you saw the man? You can identify the murderer?"
Mrs. Hubbard: "I mean nothing of the kind. I mean there was a man in my compartment last night. It was pitch dark, of course, and my eyes were closed in terror."
Bianchi: "Then how did you know it was a man?"
Mrs. Hubbard: "Because I've enjoyed very warm relations with both my husbands."
Bianchi: "With your eyes closed?"
Mrs. Hubbard: "That helped."

Sunday, May 18, 2014

MUNICH



(December 2005, U.S.)

For this post of Steven Spielberg's MUNICH, I'm going to open with the exact same words I used to open my blog for Otto Preminger's 1961 film of EXODUS some time ago and that's this...this blog should probably have been ghost-written by my cousin Danny. He's a thousand times more the Jew than I'll ever want to be, he's half Israeli and he surely knows a lot more about the factual history behind the events that happened following the terrorist massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics. My knowledge, like many others, is often associated with this iconic black and white photographed that was taken during the event...


Still, it's my writing, so I'll do my best to do not only the film justice, but the historical events that inspired it. But having mentioned my cousin Danny, let me just stay focused on him for a moment. From the moment I saw MUNICH on the big screen, one of my early initial reactions was to tell him to go see it as quickly as possible. You see, I knew the subject matter would ring true with him. He was born in America and is as American as you, me and the next guy (the man was a "Dead-Head" back in the day! How much more American can you get than that??). But strictly speaking, he's also as pro-Israel as I'm ever likely to meet; a man who takes his homeland roots and religion rather seriously (sometimes too seriously for my tastes, but hey - it's the differences between family members that command respect and sometimes bring them closer). Well, guess what happened! To my shocking dismay, Danny's reaction was less than enthusiastic. So after I lifted my fallen jaw off of the floor, I asked why he felt that way. His response seemed to dwell on whatever he considered to be gross inaccuracies of not only the Israeli government's secret retaliation against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) after the Munich massacre, but also some of the distorted facts regarding Mossad, the national intelligence agency of Israel, and also of its agents. This is where discussions regarding film and politics goes head-to-head. Those who know their history and their governmental facts of any true life event are always going to be the first to cry bloody murder against any Hollywood production that attempts to tell their own story based on facts. Example? How much of Oliver Stone's JFK can honestly claim to be all true-blue?? As fans of pure film, are we not required to create and draw the fine line between what is fact and what is fiction? MUNICH does not claim to or attempt to be a documentary of the facts. It's Hollywood based on true events. And strictly speaking as a hard-boiled fan of Steven Spielberg's credibility as a storyteller, I have nothing but faith in the man, his craft and his research to give MUNICH more than a fair chance at itself. Anyway, I'll get back to Danny later.

The film begins with a depiction of the events of the 1972 Munich Olympics committed by the terrorist organization know as "Black September" and then cuts to the home of Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir, where an agent of Mossad, Avner Kaufman (played by post-Hulk Eric Bana), is chosen to lead an assassination mission against eleven Palestinians who were allegedly had a hand in the planning of the massacre. To give the Israeli government plausible deniability and at the direction of his handler Ephraim (played by Geoffrey Rush), Avner resigns from Mossad and operates with no official ties to Israel. His team includes four Jewish volunteers from around the world, each with their own speciality of assassination, including South African driver Steve (played by a chilling pre-Bond Daniel Craig) and a Belgian toy-maker and explosives expert Robert (played by Mathieu Kassovitz). Much like the traditional James Bond film, we follow our heroes to different cities in Europe as they reign their own brand of assassination terror in the name of justice and vengeance for those Israelis who were massacred in Munich. Take note that I use the word "Israelis" and not hostages when describing the victims of terror. This is important because its this fact that primarily drives these men to commit rather unspeakable acts of violence in the name of counter-acting violence. The often-reluctant assassins argue about the morality and logistics of their mission and for the sake of protecting their own souls of righteousness, they routinely remind themselves that what they're doing is in the name of their beloved Israel and their fellow Jews. This conviction is perhaps best understood (and perhaps even cheered by those who are Jewish) when a bad ass son-of-a-bitch like Daniel Craig says things like, "Don't fuck with the Jews!" and "The only blood that matters to me is Jewish blood!"

Despite the hard-heartedness of these men, there is also the perfect touches of real humanity in their souls. Note in particular the sequence of their second target when their assassination attempt is aborted the moment they learn that their victim's little girl will get caught in the bomb's explosion and then immediately resumed the moment she leaves the building. These are paid men with specific targets who, perhaps unlike other traditional and more vicious terrorists and assassins, are willing to make every effort to spare any innocent casualties of war. Does this make them better men? Does it make them more righteous? This is clearly Spielberg's message and question throughout a story that reminds us that their is justification for vengeance and murder during a post 9-11 decade of America when we as a country attacked by terrorists question how and when violence is meant to be counter-attacked with greater violence (the film actually concludes with a final shot of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the distance). Yes, an eye for an eye makes the most sense to most of us (it does to ME!) and the Klingon (STAR TREK) proverb will tell you, revenge is a dish best served cold, and this film doesn't miss a chance to remind us of that. But the film also seems to want to explore the possibility of empathy for both sides of the coin. During the scene in which the Israeli team and a team of Palestinian soldiers are mistakenly sent to the same safe house in Athens, Avner finds himself having a heartfelt political conversation with one of the rival PLO members (ironically, he later kills him during a hit on another target), while the rest of the rival soldiers find some temporary peace in simply agreeing on a song playing on a radio station that broadcasts from neither of their countries. It's little subtleties like this that outline the hearts of men during times of political conflict and unrest. By the end of the film, Avner is disillusioned and living in Brooklyn, trying to do nothing more than protect his family and regain his humanity. Did he do the right thing? Was their any evidence to support the necessity of his actions and the entire operation? He'll likely never know because technically, he and his team never existed, nor did the mission. He's now left only with his own conscience and the simplicity of trying to survive in a hard world filled with violence.

So now let's talk further about controversy and historical authenticity. Is there any true comparison to the actions of our heroes in MUNICH and how it works in reality? This revenge squad obsesses about making sure only their targets are hit and meticulous care is taken to avoid collateral damage, but is that really the way things happen with Israeli assassins or any other, for that matter? For myself, I cannot claim to know the true workings of any foreign government (let alone the American one!), nor do I know how a true operation like Mossad and its agents function in real life. In the case of this film, fact may be fiction and fiction may be fact, for all I know. Perhaps I don't even care. I want facts, I want fiction, I want intrigue and I want historical entertainment in a way that only the great Steven Spielberg can give me, and often does! For someone like my cousin Danny, however, (yes, we're back to him now!), fact versus fiction may require a stronger discipline. As I said, his initial reaction to the film was negative for such reasons. However, because time and reinterpretation are often kind to a film, I'm happy to say that after some repeated viewings of MUNICH on HBO, Danny finally came to is senses and realized what a great motion picture it is. Perhaps even after some additional consideration and open-mindedness, he even realized that the film had a stronger and more accurate message of man, country, humanity and vengeance than he initially realized. And for that, I'll dedicate this blog post for MUNICH to Danny...because in a way, this film was specially made for a man like him - the American man and the Israeli man!

You know, those who know me best know that despite being born Jewish, I'm about as far from a practicing Jew as you're ever likely to meet. Believe it or not, this has sometimes made me a bit of a "black sheep" in my family in a rather fun, good-natured, teasing sort of way. People like Danny, though, and even my own wife, don't hide the fact that they wish I would take being a Jew just a bit more seriously. To do so would surely please some in my family, but would also be the grossest display of hypocrisy I could ever imagine...and those who know me well know that I detest nothing more in life than hypocrisy! Spielberg was also accused once or twice of not truly embracing his Jewish heritage when he was younger. He's likely more than made up for that with films like SCHINDLER'S LIST and MUNICH.

Finally, on the slightly lighter side of things, let me just say that I say MUNICH on its opening day and then in an act of mulitplex-hopping, I sat down to watch the film SYRIANA the same day. Not exactly a day of uplifting cinema, but two great films, nonetheless.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Avner Kaufman: "Come to my house for dinner tonight. Come on, you're a Jew, you're a stranger. It's written someplace or other that I'm meant to ask you to come and break bread with me. So...break bread with me, Ephraim."

