Monday, December 23, 2013

A Call for Donations to My Senior Film!

Hello, everyone! Next February, I will be shooting my senior film for Webster University: an adaptation of Jack London's A Thousand Deaths, a story about a mad scientist obsessed with killing and resurrecting his own son.

Last week, I officially launched our IndieGogo campaign. Our goal is to raise a budget of $2,500. As of now, we've raised $410, but we still have a long way to go.

Please give what you can! To find out more about A Thousand Deaths, you can read the original Jack London story here.

For a window into my expertise as a filmmaker, check out the trailer for my previous film, Mark Twain's Bad Boy Without Grief, here.

Thank you, everyone, for your support. Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

“Can I help you?”

Those are the first words spoken by Steven Spielberg in his memorable cameo as a mustached Chicago tax collector in John Landis’ The Blues Brothers (1980). Munching on a sandwich during his 5-minute break, he pokes his head through the door and asks if he can help our heroes. With no time to lose, the Blues Brothers grab him, drag him to his desk and plop him down.

“This is where they pay the taxes, right!??” frantically asks John Belushi’s Jake.

“…Right,” Spielberg replies.

Dan Aykroyd’s Elwood takes out a thick wad of cash from a briefcase and holds it up: “This money is for the year’s assessment on the Saint Helen of the Blessed Shroud Orphanage in Calumet City, Illinois.”

“Five thousand bucks! It’s all there, pal!” Belushi adds.

As hordes of hotheaded Chicago PD blast their way to the top of the building, Spielberg patiently signs, stamps, and completes the Brothers’ transaction. “And here is your receipt,” he concludes, attempting to hand it to the Brothers—just before their wrists are suddenly handcuffed and they slowly turn around, faced with the disconcerting sight of an untold number of rifle barrels pointed right at them.

Sure, the Brothers wind up going to jail. But at least Spielberg was able to help them first. And what’s more, he got to help out John Landis with a witty little cameo. Must’ve been his way of returning the favor after Landis’ own cameo in Spielberg’s 1941 (1979), where he played a dust-covered motorcycle messenger yanked off his ride by Belushi (and distracted when Belushi literally cries wolf—“baby wolf!” to be exact).

A couple of years later, Spielberg and Landis would help each other again on Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), for which they would both serve as producers and for which they would each direct one of the film’s four ambitious segments. It seemed like a marvelous attempt to combine their respective talents until Landis made a fateful, pre-dawn telephone call to Spielberg on July 23, 1982, informing him that the worst possible thing had happened: under Landis’ watch, actor Vic Morrow and child actors Renee Shin-Yi Chen and My-Ca Dinh Le had been decapitated and crushed by a helicopter on the film’s set.

“Do you have a press agent?” Spielberg asked Landis over the phone.

It would be the last time Spielberg ever helped Landis. And Twilight Zone: The Movie would destroy their friendship.

The long headache which followed began when a truck driver from the set began claiming that Spielberg had been present on the set that night. Landis called the allegations “preposterous”, and defended Spielberg. The truck driver later admitted he might have confused Spielberg with Frank Marshall, and Spielberg himself swore to the NTSB that he had not been on the set that night—“or at any other time.”

But the tension between Spielberg and Landis didn’t end there.

As the investigation dragged on, Landis’ attorney publicly demanded that Spielberg be investigated for his possible involvement in the hiring of the two children who had been killed alongside Morrow. When the DA’s office did nothing (the statute of limitations had already expired on the matter of the children’s’ employment), Landis’ attorney accused Spielberg of trying to be above the law: “What other major witness could avoid questioning by signing a piece of paper?” A couple of the films Spielberg would later make in the 1980’s (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Empire of the Sun) afforded him the luxury of being out of the country for much of the time and, thus, the luxury of dodging all attempts at being questioned during the investigation, as well as Landis’ involuntary manslaughter trial.

Landis was finally acquitted in 1987. By then, Spielberg had already gone to great pains to distance himself from him. Irreparable damage had been done to their friendship, and there was no avoiding it. When Joseph McBride tried to interview Landis, in 1995, for his Spielberg biography, Landis simply declared, “I haven’t talked to Steven in years,” and heatedly refused to answer questions about Twilight Zone: The Movie.

So, what of the movie itself? Is it any good?

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Twilight Zone: The Movie. I basically agree with the general consensus: that Landis and Spielberg’s segments are sometimes-interesting but mostly thin, whereas Joe Dante and George Miller’s segments are fun and imaginative—the way a Twilight Zone episode ought to be. Roger Ebert summed this up in his original review of the film: “The surprising thing is, the two superstar directors are thoroughly routed by two less-known directors whose previous credits have been horror and action pictures.”

Some critics believe that Spielberg’s segment is the least successful of the four. I think Landis’ segment is the least successful; it’s hurt not so much by its weak script as it is by the way it was butchered by the real-life tragedy that burned down its production.

Landis’ segment begins promisingly, with Vic Morrow’s bigoted William Connor introduced by Burgess Meredith’s narrator as “a sour man—a lonely man—who’s tired of waiting for the breaks that come to others, but never to him.” He enters a bar, miserable about a job promotion he lost at work to a Jew. He’s rejected by the waitresses. He goes on a tirade about black people and Asians, but reserves his most revealing discriminatory comments for Jews: “Them kikes. They always get more money, you know that, don’t you…What else the hell they want, for Christ’s sake? They own everything as it is!”

“Come on, Bill. Jews don’t own everything!” nervously laughs one of Connor’s friends, played by Charles Hallahan, from John Carpenter’s The Thing.

“The A-Rabs won’t let ‘em!” adds the other friend, played by Doug McGrath, most famous as the dopey cop from Black Christmas, and who later appeared as a dying bus driver in Spielberg’s Always (1989).

Morrow goes on one racist tangent after another. His character isn’t meant to be likable, but, as Landis’ dialogue begins to make clear, we are meant to at least empathize with him. “I love this country, dammit!” he roars. “And I fought for it in Korea!” Such dialogue suggests that this man is not entirely bad, that he’s done good things in his life but has been blinded by prejudice along the way. He is clearly meant to undergo some kind of redemption at the end of the segment by overcoming his prejudice.

And so he would have… had the helicopter incident not happened.

In the segment, the Twilight Zone takes William Connor to task for his prejudices by transporting him to Nazi-occupied Paris, a torch-lit Ku Klux Klan rally in the Deep South, and war-torn Vietnam. Along the way, he is chased by Nazis, Klan and U.S. soldiers who all mistake him for some kind of ethnicity and try to kill him. By the end of the segment, Connor was supposed to be so flustered by experiencing so much prejudice all at once that he finally overcomes his prejudices, and attempts to save two small Vietnamese children from an exploding compound while a U.S. helicopter flies overhead.

And so he would have… had the helicopter not crashed on the set, and claimed the lives of Morrow and the two children.

Unable to film the segment's original ending, now that his star had been killed, Landis and his editor, Malcolm Campbell, were forced to re-arrange the segment during post-production so that William Connor now suddenly (and rather abruptly) ends up back in Paris, is captured by the Nazis, is thrown into a boxcar with Jews and sent off to a death camp. For added insult to injury, the Twilight Zone contorts things so that he even spots his two friends from the bar standing aimlessly outside the train; his screams for them go unheard.

This is such a disgusting way to end the segment, for a number of reasons. For one thing, it trivializes the Holocaust. It’s also dramatically confusing; Landis' script has already made it clear to us that William Connor is a Korean War veteran, and Burgess Meredith’s narrator has made it clear to us that Connor is a “lonely” man and, therefore, something of a complicated, tragic figure.

What, then, has William Connor ever done in his life that is bad enough to merit a fate as ghoulish as being shipped off to die in a gas chamber? You’d think he’d have learned his lesson by the end of the segment, so… what is the Twilight Zone trying to prove, exactly, by not only disciplining him, but then proceeding to kill him as well? The other Jews in the boxcar are, of course, even more innocent than Connor is, which begs the question: If the Twilight Zone truly possesses the extraordinary power to catapult a perplexed bigot into three hateful periods of time, then why can’t it also, you know… somehow rescue all those Jews in the boxcar? Or, here’s an idea: reverse history completely and stop the whole Holocaust from happening? (The show would later try to do just that, of course, in the 2002 episode “Cradle of Darkness”). Furthermore, I also wonder what the hell must have been running through Landis' mind when he realized that by editing the segment this way, he would, essentially, be horribly killing off Morrow on-screen -- after Morrow had already died horribly off-screen.

All of these issues are just a lead-up to the very thing that killed this segment’s chances for success: the helicopter accident. It should never have happened. It was the worst possible thing that could have happened. It ruined post-production. It ruined the careers of everyone who worked on it. It even ruined Vic Morrow’s performance, which had so much potential.

On that last criticism, the filmmakers would disagree with me. At Morrow’s memorial service a few days after his death, Landis eulogized, "Tragedy can strike in an instant, but film is immortal. Vic lives forever. Just before the last take, Vic took me aside to thank me for the opportunity to play this role." And the film's associate producer, George Folsey, added, "If there is any consolation in this, it is that the film is finished. This performance must not be lost. It was Vic's last gift to us."

But the truth is that Morrow’s performance would have been far more affecting and cathartic had the segment ended as originally planned: with William Connor rescuing the two children, and becoming a better man in the process. Without that ending, the segment merely ends with a bigoted man getting shipped off to be gassed. It leaves us cold and disoriented. We don’t understand the point of it all, and we don’t understand why the segment was made in the first place.

Consequently, there is a kind of disturbing emotional detachment to the segment which colors my opinion of Landis as a filmmaker. I’m of the opinion that when Landis does screwball comedy, he can be brilliant (National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Blues Brothers), but that when he tackles a project that involves big emotions, he chickens out. An American Werewolf in London (1981) is, in many ways, his most well-directed film, but it is nevertheless compromised by a mean-spirited ending that shies away from the emotion that’s been building throughout the whole thing. We become so wrapped up in the romance between David Naughton and Jenny Agutter that when Naughton’s demise at the end of that film is followed abruptly by Landis’ tongue-in-check decision to play “Blue Moon” over the end credits, we feel hurt and betrayed by the director; the ending is not given the delicate attention it deserves. When Landis recently appeared on a European show alongside Terry Gilliam, another emotionally-frigid director, to discuss what they both think of other films and filmmakers, I was surprised that they never once discussed Spielberg, a far more emotional filmmaker whom they both have chilly relationships with (Gilliam has criticized Spielberg’s directorial style on countless occasions).

Spielberg’s own segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, a remake of the episode, “Kick the Can”, is, predictably, a far more emotional segment than Landis’, though not without problems of its own. Originally, he had been scheduled to remake a different episode from the show—“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”—but, after the helicopter accident, he wisely elected to avoid directing a segment involving young children and frightening special effects. In fact, Spielberg, according to Joseph McBride, “tried to abandon the entire project, but Warner Bros. lawyers, fearing that cancellation of the film could be construed as an admission of guilt, insisted he fulfill his contract.”

Of Spielberg’s “Kick the Can” remake, Roger Ebert was onto something when he suggested, “Spielberg's visual style in this segment is so convoluted and shadowy that the action is hard to follow; the master of clear-cut, sharp-edged visuals is trying something that doesn't work.” A more simpler way to put it is: The segment suffers from dull pacing. The tale of magical wanderer Mr. Bloom, who grants the gift of youth to a group of retirement home residents, just doesn’t benefit from the exuberant imagination that one expects from a Twilight Zone story (and which flowers beautifully in the Dante and Miller segments which follow Spielberg's).

