Sunday, October 15, 2017

SOLARIS (2002)



(November 2002, U.S.)

There have been almost no instances in which I've preferred an American remake of a foreign film to its predecessor. Most American filmmakers produce nothing more than cheap, second rate, knock-offs of what is considered a far superior piece of cinema. But like so many other things in life, there are always exceptions in which certain films, at the very least, are at an equal level of those they've copied. William Friedkin made a bold move with his existential film SORCERER (1977), a remake of the French-Italian film THE WAGES OF FEAR. Mike Nichols provided his own level of comic genius with THE BIRDCAGE (1996), a remake of the French film LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. Christopher Nolan delivered a very solid version of INSOMNIA (2002), a remake of the Norwegian film of the same name. I suppose there are others I could come up with if I took the time to do it, but the point I think I'm making is that every once in a great while, we in America get it right, or at least come very close to doing so.

I've seen Andrei Tarkovsky 1972 film SOLARIS, based on Polish author Stanisław Lem's original 1961 novel (which I've never read). If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't be able to effectively make my statement above. It's long, it's tedious, and requires great time and patience to follow. It's also intriguing, nonetheless, if for no other reason than the time of its release; the early 1970s that brought other high concept sci-fi think pieces as Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and Lucas' THX-1138. Steven Soderbergh's version, reduced to a mere 98 minutes of film, takes the true essence and spirit of Lem's work to a level that, perhaps, the more common multiplex-moviegoing audience can relate to...or at least attempt to tolerate. The film is set almost entirely on a space station orbiting the planet of Solaris, providing flashbacks to the previous experiences of its main characters on Earth, primarily clinical psychologist Chris Kelvin (played by George Clooney) and his wife Rheya (played by Natascha McElhone). Chris has been summoned by his scientist friend Dr. Gibarian to come to the space station orbiting the planet Solaris to help him and his crew try and understand an unusual phenomenon taking place aboard their ship, but is unwilling to say more than that. Chris agrees to a solo mission to the mysterious planet as a last attempt to bring the crew home safely.

Arriving at the station, Chris immediately learns that his scientist friend committed suicide and most of the remaining crew have either disappeared or died under very bizarre circumstances. The first time Chris finally goes to sleep, he dreams of Rheya (now dead), reliving the day they met and some of the most pivotal and romantic times of their life together. When he's abruptly awakened, he discoverers Rheya in the bed with him, seemingly alive again. It's our understanding that a mysterious and powerful force emanating from Solaris has affected (or infected) the ship with the power of creating people who aren't supposed to be there, dead or not. For Chris, it's Rheya, who we learned committed suicide back on Earth. For other members of the crew, it's a twin brother or Gibrarian's little boy, who's supposed to be back home on Earth. Too shocked and terrified to think straight, Chris leads this version of Rheya into an escape pod and jettisons her into space. However, another version of her manifests itself and is on board the ship again. By all accounts, she feels like Rheya, thinks like her and remembers her own past instincts, including her suicidal tendencies, but only because these are the memories of her that live within Chris' mind and memory (she's suicidal because he remembers her as suicidal). Still, she lacks the true emotional attachments that would make her genuinely human. Her second version stays this time because, real or not, right or wrong, Chris is falling in love with her and sees her "resurrection" as a second chance to redeem his own life for ultimately leading Rheya to take her own life back on Earth. Chris is now forced to struggle with the questions of his own beliefs and memories, the reconciliation behind what he lost on Earth and also the ultimate purpose behind the planet itself.

As Solaris begins to increase its mass and pulls the space station closer toward the planet, the crew realizes that returning to Earth will be impossible. As they prepare a smaller space vehicle to escape, we suddenly begin to realize one or two truths about what we've witnessed, so far. Back on Earth, it would appear that Chris has returned to his normal life. When he cuts his thumb in the kitchen, the would immediately heals, thus suggesting that he never actually returned home and may be a copy of what he once was, as well. Opting to stay aboard the space station, it plummets toward Solaris and begins to fall apart, thus also suggesting that Chris will now experience his ultimate fate. That fate, however, brings a welcomed level of tranquility, as it appears that Rheya returns with assurances that she and Chris no longer need to function in terms of life and death, that second chances are possible, and all their sins of the past are forgiven.

Unlike the 1972 film, Steven Soderbergh knows how to get right to the point with his version of SOLARIS by fusing all the intellectual and mystical elements into the story without requiring much wait time to figure out what's happening aboard the ship. Like 2001, the story is slow, ambiguous, cerebral, confusing at times, and requires a level of cinematic patience to fully appreciate. But it's also a story strong on love and what drives our emotions behind it. We love our wife, our brother, our son and we may not know how to deal with our feelings about them if something goes wrong in life. The planet Solaris appears to understand these emotions and seeks to either maliciously take advantage of them, or offer its visitors the chance to redeem and change things about such snags in life. It's a psychologically-smart film for smart people who are (seemingly) capable of embracing high concept sci-fi without the convenience of laser guns and space battles. Those who can embrace it can develop meaningful discussions about it when it's over. Others, like the idiot walking behind me and my wife when we went to see it in the theater back in 2002, will say something stupid like, "I hated it. It was too slow and I didn't get it.", to which I will quietly say to my wife, "This is what people who don't know how to think once in a while at the movies will say about a movie like SOLARIS."

Favorite line or dialogue:

Chris Kelvin: "Earth. Even the word sounded strange to me now...unfamiliar. How long had I been gone? How long had I been back? Did it matter? I tried to find the rhythm of the world where I used to live. I followed the current. I was silent, attentive. I made a conscious effort to smile, nod, stand, and perform the millions of gestures that constitute life on Earth. I studied these gestures until they became reflexes again. But I was haunted by the idea that I remembered her wrong, and somehow I was wrong about everything."












Thursday, October 5, 2017

SOAPDISH



(May 1991, U.S.)

In the summer of 1991, I saw EVERYTHING, and that's no exaggeration! I saw the the blockbuster hits (BACKDRAFT, ROBIN HOOD, TERMINATOR 2), the pointlessly stupid (HOT SHOTS, NAKED GUN 2 1/2), the downright terrible (LIFE STINKS, MOBSTERS) and the occasional entertaining fillers like CITY SLICKERS and SOAPDISH. It was actually SOAPDISH that inaugurated that long, hot summer for me one fine afternoon in the merry, merry month of May. It's the outrageous backstage story of the cast and crew behind a popular fictional TV soap opera called The Sun Also Sets. In a way, the timing of this film was almost perfect because I had just recently decided to stop watching ABC-TV's GENERAL HOSPITAL after nine long years when the show's writing finally became to intolerable for me to continue with it. Now I'd have a good reason to laugh at all those years I wasted wondering just what would continue to happen after the infamous 1981 wedding of Luke and Laura.

I'd seen Sally Field in some lighter material before, mainly alongside Burt Reynolds and his speeding sports cars, but my association with her at that time was mostly the Oscar-winning dramatic roles that ultimately proved how much, "You like me! You really like me!" As the mature and long-running soap opera star Celeste Talbert, Sally is irresistible fun as a woman constantly on the paranoid defense against her ambitious co-stars, who more often than not, merely play second-rate nurses on this hospital drama. She's also being targeted by the show's young producer David (played by Robert Downey, Jr. before his repeated real-life drug problems really started to kick in) because he's been promised sexual favors by one of her co-stars Montana Moorehead (played by Cathy Moriarty) if he'll get her kicked off the show. In fact, to this very day, I've never forgotten one of her more interesting and funny sexual enticements in which she promises David, "Get rid of Celeste and Mr. Fuzzy is yours!" Meanwhile, the new girl on the scene is Lori Craven (played by Elisabeth Shue) and possibly the hottest rising young actress to ever hit the show, and who also just happens to be Celeste's real-life niece...or as it turns out in a pure homage to the bullshit drama of modern soap operas...her secret daughter (oooh, the plot does thicken!).

