Saturday, October 31, 2009
BILLY JACK (1971)
One good thing about “1001 movies you must see before you die” is that you aren’t claiming the ones on the list are the 1001 best movies, at least that's my interpretation of the prime directive. For example, I would have not included Grease or Clueless or Top Gun on the list, but each selction according to his own ability, each choice according to his own needs.
So in the spirit of interpretation I’m adding a movie memory from my childhood…that many don’t think is even that good of a movie. Maybe they don’t like the politics. Maybe they don’t like the acting. Maybe they don’t like the violent character promoting pacifism. Maybe it just seems dated. Neo-con film critic Michael Medved took glee in bashing it in The Golden Turkey Awards. I’m talking, of course, about Billy Jack.
The character of Billy Jack first appeared in the 60’s motorcycle epic The Born Losers. Then Billy Jack was made in 1971, but didn’t get wide release until 1974 when it became a huge hit. The Trial of Billy Jack was next, followed by Billy Jack Goes to Washington. I saw all these films except Billy Jack Goes to Washington, which hardly anyone else has seen either.
The soundtrack of Billy Jack starts with the satanic band Coven (not Cher!) singing the movie’s theme song “One Tin Soldier.”
Go ahead and hate your neighbor
Go ahead and cheat a friend
Do it in the name of heaven
You can justify it in the end.
An interestingly ironic sentiment for a satanic band, eh? And I just found out the lead singer’s name is Jinx! How cute!
The plot begins with nice Sheriff Cole telling his not-so-nice Deputy Mike that they found Mike’s daughter. “Haight-Ashbury again?” he asks. Hmmm. I smell a big fat hippie rat!
We also find out that Mike and Stuart Posner and Stuart’s son Bernard are killing mustangs and sending the meat to be used for dog food. You don't get much more evil than that! Except poor Bernard can’t actually pull the trigger, which we find out later he can’t do with women either.
Then,the half-breed war hero who hated the war, Billy Jack (played by star-writer-director-producer and probably key grip Tom Laughlin) appears and stops the potential horse massacre this time. “When policeman break the law, there is no law. Just a fight for survival.” Well put and pithy, Billy!
In the meantime, Mike finds out his daughter Barbara is pregnant (and that the father might even be a Chicano!) and beats her up and throws her out. She finds refuge in The Freedom School, which is run by Billy’s sort-of girl friend Jean.
At the Freedom School, you can “learn anything, get turned on by creating anything, come and go as you please and ask the question ‘what’s their trip’ a lot.” Oh, they may call it The Freedom School, but I smell a big fat hippie rat! (I may have said that already.)
The school also encourages 11-year olds to sing slightly off key songs about Vietnam War casualties, which may cause you to uncomfortably squirm in your seat a bit.
The school does have a no drug policy, but apparently has no restrictions on performing improv skits. And does the movie have to show every single skit? Though most involve future WKRP in Cincinnati DJ Howard Hessman, who is probably the best actor in the movie.
Billy Jack goes through a rattlesnake ritual where he gets bit by the snake and either becomes a blood brother or dies. (It’s not even half way through the movie, so guess which one happens.)
The most memorable scene for me involves a road trip by some of the members of the Hippie commune; I mean some of the members of the Freedom School into town. The mostly Indian (I use the term Indian in the native-American sense, I’m not writing about the Apu trilogy after all!) students go into an ice cream parlor and don’t get served because they aren’t white enough. Bad guy Bernard Posner and friend show up to dump flour on them to give them the appropriate hue. They also punch Indian student Edward in the stomach, which unfortunately for Edward is a common motif for this film. But after all this occurs, Billy Jack shows up. (Billy knows when to show up the Indian way according to Jean, which is basically involves him just knowing when to show up.)
I confess to liking Laughlin’s speech when he sees the humiliated students:
Bernard. (pause) I want you to know, that I try, (pause) that Jean and the kids at the school try to control my violent temper and be passive and be non-violent like they are. (pause) I try. (pause) I really try. Though when I see this girl of such a beautiful spirit so degraded and when I see this boy…sprawled out by this ape here and this little girl who we all call God’s little gift of sunshine (chokes up.) and I think of the number of years she’s going to have to carry in her memory the savagery of this (pause) idiotic moment of yours…I go beserk!
(Billy beats up Bernard and his friend and then some of Posner’s thugs rough up Billy, though not before Billy shows off some nifty slo-mo karate moves.)
Moving on. The oft-injured Martin falls off his horse. The cops come to the school to look for Barbara and are serenaded by a song I think called “There’s a rainbow, made of children.” (I’m smelling that hippie rat again!)
There’s a strange but somehow compelling scene at the city council, where the straights (the council) spar with the not straights (the school). The council eventually agree to visit the school and when they do, you may not be too surprised at this point, they participate in some improv skits with Howard Hessman!
Moving on. We learn that whites can’t touch other spirits. Edward gets punched in the stomach again and we see some more improv involving Sheriff Cole this time (and of course Howard Hessman!)
The turtleneck wearing Bernard tries to coerce a student into confessing Barbara’s whereabouts, but before he can assault/rape/kill her, Billy Jack and Jean show up. Billy makes Mr. Turtleneck drive his $6000 corvette into the lake.
Martin tells Barbara that he loves her but hasn’t tried to sleep with her because “she’s an anybodys” and his love for her is spirtual and wants to show her he’s not just interested in sex. Way to go Martin! And way not to have a scene where you don’t get beat up!
Next scene: Martin gets beat up.
Jean then takes a bath. Her mistake is in taking a bath outside alone in the middle of the woods, and lying nude on the ground to dry. Along comes Bernard and friend and, well, you figure out what happens next.
Jean says not to tell Billy about the rape to an older student who screeches back to her, “DAMN YOUR PACIFISM!” I’m not sure why, but I like to hear the word pacifism screamed at high decibels.
Moving on: Martin is finally put out of his misery once and for all with four headshots by the evil Bernard. Billy also finds out Bernard raped Jean. Billy finds Bernard, who shoots Billy in the stomach. But the unfazed half-breed still manages to kill the evil one with one chop.
Billy Jack is now on the run and Barbara runs away with him. Shots are fired at Billy, who returns fire and shoots Deputy Mike in the head. I might have expected a little more reaction from Barbara at this point like, “Billy, did you just shoot my daddy in the head?” But no, they just proceed to hole up in an abandoned church.
Barbara waxes poetic. “From the day I was born until every second in between, life has just been one shit brick.” Amen, Barbara.
Billy Jack tells the authorities the unreliability of the white man in keeping treaties, but finally gives himself up as long as the Freedom school will remain open to do more improv and more casinos will be placed on Indian land. THE END
Okay, it’s not Citizen Kane. But though I’ve poked a bit of fun at it, Billy Jack really does represent the time period of the early 70’s for me and of the American anti-hero of the period.
In fact, I’m now going to raise my fist in the air in support, which you are also welcome to interpret as giving the finger to Michael Medved.
Friday, October 30, 2009
THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (1969, ARMENIA)
Wife: Hey, honey! Do you feel like going to see a movie?
Husband: Absolutely! I think we should see The Color of Pomegranates.
Wife: That new comedy with Sandra Bullock is opening. That looks pretty funny.
Husband: Well, the film I want to see is from 1969 and about the famous 19th century Armenian poet Sayat Nova! I hear he’s famous anyway. And it’s in Armenian!
Wife: Maybe an adventure film. There’s that new one opening. You know looks a little like Indiana Jones.
Husband: You see it’s Armenian!
Wife: Or a sci-fi. That might be good. Or something supernatural.
Husband: Did I mention it's Armenian!
Wife: You know on second thought, I don’t really think I feel like a movie after all. Why don’t we order some Chinese food?
Husband: Well, I, uh guess Chinese…would be fine.
