What We Mean When We Say “Cinematic Experience”

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Dir: David Lean
Stars: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guiness, Omar Shariff, Jack Hawkins, Anthony Quinn, Claude Raines, Anthony Quayle and Arthur Kennedy

We say “experience” a lot these days in the marketing of films.  You often hear phrases like “epic” and “sprawling” and “game changer” and “a truly cinematic experience.”   Sure, you might argue that Lawrence is a film that is past its prime, a tribute to the old style of films.  And, you’d have cause to say that, what with its nearly four hour run time, intermission and overture played before the first and second half of the film – not to mention a cast entirely composed of men.  But, there is something to be said about a piece of art being showcased in the space it was intended.  Would you want to see some of the work at the Chicago Art Institute in a rotting old warehouse?  Or better yet, for the purposes of this blog entry – imagine taking your favorite painting, but hanging it in your own living room?

Obviously, there’s the option to see Lawrence at home on one of the streaming services or hopefully off your Blu-Ray – you still have one of those, right?  However, my feeling is that some movies are better than others.  Some really deserve their listing among the greats.  Whether that’s on an official, industry list like the AFI’s, a collection of critics or a personal one is irrelevant.  Some films are meant to be seen in a cinema setting because they truly emote that “film experience” tag line, and our viewing of them evolves as we watch with others in the dark theater.  The elite in any artistic endeavor deserve a proper presentation.  And for me, Lawrence of Arabia is the very textbook definition of “movie experience.”  So again, if you have never seen it, and you want to watch it at home – by all means do so!  But, I’m humbly recommending that if it’s playing at a cineplex once things turn around and we start going to theaters again… grab the opportunity.

This film is in my top ten of all time not because I think it should be, but because it’s got a lot of personal connections to my upbringing.  I’m named after the man for one.  And, one of the photographs of Lawrence from his adventures in the desert hangs in my Dad’s home office.  Mr. Lawrence’s gaze would find me often as I grew up.  When I was around kindergarten age, my Dad loaded me into his car and drove me downtown Cincinnati because Lawrence was playing there on the big screen.   Now, I honestly can’t remember if I saw this for my first movie experience, or whether it was E.T.  Regardless of which one came first, I remember Lawrence, even in that first viewing.  I’m not going to claim to have followed everything or that I really paid attention throughout.  I mean, there was soda, and popcorn, and raisinetes to enjoy.  But, it left an impression.  Who was that heroic figure in the white robes?  Why are they riding camels… into the desert?  How can I listen to this music some more?

There are sequences that I remember that change with each viewing of the film.  The first time, I remember specifically the action.  Lawrence blowing up trains and attacking the Turks with the Arab Army.  Then there’s the crossing of the desert to Aqaba.  When I was young, I remember the triumphant attack on the Turkish garrison.  It’s a pretty sweeping, epic scene with a cast of thousands and action unfolding on camels and horseback across that glorious 70mm screen.  When I saw it most recently, the contemplation that Lawrence puts into the Aqaba attack, the potential to attack from behind – that was what grabbed me.  The point is, Lawrence is one of those rare movies that ages like fine wine.  You watch it, you have fond memories of it, you have an opportunity to see it again – and in this latest viewing, it shows you something new entirely.  Many of my favorite films share this aspect, of presenting me with a new perspective or unveiling a storytelling technique not previously noticed.

Having viewed the film numerous times since the original trip with Dad, I think when you really peel the onion of Lawrence, the question the film presents to us the viewer in light of Lawrence’s personality and adventures is, “Who are you?”  In some scenes, he is a true, classic Crusader, who wants to help a people in their quest for freedom.  In other sequences, he’s an egotistical maniac.  In still others, this great man who put quite a stamp on the 20th century… just wants to be left alone.  There’s a certain sequence that will help me with what I mean by the “Who are you?” question.  When T.E. Lawrence has returned across the Sinai desert and reaches the Suez Canal, he’s catatonic from his recent experiences.  The man looks half dead.  One of his Arab guides tosses water in his face to wake him up.  They climb a small hill to see the Canal, and the guide waves down a British officer on a motorbike on the opposite side.  To conclude the scene, the officer yells at Lawrence, “Who.. are… you?”  

Earlier in the same scene Lawrence insists on walking in the desert as his guide rides the camel.  He’s walking because he’s punishing himself.  There were three of them that started the trek across Sinai, but the other guide has just died in a spot of quicksand.  Lawrence is blaming himself – something he does on screen in this film, and was a lingering trait of his personality that he wrestled with all his life.  The surviving guide basically forces Lawrence to understand that his walking “serves no purpose” and that there’s plenty of room on the beast for both of them.  In this scene, Lawrence acquiesces, although he doesn’t always when it comes to berating himself.

From the technical aspects of the scene to O’Toole’s performance, the sequence might not be high on your list of memorable scenes from the movie.  However, it explains a lot about the man.  I’m probably skewed and admit I might be overthinking some of the smaller scenes like this one.  But, I actually finished reading one of Lawrence’s biographies earlier this month, and to say that he was a fascinating character is very appropriate.  This film focuses on about two years of the man’s life, which ended as depicted in the opening scene.  But, think about that: the film is nearly four hours long, and we’re only scratching the surface of who and what “Lawrence of Arabia” meant to history.  This fact brings us back to the “Who are you?” question.  Can you imagine the fame and focus on a man that did what he did?   Having read the biography I mentioned (A Prince of Our Disorder by John E. Mack, in case you’re interested), you can understand better Lawrence’s desire to be left out of Allenby’s “big push” or relieved to hear he’s got his own cabin for the boat ride home.  In sum on this point, I guess one of the things that the film does is make you eager to learn more about its subject.

The biography filled in a lot of blanks.  One of them that stood out was that Lawrence grew up learning all he could about the Crusades.  He was always an avid fan of poetry.  In other words, much like our recent entry on Patton, it’s like Lawrence was born of another time.  From early years, Lawrence felt in his bones that he was destined for great things.  So, like the elite films, the man himself was elite in his thinking and beliefs.  This 1962 film directed by David Lean focuses specifically about Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” or the abridged and more digestible “Revolt in the Desert” as it has come to be known.  While most of us probably understand most about World War I as it pertained to the European theater, Lawrence and his British comrades were stationed in the Arabian theater.  The Ottomon Empire had ruled this section of the world for centuries.  Essentially, Lawrence is the story of how one small statured, soft spoken British man was able to unite the tribes of Arabia to bring down this seemingly unbeatable enemy.  For perspective, the General that Lawrence ends up reporting and fighting for, Allenby – this man liberated Jerusalem in 1918, which had been Turkish territory for four hundred years.

Getting back to the film itself, it’s definitely one that fires on all cylinders – from the music to the acting to the technical phenomenon of such a grand cast and crew working in the middle of desert locations to those memorable scenes.  The direction by David Lean has been documented and described by reviewers and cinema academics much more knowledgeable than myself.  The same can be said for Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of Lawrence.  The TCM intro I saw of the movie recently advised that this was O’Toole’s fourth role in a movie!  As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of those so grand in its effort that the actor would never have had to play anything else – and he’d still be in the “best ever” discussion.  So, while I don’t feel like I can offer that much in way of a “new perspective,” what I will say is that at nearly four hours in length, I am always impressed how there is not a segment or individual scene that I can think should have been cut.  There is not a character that we could have done without.  Perhaps the cinematography by Freddie Young (who incidentally also did Lean’s pictures Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter) is reason enough to see Lawrence on the big screen.  Or, hearing Maurice Jarre’s sweeping score with its Overture and all.  The sequences I’ve done my best to describe are the ones that effected me.  But what about the fantastic effect of the match-on-action, when Lawrence blows out the match to reveal the dawn in the desert?

