Sunday, August 27, 2017
(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
(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
(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
(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!)