Wednesday, June 21, 2017

SIDEWAYS



(October 2004, U.S.)

THE GODFATHER, DO THE RIGHT THING, PULP FICTION; what do they all have in common? The answer is that were you to ask me what I considered to be the single best motion picture of each respective decade, these are the films I would choose. And so, to continue such personal convictions, let me tell you right off the bat that I consider Alexander Payne's SIDEWAYS to be the single best motion picture of the 2000s. I have to say that wasn't a very difficult decision in a decade that was filled to-the-brim with comic book superhero franchise movies that still (unfortunately) continues into today.

Still, what's the appeal? An entire film about wine? A depressing film about two unsuccessful men in their forties who appear to be stuck in the middle of their lives? Well, I suppose that's the "half empty" way to look at the bottle here (pun totally intended!). At it's most heartfelt and optimistic level, SIDEWAYS is the traditional road movie between two buddies who have know each other since college. Miles Raymond (played by Paul Paul Giamatti) is a bored middle school English teacher, a failed writer and a depressed divorcee whose only real optimistic outlook on life is his proud position of being an aficionado of good wine. His best friend Jack Cole (played by Thomas Haden Church) is a once aspiring actor who's now at the point in his life where he's about to be married and subsequently, enter his future father-in-law's real estate business. With one week to go before Jack's wedding, he and Miles hit the road for a trip through California's Santa Ynez Valley wine country. Miles' goal for the week is to drink good wine, eat good food, play golf and send his best friend out in style. Jack, on the other hand, is out to satisfy his need for one last sexual fling before tying the knot and settling into domestic life.

Again, we're forced to ask ourselves, a movie about wine? The answer to that question, in my opinion, manages to pay off in an early scene where Miles gives Jack his first real lesson in wine tasting. This scene takes its time in that we as the audience are taken through the steps of what makes a good glass of wine so pleasurable. Miles teaches us, too, and if we're patient enough, we listen and we learn. In between the wine tasting and the wine knowledge we acquire along the way, we watch the friendship between these two men slowly deteriorate with each passing day as Jack pursues his quest for pussy from attractive local wine pourer Stephanie (played by Sandra Oh) while Miles is left behind in the dust, despite his attraction to local waitress at The Hitching Post II (apparently a real life popular California restaurant) Maya (played by Virginia Madsen), who's also a lover of wine. Even as Miles tries to work up enough courage to get closer to Maya, he's still eating away at himself over his failed marriage and the prospect of his book never getting published (I can personally relate to the fear of that last one). Miles clings to his appreciation and conviction of wine almost as a life-saving weapon against everything else in life he cannot control. While he can tell you everything that's right and perfect about Pinot noir and everything that's so damn wrong with Merlot (and the people that drink it!), he cannot fathom his own heart and ambitions. Even when he's describing in detail, the reasons he loves Pinot so much; the grape's thin skin, its need for constant care and attention, and its struggle to survive, it's easy to recognize that Miles is very likely describing himself and his own life, as well. Still, Paul Giamatti has never been an actor that I equate with joy and happiness. The man has a true talent for portraying the pains and anguishes of life. We can not only relate to, but can also almost respect his need to express his rage and frustration upon learning that his manuscript has been rejected (again) and lashes out by defiantly drinking the entire spit bucket of red wine before him. Hey, life sucks sometimes, and sometimes the only solution is wine...lots of wine!

But even as SIDEWAYS attempts to show us its own "slice of life" through the eyes of four imperfect wine loving people, it also successfully remembers life's hilarity and insanity. Upon having lost Stephanie forever once she learns he's getting married, Jack has no trouble moving on and fucking some overweight redneck waitress at the local rib joint. This time, though, he's literally busted butt naked when he's discovered by her husband with, as he puts it, "My dick in his wife's ass!". And as Miles always seems to be the one bearing the bunt of Jack's bullshit, it's hilarious to watch Miles sneak into the waitress's house to retrieve Jack's wallet that contained two custom-made wedding rings. This little ring rescue and break-in seems just the perfect conclusion to a week that's been filled with life's unanswered questions and thought-provoking issues...all the while in the hands of those who fill their glasses and contemplate their lives through a bottle of red or a bottle of white (whatever mood they're in tonight).

Movies, when done right, can influence our lives, emotions and actions. That's doesn't necessarily disappear with age and maturity. Speaking personally, I have, at times, succumb to the influence of movies and its stars. When I was a kid in the '70s, I wanted to learn to dance like John Travolta after SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and GREASE. In the '80s, I ran right out and spent my hard-earned money on a pair of Rayban aviator sunglasses after seeing Tom Cruise in TOP GUN (twice!). In the summer of 2005, after having seen and purchased SIDEWAYS, I fancied myself as someone who now loved wine more than he had before the movie. My wife and I toured several wineries in the Hamptons and I took the time to put more care and attention into the process of each and every glass of wine (I prefer red) I savored; with good food, with dark chocolate, whatever. Today, I still can't help but sniff what's in my glass before each sip. Wine, unlike other forms of alcohol, requires such care and attention from the time it's chosen off the shelf, to the food that will accompany it, to the way it looks in your glass and feels going down your throat. Because in a world filled with absolute crap, wine is one of those few things that enables us to stop for a moment and envision life's (few) pleasures that surround its ultimate flavor.

So, who's ready for a drink??

Favorite line or dialogue:

Maya Randall: "I like to think about the life of wine."
Miles Raymond: "Yeah."
Maya: "How it's a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it's an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I'd opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it's constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your '61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline."
Miles: "Hmm."
Maya: "And it tastes so fucking good!"

Oh, yeah...I hear you, Maya!


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

SICARIO



(September 2015, U.S.)

Over the last eight years or so, there have been a series of great films that reflect (or are inspired by) real life political or criminal situations or crisis that have taken place in our 21st Century world following the events of 9-11. These films have included THE HURT LOCKER, ZERO DARK THIRTY, 13 HOURS and SICARIO. The film, in its own way, I suppose, picks up where Steven Soderbergh's 2000 film TRAFFIC left off in its harsh and realistic depiction of the brutal and powerful Mexican drug cartel.

The film begins in Arizona, where a drug raid by the FBI reveals one of the most graphic and grotesque images of dead bodies I've ever seen on the screen; multiple bloodied and decaying corpses wrapped in plastic and hidden behind the walls (geez!)! Not an easy sequence to watch, but this raid sets things up for the heroine of the film, FBI agent Kate Maser (played by Emily Blunt), as she's asked to volunteer for a special joint DOD-CIA task force to apprehend the Sonora Cartel lieutenant Manuel Díaz, the man responsible for the massacre they discovered. As one would predict, Kate not only volunteers, but enters into this team with a naive sense of morality that her superiors simply don't adhere to. Those in charge are determined to bring Díaz, as well as his bosses in the drug cartel; how they do it and the laws they have to break on the Mexican side of the border are of no concern to them. Kate will be lied to, deceived, and kept in the dark about her true purpose with them until she inevitably discovers it all for herself.

The question one finds themselves asking while watching SICARIO is just who are the good guys in this film and how much do we believe in or agree with what they're doing. Kate is virtuous and honest, and perhaps that just makes her plain stupid in a world of government men who know nothing of such values in the field of war. The men she follows and observes are indecent men in an indecent time of drugs and murder. One must ask themselves if all moralities are forced out the window when dealing with Mexican animals who seems to take pleasure in not only killing their victims, but hanging their decapitated bodies out for display for all citizens to see. Our enemy across the border is pure evil, and it would seem that one must become evil (even just a little bit) to combat greater evil. Good or bad, right or wrong, you decide for yourself.

Kate Maser not only forces herself to cling to her values, but even tries (in vain) to understand the motives of the unscrupulous men she works with, including Alejandro Gillick (played by Benicio del Toro), a brutal hitman who also specializes in torture tactics in an effort for the greater good, as well as avenging the murder of his wife and daughter by Díaz's boss, Fausto Alarcón, whom he succeeds in killing at the film's climax, along with his wife and two sons as they dine outdoors. In the end, the film's mission is accomplished, but Mexico's brutality and violence still looms in the air over the lives of the innocent.

Personally, I've never had any interest in visiting Mexico. Too many movies displaying its violence and corruption, I suppose, whether that's fair or not. SICARIO certainly doesn't help the country's cause, especially when it's accompanied by some of the most menacing music I've ever heard in a motion picture soundtrack. Despite being a tale of fiction, it's based on too much negative press we've become accustom to when hearing about the country south of the border and its ongoing drug war. Mexican citizens were urged to boycott the film upon its release, believing that it represented a negative and false image of its cities. Whether we as Americans believe such a statement is up to each of us. As lovers of film, we can, at best, appreciate a taut, hard-edged thriller like SICARIO for its outstanding performances by all involved, particularly Benicio del Toro, who practically lurks in the shadows of the action throughout most of the story until it's time for him to strike in a form of violence and vengeance that not only leaves the viewer shaken, but perhaps just even just a little grateful that such a hard-hitting man exists to try and rid the world of just a little of the evil that occupies it.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Alejandro Gillick (after shooting Kate in her bullet-proof vest): "Don't ever point a weapon at me again!"