There are three great moments in Spielberg’s segment, however, that make it worth seeing. The first is when sad-eyed Leo Conroy (Bill Quinn) waddles out of Sunnyvale Rest Home, a briefcase hand-in-hand, and attempts to hitch a ride with his son, a real estate agent.

“You said… maybe you think I could come visit,” Conroy pathetically asks his son, with deep sincerity. “Come visit?” The son is evasive, claiming “bad timing” and half-heartedly suggesting, “Maybe next week?” while he’s egged on by his wife to get going. The son departs with a quick, indifferent kiss and waves goodbye, while Leo Conroy walks miserably back into the rest home.

From inside, old playboy Mr. Agee (Murray Matheson) has been watching the whole thing, and informs a newcomer, Mr. Bloom (Scatman Crothers), that this is not the first time this has happened: “Every second Saturday, he carries those cases down to his kid’s car. And every second Saturday, he carries them back upstairs, here, and unpacks them.”

It is a surprisingly-moving way to begin the segment, and in some ways feels like Spielberg’s tribute to Yasujiro Ozu and Tokyo Story. An old man wants to spend time with his adult son, but is politely refused. In all its simplicity, this is an achingly visceral moment, one in which Spielberg makes us recognize the feelings of isolation that come with old age—all the more startling because it occurs in the Twilight Zone, where intimate, human emotions are rather uncommon.

The second great moment in Spielberg’s segment is a beautiful speech by Mr. Bloom (Spielberg described Scatman Crothers in this role as “the Black E.T.”), after the now-young retirement home residents tell him that they don’t want to remain children forever, and would rather return to their older lives. “Well,” sighs Mr. Bloom with a pearly smile, “you can always go inside, and go back to bed. Maybe, if you old folks had a little of that magic still left in you, you could wake up back in your old, nice bodies. But, with fresh, young minds.” Jerry Goldsmith’s music during this scene is particularly wonderful.

The third great moment in the segment comes close to the end, when Mr. Conroy, who had earlier refused Mr. Bloom’s gift of youth, witnesses a young Mr. Agee (Evan Richards) fleeing out the rest home’s window. He stops him—not to try to get him in trouble, but because he, too, now longs for the gift of youth.

“Please...” Mr. Conroy begs, “Take me with you. I wanna go, too.”

The young Mr. Agee replies by paraphrasing Hamlet: “You can’t come with me, Leo. You’ll have to stay with yourself. There’s a destiny that shapes our ends, rough hewn though it may be. I’m sorry. Well… let’s AWAY!” before flying off into the night.

“I’m ready, now,” pines Mr. Conroy. “I’m ready.” The other residents comfort him with hands on his shoulders, as they all stare out into the night. The following morning, Mr. Conroy is found on the front lawn gleefully playing kick-the-can. Off to the side, Mr. Bloom observes Mr. Conroy at play, then looks into the camera and grins, “He’ll get it.”

These are the three great moments that make “Kick the Can” worth watching. For the most part, it’s a fairly tedious segment that drags during the long passages of the residents bickering in the rest home and, later, goofing around after they’re transformed into little kids. But every now and then, that invaluable Spielbergian magic kicks in during the segment and shows its face. “Although filmed in an excessively whimsical manner that blunts some of its emotional potential,” agrees Joseph McBride in his Spielberg biography, “”Kick the Can’ represents a further step in Spielberg’s maturation process. Under the sobering influence of the events of the previous summer, he made a bittersweet film about the need to turn one’s back on childhood and accept the coming of age.”

So, from my perspective, Spielberg’s segment, while problematic, is superior to Landis’ segment, mostly because it’s the more cathartic of the two and because it wasn’t butchered by real-life circumstances during its production. It is, of course, unfortunate that Twilight Zone: The Movie ultimately destroyed Spielberg's friendship with Landis, and the mystery behind Spielberg's possible involvement in the hiring of the two children will probably never be solved, but, at the end of the day, it cannot be ignored that three people died in a horrible accident. And Spielberg’s own subtle criticisms of Landis’ conduct during that accident are a painful reminder of the responsibilities of being a filmmaker:

“A movie is a fantasy—it’s light and shadow flickering on a screen. No movie is worth dying for. I think people are standing up much more now than ever before to producers and directors who ask too much. If something isn’t safe, it’s the right and responsibility of every actor or crew member to yell, ‘Cut!’”

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Small Soldiers (1998)

Towards the end of Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers, a band of pacifist toys make the crucial decision to put away long-held ideals and spring into action. The Gorgonites were designed to be kind, peaceful and educational to kids, but now the evil Commando Elite toys are taking over the neighborhood, and the life of Alan Abernathy, the kid who has been sheltering the Gorgonites all along, is being threatened.

Archer, emissary of the Gorgonites, steps forth. He cannot abide the cruelty of the Commando Elite any longer. He attempts to rally his comrades. “Gorgonites,” he commands, “we must help Alan.”

The Gorgonites are appalled by this idea. One by one, they make one desperate protest after another:

“But if we fight, we will lose!”

“Last time we fought, I woke up with AMFM!”

“I tell ya: War is nuts! And I know what I’m talking about!”

“We shouldn’t fight! We should hide!”

Archer listens to all of these protests. No doubt he understands their concern—for, being a Gorgonite, he knows what it means to run away from violence, to survive at all costs. But now the Gorgonites’ nonviolence may very well cost the life of the kid who trusted them and provided them safety. If they don’t act, Alan will die. Archer doesn’t particularly want to fight, but he has to. Hiding will no longer do them any good.

 “If we hide,” Archer concludes, “…we will still lose. No more hiding.”

At age 7, when I saw Small Soldiers during initial release in the summer of 1998, it was these words spoken by Archer that led me to realize what a great movie this was. Up until then, I was enjoying Small Soldiers merely as gleeful, escapist entertainment, pumped full of big action, bad toys, dopey parents, a hot teenage Kirsten Dunst and an insecure teenage hero I immediately identified with in young Gregory Smith. But by the time Archer gave his speech, rallying the Gorgonites to fight, something about Small Soldiers appealed to the grade-school warrior in me, and I realized that this was a very intelligent film, treating me like an adult with its focus not just on the issues of growing pains, but the issues of warfare.

Watching it today, I still stand by what I felt at age 7: Small Soldiers is a great movie, perhaps even Joe Dante’s best movie, and this is the director who has also given us Gremlins, The HowlingInnerspaceThe ‘Burbs and Matinee. That being said, I don’t always agree with interpretations posed by the film’s various fans. I sometimes hear the film described as “antiwar”, for example; I couldn’t disagree more with that assessment. One of the film's fans whom I disagree with is Jonathan Rosenbaum, who reviewed the film around the same time when Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan was in theaters. In his review, Rosenbaum dismissed Saving Private Ryan as jingoistic propaganda, then added, "One of the finer virtues of Small Soldiers is that it cuts through this kind of crap and makes the very idea of a war film look ridiculous."

I disagree enormously with Rosenbaum's dismissal of Saving Private Ryan, and even with some of his theories about Small Soldiers, although I do agree with him that Small Soldiers is partially constructed as a satire of war movies. Certainly, Small Soldiers does take a bit of pleasure in lampooning war movies in general. The members of the jingoistic Commando Elite, for example, are all voiced by cast members from Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen, a hardcore war/action flick so celebrated for its jingoism that, even before Dante, Nora Ephron was already making fun of it in Sleepless in Seattle. The war-movie satiric agenda of Small Soldiers is also announced when the Commando Elite first come to life in the film: Major Chip Hazard (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones) rips his way out of a plastic box and gives a warmongering speech in front of a giant American flag, Patton-style. On the film’s soundtrack, we hear Edwin Starr's aggressively-pacifist “War! What Is It Good For?” And in a later scene, a drunken Phil Hartman (in his last film role) is heard to mutter the infamous line, “I think World War II was my favorite war” (Rosenbaum, in his review, wittily muses: “It seems like a line Steven Spielberg might utter”).

All of this is considerable, and yet I’ve always believed that the screenplay for Small Soldiers (written by Adam Rifkin, Gavin Scott, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio) has a lot more on its mind that just satirizing war and war movies. For example: In an early scene, when young Alan (Gregory Smith) has come into possession of Archer (voiced by Frank Langella), he wonders why all the other Gorgonites have fled into hiding. “Monsters shouldn’t be hiding,” complains Alan. “They should be out fighting Commandos.”

“We would lose,” Archer mutters. “It is what we were programmed to do.”

Alan is flabbergasted. “Hide and lose? Those are some great options!”

In scenes like this, I’ve always felt that as much as Small Soldiers lampoons the mindlessness of violence, it also recognizes the consequences of simply ignoring violence. What good can “hiding and losing” do anyone, the films asks, after violence has already landed in your own neighborhood, on your front doorstep? When next-door neighbor, Kristy (Kirsten Dunst), is captured and tortured by the Commando Elite, the film’s attitude towards violence drastically changes with a key line of dialogue spoken by the film’s hero, Alan: “Major Hazard wants a war. We’ll give him a war.”

The character of Kristy is, like the Gorgonites, initially a pacifist herself. Her bedroom wall is plastered with a poster which reads, “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” We have no reason to disagree, at first. But when the Commando Elite transform Kristy’s “Gwendy dolls” (voiced by Christina Ricci and Sarah Michelle Gellar) into devilish little Bride-of-Frankenstein freaks, they rebel against Kristy and even attempt to decapitate her; Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown” plays on the soundtrack, as a way of signifying that Kristy’s peaceful ideals have no way of reaching her at this point—let alone saving her. It’s no wonder that when Alan comes to the rescue, not only does he wipe out some Gwendy dolls in the process, but even Kristy herself gets a taste for blood and finds herself actually taking pleasure in killing. “This is fun!” she squeals, chopping up her once-precious dolls with a club.

At age 7, I have to admit that I found all of this very exciting. That doesn’t mean that I think Small Soldiers works simply because of the visceral kick I got out of watching toys get clobbered. I just mean to say that for all of the film’s points about the ridiculousness of warfare, nevertheless, the cathartic thrill experienced from such an incredible variation on warfare as toys destroying each other was never lost on me, even at such a young age.

Rosenbaum himself confessed in his review that the Gorgonites yielded an “emotional response” from him, and he added, “The fact that they’re programmed to hide as well as lose is poetically apt given the way such icons are routinely swept to the margins of a pop media culture that places a higher premium on the ‘action’ of explosive killing machines.” It’s this aspect of the film that first appealed to me, as a young kid often bullied in grade school; no doubt Small Soldiers, if not outright antiwar, is at least making heroes out of the side that generally loses in war, while rejecting the history of war as told by the side that usually wins. In the film, this manifests not only as Denis Leary’s hawkish CEO but also as Kristy’s macho biker boyfriend, who jeers at Alan for being a high school dropout but later chickens out when faced with the Commando Elite threat, his pants literally catching on fire as he screams hysterically out into the night (leaving the presumably-wimpy Alan to finish off where he started).

Joe Dante's work has been celebrated by Steven Spielberg ever since Spielberg stood up for his film Piranha (1978), preventing Universal from having the film removed from theaters when it was initially perceived as just another Jaws ripoff. He offered Gremlins to Dante after being further impressed with his work on The Howling (1981). One pleasure of Dante's work is that it is full of sly parodies of Spielberg; when Joseph McBride once asked him if Gremlins was meant to be “E.T. With Teeth,” Dante replied, “Yes, and Steven cooperated entirely with it. He got the joke right away." Dante's films Innerspace and Gremlins 2: The New Batch were Amblin productions as well, and after Small Soldiers lingered in development hell for 10 years, Spielberg was the one who finally selected Dante to direct, making it one of the first films made for DreamWorks. 

The film did not do very well at the box office. Perhaps that was because most parents that summer were too concerned with Clinton’s impeachment to take their kids to see it. Or maybe because Roger Ebert, in his 2 ½-star review, scared parents away with his dubious opinion that it was too scary for kids. I actually think Rosenbaum was more accurate on audience responses to the film when he observed, “I can’t think of a Hollywood entertainment I’ve enjoyed as much all year, and both audiences I saw the movie with seemed delighted as well.”

Rosenbaum further argues, “Spielberg’s encouragement of Dante’s anti-Spielbergian projects goes beyond tolerance.” But I would argue that Spielberg did, indeed, recognize the subversive elements of Small Soldiers, and didn’t greenlight it for Dante merely under the assumption that it would be another big hit like Gremlins. Spielberg himself is hardly an alien to films satirizing the ridiculousness of warfare; when 1941 (1979) was released, it inspired a Heavy Metal/Arrow spin-off comic book that opened with an introduction by Spielberg in which he stated, “I felt that after the war in Vietnam and the disillusionment the nation experienced, it was important to remind people that war doesn’t have to be a trip up the river to hell; it could also be a lot of laughs.” A film like Small Soldiers appeals to a similar philosophy, and it is difficult to believe it could have been lost on Spielberg, even during his more serious attitude towards war films by the late 90’s.

But the argument in Rosenbaum’s review that I disagree the most with is his assertion “that Small Soldiers ridicules the agenda of films like Saving Private Ryan.” In my opinion, the philosophy of the two films is actually quite similar. In Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg reaches the conclusion that war is hell, but that it can also inspire decency and heroism. In Small Soldiers, Dante reaches the conclusion that war is hell, but that it can also be fun—not just in Kristy’s exclamation of, “This is fun!” while chopping up her dolls, but also when Chip Hazard wryly asks, “Ain’t war hell?” while shooting at Alan in the climax, provoking Alan to roar, “Have I got a shock for you—you STUPID TOY!” before electrocuting Hazard to death. And by the time Kristy finishes off the rest of the lot by running them over with a lawn mower, she excitedly asks Alan, “Is this going to be a pattern for our relationship!??” which seems like nothing if not an indication of the sexual high she gets out of killing (no wonder Pat Benetar’s “Love Is A Battlefield” occupies its own special place on the soundtrack).

Small Soldiers leaves us with the realization that war is a lot of things. Yes, it’s “hell”, and yes, it’s “nuts”—but it can also be “fun”, and it can make heroes out of wimpy kids and societal misfits, and sometimes it can be liberating as well. “Gorgonites, we’re free!” declares Archer, after his comrades have emerged from the carnage unscathed. I never do fail, either, to get a little teary-eyed during the film’s touching final sequence, scored beautifully by Jerry Goldsmith, when the Gorgonites decide it’s time to go carve out a land of their own in the world (Dante seems to be alluding to the ending of Schindler’s List), while Archer leaves Alan with parting words of wisdom: “Even if you can’t see something, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.” For Alan, it means finding the strength within himself to fight for the things he loves, and by the time the movie is over, we are convinced he’s achieved just that. His own days of “hiding and losing” are over.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Happy 83rd Birthday, Sean Connery!

He's my favorite living actor, and he's retired. It sucks to be going to movies nowadays and not be able to look forward to Sean Connery's next big vehicle. I remember going to see Finding Forrester in theaters in 2000 with my grandfather (a Sean Connery look-a-like) and treasuring it as if that would be a year-long tradition. Then something really horrid called The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen came out 3 years later, and that was it for Sir Connery: He'd had it with Hollywood (thanks a lot, Stephen Norrington!) and was quitting acting. It made me sad to learn he was done. I remember how, from 2006-2007, I mounted a relentless campaign on IMDB in hopes of making sure Connery ended up somehow in the fourth Indiana Jones movie, and how crushed I was when he turned down the offer in favor of continuing his enjoyment of retirement. Interestingly, when he himself finally saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, his opinion of it was right on the money: "Did I see the latest? I thought it was rather good. Rather long."

It's difficult to explain why Connery is my favorite actor. I guess every man wants to be him. Sure, not everything he's said in the past reflects well on men; his pro-slapping comments in that infamous Barbara Walters interview are just painful, though I do at least understand what he was trying to get at. I think the problem with those comments was not so much that he suggested slapping as an approach to insanity, so much as that his comments were directed only at women getting slapped and nobody else. Had he said that it's okay for PEOPLE EVERYWHERE to perhaps get slapped once in awhile in order to get calmed down, his points would have been better-taken, I think.

But enough about slapping.

In honor of the lad's 83rd birthday, I'll list each Connery vehicle I've seen in chronological order and say what I think of each of 'em. There are a lot of goodies here.

Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959)

This was the first Connery movie I ever saw. Which is fitting, since it's the earlier film in his career that I've seen as well. One of Disney's best live-action films (it was directed by Robert Stevenson, who later went on to direct Mary Poppins), it's got leprechauns, big Irish landscapes, a ghoulish banshee and a wonderful lead performance by Albert Sharpe as Darby. As a child, I didn't instantly take a liking to Connery's character, Michael -- perhaps because, hey, I was just jealous that he got to romance someone as hot as Janet Munro. But Connery at the very least earned my respect in the film's climactic bar fight with the oafish Pony Sugrue (Kieron Moore), a fight he initiates by reminiscing about what a leprechaun king once advised him to do: "If I were you, I'd poke the blackguard in the face."

The Longest Day (1962)

Not a fan of this movie, (I once debated its depiction of D-Day with Tom Carson and Craig Simpson), but Connery makes a memorable appearance in one scene, jumping out of a Higgins boat and yelling a goofy line: “Come out, ya dirty slobs! FLANAGAN'S back!”

Dr. No (1962)

What's better than Ursula Andress' mangoes? Sean Connery, in his first appearance as Bond, singing "Underneath the Mango Tree" to get her attention. I actually found this 007 flick pretty forgettable and only saw it once, but the screen sure fires up whenever Connery and Andress are together onscreen.

From Russia with Love (1963)

Another 007 flick I only saw once, but I remember it being one of the better ones. Connery's fight on the train with Red Grant (Robert Shaw) is unforgettable. Shaw and Connery, duking it out... what more testosterone could you ask for in a movie!??

Marnie (1964)

The first great, truly matured performance of Connery's career is his portrayal of the charming, if morally-dubious, Mark Rutland in this: Hitchcock's most fascinating modern movie, if not quite his best. I've seen this movie twice, and each time it messes with my emotions. Connery and Tippi Hedren have amazing chemistry together, but I always feel like a bad person for always been happy that Mark and Marnie end up together. For one thing, Mark cures Marnie of her insanity by basically raping her as a form of shock treatment -- which, for all we know, he probably enjoys. It's all the more troubling when you think about Connery's comments in the Barbara Walters interview. Knowing how much trouble he got into by suggesting slapping as an antidote to insanity, imagine how fast his career would've sank if he had suggested rape -- that's what Hitchcock seems to be doing in this movie, after all. Whatever you think of Marnie, it sure does encourage interesting discussion.

Goldfinger (1964)

Naturally, this is the Connery 007 flick that I've watched the most. Some say it's his best. Some even say it's the best 007 flick of them all. Can we all at least agree that it's pretty damned good? Under the direction of Guy Hamilton (John Huston's assistant director on The African Queen), this is the movie that proved the 007 series was worth continuing. Roger Ebert's Great Movies piece is a must-read.

The Hill (1964)

When I reviewed this film for the blog 3 years ago, it took all my strength to watch it twice. It's quite simply the most harrowing movie about the military ever made. If Hitchcock was the one who proved that Connery could be a subtle antihero, then Sidney Lumet was the one who proved that Connery was an actor with Oscar-calibur talents. He could convincingly play a character pushed over the edge into madness. This movie is in my school library, and I'd watch it for the sake of Sidney Lumet (RIP), but I'm afraid to revisit it. It's intense.

Thunderball (1965)

When I watched this 007 flick as a preteen, I liked it; when I tried watching it again in college, I turned it off after the first half hour. It's duller than I remember.

You Only Live Twice (1967)

As for this 007 flick, the only thing I remember about it was that the opening scene was set in space. That's it. I remember nothing else. Not even this^^ scene, which you would think would stick in a teenager's memory. Guess not.

Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

On certain days, this, not Goldfinger, is my favorite 007 flick. A lot of 007 fans hate it and say it's one of Connery's worst outings in the series; I say such fans are nuts. This movie is just-plain fun. And no wonder: Guy Hamilton came back from Goldfinger to direct it. It's dopey, but so what? You could hardly ask for a more entertaining Bond. Bruce Cabot from King Kong has a memorable death scene, sausage-king Jimmy Dean is there to witness it (Bert Saxby!?? Tell him he's fired!), Jill St. John is a hot Bond girl... but seriously: it's all about Plenty O'Toole (Lana Wood) and Connery's witty reply to her introduction: "But of course you are."

Zardoz (1974)

I could just feel my own manly code of honor being threatened when I first saw this movie as a teenager. "Goddamn it John Boorman," I thought, "you do NOT make Sean Connery run around in a movie wearing nothing but a red speedo!" I was very disgusted by the whole thing as a teenager, but once I reached college age, I caught parts of it again on the Fox Movie Channel and found myself  enjoying it in all its ludicrousness. I'd watch it again in a heartbeat, if only so I could appreciate it more.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

This was the first Sidney Lumet movie I ever saw -- following his Lifetime Achievement Oscar -- and probably not the best introduction to the man's career as a director, let alone his collaborations with Connery. I remember being bored stupid by it. I don't know if I'd appreciate it more today, but I doubt it; it's weak tea compared to what Connery and Lumet achieved with The Hill. And in retrospect, the twist ending is fairly predictable. I do remember liking Albert Finney's portrayal of Poirot, though.

The Wind and the Lion (1975)

Every time I see this movie, I admire parts of it but am largely disappointed in its bad pacing, its lack of focus and squandered opportunities. Connery's portrayal of the Raisuli is magnificent, but the movie surrounding him is not; John Milius missed a huge opportunity by not making the heart of the film the similarities between the Raisuli and Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Keith), a la The Godfather Part II. Instead, the film alternates uncomfortably from Roosevelt's scenes in the White House to scenes of implied romance between Connery and Candice Bergen that finally never quite blossom into anything meaningful. The battle sequence are well-done, there's a witty cameo by John Huston, and this is probably Milius' most interesting title as a director... but that's not saying much.

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

Okay. This might very well be the greatest of all of Connery's films. Not necessarily his best performance, but arguably the best movie he ever starred in. Few directors make films this exciting, this beautiful very late in his careers, but that's exactly what John Huston accomplished with The Man Who Would Be King: silence his most ferocious critics and effectively ending years of his own bad box-office luck with a grand, sweeping Hollywood masterpiece. This movie has everything. Adventure. Fortune. Glory. Tragedy. Connery's Danny Dravot and Michael Caine's Peachy Carnehan are two of the most appealing characters ever to lead a Hollywood movie. The chemistry between these two stars is unbelievable. Their adventures are breathtaking. Their downfall is devastating. John Milius could've learned a thing or two from his old mentor Huston about how to balance spectacle with emotion; maybe then, The Wind and the Lion would have been somewhere near the high level of this film. When Connery, as Danny, takes that finally walk across the bridge, you just want to cry out for him. A classic.

A Bridge Too Far (1977)

Forgettable. I saw this on AMC years ago, and AMC is probably not the best channel to watch a long war movie, but this movie isn't much. I don't really remember Connery's scenes. I like Richard Attenborough, but I wish he and Connery could've worked together on something a little more fruitful.

