Archive for Spielberg

Day Of Infamy

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2014 by christian

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Men On A Mission Film Theater: Where Eagles Dare (1969)

Posted in Culture, Film with tags , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2009 by christian

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After the massive success of THE DIRTY DOZEN, Metro Goldwyn Mayer knew a good Men On A Mission thing when they had one. And 1960’s superstar Richard Burton wanted a hit film and to play a “heroic” figure for his children. He approached best-selling author Alistar MacLean, who wrote this novel and screenplay in two months. Somebody came up with the brilliant idea of mixing Richard Burton’s thespic thunder with the stoic irony of Clint Eastwood, bearing one of the great disparate action teams in movie history. WHERE EAGLES DARE is an essential cinematic cousin to THE DIRTY DOZEN minus the moral complexities of the Robert Aldrich film. Directed with cool efficiency by Brian G. Hutton, this is another two and a half-hour 60’s epic but edited at a kinetic, consistent pace with nary a dull or wasted moment. Even the film’s third lead, the luscious Mary Ure, is only there to briefly romance Burton, then help dispatch Nazis with her machine-gun.

427998.1020.AThe narrative is so complex that neither Burton nor Eastwood have any real character arc but then, why should they? Their mission: to infiltrate an Austrian castle fortress and rescue an American general before he reveals important secrets. Of course, there are traitors within the Allied team and this leads to double and even triple crosses that I still haven’t figured out after half a dozen viewings. That’s okay because I love the cold style and Panavision 70mm ambience, beautifully lensed by Arthur Ibbetson. You can almost feel the snow outside your window as Ron Goodwin’s stirring score provides the perfect mood. Burton and Eastwood were apparently eager to work together, and their opposite styles mesh perfect here, with Burton providing the urbane British leadership while Eastwood assays the quiet American warrior — he kills more people in this film than any other. And it shows. This is a surprisingly brutal and bloody epic freed up by the groundbreaking changes of 1960’s cinema with none of the politics. It’s such a thorough machine that looking for subtext here would be an exercise in semiotics (unless you went to Berkeley. Now you have a paper to write.).

screenshot_453Men On A Mission afficianados probably revere this film more than THE DIRTY DOZEN, if only because it’s easier to cheer the winning team on. The only stars here are Burton and Eastwood, but there are good bits by the supporting actors, especially Derren Nesbitt as Major von Hapen, the Gestapo goon sent to interogate the American prisoner. He’s one of those cold villains with ominous warmth. Ferdy Mayne (who also played the head vampire in Polanski’s 1967 THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS) is well-cast as the practical Reichsmarshall. I like his contempt for Major von Hapen when he refers to the Gestapo “cluttering up things with their torture chambers.” It’s also nice to see Hammer Studios femme fatale Ingrid Pitt as the other Allied female secret agent. For a boy’s adventure tale, WHERE EAGLES DARE gives the girls an equal role in the fighting without ado.

The movie takes its time getting to the action, but when it comes, it’s relentless. As stated, the killings are fast and violent especially during the climatic fight atop the cable car. Eastwood was unhappy with stuntmen forced on him, as he prefered to do the action scenes himself (he called the film WHERE DOUBLES DARE) but the stunts are thrilling and the only giveaway is the de rigeur bad process shots so indigenous to the decade. I’m also curious if Eastwood’s wicked double-machine gun moment is the first time in movie history such a combo was shown; if anything, it cemented his bad-azz mofo reputation. Burton is no slouch either as an action hero, and his curt wit serves the movie well. His penultimate scene when he confronts the Nazi leaders in the castle and engages them in a serious mind-fuck as only an actor of his caliber could is a highlight.

WHERE EAGLES DARE was another huge hit for MGM in 1969, and Burton achieved his goals. He would return to the genre with 1978’s cool and brutal THE WILD GEESE and Eastwood would of course move onto American iconography.  Here’s a fansite wholly devoted to the movie and even this month’s amazing CINEMA RETRO magazine has a 48 page “Making Of” issue. Of course, WHERE EAGLES DARE is one of Spielberg’s and Tarantino’s favorite war films. And mine.

Retro-View ’68: Amblin’

Posted in Film with tags , , on June 3, 2008 by christian

In 1968, Jerry Lewis was on his way to becoming a filmmaker out of time. While he wanted to stretch his ambitions as director, the studios just wanted him to make funny faces. His later 60’s films like THE BIG MOUTH still made a profit but his audience had grown up and he was stuck between generations. At the same time, he was asked to teach a film course at the University of Southern California. Lewis, who had never set foot in college, was surprised but honored. And his class soon became the hottest ticket on the campus, with overflowing hippie cineastes like George Lucas basking at the feet of The Idiot. These students had grown up with his films and they loved him the way the French loved him. Lewis took his role seriously, prepping all week for the three hour class. He was humbled by the response and considers it one of his great experiences. His indispensable 1970 book, THE TOTAL FILM-MAKER also came out of these lectures. Talking about the future of motion pictures, he praised a young director whose short film he screened for his class. “Now this is what filmmaking is all about,” he said of AMBLIN’ and its 21 year-old creator, Steven Spielberg.

