Saturday, April 30, 2016
(October 1983, U.S.)
Is it me or does it feel as if the American space program doesn't even exist anymore? It seems as though ever since we decommissioned out space shuttle program after the last flight on July 8, 2011, the only news of space exploration we ever hear about anymore are cute, little probes that land on Mars and shuffle around. Not exactly too exciting to the average person who's not a scientist, yes?. Ah, but there were times, however, when space exploration meant everything to this country, and I'm not necessarily speaking of only the infamous Space Race and the Apollo 11 moon landing of the 1960s. For my generation, the 1980s were also a defining era when it all began with the launching of the Space Shuttle Columbia on April 12, 1981, for which I awoke early on that Sunday morning to watch on television. I was in junior high school back then and it was easy to feel how every kid and every adult was gripped by the new technological time period we were entering in our space program (prior to that morning, I'd only seen a space shuttle in the James Bond movie MOONRAKER). Perhaps it was no accident that THE RIGHT STUFF, based on Tom Wolfe's best selling book, was released in movie theaters at a time when each space shuttle launch still had meaning and could truly resonate with many of us who cared.
Even as a kid, which I still felt like in 1983, it was impossible for me to imagine how America's future in space began with just one man, World War II hero Captain Chuck Yeager (played by Sam Shepard) and his test pilot mission of the rocket-powered Bell-X1 aircraft which enabled him to finally break the sound barrier. Were it not for this film, I never actually would have ever heard of Chuck Yeager. Anyway, it was this breakthrough that got things started in our quest toward rocket design and seeing just how far we could take it. That, and our need to compete with the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. In 1957, when they launched their satellite Sputnik, America and NASA went apeshit to stay ahead of them in the quest for space. The search for America's first astronauts began with a vengeance. This is when we meet the new heroes of the film, including John Glenn (played by Ed Harris), Alan Shepard (played by Scott Glenn), Gus Grissom (played by Fred Ward), Scott Carpenter (played by Charles Frank), Walter Schirra (played by Lance Henrikson) and Don Slayton (played by Scott Paulin). Again, until this film, I'd only previously heard of John Glenn and Alan Shepard. I was also unaware of the rigorous, if not sometimes silly, training program that these future-men-of-space were required to endure. It's rather comical, and I suppose the film intentionally makes it so, that the men, even after all that training and sacrifice, are substituted for a chimpanzee when it comes time to actually launch some sort of life form into space after many failed tests of our rocket design finally comes to a successful conclusion. Back in the era of the Space Race, enthusiastic Americans only got to see their space heroes in the shining light that the media was able (and willing) to offer them. THE RIGHT STUFF (both film and book) attempts to show these men as they were when they weren't in front of the camera with their wide, positive smiles and their encouraging statements. They appeared to be faulted men of ego, fear, stupidity and even infidelity. Whether it was true or not, John Glenn assumes the role of the honest, wholesome, do-no-wrong American hero who insists on keeping up the healthy, heroic images for the American public, even when it means hiding the fact (whether or not it's deliberate, I'm not sure) that his wife suffers from a stutter.
Alan Shepard is the first American to reach space on a 15-minute sub-orbital flight. Later, Gus Grissom makes a similar flight, but the capsule's hatch mysteriously blows open and quickly fills with water and sinks. Grissom escapes and is criticized by many for potentially panicking and opening the hatch prematurely. John Glenn becomes the first American to orbit the Earth completely and receives a ticker-tape parade (I remember reading about that in elementary school). Even while all of this history in space is taking place, the test pilots, all but forgotten back at their base in the desert, cannot escape the reality that they're no longer the fastest men on Earth, even as they seemingly mock the entire space program, using phrases like "Spam in a can". Chuck Yeager recognizes it, and in a final act of bravery and defiance, attempts to set a new altitude record at the edge of space in the new Lockheed NF-104A aircraft and is nearly killed in a high-speed ejection when his engine fails. The aircraft is destroyed, but he survives, proving that he still has the "right stuff" (Chuck Yeager is still alive today).