Sunday, June 4, 2017

SHREK



(May 2001, U.S.)

Even as early as the summer of 2001, I already felt that computer animated family films were coming out too fast and too furious. By then, there'd already been two TOY STORY films, A BUG'S LIFE, ANTZ, CHICKEN RUN, DINOSAUR; geez, the list seemed to be growing and it wasn't showing any signs of stopping. Why I had any interest in seeing SHREK is beyond my comprehension. Perhaps it was the prospect of laughing at the sound of Eddie Murphy's wild and crazy voice. In all likelihood, however, it was probably simply the fact that the film was playing nearby in town and I was still in my enthusiastic days of just getting up off my ass and go to the movies simply because I wanted to.

Clearly, I was wrong, or I wouldn't be writing this post now. I not only loved every minute of SHREK (based on William Steig's 1990 children's picture book), but I actually found myself relating to the ogre's character, if you can believe that. Let me explain. When we first meet Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers), he's somewhat of a recluse character who values the simple pleasures of home, a good meal and a fine drink (sounds like me). Above all else, he values his privacy and not having it violated by anyone unless he wants them to (definitely sounds like me!). When he unexpectedly finds his private life interrupted by endless fairytale characters that have just been exiled to his land and swamp by Lord Farquaad of Duloc (voiced by John Lithgow), Shrek declares that he intends to have them removed immediately. In his quest to fulfill a bargain with Farquaad in order to get the unwanted fairytale squatters off his land, Shrek and his new tag-along, never-shutting-his-mouth Donkey (voiced by Murphy), are off on their quest to rescue Princess Fiona (voiced by Cameron Diaz) who's being held in a castle tower guarded by boiling lava and a fire-breathing dragon. Farquaad wants the princess rescued because he's been told by the "Magic Mirror on the Wall" that in order for him to finally and officially become king of Duloc, he must marry a princess.

When Shrek and Fiona finally meet, they can't stand each other (clearly the start of what will become a loving relationship later). Fiona is a spoiled-brat princess and Shrek is well, an ogre (oil and water, of course). Okay, we know that opposites inevitably attract, but the film's ultimate lesson of not judging those on the outside due to their ugliness without getting to know what's on the inside first may be a wild stretch ever for these two. Still, nothing can make you laugh in your theater seat like the sound of two opposites bickering back and forth like two pissed-off parents, and of course, having Donkey fill in the gaps with his wise-ass Eddie Murphy-style of comedy doesn't hurt things, either. As Shrek and Fiona inevitably find they have much in common and fall in love, it appears that a dark secret of Fiona's may bring them together after all, as she is under a bad spell from her childhood that turns her into a female ogre every night when the sun goes down. In the end, only true love's first kiss will transform Fiona to what will finally be her true and intended self. Will it be lovely human or ugly beast ogre? The answer comes when Shrek bursts in on Fiona's reluctant wedding ceremony with Farquaad (oh, how I wanted the climax of THE GRADUATE to be mocked at this moment with Shrek pounding the glass and repeatedly screaming "Fiona, Fiona, Fiona!") and we discover that love's true first kiss between her and Shrek means that they'll spend their lives together as ogres; misunderstood and feared by the rest of the kingdom, but understood and loved by each other. Hence, the film's intended message of good will, understanding and love (yeah, right, whatever. I came to the theater to laugh my ass off and I did!).

Okay, that's just me being a cynical bastard, but the heart behind SHREK, even as it's true purpose is to be filled with silly and wicked fun and jokes, is clear enough. And really, who better to make a complete and comical jackass of himself (pun totally intended!) than Eddie Murphy, who unfortunately, chose that latter part of his career to become a whole lot more family-oriented after a string of vulgar R-rated hits in the 1980s. The cast of the film is perfect, right down to John Lithgow's delightful wickedness that embraces his longtime love of children's material, as well as pure evil (think RAISING CAIN). Unfortunately, like so many other Hollywood successes, sequels and franchising ultimately takes things to far that it becomes almost a struggle to remember just how simply and originally things began in 2001.

Now a personal story. It may not have too much to do the film of SHREK itself, but it's more about timing and life's circumstances. My wife Beth (fiancée at the time) and I went to see SHREK in Westhampton Beach almost immediately after it opened (like I said before, it was one of those Saturday nights when we just wanted to go to the movies). After the horrific events of September 11, 2001, it was nearly two weeks until we returned to the (former) family home in the Hamptons. Although we (and the rest of New York City) were in a confused and vulnerable state after what had just happened, it was, in reality, one of the best weekends I ever spent at my home. It was late September and the weather was perfect. We went to the beach, we swam in the ocean, we rode our bikes, we grilled outdoors, we made love, and we went to the movies that Saturday night to see SHREK for the second time because the film had just been re-released, along with every other studio comedy that had been previously released that summer of 2001 in a truly noble effort by all of Hollywood to get America laughing again. It was only two days out of my live, but never before had I felt so safe and secure amidst a world-gone-mad that had just made it clear that no one was safe anymore. It was the simple power of home, of love, of knowing that I was just weeks away from marrying the love of my life, and of laughter at the movies with a film like SHREK. I'm grateful for that weekend and that (temporary) feeling.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Princess Fiona: "You didn't slay the dragon??"
Shrek: "It's on my to-do list! Now come on!"


Saturday, May 27, 2017

SHINING, THE



(May 1980, U.S.)

For Stanley Kubrick's 1980 screen version of Stephen King's THE SHINING, I'm going to take a writing approach I've never done before on my blog. What I shall do, basically, is offer two (2) perspectives of the legendary horror film - the first shall be how I interpreted the film when I first saw it at the age of thirteen in 1980 (THEN), followed by my current feelings and perspectives of it as a mature (sort of) adult of cinema (NOW). This sort of approach is personally significant to me because THE SHINING was one of the earliest horror films I managed to see on the big screen, and believe me when I tell you that it required some deception and sneaking around to do because both my parent were rather unreasonably strict about their son watching horror films. But as the old saying goes, the more you're denied something, the more you want it...badly! So here we go...

(THEN)

In January 1980, my grandmother took me and my younger brother to a Brooklyn movie theater to see a comedy of three old Hollywood veterans called GOING IN STYLE (recently remade). The reason I mention this movie, having nothing to do with horror, is because before it began, the trailer for Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING was shown (it’s only relation to the main feature being released by the same studio, Warner Brothers). The trailer was short and quite frankly, to the point; a pair of red elevator doors in the center of a hotel lobby that suddenly started to gush oceans of blood coming right towards us! As much as I was fascinated at such ambiguous images of horror, I was scared to death, as well. I mean, no actors, no dialogue, no story content – just lots and lots of blood! I think my grandmother may have tried to reach over and cover my eyes, I’m not sure. She certainly covered my brother's eyes, at least. Small children should not being seeing such horrifying images on the screen! In May 1980, I had absolutely no idea who Stanley Kubrick was. Yes, I’d seen (most of) 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY on NBC-TV in 1977, but at that young age, I was hardly connecting movies with their respective directors on any level. I also didn’t know who novelist Stephen King was (ironic, considering how much King I’ve read in my adulthood). I’d heard of the 1976 movie CARRIE and had watched SALEM'S LOT on CBS-TV in 1979, but again, no connection with the author was being made. Hell, Jack Nicholson was hardly a recognizable name in my small and limited world.

Of THE SHINING, I knew only what I’d seen in the frightening trailer and what I was hearing in the TV commercial for the movie; “a masterpiece of modern horror.” What I was able to gather of its story was very simple and to the point from my perspective – a family alone during the winter in a haunted hotel. As I was still very much in the process of my horror movie curiosity, I hardly needed any further information on the subject. As luck would have it for the second time that summer, THE SHINING came to one of the local movie theaters in my hometown of Great Neck, Long Island and by the first Saturday in June, a friend of mine from middle school and I were in our seats waiting to see whatever was about to hit us. My first memory of the movie was taking note of the strange combination of the beauty of the Colorado mountains and the rather sinister-sounding music that opened it (I knew little-to-nothing of classical music). Still, beautiful or not, it was clear that we were headed toward something that was going to mean trouble later. The camera was taking us straight to the Overlook Hotel, giving us a good look at the front of the building, and then going to black to really begin the story of Jack Torrance and his family.

