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The Hobbit

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***

Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies because you helped bring them about? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You’re a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I’m very fond of you, but you’re only quite a little fellow in a wide world, after all.

rankinbasshobbit

Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins in Bag Bend, Hobbiton, The Shire, in the 1977 movie The Hobbit.

I never watched this as a kid. Had I seen this I would have had to contend with my nostalgia. Instead, what I am dealing with is having listened to the audiobook recently. I probably noticed every bit the 77 minute animated movie skipped or changed. I love the book, so any changes needed to come from a logical place for me to forgive, or appreciate them. Whether you like the Peter Jackson Hobbits or not, they certainly had far more time dedicated to…well, everything and everyone.

The change that bothered me the most—even more than the exclusion of Beorn—was the body count Gandalf reports to Bilbo after the Battle of the Five Armies. Instead of three sad, dead dwarves, we have seven. The group was called the company of Thorin and his quest lead him to become King under the mountain, so his death, right upon reaching his apex, seems tragic. Kili and Fili are the two youngest dwarves, so their deaths show how war and death can take people too soon. More than doubling that body count, off-screen, lessens the impact of those deaths.

Still, Rankin and Bass deserve credit for this first adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Certainly fan art existed, but they really had the duty and privilege of taking the first crack at all these races. Bilbo looks great. And unlike a dwarf, or elf, or goblin, a hobbit is unique to Middle Earth and thus had no mold. Certain establishing shots made it feel like a camera was capturing the action, instead of just seeing drawn recap. Bilbo’s story is a good one, so even a hurried, fluffier version is enjoyable. Gollum’s menace and how distracted Bilbo would have been by Gollum was captured wonderfully. Also, this had talking birds, which I am glad they kept in. Lastly, they show living things dying, which has an important message for children, and created tension in the story.

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The Sting

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Did you know that The Sting was the first Academy Award Best Picture winner to have a female co-producer? Maybe that explains why this film seems so progressive, at least by 1970s standards. As I write this I am coming from a place that is, “well, everyone saw this movie,” but perhaps some people have not seen it. I mean, some people have not seen the Best Picture winner from the year before, The Godfather. Thus I will provide the setup.

****½

What was I supposed to do — call him for cheating better than me, in front of the others?

Here is the two buck version of the film: con artist team of Johnny Hooker—Robert Redford, All the President’s Men—and  Luther—Robert Earl Jones, Ben from Sleepaway Camp, seriously, what a difference in quality 10 years makes—take $30,000, in 1930s dollars, off of low level mobster in Chicago. In retribution the crime boss, Doyle Lonnegan—Robert Shaw, Jaws—orders all three of them killed. Hooker gambles his cut away immediately, which is at least partially responsible for Luther’s death. Of course Luther had immediately retired after the con, telling Hooker to seek out an elite con artist, Henry Gondorff—Paul Newman, The Hustler. Put another way, we have a bad guy and two anti-heroes and a grand moral excuse for pulling off grand hustle with a few chases and shootouts.

That sounds like dozens of other movies, but this won Best Picture, so there must be something special about it. Placed into a historical context, this is six years after Bonnie and Clyde, which is famous for having the protagonists be villains. Under the old Hays Code the criminals could never get away with the money, indeed even Bonnie and Clyde bite the dust in the end. Even in Ocean’s Eleven (1960) Frank Sinatra’s team does not get away with the money. So in 1973 having a moralist film with dozens of criminals taking advantage of not only mobsters, but a rather crooked police lieutenant too—Charles Durning, Peter Griffin’s father on “Family Guy”—must have still been quite a surprise. You could compare this to The Godfather, but it really is an extremely different style, and genre, of film. This film should be viewed for what it is, a transitional film bridging the death of the Hays Code, the ensemble period piece, and the blockbuster. Because the film looks like it used practical effects and blocks of Chicago1 with 1930s cars and clothing, it has really aged well and does not feel like a 70s film.