Getting back to my own generation's experience with space exploration, it's impossible not to mention two other historic moments that took place in the 1980s following the successful inaugural launch of Columbia. The first (and I'm sure this is obvious enough) was the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. I didn't actually see it happen on television when it did, but I was returning to my freshman dorm at college after a morning class and found nearly every kid on the floor gathered in front of the TV. I barely even had to ask the question of what had happened. Somehow, I just knew they were going to tell me that the shuttle was destroyed and all the astronauts on board were killed. Well, after repeatedly watching the horrible image of the shuttle explosion on the news and listening to (then) President Ronald Reagan make the necessary speech, it was impossible not to feel the overwhelming sorrow and setback of the entire space program. The second moment was the "Return to Flight" mission of the Space Shuttle Discovery on September 29, 1988, the first mission following the Challenger disaster. I must confess, there's a certain wonderful feeling from watching the local New York newspaper go from this...
...to this in less than three years...
As I said before, the American space program, like many other parts of our history, is often dependent on our own generation's memories and experiences. For myself, I never got to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in 1969. I merely watched space shuttles take off into orbit and land on the ground like a conventional aircraft in the '80s. Today, I hear on the news about silly probes on Mars examining the surface. I hope that's not going to be as good as it gets from now on. I'd like to think that the visions of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke shall one day have its possibilities.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Narrator: "There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, seven hundred and fifty miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it the sound barrier."
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
(June 1956, U.S.)
The heist film, or I should more accurately say, the heist-gone-wrong film, is practically a genre all its own. From Stanley Kubrick (THE KILLING) to John Huston (THE ASPHALT JUNGLE) to Quentin Tarrantino (RESERVOIR DOGS), it's been done, redone and repackaged in so many forms, it's become challenging to decide which stories are worth our time and which ones are worthless. Now I wish I could say that the French have done it better with this black and white film noir classic called RIFIFI, but in this case, the director Jules Dassin was an American (go figure!), and blacklisted during the era of McCarthyism, as well. The film tells the story of aging and recently-released-from-prison gangster Tony "le Stéphanois", Jo "le Suédois", Mario Farrati, and César "le Milanais". The four men band together again to commit an almost impossible theft, which is the burglary of an exclusive jewelry shop on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. This, of course, shall be their last job together before finally settling down to the straight life of love, marriage and the basic pleasures that stolen money will buy, including a sensuous bath given by a large-breasted and nearly topless wife...
(now that's what I call a devoted wife!)
For the main character Tony, the prospect of this new heist comes with dramatic issues, including a former girlfriend who is now the property of a rival gangster and popular nightclub owner Pierre Grutter. The rival gangster is also a rival for the jewels after they've been stolen, but that comes later. The centerpiece that truly drives RIFIFI is an intricate thirty minute scene depicting the actual heist in detail, shot in near silence, without any dialogue or music whatsoever. One cannot understand and appreciate the brilliance of this sequence without watching it for themselves. The drama of the traditional background score or mindless chitter-chatter is replaced with the dramatic danger of maintaining absolute silence during a crime-in-progress in which anything can go wrong if the men involved are not careful. This fictional burglary, popular that it is, has apparently been copied by real criminals in real crimes around the world. And so once the break-in and the theft are (presumed) successful, the thieves appear to get away clean without having revealed their identities. However, as typical greed and stupidity would have it, one of the criminals makes a mistake by pocketing a diamond which he gives to his lover who happens to work at the club owned by the rival gangster (starting to put two and two together here?). Now we're faced with one criminal gang versus another in a battle of wits that will either win one of them the rich rewards or get themselves killed. By the time one of the heist men has had his son kidnapped and Tony has risked his life to get the boy (and the diamonds) back, all have failed and nearly everyone ends up dead (except the boy, of course!). We're left with the satisfying irony that after so much planning and so much detail involved, it's all gone to Hell and the suitcase filled with cash goes unclaimed.