To begin with, little Danny Torrance was haunted by something (or someone) evil named Tony that gave him horrible visions, including the blood-gushing elevators I’d seen in the movie’s trailer. On the day of the family’s arrival at the Overlook, during the process of the tour, Danny learned just a little bit more of his mysterious visions from the friendly hotel cook, Mr. Hallorann, who appeared to be gifted (or cursed?) with the same powers as Danny; powers he called "shining". While Mr. Halloran gave a rather detailed explanation of Danny’s powers, I can’t honestly say I understood every word he was saying, but it seemed clear that both of them had the ability to see what had happened in the past and what was going to happen in the future. And as Mr. Hallorann put it in the case of the hotel’s history, "not all of it was good". The warning he gave Danny to stay out of Room 237 was surely clear enough, even to thirteen year-old boys in the theater whose horror movie experiences were still rather limited. By the time the family had been at the hotel for a month and the first snow storm hit, there was (again) that sense of environmental beauty combined with a sense of dread from the accompanying musical soundtrack. We were finally beginning to understand that this family was on its own in the middle of nowhere during a crippling snow storm, and no one or nothing would save them when they faced the horrors that were still yet to come.

It all really started when Danny disobeyed Mr. Hallorann’s warning and went into Room 237 when he came across the open door. I remember preparing myself for something really terrible to happen to the poor boy then and there. Instead, the scene dissolved into something else. It was later after Jack awoke from a horrible nightmare that we learned of Danny’s experience inside Room 237. Apparently, the family wasn’t alone in the hotel. According to Wendy Torrance, there was a crazy woman inside Room 237 who tried to strangle Danny. When Jack went to investigate, we were witnessing something that may or may not have real. Again, keeping in mind that this was a tale of a haunted hotel, I presumed the woman with a great naked body (for a short time, anyway) was a ghost of some sort. Surely, if there was any doubt about that scene in the room, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind during the ballroom bar scene that Jack was talking to a ghostly bartender of the past and very likely not even really drinking the alcohol that he’d been given. It couldn’t have been real, because it all disappeared when Wendy entered the ballroom to tell Jack of the crazy woman.

After more than half of the movie had passed, it was easy to see that THE SHINING was not like the typical slasher movies that were constantly being released at the time. The movie wasn’t even particularly violent or bloody. This movie was clearly able to scare its audience by constantly suggesting what might happen next around any given corner. We were also watching Jack Torrance slowly go insane. I can recall an intrigued smile on my face during the scene when just after Wendy discovers that all of Jack’s writing consisted of only the repeated sentence, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.", he showed up in her face and proceeded to scream and threaten her in a completely crazy state of mind. Regardless of exactly what he was saying to her as he rattled on, it was entertaining enough just to listen to an actor like Jack Nicholson (whom I’d never forget after this movie!) make his presence and his words so well heard and feared. By the time the movie was hitting its climax, Jack Torrance had gone completely crazy and was now coming after his family with an axe (just as the previous caretaker had done in 1970, so we were told earlier). It was during the chase scene inside the snow-covered hedge maze that I really started to notice the camera work that was involved (I almost never paid attention to just how a movie was made when I was a kid). The camera made you feel like you were moving with Danny as he ran for his life from his father, around one corner and another (I’d learn later in my college youth that this was known as a tracking shot), as well as Jack’s perspective and he hunted down his son.

When it was all over and it seemed as if every horror of the hotel’s past had come back to haunt Wendy Torrance, she and Danny were finally able to escape the hotel with their lives, leaving Jack behind to freeze to death. Things ended quietly with the camera zooming into a series of black and white pictures on one of the hotel walls. In one of the photographs dated July 4, 1921, there was a man who looked just like Jack Torrance, smiling among a crowd of partygoers. Whoah! What did this final shot mean? Was Jack really alive? Was he once a person of the past in another life in the same hotel? Was it Jack’s grandfather? I was dumbfounded and confused, and so was my freind. Later, as we sat down at the local pizzeria after the movie, we tried to come up with some sort of reasonable explanation as to how THE SHINING had ended and what it all really meant. Two slices and two sodas later, I don’t think we accomplished our goal. Still, I was grateful to have added another awesome horror movie to my slowly growing list of experiences. I think we spent the next week at school repeating the line, "Here’s Johnny!"

(NOW)

THE SHINING is my favorite horror film of all time by my favorite director of all time - it has been my entire adult life. As a thirteen year-old kid in 1980, it was very easy to claim my appreciation for the film simply because it was scary and a totally cool movie to watch about something as simple as a haunted hotel in Colorado. Those are the cinematic interpretations of a child, and they may be considered more than credible for someone that age. Eventually, however, you grow up and you (hopefully) learn to watch films and interpret them by not only their story content, but by their hidden meanings and messages, as well, when applicable. Call me crazy, but I simply cannot resist a motion picture that dares me to use my brain and take the time and patience to figure out the complexities of its content. This is why the great films by the great filmmakers often require multiple viewings for the full understanding and appreciation they surely deserve.

Stanley Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s novel (a version that King himself has long considered a poor adaptation) is not simply a horror movie that you watch as you would any other cheap offering. The Overlook Hotel is not merely a mountain resort, but rather an invitation to the dark and evil side of our human personality. There are challenges to the mind and questions that require time, thought and effort to try and answer. There are ambiguities, feelings of open-endedness and elusiveness that force the observer of the film to wonder just which version of reality we’re meant to accept. Is it simply the ghostly disturbances that dominate an isolated setting with an evil past or are we perhaps members of a living nightmare that’s possibly manifested through Danny Torrance’s powers of "shining"? Is it possible that the Torrances are not even at the Overlook in the first place, but rather drawn into the above-mentioned nightmare through their son’s powerful abilities?

Let’s begin by examining the Overlook Hotel itself. In a number of traditional horror films, there’s often a feeling (if not an art) of claustrophobia because the story setting is set in a limited environment that may be difficult for its characters to escape forces beyond their control. Think of the motel grounds and Victorian house in PSYCHO, the bedroom of Regan MacNeil in THE EXORCIST, the suburban Haddonfield home in HALLOWEEN, the two-story colonial house in THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and the confined New Jersey camp grounds and woods in FRIDAY THE 13TH; we can’t help but feel trapped inside a tight space. The Overlook, however, is a complex space that’s so vast, we become frightened of what possibly lurks around the corner of a long, enclosed corridor. Kubrick recognizes this and uses his trademark steady tracking shot to follow Danny as he rides his big wheel down corridor after corridor until he finally comes face to face with the (presumed) supernatural ghostly apparitions of the twin Grady girls who we’ve come to understand as previous victims of their father’s homicidal rage. Although we may not have been entirely sure of what was waiting for us around the bend, we knew very well that Kubrick was setting us up for a good jolt at the end of Danny’s ride. This odd combination of grand spaciousness and confinement provides an irresistible uncertainty as to just what’s real at this hotel and what’s not. I suppose it's all as real as the Torrance family is willing to believe and accept as real or not.

THE SHINING is ultimately a tale of madness and not necessarily traditional ghosts. Kubrick may even be suggesting the possibility that the ghosts don’t exist at all, except in the mind of the Torrances, perhaps victims of the so-called cabin fever mentioned by Mr. Ullman at the beginning of the film. Reality becomes an unreliable entity through their eyes and perceptions. Perhaps its only the character of the hotel cook Dick Halloran that is the impartial party in this entire situation. He has the power of "shining", as Danny does, but he’s on the outside looking in, even from as far away as Miami, Florida. His arrival at the Overlook hardly puts together any solid understanding of what’s happening, but rather just a chance participant as a concerned human being for the lives of Danny and his parents. His presence at the hotel is short and sweet and cut down violently when he’s axed to death by Jack (the only scene of blood in the film other than the visions of the elevator). In the end, the only truly reliable observers to the events of the film are us, and we have to decide for ourselves what’s real and what’s not. These challenges may not necessarily be scary within the film’s content, but they create, nonetheless, a terrifying feeling within ourselves that makes such a horror film work effectively.

