Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Godfather (1972) - Best Film of Them All?

"The Godfather" (1972).

Marlon Brando had been kicking around Hollywood for a decade following his early decade of wild success making stinkers like "Burn!" and "Candy." Revisionists can now go back and make the case that these were, in fact, classics, but they sure weren't considered such at the time. After "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1962), Brando seemed to lose interest in making artistic statements and instead just took the paychecks. Talk around town was that Brando was washed up, despite still being only 47 years of age. He began spending more and more time on his remote Tahitian island, obsessed with his crazy scheme to turn it into a tourist destination (which may, long after his death, finally be happening).

Marlon Brando in costume looking at the camera
"I'm gonna make you an offer you cannot refuse."

Then, something unpredictable happened. All of the top leading men in filmdom were considered for the lead role of Don Corleone in 's best-selling story about New York mobsters called "The Godfather" (1972). That included Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, and Frank Sinatra. Director Francis Ford Coppola, however, seemed crazy when he insisted on somebody nobody else had thought of: Marlon Brando.

DVD cover for The Godfather
The DVD cover for "The Godfather."

Paramount relented and made Brando an insulting offer of mere union scale. He held out for a better deal, and Executive Producer Robert Evans ultimately (and very wisely) gave him a little more money (Brando needed the money to pay off one of his wives). It was not at all commensurate with Brando's stature within the film industry. He was so upset afterwards about this shabby treatment that he refused to do any publicity for the film. He made out wonderfully in the end, though, earning huge paychecks later in the decade due to the accolades he received for this performance.

Diane Keaton in The Godfater
Many forget that "The Godfather" was the breakthrough role for Diane Keaton.

Brando's refusal to give interviews didn't matter. The film was a huge hit and spawned a sequel, "The Godfather: Part II" that was as good as the original.  Brando was back, and by decade's end he was raking in the biggest salaries in history for glorified cameos in "Apocalypse Now" and "Superman." While many already considered Brando the top actor of his generation, "The Godfather" made him a legend.

Marlon Brando as The Godfather playing with his grandson
Marlon doing what Marlon does best in "The Godfather."

One of the fascinating little-known facts about the film is that, before the film's success, the subject matter was considered offensive to many people.  A request to film scenes in the Long Island town of Manhasset was turned down by the local residents, who were not willing to give up their peace and quiet just to host some sleazy gangster flick. There also may have been an undercurrent of feeling that the film was anti-Italian. A less picky neighborhood in Staten Island finally agreed.

Al Pacino firing a gun in The Godfather
Al Pacino has the most dramatic moments in "The Godfather."

The film is chock full of classic lines and scenes.  "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse" entered the lexicon, along with "Try the veal" and .  The scene where a Hollywood big shot (John Marley) is coerced by the mob into doing what it wants (he wakes up next to a horse's head) also became a catchphrase for intimidation. Brando's muffled voice, achieved by using a special prosthesis in his mouth, became the signature of the entire film. Everybody knew what "kissing the ring" meant after this film.

Marlon Brando with director Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather
The director of "The Godfather," Francis Ford Coppola, and Marlon Brando in character.

The film was a turning point in just about everybody's career: Al Pacino, Brando, Coppola, Robert Duvall, James Caan, all either saved their careers or got a huge boost out of if. Diane Keaton also made a name for herself as one of the very few females characters in the film.

Marlon Brando making a funny face while having makeup applied for his role in The Godfather
Marlon Brando had a wicked sense of humor during the filming of "The Godfather."

The plot is almost beside the point. The story follows Don Corleone as he leads his crime family and does what crime bosses do. It's all about "respect," who gives it and who gets it. And those who don't give it, get it in the end, the hard way. The viewer is left in suspense until the final scenes as to whether the Don can fend off his rivals and maintain power. It is a time of change in the crime world, and he wants to pass all of his power on to the next generation.
Kissing The Godfather's ring
In "The Godfather," it is all about respect, who gets it, who gives it, and who doesn't show enough and dies.

This film is the epitome of Hollywood for many Italian-American actors, and many others as well. From the script, to the score (Nino Rota), to the acting, everything is pitch-perfect.

