Collage of Superman the Movie, Lois and Superman, Superman, Logo

Superman the Movie

  • Title: Superman the Movie (aka Superman)
  • Director: Richard Donner
  • Date: 1978
  • Studio: Warner Brothers
  • Genre: Action, Fantasy, SF
  • Cast: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Trevor Howard, Glenn Ford
  • Format: Widescreen, Color
  • DVD Format: Blu-Ray, NTSC

“There’s one thing I do know, son, and that is – you are here for a reason.” – Jonathon Kent

“Easy, miss, I’ve got you.” – Superman
“You’ve got me? Who’s got you?” – Lois Lane

Richard Donner’s original Superman film opens on Krypton, with Jor-El implementing the decision of the Council to banish three criminals to the Phantom Zone – a sort of limbo that looks like a glass trapezoid. The scenes on Krypton are grand and impressive and include lots of dramatic close-ups. However, if you haven’t seen Superman before the entire sequence would be very confusing – and we never see the villains again (yes, I know, wait for Superman II). However, it isn’t long before Jor-El is up before the council himself. Jor-El has discovered that Krypton’s red sun is expanding and will soon cause Krypton to explode. No one wants to believe this really bad news, and the council threatens Jor-El – if he speaks out about his findings, or if he and his wife attempt to leave Krypton, Jor-El will also be sentenced to the Phantom Zone. Jor-El agrees to stay silent. However, he and his wife place their infant son in a rocket ship, with all the knowledge of not only Krypton but the galaxy at large and send him to Earth.

The infant, Kal-El, crash lands on Earth, and he’s raised by John and Martha Kent. When Clark Kent, as he is now called, turns 18, his father dies from a heart attack, and Clark finds a glowing green crystal rod in the Kent barn – which creates for him his fortress of solitude in the Arctic. There Clark is instructed by the hologram of his father. He emerges seventeen years later and moves to Metropolis to take a job as a reporter at the Daily Planet. Clark meets Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White.

Before long, Clark is also Superman – rescuing people, catching criminals, and just being Superman. From rescuing Lois Lane from a helicopter that’s crashed on the side of the Daily Planet to rescuing cats from trees and everything in between – he’s Superman.

But he’s also Clark – so when Perry demands more information on this new hero in their midst, he slips Lois a note – from “a friend” – the precise way he’d introduced himself to her when he rescued her from the helicopter. Superman arrives on Lois’s patio, and after a brief interview he takes her flying, even breaking the cloud layer. The flying sequence is soft, romantic, and alternates between close-ups of the actors’ faces and long and medium shots. It’s a very romantic scene.

But a in any film – there needs to be conflict, and the conflict comes in the form of Lex Luthor – who, with the help of his really stupid henchman, Otis, and his not much brighter Girl Friday, Eve Teschmacher – has a true super-villain plan, worthy of a Bond villain. He’s used his corporation to buy up all the “worthless” desert land just East of California, and plans to steal two missiles to drop essentially a large explosion on the San Andreas fault which will set off enough earthquakes to drop California into the Ocean. Lex also figures out – in quite a leap of logic – that because Superman is from Krypton a meteorite of Kryptonite will kill him.

Lex sends Superman a message at an ultra-high frequency, and gets him to a rendezvous where he manipulates him into opening a lead box containing a kryptonite rock on a chain. Lex puts the chain around Superman’s neck and drops him in a swimming pool. However, before “disposing” of Superman Lex remarks that he has two missiles not just one – the larger one is being sent to California, and the smaller one to Hackensack, NJ. Ms. Teschmacher remarks – “But my mother lives in Hackensack!”

Teschmacher jumps into the pool to rescue Superman, and gets him to agree to stop the missile heading for New Jersey first. Superman promises this – but it will have dire consequences. He stops the first missile, then hears the second hit California. Superman dives into the Earth’s crust to stop the Earthquakes, then tries to mitigate as much of the damage as possible. Yet he isn’t fast enough to stop Lois from being buried alive when he car falls into a sinkhole. Superman gets very angry and upset and flies around the Earth backwards, turning back time, so he can rescue Lois.

Overall, Superman is a very feel-good movie. It doesn’t have the angst or paranoid atmosphere of Man of Steel. Reeve’s mild-mannered reporter, Clark Kent, is very “mild-mannered” – causing him and Lois to be attacked by a mugger (Lois rescues them both; though Clark catches a bullet aimed at himself). Clark is so “nice” it’s almost unbelievable. But he’s also someone that young people could really look up to. Lois, well, poor Lois – in this film, she seems solely there to be rescued – continuously. I remember really liking Lois Lane when I saw this movie when it came out but now – oh dear. She’s a reporter, a to be award-winning reporter, yet she can’t spell? The constant Lois asking everyone how to spell various words, or having her spelling corrected by her boss, was just… painful. And I really wanted to buy the girl a dictionary. Having said that though – the scene of Superman taking Lois flying is soft, and romantic, and wonderfully done.

The entire film looked gorgeous – just gorgeous. It was so nice to watch something done on film, rather than digital, and with models and in-camera effects (and some optics) because that was all they had. At no point does any of it look cheap – or like obvious model shots. But that helicopter that crashes – is solid. As is the plane Superman rescues in one scene.