Now, about Jack Torrance himself. During his job interview, Mr. Ullman mentions the previous caretaker of 1970 whose name was Charles Grady, who murdered his family with an axe before taking his own life with a shotgun. Later in the film, during the ballroom scene, Jack meets and talks with Delbert Grady, a butler of the year 1920, in the men’s room. Are the two men different people in different lifetimes or are they two manifestations of the same inexplicable evil entity of the Overlook, or perhaps even Jack’s mind? Delbert Grady tells Jack that he’s "always been the caretaker", which would suggest that somehow Jack was present at the hotel in 1920, which in turn, may give us some clue to his presence in the black and white July 1921 photograph at the end of the film. Or, like Grady, is it possible that Jack Torrance is, indeed, two people - one who freezes to death in the present day of 1980 and one who lives in the year 1921? There’s also the (valid) argument that upon freezing to death, that Jack’s spirit may have been absorbed into the Overlook itself, transcending him back in time to 1921, where he may or may not have existed before as a member of the hotel’s history. These are tough challenges that are not necessarily easy to answer. I don’t have the answers. Perhaps in the end, there is no right or wrong answer. Like a great painting hanging on a museum wall, it’s a simple matter of personal interpretation and just what sort of message and meaning its content offers you. Maybe it’s best not to have these questions answered at all. For were they to be answered, THE SHINING may cease to be the extraordinary viewing experience that it is, that it has always been and shall continue to be if everything is so easily delivered in a box with a lovely ribbon on it. I don’t ever want that to happen! The thirteen year-old kid I was in 1980 was more than willing to wrap things up nice and neat after just over two hours of film time. The grown man and lover of Stanley Kubrick cinema that I am today outright refuses to accept things so neat and tidy. That’s too damn easy!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Jack Torrance: "What are you doing down here?"
Wendy Torrance: "I just...wanted to talk to you."
Jack: "Okay, let's talk. What do you wanna talk about?"
Wendy: "I can't...really remember."
Jack: "You can't remember."
Wendy: "No...I can't."
Jack: "Maybe it was about... Danny? Maybe it was about him. I think we should discuss Danny. I think we should discuss what should be done with him. What should be done with him?"
Wendy (sobbing): "I don't know."
Jack: "I don't think that's true. I think you have some very definite ideas about what should be done with Danny and I'd like to know what they are!"
Wendy: "Well, I think...maybe...he should be taken to a doctor."
Jack: "You think maybe he should be taken to a doctor?"
Wendy: "Yes."
Jack: "When do you think maybe he should be taken to a doctor?"
Wendy: "As soon as possible?"
Jack (mocking her): "As soon as possible?"
Wendy: "Oh, Jack!"
Jack: "You believe his health might be at stake."
Wendy: "Yes!"
Jack: "You are concerned about him."
Wendy: "Yes!"
Jack: "And are you concerned about me?"
Wendy: "Of course I am!"
Jack: "Of course you are! Have you ever thought about my responsibilities?"
Wendy: "Oh, Jack, what are you talking about?"
Jack: "Have you ever had a single moment's thought about my responsibilities? Have you ever thought, for a single solitary moment about my responsibilities to my employers? Has it ever occurred to you that I have agreed to look after the Overlook Hotel until May the first? Does it matter to you at all that the owners have placed their complete confidence and trust in me, and that I have signed a letter of agreement, a contract, in which I have accepted that responsibility? Do you have the slightest idea what a moral and ethical principal is? Do you? Has it ever occurred to you what would happen to my future, if I were to fail to live up to my responsibilities? Has it ever occurred to you!? Has it!!?"
Wendy (swinging the bat): "Stay away from me!"
Jack: "Why?"
Wendy: "I just wanna go back to my room!"
Jack: "Why?"
Wendy: "Well, I'm very confused, and I just need time to think things over!"
Jack: "You've had your whole fucking life to think things over! What good's a few minutes more gonna do you now?"
Wendy: "Please! Don't hurt me!"
Jack: "I'm not gonna hurt you."
Wendy: "Stay away from me!"
Jack: "Wendy! Darling! Light, of my life! I'm not gonna hurt ya. You didn't let me finish my sentence. I said, I'm not gonna hurt ya...I'm just gonna to bash your brains in! I'm gonna bash them right the fuck in!"









Wednesday, May 10, 2017

SHINE



(November 1996, U.S.)

Looking back at the 1990s, it seems as if I saw nearly everything on the big screen, and that's hardly an exaggeration. Because I was doing so much "movie hopping" at many multiplexes in Manhattan, it seemed that I was fulfilling every genre on my "must see" list, from blockbuster to independent to art to revival. It was all out there and I did my best to see as much of it as possible, especially when I didn't have a girlfriend. The night I saw SHINE in Manhattan was hardly a product of "movie hopping", though. A close friend of mine (ex-girlfriend, actually) had joined my for the weekend and we started out by trekking over to the famous Paris Theater just across the street from the Plaza Hotel to see Kenneth Branagh's four hour version of HAMLET. Much to out surprise, tickets were sold out and we were determined not to let our Saturday night go to waste (we'd end up seeing HAMLET just a couple of weeks later, though). We ended up on the east side buying tickets to SHINE instead.

Geoffrey Rush was a new face for me that night. I'd never heard of the man before, but I'd heard that his performance in this film was supposed to be something extraordinary. In this drama, he plays real life pianist David Helfgott, who not only developed his reputation early on as a musical genius, but also suffered a mental breakdown and spent years in psychiatric institutions. According to the film, and it's here that I have to point what may be considered a fine line between what's considered accurate and what's merely "based on a true story", David is raised by a very strict, very unreasonable and often abusive father (played by Armin Mueller-Stahl) who may have been directly involved with David's inevitable road to madness. It's also suggested that the stress and difficulty with strenuous pieces of music, including his choosing to play Rachmaninoff's highly demanding Third Concerto (you may have heard that played in some Bugs Bunny cartoons when you were a kid!) may have also been directly involved with David's inevitable road to madness, particularly if you take his collapse on stage following a performance as a teenager literally. However, if you do any proper research on David Helfgott himself, there's no evidence to suggest such connections between music, parental abuse and his descent into mental breakdown. In reality, David slowly showed signs of schizoaffective disorder while he was living in London in the late 1960s.

By the film's account, the mental instability that David suffers, as it's portrayed by Geoffrey Rush with his mile-a-minute dialogue that would easily give Dustin Hoffman in RAIN MAN a run for his money, is the challenge that's ultimately meant to set things up for a final triumph in music. Despite David's mental challenges, we know of his gifted talent on the piano. In fact, the first triumph comes early enough when he manages to astound all of those sitting inside a popular cafe with a piano in it when they're ready to simply dismiss him as some unstable person of the street who thinks he can play the piano. One can't help but smile with joy as we watch every patron of the cafe light up themselves with joy at the sound of such miraculous music. Music is what allows those that meet David to not only remember the child prodigy he once was, but the beautiful man he is today. So beautiful, in fact, that he even wins the love and affection of the (older) astrologer Gillian (played by the late Lynn Redgrave) and they inevitably marry simply because she's convinced "the stars" say it's the correct match for her (???). Of course, the ultimate triumph of SHINE is the concluding concert in which David is so overcome with joy from the affection and applause of the audience, that he cries right there on stage. It's enough to bring you to tears also.

If music is, indeed, correctly associated with madness, then SHINE is hardly the film that introduces such a concept. Hell, just watch AMADEUS (1984) or PINK FLOYD THE WALL (1982) for an even better sense of such a connection. And although this film is deservedly recognized for its universal acclaim of Rush's performance, it should be noted that it's been attacked from every which way for not only its false portrayal of David's relationship with his father, but also the extent of David's musical abilities, as well. Apparently, he may not have been the genius the film suggests. Decide if you must if that ruins SHINE for you. It doesn't for me. It's cinema, and we're forced to make certain compromises when concluding what's true and what's not. If we took everything off of the screen too damn literally, then chances are Oliver Stone's JFK would suck for many of us (wouldn't want that to happen!).

Favorite line or dialogue:

David Helfgott: "Would you marry me?"
Gillian: "Well, it wouldn't be very practical, David."
David: "Practical? No, of course not. Of course not. But then neither am I, Gillian. Neither am I. I'm not very practical at all."





Saturday, April 29, 2017

SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE



(September 1994, U.S.)

During the 1990s, I did a lot of "movie hopping" at various multiplexes. In case that term eludes you, it's when you pay one ticket price and proceed to move around, or "hop" throughout the building watching more than one movie. Saved me a lot of money and I really got to catch up on my movies that way. Sure, it was dishonest and the multiplexes likely lost money because of me, but frankly, my dear, I just didn't give a damn!

Okay, so one night in the fall of 1994, I pay my ticket money at a local multiplex in Queens, but not to see THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. Believe it or not, I was there that night to see WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE (I kid you not!). You see, somehow I'd gotten it into my head that because Wes Craven was now directing again and Heather Langenkamp had returned to her role that made the original A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET such a hit (a film I actually no longer care for), this new (and seventh!) film in the franchise might be worth something. Oh shit, was I wrong! When it was over, I concluded that I somehow had to make up for the time and money wasted on this slasher dud. Without thinking too much about it, I simply walked into THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION because it was about to start at a convenient time. Despite the fact that the movie poster indicated it was based on a story by Stephen King, whom I loved to read, my thoughts and expectations of the film were minimal, at best. Well, it proves once and for all that sometimes the things you expect the least from shall deliver the most in return. And return, it did.

While I haven't seen too many prison dramas in my time, it's clearly become its own genre over the years, dating back to the earliest days of cinema. To call THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION my favorite prison film (which it is!) is almost too easy since I have almost no basis of comparison. In almost any prison story, you have the protagonist who is either innocent of his crime that put him there, or grossly misunderstood as a human being, despite the crime he's guilty of. This latter description would probably best fit the character of "Red" (played by Morgan Freeman and also the film's effective narrator), who, despite being convicted for murder, is a gentle man who's reputation as "the one who can get you things" not only identifies his purpose as smuggler at the prison, but also shows his kind heart in making conditions for the convicted felons there a little easier.