Young Spielberg wrote and directed the 25 minute film as a calling card, produced for 10,000 dollars by Denis Hoffman, who hoped to sell the 35 mm short to theaters in the days when they played shorts. The story is simple, a wordless, episodic travelogue about two hitch-hikers (Richard Levin and Pamela McMyler) who end up on the road together. Shot with late 60’s lens flare verite by Allen Daviau, with an appealing folksy score by October Country, AMBLIN’ represents Spielberg’s cinema psyche at its purest, hardwired directly into visuals. There’s a playful confidence in the scenes, with almost every shot going for an imagistic or emotional impact, a New Hollywood wunderkind showing off his mad movie skillz. His mastery of silhouettes is in full bloom here, especially in a long take of the hitch-hikers sharing a joint, which slowly dissolves to the director’s only full-on “trip” sequence. Who knew that Spielberg was such a head?

The short ends on an odd note, with the hitch-hikers turned lovers and ending up at the ocean. As the gleeful young man frolics in the waves, the woman discovers his guitar case contains nothing but clothes and toiletries. Not finding satisfaction in the expansive sea, she walks back up towards the road, leaving her companion to his solitudinal bliss. The End. There’s no indication that the man even notes her farewell. There’s a minor theme present in some of Spielberg’s work, the innocent adrift, evading the cares of the world — even at the expense of a beautiful woman. As presented here, it’s not an unhappy ending at all.

Although AMBLIN’ won many festival prizes, it was passed up for Academy Award consideration because of the marijuana scene, which the stuffy Old Hollywood members (minus Jerry Lewis) eschewed as distasteful. However, the film did get Spielberg a seven-year contract at Universal and the rest is movie history.

I’ve always wanted to see this seminal short and thanks to the holy magic of youtube, we can all see it for a brief time. It’s fun and exciting to watch the germination of Spielberg’s style as presented here. You can see how this filmmaking would have stood out in the radical Godard age of 1968 and it’s wistful to think back on young Steven Spielberg forging his cine-destiny on this impressionistic mood piece. I think it’s lovely.

Oh, and in case you were wondering what film AMBLIN’ opened for when it briefly played Los Angeles in December of 1968, I need only tell you one word: SKIDOO. Try to wrap that around your crystal skull.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of CGI

Posted in Culture, Film with tags , , on May 23, 2008 by christian

I saw RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK opening weekend with my brother Scott and sister Lynn. As a sensitive young geek, my first thoughts towards the film were ambivalent. I loved the high-action pulp filmmaking but thought the movie mean-spirited, bloodthirsty and imperialistic. Here you have Indiana Jones, the Great White God trampling over foreign cultures and people, dispatching Nazis with the glee of a mass maniac. Just to show you how out of sync I was with RAIDERS, in the film’s most famous scene, where Indy pulls out his pistol to dispatch the swordsman, the entire theater erupted in laughter and applause as I stared stone-faced at the screen and with slight revulsion at the audience. What RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK actually represented at the time was the start of the “Just Do It” 1980’s, a decade of Reagan imperialism and America, Fuck Yeah! Neither my brother nor my friends could believe my response after the film was over.

Yes, I was a Sensitive Childe. That didn’t stop me from enjoying the technical skill of the film, nor its fantastic John Williams soundtrack; I spent many a night drawing intricate comics as Indy’s heroic fanfare played over and over from the turntable. I mellowed my thoughts on the film over the years, still wowed by Ford’s crusty engaging performance — I love his odd smile as he’s trying to pull himself out of the pit in the opening scene and I loved Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, another tough pulp broad aka Princess Leia. The shootout in her bar is one of Spielberg’s best action scenes ever, especially when one of the henchmen mows down the Nazis about to kill him and Indy — in shadow! And then there’s that truck chase, one of the top three vehicular pursuits in film history.

One can’t overlook the screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, a great writer who knows the language of pulp and its rhythm. Look at Belloq, who remains the best foil for Indy since the series began. As Belloq tells him, “You are not so different from me.” Which is true. Even in this uber 1930’s serial adventure, Kasdan gives wit and shading to the archetypes.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK also has a perfect ending, Spielberg’s most succinct, with the “radio to God” being crated up and tucked away in a vast warehouse of mysteries. That final shot is also Lucas/Spielberg saying goodbye to the paranoid Watergate 1970’s while cruising into the technological “State of the Art” 1980’s. In fact, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS sets up the coming decade, as its government conspiracy to fool the public on UFO’s is revealed to be almost a necessity. Big Brother Alien is watching you…and he’s so friendly! (Not to take away anything from CE3K, which I count as one of my first genuine spiritual esthetic experiences.)