I’m also sure to admit that in parts, the film is naturally dated.  But to Lean’s credit, Lawrence on the whole holds up even by today’s audience’s standards.  I know this because the last time I saw this epic in theaters was with a good pal of mine who had never seen it on the big screen.  There we sat in the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, CA a few Memorial Day weekends ago.  The film started and it’s only the overture playing for three minutes without any images.  A couple minutes in, my friend K.D. asked me, “What the hell’s going on?  Is there something wrong with the screen?”  We then talked about old movies and how a lot of the epics had an overture and another musical block during the intermission.  

The encouraging thing to me about the Aero viewing was the fact that no seat in the theater was empty.  It was a sunny, pleasant Memorial Day weekend holiday – and yet, the theater was packed!  The audience laughed at some of the dated moments and curious dialogue, which is understandable.  What I mean is, there’s a lot that has happened in the Middle East since this story unfolded in history and was subsequently filmed in 1962.  But no one talked through Lawrence.  Nobody texted.  We were all having… a cinematic experience.   And so, since today is my birthday and I am actually named after Lawrence, let me encourage you to add Arabia to your bucket list if you haven’t had the opportunity just yet.  You won’t regret it.

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“If we are not victorious… let no one return alive!”

Patton (1970)
*** Burke Favorite ***
Dir: Franklin J. Schaffner:
Stars: George C. Scott, Karl Malden, James Edwards and Bill Hickman

Maybe it’s because I’ve got bigger-than-life historical figures on the brain, but for me personally, this was just the right time to review Patton.  Sure, it’s Memorial Day weekend, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more appropriate entry for your Top Ten Movies list to watch this holiday.  But, I’m also in the midst of reading a biography of T.E. Lawrence, maybe better known as Lawrence of Arabia (that entry’s coming soon too – fair warning).  I think it’s the meshing of the Lawrence book in my head along with this latest viewing of Patton that has me realizing that old phrase, “The Man, the Myth, the Legend” truly does apply to some – and General George S. Patton, Jr. certainly fits the bill.

A quick side note before I dive into this award winning drama – I’m only going to comment on elements related to this cinematic version of the character.  What I mean is, I actually know very little about Patton the American Hero, the career Army man, the horesman from California whose grandfather was also a Hero – in the Civil War.  I’ve read none of his biographies nor the compilation of letters that sat on my Father’s bookshelf in his study when I grew up (“study” is just a fancy way of saying den, or office – I didn’t grow up in the East Wing of Downton Abbey).  But, I do find from my reading of recent movie reviews and listening to film themed podcasts that many of my contemporaries have a bad habit, if they don’t mind me saying so.  Some tend to apply their 2019/2020 brain and modern norms, moral values to historical figures like Patton – despite the fact they’ve done little more than watch the movie and perhaps read a Wikipedia article related to the figure in question.  I find many of the related articles trite in nature, usually calling out bits of controversy for which the historical figure may be known, which pales in comparison (at least usually) to the individual’s overall effect and contribution.

For example, I can predict that there are film reviewers out there that might call Patton a “Man’s movie” or “a film with a woman’s problem” – which is a phrase I actually heard related to some of Sidney Lumet’s projects from the 1970s recently on a podcast – as in the film features no substantial female supporting roles. Point of fact, I’m not sure there are more than a handful of speaking parts for women in Patton.  But, my question to these critics is, how do you go back in history and apply your lens of today to late 1960s early 1970s filmmaking – not to mention the story itself?  What would have satisfied you? I’m not going to do that here – I guarantee you that the “Man, Myth, Legend” is far too wide a figure to cover in a brief blog entry like this… and even if it were possible, I’d be the wrong blogger to compose it.

But that opinion that it’s best to focus on the film itself as it stands on its own two legs – an artistic effort of its own – leads me to my first point. That is that Patton, like all the great biographical dramas, leave you wanting more.  The film makes you want to go grab one of his bios at the library, read the definitive WWII history on your notepad or listen to some podcasts related to this impressive life’s work.  One portion of the brilliance of this George C. Scott performance is the fun the actor gets to have with this immense personality.  Scott as Patton is only too excited to admit his belief in reincarnation, his insistence that he was present at some of the historical battlegrounds he and his men are passing on the way to battle the Nazis once again, despite the fact these battles occurred hundreds and even thousands of years prior.  I don’t know about you, but… I wanna know more about that man!

The film, for all intents and purposes, is a tribute to Patton’s greatest days, in which he tossed the Nazis out of North Africa, pushed them off of the historically significant isle of Sicily – and in so doing, beat his rival General Montgomery of the British forces to Messina – and ultimately swept Hitler’s armies off the map of Western Europe on the way to meeting his new rival, the Russians, for a little party to celebrate the end of war in Europe.  That’s about as best a synopsis as I can offer.  But, the intricacy of the movie is that Scott appears in nearly every single scene. Think about that, how from the first scene in all its drama to the reflections voiced in the last, it’s an intimate view at Patton for nearly three hours. We see him when he’s yelling at Rommel (or at least his forces) in the African desert, “You magnificent bastard… I read your book!”  We witness his triumph of entering the Italian town and kissing the ring of the archbishop.  We love it as he climbs an oil drum to direct traffic of tanks, trucks and other vehicles to keep his troops on the move as they pursue the Nazis back to the fatherland.

But, we also get to see Patton in the hospital tent when he strikes the cowardly soldier, knocking the helmet right off the “yellow belly.”  We see him sitting in a chair, upside down in the mirror above him, as he’s told he’s going to sit out the D-Day invasion and be used instead as a diversion to the Nazi intelligence effort.  We also watch his face change from enthusiastic to crestfallen when his personal aide is the one to inform him that he won’t be leading the command he’d set his heart on.  It’s this yin/yang montage of highs and lows that we are provided access to that was masterfully crafted by none other than Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay – and subsequently performed to a T by Scott, who won the Oscar for best actor that year.

Still, like other phenomenal pictures, they change with viewing.  I saw the film as a wee lad at the insistence of my Dad – this is one of his favorites and he was delighted to introduce us to it, as I remember. In retrospect, this favorite status for my Dad stands to reason as he was a Vietnam veteran and champion of history himself – who surely would have enjoyed having a cigar and grand conversation with Patton. I saw Patton again over the years and once again probably five years ago.  But when I watched it last night, the storyline of the General striking the soldier with the “nerves” in the hospital stood out most prominently to me. I’d forgotten how this episode nearly derailed one of the most historic and triumphant efforts from an American commander in combat. A newsreel advises towards the end of the film that Patton moved the Third Army further and faster and his enemy suffered more casualties than any other combat situation by a General in U.S. history.  The fact that all of this was nearly not executed by an event that had by today’s terminology, “bad optics” is an outrageous possibility.  

This dynamic nature of giant films like Patton – from its run time to its subject matter to the epic nature of the battle scenes – in that they change with you as you age brings me back to the depth of the film.  It’s shot in such a way that makes you wonder so many things in retrospect, like were the U.S. commanders using this slapping of the coward as a way to divert German intelligence?  And Patton’s insistence on beating Montgomery to Messina – was he really trying to save lives by pushing so hard, or merely beat his rival for the history books?  Did he really try and convince the brass to leave him in Europe to encourage the Soviets to retreat backwards instead of keeping Berlin and Prague?

