Friday, December 30, 2016
July 2003, U.S.
Even before SEABISCUIT gets settled into its story of the legendary Thoroughbred race horse and how he came to unexpected success as a huge media sensation, the film begins with a portrait of America and its potential for greatness at the start of the 20th Century with the advent of the automobile and the progression of society surrounding it and other innovations in science and technology. It was truly the land of great opportunity and possibilities for those who were brave enough to take risks and put their best foot forward. This portrait of America is also told through some great sweeping cinematic shots of its colorful landscapes and horses racing across the terrain that would have made a man like John Ford proud.
Jeff Bridges as Charles Howard, in a role that greatly echoes his character as Preston Tucker in Francis Ford Coppola's TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM (1988), is a simple man starting out as a bicycle repairman and inevitably working his way over the years into retailing very fine automobiles and obtaining great wealth. America's greatness, however, was soon to come crashing down during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Through black and white still photographs, we get an unsettling look and feeling of how what was once so great could become so destitute. One family, in particular, suffers greatly as their once affluent household of riches becomes a life of living on the streets and scrounging for whatever money they can earn to eat. The oldest son of this family, Red Pollard (played by Toby Maguire) is a boy raised by his father on the great works of literature and poetry. He's also a boy with a gift as a skillful jockey. Such a gift however, cannot save his family from abandoning him in order that he can be raised by an employer with some money and a house. For those of us who can never truly know what it must have been like for families during such a harsh time in American history, even watching a young boy get torn apart from his parents in an act of desperation is truly gut-wrenching, even in a movie.
These two primary characters of the film, along with the lone cowboy and horse trainer Tom Smith (played by Chris Cooper) shall inevitably come together to rise above their hard times and sorrows through their association with the horse known as Seabiscuit. The horse, like so many other underdogs of the movies, is an overlooked and undersized character that no one believes in, except those who have been just as badly beaten through life as he has. Not too unlike Robert Redford's character in THE HORSE WHISPERER (1998), Red's sensitivity (even through his constant anger) to Seabiscuit is apparent as he is not only able to tame the great animal, but inspire him, as well, when it comes to displaying his true spirit during the many big races they run together.
Like many sports dramas that propel our spirits to great heights, there's always "the big one" in the end that will determine everything. In SEABISCUIT, however, there are two. The first big race is a match race between only Seabiscuit and the reigning horse champion of America known as "War Admiral". Well, I'm sure you can guess who wins. Even after the big victory, though, the story is still not over. Both Seabiscuit and Red suffer serious injuries and must both bounce back together to overcome the physical challenges. They learn to walk again, ride again and win again...together. The film's final message being, I suppose, those that suffer together can ultimately fix each other, too (makes sense).
As an actor, Toby Maguire has always puzzled me. In one sense, he can repeatedly come off as a truly wimpy type of person (think Peter Parker before his Spider-Man powers!) with no balls or backbone. Is that simply the nature of his repeated roles or just the man's personality, in general. There's there's that other side of him that provokes one into thinking he's not the sort of person who want to mess around with. Does the Jekyll/Hyde persona make such a man more interesting or more confusing? I'm still not sure. Jeff Bridges, of course, soars as he always has throughout his great career in a mixture of emotional states and boundaries that include grieving father and inspirational mentor. Chris Cooper, unlike his brutal role in AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999), is a far more sensitive creature who's personal suffering is unclear to us. He's a loner who prefers to spend his time on his own terms sleeping outdoors under the stars. Is he a man who suffered personal loss or is he simply trying to quietly survive the ravages of the Great Depression? We're never quite sure because the film doesn't clearly tell us. We simply accept him as a man who can help others heal, including a horse. And in the end, it's the horse who can help heal America.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Red Pollard (narrating): "You know, everyone thinks that we found this broken down horse and fixed him, but we didn't. He fixed us. Every one of us. And I guess in a way, we kinda fixed each other, too."
Sunday, December 18, 2016
(July 2001, U.S.)
Although not all of them are perfect by any means, I have a special fondness for heist films. It's one of the few cinematic situations where the criminals are genuinely the good guys that you want to root for. Typically, such criminals are not violent or dangerous to the lives of others. In many situations, they're stealing from those that can afford the loss, such as a corporate bank, museum, casino, etc. You want them to get away with it, and you can't help but be on the edge of your seat when things get tense during the actual heist process.
This particular heist film is directed by Frank Oz; yes, the Frank Oz who created many of our beloved muppets, voiced Yoda and directed many great comedies like DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS (1988), WHAT ABOUT BOB? (1991) and IN & OUT (1997). A serious heist film is unlikely something you'd expect from someone who's made us laugh so much (not too unlike Woody Allen's 2005 film MATCH POINT). I suppose we can leave it up to a filmmaker trying something new for the first time to offer us something just a little different from the average heist film, and just as entertaining.
The ultimate payoff this time is an ancient French sceptre believed to be a valuable national treasure and being held under guard in the ultra-secure basement of the Montréal Customs House after being illegally smuggled into Canada inside the wooden leg of a piano. Our thief, or let's be completely honest, our hero in this film is Nick Wells (played by Robert DeNiro) who is a master safe cracker and owner of a popular jazz club and restaurant. Like so many other tales before it, his agreement to take place in the theft of this sceptre will be his last score before finally retiring to his simple life as a club owner and lover to his girlfriend Diane (played by Angela Bassett). The entire operation is being financed by Nick's fence Max (played by Marlon Brando in his final screen role - I'll get to him a little later). And of course, as always, there's a man on the inside who's key to whole success of the operation. Jack Teller (played by Edward Norton), is an ambitious thief who's employed by the Customs House by those who believe him to be a mentally disabled janitor named Brian. As Brian, Jack is almost completely dismissed as an insignificant presence inside the facility who's often permitted to wander, enter and exit as he pleases. This gives him the opportunity to have full layout of the land and its vital security issues that the team will have to crack in order to get their ultimate prize.
Now despite bringing some levels of originality into this film, Frank Oz is surely not exempt from adhering to the traditional textbook rules of the common heist film. Rule one: the thief almost always needs to penetrate his ultimate destination from underground, as Nick is forced to do from the sewer tunnel below the basement where the sceptre is kept. Rule two: there's at least one moment where it looks as though the thief will be caught in the act, as Nick is nearly forced to abort while hanging upside down from a steel beam and is surely expecting to be caught by security guards. Rule three: someone in the end is going to try and double cross the other person out of the score's final payoff, as Jack attempts to do to Nick just before they're about to make their escape with the sceptre in hand. Jack, being a ruthless thief who has seemingly considered everything about this score right down to the last detail, doesn't appear to have the common intelligence or foresight to actually check the carrying case that he's taken off of Nick to make sure the actual sceptre is in it until it's too late and he's on the run from the police. And so, rule four: the ol' "switcheroo"!
Marlon Brando, one of cinema's greatest actors, actually does quite well for this role, bringing an eccentric wit to his character of a wealthy (and seemingly gay) fence and financial front for the score...and this is coming from a man (me!) who swore that Brando should never get in front of the motion picture camera again after his disgusting debacle in the 1996 remake of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU!). DeNiro is sharp and solid, as always, and Norton continues to prove that he's versatile as a sympathetic simpleton, as well as a man you likely don't want to cross or piss off! In a world of so many heist films to choose from, THE SCORE manages to stand on its own during a traditional summer blockbuster season, even coming from a funny man like Frank Oz.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Nick Wells: "How can I be sure you're okay?"
Diane: "I suppose I could fuck you."
Nick: "That would work."
Monday, December 5, 2016
(December 1993, U.S.)
It is my general habit before posting any of my films on this blog to watch the film again just to get a fresh perspective before expressing my thoughts and words. However, at this particular time in my life, I don't feel emotionally strong enough to handle a film as heavy and as tragic as Steven Spielberg's SCHINDLER'S LIST. Rest assured, however, I've seen the film enough times since its release to offer an accurate and faithful post that will accurately reflect my thoughts and feelings on the film.
This epic historical drama of the Holocaust, based on the original novel called SCHINDLER'S ARK by Thomas Keneally, tells the story of German businessman and profiteer Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) and the period of his life during World War II Europe in which he saved the lives of more than a thousand Polish-Jewish prisoners by seeing to it that they were constantly kept under his employment. The film also stars Ben Kingsley as the Jewish accountant of Schindler, Itzhak Stern, and Ralph Fiennes as German SS Officer Amon Göth.