Lex’s scheme, well – it’s a supervillain scheme all right. Dr. Evil would be impressed. And Lex seems to figure out that Superman is vulnerable to Kryptonite pretty easily and with no evidence (seriously – Why would knowing Superman is from Krypton make you think, immediately, with no evidence, that he’s vulnerable to Kryptonite?) Meanwhile, his Girl Friday/girlfriend/whatever is annoying. But the worse bit about the easily-manipulated girlfriend is the scene where she actually rescues Superman – wearing a white dress. The instant she hits the pool water, it becomes transparent. Nice.

The style of Superman has an unusual retro look. The opening bit has a kid watching a serial in a movie theater – setting the story in 1938, but the film looks more like the 1950s – 1960s, though Lois’s clothes are slightly more modern. I honestly couldn’t tell you what era it was supposed to be.

Still, overall, this is a classic super-hero film, and one that all other Superman films are often judged by.

Recommendation: See It!
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Superman II

The Sting

  • Title:  The Sting
  • Director:  George Roy Hill
  • Date:  1973
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Cast:  Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw, Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan, Harold Gould, Dana Elcar
  • Format:  Widescreen, color
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“I’ll get him anyway.”  — Johnny Hooker
“Why?”  — Henry Gondorff
” ‘Cause I don’t know enough about killing to kill him.”  — Johnny

“What was I supposed to do?  Call him for cheating better than me in front of the others?”  — Doyle

The Sting is the original caper film.  Without The Sting, there is no Ocean’s 11 or it’s sequels either the original or the new ones, and there’s no White Collar, Leverage, or Hustle either.  But it’s a classic that stands on its own two feet as well, not simply as the film that establishes a sub-genre all by itself.  The film begins with Luther and Johnny, two con artists, working street cons.  As the film opens in Joliet, Illinois in 1936, the two con artists pull a switch, but unknown to them they’ve picked the wrong victim – a numbers runner for the Chicago Irish mob.  Initially, they are thrilled to pull a $11,000 con… but then one of the con artists, Luther, is killed, and Johnny knows that if he gets caught, the mob will kill him too.

Johnny travels up to Chicago and meets Henry Gondorff an old friend of Luther’s.  Gondoroff gathers a group of con artists together and they decide to pull a con on the mobster they blame for Luther’s death. Luther’s so well-known in the con artist underground that everyone wants to help to stick it to his killer where it hurts — in the wallet.

The film is set-up in sections:  The Set-Up, The Hook, The Tale, The Wire, The Shut Out, and The Sting — each with a beautifully designed title card.  And each section of the film is exactly what it says, as the con artists rope in and set-up their victim.  However, what makes The Sting a great and memorable film is the surprise ending… which I’m not going to spoil here.  If you’ve seen the film, you know exactly what I’m talking about — and if you haven’t, it’s just not fair to spoil the surprise ending.  There are hints throughout the film, but it does come as a surprise the first time you see it and it really makes the movie.

This film also features a great partnership between the older, nearly washed-up con artist (Paul Newman) master of  the Big Con, and his new, young, apprentice (Robert Redford).  A number of  excellent character actors round out the cast.  Also, the film is set in the 1930s, which means great suits and hats but on the negative side — some very rough, inappropriate language.

Overall, a great film, especially if you are a fan of the caper film as a genre.  I recommend it.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle

Star Wars

  • Title:  Star Wars (aka Star Wars IV:  A New Hope)
  • Director:  George Lucas
  • Date:  1977
  • Studio:  20th Century Fox
  • Genre:  SF, Fantasy, Adventure
  • Cast:  Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness, Peter Cushing
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“Your father’s light sabre.  This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight.  Not as clumsy or random as a blaster.  An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age.”  — Obi-Wan Kenobi

“The force is what gives a Jedi his power.  It’s an energy field created by all living things, it surrounds us and penetrates us, it binds the Galaxy together.”  — Obi-Wan Kenobi

“I want to come with you to Alderaan.  There’s nothing for me here now.  I want to learn the ways of  the force and become a Jedi like my father.”  — Luke

“I’m Luke Skywalker, I’m here to rescue you!”  — Luke

Hands down one of my favorite movies, ever!  Star Wars is the classic science fantasy film, mixing the cultural mysticism of Old Japan, with the classic tale of farm boy who wants adventure, then he becomes very important.

The film opens with a scroll revealing this is “Episode IV” like the old movie serials from the 1930s. This catches up on the plot for a “pre-quel” that in 1977 didn’t exist, but it explains the background for what’s going on.  We see an impressive, but small ship being chased and shot at — then a shot of a much, much larger ship chasing it.  The ship seems to go on forever.  It’s blasting lasers at the smaller ship.

Inside the ship we meet two ‘Droids (or androids), R2-D2 and C3PO.  R2-D2 communicates only in whistles and beeps (meant to suggest machine language) though we have an idea what he’s saying from C3PO’s responses.  C3PO, a “protocol” droid and translator, seems a bit like a bad butler.  The entire ship is swallowed by the larger one.  Imperial Storm Troopers in metallic white armor burst in. Vader strangles one of the rebels, and Princess Leia is stunned unconscious.

