Bond Is Back!: FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (United Artists 1963)


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The Cold War got really hot when James Bond returned to the screen in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, second in the film series starring Sean Connery as Ian Fleming’s Secret Agent 007. Picking up where DR. NO left off, the film is popular with Bond fans for its more realistic depiction of the spy game, though there’s still plenty of action, romance, and quick quips, along with the introduction of several elements soon to be integral to the series.

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE has Bond falling for Soviet defector Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), who’s willing to help steal a Russian Lektor decoding machine for Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But both she and Bond are just pawns in a larger game, with the international crime cartel SPECTRE making all the moves. Their goal is to not only posses the decoder and ransom it back to the Russians, but to eliminate 007…

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A Big Screen, Some Popcorn, and JAWS (Universal 1975)


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Dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun…..

This past Wednesday night, I went out to New Bedford’s Zeiterion Theater to watch a screening of the summertime classic JAWS. The Z, as we locals call it, began life as a vaudeville palace in 1923, and five months later changed its name to The State and ran the latest silent movies. The State operated as a movie house until the late 70’s, with the historic building refurbished in 1982 and retro rebranded as the Zeiterion, hosting concerts, plays, dance, and other performing arts. The city (which now owns and operates the Z) recently purchased a state-of-the-art high-definition digital projector and, after an absence of almost a year,  movies are back in New Bedford! They kicked off a “summer series” of films with Steven Spielberg’s summer blockbuster scarefest, filmed not far from here (just a fast ferry ride away aboard the Sea Streak) on Martha’s Vineyard.

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat!”

And…

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A Movie A Day #125: Diamonds (1975, directed by Menahem Golan)


Originally, for today’s entry in Movie A Day, I was hoping to follow up my review of Mad Dog Coll by reviewing Hit The Dutchman.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a review-worthy copy of Hit The Dutchman so, instead, I am going to review another film that was directed by Menahem Golan, Diamonds.

Filmed and set in Golan’s home country of Israel, Diamonds is a heist film.  Richard Roundtree is Archie, an experienced thief who has just been released from prison.  Sally (Barbara Hershey, though she was known as Barbara Seagull when she made this movie) is Archie’s girlfriend.  Robert Shaw plays  Charles Hodgman, the businessman who recruits Roundtree to help him break into a vault located in the Tel Aviv Diamond Exchange Center.  The twist is that the vault was designed by Charles’s twin brother, Earl.  Earl is also played by Robert Shaw and the two of them have an intense sibling rivalry.  If you have ever wanted to see Robert Shaw fight himself in a karate match, Diamonds is the film to see!

(In true Golan fashion, Shaw wears a puffy wig whenever he is supposed to be Earl.)

If he had not died, in 1978, at the tragically young age of 51, Robert Shaw would probably be known as one of our greatest actors.  As it is, he will always be remembered for playing Quint in Jaws and Red Grant in From Russia With Love.  (I am also a fan of his performance in the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.)  Diamonds is typical of the many films in which Shaw was better than what he had to work with.  He gives two good performances but even he is occasionally overshadowed by the swaggering cool and floppy hats of Richard Roundtree.  As for Barbara Seagull/Hershey, she was, as always, beautiful but she had little to do (which was a common problem for her until she rebooted her career with her performance in The Stunt Man).  Shelley Winters is also in this movie, providing tepid comic relief as an American tourist.  (It’s typical of the type of roles in which, following her performance in The Poseidon Adventure, Winters got typecast.)

Barbara Hershey’s beautiful.  Richard Roundtree’s cool.  Robert Shaw is Robert Shaw.  The Israeli location distinguishes it from similar heist films.  The plot may be implausible and the dialogue may be weak but, just as he did with Get Carter, Roy Budd offers up a great score.  Diamonds is typical of many Golan films.  It’s not good but it is damn entertaining.

Super Bowl Alternative: The “Other” BLACK SUNDAY (Paramount 1977)


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My New England Patriots aren’t in this year’s big game, and I can’t stand that big-headed Peyton Manning, so my interest in tonight’s Super Bowl is minimal. And the halftime show does nothing for me: Coldplay is probably one of my least favorite bands (Beyoncé’s OK, though). So if like me, you’re not planning on spending much time watching Roger Goodell’s season-ending spectacular (can’t stand Goodell, either) may I suggest an alternative, namely John Frankenheimer’s thriller BLACK SUNDAY.

