My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 4

16) Interrogation (The Dark Knight, 2008, dir. Christopher Nolan)

My favorite comic book based film, and an all around great movie. The screenplay is one of the tightest I’ve ever encountered and this is a great scene that really gets to the heart of the relationship between The Joker and Batman. The Joker is in love with Batman, not that he wants to have sex with him, but he is emotionally fulfilled by Batman’s existence. Without Batman, The Joker would have no one worthy of him to combat.

17) What’s In The Box (Se7en, 1995, dir. David Fincher)

This is one of those instances where every one is hitting their mark and it all comes together to make such a great film. I’m usually not a fan of Fincher, but the cinematography and editing here plus the actors all delivering make for one of the best climactic film scenes ever.


My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 3

11) Rhapsody in Blue (Manhattan, 1979, dir. Woody Allen)

New York is one of the great mythical cities, in that there is the New York that is real and there is the New York that is a fantasy of our minds. Allen captures this magical New York perfectly in the opening of Manhattan, using classic black and white photography as well as the signature George Gershwin tune.

12) Please Don’t Tell My Mother (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1969, dir. Milos Forman)

This was one of the first films to showcase the acting chops of Jack Nicholson, but I like this scene because of the performances Louise Fletcher and Brad Dourif bring to the table. It is rare you see a scene so perfectly acted. All of these actors are at the top of their game.

My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 2

6) Waiting For a Train (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1969, dir. Sergio Leone)

Wordless, with a soundtrack provided by found objects in the setting. A squeaky windmill, a dripping water tower, the steady rhythm of a steam engine. It provides the perfect introduction to the film’s protagonist, Harmonica (Charles Bronson).

7) Getting Baptized (Ed Wood, 1994, dir. Tim Burton)

Hack director Wood has gotten financing from an L.A. church. One of the conditions for the money to come through is that the entire cast and crew of Plan Nine from Outer Space will be baptized. The unaffected homosexual producer Bunny Breckenridge (Bill Murray) takes the hefty spiritual ritual with little thought in a cleverly funny moment. This is also Burton’s masterpiece in my opinion.

8) Flowers (Harold and Maude, 1971, dir. Hal Ashby)

Ashby is one of the greats of the 1970s, and this scene featuring Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, and the music of Cat Stevens is a picture of perfect composition. The transition from the field of flowers to the military cemetery is a very beautiful one.

9) He’ll Keep Calling Me (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1989, dir. John Hughes)

This scene is a perfect summation of the profound indecision and anxiety Cameron suffers from. Throughout the film, he’s a character who is simply pushed around by his off screen father or by Ferris or by authority in general. This is every thing going on in his brain.

10) Make the Sun Rise (Black Orpheus, 1959, dir. Marcel Camus)
Set during Carnival in Brazil, the film retells the mythic story of Orpheus and Eurydice through an Afro-Brazilian guitarist and the woman he loves. In this final scene, we see that the tragic story of these lovers is part of a cycle and this children are beginning to play down a path that is both beautiful, but painful.

Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – Casualties of War

Casualties of War (1989)
Starring Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn, John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, Don Harvey, Thuy Thu Le

Coppola made Apocalypse Now. Stone made Platoon. And De Palma made Casualties of War. At the end of the 1980s De Palma was secure in his place as a Hollywood film director. When he had been closing out the 1970s he was still immersed in Hitchcoclk style thrillers. A decade later he’s made a gangster epic (Scarface), a 1930s historical crime film (The Untouchables), and a Vietnam War flick. Despite the change in venue and content, there are the same cinematographic trademarks (deep focus and POV tracking shot). But how does this film shape up next to the other great Vietnam War flicks?

PFC Ericksson (Fox) is out on patrol with his unit when they are ambushed. He’s standing over a Viet Cong tunnel and falls half way in. As a Cong soldier inches closer, knife in teeth, Ericksson is saved in the nick of time by Meserve (Penn). Later, they both witness their commanding officer getting gunned down and Meserve takes over. He becomes obsessed with revenge and leads his group of five men to a village where they kidnap a  young girl with the intent to rape and savage her. Ericksson is frozen as he must decide whether to protect this innocent or honor the bonds of his military brotherhood.

