Sunday, December 27, 2015

RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD-PART II



(May 1985, U.S.)

Read this very carefully, people...

Now I must tell you that the story of John Rambo, for me, begins and ends with FIRST BLOOD. Back in 1985, I admittedly got swept up by "Rambo-mania" just like the rest of the world. I went to see RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD-PART II on screen twice. I had the movie poster on my college dorm wall, and I couldn't wait to own a copy of the film when it became available on VHS. But as I got older and my film tastes became a little more sophisticated, I discovered that the flaws of the second film greatly outweighed any of the American "gung-ho" excitement that had me going all those years in the late 1980s. Bottom line is that RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD-PART II is a film with bad dialogue and bad acting, and that's enough of a reason to put me off of any film, no matter how popular it is.

These are the words that I wrote when I concluded my blog post for FIRST BLOOD back in December 2011. So here I am four years later and I'm about to do something rather unprecedented in the history of my blogging posts...I'm about to print a retraction! Yes, as sad and as hard as it may be to believe, I've reconsidered my thoughts and feelings towards RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD-PART II and am ready to give it some due consideration for the purposes of writing a completely fair blog post (Geez, I'm either getting senile or it was something I ate last night!).

So what is it exactly that I'm trying to say now? Is it that RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD-PART II is a great film? Hardly. It's not exactly an Oscar-winning story and the acting is, at best, mediocre. So what's changed? Perhaps it just a simple matter of history and pop culture mania that has managed to stick around in my brain and in my memory for the past thirty years! In 1985, the Cold War, at its own level, still existed and it seemed that Americans were still getting off on any measure of victory towards the Soviet Union. Yes, the heart of RAMBO's story and message is the patriotic rescue of American P.O.W.s still being held prisoner in Vietnam even ten years after the war was officially ended; a rescue message that, I suppose, still had its valid context even in the 1980s. However, the hostility between the Soviets and the United States still exists in the form of cruel and vicious Russian soldiers present in Vietnam. The fact that it's Sylvester Stallone playing the character of a Vietnam veteran whom we'd come to have great empathy for in the last film three years prior only made the experience more exciting. John Rambo, through all of his personal demons, is a man still hell-bent on winning a war that he wasn't permitted to win by a failed government back when he was a soldier. To rescue P.O.W.s not only completes the obvious mission at hand, but also serves to cleanse Rambo's tormented soul. Despite the film's valid message of heroism and patriotism, it's still the bloody, violent action of Sylvester Stallone, which in my opinion, is not exactly the crust of cinematic intelligence. One is forced to remind themselves through all of the mindless action and wooden dialogue that the reason we watch Rambo in this film is to not only satisfy our sense of American justice for our American soldiers, but to also excite our minds and our senses by watching the enemy get their asses kicked and blown away! And as if the enemies of Vietnam and Russia aren't enough, Rambo must also deal with the betrayal of his own American government (again!) as he's sent on this mission with the soul purpose of having him fail in order to satisfy their own corrupt, bureaucratic bullshit! Still, as the movie poster indicates, they forget they're dealing with Rambo, which means endless blood, guts and glory for everyone involved, including the audience who just love every minute of it! In the end, the forgotten American soldiers are rescued, Rambo's soul is redeemed and we, as American movie audiences, feel just a little better about ourselves as children of the kick-ass, don't fuck with America, Ronald Reagan administration! Damn, sometimes I really miss those years when nobody would mess with us!

RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD-PART II will never be a great film. I wasn't received as one by critics, but it made a shit load of money and became a strong part of our American pop culture and strength for several years to come. Perhaps it's merely those years of feeling invincible as Americans against all global enemies, even if it was through the eyes, heart and guns of just one man. This, like it or not, is the concept of the hero and how we perceive his actions and his message on the big screen. Whatever the reasoning may be behind it, it seems clear that my feelings toward this film have changed over the years and I'm willing to stick to them - be it for reasons of history, social and political message, or maybe just the fact that like most human beings, I possess an undeniable streak of barbarism within me that needs to be satisfied every once in a while by watching an American hero like Sylvester Stallone wreak death and destruction to those that deserve it...and in the process, come to possibly understand what makes a character like John Rambo tick.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Col. Trautman: "The war, the whole conflict may have been wrong, but damn it, don't hate your country for it."
John Rambo: "Hate? I'd die for it!"
Trautman: "Then what is it you want?"
Rambo: "I want, what they want, and every other guy who came over here and spilled his guts and gave everything he had, wants! For our country to love us...as much as we...love it! That's what I want!"
Trautman: "How will you live, John?"
Rambo: "Day by day."

That one heartfelt statement alone just may be worth the time and heart it takes to appreciate a man like John Rambo. Maybe that's what makes him tick!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

RAISING ARIZONA



(March 1987, U.S.)

The Coen Brothers' debut film BLOOD SIMPLE (1984) is one of my favorite films of the 1980s. RAISING ARIZONA, an outrageous black comedy is probably the last thing I would have expected as a follow up. It just seemed so far off the course from what I could make of them as film makers at the time. Yet, this film is consistent in its manner typical of traditional Coen Brothers fare, as it's well supplied with unconventional characters, idiosyncratic dialogue, visual gags, symbolism, flamboyant camera work, pathos and biblical references. But even if none of that sparks your general cinematic interests, it's just plain, fucking funny as hell, and it starts from the moment we start listening to the voice over narration of Nicholas Cage as "H.I." McDunnough.

Even before the opening credits start rolling, we practically know H.I.'s entire life story and how he came to meet and marry police officer Ed (short for Edwina and played by Holly Hunter)) when he was repeatedly sent back to the county lock up after many failed convenient store robbery attempts. These are not classy people, by a long shot! Let's be honest - H.I. and Ed are just about as roughneck redneck and as trailer trash as you could ever come to expect. Still, they're "people" who want to live a normal life within the boundaries of the law and who also (most of all) want to be parents, but can't because Ed's insides are "a rocky place", where H.I.'s "seed would find no purchase". In case that's not clear enough to those of you who don't get that sort of humor...she can't have children. Biology and the prejudices of others seek to keep them childless. Solution? Steal one of the newborn "Arizona Quints" because it would seem the new parents have more babies than they can handle. From the moment the two of them bring little Nathan Jr. to their home, the comedy of these two morons actually trying to be effective parents is funny in itself. They are loving, though, and it's their love in protecting their new child from those that would seek to harm them that inevitably takes over the comedic elements of the film from here on. We must remember, that loving people or not, these two are now fugitives from the law and H.I. is still a man tempted by the financial possibilities of crime. When he unexpectedly decides to rob a convenience story while his wife (unknowing of his actions inside) and child are in the car, there's a rather sick irony in watching a man commit a crime with a gun while still remembering to pick up a large pack of Huggies for his baby. His line to the clerk, "I'll be taking these Huggies and...whatever cash you got." is worth the ninety-four minutes of your time right there. And if that's not sufficient enough, you'll love it when Nathan's father is asked to describe his baby's pajamas at the time of the kidnapping and he replies, "I don't know, they were jammies! They had Yodas 'n' shit on 'em!" You see - it's little things like that coming from the mouth of rednecks and trailer trash that just make you want to split a gut with laughter (at least that's how it is for me!).

One could argue that RAISING ARIZONA seeks to achieve a more upbeat and optimistic tone than the darker, more violent film that preceded it. We may spend our time feeling a sympathetic connection for two (admittedly) low life people who just want to offer love to a baby, but in the end, it would seem that righteous acts take over as H.I. and Ed not only save little Nathan Jr.'s life from two escaped cons and a sick-ass bounty hunter who looks like he just stepped out of THE ROAD WARRIOR, but also return the baby to his rightful place at home with his parents. Optimism rings true, even when it's somewhat unrealistic. Upon returning the baby, the father (Nathan Arizona Sr.) is apparently not angered or given to revenge upon learning who took his child. He not only forgives them for their crime, but even gently advises them not to make the serious mistake of splitting up their marriage. Like I said, it's not very realistic or even believable, but when we're dealing with outrageous black comedy, particularly from the Coen Brothers, reality ain't exactly the first priority on our minds.

Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter as H.I. and Ed are, perhaps, the most rambunctious characters I've ever seen outside of a Zucker comedy (AIRPLANE!, NAKED GUN, etc.). Cage has always shown himself to be an offbeat type, but it's in this film that he deliberately takes it to the maximum because he seems to know that's just what the film demands of him. We watch RAISING ARIZONA to laugh our asses off, and we do, but we can't ignore the look of the film, either, in that it's beautifully photographed in a way that may be actually be reminiscent of legendary director John Ford and perhaps even a prerequisite to photography we would see again in the Coen Brothers' film NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007).

