Saturday, July 31, 2010
OK, a second day in a row on the ocean with the great Robert Shaw. Amanda took a class on the films of Steven Spielberg last year, and her professor said that after making Jaws, Spielberg wanted to make a pirate movie with Robert Shaw. It turned out that he was already making this pirate movie so Spielberg waited 15 more years and made Hook, part pirate part kids movie. If you have ever seen Hook, you know it is a great looking movie but it moves like an elephant and feels like a musical without the songs. A pirate movie needs to be lively, quick and have a great sense of adventure to it, for the most part this movie accomplishes those objectives.
Shaw looks great in his red outfit, swinging from the mast to rescue his buddy in the opening scene. His pirate partner is none other then Darth Vader himself, the terrific James Earl Jones. The movie opens with Jones about to be hung and his pirate buddies coming to the rescue and shooting their cannons at the whole fort. They didn't waste time setting this up, it is as if we stepped into the story as is is actually going along. The only thing wrong with the opening is that Beau Bridges is overplaying the comedic role and seems not to be in on the fun. You know it is a lighthearted movie when the military man after the pirates is called Major Folly. He reoccurs in several places and there is just the same sort of edge to his performance. It does not seem relaxed and confident, it comes across as shrill and a bit annoying. Other than that I have no complaints about the picture.
A couple of things I had always remembered from the movie were how Peter Boyle, the evil Governor of Jamaica was having his back waxed as he lays out one of his plots. I always thought it was a little disgusting, especially when we see the dirt in the wax cast pulled off of his back. The other item I remember, was that he had a lute playing boyfriend that he is in the tub with at one point. This guy had some long claws that he would put on to torture a victim, and they turned out to be his undoing in the end. Boyle seems like an odd choice to be playing this part, he has a very modern voice and his eyes are a little out of whack, so I'm not sure it is the best choice in the world, but he plays the part oozing menace to everyone around him. There is no charm in him as a villain but there is plenty of hate that we build up and we are ready to see him vanquished.
A couple of other casting notes, Angelica Huston is cast as the villains female love interest and she is billed as Woman of Dark Visage. She has no name and she also has no lines, same as the boyfriend. I thought it was interesting that opposite Shaw was Genvieve Bujold, who played Anne Boleyn in "Anne of a 1000 Days" for which she received an Academy Award nomination. Two years before her nomination, Shaw had been nominated for an Academy Award for playing Henry VIII in "A Man for All Seasons". So in a way they were cast together again in this film, although they actually were in different movies. Geoffry Holder, know as Baron Samedi in the James Bond film, "Live and Let Die" also appears as a knife throwing pirate. People of my generation will remember him from the Uncola ads for 7Up in the 1970's. He also has a terrific voice, and works a lot like James Earl Jones doing voice-work. It is great to see them on screen and together here.
Dee and I saw this movie in Cerritos, the year it came out. We had really just begun dating seriously, so it might be one of the first movies I ever took her to. I'm not sure if she liked it as well as I did, but if she did not, she has kept it hidden for a long time. Amanda is a Robert Shaw completist, so she is looking for all of his movies. We watched this a year or so ago when it came in the mail and she seemed to like it. Today she was a little distracted as we all are since Dee and I are leaving for Alaska and we have a lot to do. I wanted to get this one last blog post in before I take a week off. Amanda will be updating you for the next few days so enjoy.
Friday, July 30, 2010
After Jaws was a huge bestsellar, and after it became the biggest movie in history, the author Peter Benchley was hot, hot, hot. He wrote several more books that featured nautical themes. The most successful of his non-Jaws works was "The Deep". Film makers were quick to grab onto his concepts and turn them into commercial properties. I have never read any of his novels except Jaws. It is an OK book, but a much better movie. I have even told Amanda that she should not taint her movie crush on Jaws by reading the novel. The Deep on the other hand is not in the same class. It is a fine film but not on the same plane of existence as Jaws, although the makers of the film did everything they could to keep the idea of Jaws in the audience's head while promoting the movie.
Of course the first thing to exploit was the name of Peter Benchley as the author. You heard it mentioned in the trailer, radio ads, TV ads and on the poster. Speaking of the poster, it is a reversal of the original Jaws image, the struggling girl is under the water trying to reach the surface instead of being on the surface threatened by something under the water. Even the color palate of the poster is reminiscent of the earlier film. Finally, they may have killed off Quint in the 1975 classic, but they try to revive him in this movie. Robert Shaw returns, not as the same rough-hewn fisherman, but as a well know treasure hunter that also knows the ins and outs of the local criminal scene. He doesn't have the same colorful mannerisms, but he has all the testosterone that a movie like this needs. Nick Nolte should have been enough, but his character is young, eager and although skilled at physical challenges like climbing Mt. Everest, he lacks much direction. It takes an old salt like Treece to show the young guns how things really work.
The biggest asset in promoting the movie was probably not any of these things. The other star of the movie is Jacqueline Bisset, and she earns half of the movies take in the opening scene of the movie. She was and is one of the most beautiful women to ever appear in films. In this movie, she is diving and searching through the sunken ship in the first segment, wearing a white tee shirt and her diving gear. This is where the idea for wet tee shirt contests came from. She is not nude in the film, but is tantalizingly close to it and that image was on posters and in movie magazines, so you know that the male segment of the audience came looking for her. The movie business changes in the 1980's, teen films featuring topless actresses would become ubiquitous, but in 1977 unless you went to a grindhouse or a drive-in, you did not see this kind of image, and no one in any of those kinds of movies ever looked like Jacqueline Bisset.
This is a great summer movie for some very basic reasons. There is adventure in the treasure hunt, danger in the shipwreck and on the land, and a beautiful woman in jeopardy, that everyone wants to see succeed. The opening segment brings in the under sea danger and sets up the resolution of the movie very clearly. It is telegraphed but not in such a way that we don't care when it happens. There are two or three good fight scenes that are violent and in two of the situations events come out the way we would hope for our heroes. Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset are the eye candy, they are a bit stiff and shrill in their performances, but they are a good looking couple that the audience can identify with. Robert Shaw gets to match wits and acting talent with two well know scene stealers, Louis Gossett Jr. and Eli Wallach. Both of these pros bring exactly what is needed to the proceedings, a little bit of honest acting and some menace to ratchet up the tension. The music for The Deep was written by John Barry, a guy who did more James Bond films then either Sean Connery or Roger Moore. The score is effective but not obtrusive until the final credits, and then we get a disco tuned theme song. In the film as I looked at it today, we don't get a vocal performance, it may be somewhere in the background of the movie, but Donna Summer is credited with singing the title song. It is so out of place with the rest of the music it was a little startling. Maybe it would have fit if there had been some more Caribbean themed music in the movie.
For a summer evening in 1977, Dolores and I enjoyed this film at the Santa Anita Cinema. They were small theaters so when a moderately popular film played, the house was usually pretty full. The images of the film are what is memorable about it, the story is mostly boiler plate adventure stuff. It was well produced and competently directed, and best of all for the investors, it was sold properly. A couple of years later, Benchley's book "The Island" was made into another summer film, this one starring Michael Caine. He should apparently stay away from the ocean because,"The Island" ended Benchley's winning streak and Jaws the Revenge could have ended his. Better to remember the two summer films from Benchley that worked, including this effective but not classic thriller.
Thursday, July 29, 2010
This is the Rif. I am Mulay Ahmed Muhamed Raisuli the Magnificent, sherif of the Riffian Berbers. I am the true defender of the faithful and the blood of the prophet runs in me and I am but a servant of his will.
