Monday, August 29, 2016

Lawrence of Arabia at the Cinerama Dome

I've written on Lawrence of Arabia on multiple occasions. There is also a Vlog post from a few years ago that you might find interesting. This film is awe inspiring. I first saw it in a truncated form on television. It was a pan and scan version, badly edited from one of the versions that had been circulating in the 70s which had been cut by distributors to shorten running times. The first time I saw it in it's complete form was in 1989 after the restoration by Robert Harris. I saw it in Century City with my father and I fell completely in love with it then. It was one of the first Criterion Laserdiscs I bought when that was still a thing.

We now make it a habit, just like with the movie "Jaws" to try to take advantage of every screening on a big screen in our area. It's been almost two years since we last got the chance, but a Sunday afternoon screening is early enough not to be discouraging to people who get up early to go to work. While the movie was not screened on film [it was a DLP projection] it still looks great up on a big screen and the Cinerama Dome has just such a screen. In fact it is a curved screen and at times the images almost look three dimensional.

If you are not familiar with the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, let's just say it is unique in construction and history. The original Cinerama films made using a three camera projection technique were the prime reason the theater was built. It uses the geodesic form created by Buckminster Fuller. The shapes actually fit together and support each other without a separate framing process.

The theater was scheduled to be torn down several years ago when a new complex was being built on the site. Preservationists and cinefiles from around the world reminded the Archlight Company of the legacy, and they found a way to keep the theater in place as part of their location. As a result, they frequently screen special film presentations of older movies that would benefit from such a unique venue. The sound system is superb and as I said, the screen gives the film a dynamic dimension that you will not get anywhere else.

The theater can accommodate more than 800 customers and today they came pretty close to that. While not every seat was filled, the house felt packed. One easy measure of that is to take a look at the concession stand for a single screen theater. Below is a little shot for you from when I was waiting to get a drink, just about a minute before the overture started. There are at least seven lines and most of them were ten deep.

 There is always something new to see in a film if you watch it differently each time. So many little touches in this today were obvious because of the sound and the screen. Prince Faisal's tent posts creating in the breeze when he first meets with Lawrence is a good example. Also spectacular is the way the sand blows across the feel of Lawrence as he wanders at night, contemplating how to deliver a miracle for the Arab cause.

I have no doubt that I will get the chance to post on this again, and maybe a fresh review will be called for. For the moment, this will simply remain a report on a great movie going experience.
I hope all of you will get a chance someday to see a great movie in one of the remaining historic theaters in Hollywood. It's not as old as some of the others but it certainly is different. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Don't Breathe

Hold on everyone, I know this film is highly rated on Rotten Tomatoes and it comes with a great pedigree. The trailer is absolutely smashing and that's what sold me on it. The film is solid, BUT,       I think it is getting a little over-hyped and that may contribute to a let down when you see the actual product. No one wants a great horror film to finish off the season any more than I do. "Don't Breathe" will provide some shocks, a lot of tension but no horror and at times it will have a very mixed message.

To begin with, the premise is that three young people are going to rob a blind Army Vet of his cash. Now you may have all kinds of empathy for the young lady in the group, her mother is the real horror show, but she is egging some of the others on to do this particular crime. The other character we are asked to empathize with is a spineless outsider who betrays the one close link he has to the community with his actions. The final member of the home invasion team is a mental midget reprobate whose idea of fun is to pee all over the homes of the people he rips off. Writer/Director Fede Alvarez has created a problem for himself, and the fact that he almost overcomes it is a credit to his effort, but in truth, we might very well want to do to these crooks ourselves, some of the things that happen in this film.

Obviously there is a twist or two in the story, or else there would be little suspense and no surprises. The less said about these the better for the film.  Once again, the mind set that we get here tries to place all the sympathy on the perps who get the tables turned on them, but as deranged and sick as some elements of the story might be, there is a mind coming up with a rationalization for what happens, compared to the simple greed motivation on the other side. This is not a justification, simply an observation of some of my own reactions.

There is a turning point in the film when it goes from credible to a bit over the top. I liked a couple of the twists and you can see how they make sense after the fact, but a lot of what occurs after a certain point comes down to "Unstoppable Boogeyman Syndrome". Such overused story telling turns diminish what creativity the film built up. Actress Jane Levy is a veteran of Alvarez's take on "Evil Dead", a film I thoroughly enjoyed. She does a good job and has a very traumatic scene in the last third that plays out really well. Stephan Lang as The Blind Man, is convincing both as victim and antagonist. For most of the film he is silent, but after one of the twists, he speaks and it takes a lot of the energy of the horror away. There were ways to present the exposition that would not have required him to break what to that point was a silent force to be feared.