Favorite line or dialogue:

Parole Board chairman: "They've got a name for people like you H.I. That name is called "recidivism."
Parole Board member: "Repeat offender!"
Parole Board chairman: "Not a pretty name, is it H.I.?"
H.I. McDunnough: "No, sir. That's one bonehead name, but that ain't me any more."
Parole Board chairman: "You're not just telling us what we want to hear?"
H.I.: "No, sir, no way."
Parole Board member: "'Cause we just want to hear the truth."
H.I.: "Well, then I guess I am telling you what you want to hear."
Parole Board chairman: "Boy, didn't we just tell you not to do that?"
H.I.: "Yes, sir."
Parole Board chairman: "Okay, then."

Saturday, December 19, 2015

RAIN MAN



(December 1988, U.S.)

(please read this post on Wednesday...definitely Wednesday!)

I've said this before...and it looks like I'll say it again, and that's that I have a real weakness for many of (but not all) Tom Cruise's films. Over the course of my writings, I've cited films like COCKTAIL (1988), DAYS OF THUNDER (1990) and FAR AND AWAY (1992) as some of his worst. Over the past few years, I've been able to add titles like OBLIVION (2013) and EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014) to the list. Yet, whenever I have to contend with crap like that, I just reach back into my mind and memory and recall his truly outstanding dramatic performances in films like RAIN MAN, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (1989), A FEW GOOD MEN (1992) and JERRY MAGUIRE (1996). Yes, the man can act, but for some reason, seems hell bent on doing nothing but action thrillers while he's still moderately young enough to physically do them. Still, when I watch RAIN MAN, I can somehow easily forgive him for all the crap because his role as Charlie Babbitt is, by far, still the best performance of his long career!

From the moment we meet Charlie, we immediately get the sense that there's something corrupt about him. His profession as an importer of expensive, collectible automobiles is not necessarily illegal, but there's still a quality to his business attitude and personality that would put him right up there at the level of used car salesman and criminal attorney. He's a man of charm and even a level of suaveness, but he's also clearly a man with a large chip on his shoulder. As a businessman, anger and impatience are part of his sales persona. As a lover to Susanna (played by Valeria Golino), he's a man within his own shell, unable or unwilling to open up to her. When it's announced that Charlie's father has just died, it becomes immediately clear that his estranged relationship with his father very likely plays a large role in his cynicism toward the world. Cut out of his dad's will, Charlie inherits nothing but rose bushes and a 1949 Buick Roadmaster convertible over which he and his father had previously fought over. The the bulk of his father's three million dollar estate is to go to an unnamed trustee at a mental institution in Cincinnati, Ohio, which he visits to get to the bottom of things. It's there that he learns that the trustee is his own older brother Raymond (played by Dustin Hoffman), whose very existence he was previously unaware of and who also happens to be autistic. Unmoved and uncaring about it, Charlie's initial reaction is to somehow figure out a way to get half of the monetary inheritance, which he's feels he's entitled to by rights. While not exactly kidnapping Raymond, he takes him away from the institution without permission and plans to take him back to Los Angeles so he can defend his financial intentions in a court of law.

Now, while not really nothing anything about the facts of autism (not without looking it up, anyway), the range of this neuro-developmental disorder that we're shown through Raymond is a man, who while unable to express any emotional thoughts or feelings toward those around him is also a man with strict routine and outstanding recall to the extent that he may be considered a human calculator. As Charlie and Raymond travel together in the tradition of the classic screen road trip, Charlie's anger and impatience with Raymond's condition is almost equally matched by his impressed reactions to Raymond's exceptional abilities. As the relationship between two brothers grows, it's revealed that Raymond actually lived with the Babbitt family when Charlie was very young and he also realizes that the secret comforting figure from Charlie's childhood, whom he falsely remembered as an imaginary friend named "Rain Man", was actually Raymond, who was sent away because he'd accidentally burned Charlie with hot water as a little boy. And yet it's important to note that even as Charlie is learning to becoming more human toward his brother and the world in general, he's still not beyond selfishly using Raymond's skills to help him win money in Las Vegas; money he desperately needs in order to save his business from going under. The Las Vegas sequence is amusing and entertaining, not only because it's a pleasure to watch Charlie win his money back as Raymond counts cards, but to also watch Raymond experience some of the simple pleasures of life like dancing and kissing a girl (and hey, kissing Valeria Golino in 1988 could never have been a bad thing!). By the film's end, as cliché would have it, Charlie is no longer interested in the inheritance and now wants to have a relationship with his brother and take care of him. Realizing Charlie's own limitations and the need for Raymond to have professional care, such a notion will not happen, but our hero (if we wish to call him that) has learned the value of respect, patience and the love between brothers (movie characters being what they are, Charlie Babbitt may be a much better man than I am!).

RAIN MAN takes my cinematic memory back to a time when director Barry Levinson was practically an unstoppable force in dramatic content. This film was just one of many in a long string of hits that also included films like GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM (1987), BUGSY (1991), DISCLOSURE (1994) and SLEEPERS (1996). I miss those days because even though Levinson hasn't exactly disappeared from cinema, his films of the 21st Century haven't exactly had the same juice they once had. One may consider this film a miracle to Dustin Hoffman's career because it would have been absolutely tragic if the nightmare that was known as ISHTAR (1987) had killed the poor man after winning the Oscar for best actor in TOOTSIE (1982). Again, while not knowing too much about the realities of autism, Dustin's performance brought the disorder to a new light for audiences who may have been previously unaware of it's effects and also its possibilities. Dustin also won his second Oscar for best actor for this film. Indeed, that's what I call redemption!

RAIN MAN won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1988, and rightfully so!

Favorite line or dialogue:

John Mooney: "Are you disappointed?"
Charlie Babbitt: "Disappointed? Why should I be disappointed? I got rose bushes didn't I? I got a used car, didn't I? This other guy, what'd you call him?"
John: "The beneficiary."
Charlie: "Yeah him, he got three million dollars but he didn't get the rose bushes! I got the rose bushes! I definitely got the rose bushes! Those are rose bushes!"
John: "Mr. Babbitt, there's no reason to..."
Charlie: "To what? To get upset? If there is a Hell, sir, my father is in it and he is looking up right now and he is laughing his ass off! Sanford Babbitt, you wanna be that guy's son for five minutes? I mean, did you hear that letter? Were you listening?"
John: "Yes I was. Were you?"
Charlie: "No, can you repeat it because I can't believe my fucking ears!"

Sunday, December 13, 2015

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK



(June 1981, U.S.)

If you were to go back to the early 1990s and take a look at the back of the VHS box for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the first words you'd read in the plot description would be "This is it!". Nearly twenty-five years later, these are the same words that still pop into my head first when reflecting on the legend that has not only become this film, but the iconic character of Indiana Jones himself! The adventures of this archaeologist and part time college professor have become synonymous with action and adventure for nearly as long as STAR WARS has with not only my own generation of film fans, but with today's, as well. It's been a genuine homage to the great Saturday matinee serial cliffhanger heroes of the 1930s and 1940s (while never copying them!) that started on a beach in Hawaii in 1977 (just after the release of STAR WARS) between two legendary film makers you may have heard of once or twice...Steven Spielberg and George Lucas! Steven wanted to do a James Bond film, but George convinced him that he had a better idea (the rest was history!) It's one of those films you can't help but discuss with enthusiasm and yet can't imagine what you'd actually say that every fan around the world hasn't heard or discussed themselves. It's the only film that TV's Sheldon Cooper of THE BIG BANG THEORY actually stole from a movie theater because he was unable to purchase a ticket to see it himself; because if he couldn't, then no one else would, either! You go, Sheldon!

This first film in the franchise that takes place in 1936 pits Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford) against a group of Nazis who are searching for the ancient Ark of the Covenant, the actual chest which the Hebrews carried the stone remains of the actual Ten Commandments, which Adolf Hitler believes has extraordinary powers and will make his German army invincible against the rest of the world. Indy is joined by his ex-girlfriend Marion (played by Karen Allen), his Egyptian sidekick Sallah (played by John Rhys-Davies) and must do battle against his nemesis, French archaeologist René Belloq (played by Paul Freeman) and the rather sick Nazi agent and torturer Arnold Toht (played by Ronald Lacey). In the classic cliffhanger tradition, it's a constant race against time for our heroes to stop the forces of evil while repeatedly getting themselves into the kind of trouble that will get them killed if they're not rescued in time. Unlike an era long since gone, the audience didn't have to wait until next Saturday at their local movie theater to find out what happens. And unlike many movie heroes of the past, Indiana Jones is a bit more modern in that he's the sort of man that is flawed and vulnerable. While always ultra brave to the hilt, Indy can be easily hurt, and often is. Just watch how fast he goes down when hit with one punch in the jaw during a fight scene with a bald and muscular German soldier. Indy has his fears, too, the main one being snakes (who can blame him??). This is just what makes him more human to his audience. His adventures on the big screen before our eyes are enthralling and a non-stop, mile-a-minute journey into the unknown of not only ancient religion, but into the heart of evil and the deadly consequences against it. Like our heroes (and our enemies), we long to see the Ark open to learn its secrets. During the climactic sequence, even when it appears there's nothing but sand inside, we know better because we're in the hands of the mighty Spielberg who would never let us down at a moment like this. The Ark possesses the power and the magic to not only protect our heroes, but to violently defeat our evil enemies. For those who choose to believe in the religious aspects behind it all, I suppose it's also a message that you don't want to fuck around with God or else you may likely internally combust in the end (like I said, if you choose to believe that stuff!).

Okay, I think I've summed up a very well-known classic more than sufficiently to all who already know it by heart. So now, let me focus some of my attention at moments of the film that continue to stand out and hold a dear place in my heart (okay, maybe I'm not that sentimental about it, but these moments are pretty fucking cool, in my opinion!). There are two moments in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK that stand out in how they seem to define Indiana Jones and his bravery for me. The first is in the Egyptian marketplace when Indy is confronted by an Arab dressed in black who, through his rather majestic and fast moving sword play, one can only presume is the deadliest and most feared swordsman in the village. Indy, while clearly not afraid of him, also deduces in that one moment that he simply doesn't have time for this shit and defuses the situation the only way he knows how - by shooting the poor bastard...


Nearly thirty-five years later, I still laugh my ass off when that shot is fired and the Arab in black goes down. I can't help but think in my mind, "You're so damn stupid to bother fucking around with Indiana Jones!". The second sequence is the desert chase when Indy must regain control of the Ark resting inside a speeding truck. At a time when CGI didn't exist yet and the dependency for the expertise of movie stuntmen would make or break a truly great action sequence, I can still cite (even today) the truck dragging scene (performed by stuntman Terry Leonard) as still one of the greatest movie stunts I've ever had to pleasure of watching over and over again...


For me, it's the knowledge of knowing that this isn't CGI taking place here; it's a real man making his way under the truck and then being dragged side-to-side along the dirt road (with Ford himself in some of the closer shots). It's simple, it's real, it's raw, it's totally effective and continues to impress me still far beyond anything a computer may be able to do today in a fraction of the time! This is also the moment of the film when John Williams' score rings absolute true for me because the action is so death-defying and pulsating and the score just manages to bring the intensity of it all to a greater light. You see, there's a reason why Williams and Spielberg have joined forces on all of his films (except THE COLOR PURPLE)! The scene also simplifies Indy's bravery and hard-edged attitude toward stopping that truck, come Hell or high water, in order to keep the Ark from getting to Germany. He may be scared, but we'd never know it because it's simply what he must do to get the job done, even if he's just making it all up as he goes.

Well now, I suppose at this time, I need to dive into the franchise itself a bit. My feelings for all four films are divided evenly, fifty-fifty. RAIDERS - an absolute five-star classic! INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989) - a very worthy successor with action and performance to almost match its 1981 originator! INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984) - a film, with its bad story, bad casting (Short Round - seriously???), bad acting and unnecessary gore, that I can only describe as one of the low points of Spielberg's career (second only to HOOK!) and one of the reasons the summer of 1984 was such a disappointing blockbuster season for me. INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008) - a slight improvement over TEMPLE OF DOOM if for no other reason in that it's a pleasure to watch Indy and Marion reunited and bickering all over again. The rest, unfortunately, is a bad story (aliens - seriously???) with a truly waste of good talents like Cate Blanchett and John Hurt. As for TV's THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES, I can't say that I ever really watched it, so I can't judge it now. So there you have it - two up and two down! Actually, I'd say that's not too bad considering my rather low threshold for sequels and franchise films. Anyway you or I choose to judge it, though, I take comfort and pleasure in the fact that a film like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK exists and is forever immortalized in the hearts and minds of its true fans...and it also looks so fucking good on Blu-Ray!!! Thank you Steven, thank you George and thank you Harrison!

Oh, a quick personal story before I leave you. It was the summer of 1981 and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was playing at the local theater in Westhampton Beach, where I've spent every summer of my life since the age of ten. You know how many times I got to see the movie? NONE!!! My parents were just too fucking lazy to bother to take my little brother and me to the biggest blockbuster film of the summer! I didn't see it for nearly a year until it was re-released in the theaters in 1982. Like I told way back in the beginning of this blog, when it came to movies as a kid, I swear, I was born under a bad sign!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Indiana Jones: "I'm goin' after that truck!"
Sallah: "How?"
Indiana: "I don't know, I'm makin' this up as I go."

Saturday, December 5, 2015

RAGING BULL



(November 1980, U.S.)

The long time collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and actor Robert DeNiro may never have been better than with RAGING BULL. I specifically use the word "may" because, honestly, it's a very close toss-up, in my opinion, between this film and TAXI DRIVER (1976). For this film, the potential superiority immediately begins with the fact that RAGING BULL is brilliantly shot in black and white to tell the true life drama of middleweight boxing champion Jake LaMotta (DeNiro), whose self-destructive personality, obsessive rage, sexual jealousy, and animalistic appetite ultimatley destroyed his relationship with his wife and family. The black and white may be easily attributed to the fact that much of the story takes place during the 1940s and such film making pays appropriate homage, but it's truly more than than. There is something in the black and white that truly brings out the violence and rage that lives within the protagonist of the film. Even the graphic images of blood during many of Jake's fight take on a unique meaning in the way it's conveyed on the screen (take not of a close up shot of blood dripping from the rope of the boxing ring). This was also an era when boxing was considered a very dark blot in the world of sports, hence the black and white photography's additional effectiveness.

The film is primarily told as a flashback because we're first introduced to Jake LaMotta as an aging, overweight would-be stand-up comic in the year 1964...


Immediately, we get the sense of a man who may have once held the world in his hands and then lost it, left now only to pick up the small remnants of what remains of his lonely life. When the film then jumps to one of Jake's bloody fights, we learn who the real Jake LaMotta is, which is not very good...


(by the way, like THE UNTOUCHABLES in 1987, this was one of those films where DeNiro gained and lost weight specifically for the role!)

Jake lives in a working class section of the Bronx, is married to a woman he despises (and who despises him, in return) for reasons as small as overcooking his steak, apparently goes for underage girl (his future wife is only fifteen years-old when he meets her) and is forced to deal with the Mafia corruption that resides behind his world of boxing (I suppose one could say that Rocky Balboa, he is NOT!). As Jake slowly rises to the top of his boxing division, his personal struggles with jealousy and paranoia get progressively worse. Jake loves his wife Vicki (played by Cathy Moriarty), but is constantly looking over his shoulder at her, believing that she's fucking around behind his back - not just with many of the local mob big shots, but even with his own brother Joey (played by Joe Pesci in their first film pairing together in Scorsese films). In what has likely become an infamous scene in itself, Jake bluntly asks his brother, "Did you fuck my wife?" Watching and listening to this, we are likely to feel shock as well as a degree of comedy in such a question put to one's own brother. On the other, one brother backstabbing another is a tale as old as time itself.

There is a true genuineness in RAGING BULL, not only in the true telling of a man's life of turmoil, but also in the realistic brutality of boxing. It's important to note that Robert DeNiro learned his own boxing technique for the film, achieving a realism that goes beyond anything Sylvester Stallone ever did in the ring. But beyond the physical characteristics brought to the film, DeNiro possesses a dramatic anger and explosive rage of his own that brings a man like Jake LaMotta to perfect form. His performance, as well as his costars, are vigorously ambitious in their own right. Each one manages to feed off the other with just the right chemistry in a world where they must all co-exist under the instability and insanity of not only the hard profession of boxing, but the prices they must all pay for not only Jake's success, but his ultimate personal failures, as well. It's one of the finest film's of Scorsese's long career and rightfully holds a valid place in cinema as an American classic! Even the sound of RAGING BULL is unique in that we are often drawn into the effects of every hard punch, every camera flash bulb and even the rage that exists within the spectators of this brutal, animalistic sport.