A lot to wonder indeed, which makes Patton so fun.  Especially for this weekend, during which we take time to remember those fallen in the past for the benefit of this nation, watching George C. Scott speak to the troops in the opening scene of this film – which was nearly removed thanks to movie studio executives’ wisdom at the time – makes my heart soar.  If you haven’t seen it, I hope you take the time to watch it and enjoy on a particularly appropriate weekend – and if you have… believe me, it’s worth the re-watch.
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066206/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_8

And for fun… it seems I’m not the only one that loves this movie as a simple search on YouTube reveals – https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=patton+movie+opening+speech

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Snowball, Rooster and Gidget – to the Rescue!

The Secret Life of Pets 2

Dirs: Chris Renaud, Jonathan del Val
Stars: Patton Oswalt, Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Jenny Slate, Eric Stonestreet, Lake Bell and Harrison Ford

The Secret Life of Pets 2 is an honest to goodness laugher, worthy of any evening where a group is sitting around, trying to decide on a title that everyone can agree on.  The very definition of a “crowd pleaser,” it’s got a scene, a character or a bit of dialogue for everyone from the young to the older, the indifferent to those who love animation. Pets 2 is an absolute winner, and part of what Pets 2 gets right (much like the original film, by the way), is the perspective of the story – inside the mind of Max the dog and all his buddies.  I think the marketing campaign for the original even asked something to the effect of, “What do they think about all day?”  And what pet(s) owners among us hasn’t thought of this question?  This title’s funny, engaging, requires no knowledge at all of its predecessor, and in today’s bizarre entertainment environment, is easily found on Netflix (at least as of the time of this draft).

Max (voiced by Patton Oswalt), who looks like a little Jack Russel to me, has a problem.  This supremely cute mutt has an owner who has not only fallen in love with an oafish looking knucklehead, but also is going to have a child with the man.  The little guy makes clear, he doesn’t care for kids normally – but Liam, who Max calls “my kid,” is different.  As soon as the little toddler declares his love for Max, the dog is hooked.  And I can just stop calling out the cuteness factor here – every single character is indeed adorable, probably demonstrated most in the tiger-kitten Hu’s body movements and enormous eyes.  For the rest of this entry, remember, the assumption is – the animation makes all characters super-cute (with the exception of evil-doer Sergei).

And so, we have storyline number one – Max and his desire to overcome his own anxieties towards Liam.  The kid’s growing up, and Max is growing more and more protective to the point he can’t handle the responsibility.  But, like  an action-packed summer novel you can’t put down, Pets 2 has two other storylines.  The first is of the ridiculously dynamic and comedic bunny Snowball – voiced as in the predecessor by the imitable Kevin Hart – as he attempts to help Havanese Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) rescue a baby tiger named Hu from the villainous and abusive circus exhibitionist, Sergei.  Why Russian and/or Eastern European voices (in this case, Nick Kroll) make for such great bad guys is for another post – just know that this storyline is as interesting as Max’s.  And, the third plot-line concerns little toy dog Gidget (Jenny Slate) as she attempts to rescue Max’s favorite ball, which has bounced down innumerable flights of fire escapes and into the apartment of the Cat Lady, who apparently owns approximately 10,000 cats.  This caricature of the old, crazy Cat Lady who lives alone with countless felines had some of the best surprises of the movie’s final act, by the way…

Sure, the scenes of Gidget learning to become a cat under the tuteledge of (again, ridiculously funny animation) neighbor and slightly portly Chloe (Lake Bell) are funny.  And the Hart/Haddish dialogue and action also made this reviewer laugh.  But it’s Harrison Ford as the elegant Shepherd Rooster that stole the show, at least for me.  Max meets Rooster after a visit to the vet.  After poor Max gets the dreaded plastic cone applied to his neck, the whole family takes a trip to an uncle’s farm.  And of course, the little guy is as anxious around pigs, cows and a particularly funny turkey.  Rooster notices this, and asks who he is, where he’s from – and why he insists on wearing that absurd plastic cone?

Harrison Ford and Patton Oswalt voice characters in “The Secret Life of Pets 2.” (Universal Pictures)

To be fully transparent, I’m a single guy living alone in his early 40s – no wife or kids to speak of just yet.  But, I do have plenty of pals and family with young kids – and I love hanging out with them and the kids and asking questions about the reality of parenting today.  Subsequently, the subject of “helicopter parenting” has popped up from time to time.  This cultural phenomenon is surely familiar to us all, and I find it a worthwhile subject to explore whenever my parent-friends are in the mood.  What I mean is, I think some kids are so spoiled today – and others are just too protected.  Maybe this is why I liked the character of Rooster so much.  Rooster tearing the plastic cone off of Max’s neck with the simple dialogue, “See? You’re fine.” resonated with me and my own observations of new parents.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m impressed and pleased with many of the new parental techniques and tools available today.  But, this storyline hit me as a potential swinging of the pendulum – that it’s OK to tear the band-aid off every now and again, and is even healthy to do so.  

In the end, it’s a credit to this film’s production that the movie has “something for everyone” – even a single guy like me!  My only complaint is one that I have voiced towards many modern movies, that some of the action was so frantic it was difficult to tell where we were and how we got there.  But, the movie is a brief 90 minutes, which turns out to be just shy of two hours if you’re in theaters with the kids…  Like I said, Pets 2 has something for everybody!

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You Want It? Earn It!

Red River (1948)
Dir: Howard Hawks
Stars: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, Harry Carey AND Harry Carey, Jr. and John Ireland

This post is a personal one, as it was a favorite of one of my dear friends who passed this time last year, Yatz Gundrum. For anyone who knew this big hearted, hilarious, generous and gentle giant, he naturally earned his comparison to The Duke – although maybe not as the famous actor played Thomas Dunson in Red River. Anyhow, it kind of became a tradition for a few years that my parents would get Yatz a calendar to hang in the kitchen dedicated to John Wayne.

I don’t know about you, but part of the reason I love movies so much is the social currency they provide. When you, your buddy and everyone at the table has seen a movie, you can quote it, you can use it for a metaphor, to make a point – or to punch that joke in at the right time. To Yatz’s credit, he would use Red River that way. For many a Holiday Season, my brother and Dad and I would be sitting with Yatz – sometimes just in the quiet of the fire at our house, other times surrounded by more friends and family at The Gundrum Annual New Year Party – and a philosophical discussion would sprout. Invariably, Yatz would interject just when the conversation was veering towards the overly-serious, “Well, y’know, all ya gotta know about life is contained in the first [40 minutes] of Red River.”

Now, why do I place the brackets around “40 minutes?” That’s because I feel like the estimate varied depending upon Yatz’s mood and the evening’s subject and intensity! Sometimes it was 20 minutes, other times an even 30 – but I distinctly remember this variation being part of the fun of the River reference. And, to his credit again, Mr. Gundrum had great taste in movies. This western classic deserves its place in the annals of impressive films in the genre for a variety of reasons, which we’ll spend a few minutes on here.

The film is simple and direct in its storytelling, its themes and direction. The reason I entitled this entry, “You Want It? Earn It!” is that essentially, that’s the log-line, the very central question of the film. In the opening scene, John Wayne as Thomas Dunson leaves a cattle drive he joined in St. Louis. He likes the land they’re on, and he sees plenty more superior grazing land south into Texas he’d like to cultivate towards the grandest cattle ranch in the territory. To that end, half a day after he leaves the drive, he and his partner Nadine Groot – played by the imitable Walter Brennan with his distinctive voice – see that the drive was likely overtaken by Comanches. After their own violent brawl with the Natives that evening, they happen upon a boy named Matthew Grant the next day.

