Sunday, 29 November 2015

Rocky (1976)

Having recently watched Raging Bull, I moved on to another famous boxing-themed movie of that time, Rocky, released in 1976 and starring Sylvester Stallone. It may not be considered as "cerebral" as Martin Scorsese's 1980 epic, but it is still an uplifting and highly entertaining film.

The scenes which accompany the opening titles, and those which follow, introduce us to Rocky Balboa's environs and surroundings, and indeed the gritty Philadelphia settings are central to the film's appeal. Early on, we are also given a sound grasp of Rocky's essential goodness and humanity, which does not always sit well with those with whom he comes into contact.

The one sentiment which strikes me whilst watching this picture is that it is not long enough, as there is insufficient time to fully explore both Rocky's burgeoning relationship with Adrian (Talia Shire) and his preparations for the fight with Apollo Creed. Both of these elements of the story feel ever so slightly rushed and compressed.

Of course, the character of Mickey, so wonderfully played by Burgess Meredith, adds the necessary tension and dynamism to the movie, by way of his irascible nature and his sometimes fractious relationship with Rocky. Burt Young as Paulie is another important building-block which elevates Rocky above the ordinary.

It is impossible to dislike the Rocky character, as he is so honest, uncomplicated and endearing. The scenes with Adrian are quite sweet, if initially awkward, and the "romantic" angle is a clever plot device, helping to further illustrate the human and compassionate side of this tough and rugged guy. There are nuances and eccentricities to Rocky which make him quite intriguing, such as the keeping of pet turtles.

Of course, one of the most talked-about scenes in this movie is the one where Rocky runs up the steps in the centre of town and raises his arms in triumph.  It does indeed stir the blood. However, the earlier scene focusing on an early morning training run is equally evocative for me.

The cynics will say that much of this picture is corny and that the plot is far-fetched, especially the notion of an obscure fighter suddenly being granted a world title opportunity, but I think that this film touched people because it went against the grain of much of Seventies cinema in its heart-warming and optimistic tone and outlook.

I had forgotten that Joe Frazier makes a cameo appearance, resplendent in a wonderful turquoise suit! The Balboa-Creed fight scenes start a little shakily, but then improve markedly.  I suppose that the moral of the outcome is that it didn't matter too much who won the bout, but attaining one's personal goals is more important, in this instance "going the distance"...

I wouldn't describe Rocky as a masterpiece, but those who watch it will likely feel better about themselves and their lives.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Raging Bull (1980)

I recently watched Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese's 1980 biopic of the boxer Jake LaMotta, starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty. Here are a few of my thoughts on the movie....

The film has a distinctive and strong visual appeal, partially based on it being in black and white. Somehow the grittiness, and occasional brutality, of the tale is conveyed much more strongly that way. The film has a great period feel, and not just traceable to the monochrome being chosen. The "retro" settings are beautifully realized and convincing, unlike many movies of this type.

Raging Bull's fight sequences are very famous, and justifiably so, but they take up less of the picture's running time than some people might imagine. Much more of the film is taken up with a compelling, and sometimes unsettling, examination of LaMotta's insecurities and demons.

Of the boxing scenes, some are quite graphic, the final encounter with Sugar Ray Robinson standing out in this respect. These parts of the film, including the crowd scenes, are also well produced, succeeding where so many other sports-orientated pictures fall down. The scenes in the ring are short and snappy, and not quite as "arty" and surreal as is often thought.

In some ways, I think that Raging Bull is a slow burner, and its early stages could strike some observers as slow and pedestrian.  However, its greatness gradually emerges as it goes along, and the stellar performance of Robert De Niro has a strong bearing on this. Strangely enough, he is so consummate, natural and plausible in the role that the brilliance of his portrayal of the boxer can almost pass unnoticed. Of course, Joe Pesci shines in the part of LaMotta's brother Joey, as does Cathy Moriarty as Jake's wife. Whatever happened to Cathy Moriarty, by the way?

This may be a film whose true impact can only be fully absorbed following a few repeated viewings. The "human interest" angles mean that one does not need to be a boxing aficionado to enjoy and embrace it. It can also be argued that it is one of the last examples of a golden age of American cinema which began in the late Sixties.