By the time INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM came out in 1983, I was excited and cut school to wait in line with hundreds of other people at the Cine-Dome at a time when hundreds would wait in line all day and night for a movie. There was a communal bonding that translated into loud orgiastic audiences and its that cheering throng that I loved the most. I adored TOD and in fact valued it over RAIDERS for awhile. It felt much more pulpy and adventerous; the hommages to GUNGA DIN worked well. I even loved Short Round, for I was still young, and could project my heroic aspirations onto him. It’s hard to explain to people today how audiences reacted when the iconic silhouette of Indiana Jones stood in the mine shaft entry, ready to free the slave children as John William’s magnificent score pounded the theater walls. It took me years to get over the buzz of that screening, and I guess I never have.

Which is why THE LAST CRUSADE was a crushing disappointment. Sean Connery and Harrison Ford? That could only equal adventure film gold but instead was a lump of shiny brass. Ford and Connery were a great team, but the film contains Spielberg’s most lifeless action scenes ever. When you have Sean Connery at your disposal, why have his biggest moment be squirting some ink on a Nazi? Maybe it was a sign of my age, but I didn’t feel any kinetic connection with the film. I saw it once on opening day with a muted audience and I have no desire to re-visit any scene or moment.

I was not an Indy geek the way I was with STAR WARS; I was never jonesing for Jones. But I’d rather see action adventure from Spielberg than just about anybody else. His intuitive sense of editing and staging, giving actors extra bits of business to bring reality to the fantasy, is just part of his master skills. He’s the greatest American populist director, born to make movies, as Pauline Kael noted in her beyond perceptive review of his first theatrical film, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974):

He isn’t saying anything special in The Sugarland Express, but he has a knack for bringing out young actors, and a sense of composition and movement that almost any director might envy. Composition seems to come naturally to him, as it does to some of the young Italians; Spielberg uses his gift in a very free-and-easy, American way-for humor, and for a physical response to action. He could be that rarity among directors-a born entertainer-perhaps a new generations’ Howard Hawks. In terms of the pleasure that technical assurance gives an audience, this film is one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies. If there is such a thing as a movie sense-and I think there is (I know fruit vendors and cabdrivers who have it and some movie critics who don’t)-Spielberg really has it.

He does indeed and he’s an important cinema artist, no matter what you think of his films. Which brings us to SPOILER ALERT…INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL which makes my fingers tired typing it, much less remembering it. How incredible that it took 19 years (!) to bring us this sequel, certainly one of the longest intermissions ever, but nobody could agree on the script. Apparently, Spielberg and Ford were not thrilled with Lucas’s “Area 51” ideas, and certainly not with INDIANA JONES AND THE SAUCER MEN FROM MARS. Frank Darabont wrote a draft that many considered great, except for Lucas. David Koepp was brought in to cannibalize the various drafts and his script was chosen, the primal mistake of the film. In a nutshell, Indy has to help Russian commies bring Aztec aliens back to life circa 1957. There’s no reason this storyline couldn’t work, but it would have to be done with more skill and finesse than is on display.

The film opens promisingly with the Paramount mountain transformed into a molehill — of course, Spielberg in German means “toy mountain” so there’s another joke going on there…I really liked the opening shots, wide long vistas with a hot rod blasting “Hound Dog” down a desert highway. Right away, you’re in another era and it fits. At least for awhile. Our intro to Indiana Jones is classic Spielberg, with his hat rolling into view, followed by another silhouette against an army jeep door…

You know, I’m not going to review every scene, or laundry list the film. I’ll get to the heart of the matter, or what heart is there. For starters, Harrison Ford is terrific, though it takes a few moments before you get used to him or that he took to get used to Indy. It didn’t help that there’s some bad ADR work in the film that pulled me right out of key scenes. The opening scene at Area 51, where those treasures from ROTA were stored, never really connects on the kind of action level it should, and I kept waiting for something more exciting to happen than what I was watching. For example, when Indiana is told to drop his gun from Cate Blanchett, I was expecting him to throw the rifle at the magnetized black box, where it would fire and allow Indy escape. Instead, he drops the gun on the ground and it goes off, allowing Indy to escape. Do you see what I’m getting at? To set up this nifty magnetized device but do nothing with it seems…lazy. And when we do see the Ark one more time, there’s no wit or feeling of a-ha! Wouldn’t it have been great if Indy was being chased while mythic artifacts were falling around him — and he almost wants to stop? Hopefully, Steven will give me a call after this review.

