Month: October 2015

‘Edward Scissorhands’ (1990) — Sensitive and Scarred in California

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Wynona Ryder embracing Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands
Wynona Ryder embracing Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands

This is the movie that firmly cemented heartthrob actor Johnny Depp’s teen-idol “creds,” and with good reason. Sensitive and scarred, the impressionable Edward (charmingly played by Depp) is the scissor-handed Figaro for the laid-back California set — in actuality, the movie was filmed in Central Florida, sort of a return to Johnny and director Tim Burton’s small-town roots. It’s a beautifully crafted, highly sentimental, and mostly enjoyable film, despite brief episodes of crude language and forced humor.

Edward Scissorhands (1990) represents a modern parable of Burton’s pet hang-ups and pent-up feelings of having grown up in middle-class suburbia. It was also his and Depp’s first joint venture, a partnership made in cinematic heaven and one of (at last count) eight feature films they’ve participated in together.

Depp had his best role ever as the misunderstood boy-monster, a walking textbook of physical deformities and psychological debilities, but with a cookie-cutter-shaped heart of gold. In essence, Edward is a Quasimodo for the nineties, an atypical success story driven to fits of anger and violence by the very townspeople he earlier had befriended — fair-weather friends is more like it. Much like Frankenstein’s monster, his story ends in death and tragedy, but Edward lives on, alone but happy in one of those stereotypical old mansions — blissfully trimming the verge as he goes about his business. Parallels to the legend of King Midas and that monarch’s two-sided gift of turning everything he touched into gold are evident throughout.

Edward (Johnny Depp) gives Peg Boggs (Dianne Wiest) a haircut
Edward (Johnny Depp) gives Peg Boggs (Dianne Wiest) a haircut

An allegory of our own equal fascination with and fear of anything different or abnormal, Burton exploits Johnny’s sensitive side to its fullest. Indeed, his angst-derived interpretation of a misfit who just can’t seem to fit in was spot on casting. When the perky Avon lady Peg Boggs (played by a clueless Dianne Wiest) comes a-calling, only to discover Edward hiding under the ruins of what appears to be a window — with one of the window panes shaped like a broken cross — you know you’re in for a makeshift ride through pseudo-religious territory. I’ll be damned if that ruined castle where Edward resides in isn’t a stand-in for a makeshift cathedral.

The young Winona Ryder (whom Depp had been dating during the filming) is equally winning as Edwards’s would-be girlfriend, the blonde cheerleader Kim. Wiest is wonderfully ditzy as the perky, never-say-die Avon lady; a laid-back Alan Arkin is equally fine as Bill, the easygoing head of the household, and an all-but grown-up Anthony Michael Hall is cast (against type) as Jim, Ryder’s spoiled brat of a jock boyfriend. Kathy Baker (The Right Stuff) is a howl as Edward’s sex-starved next-door neighbor Joyce, who just adores Tom Jones, a recurring Burton motif (see Mars Attacks!). And horror-movie icon Vincent Price has a field day as Edward’s elderly inventor, who tries to teach him the finer points of table etiquette, while his half-formed hand twitches nervously nearby.

Composer Danny Elfman’s lovely and evocative score, with celesta and women’s choir in the foreground, is beautifully sung and played by a 79-piece orchestra, a major factor in the movie’s long-term popularity and success. It’s worth comparing to Burton’s next opus, the Henry Selick-directed stop-motion feature The Nightmare Before Christmas, of which it shares a similar production design and art direction. Otherwise, this is early Tim Burton at his emoting best. Just the thing for a romantic Halloween night out for two!

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Godfather, Part I’ (1972) — The Dark of Side of the American Dream

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Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) speaks to Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto)
Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) speaks to Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) in The Godfather, Part I

“I believe in America,” an unseen voice exclaims. After which, a dull, amber-colored light illuminates the person speaking: a man with a comb-over in his mid-50s, dressed in a black tuxedo and winged collar. The camera now begins to pull back — slowly and deliberately — matching the cadences of the man’s speech. The speaker resumes his story. “America has made my fortune. And I raised my daughter in the American fashion.”

While he is speaking, the camera continues to spend an inordinate amount of time studying the man’s features: his dark eyes, his pursed lips, his foreign accent, his distressed tone, and his obvious discomfort at having to beg for a favor from the dreaded Don Vito Corleone. The man telling his tale of woe is the sorrowful undertaker Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto), who informs Don Corleone of how his beloved daughter was attacked and nearly raped by two young men, one of whom was her boyfriend. “She resisted. She kept her honor,” he exclaims, his eyes glowing with pride, but, as Bonasera then reveals, “they beat her like an animal.” He starts to weep.

