MOVIE REVIEW: The Towering Inferno (1974)

The mid-1970s witnessed a wave of disaster movies with ensemble casts and enormous budgets, all of which accompanied the rise of the modern summer blockbuster.  The Poseidon Adventure and Earthquake are but two culprits.  Escapism was the cinematic sentiment of the era.  People just wanted things loud, colourful, and to blow up.

The Towering Inferno, released in 1974 and the first ever joint production by two distributors, in this case Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century Fox, finally beheld the dual billing of Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, the latter having originally been requested for Newman’s comical counterpart in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but declining due to Paul’s getting top billing and his getting second.  But at last the two were on the big screen, leading an all-star cast, with Newman playing the title tower’s architect Doug Roberts and McQueen playing the cool and collected chief fireman Mike O’Hallorhan who has to race against the cliché clock of catastrophe to put out a fire that progressively ensnares the building’s lofty length over the movie’s equally elevated runtime of three hours.

Inferno’s adapted story is for the most part structurally sound.  The tallest building in the world, the Glass Tower, is being unveiled, celebrated by a cornucopia of bigheaded bourgeois including the Tower’s builder, his arrogant son, and a Senator provided by Robert Vaughn.  Before it becomes clear that the tower’s electrical specifications have been tampered with, a spark ignites a blaze that soon ravages the skyscraper’s 81st floor and beyond.  It’s then up to the upper class charming bravery of Roberts to keep the guests under control at the tower’s top, and the working class masculine grit of O’Hallorhan to defeat the movie’s natural enemy: the fire.  In between, the flames of love occupy several subplots.  On paper, the movie could have easily become an incoherent mess of characters we don’t care much about, but in practice, it strings together a series of romantic interests with confidence as you never lose sight of the bigger and hotter picture.

From opening to closing credit, the Inferno is a spectacular feast of visual flavour, with far less camp than many a disaster film before it.   The building itself, whether in full scale or in miniature, casts a looming and monumental presence over the film, as frequent re-establishing shots not only take the viewer aback for a moment to examine the continual carnage in the growing pace of the fire, but keep the image of the tower always at the forefront of your mind.  The special effects are just what you’d expect from a big-budget blockbuster, awesome to the eyes and ears, the obvious highlights including any scene that’s combustible.  If three hours sitting on your ass seems a bore, the hectic flare of the film will prove the able painkiller.

Loud, colourful, and explosive, The Towering Inferno was in ’74 and still is in 2011 one of the more entertaining disaster films, perhaps one more relevant today than yesterday.  Building on fire, people trying to get out… what does that remind you of? At the end of the movie, Steve McQueen offers a solemn reflection which happens to also serve as an eerie prediction, that “one of these days, ten thousand are going to be killed in one of these firetraps”, and if that’s not enough, the building that many of the tower’s trapped occupants escape to is none other than the North Tower of the World Trade Center.  Relevant and reminiscent indeed, and in the opinion of this reviewer, much more enjoyable Saturday night movie material than most of the catalogue of either Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay.  An action movie scorching with stars, fueled with fire and dynamite delight, The Towering Inferno still stands both tall and, though perhaps not the temperature at which freedom burns, damn hot.


MOVIE REVIEW: Pirates of the Caribbean On Stranger Tides (2011)

What doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger.  Though Heath Ledger’s Joker was hardly talking about movie sequels, there seems to be no greater passage to illustrate Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth rendition of the once massive buccaneering saga, a film which corrects a few of the mistakes of its two predecessors, makes a few new ones, and ultimately fails to return to the roots of the Black Pearl.