I’m not sure what to think of Indiana Jones having an Atomic bomb dropped on him. Of course, the strangest image and scene of the series will now forever be Dr. Jones trying to find shelter amid the 1950’s mock-family home, replete with smiling suburban dummies with air raid sirens in the background. It’s funny to see such a 30’s adventure serial hero transposed to the atomic space age, but what does it mean? And after the bomb drops and Indy has been saved by a lead-lined refrigerator, he gets out to stand under the mushroom cloud on the horizon. Startling image fusion, but why is it here? Is there any irony or import at all? All I could think was, now Indy has radiation cancer and will be soon be dead. I was also reminded of the investor in ED WOOD who obsessively wants “Bride of the Atom” to end with a big A-bomb explosion.

The politics of the film are soft, with Indy declaring “I like Ike!” to the Russkies yet he will be “blacklisted” for helping them steal the black box. Cate Blanchett as Sarko is basically Natasha from Rocky & Bullwinkle. I did have an epiphany though — the only way I can tell when British acting is not good is when they do a German or Russian accent (Jeremy Irons in DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE; Timothy Dalton in THE ROCKETEER). I winced at Blanchett saying things like “You vill talk, Dr. Jones.” Toat from RAIDERS she ain’t. If the script had given her some interesting backstory, which a Russian scientist/warrior would have, and create a dynamic between Jones and her, then you’d have something. There’s even a great beat wasted: when Sarko ends up in the jeep driven by Marion Ravenwood, there’s a delicious moment of anticipation as they look at each other and — nothing happens. Had Marion slugged her, the audience would have cheered. Sure, Blanchett looks kinky and fantastic, but I prefer Rosa Klebb.

One of the pre-release publicity tropes was that INDIANA JONES AND THE TALE OF THE VINE MONKEYS was going to be old-school in its action and editing, with long takes and physical effects. Only half-true. Too many of the action scenes are nothing but CGI replacing what should belong to the realm of the stuntman. My heart sunk as I saw the giant tree-cutting machine in the Amazon rendered as a computer cartoon. Too many backgrounds look green-screened, but then I can’t tell where cinematographer Janus Kaminski’s milky white lighting starts and the pastel computer graphics end. The film’s best action scene is the one devoid of CG, the motorcycle chase through Indy’s college campus.

The worst CG offense is Shia LeBoeuf (who is just fine and dandy in his role as The Mild One) swinging through the jungle with monkeys in a highly unconvincing moment that could have been done with actual vines and trees and a stuntman or two. The same goes for an extended car-to-car sword fight that has no verisimilitude. Indy’s fight with the cliche big bald Bond villain (who gets the film’s single best line: “Would both of you shut the hell up?”) lacks any of the heat or rage of the fights in the first two. There’s not even a scratch on his face after getting repeatedly punched as hard as a Ben Burtt sound effect. In fact, the bloodless deaths in the film lack the clever brutality of the others. If you’re going to bring out a giant tank with spinning blades, I expect people to fall in. And those ants that seemed like rejects from THE MUMMY (1999). The audience at RAIDERS collectively made “ew” sounds when the tarantulas were on Indy’s back. Here, they’re all cartoons with no weight nor threat. I had hoped that Spielberg saw DEATH PROOF and wanted to go old skool DUEL. I believe CGI is the death knell for action cinema.

The last act of the film is one of the most unengaging spectacle scenes of the series. Leaving Indiana Jones to basically stare for 20 minutes isn’t quite right. Sarko is dispatched in a dull, alien variation on the Nazi’s in ROTLA. There’s no awe or mystery or resolution as the flying saucer (a fun 1950’s design) takes off to the “space between space.” At this point, you’d think Indy would be a monk given all the eternal mysteries he’s discovered: God; Hindu magik; The Fountain of Youth…

Maybe I protest too much. We’re talking about a guy with a gun, whip and fedora. There are moments I like, such as the awesome reverse-dart blow; the aforementioned motorcycle chase is fun and exciting until it’s dopey end; Marion telling Indy who her son really is as they drown in quicksand — Spielberg allows a long silence that works. It is nice to see Ford at 65, still the movie star. I wish the film had been about Indiana’s mortality as it implies in one good scene with Jim Broadbent as the Dean. “At some point, life stops giving things to us and starts taking them away,” he remarks to Dr. Jones. Look how nicely Nicholas Myer gave Kirk the most depth he ever had in THE WRATH OF KHAN; to bring in LeBoeuf as Harry Jones Jr. Jr. would be far more compelling if Indy was aware of his mortality, of becoming an artifact himself.

The film ends with a Lucas-style wedding scene in a blindingly white church (in the SAUCER MAN script, Short Round ends up being the limo driver); it’s a nice moment when LeBoeuf picks up the rolling fedora but the real Indiana Jones takes it from him. Not yet, kid. Cue Raiders theme.

To Be Continued…