Seconds later, with the camera pulling back, the blurred, shadowy form of a figure is seen at left. The figure signals with his right hand for one of the listeners in the room to provide the undertaker with some refreshment. Continuing to pull back, the camera now shows Bonasera in his chair growing smaller and smaller before our eyes, while the figure at left starts to take shape behind a desk, looming larger and larger in comparison.

And so begins one of the most influential Hollywood films of the seventies, with the cautiously chosen words of the undertaker Amerigo Bonasera making a desperate plea for justice in Don Corleone’s inner sanctum. This scene, so memorable in its outcome and so carefully constructed and paced by the actors and crew, sets the stage for what is to come. It broadcasts the undisputed fact of the godfather’s hold on men, only to see that hold slip away and deteriorate with the unraveling his realm by others.

Francis Ford Coppola’s directing career took off like a rocket as a result of this film’s unprecedented popularity and success. It made him and Paramount Pictures a bigger fortune than either of them could ever have imagined. Mario Puzo’s pulp novel The Godfather – not exactly high art or intellectually challenging as great literature – came to passionate life in Coppola’s now-classic depiction of the Sicilian-American underworld (we know what he meant, even though the word “Mafia” is never uttered).

Sonny (James Caan), Don Corleone (Brando), Michael (Al Pacino) & Fredo (John Cazale)
Sonny (James Caan), Don Corleone (Brando), Michael (Al Pacino) & Fredo (John Cazale)

Postwar America is the setting for this violent tale of Don Corleone, the godfather of the title, who lords it over his crime syndicate as one of the heads of the five New York “families.” Gambling, prostitution, murder incorporated, judges in their hip pockets, and nefarious bribery schemes are the syndicate’s life blood. The men who work for this syndicate are bound to each other by their adherence to a code of honor. But incredibly, the godfather refuses to dabble in illegal drugs, which makes Don Corleone out to be a beggar among thieves. His unequivocal stand against dope dealing lands him and his family in hot water with the opposing forces longing to take over his territory. And honor to a code, as we learn in the end, can both be adhered to or not.

Played by the legendary method-actor Marlon Brando, the Don is power personified: a lift of his hand, a cock of the head, a mere whisper into someone’s ear, and his slightest whim is dutifully obeyed and carried out, especially by head enforcer Luca Brasi (former wrestler Lenny Montana). Both are giants among mortals, or so they are meant to appear. But it’s all an illusion, wiped away by the necessities of their chosen profession.

Brando won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar (he refused it, however, sending in his place an actress posing as a Native American) for his subtle, tour de force performance as Don Corleone, even though he’s relegated to what is essentially a supporting role. For a film that concerns itself with such disreputable types as hoods and gangsters, Brando is still able to find the human element in many a situation. For instance, his playful handling of grandson Anthony in the garden scene late in the picture, where he places an orange peel into his mouth and musses his hair up like a scarecrow to frighten the little boy with a monstrous visage, only to comfort the crying child a split second later.

Equally deserving of mention is Al Pacino (note the fire in his eyes as he talks) as youngest son Michael. It’s been said that Francis Coppola’s film is about the dark side of the American dream, and there are many examples throughout where this dictum has been carried out with startling efficiency (e.g., the decapitated horse’s head, the bullet through Moe Green’s eye). While true enough in practice, the real crux of the drama (with a screenplay by Coppola and author Puzo) is the unquestioned loyalty and devotion Michael feels towards his father, despite Michael’s distaste for dad’s “work.” Michael proves his love by taking over the family business after Don Corleone is seriously injured in a botched assassination attempt — perpetrated by the shifty-eyed Virgil Sollozzo (a cagey Al Lettieri) — and after hot-headed brother Sonny (James Caan, equally hot-tempered) is gunned down at a Long Island toll booth.

Michael (Al Pacino) listens to his father (Marlon Brando)
Michael (Al Pacino) listens to his father (Marlon Brando)

So many quotable lines (“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “Leave the gun, take the cannolis,” and “Never tell anyone outside the family what you’re thinking”), so many individualized portraits (i.e., Clemenza, Tessio, the Tattaglias, Apollonia, Don Tommasino, Fabrizio), it’s one of those pictures that demands repeated viewings as well as our undivided attention. No matter how many times you’ve seen The Godfather, there are always fresh insights to be savored, over and over again: the opening trumpet solo — mournful, longing, full of untold regret; right-hand man and ex-cop, Al Neri (Richard Bright), closing the door on Michael’s wife Kay (Diane Keaton); Brando’s tearful breakdown (“Look how they massacred my boy”) upon viewing the dead Sonny’s shattered features at Bonasera’s funeral parlor; that ironic, masterfully orchestrated finale whereby Michael all-but wipes the slate clean of his father’s foes while standing stoically as godfather to his sister Connie’s child; and many more.