James Caan as Sonny beating up a rival in The Godfather
Breakthrough role for James Caan as Sonny in "The Godfather."

There are some who claim that the sequel is a better film.  I don't see that at all.  At best, it equals this film and is a worthy continuation of it. "The Godfather," though, introduced the music, the structure, and the characters of the second film. This was the brilliant breakthrough, not the sequel, which did boast an iconic performance by Al Pacino. Brando (wisely) did not appear in the sequel despite having the opportunity to do so, so it is lesser simply because of that.

Whispering in Marlon Brando's ear in his role as The Godfather
Marlon Brando just towers over "The Godfather."

A must see for any film fan. On almost every good "Top Ten" list and mine as well. Below is the original trailer.

The Godfather original poster


Monday, October 29, 2012

Richard III (1955) - A Hammy Olivier Takes on a Suddenly Famous King

Now is the Winter of our Discontent

DVD cover of Richard III
"Richard III" (1955).

Usually, 's plays are best left in that medium: as plays. While revered by actors and English Majors everywhere, they simply don't have the broad appeal that they did three hundred years ago. That is not a slam against The Immortal Bard. Rather, it is a sad commentary on the declining interest of students and the general population for classic literature. However, interest in Richard III has revived because they recently located his body and reconstructed face. It's uncanny and unbelievable - but he looked almost like the twin of Olivier in "Richard III" (1955).

Richard III facial reconstruction
The real Richard III, reconstructed from his skeleton.

When you compare the above picture to these shots of Olivier playing Richard III, don't you feel the resemblance is so good that it's almost creepy? It's almost like the reconstruction comes alive.

Laurence Olivier as Richard walking with a hunch in Richard III
Laurence Olivier, looking as close to the real King as you'll ever get. The resemblance, in fact, is uncanny, made more uncanny by the fact that nobody knew what Richard III looked like until very recently.

Thus, since he so closely resembles one of his prime subjects, it's somehow weirdly appropriate that Laurence Olivier, like so, so many fine actors, was obsessed with mounting film productions of plays like "Richard III," "Hamlet" and "MacBeth." He managed to do that with the backing of London Films Productions. "Richard III" (1955) was his last and, arguably, best effort.  He was the best Shakespearean film actor of his time, and apparently he was determined to prove it. He hogs the camera throughout, but as both star and director, nobody could tell him "No." Certainly, he gives a fine interpretation as far as it goes, but it is fairly broad, and the extended asides to the audience explaining his plans are debatable in their impact. It is possible that Olivier intended to go a bit over the top with his performance to appeal to the masses and make the somewhat heavy material accessible. If so, it didn't really work, as the film was a financial failure in US theaters, though the TV ratings (NBC broadcast it in 1955, in color, on the same day that it premiered in theaters) were spectacular.

Laurence Olivier and Claire Bloom in Richard III
In my very humble opinion, "Richard III" is the best of Laurence Olivier's film adaptations of Shakespeare's plays.

Shakespeare's "Richard III" (which is an extremely long and complicated play) deals with a royal family member, Richard Plantagenet (Laurence Olivier), who is close but not quite close enough to the throne of England.  In those days, you were either in, or you were out. Being close, the saying goes, counts only in horseshoes.  It didn't count when his brother was King (put there by Richard's own brilliant military efforts) but he was just another guy annoying everyone in the royal court.

Lobby card of Laurence Olivier in armor and crown in Richard III
An original lobby card from "Richard III."

Richard decides to improve himself.  First he arranges the death of his older brother (John Gielgud), who is higher in the line of succession than Richard.  Then, his other older brother, the King himself (Cedric Hardwicke), quickly dies suspiciously of health reasons.  The King's two young kids are the heirs, but they are too young to assume power, so Richard finds himself appointed their protector until they come of age.

battle scene in Richard III
A battle scene in "Richard III."

At this point, Richard is so close to his goal that he can taste it. He finds a pretext to declare the dead King's marriage null and void on the grounds of bigamy. This disinherits the two little princes, who conveniently for Richard are never seen again. This leaves Richard in charge with his wife (Claire Bloom), with nobody left higher in the line of succession. He is crowned King, but there is a lot of grumbling.