I think rather than continue with any specific plot points about a film that I believe has been seen by not only fans of Spielberg, but by anyone who truly believes in the art of cinema, I will rather reflect on moments of the film that personally touched or affected me in some way. While I take every film I write about to a personal level, I feel more than ever that it's the only real way to approach SCHINDLER'S LIST because it's how a film such as this affects us that makes it so important.
To begin with, the fact that the film is shot almost entirely in black and white is crucial because I cannot imagine this tale being told any other way. Color, in my opinion and many others, I'm sure, is a strong implication of life, spirit and joy. And while this film may end on a somewhat triumphant note, it's a bleak and grim telling of the most horrible period of 20th Century world history, so to tell it any other way would have been wrong.
One of the earliest moments to really catch my attention is, believe it or not, a very light moment in which Spielberg tries to extract a laugh from us within the film. During a montage of scenes when Schindler is interviewing secretaries, the bulk of them are beautiful girls who do not necessarily possess the required skills for the job. Still, Schindler cannot help but swoon over them. The last woman he interviews in unattractive, old enough to be his mother and types with great and efficient speed. The look on Schindler's face is that of disbelief and irritation. Spielberg, who is generally not known for his attempts at comedy (even he admits he's not always funny), may be seeking to lighten the burden on his audience, if for only a very brief moment, because he knows that our emotions are destined to be tried as we face the unspeakable evil and cruelty of the period.
In the film, there are endless Jewish prisoners, some that we come to know a little more than others, given their screen time (Itzhak Stern and the maid Helen Hirsch, being the best examples). The horrors that are bestowed upon them by the Nazis are almost countless and surely as countless as the hoards of people that are victims of it. Yet amidst the great mass of human beings all blended into a black and white tapestry of celluloid, there is the single little girl dressed in the red coat. Who is she and why does Spielberg choose to have her stand out among so many in one of the few moments of color in the film? Besides being a girl that Schindler himself notices among the massacres and then later sees when her body (again, identified by the red coat) is lying among many other corpses in a wagon, she is, perhaps, a symbol and a reminder of the colorful gift of life among so much death. I'm sure I'm likely a minority of this opinion, however. Spielberg himself confesses a very different approach in that she was supposed to symbolize the highest levels of the United States government knowing full well about the Holocaust's existence and choosing to do nothing about it. As he put it...
"It was as obvious as a little girl wearing a red coat, walking down the street, and yet nothing was done to bomb the German rail lines. Nothing was being done to slow down the annihilation of European Jewry. So that was my message in letting that scene be in color."
I'll have to take his word for it, but that still doesn't prevent me from forming my own feelings and interpretation as I've described above, whether they're agreed with or not.
Once again, keeping an optimistic tone in a world where there appears to be no optimism, there is a scene where a young Jewish boy and girl have chosen to be married, even as they live their lives as scared prisoners. They're married by a woman who confesses to not being a Rabbi, but will perform the ritual, nonetheless. As a typically cynical man myself, it's extraordinary that I can appreciate and even by touched by such an optimistic and hopeful institution as the vows of marriage taking place right smack in the middle of the refugee prison.
Throughout the film, we've come to understand early on that Oskar Schindler is a kind-hearted man who is deeply affected by the course of action being a member of Nazi Party is taking on his life and his business. There are numerous moments of mercy and sympathy that saves the lives of many of his workers, but it is the heat of the train and the hoses that I am constantly drawn to. Trapped like animals inside the train boxcars, prisoners are suffering in the scorching heat. In an almost trivial and nonchalant manner, Schindler urges Amon Göth to indulge him and spray the water hoses at the opening of the box cars to cool the prisoners off. By his facial expression, he appears to be treating the entire matter as if it were comical, but we know that his heart is in the right place to show mercy to the people. To be obvious about it in front of his SS superiors would surely mean trouble for him, even as he must sit there and listen to Amon Göth claim that his sympathy in itself is the worst kind of cruelty he can show these people. Again, it's a brief moment of light in a world of darkness.
Finally, there is the moment when the war has ended. The officers in Schindler's factory have been ordered to kill the remaining Jewish prisoners, but are convinced not to in order that they can return to their families as "men" instead of murderers. This is a poignant moment, indeed, but it's what follows later that just gets me in my most sensitive area. At the moment that Schindler bids a farewell to his surviving worker before fleeing as a member of the Nazi Party, his people present him with the engraved ring that quotes, "Whoever saves one life saves the world entire." Touched and deeply ashamed of who he has been in all of this, Schindler breaks down in their arms, claiming he could have done more to save more. Like laughter, crying can be contagious on film, and it's impossible not to feel for Oskar Schindler, regardless of his affiliation with unspeakable evil. By the time the film is nearing its end, black and white has converted to color and we are witness the actual Schindler Jews visiting Schindler's grave site in Jerusalem. The real people are accompanied by the actors who portrayed them in the film, each of them placing a stone on his grave (this moment just gets me every time!). What Spielberg must have undertaken to actually find these people after so long in order to bring their extraordinary tale to such an uplifting conclusion, is beyond me!
So what shall our final reflection and interpretation of SCHINDLER'S LIST be? How shall we, our children and our children's children come to view what is undoubtedly the most respected motion picture of Steven Spielberg's magical career? Shall we say that the big kid who loved aliens, archaeological adventures, Peter Pan and dinosaurs finally grew up with this one? No, I don't think so. As far as I'm concerned, he did that back in the 1980s with THE COLOR PURPLE and EMPIRE OF THE SUN. Shall we say that Spielberg finally comes to terms with his Jewish roots and faith, something he may have chosen to dismiss throughout most of his life prior to the making of the film? That, of course, is a reasonable assessment, as he has sought to make a film that is, by far, the most personal, intense and deeply uplifting piece of cinema he's ever offered us. Or shall we simply say, with immense gratitude, that the film finally tells a tale of the human spirit behind its will to survive during one of the darkest times of our own humanity that should never be forgotten? That is likely what I'll tell my own son when his time comes to watch SCHINDLER'S LIST. Perhaps I'll even show him the introduction by Spielberg himself that he recorded when NBC-TV premiered the film on February 23, 1997, uncut and uninterrupted by commercials, at Spielberg's request, in which he stated...
"I want you and especially parents to know that Schindler's List is more explicit and more graphic than anything you may have seen before on network television. I made the film for this and future generations so they would know and never forget that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust and that history cannot be denied. I cannot be honest to that history or to the memory of its victims without depictions of violence and suffering...So tonight, in your homes, you will experience the story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman, a member of the Nazi Party, a womanizer and a war profiteer, who saved the lives of more than eleven hundred Jews."
I saw SCHINDLER'S LIST early in 1994 with some friends. When the film ended, the entire theater was like a morgue, not only in its dead silence, but in the feeling of sorrow that was in the air. My friends and I did not speak to each other for nearly twenty minutes. It wasn't until later in the restaurant, after ordering our beers and burgers, that we were finally able to break down our personal walls and discuss to great length, the motion picture we had just witnessed and would never forget. I cannot imagine that anyone other than Steven Spielberg could have done such a thing to our emotions. For that, I thank him!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Amon Göth: "This is very cruel, Oskar. You're giving them hope. You shouldn't do that. That's cruel!"
Wednesday, November 30, 2016
(December 1992, U.S.)
Man, I just love it when one Al Pacino film follows another! I love SCENT OF A WOMAN, and yet even as I write this post, I am somewhat disappointed to learn that this is an American remake of a 1974 Italian film of the same name called PROFUMO DI DONNA. It seems that nearly every time I think a major Hollywood studio has actually put something out there of original quality, it turns out that someone else did it first (why does this always happen to me??).
Oh, well. I'll try to put aside my disillusioned feelings and concentrate on Al Pacino, my favorite actor of all time, and the unique qualities he brings to his Academy award-winning performance in this film. As Colonel Frank Slade, it safe to say that he's more than just a little rough around the edges. Fact is, he's a blind and bitter raving alcoholic who could make a hater our of Gandhi, and as circumstance would have it, he needs someone to look after him during the Thanksgiving weekend while the rest of his family is traveling. Charlie Simms (played by Chris O'Donnel), a student at the New England Baird prep school who lacks self-confidence, is that very someone who will have to put up with Frank in order to earn enough money to fly home to Oregon for Christmas. But even before any of that has started, there's a situation at school in which Charlie and another student George Willis Jr. (played by the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman) witness three other boys setting up a nasty prank above the brand new Jaguar of the headmaster, Mr. Trask (played by the late James Rebhorn). Following the prank that resulted in paint all over his new car, Mr. Trask presses both witness to divulge the names of the pranksters. Both boys, for the time being, manage to talk their way out of it, but Mr. Trask is not willing to let the matter go, suggesting that an emergency meeting of the disciplinary board be called first thing after the holiday weekend.