1975 was a fantastic year for movies. I have already written about the great Spielberg film of Jaws, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Bite the Bullet. Two of my favorite films of all time came out in 1975, both starred Sean Connery and both have a connection to the great John Huston. Huston directs Connery and Michael Caine in "The Man Who Would be King" which would not be released until December. In "The Wind and the Lion" however, John Huston is on screen as an actor, playing Secretary of State John Hay to Brian Keith's Theodore Roosevelt. This is our movie of the day posting for today, but it may be the Movie of the Week posting and maybe of the Summer. I have seen Jaws a hundred times and it is as I've said before, Spielberg's masterpiece. "The Wind and the Lion" may not be in the same league, but it is the most romantic, thrilling and emotionally evocative movie I have watched for this blog this summer. I have already said that I am a sucker for a swashbuckler movie. Errol Flynn in Robin Hood is my favorite film, but "The Wind and the Lion" came out in theaters when I was alive and going to movies. I did not experience it for the first time on Television, it did not exist before I was even born, instead, it burst forth the summer I graduated high school, it starred the man that made James Bond my favorite character and it features the music of my favorite film composer. This confluence of events is just too overwhelming for me to be dispassionate about. I have said before and my family will confirm, I am a romantic at heart. My throat closes tight at a romantic gesture, my eyes weal up in tears at heroic moments and I have to catch my breath at the beauty of certain images. All of these things happen in this movie.
When I wrote about seeing Jaws back on the fourth of July, I mentioned that Dan Hasegawa and I saw it without our friend Art Franz, because he was taking a girl out to another movie. This was the movie he took Laura Charca to see, before he went into the Army later that Summer. I saw this movie by myself, at the Alhambra Theater, probably in August of that summer. It took a while for it to make it's way out to our neighborhood. Art was trying to impress Laura, so I know he took her down to Hollywood to see this. My second year on the debate team at U.S.C., a guy from Fresno State transferred in, his name was Dave Cosloy. He actually was debate partners with Dan at the University of Utah tournament in January 1977. Rick Rollino and I were debating together at that point, and we all were staying at the home of one of the Utah debaters. I remember how cool it was when sitting in this house, surrounded by snow, getting ready to go to the tournament, Cosloy shouted out "I am Mulay Ahmed Muhamed Raisuli the Magnificent, sherif of the Riffian Berbers. I am the true defender of the faithful and the blood of the prophet runs in me and I am but a servant of his will." Another movie romantic was in our midst. Someone else shared my love of this movie, and he knew the quote and used it. I had never done that before, but I have many times since felt compelled to proclaim myself Raisuli.
There are historical and political overtones everywhere in this movie. So in addition to swordplay and horses and explosions, we get Theodore Roosevelt and the Big Stick Policy. The movie is based on an actual event involving a businessman being held for ransom by Berber pirates. The character is changed to a woman, which of course make the kidnapping and rescue romantic automatically. The goal is not mere ransom, but rather there are political objectives. And the two characters of the President of the U.S. and the Muslim sherif are contrasted as a way of seeing the change in world affairs and how each sees the adventure and romance being taken out of the conflicts and politics of the future. I apologize for another Jaws reference here but it is necessary. If Robert Shaw was robbed by not even being nominated for his role in Jaws, then Brian Keith was also mugged by the same bandits. He embodied the character of the American President so well, that even today, when I read biographies about Roosevelt, I can still hear Keith's voice. He has some incredible lines in the movie, that probably were never said by Teddy but should have been.Theodore Roosevelt:" The American grizzly is a symbol of the American character: strength, intelligence, ferocity. Maybe a little blind and reckless at times... but courageous beyond all doubt. And one other trait that goes with all previous.Loneliness. The American grizzly lives out his life alone. Indomitable, unconquered - but always alone. He has no real allies, only enemies, but none of them as great as he. The world will never love us. They respect us - they might even grow to fear us. But they will never love us, for we have too much audacity! And, we're a bit blind and reckless at times too.
The other stars of the film are also excellent. Sean Connery might seem an odd choice for the part of a desert dwelling Arab/Berber but the beard and the gleam in his eye work perfectly. The slap he gives Candice Bergen when they first meet is harsh, but we come to see that it has less to do with his personal ego and everything to do with the cultural standards of status in his world. At least he does not behead her as he does others that disrespect him. Candice Bergen is just proper and aloof enough to fit into the character of a woman of the time, but also sensitive enough to be romantically moved by a man that faces death to possess her, even if it is in a chaste way. Geoffrey Lewis, working without Clint this summer, was good casting as the American Ambassador, John Huston, with that magisterial voice comes across as the political voice of reason that understands what Roosevelt needs and also what he represents. Roosevelt is the American character at the turn of the twentieth century. Brash, confident, unwilling to acknowledge weakness but also recognizing the burdens we were assuming in the world, and sad that the world we would dominate will never be the one that we would most like it to be.
Jerry Goldsmith, was nominated 18 times for the Academy Award for his music. He won only once, for "The Omen" in 1976. The score for "The Wind and the Lion" may very well be his best. The timpani and horns are stirring and romantic. There are elements of two other scores of his in the film. In the battle scenes you can here the forerunner of his Klingon theme from the Star Trek film in 1979. And as Mrs. Pedecaris and her children are trying to escape, there are echos of the Planet of the Apes Theme he did a few years earlier. This is one of the pieces of music I have on my i-pod right now. The suite from the collection of music in this film is featured on the two disc Jerry Goldsmith collection that is available. Well worth listening to all by itself. There is a small taste included here.
I can't think of many ways to spend a better two hours than watching this movie. If you have the heart of a romantic and always wanted to be a hero in an adventure, you can identify with most of this movie. Even better than that, we have a real American Hero, portrayed warts and all in an indelible performance. So what are you waiting for?
To Theodore Roosevelt - you are like the Wind and I like the Lion. You form the Tempest. The sand stings my eyes and the Ground is parched. I roar in defiance but you do not hear. But between us there is a difference. I, like the lion, must remain in my place. While you like the wind will never know yours. - Mulay Hamid El Raisuli, Lord of the Riff, Sultan to the Berbers, Last of the Barbary Pirates.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Watching this movie today is a bit of a revelation. I remember it being a lot better than it actually is. There is a laziness about the film that probably made it charming at one time, but now it seems a bit belabored. There is a nice sense of time and place in the film, and it is entertaining enough if you are not very discriminating. Burt Reynolds was a huge star in the 1970's, he and Clint Eastwood changed back and forth the position of number one box office star several times in the decade. Clint's movies are designed to tell a story in a careful manner and they all hold up over time. Burt on the other hand, gets by with some smirking and car chases, he has a big success with it and then the movie ages poorly. This is the second of the Burt Reynold's films on my list for the blog. I have at least two more, this one was the most financially successful of the movies on the list.
This movie was the number two box office hit of 1977, losing the number one spot to that little space movie that opened pretty much the same week. It is hard to believe that the movie was so popular but I think it caught several things at exactly the right time. Burt Reynolds was a good actor who was becoming a big movie star and his personality was being included more and more in his movies. Sally Field was on the cusp of becoming a serious actress after having been a TV personality for several years. Two years after this she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in Norma Rae. The CB phenomena was at it's height when the movie came out. The year before, when we traveled across the country in my parents Chrysler Town and Country Station Wagon, my brother brought along his CB radio that he had been using for several months. In those days, there were no mobile phones and the idea of talking to someone else in another vehicle seemed powerful and adventuresome. There had been songs and stories about truckers and this movie capitalized on that trend. It would be another year before a big trucker based movie, Convoy, would come out so this movie had the market all to itself. Coors beer was not available in all of the states and it had been written about as a special luxury, sort of like Cuban cigars. I remember reading a story about Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, requesting a case of Coors for some function, in part because it was hard to come by in D.C. and it would make a big splash. Since it was in the news and it is the contraband that the two truckers are trying to move, it probably added to the publicity. This movie is a success primarily because of good timing.