One might assume that this is the point where "they lived happily ever after." That is not the case at all. Richard's fatal mistake is assuming that, despite his own rampant illegality, everyone else will act legally. This turns out not to be the case at all.

Laurence Olivier's death scene in Richard III
Laurence Olivier emoting in "Richard III."

It's a great film, one of the top adaptions of Shakespeare. When I was in Seventh Grade, our Social Studies teacher had us watch the film in class. It took several days, and we always enjoyed "film days" regardless of what film it was. For some reason, my teacher made a big deal about the fact that the older brother (Gielgud) was drowned in Malmsey wine, but that's pretty much the only detail I recall from that educational endeavour. While the film is in color, our version was in black-and-white for some reason, which made it even more difficult to follow than it needed to be. I highly recommend finding the original color version.

There are some problems with the film besides just Olivier's acting. In an effort to be historically accurate (though of Shakespeare, not of reality) and include as many Shakespearean quotes as possible, Oliver and the rest of the cast rush their lines and speak in murky accents that presumably are medieval. There are times when you may need to turn on the subtitles to understand the extended speeches. The long play also is truncated in the film, but part of the previous play in the cycle, "Henry IV," is included at the beginning for clarity. All this works to a certain extent, but you also miss that Shakespearean flow that builds inevitably to the climax. It makes certain events difficult to follow. Real-life events are squeezed into what certainly appears in the film to be a very narrow time frame that actually covered many years. People in 1600 might have been willing to sit all night to get their Shakespearean fix, but that wasn't the case in 1955, and it isn't now. Olivier keeps things moving right along by cutting and pruning, but this is why I said above that Shakespeare should stay on the stage, not in a movie theater. Yes, this is nit-picking, but the source of some issues is himself, so no more need be said.

Despite its flaws, "Richard III" is a worthy exercise in acting, history (though not all accurate), and medieval propaganda against Richard III. The film also influenced certain battle scenes in more recent films such as "Braveheart." Just be forewarned, while watching this film can be highly rewarding, you must work to earn those rewards, because sticking with it can be a chore. "Richard III is out on Blu-Ray and other formats.


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Havoc (2005) - Anne Hathaway Shows it All

Anne Hathawa Havoc
"Havoc" (2005).

What's a little harmless soft-core exploitation film such as "Havoc" (2005) among friends?  Not much - unless it stars Anne Hathaway, you know, THAT Anne Hathaway, Ella-of-the-Enchanted-Forest Anne Hathaway. Then, it becomes a big deal. Without her, this independent (Media 8 Entertainment) effort by director Barbara Kopple ends up on late-night cable and then quickly is forgotten. With her, "Havoc" becomes a cult classic.

Anne Hathawa Havoc
Gangsters aren't so tough - they're just misunderstood. Uh huh. That is the message of "Havoc."

The story portrays a typical fish-out-of-water scenario. A pair of naive young girls (Anne Hathaway, Bijou Phillips) set their sights on East L.A. to see what all the fuss is about "gangstas" and hip-hop.

Anne Hathawa Havoc
Anne Hathaway gets in a number of sultry poses in "Havoc."

There, they meet a vicious Mexican drug dealer named Hector (Freddy Rodriguez) and Latino gang-bangers.

Bijou Phillips in Havoc
Bijou Philips is good, but she's no Anne Hathaway in "Havoc."

Suddenly, it doesn't seem as glamorous to the girls as it had back home. They try to get out, but find that is not quite as easy to leave the barrio as it was to get in.

Bijou Phillips and other in Havoc
Things start getting a little freaky in the Barrio in "Havoc."

The film was scripted by a 17-year-old girl () who sadly perished shortly thereafter. High art "Havoc" is not, but it is not bad for a 17-year-old.

Anne Hathawa Havoc
Young love in "Havoc."

Heck, Kaplan got the darn thing financed, just doing that alone puts her accomplishments above 99.944% of all the other screenwriters on earth. However, "Havoc" also is obvious and heavy-handed, showing all the signs of a formulaic plot with a trite outcome. Well, nothing's perfect.