Johnny Depp reprises his famous role as the infamous Captain Jack Sparrow, a pirate in search of the legendary Fountain of Youth who ends up escorting the crew of the equally legendary and eternally envious Blackbeard.  Meanwhile, both the Spanish and the English are hot on their trail, the latter headed by the ‘undead-turned dead-turned ally-turned in service of his Majesty the King’ Captain Barbossa, played by Geoffrey Rush.  It’s a fantastical adventure like any other in the series, more appropriately a return to the semi-historical form of Curse of the Black Pearl, but herein lies the film’s main problem.  It attempts to escape the convolution of Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End and keep it simple, but when all is said and done and the credits roll, it’s still not a Pirates movie but more readily identifiable as a sort of Indiana Jones episodic hunt for a religious relic.  CGI Mermaids, moving ships in bottles that make you think you’re watching a Harry Potter flick, ceilings paved of water that suck you upwards into a secret room… what’s with all the fantastical crap! The original Pirates was a swashbuckling adventure on the high seas, with ship battles, and cannons blasting, and chests of gold and damsels in distress, and its sole fantasy element was a bunch of undead skeleton pirates.  It was, in sum, a Pirates movie! Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio have clearly spent too much time under the influence of a bottle of rum, or perhaps rather not enough time studying their original Yo-ho classic, to recognize this simple truth.  The story also suffers from an extraordinarily unsatisfactory ending that not only neglects to rightfully conclude a romantic subplot between one of the aforementioned female fish and a compassionate priest-in-training, but wraps up on a note that pales to any of its formers.

All that said, On Stranger Tides does make some strides in providing a simpler Black Pearl experience than either Dead Man’s or World’s End.  There’s plenty of action, plenty of swordfights, unfortunately very little in the way of naval battles, but still much more fluid… it gets to the point. The performances are much more satisfying this time around with Johnny Depp assuming the right balance of drunken delight.  The music similarly echoes the first installment and thank God for that.  The series was beginning to parallel the Star Wars prequel trilogy with hardly any of the original theme intact.  Rest assured, the swashbuckler score that we’ve all become attuned to is back and in force, along with the main thematic compositions from the other two films.  If I have any issue with the music, it’s that far too often it doesn’t correspond with the action.  You’ll get a track that demands a roaring vessel in the freedom of the open ocean, when what you get is just some random guy walking through bushes.

Other gripes with the film are minor details, but are still frustrations worthy to mention to any long-time fan of the series.  For one thing, Jack’s traditional spectacular and intuitive entrance is reduced to a cheap comical gag, of which by the way are in no short supply in Stranger Tides.  Perhaps equally upsetting is that the end of the film inconsistently features different title cards from the rest of the series.  It might seem like a nitpick, but I never take inconsistency for nitpicking.  There’s no reason to change any aspect of the movie’s format! Just keep it the same, it’s not that difficult.

My final grievance is with the 3D integration, but this is more of a tirade against the component in general.  Now I am in no way a proponent of the technology.  It’s a gimmick that failed in the 50’s, it failed in the ‘80s, and it’s a cash-grab that’s attempted to trick viewers to believing that the extra so-called ‘dimension’ adds another dimension to the entertainment… Bull***.  Motion pictures are intended to be flat. it’s all about how filmmakers manipulate space and time into those two dimensions.  Besides the point, what most people forget, is that it’s still 2D!  Your mind makes it three dimensional… Motion pictures aren’t even moving.  They’re just thousands of images moving really really fast.  We make it reall.  When you’re watching a film, you become too attached to recognize that what you’re seeing is an optical illusion.  I.e.  3D technology is absolutely useless.  Hopefully people allow fatigue to let the trend die once and for all, and sooner rather than later.  Anyway, I digress.  Pirates of the Caribbean.  Does it look good at least with the 3D? Not really.

Too little, too late, the fourth entry of the Pirates saga, though honestly attempting to enjoy the success of Curse of the Black Pearl, fails to be anything but, as On Stranger Tides’s equation sees action + childish humor + a few new faces + a few old ones – minus a few old ones – Piracy = a lackluster effort to be frank.  It seems like the writers have convinced themselves that from the start, the Caribbean franchise was catered to the kids, as they constantly patronize their audience with mundane humor and dialogue, and all the while set their tales in fantastical venues when all we really want to see are blue skies, sailing ships, pirates and the English authority that constantly pursue them, and a picture that provides the same amount of swashbuckling substance as the Pearl did back in 2003.  We can only hope that if and when the fifth excursion of Captain Jack Sparrow sets sail, it does so with its sail set high… savvy?