Another way the film transcends its time is in its casting. For instance, having Luther be played by a Black actor, that shows an anti-racist stance by the director, even as racist language gets used. Although, having him he fit into the wise old Black man archetype is less modern. Then there is the intrepid madame—Eileen Brennan, of schlocky manor murder movie fame2—a classic strong female archetype from the Western genre. So she is strong, but in a stereotypical way. On the other hand Salino is a cold blooded assassin. That she happens to be a woman is a pleasant surprise. That she sleeps with Hooker the night before the attempt is very Bondian, although she shows very little sex appeal. The last casting choice I want to mention is that of Charles Dierkop as Floyd, Lonnegan’s bodyguard—Robinson from The Pawnbroker. His look was perfect. It says 1930s mob thug in a way that Vincent Pastore–Goodfellas—looks like a 1970s Italian mafioso.

Sting

Charles Dierkop, Robert Redford & Robert Shaw, as Floyd, Hooker and Lonnegan, sharing the backseat of a too thin car, The Sting, © 1973 Universal.

On the soundtrack front, I am embarrassed to admit that I did not know the name of Scott Joplin until about a week before I watched this. If his name does not ring a bell, his music will. His wonderful tune “The Entertainer” is instantly recognizable as a song ice cream trucks play. Marvin Hamlisch adapted it, among other songs, for the soundtrack, and received an Academy Award for his trouble. Hamlisch’s name was already familiar to me, but that is because he co-wrote “Nobody Does it Better”, the theme song to The Spy Who Loved Me. Thus in conclusion you should definitely watch The Spy Who Loved Me. And The Sting, even though there is no character named “Jaws” in it.

1 I do not know how much of the film was shot on location and how much was shot on the Universal City lot, but that is a testament to just how well made this movie was.
2 Brennan played Mrs. Peacock in the cult classic Clue and Tess Skeffington in Murder by Death. I forgot to review Murder by Death, which is a good thing because I had never seen a Charlie Chan movie, e.g. Charlie Chan in the Secret Service, so I did not understand that Peter Sellers was parodying a yellow-face, “Confucius say” Chinese detective, and not just being horribly racist. I blame The Pink Panther Strikes Again, because he stars in that and it is very racist in its portrayal of a Chinese manservant.

Drunken Master

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***½

Pay? I’ve forgotten how! and my other favorite Robert Wong, I’ll fix you!

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It makes sense within the context of the movie, I swear.

If you watched Fist of Legendand found it to have a jarring style, then I can only imagine how my cheap late 1990’s dubbed copy of Drunken Master would strike you. As annoying as the bad dubbing and over the top sound effects are, the pros outweigh the cons. Since the cons are readily evident from the first minute of the movie, I will not waste our time on them, so here are the pros:

  • Young Jackie Chan is amazing.
  • “Freddy” is the dubbed version of Fei-Hung. Because Jackie Chan plays young Wong Fei-Hung! The greatest Chinese martial arts hero ever. For other evidence see Once Upon a Time in China and Iron Monkey.
  • Drunken Master is called Jui kuen in the original, which I imagine sounds cool.
  • Traditional Chinese (not sure which region’s) food looks amazing.
  • NEVER BRING A WEAPON TO A FIST FIGHT WITH THE AWESOME STAR OF A KUNG FU MOVIE!
  • The music playing during the punishment montage is phenomenal and hilarious. The training montages throughout showcase how amazing of an athlete Chan is.
  • BOLO!!!!! For more of him see Enter The Dragon and Bloodsport. Classic villain. No good google images of him from this movie though.
  • The Drunken Master himself, Sam Seed, aka Su Hua Chi by Siu Tin Yuen. And his stunt double, whose name I do not know.
  • Jackie Chan would have made an amazing pro wrestler because he can sell1 so well, which is best shown when Thunderleg (Jang Lee Hwang) kicks his ass.
  • Yuen Woo-Ping directed this. While he may not have been the best director, he is the greatest fight choreographer of all-time.
  • The alcohol shakes used for comedic purposes! This film is pretty damn insensitive.
  • Jackie Chan doing the eight drunk gods. Except Miss Ho, that one he refuses to take seriously.
  • Proto Jackie Chan shenanigans.
  • The end fight scene against Thunderleg.
  • AND the ending coming 15 seconds after the climax.