R2-D2 and C3PO leave the ship in an escape pod.  Because the pod registers no life signs, the Imperial troops let it get away.  They land on a dessert planet.  Jawas, dessert scavengers, pick up the two droids.
The Storm Troopers arrive, thinking the “plans” are hidden in the pod, then find evidence of droids and tracks.

Meanwhile, the Jawas arrange their droids to sell.  Luke and his Uncle Owen take first C3PO and then R2-D2 from the Jawas and bring them back to their farm.

Luke stumbles on to part of Leia’s message while cleaning R2-D2.  He claims he’s the property of Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Luke discusses going to “the Academy” with Uncle Owen, but Owen wants him to stay and help with the harvest.  R2-D2 goes off on his own in search of Kenobi.

The next morning, Luke and C3PO search for R2-D2 and find him.  They’re attacked by Sand People.  Obi-Wan Kenobi rescues Luke, and the droids.  Obi-Wan fills Luke in on some of  his father’s history, and gives him a light sabre.  He starts to teach Luke about the Force, and they listen to Leia’s full message hologram.  Kenobi asks Luke to help go to Alderaan.  Luke says he can’t.  Then they find the Jawas attacked and destroyed, it’s meant to look like Sand People were responsible, but Obi-Wan realizes Imperial Storm Troopers were responsible.

On Vader’s ship they discuss the disappearance of  the plans, and Vadar strangles a man using the Force.

Luke rushes home, but the farm’s been destroyed and his Aunt and Uncle burned to death.  He returns to the Jawa site, meets with Kenobi, and vows to go with him, learn the ways of  the Force, and become a Jedi Knight like his father.  They head for Mos Eisley spaceport, the famous “hive of scum and villainy”. There they meet Chewbacca and Han Solo and book passage on the Millennium Falcon.  Luke sells his speeder to get cash.

Imperial troopers show up at the space port and there’s a brief laser gun fight.  The Millennium Falcon escapes the Imperial cruisers by making the jump to light speed and cruising into hyperspace.  During the brief trip, Obi-Wan Kenobi begins to train Luke in the use of  a light sabre.  When they arrive at Alderaan, it’s in the middle of  a meteor shower.  And the planet isn’t there.

We’d seen Vader coldly and calmly use the Death Star to destroy the entire planet, Leia’s home, and one she insists is peaceful with no weapons.  Obi-Wan Kenobi had felt the tremor in the force, the millions of lives silenced, and nearly collapsed, while aboard the Falcon, in hyper-space.

Back on the Falcon, they see a small moon near Alderaan, or what was, Alderaan.  Quickly, Luke, Han, and Obi-Wan realize it’s a space station and they better get out of there.  But they are pulled into a tractor beam.  When the ship lands, the Imperial Troopers think no one’s on board, as they had all hidden in Han’s smuggling compartments.

Obi-Wan Kenobi will take care of the tractor beam.  The rest are to check for info, but stay put.  However, R2-D2 plugs into a Imperial computer port, downloads data, and finds Leia and that she’s scheduled for execution.  Luke convinces Han to rescue Leia.  Han reluctantly agrees.  They rescue Leia, get caught by troopers trying to escape, and Leia blows a hole in the wall with a blaster rifle and they end up in the garbage compactor.  Luke calls C3PO for help and they barely escape.

Getting back to the Falcon isn’t so easy, with more blaster battles.  Everyone gets to the Falcon, but Kenobi is fighting Vader.  Luke sees this on the other side of the hanger deck.  Vader kills Kenobi, and Luke angrily fires at any Imperial storm trooper he can.  The Falcon escapes, after a space battle against TIE fighters, but Leia insists “they let us escape”.

She’s right, the Death Star follows them to the rebel base at Yavin, on a nearby moon. The rebels study the plans and come up with a plan.  Small, one-man fighters (X-wings), will fly through a trench and send photon torpedoes through a 2-meter thermal vent.  If placed directly, and perfectly on target, the torpedo will reach the center of  the moon’s reactor, blow it up and cause a chain reaction to blow up the entire Death Star.

Luke, Wedge, and two squadrons of rebel pilots, head for the Death Star to make their attack run. Meanwhile, Leia and the rebels watch battle screens and listen.  They watch as the Death Star comes closer and closer, knowing that when or if  it clears the planet, they are all dead.  And they listen as the rebel pilots, one by one, die — either in collisions in the trench, blown up by Imperial TIE fighters, or destroyed by anti-aircraft batteries on the Death Star.  Finally, it’s down to Wedge and Luke.  Wedge gets a bit cooked and has to pull out (but he survives).  Han Solo arrives in the Falcon, and destroys two TIE fighters, and clips Vader’s fighter so it rolls off  into space.  Luke disables his targeting computer, and let’s the force guide him to make the shot.  He succeeds.

Later he and Han reunite with Leia and are congratulated.  Both receive awards at a huge ceremony. Chewbacca is also honored and  R2-D2 and C3PO are present at the ceremony.

Star Wars is a fun movie – but it has a lot to say too.

The color palette is bright white, black, and grey.  There’s occasional pops of blue, orange, and brown. But mostly it’s white, black and grey – which gives the film an almost monochromatic look, even though it’s a color film.  And, the sharp whites and blacks add to the feel of being in space.  Despite the obvious fantasy elements of  the film, the star fields, uni-directional lighting and such, feel like space.  Even when R2-D2 is in the back of Luke’s X-Wing fighter, his normally blue markings look black because there’s no light in space to see the blue.