I know there were people out there who were big fans of the movie. Some probably saw it as often as I saw Star Wars that summer. I thought it was OK, but it failed to live up to earlier car chase movies that I had loved. Bullet, The French Connection and the Seven Ups all had good sequences involving car chases, so they raised the standard without having to sustain it for two hours. Vanishing Point is the ultimate car chase movie and it was played seriously, not just for laughs. I had also seen Dirty Mary,Crazy Larry and to a lesser degree it works as a chase film, even though I hated the characters. I wanted to like the characters in this movie as much as I liked Kowalski in Vanishing Point. The problem is, this was a comedy and the characters are so underwritten that it is hard to care about what happens. I enjoyed Jackie Gleason in some other things, including his variety show in the 1960s, but here he was just loud and annoying. Mike Henry, who had played Tarzan in the movies during the 60s, is reduced to playing an ineffectual muscle head that is dominated by his overbearing father. It was just sad.
I'm pretty sure that Dee and I saw this at the General Cinema at the Santa Anita Mall. We saw movies there all the time when we were dating and up though the time the kids were about six or seven. It was convenient to go to a movie at the mall because you could shop afterward and get something to eat. The experience was obviously not something that sticks in my mind, today is probably the third time I have seen the movie all the way through including the first time in 1977. It still seems ephemeral to me, since there is largely no plot and the characters are just stereotypes. The two things that I do remember from the film each time I see it are the bridge stunt with the Trans Am flying through the air and Jerry Reed, running over all the motorcycles after having fought the bikers in the diner. It was a scene based on a joke I had heard many years before and I thought it fit right in with the rest of the nonsense in this movie.
My buddy Jon Cassanelli acquired a black Trans Am, the summer this movie came out. I don't know why it never occurred to me before, but this movie was probably a big reason for him getting that car. I'll bet that Trans Am sales were up all over the place after this movie came out. That may be Smokey and the Bandits biggest legacy, providing one last kick for the muscle car market before gas prices started scaring everyone away from those types of guzzlers. So have a Coors, drive in your Trans Am, and wish your girlfriend was as cute as a button like Sally Field, but you should recognize that even Burt Reynolds doesn't have enough charm to keep this lifestyle fresh.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
The greatest adventure film ever made, with one of the best casts that is imaginable is the predecessor to this movie. The original Jaws is Steven Spielberg's masterpiece, everything he has done since is an attempt to reach the same heights of personal success and movie history glory. Sure he has made dozens of films since then, and won honors and accolades for most of them. There is popular and critical success in everything he does, but Jaws will be the movie he is remembered for. Jaws is the movie that scholars, critics and fans continue to write about thirty-five years after it's release. There is nothing to compare to it, which means that today's movie has an impossible task. You cannot fall in love for the first time on a second occasion. You can try to relive the moment, but it is never the same. I think Spielberg knows this and that's why he stayed away from the subsequent films in this series. Indiana Jones is a continuing story, but you can't kill Quint more than once.
Everyone in 1978 was looking forward to this movie despite the lack of Mr. Spielberg at the helm. The first movie was still in everybody's head and the energy from the movie hung in the air like electricity waiting for Ben Franklin to get out his key and try to capture it. The director for this movie was a TV director who had made one feature film before this, a horror film called Bug. It is on the list for the project, although I do not have a copy of it and I am running a bit low on time, we'll see. Anyway,he made a few other features including the beloved "Somewhere in Time", but he has never had the success he would expect from this movie again. He is still directing TV programs on a regular basis. Universal seems to have gone to their bullpen for a good relief pitcher and they got a solid inning out of him. Not one that would make him a star, but one that held the lead and advanced the team to the next inning. Of course it was a no win scenario, you can't top perfection. So what is it that Jeannot Szwarc managed to produce.
Jaws 2 is the movie that the first film would have been if two things had happened. If the mechanical shark had actually worked consistently, then we would have seen it early on and often, not just at the climax. This is what you get in Jaws 2, after the opening segment with two divers checking out the wreck of the Orca, we see the shark in every attack. Long shots, medium and close ups are used in all the subsequent attacks. Sometimes there are some good solid set ups, but they can't create the suspense that the first film was forced to improvise because of the lack of an actual shark to show. The other thing that would have made this version the original movie, would be the absence of Spielberg. The performances that he got out of the actors in the first movie, the small pieces of humor and imagination are missing here. Jaws 2 is a straightforward action thriller. There are some attempts to add drama to the mix, but they mostly lead to dead ends. For instance, the segment where Brody is fired, lasts just a couple of minutes before he is back in action, on a boat and off to save the day despite not being the Chief anymore. So what is the point of him losing his job?; it is to fill in time until we can get back to the shark attacks. In the original, everything happens for a reason, it builds character and makes motives relevant in the final resolution of the story. In this movie, we know the characters for the most part. They are cardboard figures that exist to move us to the next action sequence, or to try and give us a reason to care about the events that are coming. It is pretty standard stuff and works fine here, but it does not elevate the film-making.
We are set up for this movie with one of the greatest ad lines in the history of movies. The tagline is on a par with the tag for "Alien"..."In space, no one can hear you scream." The teaser poster for this movie put it plainly,..."Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water." The original really did keep people out of the ocean. Amanda to this day is not a fan of the beach for this very reason. It took twenty-two years to come up with a sequel to Psycho, but no one remembers much about it, in part because the memory of being afraid to shower was lost in the intervening years. The producer's of the Jaws films, did not make that mistake. They struck while the iron was hot, and as far as the fear factor, it works pretty well. There is a great sequence in the movie where the shark is stalking a water skier. We get some good looks at the fin, and some better point of view shots from under the water. The climax of the scene works not because of the close up of the shark attack on the boat, but because of the confusion and panic of the boat driver. In a similar vein, at the end of the movie, when all the kids are stranded on the boats, it is not the horror of undetectable death that holds us, it is the wild notion of what would happen if a shark attacked a helicopter? Brody's final showdown with the shark lacks any suspense, but the execution of the idea is pretty satisfying. Thus, this movie works fine, but it is just another action film.
Dolores and I saw this movie on opening day at the multiplex in the Cerritos shopping center. There was a long line and most people were anxious to know what was going to happen. I can say we were satisfied but not wowed. I thought it was a tight film that got to the action beats the audience expected without too much mucking around. I did appreciate that the kids in the picture were not overwritten. They are just teenagers, having summer fun and trying to figure their lives out. It looked at one point like a love story might be in the offing, and the Mayor's son is set up as a bit of a prick, but it never turns into a bully cliche, or a sappy romance. The Mayor's son turns out to be a pretty decent guy like all of the kids. If this movie were going to be lengthened, and you were going to attempt to add the same kinds of layers that the first movie had, the kids would have been the place to try it. I think they were smart to stay out of that pond and stick to the action. I suggest that you stay away from the other films in the series completely. Jaws 3-D was a gimmick film that suffered from the problem that most 3-D films in the 80's suffered from, not enough light. You have two or three good 3-D shots but the movie is so dark that even on shore in the sunshine it seems dim. And speaking of dim, Jaws the Revenge is just stupid. See Jaws 2 if you must, but remember, You can't fall in love for the first time again.
A Little Something Extra found on August 10, 2010
Monday, July 26, 2010
Here is a movie about a left wing community organizer, that takes up the cause of running for a U.S. Senate seat. He doesn't really know what he is doing, he moves his public speeches and pronouncements to the center of the political spectrum, he abandons causes that he first stated were his reasons for running, and he gains ground by being effective as a public speaker. At one point a very telling incident occurs. He is on a plane with his political advisers, and he says, "You know what I'm going to do when this is all over?" and his main adviser responds, "Learn something about economics?" Ladies and Gentlemen, guess who is running the country. It might as well be Robert Redford's character in this movie. There are some other eerie parallels in the film as well. Two years before Jerry Brown was elected Governor, this movie came out, featuring a activist lawyer, who is the son of a previous Democratic Governor, choosing to run for higher office without much idea of what he was getting into. I had heard at one point that this was a movie actually based on the political campaign of John Tunney, who was California's Senator from 1971-1977. If true, the appearance of this film may have had something to do with his serving a single term.
Michael Richie, the director of this movie, used an interesting approach to get the footage he needed. He basically had the film crew run a campaign along with political operatives, that put Redford in scenes with real people at rally's and speaking events. There is a sequence at the Democratic State Convention (it must have been 1971), where prominent political figures of the day were featured. They appear as background in the movie, making them the most exclusive set of unpaid extras ever. I don't know how they got around union rules on this but it added an aura of authenticity to the film. Peter Boyle plays the political adviser who is really just interested in a job and pulls Redford's character into the race. The writer's get away without having to deal with a primary fight on the Democratic side by portraying the incumbent Republican Senator, as a polished smooth political natural who has no chance of losing, so no one else was anxious to get into the campaign. If you listen to the Republican candidate early in the film, you hear many of the same themes that drive the Republican political, philosophy today. He is for personal responsibility instead of government paternalism, he opposes abortion on moral grounds, and he sounds like he is a fiscal conservative. In fact, it was hard for me to see what was so annoying to the makers of the film. There is one scene that seems to push Redford's character into running. He goes to see the Senator at a campaign stop and the Senator after speaking to several well wishers and being surrounded by others, pretends to know Redford when he shakes his hand and asks if the Senator remembers him. Wow, what a phony, and this is Redford's tipping point. Of course later in the film, candidate Redford has to do some of the same things, he blows off an odd guy at a walking tour in Watts, who keeps asking him what he thinks of the guys dog. Wow, what a phony, he smiles and looks away while someone else handles the oddball. Of course I don't know that the film makers recognize the hypocrisy of their candidate.
This movie was released in 1972, during the Presidential election that I volunteered on for nearly nine months. I was a political junkie and this movie was like heroin to me. It gave me a high on the inside knowledge I was getting at the time from participating in the election and seeing the film. By the way I was fourteen at the time, I hated the politics of the movie candidate but I loved watching it all work. I know I went to see this movie at least twice that year. It is interesting that I saw it at the Garfield theater in Alhambra, because, two doors down from the theater was the election headquarters that I went to to volunteer. I did precinct canvasing, and made phone calls looking for support and then leads for others to call back on for donations. We painted posters for campaign rallies and went to several political presentations. The stuff that went on in "The Candidate" was several steps above my level, but it all made a lot of sense. The campaign ads in the movie look a little primitive by today's standards, but you can watch them and see how the theme of the campaign was being honed.
The movie cheats on the resolution of the campaign. There is not much explanation of why Redford's character suddenly turns on the electorate. He stops saying the things he means, and sells himself the way other candidates do. The collapse of the Republican incumbent is never really explained, and the subtle edge he loses in the one TV debate they have is really only likely to change the minds of people watching the movie, not real voters. There are some insightful looks into underhanded campaign techniques, for instance, to insure there is a crowd for a parade for the candidate in San Francisco, the campaign manages to have some cars break down and back up traffic so that the area will be packed. The candidate appears to have a casual fling with a supporter, it is hinted at in a pretty direct way, but no one ever discusses it and his wife is allowed to go on supporting him in her ignorance (John Edwards please step forward). The focus of the campaign becomes Change for "A Better Way" and a youthful Redford is cast against the image of the older Senator. The voters are shown but none ever articulates a reason that the newcomer is working for them. The candidate himself, mutters the usual liberal platitudes, they are presented well, but there is nothing compelling about any of the issues. In fact, his crime policy was created just to have a response in the debate on TV. He has to be told what it is. It is a little frighting to think that some sharp political operative could take a little know entity, turn him into a Senator, and then put him into a position where he could be President of the U.S. (Which is strongly hinted at by the playing of "Hail to the Chief" over the credits). Gee, I wonder why that is so scary?
Peter Boyle's character seems like a template for the character of Toby Zeigler on"the West Wing", right down to the beard and bald plate. The movie makes only one reference to fund raising, which seems like it misses a real chance to criticize the system. There are of course substantial differences in campaigns today compare to nearly forty years ago. News is not managed the same way, casual comments can become Youtube viral hits instantly, and nobody smokes in public places the way almost all of the background characters do in this show. Voters may be a little more sophisticated, but the issues are only slightly different. The one thing that has clearly not changed is the contempt that political figures on the left have for the average voter. They must be pandered to, turned against traditionally valid ways of living and trust that the smartest guy is better for them then the one who makes the most sense.
Sunday, July 25, 2010
Clint Eastwood or Sean Connery were the biggest male movie stars of the 1970's. As hard as it is for me to say because her politics drive me up the wall, Barbra Streisand was the biggest female star of the decade. She appeared in a number of films and most of them were big successes despite not being particularly good movies. "The Main Event" reunites her with the co-star of her best film of the decade, "What's Up Doc?", Ryan O'Neal was still a pretty successful star, despite not having appeared in a really financially successful film since "Paper Moon". He was a good looking actor, who played well against the fast talking, obnoxious style that Streisand adopted for many of her films. This movie was a financial success but an artistic success it was not. Dee and I went to see it one time, and I remember basically nothing of the film except the set up.
Streisand is a business woman who loses all of her money to an unscrupulous business manager. The only asset she can keep is the contract on a fighter who has not fought for four years and basically was being paid as a tax dodge. She has to get him back into the ring and turn her fiscal situation around. Of course romantic sparks are going to fly and there will be the inevitable complications. If people think that romantic comedies today are lazy at setting up emotions, and too pat in following the boy meets girls script pattern, they should take a look at this movie. By comparison, the movie "Leap Year" that came out earlier this year is a gem comparable to the classics of the 1930's. This movie is sold in the trailer and the poster as a throwback to the screwball comedies of the golden age of Hollywood. The fist collaboration between these two actors did reinvigorate the genre, but that movie had a script by Peter Bogdanovich and Buck Henry, sadly "The Main Event did not. This movie substitutes cute lines and mugging for the audience in the place of character and story. From the first moments that Barbara Streisand is on screen, you can catch her playing to the audience, delivering her lines in an over the top staccato, and making sure that her hind end is featured in a flattering manner in as many scenes as possible. Jon Peters, the movie producer that started out as her hairstylist and lover, must have had a thing for her butt, the way the director of this movie is forced to showcase it. Those of you who know why there is a mirror on the ceiling of the Lincoln bedroom in the White House know what our 16th President and Jon Peters have in common.
Earlier in the decade, Sylvester Stallone had revived the boxing picture and created one of the greatest love stories of all time. A couple of years later he repeated his success, mainly focusing on the boxing angle. This must have been the inspiration for this movie. It is another unfortunate comparison. Every boxing segment in this film looks terrible. No one would believe that Ryan O'Neal could box worth a darn. The guys he is set up to box with can't fight either. I am not an aficionado of the sweet science, but I know this movie had nothing to do with it. Barbara's character is so clueless, she reads advice out of books to O'Neal during the fights and ignores the referee and corner-man when directed to stay out of the ring. She is supposed to be a brilliant business woman one moment and a doofus the next. This does not work and it actually antagonized me right out of any sense of commitment to the story. There are a few nice romantic lines passed around but not enough for me to want these two to actually end up together. Amanda told me a few weeks ago, that her professor in the musicals class she took last year, disliked Streisand as an actress and Amanda said she herself thought she was bad in the movie scenes she saw her in. I was actually defending Streisand, but after seeing this, I have to agree. She excelled in "Funny Girl" because she could sing well and mug for the camera, which was perfect for the story of Comedienne Fanny Brice. Outside of that field she appears to be in over her head.
The theme song for the movie is on the other hand, very effective. I know I had that song in my head all summer long that year, it was on the radio constantly. The movie may have served as the longest video of a song ever made, but it came out three years before MTV and we had to pay to see it. This movie was not offensive, and there were enough bits that a couple out for a couple of hours on a date would be mildly entertained, but it was not really romantic. The theater that Dee and I saw it at was more romantic. I mentioned the Temple Theater in a earlier post, it was a stand alone neighborhood movie palace in San Gabriel. I remember a Greek motif on the facade and I think there were wall relief sculptures featuring Olympic events from the original games on the interior.After looking around for some info on this, I think I am confusing the interior of the El Rey Theater in Alhambra. Here is a description of the Temple, and a nice photo from a terrific site called Cinema Treasures.(The Temple's auditorium featured a wood-beamed, king post truss roof, which I've never seen in any other theater. In fact I don't know of any other theater quite like it in style, though it had some resemblance to Edwards' Tumbleweed Theater in El Monte, also designed by Lee- but the Tumbleweed was far more rustic.) I saw several films there over the years, most of which do not fit the criteria for the blog, I will mention that it is the site of the only movie experience I can ever remember walking out of. There was a documentary about sharks called Blue Water White Death, but it was much more boring than thrilling. Looking back, I could easily have traded that walkout experience for this movie and have been none the worse for wear.
Saturday, July 24, 2010
It might start sounding strange, after I have written about how the western was dying out in the 1970's, but this is the fifth or sixth western I have written about in this blog. That is nearly 10 percent of the movies I have covered so far. There are two or three more on the list as well, that I will try to get to before the Labor Day deadline I have made for this project. Apparently, the western did thrive in the seventies. Well no, there were still westerns, but not nearly the number that that there once were, and after John Wayne slowed down, Clint was the only person in Hollywood actively pursuing the genre. He made urban thrillers, and comedies and even war movies, but everyone remembers Clint as a cowboy.
This is a movie that he developed from his own company. The focus of the story is not a heroic lone gunman, rushing in to save the town, or a bank robber trying to outsmart the law and his fellow criminals. Unlike other Eastwood westerns, Josey Wales is a complete story about redemption of a man grievously wronged and seeking revenge. Josey Wales is a killer from the Civil War that has trouble laying down his weapons because he has vengeance and bitterness in his heart. He is pursued in an unjust manner, and he does not back down. Although he is strategically retreating through most of the movie, there is no doubt that he is simply biding his time till he can strike back. It is only through his escape and retreat, that he learns how the war has ruined everyone. He meets reprehensible men that want to kill him for money, bigots that need to overcome their provincial ways to find peace, and Indians that are as different from each other as any person can be from another.
Clint is the star and the director, so it is interesting how much of the film really allows others to shine. Sam Bottoms is very good in the opening third of the movie as a young member of the guerrilla band of Confederates that Josy Wales rides with. He is replaced as Clint's companion by Chief Dan George as an old Indian who is of the civilized tribes and has lost some of the Indian stealth as a consequence. He has the best lines in the movie and conveys the heart of the ideas that the story is about. He is also a bit like Jimminy Cricket, guiding Josey back from the edge where he really cares about nothing. In the last third of the picture, two women he rescues and a group of townspeople in a dying boom-town, become the main voices and story engines. Wales' problems are following him continuously and these other lost souls form a group that helps him find his humanity again.
All that being said, don't get the idea this is a talkie picture, there is plenty of action. Our hero finds ways to get out of scraps without a fight a couple of times, but is death on a horse in many situations. There are dozens of Redleg irregular army dead and and there are bounty hunters and commancheros littered across the west after they tried to tangle with Josey Wales. In all of these encounters, he is not a mindless killer, he frequently looks for another way out, he had not yet become irredeemable. He could easily slip over into "bad" guy, but his humanity was strong initially and the fellow travelers after the end of the war, pull him back. He single-handedly saves some Kansas Jayhawks by brutally turning into a whirlwind of death in a nice action piece. My favorite scene though, is not one of the gunfights but his bold and ultimately peaceful rescue of some townsfolk from a threatening Indian attack. The two ranch hands that he recovers were buried up to their necks, and the small family he was nurturing was outnumbered by the tribe. The dialogue he exchanges with Ten Bears, the chief of the raiding tribe is excellent. It is Clint being low key and lethal at the same time. Ten Bears is played by Will Sampson, who was in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest the year before. They utter the words that everyone who has gone through wars and lost something believe. It is the hope that people could live together. This is the moment that Josey Wales recovers his soul.
I don't remember who I saw the movie with. It might have been my friend Dan. I am pretty sure that I saw it at the old Temple Theater on the corner of Rosemead and LaTunas. Not the four-plex that stood there from 1982 till just a couple of years ago, but the single screen local movie palace that was replaced by the multi-plex.
It was a beautiful old theater, and it was one of the theaters that Art worked at in High School, changing the marquee each week. There is at least one other film on my list for the summer that I saw at that movie house, so we can revisit that experience more when we get to that movie. For now, in 1976, the Western was alive in the hands of a master story teller and film-maker, Clint Eastwood.
Friday, July 23, 2010
Mel Brooks started the trend of parody films with Blazing Saddles, comedy westerns had been made before but his was a tribute/poke in the eye to the movies of the past. His masterpiece was Young Frankenstein, that movie featured Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman. Both of these brilliant comedic actors made their own film parody movies in the next few years. If this was a type of humor that you enjoyed, then the 1970s is a time you would have loved. Not all of the movies are remembered with the same degree of fondness however. For every High Anxiety or Young Frankenstein, there is a Last Remake of Beau Geste. It is not a bad film, as a matter of fact, there are a number of extremely funny elements to the movie, is is merely that for whatever reason the movie has not had a long standing audience.
I originally saw this movie in 1977, at the Crest Theater in Westwood California. For a Trojan like myself, a visit to Westwood was always a bit iffy. I can't say that I was jealous, but I was resentful that to see some films, I had to schlep myself over to the land of the enemy and travel under the radar. It wasn't really that bad. Westwood in those days was a happening. It was where the newest restaurants were and where movies would open first before making their way out to the suburbs where I lived. It is next to Beverly Hills and Brentwood, and has the UCLA campus as it's hat. It was perfectly understandable why the beautiful people would not want to come to South Central to see a movie or have dinner. At least until the 1980s, when some gang shooting broke out in the Westwood area and ended the monopoly on upscale night time street life in Southern California. Today, people travel to LA Live in Downtown, Old Town in Pasadena, and several spots in Hollywood and Santa Monica to get this type of experience. Anyway, that is why I can vividly remember seeing the picture there. Dolores was with me and I think Dan Hasegawa went with us. Art was in the Army at this point and missed most of that summer with us.
The movie may have little resonance with audiences because the genre of film that was being parodied had not really survived the first golden age of Hollywood. Desert pictures were old school, Valentino went out in the twenties and the Gary Cooper picture this is mostly modeled after is from 1939. There was actually a straight picture made about the Foreign Legion that year called March or Die, it stars my favorite actor Gene Hackman. To show you how dead the genre was, I have never seen it despite my man crush on Mr. Hackman. It was a big flop that year. Having seen the Last Remake, I now think I should seek it out and add it to my collection. We enjoyed the movie while we were there in the theater, but I don't think I gave it another thought until I saw the original Beau Geste a dozen years or so ago. Brian Donlevy played the sadistic Sgt. in the original, Peter Ustinov is the Sgt. in the parody. While I liked a lot of the jokes based on the alternating false legs that the character kept putting on, it was no substitute for the sneering threat of Donlevy when he utters the line "I promise you...".
There is a nice scene in this movie where Marty Feldman actually appears in the original Beau Geste and he and Gary Cooper share a cigarette and trade lines with each other. I wonder if this is the inspiration for "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid", which came out about five years later. Maybe this type of thing was done in earlier films, but it looks to me that Woody Allen's Zelig and Robert Zemekis Forrest Gump, both owe something to the lunacy of Marty Feldman. There are dozens of other bits in the movie as well that work pretty well. The courtroom scene where the judge played by Hugh Griffin from Ben Hur, allows the audience and jurors to keep biding up the sentence to be given to Digby is really funny. Digby's escape from prison is done as a black and white silent style picture montage and it is also very effective. This movie had some great songs in it as well. John Morris, who did the Mel Brooks movies, provides some funny lyrics for the desert march that the legionaries sing in a couple of segments. Plenty to laugh at if you remember the times and don't get too offended by a casual attitude toward sexual assault.