The term “selling” means to react as if actual damage has been inflicted.

Murder By Decree

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**½

I prefer bad manners in the theater to active violence in the streets.

I had high hopes for a story involving Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. Particularly upon hearing that Christopher Plummer—General Chang in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country—plays Sherlock Holmes.¹ However, how good can this movie be if I had not heard of it until recently? Plummer’s Holmes may not be the best, but he has the right joie de vivre. Unfortunately 221B Baker Street seems like an expensive satire of his domicile. James Mason looks the part of an older Watson, but he is given the role of an imbecile. Watson should be human, not a fool. To Holmes, maybe most humans are fools, but we, the audience are not Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes, Watson and Warren, © 1979 Studio Canal (2003).

Holmes, Watson and Warren, © 1979 Studio Canal (2003).

Were it not for From Hell I would be less familiar, or perhaps wholly unfamiliar, with the cast of characters involved in the history of Jack the Ripper.² Robert Lees, for instance, is a medium who claims to know about the Ripper. Donald Sutherland—President Snow from the Hunger Games—plays the role enigmatically. The head of Scotland Yard, Sir Charles Warren gets Anthony Quayle to play him, but I much preferred the aggressive apathy of Ian Richardson–Brazil–in From Hell.

The music was a bit dull, with only a few themes. In particular the glassy tinkling of the Ripper’s approach did not work well. Also, the ending felt like twenty minutes of dialogue and exposition in one room. But not in the exciting way that David Suchet’s Poirot can control a room. Even he might not be able to last that long. Plummer does his best, but righteous indignation works best in small doses.

¹ I suppose that Christopher Plummer may be better known as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music.  Personally, I have watched  Star Trek VI more times and General Chang does an excellent job quoting Shakespeare.
² I refer both to the graphic novel as well as the movie. While the Hughes Brothers’ movie is excellent, Alan Moore’s comic might be his greatest work, and if so, that would probably make it the greatest comic book ever. From Hell offers many of the same theories seen in this film. Perhaps it even influenced Alan Moore. He would disagree heartily, as his wonderful graphic novel came from numerous sources, cited in detail by its wonderful appendices. Still the graphic novel hewed closer to this film’s plot than to its own adaptation did. Although From Hell (movie) merged Robert Lees into Inspector Aberline. And if that last sentence means something to you, kudos.

The Longest Yard

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To be clear this is the original 1974 version that stars Burt Reynolds—Boss Hogg from the remake of The Dukes of Hazzard—and Ed Lauter—Peppy’s Butler from The Artist, but he is recognizable as a TV guest star. It is lewd, crude and rude!

I think I broke his fucking neck.

Samson (Richard Kiel) in The Longest Yard, © 1974 Paramount Pics.

Samson (Richard Kiel) in The Longest Yard, © 1974 Paramount Pics.

The penal system, or at least this prison, casts a shadow on the respectability of “the Citrus State.” I expect that peobeple already know the plot of this movie—former football star goes to prison, puts together a rag tag bunch of inmates to face the guards in football! But how do we get there?

1. Create a retired football player who is skilled enough to be desirable at a prison, felonious enough to be sentenced to said prison, and a decent enough human being to function as the protagonist. This is achieved through Paul Crewe–Burt Reynolds–a drunken former MVP booted from the league for points shaving who wakes up with a rich woman who hits him, so he hits her back, then he leaves with her car, which results in a police chase, a “Maserati” labeled Citroën that winds up in the drink.

2. An asshole lieutenant who is clearly a jerk who works for a baddie whose character is less clear. Ed Lauter is Captain Knauer who greets Reynolds with a nightstick to the gut. Eddie Albert—the photographer from Roman Holiday—is the warden who wants his semi-pro football team to win a national championship, but keeps coming up short.

