TCM/Fathom Events: 45th Anniversary of The Godfather

Sometimes you just have to sit in awe of what great film makers are able to achieve in the hot spot of their careers. For the ten years between 1969 and 1979, Francis Ford Coppola was the undisputed king of American Cinema. Four of his films were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, two of them won the award, and a third film that he wrote also was named Best Picture. This evening I celebrated in 45 years of basking in his masterpiece, “The Godfather”. I surreptitiously read the book when I was fourteen years old. I know my parents would not have approved but it was something everybody was talking about so I took a paperback copy with me around the corner from our apartment building and sat on a curb, devouring it for several days. Sure I memorized the racy bits, I was 14, but I also could tell this was a tremendous story and it should make a heck of a film. I’m not sure how I managed to talk my Dad into taking me to see it, but I know we went that Spring, when the lines were long and saw it in the Alhambra Theater. I was maybe a little self conscious sitting next to my old man when the nude scene showed up, but the rest of the film was so powerful that such discomfort never detracted from the experience. That was 1972.

 

I’m sure I saw the film a couple more times in the following two years as I awaited the sequel, a concept that up to that point was largely the realm of genre films.  One of the first dates I had with my future bride involved dragging her to a double feature of the two Godfather films, one where it turned out they decided to skip an intermission between movies. So my girlfriend and I sat there for six and a half hours straight, and she still married me a few years later. The film was one of the first acquisitions I made when VHS tapes came along. Before the price points dropped in the mid-80s to create a sell through market, most films were only available for $70 or $80 bucks, and this was more than thirty years ago. I pulled that trigger as soon at I could. It was a substantial commitment for a young married couple, and I was trying to get by on part time teaching. That’s how important as a piece of art and culture it was and is to me.

I’ve seen it several more times over the years, on the big screen. The last time was two years ago when it was accompanied by a live orchestra performing the score for three hours as the film played for nearly six thousand people in what was at the time the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles. Tonight’s screening was nothing so fancy. It was a 4K projection at a Chain Complex on a Wednesday night. There were maybe twenty people there, but when it was all over several of us spoke to one another about what a wonderful experience it was. There was applause at the end of the movie, and the somber silence that always comes when that door gets closed on Kay’s face.

I tried to watch things that I did not always focus on in prior screenings. There are two exceptional moments when the camera slowly takes in what is happening in front of us and lets the anticipation occur without fanfare. The reveal of exactly what it is that Jack Woltz has in his bed is horrifying enough. We watch as he turns in his sleep ever so slightly, then the satin sheet gets pulled down from his face fairly slowly. He feels the dampness but hesitates just a moment, the right amount of time before he throws down the bedclothes past his waist, and then, there is the quick reveal of Khartoum and the lingering horrified cry of fear and anguish from the movie producer, which extends in a echo as the scene shifts to Don Corleone with just the slightest of smiles on his face. The whole scene is iconic but watch how the pacing builds it so well. The second spot I distinctly remembered is in the restaurant before Solozzo and Captain McClusky make their exits from the story. We know what the plan is, we can see tension on Michael’s broken face but we have to sit still as the waiter, brings a bottle of wine, shows it opens it with an old fashioned corkscrew that takes some time, and then pours a small amount into a glass that Solozo then extends to Michael. Waiting for the waiter to go through that whole ritual, without any dialogue, just the characters sitting there waiting themselves, it is something you don’t see in movies anymore.

There are a hundred other moments that deserve some attention, but that will have to wait for another time. Everyone reading this has almost certainly seen this film and if you haven’t what the hell is going on? Make an effort to share this experience with a group of strangers in a dark theater. Be prepared to try and catch your breath as it is stolen from you by the brutal poetry of this story and film. There is a reason that many consider it the greatest film ever, it is visual and emotional perfection.

Double O Seven Double Feature: Tribute to Roger Moore

It was a sad day and a joyous day, all rolled into an afternoon in the cinema. Sir Roger Moore, who was the third  007 in the official series of films, passed away just over a week ago. As they did with Gene Wilder and Prince last year, AMC Theaters arranged nationwide screenings of some of his work as a salute to the star of seven James Bond adventures. People who do not understand the film business complained last year that AMC was cashing in on the deaths by selling tickets to the older films. The overhead for these special presentations and the screens that they have to give up to arrange them, will hardly cover the cost of putting this together. Maybe as a way of defraying these criticisms, whatever proceeds came from this presentation were donated to UNICEF, an organization that Roger Moore had served as an ambassador for several years.

For a generation behind me, Roger Moore was James Bond. He started making these films in the seventies and was the primary Bond of the 80s as well (no disrespect to Timothy Dalton). Gen-X had a suave, pretty and humorous Bond to admire. Moore was never the physical threat that Sean Connery was, but he had the fashion sense, snobbery, and tongue in cheek attitude necessary to carry the franchise through a transition period. The Bond films were solid money makers, but they were not the blockbusters that the mid-Connery era films were. Roger Moore stuck it out though two solid films, and in his third outing helped return the series to the heights it once had. Even though the films were big and successful, they became a little too silly to have the status of “classic”.  “Moonraker” and “A View to a Kill” are fun entertainment but are also a bit embarrassing. There is however one Roger Moore Bond outing that qualifies for almost all 007 fanatics top ten list, and that is “The Spy Who Loved Me”.

The two films chosen to represent Moore as James Bond in this tribute include that one truly extraordinary 007 adventure, and then his most serious outing, meant to restore the franchise to Earth after the shenanigans of the previous film. In an interesting choice, they actually played in reverse order for my double feature at least.

For Your Eyes Only

Fans of 007 who have read the books, will certainly appreciate the grounded nature of this entry. The story does not concern a megalomaniac trying to destroy the world, but rather a mercenary double agent who simply sees profit in selling out to the Soviets. It also includes bits and pieces of short stories and scenes from other Bond novels that had not been included in the films made of the original books.

As an illustration of the more serious tone of this story, Bond actually refrains from sleeping with the ingenue who seems to be a third his age. The romance angle that does get exploited concerns two grown women, neither of who look to young to find Roger Moore attractive. There is also a two pronged revenge story at the heart of the movie. The main Bond girl played by Carole Bouquet, is trying to kill those responsible for the murder of her parents. Bond himself pursues one of the villain in retribution for the killing of a friendly station head that Bond had trusted. We even forget the macguffian for most of the film as this pair of stories plays out.

In one of my favorite scenes in a Roger Moore Bond film, 007 races up a series of staircases to outflank an escaping vehicle that has to use a switchbacked road to reach the top of a hill. As Bond shoots at the vehicle it slides off the road onto the edge of a cliff. As it barely clings to the top, the murderous assassin is trapped in the car. Bond walks up to the vehicle, reminds him of the agent that he murdered and then kicks the car in a cold blooded move, sending tumbling down the side of the cliff to it’s demise. It’s a great moment for Moore to show he is not just a pretty boy playing at espionage.

Although the title song is solid, with Sheena Easton looking gorgeous in the background of silhouetted nudes in the title sequence, the rest of the score is a disappointment. I like Bill Conti but the electronic instrumentation in the first half of the film drains the action sequences of any tension. The music tightens up in the last third but by that point, some people may have tuned out. The film adds considerable charm when Topal shows up as a suspect and then an ally of Bonds. There are two awful aspects to the film that you should be warned about, and neither of them is the fault of the lead actor. Bernard Lee, who had played “M” for almost twenty years, died as the movie was filming and the chief of staff of the Secret Service is filling in while “M” is on leave. The actor they cast and the direction he was given create one of the least pleasant characters on the British side. For the stinger at the end of the movie, they simply could not resist the novelty that the head of state at the time was a woman, so a Thatcher doppelganger is used for a punchline.

The Spy Who Loved Me

Ian Fleming’s least favorite of the books he wrote is turned into a film that almost everyone will love. It has no connection whatever to the original story and uses the title to build the premise around. In the seventies, the Soviets were still an enemy, but the notion of British and Soviet intelligence working together provides an irresistible twist to the film. This film does feature a rich villain with plans to wipe out the population, but it is all the by-play between the two spies that provides most of the fireworks in the movie.

 

Roger Moore was at the peak of his physical attractiveness for this movie. He was a mature man who looked like he could engage in a fight, woo a woman and still look good in his clothes afterwards.

 

His pairing with Barbara Bach as agent XXX makes some sense since both sides are missing nuclear subs, and the two of them look great together thorough most of the film. Of all his co-stars, she is the one that provided the most chemistry and helped Bond feel more real than he had in a long time.

“The Spy Who Loved Me” celebrates it’s 40th anniversary this year. It was a huge box office success and is probably best remembered for the title song, the villain “Jaws” and the parachute escape in the pre-title sequence. There is so much to recommend this film that you could put your finger down at any spot and have something good to say about that moment. The whole sequence in Egypt around the pyramids and ruins was beautiful to look at and nicely staged. The battle on the super tanker is a well staged action sequence. The chase sequences on the island of Sardinia were also excellent, and they feature the second best car 007 ever drove. A Lotus that doubles as a submarine.

 

When I was in London a year ago, I added myself to the film legacy of the submersible car by posing for a picture with it in the Bond Exhibit at the national film Museum in London.

Moore had another great tough guy moment in the film when he flicks a hand off his necktie and sends a secondary bad guy to his doom by doing so. He then straightens the tie and makes a typical Moore quip.

He may not have been everybody’s  favorite 007, but he made more of the official Bond films than anyone else. He is the first of our 007s to make the jump to the next great adventure and we should all miss him as a human being. Lucky for us, he had these two outing to leave us with the best of impressions.

Links

For Your Eyes Only 007 Countdown

The Spy Who Loved Me 007 Countdown

The Spy Who Loved Me : Summer Movie Project

 

Wonder Woman

Well, we have waited a long time for this and it is finally here. A DC Universe film that makes you anxious to see another DC Universe film. With iconic heroes like Batman and Superman and villains like The Joker, it still took a woman to put them on the right track. Men just can’t ask for directions. Fortunately we have two women to thank for bringing these movies back from the brink of disaster. The perfectly cast Gal Godot and the very talented director Patty Jenkins. They have managed to make a film that is watchable but also memorable. The best thing the film does is give us a central character that we can root for and care about. Diana, Princess of Amazons, who has spent her whole life preparing to fight. We get to see that preparation but even better than that, we get to witness her explode into the world in a romantic period piece that has a great mix of reality and comic book silliness.

 

There are two distinct world depicted in this film. The first is the seemingly idyllic island that the Amazons life on, without the need for men. The only child on the island is the daughter of their Queen, Hippolyta. She tells Diana that she was molded out of clay and brought to life with the breath of the god Zeus. There is no sens of time in their world, so as Diana grows, it could be  over twenty years or twenty-thousand. She definitely has enough time however to become the greatest warrior ever among her people. Her mother despairs of her becoming a fierce instrument in the battle against war, but her Aunt Antiope, the current bad ass of the clan, knows that it is Diana’s destiny. The whole section on the island is told with efficiency and with as little excess as possible, while still filling us in on the legends and backgrounds of the characters. Certainly there are some blank spaces and questions, but director Jenkins manages to keep us focused on the main issue, which concerns Diana’s role in fighting back against the God Aries, the lord of war.

Chris Pine continues to impress in his starring roles. This second fiddle part is certainly not as challenging as his role in last years “Hell or High Water”, but it does put him in a high profile blockbuster for another consecutive year. Between his Steve Trevor and the leading lady, it is nice to know that pretty people will always be able to find work. Gal Godot is the not so secret weapon in this film. She has a look about her that can be haunted one minute and determined the next. That she has a face that could break a man’s heart and moves (admittedly enhanced by technology) that could render her the greatest action hero ever, does not hurt this film a bit. The sincerity of her demeanor at times when combined with her outright sexiness, should make massive fans out of those who watch this movie.

One other reason that I think this movie works better than “Man of Steel“, “Batman vs. Superman” and “Suicide Squad“, is that it is set in a more nostalgic period when cynicism was seen as a vice rather than a virtue. Scowling villains are not confronted by scowling heroes, but rather by open hearted optimists who see evil and while they may have some doubts about what is good, they want to do the right thing for the right reasons. Diana is so innocently hopeful that she is going to save the world, that when she experiences doubts, especially about humans, it is more believable that she can make a good choice in the long run. Her heart breaks when tragedy strikes at home when she and her Amazon family first confront modern man. She experiences the same slap in the face when she sees that even good men can be faulty in too many ways. The fact that we are capable of making an act of self sacrifice also an emblem of love, leaves it’s mark on this Princess.

Spanish Actress Elena Anaya and veteran character actor Danny Huston, serve as the tertiary  bad guys, the ones that draw the focus of our heroes immediately. Mankind is the secondary villain, and it will survive to challenge Diana Prince in the future, as we already know from our earlier DCU experiences. The main villain is exactly who you think it is going to be. When he appears on screen, you just know that something else is going on here. Since it is a movie and film is a visual medium, there will be a cinematic confrontation. It ends up a little too much like all of these stories do, with  an ultimate power being battled on the most basic physical front rather than on a more cerebral level. Still, it measures up to the kind of fireworks you want out of a movie based on a comic book.

