Friday, November 24, 2017

Every '70s Movie

Want to truly indulge your jones for '70s movies? Check out "Every 70s Movie", an excellent blog of reviews by author and filmmaker Peter Hanson, who has spent the past seven years seeking out every film released in the U.S. in the 1970s.  He also occasionally devotes a week or two to films from 1980, which he argues merit inclusion as they were made in the '70s.  Hanson does exclude '70s films that did not play on American movie (or T.V.) screens during the Me Decade, like 1979's STALKER (which you will see on this blog sometime in 2018).

You will learn quite a bit about both mainstream and obscure cinema from this (arguably) best of eras for the medium. "The Best, The Worst, The Weirdest, and Every Far-Out Thing in Between."  What a formidable task for Hanson.  He requests donations as seeking out some of the lesser known titles can be expensive.  I imagine he had to watch some on VHS.

Hanson reports that his mission of providing daily posts for this task will likely conclude this coming March.  A few hundred titles of which he is aware will go unseen and un-reviewed as availability is nil.  Hopefully readers can fill in the blanks by sharing a videocassette dub made off of television back in the day or even a 35 mm print?

http://every70smovie.blogspot.com/

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving


I've spoken of Christmases past a few times on this blog, but how about some memories of Thanksgiving? Someone recently told me it is their favorite holiday as it involves families and friends coming together without all the concerns of gift giving. No argument.  Some of my more recent ones have been the best ever, with time spent up North with family.  Amazing trimmings, lots of laughs, and even a football tossed around.  In the early '00s I went to Monterey, CA a few times to visit my girlfriend (now wife) as she would help prepare a neighborhood feast with her grad school roommates.

Childhood Thanksgivings are murkier.  I have snatches of recollections of all the food.  I grew up as an only child, and we usually spent the Day with my grandparents, who lived nearby.  Some years we went to their place, other years they came to ours.  My mother and grandmother did most of the talking.  I'm sure I chatted about school.  My grandfather usually got more vocal by his third of fourth can of Busch.  Sometimes he would become unpleasant, necessitating my and my parents' exit, but I think he usually just retreated to his bedroom to nap it off.  He would get up after a few hours to join my father and I as we watched a game or movie.

But it's all like a barely remembered dream. Odd, as many other moments and events of those years are crystal clear.  I have no tragic Thanksgiving memories, or of turkeys that were burnt or hijacked by our dogs.  All the food was great, excepting that Ocean Spray cranberry goop that retained the can's shape as it was unceremonious dumped in one of my mother's ancient bowls.  These days my wife makes a sublime cranberry dish flavored nicely with navel orange gratings and ginger.  I always liked "Turkey Day", even if I was secretly envious of my friends who had larger gatherings, or got to fly off to a cold weather place for the festivities.

Even hazier are my young adult memories of Thanksgiving.  Did I join some of the other singles from church at someone's house or apartment?  I'm sure I did, but darned if I can place it.  I'll bet I turned down a few invites.   I assume many were spent alone, with maybe a visit to see my mother, who worked a variety of live-in nanny jobs in those years.

And the Publix commercials with Mannheim Steamroller music playing over images of folks traveling home for the holidays?  I do remember being affected deeply by them. In earlier years, my reality did not match them.

I am so thankful and blessed to be surrounded by family and friends near and afar these days.  I value solitude but wouldn't trade what I have now for all the free, aimless, empty T-Days of yore in the world.  I like to think that this blog may provide some diversion for the lonely.  Besides having an outlet for writing for myself,  this is why I keep doing it.  I hope you have a warm day of thanks, and know that even if you are by yourself someone is thinking of you.  Even if you don't believe that.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Godfather, Part II

THE GODFATHER PART II introduced many filmgoers to underworld words of wisdom that found their way to the lips of  those in legitimate businesses in real life.  As far as I know, at least.  Did CEOs spout "Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer" prior to 1974? Probably, in one form or another.  That oft used "It isn't personal, it's just business" is one of the most fascinating misnomers.  It's all personal, paisan, you're dealing with people! I always want to scream that aloud.  When Jewish gangster/kingpin Hyman Roth, in well modulated seething, looks Michael Coreleone in the eye and explains that he understands why his friend Moe Green was assassinated on a massage parlor table on orders of an anonymous hit ("business"), we also see through Lee Strasberg's expert performance that the man not only knows damned well that Michael ordered the hit, but that the phrase itself is utter bullshit.  Everyone knows it, even as everyone says it.

Writer/director Francis Coppola continues the GODFATHER saga with a lengthy,  melancholy examination of two generations of the Corleone "family".  Michael (Al Pacino) ascended the ranks to become don by the close of Part I.  A meek, unassuming college boy and war hero transformed into a ruthless, cold blooded murderer.  An expert in using fear and paranoia even among his inner circle to preserve the family name and its business interests. In PART II, Michael brokers deals with crooked senators and the multiplicitous Roth, a man perhaps cut from the same mold.  Periodically, the film travels back to the early twentieth century as young Vito Corleone flees his mother country after the slaughter of his family, arriving in America with a boatload of other immigrants. Vito grows into a decent young man who fosters honor and respect with his peers and family.  But he also builds the eventual empire on a foundation of theft and murder.  Perhaps like many other celebrated entrepreneurs? 

The Corleone family has always been a metaphor for the American Dream. The hard work ethic. The overcoming of adversity.  The burgeoning family of would-be successors, the money, the means by which to achieve success. Also, the underbelly.  The offspring who don't measure up, or are cut down before their prime.  Hopefully many of us don't order garrotings in our drive for upward mobility, but how often do we extort, swindle, deceive, compromise our own morals in that pursuit?  Have you ever made a living in sales? There you are.

Perhaps Mario Puzo was just trying to tell a compelling story, not so concerned with specific real life parallels.  But they're unavoidable.  Especially when the GODFATHER movies use real life backdrops.  Here, the last days of Batista in Havana, Cuba are integral to the plot. Who does Michael represent in this scenario? And what about Roth, in pained excitement telling his business partner that they're about to be bigger than U.S. Steel?

THE GODFATHER PART II is extraordinary filmmaking.  I am not among those who feel it is better that the original, but in many ways this sequel outdoes its predecessor. Coppola and cinematographer Gordon Willis again frame the story in both emotional and tangible hues.  The transitions between the young Vito and more contemporary scenes are appropriate and effective. Coppola stated that he loved evoking the early days, happy to write many scenes of the new Americans building their city, and lives.  He could've easily taken three and one half hours with just that.  Robert DeNiro (talking Italian) delivers a perfect performance as the up and coming don, a stand up guy shown to kill only when it protects others from oppression.  But also in the name of vengeance.

Michael is all about vengeance, even against his own brother.  The heartbreaking central story of this movie is the kid brother discovering that Fredo (John Casale) has betrayed him.  This family drama is some of the most arresting cinema I've ever seen.  Do not discount the storyline of Michael's wife Kay's (Diane Keaton) miscarriage, which leads to a powerhouse confrontation between husband and wife.  Pacino handles these scenes so beautifully.  Watch his eyes.  They're slicked over and red when he learns the truth about Kay's tragedy, or anytime he speaks of his older brother.  The actor spends most of the movie betraying nothing with his icy veneer; it's a performance of nuance, and must have been monstrously difficult and draining.

And those final moments, when a man's fate is sealed.  His character, his destiny.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

War of the Roses

You really have to hand it to writer/director Danny DeVito for seeing 1989's WAR OF THE ROSES to its bitter end.  How such a downbeat climax made it past studio executives and test audiences is some kind of showbiz miracle.  It's really the most logical and appropriate (to say nothing of ballsy) ending to such a pitch black comedy/drama.  Framed in flashback between attorney DeVito and an unnamed client who is considering a divorce.  A cautionary tale.

Oliver (Michael Douglas) and Barbara Rose (Kathleen Turner) are an affluent, seemingly happy couple living in a grand old mansion filled with everything a materialist could desire.  Oliver is a successful attorney, while Barbara contents herself with homemaking and raising a boy and a girl.  But despite the fancy trappings and an athletic sex life, the years are not kind to the Roses and soon a raging contempt builds between them.  Mainly from Barbara, who suffers Oliver's condescension and narcissism beyond tolerance.  She finds a new lease on life when her husband thinks he about to lose his after what is believed to be a heart attack but is really just a hernia.

That's when the knives are unsheathed.  The mean business of THE WAR OF THE ROSES begins as the feuding spouses begin to section off the house; "I've got more square footage!" Oliver boasts to his attorney.  Battle lines drawn, literally.  But then things get downright vicious.  Artifacts are smashed.  A few family pets may get in the way.  As Barbara attempts to spread her wings and open a catering business, Oliver is there to sabotage a dinner party in a rather obscene and disgusting manner.   Caught in the middle is Gavin D'Amato, played with the right amount of resigned sadness by DeVito, who begs his client to work with his wife and just start his life over.