With a fine ensemble cast, including Robert Duvall as the family consigliere Tom Hagen, Talia Shire (Coppola’s real-life sister) as Connie, John Cazale as Michael’s older brother Fredo, Richard Castellano as the fat Pete Clemenza, Abe Vigoda (Fish in Barney Miller) as Tessio, Alex Rocco as Moe Green, and John Marley, Sterling Hayden, Richard Conte, Al Martino, Morgana King, Gianni Russo, Vito Scotti, Simonetta Stefanelli, Angelo Infanti as Fabrizio, and Gabriele Torrei (uncredited) as Enzo the nervous baker. The striking cinematography is by the late Gordon Willis, with incredibly detailed production designs by Dean Tavoularis, and of course that instantly recognizable film theme by Nino Rota.

Wedding scene from The Godfather, Part I (INTERFOTO / GRAZIANERI)
Wedding scene from The Godfather, Part I (INTERFOTO / GRAZIANERI)

Speaking of film scores, there are two romantic ballads featured in the picture: one, the pop song “I Have But One Heart,” sung by Al Martino at Connie’s wedding, was originally published in 1945 and recorded by Vic Damone, with music written by Johnny Farrow and lyrics by Marty Symes; the other number, the so-labeled “Love Theme from The Godfather” — more familiarly known as “Speak Softly Love” — was composed by Nino Rota, with lyrics by Larry Kusik. Given an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score of 1973, Rota was disqualified from competition when it was learned that “Speak Softly Love” was previously used by him for a 1958 movie called Fortunella.

Need we say more?

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Welcome to Sherwood, My Lady’ — ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ (1938)

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Errol Flynn and Patric Knowles in The Adventures of Robin Hood
Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) & Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles) in The Adventures of Robin Hood

Though filmed in the “wilds” of the California hills — in a 2400 acre natural park, to be exact, outside the town of Chico, California, near where the 1922 silent version was shot — and originally conceived as a vehicle for movie tough-guy James Cagney, The Adventures of Robin Hood is considered by many movie buffs and film historians to be the classic rendition of the legend of Robin Hood and his merry band of outlaws.

It’s grand movie-making at its finest, which proved a box-office bonanza for the Warner Brothers studio at a time when the hounds of war were yapping at the heels of Europe — with many of the predominantly British and/or UK cast members sensing the difficulties their fellow countrymen abroad were about to undergo, what with the outbreak of World War II only a few short years away.

If not for Cagney’s contractual dispute with Warners and his subsequent walking out on the studio for a two-year period, the film might have taken on a completely different aspect with an American in the lead (as witness the egregious casting of Kevin Costner in the part a good half-century later). There had even been reports of a possible Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald musical version of the story, to be produced by M-G-M and based (as the finished product was partially based) on the Reginald de Koven-Harry Smith 1890 operetta Robin Hood. This work is more widely known for the song, “Oh Promise Me,” written by de Koven, with lyrics by English poet Clement Scott, in 1887 and inserted into the third act wedding scene by the actor playing Alan-a-Dale. The story goes that the actor, not happy with the tune he was given, demanded a showier platform for his talents, thus the inclusion of this most long-lived of wedding standards.

Viewers can thank the film gods as well for M-G-M’s decision not to produce a musical take on the tale. Instead, all authorship rights to the original Robin Hood script by Rowland Leigh were sold to Warner Brothers, with the condition that a straight, non-singing dramatic picture be made. So be it: Warners contract writers Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I. Miller were assigned the task of revising the script to conform to these new provisions.

As a result of the above occurrences, a screenplay was eventually worked out that borrowed heavily from all existing sources, to include bits and pieces from the de Koven-Smith version: for example, the rivalry between Robin and Sir Guy of Gisbourne for the hand of Maid Marian, now called Lady Marian, was not a part of the original legends.

Casting was also a major factor in the film’s success, and there are superb performances from just about every member of the group, especially the excellent Robin Hood of the youthful and athletic Errol Flynn (born in Hobart, Tasmania), who was at his peak and never better in green tights. Olivia de Havilland, in her third pairing with the swashbuckling Flynn (their previous features included Captain Blood and The Charge of the Light Brigade), was the lovely Lady Marian.

