Wednesday, December 24, 2014

My Seven Favorite Christmas Films/TV Specials

I like Christmas. The main reason I like it is the embracing of optimism and the recharging of your soul with Good Will Towards Others. So each year I enjoy watching the same classical movies and TV specials to help pump me up for dealing with the same old Evil we have to face everyday...which is probably true of all of you, too, right? In my Christmas circuit, though, I usually don't watch ALL of my choices every year; I usually skip a year. For example, I'll watch Grinch this year but not Frosty, then put Frosty back on the rotation circuit for next year. I'm sure some of you will disagree with my choices, but here in no particular order are My Magnificent Seven Christmas Films. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Last Emperor (Best Picture 1987)

I saw this film for the first time when I was in Japan. It was a big deal at the time, not only because of the story of Japan's neighbor, but also because Japanese pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto played the evil Japanese agent Amakasu and helped write the original music (with Cong Su and David Byrne of the Talking Heads). When they won the Academy Award for Best Original Score, Sakamoto was catapulted into the realm of superstar in Japan.
The other thing I remember about The Last Emperor and Japan is that there is a scene when the Emperor, after he has lost everything and is in a Communist Chinese reformatory prison, watches documentary footage of the Japanese attacks in China. Specifically, there are scenes of The Rape of Nanjing, the incident where the Japanese Imperial Army murdered millions of Chinese civilians. These scenes were edited out by the Japanese distributor on its first showing in Japan, citing that the footage was too graphic for Japanese audiences. It was eventually re-instated, I believe. China and the film's director both registered angry complaints.
The Last Emperor is a three hour extravaganza by Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, best known to me at the time as the director of the soft-porn film Last Tango In Paris (with Marlon Brando). He was the first Western film maker to get permission to film in The Forbidden City in Beijing, so he took full advantage of the freedom he was given. Honestly, for the first 90 minutes the real star of the film is the architecture of that national treasure! When the action finally leaves Beijing and moves to Tientsin and Manchuria, it's not just because of the locale change that the action lags, but it does have something to do with it.
The real problem with this sweeping film is that the protagonist is not engaging. The film starts slowly, at the Russo-Chinese border of Manchuria in 1950. Here we encounter Pu Yi, the former Emperor of China and Manchuria, as portrayed by John Lone. He is a broken man who attempts to commit suicide in the train station restroom. It is a dark, dreary scene; in fact, the blood oozing out of his veins is the first color we get in the film. The red segues into "the past," where a 3 year-old Pu Yi is taken from his mother and brought to the palace in The Forbidden City to be made Emperor. The colors and pageantry of his childhood life are in *very* stark contrast to where he ended up.
From there we bounce back between the child as he ages and the elderly, imprisoned Pu Yi as he goes through "rehabilitation" in prison. It becomes clear that Pu Yi was pampered and spoiled as a child, so he grew up with a certain delusion of grandeur. He doesn't know how to make things happen, so consistently is used by others. The worst example, of course, is his being made the head of the puppet state in Manchuria, actually run by the Japanese Imperial Army. Sakamoto as the Japanese agent is pure slime and Evil. When he finds out that Pu Yi's opium-addict wife is pregnant, but not with Pu Yi's child, he blackmails poor Pu Yi in a scene that is actually painful to watch. Later in the prison we learn that Pu Yi has signed off on all accusations that were put before him, even those he could not possibly have been responsible for. When confronted by the prison governor, he breaks down and cries, "Everything was my fault!" We finally understand the weight on his shoulders and the glaze behind his eyes.
As the adult Pu Yi, John Lone is in the majority of the later scenes and holds his own against a stellar supporting cast. Unfortunately, as mentioned already he is the lead but not the protagonist. He plays against his cast, but does not really play *with* them, if that makes sense. Still, it is a shame that he was not even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, as he does a great job literally holding the film together. Among the rest of the cast, Peter O'Toole as his English tutor is especially memorable, and not just because he's Peter O'Toole. As Reginald Johnston he brings a "foreign" presence to the proceedings, helping to "free" Pu Yi's thinking, gently guiding it from the walls of the Forbidden City to the whole world. Joan Chen is brought in as his wife in an arranged marriage, and is fantastic in all of her scenes. Vivian Wu as the Imperial Consort Wen Hsiu also lights up every scene she is in, especially her last as she demands a divorce. And in the dark and dreary "present," the prison governor (Ying RuoCheng) is Pu Yi's only ally, gently teaching him how to be a better man.
The only drawback I noticed in the film itself is the lack of a clear chronology. Why did Pu Yi get named Emperor when his mother and father seemed to still be alive? When and why did he stop being the Emperor? Why didn't his family live with him in the palace? Why was he finally kicked out of the Forbidden City? Specific background facts would have made it easier for me to understand what was actually happening, but I guess this is a minor quibble.
The Last Emperor was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning all of them. Certainly the direction, screenplay, and music are all memorable, but truly the art direction and costuming are fantastic. There were no actors nominated, unless you count the Forbidden City (which won). If you are interested in China or Chinese history, or watching a man wrestle with the issue of his own self-worth, you will enjoy this film.

The Last Emperor
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1987*
Produced by Jeremy Thomas
Directed  by Bernardo Bertolucci
Screenplay by Mark Peploe and Bernardo Bertolucci

As you watch this notice the spectacle:
the costumes, the locations, the extras, the music...
it's all so amazing!