But let's step back a bit and concentrate on the film's hero, banker Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins), who in 1947, is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover; a crime he didn't commit. Nonetheless, he's sentenced to two consecutive life sentences at Shawshank State Penitentiary. Keeping to himself at first, Andy finally opens up to "Red" by requesting a small rock hammer and a poster of Rita Hayworth. While adjusting to the hell that is considered prison life, Andy is routinely assaulted and raped by a gang infamously known as "the Sisters". It's a simple spring day atop a roof building that turns things around for Andy when he inadvertently help a brutal prison guard keep his entire inheritance tax free by offering sound financial advice. The price of this valuable advice is merely three beers apiece for his fellow prison mates. In one moment of verbal risk, Andy is able to turn things around for himself with not only the prisoners, but the guards, as well, who now rely on Andy's financial services at tax time every year (and also get "the Sisters" off his back for good). As the years roll on by and the situations become more stable for Andy at Shawshank, so does his purpose there, including obtaining government funds to improve the decaying prison library and helping young prisoner Tommy Williams pass his high school GED exam. This young kid also just happens to possess information that could exonerate Andy from his crime and his conviction. Warden Norton (played by Bob Gunton) won't have that, though, as Andy has been quite instrumental in helping him in his corrupt money laundering scheme. Norton has Tommy killed to protect his little operation and it now looks like Andy has reached the end of his rope, as he faces a lifetime at Shawshank.

In the history of movie plot twists and shocking revelations, the moment when we discover that Andy has escaped Shawshank and has, for the last nineteen years, been systematically planning that escape, is one of the best I've seen on film. From the moment Norton rips the poster of Raquel Welch off of the wall and we're staring into a large gaping hole (looks like that little rock hammer wasn't so harmless, after all), it's astounding when we finally realize that all the while we've been victims (sort of) of a major deception that ultimately puts our hero on top. We know Andy has been innocent all along and we take pleasure in his personal triumphs within the prison walls that make his life easier. But nothing puts a smile on our face quite the way Andy's final act of defiance and revenge does when he not only escapes to his final destiny of the beaches of Mexico, but also in having taken down Norton in the process. To think back on Andy's actions, though small as some of them may have been, and realize how they all come together to make him a free man and to also aid "Red" on the day he should one day be free, is a personal triumph for us, as well, because we love the feeling of finally having been let in on the ultimate plan that was taking place behind our backs the entire time.

The integrity and feelings of self-worth among men are, perhaps, the strongest themes of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. In prison, where life seems hopeless, it's the simplest things that make men feel like men again, and not animals; whether it's cold beer on a May morning or a brief recorded excerpt of the opera The Marriage of Figaro. Still, even those moments of freedom are threatened by the hard fact of being institutionalized. As "Red" puts it, "These walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them." By that reckoning, being free on the outside proves to be a form of imprisonment, as men like "Red" and Brooks are unable to function in the outside world. Friendship, while being nonsexual, is also very strong, as it proves the bonding love between men who have come to depend on each other for survival. There are moments that are wonderfully satisfying and uplifting, particularly the moment we, as viewers feel our own sense of triumph and validation at the end, when "Red", now a free man, strolls along the beach to be reunited with his best friend Andy, and the promise of hope and freedom.

Author Stephen King himself declared THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION to be one of his favorite film adaptations based on his own work. For myself, I consider it to be one of the top ten best films of the 1990s (and that's all because my initial purpose on night in 1994 was to see a stupid horror movie!).

Favorite line or dialogue:

"Red" (narrating) "I like to think the last thing that went through his head...other than that bullet...was to wonder how the hell Andy Dufresne ever got the best of him."















Saturday, April 22, 2017

SHANE



(April 1953, U.S.)

Next to musicals, the western is the genre I enjoy the least. With a few exceptions, the western, in my humble opinion, is a cinematic formula that almost never changes. Good guys, bad guys, simple town folk, rustlers, Indians, hero gunfighter, climactic shootout, on and on and on and on. Sometimes it's a little more on the rough edge with a guy like Clint Eastwood and sometimes it's on the lighter side of music with the singing cowboy (think Roy Rogers). In the end, for me, it all never seems to change. So, that being the case, why the hell am I attracted to a classic western like SHANE? Two reasons: the first being that with any genre that tends to continuously repeat itself, you're likely to choose at least one or two of said genre that pleases you the most in its use of the common formulaic elements; so I choose SHANE. The second being my own personal memories of childhood. You see, when I was in the eighth grade of middle school, we were required to read SHANE in our English class. Upon completing the book, we got to watch the movie over a period of several days. Naturally, it's a relief to be able to spend a few days of English class watching a movie instead of doing any actual work, but I found myself really enjoying the movie. I'd watch it again whenever it was shown on television after that, and I suppose my childhood fondness for it has never really gone away.

While hardly a unique element for a well made western, SHANE has some of the best outdoor cinematography I've seen that would easily give John Ford a run for his money. Shane himself (as played by Alan Ladd) is a mysterious character with no indications of his past. We only know that he's passing through the isolated valleys of Wyoming and that he's very skilled with a gun. Having befriended a local family headed by Joe Starrett (played by Van Heflin) and his wife Marian (played by Jean Arthur), he learns that they and many other good folks like them are engaged in a private war with a ruthless cattle baron called Ryker (played by Emile Meyer) who has hired men to harass and terrorize them out of the valley, despite them having legally claimed their land under the Homestead Acts. Though not meant to be any sort of protector for the Starrett family, Shane stays on with them for a time as a hired hand.

Upon his first visit to town, Shane is harassed and bullied into fighting, but he resists, though hardly out of cowardice. We can easily sense that Shane deliberately avoids trouble whenever possible in order to avoid what is suspected to be a violent past (Clint Eastwood played a similar sort of man in PALE RIDER). Like any man, however, Shane has his breaking points and it's exciting to watch him not only defend himself against the bad guys in a wild bar room brawl, but those he cares about also. Shane is a caring man, too, as he also demonstrates father-figure tendencies toward the Starrett boy Joey, particularly when teaching him how to shoot a gun for the first time. Joey is drawn to Shane, and to his gun, too.

As with any battle between good and evil, their reaches a point where things escalate. As Shane now proves to be a problem for Ryker and his men, he hires an outside gunman called Wilson (played by Jack Palance, who had a special fondness for westerns...even CITY SLICKERS) who proves early on that he may just be a threatening match-up against Shane. At the moment the film reaches the point where Shane will face his enemies, it's hardly what I'd call a major shootout. Shane is the easy victor and it all happens rather quickly, with little Joey watching from afar. When it's all over, the peaceful settlers have won and there will likely be no more guns in the valley. But we also discover that Shane was hit by a bullet during the final shooting and I suppose it's here that the true mystery lies. During the iconic closing moment when Shane is seen riding forever out of town and Joey cries out, "Shane! Come back!", we have to look closely to realize that Shane is not exactly leaving intact. He's slumped forward in his saddle and it's quite possible that he may not survive. In fact, if you listen to Kevin Spacey in THE NEGOTIATOR (1998), he claims that Shane is dead at the end of the movie, though we as the viewer are not entirely sure of this fact because the light and darkness of the scene won't allow us to be sure. Are we meant to understand if Shane is alive or not or is it one of those ongoing mysterious that's meant to be debated among fans of the film? Perhaps it's this mystery that also attracts me to SHANE above many other westerns.

While I certainly won't claim that SHANE is a brilliant achievement in drama and performance (in fact, Joey's little whining voice can get on my nerves at times!), it is a rather rich and vibrant portrayal of the American frontier scene, not too unlike a beautiful painting by a gifted artist. The plains, the valleys and the mountains are a form of grand beauty, even as they're accompanied by some of nature's harsher elements like darkness and rain. The tale of the gun fighter is an old cliché, to be sure, but it's a cliché that's easy to embrace with SHANE because of a tough, edgy actor like Alan Ladd, as well as the frontier spirit of the little boy who yearns to understand the mystery of a man like Shane. In the end, however, we may never understand a man like Shane. We may never even know if he survived at the end, or not. Such is the mysteries of life...and the western.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Shane: "I've heard about you."
Jack Wilson: "What have you heard, Shane?"
Shane: "I've heard that you're a low-down Yankee liar!"
Jack: "Prove it!"










Sunday, April 16, 2017

SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE



(August 1989, U.S.)

The year 1989 marked a rather significant turning point in my (informal) cinematic education. It was the year I finally decided to break out of my commercial Hollywood shell of blockbusters and sequels and start giving the independent art film a chance by going to see Steven Soderbergh's debut film SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE, but also my first foreign subtitled film on screen as well, with Giuseppe Tornatore's Italian classic CINEMA PARADISO (originally released in 1988, but didn't hit the local art house near me until 1989). Now while I can't claim that the film forever turned me off from wasting any more of my time on common Hollywood crap (that didn't happen 'till 2006), it finally did open my eyes to the idea of simple stories about characters of quality and depth, and in this particular case, I was already familiar with actors like James Spader (from LESS THAN ZERO) and Andie MacDowell (from GREYSTOKE and ST. ELMO'S FIRE).

The film tells the story of a rather dysfunctional man named Graham (played by Spader) who films women discussing their sexuality in order to try and get past his own public impotence (he can't get it up in front of another person), as well as his presence and impact on the relationships of a troubled married couple (played by MacDowell and Peter Gallagher) and the wife's younger, sexually-charged sister (played by Laura San Giacomo). The trouble in the marriage stems mainly from the fact that Ann, in her own form of neurosis and insecurity (when we first meet her, she's discussing her fear of the world's garbage with her therapist), refuses to allow her husband to touch her anymore (no comment!). As a result, he's fucking her sister behind her back, even in their own bedroom when the opportunity arises. Graham, who is now a drifter and living locally in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for the time being, doesn't attempt to hide the fact from Ann that he's impotent and freely interviews women about their sexual experiences and fantasies, on videotape, though he never has sex with any of these women. Ann, spooked and confused at first, eventually cannot hide her curiosity at Graham's bizarre ritual. When her sister Cynthia learns of this, she's hardly shy about going to straight to his apartment to find out what it's all about. Graham propositions Cynthia to make a tape, assuring her that no other person is allowed to see the tapes. Believing him, she agrees. We get a firsthand look at how such a tape begins and progresses, as Cynthia tells the story of her first sexual experience and inevitably intercourse.

As is with any case of marital infidelity, the wife inevitably finds out. Though in this particular case, I can't say I take any sympathetic position with Ann. Perhaps it's wrong for her husband John to be fucking her sister, but if Ann is going to refuse to allow her own husband to touch her for no particular reason, then frankly, she deserves whatever she gets (if you're not going to get it from the one you love, then I believe you're free to seek it elsewhere!)! Though I have to give Ann credit for the direct way she confronts John by slowly announcing to him, "I-want-out-of-this-marriage!" However, that comes later, after in what I can only consider a direct act of revenge, goes to see Graham to make one of his infamous videotapes. Through our eyes and what we witness, though, it would appear that Ann has chosen to have sex with Graham in the end. When all is said and done, despite being an independent art film, there's still that touch of the Hollywood happy ending as it appears that Ann will forgive her sister for going behind her back and that Ann and Graham are now a happy couple (awwww!).

The insight to human sexuality may be as old as cinema itself, though censors had a much better way of hiding way back when. Soderbergh's script is a mature, intelligent and even nuanced look at flawed human beings and their approach to sex and relationships through their own neurosis. While we're watching these interesting characters come to life, we likely also can't help but wonder exactly how they managed to come together in the first place. Just what is it that originally brought a frigid woman like Ann together with a somewhat more spirited man like John. What exactly brings that same woman together with a troubled soul like Graham? Is it simply an act of revenge against her cheating husband, or is there something deeper inside her and Graham that manages to bring the old saying of "opposites attract" to life? Cynthia, whose open-minded sexuality hardly needs to be justified in fucking her sister's husband, is a curious one in that we wonder what it is between she and her sister that would allow her to commit such a betrayal. Soderbergh (rightfully, perhaps) doesn't try to justify these specific issues. He's showing us human beings who do strange things for reasons we're not meant to fully understand, as is often the case in real life. Who can explain why we do what we do or why we fuck who we fuck?

Favorite line of dialogue:

Graham: "You're right. I've got a lot of problems. But they belong to me."
Ann: "You think they're yours, but they're not. Everybody that walks in that door becomes part of your problem. Anybody that comes in contact with you. I didn't want to be part of your problem, but I am. I'm leaving my husband, and maybe I would have anyway, but the fact is, is, I'm doing it now, and part of it's because of you. You've had an effect on my life."



Saturday, April 1, 2017

SEX AND THE CITY



(May 2008, U.S.)

I am about to attempt to give a male's perspective and point of view (very likely chauvinistic, too!) on what I consider to be, in my humble male opinion, the most "chickiest" of all chick flicks, SEX AND THE CITY, the movie that continues the popular HBO series that went off the air in 2004. But first, a little backstory of my own...

I first discovered the HBO show in 1999, around the time I started dating my future wife. As in all new relationships, the conversions of one's likes and dislikes to the other person's entertainment appreciations is inevitable. Seeing movies the other person likes, visiting museum exhibits the other person like and trying out new TV shows you'd never watch on your own. SEX AND THE CITY was already into Season Two when my wife (sorry...girlfriend) urged me to watch it with her every Sunday night. Well, you know what happens - you reluctantly agree at first, you slowly get used to the new show in your life and before you know it, you find that you, like your better half, don't want to miss a single episode and are willing to make every effort to make sure you're in front of the TV at the appropriate time (I didn't have anything like a Tivo or DVR machine at that time). After a while, SEX AND THE CITY became a weekly ritual I started to look forward to because I found myself quite turned on by all the highly-sexual content of the show's four female character, particularly that of Samantha Jones, who (to put it bluntly) loved, loved, loved to fuck! Sometimes the hot topics of an episode would even lead to my having sex also...sometimes. Anyway, I stayed faithful to the show right up until the end and saw no reason to ever look back. When the movie follow-up was released four years later, I didn't exactly rush to the movies to see what would happen to these four ladies of New York City next. It could easily wait until DVD or HBO.

To start things off rather bluntly, the film of SEX AND THE CITY is quite simply a nearly two and a half hour version of the show. There's absolutely nothing new or unique that's been added for any cinematic value. Even the show's director, Michael Patrick King, is at the helm of what he clearly knows so well. My point here is that if you were a fan of the show, then there's no reason the film will disappoint you. If you never watched the show before...actually, if you're a MAN and you never watched the show before, then this film is very likely going to try your patience, even if you're forced to watch it with your significant other.

So, it's four years later and Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) gives us a brief narration of the events that have happened to her and her three best friends over the last ten years (very convenient for those who aren't in the know). Charlotte (played by Kristin Davis) is happily married to her divorce lawyer, mother of an adopted Chinese girl and still a little-Miss-Goodie-Two-Shoes prude. Miranda (played by Cynthia Nixon) is married, a mother, living in Brooklyn and has lost interest in sex with her husband (bitch!) for the time being. Samantha (played by Kim Cattrall) lives in Los Angeles with her stud-muffin superstar-model boyfriend and still loves to fuck! Carrie is, of course, still fine and fabulous and strutting her hot ass around the streets of Manhattan and is about to move into her 5th Avenue penthouse dream apartment with Big (played by Chris Noth) and is facing the fact that she'll have no legal rights to said apartment because he's paying for it. To ease her insecurities, Big suggests that they marry. The proposal is delivered as more of a business proposal than anything else, but Carries joyfully agrees. Now, you'd think this could be a simple matter of two people who were never that interested in marriage before just tying the knot, right? Wrong! Remember, Carrie Bradshaw is the city's ultimate image of fabulous, and a published writer, to boot. So when she's asked to do a bridal photo shoot for Vogue and is given the wedding dress of her dreams, she's suddenly unleashed into the pit of hell that is wedding planning, wedding decisions and every other egotistical issue that's ultimately designed to cater only to the bride's needs and leave the poor schmuck-of-a-groom left standing in the cold wondering what the hell is happening to him. Carrie's planning goes so far over the top that she completely forgets the notion that her pending marriage to Big is supposed to be about them and not how it's all going to make her look to her friends and adoring public.

By the way, I couldn't help but wonder if you're sensing a little anger in my writing now? Perhaps you are. I've been to my share of (Jewish) weddings that were so over-the-top ridiculous, I was practically ashamed to even be there. Thankfully and happily, my own wedding in 2001 was nothing like that. It was about me and my bride and not how it all made us look to others (the greatest day of my life!).

Anyway, when the big day finally arrives, Big is so overcome with fear and uncertainty about what he's about to do for the third time in his life, that he fails to get out of the car in front of the New York Public Library at the crucial moment. Even when he tries to take his little stunt back moments later, it's too late, because Carrie's realized what he's done and it's all over. From here, the film takes off to Mexico where Carrie tries to heal with her three best friends on what was supposed to be her honeymoon with Big. Carrie sleeps and Carrie suffers and I'd be lying to you if I told you that I, as the viewer, don't feel she deserves what's happened to her. Any woman who is so ME, ME, ME and fabulous, fabulous, fabulous and fails to remember what the true meaning behind the marriage is, deserves to fall flat on her pretty, little ass!

(there's that anger again!).

As Carrie is having her crisis and trying to bounce back from it, Miranda is fighting her own marital battles as she tries to get over her husband Steve's one-time infidelity that occurred some months ago because she had lost sexual interest in him. Okay, let's just forget for a moment that I'm a man and it's practically my obligation to take another man's side. But really, when a wife goes for months and months making it very clear that she no longer has sexual interest in the man she's supposed to love, what do we expect the man to do?? Cheating is wrong, yes, but when you're being repeatedly ignored by the woman you love, what are you expected to do? Just sit there and idly take it forever?? Well, as cliché would have it, time, patience and a little marriage counseling inevitably heal all wounds and Miranda and Steve live happily ever after as they meet in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge. Oh, and in cause you're wondering, Carrie and Big settle things, too, and are married in the simplest way - in a downtown courthouse and with their best friends over pancakes and omelettes later on.

SEX AND THE CITY as a film works well enough, as previously stated, if you're a fan of the show. The plot content, however, really seems to focus on just Carrie and Miranda, suggesting that Samantha and Charlotte have very likely outlived their characters and are only there to offer the sidekick support of the other two friends that represent sexual freedom and prim-and-proper stability. Yet despite this accusation against these other two women, there is a moment in the film when I have nothing but true respect for Samantha Jones and that's when, in a brief moment, she's feeding Carrie some breakfast when she refuses to leave her bed while hiding from the world after having been jilted by Big. It's one of those touching scenes of true friendship, loyalty and being there for someone you care about when they're really hurting. But like I said before, it's all pretty-much outlived with those two, but there's still something to be said about having four old friends with you again after a four year hiatus from television to screen. You're happy to see them again, and you're happy to see all's well that ends well with them, and perhaps you've even decided that you've seen enough of them when it's all over and the four women toast each other to the next fifty years of their lives. In other words, SEX AND THE CITY 2 was totally unnecessary!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Carrie Bradshaw: "So really, we're, we're getting married?"
Big: "We're getting married. Should we get you a diamond?"
Carrie: "No. No. Just get me a really big closet."

Friday, March 24, 2017

SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET



(October 1997, U.S.)

By rather bizarre coincidence, it was only today that a couple of people in my office were discussing Brad Pitt and his ability to display convincing foreign accents in some of his films. Immediate films that were cited were his Irish accent in THE DEVIL'S OWN (1997) and his thick Cockney accent in SNATCH (2000). Of course, leave it to me to point out his Austrian accent in SEVEN IN TIBET, which I informed my colleagues of having just recently watched for the purpose of this post. This is where the office conversation just about came to a stop because it seems that I was the only one of the group that had seen the film (should I be surprised??).

Pitt plays real-life Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer who chooses to leave his estranged wife and unborn son to seek his glory in the part of British India that would one day become Pakistan. At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, he and his partner Peter Aufschnaiter (played by David Thewlis) are captured by the British and placed in a POW camp. After several failed escape attempts, Heinrich and Peter finally escape the camp and manage to cross the border into Tibet, despite the overall attitude of no foreigners allowed. Once inside the great capital city of Lhasa, they have become welcomed house guests and quickly manage to adapt themselves to their time-honored customs and traditions (including protecting the worms of the earth because the people believe they were once their mothers in a former life - ???). Heinrich is eventually introduced to the Fourteenth Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, who is still just a little boy back then, and develops a relationship of trust in which he also becomes his tutor of the outside world, including maintaining the task of building Tibet's first movie house simply to please the boy's desire's for American culture. The two of them become close friends and it's not long before Heinrich's previous ways of selfishness and indifference are replaced with an understanding and appreciation of the Holy ways of the Tibetan religion which he also seeks to help heal the loss of leaving his child.

Bearing in mind, of course, that a war is still on outside this protected world, it's not long before communist China has invaded the city of Tibet and occupied its people. This is a fact of history, and the film doesn't seek to sugar coat it in any way. Those of us who know even a little bit of world history will know that the real-life Dalai Lama was forced to flee Tibet (with the help of the American CIA) and settle in India, where he still resides today. This is about as much as I know about the man, other than what I've seen of him on television. I subscribe neither to his religion or his teachings. He exists only for me in SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET.

The film is undoubtedly filled with a great deal of cinematic beauty, often giving its own version of the life of the explorer and the traveler. It starts out as an ambitious adventure story and inevitably becomes something more as we're meant to try and understand the discovery and simplicity of a culture practically cut off from the rest of the world, not too unlike what we see in Frank Capra's LOST HORIZON (1937). Drama, believe it or not, feels rather limited to nothing far beyond the simple relationships of Heinrich and the Dalai Lama, as well as Peter and the woman he falls in love with and marries, as they're told in a rather old-school style of Hollywood storytelling. If nothing else, SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET is an opportunity to transport ourselves to another time in history while exploring some forgotten beauty in the world (that beauty being filmed in Argentina, by the way).

I briefly mentioned comparison to LOST HORIZON. Don't be too surprised if you're not also reminded of THE LAST EMPEROR (1987), DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990), the Eddie Murphy 1986 comedy THE GOLDEN CHILD, and even just a little bit of Indiana Jones thrown in for good measure. And by the way, I still have never seen Martin Scorsese's film about the Dalai Lama, KUNDUN, also released in 1997.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso (to Heinrich Harrer): "Do you like movies?"

(What? You're surprised I'd choose that line??)











Saturday, March 18, 2017

SEVEN-UPS, THE



(December 1973, U.S.)

William Friedkin's THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) remains my favorite cop/crime thriller of all time. That's quite a testament to its staying power when you consider just how many thrillers of the same genre have been held by far more physically brutal-type movie stars with far greater salary demands than Gene Hackman ever cleared. But really, let's not forget just how important Roy Scheider's role was to that monumental film, as well.

In 1975, there was a direct sequel called FRENCH CONNECTION II (naturally!) that brought back Hackman and took him to France to continue his pursuit of the one he called "Frog One". That sequel by John Frankenheimer was certainly not one of his better career moments, in my opinion, so I don't give it too much credit. Although it's not directly related to THE FRENCH CONNECTION, I would consider THE SEVEN-UPS a far superior sequel-like follow-up to the Academy Award winner for Best Picture of 1971. The film is not a sequel, but it's character of NYPD Detective Buddy Manucci as played by Roy Scheider is based on the same character of Detective Buddy 'Cloudy' Russo in THE FRENCH CONNECTION. So really, you can view it anyway you choose. It still doesn't deter from the fact that THE SEVEN-UPS is a great police thriller in its own right.

As a corrupt and crusading New York City policeman who is the leader of "The Seven-Ups", Buddy leads a squad of plainclothes officers who use dirty, unorthodox tactics to secure arrests that inevitably lead to prison sentences of seven years and up upon prosecution (hence the name of the team). Despite having to endure criticism and endless bullshit from the other cops who regard the team as renegades, Buddy still appears to be a good cop. When a rash of kidnappings and ransoms for high profile Mafia and white-collar criminals points to other cops and his own untrustworthy informant (and cousin), the pieces of the complicated puzzle ultimately leads to the murder of one of the Seven-Ups cops. As matters become unraveled and the pieces start to fall apart, Buddy's life is in jeopardy and must rely on his years of experience and tough street smarts to survive.

Now, bearing in mind that this film is an indirect follow-up to THE FRENCH CONNECTION and is directed by Phillip D'Antoni, also the producer of THE FRENCH CONNECTION and BULLIT (1968), the thrilling car chase sequence is inevitable. While the chase in this film doesn't surpass the one in its 1971 predecessor, in my opinion, it holds its own very well throughout the streets of upper Manhattan, over the George Washington Bridge and onto the Palisades Parkway in New Jersey. Roy Scheider is exciting to watch as he commands his 1973 Pontiac Ventura Custom Sprint Coupe. In fact, if you look carefully, you can even see where Scheider is doing his own driving, as opposed to stuntman Bill Hickman (also from THE FRENCH CONNECTION). The conclusion of the chase is almost horrifying to watch, as Scheider's car smashes into the back of a parked tractor-trailer, peeling off the car's roof. I mean, geez, you'd have to be good to survive this...


As thrills go, there's also a great sequence in a car wash that takes on a great deal of suspense as it's accompanied by the music of Don Ellis (again, also from THE FRENCH CONNECTION). In my opinion, this particular scene does for car washes what Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960) did for showers and what Henri-Georges Clouzot's DIABOLIQUE (1955) did for bathtubs (just what is it about water in general that makes for such good suspense??).

Roy Scheider was, no doubt, one of my favorite actors of the 1970s, and next to Al Pacino, nobody played a cop quite like he did. He was tough, brutal, and sometimes even corrupt, but you always believed that he was on the side of righteousness and justice, whether on the streets, on the oceans of Amity Island, or flying the "Blue Thunder" super helicopter! And as it turned out, when he wasn't fighting crime (or sharks!), he made a very viable song-and-dance man in Bob Fosse's ALL THAT JAZZ (1979). He died nearly ten years ago and I still miss him (I met him in Southampton in 1997). Thankfully, films like THE SEVEN-UPS keep his memory and staying power alive and well. Though I must say, I wish I'd been old enough in the 1970s to catch a great double bill like this in theaters...


Damn, that's some good stuff!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Buddy Manucci: "You don't have to worry about me. I'm not gonna bag ya. But I think you better think about this...you better worry about Kalish's pals, Festa's pals, because word has a way of getting around."
Vito Lucia: "What are you talking about? You're gonna let them know? You can't do this to me, Buddy!"
Buddy: "No? You watch me!"


Saturday, March 11, 2017

SEVENTH SEAL, THE



(August 1958, U.S.)

Okay, even if you've wasted your life watching nothing but mindless crap and comic book hero movies, you've still very likely seen this iconic black and white image before of Max von Sydow playing a game of chess with the human personification of death against the backdrop of the beach, the sea and the clouds...


Unfortunately, this is probably as close to Ingmar Bergman's legendary classic Swedish drama/fantasy art film as most common multiplex goers will ever get (sorry to sound so critical and judgmental, but unfortunately, that's the way it is with most people who watch movies. Pity). For those of us who are somewhat in the "know" with foreign cinema, there's no denying that this was the film that made Bergman's career and made him a world-renowned director. And for someone like me, who is a bonafide atheist, this film also represents one of the best tales (both in performance and visuals) of man, life, death, God and theology that I've ever seen on film.

During the time of the Crusades and the plague known as Black Death, knight Antonius Block (played by Max von Sydow) returns home a puzzled and disillusioned man. On the beach immediately after arriving home, Block encounters the image of Death (played by Bengt Ekerot), personified as a pale, black-cowled figure dressed as a monk. Block, in the process of playing a game of chess alone, challenges Death to a chess match, believing that he can forestall his inevitable demise as long as the game continues. Death agrees, and they start a new game (see the iconic image above again!). Other characters surrounding Block are unable to see Death, however, and believe that Block is playing the game alone. As Block manages to hold his own well enough during the continuous game, he is haunted by questions, doubts and fears about what his life has meant to him and to God, as well as, perhaps, achieving one great final moment or selfless act before dying. Even during a simply poignant scene of eating fresh strawberries and milk with a loving family of traveling performers, Block is questioning his religious faith and the torment it imposes on his life, despite his obvious enjoyment of this simple moment and noting it in his memory.

The film is often structured like an ongoing argument or sermon, delivering both sides of the religious coin; good and evil. This theme is hardly new in cinema, of course, but when it's combined with Bergman's carefully-layered scenes and cinematography of both character acting and environment, we cannot help but feel as if we're searching through a personal book of unique and extraordinary black and white photographs that are not only effectively telling the tale of man's moral and religious dilemmas, but providing us with the visions and effects that accompany such dilemmas, and perhaps even try to explain them.

THE SEVENTH SEAL, with such images and reflections about death and the meaning of life (Monty Python not withstanding!), has come to immortalize symbolism during an age when Hollywood and its pop culture (both past and present) often forgets to acknowledge the importance of art cinema. Sure, the film may very well be a requirement for those in film school or a passing curiosity for those who live in New York City's Greenwich Village, but it's sad to think that's as far as it goes and as good as it gets. Even if we're all nothing but a bunch of die hard moviegoers committed to the genre of action, explosions and CGI bullshit, I'd like to think (to hope, really) that there's still a chance many of us can allow the appreciation of artistic culture into our cinematic lives, even if we're not a member of the intellectual audience. We don't have to be. We just need to give it a chance and open our minds and our hearts, and if necessary, watch it more than once. Try it. It's worth it.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Antonius Block: "I shall remember this moment: the silence, the twilight, the bowl of strawberries, the bowl of milk. Your faces in the evening light. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lyre. I shall try to remember our talk. I shall carry this memory carefully in my hands as if it were a bowl brimful of fresh milk. It will be a sign to me, and a great sufficiency."





Tuesday, March 7, 2017

REMEMBERING ROBERT OSBORNE



(May 3, 1932 - March 6, 2017)

Once again, I've chosen to briefly interrupt the normal flow of my blog so I can pay my own personal tribute to film historian Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies, who died yesterday at the age of eighty-four.

As a kid growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, one of the weekly television broadcasts I remained faithful to was the ABC Sunday Night Movie. At a time when movie collecting was either not available yet or simply too expensive for most people, theatrical motion pictures that aired on television were the best thing a kid like me could get in order to watch movies at home when he was being raised by parents who were too damn cheap to pay for HBO! As each movie began every Sunday, voice-host Ernie Anderson was there to not only introduce the movie that was about to be aired, but enthusiastically made it known to viewers that the movie was something to be experienced and shared. His introductions accompanied with scenes from the movie were there to psych you up and get you excited for what was to come. Today, all of that simply doesn't exist anymore. Oh sure, movies are still aired on cable television stations, but the beginning of one movie tends to overlap the end credits of another as we're forced to watch multiple mini-boxes on our TV screen that also include the so-called rating of what we're about to watch. It's all so mindless and completely impersonal.

And then there was TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES which was first launched in April 1994. The best in classic motion pictures without edits or interruptions, and introduced by host Robert Osborne. With his friendly and charming personality that shone brightly through his obvious love of cinema, the viewer was not only educated on points of the film about to air both before and after the broadcast, but was also made to feel as if they were part of a genuinely worthwhile experience to be savored and cherished. We were about to watch a movie together and we could feel good about ourselves for having chosen to take the time out of our busy lives to sit down and share it with someone who knew things about the art of cinema that perhaps we did not...someone like Robert Osborne. He was, I'd say, the Ernie Anderson of my adulthood, though much more than just a voice; a presence of knowledge and joy in the world of movies.

I'll miss watching and listening to him. He was the only voice I truly enjoyed listening to on the only TV channel worth watching anymore, in my opinion. Now he's gone. Thank you for the great memories, Robert!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

SEVEN SAMURAI



(November 1956, U.S.)

It's amazing how so many films that we've come to know and appreciate owe their influence to an epic Japanese film that too many people of my generation would have neither the time, nor the patience to watch. Akira Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI has helped shape the stories behind two versions of the western THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, Roger Corman's cheesy 1980 sci-fi film BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, Disney Pixar's A BUG'S LIFE and even the upcoming comic book film of JUSTICE LEAGUE. It was one of the first (if not the first) film to use a common plot element of gathering and recruiting a band of heroes to perform and accomplish a specific mission against all odds, a tactic used many times in films that also include THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and THE DIRTY DOZEN.

This historical drama and adventure film is simple enough in its story of village farmers that decide to hire seven rōnin (samurais without masters) to defend them against bandits who have vowed to return to the village after their harvest has come in so that they can steal their crops. Since the farmers are poor and have no money, they conclude their best course of action is to find hungry samurai and pay them off with food. The men that are slowly recruited are a varied bunch of men with different personalities. The friendly, the humorous, the quiet, the serious and the even the mischievous. All are wise, though, as well as skilled swordsmen, and weary from battles of the past. Despite the farmer's desperate need for the samurai, the choose to refuse to greet them when they first arrive. However, when the farmer's believe that an attack has come, they come out of hiding quickly enough to embrace the protection they need. Slowly over time, the farmers and the samurai begin to trust each other as they participate in daily training for battle together. One of the samurai even finds himself falling in love with a farmer's daughter, a forbidden love, apparently by both the samurai code and the her father, as well. When the bandits finally do attack, they are confounded by the new developments in the village. As they enter determined to carry out their attack, they are systematically hunted down and killed by the farmers with homemade bamboo spears, as well as the samurai. Despite their dwindling numbers, though, the bandits choose to make one final attack, and as the last battle begins to wind down, a final showdown takes place which inevitably not only defeats the bandits, but also some of the heroes we come to know during this long saga. In the end, three samurai have survived and the villagers share their victorious joy in song as they plant their crops.

Despite the classic legacy this film holds in the history of cinema, I must confess that, in my opinion, one doesn't watch SEVEN SAMURAI for its spellbinding story (despite it's plot influence on future films). With multiple cameras and the rare use of telephoto lenses, the beautifully choreographed action manages to fill the screen and place the audience's perspective right in the middle of it all. This is a film one takes in to experience the black and white technical artistry and drama of Akira Kurosawa. Like RASHOMON, the film is an atmospheric visual experience of light, darkness and elements of the environment, in particular a sequence of torrential downpour. In fact, I've become convinced that no one could shoot action and drama in the heavy rain the way Kurosawa could...


(though I am more than happy to further that credit along to Ridley Scott for his use of rain in BLADE RUNNER).

SEVEN SAMURAI, admittedly, is one of those black and white art house films you find yourself committed to watching because you feel your own personal cinematic education is not complete without it. And while it's surely a brilliant motion picture, it's also surely lengthy and tedious to watch. Even the action of the battle of swords has its limitations in just how much it will thrill you. After all, this is not the action we know by today's standards of movies. It's action driven by art and drama, and the technical magic of the man who was perhaps the greatest Japanese director of all time. You don't want to deny yourself that experience.

Kambei Shimada: "Train yourself, distinguish yourself in war. But time flies. Before your dream materializes, you get gray hair. By that time your parents and friends are dead and gone."