So the movie starts with a good premise, undermines that premise with characters to root against, but still manages to be engaging and tense most of the time. The big twists are reasonable but the execution of the last act loses all the good will the film had built up for me. If you are not shouting a little bit at the very last payoff, you are too programmed to accept the preposterous as a part of film characters. I don't usually give scores or ratings because I think you might want to come to those conclusions without my preconceptions getting in the way. Because I have been so critical of what is a pretty good film, let me offer this guideline...B-. OK, now decide for yourself if the movie gets it wrong or I did.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Charles Bronson Film Festival: The Mechanic (1972)

[The above trailer is not the original but it is very effective at conveying a sense of what the film is so I chose it for this post.]

You could call this an action film, after all there is a motorcycle chase, a car chase, a bunch of shootouts and fistfights. The problem with that label however is that this is a 70s style action film, where more time and energy is spent building up the characters and the plot and less time is spent trying to show the sixteen different ways you can kick a guy in the face or twirl a handgun in the air and catch it and shoot it accurately. Charles Bronson laid the groundwork for the action stars to follow, but he did so by acting as a character, not just a puppet in a special effects shot.

All you have to do to see the difference between films from this period and those made now a days is watch the opening fifteen minutes of the movie. Without any dialogue, without knowing exactly what is going on, we learn all the essentials about the character Bronson plays, Arthur Bishop. First we can see that he is meticulous. Bishop walks through the scenes deliberately, he sets up a camera carefully, he takes dozens of photographs to examine at his leisure. Once he is home, he thinks, he plans and when he executes it is again with deliberation. Bishop is not a "cowboy" shooting his prey dead in the streets for a bounty, Bishop is an artist. His executions are designed to look like accidents and there will not be any way he will be connected to the death. This is terrific story telling but it doesn't provide an adrenaline rush. This is tension tat builds from anticipation. As the plan is playing out, we get to see exactly how patient Bishop is, we also know that he has discipline as he continuously strengthens his gnarly hands by repeatedly squeezing a ball of wax that he carries to pass the wait time this way.

The plot of the movie starts after this opening sequence. Bishop gets a call from an old family friend who has crossed a line with the criminal organization that Bishop's father once worked for. "Big Harry" (Keenan Wynn) wants Arthur to intervene on his behalf, even though he believes Arthur is not in the organization. It turns out that Harry has been given to Bishop as his next target. Bishop lives in a house off Mulholland  Drive in Los Angeles. It is a unique home with a large two story atrium filled with exotic plants. There is a swimming pool that is half in the house and half on the patio. There is also a wall of weapons on display with a cork board behind it on which he plans his jobs. He drinks fine wine, smokes a pipe and lounges in red silk pajamas. Arthur Bishop is a sensualist without any real human connections and that's what draws him to the spine of the story.

When he encounters a young man, much like himself, alienated from others with a strange sense of what is invigorating, he believes he has found an apprentice. Jan-Michael Vincent, a legitimate contender for stardom gone wrong status, plays the son of "Big Harry". He ingratiates himself with Bishop because he senses that there is something going on behind the man's stoic demeanor. Again, there is a long stretch of time without any action but the two characters are feeling each other out. We get more information about how isolated Bishop really is when he visits the now defunct and vanished "Marineland" and has an anxiety attack that mimics a coronary. His only human contact other than "Steve" the kid he is thinking about taking on, is a prostitute who has to invent elaborate romantic stories to satisfy him. I did especially like that Jill Ireland playing the girl has her apartment walls lined with old movie posters for films from the thirties, forties and fifties.

Now the story is full steam ahead. The two twisted men, who have been feeling each other out, go into an association that will have them working together. This is where there will be a variety of plot twists and complications that will cause the audience to wonder who really is in control of the situation. Bishop has always been cautious and thorough and he is passing these same skills onto a man who shares his value. It's not about the money, "It has to do with standing outside of it all, on your own."

I mentioned that there is a motorcycle chase. This happens out in the Newhall area of Southern California. This is the start of the last section of the film which does contain a lot more action. The nice thing about all the action is that you can follow it. There is a car chase on a highway on a mountainside in Italy, it looks like it could be the same road for the opening car scene in "Quantum of Solace". The difference is we always know which car we are following, where they are relative to one another and we can see the physical actions required to get the explosions, sharp turns and gunshots off.
This has always been my favorite Bronson starring vehicle. His performance is stronger in "Hard Times" but the character here is so very intriguing. The conflict that exists at the end of the film was more shocking than most twists in a standard action film, and that opening sequence just hooks you in. Bronson's shaggy hair, Fu Manchu mustache and craggy face are so unlike the looks of most film stars that you could never mistake a Charles Bronson film for one made by any of his contemporaries. Steve McQueen and Paul Newman were too pretty, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas were too long in the tooth at the time. Bronson was unique and his individuality shows itself best in this film.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Charles Bronson Film Festival: Death Wish

I don't know what I did, but the completed post for "Death Wish" disappeared this morning. I was trying to copy it over to the other site and BOOM it was gone. So now I have to do the best i can to recreate my original comments on this iconic Charles Bronson Film.