The plot, about an orphan who discovers he is meant for greater things also isn’t that different – after all Frodo Baggins and Harry Potter are also orphans.  The farm boy who longs for adventure, and finds it is an old idea, a classic idea.  And in part, Star Wars, is a classic fantasy tale – with a princess to be rescued and plenty of sword play and (blaster) gun battles.  We even have the old mentor, Merlin-like, teaching the young boy.

But far from being derivative – Star Wars brings all these elements together and cooks them up into something no one had seen in 1977, and the film is still popular, even legendary today.  Because of  the futuristic fantasy setting, it doesn’t feel “old”, unlike many science fiction films (or even buddy cop films or musicals or other genre films).  And that is because the film was made with so much care and precision and the young cast is brilliant.  The script is also brilliant – as the many famous quotes from it bare out. After all, who doesn’t know what “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for?” means or where “May the Force be with you” comes from?  It’s just a brilliant, brilliant film.

The film, like Raiders of  the Lost Ark (1981), is actually split into relatively short sections (again, inspired by movie serials), which allow for a more complicated plot and prevent any boredom from setting to setting.  Star Wars moves at a break-neck speed, and with surprising amounts of humor, although the overall tone is that of sheer fun adventure.

I saw Star Wars when it came out in 1977 – I was eight years old, and the perfect age to fall in love with this movie.  It, like the Indiana Jones films, inspired a life-long love of film.  It also inspired my interest in not only watching science fiction, but reading it.  And reading fantasy also.  A couple of  years ago I had the privilege of showing Empire and Jedi to my at-the-time eight-year-old niece and nephew (they’d seen Star Wars) and it was fun to see the films as new through their eyes.  Because I must admit, I’ve seen these three films so many times I’ve memorize whole sections of dialog from them.

Recommendation:  A must see!
Rating:  5 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Star Wars:  The Empire Strikes Back

Same Time, Next Year

  • Title:  Same Time, Next Year
  • Director:  Robert Mulligan
  • Date:  1978
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Genre:  Romance, Comedy, Drama
  • Cast:  Alan Alda, Ellen Burstyn
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“We had instant rapport, did you notice that too?”  — George
“No, but I know that we really hit it off.”  — Doris

“For one beautiful weekend, every year, with no cares, no ties, no responsibilities.”  — George

“I never shed a tear.  Isn’t that something?  He was my son.  I will love him. And for the life of me  – I can’t seem to cry for him.”  — George

A couple meets at a romantic sea-side inn, they share coffee, talk, then sleep together.  Both are married — to other people.  Yet, once a year, every year, they meet, catch up, sleep together, but also share their lives.  The film, based on a play, shows us the meetings of this couple every five years from 1951 to 1977 — as they grow up and experience change.  Photos of historic people and events, in montages, set to music, set the tone of the changing times, as breaks between the couple’s meetings.

One of the pleasures of the film is watching Doris grow-up — from a naive housewife, to hippy/student, to smart business woman, and back to old, retired, housewife – caring for a husband who’s had a stroke. George, meanwhile, also goes through changes — from scared, neurotic, guilt-ridden young man to Conservative stuffy accountant, to a back-to-nature bum who’s “finding himself” in men’s groups.  The changes in Doris and George’s personalities, however, are merely social dressing, like their clothes and hairstyles — they deeply love each other, even though they meet only for a single weekend a year.

It’s odd that a film about a couple’s adultery could be so enduring and bittersweet – yet it is.  Partially because in a way the film starts as a historic film, and partially because almost all the action is confined to the couple’s cabin at the Inn (or occasionally the nearby restaurant at the Inn’s main house) this film doesn’t have as much of  an out-of-date feel as many other 1970s films do.  That it was based on a play is painfully obvious from the lack of sets and small cast (the two principles, and the caretaker of the Inn), but the intimacy of the setting adds to the emphasis on character — which is turn makes this film seem less dated than it should.

Overall, George and Doris’s story, told as vignette’s over the years, lets the audience come to know and care for the characters, their problems, the changes in their lives, even their spouses, children, and jobs — all of  which we hear about but never see.  An enjoyable, soft, people-oriented film.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  3.8
Next Film:  Satan Met a Lady

Cabaret

  • Title:  Cabaret
  • Director:  Bob Fosse
  • Date:  1972
  • Studio:  Allied Artists (DVD released by Warner Bros.)
  • Genre:  Musical, Drama
  • Cast:  Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey
  • Format:  Technicolor, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“You can’t stand Maximilian because he’s everything you’re not! He doesn’t have to give English lessons for three Marks an hour, he’s rich! And he knows about life, he doesn’t read about it in books.  He’s suave and he’s divinely sexy. And he really appreciates a woman!” — Sally
“Oh screw Maximilian!” — Brian
“I do.” — Sally
“So do I.” — Brian

“It’s also an established fact, Herr Ludwig, there’s also another well-organised group of which you’re obviously a member; the International Conspiracy of horses asses!”  — Brian

Cabaret as a film reminds me of quote from Bax Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge:  It’s the story of a time, it’s the story of a place, [and] it’s a story of love. However, the love stories in Cabaret are more complicated and end less happily than the story in Moulin Rouge. Set in 1931 in Berlin, Cabaret is the story of the people that meet, come together, and leave, at the Kit Kat Klub – a wild cabaret. The main story is about Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), an American Cabaret singer who wants to be an actress, Brian (Michael York), a British student who comes to Berlin with no money and teaches English to survive, Maximilian, a married, bisexual German Baron looking to find anyone to fill his bed, Fritz a friend of Brian’s who’s hiding a few major secrets, and Natalia a rich Jewish woman who falls for Fritz. At the club, the all-knowing EmCee (Grey) rules.

The film draws you in slowly to it’s story of these diverse characters. Sally, especially, is a fascinating young woman. The daughter of an ambassador, she claims, she may have grown-up with wealth and privilege, but she finds herself with a two-room apartment in a boarding house, working all day and singing at the Cabaret all night. Sally drinks, smokes, and fools around. In some ways, she’s the female counterpart of Joe Gideon in Fosse’s other classic, All That Jazz.  And Sally has no problems letting everyone know just how willing she is to sleep with men to get whatever she can. Quite by chance, she meets Brian, and the two become friends then lovers.

However, before long the two meet Maximilian. Sally immediately begins sleeping with him, simply because he showers her with gifts and money. Brian, who had explained to Sally that he had slept with three women before and all were disasters, and has now fallen for Sally, is also taken under Maximilian’s spell, especially when the three of them spend a “dirty weekend” together at Maximilian’s country house.

Brian also meets and befriends Fritz, a shy German, who comes to him to learn English. Fritz falls for Natalia, another of Brian’s students but it’s Sally who gives Fritz advice about how to get Natalia interested in him, since she keeps turning him down flat. Eventually, Natalia calls Sally to her house and confesses she is also in love with Fritz but the relationship is impossible.

Throughout the film, the action is intercut with the entertainment at the Kit Kat Club, all introduced by the mysterious EmCee, including Sally’s musical numbers. The Club will put anything on the stage — female dancers and singers; female mud wrestlers; a parody of German folk singers; a duet between the EmCee and a guy in a Gorilla suit dressed as a ballerina. Nothing is sacred and everything goes at the Cabaret. However, when the film does cut to the Cabaret, often whatever’s on stage parallels the dramatic storyline. This intercutting is Fosse’s true genius.

When Sally discovers she’s pregnant, she tells Brian, also telling him she will have to sell the fur coat Maximilian gave her to pay for an abortion. When Brian asks who the father is – Sally insists she doesn’t know. And considering she’s been sleeping with Brian, Maximilian, and other men she’s picked up at the club, she honestly does not. Brian proposes, and insists that he doesn’t care — he’ll help her raise the baby no matter what. They can return to Cambridge, and he will get his teaching Fellowship. At first, Sally agrees.

Meanwhile, Fritz and Natalia’s relationship is at an standstill, and Natalia insists it can’t continue. But Fritz admits to Brian that he’s secretly Jewish. When he came to Berlin, on the papers he filed, he had listed his religion as Protestant, but he isn’t. Brian convinces him to tell Natalia. Fritz does that, and Sally and Brian witness the wedding.

However, despite Brian’s wishes, Sally is full of doubt. She spends a night at the Cabaret, having an unheard conversation with the EmCee. When she returns to Brian that night, she’s without her fur coat. Brian badgers her until she admits she did have the abortion. Brian is livid – and decides to leave her. Before long, he’s returning to Cambridge. Sally goes back to the Cabaret, and that night belts out a triumphant version of the film’s title tune, “Cabaret”. We finally see just how much Sally loves the stage, as she comes to life on stage, more glowingly alive than at any part previously in the film — and this for an independently spirited woman who is the exact opposite of a shrinking violet. However, Sally’s pure happiness on the stage will be short-lived, the film ends with reflections seen through the glass side divider of the Cabaret stage of the Nazis in the audience. Soon the lives of everyone in the film will be in danger; and most of them, even Sally will probably be dead. It’s a haunting ending.

There is also a chilling scene earlier in the picture, on the way back from their dirty weekend, Maximilian, Brian, and Sally are at some sort of outdoor German festival. There, a Hitler youth stands and sings “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, a patriotic German song. At first alone, soon others stand and join in. By the end of the song, nearly all the young people in the audience are standing and singing. Most of the older people remain sitting, however. It’s a frightening visual and auditory illustration of exactly what is happening in Germany. Brian, seeing the display, gathers Sally and Maximilian and leaves.

In another scene, Brian gets in an argument with his German co-boarders at Sally’s boarding house. He goes out in the street and a Nazi party member tries to foist a Nazi paper on him. Brian refuses it, yells at the Nazi, then knocks over the flag. He’s beaten senseless for his trouble.

The owner of the Kit Kat Club had also kicked some Nazis out of the club — he’s also beaten senseless for his actions.

But the brilliance of Cabaret is in it’s use of intercutting — the songs that Sally or the EmCee or both sing at the club are often intercut with and reflect the dramatic plot; but they don’t illustrate the plot. This isn’t a musical where plot points are sung – it’s almost as if the music at the club is the background to the storyline. And the club is a wild place, a place of the underworld, but a place of ships passing in the night. Also, throughout all the club numbers and performances – the audience sees figures walking between the camera and the Cabaret stage, almost as if we are in a club and people are moving around. There is also the sound of  talking, clinking glasses, clapping, laughing, etc. The people moving between the camera and the stage also provides a wipe point for editing.

List of  Musical Numbers

  • Mien Herr – Liza Minnelli
  • Everybody Loves a Winner – Liza Minnelli
  • The Money Song (Money Makes the World Go ’round) – Minnelli and Grey
  • Two Ladies – Grey
  • Tomorrow Belongs to Me – Hitler Youth (and it’s terrifying)
  • Cabaret – Liza Minnelli
Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 Stars
Next Film:  Royal Wedding

The French Connection

  • Title:  The French Connection
  • Director:  William Friedkin
  • Date:  1971
  • Studio:  20th Century Fox
  • Genre:  Action, Drama
  • Cast:  Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

The French Connection was nominated for eight Academy Awards in 1972 (for the films of 1971) and won five. It’s on the AFI list of top 100 American films, and I bought it because it’s a well-known film I had never seen, and to be honest because Roy Scheider is in it, whom I really like as an actor.

I think the film really is a time capsule — it’s hard to tell how revolutionary the film would have been in the early 1970s, watching it for the first time in 2012. And it’s downright strange how this film seemed more odd to me than favorite classics of mine from the 1930s and 1940s. However, that doesn’t make it a bad film. It is a very good film, it’s just somewhat hard to relate to it. But it does explain a heck of a lot about 70s television — I can clearly see the connection between The French Connection and Starsky and Hutch, Streets of San Francisco or even The Professionals.

The film is based on a real case, one of the biggest Heroin busts in US history. That case inspired a true crime book called, The French Connection by Robin Moore. However, according to the various special features on the film, and the short/cut actor commentary most of the film was inspired by the technical advisers of the film, Eddie “Popeye” Egan and Sonny “Cloudy” Russo the two cops who made the case. Also, the director, Friedkin, and actors Scheider and Hackman spent considerable time doing research, preparing, and following Egan and Russo around on the streets of New York. That research combined with Friedkin’s background in shooting documentaries certainly added to the feel of the film.

The film does have a gritty, down and dirty, realism to it. Hackman’s Poyeye Doyle is not a nice guy — one of the issues I had watching the film was not just the swearing but the racist language used in the film. However, even with all his faults – Doyle is a good cop. He and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo have the highest number of convictions in the Narcotics department of the Brooklyn, New York, NY police department. Cloudy (Scheider in only his second film role) holds back Doyle, occasionally playing good cop to Doyle’s bad cop. But really, both are good cops — though realistically grim, gritty, tough, and nasty.

The plot involves trying to catch a French godfather who’s sending in multi-million dollar Heroin shipments into New York every six weeks or so. He uses a French actor to get a car in to the US, and the drugs are hidden in the rocker panels (floor boards under the car doors) of the car. But it takes a while for Doyle and Russo to put together what’s going on — and I had to watch the film twice to figure it out (though the second time I had one of the two commentaries on, so I wasn’t paying as close attention to what was going on, on the screen). The film shows the cops on long stakeouts and tails where not much happens until they spot one of the principals meeting a known drug kingpin. This gets them two wiretaps, which leads to the Frenchman calling to set-up a meeting. Before long, the case is coming together.

One of the best scenes in the film is a cat-and-mouse scene between Hackman and The Frenchman at the heart of the case on a subway. The two jump on and off and on and off a subway car – but in the end the Frenchman escapes. However, he puts a hit on Doyle.

This leads to the other big scene in the film, and the one it’s famous for — the car chase. The chase starts when a sniper shoots at Doyle, hitting an innocent woman, and causing havoc. Doyle finally gets to the roof, finds the guy’s rifle, then sees him fleeing the building, and gives chase on foot. When the sniper jumps a elevated train, Doyle commandeers a car and gives chase. The chase is pure chaos and incredibly done considering it was all practical. No computer-generated effects here, and no carefully plotted storyboards either. Just a gifted stunt driver, a car with a siren, and a few (though not enough) blocked streets. Most of the exciting parts of the chase were stunts, however, at one point a civilian car pulled out and hit Hackman while he was driving the car as fast as possible. Hackman was pushed into a metal support beam for the L. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the incident. However, the chase was put together in pieces:  a stunt driver named Hickman; Hackman actually driving with a camera car besides him; Hackman driving with a cameraman in the car. A stunt woman played the woman with the baby carriage that Doyle nearly hits. Meanwhile, on the train, the sniper is causing panic – taking over the train, shooting a train worker, and causing the driver of the train to have a heart attack, before crashing the train itself into another train. But the sequence is breath-taking. The chase ends with Doyle cornering the sniper on the stairs to the L station (which go sharply up because it’s an outdoor elevated train and station), and he shoots the now unarmed sniper in the back.

The film doesn’t have a lot of exposition explaining what’s going on — it trusts the audience to follow along for the ride. It’s also not a film filled with stunning visuals, or “movie moments”, rather it’s a grim, gritty, dirty, realistic-looking, almost documentary style of film. The film is so rough at times it’s almost uncomfortable to watch it. But it’s also stunningly compelling – and Hackman and Scheider are both brilliant.

Throughout the film there’s a huge, brown, Lincoln – by the end of  the film it’s almost menacing. Doyle and Russo manage to confiscate the car, get it stripped at a police garage, and finally when they’ve almost given up, locate the Heroin in the rocker panels (the floor boards under the front doors). When the French actor shows up to claim his car, they give it back, complete with the Heroin so they can make the bust. I honestly don’t know where they got a second, identical brown Lincoln, because the one they had was trashed.

The cops follow the Lincoln to an abandoned building, there’s a shootout and total chaos. But the brilliant bit is the ultimate end  — Doyle enters the building alone in search of the Frenchman. Russo, after aiding in the capture of the bad guys, goes in after his partner. Doyle’s so tense he nearly shoots Russo, but Russo warns him off with, “It’s me, it’s me!” FBI agent Mulderig isn’t so lucky — thinking he’s the Frenchman, Doyle shoots him. But the last shot, of Doyle walking though this dark, mucky, dirty, corridor-like building, walking into the distance, then there’s a gunshot, and the screen goes black, that’s brilliant, and makes the film worth watching and re-watching.

There is character in the film, and an interesting relationship between the two cops, but really I could have done with a lot more of that. Still, definitely worth the time to watch, and re-watch, and own.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 Stars
Next Film:  Either Royal Wedding or Cabaret which I also recently bought

Network

  • Title:  Network
  • Director:  Sidney Lumet
  • Date:  1976
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Cast:  Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • Format:  R1, NTSC

“The American people are turning sour, they’ve been clobbered on all sides by Vietnam, Watergate, the inflation, the depression. They’ve turned off, shot up, and they’ve f…ed themselves limp and nothing helps.” — Diana

“I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everyone’s out of work or scared of losing their job. A dollar buys a nickel’s worth. Banks are going bust … We know the air is unfit to breathe. And our food is unfit to eat.”  — Howard Beale

“I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now, and go to the window.  Open it, and stick your head out and yell:  I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”  — Howard Beale

Network, in a way, is bizarre and weird sort of film. On the one hand, it’s a “typical” 1970s heavy-hitting issue-oriented drama, warning of the dangers of corporate takeovers of television news, especially when news is asked to serve a corporate balance sheet rather than take seriously it’s duty to inform the public. But whereas other 70s dramas, such as Norma Rae, Silkwood, and The China Syndrome all feel somewhat dated now – Network, if  anything feels somewhat precognitive. Large sections of Network remind me of the television series, Max  Headroom:  20 Minutes into the Future (made in England, but aired as first run in the US in 1987). Network has some very funny moments, but it also has some very sardonic moments. In a sense, the characters aren’t really people you root for or against, rather the film manipulates its audience to understand the point of view of the character speaking at the moment, only to reject that character’s argument a moment later and agree with the opposite viewpoint.

Network does have a lot of speeches, but they are often great. Not just Howard Beale’s speeches, which are memorable, but Ned Beatty as the chairman of CCA has a marvelous, scary, chilling speech about not just the world consisting of corporations instead of countries — but of money instead of idealogies. He sees a world of systems, not a world of people. A de-humanizing viewpoint, that seems all the closer now  than in the mid-1970s. Meanwhile, Beale calls for people to protest – not to march in the streets, but to yell out, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” When people do, he gets his own show which becomes a sideshow circus masquerading as News; but this actually shows “the masses” as just so many sheep, doing what they are told, believing what they are told, dressing as they are told, buying the things they are told to buy, etc. Beale blames all of this conformity on television, and even has speeches against it; yet, I think that message of “manipulating the masses” cannot be laid solely at television’s doorstep. There are two reasons for this. One — similar messages come from other places: magazine ads, newspapers, even movies and pop fiction books; it’s not a message that solely comes from a single medium, though that medium is so prevalent that it can be easy to notice and point to. And, the second reason, is historic. Great social leaders of the past (even those on the “wrong side”) often had a way of articulating the feel in the air of the masses and manipulating that into action. So, Beale is, in essence, a fictional modern-day version of the leaders of the Russian Revolution, the French Revolution, or even the American Revolution. The difference with Beale is we, as an audience, expect him to be stopped. And he is. Though by the end of the film, there is no feeling of  “something terrible has happened to a great man who could have changed things”, rather his viewpoint, and his message are changed by the president of CCA to his philosophy – and that message is so unpopular with viewers, and lowers the ratings so much (and thus profits, since ratings determine the cost-per-minute of advertising) that Diana, the programming manager, and her cadre resort to desperate measures to get rid of Beale. The other aspect is, other than the shouting, and the rise and fall of Beale’s show’s ratings/popularity, no actual social movement ever develops. Beale even says, in various ways, “I don’t know what the solution is – I don’t know what to do to change things.” So, other than two distinct instances, his audience doesn’t know either, and no solutions, or social change is ever made.