The crime film, I suppose, can be approached in different ways, depending on what you're looking for. If it's just the thrills and suspense of the crime that intrigue you, then I suppose even crap like TOWER HEIST (2011) will do it for you. RIFIFI, with all of it's French subtitles, offers intelligence that breaks away from the traditional crime film - intelligence in its story, its actors, it's dialogue, its music and its final resolution. It offers a certain degree of humanity and sincerity, particularly in showing us the private side of some of the criminals and the love they feel for their women and their families. These emotional elements only matter, however, if you consider them relevant to a crime film. I say, why not!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Mario Ferrati (to Tony about Cesar): "For a job with you he'll come. Cesar! There's not a safe that can resist Cesar and not a woman that Cesar can resist!"
Thursday, April 14, 2016
(February 1990, U.S.)
Despite being a film by Tony Scott and starring Kevin Constner, I suspect that REVENGE, based on Jim Harrison's original novella, went relatively unnoticed twenty-six years ago and has likely been all-but-forgotten today. For the late Tony Scott, it was a film in a small string of less-than-blockbuster films he made in between TOP GUN (1986) and CRIMSON TIDE (1995), though in all fairness, I loved BEVERLY HILLS COP II (1987) and I still do. For Kevin Costner, it was the middle film in between a succession of three back-to-back hits that began with THE UNTOUCHABLES in 1987 and ended with JFK in 1991. I suppose anything that happens to fall in the middle of anything can easily become lost in a massive shuffle. Too bad, because in my opinion, REVENGE is a highly worthwhile film of not only, well...revenge, but also love, devotion and loyalty.
In a manner that practically picks up where TOP GUN left off four years earlier, the film begins with the final wild flight of United States Naval Aviator Jay Cochran (Costner) just before retiring to a relaxing civilian life. He travels to Mexico, accepting an invitation from his wealthy crime boss friend Tiburon "Tibey" Mendez to spend time at his hacienda. He meets a beautiful young woman riding a horse who is Tibey's wife, Miryea (played by Madeline Stowe), who lives in lavish surroundings but is very unhappy because her much-older husband doesn't want children. Believing himself to be a guest of Tibey's rather than a common employee, Jay easily says no to his powerful friend and acts very independently, which rubs Tibey's suspicious right-hand man Cesar (played by Tomas Milian) the wrong way. After a dinner one evening, Tibey conducts a private meeting with business associates (in which one of them is murdered) while Miryea gets acquainted with Jay. Of course, she becomes attracted to him and the feeling is mutual. Jay cannot ignore the situation, both the attraction and the danger, or as he puts it, "Who we are and where we are!" Still, the attraction and the tension persistently grows until they can no longer control themselves and end up having passionate sex in a coat closet during a party with Tibey among the guests outside. Two words - NOT GOOD! On the other hand, if you have the opportunity to fuck Madeline Stowe (back in 1990, anyway!) in a coat closet, you likely take it, right? However, the film is more about the love between them and the betrayal of loyalty against his long-time friend that Jay struggles with more than anything else. Jay knows he's a dead man for what he's done, but still can't resist the forbidden fruit, whether it's getting distracted by Miryea's delicious-looking legs while driving his jeep on a deserted road or stopping to swim naked with her...