Well, this boy – who inevitably grows up to become Montgomery Clift, you see – doesn’t like the idea that on Dunson’s ranch the brand is only going to have a “D” on the logo. Why not an “M” as well? And Dunson’s response is simple – you wanna have your name on the brand… you gotta earn it. Frankly, much of the film fits my friend’s lifetime philosophy of basically, “are we doing it, or aren’t we?” Are we gambling this evening, or not? You wanna go to the game, or not? “We having another Mr. Gundrum Drink (MGD, Miller Genuine Draft) before the paper hits the driveway… or not?”

Perhaps better demonstrated within the context of River, there is another scene in which the men sign a contract. The movie has shifted to 15 years later – so now Clift joins the tale – and Texas is out of money. So, if Dunson wants to earn what’s fair for his cattle, he’s going to have to get them to market. Now, think about 1865. It’s the year the Civil War ended. The train is still making its way into the Western states. How do you get 9-10,000 cattle from around San Antonio to Missouri – or Abilene, Kansas, as the story eventually goes? Upon a little research, that’s about more than 700 miles. And, as the film unfolds, it takes this little band of drovers over 100 days to arrive, so… that’s pretty slow going. Not to mention all the obstacles along the way, like rain, angry Natives, various waterways, internal gunfights from sheer frustration, rivalry and boredom – and a stampede.

This scene, dear movie lovers, is “the scene” from Red River. You know how you watch an old classic – like Ben-Hur comes to mind – and the scene reminds you of scenes from today’s movies? Well, the stampede from this Western holds up with anything from this modern era as far as I’m concerned. There is incredible photography, suspense and a few jaw dropping stunts in the mix that really happened based on what I saw. Regardless, while Red River might have its share of dated material – particularly under our habit lately of applying today’s norms and politics to older material – this scene certainly sets itself apart, and makes you appreciate all the movies of old that laid the groundwork for a 1917 or Ford v Ferrari or perhaps more appropriately, Costner’s Open Range from a few years back?

At the end of the day, the film is riddled with moments of, “Will ya? Or won’t’cha??” The arch of the younger Garth compared to the aging Dunson is fascinating and keeps you interested. And so, I wish ol’ Yatz were around so I could ask him why just the first Act of the film was so essential to him, as I find the entirety quite worthwhile!

Regardless, on the one year anniversary of his passing, we offer this humble review of Yatz’s favorite, Red River. I am always glad when I see it – just like I was always glad to see my friend the many years I lived across the street from him and later when I visited home having moved to L.A. And it’s with a heavy heart I encourage you to check out Red River for yourself. If you’ve never seen it, I’m sure you’ll be glad you did. If you have, it’s well worth a re-watch, as all classics change and flow with you as you age. And if you were lucky enough to know Yatz, well… it’ll certainly remind you of him.

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Giving Thanks for the Underdog

Rocky (1976)
*** Burke Favorite ***
Dir: John G. Avildsen
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers and Burgess Meredith

This American film classic is the perfect punctuation to your Thanksgiving holiday, and we here at ronhamprod.com are going to tell you why.

In this, the little season of Giving Thanks that precludes the Holiday Season – debate to be included in another post – Rocky encompasses many of the themes of this country.  Our argument is this Sylvester Stallone written story captures strong feelings for the Underdog, the act of Giving Thanks and surrounding oneself with Family – and when you’re without Family, your Friends.  Matter of fact, in this latest viewing, we felt particularly effected by the great question the movie asks, which is when challenged with your “moment,” how will your react?

Let’s start with the basics – the movie’s opening scene is in a dilapidated church featuring two “ham ‘n egg” boxers knocking the crap out of each other a few days before Thanksgiving Day.  One of the boxers is Rocky, and after a vicious head-butt from his opponent, Rocky goes mental on the guy and defeats him – looking very much like the real life, 1950s Champ Marciano in the process with big blows and uncompromising forward movement.  But… after winning the fight, Rocky asks a spectator for a cigarette on his way back to the locker room, and the man says, “You can have this one!” handing him the one he’s in the middle of.  Now, think of the detail that tells us about Rocky, his circumstance, community and the realities of his life – all in one little opening scene.

The other element that really hit home with this recent viewing of Rocky is how independent the film really is.  Small budget, quick production, cast with character actors but no stars at the time, Rocky wasn’t given a big chance, much like its star.  Both on screen and in real life, Stallone wasn’t exactly seen as a leading man, just like Rocky wasn’t seen as a contender to be taken seriously.  You can find better sources with broader details about the real life production fight Stallone engaged in to keep the starring role for himself – and thank goodness he did.  That said, there are many scenes with Rocky alone or interacting with “the neighborhood,” which build this Good Samaritan status within Act One.  And, the movie is in no rush to establish the character – this 70s movie takes its time when compared to the modern dramas.  By the time the plot thickens, we honestly care about what happens to this guy, which is a noteworthy element for today’s writers.

One of the scenes that really shook the screen upon this latest viewing was Rocky and the trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith) in Mickey’s gym, in front of all the guys.  And Rocky wants an answer why Mickey is always so crappy towards him – a conversation which ends in yelling and stops the whole gym with Mickey concluding, “It’s a waste of life.”  So, despite the fact the question might have come later than modern audiences are used, the big ask is effectively out there – will this “bum from the streets” remain in his self imposed gutter, or will his luck change?

Well, Rocky gets that proverbial, American, once in a lifetime chance from none other than the reigning heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed.  This moment, like the opening scene and the telling, authentic moment in the gym with Mickey, tells us a lot about Rocky – and makes him so relatable to our own lives.  See, Creed’s legitimate opponent has broken a hand in training, so the Champ has no fight to promote in six weeks on New Year’s Day at the Spectrum.  Well, business-minded Creed decides to give a local guy a shot at the championship, “because I’m sentimental,” and mostly because he’s into the promotion for a fight that features a contender named, “The Italian Stallion.”  Credit where it’s due – that’s great story development by Stallone.  But let’s get back to Rocky’s reaction to this shot, this unclaimed lottery ticket.

When Mickey tells Rocky that Creed’s camp stopped by and left him a message to stop by, Rocky is convinced that Creed’s camp wants him for a sparring partner, to help Creed train for the upcoming fight.  When the promoter explains to Rocky that this isn’t about a sparring partner, it’s an opportunity to fight the champ, Rocky says simply, “No.”  Thinking back even to Biblical stories, how many great heroes initially answered their call with, “No, thank you!  I just don’t wanna do that!!”  Well here, Rocky is similarly overwhelmed with the idea of fighting a guy who’s obviously likened to Muhammad Ali.  But, with the promoter’s conviction and the six figure pay day, Rocky obviously decides to take on Creed.

Within the layers of all of this is Talia Shire as the pet shop employee, Adrian.  Now, Adrian is the sister of Rocky’s kinda pal Paulie.  Frankly, Paulie was another stand-out in this recent watch of Rocky.  Paulie is a complete alcoholic who is essentially feeding Rocky his sister with the hopes that Rocky will return the favor by putting him in the good graces of Gazzo.  Gazzo pays Rocky’s bills with some shady dealings, and Paulie is dying to leave his job at the meat packing plant to collect bills for Gazzo.  Why does any of this matter?  Because Adrian is one of the reasons that Rocky believes in himself enough to even attempt training to fight Creed.  The budding romance between Rocky and Adrian is frankly as compelling as the training sequences.  In fact, touching on our theme of surrounding ourselves with friends and family, Rocky gets plenty of help from Adrian, Paulie and even Mickey, once they reconcile differences.  And, one of the film’s more compelling, legendary scenes occurs in Paulie’s meat locker – it’s one where you start to get some faith that this guy might actually have a shot.  Underdogs, unite!

And that feeling right there – “he might… have a shot!” – isn’t THAT what Thanksgiving is all about?  I mean, it’s been a year.  Every year is a year, but THIS year was really hard, right?  Insert any year!  Don’t you want that “we have a shot” feeling as you sit around the table with family and friends?  Why not cap that off with a viewing of Rocky?  Rewatch it, show it to the kids for the first time, but watch it.  Particularly if you’re planning to run out to theaters and catch Creed II sometime soon, maybe the films that started it all is a good place to start.

Only bad think about the film is Paulie’s blatant disrespect for turkey…

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An Unnerving Demonstration of the Pavlov Experiment

Hereditary (2018)

Dir: Ari Aster

Stars: Toni Collette, Gabriel Bryne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro and Ann Dowd

As horror movies go, Hereditary is a legitimate entry in the genre.  Anyone who knows this blog understands that horror is not my go-to genre.  I loved The Witch, I was blown away by the now classic The Exorcist, but I’m still drafting my entry for The Shining.  Regardless, the point is that for a guy who didn’t grow up watching movies in the wee hours with the lights out, trying to scare the hell out of myself and my pals – or catch a glimpse at some exploitative nudity – this movie felt like a worthwhile connector piece.  It reminded me a lot of last year’s thriller Split.  Just like that Shyamalan title, I can see how some who dislike horror films could easily like Hereditary more as a thriller.

Hereditary concerns a family that has just suffered the loss of their grandmother on the mom’s side.  Toni Collette plays the mom, Annie, and her odd and disjointed eulogy at the grandmother’s funeral is the first hint of an unnerving feeling.  During the same scene, the daughter of this family of four, Charlie, makes a clicking sound with her tongue.  It’s the first time we hear the sound, and that is a noteworthy element to this, director Ari Aster’s first film.  This clicking sound is what I’m referring to in this blog entry’s title – and when you see Hereditary, you’ll no doubt be able to identify the scene that made the entire theater jump.

Aside from the “click,” the men in the family, Gabriel Bryne as the dad and Alex Wolff as the eldest son, they’re important too.  But these two elements – a mom we’re not too sure about and a daughter who seems… disconnected – they’re both presented more in Hitchcock terms, less in the spirit of a Jason or Freddy Kreuger sort of set-up.  Which is why this Sundance darling worked for me.  Hereditary is more thought, less gore – and it’s a welcome departure from the popcorn, summer flicks that dominate screens right now.

Another thing that really worked in the movie’s favor was the very location.  The family’s house looks like it’s situated in a forest, as if it’s the only house in sight or ear shot for miles.  Further, there’s a huge, well-built treehouse to the side, where Charlie likes to sometimes sleep.  Later in the film, the skylight of the treehouse gives off a creepy glow.  So, if we’re keeping count, so far the very characters and the primary location are established as most unsettling.  But Hereditary, as with every horror movie, has that certain something that makes it unique.  To clarify, I feel like the movie still plays within the horror film playbook, but each of the culturally significant scary movies have something that everyone associates with it.

Some might accurately argue that that special something is the miniatures that Annie creates.  She has an entire studio, in which she makes tiny, very appropriately scaled dollhouses, people, scenes.  In fact, the entire house is littered with her efforts.  And, part of the great script includes “reminders” of how far we’re getting as the New York gallery, which has commissioned a sizable project from Annie, keeps calling and leaving messages for her progress at the most inopportune times.  Particularly the re-creation of grandma’s final days and, well, another scene that I won’t give away, these miniatures in the very creepy house really act to turn up the emotional discomfort.

But for me, the film’s sound design was the thing that resonated the most when I replayed the screening in my mind and made myself pinpoint what it was that made me clutch the armrests.  We’ve already talked about the “click,” which is really important.  And yes, perhaps it was the theater I saw it in (see note and picture below), maybe it was more intense than a typical screening.  Whatever the case, the strategic auditory rumbling underneath the visuals of these characters and their bizarrely designed home made for a truly terrifying evening.  As the suspense of the storyline developed, so did the sophistication and the intensity of the soundtrack and the sound effects.  From birds flying into windows to electronic beats that highlighted the visual of the house from the outside – an image which suddenly flipped from night to day like a light switch – the sound design deserves a lot of credit for why Hereditary works.

You can surely see by now, I’m skirting around the story and the substance of Hereditary – and for good reason.  If this was a B grade retread of the psycho killer, the family at the lonely lake, the supernatural home or some other horror formula, maybe I wouldn’t be so hesitant to give you more to chew on.  But, particularly if you haven’t seen previews or talked to anyone about this pic, go and see it.  Decide for yourself if the story, the characters, and the theme ultimately worked for you.

Finally, per the note above, I wanted to include these pics from the screening.  A friend of a friend invited us to see it at the Academy’s screening room, and what a great treat that was!  As you can see, Oscar himself hangs out all over the building – and we even got to see a few familiar faces…  If you have the opportunity to see a movie at the Academy, definitely take it!!

Hereditary on IMDB

And, if you insist on seeing the trailer, here it is:

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His Maximum Effort Persists

Deadpool 2 (2018)
Dir: David Leitch
Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Julian Dennison, Zazie Beetz, Morena Baccarin and Karan Soni

So, I haven’t gotten a blog in yet on Inception.  I did get one out for Darkest Hour.  And, I definitely drafted one for the original Deadpool, in which I ask why wouldn’t the Academy toss out some nominations for this Fan favorite, starting with a discussion for the writing adaptation race?  My point in bringing up these other titles is that it’s kind of a rare thing anymore, particular for someone who eats, sleeps and breathes films the way I do, that a film delivers.  And Deadpool 2, ladies and gentlemen, delivers.  Particularly when you consider all of the trailers, special clips, images, social media posts – for there to still be a LOT of surprises when I saw the film opening weekend is a real tribute to the film and its marketing campaign.

By the time the official trailer debuted in late March, I was eagerly awaiting more DP2.  Heck, I was excited when the studio treated us to that little vignette in which DP tries to change his clothes in a phone booth, a clip which certainly tossed a wink and a nod towards the original Superman.  I loved the first film, and the social media materials that had already been put out by the campaign had nailed it!  Consider these items, which are aside from the typical, official trailer:

  • Another video of Reynolds, in full costume as the anti-superhero, riffing off of old Bob Ross PBS videos
  • The very description of the movie, which reads as follows, “After surviving a near fatal bovine attack, a disfigured cafeteria chef (Wade Wilson) struggles to fulfill his dream of becoming Mayberry’s hottest bartender while also learning to cope with his lost sense of taste. Searching to regain his spice for life, as well as a flux capacitor, Wade must battle ninjas, the yakuza, and a pack of sexually aggressive canines, as he journeys around the world to discover the importance of family, friendship, and flavor – finding a new taste for adventure and earning the coveted coffee mug title of World’s Best Lover.”
  • In the week before open, the campaign dropped a clip in which Deadpool visits former soccer star David Beckham at home – see that one below.  It’s incredibly funny, and has earned over 21.4M views.
  • For the next clip, consider the variation on an old saying, “Don’t be afraid to ask – but also, know how to ask…”  Star Ryan Reynolds wrote a letter to fellow Canadian pop star Celine Deon.  The substance of the letter was essentially Reynolds’ feelings that no one has had an amazing soundtrack song since Deon sang for Titanic.  His question to her, “why not do it again, but for Deadpool 2?”  The video below is amazing, but be sure to see the behind-the-scenes variations, too.  And, when you see the film, you’ll surely agree that the use of this song and its placement in the film is hilarious.
  • There were a lot of other really special clips, but this one was significant in that most promotional materials that come out after opening weekend are very standard.  They typically tout “#1 movie in the world,” or “the action hit of the summer is here,” or other quick messaging for encouraging Fans to see the film in theaters.  Take a look at the final clip linked below, which literally pays tribute to the Deadpool Fans – and, in a funny way, TV classic The Golden Girls.

Referring to the second bullet above, it’s true – when you look the film’s official videos up on YouTube or if you’re browsing for DP2 on iTunes, this is the description that follows.  So, the deadpan, socially awkward sense of humor that defines the character was embraced by the marketing campaign not only in the first film, but also in this sequel.  Having a star like Reynolds, with his “all in” participation and energy is very rare, and to the campaign’s credit, they capitalized upon his involvement once again.  And, as opening weekend approached, the campaign kept pivoting with co-stars like Josh Brolin supporting star Reynolds in promoting DP2.

So far, I’ve focused mostly on the promotional campaign, because I think it’s a test case of what can be done when you have a dynamite character, a smart script, a truly dedicated lead actor and a marketing department willing to take risks.  But, let me say I saw the film on its opening weekend, and it’s such a satisfying feeling when you look at the trailer or at least become aware of a film debut you’re interested in – and the experience of going to the theater to see it pays off.  The storyline, involving Deadpool losing someone close to him and his subsequent attempt at righting some of his wrongful behavior towards becoming a true member of the X-Men, works the way the first one did.  The plot allows for plenty of action, lots of new characters and cameos, not to mention DP’s breaking of the fourth wall and incessant comedic dialogue.  Now, I’m not a comic book expert and I certainly missed some of the jokes and references that were obviously entertaining to other fans in that theater that weekend.  Again, I think this speaks directly to the script’s success – that both superfans and guys like me, who love the action/comedy genre, even if it spills over into superheros – this story got to both of us.

With all of these positive comments considered, be aware that the film is extremely violent, just like its predecessor.  If the first one didn’t resonate with you, definitely be aware that the sequel is very much the same “maximum effort” at not only entertaining action Fans, but also presenting a tongue-in-cheek parody of the superhero genre.  And, if I’m pressed to advise what stood out in DP2, I’d have to say Josh Brolin as Cable.  I couldn’t believe – particularly having seen so much of the teaser marketing materials – how much the actor brought to the role, and how the story kept his involvement anything but vanilla.  Not to say that Colossus and my boy Dopinder and the other supporting characters weren’t funny – just that Cable was a true gem.

Deadpool 2 – IMDB Link

And finally, here are some of the amazing posters the campaign assembled.  I think it’s worth a pat on the back that the marketing department at 20th Century Fox gave the go ahead to share all of these – I mean, look how fun they are!

Deadpool 2 Movie Posters

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So, um… Smoking Is Bad for Us?

SKIP – The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Dir: Lorgos Lanthimos
Stars: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Bill Camp, Alicia Silverstone and Barry Keoghan, who played the kid who dies on the boat in Dunkirk

In reference to the title of this entry, anyone who finishes Deer and has a strong sense of what the theme was is most definitely going to disagree with the following commentary.  I just happened to note how the movie uses tobacco smoking as an activity, a visual to show that another character has been sucked into the whirlwind of emotions and violence created by an allegorical idea, which this movie explores.  To put my frustration in perspective, let me say that I’m sure fans of Lars von Trier must love this film.  For anyone who knows my opinion of that so-called artist, that should put my feelings towards Deer in immediate context.

Before reading further, just know my primary goal in drafting this entry is to make sure that none of my pals back in Cincinnati see this on VOD and think, “Oh yeah! They shot that here – maybe I’ll give it a try…”  Well, don’t.  Let me advise any of my fellow hometown crowd to actively avoid watching this two hour exercise in frustration.  Readers of this blog have surely noticed how “SKIP” entries have been rare lately, and I try to keep it that way.  But with Deer, I’d rather you watch Tombstone, Happy Gilmore, Heat or any other of your favorites again for the 20th time.

I do, however, insist that everything in artistic endeavor has a positive and a negative.  Whether it’s a painting in the museum, a sculpture in the park, an old monument – or an independent movie like this, I like the idea that it’s healthy to talk about one’s feelings if they find the art off-putting.  To briefly elaborate, I read a lot of social media commentary related to films for my business.  And let me tell you, my biggest constructive criticism is simply to say you hate something is not enough.  Take the time to explain why.  Use your words.  Avoid emojis, which always make me think of Orwell’s 1984.  Describe your feelings and for God’s sake, give us a reason to finish your commentary.

Naturally, I have to hold myself to the same standard.  I mean, just because Deer was a “SKIP” for me, it doesn’t mean that the “artist’s intent” didn’t receive positive “audience reaction” by other moviegoers.  It wasn’t received well by me, at least related to 85-90% of the film.  The beloved 10-15% I’m referring to is specific to the incredible locations that the production used in my hometown of Cincinnati.  In fact, some of the early scenes are shot from Covington, KY, which is also very dear to me.  The resulting skyline you see of that picturesque little midwestern town had my hopes up.  And, on a separate positive note, let me say that I appreciate the efforts of the actors, their interest in tackling such a script… And, I especially liked the work of cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis.  Not sure if it was him or the director, but their tribute to Stanley Kubrick is noticable with Deer.

Now that all the positives are out of the way, let’s dive in with the frustration.  The very philosophy of the film, the question suggested by the title, was never well executed in the story or the dialogue or the visual references of the film.  At least not so that I noticed it.  In reading other reviews, I now understand it was presented, but that’s a bad sign in and of itself that I missed it.  But, is this story with these characters in this setting the most appropriate, the most entertaining the most engaging possible for testing this theory that one life must die to balance out an improper death?  From this humble bloggers perspective, no.  Where’d the kid (Keoghan) learn this bit?  What’s the foundation of it?  If you’re trying to sell us on the idea that this mentally ill 16 year old is somehow justified in his actions… not off to a great start.

I think the thing that upset me the most about Deer is the involvement of child actors and/or characters, however you want to perceive the involvement of underage people in the film.  If you’re going to specifically include teens, children, sons and/or daughters in a violent, dramatic exploration of revenge, mental illness, kidnapping, murder, etc… well, son, you’d better have a good reason to do so.  And, you’d damned well better execute it well here.  Consider yourself 0-2, Mr. Lanthimos.  I’m not a parent, but if I were, and my child’s representation sent me this script, we’d have to have a serious reset on the kinds of roles they were sending my son(s) and/or daughter(s) out for.  And the response to their playing any role in Deer would be a hard but polite, no.

The element of a 16 year old kid – brilliantly portrayed by Barry Keoghan, to the young actor’s credit – who is meticulous and calculating enough to find some kind of poison that to my knowledge, doesn’t bloody exist, is another gaping hole right in the middle of Killing.  I mean, Mr. Lanthimos co-wrote this… why not make the kid in his early 20s?  As in he’s had years to investigate the whole thing?  And by the way, how’d he dose the kids?  How’d he get in the goddam house with no one noticing?  How did he acquire this mystery postion?  Did he mix it himself…?  Or, is it just his understanding that an old myth is at fault?  And if that’s the case… how is he an authority to bring this fact to the family?  On and on the holes are exposed.