3. Terrible offensive “comedy” to burn time until the football montages start.

4. Football montages.

5. Emotional stakes. This is achieved by having one jerk kill off the nice manager of the convicts’ team.

6. Football game. The end is really close and predicated on there being a 2 point difference.

7. Leverage to get the protagonist to throw the game. A half-time the warden threatens Reynolds with more time in prison by saying that he can frame him for accessory to murder of the manager.

8. Brief doubt. Reynolds throws interceptions, fumbles, fakes an injury and everyone hates him.

9. Surprise comeback. This has lots of slow motion for a touchdown to put the convicts ahead, but the director did not bother keeping track of the score of the game, so instead of 8-6 Convicts, he thought it was 7-6 Guards. So, so lazy.

10. One last doubt! As Reynolds goes to pick up the football the warden tells his lieutenant to shoot him for escaping and the lieutenant turns on the punk warden and refuses, since Reynolds just wanted the game ball. “Game ball!”

Ed Lauter & Eddie Albert, The Longest Yard, 1974 © Paramount Pics.

Ed Lauter & Eddie Albert, The Longest Yard, 1974 © Paramount Pics.

So that all happened. They pulled it off and it made enough money/cultural impact to get a sequel from Adam Sandler. I do not think I will be watching that any time soon. **

The Spy Who Loved Me

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In 50 Years of Bond I said, “I do not know why [The Spy Who Loved Me] gets so much credit, it seems like a good Bond movie with cool locales in Egypt, but besides Roger Moore’s callous killing to a man who is holding onto Bond by his tie and the beauty of his Russian counterpart all it has is Jaws.” Reading that again, I think that is a run on sentence that does not make much sense. But besides that I was totally right.

Roger Moore as James Bond with Barbara Bach as Anya Amasova, © MGM at this point, I think.

Roger Moore as James Bond with Barbara Bach as Anya Amasova, © MGM at this point, I think–look in the left hand corner.

I recognize that Barbara Bach does not have a good Russian accent, but she sounds damn sexy, and that is truly the point of a Bond girl. That and having enough credibility to believe that she can do what the movie asks her to do—this was the problem with Denise Richards’ performance as, like, a nuclear scientist, or what-ev-errr. And I think that Bach pulls that off. While her character has a human being’s name, they call her Agent XXX. I mean, it was the 1970’s, and this was a Bond movie, so, what choice did they have? It’s still more subtle than “Octopussy,” right?

Denise Ricards as Dr. Christmas Jones, © MGM 1999, Tomorrow Never Dies.

Denise Ricards as Dr. Christmas Jones, © MGM 1999, The World Is Not Enough.

***

All those feathers and he still can’t fly!

Apocalypse Now

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*****

What are they gonna say about him? What are they gonna say? That he was a kind man? That he was a wise man? That he had plans, man? That he had wisdom? Bullshit, man!

I watched the Redux version of this film several years ago, but I have not seen the real things since college. For years I answered, “What is your favorite movie?” with this classic. It blew my mind as a 10th grader, and it still amazingly powerful today. But that is not why I said it my favorite. I said it because I do not have a favorite and no one ever challenges this choice.

Willard, Chef and the Photojournalist, man!

My favorite scene in the film is probably the opening scene with The Doors – The End playing, from the bombing to Capt. Willard punching his mirror. I have trouble putting into words how chilling and exciting it all is. Napalm explosions appear like an icy fire without sound effects and on my television screen. It is the manifestation of the disconnect between art and life, between a civilian existence and the Vietnam war. Each time I am wary and vulnerable because this “reality” seems more real than my own. Yet this is a reality where I cannot trust the rules from “real” life.

I could go on and on from this personal perspective, for example, how the Playboy bunnies dancing to John Fogerty – Suzy Q seemed so erotic, and still does, despite the lack of physical interaction or nudity, but I would probably do so with the same ramblings as in my last paragraph. Even after all these years I have trouble expressing what I saw and how Apocalypse Now makes me feel.

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