The battle sequences on the beach of Diana’s home and in “no mans land” at the front, are two stand out episodes of the story. We also get two fish out of water stories for the price of one. Steve is befuddled by the ancient matriarchy he has fallen into and Diana is horrified by the ugly modern world, trapped in what seems like never ending war. The side characters in the WW I story are just interesting enough to be worth including, but since the story is not going to stay in this time period, it is understandable that they do not get too much backstory or time. The romance works the way wartime romances usually do, in spite of the short time period that couples have for bonding. I love the look of the film in both the mythical and battlefield visions. I could hear that Wonder Woman Theme come on in most of the scenes and still get goosebumps. I really liked this movie, and while it does have some story issues, they won’t bother you much. Instead of worrying about a lack of backstory or the tie in to Greek mythology, the real Wonder of Wonder Woman is how do we get more of Gal Gadot in all of the DC Universe?

 

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Well if you were one of those people who had been encouraged by early word that this edition of the Pirates franchise was measurably better than the last one, be prepared to be disappointed. It is just as limp and unmemorable as “On Stranger Tides” but it does have the advantage of having a better title. Being honest with you all, I liked the movie well enough as I was watching it, but it is a nothing burger in the long run. You will not care about or be moved by the characters here in any lasting way. For a couple of hours they will do things in front of you, some of which are amusing but none of which has any bearing on the world.

Johnny Depp was a star before this series started but he became a “superstar” once Captain Jack became his signature role. His return to the role feels very passive. Whereas he was the protagonist in the original film, he has become more and more a secondary character in the subsequent movies. Jack is a passenger as we are on these elaborate voyages. The character does not really initiate any action but rather participates in the elaborate Rube Goldberg sequences of action and comedy. The most memorable visual gag I can recall from seeing the movie this morning concerns the blade of a guillotine, rising and falling towards Jack as the device itself tumbles through space after an explosion. It requires almost no engagement on Depp’s part, with the exception of some facial mugging during the sequence.

The story actually concerns two other characters, the son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, and a women who is accused of witchcraft but claims simply to be a scientist. The connection between these characters is accidental at first but as plot threads revel themselves there is little chance that this is all going to tun out to be a coincidence. That is one of the major issues I have in feeling connected to the films after that first endeavor, the characters seem to randomly connect and then bond, betray and reconnect as the script demands rather than what the characters do. Geoffrey Rush’s character Captain Barbossa has evolved so much from the antagonist of the first film, to hero of later movies that it makes my head swim. Maybe this is where the precedent for those “Fast and Furious” allegiance shifts came from. This movie is stuffed with secondary characters who are attached to the plot but do nothing to move it forward, and then they are in with the core group and out in the next scene. I just feel like waiting to the end to see what point of view I am supposed to have for anyone.

A second major issue for me are the plot points concerning the sea curses and legends. They always seem to come out of nowhere and are explained quickly without much rhyme or reason. That’s because there is another one coming at any minute. The logic of the compass makes no sense at all. It is unimportant until it suddenly is. There is a map that comes out of thin air, requires the magic of a blood moon to be able to see, but that can;t be read until it can be, with the help of a crystal that somehow allows a star map to function. What?, you might ask. Don’t bother, in a second, dead pirate hunters will not be able to exist on soil, then they can possess a body but never come back to their own corpse, until they can. It is all completely arbitrary.pirates_of_the_caribbean_dead_men_tell_no_tales_ver3

Depp has some funny lines but he frequently is so into the alcohol soaked line delivery that has been selected for him that you don’t get their full impact. The elaborate and complicated battle that has Javier Bardem’s character chasing Jack from ship to ship using the canons as platforms to jump from and land on, is so darkly lit that you miss some of the fun of the sequence. None of the swordplay has the energy or sense of swashbuckling verve that made pirate movies fun in the first place. Heck, I liked the zombie sharks as much as anyone but here needs to be some byplay and conflict between the characters. Mostly we just get Bardem slathering after Sparrow without much of a plan. It’s frustrating when you can see possibilities for a great character driven action movie but the next visual set piece is going to stop it short. If you are a regular reader here, you know I don’t give stars or number ratings, I just try to give my feelings after the experience. I did not have any strong feeling about this one way or another. So that will probably tell you that the three above the title stars are a lot more stars than I would give.