Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Breaking Away (1979)

How did this film win an Oscar for best screenplay?

Steve Tesich captured an Acadmey Award in 1980 for penning the script for this sports drama from director Peter Yates (Bullitt).

His script has its moments, and there are some memorable lines of dialogue, but take a look at what other films Breaking Away was up against that year.

All That Jazz, one of Bob Fosse's finest films.

And Justice for All.

The China Syndrome.

And, finally, Woody Allen's Manhatten. Manhatten! It'd be fun to read the newspaper coverage of the day and see if Breaking Away's won was seen as expected or a complete and shocking surprise.

There's nothing really new in this film. Four high school buddies are living aimless lives after getting their diplomas. There's friction between them, residents of Bloomington, Indiana, and the community's well-to-do college kids.

Mike (Dennis Quaid) is the high school quarterback who's angry at just about everybody. He can't bring himself to light the cigarettes he's always sticking in his mouth in case his athletic skills are again needed some way.

Cyril (Daniel Stern) makes some wise observations about the group's future. "I thought that was the whole plan," he suggests to Mike. "I thought we were going to waste the rest of our lives together."

Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) is secretly seeing his girlfriend, Nancy (Amy Wright). Even serious relationswhips with the fairer sex have to be kept hush-hush among the quartet of friends. Moocher and Nancy plan to marry, not that any of his friends would be aware of that fact.

Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher) gets the most screen time. He's a cycling fanatic. Stoller is so impressed with Italian racers he adopts an Italian persona. He speaks Italian. Stoller listens to Italian opera arias. He kisses his dad on the cheek.

His obsession with bicycle racing doesn't roll well with his used car salesman father (Paul Dooley). He worked, and ached, when he was in his late teens. Pops expects his father to do the same. Mom (Barbara Barrie) is a little more understanding of her son and encourages him to follow his dreams.

Stoller finds love with Katherine (Robyn Douglas), an attractive college student who's also seeing fraternity hunk Rod (Hart Bochner).

When a dust up between the local teens, or cutters, and college boys erupts, the university president decides Bloomington's youth can take part in an annual race at the school. Viewer, you can start connecting the dots now. Stoller isn't keen to race because that means Katherine will see he's not the Italian exchange student he's supposed to be. Pops starts to gain an appreciation for the tremendous cycling talent his son has. There'll be a neck-and-neck finish between college kids and the cutters. The winner will be......

From one of the great all-time car chases in Bullitt, Yates gets to film two big bicycle races in Breaking Away. There's no jaw-dropping moments here. What does impress is the speed these bikes can travel.

Moocher is in love. Dave and Cyril both have the brains for college. Yep, they're breaking away from the close-knit friendships of their youth. Get it?

Breaking Away boasts an early look at four actors who'd all go on to further success in Hollywood, especially Dennis Quaid. The relationship between Stoller and his parents is touching. Too often in films parents of teens are portrayed as dopes and clueless adults. Not here. David's actions are enough to give his father heart trouble.

"No, I don't feel lucky to be alive. I feel lucky I'm not dead. There's a difference," dad tells mom after a health scare.

Cast members Barrie and Haley went on to appear in a short-lived television follow-up to the film. Teen heart throb Shaun Cassidy (!!!) took over the role of Dave.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Quaid and Christopher also appeared in September 30, 1955.

Breaking Away was Daniel Stern's film debut.

Jackie Earle Haley was in three Bad News Bears films.

Amy Wright was a bridesmaid in The Deer Hunter.

Breaking Away was the only credit for several cast members including the car wash owner (Woody Hueston), anthem singer (Jennifer Nolan), university president (John Ryan) and the "homecoming car kid" (Mike Silvers).

NOT SO FUN FACT: Tesich died of a heart attack in 1996. He was 53.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Bullitt (1968)

Bullitt packs a punch.

This 1968 police drama from director Peter Yates (Breaking Away, Krull) is best remembered for its electrifying car chase through the hilly streets of San Francisco. That scene no doubt played a big role in Bullitt being added to the national film registry by the National Film Preservation Board in 2007.

That roughly 10-minute scene still stands up very well more than four decades later. There's a quick seatbelt shot that prepares viewers for what's to come as the chase prepares to heat up.