There are many stars from the time in the movie. Of course Marty Feldman was big after the success of Young Frankenstein, but Ann Margret would be the equivalent of having an Angelina Jolie in your movie today. Trevor Howard, Hugh Griffin, and Peter Ustinov are all established actors if not quite movie stars, and there are several other well known faces in the cast as well. Michael York was in so many movies that I remember from the seventies that it is strange he seems to have slipped off the radar in the eighties. I know he kept working but he was never in a series of high profile movies like that again. He was in Cabaret, The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, Murder on the Orient Express, and Logan' Run in a four year period. The summer this movie came out he was also in the Island of Dr. Moreau. James Earl Jones has a part in this movie as well, although it is understandable how that other movie he was featured in during the summer of 1977 would overshadow this. I had to purchase this from Universal's vault series, it has not had a regular DVD release and is custom published by the studio. This is another reason I know it lacks the same following as some of the other comedies of the time. For a movie that I did not remember very well, there is actually a lot that is memorable.
Thursday, July 22, 2010
This is the first time I have done a sequel back to back with the original for the summer film blog. Doing so both strengthens the film and weakens it. This movie sequel came out in 1978, two years after the very successful predecessor. In those days, there was not a video store to go to if you wanted to catch up or remind yourself what had happened in the first film. It is doubtful that the original had yet been on network TV and very few people had cable programming in 1978 that might have allowed them to see the first film again, immediately before the second. With easy access these days, an immediate comparison is inevitable. Let me start by pointing out a few things that make the sequel work well by viewing it so quickly.
We know immediately what the background is, and the opening scene featuring the burial of the archeologist/exorcist Pogenhagen, makes a lot more sense. We quickly establish the ominous circumstances without having to rely on a bunch of flashbacks or exposition. The quality of the production appears to be up to snuff so that should belay any worries the audience has about this project being cheap schlock made just to drain a couple of more dollars from our pockets. It is actually expensive schlock, featuring another older distinguished Academy Award winning actor, a stronger female lead and a bigger cast. Also, we immediately notice that the music is very much in the style of the first film and once again composed by the great Jerry Goldsmith. His score here is no match for the original, but that is in keeping with the rest of the movie as well. It is all polished, and professional but lacks the sinister foreboding the original provided. This may be because the story makes some big character jumps and focuses on the grotesque deaths rather than the suspense or horror elements leading up to those deaths. The drawbacks of the movie are more obvious watching it a day after the original. We didn't always know what was coming in the first film because we are discovering the true nature of the evil faced by the protagonists as they are becoming aware of it. Here we already know what's going on and we are waiting for what is going to happen, not why is it happening or what does it all mean.
In the original story, there is one apostle of Satan in the wings, waiting to protect little Damien. She is frightening in attitude and appearance from the first time we encounter her. In Damien: Omen II, he is surrounded by evil supporters, anxious to protect him and set up his future empire. They usually have the sinister look of an accountant. The only one that might spark a little anxiety in the audience is a military school officer, played by Lance Henrickson, that is just not given enough to do. All of the people that might stand in the way of Damien or hurt him in some way are knocked down like bowling pins, without much character or suspense. Crows substitute for hellhounds in this movie. A raven, even one pecking at the face of a hapless victim, is just not as intimidating or frightening as a slobbering Rottweiler. Basically all this movie has going for it are the death scenarios, some of them are very clever but not startling or surprising. The death of the photographer in "The Omen" was sudden and there had been some set up of the threat earlier in the movie. Here we just see invisible mechanisms start the process of the next victims doom and we hope for a money shot. We are rewarded with three strong death images, two sudden and visually shocking. The third one is haunting in showing a man drown under the ice of a frozen river as men and boys try to follow his trek through the currents and fail to reach him despite the fact that he is merely inches away under the ice. Most movie horror fans of today will find the shocks here mild compared to the visceral dismemberment in movies like "Saw" that are so prevalent today. In 1978, the segments in Damien were state of the art. They got the effect without the drama to go with it.
For many years the standard business model for Hollywood when it came to sequels was simple. The follow up films did half the business of the original, so be careful in investing too much time and money. Each subsequent follow up was expected to drop off another third to fifty percent. There were occasional exceptions but the Omen series followed the pattern. This movie was a success but not the kind of success that you could milk for good. I would have to look at it again, but my recall of Omen III is that there was a big drop off in quality and production value. I don't think it had the same producers and I know it did not have the same financial success. I saw Omen II, with Dolores and Jon Cassanelli on it's opening day, at a theater on Hollywood Blvd., I think it was the Vogue. I saw Omen III by myself, as part of a double feature at the Alhambra Theater, well after it had opened.
The makers of this movie hit many of the right notes for a film of this type but there are a lot of clunkers along the way. Too often, someone that has key information that could alert Uncle Richard to the danger, is written poorly and then played shrilly by the performer. Aunt Marion comes across as senile with her manipulative attempt to drive a wedge between the two boys and their family. The journalist that is supposed to be the sister of David Warner from the first movie, seems like a lunatic from the first moment she shows up. The museum curator, who is friends with the family is not speaking like a reasoned professional to his boss and friend, but like a scared little rabbit. Damien accepts much too quickly the mantle of Anti-Christ and never confides in his closest friend, his cousin, until it is time for the cousin to be out of the picture. I don't think this is a bad movie, it is an OK shocker, but that is all. I read that William Holden turned down the part in the original making way for Gregory Peck, but after the success of the first picture was glad to come on board for the sequel. That's actually the second time he takes the wrong train in these movies.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
This was a series of movies that actually made sense to develop. There is a pattern implied by the concept that should draw us in. Once the first movie is done, it makes perfect sense that there would be followups. The first two films both opened in summer, and I saw both of them with at least one of the same people. So I have decided that for something different in the blog, I will post about the first movie today and make the sequel the subject of tomorrow's movie a day posting. The third movie falls out of the parameters of the blog and I never saw the fourth. So tonight let us proceed with "The Omen".
It is odd that Gregory Peck was past his prime as a movie star when I was seeing the movies I'm doing in this blog. I remember seeing him in movies as a kid and always thought of him as a relatively vital actor. By the time the seventies were on the down side, he was not really a box office draw. He was still a star but did not command the place in the food chain that he'd had in the 1960s. The Omen changed that. This was a big box office success. The next year he starred in MacArthur, portraying the famous and controversial general. Right at the end of the decade he did "The Boys From Brazil" another big box office hit, but by that point the star of the movies he was in was the concept. He added plenty but the studios were probably right in thinking it was the idea that was bringing people in. So although The Omen was a hit, five years later he began a slide from high profile movie star to elder statesmen of the film industry.
I do think he contributed a lot to the Omen, you need his dignity and gravitas to believe in a story about the spawn of Satan being groomed to take over the wealthy family name and pursue starting Armageddon. The movie is also helped by a slow build up with some strong sustained scenes as well as just the shock value. For instance, the sequence at the animal park begins innocuously enough, with Mom Lee Remick buying the little boy some ice cream. Something seems to disturb the giraffes, but it is not frightening, just a little creepy. By the time the baboons show up however, we are a ready for some bigger frights and they start coming. A lot of people seem to remember the creative deaths found in the series, and there are two or three in this first one, but it really is the second film that goes into high gear trying to juice us with unusual death scenarios. There are at least two big screams in the film, as well as another strong suspense scene set in a creepy Italian cemetery.
