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

Harper (1966)

harper1We are brought into the world of Lew Harper with a cold open full of character. There he is. Paul Newman. Soaking his head in a sink full of ice. Making his morning cup of Joe. Popping that first piece of chewing gum before heading off to his first appointment.

What follows is a narrative courtesy of Ross Macdonald’s The Moving Target and an up-and-coming screenwriter William Goldman. Really, the film pays tribute to all of Bogart’s great P.I. roles (even going so far as casting Lauren Bacall), becoming a ’60s revamp of The Big Sleep.

But although the plot is not quite as incomprehensible as its predecessor, the greatest joy of this storyline is the witty repartee of Goldman’s pen paired with wall-to-wall star power. We have Newman and Bacall headlining as a gumshoe and his client who is looking rather half-heartedly for her missing husband. We have young blood with Robert Wagner and Pamela Tiffin. Then some old reliable talent in the likes of Janet Leigh, Julie Harris, Shelley Winters, and Strother Martin. The characters might not be the most insightful, but who needs that when they’re fun.

Lew Harper’s marriage is going down the tubes as he begins digging around for leads on the whereabouts of millionaire Ralph Sampson. He begins his inquiries which ultimately lead him to a washed-up starlet (Winters) who he pumps for information. He meets her charming husband and pays a visit to a nightclub singer (Harris) with a drug habit.

The dive musical halls, a rogue truck, and an encounter with a new age religious cult point Harper toward’s Sampson’s kidnapping, but he must piece together all the broken shards. There are twists, turns, and big reveals that are only fitting for a mystery of this inclination.

It’s certainly a nifty charade of mystery accented by a bouncy score courtesy of Johnny Mandel. But this sublimely Paul Newman role is more fun.  In his own words, “He’s a regular beaver,” a jaded cynic prone to smirks and sarcasm. He’s a sly dog even before Jim Rockford. He gives off an air of not being particularly happy in his work, but who would be thrilled to be a private investigator? On top of the lousy lifestyle and unglamorous dirty work, his wife is calling for divorce proceedings.

And yet he reveals moments of humanity and charm, whether he’s stacking up on tea sandwiches, chatting it up with his pal Albert, or pulling one over on his wife over the phone with paper towels stuffed down his throat.

Harper serves up exactly what we want with Newman grabbing hold of a cynical streak like he does best and riding the waves of Goldman’s engaging script. It’s not rocket science, but everything translates into a thoroughly enjoyable experience all around.

3.5/5 Stars

(After being beaten up again)

“Hey Lew, you alright?” ~ Albert

“I’m awful tired of answering that question” ~Lew

Review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)


Not that it matters, but most of it is true…

The film opens with some old sepia-toned footage of a notorious gang from the turn-of-the-century and that is when we meet our two anti-heroes Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford). Butch is the brains behind the operation (I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals) and Sundance is the brawn, with the most accurate gun in the West.

They make a living robbing banks and trains, but due to their lifestyle, they seldom come out ahead. Life becomes more difficult with tumult within the gang, a crackdown by the authorities and a price tag on the heads of Butch and Sundance.
Soon it becomes evident that their life of crime will never be the same with a professional tracker on their tails and a posse formed to see them hang. They are chased through hills, rock, water, and the like before finally getting away in one final desperate attempt at escape.
With one last brilliant piece of inspiration, Butch decides they should head for Bolivia to lay low, and soon enough they pack their bags and bring along The Kid’s girl (Katharine Ross) to the promised land of South America. They get more than they bargained for thanks to the language barrier and a lack of decent plunder. However, even abroad, their legend grows, winning them the new moniker “Banditos Yanquis.” The pair takes a stint on the right side of the law for once, but it somehow seems bleaker than their early days as bandits. It is evident that the hourglass is running out on them. And so it does, but not without one final glorious battle to cement the aura around two legends of the West.
I will not go so far as to call Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid a masterpiece because I have read too many reviews to know that there has been a great deal of division over the film. I can only speak from my own experience when I say that I quickly grew to love this story. This appreciation stems from the spot on chemistry of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Their outlaws are not your typical thugs but lovable buffoons you cannot help but cheer for through all their screw-ups and pratfalls. Paul Newman has his ever-present mischievous smile plastered on his face, and Redford plays the cool and collected Kid to the tee. Perfect casting for the roles and to think it might have been Steve McQueen and Warren Beatty.
 
They got together again in The Sting, which was another good film, although I will always be partial to their first collaboration. William Goldman’s script can only be described as a fun romp that accentuates the comradery of Butch and Sundance. The musical score by Burt Bacharach with the inclusion of “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” is often at complete odds with what we have come to expect with classic westerns, but that suits the film just fine.
 
You see this is not your typical western by any means. It’s not supposed to be. Butch and Sundance are working in the twilight of the West. The horse is soon to be replaced with the future: the bicycles. Bank vaults are becoming more complex, fervor for the Spanish-American War is at its peak, and lawlessness is no longer going to be tolerated. Whether people realize it or not, this film is one in a final wave of classic westerns that finally petered out in the 70s. Now the western genre, just like the West before it, is dead. A dying breed of genre much like film-noir or even musicals.
 
That’s why Butch Cassidy works for me. People have criticized the constant change in tones, but this story never claims to be the absolute truth, and it would not be the same film if it did. This story of outlaws is not a history lesson but a legend about two infamous bank robbers. There are moments where we love these antiheroes and moments where we do not know quite what to think of them. They become disillusioned and beaten down by the changing times. Their ambush in Bolivia has only one apparent conclusion. It ended in a bloody and violent death. However, we do not have to see that for the sake of the legend of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In one mythical moment, they regained their previous status. They went out as they came in, and they will forever be remembered as Butch and Sundance of the Hole in the Wall Gang. They have since been replaced by superheroes on the silver screen, but in their day and age, they were the original supermen — tarnished as they were.
What is amazing is that the film has not only resonated with audiences for generations, but with the leads themselves who really identified with their roles. That is perhaps the greatest compliment to its characters. 

5/5 Stars