Lady Marian (Olivia de Havilland) & Robin Hood (Errol Flynn)
Lady Marian (Olivia de Havilland) & Robin (Errol Flynn)

Rumors of an infatuation surrounded both artists. Be that as it may, there is no record of an actual affair having transpired between them. Olivia, who had often played the goody-two-shoes in any number of film productions, was hardly that in real life. But knowing of Flynn’s reputation with the ladies (and his recent marital troubles with the tempestuous Lili Damita), de Havilland rejected his advances. Nevertheless, their love scenes — flirtatious and tender, with a welcome touch of insouciance on both their parts — convinced viewers they were absolutely right for each other, at least as a screen couple. In all, they appeared in seven motion pictures together.

In other roles, character actor Claude Rains played the slightly effete but thoroughly malevolent Prince John with a mincing tone and dripping venom at every turn, while Basil Rathbone was the slimy scoundrel Sir Guy of Gisbourne — and a fairly decent swordsman, at that. After Captain Blood, in which the South African-born actor had a bit part as a French pirate, Rathbone took up fencing as a sport and practiced it regularly on and off the set. For the film, he and Flynn were coached by fencing master Fred Cavens, with Flynn allegedly doing most of his own stunts.

Sheriff of Nottingham (Melvile Cooper), Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) & Prince John (Claude Rains)
Sheriff of Nottingham (Melvile Cooper), Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) & Prince John (Claude Rains)

Yeoman work was also provided by Melville Cooper as the phlegmatic Sheriff of Nottingham; the boisterous Alan Hale, in a repeat of his earlier 1922 silent stint with Douglas Fairbanks, as Little John (he was to assume the role one last time in 1950’s Sword of Sherwood Forest); and bullfrog-throated Eugene Pallette as the rotund Friar Tuck (a part originally intended for Guy Kibbie). Others in the cast included Una O’Connor as Lady Marian’s lady-in-waiting Bess, Herbert Mundin as Much the Miller’s Son, Patric Knowles as Will Scarlett (another case of a part intended for another actor, i.e. David Niven), Ian Hunter as a model King Richard the Lion Heart, Montagu Love as the Bishop of the Black Canons, Ivan Simpson as the Proprietor of Kent Road Tavern, Lionel Belmore, Leonard Mudie, and many others in fine support.

The whole picture was exquisitely scored by Moravian-born composer and former child prodigy, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, for which he won a deserved Academy Award for Best Original Score (the orchestrations were by Hugo Friedhofer). With the exception of Max Steiner, Korngold wrote the music for a total of seven of Flynn’s best features. However, according to film historians Tony Thomas and Rudy Behlmer, this score represented movie music as “creating an aura of heroism and romanticism.” Elegant and complex, his themes for Robin Hood were quite possibly, in the words of Korngold’s son, George Korngold, the “closest” he ever came to “creating an opera without singing, bolstering and carrying along the action with an almost uninterrupted stream of colorful music.”

Erich Wolfgang Korngold, composer of the score
Erich Wolfgang Korngold, composer of the score

The film was directed with flair and gusto by Michael Curtiz, who replaced the original director, William Keighley, because of his being over budget (the final tally reached $2 million dollars, the most expensive Warners picture to that time). Producer Hal B. Wallis’ continued impatience with Keighley’s slower-paced working methods also brought in a second unit director, B. Reeves “Breezy” Eason, to move things along. Eason had previously worked with Flynn on The Charge of the Light Brigade. Sol Polito and Tony Gaudio were in charge of the cinematography.

This is perfect family entertainment for all and lavishly filmed in early three-strip Technicolor. For adventure and romance, it has never been topped. Yet despite that incontrovertible fact, the story of Robin Hood has been remade numerous times both as a movie and as a television series (several of them, as a matter of fact). Among the myriad versions available can be counted those starring Cornell Wilde in The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946), Jon Hall in The Prince of Thieves (1948), John Derek in Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950), Richard Todd in The Story of Robin Hood and His Merry Men (1952), Don Taylor in The Men of Sherwood Forest (1954), Richard Greene in Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960), Brian Bedford in the Disney animated remake Robin Hood (1973), Sean Connery as an over-the-hill bandit in Robin and Marian (1976), and, in recent times, the aforementioned Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), Patrick Bergen in Robin Hood (1991), Cary Elwes in Mel Brooks’ spoof Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), and the latest venture with the beefy Russell Crowe, Robin Hood (2010), which is more in the way of an origin story.

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes