Tuesday, August 19, 2014
(July 1982, U.S.)
NIGHT SHIFT is a great example that even the greatest of us have rather simple and humble beginnings. Mind you, this wasn't exactly the beginning for Ron Howard, not even his first film (he'd previously directed a low budget car picture for Roger Corman called GRAND THEFT AUTO in 1977 while he was still on HAPPY DAYS). Still, when you're watching the rather silly lunacy of NIGHT SHIFT, it's hard to believe this is the same man who'd give us great future titles like BACKDRAFT (1991), APOLLO 13 (1995) and A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001).
Even before I get into the contents of the film itself, I find it necessary to discuss my overall before and after interpretation of Henry Winkler first. You see, up until 1982, my exposure to this man had been one of a rather solid human being of strength and stamina, and I'm not just speak of the Fonz! Even as HAPPY DAYS was just in its infancy, he'd done a film called THE LORDS OF FLATBUSH (1974) in which he plays the same sort of 1950's greaser-type. During the show's run, he starred in HEROES (1977) as a struggling Vietnam vet and in THE ONLY AND ONLY (1978) as a wrestler; both characters of a certain degree of strength and stamina. Now all of a sudden in NIGHT SHIFT, Winkler plays a common, simple morgue attendant named Chuck who's (frankly) nothing short of a hopeless wimp! His mannerism has changed, his voice has changed and his entire sense of self-confidence has changed. In other words, Arthur Fonzarelli he is not! As a man of this rather "underground" profession, his displeasure at being demoted to the night shift supervisor is exacerbated by the unexpected and irrational exuberance of Bill Blazejowski (played by a young, unknown pre-Batman Michael Keaton), his new coworker. As they slowly and reluctantly become friends, both men soon become inspired by the unfortunate plights of Chuck's prostitute neighbor, Belinda (played by a pre-Cheers Shelly Long), to apply Chuck's M.B.A. education and Bill's entrepreneurial, if not unrealistic (edible paper and feeding mayonnaise to live tuna?? Hey, why not!) spirit to open a prostitution service with headquarters at the morgue. As pimps, these two guys are a whole lot more honest and gentle with the ladies and their money than your run-of-the-mill-average New York City asshole pimp. Then again, that's exactly what can get them into trouble with those very same pimps. You see, it's all cinematic silliness and sexual lunacy that was rather perfectly times during an era of the 1980s when sex comedies for young people was all the rage. And of course, there's love, too. Because clearly in the real world, morgue attendants fall in love with hookers (works for me!)!
Now bear in mind, despite the low budget silliness of NIGHT SHIFT, it's certainly not without elements that one would later expect from a Ron Howard film, or any other gifted director, for that matter. Winkler and Keaton actually deliver very good performances and feed off of each other's chemistry very well. As an example of a film that tries to combine elements of sex and comedy together, it's proves more effective than many other attempts of that period. As a comedy of prostitution, it may very well serve as a precursor to Tom Cruise's RISKY BUSINESS only a year later. There's also a good use of music during the right moments of the film that include a live version of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" by the Rolling Stones, "You Really Got Me" by Van Halen and a popular '80's tune called "Talk Talk" (band name is the same) during a nightclub scene. Somehow, by the time it all comes together, NIGHT SHIFT is very 80s and very funny, nonetheless.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Bill: "You tellin' me to shut up?"
Chuck: I'm telling you to shut up! I will tell your recorder so that you don't forget!
(picks up tape recorder and turns it on)
Chuck: "Hello, this is Chuck to remind Bill to SHUT UP!"
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
(October 1957, U.S.)
In the Spring of 1999, I heard about people playing hooky from school and work to go see the new STAR WARS film (whether or not it was worth it depends on one's own opinion of the film). In the Fall of 1997, I actually faked illness to leave work early so I could catch a revival screening of Federico Fellini's NIGHTS OF CABIRIA. Sound weird to you? I suppose it was, but then again, I spent much of the 1990s living in Manhattan and soaking in as much foreign cinema as I could. In 1997 alone, I discovered much of Fellini's best work for the first time both on video and revival screenings, including 8 1/2, LA STRADA, LA DOLCE VITA and NIGHTS OF CABIRIA. Much of this was due to my former employer at the time who was a true art film buff and was constantly giving me film recommendations (thanks, Steve!).
Because of my love for much of Fellini's black and white artistry, it's a wonder this guy (ME!) who's never yet been to Rome, Italy doesn't only imagine that great city in black and white. That's simply how I've repeatedly seen it through the eyes of perhaps the greatest Italian filmmaker of all time. Watch many of his films, and you'll see a consistent fondness for memories that meant so much to him, including postwar Rome, movies, religious training and even local prostitutes. Yes, I suppose if you live close enough to get to know the local hookers as a child, the memory stays with you. It's that focus on prostitutes that focuses this story on Cabiria (played by real-life wife and muse Giulietta Masina), a rather happy-go-lucky hooker who, like many of us in life, is simply looking for love in all the wrong places. From the moment we're introduced to her (actually, if you really know Fellini's films, you'll know that her character is first introduced briefly in a previous film called THE WHITE SHEIK), she's immediately getting the short end of the stick when she's robbed and nearly drowned by the man she thinks loves her. So what's a girl to do after she's done being pissed off? Roll up her sleeves, get back to hooking on the streets and try to stay focused on the joys of life, whatever they might be. Cabiria is seemingly the pure definition of joy, always looking on the bright side of life's patterns and never forgetting that she's a woman with a good heart. For those who see life's glass half full, Cabiria is one whom we can look up to in order to stay in a positive light. For those who see life's glass half empty (GUILTY!), Cabiria is completely naive and just asking to get royally screwed again! But we, as the audience, are not meant to know that yet. We're meant to follow Cabiria on her daily rituals of a prostitute's life and take joy in the joy she experiences in dancing in the streets, eating good food, going home with a famous Italian celebrity (despite being kicked out the next morning), and even taking stock of her life when she begs the almighty Madonna for religious fulfillment.
I mentioned earlier the task of searching for love. Cabiria longs for that, as we all do. When she meets the man who appears to love her at first sight, she's actually smart enough to approach this with caution. She's a happy person, but also remembers to consider that she's been hurt by men before. But as a woman of general faith, she's finally ready to take the big plunge and give it all up, her profession, her house and even her financial independence, all in the name of that crazy little thing called love. Then it happens! We hope it won't happen, but it does! At the moment we think Cabiria is ready to begin a new life of love and devotion, she realizes that the man she thinks loves her is only looking to rob her of her entire savings! Another harsh blow for the gentle Cabiria. Devastated, she realizes that lost love is worse that being robbed and willingly hands over her money to him, but begs him to kill her and put her out of her misery. She doesn't get her final wish and collapses to the ground. But because she's a woman who seemingly doesn't give up (admirably faithful or fucking crazy, you decide!), Cabiria picks herself up and stumbles along in tears. In the film's famous last sequence, she walks the long road back to town when she's met by a group of young people riding scooters, playing music, and dancing. They happily form an impromptu parade around her until she very slowly and gradually begins to smile through her tears...a single tear, actually, dressed in black from her make-up that almost gives the facial resemblance of a clown. Visually, what does this say to us? Perhaps that even through life's misery and hardship, there is laughter and joy leftover in our spirits and even in our tears. I realize that's just SO damned optimistic of someone like me, but hey, that's Fellini's vision and not necessarily my own!
But let me just point out one flaw I can't help but take note of during the final scene of robbery and heartbreak. How much sense does it really make for a man to go through weeks of courting a woman under false pretenses only to merely commit the act of robbing her in the end? One can argue that he's patiently waiting for the big score of the entire woman's fortune to make its way into his hands, but at no time is her false lover ever given the idea that Cabiria is a wealthy woman - not even close! Seems like a great big, long effort for one to endure just to steal some money. I suppose what I'm suggesting is that if your motive is robbery, there must be a simpler and quicker way to do it. I realize that's just SO damned pesimistic of someone like me, but hey, that's MY vision and not necessarily the great Federico Fellini's!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Cabiria: "Guess there's some justice in the world. You suffer, you go through hell. Then happiness comes along or everyone."
Sunday, August 3, 2014
(October 1968, U.S.)
To gain a fresh perspective for my post of George A. Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, I, of course, not only watched the film again (for perhaps the millionth time!), but I also watched the latest episode of "The Sixties"; an ongoing documentary mini-series on CNN, which specifically targeted the year 1968, commonly associated with unrest and the United States counterculture of the 1960s. Those who might have lived through it or who simply know their history well enough will know that this was a particularly bad year in which anything that could happen, did happen. In 1968, the war in Vietnam had reached it's worst level of loss and casualty, as well as its violent turmoil back in the U.S. with those who were marching and protesting to end the war. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated and Richard Nixon was elected president for his first term. So while it seemed that American society was literally tearing itself apart during the year of 1968, a low budget black and white horror film about the dead returning to life and feasting on human flesh must have (at the time) seemed either perfectly timed or a really sick-ass joke! Perhaps things simply couldn't get any worse, so why not just have the dead rise and wreak havoc!
Regardless of timing or motives, it cannot be denied that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is truly one of the most horrifying motion pictures ever created. From the moment the film opens, you're immediately hooked with that incredibly menacing musical score as we watch an ordinary looking car with two ordinary looking people inside driving along an isolated dirt road into a deserted cemetery. Even if one knows nothing of the film and its content, you know already that something is very wrong from not only the music and the isolated cemetery, but also by listening carefully to the car's radio station just before Johnny (played by Russell Streiner) turns it off and the sound of menacing concern in the radio announcer's voice caught in the middle of a breaking story. Romero wastes no time in establishing that that something seriously wrong is happening here in rural Pennsylvania, because only moments after Johnny teases his sister Barbra (played by Judith O'Dea) by proclaiming, "They're coming to get you, Barbra!" is she suddenly attached by one of the living dead who tries to take a bite out of her. Johnny saves her, only to be killed moments later by a blow to the head. Barbra runs for her life and barricades herself inside an empty house. This is where the film establishes its plot in which a group of scared human beings will defend themselves from the increasing number of the living dead who want to get inside the house and strike! The leader of the group and subsequent hero of the film is an African-American man named Ben (played by Duane Jones); a real bad-ass in his own right who, despite being just as afraid as the rest of the group, always seems to have the right plan and knows just how to strike when attempting to kill one of the flesh-eating ghouls. And of course, when you have a character who always seems to know when to do the right thing, it seems only fitting that we have an opposite character who's always fighting everyone and everything with endless negativity. This would be Mr. Harry Cooper (played by Karl Hardman), a man you'd take great pleasure in hitting from the moment you meet him, just to shut his big fucking mouth.
Filmed and released two decades after the golden age of black and white horror films, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD uses the lack of color effectively to display the physical horrors of the dead and their need to feed on the living to stay alive. Black and white, by its own right, is a frightening film element. To watch the classic Universal monsters in color would not be as effective, even today. Watching the horrible ghouls feast on the bones and flesh of two kids killed in a truck fire is truly shocking and unnerving, even without the color of running red blood. To even watch, for a brief moment, that quick shot of the lady who owns the house at the top of the stairs who's had half of her face and head eaten away is blood-curdling, particularly because it's in black and white and also because it incorporates the art of light, darkness and shadow, even as it's sprawled across (what's left of) her face. Add to all of this the above-mentioned menacing musical score, and you've really captured the heart of horror and living (and dead) terror!
As horrifyingly visual as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is, it's equally important to note just how imperative the task of listening to this film is, as well, and I'm not just referring to the music. Romero, in my opinion, uses perhaps the most effective use of radio and television broadcasting to fully bring the horror of what is happening in the outside world to life. While these people are trying to figure out how to get out of the house to a safe haven, the radio and TV are constantly going. Not only are they kept informed, but we are too, as the audience, and what we're hearing is not good. Step-by-step, story-by-story, we're coming to fully understand the apocalypse that's taking place over much of the United States and that we, as living human, are apparently helpless to stop it. It's one thing to know that your not safe, but it can truly hit home when the radio and TV serve to confirm those fears. This is not just background broadcasting, either. The camera gets close to both radio and TV, and every word of every announcer and the horrible facts they're reporting can be heard in perfect clarity. This is just another perfect confirming element used to scare us into believing in what is happening. Bear in mind also, that except for a rather passing explanation of a possible link to radiation from outer space, no real viable reason for the rising dead is ever given. Much like Hitchcock's lack of explanation in THE BIRDS (1963), we're left only with our imagination and all the terrifying possibilities we can come up with.
Taking into account again for a moment that this film was released in 1968 may give one pause to consider that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is not only a great horror film, but perhaps also a strong political film, as well. Am I reaching for shit here? Perhaps. But re-consider the endless turmoil of the year in question and perhaps it's not so far-fetched that the release of a film when the dead take over the United States seems only fitting. Consider also the civil rights movement of the decade and the film's counteract of having the hero as a black man. Consider also that the same black man is the only survivor of the night by the end of the film and is brutally and unjustly gunned down (mistaken for one of the living dead) by a pack of redneck witch hunters with rifles and then tell me that this film is not politically motivated for the year 1968! Just sayin'!
Finally, on a more personal level, I have to say that putting aside vampires as a general definition of the undead and also citing I AM LEGEND (2007) as an exception, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is the only "dead" film I own in my collection. I mean, really, how many times can the same story of the same subject be recycled and retold over the decades?? Romero's definitive film still remains the first and the best of the entire genre for me. I realize today that AMC's "The Walking Dead" is highly popular and the original film versions of THE EVIL DEAD (1981) and Romero's own DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979) are considered classics by many fans of horror, but even so...remember you're dealing with a film fan and a blog writer who's incredibly stubborn and closed-minded when it comes to recycled movie material. And besides, speaking of the latter film mentioned as an example, the living dead in color in a shopping mall just isn't that scary to me. But hey, that's me!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Radio Announcer: "Because of the obvious threat to untold numbers of citizens due to the crisis that is even now developing, this radio station will remain on the air day and night. This station and hundreds of other radio and TV stations throughout this part of the country are pooling their resources through an emergency network hook-up to keep you informed of all developments. At this hour, we repeat, these are the facts as we know them. There is an epidemic of mass murder being committed by a virtual army of unidentified assassins. The murders are taking place in villages and cities, in rural homes and suburbs with no apparent pattern nor reason for the slayings. It seems to be a sudden general explosion of mass homicide. We have some descriptions of the assassins. Eyewitnesses say they are ordinary-looking people. Some say they appear to be in a kind of trance. Others describe them as being misshapen monsters. At this point, there's no really authentic way for us to say who or what to look for and guard yourself against. Reaction of law enforcement officials is one of complete bewilderment at this hour. Police and sheriff's deputies and emergency ambulances are literally deluged with calls for help. The scene can be best described as mayhem. The mayors of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Miami, along with the governments of several eastern and Midwestern states indicated that the National Guard may be mobilized at any moment, but that has not happened as yet. The main advice news reporters have been able to get from official sources is to tell private citizens to stay inside their homes behind locked doors. Do not venture outside for any reason until the nature of this crisis has been determined, and until we can advise what course of action to take. Keep listening to radio and TV for special instructions as this crisis develops further. Thousands of office and factory workers are being urged to stay at their places of employment, not to make any attempt to get to their homes. However, in spite of this urging and warning, streets and highways are packed with frantic people trying to reach their families or, apparently, to flee just anywhere. We repeat, the safest course of action at this time is simply to stay where you are."