Okay, I'm afraid I'm still not done because this final line that closes the film commands some thought and questioning here. This is a truly intriguing line, in my opinion. On the one hand, it speaks of kindness and respect because Avner is offering to break bread with a man whom he generally despises. On the other hand, is this kindness derived simply because Ephraim is a Jew and because Avner feels he's complying with a written proverb? I may be a nice person (in general), but I'm hardly the type who treats every one of his fellow men like his own brother (because I don't!)! If I'm to ask someone to share a meal with me, shall it simply be because I feel I have to because I'm a Jew and he's a Jew and somewhere it's written that all Jews should break bread with each other? Would a Jew feel the need or the desire to extend such an act of kind invitation to say, a Christian, or one of another religious denomination? I would argue that such an offer of bread breaking is, on the surface, an act of unselfish kindness, but is also laced with some genuine racism and prejudice, as well. Perhaps with these final words, I've just opened myself up to yet another religious argument with my cousin Danny...or a real pissed off rabbi!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

MUMMY, THE (1932)



(December 1932, U.S.)

I'm half Egyptian. My mother was born in the city of Cairo before coming to the United States in the early 1960s. I mention this only because other than THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956) and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), the black and white classic of THE MUMMY may be about as close to getting back to my so-called "homeland roots" as I'll ever get on film. Though I did actually actually visit Egypt back in 1998. Great trip!

THE MUMMY falls into the mix of all those great Universal horror films that dominated the 1930s during the era of the Great Depression. Interestingly, though, it's my opinion that this film is perhaps the least scary of the entire lot when compared to the likes of FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA. Though in some repeated sequences throughout the film, I can see why this image of Boris Karloff as the ancient re-born mummy would frighten and horrify moviegoers back in the day...


Like I said, this particular horror film is not that frightening, in my opinion. The story itself, however, does intrigue me. In a running time of just seventy-three minutes, there are some complex issues regarding life, death, re-births and ancient Egyptian history and folklore. An ancient Egyptian priest called Imhotep (Karloff) is accidentally revived when an archaeological expedition digs up his mummy. Imhotep had been mummified alive for attempting to resurrect his forbidden lover and princess. Despite the cliches of strict warning not to tempt the fate of ancient awakenings, one of the diggers reads aloud from an ancient life-giving scroll known as the Scroll of Thoth. Imhotep escapes from the archaeologists, taking the scroll, and prowls Cairo seeking the modern reincarnation of his beloved Princess, Ankh-Es-En-Amon (played by Zita Johann). Cut to ten years later, Imhotep is masquerading as a modern Egyptian named Ardath Bey. He calls upon the modern professors of archaeology and shows them where to dig to find Ankh-Es-En-Amon's tomb, and of course, the do find her. Imhotep encounters Helen Grosvenor (also Zita Johann), a woman bearing a striking resemblance to his Princess. Believing her to be Ankh-Es-En-Amon's (that is not an easy name to say!) reincarnation, he attempts to kill her, with the intention of mummifying her, resurrecting her, and making her his bride. She's ultimately saved when she actually remembers her past life and prays to the goddess statue Isis to save her life. The statue emits a beam of light that destroys the Scroll of Thoth, thereby reducing Imhotep to dust and destroying him forever. Forever? Not really. How many MUMMY films did they make in the 1940s? Did Abbott and Costello not meet the Mummy in the 1950s? How many Brendan Fraser MUMMY films were made since 1999? Yeah...sure...the Mummy is definitely dead...about as dead as Jason Voorhees ever was!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Imhotep: "You will not remember what I show you now, and yet I shall awaken memories of love...and crime...and death."

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

MULHOLLAND DR.



(October 2001, U.S.)

Over the years, I've started to wonder if we're ever going to see David Lynch in (mainstream) art cinema again. His last film INLAND EMPIRE was in 2007 and since then he's been seen on the internet mostly. While my brain ponders this question, I can't help but hold onto his collection of work for dear life. Should there not be any more David Lynch films, treasures like BLUE VELVET (1986), TWIN PEAKS and WILD AT HEART (both 1990) and MULHOLLAND DR. shall become all the more valid for those who truly appreciate cinema as art. And as is the case with much of the world's art, the ability to both understand and appreciate it is solely dependent on the viewer.

As a neo-noir film, the story of MULHOLLAND DR. (at least on the surface) is of an aspiring actress named Betty Elms (played by Naomi Watts), newly arrived in Los Angeles, California who meets and befriends a recent amnesiac woman (played by Laura Harring) hiding in an apartment that belongs to Betty's aunt. As with any Lynch story, it also includes several other seemingly unrelated vignettes that eventually connect in various ways, as well as surreal scenes and images that relate to the film's cryptic narrative. The film is hugely atmospheric with the flavor of Los Angeles, it's massive city lights and the dark unknowns of it's quiet suburban streets. Yes, L.A. may be considered a city of dreams, but through Lynch's eyes, it's also quite a living nightmare.