The Great Train Robbery (1978)

People never talk about this movie today, but I think it's underrated. Good old-fashioned fun, with memorable rapport between Connery and Donald Sutherland. I haven't seen it since I was a teenager and if I watched it today, I might find it less-interesting, but it's certainly entertaining, and the fact that Michael Crichton (yes, that Michael Crichton) directed it is no small feat in itself. My favorite scene is when Connery is put on trial, and is asked by the judges why he would ever do such a foolish thing as rob a train. His deadpanned response: "I... wanted the money."

Time Bandits (1981)

Not being the biggest Terry Gilliam fan, I only saw this once, but I remember liking Connery's scenes as King Agamemnon... whatever they were.

Five Days One Summer (1982)

Fred Zinnemann's majestic final film is one that I plan to write about for this blog someday -- hopefully, real soon, if I can clear enough time for myself. This film was a huge flop when it came out, and it's obvious that after Zinnemann's death in 1997, people essentially stopped talking about it and Warner Bros. never even bothered to give it a DVD release in the U.S. I don't want to go into too much detail, because I'm sure I'll save it all for a future review, but to put it briefly: This is one of my favorite movies, flaws and all. Zinnemann somehow makes characters out of mountains. The main storyline involves a dubious relationship between Connery's Douglas and Betsy Brantley's Kate, and Lambert Wilson plays the young mountain-climbing guide who grows suspicious of them, but ultimately Zinnemann orchestrates a message that the personal problems of three people don't really amount to a hill of beans up in the Alps. Some of the mountain-climbing sequences are truly terrifying. As he did in Marnie, Connery plays a control freak of young women, but this time, such macho tendecies are actually taken to task instead of glorified. I really do hope this film will eventually get the respect it deserves; Zinnemann poured so much of his heart and soul into it, and Connery, too.

Never Say Never Again (1983)

Diehard 007 fans hate this movie even more than Diamonds Are Forever, but for me, it's always been a guilty pleasure. It's a remake of Thunderball, but way more entertaining thanks to Irvin Kershner's solid direction; if he doesn't quite bring as much grace to this movie as he did to The Empire Strikes Back, well, no matter. It's still a lot of fun. There's something amusing about seeing an aging Connery romancing Kim Basinger. And don't even get me started on Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera), who might've been the first villainous femme fatale I ever became infatuated with as a preteen.

The Name of the Rose (1986)

Here it is, folks: My pick for Connery's best performance ever. He plays William of Baskerville, the most badass monk who ever lived. I haven't read the Umberto Eco novel this is based on, but I trust that Jean-Jacques Annaud and Gerard Brach knew what they were doing by streamlining it down into a dark, gory, sexy, compelling, masterfully-done thriller. This is another one I hope to write about for the blog someday, although -- unlike Five Days One Summer -- it's actually developed a pretty healthy cult following, probably because of the sex scene between Valentina Vargas and a young Christian Slater. Which is part of the movie's appeal, no doubt. But this movie is all about Connery. He dominates. Deservedly, he won a British Academy Award for it. William of Baskerville might be the role which (other than 007) he was born to play.

The Untouchables (1987)

This is an effortlessly-watchable movie and I've seen it probably half-a-dozen times, but it's not one of my favorite Connery vehicles -- or even one of my favorite Brian De Palma films. The limits and conventions of the David Mamet script keep it from being the powerful mob picture it could've been. Still, as an action movie, it's rock-solid, and Connery is one hell of a great Jimmy Malone. Some people say the Academy Award he won for his performance was a career Oscar, which may be true, but that doesn't mean it was undeserved.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Unsurprisingly, this is the Connery movie I've watched the most, and I never tire of it. I'd recommend you watch it, but let's face it: you already have. Henry Jones is a tailor-made part for somebody with Connery's sensibilities. "I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne. 'Let my armies be the rocks and the trees and the birds in the sky'."

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

One of the best genre pictures of the 90's. The pleasant thing about The Hunt for Red October is that even though it's anti-Communist, it is not anti-Russian; the portrayal of Connery's Ramius is sympathetic, and one can enjoy the movie without Tom Clancy's right-wing politics getting in the way. Part of this is due to John McTiernan's careful, professional direction. If you listen to his DVD commentary during Ramius's confrontation with the ship's political officer, McTiernan mentions the pained expression on Connery's face when, as Ramius, he's going to have to murder the political officer for the sake of his mission to defect to the U.S. Any doubts about Connery playing a Russian are automatically forgotten once the movie begins. He disappears remarkably into the role.

The Russia House (1990)

I read the John le Carre book before watching this, and although it takes certain liberties with the text, I remember being very happy with it. Just as he did with his adaptation of Thomas Keneally's The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, director Fred Schepisi cuts right to the chase -- in this case, the love story between Connery's Barley Blair and Michelle Pfeiffer's Katya. Unlike the book, this movie has a happy ending, but was done in such a way that I found myself wanting it to end happily, which, I suppose, shows how involved I was. An underrated, under-appreciated gem.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

Probably the most gratuitous last-minute cameo in a movie ever, but it's impossible to imagine this fun movie without it. Come to think of it, I wish director Kevin Reynolds had worked with Connery on another movie; Connery certainly would have been a more effective lead in Waterworld than Kevin Costner. Come to think of it, he would have been a better Robin Hood in *this* movie than Costner; I say this knowing Connery already played Robin Hood in the earlier Richard Lester movie from the 70's, which I haven't seen in its entirety.

Medicine Man (1992)

I rented this once when I was a preteen, and don't remember much about it except that Connery played some environmental activist who got into fights with people threatening the rain forest. I know it was a huge flop and that critics didn't take it seriously, but I couldn't tell you why. I would kind of like to revisit it, since it was another collaboration between Connery and John McTiernan, and because at the time I saw the movie, I didn't know who Lorraine Bracco was (Goodfellas was a few years away in my future), and her performance had made no impression on me for that reason. Or maybe it was because her performance wasn't good. Or maybe even Connery's. I don't know.

Just Cause (1995)

Awful movie. It starts off with a great scene between Connery and Ruby Dee that makes you think it's going to be a film stressing an anti-death penalty message, which it does for awhile -- that is, until its atrocious conclusion, when it decides to go for a Witness for the Prosecution-style twist ending instead. There's something uncomfortable about a movie that champions the execution of black criminals, especially considering that this movie was released around the time of the O.J. Simpson trial. Connery is fine, as are Laurence Fishburne and Ed Harris in supporting roles, but Kate Capshaw probably gives the worst performance of her career as Connery's wife. Interestingly, a very young Scarlett Johanson plays their daughter.

First Knight (1995)

Gee whiz, 1995 sure wasn't a good year for Connery, was it? As always, he gives a good performance -- in this case, he's King Arthur -- and Julia Ormond is fine as Guinevere, but Richard Gere as Lancelot is the very definition of the term MISCASTING. What annoys me about this movie is the mockery it makes of the Arthurian legend. Yes, Lancelot and Guinevere had an affair, but in the original tale, they were all roughly the same age; in this movie, Jerry Zucker stacks the decks against the character of King Arthur from the moment he cast somebody of Connery's age. Basically, Zucker implies that Guinevere's affair with Lancelot happened not because Lancelot seduced her, but because Arthur comes across to her like a tired, sexless old man by comparison (more like a father to her than a husband). At any rate, I probably wouldn't have minded so much if Lancelot in this movie had been just as appealing as Arthur. But that's where the problem of casting Gere came in. He simply doesn't hold a candle to Connery.

Dragonheart (1996)

What's more awesome than Sean Connery as a dragon? Not a whole lot. Watching this movie, it sounds like he was having a lot of fun providing the voice for the dragon Draco; when Dennis Quaid's character sneers that he kills dragons "for pleasure," you can just hear Connery's wicked delight in Draco's response: "Perhaps less pleasurable and more costly than you THINK!" Dopey, but enjoyable entertainment.

The Rock (1996)

Probably the only Michael Bay movie I can sit through, even if I don't care much for it. "Your best!?? Losers always whine about their 'best'. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen!"

Entrapment (1999)

Although this was only the second Connery movie that I ever saw, after Darby O'Gill and the Little People -- yes I saw it before any of his 007 flicks -- this is without question the movie that made me a Sean Connery fan. I guess what drew me to his performance in Entrapment was the way his character, Mac, comes across; apparently, even when you reach your 60's, you can still be charming enough to romance a sexy babe like Catherine Zeta-Jones. And seriously: talk about the most random screen couple in modern times. Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones!?? Amazingly, their chemistry in this movie absolutely works thanks to Jon Amiel's assured direction. He makes the movie all about Connery and Zeta-Jones' characters, Mac and Gin, how they're constantly double-crossing each other and then simultaneously falling for each other. Count this as another movie that I plan to review someday for this blog, if I ever have time. And remember: "Rule #2: Never trust a naked woman."

Finding Forrester (2000)

Growing up as a teenager, this was one of my favorite movies; I watched it again recently, and it's held up pretty well. In retrospect, it's probably not one of Gus Van Sant's greatest films; it follows the exact same formula of Good Will Hunting and lacks the fire and energy of Drugstore Cowboy and Milk. F. Murray Abraham essentially plays the same bad guy to Connery's good guy that he played in The Name of the Rose, but this time the villainy is heavy-handed, his character far too racist and over-the-top to be truly believable. But what finally makes this movie work is the camaraderie between Connery and Rob Brown, who I've always said would make a great Jim in a Huckleberry Finn remake. You really do believe Jamal Wallace would go to somebody like William Forrester for writing advice, and quotable Internet memes aside ("Punch the keys, for God's sake! Yes... YES!!!!! YOU'RE THE MAN NOW, DAWG!"), this movie inspires me to want to write more often. Considering what he did afterward, it doesn't mean much to say it, but this was Connery's last top-notch achievement as an actor.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

I missed this in theaters, and never did realize how lucky I was until I saw it on DVD. It's such a mess of a movie, with not a lot going on in terms of story and even less in terms of characterization. Which is a true shame, since Connery is really quite a good Alan Quatermain. If only they had built a meaningful film around his performance. This movie fails for a number of reasons. The plot is incomprehensible. The literary adaptations are laughable. Tom Sawyer, action hero? Dorian Gray, invincible as long as he doesn't see his own painting? It's like no thought went into any of it. Before this movie, Connery reportedly turned down The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings for not "understanding them," but then chose to be in this movie despite not "understanding" it, either. Yeah... that's because *nobody* did. A waste of money, waste of talent, and especially, a waste of time for Connery. Working with director Stephen Norrington allegedly pissed Connery off so much that it made him quit acting in movies for good, and the fact that this was his last movie is painful on so many levels.

Sir James Bond: From Russia With Love (2006) - Video Game

I never beat this video game, but I remember having fun playing it until getting to a super-hard level in which you're supposed to steer a boat underground without getting shot. Connery was brought back to be the voice of Bond, and although he clearly doesn't have the voice of the strapping young man he once was, it was good to hear him as Bond one last time. Particularly his delivery of a key line that was used in the original movie: "Things are turning up rather nicely."


A Fine Madness (1966)
The Molly Maguires (1970)
The Anderson Tapes (1971)
The Offence (1972)
Robin and Marian (1976)
Cuba (1979)
Outland (1981)
Wrong Is Right (1982)
Highlander (1986)
Family Business (1989)
Rising Sun (1993)

Happy 83rd Birthday, Sean Connery. If you can, please return to Hollywood for at least one more movie. A good one, this time. You're the man now, dawg.