Casualties is by no means a perfect film, but it is a surprisingly mature film for De Palma, where he seems to be balancing his camera flourishes with a thoughtful look at the nature of war. There are still some cringe inducing line deliveries and Penn’s Maserve is played a little too broad for my taste. I did like Meserve’s speech about hating the Army. Often in pop culture, the soldier who brutalizes for pleasure is made out to be a dedicated troop. It feels more realistic that such a sociopath would despise the lack of self-decision that comes with the military. Once Meserve is out of the eye of his superiors he adopts his own sense of law. Ericksson provides a balance as a soldier who appreciates the idea of duty and rank. When Ericksson goes to report what he has seen he goes through the proper channels of authority. Meserve tries to get revenge under the radar.

De Palma ends things in a way I didn’t expect. Moments before the credits rolled, I felt the film hinting at a possible dramatically violent finale, but then it ends in an ambiguous way. The message of the film is hammered way to bluntly, though. De Palma does an excellent job of telling this story in a clear, comprehensible way and he uses some interesting technical skills. At the end I felt a certain dissatisfaction with  product. It’s not as high an artistic achievement as Apocalypse Now and its doesn’t have the emotional weight of Platoon. It is a well made piece of cinema with some very enjoyable acting, but definitely doesn’t score as high as some of De Palma’s other films for me.

Next: The first big disaster, Bonfire of the Vanities.

The Summer Blockbuster: 1986 – 1995

Coming out of the mid-80s, if you had money invested in Steven Spielberg and George Lucas you were probably incredibly rich. They had success after success, not just in their own films, but in those of directors they were producing and supporting. However, there would be an odd dip that occurred in the remainder of the 1980s. A few film franchises would rise to prominence, Lucas’ stock would plummet, and Spielberg would attempt to try out some non-science fiction and fantasy films.

While science fiction flicks made big box office they also cost big budgets to make. It’s no surprise that many studio attempted to go with smaller budget films and these typically focused on “rah rah” crowd pleasers are mixtures of action and comedy. The Karate Kid franchise was one of those “rah rah” type films that aimed dead center at kids and young adolescents. You have a young man, bullied at school, who is taught how to fight by a wizened karate master. He’s able to overcome the bullies through beating them up. You also had the first three films of the Lethal Weapon series which raised Mel Gibson to prominence and managed to pull in big audiences on a fairly small budget, something studios always like to see. Along with Lethal Weapon, there was Beverly Hills Cop I and II, which vaulted the already popular Eddie Murphy into an even higher level of celebrity. Even today, if you notice every summer seems to have one Eddie Murphy film (this year’s is Shrek 4).

There was also use a big name actor to sell the film, rather than a premise. In 1986, Tony Scott’s Top Gun was released and took Tom Cruise, who had appeared in quite a few films before then, most notably Tony’s brother Ridley’s Legend, to stardom. Top Gun works as both a star making vehicle and a “rah rah” America movie. Tom Cruise’s Maverick leads his flight unit take on North Koreans flying a fictional style of fighter jet on par with the American F-14s. Despite the implausibility that North Korean would ever be able to compete with the US Airforce, the film was a huge hit and a high selling soundtrack. Tom Hanks was the other actor to make his way up to super stardom during the 1980s. Penny Marshall’s Big was his breakthrough, a simple story of a teenage boy who becomes an adult after making a wish. Budget-wise this was an incredibly cheap film to make. No real special effects and no actors who were huge names, at the time. What made the film such a great success was the honest charisma Hanks brings to all his roles. There are few actors that handle a film so naturally. Hanks would be attached to many more summer movies to come, most notably Sleepless in SeattleForrest Gump, and Apollo 13 and  both films that went against the Spielberg/Lucas formula for a blockbuster.