Still silent, Charlie is conflicted about what to do. What better way to decide than to spend an unpleasant holiday weekend with Frank Slade (not!)! Before Charlie can understand what's happening to him, he's been whisked away to New York City with Frank on what will be an adventurous weekend for Frank who also has a plan for himself, which includes staying at the famous Waldorf-Astoria hotel, eating dinner at the Oak Room, seeing his older brother, making love to a beautiful woman and then blowing his brains out. Is is, perhaps, only Charlie that questions whether or not Frank is serious about his intended suicide, but I think we as the viewers no better. Frank is a lost man in the dark who sees no hope of any future for himself. At the home of his brother on Thanksgiving day, Frank proves once and for all why every family has at least one asshole in it. Though, in all honesty, when you see just how prim, proper, reserved and nervous the rest of the family is, you almost can't blame Frank for having the irresistible desire to shoot off his mouth just for shock value alone. Of course, it's during the dinner scene that we learn just how Frank came to be blind when one of his relatives finally speaks up in defense of the entire family.
Having finally completed all of the items on his so-called "bucket list" (including an unexpected and spectacular tango with a beautiful girl in a restaurant), Frank is despondent by the middle of the weekend. Trying to raise his spirits, Charlie convinces him to take a test drive in a Ferrari Mondial T. Despite being blind, Frank handles the car quite well and gets a joyous rush from the whole experience. But at the crucial moment when Frank wants to end his life, Charlie finally decides to grow a pair and stop the man before he can do it. I'm honestly never sure if it's just Charlie's humanity taking over in stopping another person from taking his life, or if he has come to have some genuine feelings for Frank (perhaps it's both). Nonetheless, there's a bond of understanding that has formed between the two of them over the weekend, and it surely manifests itself when Frank unexpectedly comes to Charlie's aid during the disciplinary board meeting that Monday morning, in which Frank, during one of his traditional rants, convinces the board to pardon Charlie for having the integrity to not sell out his soul against others just to save his own ass and his future. There's a lesson learned there somewhere; what it is, I'm not entirely sure. Is it let the asshole pranksters who look down on you because you don't come from wealth win, perhaps?
SCENT OF A WOMAN was the film that finally won Al Pacino his Best Actor Oscar for 1992. And while it's great to have finally seen that happen, I still can't help but feel that it was the wrong film to bestow that honor upon him. How he didn't win it for THE GODFATHER-PART II, I'll never understand! Still, it's a pleasure to watch Pacino in a role that truly brings out the hard edge in his acting talents, particularly if you get to hear him scream and shout, because nobody does that, in my opinion, as well as he does (and really, can you picture anyone else in Hollywood repeatedly saying, "Hoo-ah!" the way he does?). But even as we watch his dark side, we know the lighter side exists somewhere and it perhaps displays itself best when Frank his describing his passion for women. Not just their physical beauty, but the seemingly high pedestal he puts them on in terms of respect and worship. In the end, it's because of a woman, a political science teacher at Charlie's school, that we can all finally see a glimpse of hope for the future of Frank Slade.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Frank Slade: "It's three o'clock and the goddamn Flintstones haven't left yet!"
Friday, November 25, 2016
(December 1983, U.S.)
It's almost impossible not to feel that my post for the original 1932 version of SCARFACE was merely something to just get through and get over with in order to work our way up to the real deal. Director Brian DePalma's remake of SCARFACE has become embedded in out popular culture since its release and an effective gangster film that has stood the test of time with its audience. It's a piece of work that has gone beyond the cinema and into extensive reference within video games, comic books and rap music (I don't even think THE GODFATHER ever went that far). And of course, when discussing SCARFACE, we must remember THE GODFATHER (the first two films) with great affection because it's surely the memory of Michael Corleone that weighs heavily on our minds as we watch the great Al Pacino take on the alternate role of Cuban gangster Tony Montana.
Beginning in the year 1980, we're informed of a small piece of American history (which, by the film's release and timeline, happened only three years prior). Fidel Castro, having opened the harbour in Mariel, Cuba, intended to let groups of his people reunite with their relatives already in the United States. This so-called "exodus" not only included relatives, but also the criminal scum that filled the jails of Cuba. A clip of Castro himself is quoted as saying, "We don't want them! We don't want them!" Following some authentic color footage of Mariel harbour in 1980, we're inside the refugee camp where Tony Montana (Pacino) is being interrogated by our local officials. Pay attention to the dialogue and you'll note a verbal homage to Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney (a couple of our best original and classic gangsters of the movies) as Tony enthusiastically declares his admiration for such men. Tony and his friend Manny (played by Steven Bauer) are granted green cards and released from the camp in exchange for assassinating a former Cuban government official and communist. Following a very short stint as dishwashers in a local grease trap, Tony and Manny are given the opportunity to take part in a cocaine purchase in the name of wealthy drug kingpin Frank Lopez (played by Robert Loggia) by his henchman Omar (played by F. Murray Abraham). The deal itself becomes disastrous when their third companion Angel is violently and very bloodily dismembered with a chainsaw. It's this scene, by the way, that almost got SCARFACE an X-rating at a time when NC-17 didn't exist yet. The moment itself it quite chilling and disturbing and I cannot even begin to imagine what it might have looked like had it been released completely uncut (geez!). Tony is rescued before he can be killed, and it's this initial victory over Frank's drug cartel enemies that promotes Tony and Manny to a higher level within this Miami criminal organization. Like the flying blimp says later in the film, "The World Is Yours". Tony knows it, believes it and will let nothing stand in the way of it.
Much like the original 1932, Tony's love interests and personal conflicts echo the black and white classic. Tony's attraction toward Franks wife Elvira (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) is immediate and he appears to have no reservations about moving in on the big boss' wife. Tony also loves and irrationally protects his younger sister Gina (played by newcomer Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and is treated with disgust by his mother who cannot accept Tony's criminal life choice. Frank suspects not only Tony's moves on his wife, but also his aggressive ambition to make a name for himself in the Miami drug world despite Frank's warnings. An attempt on Tony's life by Frank's command fails, and Frank pays the price later when Tony has him killed. There is a rather unique moment that takes place in the film following Frank's death in which, rather than kill Frank's bodyguard Ernie right then and there, he offers him a job instead. This is part humorous because it's quite unexpected, but it also possibly suggests that Tony Montana has a heart...not a very big one, but one that can occasionally reveal itself if the moment is right. Tony marries Elvira and seems to love her, but inevitably becomes disgusted with her mundane existence in life, seeking to do no more than drink, take drugs and have sex (I personally have no problem with the third part!). The evidence of Tony's heart is also apparent when, in a fit of ranting and venting, he declares that he would love to be a father, but cannot because his junkie wife has polluted her body with too many drugs.
These brief moments of evidence depicting Tony's heart are almost worthless in our eyes because it's become very clear that he is "the bad guy". The bad guy, as is totally expected in any gangster film, enjoys the fruits of their lives as they rise to ultimate power. And like any rise to such power, there's the ultimate downfall that will inevitably follow. By the time Tony has not only made it obvious to his audience that he has an incestuous feeling toward his sister Gina, he's killed Manny for marrying her and is so hopped up on his own supply of cocaine that he can barely see the army of his drug cartel enemies entering his (supposedly) secure compound who have come to kill him. The film, however, uses this opportunity to feature Tony, if only for a brief moment, as a demigod. Tony's body is now so filled up with cocaine, that he not only sees himself as invincible against all his foes, but can physically repel his enemy's bullets for a time. This classic image of a snarling Al Pacino with his gun (or his "little friend" is definitive proof of such a powerful image of one's self...
Of course, as I said, as any such indestructible figure rises, he must fall, as well. Tony's last stand is striking and piercing to our eyes as senses as we watch his body get riddled with bullets and he's still standing! The blow that ends his life is slow, careful and effective as it's a simple and single bullet to the back of his head by an assassin sneaking up behind him that falls "the bad guy" to his end in the fountain below, the blood red water visually confirming his demise.