Wife: All right. All right. We can watch your movie.
(88 minutes later)
Wife: I just have one question
Wife: WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT ABOUT?
Husband: I...I understand it wasn’t a straight narrative
Wife: Which would be fine if it were a Talking Heads music video from 1983, but I expect a little more from a hour and a half movie!
Husband: Parajanov has been called a God of the aesthetic and a master of style of the pathos of epoch.
Wife: Do you even know what that means or are you just being a pretentious bore again?
Husband: I don’t think I like your tone.
Wife: Well, you’re just going to have to forgive me. Armenian lute music is still ringing in my ears!
Husband: The symbolism was vivid, didn’t you…
Wife: Oh, you didn’t get it any more than I did. You just don’t want to admit it so you can pretend to be artsy-fartsy.
Husband: I resent that! I liked the part with the sheep in the monastery and the squishing of the grapes and you know all that, you know Catholic symbolism...stuff.
Husband: Okay! Okay! I didn’t get it either! You happy now?
Wife: Yes. Besides, I’ve always said that you were the man whose life and soul are torture.
Husband: Hey, I guess you were paying some attention.
(Husband and wife kiss each other on the cheek before putting on their respective black tunics, sever the head of a chicken and ride off into the sunset on a donkey to the rhythmic sound emanating from a floating balalaika.)
Saturday, October 24, 2009
THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957, GREAT BRITAIN)
The Bridge on the River Kwai has got to be ranked as one of the greatest films ever made! At least that’s my initial reaction after seeing it for the first time last night. The question is why did I put off seeing it for over forty years?
I could try to list reasons why you should see it, but I really don’t want others to make the same mistake that I made and procrastinate for years and say “I just don’t feel like watching a three-hour 1950’s war film.
So, instead I will now implement hypnosis techniques I learned from Marshall Sylver’s home hypnosis kit to persuade you in a little stronger way to watch this film if you are for some reason still reluctant.
I want you to listen carefully to my voice
as you close your eyes and picture yourself
in a clearing outside a Japanese jungle in 1943.
Do not be concerned, for you are not a prisoner of war,
You are free and just there relaxing, relaxing.
You hear whistling in the background,
The World War I Colonel Bogey March, I think.
But if that’s too jaunty for our purposes,
just imagine the more tranquil “Fishin’ Hole” theme
from The Andy Griffith Show.
If you are a male, four female Thai water carriers
are bringing you fresh sustenance,
If you are a female, you are being brought an extremely dry martini
from a shirtless William Holden.
You are totally in control
just like Alec Guiness.
But the force is not with you,
because that’s a different movie.
You are now totally susceptible to the power of suggestion.
And I am suggesting that you watch The Bridge Over the River Kwai,
Now available on DVD and Blue-Ray from Columbia.
When I count to three I will give my men the order to fire.
What I meant to say is when I count to three you will awaken.
I hope you will now enjoy this film as much as I did.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943)
I just finished watching I Walked with a Zombie at the library and I really don’t know what to say about it. I’m going to rest awhile and think about it tomorrow. I feel so comfortable right now…as I can barely stay…awake…
Nurse Betsy took me by the hand and led me out the front door of the plantation house. The West Indies wind was swirling, but I willingly went with her, as I had grown tired of the sibling rivalry that dominated the house that had now culminated in an argument over the relative merits of the Declaration of Independence versus the Magna Carta.
As we walked past the statute of St. Sebastian, Nurse Betsy rationalized to me that though the statue was once the figurehead of a slaveship, that ship did at least take them to a beautiful place. I found myself unable to concentrate on her strange logic, as the only thing I could think of was the 1976 film ‘Sebastiane’ that basically turned out to be just one long homoerotic fantasy! I didn’t know that’s what it was going to be when I saw it at the theater! Oh, Nurse Betsy! Won’t you believe me?
Despite the coolness of the evening, the Nurse’s hand felt warm to the touch and actually made me shudder with pleasure as she directed me to the dark wood that stretched before us. At that point, I would have followed her over a cliff if that were where she wanted to take me.
Before we could enter the wood, a bright light appeared before us. A man appeared. Was it a ghost? A Zombie?
No, It was a calypso singer.
“Oh, librarian man
Can’t think what to write
Bout’ this movie
He saw last-a night
He make up-a dream.
That’s very, very lame…”
I grabbed the strings of his guitar before he could continue and informed him that he was very rude to be singing about me while I was standing right in front of him. He apologized, bowed and walked away.
Nurse Betsy tilted her head for me to continue on and I dutifully followed her past swaying stalks of sugar cane. A gentle mist came down as we continued. I felt at ease on my journey until we ran into a large black man with bulging eyes, who despite his striking appearance nodded to Nurse Betsy for us to pass. A hooting owl seemed to mock us as we covered our noses to block the odor that came from several animal carcasses that hung from the trees along our path. In my haste to escape the stench, I tripped over the remains of a human skull. Nurse Betsy helped me back up, but by this point even the charms of my companion weren’t enough to make me want to continue. She directed me to a clearing where we heard the rhythmic beating of several drums that I felt unusually drawn to. It was there that I saw a gyrating witchdoctor pulling a doll by a string. The little figure at the end of the string resembled a man. The witchdoctor continued to pull the doll toward him. It was then I noticed the doll was carrying a book. Why the doll was…was…a librarian.
I grabbed onto Nurse Betsy and pleaded with her not to make me walk with a zombie anymore, but as I felt a force engulf me as the man picked up the doll, it finally dawned on me that the zombie…was me.
When I awoke, I realized the movie had more effect on me than I first thought.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981)
Well, I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand
Walking through the streets of Soho in the rain.
He was lookin’ for the place called Lee Ho Fooks,
Gonna get a big dish of beef chow mein.
Aaahoo, werewolves of London
I recently used my Apple iwayback machine to go back in time to watch Star Wars from a more objective angle. With An American Werewolf in London, I used no such technogadgetry, because it naturally feels like I went forward in time. Has it really been 28 years since this movie was released?? I’ll check the calendar again. Yep, 28 years.
Mr. Peabody! You’ve definitely been screwing with the iwayback machine.
When I think of this film, the one name that comes to mind is makeup guru Rick Baker, who won his first of six Oscars for this film. David Kessler’s transformation into the werewolf is the defining moment in the film and it’s still jarring. (Who needs fancy computer graphics anyway?) Though the makeup for the ever-deteriorating corpse of David’s friend Jack is pretty good too.
The post-Animal House and pre-Thriller video John Landis is the writer-director here and his film still seems fresh (A strange choice of word I admit for a moviefeaturing a wandering corpse). I do think at 98 minutes, the film could actually have been longer. The story behind the werewolf at The Slaughtered Lamb pub could have fleshed out (another unfortunate word choice) a little more, as well as the story behind the cover-up to David and Jack’s attacker. But if the worst criticism you have of a movie is that you wanted more of it; it’s a good sign.
David Naughton (will always be the peppy singing guy in the Dr. Pepper commercials) is OK in the lead role, though I’m not too surprised he didn’t become a bigger movie star. Griffin Dunne (of the under appreciated After Hours) as his unfortunate friend plays a mighty good corpse and maybe should have been a bigger star. The lovely Jenny Agutter (of Logan’s Run and a rather low-rent version of Othello I saw) is also good.
“A naked American man just stole my balloons” “Have you tried talking to a corpse? It's booooring.” were the lines that I remember getting the biggest laughs all those years ago. Though the defining line of the movie after watching it again is, “Look at me! In a porno theatre in Piccadilly Circus...talking to a corpse!”
