Sydney Pollack (1934-2008)

May 27, 2008

Man. They’re dropping like flies this year. Like Altman, Peckinpah, Frankenheimer and Lumet, Sydney Pollack cut his teeth directing TV in the 50’s and 60’s before making the leap to the big screen. The good thing about these early TV to film directors is that they were great at economizing. The bad thing is that not many of them developed much of a cinematic style, Altman and Peckinpah being the exceptions. But there are plenty of films that Pollack directed that deserve multiple viewings. My favorites being Three Days of the Condor, Tootsie and Jeremiah Johnson. (a somewhat knockoff of Altman’s superior McCabe and Mrs. Miller but has its entertaining moments). The Firm isn’t great, but has a contagious urgency to it that makes it seem entertaining. It’s not a bad thriller.

What I’ll really remember Pollack for is for his brilliant, hilarious and touching performance in Husbands and Wives, a very underrated Woody Allen film, that may have gotten the props it deserved (including Oscar nods for both Pollack and Judy Davis) if Allen hadn’t thrown a hump into his step daughter during production.

R.I.P. Sydney Pollack.

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What Is It With Steven Spielberg?

May 22, 2008

The guy can direct. That scene in Munich when the three hunters kill the assassin in revenge for murdering their colleague? That was freaking incredible. But… was the movie incredible? No. It was solid, but in the end, it didn’t feel like it was something that I hadn’t seen before, in one way or another. How about the scene in Saving Private Ryan when Jeremy Davies is cowering on the stairs, when his comrade, Adam Goldberg, is being stabbed to death by a Nazi? How about in Schindler’s List when Ralph Fiennes, after “pardoning” a worker for not being able to clean the stains out of his tub, changes his mind and shoots the worker, simply to make himself feel better? All great scenes filmed by a great director. BUT. I always feel that Spielberg, no matter how intense the subject matter, can’t help himself, and panders too much to his audience. Spielberg is more of an entertainer than anything else. Scorsese may make a Spielberg movie (The Aviator anyone?), but Spielberg, although capable, will never make a Scorsese picture. Even when it seems like he’s going there, he never completely goes there.

I was sixteen when I saw E.T.. There was a drunk dude sitting next to me, his soda cup filled with liquor. At one point he started to cry, whimpering between breaths… “Spielberg, Spielberg”. He may as well have been saying: “Jesus, Jesus… I love you” Spielberg is one of the all time great American filmmakers, I know this. But despite that fact, there are only two films in the fifty something films he’s made in his career that I give multiple viewings to. Those films are Duel and Jaws. And that’s it. Other filmmakers of his caliber and of his generation have made as many films as Spielberg, but I watch they’re movies again and again. Filmmakers like: Scorsese, Coppola, Friedkin, Fosse, Allen, Cassavetes, Polanski, Altman, Ashby, Lynch, Lumet, De Palma. Hell, I even watch more multiple viewings of films that Clint Eastwood has directed, than films that Spielberg has.

Hey Grumpy Guy! What about Schindler’s List, or Saving Private Ryan? What about them? They’re not great movies. Huh? What? The hell you say! Yeah, I said it. They’re big films, with amazing moments in them, but they are not great movies. So now Spielberg has made another Indiana Jones movie, 20 years after the last one he made. I haven’t seen it yet, and I’m probably not going to. What’s the point? Haven’t I already seen it without actually seeing it? Badazz MoFo has a review which I’m sure is completely accurate.

So what if Grumpy Guy was stranded on an island for the rest of his life and could only have ten Spielberg movies to watch? What would those movies be?

1. Duel
2. Jaws
3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark
5. Saving Private Ryan
6. Schindler’s List
7. Minority Report
8. Empire of the Sun
9. War of the Worlds
10. Munich

Which ones would you choose?


It’s Alive! Alive!