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Broadcast News
Fatal Attraction
Hope And Glory
Compared to The Last Emperor, none of these are Best Pictures. Broadcast News is a great drama about television news and the direction it was heading in. Any fan of current so-called "news" should watch this for a history lesson. Fatal Attraction is the story of Michael Douglas sleeping with Glenn Close; why it made this list is beyond me. Hope And Glory is the autobiographical film by director John Boorman about growing up in WWII London. And Moonstruck is the romantic comedy starring Cher and Nicholas Cage. Cher won Best Actress for her role, and Olympia Dukakis won Best Supporting Actress. It's a cute, charming little film. Also this year, Sean Connery won Best Supporting Actor for his unforgettable role in The Untouchables, and Michael Douglas won Best Actor for his role in Wall Street. Greed is good?

Friday, December 12, 2014

Platoon (Best Picture of 1986)

I remember watching Platoon while I was in college. I went with several friends to see it, and I remember one of my girl friends saying that she thought all three leads were handsome. I remember thinking that the film itself was not attractive. I guess that was the point.

Platoon tells the story of newbie Chris, a fresh-faced Charlie Sheen, who arrives in Viet Nam to "do his part." His grandfather had fought in WWI, and his father in WWII, so now it was his turn. He quit college and enlisted. The time is September 1967; we know this because there is a screen shot that tells us.  For his first weeks he is lonely and afraid; no one talks to the new guys because their fatality rate is so high. Chris begins to regret his decision. Slowly he becomes acclimated, and we meet the men in his platoon. Unfortunately, most of them go by too fast for me to catch their names. Tom Berenger is the heavily-scarred Sergeant Barnes. He runs the outfit, even though Mark Moses is the genial Lieutenant who is nominally in charge. There are another few sergeants, but the one who catches our eye is Sergeant Elias, played by Willem Dafoe. He seems to genuinely care about his men. Forest Whittaker, Jonny Depp, and Keith David play some of the other men in the platoon whose names I didn't catch.

One night while the platoon is out in the field the veteran on watch falls asleep and the Viet Cong manage to walk up almost on top of their platoon. Chris is awake because he can't sleep, but he has set his rifle aside, just out of reach. There is a great moment of tension as the enemy gets closer and closer. There is a huge fight, and several men are killed. Chris has now proved his worth, and begins to be accepted into the ranks. Later, back at the base camp there is a riveting scene after he is invited to smoke marijuana with "the cool guys." He ends up breathing in smoke from Sgt Elias' empty rifle. Phallic symbolism, as well as military symbolism, permeates the scene.
Boredom replaces fear until the platoon goes on another mission on New Years Day 1968. They find a deserted enemy bunker, but booby traps kill two men, and another guard is grabbed and left elsewhere for them to find. The platoon is on high alert when they come to a village. They pillage it, raping some of the women, murdering indiscriminately. Chris is disgusted, but it is Sgt. Elias who steps up and fights Sgt. Barnes to stop it. "Good" and "Evil" have now been established, and the rest of the movie is Chris torn between the two father figures. In case we didn't pick up on it ourselves, at the end of the film Chris the Narrator tells us that it was difficult to choose between the two father figures.
Now there is a Civil War between the men in the platoon, some with Barnes and some with Elias. The captain tells everyone that the incident in the village will be investigated later, but for now they all need to work together. Elias leads a few men on a mission to prevent a cross-fire from getting set up, and during this mission Barnes shoots Elias. As the platoon is evacuated by helicopters, everyone sees the wounded but still living Elias attempt to escape from the VC, then dying spectacularly, hands thrown up to Heaven. Chris suspects Barnes, but has no proof. Barnes confronts Chris and Elias' "cool guys" but knows there is nothing that they can do. The next night the VC attacks in hordes, and everyone goes crazy trying to kill the enemy and to survive. Bombs drop on their area just as Chris and Barnes meet up, and Barnes appears poised to kill Chris. Instead, Chris wakes up the next morning and shoots Barnes. He was wounded during the carnage, so is placed on a helicopter and air-lifted away.
The film ends with Chris' narration, looking back on the carnage. He tells us that he went on to try to live a good life, trying to find meaning in something, to honor the men who didn't make it back. The film had started with a quote from Eccliastes, "Rejoice oh young man in your youth." It ends with a dedication to all the men who had served in Viet Nam.

For the record, I am not a fan of war films. I find the idea of trying to make sense of something as senseless as war is a waste of everyone's time. War does not lend itself to a linear story. That being said, as a portrait of Chris, and his specific experiences, this is not a bad film. The scenery (filmed in the Philippines) is impressive. The directing is outstanding, especially the extended scenes in the middle of the jungle. The actors are all excellent. Dafoe and Berenger were both nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but neither won. Keith David, especially, as one of the first men to befriend Charlie Sheen's character, is outstanding.  However, the men are little more than pieces to be moved in the story. The story is where the film is weak. As I said, the film is fine as a simple chronological sequence of events; there is no "story." Platoon is not everyone's type of film, I am sure, but it is well done if the subject matter interests you.

*Academy Award Best Picture of 1986*
Produced by Arnold Kopelston
Directed  by Oliver Stone
Screenplay by Oliver Stone

You will get a real feeling for the Seriousness of the film from this trailer

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Children Of A Lesser God
Hannah And Her Sisters
The Mission
A Room With A View
At the time of the nominations I saw each of these films except for Hannah And Her Sisters, which I finally saw yesterday. Children Of A Lesser God is a terrific romance about hearing impaired Marlee Matlin having a relationship with sign language teacher William Hurt. She won the Best Actress Oscar, currently the youngest actress (21) to do so, and the only actually hearing-impaired person to ever win any Academy Award. She beat out Kathleen Turner in Peggy Sue Got Married and Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, by the way. The Mission is an old-fashioned "epic" starring Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons as they work for or against a Jesuit mission in South America. The film by Roland Joffe is breath-taking. A Room With A View is the film version of the E.M. Forster novel about love in Edwardian England. And Hannah And Her Sisters? I watched it because it won Best Supporting awards for Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine, who are the best part of just another Woody Allen film about middle class insecurities.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Out of Africa (Best Picture of 1985)

This film about Africa always reminds me of Japan. It came out in 1984 but did not arrive in Japan until 1985. I was an exchange student and it was one of the films I saw while I was living in Sendai, Miyagi. In fact, my friend, the only other American in town, saw the movie quite a few times. I'm pretty sure I saw it at least twice. Later I came across the book Out of Africa by Isak Dinesan and read it. And *that* happened while I was in Japan, too. So the film is very sentimental to me. However...that doesn't make it a great film.

Meryl Streep stars as Karen Blixen, who, facing poverty and a lack of prospects, agrees to marry her friend, Baron Blixen. He is on his way to Kenya, so she decides to join him, even though she was actually in love with his brother. This is an odd way to start what turns out to be a rather odd film. The plot of the film can be summed up in a few sentences: Karen goes to Kenya, Karen grows attached to Kenya, her husband sleeps around leaving her lonely, she hooks up with Robert Redford, her coffee plantation burns down, she leaves Africa. (Spoiler alert? It's right there in the title!) Although Streep is fantastic (her European accent is sufficiently exotic) and Redford as hunter-turned-safari-leader Denys exudes a gravity I hadn't noticed from him before, the story doesn't really let them do much. The story is ploddingly slow, and no scenes really stand out. No, the real star of the film is Africa.

If this film is great it is because of the cinematography, the location shooting, and the spectacle. The scene where Karen leads a supply train of oxen through Nairobi is fantastic. The scenes on the plains where Karen is enjoying the antelopes and buffaloes (and is nearly eaten by a lion) are beautiful. And the scenes where Denys flies a bi-plane through Kenya is one of the most beautifully epic scenes I've ever seen. It made me think, "WOW! I want to go to Africa...!' when, you know, I don't really want to go to Africa. That's how powerful this film's cinematography is.

Frankly, there isn't much more to say about this film. It is a romance between two wildly different and independent people set against the vast countryside of Kenya. The characters are re-active in a very pro-active way. Karen cherishes her individualism, yet refers to the people living on "her" land as "her Kikuyu (tribe)." Denys is ruggedly handsome and handsomely rugged; he cherishes his independence, too, but also cherishes Karen in a "I don't want to get married" way. One of his lines about what significance a piece of paper (a marriage license) has on their relationship is a line we hear all the time today. He doesn't want to help the British colony during WWI, yet somehow ends up helping them anyway. The real Denys was British, but Redford obviously isn't, which is somewhat confusing. The most dramatic these two actors get is when he offers to take a woman on a safari, but Karen gets jealous. He fights back, pushing her to admit that she trusts him and does not expect anything to "happen" while he is touring with the woman. Yet she maintains, out of pride or some odd sense of possession of him, that she does not want him to take her. They end up breaking up over this: in his eyes she doesn't trust him, and in her eyes he doesn't respect her perfectly simple  request. My friend and I had many discussions about this relationship when we saw this film, and those discussions came flooding back to me when I watched this again.

By the way, my favorite character in the film is the Kenyan servant Farah, played by Malick Bowens. He is always there, like Batman's Alfred or Robinson Crusoe's Man Friday, stoically helping Karen in all her endeavors. I was greatly impressed by him.

If you have nearly three hours to watch a grand spectacle of Africa, presented in the same vein as Lawrence of Arabia or Gandhi but based on a story more similar to Terms of Endearment, you will enjoy this film.

Out of Africa
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1985*
Produced and Directed by Sydney Pollack
Screenplay by Kurt Luedtke
Based on the books
Out of Africa and Shadows On The Grass
by Isak Dinesen
Isak Dinesen: The Life Of A Story-Teller
by Judith Thurman
Silence Will Speak
by Errol Trzebinski 

I wish the film had moved at such a brisk pace...!

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
The Color Purple
Kiss Of The Spider-Woman
Prizzi's Honor
This is the first time I think that I had actually seen each of the nominees for Best Picture while they were out in "first run" distribution. This is because I was in Japan for nearly a year, and the one way to hear English was to go to the movies (TV was all in Japanese, duh). Witness was a huge success in Japan, by the way. Harrison Ford was excellent as the policeman trying to protect an Amish boy who witnesses a murder while visiting NYC. Ford was nominated for Best Actor for this role. Jack Nicholson was also nominated for his role in Prizzi's Honor as a mob hit-man who faces off against another mob assassin who turns out to be his girl-friend! And William Hurt won Best Actor for his role in Kiss Of The Spider-Woman, a dark film about political prisoners in Central America. That leaves only The Color Purple, the film of the book by Alice Walker that earned Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey, and Whoopi Goldberg acting nominations but ended up not winning any awards at all. The book was better.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving 2014

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody! 
Here in the United States, we set aside the last Thursday of November to get together with family and friends and take stock of all of our blessings. (Then the next day we go out in a mad rush to buy *more* stuff; that's how schizophrenic we are as a nation.)

Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. I like to sit around with good friends and family, I like to eat, and I like to drink. What better holiday can there be!? As an adult, Thanksgiving is the holiday where I go and spend time with my family, so it's even more special to me now. (Christmas weather is too chancy to travel in the Midwest, in general, so we travel at Thanksgiving instead.)

When I lived in Japan I would try to celebrate this holiday, but of course it is based on the Pilgrims surviving their first awful year in the US, so it is not a holiday in any other country. I ended up having a yearly dinner party with other Americans the weekend before or after actual Thanksgiving. We even special ordered a turkey a few times, but usually would have ham. It was fun, because I've always had plenty to be thankful for.

First of all, I have my health. I've never suffered from anything major in my entire life.

Secondly, I have my family and they have *their* health. My wife had cancer many years ago, but no relapse in twenty years, so we are very thankful for that. Our daughter and my sisters and brother and father are all healthy.

Thirdly, I have been blessed to have many wonderful people in my life. Yes, I have lost some dear friends and family. This past year was especially bad, as our mother died, which was not totally unexpected, and my brother-in-law also lost his battle with cancer, which was more of a shock. But you know what? I was blessed to have them at all, ya know? I treasure all my memories of them both. And on the brighter side, I have way more friends still around that I can continue to enjoy! So here's a shout out to all my loved ones, scattered all over the give me support when I need it, sometimes when you don't even know you're doing it! :-)

So really, what more do I need?

I'll be in St. Louis for the next few days. I'll be back next week. So sit back and enjoy yourselves. I urge everyone reading this to take a minute to give a hug to your friends and family, thank them for putting up with you, tell them you love them, and then counting your blessings. For all the crap out there we have to could always be worse. It really is a wonderful life.

Your friend, Russell

To illustrate this essay, here is the most famous Thanksgiving painting ever: Freedom From Want, by Normal Rockwell. He painted this in 1943 as a series of "The Four Freedoms" for the magazine The Saturday Evening Post. The magazine wanted to remind the people of the United States what freedoms we were fighting for. The term comes from a speech President Franklin Roosevelt made in 1941. This painting has been parodied many times over the years....and at the bottom  is my version, featuring the Legion of Super-Heroes. I call my version, "Giving Thanks Day 2986."

Friday, November 21, 2014

Amadeus (Best Picture of 1984)

Amadeus is probably one of my all-time favorite movies. I think I have watched it half-a-dozen times atleast. And the funny thing is, because there are so many things going on in this movie there is always something new to see and enjoy. This last time I watched it, for example, I kept my eye on the costumes and the scenery. I knew that the movie was filmed in Prague, which stood in for Vienna, but to actually look at the actual streets, and the buildings, and homes from that era...! At the end of the film there is a credit that tells us that some scenes were filmed at the Tyr Theatre, the actual theatre where Don Giovanni had its premiere on October 29, 1787. And the Czechoslovakian Cardinal's residence played the part of Emperor Joseph's palace. The level of opulence...and history! It just makes a great film even better.

And Amadeus is a great film. It tells the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his final years, scratching out an existence in Vienna. Really, however, it is the story of Antonio Salieri, court composer to Emperor Joseph. It is a highly fictionalize account of how Salieri supposedly thwarted Mozart at every turn because he was jealous of Mozart's talent. Although almost no historical data survives to support this theory, and certain facts absolutely dispute this (Salieri being present when Mozart dies, for instance) it still makes a good story...and a great film! Truly, Salieri suffered from dementia at the end of his life. So perhaps he really did believe that he was responsible for Mozart's death, irregardless of the facts?

Salieri was a devout Catholic and believes that his musical talent was a gift from God. He is in awe of Mozart, who, although several years younger, is already making a name for himself as a musical genius. However, when Salieri finally meets his idol, he is disappointed to find that he is crass, vulgar, arrogant, and rude. He hopes that the rumors he has heard of Mozart's talent are unfounded. Later, when he gets a chance to see for himself several of Mozart's hand-written compositions, though, this is irrefutable proof of Mozart's genius. Instead of being in awe, however, Salieri is jealous. He angrily vows to God that he will thwart His vessel, because God only gave Salieri the ability to recognize Mozart's talent, not to match it.
The rest of the film is a series of scenes of Mozart trying to gain acceptance at Court or to make money off of his compositions, and Salieri secretly blocking him at every opportunity. One particularly dramatic scene is when Salieri tells Mozart's wife that in order to attain a Court appointment for her husband, she would have to sleep with him (Salieri). She begins to disrobe, but after she removes most of her clothes he throws her out. She is desperate enough to help her husband by compromising her morals, but Salieri is only intent on embarrassing her, knowing she will never tell her husband what he had done to her.