And we don’t get scenes in films today like David trying to call his family from London to tell them he loves them as he begins to realize his time is running out. Why don’t we get scenes like this anymore? Because the easy access to people through cell phone technology has ruined many such dramatic moments! Not that I’m volunteering to give up my cell phone, I’m just saying.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
STAR WARS (1977)
The first time you see a movie as famous as Casablanca, Citizen Kane, or Gone With the Wind, it comes with the additional baggage of being called “the greatest movie of all time” or at least one of them. There is so much pressure on the viewer to see what others see in it, the viewing experience is often not what it should be. The viewer may lean toward nodding their head in agreement not to appear obtuse or take an opposite tack and say, “What’s so great about that?”
Star Wars (subtitled A New Hope IV) has similar problems. So iconic in stature, so many sequels, so many have seen it and so many toys have been sold, I’m sure a bias will kick in as I watch and will be tempted to say, “What’s so great about that?”
What’s the solution to achieving objectivity? Well, the only solution has to be a mind meld to make me forget (intentional Star Trek reference) and my use of the newly released Apple iwayback machine that can take me back to 1977…1977…1977…
I feel a bit woozy and disoriented but I’m still excited about seeing this new film called Star Wars from the director of one of my favorite films, American Graffiti. Wow, the screen seems so big! But aren’t all movie screens this size? Huh. Wait, it’s about to start:
The theme song during the opening credits. Lush, orchestral makes me think of dramatic events. A good start. IV A New Hope? Did I somehow miss the first three in this series? Or is it like I. V. as in needing a transfusion? Roman numerals can be confusing. These rolling credits are fun. Reminds me of those old Flash Gordon serials they show on late night TV. It seems Mr. Lucas is a filmmaker that respects the past.
The plot: There seems to be trouble within the galactic empire and the rebel force. I think the empire are the ones in white body armor, but it’s a little hard to tell who is who. There is a princess. I remember reading about her. She’s played by Debbie Reynolds’s daughter. Great, now I just had a flashback to Singin’ in the Rain. I don’t know why my concentration is so off.
Wow, look at this guy. A hard breathing, black cloaked & helmeted authority figure. Wonder if he’s a bad guy? Wink, wink. I thought there was suppose to be more gray area in films today. Not that it might not be Travis Bickle underneath that cloak. The figure has the distinctive voice of James Earl Jones of The Great White Hope. For some reason the phrase “This is CNN” keeps running through my suddenly pounding head. What the heck is a CNN?
There are a couple of androids that are beginning to remind me of the supporting characters in Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. In fact the swipes between scene breaks is also reminiscent of Kurosawa and other older films. Like I said, a filmmaker that respects the past. The gay android is CPO3 (reminiscent of the gay robot in Woody Allen’s Sleeper) and the other is D2R2. (I might not have their names right, I was jotting this down quickly). CPO3 reminds me of a metallic Dr. Smith from Lost in Space. D2R2 reminds me of the cute little robots from Silent Running. Like I said, a filmmaker who respects the past, but let’s not go overboard shall we George?
The robots come to a planet, battle some little Sand People (can’t decide if they are supposed to be cute or menacing) and deliver a message that gets to Luke Skywalker, who I presume is the hero of this piece by the softer version of the movie's theme that plays every time he appears on camera. Earlier, we learn that Luke wants to go away from home, but his Uncle wants him to till the crops or something like that until next year. Now what film does this remind me of? I got it! It’s a Wonderful Life! George Bailey has to work at the building and loan as Harry gets to go off and be a football hero at Fill-in-the-blank state. Damn you Harry.
Anyway, when Luke says anything, even something innocent like “I was going to Toole Station to pick up some power converters!” He sounds like a teenage girl complaining about not getting invited to the prom by the right guy.
Luke runs into the android’s old master played by (Hip Hooray a familiar actor!) none other that Sir Alec Guinness. Obi-Wan Kenobi. Got to admit that’s a pretty cool name.
Well, the Empire’s men, called storm troopers (As in Nazi storm troopers?) kill Luke’s remaining family. After Luke’s discovery of his murdered family, I can definitely feel a bildungsroman story coming on!