May 19, 2008

Frankenstein: The True Story (1973) TwoStars
Dir. Jack Smight
Starring: Leonard Whiting, Michael Sarrazin, James Mason, Jane Seymour, David McCallum

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The earliest nightmare I remember having was of being chased in the woods by Boris Karloff’s monster from Frankenstein . Karloff has given many film fans nightmares since 1931 with his brilliant performance and the amazing makeup by Jack Pierce. But director James Whale took a lot of liberties with Mary Shelley’s famous book and the Peggy Webling play, leaving the door open for a more faithful cinematic portrayal of the legend. Enter Frankenstein: The True Story, an interesting attempt at filming Shelley’s story, but pedestrian writing and directing undermines the films ambitious intentions.

With Karloff’s monster being so iconic, the producer’s of Frankenstein: The True Story, thought it was necessary to have James Mason, one of the films stars, explain their approach to the story, a clumsy and unintentionally funny start to the movie it doesn’t really recover from, not to mention the fact, that while Mason tries to convince the viewer that they’re in for a hell of a ride, most of the movie’s plot points are given away in the clips they show.

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Leonard Whiting is Victor Frankenstein on this outing. Haunted by the drowning of his brother, Victor becomes obsessed with the idea of creating life from death. He tracks down Dr. Clerval (David McCallum) a reclusive, bitter, scientist that has already experimented with reanimating dead tissue. The two join forces and make their first attempt at bringing a dead man back to life. Clerval dies before the experiment can begin, and before he can tell Frankenstein he has discovered a flaw in the process. Unaware of the dangers that await him, Frankenstein proceeds with the experiment, and produces The Creature (Michael Sarrazin).  This creature is the complete opposite of what film fans have come to expect from Frankenstein’s Monster.

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This creature is a handsome man, with a mind that is quick at learning. Victor teaches his creation how to behave in society, and soon introduces him to the world as a foriegn prince traveling abroad. The Creature is fascinated with the world he is exposed to, especially with music, or anything that he finds beautiful, the first word he learned. He also has a possessive love for Victor, like a son to a father. Victor teaches his Creature that he is beauty, not only physically, but as a spiritual creation.

The Creature’s beauty doesn’t last however. His looks and mind begin to deteriorate. Victor searches for a cure, but fails, and The Creature gets worse and worse. In an attempt to keep The Creature from discovering what is happening to him, Victor destroys all the mirrors in his flat, and locks The Creature in his room. But he can’t hide his own disgust and contempt for The Creature, the uglier he becomes.  Eventually The Creature discovers the truth about his condition, and horrified at what has happened to him, having been taught that he represents beauty, tries to kill himself in numerous ways, only to discover that his dead ass is already dead.

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From this point on, Frankenstein: The True Story, takes on a more familiar plot line, as the creature, having survived the fall off the cliff, befriends a blind man that plays a violin, and later encourages the creation of another monster, this time a woman played by Jane Seymore.

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But the film suffers from numerous mistakes in the script. The addition of Dr. Polidori (James Mason), distracts from the relationship between Frankenstein and The Creature. Making matters worse is a less than interesting Victor Frankenstein. This mad scientist is less insane and more of a dumb stooge, constantly being manipulated by everyone around him, including his wife, two other mad scientists, the creature and eventually The Creature’s bride. He’s simply too passive as a main character to hold a 3 hour long movie together. Director Jack Smight (Harper, No Way To Treat a Lady) is competent, but has no style.

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Despite its ham fisted TV production values, Frankenstein: The True Story has a few things going for it. There are some shocking moments, the most memorable when The Creature rips the head off of Prima “The Bride” at a gala ball.  Sarrizin’s portrayal of The Creature, although not as frightening or memorable as Karloff’s, is very interesting, and in the hands of a more talented director and larger budget, it may have rivaled his predecessor . As it stands, Sarrizin’s performance is fourth, behind Karloff, Lee and Boyle. (Yes, I consider “Young Frankenstein” as one of the better versions of the story).  Fans of Hammer Horror will enjoy much of the production as make-up artist Roy Ashton had been involved in numerous Hammer films. Overall, unless you’re a big Frankenstein fan, Grumpy Guy can’t recommend the film, it’s too long and meandering. But for those into Hammer (even though it’s not a Hammer production, it feels like one) and those into early seventies trash cinema or obscure horror films, then Frankenstein: The True Story, is worth a look.