Robert DeNiro won the Oscar for Best Actor of 1980 and he totally deserved it, but it was not enough, in my opinion. As much as I love and respect Robert Redford's directorial debut of ORDINARY PEOPLE, it's RAGING BULL that should have won the Oscar for Best Picture of that year. It was the best film of 1980 (a year I can't help but only associate with THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, AIRPLANE! and THE BLUES BROTHERS - must be a childhood thing!), as well as one of my top ten favorite films of that entire decade (that's entertainment!).

Favorite line or dialogue:

Jake La Motta: "Did you fuck my wife?"
Joey LaMotta: "What?"
Jake: "Did you fuck my wife?"
Joey: "How do you ask me that? I'm your brother and you ask me that? Where do you get you're balls big enough to ask me that?"
Jake: "You're very smart, Joey. You're giving me a lot of answers, but you ain't giving me the right answer. I'm gonna ask you again: did you or did you not?"
Joey: "I'm not gonna answer that. It's stupid. It's a sick question and you're a sick fuck and I'm not that sick that I'm gonna answer it. I'm leaving. If Nora calls tell her I went home. I'm not staying in this nuthouse with you. You're a sick bastard, I feel sorry for you, I really do. You know what you should do? Try a little more fucking and a little less eating, so you won't have problems upstairs in the bedroom and you pick on me and everybody else! You understand me, you fucking wacko? You're cracking up! Fucking screw ball ya!"

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

QUIZ SHOW



(September 1994, U.S.)

I have this persistent, ongoing argument with everyone I know that watches any sort of so-called "reality TV" and it's that there's nothing real about it whatsoever; my argument being that the moment you put any sort of situation in front of a television camera, the very high probability that the entire situation is staged and scripted most surely exists. Think about it! You think those people on SURVIVOR are in any sort of real mortal danger?? Of course they're not! There's an entire television crew there to assist them should anything serious ever occur! You think those stuck-up, large-breasted, plastic surgery bitches and their ass-kissing, aggravated husbands on any of those REAL HOUSEWIVES shows are real?? They're not real, people! They're actors portraying a part for money in front of a TV camera! Okay, so what's my point? I mean, I'm referring to 21st Century programming and Robert Redford's QUIZ SHOW tells a historically-true (we presume?) tale of the popular 1950s game show TWENTY ONE and those who were involved in its infamous scandal. My point, I suppose, is that during the Golden Age of television in the 1950s, I can't imagine that anyone watching programs where any sort of reality was involved, even game shows, ever conceived of any part of it being fake or rigged. TV viewers were naive back then (as if they're any brighter today??) and were apt to cling to the sort of intelligent TV heroes that would appear on quiz shows. From the moment we meet one of the film's primary characters Herb Stempel of Queens, NY (played by John Turturro), our first thought is very likely, "Man, what a dork!" I mean, really, take a look at this sad schmuck...


Nonetheless, Herb is a national celebrity because he's been consistently winning big money by answering difficult questions based on difficult topics week after week on live television. He's the epitome of intelligence and the poster boy for furthering the value of education to all the good little boys and girls of America...and the reason for all of this is because he's actually getting the answers ahead of time from the show's creators in order to keep the show's high ratings going. Inevitably, though, even those that need great ratings realize that Herb is just an ordinary, boring beatnik and now they want someone more colorful and a whole lot better looking! They find it in Charles Van Doren (played by Ralph Fiennes), a Columbia University instructor who comes from a well-known family of intellectuals. From the beginning of his part on TWENTY ONE, we know right off the bat that Charles, like Herb, is cheating because he's willingly agreed to take part in it when the temptation of victory, money and fame because just too damn tasty! And as any film that tells the story of scandal, it's typically told in two phases - the first being where all is well with the world and the thrill of the glory overtakes our protagonist, giving him the (temporary) pleasure of what he believes he's earned, including his picture on the cover of Time magazine...


(this is the real guy, people!)

This is the great salad period for Charles Van Doren. The second phase we can effectively call the part where the whistle is blown on the entire shebang and all the shit comes crashing down hard. Herb, having been ordered to "take a dive" by deliberately missing an easy question of what was the Best Oscar Picture of 1955 (the answer is MARTY!), is now pissed off that his career as a TV celebrity is over and is threatening to bring down Charles, the quiz show and its corrupt creators, as well. Throughout the entire rise and fall of the quiz show participants, the potential scandal of the show, as well as the moral ethics of television itself, is being investigated by a young Congressional lawyer Richard Goodwin (played by Rob Morrow), who is constantly getting one step closer to the truth that will not only expose the show and its players, but the entire National Broadcasting Company (NBC), as well. Director Robert Redford, it would seem, deliberately avoids the long (perhaps unnecessary) drama of a long legal trial and manages to tighten up the matter in a somewhat brief hearing with the House Committee for Legislative Oversight. In the end, of course, everything and everyone is exposed and those who allowed themselves to trade in their morals and their honor for the fast buck and the fame end up paying the price of their soul.

Perhaps by today's film and storytelling standards, all of this scandal content seems like nothing more dramatic or serious than the average daytime TV soap opera. Perhaps, but one must bear in mind that this is not just a tale of television, but also one of a time of innocence, when those who sought the comfort and stability of their living room television set were ultimately made to feel like fools in that they could be so easily taken in by the powers-that-be and the players that occupied the big box they so needed to cling to for their daily American heroes. This was, perhaps, the power that television held over us during another era. It's quite possible, that even though times have changed drastically since those days, the tube's (sorry -flat screen's) power over us and how we interpret our own lives hasn't changed much at all. Fortunately, this is why I don't watch much television and instead focus my time, brain and efforts on film...otherwise I'd likely be writing a blog on TV instead! Oohh, let's even think of such dreadful possibilities!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Charles Van Doren: "Jesus, Dick, if someone offered you all this money to be on some rigged quiz show, instant fame, the works - would you do it?"
Richard Goodwin: "No. 'Course not."
Charles: "No? Throw the whole thing in, the cover of Time, Dave Garroway, fifty thousand a year to read poetry on television — would you do it?"
Richard: "No."
Charles: "And I would."

Sunday, November 29, 2015

QUEEN, THE



(September 2006, U.S.)

In between the world events of the Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963 and the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001, the death of Princess Diana of Wales on August 31, 1997 may have qualified as one of those "Where were you when?" moments in life. Where I was, I remember clearly, but I'll tell you all about that later.

This film by Stephen Frears focuses not only on the tragedy itself and the reaction of the English people in the days that followed (using real life footage as part of its effect) but the initial reaction or lack of reaction from the Royal Family, including Queen Elizabeth II herself (played by the very gifted actress Helen Mirren). The Royal Family chooses to regard Diana's death as a private affair and thus not to be treated as an official Royal death. This is in complete contrast with the views of Diana's ex-husband, Prince Charles (played by Alex Jennings) and newly-elected British Prime Minister Tony Blair (played by Michael Sheen) who favour the general public's desire for an official expression of grief and sorrow. Matters are further complicated by the media, the royal protocol regarding Diana's official status with the Royal Family, and wider issues about English Republicanism. The Queen, while trying to maintain a smooth relationship between herself and Tony Blair, must also struggle with her deepest feelings regarding Diana's death and her growing unpopularity among the people of her country. The Queen is not an uncaring or unsympathetic person, but merely a political figure clinging to the outdated Monarch system that has stood the test of time for centuries. Tony Blair's election represents a time of modernization and change against a system that doesn't want to change. It's the death of a truly loved public figure like Diana that represents the need for the people to express anger, and in turn, for that anger to be acknowledged by those on the throne of power.

Despite the opposite ends that the Queen and Blair occupy, Blair is empathetic to the Queen's emotional dilemma over the entire matter. There's a particularly interesting scene where Blair suddenly shouts at his own constituent in the Queen's defense when he (the constituent) makes one of his many sarcastic remarks at the Queen's expense. It's a moment, I think, when so-called political correctness is overshadowed by the emotional factor of what is right and what is wrong. Indeed, as the public attention grows and the flowers pile up outside of Kensington Palace, the Queen is finally convinced (or forced?) to make a public statement on television in which she finally comes to terms with what happened to Diana, not only as the Royal public figure that she is, but also as a grandmother. Actually, Helen Mirren shows us a side of the Queen we may have never known existed (presuming it's all true); the woman who loved to walk her dogs, the woman who would dress in ordinary clothes when she went out for walks and the woman who was also a knowledgeable mechanic.

There's one other particular scene that I think requires mentioning and that is the moment when she's venturing out alone in her Land Rover and damages it crossing a river, forcing her to telephone for assistance. While waiting, she weeps in frustration, but catches sight of a majestic red deer. The Queen is struck by his beauty and the two stare at each other for some time. I realize that I'm reaching for serious shit here, but I can't help but develop the fantastic idea that the deer is a form of Diana resurrected from the dead and the Queen is somehow meant to resolve their past relationship within the long stare between them. It's a crazy notion, I know, but the scene is filled with a special beauty that allows the mind to experience the fantastic, even when it's likely very illogical.

