Monday, August 29, 2016
(September 1998, U.S.)
I have, in previous blog posts, described how the late John Frankenheimer was a hit-and-miss director with me. My favorite thriller of all time, BLACK SUNDAY (1977) was one of his and there's no denying the greatness of other films like THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962), SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964) and GRAND PRIX (1966), as well as some of his television work. There's also no denying the disappointment of duds like PROPHECY (1979), 52 PICK UP (1986) and his screen swan-song REINDEER GAMES (2000). RONIN certainly more-than-compensated for his previous disastrous screen remake of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1996) and even made up for what I considered to be, at best, a mediocre time at the movies during the summer of 1998. September is a month where you start to expect films to get better just in time for the fall Oscar considerations and also a time when the summer crowds have thinned out, making a time at the local movie theater or multiplex just a little easier to deal with.
So once again, like PULP FICTION, the film centers on a mysterious briefcase, its contents unknown to us, and a team of hired ex-special operatives who are trying to steal it under very heavy guard, all the while navigating through a maze of shifting alliances and loyalties. This team consists of mercenaries we only come to know by first name including the American Sam (played by Robert DeNiro), the Frenchman Vincent (played by Jean Reno), the German Gregor (played by Stellan Skarsgård) and the Irishman Spence (played by Sean Bean), who are also challenged against the Russian mob, also bidding on the mysterious briefcase. During a gun battle in Nice, France, Gregor betrays the team by stealing the case and then trying to sell it to the Russians, but is forced to kill his contact when he betrays him. The rest of the team are now forced to track down Gregor, the case and their enemies at large in order to fulfill their mission and stay alive; and of course, the price for their services just went up in light of too many recent and deadly developments. In a strange form of prerequisite, this team is not too unlike the men we meet in Sylvester Stallone's films of THE EXPENDABLES, though with a lot less gun violence and explosions, and of course, much better acting. This film also includes the best and most authentic and lengthy car chase scenes through the streets of Nice and Paris that I've ever seen on film since Gene Hackman in THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) and Roy Scheider in THE SEVEN-UPS (1973). There is also noteworthy shot-by-shot and Steadicam cinematography at work here that rivals the most impressive technical feat that any computer generated imagery could pull off.
As with any tale of spies and espionage, we are destined to keep our eyes and ears open to see who is for real and who will betray us. Throughout RONIN, we are taken on a journey of not only action and thrills, but to also discover who is not exactly who they say they are. Sam we sense is a good and honorable man who is part of this mission for reasons greater than money, but rather of loyalty and to pay the penance of a past failure against one who trusted him; not too unlike an 18th-century historical event and legend in Japan in which a band of leaderless samurai (rōnin) sought to avenge the death of their master, as it is told by the character played by Michael Lonsdale (think Drax in MOONRAKER!). Like so many other thrillers of various tales, we can't help but take pleasure in being permitted to be let in on the entire saga of unexpected danger and treachery. In the end, also like PULP FICTION, we never find out what was in the case, though we've had a great time trying to guess ourselves and watch everyone else on the screen live and die for the same purpose and knowledge.
For myself, RONIN is the best film of Frankenheimer's since BLACK SUNDAY, which I suppose, leaves little room for me for any sort of genuine appreciation in between all those years, though I give him strong credit as a filmmaker for his 1997 film of GEORGE WALLACE on TNT and his 2002 film of Lyndon B. Johnson in PATH TO WAR on HBO. Unfortunately for me, REINDEER GAMES as his final theatrical film was a true disappointment. Like I've previously said, the man was hit-and-miss with me.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Spence: "You ever kill anybody?"
Sam: "I hurt somebody's feelings once."
Wednesday, August 24, 2016
(August 1953, U.S.)
There was a recent 2015 film called TRUMBO with Bryan Cranston in the starring role as the blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter responsible for many popular films, including Stanley Kubrick's SPARTACUS (1960) and William Wyler's ROMAN HOLIDAY, which he could not receive credit for, at least not until the black and white classic was released on DVD in 2003. It gives one a moment to pause to consider just how many other great films were written by those that were forced to remain anonymous while blacklisted and instead have another writer "front" for them. The film stars Audrey Hepburn as Ann, the royal crown princess who escapes her family and her position to see the great city of Rome, Italy on her own and Gregory Peck as a reporter looking to take advantage of her inexperience and naiveté in order to land himself a sensational story.