The character of Betty can perhaps be best described as a picture postcard of Hollywood innocence in the classic tradition of someone like Grace Kelly in an Alfred Hitchcock film. She's beautiful, naïve and filled with a rather heart-melting sunny disposition. Behind the cuteness, however, is a girl who not only longs for Hollywood stardom (and would perhaps sleep with anyone who could help her obtain it), but also appears to enjoy diving into a good, real life mystery. As previously mentioned, her new friend who calls herself Rita suffers from amnesia, a result of a horrible car accident we see at the beginning of the film, and Betty's sweet nature can't help but try to help her (Rita) discover the mystery of her identity. Rita also happens to have in her possession a large amount of cash and a mysterious blue box that comes with a matching key. What is the box for and what will happen when it's opened? With Lynch, we can only guess!

One thing we don't have to guess and that's Betty and Rita make hot looking lovers! Admittedly, sex is not the first thing I think of when I consider the films of David Lynch, but the man does managed to put together some steamy sequences...


The average David Lynch viewer is meant to muddle along with the basic outlines of any story while concentrating more on the deeper, alternate meanings and realities that are not as obvious. Who is Betty, really? Is she really Betty? Somewhere along the way, we're meant to believe that she may possess an alternate existence in the name of Diane Selwyn. Is Rita connected to that existence or does she just happen to be along for the wild ride? Believe it or not, for the true "Lynchian", the questions can often be more fun than the potential answers. And yet, despite the deep mystery of it all, there are moments when the obvious shines through. Later in the film, when the blue box is finally opened, it falls to the floor and we are instantly seeing this particular world of L.A. we've been invited to in a different setting. From the moment the mysterious cowboy opens the bedroom doors and says to the woman in the bed, "Hey, pretty girl. Time to wake up.", we know things are about to change. Diane Selwyn (also played by Watts) wakes up and looks exactly like Betty but is portrayed instead as a failed actress driven into a deep depression by her unrequited love for a woman named Camilla Rhodes (also played by Harring). It would seem our once sunny, innocent Grace Kelly-type is now an angry and vengeful lesbian who wants her ex-lover dead! By the end of the film, Diane is terrorized by hallucinations of an elderly couple and runs screaming to her bed, where she fatally shoots herself. To this day, despite my best efforts, I still have no idea what the climax of the elderly couple is supposed to represent.

Now, as with most films of David Lynch, one cannot avoid diving into words like meaning, symbolism, interpretation and even subconscious. One particularly valid interpretation of the film uses an analysis to explain that the first part is a dream of the real Diane Selwyn, who has cast her dream-self as the innocent and hopeful "Betty", reconstructing her history and persona into something like an old, classic Hollywood movie. In the dream, Betty is successful, charming, and lives the fantasy life of the soon-to-be-famous actress. The last part of the film presents Diane's real life as terribly bleak, in which she's failed both professionally and personally. She arranges for her cold ex-lover, to be killed, and unable to cope with the guilt, re-imagines her as the pliable and dependent amnesiac named Rita. In an alternate interpretation, Betty and Rita and Diane and Camilla may exist in parallel universes that sometimes interconnect with each other. Or perhaps the entire film is a dream, but whose dream is it? Repeated references to beds, bedrooms and sleeping can perhaps symbolize the heavy influence of those dreams. Note that Rita falls asleep several times after her accident. In between the film's episodes, disconnected scenes such as two men having a conversation at a coffee shop, Betty's arrival in Los Angeles and the bungling actions of the hit man take place, suggesting that Rita may actually be dreaming them all. After Diane shoots herself, the bed is consumed with smoke and Betty and Rita are shown beaming at each other, after which a woman in the club balcony whispers "Silencio" as the screen fades to black. These concluding images float in an indeterminate zone between fantasy and reality, which is perhaps the genuine metaphysical dimension of the cinematic image David Lynch is always trying to express. But like any true piece of art, there may be no correct interpretation and such conclusions are best left to the individual interpreter. For myself, I tend to go with the first example I gave at the start of this paragraph. It's what makes sense to me!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Cowboy: "A man's attitude...a man's attitude goes some ways. The way his life will be. Is that somethin' you agree with?"
Adam Kesher: "Sure."
Cowboy: "Now...did you answer 'cause you thought that's what I wanted to hear, or did you think about what I said and answer cause you truly believe that to be right?"
Adam: "I agree with what you said, truthfully."
Cowboy: "What'd I say?"