If ever there was the motion picture that has gained fan and critical appreciation and cult following years after its initial theatrical release, it's SCARFACE. Although a financial success, critics were very negative about it at the time, citing too much controversy over the film's violent, language and drug use. I find this puzzling because we know full well that this is a gangster film and we cannot expect its content to be sugar-coated in any way, especially by the early 1980s. Al Pacino brings his usual riveting performance capabilities to a character, though not at all uncommon to his past career, is a harder and edgier personality with a greater punch than the simply quiet and deadly youngest male of the Corleone family. SCARFACE is about true and deadly criminals and not about the traditional clichés of the gangster film, even a modern one. We are meant to genuinely be afraid of a monster like Tony Montana; afraid to cross him, afraid to say the wrong thing to him, and especially afraid to go anywhere near his beautiful sister. In the end, of course, "the bad guy" loses and crime surely doesn't pay. Well, it does pay for a while and we can't help but have some real decadent fun for a while in watching it do so. We can chalk that up to the streak of barbarism that lives inside us all, I suppose.
As I've often spoke of before, remakes (in general) don't hold much clout with me. Some are good, some are great, some even outweigh their original films. That small group of films that have fallen into the third category option have often been scary films such as INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978), DRACULA (1979), THE THING (1982) and THE FLY (1986). SCARFACE, however, is a different ballgame. Pacino and DePalma are not afraid to take things to the limits of drama, excess and ultra-violence to the point where a viewer such as myself concludes that SCARFACE is not only a worthy remake, but may just be the best damn remake ever made, in my opinion! What do you think?
Favorite line or dialogue:
Tony Montana: "What you lookin' at? You all a bunch of fuckin' assholes! You know why? You don't have the guts to be what you wanna be! You need people like me! You need people like me so you can point your fuckin' fingers and say, "That's the bad guy." So...what that make you? Good? You're not good! You just know how to hide, how to lie. Me, I don't have that problem! Me, I always tell the truth, even when I lie! So say good night to the bad guy! Come on! The last time you gonna see a bad guy like this again, let me tell you! Come on! Make way for the bad guy! There's a bad guy comin' through! Better get outta his way!"
Friday, November 18, 2016
(April 1932, U.S.)
When I was a high school kid growing up in the early 1980s, it never occurred to me or anyone else that I knew that Brian DePalma's 1983 film of SCARFACE was a remake. Turner Classic Movies didn't exist yet, and I don't recall it being shown on television or available for VHS rental. I'm not saying it wasn't, it's just that we didn't know about it. So to properly appreciate and write about the original 1932 classic black and white version of Howard Hawks' SCARFACE (and produced by Howard Hughes), it becomes necessary to put all previously-known elements of Brian DePalma, Al Pacino and "say hello to my little friend!" completely out of your mind and remember a time when the violent crimes associated with the era of Prohibition were the source of a film like this.
In the city of Chicago during the 1920s, Italian immigrant Tony Camonte (played by Paul Muni) is a mob enforcer acting on orders from his Italian boss Johnny Lovo. While he has no reservations about taking out the competing lead crime boss of the city's South Side, he has his own aspirations of taking control of that very territory himself, even if it goes against the wishes and demands of Lovo. Through intimidation and violence, Tony and his men push large quantities of their illegal beer to the local speakeasies and muscle in on such establishments run by rival proprietors. Ignoring all orders from Lovo, Tony makes a reputation for himself by shooting up and exploding bars belonging to his enemies all over the city. He inevitably declares all-out war to take over the entire North Side of the city and even kills his own boss Lovo when a failed attempt on his life by Lovo drives him to revenge.
Tony is also a man obsessed with his younger sister Francesca (played by Ann Dvorak), unable to stand the very thought of her being with another man. Although this film is a Pre-Code gangster film, any ideas or insinuations about incest are completely hidden from any realm of possibility. We can sense otherwise, however, and it's probably due to the fact that most of us who have seen the original version of SCARFACE very likely saw the 1983 remake first, so such an implication is evident. However, unlike the remake, by the time Tony has taken over just about all of the city of Chicago and finds himself with his back against the wall defending himself against the bullets of the police, his sister is actually there by his side to fight his deadly battle with him. We're not sure if it's just a matter of little sister standing up alongside big brother or if, perhaps, she realizes that she's also experiencing the same forbidden taboo feelings for her own brother. Again, this film at such a time in cinematic history would never give such an idea to its audience.
(Take note, by the way, of the electric billboard that says THE WORLD IS YOURS, obsessing Tony's aspirations of power and control. You've seen it before on a large blimp.)
SCARFACE, which by the way, paid reference to a large scar that real-life legendary gangster Al Capone had on his face, was released just about one year after two other popular gangster films, LITTLE CAESAR and THE PUBLIC ENEMY (both 1931). All films were meant to directly address the growing epidemic of crime and violence associated with the illegal flow of liquor in America. They were a public call to government and citizens alike to not only acknowledge the problem, but to take action against it, as well...
By that reckoning, such films may be regarded as genuine pieces of American history as well as escapist entertainment of the time. Certainly, SCARFACE, above all others, may be considered the most violent of the bunch, as it seems that the bullets never stop flying and the buildings never stop exploding. Pre-Code films of the time could get pretty nasty before film censorship stepped in and had its way with things.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Tony Camonte (pointing to a Tommy Gun): "There's only one thing that gets orders and gives orders...and this is it! That's how I got the South Side for you, and that's how I'm gonna get the North Side for you. It's a typewriter. I'm gonna write my name all over this town with it, in big letters!"
Saturday, November 12, 2016
(April 1989, U.S.)
Every once in a while, a movie is so perfectly timed in its relation to your own life, though you sometimes may not realize it until long after it's happened. Released in the spring of 1989, Cameron Crowe's directorial debut SAY ANYTHING is a simple story of a post-high school summer romance that can potentially blossom into something a lot more. I didn't know it at the time, but I was a couple of months away from my own romance with a young woman (not my wife) during the summer of 1989 that, for a time, had the potential to become something a whole lot more (it didn't). Still, it's impossible to deny those moments when life does imitate art, and vice versa.
SAY ANYTHING was surely the film that rescued my opinion of John Cusack as an actor, because in between this film and THE SURE THING (1985), I was unconvinced that his career was going to become anything significant. From the moment the film opens, we know exactly where Lloyd Dobbler's heart is and what he's going to do about it. We know coming in that this is a romantic comedy-drama, and the story wastes no time about it because the dialogue immediately lets us know that Lloyd is going to ask out the girl he's fallen for, Diane Court (played by Ione Skye), the class valedictorian who's high above the educational think ladder as compared to Lloyd's average student status. She's a beautiful girl who is, though not unpopular, someone outside of the temporary social system of traditional high school of the 1980s. When she accepts Lloyd's invitation to go out together to the town's hottest post-graduation party, it's likely for no other reason than she feels she should finally be able to get out from her shell of isolation and join in with the crowd. Though they spend hardly any time together at the wild party, Diane is able to recognize potential in Lloyd's sincerity. By the time they've spent the entire night together talking and driving around the city of Seattle, they're ready for their second date and what will turn into a summer romance before Diane leaves for an awarded fellowship in London.
As a backdrop to the story, Diane's father (played by John Mahoney), who also happens to be her best friend and confident, is dead-set against his daughter's romance with her new boyfriend because he can clearly recognize just how beneath his daughter Lloyd really is. For his future, Lloyd can't see past trying to get into professional kickboxing, which I have to admit sounds pretty lame, even for a guy who doesn't want to sell anything, process anything, or process anything sold...or whatever. Her father is also under investigation by the IRS for allegedly stealing cash from the senior citizens he takes care of in his nursing home. All of this pressure finally builds on Diane to the point where she finally breaks up with Lloyd in his own car, urging him to accept a pen from her so he can write to her while she's in London (again, life imitates art because my own summer romance eventually dumped me for some stupid, bullshit reason sometime later after we started dating and tried to continue it later). But if there's at least one thing Cameron Crowe taught us, is that if you want to win back the heart of the woman you love, the simple act of standing outside her house with a 1980's boombox raised above your head playing Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" will likely do the job...
I know this moment has been parodied to death, but I wonder if it's ever actually worked between two real life people? One thing I know does often happen in real life is that even after you've been dumped by the girl you love, she's likely to come running back to you as soon as she feels she has a reason to need you (bitch!). This is exactly what happens when Diane realizes that her father is guilty of his crimes. Does she need Lloyd or does she just need someone? Like so many of us, Lloyd only wants his girl back and doesn't care too much for her motives (geez, why do we men do that??). And so, after having watched boy meet girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl break up, boy and girl get back together, and finally, boy and girl fly off to London together, we're left wondering if Lloyd Dobbler and Diane Court, two genuine characters we've come to care about, are going to make it together?