If one were to presume that Hepburn's character was based on a real princess and her real social agenda, then one can only try and appreciate just how frustrating it must be to constantly have to poise one's self in perfect manner, wave to the crowds and repeatedly say bland things like, "Yes" and "Thank you" to everything said to you. One can hardly blame Princess Ann for nearly losing her mind and having a breakdown. When she escapes her surroundings, it's important to remember that she's already been given a strong sedative by her doctor to help calm her down. I say this because once out in Rome, she appears as if she's drunk. The sedative eventually makes her fall asleep on a bench, where Joe Bradley (Peck), an American reporter working for an American news service based in Rome, finds her. He doesn't recognize her at first and offers her money so she can take a taxi home, but a very woozy "Anya Smith" (as she later calls herself) refuses to cooperate. Joe decides to let her spend the night in his apartment and soon sees the opportunity crashing on his bed. An exclusive interview with the right pictures will pay handsomely. Unlike the heartless minds of the traditional paparazzi that we've become all-too familiar with, Joe has a heart and uses much of his time to help Ann have a good time in Rome, including cutting her hair, eating gelato, riding a scooter, and even getting arrested (hey, it's a new experience for Ann!).
As the two of them slowly (and predictably) fall in love, it becomes evident to Princess Ann that she's destined to return to the duties of her royal position, whether she likes it or not. When she does take her proper place once again, she cannot ignore the fact that she's spent the last few days of her life as a simple young girl in the company of a charming man and seeing just a little bit of the world outside of her own sheltered existence; quite literally a Roman holiday. Even when she's standing stiff again and answering questions for the press, we can clearly recognize her attraction and longing to let go and reach out to the man she loves as he stands among the crowd. In the end, however, love loses and life's position and status wins over. It's not a sad situation, however. As the interview with the princess comes to an end, the crowd of journalists and reporters eventually disperses, and Joe is left alone to ponder what might have been...with a smile.
ROMAN HOLIDAY is one of those light-hearted films that has become a staple for not only what defines a romantic classic, but also the monthly schedule for Turner Classic Movies. When you watch it, your mood is lighter and your concentration relaxes a bit because of the story's simplicity. Though, I must confess that I find myself getting a bit serious sometimes when I watch it because I find myself suddenly thinking of just how Princess Diana of Whales died in 1997 largely due to the persistent pursuit and harassment of the paparazzi. Life and art may not always imitate each other, but sometimes it can feel like they've come rather close.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Reporter: "Which of the cities visited did Your Highness enjoy the most?"
General Provno (whispering and prompting) "Each, in its own way..."
Princess Ann: "Each, in its own way, was unforgettable. It would be difficult to...Rome! By all means, Rome. I will cherish my visit here in memory as long as I live."
Friday, August 19, 2016
(March 1984, U.S.)
It's hard for me to believe that ROMANCING THE STONE actually opened in the early part of the spring of 1984, because I managed to see it (twice) well into that summer during its second run. Just goes to show that popular movies managed to stay in theaters a whole lot longer than they do today. I recall my first impression of the film, judging solely by the content of the movie poster, that it was nothing more than some shameless ripoff of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Hell, I didn't even really know who Robert Zemeckis was (yet). The film ended up being just one of those afternoons with my parents during the summer when the weather wasn't too good and we were all just in the mood for a movie to pass some of the time (and later as a second viewing while I was a CIT at sleepaway camp). Needless, to say, it all ended up being a pleasant surprise.