MOVIE REVIEW: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Before teaming up together in the enormously successful Sting in the early ‘70s, cinematic superstars Paul Newman and Robert Redford paired up in 1969’s near equally enormous Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a movie whose reputation over forty years has walked the line between Western classic and over-hyped big-budget buddy flick.

Cassidy and the Kid follows its two eponymous brigands, outlaws who have overstayed their welcome on a falling frontier, as the savage West is quickly becoming tame at the turn of the twentieth century.  After a routine train robbery goes south, so do Butch and Sundance, played by Newman and Redford respectively, once a posse threatens to end their criminal career… permanently.  Along with the courting companionship of an enigmatic schoolteacher — her only apparent purpose is to close a love triangle with the two main heroes, but the filmmakers dare not explain why — the Banditos Yanquis as they’re swiftly coined set out to rob banks in Bolivia.  It’s a tale worth telling, a solid plot for a film.

What’s divided critics from ’69 ‘til now is the ultimate effectiveness of William Goldman’s ambiguous screenplay.  From the outset, director George Roy Hill always intended for his film to be a blending of genres and moods, juggling sympathy with comical farce.  The first scene opens in classic spaghetti style, a drawn out showdown encapsulating the intensity of any Lee Van Cleef counterpart,  the sepia color tone emphasizing the olden photographic nature of the late 1800’s.  It’s an opening that you immediately relate to and understand… It’s a Western. Then, a shift in mood. Butch and Sundance become established as long-time friends, nay, more appropriately, bumbling buddies that precede the cop duos of the 80’s and onward.  Butch is the brains, and Sundance is the sick shooter, the man with a mouth and the guy with a gun.  So what starts as a serious film rapidly transitions into a buddy comedy, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s perfectly representative of its characters, two Western veterans who can’t keep up with the world that’s changing around them and ultimately have to adapt to it.  The real problem with the film is that its ambiguity lies in the fact that it continually shifts back and forth between sobriety and daring delight.  It never really knows what it’s trying to be.  But like I said before, that’s what it was intended to be right? And like I said before, it all depends on whether you view this as strengthening the film via distinctiveness, or hindering it by never allowing it to become either the truly brilliant Western or comedy that it could have been.

That said, the sharp dialogue and delivery of Newman and Redford more than make up for any faults in the storytelling department, their bickering quips easily proving the highlight and foundation of Cassidy and the Kid.  No shocks required.  Though at the time Redford wasn’t a superstar, in retrospect the match-up was fateful and the performances could hardly have been disastrous.  One notable sequence involves the two notorious bandits’ difficulty in robbing Bolivian banks because they don’t know the language.  Leave it to Paul Newman’s Butch to pull out a sheet of crib notes in earnest answer. It’s classic hilarity rarely found today.

Technically, Butch Cassidy is absolutely beautiful, with top-notch production values and gorgeous on-location venues that, coupled with scenes like the Super-posse chase which, though many have argued drags on far too long, really captures the vast openness and the beauty of the once great Western frontier.

Despite a screenplay that may come off as sloppy and, to quote one critic, ‘schizophrenic’, in the opinion of this reviewer, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is rather well in line with its titular characters, who don’t know what the hell they’re going to do in this newer, smaller America in which they’ve become anachronisms.  They try to adapt, to change, but they end up realizing that they can’t change who they are.  In all their running from the law, they’ve failed to grasp that society has run faster, in fact raced straight past them, and they’re just too battle-weary to keep up.  So they do the only thing they know how to do… they draw a pair of pistols and charge their fate in a blaze of undying glory.  It’s an entertaining Western, an entertaining comedy, hell, an entertaining film, one that’s great to watch simply because it’s got Paul Newman and Robert Redford in it.  Sure, it may not seem coherent all the time, but maybe that’s what makes it the brilliant Western and comedy that it is.  In a word, ambiguous? No. Dynamite.  But only enough to blow the safe.