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No, it’s not the 1960 Barbara Steele/Mario Bava horror classic, this BLACK SUNDAY is a rousing political thriller about terrorist organization Black September plotting a strike against America at the biggest game of them all, the Super Bowl. Beautiful but deadly terrorist Dahlia (Marthe Keller) has recruited the bitter, unstable blimp pilot Michael Lander (Bruce Dern at his 70’s psycho best) to turn the blimp into the ultimate suicide bomb, with plastique explosives setting…

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Lisa Reviews an Oscar Winner: The Sting (dir by George Roy Hill)


Earlier tonight, as a part of their 31 Days of Oscar, TCM aired The Sting, the film that the Academy selected as being the best of 1973.  I just finished watching it and what can I say?  Based on what I’ve seen of the competition (and there were a lot of great films released in 1973), I would not necessarily have picked The Sting for best picture.  However, the movie is still fantastic fun.

The Sting reunited the director (George Roy Hill) and the stars (Robert Redford and Paul Newman) of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and told yet another story of likable criminals living in the past.  However, whereas Butch Cassidy largely satirized the conventions of the traditional Hollywood western, The Sting is feels like a loving homage to the films of 1930s, a combination of a gritty, low-budget gangster film and a big budget musical extravaganza.  The musical comparison may sound strange at first, especially considering that nobody in The Sting randomly breaks out into song.  However, the musical score (which is famously dominated by Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer) is ultimately as much of a character as the roles played by Redford, Newman, and Robert Shaw.  And, for that matter, the film’s “let-pull-off-a-con” plot feels like an illegal version of “let’s-put-on-a-show.”

The film takes place in the 1936 of the cultural imagination, a world dominated by flashy criminals and snappy dialogue.  When con artists Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) and Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) inadvertently steal money from a gangster named Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), Lonnegan has Luther murdered.  Fleeing for his life, Hooker goes to Chicago where he teams up with Luther’s former partner, veteran con man Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman).  Gondorff used to be one of the great con artists but he is now living in self-imposed obscurity, spending most of his time drinking and trying to avoid the FBI.  Hooker wants to get revenge on Lonnegan by pulling an elaborate con on him.  When Gondorff asks Hooker why, Hooker explains that he can either con Lonnegan or he can kill him and he doesn’t know enough about killing.

The rest of the film deals with Hooker and Gondorff’s plan to con Lonnegan out of a half million dollars.  It’s all very elaborate and complicated and a bit confusing if you don’t pay close enough attention and if you’re ADHD like me.  But it’s also a lot of fun and terrifically entertaining and that’s the important thing.  The Sting is one of those films that shows just how much you can accomplish through the smart use of movie star charisma.  Redford and Newman have such great chemistry and are so much fun to watch that it really doesn’t matter whether or not you always understand what they’re actually doing.

It also helps that, in the great 70s tradition, they’re taking down stuffy establishment types.  Lonnegan may be a gangster but he’s also a highly respected and very wealthy gangster.  When Newman interrupts a poker game, Lonnegan glares at him and tells him that he’ll have to put on a tie before he’s allowed to play.  Lonnegan may operate outside the law but, in many ways, he is the establishment and who doesn’t enjoy seeing the establishment taken down a notch?

As entertaining as The Sting may be and as influential as it undoubtedly is (Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean films may be a lot more pretentious — which makes sense considering that Soderbergh is one of the most pretentious directors in film history — but they all owe a clear debt to The Sting), it still feels like an unlikely best picture winner.  Consider, for instance, that The Sting not only defeated American Graffiti and The Exorcist but Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers as well.  On top of that, when you consider some of the films that were released in 1973 and not nominated — Mean Streets, Badlands, The Candy Snatchers, Day of the Jackal, Don’t Look Now, Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Long Goodbye — it’s debatable whether The Sting should have been nominated at all.  That’s not a criticism of The Sting as much as it’s an acknowledgement that 1973 was a very good year in film.

So, maybe The Sting didn’t deserve its Oscar.  But it’s still a wonderfully entertaining film.  And just try to get that music out of your head!

Lisa Reviews An Oscar-Nominated Horror Film: Jaws (dir by Steven Spielberg)


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There’s little that is more intimidating than trying to write a review of the 1975 best picture nominee, Jaws.