Okay, so now to where I was on that fateful weekend in August 1997. It was Labor Day weekend and I had a bunch of friends over at my beach house in the Hamptons for the holiday weekend. I wasn't bothering to pay for a cable-TV hook up at the time so the TV was only getting a couple of local channels that could be received through an analog signal. Because we were all having our fun on the beach and drinking the days and nights away, we didn't turn on the TV until that Sunday evening. By then, the news of Diana's death was already twenty-four hours old and we were all suddenly shocked to see what was transpiring on the news. One of my friends started to cry and I even found myself longing to see my own mother, who was living in Los Angeles. The punchline to that last statement is that I've never been tremendously close with my mother, so the fact that I was experiencing such an emotion was evidence of how Diana's sudden death was affecting me personally. One week later, her funeral was the only story being covered on the news and I can only imagine such an event hadn't received this much worldwide coverage since the funeral of John F. Kennedy in 1963. Sometimes history doesn't change when good people are taken from us tragically and unexpectedly. THE QUEEN, for all its simplicity, gives us the opportunity to personally reflect on a chapter in the history of our late 20th Century to remind us of who Diana was and what her death meant to the world.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Alastair Campbell: "Well, at least the old bat's finally agreed to visit Diana's coffin."
Tony Blair: "You know, when you get it wrong, you really get it wrong! That woman has given her whole life in service to her people. Fifty years doing a job she never wanted! A job she watched kill her father! She's executed it with honor, dignity, and, as far as I can tell, without a single blemish, and now we're all baying for her blood! All because she's struggling to lead the world in mourning for someone who...who threw everything she offered back in her face! And who, for the last few years, seemed committed twenty-four/seven to destroying everything she holds most dear!"

Friday, November 20, 2015

PULP FICTION



(October 1994, U.S.)

This is a real big one for me, so pay attention, people! I'm going to start out by introducing this film in the same manner I once introduced Spike Lee's DO THE RIGHT THING (the single best film of the 1980s!) when I posted it back in 2011. Twenty years ago, if you'd asked me what my single favorite film of the 1990s was, I'd have told you PULP FICTION. Ten years ago, if you'd asked me what my single favorite film of the 1990s was, I'd have told you PULP FICTION. And if you came up to me on the street tomorrow and asked me, "Hey, Eric, what's your single favorite film of the 1990s?", I'd still tell you PULP FICTION! You getting my point?

Before seeing the immortal Quentin Tarantino classic for the first time in a New York City movie theater in 1994, it's obvious that I was completely ignorant to the possibilities of what film and storytelling could be, beyond the conventional bullshit format that every "how to" screenwriting book insists you have to follow religiously in order to get a screenplay made into a movie! PULP FICTION takes everything we know about the unconventional nonlinear story line, bloody violence, ironic humor, casual and eclectic dialogue, pop culture references and stylized film directing and turns it upside down on its ass! The film connects the intersecting stories of Los Angeles mobsters, lightweight fringe players, small-time criminals, and, of course, the mysterious briefcase...but we'll get deeper into that later! Right now, what I really want to focus on is the dialogue of the film, because even before the credits begin, you know the key to PULP FICTION is sitting back and paying strict attention to every word, every pause and every facial expression in between. The beginning is a simple Los Angeles coffee shop and the rather childish plotting between two lovers who are bent on robbing the very coffee shop they're sitting. Even that is supposedly misleading because as the robbery begins, it freezes and then the film begins...really begins!

The narrative of the film is told out of chronological order and follows two main interrelated stories of mob contract killers Vincent Vega (played by John Travolta in his most significant film since GREASE) and Jules Winnfield (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and prizefighter Butch Coolidge (played by Bruce Willis). Following the film's opening credits, we begin with Vincent and Jules who are merely just driving together on their way to do a mob hit while listening to Kool & The Gang on the radio. These are no ordinary mob killers, though. These are thinking men who can not only carry on intelligent conversations with each other (even if the subject is McDonald's food in Europe), but can also engage in theological reasoning and speculation (even if the subject is foot massages). Your immediate reaction to having listened to just this first conversation alone is likely to be, "Oh, man, I love these guys!" You're truly witnessing the notion of the two-sided coin with these two men because you know they're here to do a violent job, but not before they've engaged themselves in deep thought and conversation, particularly Jules, with the very boys they've come to kill. One minute, it's a deep Biblical passage, the next minute it's violent and bloody shotgun action! Sick and so fucking brilliant!

From violence and mayhem, we follow the somewhat lighter side of Vincent Vega as he spends the evening on a platonic "date" with his boss' wife, Mia (played by Uma Thurman). It begins quite innocently with a 1950s-style diner, hamburgers and fries, a five dollar milk shake and then some dancing to top off the experience (yes, we get to see John Travolta dance again!). But even as all seems innocent and lovely, the evening ends with a potential drug overdose and the desperate effort to try and save the big boss' wife so Vincent doesn't get killed himself for allowing it to happen. Honestly, if an image like this one doesn't convince people not to do drugs, then I don't know what will...


Tell me you didn't jump out of your seat the first time you saw this movie when you heard the sound of the needle penetrating Uma's body and then watched her freak out! Still, when it's all over, the sequence practically ends with a "happily ever after" moment that ends with a corny joke about a family of tomatoes and a blown kiss from John Travolta!

The story of Butch the prizefighter is certainly a darker one. He's a man haunted by his past, both in childhood and some of the professional choices he's made with his boxing career. As a child, he learns about his father who died in Vietnam through a family birthright gold watch that is delivered to him after having been up the asses of two men. I have to say with regard to this sequence, that despite all the great work Christopher Walken has done in his career, this brief and brilliant cameo may just be how I'd personally like to remember him! As a man, Butch accepts a high payoff from gangster Marsellus Wallace (played by Ving Rhames) to throw his last professional fight. He fucks everybody by actually winning the fight (and killing the other fighter in the process) and taking off with the cash and the money he'll be paid on top of that through his bookie. In what I can only describe as a twisted case of irony, Butch and Marsellus find themselves together again and almost killed by a couple of sadomasochistic redneck assholes who may as well have been pulled right out of John Boorman's DELIVERANCE (1972). This may be attributed to the chance of (real) bad luck when Butch is trying to retrieve his gold watch, but the true irony lies in the fact that Butch saves Marcellus' life and manages to square away his debt with the gangster. Again, in a rather sick tone, it's an interesting case of the "happily ever after" effect to the telling of this sequence.

By the time we've entered the Epilogue of the film, we're back at the coffee shop and the intended robbery between the two lovers is under way, but now we learn that Vincent and Jules, two men with big guns and big balls of steel, are also there eating their breakfast. The robbery, of course, doesn't happen the way we all thought it would, but the film concludes with some of Jules' deepest, theological thoughts on not only the Bible quote he's been repeating, but also the sum total of his life up until now and how he can possibly redeem it before it's too late. We don't know what will happen to Jules or Butch (we know what happened to Vincent!), but it's the film's ambiguity that's part of its intrigue and true originality!

Okay, so we've talked about the story and it's less-than-conventional textbook structure (fuck all of you so-called "how to" experts who still insist on the traditional bullshit three-act structure!), but now let's talk a little about the questions of PULP FICTION and the issues of the film that force us to use our analytical heads and think! Let's begin with the infamous suitcase and what the fuck is in it and why does it glow?? Everybody's talked about it and everybody's speculated what it could be. There's never been a right answer on the subject, but I'll tell which theory I personally agree with (and I'll bet you do, too!). You've heard it before, so here it is again - the glow inside the suitcase is very likely the soul of mobster Marcellus Wallace and Vincent and Jules are two (very bizarre) angels sent to deliver it. It's a great theory and one that makes the most sense to me. Also, if you've never noticed it before, there's a camera shot that focuses on the back of Marcellus' head that has a Band-Aid on it. This very likely covers the skin cut in which his soul either once left his head or the one in which his soul will return to his head. It's all possible, and it's the great possibilities of the film that are a true treasure to experience. This theory is also backed up by several religious implications that not only include the Biblical passage (Ezekiel 25:17) that Jules loves to repeatedly quote, but have you also noticed that the character of Lance (played by Eric Stoltz) is meant to look just like Jesus Christ, complete with long hair, robe and everything? Is that just a mere coincidence?? I'd like to think not. But here's the one thing in PULP FICTION I still have never figured out - during the scene when Butch is riding in the back of the taxi, have you noticed that the background in the rear windshield is in black and white?? No Joke! Look at it again and you'll see what I'm talking about! What the fuck is up with that? What does it mean? Is it a simple homage to, perhaps, the golden age of black and white Hollywood movies, or is there something more to it that I simply cannot comprehend? People, help me out! When you're done reading this post, please respond to this question because I know the answer must lie with someone! The truth is out there!

