The Princess Bride (1987)

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Few films can please the restless masses that inevitably gather at some unfortunate souls home for a movie night. Because as varied and diverse individuals of a myriad of backgrounds we very rarely agree on anything especially given the proliferation of content that is available to us at any given time. But most can agree on one thing. The Princess Bride is one of the great crowd pleasers of its generation and for good reason.

If quotability was the sole parameter for a great movie then The Princess Bride has few equals and it also happens to be the most fun you’ll have in a single sitting because all that it does, it does with an unquenchable zeal. There’s a spirit to the film full of romance and humor and adventure, even playing to those who will forever be skeptical.

Adapted from his own novel, the venerable William Goldman carries over his framing device of a grandfather reading to his sick grandson and it works marvels to bring us into this tale. Especially when the two actors in question are a precocious Fred Savage (Pre-Wonder Years) and the inimitable Peter Falk (Post-Columbo) slipping seamlessly into the role of a grandpa with a twinkle in his eye.

The story unravels like many great fables with a love story torn asunder by circumstance. A young man who goes off to seek his fortune only to die (or more likely take on the identity of the Dread Pirate Roberts) and a young maiden who is made a princess and remains unhappy all the same without her true love. Of course, she does not understand the nefarious intentions of her soon to be husband Humperdinck nor that her love is going to great lengths to find her. And amidst the fantasy, swordplay, trickery, and rampant humor, love conquers all as it has a habit of doing in fairy tales with everyone of note living happily ever after.

This unabashed tale also boasts near pitch-perfect casting. Cary Elwes as Westley does embody a certain quietly confident charm that while not quite Flynn or Fairbanks still manages to guide the film with similar charisma. He can be the hero, handsome and witty, made to play perfectly off all the intriguing figures who inhabit this fairy tale.

In her debut, Robin Wright glows with a radiant beauty and stubborn defiance that’ s enduring and which in many ways has remained a defining moment in her career and it’s certainly not a bad film to be forever remembered for. Meanwhile, Mandy Patinkin plays the vengeful Spaniard Inigo Montoya with the perfect amount of bravado, honor, and charm in his lifelong search for the six-fingered man who killed his beloved father. He’s the perfect accompaniment for Andre the Giant’s lovable brand of brawn and Wallace Shawn’s hilariously irritating turn as their cackling leader.

But what makes the film even better or the odd sorts who pop up here and there including Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) a curmudgeon wisecracker like no other and The Impressive Clergyman (played by the oft-underrated Peter Cook) who single-handedly ruined the solemnity of wedding vows for all eternity.

Rob Reiner is rarely considered a masterful director but if anything it’s easy to make the case that The Princess Bride remains years later his greatest achievement because it has so much life provided indubitably by Goldman’s superlative script and the very figures who dare to fill his world. And Reiner captures it all with a clarity that comprehends the humor but very rarely goes for that at the expense of characters or story (unless they are villains or Billy Crystal). After all, this isn’t a Mel Brooks film.

By this point, it’s a disservice to call The Princess Bride a parody or mere homage– simply a cult classic that’s garnered widespread affection. The reason people love this film is connected to those aspects but also the very fact it stands on its own.

As Falk sings the praises of the story early on, so we can affirm, it has “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” If that’s not exciting nothing is and it’s quite easy to forget that the film is continuously hilarious but there’s something remarkably moving about its story.  It plays the comedy well but simultaneously builds its own road through the mythology and fantasy of fairy tales that have captivated all people for eons.

In The Princess Bride, there’s not simply roots in comedies like The Court Jester but swashbucklers like The Adventures of Robin Hood or the magical journeying of the Wizard of Oz. It covers the spectrum of entertainment which is part of the reason it’s so satisfying.

It has scenes, moments, lines, those little idiosyncrasies and quirks that have left an indelible mark on viewers and as a result our culture as a whole. Lines like “As you wish,” “INCONCEIVABLE,” or best yet, “My Name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father. Prepare to die.” Each has its special place within the context of the film and is still imbued with that same meaning hours after.