Eventually Salieri come up with his master plan: commission a Requiem from Mozart in secret, and after he receives it from Mozart, he will kill him and then present the composition as his own. Salieri dons a costume to remind Mozart of his dead father (and to conceal his true identity) and pays him a visit in the middle of the night. Mozart is freaked out by the costume, and although he begins working on the Requiem, he begins to think that it is somehow his own death he is writing it for. Finally, during a performance of The Magic Flute, Mozart collapses. Salieri, who secretly attended all of Mozart's operas, has him carried back to his apartment. There the two men work together on the Requiem. This is my favorite scene of the film, as Mozart "conducts" the separate instruments and voices heard in his head as Salieri tries frantically to keep up with his dictation. It's a wonderfully filmed scene and shows beautifully the process necessary to create music, especially to people like me with only rudimentary musical skills.  

In the end Mozart dies, but Salieri is not able to steal the Requiem. Several years later, in a pique of delusion, Salieri tries to kill himself, blaming himself for the death of Mozart. At the end of the film he embraces his mediocrity, even blessing the young priest who has listened all night to his tale.

What more needs to be said? The story is gripping. The costumes are spectacular. The make-up is fantastic. The locales are historically accurate. And the music...! Oh, yeah, I should probably talk about the music and the operas. Bits and pieces of dozens of Mozart's pieces are played or performed throughout the film. Even before I bought this movie, I had bought the sound-track. In fact, I bought the cassette tape back in 1985 and played it until it wore out. Then I bought the CD a few years ago to replace it. I'm listening to it right now! I read that the sound-track is one of the best selling classical music CDs of all time. Personally I love it. And although I have never seen an opera, if I ever go I would like see either The Marriage of Figaro or Don Giovanni, because both they are featured so prominently in this film.

F. Murray Abraham as Salieri and Tom Hulce as Mozart were both nominated for Best Actor for their roles, with Abraham winning. Hulce had the more difficult role: to make an arrogant, self-centered egoist insecure over his talent into a sympathetic character. At the very end, when he is literally on his deathbed, he has his greatest scene. He realizes that Salieri has always appreciated his talent, even though he had always treated him with disdain. Of course, Abraham as Salieri had the meatier role, as he has to pretend to be sympathetic while actually doing evil. He does a fantastic job, especially as he is in the vast majority of the scenes. He absolutely deserved to win Best Actor.

Amadeus was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won eight. Besides Best Picture and Best Actor it was awarded Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay (for Peter Shaffer, who adapted his own play), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Sound, and Best Make-Up. 

*Academy Award Best Picture of 1984*
Produced by Saul Zaentz
Directed  by Milos Forman
Screenplay by Peter Shaffer
Based on his play 

Everything you've heard is true.

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
The Killing Fields
A Passage To India
Places In the Heart
A Soldier's Story
This was a great year for Hollywood, as all of these nominees are excellent. The Killing Fields is the painful story of The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during The Viet Nam War. Sam Waterston was nominated for his leading performance, but his co-star, amateur actor but real-life Cambodian survivor Dr. Haing S. Ngor, won Best Supporting Actor. A Passage To India is the film based on one of my favorite books on cross-cultural relations, a beautiful tale by E. M. Forster. I like to think of it as the book-end to Gandhi, as it tells the troubles of British citizens living in Colonial India. Peggy Ashcroft won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mrs. More. Places In the Heart is the melodrama starring Sally Fields, John Malkovich, and Danny Glover. Malkovich was nominated for Best Supporting Actor; Fields won Best Actress and made her famous "..You like me. Right now you  like me" acceptance speech. And A Soldier's Story is the melodrama about murder on an Army base which features riveting performances from Howard E. Rollins, Jr and Supporting Actor nominee Adolph Caesar.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

JL #37 "Every Little Breeze...!" AFTERWARD

So, what did you think?

When my co-creator Rick Duncan sent me his script for this story, I immediately realized that it had been written with Bronze Age DC Comics in mind. The Hawks were archeologists working at Midway City Museum, for example, and Zatanna was a member...but so was Plastic Man!?

JL #37 "Every Little Breeze...!"

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

JL#37 "Every Little Breeze...!" FORWARD

This issue has a very special history. 

When I announced about a year ago that I was going to start doing "my" Justice League series again, my pal Rick Duncan sent me a script for a story he had called "Every Little Breeze." We had worked together on an Aquaman story before (you can find that here, "States Of Matter!") and he had liked how that story had turned out. He sent this script to me and asked if I could do something with it in "my" universe.  Rick had written this a few years before without paying much attention to the "current" JLA; he had included the "satellite-era" members, but also Plastic Man, for example.

I read it, I liked it, and I wanted to do it. However, there were a few specific problems I had to address. For one thing, Hawkman and Hawkwoman were lead characters, and they were not "back" in my universe yet. (And a quick check of the Roll Call (below) may give you a hint as to another member issue we had...!) After talking things over with Rick, I decided to keep the Hawks in the story. But that meant he had to wait for them to come back. So I decided to use his story the first time after the Hawks return. Which is one of the reasons why I have been "sitting" on this story for about a year. Sorry for the wait, Rick!!  

It'll finally be on-site tomorrow. Please let us know what you think! 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Terms of Endearment (Best Picture 1983)

Terms of Endearment is an odd choice for Best Picture. It is another one of those "intimate" films, not an "epic." The Academy went wild over it, nominating it in eleven categories and awarding it Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor. Debra Winger was nominated for Best Actress, but lost to co-star Shirley MacLaine.

The film starts with a young MacLaine as Aurora fussing over baby Emma, who is fast asleep. She wakes her, making her cry, to placate her own feeling of anxiety about her. The film cotinues to show scenes of their mother-daughter relationship as Emma (Winger) loses her father, but must continue to deal with her over-bearing and slightly odd mother.