Well, as predictability would have it, Jay and Miryea are inevitably caught and all hell breaks loose. Tibey slashes his wife's face and commits her to a local whorehouse to spend the rest of her life getting drugged, abused and "fucked fifty times a day". Jay is beaten senseless by Tibey's men and left for dead somewhere in Mexico. Through some good Mexican Samaritans and a few local contacts looking to get their own revenge against Tibey, Jay recovers and braves a path of determination and violence against those who beat him and eventually comes face to face with Tibey. At this point, it would be easy to say that REVENGE could end in the traditional manner of a good get-even kill, but the film takes a surprising turn at the climactic moment. Rather than end up with one or two dead bodies, Tibey suddenly recalls what the two men once meant to each other, and in an inspirational moment of manly honor, asks Jay to formally ask him (Tibey) for forgiveness for taking his wife away from him. The end can go either way now, but Jay suddenly also realizes the importance of friendship and honor and lowers his gun to ask for that forgiveness. It's such a simple idea, yet so different by way of the traditional ending of any revenge film. Although the two men will never be friends again, they both survive and Jay is directed to the convent where Miryea is dying. Now, call it corny sentimentalism or just plain, old sappy mush, but I still believe nothing is more tragic and effective when telling the story of true love than having one person die in the arms of the other. I suppose the writers of REVENGE understand that, too, because when that sort of moment takes place in the face of Miryea's death, we can't help share the sorrow that Jay experiences in not only having lost the love of his life, but the valuable friendship of Tibey Mendez, as well.
I'll mention again that the year 1990 was (and still remains) the worst year of my adult life. That in mind, I tend to examine the films of that year that I post with just a little more sensitive scrutiny and memory. To reflect upon that year and the strong love I felt for a girl who did not return that love leaves me wondering what I was thinking at that time having gone to see such a strong-spirited love story in the first place. Perhaps I expected more thrills than love...who knows. I do remember walking out of the movie theater feeling like real shit, despite having enjoyed the film. Decades later, I've clearly gotten over the love crap of that time of my life, but still hold REVENGE with a certain degree of extra sensitivity regarding who I was back then and who I've become since. A better and stronger person, I hope...most of the time, anyway.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Cesar: "You looking for someone, Mr. Cochran?"
Jay Cochran: "No. Is someone looking for me?"
Cesar: "No, sir."
Jay: "Cesar, let's get it straight. I don't like you, you don't like me, right? So if I'm looking for someone, it's none of you business! You understand?"
Thursday, April 7, 2016
(May 1975, U.S.)
There are, according to my research, a total of eleven Pink Panther films since the first one, simply called, THE PINK PANTHER, graced the big screen back in 1963 (one of them, the third one released in 1968 called INSPECTOR CLOUSEAU stars Alan Arkin in the title role instead of Peter Sellers), including three that were released after the great Sellers died and two remakes with Steve Martin in the title role (I haven't seen those and I won't!). That’s a whole lot of slapstick comedy that I can only call, in my opinion, quite redundant. In my vast collection of DVD and Blu-Ray titles, THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER is the only film in the entire lengthy franchise that I have deemed worthy of my time and my ownership. This is not only because I still find myself laughing with much enthusiasm at the antics of the late, great Mr. Sellers in his comedic stunts and pitfalls that I think greatly outsoar the other films, but also because I think this film carries with it a more intricate plotline in terms of the details behind the theft of the Pink Panther diamond itself.