Oh, sorry. I must be getting a migraine. I kept picturing an obnoxious and strange creature that looked like an anteater named, Jar Jar I think? Where did that come from? Well, it was scary in an annoying way. I’ve taken a couple of aspirin. I must say after my daydream about this Jar Jar creature, CPO3 now seems much more palatable to me. Back to the movie.
Luke and Obi-Wan (still a cool name) try to get a pilot and a ship to take them to the Alderon system to rescue the prince or fight the empire or something. Sorry, I lost some of the plot thanks to this dream about this stupid anteater.
Anyway, they come to a kind of intergalactic biker bar and come across this hotshot pilot named Solo and his furry co-pilot he calls Chewy. They are hired. Solo kills a bounty hunter and tells an alien named Jabba that he’ll get his money. What happens to Jabba? We never see him again!
Throughout, Obi Wan is teaching Luke to use a mind/religion/yoga technique called the force. I almost called it the Schwartz, though I’m not sure why. Solo thinks the force is a waste of time. Luke is a willing disciple of the force. Is this a metaphor for the battle between religion and science? I could be reading too much into it. Of course, Obi-Wan’s (still a cool name) mind probes remind me of Mr. Spock’s in Star Trek. I’m growing a bit weary of Mr. Lucas’s “tributes.” to other sources.
Alderon is destroyed by the empire and Governor Tarkin (played by horror star Peter Cushing). Too bad we don’t get to see a one on one confrontation between Cushing and Guinness, though we do get to see a battle with fancy laser swords between Obi-Wan and Tarkin’s subordinate black cloaked figure. And what happens to Obi-Wan? He just kind of disappears in the middle of battle.
I’m feeling kind of faint now. I’ve got to keep moving through this. Alderon’s destruction reminds me of Star Trek when a Vulcan ship is destroyed and Spock feels it on the Enterprise (Obi-Wan feels a disruption in the force), the tractor beam reminds me of Lost in Space. The weapons called blasters remind me of Forbidden Planet. OK! George likes to copy other films and TV shows. Looks like it’s something I’ve got to accept.
Moving on. Solo and Luke try to rescue Debbie Reynolds’s daughter from the giant Star of Death. Debbie Reynolds’s daughter is a lot less whiny that Luke, in fact her voice is quite manly. They battle the storm troopers, fall into a garbage chute (a good scene, but the troopers aren’t very observant to not find them in there sooner)and escape the star of death. They regroup and Luke joins the rebels to attack the star of death. Most of the rebels are killed. Luke uses his mind trick to get to the Star of Death, aided at the last second by Solo.
The Star of Death is destroyed. Debbie Reynolds’s daughter gives Luke and Han a Nobel Peace Prize or something. I assume Luke and Debbie Reynolds’s daughter get married. And fittingly, Chewy gets the last growl of the movie.
Sure, Mark Hamill as Luke is whiny. But I think that’s the point. I think he’ll go on to do bigger and better things. I just read he’s doing a movie for next year called Corvette Summer. Now, that sounds like a hit. I’m not sure about his co-star Harrison Ford. His cynical character Solo is a good contrast to Luke’s exuberance, but can this actor play anything else? I noticed Ford’s not going to be in Corvette Summer. (Prediction: Corvette Summer will make three times as much money as Star Wars. I didn’t say life was fair!)
This film was quite a departure for George Lucas after the more personal American Graffiti. I don’t see Star Wars as being a big hit, but it has the opportunity to gain cult status as the years go by. I predict this movie was just a diversion for Lucas. I think he’ll go back to directing smaller, more personal films after this.
I’m also not sure about calling this episode IV. I really don’t see any room for future films here. Good already conquered evil and owww…Damn, why can I not get this picture of the Muppets out of my head now?
You know, I did enjoy this movie, but I would have liked it more without these damn headaches! That’s all for now, I’ve got to rest, only a couple months to go before the premiere of Close Encounters of the Third Kind!