Somehow Emma meets a man and they plan to get married. However, Aurora disapproves of Flap (Jeff Daniels), so does not go to their wedding. Emma and Flap work to build a happy home on his low teacher salary. After Tommy is born, Flap gets a job at a university in Des Moines, so the three of them leave Texas. Their second son, Teddy, is born, and life goes on until Emma believes Flap is having an affair. Emma meets a lonely banker, Sam (John Lithgow) and their irregular lunch dates eventually morph into an affair. Emma and Flap have a daughter, and after she is born Emma confronts Flap about his affairs. She goes back to Aurora to decide what to do with her life, eventually deciding to go back to Flap. Flap has a job offer in Nebraska, so the family moves there.  

While all this is happening to Emma, Aurora surrounds herself with suitors, such as Danny DeVito. Her next door neighbor is Garrett, a former astronaut who holds pool parties on the weekends with younger women and tries to sleep with as many of them as he can. Jack Nicholson chews the scenery as the unhappy man. He tries to be nice to Aurora, and she responds initially, but their personalities are too different. He tries to "cut to the chase" and she disapproves, so they do not speak for several years.  At her 50th birthday she is feeling old, so she goes over to his house to accept the lunch date he had offered several years before. The next day they have a wild time at a restaurant, and end up driving in circles on the beach in his convertible. She is offended by him again, but after mulling it over and talking to Emma about him, she decides to sleep with him. This begins a romance between two similarly lonely but anti-social people. They inch closer and closer to each other, sharing secrets and fears. However, when Emma and her family arrive, Garrett is embarrassed by their situation. He does not like feeling to dependent on Aurora, so he breaks it off with her.

After Emma and her family move to Nebraska, on a routine visit to their family doctor he finds lumps under her arm. They turn out to be malignant cancerous tumors, and Emma is given a death sentence. She accepts an offer from her best friend, Patsy, to visit New York City, but Patsy's friends are shallow idiots. As Emma gets weaker and weaker, Aurora learns to be nicer to her grand-children. Garrett shows up to give Aurora emotional support, and they awkwardly admit their love for each other. Aurora has her last fight with Flap, telling him that he can't keep his children. He is angry and walks way, but when Emma tells him the same thing, he reluctantly agrees with her and allows Aurora to raise them. Emma tells her sons not to worry about being mad at her for dying, but to try to remember all the good times they had together, and that she loves them. Tommy is upset and angry at his mother for dying. When he bad-mouths her, Aurora slaps him, then both cry as they realize that Emma did the best she could. When Emma dies, Aurora and Flap share their only emotional moment together, equally shattered. After the funeral, Garrett tries to reach out to Tommy, as Flap breaks down with Patsy. Aurora is back to being her hard-as-nails persona, determined not to be hurt again?

This film is definitely a Shirley MacLaine vehicle. She overpowers every scene she is in, and hovers in the emotional background of those she is not in. She is fantastic as a woman who is unable to show affection in socially acceptable ways. Debra Winger is also great as her daughter, Emma, the long-suffering wife and mother who always seems to have a bright outlook on life (even when fighting terminal cancer). Their supporting cast is top-notch, which helps understand why this film was chosen as Best Picture: the ensemble is wonderful. John Lithgow and Jack Nicholson were both nominated as Best Supporting Actor; Nicholson won. Even the boys playing Emma's sons hit no false notes. This is not a Gandhi, but in the school of Best Picture films that includes Marty, Kramer vs Kramer, and Ordinary People, this is a bona-fide classic. 

Terms of Endearment
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1983*
Produced and Directed  by James L. Brooks
Screenplay by James L. Brooks
Based on the book by Larry McMurtry 

A bit long, but it gives you the "feel" of the film

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
The Big Chill
The Dresser
The Right Stuff
Tender Mercies
Coincidentally or by design, this year's nominees were predominantly "intimate" films. The Big Chill is the famous reunion of college friends from the Sixties, getting reacquainted after a friend's funeral. The Dresser is the filmed version of a play featuring only two characters, Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, as an aging actor and his back-stage assistant/handler/"dresser." Both were nominated for Best Actor, but lost to Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies. That story is of an aging, alcoholic country-music singer seeking redemption. The Right Stuff is the one "epic" in the bunch. This is the film about the beginning of NASA and the US space program. I remember wanting to see this film when it came out. However, at three hours, and being based on a book that I could not get through, I never did see it.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Gandhi (Best Picture 1982)

Gandhi is another one of those films that just feels like it is a Best Picture. It has the scope and the breath of an "epic" as it follows the life of Mohandas Gandhi, the spiritual leader of India.

The film begins in 1948, as Gandhi is shot dead. No, it is not a five minute film. We then flash-back to 1893 South Africa, where Gandhi faces what must have been one of his first instances of institutionalized racism. He is not allowed to ride in a "whites only" train car. When he argues that he bought a First Class ticket just like the white man who objects to him did, he is thrown off the train. This incident leads to him creating an Indian Congress party of South Africa. Their first action is to protest the treatment of Indians working in South Africa in general, and specifically the racist "foreign ID cards" that they are obliged to carry by law. He convinces all of the Indians living in South Africa to burn their ID cards and to do other non-violent civil disobedient actions. This leads to the law being changed.