Okay, that last question requires some thought and in-depth investigation. The young woman who was my real-life summer 1989 romance actually wrote a college paper for a film class a year later in which she decided to answer the very question of what would become of Lloyd and Diane once that No Smoking sign went out aboard the plane they were flying in and the film ended. I never found out what she thought or what she wrote, but I'm going to answer that question for her (and for my readers) right now. In my humble opinion, Lloyd and Diane don't make it. In fact, I don't even give them one year! I think after a little time settling in London, Diane finally begins to realize just how much of a crutch an underachieving young man like Lloyd is in her life while she's constantly among those of a much higher think tank organization. The two of them break up for the second time and Lloyd is forced to fly back to Seattle on his own (with money she has to give him) to face the emptiness of his life without Diane by his side. He likely gives the world of kickboxing a try but eventually realizes that he's not going to make it in that sport. So what he ends up doing is something very close to all of the examples he gave of what not wanting to do that night at the dining table in front of Diane's father and his guests. Many years later, he and Diane run into each other in New York City, and although they exchange common pleasantries, the tension between them is thicker than anyone can imagine. Their pasts and the ghosts they each carry are heavy and they're left standing there on the sidewalk, wondering what they should do next. Do they say goodbye and move on with their own lives or do they go for that symbolic cup of coffee that likely carries greater potential with it?
That, my friends, is how I continue the story of SAY ANYTHING. What do you think?
Favorite line or dialogue:
Lloyd Dobler (leaving Diane Court a phone message): "Maybe I didn't really know you. Maybe you were just a mirage. Maybe the world is full of food and sex and spectacle and we're all just hurling towards an apocalypse, in which case it's not your fault. I'm been thinking about all these things and...you're probably standing there monitoring. And one more thing...about the letter. Nuke it. Flame it. Destroy it. It hurts me to know it's out there. Later."
Friday, November 4, 2016
(July 1998, U.S.)
For my previous post of SANDS OF IWO JIMA (1949), I briefly mentioned a book I'd been reading called FIVE CAME BACK by Mark Harris, which told the story of Hollywood filmmaking during World War II. Key points that were consistent throughout the book were not only the timing of feature films and documentaries, but also content. How much was too much and how much was too realistic for American audiences to be exposed to during those war years? What would directors of American propaganda and war dramas, as well as the United States government and Hollywood producers have thought of such a film as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, quite possibly the most realistic and graphically-detailed movie about World War II combat ever made? Quite simply, such a graphic and disturbing film would never have gotten the green light back then. It would be more than fifty years before a gifted director like Steven Spielberg would bring the war, particularly the Invasion of Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, to the big screen for our generation to fully understand the depth and perception of the American soldier as he faced the unspeakable evil of our German enemies.
Following the opening sequence of an elderly World War II veteran (whom we learn at the end of the film is James Ryan in the present day) and his family visiting the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France, we are immediately taken back in time to the beaches of battle. Combat is neither glorified, nor is it exciting, as it was often depicted in many John Wayne war films of yesterday. From the moment the door opens on the assault craft, many of our young boys are barely able to make it off of the craft before they are shot to pieces by the unseen German infantry and their artillery fire on shore. The first wave of soldiers is lead by Captain John H. Miller (played by Tom Hanks in his first role with Spielberg). Though Miller survives this first assault, he is haunted and horrified by the extensive and violent casualties that take place around him (Spielberg effectively uses slow motion action to emphasize this). Eventually, Miller's team is able to penetrate the German defenses and finally establish victory for this invasion, which history records as a major successful turning point for the American foothold in the war. This opening sequence of battle is nearly thirty minutes long and although difficult to watch, it's essential, nonetheless, to tell the tale of such an important piece of American history that no textbook or previous film could ever do (not even THE LONGEST DAY, which I still regard as one of the best war films ever made).
Back home at the U.S. War Department in Washington D.C., it's discovered that three of the four brothers named Ryan were killed in action and their mother in Iowa is due to receive all three telegrams of her son's death on the same day. The fourth brother, James Francis Ryan (played by Matt Damon), is still missing in action and presumed alive somewhere in Normandy. John Miller and his team are given the mission to find Private Ryan and get him home to his mother. Immediately, the idea of risking the lives of many to save one man seems completely illogical (Spock would have said, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one." in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN). However, it's impossible not feel the unique example of human spirit and sacrifice behind such a mission, as well as the genuine empathy for a mother who has lost three of her sons to the war. This is the feeling we must harbor as we journey with these men to find one man, essentially "a needle in a stack of needles", as Miller puts it. Along the way, there is, of course, more battle and moments where the humanity of the American soldier is tested. When are they justified to shoot a German soldier who surrenders? When is it simply "an eye for an eye" form of justice? These are questions only true men of war can answer. As viewers of film, we can only watch and try to understand and appreciate the moral dilemmas and paradoxes that exist for such men on the battlefield.
Predictably, when the team finally does find Ryan, he refuses to leave the men he considers to be the only brothers he has left in the world. James Ryan himself, despite his rescue being at the heart of the film, is not a character we're meant to know or understand too well, other than a brief story he tells of the last wild night he spent with his brothers before they were separated by military enlistment. He is almost no more than the means to an end in which John Miller and his men will meet their ultimate destinies, be it life or death. Some, even the ones as tough as nails, cannot withstand the power of a German's bullet. Others who are on the battlefield as a mere interpreter and prove to be cowards when it comes to time to approach a situation of danger to save a fellow soldier from a German's knife, end up surviving in the end. There is little compensation for such cowardice even when such a man justifiably shoots the same German soldier he sympathized with earlier and helped to survive. War is, no doubt, confusing and complicated, even to the watcher from the outside.
I went to see SAVING PRIVATE RYAN the very night it opened at a small neighborhood movie theater in Westhampton Beach, Long Island. As much as I loved the film (who wouldn't??), I had the severe misfortune of sitting in front of two elderly woman who were making verbal noises of shock and dismay throughout the entire film. Although I repeatedly asked them to be quiet, they had the audacity to react as if I were the problem (just one of many examples of why I barely go to the movies anymore!). But even as I was watching the film and trying to tolerate these women behind me, I couldn't but wonder what these two old bats honestly expected from an R-rated war film? Even if the internet and social media were not yet effective tools to research the content of a film, they had to have known that a war film would not be a pretty day at the beach. Modern war films of the 1990s have blood, guts and violence, ladies! If you can't handle that, then don't go to the movie! And if you do go to the movie, don't sit behind me!
Finally, to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I offer a sincere, heartfelt FUCK YOU. And to SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, I offer an even bigger, more sincere and more heartfelt FUCK YOU! There's no way in hell you deserved the Oscar for Best Picture of 1998 over SAVING PRIVATE RYAN! I'm glad Steven Spielberg got the Oscar for Best Director, but it wasn't enough! So again, to all who were responsible for the greatest Best Picture Oscar screwing since OUT OF AFRICA over THE COLOR PURPLE in 1986, FUCK YOU!!!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Private James Ryan: "It doesn't make any sense, sir. Why? Why do I deserve to go? Why not any of these guys? They all fought just as hard as me!"
Captain John Miller: "Is that what they're supposed to tell your mother when they send her another folded American flag?"
Ryan: "Tell her that when you found me I was here and I was with the only brothers that I have left and that there was no way I was gonna desert them! I think she'll understand that. There's no way I'm leaving this bridge!"
Saturday, October 22, 2016
(December 1977, U.S.)
There are, in my humble opinion, three kinds of motion pictures that exist in our society. The first kind being the average, run-of-the-mill, Friday night multiplex movie whose sole purpose is to rake in as much opening weekend box office dollars as possible by those stupid enough to waste their time, intelligence and hard-earned money on it. The second kind being reserved for the great movies of history; you know, immortal titles like GONE WITH THE WIND, CASABLANCA, THE GODFATHER, JAWS and STAR WARS. The third kind are the movies that manage to secure a place in our popular culture and establish themselves as a public phenomenon. These are not necessarily great movies, however. RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD-PART II (1985) is not a great movie, and never will be. However, it's impossible to deny the impact it had on our American pop culture and even our American politics under Ronald Reagan during the latter half of the 1980s. When strongly considering this third category, one can't help but wonder if it's at all possible to select a single film that has managed to resonate so effectively with our popular culture and our very psyche in terms of how we viewed cinema, how we viewed music and even how we embraced our favorite movie stars. I believe that I can. The star is John Travolta. The music is the Bee Gees. The movie is SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, and it's going to be one of the most in-depth and personal blogs I shall write, thus far. So stay with me for a while and remember the time.