Instead, Oliver fires Gavin and represents himself.  Things escalate further, and then....that ending happens.  Never has the flick of a hand underlined a point with such devastation.

THE WAR OF THE ROSES ain't no date movie.  It will bring great satisfaction to bitter divorcees and those who've been wronged in relationships.  I enjoyed a viewing or two under the latter circumstance in my 20s.  But there's more than just morbid and grim satisfaction with Devito's (often very creatively directed) film.  Michael J. Leeson's script takes many of the standard scenes - including an early meet cute - to build a tower of portent that should serve to educate as well as vindicate anyone who's ever felt wronged.  The movie is billed as a comedy but be aware it is of the darkest variety.  And there's real pathos and sadness here.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The American Friend

1977's THE AMERICAN FRIEND may take its title from more than just the fact that the film's protagonist, a German art framer, meets and becomes somewhat of an ally with an American, who deals in art forgery.  Iconoclastic director extraordinaire Wim Wenders quite intriguingly uses much imagery of American products to underline his points of how this Western culture has positively saturated Europe.  With its movies and music, yes, but also its soft drinks and toys.

Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley character (played this time by Dennis Hopper) is the American friend.  He's crafty, wealthy, streetwise.  He's also a bit thin skinned, allowing a minor slight to essentially ruin a man's life.  The man is Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz), our German who, in his first meeting with Ripley, dismisses the criminal by refusing to shake his hand and uttering "I know who you are". Ripley gets even by suggesting Zimmerman to his boss, a French criminal called Raoul (Gerard Blain), as a potential hit man to knock off a rival.

THE AMERICAN FRIEND follows Jonathan, who is dying of blood disease, as he reluctantly accepts Raoul's offer.  He needs the money to assure he can provide for his wife and child after his demise.  There will be deception and death along the way, of course, but Ripley and Jonathan will form some sort of bond, even trust, that may not be tainted by the more neo-noirish elements of the story.

Wenders, as usual, is not all that interested in the mechanics of the story.  He understands that story is the framework, and what drives the movie, but isn't what makes great cinema.  The director is an artist, fascinated with color schemes and composition. His use of locations throughout Hamburg and Paris are as vital as any script business. The how of THE AMERICAN FRIEND is also what distinguishes it from being a routine thriller.  The hit in the Paris Metro is not blocked and edited for heart stopping excitement, but rather plays long enough to make us feel how both awful and absurd it is.

Characterization is rich in Wenders' films.  Hopper does his eccentric tics but never flails over the top.  Ripley is a complex fellow but perhaps decent enough.  He operates on the criminal's code of honor, loyal to like-minded individuals.  Jonathan becomes a co-conspirator out of necessity and survival but also out of a similar brotherhood; Ganz is just fine in his role. And Wenders is the right person to showcase them with his patient, painterly direction, a natural extension of his screenplay.  He says much with his use of art forgery as a plot element - is this his statement on film itself?  And in several frames are bold Canada Dry neons and for Johnathan's son, a Snoopy bubble machine.  Did Wenders feel his country's identity was becoming more and more defined by American products and pop culture? A confusion as to where one begins and the other ends?

Speaking of endings, I was a bit disappointed by the final moments of THE AMERICAN FRIEND, a bit too pretentious in my opinion, but maybe thematically consistent.  Note must also be made for the effective use of songs by the Kinks and the Beatles.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Wildflowers

Tom Petty passed away early last month, leaving a void in the music world and a hollow feeling in my heart.  Celebrity passings never used to affect me as much as they have recently.  It truly does now feel as if a family member or dear friend has shaken off the mortal coil.  I got to know at least some essence of the man through his music and interviews.  He seemed genuine, unafraid to show his emotions without being dramatic. A Gainesville, FL boy made good, who went all the way to L.A. and sang about her, too.

I grew up listening to Petty.  My first real memory was of "The Waiting" on a South Florida rock station.  By then Tom had recorded a few albums and had a lot of success.  He even had a battle with his record label over their decision to raise the list price by a buck.  He threatened to name the new record "9.98".

I enjoyed his videos, from the spare performances of Hard Promises selections to the futuristic wasteland in "You Got Lucky" to the Alice in Wonderland dark comedy of "Don't Come Around Here No More."   Petty's songs were well used in films, particularly "American Girl", featured prominently in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.  He wrote and performed the soundtrack to the 1996 romantic comedy SHE'S THE ONE.

By 1994, Petty had covered a lot of ground both with his band The Heartbreakers and as a solo artist.  There was quite a back catalogue of hits and just straight ahead great tunes.  But "Wildflowers" was really something special.  For me, his finest work. It's called a solo album, though most of The Heartbreakers play on it.  The heartland rock style was perfected in this collection of mostly melancholy, reflective songs that address fame "("It's Good to be King", "You Don't Know How It Feels"), broken families ("To Find a Friend"), and also with the self explanatory "Time to Move On".  Tom wasn't much for lyrical puzzles.  He created narratives that always felt as honest as a hard bitten guy busking on a street corner, albeit with some sweet production values.

Petty does rock out on the infectious, great-for-driving number "You Wreck Me" (a good companion piece for the earlier "Runnin' Down a Dream") and the blistering "Honey Bee", which includes the old classic "buzz awhile" lyric.  The title track and "A Higher Place" are perfect summer songs that make you feel good.  Honestly, there isn't one weak track on "Wildflowers", including the B-side "Girl on LSD", which was omitted from the album.

In some ways, "Wildflowers" feels like a summary, a valediction of a stellar career.  There was much more music to follow, including the wonderfully retro (1960s style) 2010 album Mojo, but "Wildflowers" assures a spot in music history that will always demonstrate Petty's most heartfelt output.  A true classic.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Red Turtle

Advertisements for 2016's animated feature THE RED TURTLE immediately intrigued me, but I had no idea how deeply I would be affected by this film.  Thankfully, I did not read too much about it beforehand, knowing only that its story was of a man, stranded on a deserted island, who encounters the title creature.  The stills' illustrations were impressive, indicative of a more traditional, perhaps even primitive style.  I was not interested in another three dimensional computer exercise ala FINDING DORY.  I was also aware that the film had no dialogue, further piquing my interest.  What was it Depeche Mode said about words...?

The first section of the film shows the man cast onto a shore by tidal waves.  We assume he was separated from his ship.  After surveying his lush surroundings and dire predicament, he soon learns to gather food and build a raft out of the island's plentiful bamboo.  His efforts to sail away are thwarted by the upward nudges of something under the water, destroying his vessel.  He rebuilds.  After the third attempt he finally meets the culprit: a huge, beautiful red turtle.  It seems fascinated by the man, meaning no harm and clearly not wanting  him to leave.  Defeated, the man retreats and cries out in despair.  He later sees the turtle ambling on the beach.  In vengeful fury, the man pushes the red turtle on its back, leaving it to die.

The man eventually feels badly, but will find the turtle has transformed......

Into what is something you will have to discover for yourself.  It will be difficult to explain why I truly love THE RED TURTLE without giving away these developments, but part of why this film was so magical for me was its great discovery.  Suffice it to say that the remainder of the film will follow the man and turtle relationship over quite some time.  The film is a rare contemporary entertainment that encourages a respect for and a co-existence with nature without resorting to overt cuteness.  There are no smart talking, personified animals with celebrity voices.  There are some hermit crabs that provide lighter moments.

Beware, possible spoiler......

The film, a French/Japanese co-production, also details a beautiful family story, the simplicity of its narrative allowing viewers to engage writer/director Michael Dudok de Wit's wellspring of themes all the more.  Complicated plots often mask shallow subtext.  THE RED TURTLE will reveal much as it is remembered hours and days later.   I suppose theological implications exist here.  I found the film worked primarily on an emotional level.  The final scene left me a weeping wreck. The implications get deeper and deeper as you replay those final moments.  I can't imagine anyone who has ever loved someone/something and spent their life with them will emerge from this film without misty eyes.  I've written elsewhere on this blog that I rarely cry during movies; maybe I'm getting more sensitive (or less steely) in my middle age. Especially when stories involve animals, which of course can be highly effective when trying to convey the realities of the "circle of life."

That's what THE RED TURTLE is about.  Life and death.  Nothing novel.  The choice to have a wordless narrative makes it as immediate and powerful as ever.  Words might've done it violence.  This has become one of my all time favorite films.  A film to seek and re-visit and share with others.