And, perhaps most egregious is the impotent behavior of the hero/anti-hero, however you want to perceive him, Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell).  If I had read the script well before this title was produced, I’d have asked specifically, why does a doctor this smart go to the kid’s house?  Why does he bang on the door, yell at the mom, who’s apparently not home?  What takes him so long to tell his wife the truth – and why would she agree to sexually please him in the manner she does in the late scenes of the film after her husband takes apparently no interest in saving their children?  And for those who suggest, “Well, he had no way of saving them!”  You and I must agree to disagree, because your perspective is definitely that of the filmmakers.  The idea that a killer is going to tell you what he’s doing – and then you’re going to continue running tests and really taking your time figuring it out at the hospital… that is a really difficult idea for me to embrace or believe in any way shape or form.  Finally, looking at things from the other perspective, that the kid had nothing to do with it and this is just the universe holding the doctor responsible for a wrongful death, well… I’d love to see the reactions to anyone if I turned in a spec like that.

And another thing…. in a brief scene late in the film, Dr. Murphy goes in to talk to his kids’ principal, and he asks him, “If you had to choose one of them, which would it be…?”  And the principal just… well, what?  What’d he do?  I think he answers something opaque like, “Well, gee… that’s a tough one.”  And after the doc left, then what?!?  Guess he just swiveled around on his chair, looked at some more files, took a nice long peek out the window at the green grass…??  Let me offer a four letter word: hole (as in the story, in the third act, in our very human nature).

In the end, this title is a real example of my general frustrations with some films over the past several years.  While Deer had a fantastic location, and ummmm… well, it had smoking in it… there wasn’t a whole lot to appreciate.  I can’t imagine seeing this film in theaters at the end of a long week.  I’d be furious.  I mean, who the hell is the audience for the movie?  This link reports it made over $5M worldwide and over $1M domestically.  Were these moviegoers like me who liked Mr. Lanthimos film, The Lobster, which I thought was one of the best movies of 2016?

Here’s hoping his next effort, the upcoming drama The Favourite, returns more to his sensibilities from The Lobster.

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Why I Love Film – The Narrow Margin on TCM

The Narrow Margin
Dir: Richard Fleischer
Stars: Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Jacqueline White, David Clarke, Don Beddoe and Paul Maxey

With the summer movie season already upon us thanks to the record breaking Avengers: Infinity War‘s release in late April, I was chatting recently with folks back home about the theater experience.  It’s funny how much we take for granted by going to the cinema here in Los Angeles.  Of course we’ll get there super early.  Obviously we’re going to select our seat before entering the theater.  Most of the time, we expect stadium seating with a chair easily mistaken for a recliner.  But, back in my hometown of Cincinnati, like many “flyover states,” the theater experience is much different.  Theaters aren’t as nice, the experience is generally perceived as either a real treat – or a totally indulgent, impulsive purchase.

Now, I appreciate “event films” like the aforementioned Avengers, the Star Wars films, and Fan favorites that dot the calendar year.  Oftentimes, it seems the “theater experience” is touted in everything from the advertising for a movie – we’ve all heard copy like, “experience it in IMAX,” – to the resulting conversation as we walk to our cars.  For example, I was seriously relieved to have seen Dunkirk in theaters last year, as that’s a superb film “experience,” which would have had its overall effectiveness diluted to a certain extent by watching it at home or, heaven forbid, on an even smaller screen.

But, as I stayed up on a late Saturday night after everyone went to bed watching The Narrow Margin, presented by Noir aficionado Eddie Muller on TCM, I realized the at-home “in the mood” movie viewing is an experience all its own, too.  I didn’t want to start an episode of a TV show I’m watching.  I wasn’t in the mood for more sports highlights.  I wasn’t ready for bed, either.  It was too late to go meet some pals at the local watering hole.  So, as I’m scrolling through the cable menu options, I come upon TCM and see that this suspense film called The Narrow Margin is starting in five minutes.  Well, hot damn – let’s use the facilities, grab another great Cincinnati beer and put up our feet!

To start, Mr. Muller does a great job of offering some context for these films before starting.  I lament the fact that we seem to have abandoned a technique often used in 80s films, one I call “the scroll.”  This is that rolling bit of detail that would display on screen before a film got underway.  Recently, I saw it again in the Schwarzenegger action/sci-fi film,The Running Man.  The “scroll” in that film informed us that in a dystopian future, the governments had essentially collapsed into one due to famine and shortages of natural resources – and the only thing really keeping the public in line was the weekly airing of a game show called The Running Man where criminals got an opportunity to pay their debt to society in one night, or die trying.  In the same way, Muller introduces Margin with an enthusiastic prelude.  We get insight into the actors, particularly Marie Windsor and what the film did for her career.  His commentary gives us, the viewers, a heads up that now would be a good time to change your mindset – and enter another world.

And in this case, that world is one of “Noir”, a delicious film sub-genre that straddles the lines between action, drama, melodrama, suspense, thrillers and sometimes horror and even comedy.  These movies celebrate and explore that gray line between the evil that Man is capable of, with his desire for truth, justice and love.  For its Fans and viewers, noir’s definition is much like its storylines, characters and classic black-and-white look.  The Narrow Margin captures all of these elements in exemplary fashion, starting with the story.

Imagine two surly looking gents disembarking an old train in early 1950s Chicago.  The opening scene follows these two guys, who look like criminals but are soon revealed to be LAPD detectives who are in town to pick up an important mob witness and escort her back on the train to Los Angeles.  The witness is played by the aforementioned Windsor, with a real snarkiness and attitude that you can’t help but grin at.  It’s like her character’s eyebrow is stuck halfway up her forehead and she can’t go more than ten minutes without throwing a dismissive shrug.

In the course of taking the witness downstairs, the elder detective is murdered and the protege, Det. Sgt. Walter Brown, is crestfallen.  He forces himself to do the job as the movie unfolds, but as played by Charles McGraw, we believe as the character wrestles with the failure of his partner’s death.  Now, the train is littered with tough talking, spurious looking gangsters, of course.  As Brown comes across these hoodlums, it’s fun to watch the interactions and how they build and top.

Margin is kind of like “Die Hard” on a train as presented within the rules of noir, which include the good guy, the shady gal, the numerous hoodlums, the innocent gal and her son – and some surprising twists among other supporting roles like the conductor and a passenger named Sam Jennings.  Portrayed by the very portly Paul Maxey, he has one of the best lines in the film as Brown tries to pass him in the narrow train walkway – “There’s only two people in the world who like a fat man, his grocer and his tailor.”  But the greater point is that part of this experience of watching an old film because you’re in the mood – you never know how they’re going to remind you of more modern films, and how today’s filmmakers are always “borrowing” from their predecessors.  And by the way, that’s a good thing, whether they credit the previous generation for their influencer or not.

There are fistfights and twists leading towards the climax, but for me, it’s also the little things you get to observe in watching these old films.  Compared to a painting in a museum, these old films (pre late 1960s) are moving lessons in how life used to be.  Consider one scene in which everyone’s gone to sleep on the train, and the next shot is an exterior of the train tearing towards its Los Angeles destination.  We cut back inside to one of the compartments that has just a curtain on either side of the narrow walkway.  And one of the hoodlums pulls away the curtain to take his little sundries kit to the sink at the back of the car.  He washes up in this community sink on the train because he got the cheap ticket – and the guy behind him does a real job of demonstrating (with pre-method acting, surely) how frustrated he is with how long the hoodlum took.