But you can always rely on certain films being a success based on the name attached to them in the director’s seat. James Cameron, unlike Spielberg, didn’t produce a prolific amount of work but it seemed that he didn’t need to to become notable. Cameron made non-summer movies The Terminator and Aliens which set him up for Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Character-driven films weren’t Cameron’s strong suit and he relied a lot on technology, particularly new types of computer generated effects not yet seen by the public. His T-1000, the liquid metal villain of T2 was a huge shift in special effects driven film making. However, his next film, True Lies would be a non-CG focused film with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis fighting Middle Eastern terrorists.

At the end of the day though, you could always rely on familiar names, be it director or franchise to fuel a successful movie. Spielberg put out the third Indiana Jones film at the end of the 1980s and established a new franchise with Jurassic Park. Jurassic was a type of film that really overtook pop culture in 1993 in a way it would be hard for a single film to do now. It was one of the last pre-internet media fueled movies and was in theaters from June of ’93 all the way to October of the same year. Disney also came to the forefront for the first time as a major summer draw. It seems like an obvious company to make summer blockbusters but they had never done so. They got their legs wet with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, both Holiday season releases. Nothing compared to the success of The Lion King. It was a reworking of Hamlet, an odd piece of source material for a summer movie, but it worked. Audiences went again and again and since Disney has had a picture in the running every summer, though now its CG Pixar features.

Next: Batman, Spider-Man, and Star Wars

Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – The Untouchables

The Untouchables (1987, dir. Brian de Palma)
Starring Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Robert DeNiro, Andy Garcia, Charles Martin Smith, Patricia Clarkson, Billy Drago

If someone told me Sisters and Carrie were made by the same director, it would sound plausible. If someone told me Carrie and The Untouchables were made by the same director I would definitely question the validity of that statement. At this point in his career, this was de Palma’s most “Hollywood” film. Its based on actual events, though highly dramatized for the screen and has the sort of “sweeping” nature you expect from movies vying for an Oscar nod. The story is an interesting one and de Palma is allowed to use some of his cinematographic trademarks along the way.

It’s the height of Prohibition in Chicago and one man runs the bootlegging industry, Al Capone (DeNiro). His men use violence and murder to enforce their control, with many innocents caught in the middle. Special Agent Elliot Ness (Costner) is sent in to work against the flow of police corruption and find that piece of evidence needed to bring Capone down. Along the way he recruits an accountant, a police academy rookie, and veteran beat cop Malone (Connery). These men are untouchable, free from the briberies and intimidation tactics of the mob. As they get closer and closer to finding the witness and evidence they need the violence rises and many of them won’t make it to see the end.

All the names associated with this film make you think it would be a dynamic and interesting look at the fall of Capone. You have de Palma directing, David Mamet on the script, and a cast of talented actors. However, the film is utterly dull. In particular, the acting of Kevin Costner is like cardboard here. He makes Ness into one of the flattest, uncharismatic crime fighters I’ve seen in a movie. Not once did I feel energized or inspired by anything he had to say to his men. I half expected a shot of the officers gathered to work under him half asleep as he droned on. On the other hand, I feel like there’s very little direction being given to the actors and there is obviously not much good in the screenplay.

Where the film is interesting is when de Palma is allowed to play with how the camera tells the story. There is his typical first person shot, used during a very crucial scene involving Malone. There’s also the use of deep focus during an opera scene and some moderately interesting tracking shots. For the most part though, the movie seems devoid of life, which is a shock when it employs such a dynamic director like de Palma. The majority of the work seems to have been put into production design. 1930s Chicago is reproduced with pristine accuracy and costume design was overseen by Armani. The film’s score is also handled by the always amazing Ennio Morricone. It just would have been nice to see a film where everyone was allowed to bring their A game.

The Summer Blockbuster: 1975 – 1985

It began with a great white shark.

It wasn’t until the mid-70s that the concept of summer being a time to release big budget, special effects driven pictures came into the zeitgeist. Looking at the current wave of summer movies, its easy to see that science fiction and fantasy dominate, but back in the 1950s and 1960s the majority of these genre films were low budget and full of poor acting. The novel Jaws by Peter Benchley was purchased by Universal in 1973 and went through two directors before the studio settled on the relatively green Steven Spielberg. Universal’s first choice had been John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven) and then Dick Richards, who was fired after continually referring the shark as “the whale”.