Monday, October 12, 2009
WEST SIDE STORY (1961)
I am currently listening to the Broadway soundtrack of West Side Story which features Carol Lawrence as Maria. Why she’s about as Puerto Rican as…well, Natalie Wood. Of course, she could sing and Natalie Wood had to be dubbed for the film by one of Hollywood’s unsung (pun intentional) heroes, Marni Nixon. The much maligned Ms. Wood and co-star Richard Beymer have often been called the weak link to an otherwise great movie. Well, to tell you the truth, I didn’t think they were too bad. Beymer seemed suitably gaga over Maria and if you hadn’t told me Ms. Wood wasn’t actually singing, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell.
Well if you accept Beymer and Wood, than the rest should be gravy, right? I would have to say yes. Many of the songs are now standards and all seem perfectly done. “Gee, Officer Krupke” and "America" are personal favorites.
Of course to watch this film, your suspension of disbelief has to include a fight between the rival Jets and Sharks done as finger snappin’ ballet. But if you can’t get there, you probably shouldn’t be watching West Side Story anyway.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to try on a new bonnet and prance around my house while singing "I Feel Pretty." (okay, not really)
Sunday, October 11, 2009
LA STRADA (1954, ITALY)
La Strada. The English translation is “The Road,” but somehow that doesn’t have the right ring for this film.
Fellini’s La Strada has some of the techniques of the neo-realistic film, but is more polished, has more surrealistic elements and employs mostly professional actors.
After seeing this for the first time just a few hours ago, I'm sure the images of this film will remain vivid to me for sometime. Zampano’s motorcyle van, the shots of the Italian countryside, the traveling circuses, the sick boy that Gelsomina briefly performs for, the fool’s high wire act and many other scenes are memorable. There doesn’t seem to be any wasted moments, movements or shots in this film.
Giulietta Masina’s innocent and not quite mentally all there Gelsomina is mesmerizing. Her character has been compared to Chaplin’s little tramp, but reminded me a bit of Harpo Marx as well. Her repeated line, “The fool is hurt” is certainly reminiscent of King Lear’s “My poor fool is dead,” and is equally tragic.
Gelsomina is a complete contrast to Anthony Quinn’s Zampano, who as the traveling strongman is all brute force with little humanity to go with it. When he finally does show some compassion in the film’s final shot, it is sadly too late.
The fool, played by Richard Basehart, rounds out the film’s main trio.
The language of the two male stars was presumably English and the rest of the cast was Italian and I’m not sure how all the dubbing was worked, but it does work, though I only viewed the Italian language version. I watched one scene of the English dub and my old bias (no dubbed film unless Godzilla is somehow involved) kicked in.
8 ½ and Amacord were two previous Fellini films I saw and truly liked (granted, it’s been a few years), but I may have a new favorite here.
Friday, October 9, 2009
HIGH SIERRA (1941)
“But the fix blew up and a screw put the blast on me.” If you hear a line like this, you know you’re probably watching a Warner Brothers gangster movie from the 30's or 40’s. Ah, when police were coppers, women were dames, men wore snap-brim hats and your only goal in life was to crash out, whether in actuality or just metaphorically.
I watched many of these gangster movies growing up, mostly thanks to Ted Turner’s superstation. I’ve also seen a lot of Humphrey Bogart movies. Yet somehow I missed one of the most famous, High Sierra.
The first thing I noticed about High Sierra is the amount of talent involved. The screenwriters were W. R. Burnett (of the book Little Caesar, which I have actually read) and John Huston (who later became, of course, John Huston.). The director was Raoul Walsh, whose most memorable film might be White Heat (“A copper! I treated you like a brother and you’re nothing but a stinking copper!" or something like that). The cast was headed by Ida Lupino (Whose name I like to use creatively in sentences as in “Don’t go all Ida Lupino on me”). Also of note in the cast is Henry Travers, though it’s very hard to think of him as anything but Clarence Oddbody, angel second class. Willie Best’s performance here would probably make Spike Lee shudder, but Sidney Poitier roles were a generation away and even then were mostly reserved for Sidney Poitier. I’ve also got to mention Pard the dog, played by Zero according to the credits. Sure he brought bad luck, but oh, so cute!