But Bullitt also offers viewers a very solid cast of actors including Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Robert Duvall, Don Gordon and Simon Oakland. Plus, director Yates isn't afraid to use silence frequently. Conversations between characters are held at a distance. Some times characters are looking at something or someone. Hurray for a soundtrack that's not wall-to-wall dialogue and music.

Bullitt (McQueen) is a San Francisco police lieutenant assigned to keep watch over a Senate witness who's on the run from the mob. Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) is the oily senator who expects great things to happen to his career when Johnny Ross testifies.

But when a couple of hitmen get to Ross before he can speak, Bullitt is under the gun. Chalmers wants to know why his starmaking tool is dead. Bullitt is suspicious about how the man he was supposed to protect was tracked down so easily. He has the support of his immediate supervisor, Capt. Bennet (Simon Oakland), but another superior, Baker (Norman Fell!) wants to kiss up to Chalmers and ride his expected wave of upcoming political power. Bullitt isn't interested in kissing anyone's backside. There are sparks during his several run-ins with Chalmers.

With all that on-the-job intrigue, Bullitt still takes time to look at things on the home front with Bullitt and his better half, Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset). She's an artist. Her life is miles away from the brutal world, where violence is commonplace, that Bullitt inhabits. "You're living in a sewer, Frank," she tells him. The film's final scene relates to the domestic front and is a memorable one.

While the car chase gets all the attention, how about the film's climax at the San Francisco airport when Bullitt and his partner Delgetti (Don Gordon) finally connect all the dots. Hands up for all the other films you can remember where there was a foot chase in-between planes preparing for lift off.

Bullitt was nominated for two Oscars (editing, sound) and won a statue for the former. This film hits the mark for a solid evening's entertainment.

RATING: 9/10

FUN FACTS: Norman Fell is remembered for his work in television's Three's Company. Simon Oakland starred in Baa Baa Black Sheep.

It must have hurt, but both Fell and Vaughn appeared in C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud. Larry Linville (M*A*S*H) and June Lockhart (Lost in Space) are also in the cast. Yikes.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Letter (1940)

The Letter is first class entertainment.

This 1940 film noir from director William Wyler (Ben-Hur, The Little Foxes) offers plenty to savour.

There's great performances from Bette Davis, James Stephenson and Gale Sondergaard (The Mark of Zorro) and beautiful cinematography from Tony Gaudio (The Adventures of Robin Hood, High Sierra).

The Letter earned an eye-popping seven Academy Award nominations, including Davis (best actress) and Wyler (director).

This film opens with a bang, or bangs, to be more exact. Leslie Crosbie (Davis) has just filled a Geoffrey Hammond (David Newell) with slugs outside her home at a rubber plantation late at night.

She suggests Hammond was a surprise visitor who planned to sexually assault her. The story sounds believable until her lawyer Howard Joyce (Stephenson) learns of a letter Leslie wrote to Hammond that same day, demanding to see him. They were lovers. Leslie is riled he chose to tie the knot with Sondergaard. Murder follows.

Joyce puts his career on the line to help his client. Her husband, Robert (Herbert Marshall), is her loving and totally clueless better half who knows nothing of his wife's lengthy affair. His dreams of a new business opportunity are also risked because of the cash it'll take to make the sure chances of a murder conviction disappear.

Sondergaard says little in this film, but boy does she make a big impact on the screen as she continually glowers at the woman who killed her husband. The spooky mood surrounding her character gets a big help from the score courtesy of Max Steiner (Casablanca, Gone with the Wind). Watch, and listen, for a scene at a Chinese merchant's shop with wind chimes dangling as Mrs. Hammond and Leslie meet. This is great cinema, followed by a chilling finale.

There's plenty of drama after the murder trial as Robert tries to deal with his wife's infidelity, Joyce wondering if he's thrown his career away and Leslie still tormented by her lover. The DVD I watched offered an alternate ending, but there's nothing Earth shattering about its content. The original packs a real punch and a fine overhead shot leading to the film's final scene.

RATING: 9/10

FUN FACTS: Prison matron Doris Lloyd was Baroness Ebberfeld in The Sound of Music. She also had an uncredited role in the original Mutiny on the Bounty.

Victor Sen Yung, who appears as James Stephenson's assistant, was Hop Sing in Bonanza. He also played Jimmy Chan in several Charlie Chan films.