Anne Hathawa Havoc
Anne Hathaway stretching her craft in "Havoc."

Naturally, screenwriter Kaplan felt she couldn't portray minorities in a negative light - why, that might be construed as (gasp!) racist or, like, something. Thus, everybody in East L.A. is portrayed as being just super-wonderful and normal once you get past the gruff exteriors.

Anne Hathawa Havoc

Except, of course, our heroes happen to be dealing crack and heroin. But they have to do that to survive, so it's OK! Really! It's all society's fault!

Anne Hathawa Havoc
It pays to wear a brim if you want to be with Anne Hathaway in "Havoc."

"Havoc" was done better back in 1985 in Martin Scorsese's obscure "After Hours" starring Griffin Dunne and Rosanna Arquette. In that film, a man gets caught in a similarly alien environment, in that case a neighborhood of New York City populated by eccentric characters. As art, "After Hours" is much more interesting than "Havoc," but "Havoc" has Anne Hathaway doing her all, so it will remain popular for a long time.

Anne Hathawa Havoc
Anne Hathaway lays back in "Havoc."

In "Havoc," in place of the creepy Soho of "After Hours," the creepy setting is East L.A. Instead of sexually deviant women cornering our hero, there are gang-bangers cornering our heroines who look evil but have great haircuts and stylish threads. If forced to decide between the two scenarios myself, I'd probably go with the East L.A. gangbanger scenario simply because it occurs in daylight and not the oppressive night of "After Hours."

Anne Hathaway looking bored in Havoc
Anne Hathaway posing as sexily as she can in "Havoc."

Anne Hathaway gets nude in "Havoc." Well, it's either her or her body double, who knows these days, but it certainly looks like Anne Hathaway. Anne Hathaway has simulated sex. That's about the most striking thing about "Havoc."  Is Anne Hathaway "all that"? Not really, but you'll be the judge of that. Maybe you'll find her spectacular. That's why these types of films are popular, people are curious and want to see "the goods" and draw their own conclusions. So, Anne Hathaway performed a public service by filming "Havoc."

Anne Hathawa Havoc
Anne Hathaway could use a tramp stamp in "Havoc."

So, that's it for "Havoc." Anne Hathaway looks bored at all the wrong times in "Havoc" but goes through the expected paces. If that doesn't turn you on (it doesn't me), may I suggest that you watch "After Hours" instead with the fabulous Teri Garr. You'll thank me.

Below is the trailer for "Havoc."


Saturday, October 27, 2012

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - A Mystical Science Fiction Film

Journey To Infinity - And Beyond

Original film poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey
"2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968).

Until "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), science fiction films tended to be straightforward affairs: a superior technology is used in some way that causes problems for people that must be overcome. It had been that way since the days of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and was the foundation of the most recent attempt at a monumental science fiction film, "Forbidden Planet" (1958). , who, along with director , wrote the "2001: A Space Odyssey" story. Clarke, who had made his name with highly technical stories that predicted, among other things, geosynchronous satellites, leapt into celebrity and superstardom with this film.

The apes confront the Monolith in the Dawn of Man scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey
The Monolith first appears in the "Dawn of Man" sequence in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

The grand possibilities inherent in science fiction were left unfulfilled by focusing on hardware and aliens.  Fortunately, one or both of the two men came up with the idea of adding a mystical element to all the metal clanking around, and the genre changed forever.  That paved the way for "Star Wars" to go in a similar but slightly different direction and add the element of fantasy.  Science fiction films would never be the same again.  

An ape uses a bone to bash a skeleton in 2001: A Space Odyssey
The opening section of "2001: A Space Odyssey" figures directly into the film's resolution

After first seeing this film, I was fascinated and made a point to read the book.  I followed it with every other Arthur C. Clarke book I could find in the library (I thought that "Childhood's End" was the best, aside from "2001," and that they had quite similar themes).  Yes, those were the days when kids went to the library by themselves and checked out novels. At least this kid did.