John Badham’s SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, based upon the 1976 New York magazine article "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night" by British writer Nik Cohn, was released during an era when America was exhausted from the fallout of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, and when the popular disco craze was already beginning to phase itself out of the public’s pop culture scene. Nonetheless, it was a global hit with both critics and audiences. It reinvigorated the disco craze for the next three years and made international stars of both John Travolta and the musical group the Bee Gees. On its surface, it's a simple about disco and the freedom that dancing brings to a young Italian-American kid from Brooklyn named Tony Manero (Travolta). At closer examination, however, the film offers a much deeper and more valid social implication. First, let’s take a moment to examine the neighborhood of Bay Ridge that Tony resides in. It is, by all physical accounts, a mixed melting pot of residents that include Italian-Americans, African –Americans and Puerto Ricans. The existence of these mixed races isn't always a pleasant environment of peace and social harmony; far from it. From the moment we're first introduced to the 2001 Odyssey Disco where Tony and his friends frequent every Saturday night, they're already entertaining themselves by freely using racist and disparaging terms against their Puerto Rican and African-American neighbors. Once inside the disco, amid the pulsating effects of the colorful lights and the loud music, we can see the same mixed melting pot of people who are on the dance floor enjoying their Saturday night of freedom and liberation. Compared to world of the disco, the outside world practically ceases to exist for many of these dance goers. The disco floor is a place for letting go of not only one’s daily existence of routine and structure, but to also, perhaps, redefine one’s identity, and this especially is true for Tony. By day, he's just a mere paint store clerk whose existence in life is no greater than to simply blend in with the rest of the Brooklyn working class while providing extra money to support his family while his father is temporarily out of work. On the dance floor, however, Tony is the superstar of the neighborhood with not only his extraordinary dancing abilities, but also his movie star-like charms and personality, even resembling Al Pacino to one of the women there. This is the power of the transformation of Saturday night from the mundane to the glamorous for Tony and for all who come seeking the magic of the disco.
Like many social scenes of interaction, though, there still exists the cliques of those who will only interact with each other more regularly and more intensely than others in the same setting. This situation is broken, however, during a pivotal moment in the film’s disco sequence when the Bee Gees are singing “Night Fever” and slowly, the dance floor begins to fill with people who have all chosen to do a dance together known as “The Electric Slide”. Look carefully at this moment and one can easily see that the bonds of racial separation have been (at least temporarily) broken for the artistic and joyous purpose of the dance. Only a short time ago, Tony and his immature crew were racially slandering other patrons of the disco and now there appear to be no racial separations because all the people of the disco have come together as one with all their social differences put aside for at least the duration of one song. Even the dance of “The Electric Slide” itself is a very finely choreographed set of steps in which all participants must work together as a collective in order for the dance to work. On film, it’s a beautifully effective scene filled with bright color, music and the physical appearance of social harmony and understanding. This may easily be attributed to the practical sense of the dance itself requiring the need for all of the people coming together to make it work, but its social significance, in my opinion, is very clear and very effective.
It’s interesting to note also that such strains in human relations don't just occur within the mixed neighborhood races, but also within the primary relationships of the film, specifically between Tony and his female interests, Stephanie Mongano and Annette. While Tony agrees to enter the big dance contest with Annette, it’s for no other reason than the fact they had previously won another dance contest together. It’s clear from the beginning of the film that he doesn’t respect her as a person and doesn’t display any tact by making it clear to her that he wants little to do with her. She claims to love him, but for Tony, she’s nothing more or better than a moment of sex in the back seat of a car when he ultimately feels threatened that she'll end up sleeping with one of his friends instead if he doesn’t give himself to her first. Despite both of them gladly using each other sexually when they please, he still disrespects and looks down on her because she’s a free-spirited woman who wants to have sex uninhibitedly during a decade when sexual politics were practiced so freely and so openly. As he bluntly puts it to her, "Are you nice girl or a cunt?", offering no room for anything in between those two choices. By the time he’s callously dumped Annette as his dance partner and taken on Stephanie instead, his perspective of a relationship with a woman has improved only slightly because unlike the common women of the neighborhood, Stephanie has a little more to offer. This is what we’re supposed to believe, anyway. Stephanie, in her own fashion, looks down on Tony because he’s not educated, still lives with his family, routinely blows all of his earnings every Saturday night at the disco and is, as she bluntly puts it, “a jerkoff guy that ain’t got his shit together!” Stephanie acts as if she’s older, more mature and places herself on a higher social level than Tony based on nothing more than the most superficial elements of her life that include her working in Manhattan, drinking tea with lemon instead of coffee to blend in with the female executives in the office, shopping at Bonwit Teller, and occasionally being introduced to celebrity clients as part of her job. During the coffee shop scene with Tony, she appears dumbfounded at the fact that he doesn’t know who Laurence Olivier is and makes no secret of her superiority over the fact that she does. Still, even when it comes to truly and properly identifying the legendary English actor, she can't seem to come up with a better account of the man’s current status other than the fact that he’s the one on television who does all those Polaroid commercials. The fact is that despite Stephanie’s ongoing efforts to place herself on a high pedestal above Tony and every other person her age in the neighborhood, she is, like it or not, just like the rest them with an almost desperate to need to hide and compensate for it. She has the right idea of who she wants to be but is not yet as accomplished as she realistically wants to be. When finally pushed against the wall during an argument with Tony over an older man she was once involved with, she breaks down and confesses her own human social weakness in not knowing how to effectively do anything at work and requiring the guidance of her older friend in order to make up for it.
Social acceptance and peace and harmony in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER appear to only be valid at the 2001 Odyssey Disco on Saturday nights. Once the work week has arrived again, many of the film’s characters revert to their old attitudes of racism and intolerance. At times, these attitudes are displayed with extreme violence. This first occurs when Tony’s friend Gus is brutally attacked by a gang of Puerto Rican youths when walking home carrying his groceries for no better reason than being one of the neighborhood Italian kids in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up in the hospital. As a retaliation later in the film, Tony and his friends strike back by invading the hideout of the Puerto Rican gang they believe to be responsible for Gus’ attack and inflict their own personal revenge on them “Italian style” as Tony’s friend Joey puts it. Even as this streak of racism and violence appears to be an unstoppable plague in the neighborhood of Bay Ridge, Tony Manero, who is, at heart, a good and moral kid, cannot deny by the film’s end that his own beliefs and perspective of life must inevitably change for the better. During the film’s final dance competition, he and Stephanie are declared the winners. Everybody in attendance at the disco is joyous at this result except forTony himself, because in his heart, he knows and believes that the Puerto Rican couple that followed him and Stephanie were far superior in their dance performance. At this moment, in what may easily be defined as one of mature clarity, Tony concludes that all of the lying, the phoniness and unfair social “dumping” of one’s angers and frustrations on others has to finally stop in order for him to regain his humanity, even if it means giving up his dance contest victory to those who truly deserved it and never stepping foot inside the 2001 Odyssey disco again. By the end of the film, Tony Manero makes it clear that he will never see his old friends again and perhaps will finally leave his family and the neighborhood he grew up in. This shall likely be the price of his finally growing up...even if growing up means that, unfortunately, your life story continues in the horrible 1983 sequel STAYING ALIVE!
Okay, so now that I've made my philosophical views on SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER very clear to you, let me move onto a much lighter movie topic and that is the subject of the screen kiss. You've heard of it and you've heard others declare what their favorite screen kiss is; from Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in GONE WITH THE WIND, to Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in CASABLANCA to even Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in TITANIC, the list of choices is likely endless. But does a great screen kiss necessarily have to be a romantic one? That being a possibility, let me tell you why I consider the kiss between John Travolta and Karen Lynn Gorney on the disco dance floor during the Bee Gees' "More Than a Woman" my favorite screen kiss. By the time these two characters are dancing their routine for the big disco contest, we're already very familiar with the friction in their relationship in that they cannot completely account for how they both feel about each other. During a point in the dance, Tony lifts Stephanie in his arms and the two of them decide to kiss for the first (and only) time in the film. The couple spins on the dance floor and the camera follow them as their lips are embraced with each other's. Study Stephanie's face with her eyes closed and you can easily read a look of tenderness that can only be identified as a woman's tender love for the man she holds in her arms and kisses. However, when the kiss ends, the two of them share a brief look of confusion and wonderment as they try to determine what it is exactly that they just did and why they chose to do it. But even then, that particular moment is immediately replaced with another when their puzzled looks gradually turn to mutual smiles. These smiles seem to say it all, for me. They say that the kiss shall not be identified, nor shall it be judged. The kiss was a simple and genuine gesture between two people who respect each other and who are ultimately identified as people better off as just friends, but who also, nonetheless, got caught up in the magic and the heat of the disco floor and the music of the Bee Gees that briefly carried them off into a world between them that they'd never visited before, and will never visit again. Perhaps it doesn't lend itself to the standard definitions behind the traditional screen kiss, but it does worlds for me and I may chose to interpret the meanings behind a kiss.
Now it's time to get personal about SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and what it meant to me and my life back in the day. Despite the fact that I was only ten years-old when the film was first released in theaters, its impact, both on screen and in music deeply affected my place in the popular culture of the time. This was the first R-rated movie I ever saw on the big screen, and as anyone can attest to, this is a true rite of passage for any child who is finally permitted (even for just two hours) into the sordid world of adults and their less-than-wholesome existences. For a small child, the film was a raw look into a movie that was displaying violence, nudity and endless amounts of profanity before my eyes and ears. The profanity was so bad, my mother almost made us all leave the theater...almost. For a child obviously too young to get into real discos, this was as close to being permitted into the adult world of the 1970s popular culture as I was ever going to get. Even within the film itself, inside Tony's bedroom, there were visuals that clearly defined the 1970s for me, including posters of the movie ROCKY, Farrah Fawcett-Majors and Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. On the radio, the Bee Gees were everywhere! On the family turntable, the film's soundtrack never stopped playing because it was four sides of pure disco dynamite! For a three year period, from the end of 1977 to the end of 1980, it seemed that SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER was constantly a part of my life, including the 1979 re-release in a PG-rated format, in which I first learned about the potential butchering behind Hollywood cuts and edits for the purpose of widening the audience gap...
...to it's 1980 double feature re-release of the PG version with GREASE (a movie poster I happen to own!)...
...to it's airings on HBO (both R and PG versions) and finally its television broadcast debut on the ABC Sunday Night Movie in November 1980, which by that time, may as well have been futile because disco was considered as dead as a door nail!
Finally, I want to share with you, something very deeply personal to me and its relationship to SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. I had a first cousin named Lena. I say had because she passed away in August 2000 at a young age. She was nearly ten years older than me and I was always very fond of her as a kid. Although I don't have a photo of her that I can share with you now, believe me when I tell you that she bared quite a resemblance to Karen Lynn Gorney in the film. As it turns out, Lena lived in Brooklyn during the late '70s (and never left, actually). At the time when the film was popular, she told me that she herself frequented discos. When I was a kid and I told her that I thought she looked like "the girl from Saturday Night Fever", she smiled and thanked me for what she considered to be a true compliment. Those memories being very strong still, I cannot help but think of Lena whenever I continue to watch the film. So that being said, I dedicate this post to cousin Lena and all those who were touched by her place in this world. We love you, we miss you and we'll never forget you. And to her daughter Jennifer, a dedicated mother of twin girls and a true symbol of strength and spirit, I say to you now that I love you, admire you, and that if you still have never seen SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, then it's high time you did, and perhaps you'll see in it what I do, and you'll think of your beloved mother, as I often do.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Tony Manero: "Would you like to know what I do?"
Stephanie Mongano: "That's not necessary."
Tony: "I'll tell you what I do. I work in a paint store and I got a raise this week..."
Stephanie: "Right. You work in a paint store, right? You probably live with your family, you hang out with your buddies and on Saturday night, you go and you blow it all off on Two Thousand and One, right?"
Tony: "That's right."
Stephanie: "You're a cliché, and you're nowhere, on your way to no place."
Tony: "What do you got, a fuckin' stairway to the stars, or what?
Stephanie: "Yeah, maybe."
Stephanie: "I'm takin' a course nights at the New School. Next semester, I'm gonna take two. Now you, you probably didn't get no college, did you?"
Tony: "No, I did not."
Stephanie: "Well, did you ever think about goin' to college?"
Stephanie: "Not ever?"
Tony: "No, did you?"
Stephanie: "Well, not back then, no."
Tony: "Well, then why the fuck you buggin' me about it for?"
Stephanie: "Well, why not? Why didn't you ever wanna go to college?"
Tony: "Oh, Jesus, fuck off! I did not, alright!"
Stephanie: "No, really, tell me, why not?"
Tony: "Oh, Jesus Christ! I didn't !"
Wednesday, October 19, 2016
(December 1949, U.S.)
The book I'm currently reading is called FIVE CAME BACK by Mark Harris and it tells the story of Hollywood and the Second World War, specifically geared toward the films, both documentaries and Hollywood releases, and military services of filmmakers John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra. It's a good read, though not perfect. One of the more valid points of the book by the time it reaches the end of World War II in 1945 is that American movie audiences were already losing their tastes for government propaganda films, as well as war pictures, in general. Like anything else, it was all about timing and with the war coming to an end, America wanted to move on with lighter material. That in mind, I can't help but feel that SANDS OF IWO JIMA, released four years after the war ended and not covered in Harris' book, may very well feel ill-timed and outdated. From the moment the film opens with the U.S. Marines' Hymn "The Halls of Montezuma", you immediately feel the corniness of what you're watching, despite its apparent relevance back in the day. Still, one can't ignore the true relevance of the subject matter of this war film and that's the legendary battle of Iwo Jima which resulted in the planting of our American flag in that iconic black and white photograph I know you've seen before...
It should come as no surprise that the film stars John Wayne as the traditional tough-as-nails Marine Sergeant John Stryker who's tasked with training U.S. Marines to prepare for inevitable battle. The soldiers under his command are some of the silliest and most arrogant men I've ever had to sit through in any war film made during the years of World War II and shortly thereafter. As drama, the film falls short of any real and plausible acting or character development. Even as John Stryker is likely the one man we're supposed to follow and care about the most, his true self is hardly exposed to us other than the fact that he's a drunk and an irresponsible father to the son he's left behind. Even as a drill Sergeant, we're never quite sure where he stands. The man has a heart, but almost always fails to use it, other than the occasional smile when it's provoked. His true heart is actually revealed only when he's shows pity toward a USO mother raising her baby boy without a father, but even then, his heart doesn't extend itself much more than leaving her a wad of cash to help support the baby.
So clearly, SANDS OF IWO JIMA is not a film you watch for drama or human emotions. This is a film based on real historical battles and the story doesn't short-change us on the its sequences of combat, which are also mixed in with genuine World War II footage of the time (you can always tell the difference because the real footage is of a grainier quality). The battles are generated with all of the traditional action, blood and guts one would expect to see in a classic black and white war film. But I suppose what makes the film truly worthwhile, despite its flaws, is that historical moment when our country's flag is planted and the men who have survived the battle stare in awe and wonderment and their significant and victorious achievement on the battlefield. This takes place, ironically, when after surviving much of the battle, John Stryker is shot and killed by a single bullet and misses that iconic moment. Perhaps its in his death and the letter to his son that he kept in his pocket that we finally learn who John Wayne's character really was in this film. On the other hand, Wayne made so many war films that it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish who he really is in one or the other. Still, there must have been a reason he made so many of them. He never actually went into the service during the war, but did his part back home for the war effort through the American hero that he was on the big screen. That had to have counted for something.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Corporal Robert C. Dunne (removing a letter from the deceased John Stryker's pocket): "It's a letter to his kid." (reading it) "Dear Son, I guess none of my letters have reached you, but I thought I'd better try again because I have the feeling that this may be the last time I can write you. For a long time, I've wanted to tell you many things. Now that you're a big boy, I will. If we could've been together even for a little while, I could have explained many things much better than writing. You've gotta take care of your mother and love her and make her happy. Never hurt her or anyone as I have. Always do what your heart tells you is right. Maybe someone will write you someday and tell you about me. I want you to be like me in some things, but not like me in others, because when you grow older and know more about me, you'll see that I've been a failure in many ways. This isn't what I wanted, but things just turned out that way. If there was only more time, I...(stops reading). "Guess he never finished it."
Private First Class Peter Conway (taking the letter): "I'll finish for him."
Tuesday, October 11, 2016
(November 1979, U.S.)
Halloween is almost here and it's always a good thing if I can post at least one horror film (or in this particular case, a television mini-series) during the month of October. It's even better if I can write my post for a horror film on October 31st, but this year, it just ain't happening, people. Still, horror films based on the work of Stephen King are more often than not, a good thing. SALEM'S LOT, as it originally aired on CBS-TV over two consecutive nights, was only the second film ever made based on King's novels, the first being CARRIE (1976) and THE SHINING following only six months later in 1980. It's not only one of the best King adaptations, but also one of the best vampire films I've ever seen, with a subgenre added to the classic haunted house.
I never watched very much Starsky & Hutch in the 1970s, so I knew very little of the acting style of David Soul. It's quite safe to say that he own's this film with his outstanding performance as Ben Mears. He's the hero, to be sure, but he knows how to be real scared of his situation, too (note the scene with his make-shift crucifix and the "undead" awakening of a woman on the table near him as he prays for his life and repeated shouts, "Bill!"). From the moment he arrives in the small town of Salem's Lot, it's very clear that he's the outsider worthy of suspicion by all the locals, despite the fact that he grew up in that town as a child. He's newly-arrived to write a book (Stephen King's main protagonist of his novels is often a writer) about the infamous Marsten house; a site with a long history of mystery, murder and death and a house that can easily be physically associated with or inspired by the legendary Victorian house in Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO. Look for yourself...
Pretty damn close it, isn't it. This is not a problem, in my opinion, and I would hardly waste any energy in claiming any copy-cat issues here. The house itself and its isolation effectively works in the telling of a vampire tale, in which citizens of this small town are dying off, one by one, and then returning as the undead to serve the master vampire whom we're not meant to see too early on in the film. We know only that there's a mysterious Mr. Kurt Barlow who no one in the town has actually seen before. He's only described and discussed by his business partner, Mr. Richard Straker (played by the James Mason). Straker is an odd sort, to be sure, even as a simple and quiet man who's preparing to open up the town's new antique shop. His involvement in the vampire's reign of terror is no mystery because we see early on in the film that he's responsible for the kidnapping and murder of small child, presumably a sacrifice for his vampire master. Even as we're made aware of the vampire's arrival in Salem's Lot, there is a true creepiness about it the form of a large crate being delivered to the Marsten house; a crate that moves by itself and creates a climate of cold to anyone near it. When the vampire's presence and existence is finally revealed in the kitchen of a family he's come to attack, he is, without a doubt, the most hideous and frightening creature in the vampire genre I've ever seen, no doubt a throwback and homage to Max Schreck in the black and white silent vampire classic NOSFERATU (1922)...
Unlike Schreck, though, I have to say that actor Reggie Nalder's make-up work as Barlow is far more terrifying in its own way. While both men are fashioned with teeth that resemble rat claws rather than the traditional fangs, Nalder's entire vampire persona - a creature more monster than man who does not speak but rather shrieks like a hideous ghoul eliminates any of the previous charm and grace that the many faces of Dracula has given us over the decades. In other words, the vampire tale of SALEM'S LOT is not some TWILIGHT story! The monster is destroyed in the classic sense at the end with the traditional wooden stake, but even after the Marsten house is burned to the ground and the town of Salem's Lot is presumably burned with it by the spreading fire, we're left with the notion that the vampire threat originating from Barlow is now global and that the hero Ben Mears, and his teenage sidekick Mark Petrie, will be fighting the remaining ones that continue to hunt them down.
I've never been a fan of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) because I don't like horror films that involve any kind of torture. POLTERGEIST (1982) is, of course, a classic but has often been the subject of controversy as to whether or not Steven Spielberg did most of the directing himself. So if I'm to give director Tobe Hooper credit for his true talent, than surely SALEM'S LOT is it. His influence from NOSFERATU and PSYCHO is clear enough, but I credit him for using his inspirations in his own fashion for the modern television hellraiser of the time with his creepy atmospheres and lurid camera work. I remember watching this on TV as a twelve year-old kid during a year when vampire material was all over the big and small screen, including that of Frank Langella and George Hamilton, and being very freaked out by its material. A few years later, I managed to tape a copy of the film off of HBO (or was it Cinemax?), but it was a condensed down to a 112 minute version. By the time I finally purchased it on DVD, it was finally restored to its complete version, including the prologue and epilogue with Ben and Mark in Guatemala, as well as the fate of Ben's girlfriend Susan, who has become - you guessed it - a vampire!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Ben Mears (shouting in fear): "Bill! Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Bill!"
Wednesday, October 5, 2016
(September 1954, U.S.)
When I saw the late Sidney Pollack's 1995 remake of SABRINA, I did not realize that it was a remake. Therefore, I was dazzled by the originality behind the love triangle story by the man who had impressed me to no end with previous work like TOOTSIE (1982) and THE FIRM (1993). Of course, once I found out what the real deal really was, I rushed to my local Blockbuster Video store (remember them?) to rent the original version with Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn and William Holden. When it was over, Pollack's remake was suddenly a lackluster attempts at an older and finer piece of work. Though I have to admit that if anyone is going to remake Humphrey Bogart, then Harrison Ford is very likely as good as you're going to get.
SABRINA is one of those rare films where I get to hear Long Island (where I grew up and where I live) glorified in any way in the movies (DEATHTRAP being another that immediately comes to mind). Specifically, the story takes place in the town of Glen Cove (where my wife grew up). The Larrabee family is (disgustingly) rich, their many material possessions and toys joyfully narrated by Audrey Hepburn at the beginning of the film. Hepburn plays Sabrina Fairchild, daughter of the family's loyal chauffeur, and a foolish girl who's been in love with younger son, David Larrabee (Holden), the family's irresponsible and embarrassing playboy. His older brother, Linus Larrabbe, is the responsible Yale graduate who's in charge of the family business and riches. Unlike his younger brother, he has no zest for life, no spirit and no woman in his life. His office and the business he runs can best be described as his faithful mistress. After a failed suicide attempt, Sabrina is sent to cooking school in Paris, France to not only get a chef's education, but to forget all about David, as well. She not only forgets, but comes back to Long Island two years later a totally transformed woman of grace, style and elegance. Leave it, of course, to Audrey Hepburn to bring such perfect adjectives to life on the screen, particularly her fashion wears, as designed by Edith Head, to take her beyond the fame she'd already achieved with ROMAN HOLIDAY (normally I don't mention fashion when I blog my films, but somehow, it seems correct and appropriate for SABRINA).
Okay, so Sabrina's back in town and David may finally be falling for her, as well. Trouble is, his new infatuation with the chauffeur's daughter will ruin a big business venture with another rich family in which David is expected to marry the daughter of said family in order to smooth out the deal.
(you getting all this, people??)
So Linus charges himself to distract and deal with Sabrina so she won't fuck things up. Well, predictability and cliché suggest what shall happen next (come on, take a guess!) Yes, Linus finally comes out of his stiff inner shell and falls for Sabrina herself (because Hepburn is so easy to fall for!), as does she for him. The love triangle between brothers and two families manages to work itself out, the rich get richer and the new lovers (literally) sail away to Paris. That's just a great big, "Awwwwww!" for everybody!
If there's anything director Billy Wilder was, it was versatile. The man could do love like SABRINA, outrageous comedy like SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), dark drama like SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) and dark film noir with DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944). He seems justifiably determined not to take himself or the contents of SABRINA too seriously. The three principal performers are lighthearted and take a good degree of fun with their roles, even Bogart who is surely cast against type in this one. Watch Hepburn closely in passenger's seat of David's car as he's driving her home from the Glen Cove train station; newly arrived home and clearly unrecognizable to David. When she laughs and tells David she's having too much fun with his confusion over her identity, she's clearly genuine. Hepburn, for all her beauty and grace, was a believable person in everything she did, even up to her final cameo performance in Steven Spielberg's ALWAYS (1989). She died in 1993 at the age of sixty-three. Too young!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Linus Larrabee (speaking into a dictaphone): "Interoffice memo, Linus Larrabee to David Larrabee. Dear David, this is to remind you that you are a junior partner of Larrabee Industries. Our building is located at 30 Broad Street, New York City. Your office is on the 22nd floor. Our normal week is Monday through Friday. Our working day is 9:00 to 5:00. Should you find this inconvenient, you are free to retire under the Larrabee pension plan. Having been with us one year, this will entitle you to sixty-five cents a month for the rest of your life."