Goodbye Diabolik

May 16, 2008

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The first movie I ever saw John Phillip Law in was The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Man, did I love me some Sinbad when I was a kid. Law wasn’t a great actor, but was a dynamic screen presence. He didn’t really make a lot of movies, good ones anyway, but a few of them like Diabolik, Barbarella, and Death Rides a Horse, are cult classics.

Cinebeats has the highlights of Law’s career, including some very interesting looking films I had no idea he had made, movies like The Sergeant with Rod Steiger.

R.I.P. Phil.


God you’re ugly

May 12, 2008

If… [1968]

Dir. Lindsey Anderson
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, David Wood, Richard Warwick, Christine Noonan

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  • There’s something indecent about you Travis. The way you slouch about. You think we don’t notice you with your hands in your pockets. The way you just sit there looking at everyone.

I was about fifteen the first time I saw If…. We had just gotten cable and it played in a cycle for several weeks. I couldn’t figure it all out because so much of it was completely absurd. What did it mean when Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) and Johnny (David Wood) are handcuffed together as they run through the square? What did it mean when the Head Master pulls out a giant drawer and the Chaplain is inside it? What did it mean when Travis wrestles with The Girl (Christine Noonan) in the café? I couldn’t be sure. But I completely related to the images of youth vs. age, and the defiance of growing older and being assimilated into the “order” of adulthood.

If… takes place in a British college where hierarchy, routine, discipline and rules are what life is made of. The students are being molded as foot soldiers for the system, clones and drones in which to keep the machine and collective running. Some of these students revel in their roles, some simply go along, and others, like Travis, are constantly devising a way out or a way to change or destroy the system.

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McDowell is a screen presence that doesn’t have to say anything to impress. His face is at once hideous and handsome, an image director Lindsey Anderson (This Sporting Life) plays with at the beginning of the film. When we first meet Travis, he’s a mystery, his face literally hidden from us with a scarf. When he removes the scarf, a mustache is revealed, forbidden by the school. Travis trims it off, his friend commenting on his bizarre looks, a cinematic moment for both the hero of the film and McDowell.

Johnny:
God you’re ugly. You look evil.

Travis:
My face is a never fading source of wonder to me.

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Travis is like an English Holden Caulfield from “Catcher In the Rye”, if not in personality, then as a spirit born to question authority. When being disciplined by Rowntree, the head whip, for their subversive attitude, the “Crusaders” are asked if they have anything to say. The others keep quiet. But Travis doesn’t roll like that.

  • The thing I hate about you Rowntree is the way you give coke a cola to your scum and your best “teddy bear” to Oxfand, and expect us to lick your frigid fingers for the rest of your frigid life.

At College House, sexual aggravation abounds, as there are no women, except for the elderly nurse and the Head Master’s wife (who walks around the school naked when no one is around). The girl that Travis and Johnny meet after stealing a motorcycle, seems to be both real and a aberration. In the absence of females, an atmosphere of male prison hierarchy rises, with The Whips having their pick of Juniors (teddy bears) as assistants.

Anderson and cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek (Amadeus) create a poetic world, some moments in color, others in black and white, while “Travis’s Theme” (what sounds like a South African choir, the congas synchronized with Travis’s free beating heart) plays through out. The third act takes on a surreal atmosphere, funny and horrific, often producing absurd imagery that resembles the work of Richard Lester or Jean Luc Godard. The ending is remarkable and foreshadows the tragedy of “Columbine” by thirty years. Although Anderson’s take on the “Crusader’s” ultimate destructive act is completely insane, it doesn’t dilute or undermine the emotional impact of the scene.

If… is a great coming of age film and great satire. Released around the same time as other great sixties films of rebellion like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Easy Rider, but not mentioned enough in the same historical sense. Anderson and McDowell would go on to make two more films featuring the character of Mick Travis, O’ Lucky Man (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982).