The spaceship Discovery in 2001: A Space Odyssey
The Discovery spacecraft on its way to Jupiter in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

In "2001," astronauts on the Moon find an object that was deliberately buried by someone or something millions of years ago. The clues point to Jupiter being involved, so a mission is mounted to explore that planet. Along the way, problems develop and mysterious events occur. The ending has confused a lot of people. I think it is because those viewers are trying to think about it literally, rather than mystically.  The ending makes no sense in a classic science fiction sense.  But if you look past the mechanics, I think it is crystal clear in a metaphorical way.

The HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey
HAL 9000 in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

"2001" introduced all sorts of ideas that since have become commonplace.  Many were way, way ahead of its day.  Flat screen TVs?  Space shuttles?  Wireless video phone calls?  Chess-playing computers?  All were portrayed in this film, and now are taken for granted, but they were way out there in 1968.

An astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey
Very colorful spacesuits in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

The special effects also created a sensation. The idea of spaceships as huge, lurking entities, essentially self-contained traveling planets, instead of either tiny capsules or flying saucers, originated here. Today, I would take Douglas Trumbull's special effects in "2001" along with the signature Kubrick touches (the extended docking and other shuttle scenes, etc.) over those from any subsequent film.  That is all pure science fiction in the classic sense, science merged with fiction.

2001 Space Odyssey print ad
"2001: A Space Odyssey" print ad

There hasn't been a better portrayal of future technical development, the only error was in the year chosen as the benchmark, but that simply reflected the unbelievably fast pace of scientific advancement that decade.  Made at the absolute height of the Apollo years, this film brilliantly captured the optimistic Zeitgeist of the 1960s, when the US went from not even having had a man in orbit, to placing several on the Moon and returning them safely.

The main pod bay in 2001: A Space Odyssey
The Pod Bay in "2001: A Space Odyssey." "Open the Pod Bay doors, Hal."

I purposefully don't want to dwell on the plot, because in my opinion "2001" is pure philosophy and not really a "story." The focus on everyday events - staff meetings, supposedly innocent "chance" meetings with foreign colleagues, routine maintenance aboard a spacecraft - helps convey the idea that Space is just as normal and mundane a place as anywhere on Earth. The classical score (highlighted by "Thus Sprach Zarathustra" by Richard Wagner) reinforces this notion, equating the area around space stations and the Moon with the Danube.  The lead actors - Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester - never became big stars, and that also helps the message that Space is a place for ordinary people, not just larger-than-life movie stars or heroes.

The shuttle and incomplete space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey
The space shuttle and space station in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

You can nit-pick all you want. "What difference does it make if the planets are aligned?" regarding a key visual cue is my favorite.  Another is, "How could an embryo float in space?" When you hear questions like that, you just nod and move on. There's nothing you can do to explain it in a way that they would understand. Anyone who has similar questions is better off with the animated film "WALL-E."

The star child in 2001: A Space Odyssey
The Star Child in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Everybody focuses on the computer character of HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain, who is the film's heavy. Why does he do what he does?  This is a case where the sequel, "2010," also a fine film, essentially answers that question quite nicely.  Returning for a moment to the recent pseudo-remake, "WALL-E" (2008) - well, OK, it was more "influenced by" than a remake - that also was a high quality film.  Some would even say that it attains the same level as "2001" and is more entertaining.  Everybody is entitled to their own opinion about what entertains them, but what they are not entitled to are their own facts.  When confronted with an opinion like that, all I do is ask a simple question: which, objectively, is the more influential film, "2001" or "WALL-E"?  That ends that debate right there.

The Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey
The Monolith is a looming presence in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

You could do yourself a a favor and see a good copy of this film, without interruption, at night, with a good sound system and on a big screen in a darkened room. And if you like it and want to understand more, read the book.

Original film poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey
"2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968).


Gone With The Wind (1939) - Clark Gable Manages the Impossible

The Classic Civil War Drama

Original poster Gone with the Wind
"Gone With The Wind" (1939).

No film has more prestige than "Gone with the Wind" (1939), the classic soaper from David O. Selznick'sSelznick International Pictures and MGM.  This romance has put more people in seats in theaters and watching on the various video formats over the years than any other film.  Period.  There is absolutely no debate about that.  Yes, Titanic (1997) and many other mediocre films have grossed more money due to higher ticket prices, but this film was still being revived thirty and forty years after its release - to a good reception, without gimmicks, in its original format.

Vivien Leigh Scarlett costume test
Vivien Leigh costume test, 1939
Vivien Leigh Scarlett costume test
Front and back, both classics, of Vivien Leigh In "Gone With The Wind."

In constant Dollars, it will always be a champion, and making around $400 million on a 1939 investment of less than $2 million, well, that ain't too shabby. That, of course, would not count all the ancillary merchandising - the DVD box sets, the soundtrack sales, the spin-offs and remakes - that have accumulated over the years. I highly doubt that Avatar will experience similar reverence, though you never know for sure.

Gone With The Wind
Beaufort, South Carolina. So you think you know everything about "Gone With The Wind"? This is known as The Rhett House. The Rhett Family was the richest family in the South. The Butler Family was the richest northern family. And that is where Rhett Butler from "Gone With the Wind" got his name. And the secession papers that started the Civil War were signed in the basement of this house.

Maybe they'll start an actual religion to Star Wars and it will eclipse "Gone With The Wind," they might just as well given the hype that series gets. It will give all those little stormtroopers even more reason to go out and buy those Star Wars legos and action figures, so it would be good for business. "Gone With the Wind" just remains in people's hearts, not their toy chests.

Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh as Scarlet O'Hara walking outside Tara in Gone with the Wind
Tragedy is about to strike - again - in "Gone With The Wind."

This is a tale of the South during the Civil War, marching to its doom despite being forewarned that defeat is inevitable. Several things make this film stand out head and shoulders above the pack.  First, it has a classic anti-hero in Scarlet O'Hara, played to absolute perfection by English actress Viven Leigh.  She is scheming, vindictive, self-centered and controlling.  I think that, for a lot of people, her character is what makes the film special.

Vivien Leigh as Scarlet O'Hara in Gone with the Wind
The "Gone With The Wind" shoot was very taxing on all concerned. Here, it is 4:00 a.m., and we see an exhausted, tired, and muddy Vivien Leigh holding a small bouquet of flowers that had just been given to her by Arthur Arling, the Camera Operator for Gone With The Wind. During the production Miss Leigh and Arling became close friends and she would often confide/complain to him regarding daily script changes, Gable's bad breath, and the never ending retakes. Arlings advice to her was; "Don't worry, when you get the Academy Award for this, it will all be worth it!"

She hits home to many women (the lengthy book, of course, was written by a woman,

Gone With The Wind Scarlett O'Hara Vivien Leigh
One definitely gets the impression that it was not a particularly happy set on "Gone With The Wind." It was dirty, there were late hours, and it lasted a long time.

Clark Gable as Rhett Butler embracing Vivien Leigh as Scarlet O'Hara in Gone with the Wind
One of the couple's happier moments in "Gone With The Wind."

A confederate ball in Gone with the Wind
A Civil War Confederate ball in "Gone With The Wind."

Vivien Leigh as Scarlet O'Hara running outside Tara in Gone with the Wind
Scarlett at Tara in "Gone With The Wind."

Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind
Mammy, played by Hattie McDaniel, in "Gone With The Wind."

Clark Gable as Rhett Butler driving Scarlet O'Hara played by Vivien Leigh through burning Atlanta in Gone with the Wind
The drive through burning Atlanta remains a cinema classic in "Gone With The Wind."

Clark Gable Gone with the Wind 1940 premiere
Clark Gable at the "Gone With The Wind" premiere, January 17, 1940
I've never heard of any of the African-American actors in this film ever saying a negative word about it, and I don't know why they would, given their characters' extremely sympathetic portrayal. Here's a thought: name another mainstream release from that period that employed that many Black actors, and to good effect. Tick tock, tick tock....

Confederate casualties in Gone with the Wind
One of the most famous scenes in film history, of Confederate dead and wounded in "Gone With The Wind."

Vivien Leigh as Scarlet O'Hara with the sun behind her in Gone with the Wind
Scarlett always gets in the last word in "Gone With The Wind."

I don't have to recommend this film, it recommends itself. Below is the original trailer.