An earlier post mentioned my love of Jerry Goldsmith as a composer. He is the only celebrity I ever wrote a fan letter to. After I saw Gremlins in 1984, I had to let him know how much I admired his versatility and the compositions. The Omen is one of his masterpieces. He was nominated more then a dozen times for Academy Awards, this movie is his only win. The music is quite innovative, It uses chants and discordant combination of notes. I saw a video clip in which he mentioned how much Richard Donner the director of the Omen, admired the simplicity of the main theme from JAWS. Goldsmith acknowledges that one sequence he scored in the film tries to do the same thing as John Williams famous score. He succeeds admirably in the scene that builds up to Damien having a fit about going into a church.
The summer of 1976 was a busy one, but my freshman year at U.S.C. I made a pretty good friend in Jon Cassanelli. He would have a tough life after we got out of school, and the story of his death is a little too depressing to discuss here, but he was vital and energetic during our college years. He was dating his debate partner Gleam Davis that year, and I went with the two of them to see this movie at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. (As I think about it, it may have been a theater that was located where Ripley's Believe it or Not is now located,just a couple doors down from the Egyptian but I can't recall the name). The theater was packed and people ate this movie up. I especially remember how all the women screamed at the last shot of our smiling star. I later saw the film with Dee, and she pretty much had the same reaction. The Omen is a suspense style horror film, tomorrow, when we look at Omen Two, the suspense shifts quite a bit to graphic horror, but it is still plenty disturbing.
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Today is the 41st anniversary of one of mankind's greatest achievements. The desire to travel to space, to know what is out there to find what is next,took a giant step on July 20, 1969. Eight years later, the fantasy of space was realized in the most effective Science Fiction/Fantasy film of all time. I chose this day to watch and comment on Star Wars, as a tribute to all the American Heroes that took us to the Moon on the summer day in 1969. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are the names that people remember, but there were thousands of scientists, engineers, technicians and laborers that built the American Space program. To all of them I say a heartfelt thank you for inspiring the world. Film makers draw us in with imagination, you made reality more compelling then our imaginations.
Star Wars (A New Hope-as it was subsequently retitled) opened on May 25, 1977. Dolores and I had gone to a screening of an animated fantasy film called "Wizards" at Bovard Auditorium on the U.S.C. campus in early December of 1976. Before the film started there were a couple of trailers including the one you see above. I know many people in the theater that night had mixed reactions. Some laughed and thought it looked cheesy, some cheered as if it was a firework exploding in the sky above us. My heart soared with the phrase "The story of a boy, a girl, and a universe." When Luke and Leia swing across the chasm escaping their pursers, I knew this movie was for me. If you are not aware of it, my favorite movie is "The Adventures if Robin Hood" with Errol Flynn. I love a swashbuckler and Star Wars looked every inch the modern equivalent of a heroic adventure story, including sword-fights with lasers. This was the first we had heard of the movie, so we put it in our heads for the next Summer. There was not a lot of promotion of the film in the next five months. A couple of posters appeared, but no big stories in the papers, no guests showing up promoting on TV shows. I don't remember seeing an ad for the movie other then the trailer in movie theaters. I think the day the movie opened, it opened on a small number of screens. In the Los Angeles area, it was playing on only one screen. The one screen that really mattered in those days, Grauman's Chinese Theater.
I don't think it was on Dee's radar as much as it was on mine, and frankly, I had not focused on it much since that December evening. John DeBross was the Coach of the Trojan Debate team, a man I admired with all my heart and to this day still inspires me to be a good person. He and several other people from the team decided to go over to Hollywood on opening day and see the movie. I went with them because I desperately wanted to be part of the group and I did not have a lot in common with everyone else on the team. Movies, though, that was my domain, and I was deep in the mix. We got there for the second show of the day, bought tickets and walked right in. You read that right, without advance planning, on opening day, we went to see Star Wars and got right in. The theater was not even completely full. It was maybe two thirds to three quarters full. The phenomena that was about to take over popular culture for the next thirty years had not yet started. It felt like the breath one takes before diving off the high platform into a pool. A long intake of air that will be expelled with force but only after the surface of the water is broken. We sat about in the middle of the theater, a little more then halfway back. I don't remember everyone who went with our group but I do remember everything I felt for the next two hours.
The opening fanfare was loud, and thrilling. The title scrawl of story set up was exciting. Nothing prepared us for the opening shot of a space ship flying across the screen over the audience. It was a huge ship, a space vehicle that would be our escort into this new world, but we were wrong. That first ship is actually being pursued by an even larger ship, the bottom of which consumes the whole screen and moves slowly so that we can take in the immenseness. This is the first surprise in Star Wars, twenty seconds into the movie. There had never been anything like this, and if that was the start of the film guess what was coming. If you are reading this and you have never seen Star Wars in a big theater, I am afraid I have to pity you. A home screening on a big TV is OK but it will never match the sheer audacity of that opening and the impact that it had on the audience. Later on in the movie there are space battles and aliens and robots and heroes and villains, but for that one moment there is just your mind asking you what the hell am I about to see? Holy Criminey this is AWESOME!!!
The story of Star Wars is well known, and there are a hundred other moments that will stand out to different people. I have no intention of writing an analysis or criticism of the movie. Today I'm simply sharing an experience with you that really defined me as a person. That summer, was the year that Dolores and I bonded and were deeply in love enough to know that it was going to stick. We were between our sophomore and junior years in college. We lived in Southern California, the weather was great, we had enough money from working that we could enjoy our leisure time and we were in love. This movie exploded after that first day and for the rest of the summer, if you wanted to see Star Wars, you stood in line, usually for several hours. Friday nights for nearly the whole summer, we did just that. We made the trek down to Hollywood, bought tickets for whatever showing we could get into and waited in line. We held hands, necked, made jokes, and visited with friends and strangers. It was a magical summer.
I have been in theaters for screenings where audience reaction has been amazing, "The Dark Knight" at the midnight show was great. We saw Robocop at a sneak preview and at the end of the movie I thought the audience was going to tear the theater down, they loved it so much. Nothing has ever compared to the audience reaction the first few times I saw Star Wars. The roar of the crowd at the end was like a freight train careening down the tracks at a speed well above what was safe. The first five or six times we saw it, there were standing ovations, and for the rest of the summer there was continuous applause at the credits for the actors, the special effects, the music and every technical category you can think of. This was a movie that was for the most part critically well received, but nothing any critic could say would change the love the audience had for this movie. Late in the summer, I took my Mom, Dad and my brother Kirk, to see the movie , finally at another theater, the Fox Theaters in Century City. Those were showplace movie houses for the 20th Century Fox studio which was basically across the street. We watched the movie, sat in awe at then end, and then my Dad said something I would never have imagined would come from him. He said, "Let's stay and watch it again." I don't know if my brother has seen more then a dozen movies in theaters since then. I can only remember one other time that my parents wanted to to that. That night the four of us sat through Star Wars twice in a beautiful theater, with a gigantic screen and fantastic sound system. It is a great family memory for me.
Over the years there have been sequels, and prequels and I have always wanted to be a part of the experience. When we saw the trailer for the re-release of Star Wars in 1997, with our kids, you don't have to guess what happened. They knew the movies from home video, but back on the big screen, it was almost like reliving that feeling from the summer of 1977. The feeling of falling deeper in love with the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, the feeling of friendships and youth that make us older folks long for our younger days. And the feeling of falling in love with a film, that changed the way you saw the world.
Monday, July 19, 2010
(The Above is a Clip From the Movie, Not the Trailer)
This is an example of a film that you don't see much anymore. A small comedy featuring a straight story, based on a play. Today it would be turned into a musical, an animated film, or it would be "re-invented" for a different actor or time. This movie succeeds on three things really; the two lead actors, the whimsical story and a beautiful score. In the 1970s, Neil Simon plays were turned into movies like this on a regular basis; "Plaza Suite", "Same Time Next Year", "The Prisoner of Second Avenue". These were basically two person plays expanded into a movie format. "They Might Be Giants" would have been great to see on stage but I'm sure I would have missed the sequence near the end set in a grocery store. I suspect it was added to make this more of a movie. Those kinds of additions don't always work but in this movie it helped sustain the fantasy really well.