After his victory in South Africa, Gandhi becomes well-known in India. He returns there, travelling for a time to see the vast country before he decides whether he can help lead it. In 1918 he makes a speech saying that the rich men and the lawyers can not fully represent India. He maintains his fame as he builds a commune in which to live with his political friends. He is asked to visit a poor village, but when he arrives to speak the British (who are ruling India at the time) arrest him on charges of sedition. Gandhi calls for a national day of prayer, and when all Indians stop work on that day the nation is shut down. However, meetings without British permission are illegal, so in a town called Amritsar a British army man orders his troops to fire into a peaceful demonstration "to prove a point," slaughtering 1,516 men, women, and children. At a meeting with top Indian leaders and the British magistrates, Gandhi very calmly says that their goal is to use peaceful, non-violent, non-cooperation with the British rule until they make the British want to simply walk away from India.

Gandhi consistently speaks about equality. He asks for Hindu-Muslim equality, he asks for equality among all castes, and he asks for all people to peacefully fight against the British. He urges people not to buy British cloth, but to buy and proudly wear Indian woven clothes. The movement begins in earnest, but soon turns violent. Gandhi goes on a hunger strike, urging his people to be non-violent. The revolution ends, but then Gandhi is arrested. He goes to jail for six years.

 When he gets out, he plots strategy, eventually deciding to stage a symbolic Walk to the Indian Ocean for salt. Salt was a regulated commodity in India, so this is a symbolic slap in the face for the British rulers. (I'm thinking it's similar to the Boston Tea Party, for all us 'Mericans reading this.) At the Dharasana Salt Mine thousands of men are beaten by guards when they try to protest the British monopoly on salt. This beating begins to sway the world's public opinion against Great Britain. At this time Gandhi and his wife are arrested for speaking out against World War II. They are held in a palatial mansion for several years under house arrest. During this time, Gandhi's beloved wife dies.
Finally, the British agree to leave India. This creates an independent India, with a Hindu majority, and a newly created Pakistan, with a Muslim majority. A civil war breaks out while the two countries are trying to establish their individual independence, as neither group trusts the other. Gandhi goes on another hunger strike until the fighting ends.

And now we are where we come in, as Gandhi is shot and killed in 1948.

Although this is a terrific film, I feel like it could have been even more powerful than it was. For one thing, Gandhi's personal life is almost totally ignored. There are two great scenes with him and his wife: one where they argue about his politics, and one where they re-enact their wedding vows in front of their (presumed) grand-children. Robini Hattangady is wonderful as Kasturba Gandhi. She holds her own with Ben Kingsley, making us believe that these two people were made for each other. However, the film too easily portrays Gandhi as a force, instead of as a man. More scenes with his wife, children, and friends would have been nice.
Also, the film starts and ends with Gandhi's death. Some scenes are exactly the same. In a film of this length, every scene is important. Seeing him shot twice in three hours is not really necessarily. If we are going to have to face the death scenes, could we atleast be given some reason or back-story as to why Gandhi was assassinated? Sure, in the Big Picture it doesn't matter, but in a film about the man, the details count. Who was the killer? Why did he do it? What happened to him...was he beaten to death by the mob? Besides one scene where someone in a mob yells "Death to Gandhi!" during his hunger strike, Gandhi is portrayed as popular. So it would have been interesting to see more of the under-current of how his people thought of him before we see one of them rise up and shoot him. (By the way, is there some unwritten rule that says British biographies have to start with a death? Besides Gandhi both Lawrence of Arabia and Chariots of Fire start this way!)

Likewise, the extended travel scenes early in the film go on a bit too long in my opinion. Every parade, every train ride, every demonstration shows us the vista of India, so these specific scenes where Gandhi sees India for himself seem more like a travelogue than as an important part of the story.  

Still, this is a great film. The scope of the crowd scenes is grand; the scope of the intimate scenes is close. My favorite scenes are the extended Walk to the Indian Ocean, as I can't help but imagine the logistics it took to film those; and a scene near the end, during the Civil War between India and Pakistan. A Hindu man shows up to beg Gandhi to end his fast. He says in passing that he is going to hell, and when questioned, admits to killing a Muslim family after his son was killed in the riots. Gandhi looks up at him and gently explains a way for the man to get out of hell. Gandhi tells the man to find an orphaned boy, approximately the same age as his son, and to raise him as his own....but to raise him as a Muslim. The man breaks down crying, and I'm tearing up just remembering it. These scenes are what make Gandhi such a great film.

Ben Kingsley is in nearly every scene of the film. The weight of the film rests on this little shoulders, and he does a fantastic job. It is not surprise that he won Best Actor for the role. Although I remember wanting Paul Newman to win for The Verdict, as soon as I saw Gandhi I knew Newman didn't stand a chance. After Kingsley shaves his head and put son his small spectacles, we totally believe that he IS Gandhi. It is a wonderful performance. The film is full of other "name" supporting actors, but the only other role I noticed besides Mrs. Gandhi was Roshan Seth as Pandit Nehru. He is excellent in all of his scenes as Gandhi's friend and fellow patriot. It wasn't until the end of the film that I realized that he was the bad guy in The Temple of Doom

Gandhi won Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Screenplay, as well as four other Academy Awards. Before directing this film, director Richard Attenborough was more famous as an actor in The Great Escape or, later, Jurassic Park.

*Academy Award Best Picture of 1982*
Produced & Directed by Richard Attenborough
Screenplay by John Briley

Long, but entertaining...goes for the trailer as well as the film!

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
The Verdict
This was one of the years where, in the absence of an obvious winner like Gandhi, any of these other films might have won. ET is (or was) the most money-making film in history. It's a cute little film, but in my opinion does not stand the test of time. Tootsie is an adorable romantic comedy that explores what it means to be a man or a woman. Dustin Hoffman was fantastic as "Dorothy Michaels." And in The Verdict, Paul Newman gives the performance of a lifetime as a down-on-his-luck lawyer trying to do what is right just one last time. Missing is an art-house film starring Jack Lemmon, about people who go missing in Central America. Its nomination was a nod to Liberal Hollywood.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Magnificent Seven: Seven Scary Films!

I'm taking this week off from doing my Academy Award Best Picture Reviews to help celebrate Halloween! And although Halloween in Hollywood usually means Horror Films, I want to expand on the theme a bit to write about scary films in general. Thrillers? Suspense? Horror? They are all here. And right up front I want to admit that my list will not match yours. For one thing, you won't find films such as Halloween or Friday The 13th on this list. To me these types of films are too formulaic, and what thrills that they have fade away with time. Sure, we remember the fisherman from I Know What You Did Last Summer. But watch that film again and the scares are pretty obvious, don't you agree? So here are my choices, films that have scared me half a dozen times or more, in chronological order, The Magnificent Seven Scary Films!

1. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
The original Frankenstein, also directed by James Whale, is a classic "horror" film. However, if you watch it or most of the other classic Universal Monster films, they are not actually all that frightening. The Bride, however, features The Creature with an agenda. Boris Karloff is excellent as a pseudo-man who is looking for companionship,and he's willing to kill to get it. He threatens his creator, played by Colin Clive, as well as his creator's wife. There is a real sense that this Creature could cause incredible and immediate harm if provoked, so you had better watch out. The ending, with the iconically made-up Elsa Lancaster scared of her groom, is absolutely unforgettable.  
2. Psycho (1960)
The Bates Motel. Janet Leigh in the shower. Anthony Perkins as Norman. The music of Bernard Herrmann. Although (or perhaps because?) all of these have become pop cultural icons, some may argue that this is not a "scary" film. I say to you that this Alfred Hitchcock directed classic IS still scary. All you need to do to prove it is to watch it with someone who has not seen it before. I guarantee that you will realize how scary (and creepy) it is all over again by watching it through their eyes. 
3. Jaws (1975)
This was another one of those happy accidents that happen in motion pictures every once in awhile. Director Steven Spielberg had intended to show the shark in many more scenes than he ended up doing. He didn't because he couldn't! It turns out that the mechanical shark, named Bruce, kept breaking down. So he was replaced by yellow buoys and by staccato music. Result: fewer shark sightings = increased suspense = better frights = great movie. Has anyone ever seen this film and not be scared just a little bit when swimming in the ocean? It helps immensely that Everyman Roy Scheider represents the audience, and that he's scared out of his mind.
4. Alien (1979) 
One of the  more traditional "horror" films on my list, Alien is also one of the two science fiction films on my list. There are plenty of "alien invader" science fiction slash horror films out there, but most of them are not particularly scary. The great films The Day The Earth Stood Still and This Island Earth are both more similar to social commentaries than to horror films. It doesn't help that most of these films were made in the Fifties and Sixties. Alien, however, has modern special effects to go along with the disgusting invader. Sure, this film created what turned into an industry, but stick to the original. Cringe-worthy scenes abound. Also eye-coverings and gasps. In theatres, everyone can hear you scream. 
5. An American Werewolf In London (1981)
The most classically "horror" film on my list, it's a favorite. Werewolves, vampires, and zombies can be scary, but until this film was made the transformation make-up was mostly "stop-motion" or "off screen." I love Universal's The Wolf-Man, but it is more of a melodrama than a horror film, don't you think? This John Landis production shows us the wolf transformation in all its glory, and actually won an Academy Award for Best Make-Up (the first one ever given out!). However, after this film, and Alien before it, too many film-makers tried to go the other way and show us EVERYTHING. Films such as John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) for example would have been a better film if they had remembered "less is more," especially with the gore and gross out. An American Werewolf In London has its moments of gore, especially with the continuing-to-decompose Jack, but it still manages to strike just the right balance between technically cool and fantastically frightful.
6.  The Fly (original 1958, remake 1986)
This is the only double-entry on my list, and is the rarest of events in Hollywood: an original and a remake both being equally good, although in this case very different ways. Both tell the story of a scientist who is working on a matter transporter (or teleporter). Both scientists then try their inventions out on themselves, but inadvertently include a fly in the mix. In the original, the head and arm of the fly is exchanged with the scientist's body parts; in the remake, the DNA of the two creatures combine. The original stars Vincent Price is a rare sympathetic role (the scientist's brother) and the remake stars Jeff Goldblum. Both are great movies, and I haven't seen them in awhile. I think I'll go watch them this weekend!

7. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
I have chosen Silence... to represent all of the modern day "horror" films. You know, the ones about the psychological killers with axes, chainsaws, saws, ice picks, and whatever else they will use to terrorize you. And they are really out there. Hannibal Lector is a cartoon villain, but Buffalo Bill is unfortunately all-too realistic, and that is what makes this film so scary to watch. Come for the horror, stay for the Academy Award-winning performances of Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins.