Friday, March 24, 2017
(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
(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
(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
(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
(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."