All in all, a gripping and powerful work.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The original Star Wars trilogy (Episodes 4,5 and 6)

Just recently I watched the first three Star Wars movies on DVD (that is, those originally released in the period 1977-1983), and it was fascinating to see what new perspectives and observations I developed, having not watched them for some little while.

I did not see the first film at the time when it was first released in 1977.  Instead, I saw it a couple of years later.  It was during the school holidays, and myself and my brother were showing signs of extreme boredom, when we discovered that it was showing locally. This delay in experiencing "Star Wars" may even have increased the effect it had on me.

The opening "scrolling screen" sequence, and the accompanying music, still sends shivers down my spine, I am happy to report. This time I was able to appreciate nuances of the plot and the characterizations, rather than simply being awed by the special effects. I had forgotten, for example, how much of the early going in "A New Hope" is taken up with the adventures of C3PO and R2D2. The versions which I watched recently were the Special Editions, but I did not feel that the changes made detracted that much from the original effect. The mystique was not tarnished.

Another thing which surprised me was just how much screen time Peter Cushing has in the first film. He, along with Alec Guinness, adds much gravitas to proceedings. It is also amazing how many well-known British actors pop up in all sorts of roles right across the trilogy.

Lots of parts of the first film are memorable or engrossing. The bizarre chess set on the Millennium Falcon, the scene in the garbage dump on the Death Star, and Luke's close encounter with the "Nessie"-like monster.

I kind of like "The Empire Strikes Back" more than the other two films. It has the benefit of having the "backstory" from the first movie to enrich it, and the major characters have become more established and familiar. Also, some "secondary" figures feature prominently, such as Yoda, Lando and Boba Fett. The ambiguities and quirks in the wider Star Wars firmament are brought out more, and this contributes to a darker tone.

The contrast and richness in the settings also makes "The Empire Strikes Back" formidable, from the early stages in the snow and ice of Hoth to the swampland where Luke finds Yoda. The parallel stories, of Luke and the rest, is another strong point. And of course the conclusion of the movie is riveting. This one feels like an episode in a TV sci-fi series.

Watching "Return of the Jedi" again, there was less that stood out for me, and I will confess that I have mixed feelings concerning this one. The extended presence of Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks makes it tough to take it entirely seriously, although in fairness this means that it is different and distinct from its predecessors. The silliness is mixed with some fine action sequences, such as the speeder bikes and Lando's exploits with the Millennium Falcon. The inter-cutting between the locations is well done, and once again the climax is awesome. To my shame, I had utterly forgotten that Luke and Leia were revealed to be siblings!.

An aspect of the trilogy that I am reminded of is how some technology is portrayed as being benevolent in nature, mainly through the "human" characteristics of the droids C3PO and R2D2. Another interesting and attractive dimension is the heterogeneous character of the rebels, their informality and optimism contrasting with the regimentation and rigid conformity of the imperial people.

It has been pointed out that despite being space movies, these stories drew heavily on scenarios from other films and literature. The scenes on Hoth contained elements familiar from tales of polar exploration and derring-do, and of course Cantina is straight out of a classic Western.

I am glad that I watched these films again. They are always invigorating, and remind us of a time when mainstream cinema was allowed to be fun and escapist again. My recent experience may even persuade me to explore the three "prequels"....

Thursday, 5 November 2015

French Connection II

A little while ago, I wrote a review here of the classic 1971 movie The French Connection. The sequel, French Connection II, released in 1975, is a creditable effort, if lacking some of the magic of its predecessor. Of course, direct comparisons have to be qualified, as the second picture was entirely fictional, and had different writers and a different director (John Frankenheimer).

The story carries on from where The French Connection left off, Popeye Doyle travelling to France on the trail of the Charnier character, who it transpires had eluded capture. Naturally, there is more of a French or European flavour to this one, and I like the fact that bits of the dialogue are in the local lingo, adding a touch of authenticity. Much of the early part of the film deals with Doyle's difficulties in coming to terms with the French culture and addressing the language barrier.