If I write about this film more from my heart than my head you’ll have to forgive but it truly is a weakness. I can envision being little Fred Savage enchanted by the sheer magic of fairy tales. I wouldn’t begin to care about romance until years later but swashbuckling and humor always had me enthralled and they continue to capture my imagination to this day–no more powerfully than in The Princess Bride.  It’s sheer magic in all the best ways.

5/5 Stars

A Few Good Men (1992)

A_Few_Good_Men_posterUpon watching A Few Good Men for the first time, it was hard not to draw parallels with An Officer and a Gentlemen for some reason and it went beyond some cursory elements such as both films involving branches of the military. Perhaps more so than that is the intensity that manages to surge through the plot despite the potentially stagnant battleground like Cadet Schools, Courtrooms, and the like. And that can in both cases is a testament to the stellar performances in front of the camera.

Instead of a seething Richard Gere, we get the smart aleck wunderkind Tom Cruise as Daniel Kaffee. The full-throttle turn by Lou Gossett Jr. is matched in this film by another sneering tour de force from none other than Jack Nicholson as Colonel Nathan Jessup. Most refreshingly of all we trade out the heartfelt yet admittedly schmaltzy romance of Gere and Debra Winger for the professional tension that underlies Kaffee’s relationship with his colleague Joanne Galloway. Demi Moore, surprise, surprise, is more than a love interest even if Cruise is in the driver’s seat and that is a commendable creative decision by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Because their characters have two feet to stand on without having to dive headlong into a full-fledged romance. There’s already enough at stake without having to enter any further into melodramatic territory.

The men involved are two young U.S. Marines stationed in Guatamano Bay who are charged with the murder of one of their compatriots, one William Santiago. Galloway is eager to play point on the case, only to get passed over for Daniel Kaffee a plea bargain king who nevertheless has little courtroom experience or passion for his work. His stint in the navy seems only to be in respect to his late father, who was one of the preeminent judges of his day. Daniel will forever live in his shadow and instead of taking his work seriously, he devotes his efforts to the company baseball team.

Still, joined by Joanne and the veteran support of Lieutenant Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak), he begins to realize that there is more at stake in this case even if he doesn’t want to deal with it. As the young marines constantly beat into his skull this isn’t about getting the cushiest deal, it’s about their very honor, the code that they live by as united states Marines.

While hesitant Kaffee agrees to bring the case into the courts realizing what is at stake but it’s also in these precise moments that he realizes the need to man up instead of taken the path of least resistance as has always been his M.O. But of course, doing such a brazen thing has consequences for the young Lieutenant bringing him up against people much bigger than he is, namely the aforementioned Colonel Jessup. Because there is something running down the line of command that simply does not add up going from Jessup, to his Lt. Colonel Markinson (J.T. Walsh), one Lt. Kendrick (Keifer Sutherland), down to one of the accused Lance Corporal Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison). Kaffee takes a chance on the truth and that’s where the film blows up.

In our sound byte culture “You can’t handle the truth” has been perfect fodder for parody and the like. But doing so we take it out of context and as a culture we seem to be very adept at doing that. Misconstruing information and ultimately succeeding in draining words of all their impact. But when Colonel Jessup lets the words fly under tense interrogation from Lt. Daniel Kaffee there’s so much rooted in those words.

The film probably does not dig into this issue enough but it does imply something. As Americans who take pride in our freedoms, in our very Americanism, are we so naïve as to believe that it does not come without a cost? Not simply of human life but of perhaps darker realities that are kept under wraps for the good of the people, for the betterment of society. It’s a cliché saying, but the old adage goes that you cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs and I know that’s a rather callous statement, how far from the truth is that actually?

I’ve heard a quote attributed to Winston Churchill something to the affect that Truth is so precious she should be protected with a bodyguard of lies. And if this film is any indication, not only truth but our very freedoms or the things we use to define freedoms like honor and codes are indubitably hidden away and swept under the rug.