And so, let me conclude by thanking Quentin, John, Samuel, Bruce, Uma, Ving, Tim and Amanda for their tremendous efforts of stylized performance and artistic film making. It's been a miraculous revelation in cinema that, every once in a great while, renews my faith in what films can be! As much as I love FORREST GUMP, it's PULP FICTION that should have taken home the Oscar for Best Picture of 1994! It's the single best movie of the 1990s!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Jules (after shooting the man on the couch): "Oh, I'm sorry, did I break your concentration? I didn't mean to do that. Please, continue, you were saying something about best intentions. What's the matter? Oh, you were finished! Well, allow me to retort. What does Marsellus Wallace look like?"
Brett: "What?"
Jules: "What country are you from?"
Brett: "What? What? Wh...?"
Jules: "What" ain't no country I've ever heard of. They speak English in What?"
Brett: "What?"
Jules: "English, motherfucker, do you speak it?"
Brett: "Yes! Yes!"
Jules: "Then you know what I'm sayin'!"
Brett: "Yes!"
Jules: "Describe what Marsellus Wallace looks like!"
Brett: "What?"
Jules (points his gun at Brett): "Say 'what' again! Say 'what' again! I dare you! I double dare you, motherfucke! Say what one more Goddamn time!"
Brett: "He...he's black!"
Jules: "Go on!".
Brett: "He's bald!"
Jules: "Does he look like a bitch?"
Brett: "What?
Jules (shoots Brett in the shoulder): "DOES...HE...LOOK...LIKE...A...BITCH?"
Brett: "No!"
Jules: "Then why you try to fuck him like a bitch?"
Brett: "I didn't!"
Jules: "Yes you did! Yes you did! You tried to fuck him. And Marcellus Wallace don't like to be fucked by anybody except Mrs. Wallace."

Sunday, November 15, 2015

PUBLIC ENEMY, THE



(April 1931, U.S.)

I'm clearly in the midst of a Prohibition viewing kick here. Besides this film and Michael Mann's PUBLIC ENEMIES which preceded this post, I've also found myself engrossed in re-watching Ken Burns' PBS documentary of PROHIBITION, something I recommend highly to those interested in the subject. To discuss THE PUBLIC ENEMY or even it's similar accompanying feature LITTLE CAESAR (also 1931) is to go back to a time when Warner Brothers was highly eager to cash in on the controversial subject of gangsters and the violence associated with Prohibition period of American history, much like the Hollywood of today, which is never shy or reserved about cashing in on the public's fear of real life violence or terrorism. The difference all those decades ago was that while clearly attempting to release an entertaining motion picture that would generate high ticket sales, Warner Brothers was also careful so as not to seemingly glorify the gangster, in general. Following the opening credits to THE PUBLIC ENEMY, the picture offers the following Foreword to the audience in which they attempt to justify their position on the subject:

It is the ambition of the authors of "The Public Enemy" to honestly depict an environment that exists today in certain strata of American life, rather than glorify the hoodlum or the criminal. While the story of "The Public Enemy" is essentially a true story, all names and characters appearing herein, are purely fictional. - Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.

If nothing else, such a Foreword shows that those responsible for the film cared enough to try and make it clear that they were not attempting to make the gangster a hero. Still, all good intentions aside, colorful movie stars of the time like James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and a young Humphrey Bogart may have done just that, whether intentional or not. Despite the validity or the importance of certain subjects, even gangsters and violence, we still go to the movies for entertainment value and it's our favorite movie stars that will ultimately glorify any subject or character they're portraying. Even so, I give credit to the Warner Brothers of the past for trying.

THE PUBLIC ENEMY comes at a time that was not only the earliest years of the "talkie" but also during the time of the Pre-Code, when certain forms of violence and sexual reference were still deemed acceptable on screen. From the moment we meet young Tom Powers (played by James Cagney) and his lifelong friend Matt Doyle (played by Edward Woods), we know almost immediately that these two young thugs are destined for a life of crime. From the moment Prohibition goes into effect in 1920, they and every other criminal on the block seizes the opportunity to cash in on bootlegging and the violence that often accompanies it. Men's fortunes are now made with "beer and blood", as Tom's self-righteous brother puts it. Whether it's intentional or not by the film maker, the life of the gangster is glorified with money, cars, fancy clothes, fancy restaurants and the women at their side! Although the women of this film are meant to portray characters no stronger than a "here today, gone tomorrow" girlfriend and sex object, the film makes its points when it comes to the disrespect and abuse that these women often suffer at the hands of their gangster boyfriends. In what has become a rather famous moment in the film, Tom shows his girlfriend Kitty just how tired and fed up he's become with her by smashing a grapefruit in her face when she complains once too often...


Why is this scene so famous? For its time, one could interpret this moment in several ways. As a vile gangster, Tom may be looked upon as an inhuman monster, which at times, he is. The less politically correct person may view Kitty as just a worthless "dame" or "dish" who ought to keep her mouth shut and perhaps got what she deserved. The even less politically correct person with a slight fantasy of their own life on their mind may rejoice in such a moment, thinking they'd like to do something like that to their own better half but would never have the balls to actually do it! The answer only lies within one's conscience, not only of those who watched it on screen in 1931, but with those who may still enjoy it today.

If there is one constant is almost all gangster films, it's that in the end, the criminal will get his just dues and pay the price for his life of crime and violence, very often with their own death. This film is no exception and at the moment when we come to witness Tom Powers' dead body returned to his home by his enemies, the intended message is clear. The bad guys pay the price in the end and we're supposed to understand such a conclusion as not only the proper way for a criminal character to meet his fate, but also the way real life criminals of the time should be ultimately dealt with. For its time, actually, the image of Tom's body may be considered quite graphic and shocking...


It would seem that even in defeat, the gangster is, nonetheless, shown with a certain sense of grandeur and the ongoing paradox of just how much a motion picture should or should not attempt to glorify the criminal remains an issue. A motion picture studio can, perhaps, only do so much to make its position on crime and violence clear to the public. Even when THE PUBLIC ENEMY ends, Warner Brothers takes one final moment to make its position clear by displaying this visual epilogue to its audience...

The end of Tom Powers is the end of every hoodlum. "The Public Enemy" is not a man, nor is it a character--it is a problem that sooner or later, we, the public, must solve."

What remains following this final moment is artistic and visual content on the screen that is still entertaining and that will very likely work against our own feelings towards criminals and ultimately glorify them in the end, whether it's our intention or not. This is not only true of gangster films of an era long gone, but has continued throughout the decades with other great gangster films like THE GODFATHER (1972), the remake of SCARFACE (1983), GOODFELLAS (1990) and even television shows as HBO's THE SOPRANOS. Let's face it, people, we do love our gangsters and the world they create for themselves and for us as their viewers.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Tom Powers: "So beer ain't good enough for you, huh?"
Mike Powers: "Do you think I care if there was just beer in that keg? I know what's in it! I know what you've been doing all this time, how you got those clothes and those new cars! You've been telling Ma that you've gone into politics, that you're on the city payroll! Pat Burke told me everything! You murderers! There's not only beer in that jug! There's beer and blood - blood of men!"
Tom "You ain't changed a bit! Besides, your hands ain't so clean! You killed and liked it! You didn't get them medals for holding hands with them Germans!"




Tuesday, November 10, 2015

PUBLIC ENEMIES



(July 2009, U.S.)

The gangster film is as old as the Great Depression itself. During that era of economic breakdown and Prohibition, when virtually all form of liquor consumption was illegal in the United States, crime and those who committed acts of crime were as infamous as those that sought to bring them to justice. Classic actors like Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney brought gangsters to vivid life in the era of cinema when the "talkie" was still only just a few years old. Real life criminal John Dillinger (played in this film by Johnny Depp) was a gangster who was notorious for not only robbing banks, but for escaping prison, as well. Dillinger was one of the most notorious of all gangsters of the time, standing out even among more violent criminals such as Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and even Bonnie and Clyde. He enjoyed being seen publicity and even styled himself as a modern day Robin Hood figure. The media of the time ran (likely exaggerated) accounts of his wild bravado and colorful personality, causing the government to demand federal action. It's said that J. Edgar Hoover developed a more sophisticated Federal Bureau of Investigation as a weapon against organized crime, using Dillinger and his gang as his public campaign platform.

Getting back to the Robin Hood figure in PUBLIC ENEMIES for a moment, it's not to suggest that Dillinger stole from the banks only to return the money to the public. The man was a gangster and gangsters didn't do that. However, because this was a time when too many American banks were foreclosing on homes and mercilessly putting families out onto the street, the fact that they were getting robbed by the same man, in turn, made Dillinger a national celebrity with the public. You see, if there's one constant in life over the decades, it's that the ordinary, average, every day person gets an irresistible thrill in watching the big corporate "villain" get a severe kick in the ass! The Great Depression was a time that was no different. As Dillinger, whether historically accurate or not, Johnny Depp clearly has a wild and wonderful time with the role, in not only bringing to life the image of a national folk hero, but also a violent man when it became necessary. And, of course, where there's criminals, there's always the good guys to pursue them. Christian Bale plays FBI agent Melvin Purvis, assigned by Hoover to lead the hunt for Dillinger and his gang. The story, the action and the dramatic performances, while solid and enjoyable to watch, certainly cannot be considered completely original. Even if I were to completely ignore the entire era of gangster films that made the Golden Age of Hollywood so beautiful, there are strong echoes of Brian DePalma's THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987), as well as director Michael Mann's own films THIEF (1981) and HEAT (1995). Not to say that the viewer is being cheated out of anything brand new, it's just simply very thrilling material that falls perfectly well into very capable hands. Like it or not, that's what makes good cinema!

Speaking of cinema, one who loves it as much as I do cannot resist the film's climax in which Dillinger is finally killed at the famous Biograph Theater in Chicago after he's betrayed by a woman he trusts. Ironically, he's killed after watching a Clark Gable gangster film called "Manhattan Melodrama" (true story of how he died!) with a young lady by his side (she's played by LeeLee Sobieski and I have to tell right now that I think she's totally hot!!!). There's a certain pleasure in watching Depp's face as he watches the black and white gangster film play out on the screen in front of him. There's such a strong sense of love and admiration for not only the performers in front of him, but for the criminal activities he clearly enjoyed committing (art imitating life). Dillinger clearly loved crime, loved women, loved the public eye and loved life. Almost makes you sorry that the poor bastard was shot and killed the way he was. He might have lived to be an even more interesting figure if he'd grown old to tell his tale. And by the way, speaking of the famous Biograph Theater, this is what it was like following Dillinger's death...


...and this is it today as a performing arts theater...


I have to say it does my heart good to see these old movie theaters successfully preserved as a piece of American history, even if the history was made by the acts of gangsters and criminals! It reaffirms my deep hatred of the common multiplex of today!

Favorite line or dialogue:

John Dillinger: "I was raised on a farm in Moooresville, Indiana. My mama died when I was three, my daddy beat the hell out of me cause he didn't know no better way to raise me. I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you. What else you need to know?"





Saturday, October 31, 2015

PSYCHO (1960)



(June 1960, U.S.)

Once again, timing and coincidence are kind to me in that I can post one of the scariest films of all time on Halloween! And once again, like POLTERGEIST, I can't believe I even have to take the time to clarify that this is the original 1960 version of the film. That in mind, I'd like to offer a heartfelt, sincere apology on behalf of myself and all classic film purists out there to the great Alfred Hitchcock for Gus Van Sant's inconceivable attempt to remake your great film in 1998 with a shabby, shot-for-shot remake. What that poor bastard was smoking at the time, I suppose we'll never know.

PSYCHO is, perhaps, a shining example of a film you feel you know so well that you actually find yourself blanking out on what you'd actually like to say when the time comes. To discuss this film seems like an act of futility in the same fashion one may feel about discussing JAWS or STAR WARS with blog readers. There are just some films the whole world just knows! On the other hand, perhaps only some of us know the drama that took place in the conception and making of Hitchcock's film, in that it all began with a real-life serial killer and grave robber in Wisconsin named Ed Gein. From that, Robert Bloch wrote his novel PSYCHO and the infamous character of Norman Bates based on Gein's actions. Hitchcock financed the film himself and kept costs low by filming it in black and white (thank goodness!) and used the crew from his "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" TV show. Upon the film's release, Hitchcock himself decreed that all theaters showing PSYCHO would not permit theater patrons in after the film began (something unheard of at the time!) so that audiences would take in the full effect and experience of the film and it's astounding conclusion ("Don't tell your friends!"). They even made a special movie poster out of it...


How's that for a film maker protectively standing behind his work!

From my earliest childhood memories, PSYCHO was one of the most forbidden films I was aware of. It was the 1970s and the film was frequently shown on the local station WOR Channel 9 as part of a program they called "Million Dollar Movie". I knew nothing of it except that it was considered an incredibly scary film with a vast array of frightening black and white images that began with a rather sinister looking Victorian house just steps away from an isolated California motel...


And of course, it goes without saying, there was the knowledge of the horrible murder of a young, pretty woman while she's taking a shower and the blood-curdling open eyes of the victim after she's been killed and fallen to the tiled bathroom floor...


From a kid's perspective, that's horrifying enough. I was not yet aware that part of the shock value involved was the elimination of Janet Leigh's central character Marion Crane only midway through the film (again, something unheard of at the time!) and that real life women were terrified to take a shower because of that scene. Then there was that final moment when a woman enters a dark, damp fruit cellar and attempts to speak to an old woman in a chair, only to learn that the woman is a grotesque corpse...


Oh, by the way, you may have already noticed that I'm taking every advantage to post many images from the film to accompany my writing. This is no accident! PSYCHO is as much a stunning visual experience as anything else you may have enjoyed on the screen, large or small. It's contents and it's memories for me are rich in visual photography, whether it's the experience of driving down an isolated highway or watching a detective slowly ascent the stairs of the house only to meet his demise at the hands of a a crazy person with a butcher knife! Even just before the credits, Hitchcock gives us something to think about as we say goodbye to Norman Bates' (played perfectly by Anthony Perkins!) and get that final image of him incorporating his face with that of skeletal teeth, giving us a new definition of frightening...


(Okay - I think I've made my point regarding the visual importance of this film. I certainly don't want to be accused of overkill!)

Plot wise, I've always held the strong opinion that PSYCHO is one of the strongest, most original stories every put on film (despite being based on a novel). It's one of those extraordinary times when a film starts out going in one direction and ends up in a completely different one. From the beginning, we're meant to believe that we're following Marion Crane's journey as a petty thief of $40,000 cash in order to get to and marry her secret boyfriend Sam Loomis (played by John Gavin). This is intriguing drama that may or may not lead to the traditional suspense that Hitchcock had provided in the past. Then, out of the blue, Marion is killed and we're meant to try and understand not only the big why, but exactly what unnatural force may be behind her murder and those that occupy the isolated motel. Slowly, the pieces of the mysterious puzzle are put into place and inevitably lead up to that golden moment when we learn exactly who and what Norman Bates is and how his mother fits into all of this...


(Sorry! I couldn't resist just one more image!). But since I posted it, I have to say there's one thing that bothers me about this exact moment. For years, as I watched Bates/Mother enter the fruit cellar and head toward Lila Crane (played by Vera Miles), I always heard her say something to her intended victim, but I could never make out exactly what. Then I finally read Bloch's novel and in it, the character says, "I'm Norma Bates!" before moving in for the kill. I watched the film again and realized that was the same line being said in the film. I won't lie to you - I was disappointed! That's a terrible line in a film filled with perfect, often quoted dialogue. Really, I wish he'd/she'd just kept her mouth shut and just screamed or something.

Let me continue with the infamous shower scene because I'm not quite done with that! There's something I'd like to discuss and it's probably not what you think it is. I want to discuss the moments of the shower scene before Marion is murdered. Believe it or not, we learn a lot about her character in the shower just before her demise. Let's recap a point or two - Marion Crane has stolen a large sum of money from her employer and, following a meal and a conversation with the clever Norman Bates, decides to go back where she came from to return the money and face whatever consequences are to follow. Look carefully at Marion's face in the shower and study it! This is not just an ordinary shower, but rather a moment of redemption and cleansing! The water is warm, it's soothing and it's literally washing away Marion's sins over the last twenty-four hours. Tomorrow, at the crack of dawn, she will take a long drive back to Phoenix, Arizona and (presumably) become a new person with a second chance at her life, which up until that moment, has been filled with confusion and dissatisfaction. We sympathize with Marion and we may even feel joy for the new positive outlook on her life. Then, in what I can only describe as the absolute sickest case of twisted irony, she's murdered with a large butcher knife and cannot possibly conceive of who or what is behind it, her chance at redemption taken away from her! To be honest, I would find it hard to imagine that no film critics or scholars have not previously considered this outlook on the shower scene, but if they have, I have yet to hear it for myself. If they haven't thought of it also, then I hope I've introduced a new take on an old classic!

Now, let me conclude with one more personal point that will (sorry!) involve one more image. If you go back in time and re-read my post for JAWS, you will recall that I described a fondness for re-release movie posters because, unlike originals, they imply and describe a history behind a film that has already had it's theatrical run and has had it's impact on audiences. That being the case, I am drawn to this particular re-release poster of PSYCHO because it follows a time in the 1960s when the film had already been shown on television with what I can only imagine were very heavy cuts and edits (they had those same edits in the 1970s when I was able to catch a bit of it here and there on TV when my parents weren't looking!) and promises audiences a chance to revisit Hitchcock's masterpiece with every scene in tact. I'm sure fans of the film were very grateful. But as you can see, you still weren't allowed into the movie theater after the film started...


Still, it's a pretty cool poster! And now, as a truly devoted fan of PSYCHO, I'd like to offer my sincerest thanks to Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Robert Bloch and Bernard Herrmann (just to name some) for all of their efforts involved in giving me, the world, and cinematic history one of the greatest shockers of all time. We're all eternally grateful. Now if you'll all excuse me, I'm going to go watch PSYCHO again in perfect high-definition Blu-Ray picture and sound! 'Tis a beautiful thing!

Favorite line of dialogue:

Dr. Fred Richmond: "Now to understand it the way I understood it, hearing it from the mother...that is, from the mother half of Norman's mind...you have to go back ten years, to the time when Norman murdered his mother and her lover. Now he was already dangerously disturbed, had been ever since his father died. His mother was a clinging, demanding woman, and for years the two of them lived as if there was no one else in the world. Then she met a man...and it seemed to Norman that she threw him over for this man. Now that pushed him over the line and he killed 'em both. Matricide is probably the most unbearable crime of all...most unbearable to the son who commits it. So he had to erase the crime, at least in his own mind. He stole her corpse. A weighted coffin was buried. He hid the body in the fruit cellar. Even treated it to keep it as well as it would keep. And that still wasn't enough. She was there! But she was a corpse. So he began to think and speak for her, give her half his time, so to speak. At times he could be both personalities, carry on conversations. At other times, the mother half took over completely. Now he was never all Norman, but he was often only mother. And because he was so pathologically jealous of her, he assumed that she was jealous of him. Therefore, if he felt a strong attraction to any other woman, the mother side of him would go wild."
(points finger at Lila Crane)
"When he met your sister, he was touched by her, aroused by her, he wanted her. That set off the jealous mother and mother killed the girl! Now after the murder, Norman returned as if from a deep sleep. And like a dutiful son, covered up all traces of the crime he was convinced his mother had committed!"
Sam Loomis "Why was he dressed like that?"
Officer: "He's a tranvestite!"
Dr. Richmond: "Ah, not exactly. A man who dresses in women's clothing in order to achieve a sexual change, or satisfaction, is a transvestite. But in Norman's case, he was simply doing everything possible to keep alive the illusion of his mother being alive! And when reality came too close, when danger or desire threatened that illusion...he dressed up, even to a cheap wig he bought. He'd walk about the house, sit in her chair, speak in her voice. He tried to be his mother! And, uh...now he is. Now, that's what I meant when I said I got the story from the mother. You see, when the mind houses two personalities, there's always a conflict, a battle. In Norman's case, the battle is over...and the dominant personality has won."
Sheriff Al Chambers: "And the forty thousand dollars? Who got that?"
Dr. Richmond: "The swamp. These were crimes of passion, not profit."

Monday, October 26, 2015

PROMETHEUS



(June 2012, U.S.)

For the life of me, I don't think I'll ever fully understand what goes through the moviegoing public's little minds when it comes to the art of science fiction! For popular franchises like STAR TREK and STAR WARS, audiences tend to (unfairly) react negatively if certain films in the franchise weren't just like their successful predecessors (i.e. STAR WARS Episodes I through III). And Heaven forbid people are required to actually take some time to think about the story they're watching...well then, the film might as well be considered a flop right there and then! Consider some of the best science fiction films ever made like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), THX-1138 (1971), BLADE RUNNER (1982), DUNE (1984) and INTERSTELLAR (2014 - and actually, that film did pretty well. Go figure!) - films that were initially considered disappointments or flops when first released in theaters and over time turned into either cult hits or highly-intelligent and highly regarded pieces of artistic cinema. Let's face it, people - if a new sci-fi film isn't fast and fun and requires little-to-no thought, it's tends to disappoint at the box office and with some professional critics. Even Ridley Scott's return to sci-fi with PROMETHEUS was not considered a success with audiences and I cannot entirely fathom why! Was it because it required some thought?? Was it because people expected too much direct reference as a prequel to Scott's ALIEN (1979) and perhaps it just didn't deliver enough of that promise? Whichever question is relevant, I hope maybe I can come up with a few answers here.

Admittedly, many sci-fi think pieces, including the ones I mention above, require more than one viewing, including PROMETHEUS. The film is not entirely easy to absorb and a second and third viewing will almost guarantee to not only fill in some of the holes, but may also shed a fresh light of appreciation. It's the year 2089, and a team of archaeologist, geologists, soldiers and even an android named David who's trying to model himself after Peter O'Toole in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA are on a journey to the planet known as LV-223 to investigate what has come to be understood as an invitation from humanity's forerunners that they've chosen to call the "Engineers". Like many other fantastic stories of this nature, it's a mission to try and discover not only life on other worlds, but a further understanding of humanity's origins. It would seem that we may have been spawned from another race from another planet. Sounds beautiful, doesn't it! Of course, hopes and anticipations are quickly squashed when the team encounters hostile and dangerous organisms that attack their human prey. In what becomes a race for survival against time, our human scientists must not only fight the hostile elements of the planet, but also stop a superior being from traveling to Earth with a potentially dangerous and lethal iridescent liquid that will ultimately cause humanity's extinction. As we watch this film, we're not only required to sit still and think about man's connection with his possible past, but also try and put together the pieces that link PROMETHEUS with ALIEN, and believe me when I tell you that the connection has very little, if nothing to do with the actually alien beast that was created for the original 1979 film. So let me try and help out with this one a little...

To properly and effectively connect this film with ALIEN, pay close attention to these two images from the 1979 film and we'll go through them one at a time...


This is the alien derelict space ship that was discovered by the crew of the Nostromo that appeared to have crash-landed on the planet. PROMETHEUS defines for us in full detail the meaning of that ship, where it was headed, how it crash landed and who was responsible for it. Remember this photo and you've made the proper connection.


This is what I guess we can call the control seat and equipment console to the above-mentioned ship with a dead pilot that was also discovered by the crew of the Nostromo, whom they deduced had exploded from the inside. PROMETHEUS also defines this for us and how the pilot of the ship came to end up the way he did. Again, remember this photo and you've made the proper connection.

Finally, we learn at the film's final moments just how the infamous "alien" creature was first born, though the moment is only very brief just before the end credits, as it appears that Carlo Rambaldi's wonderful creation was the result of the impregnation of one galactic creature by one of the planet's hostile organism's. Basically, the alien was a result of a hostile rape, if you'd like to look at it that way (LOL!!!). So I hope that answered a few confusing question for those of you who may have been a bit lost in the whole PROMETHEUS/ALIEN shuffle!

Now, whether or not you like this film, love this film or even understand this film, Ridley Scott, a film maker who has spanned the decades with a vast array of original storytelling and movie making, gives us a return to sci-fi that is a haunting visual grandeur both in design and aesthetics. The photography and set pieces are beautiful to look at as we explore a planet that we're meant to come to know a whole lot more once the true ALIEN stories begin. The performances are stunningly solid, particularly by Michael Fassbender playing the android David. There's just one thing that doesn't quite connect in this story and perhaps one of you reading this post can fill in the hole...the planet that this team travels to is called LV-223 and we come to understand that it's the same planet that Ellen Ripley will stumble onto in later years. But by the time we get to the story of ALIENS (1986), the planet they return to is known as LV-426. So exactly when and how did the LV's number increase by a factor of 203?? Somebody please clarify this now (the rest of the film I understand!)!!!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Charlie Holloway: "What we hoped to achieve was to meet our makers. To get answers. Why they even made us in the first place."
David: "Why do you think your people made me?"
Charlie: "We made you because we could."
David: "Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?"
Charlie: "I guess it's good you can't be disappointed."