Progressing ever further, we're treated to the crazy lunacy of who's sleeping with who, who's in love with who, who's carrying whose baby, who's screwing who behind whose back, who's really a transsexual in real life, and of course, how much of it is really true and how much of it is just tabloid crap for the ready-and-willing ears of Entertainment Tonight's Leeza Gibbons and John Tesh (remember them?). It's all funny stuff from a well-rounded cast of popular stars from Sally to Whoopi Goldberg to a cameo from the late Carrie Fisher who's not too ashamed to admit that she's "a bitch!" But it's surely Kevin Kline who steals the show in a comic performance that's still fresh off of his milestone performance in A FISH CALLED WANDA just three years prior. You can truly feel the hatred he feels for Celeste and all the unforgivable crap she put him through twenty years earlier. His role also reminds us of just how much television (or any other media, for that matter) can get away with if they want to badly enough. I mean, according to Whoopi, his character wasn't just killed off back in the 1970s, but outright beheaded ("He doesn't have a head!", she shouts). It's all uproarious joy and entertaining spoof and silliness without turning into mind-insulting stupidity. Sure, it's no TOOTSIE (1982), but it provides a good reason to laugh at the soap opera genre beyond it's content that supposed to pass for serious drama, art and performance (yeah, right!).

And finally, in what other film can you see Teri Hatcher look like this...


Lois Lane never looked like that!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Jeffrey Anderson: "You have beautiful eyes."
Ariel Maloney: "Ooh, they're nothing compared to my tits!"









Sunday, October 1, 2017

SNOWDEN



(September 2016, U.S.)

Oliver Stone's SNOWDEN has been all over Showtime this past month, so I've managed to catch it at various times for a fresher perspective. However, before writing the post, I felt an overwhelming desire to revisit THE FALCON AND THE SNOWMAN to compare not only the genre of spies and espionage, but also the vast difference in time periods and their respective meanings behind the issues of national security. Whereas the 1983 film that told the story of the very amateurish (and even sloppy) method of selling United States secrets to our Russian enemies in the 1970s by Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee across the Mexican border, Edward Snowden's act of alleged betrayal against his country's secret's was wall-planned, calculated and perhaps even diabolical. The entire story of his controversial whistle-blowing actions against the United States National Security Agency (NSA) still seems very fresh in our own American history; for it only just exploded four short years ago. Whether or not you actually sided with what he did or not is your own business. In fact, when interviewed about Snowden, Christopher Boyce himself expressed support for his actions in exposing our government's surveillance programs against its own people. Hardly surprising, I suppose.

Let me begin by saying that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is dead-on as Snowden in every which way, particularly attitude, fears and physical mannerisms. You can easily feel his pain and his levels of stress as he constantly struggles to understand those he's working for in the CIA and NSA, as well as the breaking point he reaches in finally deciding to flee his country and tell his story. His story is a grabber because we can easily follow the tale of a man who simply wanted to serve his country in the military and eventually allowed his life to erode into an uncontrollable situation in which he gradually learned the horrible secrets of the government he served and its ultimate betrayal against its own trusting citizens. Snowden's story can perhaps be most genuinely felt when he's simply in his hotel room in Hong Kong with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (played by Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (played by Zachary Quinto) as they discuss releasing the classified information regarding illegal surveillance that Snowden managed to smuggle out of the country. Fear and paranoia are evident, but so is the drive he is compelled to exercise in doing what he feels is the right thing, even as he sweats it out.

Even Snowden's personal life is compelling to watch. We can only guess that the new relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (played by Shailene Woodley) will be challenging, at best. She's his total opposite; a liberal democrat who not only questions our government, but also is free spirited enough not to show much concern at the possibility of being watched through her laptop camera, even when she poses naked for photographs and is even sarcastically-flattered by the idea of her "boobs being a matter of national security." Her love and devotion to the man who has repeatedly deceived her and kept her in the dark about their lives and their safety is one that can probably only exist in the movies, though it's very genuine in real life, she having moved to Moscow to be with him after his exile, and where he still resides today.

As a fact-based thriller, any of us who are already familiar with what Snowden did can hardly find ourselves on the edge of seats waiting to see what will happen. However, as he increasingly becomes more and more disillusioned with what he's become a part of, his intentions and his actions slowly culminate to the point where he finally smuggles the incriminating micro SD card and relevant data out of his office building by way of an ordinary Rubik's Cube. I defy any viewer not to take their eyes off of that cube and the almost nonchalant way he walks past security with it, even throwing it to one of the guards to play with it himself (the man IS good!). We know this is the last time Edward Snowden will be seen in his own country, and the camera echoes that sentiment by dissolving into a blurry configuration of a man who was one person once and will become someone entirely new in another location of our world. In fact, I'm reminded of the moment in MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978) when Billy Hayes finally walks away from the Turkish prison to his eventual freedom (a film written by Oliver Stone, I might add).

Like JFK (1991), NIXON (1995) or any other political tale in which Oliver Stone has asked us to watch, listen and make up our own minds about what did or did not happen, SNOWDEN takes what we already know to be true or alleged through our own recent media and adds just the perfect blend of drama, tension and questionable soul-searching to help us determine whether we feel Edward Snowden was a national hero or a traitor to his beloved country. For myself, I can only say that if we the people are lied to and betrayed in any way by our own rotten government, even if it's supposedly in the name of our own safety and security, then it's perhaps up to brave men like Snowden to expose the truth. In the end, we are liberated (as is he, I suppose), but it's he who is forced to live a life in exile away from home.

You decide!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Lindsay Mills (to Edward Snowden): "What is it about this fucking job that makes it more important than your life!?"









Monday, September 18, 2017

SNEAKERS



(September 1992, U.S.)

Released in 1992 (on September 11th, no less), SNEAKERS was filled with many high-tech concepts involving security and hacking before the internet and social media changed everything forever. From my perspective, I hadn't seen such possibilities involving computers and security since WARGAMES in 1983. Who knew back then that we were just barely scratching the surface? I mean, we still using floppy discs, for crying out loud!

Robert Redford leads a team of security specialists who are hired by high-profile companies to break into their systems in order to tell them how to keep others from breaking into their systems. Among them is Redford himself as Martin Bishop who's been in hiding ever since his college youth when he was a young hacker and evaded police capture (though his partner in crime, Cosmo, was arrested and sent to jail), an electronic technician and conspiracy theorist (played by Dan Aykroyd), a young hacker who's also looking for love (played by the late River Phoenix) and a blind phone phreak (played by David Strathairn). When they're approached by the National Security Agency to recover a "black box" developed for the Russian government from a famed mathematician, Martin reluctantly agrees in the hopes that his record will be cleared.

Through the team's talent and ingenuity, they discover the "black box" hidden in an ordinary answering machine and manage to retrieve it. But even before they can truly celebrate their victory, they soon realize they've stolen something very dangerous and the NSA boys who hired them are anything but. Turns out they're rogue agents working for the now successful and wealthy Cosmo (played by Ben Kingsley), who hasn't quite gotten over the fact that his one-time friend got away while he spent time in prison. Still holding a grudge, we wishes Martin dead, yet at the same time, entices him to join his ultimate plan of controlling and manipulating the world's information with the "black box".

When the team isn't exercising their hacking skills, they're evading capture and keeping their wits about them from being killed by their enemies. However, since they're all a bunch of misfits, at heart, their dialogue and chemistry is often a pleasure to follow. Even at the end, when they're surrounded by FBI agents at their office, they know just how to negotiate for the material things they want out of life before turning the box over to them; whether it's a trip to Europe, a Winnebago or simply the phone number of the pretty female agent. Even if it seems like the team has lost in the end and walked away with little for their efforts, we need to remember that these men are hackers, and won't rest until they've done their part to steal the right amount of money from the Republican National Committee and dispersed it among Greenpeace, the United Negro College Fund and Amnesty International. In a world of greed and crime, even in the early '90s, I suppose that's an appropriate happy-Hollywood ending.

As a caper film, SNEAKERS has enough thrills, tension, humor and plot twists to keep one interested. Of course, the ensemble case led by Redford doesn't hurt, either. One can't help but recall his early roles of the 1970s involving political intrigue and mystery including THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975) and ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976). Sydney Poitier adds a certain blend of charm and class as an ex-CIA man who acts much like the logical "Spock" among an Enterprise crew who are off and running on their latest mission and trying to survive it. While hardly a perfect film, it's an interesting follow-up from Phil Alden Robinson, who'd previously convinced the world that, "If you build it, he will come."

Favorite line or dialogue:

"Whistler": "I want peace on earth and goodwill toward men."
Bernard Abbott: "We are the United States Government! We don't do that sort of thing!"


















Friday, September 8, 2017

SNATCH



(January 2001, U.S.)

Guy Ritchie's SNATCH is a British crime film filled with great comedic dialogue. Trouble is, you can barely understand much of this great comedic dialogue due to such thick accents, from cockney English to thick Irish coming from the mouth of American actor Brad Pitt. It's set in the London criminal underworld and contains two intertwined plots, the first one dealing with the search for a stolen 86-carat diamond, and the other with a small-time boxing promoter who's "in the pocket" of a ruthless gangster who has a taste for carrying out sadistic acts of violence against his enemies, particularly by feeding their body parts to hungry pigs. Like Ritchie's previous film, LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS, you need to sit quietly and pay attention to every frame and every word in the hopes that you'll follow along well enough and take in the sheer pleasure of all its bloody nastiness. And like that previous film, there are many of the same elements of visual style, themes, and actors, including Jason Statham, Vinnie Jones and Alan Ford (the pig feeder!).

So, beginning with the infamous diamond, it's stolen by Franky "Four Fingers" (played by Benicio del Toro) for his boss, "Cousin Avi" (played by the late Dennis Farina). The theft itself is original in that the thieves dress up in identical fashion to the Hasidic Jews they're robbing, right down to the thick Jewish accents. It would seem that every underworld criminal in London is after this precious jewel as it repeatedly changes hands, changes hiding place, gets stolen, gets retrieved, and even ends up down the throat of a dog at one point. All the while, the blood of criminal violence is flowing like water around those who seek the prize. By the time it's all over and "Cousin Avi" ultimately fails to get the diamond, he's had just about enough of London's bullshit and returns home to New York empty-handed...at least for a while until the diamond is discovered in London again and he's back on a plane.

Meanwhile, the boxing promoter known as "Turkish" (Statham) is falling deeper into trouble with the pig-feeding gangster known as "Brick Top" as attempts at a successful fixed dive keep failing. Through chance and circumstance, he and his partner recruit "One Punch" Mickey O'Neil (Pitt) who proves so lethal in the ring, that his opponents keep going down before Mickey can fulfill his contract of going down in the fourth. These failed matches inevitably lead to arson against Pitt's low-life, trailer-trash family of gypsies, which in turn, awakens Mickey's hidden rage and thirst for vengeance, proving him (and his family) to be the best and most deadly threat against "Brick Top" and his goons. In the end, we can barely count the dead and the mortally-wounded, nor are we entirely sure of where the diamond has ended up and how it even got there. We simply know that we enjoyed the journey and the chase, and did our best to keep our ears open to follow along with whatever the hell these bloody men are saying to each other, or as "Turkish" puts it, "Did you understand a single word of what he just said?"

As a crime caper, SNATCH fulfills its promise to deliver the kind of blood, guts and violence you likely want from such material. What's truly irresistible is the dark comedy behind it all. The dialogue is quick and snappy, and the characters provide enough of it to make them more than just interesting. While it's not that much different from Ritchie's first offering, we can find new reasons to smile with American additions like Brad Pitt and Dennis Farina. Farina, in particular, brings a sweet element of American impatience and anger toward a country he simply cannot understand or tolerate. Pitt is almost incomprehensible with his terrible, over-the-top Irish accent, but he's clearly having so much fun with his role, that you can't help but smile and join in with him.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Cousin Avi: "Shut up and sit down, you big, bald fuck! I don't like leaving my own country, Doug, and I especially don't like leaving it for anything less then warm sandy beaches, and cocktails with little straw hats!"











Saturday, September 2, 2017

SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE



(June 1993, U.S.)

I love SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, but part of this blog post is going to be highly critical of its ever-popular status as one of the best love stories on film - but I'll get into that a little later. Still, I can't help but start off with some questionable criticism as to the chemistry between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. It works well enough for the little time they spend together on screen in this film (and continued to work well in YOU'VE GOT MAIL), but if the late Nora Ephron was banking on their star power to come together effectively based solely on their previous 1990 effort, JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO, then their faith must have been equally accompanied by their caution.

In any film where someone has lost the one they love, in this case architect Sam Baldwin recently relocated from Chicago to Seattle (Hanks), then it's immediately apparent they'll find love again at some point. The fact that it's a call-in radio talk show that plants the initial seed is highly original, in my opinion. The additional fact that it's the grieving widower's eight year-old son that calls the show on behalf of his father, claiming he's very sad and needs a new wife, is even more original. If nothing else, it reminds us all living in the 21st Century of the possibilities behind the power of national radio, once-upon-a-time. No sooner has the radio discussion between Sam and the show's psychologist ended on Christmas Eve, that he's immediately receiving thousands of letters by desperate (and crazy?) women all over the United States who want to meet him. We, of course, are focussed on Meg Ryan's character Annie, who spends Christmas Eve driving and listening to the radio show in her car. She's not only touched by Sam's voice and story, but can't stop thinking of and fantasizing about him from across the U.S., despite her engagement to Walter (played by Bill Pullman), who's obnoxiously allergic to everything on this planet! After watching the film AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER, she impulsively writes a letter suggesting that she and Sam meet on top of the Empire State Building on Valentine's Day.

Meanwhile, as Sam attempts to get on with his life romantically, his wise-ass son Jonah is determined to bring his dad and Annie together, even if his dad wants no part of it. Sam's smart, I suppose, because he knows that meeting some stranger based on a letter, which in turn, is based on the sound of his voice on the radio is a potentially dangerous situation. Still, we can't ignore the fact that Sam's dating a co-worker who laughs like a hyena and can probably do a lot better. Jonah is also very stubborn and takes it upon himself to fly to New York by himself to meet Annie. By the time Sam has followed Jonah in a desperate act to reunite with his son, he and Annie finally meet and all is happily-ever-after in the magical-make-believe land of Hollywood love stories; fade to black, end credits and Celine Dion starts singing!

Okay, so let's dive into the problem I have with this film. It's hailed as such a great love story, with so much warmth and gentleness, but exactly WITH WHO is this great love between? By the time Sam and Annie have finally found each other and met at the top of the Empire State Building, the story is over and we have absolutely no idea if these two are going to make it or not. While both Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are such likable characters on their own, we can't ignore the fact that their initial meetings are awkward and tense, thus suggesting there's much work to be done between the two of them if they're going to truly win each other's hearts and affection. This is a lot of work that would traditionally be handled during the love story and not following it. Is the great love between Annie and Walter? Hardly. Even she practically admits that she's settling down with the poor bastard simply because it feels like the right thing to do. Even when she dumps him to go and meet Sam, he's hardly that broken up about it, suggesting that he was never really in love with her, either. So, really, when you get down to it, where is the great love story between man and woman? It simply doesn't exist, I tell you! Instead, I see the great love Sam had for his wife who died young, as is effectively suggested by the dream he has on New Year's Eve when she sits with him on the couch and shares his beer. But even more so, I believe the great love story of this film lies between father and son, as they not only try to survive the loss of a loved one together, but also come to terms with each other in their own relationship amidst the daily grind of life and routine in a new city. Jonah longs for a new mother, but also longs to see his father happy again. Each of them, in their own stubborn manner, must deal with each other's acts against each other in order to achieve happiness in the end. Really, if that's not the true love of SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, then I don't know what is.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Sam Baldwin: "There is no way we are going to New York to meet some woman who could be a crazy, sick lunatic! Didn't you see FATAL ATTRACTION?"
Jonah Baldwin: "You wouldn't let me!"
Sam: "Well I saw it, and it scared the shit out of me! It scared the shit out of every man in America!"