So A Few Good Men ends on a poignant note because at the very basic, ground level it is an underdog story played out in a courtroom. It has Tom Cruise playing the young Tom Cruise character we know (and maybe love). And that brings me to the final general parallel I found with Officer and a Gentlemen. Both films are invariably predictable and they play to our sensibilities as an audience, yet despite those very things, they manage to be moving and strangely compelling human dramas.

Rob Reiner might not be called an auteur and we unfortunately, are still waiting for his next great picture but his string of modern classics during the 80s and 90s are a joy for the very qualities mentioned above. Everyone can enjoy them and A Few Good Men is yet another example of that.

4/5 Stars

 

Review: This is Spinal Tap (1984)

thisisspinal1Director Rob Reiner makes an appearance in his own film as documentarian Marty Di Bergi. It’s tongue in cheek, but no one seems to have told Spinal Tap or anyone else in the film for that matter. For all intent and purposes, they are a real band with a real camera crew following their every move. The lines between fiction and reality are very easily blurred, because Spinal Tap seems more legitimate than some bands that come together, with one original album attached to the film and two subsequent albums that followed. That’s the funny part, or maybe it’s sad, depending on how you see it. It mocks, it parodies, and it attempts for the overly-dramatic, and yet it doesn’t fall too far from the actual music industry.

This mockumentary, rockumentary, or whatever you want to call it, follows Spinal Tap during their not-so-long-awaited tour in the States. Their trajectory mirrors all the great rock bands of their day and age. Right now they’re in the Zeppelin or Aerosmith stage, but led by their two founding members David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) and Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), they started a skiffle band back in Mother England. It was a humble beginning, with numerous arbitrary name changes, a hippy phase (much like the Beatles), and finally the genesis of their big-haired, hard rock 1980s persona. After all, their amps go up to eleven, one higher than the typical amplifier. They’ve cranked things up to new levels, but it doesn’t help that they’re album Smell the Glove is getting some negative backlash for its cover art.

What follows is a less than promising tour with failed autograph signings and malfunctioning props onstage. All the while, the immature musical nucleus of the band Nigel and David begin fighting. It feels very Lennon/McCartney and their Yoko Ono is David’s girlfriend Jeanine (June Chadwick). When their original manager quits in a huff, Jeanine steps in and things keep on going downhill. Bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) just seems like he’s along for the ride, and their most recent drummer is just happy he hasn’t met the unfortunate fate of spontaneous combusting like his predecessors. No one seems to care about the keyboardist Viv. Ain’t it the truth.

Then, the fateful day comes when the band splits up, or at least Nigel finally leaves having had enough of it all. But as they play second-bill to a puppet show at an amusement park in lovely Stockton, California, the boys realize they need Nigel back. Although the U.S. wasn’t too welcoming to them, they look to have a bright future in Japan with popular hits like “Sex Farm” “Big Bottom” and “Stonehenge.” They’re very popular over there, and of course, their amps still go up to eleven.

4/5 Stars

When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

whenharry2“Men and women can never really be friends”

When Harry Met Sally…what happened? Well, the first time in 1977 they spend an indubitably long car ride together. Whether or not it’s true, this debate about men, women, and friendship is the driving force behind their choppy relationship over the next decade or so. Back then it began with arguments over Casablanca and late night conflicts at a diner when Harry makes a pass. Good thing they’ll never see each other again. That’s what they think.

5 years later we’re in an airport. It doesn’t seem like much but Harry bumps into an acquaintance he knows, and surprise, surprise Sally ends up being his girl. They don’t give much notice to each other, that is until they end up on the same flight together. Once more they continue the friendly argument they began back in college, although he is now a political consultant and she is a journalist or something. Harry has become more lenient on his hard and fast rule, but they leave each other ready to get together with their significant others. A friendship between the two of them now seems so inconsequential.