I was to discover first that despite the poster's art work and the adventurous content of the film, it was all more about dialogue, humor and a wonderful chemistry between its two stars Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner (they'd go on to make a disappointing sequel THE JEWEL OF THE NILE and a great film about marital hate called THE WAR OF THE ROSES). Joan Wilder (Turner) is a lonely New York City romance novelist (you know, those cheesy books that made a beefy guy like Fabio a star in the 1990s) who believes in the idea of a romantic hero like in one of her books. Her sister, Elaine, has been kidnapped by rather oafish antiquities smugglers (one of them played by Danny DeVito) in Columbia, South America and it's up to Joan to save her by bringing a mysterious treasure map she recently received by mail to Columbia as ransom. Joan is as up to a task like this as say...I would be! Upon arrival, she's nearly killed by an evil man called Colonel Zolo (the man who killed her sister's husband before she was kidnapped) when she's literally saved at the last minute by Jack T. Colton (Douglas) who comes to her rescue when it matters most, much like the male hero in many of her books. Needing his help to get out of the jungle and to the nearest pay phone, the two of them agree on a fee of three hundred and seventy-five dollars in travelers checks (American Express, of course!).
The film from this point is the purest definition of cliché and predictability. Stuffy and nervous New York City Joan Wilder becomes a little more apt to the treachery of the jungle and Jack Colton learns to lighten up his rough edges a bit...and, of course, the two of them inevitable fall in love along the way. So I suppose the real flare of the film is watching the two of them escape the dangers of their enemies and to ultimately discover what sort of treasure it is they're seeking and to see who will get to it first, the good guys or the bad guys...yeah, as if we couldn't predict that! I must say, it's interesting to see not only how Jack gets his hands on the treasure (a precious stone, hence the movie's title) with the arm-chomping alligator, but how he chooses to spend the money on his dream sail boat, which he uses to sweep the now beautiful heroine, Joan Wilder off of her feet at the end. Yes, it's the kind of Hollywood ending of love and happily-ever-after that just leaves you feeling, "Awwww!"
All silliness aside, the film is quite enjoyable due to the above-mentioned characteristics of its actors and their comic performances. For adventurous content, it's pure fantasy in the art of treasure hunting and survival that is meant to be inspired by, if not an homage to, cheap and cheesy romance-adventure novels. Hell, even the film's novelization knew just how to market itself and take advantage of the very (semi) literary genre it was adapting...
Hey, if absolutely nothing else, ROMANCING THE STONE was a far superior film, in my opinion, to that unfortunate and rather tragic second attempt at continuing the saga of a certain famous archaeologist and adventurer, namely INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (hated that movie!). It was also a great introduction to the kind of filmmaker Robert Zemeckis was, one year before he would really make his name well known with a time traveling kid named Marty McFly, an animated rabbit who got framed and a young simpleton who believed that life was like a box of chocolates.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Jack Colton: "What did you do, wake up this morning and say, "Today, I'm gonna ruin a man's life"?
Saturday, August 13, 2016
(February 1983, U.S.)
Once again, the fine aroma of coincidence inhabits my blog; two concert motion pictures in a row, Roger Waters and now The Rolling Stones...
But before I begin, let me just offer a brief history of Eric F. and The Rolling Stones...
- Summer 1978 - Eric hears his first Rolling Stones song ever, "Miss You" from the SOME GIRLS album, but has no idea that the song is by The Rolling Stones. He assumes it's by a disco group, as that is the popular music of the era.
- Spring 1980 - Eric hears and learns of more songs by The Rolling Stones largely due to a repeated television commercial advertising for a Rolling Stones greatest hits double album package not available in stores but only through this "special TV offer".
- November 1981 - The Rolling Stones North American Tour is scheduled to come to NYC's Madison Square Garden and New Jersey's Meadowlands Arena. The 1981 tour is the hot musical topic with kids at his high school, particularly due to their new album TATOO YOU and the hit song "Start Me Up". Eric, just a freshman at the time and still not very familiar with much of The Rolling Stones' material, asks his parents if he can go to the concert. He is (very unfairly!) denied access, their (bullshit!) reason being that he is still considered too young to go to a rock concert.
- February 1983 - Eric is practically dragged by his friends to see The Rolling Stones concert film LET'S SPEND THE NIGHT TOGETHER at a second-run neighborhood movie theater in Little Neck, New York.
- October 1989 - Eric finally sees The Rolling Stones live for the first time at Shea Stadium during their 1989-1990 STEEL WHEELS tour.
- January 2006 - Eric sees The Rolling Stones for the second time at Madison Square Garden during their A BIGGER BANG tour. It is the last concert he sees before becoming a father just one month later.
I find this little bit of personal history with the "greatest rock and roll of all time" somewhat necessary because in all honesty, Hal Ashby's LET'S SPEND THE NIGHT TOGETHER is not particularly the best or the most quintessential way to experience The Rolling Stones on film. The band has been captured on the big screen more effectively by Rollin Binzer in LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: THE ROLLING STONES (1974) and Martin Scorsese in SHINE A LIGHT (2008). It's also not the best film to highlight Hal Ashby's film making career, but the man was known to be a die hard Stones fan and this film, if nothing else, shows the beginning of his creative decline after his Peter Sellers masterpiece BEING THERE (1979). My reasons for the small appreciation I have for this film is purely personal and the brief history I outline above gives a pretty good idea of my memories and feelings.
Not to say that LET'S SPEND THE NIGHT TOGETHER is a bad or unwatchable film (really, how can you truly go wrong with any motion picture that depicts The Rolling Stones in concert?), it just suffers from flaws when compared to other similar material in which a rock and roll band is captured on the big screen. To begin with, with the exception of watching all four DVD discs of the legendary Live Aid concert of 1985, I believe something is grossly lost visually when you film a band performing live during daylight hours, which is how the film begins at the outdoor stadium in Tempe, Arizona with the band opening with "Under My Thumb". Remember, this is from the point of view of the film viewer, which would differ greatly from someone who was actually there at the show itself. The Stones, just five members, look like lost and confused insects on such a huge outdoor stage with little-to-no props, background imagery or stage effects on such a clear, sunny day filmed in such a wide angle format. Hal Ashby uses multiple cameras to seemingly capture the band as up close and personal as possible, which at the time, was probably considered a great effect in film making. Today, compared to so many other Stones concerts captured on film and disc, it may not hold up as well.
By the time Mick Jagger is singing "Going to a Go-Go", however, the film has switched gears to feature live performances at the Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Now the show is indoors and it's dark, the way a true rock concert should be, in my opinion. The band itself, keeps their sound and performance, raw and edgy, and with a certain degree of speed (twenty-five songs performed in just a 94 minute film) that almost seems to reflect the punk rock sound that was made very popular back in 1981 (and at that time in music history, in general) with bands like The Ramones, The Clash and The Dead Kennedy's (I never got into punk, actually). One can't help but wonder if this was how the Stones were deliberately trying to sound like live in order to keep up with the "here and now" musical tastes of the time. Was this the version of the Rolling Stones that longtime fan Ashby was seeking to capture? Well, it was 1981 and this was the time and tour the director chose to document. Had he lived long enough (Hal Ashby died in 1988), would he have been more pleased and fascinated with the high-tech, spectacular stage production (complete with backup vocalists and gigantic inflatable "Honkey Tonk Women") of their STEEL WHEELS tour that began with the decade of the 1990s? I fear we'll never know.
So, as you previously read above, I was denied my right to a ticket to see the Stones when they toured in 1981. My only compensation was this 1983 film, which in all honestly, I had little interest in seeing when it was given a limited theatrical release. Sure, I was still curious to see The Rolling Stones perform live, but I suppose the art of celluloid just couldn't compare to actually being there. Still, sometimes you're encouraged (if not pressured) to join your friends when they're all going to the movies, even if the movie choice is not what you would choose yourself. As it turned out, actually, LET'S SPEND THE NIGHT TOGETHER would be the first concert motion picture I would ever see on the big screen at the age of fifteen. I would see a lot more years later when I went away to college and lived across the street from a movie theater that featured midnight madness movies. And for the record, this, in my humble blogging opinion, is the best DVD concert that captures The Rolling Stones live in concert by my own personal history and memories...
This one from 1998 kicks ass, too...
Scorsese's SHINE A LIGHT is worth your time, as well, but for myself, you reach a point where you simply have enough concert films and videos that satisfy your interests and hungers to see a band you love performing live on your TV screen. For this reason, I do not own SHINE A LIGHT in my film collection and will not be posting a blog on it at this time. Your opinions may differ from mine, if you wish. It's only rock and roll.
Favorite songs performed:
"You Can't Always Get What You Want" and "She's So Cold".
Friday, August 5, 2016
(September 2015, U.S.)
The concert motion picture has been all but dead in the 21st Century. What little there has been has (tragically!) given us the likes of pathetic teen heartthrob flakes like Justin Beiber and Miley Cyrus. We were, of course, also given RUSH: BEYOND THE LIGHTED STAGE (2010), but that's more of a documentary on the great band rather than a full-force concert experience. ROGER WATERS: THE WALL is not only a spectacular concert film taken from his 2010 stage tour of Pink Floyd's THE WALL album (which I saw, by the way!), but also a side look into the depth of the man himself, and often brings back memories of Led-Zeppelin's 1976 film, THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME, in my opinion. And in case you think I'm cheating by posting a blog for a concert you may think was a straight-to-disc release, you're wrong. ROGER WATERS: THE WALL had (very) limited cinema screenings in London and America before it's DVD and Blu-Ray release, so it counts (so there!).
THE WALL has had quite a journey since the album debut more than thirty years ago. First a breakthrough double album and a relatively small 1980-1981 in which the band only performed the album itself. In 1982, it was an Alan Parker film that blew the mind and the senses. On July 21, 1990, it was a one-time live performance (with guest artists) in Berlin to signify freedom, unity and the demise of tyranny following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The most recent tour from 2010-2012 made, perhaps, the strongest and harshest political statement of anti-war during a time of global conflict and the threat of terror. Roger Water, THE WALL's original creator and also a known pacifist, staged one of the most ambitious and complex rock shows I'd ever seen that run for just under two hours. The film, directed by both himself and Sean Evans, gives us the concert in its entirety, but also breaks periodically to allow us to travel on the road with Waters from France to Italy as he searches to reconnect himself with the father he never knew, Eric Fletcher Waters, who was killed in action during World War II.
The film begins rather poetically and quietly with just Waters himself standing in a cemetery and playing the instrumental of the final song of THE WALL, "Outside the Wall", much in the way "Taps" might be played at an American military funeral and in a way that starts things off with a degree of sadness. But those of us who know the original album well also know that this, in a way, is a prelude to what will eventually explode into the opening song, "In the Flesh?", which is just how the show opens. The concert moves well at an energetic pace not only complimenting the original album lineup, but also the enthusiasm (if not madness!) of Waters and his performers. Unlike the original stage show of 1980-1981, the brick wall that is progressively built up brick by brick also serves as a screen to not only flash the original animated images of Gerald Scarfe, but also still pictures and films of real life people who have died as a result of war, as well as heartfelt anti-war messages. Here's a sample of some of the screen graphics and stage productions...
It's some of the darkest music that Pink Floyd ever produced, but it also knows when to be fun, as well, most notably when "Another Brick in the Wall-Part 2" is joined by a group of children on stage who sing and dance along with the second verse of the lyrics, "We don't need no education" as sung by British children on the album. It's also during one of the album's strongest rock anthems, "Comfortably Numb" (my all-time favorite Pink Floyd song!) that you really learn just how strong a following Pink Floyd has had over the years all over the world. Watch the audience closely during this song and you can see and feel the heart, soul and passion they exhibit as they sing along with the lyrics. The guitar solo, whether done by David Gilmour or a substitute guitarist, is always a riveting and climactic experience in what I can only describe as "guitar Heaven"!
If you've ever really followed the career of Pink Floyd and particularly Roger Waters himself, you'll know all-too-well that the man is not exactly your classic happy-go-lucky type. The man has moods, has anger and very often appears as constantly brooding throughout this film. Even as a man who is now a grandfather himself, he still cannot seem to come to terms and let go of the loss of the father he never knew. The 1983 Pink Floyd album THE FINAL CUT was practically written about nothing else. I suppose one can truly never get over going through life without a father, but it seems to have been the definitive staple of Water's entire creative career. Callous and insensitive as it may seem, one can't help but want to cry out, "Enough already! Get over it, man!" Roger Waters remains one of rock's greatest musical geniuses who gave us historical albums like THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, WISH YOU WERE HERE, ANIMALS and THE WALL, in my opinion, but I suspect I would not want to meet the man in person. If I was lucky enough not to immediately be told to "Fuck off!", then I'm sure the entire encounter with him would be a depressing state of affairs. No thanks!
Favorite songs performed:
"What Shall We Do Now" and "Comfortably Numb".