Charles Bronson had starred in some of the biggest action movies of the 1960s, including the "Magnificent Seven", "the Great Escape" and "The Dirty Dozen". He was an international box office star at the turn of the decade, but he had not reached those heights in the United States. His name may appear above the title, but he was not necessarily a draw...until this movie happened. His fourth film with Director Michael Winner, turned out to be the biggest hit of both their careers. While a blessing in some ways, it was also the start of a path that would narrow Bronson's options as an actor down the road. There were four sequels to this project, all of them ultimately made money but none of them had the impact of the original "Death Wish".

The movie was successful not simply because it was an effective exploitation film. It tapped into zeitgeist of the 1970s, crime in the big city. NYC was the poster child for violent criminals gone wild. Just a few years before, Clint Eastwood and company were accused of fascism and advocating vigilantism because of similar themes. While "Dirty Harry" is a classic of the era, when it comes to touching off controversy, it was nothing compared to this movie. Here is the last line of the New York Times Review from 1974 (Vincent Canby) "it's a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers."  The Variety said "Poisonous incitement to do-it-yourself law enforcement is the vulgar exploitation hook on which Death Wish is awkwardly hung." It returned seven times it's budget in the U.S. alone however. Clearly the public saw something here that stirred them. The answer was pretty straightforward, Charles Bronson was dealing out the justice that was so frequently denied to victims of crime in those days. They identified with Paul Kersey, a peaceful man who had actually been a conscientious objector in his war service, who had the most horrifying thing happen to his family and the cops were unable to do anything about it.

In an attempt to recover some sense of sanity, Kersey takes a project over from his architecture firm for a development in Arizona. The developer wants a design that is maybe less space effective but that preserves the sense of space a family might like to have. Stuart Margolin had appeared with Bronson in an earlier Micheal Winner Film, "The Stone Killer", there he was an mercenary working as a gangland assassin, but in this film he is an avuncular traditionalist who gives Kersey an opportunity to feel empowered. In Arizona they do some target shooting, but when he gets back to NY, Kersey discovers that the gift his new friend has sent back with him is a gun.The story however does not immediately turn Bronson into a stone cold killer. First he gets a taste of simple justice by defending himself with nothing more than a sock with a couple of rolls of quarters in it. When he fends off a mugger successfully, he gleefully swings his weapon around his apartment with enthusiasm. It is this first rush of control that pushes him toward carrying his new six shooter around at night. Kersey is not hunting the hoods who attacked his family, he is fighting back for all of us and it created an uproar in the film story as well as the real world.

The consequence of swift justice, in spite of it's illegal nature, is that muggers begin to second guess themselves. This has always been one of the arguments gun rights advocates have made, if everyone is disarmed, we are all potential victims, if anyone could be armed the criminal is more likely to be the victim.  In one of the few moments of humor in the film, a grandmother type tells a TV news crew how she was inspired by the vigilante and used a hatpin to fight off her attackers. It will amuse us but it frightens the police who see random acts of violence as likely to result in the name of just such vigilance.

One of the things that makes the story feel necessary to the audience is the fact that an average person is unlikely to get justice, after all the investigation of the crimes against Kersey's wife and daughter is going nowhere. The police though, turn a dogged detective loose on the vigilante, and the procedural in looking for that criminal seems very effective. Vincent Gardenia, in the same year that he was nominated for supporting actor in "Band the Drum Slowly", tackles the part of a cop who is given conflicting orders. He must find the vigilante but should do nothing that would harm the downward trend of violence that the vigilante has left in his wake.

Ochoa tumbles onto Kersey and plays a cat and mouse game with him as Kersy continues to rid the city of as much vermin as he can find. The violence quotient in the film is high and Bronson's character goes out of his way several times to find criminals that he can eliminate. In a scene on a New York Subway, that anticipates Bernie Goetz by 10 years, Kersey rides alone in a subway car, baiting a couple of thugs to attack him but he turns the tables on them dramatically.
This is one of those lines the film asks us to consider, if we deliberately make ourselves a target, are we justified in our actions? Of course the film's answer to this is a resounding "YES!" The audience knows who the bad guys are. The likelihood is that, today,  the film would also be targeted as racist because the actors cast as thugs are primarily from the usual ethic groups that get blamed for crime. In the 70s though, audience were less concerned about being culturally
sensitive and were instead freaking out that the violent crime rate had tripled. They needed a character they could identify with to help them feel empowered if only for an hour and a half.This movie fit the bill and Bronson's performance helps us make that identification. He reacts to his own violence the first time the way many of us would, by puking. Kersey is an early sufferer of PTSD and his way of coping is to act, even if it is not against the specific criminals responsible for his trauma.

Director Winner moves the action effectively and stages the final conflict between Kersy and the last set of thugs as if an old west shootout were in the offing. Some might get the feeling from the look of the movie that this was a cheap exploitation film, but if you compare the lighting, sets and atmosphere, you could easily confuse it  with one of Sidney Lumet's urban thrillers of the era. NYC is gritty and dangerous, there are places where you would not want to be on your own, and the movie conveys this very well. The dialogue exchange between Ocha and Kersey recalls an ultimatum given by a sheriff in the old west, another deliberate choice that works well and provides a little humor.

Jeff Goldbloom and Christopher Guest both have small roles in the film, very early in their careers. Charles Bronson would have his biggest success in America with this film and almost all of his obituaries probably started with a reference to this icon of 1970s cinema.  Intellectually, there are valid reasons to question the ethics the film sets forth, but most people living in fear of just walking out the front door did not want an intellectual debate on law and order. They wanted to feel safer. For the run time of this film, Charles Bronson made them feel that way.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Charles Bronson Film Festival Hard Times (1975)

When the Italians refer to you as "The Ugly One" and the French call you "The Holy Monster", you know you are not going to be cast as the romantic lead very often. Charles Bronson had a face that looked like a catchers mitt that was left out in the sun for a long time. His skin was tough, his mouth was small and his eyes narrow. As he got older the features deepened and gave him real character. Still he managed to be an effective love interest in several films with his wife actress Jill Ireland. In fact, she appears in four of the five films we are covering for this little festival. The romance was almost always a secondary part of the main story and that is the only slightly different with this movie.

This was the first movie directed by Walter Hill. He had screenplay credits for a number of films before he began directing, including the neo noir "Hickey and Boggs" and the Steve McQueen/Ali Macgraw thriller, "The Getaway". He would later go on to direct "The Warriors", "48 Hours" and "Streets of Fire" which was recently featured as the Movie of the Month on the Lambcast. This was a project that seemed destined to bring these two together. I read an interview with the great Strother Martin, where he complained a bit about how the movie was cut. Both his part and James Coburn's parts were trimmed by several sequences and he felt that the movie seemed like a program filler rather than something special. I don't know if the studio interfered, but Hill was one of the writers and as director he called the shots. In retrospect the movie is a excellent example of spare story telling and interesting characters. The side plots might have been worthy, but the focus always needed to be on Bronson's Chaney.

The title says it all, it's the depression, jobs are hard to come by and everyone is looking to make a buck. Bronson drops into town, a beautifully shot New Orleans, off a freight train with nothing more than six bucks in his pocket. It's been commented on in the notes on the DVD and on the IMDB page that Bronson has barely 500 words of dialogue in the film. If you watch the first five minutes you will know why. He simply does not need more. The character is laconic because he has little interest in other people or events. He is a loner and can indicate a lot of emotions with that punching bag face. Just watch the way he works the toothpick in his mouth while sitting at the counter of the diner. It moves along with his level of attention to different subjects.I've seen plenty of actors use props like cigarettes or food to make a point, Charlie just needs the tiny stick. In the bare-knuckled fights, the opponents usually are the ones with the big talk, Chaney let's his fists do the talking. There are two scenes where other characters come right out and ask if that's all he has to say about a subject, he doesn't even give them a one word answer.

Another reason that it is a good thing that Bronson has few lines is that Coburn has so many. His character is nick named "Speed" and it sounds like that is based on his conversation skills. "Speed" is the loser character of the piece. He is a small time operator who dreams of the big time but almost always blows it on bad choices, especially saying a few words too many. His collaboration with Chaney would seem to be a nice symmetrical match. This is the third film the two stars made together, they previously appeared in "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Great Escape" together. Coburn had moved to the front ranks of film stardom but was slipping a but by this time, Bronson was peaking. This was their last film together.

Strother Martin probably had a bit more right to be irked with some of the trims. There are no scenes in the film where he is doing the work that he is contracted for. Everything he does is in assessing Chaney before a fight, not treating cuts or bruises. In spite of that, he steals the movie in every scene he is in. His dialogue is the best in the script. He plays an opium addict, with a poetic streak a mile wide.
Chaney: Two years doesn't make a doctor.
Poe: Well, in my third year of studies a small black cloud appeared on campus; I left under it.
        Some are born to fail, others have it thrust upon them.

At the final fight, when Chaney has been manipulated  into fighting, Martin picks up a wrench and throws it through the second story window of an office to announce that they are ready to begin.

Actor Robert Tessier specialized in playing menacing tough guys on TV and in the movies in the 70s and 80s. He was an early example of a bald head being used as a symbol of intimidation in the movies. He was a dangerous convict in "The Longest Yard", a tough guardian angel in "The Deep" and he was the villain with his voice dubbed in "Breakheart Pass". He is Chaney's first real test as a fighter and their fight is one of the big action pieces of the film. It is shown from above, and then the crowds are shown at an angle looking up. It is a clever way to add to the staged fisticuffs that are going on in an abandoned factory. His role gives Bronson another chance to show how small acting touches can be so effective. Tessier smiles manically a couple of time during the fight, he even tries to intimidate with a backhanded compliment. Bronson remains mostly impassive, with only the mildest of smiles when he gets the upper hand. The absence of open emotion is the stronger personality in these scenes.

Another actor who works well as cast is Bruce Glover, maybe better known as the father of Crispin Glover these days. His face and voice convey a sadistic streak as the enforcer for a loan shark that "Speed" turns to for a bankroll.  His Mr. Wint in the James Bond film, "Diamonds are Forever" would be the closest character I have seen him play with this type of vigor.

Just as Bronson cuts off conversation with two other characters after they ask if that's all he has to say, he also initiates conversation with both of them the same way. He simply helps himself to a seat at their dining table. His come on to her in the diner is quiet and non-threatening. It is a little unusual for a guy who is supposed to be taking charge, but it is his confidence not his bluster that gets them connected. This is another great contrast with "Speed" who has to try to get in the last word every time and ends up looking like a fool.
There is a scene where he tries to impose a financial arrangement on Chaney but gets put in his place pretty quickly by Chaney simply standing up to leave. Another example in the script of less is more. "Speed " is all easy charm and smiles but it can't get him what he wants, Chaney is coiled silent tension, but even when he strikes it is in a non-flamboyant manner.

On top of the great script and the interesting characters in the movie, the film benefits from it's look. Depression era New Orleans must have been a bit of catnip to film makers. Bourbon Street has a classic look and many of the older buildings have not changed since the era. Steve McQueen starred in "The Cincinnati Kid" a poker movie set in the same period and the landmarks and factories sell the authenticity of the film. I watched it on a Twilight Time Blu Ray disc and the transfer is stunning. The opening scene where Bronson just jumps off of an arriving train looks beautiful and the rest of the movie follows.

If you are unfamiliar with Charles Bronson, and want to see the kind of actor he could be, outside of the vigilante films he ended up being ghettoized in, than "Hard Times" is a great place to start. The characters make the movie and the acting elevates it. It may not be my favorite Bronson film, but it is my favorite Bronson performance.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Charles Bronson Film Festival: Breakheart Pass

In the 1970s, the Western still appeared on the big screen but with much less frequency than it did at one time. The Duke made his last film in the same year this film came out. We also got Clint Eastwood in "The Outlaw Josey Wales" this year. The Charles Bronson film however might be the most unconventional Western Story in theaters this year; it is a amalgamation of 60's action sensibilities and Agatha Christie, set on a train in the old west. There are murders that are never solved and people pretending to be things they are not. In the middle of all of this is our featured star for this festival, kicking butts and taking names.

Alistair MacLean is a name synonymous with action films of the 60's. He authored World War II action novels and contemporary spy thrillers. Among his best know works are "The Guns of Navarone", "Where Eagles Dare" and "Ice Station Zebra" . This book was a western but is contains many of the same elements of his other stories, for instance there is a spy element to the movie, and a series of false identities and it climaxes with a dramatic action sequence. The movie is definitely a product of it's time. The pacing of the mystery is slow and deliberate and we get to know the plot only a little bit at a time. This is very different from today's thrillers which must contain some sort of action every five minutes or else someone will call it boring. Anyway a group of people are on a train, traveling to a remote military base for a variety of reasons. Bronson plays John Deakin, a wanted thief and killer, who has been caught by a U.S. Marshall and brought onto the train to transport him to justice. The train is supposed to be delivering medical supplies to the stricken fort, but things are not as they seem as the passengers and crew of the train are being murdered.

The movie is filled with actors from the period that were personal favorites of mine. The recently passed David Huddleston (most of you would know him as the title character of "The Big Lebowski") is a Doctor on a mercy mission. Richard Crenna, (best known as Rambo's commander) is the territorial governor and Bronson's wife, Jill Ireland, is his romantic partner. The Major in charge of the troops on the train is played by one of my all time favorites, Ed Lauter.  In the last half of the movie, he essentially becomes the co-star with Bronson. Although he is often cast a a military figure, I do think he was a little odd in the role, he seems like such a contemporary actor. I'm not sure why it was necessary but Robert Tessier, who was so ominous as a tough gut in "The Longest Yard" has all of his lines dubbed.

This is the Charles Bronson Festival, so lets talk about Bronson and his character. To start the film, he plays a bit ineffectual, as a ruse to get where he needs to be. This is where he needs the acting skills he has because Charles Bronson never seems ineffectual, he is always a man of action with a degree of certainty around him. As the story moves forward he does get a chance to deliver a few humorous lines, most of them to his rel life spouse Jill Ireland. As the mystery begins to unfold, he is more and more front and center to the action and the number of lines he has is reduced. There is an Agatha Christie style reveal at the climax that is reminiscent of so many drawing room mysteries.  It is never clear why the Marshall played by Ben Johnson gives him the run of the train once the killings begin, but there might be a dialogue scene that got cut for time somewhere.