Sunday, August 27, 2017

SLEEPERS



(October 1996, U.S.)

I know that director Barry Levinson hasn't exactly disappeared, but every once in a while, I ask myself, "What ever happened to Barry Levinson?" Perhaps this is because I've never forgotten his "golden age" period of the 80s and 90s when he was churning out hit movie after hit movie, beginning with DINER in 1982. It seems that after SLEEPERS in 1996, his films took a down turn into the ordinary and the easily forgotten (though I personally enjoyed SPHERE in 1998). If, indeed, SLEEPERS may be considered Levinson's last major Hollywood hit, then I suppose we can argue he went out with a real bang.

Based on the novel by Lorenzo Carcaterra, published only one year before the film, it's a story straight out of Hell's Kitchen, which is where the author was born. SLEEPERS tells the story of four boyhood friends (Lorenzo, Tommy, Michael and John) raised in Hell's Kitchen during the mid-1960s. The neighborhood priest, Father Bobby Carillo (played by Robert DeNiro) is not only a father figure to these boys, but is also dedicated to keeping them out of trouble, even when they start running errands for the neighborhood gangster, King Benny. But these boys are destined for trouble, and it's a stupid prank that drastically changes their lives forever on an ordinary summer day in 1967. After stealing a hot dog vendor's cart as a joke, they lose control of it at the top of the subway stairs and it critically injures an innocent man. As punishment, the four of them are sentenced to the Wilkinson Home for boys. It's there that they're repeatedly abused and raped by four of the guards, led by Sean Nokes (played by Kevin Bacon). This horror alters the boys and their friendship forever. Realizing that no one would likely believe their accusations against the guards, they vow never to speak of their experience once they're released.

The film then jumps to the year 1981. Tommy and John are career criminals, and it's by sheer chance they encounter Sean Nokes at a Hell's Kitchen pub. After a few words, in which Nokes shows no remorse for what he did to them as boys, they shoot their former rapist several times in front of witnesses. Michael, now an assistant district attorney, jumps at the chance to prosecute his two old friends, but not to win. It's here that a plan and strategy of revenge is set in motion by he and Lorenzo that will not only exonerate their two old friends for a crime they did commit, but will also bring down the other three guards who took part in the abuse. With the help of King Benny, they also hire a hopelessly-incompetent lawyer Danny Snyder (played by Dustin Hoffman) to defend Tommy and John to make it appear as if their situation is hopeless. Their plan will succeed if the two gunmen can be placed somewhere else at the time of the shooting. To pull that off, they implore Father Bobby to not only help them, but to lie for them, too. Here lies the moral dilemma for the good priest, though upon hearing what actually happened to the four boys at Wilkinson, he surprises everyone by not only lying on the stand, but also producing ticket stubs to prove that Tommy and John were with him at a Knicks game the night of the murder. Exonerated, the old friends are reunited in celebration, but probably for one of the few remaining times in their lives, as Tommy and John's lives in crime are destined to bring their deaths at an early age. It does.

SLEEPERS is one of the most complex stories I've ever had to contend with. One the one hand, it's a horrifying tale of the monstrous cruelty that exists by inhuman men against defenseless boys who have made a bad mistake in their lives. On the other hand, there's something inspiring about the friendship of these four boys that carries over into their manhood. Regardless of their motives of crime and revenge, there's a strong sense of loyalty and honor among men who have spent much of their lives just trying to survive not only what happened to them as boys, but also how it's carried over into their adulthood. Brad Pitt as the adult Michael is unable to emotionally commit himself to a meaningful relationship with Carol (played by Minnie Driver), a girl also from the neighborhood, because of the abuse he endured as a boy. Even though we know Father Bobby has purged himself on the witness stand, we admire and praise his devotion to the boys he's helped to raise. We also admire the "code" of the neighborhood in Hell's Kitchen where everybody seemingly looks out for each other, particularly during the rough times. DeNiro, Pitt and Jason Patric give outstanding performances, as if completely embracing the city street background they're supposed to have originated from. Frankly, a man like Martin Scorsese couldn't have made a film of this sort any better.

Cheers, Barry! May you one day return to spectacular form before it's too late!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Father Bobby: "I'm telling you as a witness, and as a priest. We were at the game."
Michael Sullivan: "Yes, as a priest, and a priest wouldn't lie? Am I right?"
Father Bobby: "A priest with ticket stubs wouldn't need to lie. I always keep the stubs. Do you want to see them?"
Michael: "Why is that, Father? Why do you keep the stubs?"
Father Bobby: "Because you never know when someone might want more than your word."




















Friday, August 18, 2017

SLEEPER



(December 1973, U.S.)

By 1973, science fiction had taken a very grim turn. Films like PLANET OF THE APES, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (both 1968), A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and THX-1138 (both 1971) depicted visions of the future that were either dystopian or reflective of our dependence on artificial intelligence. Leave it to Woody Allen to turn that into the screwball comedy SLEEPER. Still, Woody being Woody, he's also paying great tribute to the comedy legends he's long admired, like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Groucho Marx and Bob Hope.

As Miles Monroe, Woody plays a neurotic jazz musician and health food restaurant owner who is cryongenically frozen without his knowledge or consent in the year 1973 after a seemingly routine operation and is awakened two hundred years later in a United States led under a police authoritarian state and dictatorship. In any such state, there's, of course, the rebellion to stand up and fight against the oppression of the people. Still, how desperate do you have to use someone like Woody Allen as a spy to infiltrate the mysterious "Aries Project", rumored to be downfall of humanity. This is where comedy and lunacy takes over because Woody never fails to deliver the human characteristics of his personality that have always made him a hoot to laugh at. And don't forget, this is still during the period of his "early funny movies" (as many fans have come to refer to them) before ANNIE HALL. As Miles reluctantly tries to avoid his destiny and escape the authorities, he disguises himself as a robot butler and goes to work for Luna (played by Woody's best co-star ever, Diane Keaton), a futuristic socialite without much of a brain, but with many of the futuristic gadgets that make living in the 22nd Century a whole lot of fun, including the Orb (a spherical substitute for marijuana) and the ever-popular Orgasmatron (a chamber-like substitute for traditional sex and human contact. Hmmm...wonder if that would come in handy today??). Rather that be turned into the police by Luna, he kidnaps her and the two of them are on the run. If you've seen enough of how Woody and Diane were together on film, then you know their time together is filled with not only the great comic chemistry they share, but also the impatience and annoyance they also shared for each other's quirkiness and idiosyncrasies. Even when they're not saying anything, there's just something about the way they respond to each other physically when they occupy the same shot...


When they're finally on the same side and out to bring down the totalitarian government, it's pure insanity as they seek to destroy the one thing that can continue to enslave mankind - the national leader's nose, the only thing left of him after dying in an explosion set by the rebels. Without the nose, the leader cannot be cloned. Posing as doctors, Woody and Diane are priceless as they almost seem to ad-lib every word that comes out of their mouths as they pretend to know what they're doing at the operating table in front of watchful eyes. This is one of the best sequences Woody ever wrote in his early movie years. I still crack up when repeatedly utters, "Checking the cell structure!" (by the way, if you listen carefully to the voice of the medical computer in this scene, you may recognize the voice of Douglas Rain, the man who provided the voice for the HAL-9000 in 2001). And like any situation that Woody and Diane are in, they fall in love. But even that glimmer of hope in an otherwise unpleasant future has it's down side, because as Miles so bluntly puts it at the end, "Sex and death—two things that come once in a lifetime—but at least after death you're not nauseous."

Despite what Woody Allen's films have become over the last twenty years, it's still a pleasure to remind myself once in a while that he was practically the king of slapstick in the 1970s. With SLEEPER, we're also reminded of a time when sci-fi filmmaking was still unsure of where it was headed, or whether there was any fun left in it. There was, and it's name was STAR WARS, but not for another four years.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Historian (showing Miles a video of Howard Cosell): "We weren't sure at first what to make of this, but we developed a theory. We feel that when people committed great crimes against the state, they were forced to watch this."
Miles Monroe: "Yes. That's exactly what it was."











Friday, August 11, 2017

SKYFALL



(November 2012, U.S.)

As much as I hate to start out with a negative attitude about anything I write on my blog, especially a James Bond film, let me get this off my chest right now. Perhaps the worst thing about the franchise every since Daniel Craig took over the role of the legendary English spy (besides QUANTUM OF SOLACE!) is that the movie poster designs really suck! Honestly, they're uninteresting, unmotivating and contain virtually no admirable artwork for the eyes or the senses. In fact, I haven't really liked any of the James Bond movie posters since THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, and that was thirty years ago (Happy 30th anniversary, by the way). All negativity aside, however, SKYFALL not only coincides perfectly to mark the 50th anniversary since the launch of the franchise in 1962 with DR. NO, but it also redeems Daniel Craig's position as Bond after the disastrous QUANTUM OF SOLACE (sorry, but I had to mention that again). As director, Sam Mendes of AMERICAN BEAUTY and ROAD TO PERDITION returns filmmaking to a more steady pace, which not only gives one pause to enjoy the action and excitement, but it also doesn't give you a damn headache like Marc Foster did.

For Craig's third go-around, the story would have us briefly believe that James Bond is killed by friendly fire when his associate Agent Eve (Moneypenny, we learn later) is forced by M to "take the bloody shot" in order not to risk a mercenary who's stolen a valuable hard drive containing the details of undercover agents (sounds like the NOC list from MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE) escaping capture. Even as Bond falls to the river and Adele starts to sing her boring song, we know Bond isn't really dead because Bond never dies in the movies. Eventually "returning from the dead", Bond is recruited back into the fold to investigate a terrorist attack at the MI6 building. As the operation is considered a failure, M and the entire existence of MI6 comes under pressure from British parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee. Bearing the blunt of the blame, M (played for the last time by Judi Dench) is strongly urged to retire by parliament's chairman Gareth Mallory (played by Ralph Fiennes, who seems perfectly fit for a James Bond film). As Bond investigates, chases, fights and nearly dies at the hands of his enemies, we learn the motive behind the terror attacks are to ultimately discredit, humiliate and kill M. Her enemy is former MI6 agent Raoul Silva (played by Javier Bardem in a very effeminate persona, unfortunately) who plots his revenge against her for betraying him in the past (just what is it about this woman that pisses people off to the point of wanting her dead?? Remember Sophie Marceau as Elekra King in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH?).

Although Bond has never completely respected her authority, he's compelled to protect her at all costs. Here's where the film takes a turn to the more personal side of Bond's character as he drives her (in the classic 1964 Aston Martin DB5, of course) to the middle of nowhere in Scotland to hide out in none other than his childhood home called Skyfall. We've always known that Bond was an orphan (his parents died in a climbing accident according to Alec Trevelyan in GOLDENEYE), but it's only through the gamekeeper of the old estate, Kincade (played by Albert Finney) that we truly learn of who Bond was as the grieving boy who would eventually become the young man recruited into the world of secret agents and global danger. In fact, after the climactic battle has concluded, the house has exploded, and the bad guys are dead, M dies in Bond's arms and we see the great James Bond cry for the first time in the the fifty year franchise (George Lazenby didn't even cry when his wife was killed at the end of ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE), perhaps echoing a reoccurring pain of losing ones mother all over again. Tough as M was with her favorite spy, we've always suspected that need within her to act as mother to James. In fact, the last thing she says to Bond is "I did get one thing right."

While SKYFALL soars high above many other Bond films, it's hardly perfect. Our diabolical villain in Javier Bardem is somewhat of a disappointment, not just due to the practically gay character he employs, but his plot of simply wanting revenge against one woman is hardly worthy of the ultimate plans of world domination we've previously enjoyed by men like Dr. No, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Hugo Drax or even Max Zorin. There's virtually no Bond girl in this one, and whatever time she does manage to occupy is quickly killed off midway through the film. On the other hand, perhaps it's the deliberate point of the story that Bond is destined to end his latest adventure not in the arms of some hot babe in the sack, but rather to offer his arms to the one woman who has meant more to him than any of us fans were truly led to believe. In the end, even the great hard-as-nails, heart-of-stone James Bond needs a mother.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Kincade (after killing two men at Skyfall): "Welcome to Scotland!"






Friday, August 4, 2017

SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW


(September 2004, U.S.)

It astonishes me how so few people I speak with about it have heard of SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, and yet, I almost can't blame them. Not only was the film released at the close of the 2004 summer blockbuster season, but it also had to compete with the likes of too many other faster-paced comic book action films of the new decade, including SPIDER-MAN and X-MEN. This is actually a film that might have done better in the 1980s, when its only real competition in action/adventure filmmaking would have been STAR TREK movies, Indiana Jones and the original STAR WARS trilogy. Regardless of its poor timing and its box office failure, the film is, in my opinion, a technological achievement in not only its use of digital artistry, animation and modeling, but also in its wondrous Art-Deco homages to adventure settings and heroes of the glorious past; from Flash Gordon to Buck Rodgers to Superman to WAR OF THE WORLDS, as originally envisioned by H.G. Wells. Among some others of its type, it influenced SIN CITY (2005), a much more successful film.

The year is 1939 in New York City, but it's not quite the same 1939 we know from history. Technology is advanced and the world's most valued scientists are disappearing without a trace. In one of its many homages, Gwyneth Paltrow plays Polly Perkins, a reporter and photographer for The Chronicle, and also a perfect replica of Lois Lane as featured in the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940s. While investigating the disappearances, an air raid siren erupts and the city is soon under attack from an invasion of giant robots that, again, pay homage to a 1941 Fleischer Superman cartoon called "The Mechanical Monsters". In fact, some of the film's shots of armed police and the robots during this sequence are practically identical to the cartoon's original animation. Take a look...


Desperate for a hero's help, the city summons air force commander Joe Sullivan or "Sky Captain" (played by Jude Law), who flies a rather James-Bond-technologically-advanced Curtiss P-40 fighter plane, engaging the marching robots, but causing little damage. Like Lois, Polly shoots pictures of the whole thing from the street with little regard for her own safety. News reports tell of similar robot attacks all over the world. With one robot damaged, Joe and his team try to understand its technology and just what is happening and why. The only clue we have are two vials given to Polly by one of the scientist convinced he was next to be captured by the mysterious mad scientist Dr. Totenkopf. We never see this mad doctor, but the film builds him up to be as evil and diabolical as the classic James Bond villain hell-bent on world domination and destruction.

Throughout the film, there are spectacular action sequences of air battles, robot attacks, shoot-outs and daring rescues. Unfortunately, throughout all of it, we're left to contend with Polly's irritating whining about how she only has two shots left in her camera and can't decide how to best use them (this is the film's only real plot flaw). By the time the mystery concludes, we learn that the infamous Dr. Totenkopf is nothing more than a rotting corpse whose evil plan has been programmed into his robots for nearly two decades. Their determination to carry out their mission will ultimately bring about the end of the world and the start of a new race on a distant planet (with the two vials containing the new "Adam and Eve") unless the great "Sky Captain" can defeat them. Like the traditional weekly serial film of yesterday or even the Saturday morning cartoon adventure those of my generation grew up with, good surely triumphs over evil in the end and all is well with our world.

One of the film's most astonishing visual effects is the use of Laurence Olivier (who died in 1989), appearing as the deceased villain Dr. Totenkopf through the use of digital manipulation (Bryan Singer did the same thing with Marlon Brando in SUPERMAN RETURNS). This move not only adds to the great homages that SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW achieves, but also reminds us of just what kind of a year 1939 was in Hollywood because of this great English actor (there's a quick shot in the film of a movie theater marquee showing WUTHERING HEIGHTS and even a moment when Joe asks, "Is it safe?"). The film didn't gross too much in the wake of more popular adventure hero material of that summer, like SPIDER-MAN 2. It is, however, a film that shouldn't be ignored, not only for its beautiful visual experience, but also its ability to tap into our most wholesome imagination, creating the same spirit many of us felt when we first saw STAR WARS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and SUPERMAN-THE MOVIE for the first time. In fact, I personally thought that Jude Law was so effective as the classic adventure hero, I even told people that I thought he'd make a great Indiana Jones if they ever decided to continue the franchise with a new actor. That was back in 2004. Instead, Lucas (look for the number 1138 in the film, too) and Spielberg made the regrettable KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL in 2008.

If nothing else, the film is all about homage and nostalgia, and its target audience are those who understand and appreciate such sentiments at the movies. And speaking of homage, during the underwater scene when "Sky Captain's" plane is functioning like a submarine (think of Bond's white Lotus Esprit in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME), keep your eyes open for quick shots of the wrecked ships Venture (the steam ship from the 1933 version of KING KONG) and the RMS Titanic (in one piece, not split in two as in James Cameron's film).

Favorite line or dialogue:

Aerial platform voice-over: "Permission to land on Platform 327."

(another homage, this one to Cloud City in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. I love it!)


















Saturday, July 29, 2017

SIXTH SENSE, THE



(August 1999, U.S.)

I feel nothing but genuine pity for director M. Night Shyamalan. The poor bastard just hasn't been able to score a solid movie hit since THE SIXTH SENSE, his phenomenal movie "one hit wonder", as I've come to refer to it. Even in as much as I love the film, sometimes I still can't fathom just how he pulled it off and surprised us all to no end with a final resolution that I hardly consider original or groundbreaking. The shock of "they were dead the whole time" has been done before. Here's just a few examples that come to my mind...

THE TWILIGHT ZONE - Season One, episode sixteen (1960) - Nan Adams, while driving alone on a country road trip, is in an auto accident and seemingly survives without a scratch. Along her journey, she's haunted by an old man hitchhiker who is waiting for her at every step of her trip. We learn at the end the old man is the personification of death and that Nan did, in fact, die in the accident and has been dead all along.

CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962) - Mary Henry survives an auto accident after a drag race. Traveling to Utah, she repeatedly experiences terrifying encounters when she becomes invisible and inaudible to the rest of the world, as if she's not there. Well, guess what - she's not. We learn at the end that she didn't survive the accident and has been dead all along.

JACOB'S LADDER (1990) - Jacob Singer returns home from Vietnam only to be plagued by demons tearing his life apart. Blah, blah, blah, blah...we learn at the end he actually died in Vietnam under the influence of a mind-altering experimental drug and has been dead all along.

You see what I'm trying to say here? Why were we all so shocked and astonished when we learned that Bruce Willis had been dead all along? It wasn't anything new...and yet, there was something completely fresh about the whole thing, and that was probably the fact that we given almost no obvious clues along the way. From everything we were able to ascertain, Bruce was alive and well and helping to ease the suffering of little Haley Joel Osment who announced to the world, "I see dead people."...


But even that claim is not without challenge, because the clues were there; we just didn't know how to look for them. Little Cole Sear (Osment) told Dr. Malcom Crowe (Willis) that the dead walk among us all the time, unaware they're dead, and "see what they wanna see". He also told us that those who remain often seek to complete unfinished business or ask for help from the living, in this case, Cole. Malcom, a once gifted child psychiatrist, is repenting over his failure to help another troubled boy who eventually grew up to be the troubled man who shot and killed him (we learn later that he, too, saw dead people, through a revealing tape recording). Malcom believes that by helping Cole, he can cleanse his own troubled soul for failing the other boy.

The prospect of the dead seeking help from the living rather than the classic motive of causing them harm is, indeed, intriguing. The little girl Kyra who provides Cole with a videotape at her own wake reveals to her father and family that it was her own mother that was keeping the poor girl sick and eventually killing her (what kind of sick parent does that???). Through this one act of assistance, Cole learns to live with the ghosts he sees and fit in better at school and in life. He can also further help Malcom by advising him to tell his wife how he really feels by talking to her when she sleeps (ah, here we go!). This is where Malcom realizes he's not been wearing his wedding ring the entire time and that he's been walking among us and seeing what he wanted to see (just like Cole said). Our hero doctor and savior of little Cole has been a corpse the entire time and we, the audience, were fooled! Like the resolution of an Agatha Christie film, there's something deliciously decadent about not only realizing that we've been the "victims" of a plot scam the entire time, but also finally being let in on the whole thing in the end.

Having recently watched THE SIXTH SENSE to gain a fresh perspective for this post, it's also the first time I've watched the film since becoming a father. It's a more disturbing film to watch now, in my opinion, not because of its horror elements, but because I find it emotionally difficult to watch a sweet little boy suffer so much in pain and agony. As a father of my own little boy, I long to reach out to Cole to ease his pain and tell him it's all going to be okay (I suppose if my own son starts seeing dead people, then I can exercise such paternal instincts!).

One final point I'd like to make. As careful and precise as the filmmakers were in making sure they covered their tracks in hiding Bruce Willis' true existence (or lack there of!), there is one moment in the film where I swear they've made a mistake. In the restaurant scene when Malcom seemingly shows up late to his anniversary dinner and sits across the table from his wife (widow), there IS a quick moment when she makes direct eye contact with him, as if acknowledging his presence in that chair. Watch the scene for yourself and you'll see it, too...


Sorry, M. Night...but you're busted! Still, I suppose you've been paying the price with your film career ever since your big hit of '99 with crap like THE VILLAGE (2004), THE HAPPENING (2008), THE LAST AIRBENDER (2010) and AFTER EARTH (2013). Honestly, I'm surprised the man can still get studio funding. Though, to be fair, I understand SPLIT (2016) was pretty good. I haven't seen it yet.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Cole Sear: "Grandma says hi. She says she's sorry for taking the bumblebee pendant. She just likes it a lot. She wanted me to tell you..."
Lynn Sear (scared): "Cole, please stop."
Cole: "She wanted me to tell you she saw you dance. She said, when you were little, you and her had a fight, right before your dance recital. You thought she didn't come see you dance. She did. She hid in the back so you wouldn't see. She said you were like an angel. She said you came to the place where they buried her. You asked her a question? She said the answer is..."Every day." What did you ask?"
Lynn (in tears): "Do...do I make you proud?"





Friday, July 21, 2017

SIXTEEN CANDLES



(May 1984, U.S.)

Looking back at the 1980s now, I can't help but wonder how I and everyone else of my generation ever got through their teenage years with all of its tacky pop culture and bullshit. The big hair, the leg warmers, the pop metal...Boy George??? But then again, perhaps we can take a moment to remember that there was a man like the late John Hughes to somehow get us through it all. John was quite possibly the one person of the decade who could ask us to stop for a moment, take our eyes off of MTV and recognize our own existence in this world. The drama of THE BREAKFAST CLUB was still a year away, so for the time being, the funnier side of teenage life would penetrate our minds with SIXTEEN CANDLES.

Who were you in high school back in the '80s? Were you the gorgeous jock that every girl longed for? Were you the popular Prom Queen that every boy in school wanted to fuck? Were you dreaded geek that everyone else tried to avoid sitting next to on the equally-dreaded school bus? Or perhaps, were you someone like Samantha Baker (played by Molly Ringwald)? She's the girl on the verge of womanhood trying to not only figure out her place in a vast array of suburban teens, but also suffering from a desperate infatuation for the gorgeous jock Jake Ryan (played by Michael Schoeffling) who doesn't have the slightest clue that she even exists. For Samantha, just trying to get her family to pay even an ounce of attention to her on her sixteenth birthday is a challenge, as her older (and not-so-bright) sister is about to be married to a real sleazebag and is hogging all the attention instead. At school, during study hall, she takes a "sex quiz" given to her by a friend and confesses that she'd gladly give up her virginity to Jake. Too bad that Jake managed to get his hands on this quiz and now has full knowledge of just how Samantha feels about him. Jake, despite any stereotypes we may have toward the mindless high school jock, is a boy of feelings and sensitivity. Despite the fact that he's hooked up with the beautiful, rich, obnoxious Prom Queen, he's initially flattered by the idea of Samantha's attraction and seeks to find out more about her beyond the prospect of simply banging her (that, he can get anytime he wants from the dizzy Prom Queen!).

But if her potential humiliation with Jake weren't enough, Samantha has two sets of visiting grandparents to deal with (two of them sleeping in her room!), as well as the totally bizarre Chinese exchange student two of them brought along called Long Duk Dong (I'll get to him in further detail later). Just how do you begin to feel special on your sixteenth birthday when you're surrounded by all of this in-home madness? Maybe the school dance will help. Maybe she'll have the courage to tell Jake just how she feels about him. Or maybe instead, she'll be harassed by the school geek, the king of the dip-shits, or in other words, this guy...


Really, if this doesn't destroy your birthday for good, I don't know what does! Surprisingly, though, the "Geek" (played by Anthony Michael Hall), as he's simply called (he's actually identified as Ted in the film) turns out to be the one who will listen to Samantha's woes, offer advice, and even try to hook her up with Jake. She appreciates his friendship. She must...I mean, why else would she willingly give the guy her panties to help him out?? Unlike the traditional school geek we may have known in our real lives, this one isn't the shy type. He makes his presence known to others and even has the balls to crash a senior party with his two "dudes" (one of them an unknown John Cusack). Like the chameleon, he knows how to blend in (or at least make a valiant attempt) with the cool kids at the party, even if in the end, he's placed underneath the glass coffee table. Still, you gotta give the "Geek" the proper credit for becoming the "hero" by the end of the film by not only driving the Prom Queen home in a fancy Rolls Royce, but also believing he had sex with her, too. We know they didn't, but their drunken delusions are hardly anything we want to spoil. We cheer the "Geek" because there's likely a small part of us that can relate to his desires and dreams of high school fame. Oh, yeah, and of course Samantha and Jake come together in the end, too. What else would we expect in a movie?

For all its implications of teen angst and sensitivity to growing up in a world that doesn't understand them, the wild comedy in the tradition of its predecessors like PORKY'S and FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (both 1982) is not lost. High school years in the '80s is a wild time; inside its walls, the weekend parties and the insane life at home we're forced to contend with. When we aren't taking our teen years too seriously, we have many reasons to laugh, particularly the idea of the bride hopped up on an over-abundance of muscle relaxers on her wedding day! However, if we take a deeper look at SIXTEEN CANDLES, it's impossible not to recognize that the underlying themes behind its social situations are not only very relevant, but also not necessarily dated, either. While Hughes makes it clear that high school can be a funny place for four years of our lives, it's also a potential battleground where these poor kids are forced to fight for their identity and their place within the world inside that dreaded building. There's no teen revolt against authority because by all accounts, these kids don't recognize authority. Teachers in this film are hardly more than a minimal presence, if not a complete joke. The film is strictly a teen's world defined by school, their clothes, their cars, their parties, their music and the endless possibilities of their sex lives.

The film is ultimately not without its stereotypes, far beyond that of the "Geek". The Prom Queen, if not the blonde, in general, is a mindless ditz who can't see far beyond the existence of her beauty, her body, her wealth and her popular social status by being with the right guy, in this case, the gorgeous jock. While the "Geek" is quite atypical in this film, it's easy to see that his two best friends, Bryce and "Wease", who by all stereotypical definitions, are unpopular, unwanted and even bullied (when I look at them now, I can't help but notice a slight resemblance to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two seniors responsible for the mass shootings at Columbine High School in 1999; something John Hughes never would have conceived in his screenwriting of two unwanted boys). The strongest stereotype, of course, is Long Duk Dong (I told you I'd get back to him). While it's impossible not to find his character the funniest thing in the movie, he is, nonetheless, an offensive stereotype to any and all Asian people who choose to take offense. His stilted English dialogue, offensive or not, is still outrageous comedy. There are also moments in the film that today would be classified as totally politically incorrect, if not dangerous. Remember the scene where Jake and the "Geek" are talking alone after the wild party and Jake confesses that his girlfriend is passed out in the bedroom and he could violate her ten different ways if he wanted to? Also, in the Rolls Royce, the "Geek" and the Prom Queen wake up next to each other, very certain that the two of them had sex with each other as a result of their drunken stupor the night before. It's all funny, but by today's standards of movie morality (whatever the hell that might be!), these scenes practically condone date rape; again, something Hughes never would have intentionally written about.

This is how someone with a serious mind toward cinema may choose to spend their time analyzing a simple teen comedy like SIXTEEN CANDLES. In the end, however, let's not forget when it came out and why it came out; to give all us young kids of the '80s the opportunity to better understand ourselves and even laugh at ourselves in the process. Thank you, John, for that. We'll never forget it...or you.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Long Duk Dong: "I've never been so happy in my whole life!"
Marlene: "You maniac!"
Long Duk Dong: "Now I have a place to put my hand!"

















Monday, July 10, 2017

SINGLES



(September 1992, U.S.)

CNN has just begun their annual summer documentary series of each decade since the 1960s. We're now into the 1990s, and like the others before it, they begin the series with popular and influential television. Those of us who still have the '90s fresh in our minds and our memories will recall that FRIENDS and MELROSE PLACE were two of the decade's hottest shows. Yet, surprisingly, most people easily forget, or simply won't acknowledge that neither of those shows would have likely existed were it not for Cameron Crowe's film SINGLES first. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, let's recap...

The film centers on the social and romantic lives of a group of young people of the Generation X era, living in Seattle, Washington during the grunge music phenomenon at the start of the '90s. The young men and women are almost always hanging out together (often in the local coffee shop) and happen to live in the same apartment complex. While the film divides itself into the chapters of their multiple lives (echoing Woody Allen's HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, in my opinion), we're intended to focus more on Steve Dunne and Linda Powell (played by Campbell Scott and Kyra Sedgwick, respectively) from the time they first meet at a grunge club straight on through their rocky relationship, that includes an unexpected pregnancy and a car accident that causes her to lose the baby. It's easy to see just how crazy each of them are about each other from the time they meet, yet neither of them are capable of a true commitment to each other, even when they agree to get married due to the pregnancy. Rocky or not, their relationship is built on love, and that, of course, triumphs in the end. And if we're not entirely sure of how to keep up with things, we have the benefit of on-screen narration by its principal characters (think Woody Allen again at the opening of ANNIE HALL or Ferris Bueller speaking to us on his day off).

Though not given equal screen time, we can't ignore the relationship between Cliff (played by Matt Dillon), a grunge rock musician playing in a band called Citizen Dick (his band mates the real members of Pearl Jam at the start of their career!) and Janet (played by Bridget Fonda, a waitress at the above-mentioned coffee shop who wants to be an architect (poor choice, girl!). She loves him, he likes her. She's committed to him, he sees other people. She comes to her senses and dumps him, he regrets his aloofness with her and tries to win her back. It's all part of what constitutes real life, real world relationships and their irresistible moments of happiness, setbacks, sorrow and just plain 'ol stupidity. But more than these clichés, SINGLES makes a rather successful attempt at pointing out the vulnerability and insecurities many of us likely experienced following our college years. Not only were we faced with the prospect of finding our first place and securing our first real job, but also how to get past the ongoing grind of dealing with the opposite sex without all the games and bullshit involved in dating, sex, relationships, etc. For myself, when the film was released in the fall of 1992, I'd just finished my college education and was living alone in my mom's house (she moved out!). For the next six years, I didn't a have single serious relationship until I met the woman that would one day become my wife. Those years comprised of many dates, a old girlfriend who was now a "friend with benefits" and also a torch I was still carrying for a woman who didn't return my feelings. In short, the nineties were a real bitch for me as a single!

Cameron Crowe has managed to repeatedly capture the hearts and minds of young people since he wrote the screenplay for FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982), continued with SAY ANYTHING (1988) and went straight on through to ALMOST FAMOUS (2000). Through it all, he's also reminded us of the music that's represented the soundtrack of our lives, regardless of what the era was. High school was never without its rock music, love was not without Peter Gabriel and the boom box held high above our heads, fun was not without the live rock concerts, and as singles trying to figure out where we belonged, the grunge music took what we'd previously known as heavy metal hair music and turned into something completely wild and different. Unfortunately, rock may have very well ended in the '90s during the grunge period. What can the entire 21st Century (so far) honestly claim for itself with any pride? Justin Beiber, Lady GaGa and Taylor Swift (geez, I think I'm going to be sick!)??

Favorite line or dialogue:

Cliff Poncier: "Where are the anthems for our youth? What happened to music that meant something? The Who at the Kingdome, or Kiss at the Coliseum? Where is the "Misty Mountain Hop,"? Where is the "Smoke on the Water"? Where is the "Iron Man" of today?"

I hear you, Cliff...and I feel for you!













Monday, July 3, 2017

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE



(February 1991, U.S.)

I swear to you right now, I cannot make up this kind of coincidence! As I start to write this post for Jonathan Demme's THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, "American Girl" by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers is playing on my favorite classic rock radio station. If you know the film well enough, then you the know the bizarre nature of that particular song and actress Brooke Smith and...wait, the song just ended.

Michael Mann's MANHUNTER (1986) was one of my favorite thrillers of the 1980s and it still remains one of my favorite crime thrillers of all time. Yet I hadn't read the original book by Thomas Harris, RED DRAGON, nor was I aware that he wrote a sequel two years after the film that dove a whole lot deeper in the twisted mind and character of Hannibal Lecter, whom had only been mildly touched upon by actor Brian Cox. So when THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was released in 1991 (Valentine's Day, no less), the movie poster with the moth over the woman's mouth gave me no clue as to the story, so I dismissed it with little interest. Then my college roommate at the time caught me up on things and suddenly I had to see what the next chapter in Thomas Harris' saga was. As it turned out, I got to see the new film at an advance preview that followed DANCES WITH WOLVES. That's quite a long afternoon at the movies; a being a double feature from Orion Pictures (now defunct), as well as what would turn out to be two Best Picture Oscar winners in a row.

Any remnants of the film MANHUNTER are gone now. All actors have been replaced (except for Frankie Faison, though he played a different character in MANHUNTER; not Barney). Our hero is now young FBI trainee Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster) whose training at the FBI Academy is interrupted by her superior Jack Crawford (played by Scott Glenn) who assigns her to interview Hannibal Lecter, whom we now learn in this film is also a cannibal, as well as psychiatrist-turned-serial killer (MANHUNTER made no reference to his cannibalism). She hopes that his insight will help the FBI capture a serial killer on the loose known as "Buffalo Bill", who murders women by shooting them and then skinning their corpses. Lecter (as played by Hopkins) is not only considered criminally insane, but also dangerous enough to be kept behind a wall of solid plastic. But he's also brilliant. Although he grows impatient at Starling's cheap attempt to "dissect" his mind, he seems to like her, nonetheless. He agrees to help her catch the killer, but only at the price of her providing him with personal insights into her own mind and life. The film bases its ongoing process of procedure and "cat and mouse" tactics on the relationship of quid pro quo trust that develops between Starling and Lecter (bizarre, though it may seem).

As all of this is taking place, "Buffalo Bill" has just scored his latest victim; a young girl named Catherine Martin (played by Brooke Smith who just loves that Tom Petty song!) who's actually stupid enough to get inside a stranger's van because she has too good a heart to ignore what appears to be his painful incapacity. Turns out, she's not just any girl, but rather the daughter of a U.S. Senator, though her abductor has no idea of this. To him, she's just another woman of bodily weight who will ultimately serve his twisted agenda of creating a "woman suit" out of real women's skin in order to satisfy his sick transgender issues. "Buffalo Bill", actor Ted Levine is about as terrifying as we might expect a character of this sort. One of the creepiest moments in the film, in my opinion, is when he's looking down and Catherine in the well and insisting that she rub her skin with the lotion he's provided her. The combination of the calm and creepy effeminate tone in his voice as he says, "It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.", is simply chilling!

Even as Starling gets closer and closer to solving the case through Lecter's insights and her own talent, in the end, it's really just blind luck that she happens to come across "Buffalo Bill's" (his real name Jame Gumb) house while pursuing a series of interviews in Illinois. She's quietly tipped off when she discovers a sphinx moth flying around his house, which was one of the clues we learned about earlier in the film as a direct clue to the killer. After assuring Catherine that she's now safe, we experience the fear and horror of knowing that she's now pursued by the killer in total darkness as we view his point of vision through night-vision goggles. Still, even the most clever and diabolical of serial killers are supposed to slip up somehow (at least, that's how it is in the movies) and Gumb manages to do that by cocking his revolver only inches away from Starling's head. The climax is a visual thrill as the camera goes to slow motion and Starlings reacts in time to fire all of her rounds and put the killer down. Starling has saved the day, but we're left with the thought that earlier on, the great Hannibal Lecter made a violent escape to freedom (including wearing a bloody skin mask of his own in order to get out of the building - geez!). Am I crazy, or do we actually feel a bizarre sense of joy in knowing that this lunatic has escaped his captors? Hannibal is so damn charming and seductive, maybe he's just one of those creatures that's never meant to be kept locked up in a cage. Even ten years later, in the Ridley Scott sequel HANNIBAL (2001), the infamous character was still on the run (minus a hand). That little plot twist hasn't been resolved since.

Now let me discuss Anthony Hopkins for a bit now. He's a brilliant actor who, believe it or not, had many noteworthy roles long before Hannibal Lecter, including David Lynch's THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) and two films by Richard Attenborough, A BRIDGE TOO FAR and MAGIC. Still, it was the mighty cannibal that put him over the top with the public and the media, and even won him the Oscar for Best Actor of 1991. Did he really deserve it, though? Yes, he was brilliant as a complete psychopath, but there are times when I felt his performance was just a bit over the top, if not comically-cartoonish. I mean, really, the whole eating his liver with the fava beans and the nice Chianti, followed by the lip sucking...wasn't that just a bit much? Yes, we know you're crazy, Hannibal, but you hardly need to act like some Looney Tunes character to prove it. Perhaps this is why I was so taken in by Brian Cox's performance in the same role in MANHUNTER. There was a silent-but-deadly subtlety to his personality that spoke huge amounts of insanity that was not only plausible to the audience, but apparently enough to freak out William Peterson as Will Graham. I suppose it's all comes back to that age-old saying of "less is more".

Still, as a combination psychological crime thriller and straight-up horror film, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS doesn't disappoint. The film's terrifying qualities are further brought to life by excellent performances all around. As Starling, and perhaps even a poster girl for the feminist movement as a woman trying to make it in a man's FBI world, Jodie Foster delivers a strong sense of innocence and naiveté that is inevitably transformed into a much tougher role of self-survival when she's ultimately challenged by not only the monster she's after, but the monster she also comes to depend upon. That's some pretty deep stuff in a world of relationships between a vast array of traditional and unconventional personalities. Only from the mind of someone like Thomas Harris, I suppose. But I do wish the man would write something else having nothing to do with Hannibal Lecter. His only other book was his first, BLACK SUNDAY, which went on to become my favorite thriller of all time in 1977.

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1991. In my humble opinion, it should have been THE PRINCE OF TIDES (that one was for you Babs!).

Favorite line or dialogue:

Hannibal Lecter (to Clarice Starling): "You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. A well-scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste. Good nutrition's given you some length of bone, but you're not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling? And that accent you've tried so desperately to shed: pure West Virginia. What is your father, dear? Is he a coal miner? Does he stink of the lamp? You know how quickly the boys found you...all those tedious sticky fumblings in the back seats of cars...while you could only dream of getting out...getting anywhere...getting all the way to the FBI."




















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!