I mean, seriously, what’s left to be said about this film?  Jaws is one of those movies that everyone has seen and everyone loves.  And, even if someone somehow hasn’t seen the film, chances are that they still know all about it.  They know that it’s a movie about a giant shark that attacks Amity Island, just as the summer season is starting.  They know that the town’s mayor refuses to close the beaches, because he doesn’t want to lose the tourist dollars.  They know that the final half of the film is three men (Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw) floating around in a boat, searching for a shark.  And they certainly know that, whenever you hear John Williams’s iconic theme music, it means that someone is about to get attacked.

Jaws is such a part of our culture that probably not a single day goes by without someone saying a variation on “we’re going to need a bigger boat.”  Did you know that, on twitter, Ben Gardner’s boat has its own account?  And despite getting pretty graphically dismembered about halfway through Jaws, poor little Alex Kintner has an account as well!

What’s amazing about Jaws is that, even though everyone’s seen it and it’s been parodied a few thousand times, Jaws remains incredibly effective.  I still find myself cringing whenever the shark catches Alex Kintner and that geyser of blood explodes out of the ocean.  I still jump whenever the shark suddenly emerges from the water and scares the Hell out of Roy Scheider.  I still laugh at Richard Dreyfuss’s hyperactive performance and I instinctively cover my ears whenever I realize that Robert Shaw is about to drag his nails across that chalk board.

And then there’s that music, of course!  Even after being used, misused, and imitated in countless other films, the Jaws theme still fills me with a sort of existential dread.  The mechanical shark was notoriously fake-looking and was rarely seen onscreen as a result.  The camera and the music stand in for the shark and it works beautifully.

The one unfortunate thing about Jaws is that it’s been so critically acclaimed and so embraced by audiences that I think people tend to forget that it is primarily a horror film.  Mainstream critics tend to look down on horror as a genre so, rather than admit the obvious, they claim that Jaws is more of a thriller than a horror film.  Or they talk about how it’s actually meant to be a political allegory or an environmental allegory or an examination of male bonding.

So, let’s just make this clear.  No matter what the elitist critics or even Steven Spielberg himself may say, Jaws is primarily a horror film, with that relentless killer shark serving as a prototype for such future horror fiends as Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and both of the Ghostface and Jigsaw Killers.  (Jaws even opens with a stereotypical slasher movie death, as a nude and stoned swimmer is suddenly attacked by an unseen killer.) If not for Scheider, Shaw, and Dreyfuss floating in the endless ocean, you would never have had films — like the Blair Witch Project — about people being lost and stalked in the wilderness.  And when that shark attacks and graphically rips apart its victims, how different is it from something you might find in a George Romero or Lucio Fulci zombie film?

On the basis of Jaws and Duel, I think it can be argued that, if Steven Spielberg hadn’t become America’s favorite director of crowd-pleasing, Oscar-contending blockbusters, he could have been one of our best horror directors.  Sadly, Spielberg has pretty much abandoned horror and I doubt that Jaws would be as effective if it were made today.  (I suspect that the temptation to resort to a cartoonish CGI shark would be too great.)

But that’s all speculation.

What matters is that Jaws remains one of the greatest films ever made.

And it’s a horror film!

 

Scenes I Love: Jaws


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“You know the thing about a shark, he’s got…lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white.” — Quint

People have blamed Spielberg and his breakout film, Jaws, as the cause of the blockbuster mentality that studios have had since this film came out. Studios and producers wanted to recreate the ultra-successful box-office numbers of Jaws. Despite the fact that this film was modestly budgeted people nowadays who think they’re experts in film point to it as the culprit. They’ve called it the film that begun the dumbing down of Hollywood when creativity was sacrificed for profit.

Why did I pick a scene from this film as a favorite? I picked this particular scene because it’s one reason why the film succeeded and made people come back again and again. It’s a scene that perfectly captures one reason why we love see films in a communal setting. We want to share the same experience and emotions this scene brought up from the pit of each audience’s psyche.

Jaws didn’t ruin the creativity in filmmaking. I like to think that this one film was a filmmaker at his most creativie (shark wouldn’t work properly so Spielberg kept it off-screen which just added to the terror and tension in the film). This very scene goes down as one of the greatest film monologues. It sets up the danger the trio faces with some anecdotal evidence from the very person who survived the experience, but who might have become unhinged because of it. I love the look of frozen terror on the face of Richard Dryefuss’ character as he listens to Robert Shaw tell the story of the ill-fated journey of the U.S.S. Indianapolis.

This latest “Scenes I Love” is why I consider Spielberg one of the best filmmaker of his generation and probably beyond that.