Sunday, November 29, 2015
(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 The Queen is not an uncaring or unsympathetic person, but merely a political figure clinging to the outdated Monarch system that has stood the test of time for centuries.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
(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?"
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?"
Jules: "English, motherfucker, do you speak it?"
Brett: "Yes! Yes!"
Jules: "Then you know what I'm sayin'!"
Jules: "Describe what Marsellus Wallace looks like!"
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?"
Jules (shoots Brett in the shoulder): "DOES...HE...LOOK...LIKE...A...BITCH?"
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
(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
(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?"