This is not Bronson's best Western, that would be "Once Upon a Time in the West" from 1968. This is however very typical of the Bronson Westerns of the 70s, most of them had a high concept twist to them and there were comedic elements that he could handle which did not require any slapstick. This was the second film in a row, after "Breakout" that he made with veteran TV Director Tom Gries. It is an efficient story told simply and without affectation, in other words, it is right where Charles Bronson lived.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Charles Bronson Film Festival: Breakout (1975)

In between "Death Wish" the most influential starring vehicle of Bronson's career, and "Hard Times", the most accomplished performance in his career, came this movie, an exploitation picture based on a real event but sold as a fictional story [something that never happens these days]. The premise of "Breakout" is simple. Robert Duvall is an unjustly imprisoned American in Mexico. His detention has been arranged for by the company he worked for because he has information that would be damaging to them. His wife is trying to arrange an escape from the prison and she hires Bronson's character to carry it out.

Nick Colton is a somewhat shady bush pilot who is willing to run afoul of the law if necessary. Unlike the TV promo you see above, in the film, his price is not $250,000, it's actually $1200 at first. Bronson plays Nick as an almost comic character; he is full of bravado, bullshit and big ideas.  At first he doesn't realize what he got himself into and the initial attempt at escape fails. The second attempt involves Randy Quaid in drag, and you know that's not going to get it done. Finally he latches onto the idea that the film is based on, he will land a helicopter in the prison yard and lift the prisoner directly out of the fortress. Of course, he is not really a helicopter pilot and there are plenty of other complications.

Originally, the film was cast with Kris Kristofferson in the role but Bronson stepped in when he left the project. Robert Duvall was a successful actor but he was not yet the movie star he would become. Between 1972 and 1975 he made ten films that were not "the Godfather" including pulp material like "The Killer Elite", "The Outfit" and this film. As the imprisoned executive, slowly losing touch with himself and becoming physically weaker as each day passes, Duvall turns in a competent performance with one really memorable scene. When he attempts to bribe his way out of the prison, the ruse that is being used is that he will occupy the wooden casket of a fellow prisoner who had died. The captain of the prison knows this is happening and basically tortures the man by pretending to bury the casket while Duvall is in it.

After this plot fails, he basically turns the planning of an escape over to his wife. Unfortunately, someone she is close to leaks information to the company and subsequently each escape is thwarted. She does however need to communicate with her husband to keep him abreast of the plans she is making and that forces her to participate in the conjugal visitations the Mexican prison system allows. She is humiliated by the guards who search her and she discovers that her husband is slowly going mad. This puts even great pressure on her plans to succeed. Bronson's real life wife Jill Ireland plays Duvall's wife in this picture. In spite of the fact that she loves her husband, she has a slightly flirtatious relationship with Nick, he is clearly attracted to her but never makes any move.

The other female cast member is Sheree North. She was a ubiquitous presence on TV and the movies in the 1970s, usually playing a blousey woman caught up in some criminal activity.
She ends up as a distraction to the guards at the prison during the helicopter landing. She comes on to her old boyfriend Nick after she and her husband agree to participate in the plan for a fee. It is a typically sexist role from the 70s that adds little to the plot but does allow a little cheesecake to be pushed into the movie and to make the star a part of that sequence.

The flying scenes in the movie are nicely shot and there is one clever setup that has a convertible Cadillac, a Piper prop plane and a helicopter, all leaving the airfield at the same time moving off in different directions. They then come back together and travel in a single shot to a rendezvous point in Mexico.  It may be the one artistic moment in the film, most of the movie is gritty and straight forward in the way it is told.

For years my memory failed me and I believed that the money shot of the movie was a helicopter eviscerating one of the bad guys.  I was completely wrong, it was not a helicopter and Bronson was not flying it, rather the bad guy gets killed by a large prop plane as he is about to shoot Duvall and Bronson. It was a very effectively staged shot and I'm not sure why I remembered it as a helicopter moment except that the helicopter is a key player in the film and maybe I just talked myself into it. If you are interested in seeing that shot, it is in the clip below.

As a Bronson film this is a little different. Charlie is avuncular rather than sullen, he is ineffectual at times rather than a model of competence, and his action scenes don't involve him in gun-play and only minor fisticuffs. While "Jaws" is often given credit for the start of blanket releasing, this picture used the same strategy of widely available prints and substantial advertising. A month before the shark movie made it a standard practice for big time Hollywood fare, "Breakout" make back it's budget and returned a profit on opening weekend .

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Hell or High Water

It may be a little early for Awards forecasting, but my dopler has been keen a couple of times in the last five or six years so I might as well take a shot with this film. I see at least two strong acting contenders and a screenplay nomination that will depend on what opens between now and the end of the year. This is easily the most Award worthy film I've seen this year so far and I am giving it my highest recommendation. If is manages to get to a theater in your neck of the woods, you should go and see it. It is not perfect in plotting but the dialogue is fantastic and the spine of the story is compelling and relevant.