I have looked for this movie for several years. It was once available on VHS and DVD but those copies must have been rare. A used copy was being offered for $60 on Amazon. Even a VHS copy was selling for $40, and I could not give away VHS tapes at our yard sale a month ago. I secured my copy for the blog project by trolling the satellite channels we have coming into our TV. A number of movies have been obtained that way for me to talk about this summer. I will try to post a video cast for you, so you can hear a little bit more about this. Back to our current movie.
They Might Be Giants Features George C. Scott in his first theatrical film after winning and turning down the Academy Award for Patton. If you were to see these two movies back to back, you would understand how much he deserved the award. The two characters are very different in temperament and tone. There are a few grandiose moments in each movie, where the characters are acting out fantasy, but it is clear that although he is charming, Mr. Holmes in this movie is nuts. The story involves a respected Judge going off the deep end after the death of his wife. He loses all real connection to his past life and has assumed the persona of Sherlock Holmes. It would appear that he is doing this as a way of continuing his quest for a better world and for justice, but in a guise that avoids the reality of his loss. His brother is being blackmailed and wants him committed so that he can gain control of a sizable estate. There are some fun scenes where he performs deduction in the same manner as the fictional character. The psychiatrist that has been asked to examine him for the commitment process, is a woman (JoAnne Woodward) who happens to be Dr. Watson. In trying to help him she becomes caught up in his fantasy.
There are a ton of people in this movie that were in the early part of their careers. Rue McClanahan, who died just a few months ago plays his sister-in-law, Oliver Clark who played Mr. Hurd on the old Bob Newhart show is another patient. M.Emmet Walsh is a garbage man, Jack Gilford, nominated for best supporting actor two years later in Save the Tiger, is best remembered as the sad faced man from the Cracker Jack Commercials of the Time, here he is Holmes one true friend and it is revealed, an equally big romantic. I recognized James Tolkan as the blackmailer, from the Back to the Future movies, and future Academy Award winner from Amadeus, F.Murray Abraham plays an usher at a movie theater. The characters in the film are all lost in some way or another, and the shared fantasy of fighting Moriarty and pursuing justice brings them together and sustains them for at least a period of time. The movie has a strange but lovely story of romance between Holmes and Watson. The two stars play it straight and it feels real even though it is fantastic.
I have included for you at the bottom of this post, a video that features the main theme from the movie. It gives a very accurate reading of what the feel of the movie is. Warm with a bit of adventure and romance. I said before that the music was one of the strengths of the film, there is an invigorating march that accompanies the walk to the final confrontation with evil (Reality), and as Holmes and Watson are joined by various lost souls they have encountered throughout the story, the music builds. Their small army is ready to take on Giants if that is what they turn out to be. I saw this film at the Gold Cinema that I have mentioned before, but I remember it best from a TV screening I saw in the late 70s. Watching it today, I had only a vague recall of images and concepts. I was quite pleased to be able see it again as if I was seeing it for the first time. If any of you who know me are interested in seeing it, let me know, I can save you sixty bucks, because I'll bet you won't find this at Blockbuster.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
This movie came out twelve years after Psycho and repeated some of the horror from that film although it has a much different tone. The use of black and white in Psycho seems to me to make the film more stylized than Frenzy. The murders that occur are disturbing in both films but they seem more mundane and at the same time horrifying in Frenzy. Alfred Hitchcock was the greatest director of cinema thrillers ever. Horror was often a part of the work but he did not really make traditional horror films (although he might be credited as the father of the slasher film). As has often been said, he repeatedly made films about the wrong man in the wrong place being wrongly accused of a crime. When that man runs, the question becomes how will he clear himself or stop an additional crime?
We are given very sympathetic women in this film to fear for. Richard, the wrongly accused has an ex-wife that still cares for him and a casual girlfriend who is falling for him as the plot unfolds.Neither of the women are classic beauties,like Grace Kelly or Tippi Hedrren. They are nice looking English women that anyone in the audience can see are salt of the earth types. These are two of the links that point the finger of justice at our main character. Hitchcock's heroes are usually flawed; Janet Leigh was a thief, Jimmy Stewart was subject to heights, even Cary Grant drank too much in North by Northwest. One of the weaknesses of Frenzy is inherent in it's structure. Richard is the man we are asked to identify with, but he is an angry and bitter man. He drinks too much and becomes abusive of those that try to help him at various points. He needs to have a reputation for violence or a mean streak, to build police suspicion of him. This tendency to lash out though distances him from us as an audience, more than is probably wanted. At the end, when he breaks out of jail, he is not searching for exoneration like Richard Kimble, he is looking for vengeance on a truly evil figure that has put him in prison for the crimes he actually committed himself. This means that he is a lot less sympathetic and the suspense of whether he succeeds is undercut by that.
The first murder we see is extremely unpleasant. More recent films have gone even further in showing the viciousness and degradation and horror of a rape-murder, but in the confines of a mainstream picture from a big time director, this was really unusual. The close ups of the victim and the frenzied whining of the killer of the word "Lovely" as he assaults her is stomach churning for people with a moral conscience. It is needed to show the killer's depravity but also to spare us from having to witness it in subsequent murders. We will be haunted by those events later on. The second murder in fact is not really shown in any detail except in brief storyboard flashbacks. Instead of repeating a sequence that is harrowing, we see the victim innocently being lead into the apartment that she will not emerge from alive. Then the camera pulls slowly back, descends a narrow winding staircase and pulls out onto the street. An everyday street scene is taking place with produce being moved, shop girls going to lunch and business men walking to meetings. The camera pans up to the exterior window of the apartment we just left and we all know what horror is going on there while everyday people walk by unaware. A victim would be tortured just by knowing that outside the window and door are people that might have saved her if only they had known.
Previous Hitchcock films had touches of humor but none as morbid as those found here. There is a terrifically suspenseful sequence in which the killer tries to recover a clue from the body of one of his victims. He ends up wrestling with a body in rigor mortise in the back end of a truck full of potatoes. It is a sick little joke that makes the movie more tolerable, despite this grotesqueness. This terrible circumstance is happening to our villain and although the girl is dead she extracts a little bit of retribution on him. The detective following the murderer has several sequences of unappealing meals that he must somehow get through, while his wife plants doubts in his head about the suspect Scotland Yard is pursuing. These comedic sequences puncture the murder and aftermath at different times. The horrid meals she prepares mean that he is going to focus on something other than the food, and that is the guilt or lack thereof of our titular hero. The closing line of the film actually makes the story sound like a long set up for this punchline. So although it is a pretty violent film, it has more humor in it than many of Hitchcock's other works.
I remember this film from two distinct showings. Neither of the times I saw this in a theater were part of the original release of the movie. The first time I saw it was during the U.S.C. Summer debate workshop. The movie was screening late one afternoon in a large auditorium style classroom in Founders Hall. There was probably a fee to get in but I went in after the movie had started so no one bothered to charge me. This was the summer of 1973 so it was a year after the movie had been released. Later that same year or early in the next, I saw it as a second feature at the Gold Cinema in Alhambra. It might have been playing with one of the sequels to the Magnificent Seven, probably a cheap rental for the theater at that point because that would be an odd pairing. I was too young to have seen Psycho,or The Birds in theaters in the 1960's. So this was my first exposure to Hitchcock in a true theater setting. I also saw his last work,"Family Plot", at the same complex in the much larger Alhambra Theater just a few years later. It was not a summer release so it is not on my list for this project, but I will say that the tone of that movie is starkly different from "Frenzy". I'm just glad I got to see a couple of the great ones's films in a theater while he was still alive.