But 5 years later role by again and Sally is still unmarried. Things didn’t quite work out and her best friends are hoping to help her move on. Then, she spies none other than Harry Burns in a bookstore and they strike up their quinquennial convo once more. This is a defining moment as they finally decide to become friends. It seems with the passing years they’ve lost a little bit of their idealism and pigheadedness respectively. When you have experienced romance and lost you are more apt for compromise. The passage of time changes people too. So it goes with Harry and Sally.

whenharry3Now they have late night chats as they lie in bed listlessly or they grab a bite to eat at the local deli. In that perceived transitional period of loneliness, they find comfort and companionship. They discover what a platonic relationship can be without sex. Except much of their time is still spent talking about love and sex. Harry and Sally are so preoccupied with such topics they probably don’t even see what’s happening to them.

Ultimately a blind date they set up with each other’s best friends fails abysmally, but their best friends hit it off instantly. Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher end up making a stellar combination, both exhibiting wonderful personality paired with wit. They make believable best friend material. But during their wedding, Harry and Sally’s friendship goes down the tubes and looks to be finished. It’s in the interim leading up to New Year’s Eve that Harry realizes what is happening inside of him. It took umpteen years, but Harry and Sally finally fall in love! At the end of the film, they fittingly receive their own cutscene like the various old married couples who share their fairytale romances interspersed through the entire film.

whenharry5Bob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally… works unequivocably because, in many ways, it helped define many of the unspoken rules of the rom-com following the mold of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Overall, the addition of Harry Connick Jr.’s music gives the film a jazzy feel rather reminiscent of Allen’s work. In fact, it does feel like Reiner emulates Allen and in this case, mimicry is the highest form of flattery. Meanwhile, Nora Ephron’s script is often inventive, creating future cliches rather than falling into old ones. To his credit, Billy Crystal is able to play his role with sincerity and sarcasm when necessary, while Meg Ryan is full of a feisty vim and vigor in her own right.

Perhaps most importantly the film speaks to topics of romance and sex. Sex is not a commodity to be bartered with, but then again it cannot be wholly bad if humans are constantly desiring it. In there lies a mystery. There must be a context in which sex actually means something more than just being a simple act. Perhaps when love comes first. That’s what makes what Harry and Sally have so special. True, it’s marriage, but really it’s a lifelong friendship. That’s what it’s meant to be — the closest bond you’re ever going to have with another person. 

4/5 Stars

The Sure Thing (1985)

Sure_thingposterThe Sure Thing is one of the early works of both director Rob Reiner and young teen star John Cusack, and it proved to be a success for both parties. In the film, Walter Gibson and his friend Lance are heading off to college. Gib is heading to a stuffy school on the East Coast, while Lance is venturing off to the sun-soaked southern California shores with the female prospects at an all-time high. It doesn’t help Gib who has recently been striking out with the opposite sex, because, to put it bluntly, they don’t buy his astronomy inspired pick-up lines. He’s just too much of a jerk.

And so the two friends go off to their separate spheres and for Gib things do not end up too bad. His school’s not a bore, but he’s not getting the kind of action Lance has, not yet. That is until his friend tells him about a “sure thing.” The girl who is one out of a million and who is available, just waiting for Gib in California. So as any red-blooded American college student would do, Gib begins the cross-country trek over his Christmas Break.

The catch is this. He’s forced to travel with an overly enthusiastic couple obsessed with singing show tunes and that’s not the worst of it. His backseat companion is fellow classmate Alison Bradbury (Daphne Zuniga) who happens to be very attractive, but she also hates his guts.

She and Gib happen to be polar opposites, and they did not get off to a good start at school. She already has a boyfriend. She is always on top of her academics, and she never does anything outrageous. Gib is a showboat, prone to wildness that includes shotgunning beers and trying to pick up girls.