We don't exactly know why, but two brothers are on a mission to rob a series of bank branches that belong to a local institution in Texas. The robberies are planned and there is a definite element of thinking to the strategy, but in execution, the robbers appear to be less than sharp.  The Texas Rangers become involved and a wily soon to be retired investigator has his own theories about how to flush the criminals out. That's as much of the plot as I'm willing to give up because there are some surprises along the way that you will not want to have spoiled for you. The context of hard times and the stubborn independent streak of West Texas make the film feel fresh in a dozen different places. There is much humor in the film but some of it will seem politically incorrect and might irritate SJW. There is a sense that things are not as they should be and that is partially due to race and class. In the end we are going to be conflicted because both sides in the conflict have given us something to root for.

There are three parallel relationships that keep our interest in the film, let's take them one at a time. First the two brothers in the movie could not be more dissimilar.  Chris Pine plays Toby Howard, the younger, very handsome brother who has always been a straight arrow, if not always a success. His older brother Tanner is a wild child, disowned by his mother, convicted by the state of various crimes, and probably guilty of patricide. Ben Foster has been an actor in the periphery of stardom for more than a decade. His Charlie Prince in the remake of " 3:10 to Yuma"  was a flashy part but not big enough to score with critics groups. This part should change that. Tanner is a truculent loser with a sense of self that is humorous at times and frightening in other moments. The two brothers bicker, reminisce, and joke with one another like brothers might. They have not always been close but they understand each other really well. Pine is excellent but his role is the less flashy of the two, and Tanner has some of the best one liners in the film. Both my daughter and I laughed hard at his umbrage when his brother tries to substitute Mr. Pibb for Dr. Pepper. He may not be the smart one, but he is the spark plug that makes this story compelling.

The second relationship that is important to our appreciation of the film is the partnership between the two Texas Rangers on the trail of the pair. Gil Birmingham is Alberto Parker, a Native American in the most cowboy job a guy can have. His partner is old timer Marcus Hamilton, a laid back Jeff Bridges. Marcus goes by instinct and cleverness. Alberto is the more traditional Ranger who sees tweekers  behind most of the crimes they investigate. It seems that these two are friends most of the time but the jabs they give one another are sometimes done without the sarcastic smile that would indicate that the speaker does not really mean what they are saying. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has a ear for what is real and what is tense.Their conversations range all over the place but are deepest when looking at the changing roles of different groups in Texas. Both of them know when they have been put in their place by a local waitress with definite ideas of what it is they should be ordering to eat. The importance of this relationship is what sets up the last of the three major pairings in the film.

Toby and Marcus are the third side of this triangle of male relationships. Bridges is using his gruff mumbling voice in this film, a lot like he did in the dud "R.I.P.D." from a few years ago. In that film the character was overdone but in this film the quirks are perfectly balanced with the thoughtfulness of the character. The gravel in the voice is less affectation and more earned. The climax of the film will surprise some people but not fans of 1970s films. The unfulfilled confrontation between the two smart guys in the film is some of the best character dialogue you will hear in movies these days. Bridges and Foster are exterior performances which is why they will get deserving notice but that should not overshadow Pine who becomes a better actor each time he is in a film. His work in this final scene will prove that to anyone willing to watch.

There were times in the film when I was reminded of watching one of those car chase films from the seventies. Not the cartoon ones in "Smokey and the Bandit" but the existential films like "Vanishing Point" or even "Dirty Larry, Crazy Mary".  The characters success or failure in the chase was not just a visceral thrill but a moment of significance to the story. The cat and mouse game being played in this film is for big stakes, and we can empathize with each side since they both take significant losses. Also like a 70s film, the scenes develop and build they don't simply start with a climax and show that. There is purpose behind all of the things that happen in the film. Having made the choice they did, the two brothers story plays out as it must, a tragedy and a double edged success. Bridges stands as the looming figure in the lives of the two brothers, and his quiet, ominous demeanor, is one of the great pleasures of this film.

They don't make Westerns much anymore and the old saying is they "don't make them like they used to". Well "Hell or High Water" is both a Western and made like they used to make them. It is thoughtful, violent, clever and performed at a level that will please audiences substantially. I could hear today's crowd react several times to moments in the film. They do so because they become invested in the characters. That sort of character driven story is hard to come by in the fast paced action films of the day. This movie will provide the opportunity to follow a story, care about all of the main players, and sit in suspense as we wait for the final moments. You will be hearing about this one again. Make sure you are ready to talk about it by seeing it.

Thelma and Louise 25th Anniversay Screening

At some point before this movie opened, I saw a trailer and both Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis were in a convertible with guns in their hands. At that point, without knowing anything further, I was in. The movie turned out to be a landmark Ridley Scott film that created a media sensation that kept people talking most of the summer. It was nominated for six Academy Awards (though not Best Picture) including nods for the two stars and the director. The end of the film was iconic and much parodied and it still packs a punch today. Although it is a road picture, it also subverts a lot of the traditions of such film stories.