Now, I have never taken a train across the U.S., and I certainly can’t take one from back in the 1950s.  I was fascinated by the small spaces the hero is forced to work within – and how the communication to and from the train worked with bags snatched off of poles as the train sped by.  These little details are exactly the kind of things I was in the mood for when I saw the film listed in the cable guide.

Which brings me to my greater point about the smaller, “in the mood” home movie experience.  Whether or not you’ve had a day of resolution or frustration, a movie can oftentimes be the perfect salve before hitting the sack.  I knew that in 90 minutes, I would have seen a film from a genre I really like – and that the story would be resolved.  Unlike another episode of TV or infinite sports highlights, movies still have that unique power to entertain us for a finite period of time – and offer a complete resolution, too.  And, do all of this entertaining in the comfort of our own home, with our dog or cat in one hand and our beverage of choice in the other.

IMDB for The Narrow Margin

TCM – Noir Alley Page

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“You are so sly… but, so am I.”

Manhunter (1986)
Dir: Michael Mann
Stars: William Petersen, Kim Greist, Tom Noonan, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina and Joan Allen

I’ll probably never forget the first time I saw Manhunter.  I was in high school, and it was a really weird night where I was already on edge, having had a really bizarre evening at the restaurant I worked at.  Long story short, this guy who used to work on the cooking line with me came in to get his last check – and essentially went berserk.  I mean tossing dishes, throwing anything he could get his hands on at staff and customers alike before running out the front door.  I don’t know – I heard rumors of girlfriend problems and some steroid use The man was jacked, no doubt about that.  I guess the point is that I drove home thinking about how it’s really difficult to say you know anyone fully.  I mean, aren’t there folks at your work place you’ve had doubts about?  What do they do when they’re not with you at work, particularly that really quiet guy?  Well, that night when I finished Manhunter, I figured that the fictional employees where Francis Dollarhyde worked surely had similar thoughts.

Whatever the case, watching this Michael Mann thriller after such an event was probably not a great idea.  This movie is, for me personally, one of the most intense and essentially scary thriller/suspense films I can think of.  And, having recently rewatched on Amazon Prime, I found myself supremely impressed with numerous aspects of the movie.  We’ve got a real color palate in play, which has become a hallmark of Mann’s filmography.  We have a duo of villains that scare the hell out of you every time they’re on screen, even if the scene is somewhat standard in nature.  And, we have an intense, behind-the-scenes investigation, which shows us things along the way and keeps us engaged with the story from the initial, creepy images through to the last shot.

So, let’s start with a more academic discussion about the visual feel of Manhunter.  Remember, Mann was an executive producer on the 1980s hit Miami Vice, which aired on NBC for seven years.  Sure, you can argue that Vice was a classic example of a niche TV show that “jumped the shark,” but you can’t argue the cultural phenomenon that show sparked.  Much of it was related to the neon, the pastel colors and outlandish shots of the ocean that became synonymous with the show – and influenced everything from pop music to fashion.  Similarly, this 1986 film has a real palate that helps visually tell the story.

Consider the bookend scenes of the film, which take place in Captiva, FL.  The blues that appear on screen, whether they’re of the Gulf of Mexico or the interior of Will Graham’s bedroom, give a sense of comfort and home.  The blue hues of this temperature are not seen in the seriousness of Act Two or any scenes related to Lecktor or the killer on the loose, referred to as The Tooth Fairy, played with the utmost tone of villainy by character actor Tom Noonan.  But, they sure are dominating the film’s poster, aren’t they?  As discussed in previous posts about the importance of a movie’s poster, many other films could take a page out of Manhunter‘s playbook.

Instead, when Graham interviews Dr. Hannibal Lecktor – yes, that same Lecktor made infamous by Best Picture Silence of the Lambs – the cell is stark white and full of florescent overhead lighting, which fits the direct nature of Lecktor’s dialogue and the seriousness of the institutional set.  One of my favorite shots is of Graham, leaving the interview in a cold sweat, running down this crazy ramp that goes up four stories into the correctional building.  Look at how industrial and stark this image is compared to the rounded, comfy edges of home in Captiva.  Long story short (too late) – Manhunter is a must watch for cinema students who want to apply a well thought color palate to accentuate their story.  And for the casual moviegoer who finishes a film and can’t quite describe why they enjoyed it so much, Mann’s specific choices related to color are one of those subtle things that makes that kind of difference in your viewing experience.

But, as referenced in the previous paragraph, Dr. Hannibal Lecktor is indeed a character in Manhunter – and, fun fact, this was the villain’s debut on screen.  Played with the same direct swagger that Anthony Hopkins so famously captured in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs, Brian Cox does a thorough job of creating unease whenever his character is onscreen.  I probably saw the actor for the first time in Braveheart as the hero’s Uncle Argyle.  In Manhunter, everything from his dialogue to his attitude to the way Mann shoots him through the cold bars of the cell lends itself to that feeling of discomfort and terror.  As in Silence, Lecktor is being used.  Hero Will Graham, portrayed with genuine intensity by William Petersen, wants Lecktorto help him get inside of the at-large killer, the Tooth Fairy.  Lecktor is naturally reticent, particularly considering it was Graham who put the Doc in prison for murdering college students.

So, Manhunter shares some of that plot through line of a killer helping the investigator capture another killer.  And the Tooth Fairy is some kind of movie villain.  Tom Noonan deserves a lot of credit for how intimidating he is in some of his scenes, and how delicate his character appears when romancing his colleague Reba McClane, played with her usual emotional truthfulness by Joan Allen.  The unexpected scenes of these unlikely characters’ romance really throws us viewers for a loop, and makes the urgency of Graham’s investigation all the more hyper.  In fact, Mann takes the time to pause the action, and focus on the relationships between the villain and the hero – a rare choice in a thriller/suspense film.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I find the investigation a perfect plot for a two hour film experience.  We willingly buckle up for the ride, with that safe feeling in the back of our minds that says, “no matter how bad this gets, we know it’ll all be over soon…”  Well, maybe that’s why Manhunter effected me so much – this film never feels safe.  Perhaps it’s the introduction of Graham’s family, or the fact that his wife is thoroughly concerned with Graham’s health after the Lecktor experience.  Or, maybe it’s that I love cheering for a hero that’s willing to be shoved back into the grinder to find another killer of this violent magnitude – because he knows he’s good at it.

Whatever the case, the scenes of investigation here are noteworthy.  Consider when a guard at the prison is able to lift a piece of toilet paper containing a message that the Tooth Fairy sent Lecktor.  The way Graham’s investigative team pulls that evidence apart and rushes against the clock to use it and replace it in the Doc’s cell without him noticing… it’s phenomenal cinema!  And, that’s where the line that I used to entitle this post came from.  Will Graham is a powerful hero – but, unlike so many other cop dramas and action-adventure films, he’s not superman.  When he finally does talk his way into cracking the case, the combination of Petersen’s acting, Mann’s patient, long take and the superior soundtrack combine for one of my favorite moments in the movie.

So, whether it’s the unique color palate, the skin-crawling performances of the villains or the natural intensity of the movie’s investigation, I really encourage you to try this one.  I was surprised, when I did a recent audit of Ronhamprod.com that I hadn’t covered a Michael Mann film yet – and this one is a great start.  I’ll put it this way – if you enjoyed HBO’s True Detective, I’m sure you’ll dig Manhunter.

And, enjoy this link, which has a lot of images from the film, many of which really capture the color palate discussed in this post – IMDB – Manhunter Cast & Crew

 

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