Their constant bickering and nagging find them sitting on the roadside in the middle of nowhere trying to thumb their way to California. And so it looks like they will go their separate ways, but they end up traveling together, broke, wet, and starving. Somehow they get there and along the way they begin to genuinely appreciate each other. There does not have to be anything between them. Of course, right before they get to their final destination a disagreement leaves them at odds. However, after spending so much time with someone like Alison, a sure thing just does not have the appeal it once did for Gib. He proves to himself that’s he’s not quite as shallow as he thought he was. If only Alison could know that.

The enjoyment of this film is not so much in discovering the result because any Joe Schmoe who has seen at least a handful of romantic comedies knows how the story is supposed to end. The true joy of the experience is how we arrive there with these two characters. In the back of our minds, there is a kind of peace of mind, because although they seem so far apart and at odds, we know where they will end up. We can take a little bit of enjoyment out of every single moment they spend together mundane or not. In many ways, the road movie feel of The Sure Thing brought to mind other similar storylines like Train, Plains, and Automobiles as well as It Happened One Night. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by this film. Cusack pulls off the lovable jerk well and despite her initial stuffiness Daphne Zuniga is a lot of fun too.

4/5 Stars

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

aa6b4-whenharrymetsallyposter1A romantic comedy directed by Rob Reiner, and starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, the film opens in 1977 when Harry and Sally first meet and then share a long car ride to New York. They part ways not expecting to see one another again. Sure enough they meet again and they both are in serious relationships with others. But a few more years down the line they cross paths and they both are having trouble getting over their failed love lives. With the situation the way it is, Harry and Sally decide to become friends and they begin to confide in each other while also spending more time together. However, they want to remain just friends and they set each other up with their best friend respectively. This ends in their best friends becoming romantically involved and it leaves Harry and Sally where they were before. When Sally is going through a tough time Harry comforts her and in the moment they make love. In the aftermath their relationship becomes tense and it ends in a fight. All alone on New Year’s Eve they finally make up and share a kiss. They are finally a couple. This film has adult themes but Reiner makes this film a nostalgic feel in a way by using a flashback, voice-over, split screen, and conversations from married couples. Furthermore, the soundtrack by Harry Connick Jr. is reminiscent of crooners from a bygone era. In my mind, this film seemed very similar to some of the old romantic comedies including The Awful Truth (1937).

4/5 Stars

The Princess Bride (1987)

f1a6c-princess_brideDirected by Bob Reiner and starring an esemble cast this has to be the best action-comedy-romance-fantasy ever. It starts with a grandpa (Peter Falk), reading his grandson a fairy tale. In the story there was a peasant boy (Cary Elwes) devoted to a beautiful girl (Robin Wright). However, she treated him poorly and is eventually married off to the Prince Humperdink against her will. She is then kidnapped by a group consisting of a giant, a swordsman, and a self-proclaimed genius. Her devoted love comes to the rescue but Humperdink takes her back and has her true love tortured. Joining forces with the giant and the swordsman Inigo, along with the help of Miracle Max, Wesley leads a daring rescue. He arrives in the nick of time and his friends show great bravery. He saves his damsel in distress and they live happily ever after. This film is in a category all by itself and it is very quotable if not in fact inconceivable.

4.5/5 Stars

This is Spinal Tap (1984)

 

I have to say there were parts of this rockumentary that were very enjoyable. For every rock fan it salutes every group from the Beatles, Led Zepplin, and onward. Rob Reiner gives it a seemingly realistic feel, going so far as casting himself as the interviewer Marty DiBergi. As far as the band goes, Spinal Tap probably could be passed off as a real band as well, with real songs, album covers, and instrumentation. I think that makes the film so funny because we are seemingly the only ones who realize how silly they are. In their rock world amps that go up to 11 make sense and their everyday interactions are not even a bit funny. They didn’t mean them to be but for the audiences watching this epic failure of a U.S. tour unfold, we cannot help but smile at Spinal Tap. There was quite a lot of strong language but I thought the concept of the film was clever and there were some decently funny moments such as Stonehenge.
 
4/5 Stars