As a matter of fact, Doyle's struggles in dealing with the French police, and in particular Barthelemy (Bernard Fresson), form a sizeable portion of the narrative. An uneasy relationship prevails, with Doyle's abrasive personality and pugnacious approach clashing with French methods. The more seedy parts of Marseille, and also the waterfront area, make for good settings. The chase scenes (on foot) are also impressive.

For me the heart of the film is Doyle's capture by the villains, and his subsequent agonies as he experiences drug withdrawal under the supervision of Barthelemy. Some of the scenes are quite harrowing and disturbing,  Doyle's ordeal being inter-cut with the frantic efforts of the French police to find him. Even more than the first film this one starkly illustrates the pitiless nature of the drug trade, and the extreme measures to which all parties are prepared to resort.

It seems to me that the nature of the storyline in this picture permits greater scope for Gene Hackman to display his acting range, especially the "cold turkey" sequences. There may be less grit and suspense here than in the original movie, but the "human" aspects largely make up for this, particularly the often bizarre and acrimonious exchanges between Doyle and Barthelemy.

The scenes which happen towards the close of the movie are spectacular, exciting and action-packed.I really enjoy this movie. All things considered, a worthy sequel.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Vertigo (1958 film)

I never really got into Alfred Hitchcock's movies, much to my regret. In my younger days, Hitchcock films would regularly be shown on television, but I would scarcely notice, let alone take in their merits or artistic significance. One picture which belatedly made an impression on me was Vertigo, Hitchcock's 1958 thriller, starring James Stewart and Kim Novak.

Without giving too much away, Scottie (Stewart) is a policeman who is forced to retire because of his acrophobia and vertigo. At the request of an old friend, Scottie follows the man's "wife", who has been behaving strangely. The plot which unfolds is complex and ingenious, but not really bewildering. It involves murder plots, faked suicide and much more.

The title Vertigo is very appropriate, as not only does the condition play a pivotal role at several crucial points in the film, but it is also an unsettling and disorientating work. That said, the aesthetic of the picture I find very appealing. The clothes, the cars and the settings have real style, together with the type of crispness which I somehow associate with 1950s films made in colour.

Bernard Herrmann's music is very important to the atmosphere of this movie. In some scenes there is little or no dialogue, and the music is left to accompany the imagery, which is often the backdrop of San Francisco. The scenes where Stewart follows Kim Novak early in the film are quite eerie, and one can imagine that they have been quite influential in the ensuing decades.

Both James Stewart and Kim Novak have great screen presence, the former being particularly impressive for me in the later portions of the film. A word too for the performance of Barbara Bel Geddes as Scottie's friend and ex-fiancee Midge. She appears not to have received the praise she deserved for her contribution.

No doubt the critics have dissected and analysed Vertigo endlessly, seeking to extract portentous meaning from every frame, but when I saw the film I did not grasp much in the way of profound messages. I was too preoccupied with the central plot, constantly asking myself "Have I understood what's going on here?  Have I got this straight?. Much is left unsaid, this being aggravated perhaps by the relative sparsity of the dialogue.

The story is complicated, strange even, but any concerns on that score are rendered largely immaterial by its sheer magnetism, and the partially-overlapping layers of intrigue, irony and deceit.

Vertigo is a gripping and even occasionally disturbing film, and is well worth a watch.

Monday, 2 November 2015

WarGames - (1983 movie) - review

Over three years ago now, I wrote an article about the 1983 movie WarGames , but much of that post was taken up with my incoherent ramblings about Cold War politics and the like. So here are some more random thoughts about this film, which remains one of my favourites from the 1980s....

To recap, WarGames tells the story of David Lightman, a high school student who inadvertently hacks into the American nuclear defence system.

The opening scenes, showing the launch procedure which turned out to be a drill, are taut with tension and drama. There is great use of lighting and close-up shots of the actors. I always get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when watching this scene, imagining the inner thoughts of people caught up in that situation, no matter how well trained they are.

Aside from the subject matter, the centrepiece of the picture for me is the very mature performance of Matthew Broderick as David Lightman. He is a rounded and likeable character, and perhaps not the stereotypical "nerd" in some respects.  Yes, he has some of the characteristics of a nerd, but in other ways not, for example in his ability to impress and attract Jennifer (Ally Sheedy). The chemistry between the two young actors helps to carry the movie.