Now if you remember the first Pink Panther film at all, you'll recall that the precious diamond had been stolen by the notorious thief known as "The Phantom" (played by Christopher Plummer in this film and previously played by David Niven in the first film) before and it was Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Sellers) who recovered it, though, somehow during the course of the film, he was suspected of being the "Phantom" himself. By the second film, A SHOT IN THE DARK (1964), Clouseau's prison term seemed to have been conveniently discarded, as he was back on the job, trying to solve a murder this time. By the third film, this one, he's after the Pink Panther diamond and the "Phantom" all over again. Interestingly, although this is a goofy comedy, the film begins with a somewhat suspenseful theft as we watch the mysterious thief carefully make his (or her?) way into the chamber where the diamond rests and skillfully removes it without setting off any of the security alarms. I have to admit, I actually find myself sitting in suspense as I watch the thief at work. After that little bit of seriousness, the film is off and running its trail of silliness with our re-introduction to Inspector Clouseau and his bumbling idiosyncrasies and thick-accented French dialogue. Like James Bond himself, Clouseau travels the world to exotic locales to track down the solution to this great crime and along the way, we can't help suspect that were he not such a bumbling idiot, he might actually score with a woman or two. Certainly, he thinks he can if he wishes to. There's a particularly funny moment when he's attempting to charm the "Phantom's" wife, Lady Claudine Lytton (played by Catherine Schell) in a nightclub. Holding up his drink, he proposes a toast and utters the classic line from CASABLANCA, "Here's looking at you, kid." Okay, that doesn't sound too funny on paper, but try to imagine it with an overly-thick fake French accent and it sounds more like, "Here's-a-looking-at-a-you, kid." Trust me, it funny! Look carefully at Catherine Schell and you'll see that the actress is having trouble containing her genuine laughter while working this scene with Sellers. Many of the traditional clichés and schticks that became repetitive in the many Panther films to follow still seem fresh in this film of 1975, including Clouseau's ongoing physical battle-of-wits with his faithful servant Cato (played by Burt Kwouk, who, by the way, my friend Richard K. in California will remind you that he also played Mr. Ling in the 1963 James Bond film, GOLDFINGER), and my personal favorite, Clouseau's police chief Inspector Dreyfuss (played by Herbert Lom) who is constantly hell-bent on killing the naive detective. Never do I enjoy someone's misery and frustration more than when I'm listening to Dreyfuss' desperation and laughter when he's trying to not only kill the poor man, but also explain to others just how much he hates Clouseau.
As for the cloak and dagger criminal element of this comedy, it's innocent enough for a G-rated film, despite moments of gun fire and explosions (the final resolution of who actually stole the Pink Panther diamond is actually quite boring and anti-climactic). But like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Clouseau only walks away with a dirty face and torn clothes when an exploding bomb nearly takes his life (the bomb sent to his house by Dreyfuss, by the way!). However, I do challenge the "G" rating of today if no other reason than there is actually some dialogue that would likely be considered racist by today's standards and that's when Clouseau repeatedly refers to Cato as his "little yellow friend". During the 1970's, a time when Archie Bunker was saying whatever the fuck he pleased on network television and people were loving it, such a reference to an Asian man on film probably went unnoticed. Today, someone out there would have a reason to go apeshit over it (everybody's always pissed off about something!). A little bit of racist dialogue is, perhaps, a small and questionable price to pay for the comedic talents of Peter Sellers in this particular film. While those talents may never have been able to live up to the madness and genius of his talent in the Stanley Kubrick films LOLITA (1962) and DR. STRANGELOVE (1964), it still remains a high level of entertaining silliness that I continue to enjoy to this day. As for the Panther films that followed...well, I remember really wanting to see THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN (1976) as a kid and finally did see it on TV four years later. Back then, I have no doubt that it made me laugh. Today, while still possessing a funny moment or two, the plot of Inspector Dreyfuss turning evil in the tradition of a James Bond villain just to kill Clouseau once and for all is, frankly, just too stupid to make the film worthwhile. REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER (1978) was a film whose only appeal for me were two; the first being a movie poster that featured comical version of the famous JAWS 2 tagline, "Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back to the Movies" and the second being a black leather dominatrix...
You know, until this film, I never even knew these women existed (bless them!)! Beyond this smokin' lady, the film sucks! After Sellers died in 1980, I gave up on all Panther films forever. What little bits and pieces of TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER (1982) that I happen to catch on HBO at the time was pathetic. I mean, really, trying to salvage a popular franchise by cutting and splicing unused footage from previous Panther films to make it appear that Sellers is alive and well for a new film two years after his death? Seriously??? Anyway, there you have it - eleven Pink Panther films and I stand by just one...and it's all mine!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Chief Inspector Dreyfus: "The beggar was the lookout man for the gang!"
Inspector Clouseau: "That is impossible. How can a blind man be a lookout?"
Dreyfus: "How can an idiot be a police officer?"
Clouseau: "Well, all he has to do is enlist..."
Dreyfus: "Shut up!"