I understand how it is seen as a feminist picture. The subject of how men relate to women in contrast to the way women relate to each other is explored in several interesting ways. Thelma's husband Darreyl, played by an excellent Christopher McDonald, is a possessive  but disengaged spouse. He sees only what his wife can do for him or how she effects the way he will be seen. Harlan and J.D. are both exploiters of women. One might be less violent and more polite than the other, but his perception of them is the same, they are target rich environments. Jimmy, a breakout role for Michael Madsen, and Detective Slocum, the surprisingly sympathetic Harvey Keitel , both want to help the women in their crisis but have difficulty understanding why they are being shut out in very different ways. [The next year they would be antagonists Mr. White and Mr. Blonde].

Sarandon is the older more mature of the two friends, and she is the one who is most wounded at the start but we never see it. Louise is a walking functioning example of PTSD. As we get hints about events in her past, her motivations and perceptions become more understandable to us. Legal or not, her actions that start the two off as fugitives would be applauded by most in the audience. Thelma is a tougher specimen to examine. She is all contradictions. She starts off timid, then becomes liberated, and then near catatonic. She says it best towards the end of the movie:

Thelma: "But, umm, I don't know, you know, something's, like, crossed over in me and I can't go back, I mean I just couldn't live."

At some point the empowerment of the two women overwhelms their sense of proportion. The patterns that preceded their adventures become paths they can't avoid. Louise is blinded by her past and Thelma is resentful of it. When people complain about the end of the film, they need to keep that in mind.  Thelma starts her rebellion and freedom from Darryl by simply not asking his permission. Like a teenager, she overdose the vices, drinking to excess, smoking, unencumbered sex and finally robbery. She is acting out against the father figures she sees in her life, especially the unpleasant spouse she has been trapped with. Louise runs because she has been conditioned to do so. She runs from the man who loves her, from the sympathetic police officer that wants to keep her from being killed and mostly she runs from her own past.

There is a star making turn by Brad Pitt in the film. If ever there was an example of lightning striking a career, this is it. He is all charm and hot looks and that is what blinds Thelma to his faults. Louise was suspicious from the beginning but she is that way with nearly everyone. Both women share the lead in making decisions at different points in the film. It's not important which one made which bad choice, what is important is that they are not going to let any man choose for them. That is the subversive message of the film. I am probably blinded by not being a woman, so some of their choices seem plain stupid to me, but that did not mean I was not entertained or fascinated by these women. Twenty-five years ago, I said to my wife when the film was over, "That was a hell of a movie". It's still true.

Bond In Motion

So a few weeks ago, I visited Great Britain for the first time. We were meeting a cruise and had only a day and a half in London to do some sightseeing. When looking on-line to find places to visit, my wife came across the page for the London Film Museum. Their current exhibit is a collection of vehicles on loan from EON Productions, that have been used in the making of James Bond films for the past fifty three years. This was easy, count me in.

 The museum was at one time known as the British Museum of Transportation, so when we directed the cab driver to the location we wanted, that's the way he referred to it. From the plaque above you can see it has in fact been re-christened.

The exterior is really just a storefront size space, you could easily miss it if you were not looking for the attraction, although like most tourist based locations, there is a barker out front occasionally, passing out flyers and encouraging pedestrians to enter.

We did not need the encouragement we had already purchased our tickets weeks before on-line. Actually arriving though got me all revved up again.As we entered the premises there is a large description on the wall of what the exhibit consists of.

The Upper mezzanine had a series of storyboards and a couple of props from early Bond Films, that's where we started our visit after a ride in a small elevator.

We tried to look more like tourists but without putting on an Aloha shirt and a straw hat, I don't think we could do a better job. 

When we arrived on the lower level, the Vehicle displays began. In the interest of brevity, I will limit the photos to one per film, but believe me, I an loaded for bear on this trip.

Goldfinger's Yellow Rolls Royce.

The Rolls used in "A View to a Kill", it was actually Cubby Broccoli's personal car that he lent to the production.

Dolores gives some perspective to the mini jet featured in the opening of "Octopussy".

For an invisible car, it was pretty easy to see this Aston martin from "Die Another Day".

Tracy's Thunderbird from "On Her Majesty's Secret Service".

The speedboat from "Live and Let Die".

The Lotus that doubles as a submarine in "The Spy Who Loved Me". 

The DB5 from Goldfinger and Skyfall.

The AMC spinning Hornet from
"The Man with the Golden Gun".

The amazing reversible Mustang from "Diamonds are Forever".

An Aston Martin with skis, from "The Living Daylights"

And this is SPECTRE's Rolls Royce, that delivers Bond and Madeline to Blofeld. 

There are many more images to share, I'm working on a video to post, but for now, eat your hearts out all you Bond fans who can't make it to London. Maybe it will tour and then you can geek out like I did.