David's attitude towards authority figures, such as teachers and his parents, is intriguing. The sign on his bedroom door (This Is A Secure Area - Authorized Entry Only - No Exceptions) illustrates this point. Occasional insolence and mild rebellion, added to more passive gestures of defiance and individuality?

If the portrayal of American high school life in the 1980s was in any way accurate, then I must conclude that I was born on the wrong side of the Atlantic. I would dearly love to have been able to go to school in a tee-shirt and jeans, and not the dreary uniform that I was forced to wear here in England. Also, the school buildings in the movie looked much more inviting than the dilapidated mausoleum in which much of my education took place.

It is easy, especially in hindsight, to make pedantic "technical" queries about the accuracy or plausibility of things which happen in the film, and how the computing environment of the early 1980s was depicted. Was David's computer stuff cobbled together from kit-form purchases, second hand gear, and so forth?  His equipment was certainly superior to anything which myself or any of my peers had at home. David clearly knew people who worked in I.T., as evidenced by the amusing scene where he consults two friends at a local company.

There were bits of the film which I really identified with from my own youth. The scene at the dinner table where David is reading a computer magazine, oblivious to parental strictures, reminds me of the days when I would bury myself in those magazines, and the adverts, promising imminent delights, were sometimes more diverting than the actual content.

Back in the day, we had heard about the sort of activities which David was engaging in, although it all seemed rather remote and exotic. One or two friends of mine had outlandish plans to run modems with primitive home computers such as the Sinclair ZX81. However, at the end of the day, all we wanted to do was play games...

The scenes in David's room, when he and Jennifer are fooling around on the machine, are delightfully executed. Lighting, reflections and sound effects are all cleverly used to envoke that seductive world.

The odd little touch stands out in the film. When David and Jennifer first break into the defence system, and the list of games appears on the screen, there is a slight pause, and a gap, before the title "Global Thermonuclear War" comes up. A sense of foreboding is created, and this initiates the next phase of the movie.

A word too about the electronic music which appears throughout WarGames. This type of music was still quite a rarity in movies back then, and it nicely complements the narrative and the subject matter.

Looking at the David Lightman character, he in many ways represents what I wished I'd been at that age. Self-sufficient, inquisitive , forever seeking out knowledge. His efforts in finding information about Falken, and then tracking him down towards the end of the film, show these qualities. Again, not as much an awkward, shy computer geek, as one smart kid.

Another notable scene involves a striking juxtaposition of emotions.  David returns home to be congratulated on his excellent grades (achieved in large part by hacking into the school's computer), whilst at the time same time seeing a television news report of the drama which he, unwittingly, had triggered.

The scene where he is arrested is also captured concisely and sharply. David emerges from a store, and suddenly various (what turn out to be FBI) men are closing in from all directions. One can sense his fear, anxiety and confusion, but as we see, his resourcefulness is not hindered for very long.

Some people have queried whether David would have been taken to the NORAD facility in the wake of his arrest. Surely he would have been transported to some FBI location? Admittedly, the method of his escape from the "mountain", blending in with a tour party, is also a little far-fetched. In the grand scheme of things, however, this does not spoil my enjoyment. This is entertainment, not a documentary.

I was seriously impressed at how David was able to memorize Falken's address. He only seemed to view it for barely a second or two on the terminal in McKittrick's office! Perhaps a photographic memory can be added to his formidable list of powers....

The WOPR (the big computer at the war room) clearly worked on the unimpeachable principle that processing power should be directly proportional to the number of brightly flashing coloured lights which it possesses...

Mention should also be made of perhaps the most visually appealing scene in the movie, the bit where David is dropped off by a splendid logging truck at a stunning location in the middle of nowhere, and proceeds to make a call from a 'phone box. By the way, where did Jennifer get the money to pay for their airline tickets?

The belated appearance of Falken "in the flesh" is a highlight, and adds some gravitas to the proceedings. The final scenes in the "war room" are brilliantly done.  Even though we kind of know the outcome, the tension is palpable.

An underrated film, this. I still love watching it. To me, it never gets old....