To Universal, Jaws was going to be a successful film, but they never expected to be as huge a hit as it became. On June 20th, 1975 the picture was released nationwide, meaning it opened in Los Angeles and New York as well as smaller venues across the country. In the past, a film would open in a larger market and slowly spread across the country. Many film historians see this business move as the one that ensured Jaws‘ success. Up to this point the late 1960s and early 1970s had been dominated by artist driven pictures, and the studios had given up the reigns to young and headstrong young directors with a vision. Directors like Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces) and Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude) had been the kind of filmmakers producing studio pictures, something very unlikely even today. In many ways, by using Spielberg, a contemporary of these young directors, but saddling him with a very studio controlled and non-character driven film, the studios were attempting to reassert their control. But the success of Jaws was nothing compared to Star Wars‘ release two years later.

There’s not much to say about Star Wars that isn’t well-known already. George Lucas, after establishing himself with American Graffiti and THX-1138, released his science fiction epic using the tropes of the serialized films of his childhood. Unlike Jaws, Lucas didn’t have a plethora of studio support behind his film and clashed with his crew, who were veterans of the film industry while Lucas was seen as an upstart. After missing its Christmas 1976 release, 20th Century Fox moved it to May 1977. Early director’s cuts were screened for Lucas’ friends, including Brian de Palma and Steven Spielberg and their reactions were disappointing. Every thing seemed to be pointing at Star Wars being a colossal failure. Lucas finally screened the picture to 20th Century Fox executives and was shocked. They loved it. One executive admitted to crying during the film at how beautiful it was, and Lucas was completely blown away from getting studio approval on a film for the first time in his career.

However, instead of becoming a studio lackey, Lucas began to build his own quiet corner of the film industry and cleverly established production facilities for sound and other technical aspects of film to create a financial safety net.  Filming for The Empire Strikes Back began in 1979, with Lucas letting Lawrence Kasdan direct while Lucas supervised as producer. While the budget for Star Wars has been $11 million ($3 million over budget), Empire had a pool of $18.5 which, after a studio fire, became $22 million. Lucas always seemed to be struggling with the limitations of the contemporary technology to realize his vision. It can be seen in the concept art of Ralph McQuarrie, that Lucas wanted to make something so expansive and ground breaking. It wouldn’t be till 1999’s The Phantom Menace that he got his wish, while audiences felt the heart of the series was lost amidst masturbatory world building.

For most of the 1970s and 80s, Spielberg and Lucas dominated the summer movie. Spielberg went on to give us Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. He then teamed with Lucas to create the Indiana Jones franchise, a film series that seemed to up the ante in terms of character based blockbusters. Harrison Ford has said in interviews that he is always much more eager to play Indiana Jones again, than Han Solo. With Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Hollywood underwent a change that would shape the industry for decades to come. The level of violence in Temple challenged the MPAA’s standards and Spielberg desperately didn’t want the film to be slapped with the death sentence of an R rating. These Spielberg/Lucas films depended greatly on the viewer-ship of young audiences, particularly for the merchandising tie-ins. As a compromise, the MPAA invented the rating of PG-13.

One year after Temple, Spielberg released the Robert Zemeckis-directed Back to the Future, a film that combined special effects driven sci fi with the teen comedy. The film proved that you didn’t have to have Spielberg or Lucas directing a film to make it a huge success. Both Zemeckis and screenwriter Bob Gale were terrified that the film had not lived up to their vision and figured it would bomb. Audiences went crazy for it however, and critic Roger Ebert pointed out that at its core it shared a lot of thematic similarities with the beloved It’s A Wonderful Life. As we entered into the mid-80s, Lucas began to fade from the scene as a director and Spielberg would continue to top the grossing-lists. However, there were now a group of directors moving in to prove their own ability to pull audiences in.

Next: 1986 – 1995: Gump, Disney, and Ahnold.