But what this movie is most remembered for is Humphrey Bogart. Relegated to supporting roles as heavies in the 30’s, this film is acknowledged as his breakout role, which led to the more heroic Bogart from The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca.
What’s interesting in High Sierra is that “Mad Dog” Earle represents a kind hybrid between phases of Bogart’s career. Earle is still a criminal, but he still exhibits a soft spot for cripples (his word), yappy dogs and wanting to do his heist by the book even after the man who hires him dies.
I wasn’t sure how to end this blog, so I’ll just type my opening again. “But the fix blew up and a screw put the blast on me.” I’m going to try to bring this line up in conversation whenever the opportunity arises.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
There are a couple of old-timer movie critics on Youtube called the Reel Geezers. Every once in a while I feel the need to make a geezer like observation myself, such as “Movies used to have greater special effects in the old days. It was called a viewer's imagination!”
Take that Transformers!
I remember as a kid watching Harvey, waiting for Elwood Dowd’s imaginary pooka/rabbit to appear. It did through the actions of the actors, though it wasn't necessary (or advisable) for there to be someone there in giant bunny suit.
Take that Howard the Duck!
The play by Mary Chase has had a lot of staying power and can still be seen on stage from time to time, even after 60 plus years. The story of a boyish man in his 40’s who decides “In this world you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant." Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.” Well the Peter Pan syndrome certainly has a certian amount of appeal for me.
The film version is memorable, but does have flaws. Peggy Dow and Charles Drake are both pretty bland as the nurse and doctor that try to help Elwood and I’ve always found Jesse White one of the most annoying character actors in movies. Though this film does prove that Jesse (and many other character actors) seemed to be in his 60’s even when he was 30.
On the other hand, Josephine Hull is terrific as the exasperated Veta Louise and Jimmy Stewart gives one of his best performances as Elwood Dowd. He really shows off a gift for being understated, an ability that many in his place couldn’t pull off.
I would never use the phrase feel-good movie, but…Okay just this once: It’s a feel good movie!
Take that Death of a Salesman! (You see Death of a Salesman is really depressing…oh, never mind.)
I just read that Robert Downey Jr. is going to be in Spielberg’s Harvey remake (Not Tom Hanks?) All I can say is, "Robert, you gotta make me see the Pooka. If you make me see the Pooka, the special effect will be greater than any in Iron Man!
Saturday, October 3, 2009
THE 400 BLOWS (1959, FRANCE)
The 400 Blows is certainly one of the most famous movies I have never seen. In fact, I’ve never seen a Francois Truffaut film before (Close Encounters of the Third Kind doesn’t count).
Well, now I have.
On the heals of seeing the first Italian Neo-Realism film Open City, it’s interesting to follow that with what is considered the first of the French New Wave films. The former film dealt with literal survival in wartime and the latter film dealt with a different kind of survival, a troubled boy’s dealings with indifferent parents, mean-spirited teachers and a society where the deck is stacked against him.
The 400 Blows left me a little cold at first, but it started to grow on me as it progressed. Antoine’s solo interview with a psychologist/social worker was very moving and the final freeze frame of Antoine’s face is truly an iconic shot that will stay with you. (I have to assume, I only finished watching it 10 minutes ago.)
Truffaut was one of the advocates of the auteur theory, which states (some say overstates) the director as the sole architect of a film. I don’t buy into that much, and you certainly don’t want to mention the auteur theory around writers like William Goldman or Harlan Ellison or they will get more than a little agitated.
I guess the opposite of a Neo-Realism film might be an Esther Williams swimming/musical extravaganza. The opposite of a French New Wave film might be a frothy Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedy. Just an observation.
The commentary on the DVD I saw by film historian Glen Kenny is also recommended. I have liked most commentaries by film historians, but I can’t recall ever really liking a film commentary by an actor. Just another observation.
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