The story of Network, is that of a fourth-place television network, that is going through major changes because they are losing so much money. On the one hand, a corporation called CCA has bought the network and in order to save money, moves the formerly independent News Division to programming. The news division itself  is also gutted. People are fired, whole entire foreign news correspondence desks are closed, and then, making it almost impossible for the reporters and producers to actually report the news accurately and without bias — it’s moved to Programming. Programming is the entertainment department of the network. Diana is a bright young thing, desperately trying to show her stuff, to be hard hitting (in a male-dominated environment, she’s the only woman and cannot ever afford to show her femininity), and desperately trying to pull the network out of it’s financial hole by trying anything. It’s very much the idea of – well, things cannot possibly get worse, we’re already in last place, we’re in the red, let’s try this. Only “this” is the craziest stuff you can imagine.  (Her other idea is a dramatic series featuring the weekly real crimes of a counter-culture-terrorist-criminal-“Marxist” organization.) Howard Beale has spent his entire life in network television news. Because his ratings are low, and he’s perceived as “old and stodgy” he’s given the news at the very beginning of the film that he’s to be fired, and he only has two weeks left on his show. He goes out with an old friend, the two get really drunk, and Howard says he’ll kill himself. His friend, not taking him seriously, says, “well, if you’re going to do it — do it on camera, I’m sure it will raise the ratings,” or words to those effect. The next day, during his regular broadcast, Howard threatens suicide, live, on the air.

What follows is the slow break-up of  a man. He continues to break-up, on camera, delivering these wonderful, crazy speeches. His friend, Max, is appalled and wants him committed, perceiving that Howard is truly losing it and having a breakdown. Diana, however, now running the programming department, discovers that Beale’s rants are having a positive effect on the ratings (again, ratings determine the profitability of the network by determining the cost-per-minute of advertising fees for selling ad-time). She manages to first get Beale a regular “Commentary” block on the news. As Beale’s ratings soar, and Diana’s influence grows, she eventually turns the news broadcast into a circus. Besides Beale’s rants, which are the centerpiece of the new “Howard Beale Show”, there’s “Sybil the Soothsayer” who predicts the next week’s news; Jim Webbing and his “It’s-Emmes-Truth” Department; and Vox Populi. This isn’t news — it’s a game show, a circus, but instead of being a disaster — it’s very popular, and again the ratings soar. Eventually, Beale starts attacking television itself, telling people to “turn off the tube”. You’d think this would be the moment where the ratings drop – but it isn’t. Then Beale discovers that CCA is being bought out by foreign nationals, specifically the Arabs, whom Beale had been blaming for weeks for the Oil Crisis (in the 1970s), and the resulting depression, and inflation (also in the 70s). He urges people to send telegrams to the White House to stop the deal.  The telegrams are sent by the bushel load. Eventually millions of telegrams arrive.

This one piece of actual social action, stopping a foreign power from controlling the news, actually works. However, the chairman of the board of CCA is angry. He knows the deal is important. He sees Arab investment in American holdings such as shipping, GM, CCA, etc. as a necessary way to put money back into the system. He basically forces Beale to change his tactics and his speeches and his rants, and speak “his truth”, “his philosophy”. Beale does, but in such a way that he depresses people and they tune the show out, and stop watching. The ratings drop drastically.

Diana is then thrown into a tizzy. She tries to find a replacement for Beale, to no avail. She tries to convince her bosses to cancel or fire Beale, and that doesn’t work. She then finally resorts to desperate measures.

Network also has a quasi-documentary feel because of the use of a narrator all the way through to report on exactly what’s going on, and to at times explain the plot. The narrator also gets some very sardonic lines, lines that almost make you laugh and then you realise that what you are laughing at is in no way funny. That device works extremely well in the film.

I highly recommend Network. Many of  the concepts of the film, such as foreign investment and control of the networks and the news have actually happened  (ABC for example is owned by Sony, a Japanese company). Even the idea of corporations and systems and that fight with people and individuals is very modern. And, as the quotes above show, certainly the true state of affairs, such as the frequent mentions of the depression and inflation of the 1970s, which are historic facts, should feel familiar to today’s audiences. The language of the film is a bit rough – there’s a lot of  swearing, and there’s also a affair between Beale’s friend Max and Diana. However, those scenes outside the network, such as the scenes between Max and Diana, tend to be slow, until he actually finally breaks up with her because he sees her as very artificial. Beale, also is not a sympathetic character because he is just a tiny bit too nuts. But his speeches are certainly great. And the nature of the masses is also commented on in a political sense rather than in any sort of real sense. But still a film that deserves to be seen. It’s one of  those films that could probably spark endless debate.

Finally, this is a very, very, intelligent film. That is not meant to suggest “boring”. The language itself, and the dialogue, is notable for it’s complexity and intelligence. Often television people are dismissed as idiots; in this film that is far from the case. One reason that all the opposing speeches seem so very convincing is that they are spoken by intelligent people who have reasons for their own viewpoints. The things Diana says, the things the chairman of  CCA says, the things Max says (representing the old guard), even Beale’s speeches give the audience something to think about, something to explore, something to further argue for or against or in the middle or even to suggest, “Well, how about this”. Network never talks down to its’ audience, even when explaining necessary plot points such as the Ratings system and its’ ties to revenue. Even the narration, which could have been very much a “talking down” voice, is rather a very sardonic one, used solely to add explanation to the plot, even dates. This is so refreshing compared to what is so common now where often television and film executives seem to not trust their audience, and to assume the audience (that is, the masses) is stupid. I love that about Network.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 out of  5
Next Film:  North by Northwest