Thursday, July 24, 2014

Remembering James Garner, Part 3

Okay, here we go. The Five Quintessential James Garner movies. (This was tough.)

In no particular order:

Grand Prix (1966)
In order to film a great movie about race car driving, director John Frankenheimer and his team had to develop new ways of mounting cameras, obtaining steady shots, and following action at very high speeds. This is an exciting film, and Garner - an avid automobile enthusiast - did his own driving.

Murphy's Romance (1986)
I covered this one in the previous post, so I won't say much more about it here other than that it is one of my favorite romances on the big screen.

The Americanization of Emily (1964)
William Holden was supposedly going to play the cynical but affable hero of Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant screenplay but had to back out. I am a big William Holden fan, but I can't imagine anyone bringing Charlie Madison to the screen better than James Garner. This was Garner's favorite of all of of his films and his favorite movie-making experience.

Support Your Local Sheriff (1969)
I also talked about this one in an earlier post, and I think it a perfect example of James Garner at his best. It is a reflection of his earlier (and later) TV roles as Bret Maverick: Maverick turned the idea of the cowboy hero on its ear. Support Your Local Sheriff then tweaked that ear a bit.

The Notebook (2004)
Yes, this is a pretty sappy movie, but it's also a much-beloved one. I think that what really makes the framing love story work - what grounds it in reality - is the truth that Garner brings to his performance.

Move Over, Darling (1963)
The Great Escape (1963)
Duel at Diablo (1966)
Marlowe (1969)
Victor/Victoria (1982)

Jimmy Carter (not that one) interviews James Garner about acting and actors.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Remembering James Garner, Part 2

I'm not sure how long I've considered James Garner my favorite actor. I think my very first favorite actor was Chewbacca, and that was before I realized it was a guy in a hairy suit. From that point forward as a kid, I think my favorite actor was whoever was the star of my favorite TV show of the moment, so sometimes it was a cartoon. I was aware of The Rockford Files. I really liked the theme song, and I thought the tall guy in the sports coat who drove the gold car was really, really cool, but the plots were a little over my head. It went off the air when I was six. My affection for the show would come through later syndication. I think when I latched on to the idea that I really enjoyed watching this James Garner guy was in - of all things - Tank (1984).

It wasn't a great movie, but I was drawn to Garner's performance. I just had this sense that all of the characters in the movie - except for his Zack Carey - were running around trying to tell this story, and he was just there, reacting to what was happening, doing the thing that we'd expect someone to do when something like that happened. Even when it was as absurd as taking a tank and wreaking havoc, it all just seemed the natural thing to do.
That, to me, speaks volumes about James Garner's ability on both the large and small screens: he never seemed like he was acting.
This was particularly evident when we rented Victor/Victoria (1982) at about the same time. It was this incredible farce, filled with wild and crazy characters, and then there was Garner's King Marchand.

He was every bit as funny as everyone else, but the difference was that they all were telling jokes, and Garner just seemed to be saying the funniest thing he could think of at the time. Again, he didn't appear to be acting.
When I saw Murphy's Romance (1985) a year later, I was sold. I would watch James Garner in anything.

Originally, they wanted Marlon Brando to play Murphy, but Sally Field lobbied for Garner. Their chemistry is incredible in spite of - or because of - them being two very different styles of actors. Sally Field - despite her diminutive size - is a very "big" actor. She's almost like an animated Disney Princess
in her films: big eyes, big voice, big emotions, big movements. Subtlety is not her forté, and that's fine, because it works for her. By contrast, everything that James Garner says as Murphy Jones sounds like he's just responding to the situation he's in, as if he had no idea what was going to happen next. His movements were organic, and no bigger or smaller than they would be if there wasn't a movie camera around for miles. And it's perfect. Luckily, the Academy recognized that there was, in fact, work being done on Garner's part beneath that cool demeanor, and he was nominated for an Oscar for the role. (He lost to William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman, though, so . . . there you go.)
In his book, The Garner Files, he admits that he really had very little training as an actor other than what he received by just working as an actor. He describes himself as more of a reactor than an actor, and said this about his acting style:

"I could never teach anybody to act, because I don't have a clue myself. The class would last about thirty seconds, because I'd tell them to just be yourself. Put yourself in the situation the character is in. How would you react to it? That's all I know."

Now, it might seem that Garner was one of the world's best improvisers, given the natural delivery of his lines. In fact, the opposite is true. Garner felt that the script was very important, and he didn't like to work without one. In his own words: "The script is sacred. I don't improvise, because the writers write better than I do."
He also didn't like it when his co-stars improvised, as Bruce Willis did in Sunset (1988). As a result, Garner didn't rate it as highly as some of his other films. (I still like it, though.)

In the next entry, I'll share my quintessential list of James Garner films. (I'll try to limit it to five. Won't be easy.)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Remembering James Garner, Part 1

I'm sure that I've mentioned here before that James Garner is my favorite actor, so you can imagine how crushed I was 9and still am) at the news that he had passed away a couple of days ago on July 19th. I went back and re-read the last few chapters of his recent memoir, The Garner Files. In the last chapter of the of the book, Garner wrote about how he'd like to be remembered:

I've been asked again and again,"How do you want to be remembered?" I usually say I don't care, but that's not true. I want to have accomplished something, to have made a contribution to the world. It would be wonderful if just one person looked at my life and said, "If he could overcome that, maybe I can, too."
Beyond that, I think an actor can contribute by making people forget their troubles for an hour or two. Call it relief, escape, diversion . . . I think one of the greatest gifts is being able to make people happy. I like to make people happy.
So, if anybody asks, "How do you want to be remembered?" I tell them:
"With a smile."

I can recommend James Garner's memoir, The Garner Files (co-written with his friend Jon Winokur). even if you are not particularly a fan of the actor himself. It is a great insight into the Hollywood system and culture from the perspective of a man who refused to play by rules that didn't make any sense to him. Garner is remembered as a nice guy in the media as a curmudgeon by most of his close friends (and by his own admission). The truth is that both are accurate.
What makes the memoir so incredible for Garner fans, though, is that no one ever thought it would be written. Garner was notoriously private. The few begrudging interviews he gave were generally about his movie and television projects. He didn't talk about his service in the Korean War during which he received two purple hearts. He didn't talk much about his wife, Lois, to whom he was married for almost 58 years. (He died about a month shy of their anniversary.) He didn't talk about his upbringing with an abusive stepmother in Oklahoma. All of this is covered in the book, along with his love of golf an car racing, his battles with the television studios over Maverick and The Rockford Files, and his great affection for creating films and television shows.

I will write more about some of my favorite James Garner movies and television shows in future entries, but today I will leave you with what is maybe my favorite James Garner film. it most certainly is the one I have watched the most. Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) is a Western comedy spoof that I, personally, think is superior to Cat BallouMy Name is NobodyBlazing Saddles, and all other send-ups of the Western genre. It was Garner's first foray into producing as well, and it is a film of which he is very proud.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Movie Guy: AFI Countdown Follow-Up

Okay, as promised, I'm going to offer up some alternatives to a few of the films from the AFI 100 that I, personally, think are a bit (or a lot) overrated. Now, I could just add in another couple of Marx Bros. movies or another Buster Keaton. I could simply put From Here to Eternity or The Third Man or Fantasia back on the list. They were on the list before it was revised in 2007. All three of those are better films, in my opinion, than a few that are on the current list. However, I'm going to try to select films that are of the same genre, from the same time period, and of a similar cultural significance to the four films that I would remove from the current list.

Working from the bottom up, I'll start with Bringing Up Baby. In the genre of screwball comedies, you just can't beat His Girl Friday (1940). It has the same director (Howard Hawks) as Bringing Up Baby, and Cary Grant is also in this film. It has a much funnier script, and Rosalind Russell's sharp-tongued news reporter is a much more effective comic lead than Katharine Hepburn's quirky heiress. I really don't know why this movie wasn't on the list. It did make #19 on AFI's 100 Years, 100 Laughs list, but why only there is a mystery to me. This is a gender-bent version of the play and movie The Front Page (1931) which is also a good film. The Front Page would be re-made in 1974 with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (which I like even better than the 1931 version), and His Girl Friday was itself updated in 1988 as Switching Channels, which I would recommend avoiding.

Here's another option: Nothing Sacred. This is a very funny black comedy from 1937 that makes me think if the Farrelly Brothers had been around back then, this is a movie they would have made. Dorothy Parker is one of the many uncredited writers who worked on the screenplay, so that should give you an idea of just how biting some of the dialogue is.

Okay, moving on: Easy Rider (1969), as I said, just doesn't do it for me. If we're talking about partly-improvised films that reflect the counter-culture movement of the late 60s, I'd much rather watch Medium Cool from the same year. Mixing fact with fiction, this was shot partly during the 1968 Democratic National Convention and, when the anti-was protests were met with violent reprisal, much of that is incorporated into the latter part of the movie.

Okay, The Deer Hunter is tricky. It was one of the first films of the 1970s to address the war in Vietnam, it just did so with a great deal of "artistic license." I'm going to have to go a little outside the era to 1989 with the second entry in Oliver Stone's trilogy (Platoon was the first). Born on the Fourth of July far more effectively covers the pre-war innocence, the nightmare of battle, and the disenfranchisement and disillusion of soldiers returning home, and, unlike Michael Cimino, the director and screenwriter both actually served in Vietnam. (Not that one has to have been a Vietnam veteran in order to make a good Vietnam film, it just cheeses me off that Cimino misrepresented his own military service to gain publicity for his film.)

For Gone With The Wind, I'm going to focus a little more on the heart of the film, which is about a family's adjustment to a changing way of life amid many personal and financial hardships - with a love story thrown in for good measure. If Gone With the Wind is on the list for its cinematography and scenic design, then there are many films already on the list that did it just as well: The Wizard of Oz from the same year, for example.
I'm going to give you two to choose from here. The first, Mrs. Miniver (1942), looks at the effect of the first few months of World War II on an upper-class British family.

The second option is How Green Was My Valley from director John Ford and starring Maureen O'Hara and Roddy McDowall as members of a Welsh mining family at the turn of the century. I'll admit that neither of these films are quite as lavish as Gone With the Wind, but, frankly, the extravagance of that film at the expense of likable characters or a reasonable storyline is part of what turn me off about that movie in the first place.

Well, that's it: one hundred movies and then some as I reminisced about the AFI Top 100 Films of all time. Were there any there you haven't seen that appeal to you now?
There are a number of my favorite films that are ineligible for the list, because only American-made (or co-made) films can be included on the list. One such ineligible film is The Day of the Jackal (1973), a British-French production based on Frederick Forsyth's thriller about a slick assassin hired to kill Charles de Gaulle. It was very (very) loosely re-made simply as The Jackal (1997) - not a bad film in its own right, but far inferior to the original.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Movie Guy: AFI Countdown Top 5

Here we are at the final five movies at the top of the AFI 100! It's been fun for me. I hope it's been fun for you as well.

Singin' In The Rain (1952)
Okay, don't go digging too deep for a plot with this one, but who cares? Donald O'Connor and Gene Kelly are dancing up a storm with newcomer Debbie Reynolds who is overflowing with charisma. Jean Hagen is in her funniest role ever. This movie takes off like a shot and never really lets up through such memorable numbers as "Make 'Em Laugh", "Good Morning",  and, of course, "Singin' In the Rain." This is one of my favorite films.

Raging Bull (1980)

I am less enthralled with Scorsese's artistic choice for black & white in this film. I understand that he wanted to distinguish his movie from other movies at the time and he was concerned about the fading color of film stock, but, narratively, it just doesn't work for me. I'd much rather have seen the movie in color. I think that the story of boxer Jake LaMotta would have been better served in color. The boxing scenes work well in black and white, but the rest of the scenes feel gimmicky to me. However, the performances overcome the gimmick, and I still really like this film. De Niro's performance, in particular, is a tour de force. He transformed himself physically to be the lean and mean fighting weight LaMotta and then gained 70 lbs to play the older Jake past his prime. If there had been any doubts left that De Niro was one of the greatest actors of his generation after Taxi Driver and Deer Hunter, they were eliminated after this film.

Casablanca (1942)

This one is another favorite. Bogart is at his best as the cynical Rick, an American owner of a nightclub in Casablanca with a dark past and a broken heart. His former lover (Ingrid Bergman) reappears in his life and draws him into intrigue against the Nazis, though Rick has worked very hard to remain neutral. Great film. make sure that you watch it in the original black and white instead of the version that was controversially colorized in the 80s. Director Michael Curtiz created some wonderful noir effects for this film that are somewhat spoiled by the colorization.

The Godfather (1972)

This movie was a hit with audiences, critics, Academy voters, and, as it turns out, many actual members of the mafia as well. This movie marked breakthrough roles for both Al Pacino and Robert Duvall and was a strong comeback film for Brando. This is the first film that looked at organized crime from the inside, and this voyeuristic element may be a big part of what made this film a blockbuster with audiences - that and some truly shocking sequences depicting the brutal code and methods of the crime families. Terrific movie.

Citizen Kane (1941)

Here we are! Number one on the AFI 100 list! The greatest film ever made. . . as far as some are concerned. It is a technically a very beautiful film. Director/writer/star Orson Welles made some very innovative choices in bringing the rags-to-riches story of Charles Foster Kane. The cinematography in this film is incredible. For me, though, if a film is going to be the best film of all time, I should care more about the central character. Charles Foster Kane is interesting, but as an audience member, I just was not affected by his rise or his fall on a visceral level. This is still an extremely good film, but it's not a top 10 for me, because I'm just not invested.

Well, that's the list. Now, tomorrow - as promised - I will take the small handful of films that I do not think should be on this list, and I will offer up alternative films that would better deserve a place on the top 100.

This film is not on the list, and it won't make my replacement list tomorrow for reasons that will be clearer in that post. It is a favorite of mine. You may have seen the re-make/re-adaptation with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in 2007 (which I also quite like), but I highly recommend that you see the 1957 version in its impeccable noir-Western style. Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, 3:10 to Yuma is a film that just doesn't get enough love, in my opinion.

Movie guy: AFI Countdown 10 to 6

Hey, we made it the top ten! Any Gone With the Wind fans out there? Well, you may only want to read my take on the first four of today's batch of films.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Coming in at position #10 is this classic family favorite. I don't know anyone over the age of 7 who hasn't seen this film, and I don't know anyone who has seen this film and not loved it. The special effects may be just a little bit dated, but the magic of the story is timeless. A young girl is transported to a magical land, and her only hope of getting home is with the assistance of three flawed adventurers (who turn out not to be so flawed after all.) Fantastical sets and costumes combine with lively music to tell a heartwarming adventure of friendship and self-realization. 

Vertigo (1958)
I do like this film. It is a compelling psychological thriller, the performances are powerful, and the direction is taut - scene by scene, at least. Overall, it is a little long for the story that it is trying to tell, and that story itself has a central conceit that is a little far fetched. These flaws are forgivable, but I don't agree that this film belongs ahead of Hitchcock's other films that made this list. 

Schindler's List (1993)
This movie is another example of the use of black-and-white film (like The Last Picture Show) being used effectively rather than gimmicky, and Spielberg's selective use of color makes for some striking moments in the narrative. The film is both heartbreaking and uplifting as we learn the little-known story of a German businessman who is able to save over a thousand Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his factory. Liam Neeson as the eponymous Mr. Schindler gives one of his best performances, and Ralph Fiennes in his career-making role as Amon Goeth has never been more chilling - even when he played "He Who Shall Not Be Named" in the Harry Potter films. This is a very difficult film to watch, and it is perhaps inappropriate to say that it is "enjoyable," so I will just call it engaging instead. Highly engaging.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
This is the longest film ever to win a Best Picture Oscar, I feel that this is a far superior movie to the 2nd longest (which I will get to in a minute), and its 222-minute run time is made all the less daunting by its breathtaking cinematography and enthralling adventure. The accuracy of the story may be a little dubious, but that's Hollywood for you.

Gone With the Wind (1939)
When I decided to take on this list, I knew that there was at least one film about which I would have to take a very unpopular stance. As such, I decided to watch it again to see if my opinion of this film had softened any. It hadn't. Now, I don't think that this is a terrible movie. I'd even acquiesce to the fact that it might have a place on this list, but that place is not #6. It's not even #56. Many people (a number of my ex-girlfriends included) hold with the idea that this is the greatest film ever made. I don't even consider it the greatest film of 1939. Blasphemy? Maybe, but I've never connected with this film the way that others have.

For one, the film - the story - is built upon one central point: the lovability of its heroine, Scarlett O'Hara. Rhett Butler falls for her. Ashley may or may not love her. She has numerous other suitors, and even Ashley's wife, Melanie, considers Scarlett a dear friend. The problem is that Scarlett is an odious character who is quite possibly also a sociopath. From her first line in the film, Scarlett is shallow and manipulative, and while many popular films are built around unlikable central characters, Miss O'Hara is not presented to us as an anti-hero. Further, the characters who adore her are weakened, in my opinion, by their apparent blindness to her complete lack of moral fortitude. Yes, she's very pretty, but she is rude rather than charming and petulant rather than spirited. That Rhett falls in love with her seemingly upon their first meeting diminishes him greatly in my eyes.
(Plot spoilers follow.)
Scarlett marries her first husband out of spite and then pouts - not because he is killed in the war - but because she has to go through the tedium of being in mourning. She appears to become a better person as the hardships of war bring her to the brink of starvation, but, whoops! nope: she manipulatively marries her sister's beloved for his money without regard for anyone but herself and her own beloved: the plantation, Tara. (Ashley is away at war, but don't worry: she'll get back to him.) She utilizes inexpensive prison laborers (the post-War equivalent of slave labor) to build her business much to the distaste of all around her. The story glosses over the fact that the O'Haras were wealthy slave owners in the first place, and then we are somehow expected to view the "war-hardened" Scarlett as a shrewd businesswoman, because she recognizes an opportunity to profit from institutionalized slavery later. (And yet Rhett is still in love with her. Sap.) The only thing that really seems to cause Scarlett any angst over the first two-thirds of the film is her unrequited love of Ashley, but that seems more like an obsession with winning him than actual love. The later hardships that befall Mrs. Scarlett O'Hara Hamilton Kennedy (and eventually) Butler are presented with near-comical seconds of foreshadowing: Rhett wishes aloud that the pregnant Scarlett would have an accident and she swings at him, misses, and falls down the stairs. When their first-born rides away from the house on her pony, both Rhett and Scarlett are suddenly overcome with dread about two seconds before we hear a scream and a crash.
Truly, I think that I would enjoy this film more if it was presented as a black comedy, but it isn't. It's supposed to be a sweeping dramatic epic and heart-wrenching love story. I don't get it. I just don't.
I'll give director Victor Fleming a few points for some truly picturesque on-screen moments (even if they are a bit heavy-handed at times).
Actually, the more I think about it, the less inclined I am to think this film really ought to be on the top 100.

There is an "adaptation" of Mitchell's epic story of the South that I do quite enjoy: the 1976 sketch on The Carol Burnett Show, "Went With the Wind."

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Movie Guy: AFI Countdown 15 to 11

As we near the top ten, I do want to let you know that there will be an additional post after I get all the way through the list. I have taken issue with a few of the films on the list, so - in fairness - I am going to list some movies with which I think they should be replaced. However, that's a couple more entries from now, and I have no issues with any of the five films mentioned in this entry being on the list.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Kubrick makes the list again with this epic, visually-stunning science fiction film. From the dawn of man through humanity's exploration of space, Kubrick's meticulous attention to detail provides us with very realistic depictions of what - to audiences at the time - could only have been speculative fantasy. Even now - thirteen years beyond the "future" depicted in the film - a manned Jupiter mission is still only a distant possibility. Kubrick declined to explain the final sequence of the film, encouraging audiences to draw their own interpretations, and you can find many such interpretations from avid fans on the internet. I'd share my own theories, but I'm eschewing spoilers as much as I can in these blurbs. I do very much like this film, and I consider essential viewing for sci-fi fans.

Psycho (1960)
Hitchcock had to shoot this film on a very tight budget, because studio executives were opposed to the idea of dramatizing Robert Bloch's novel about a deranged serial killer. They would not give him his usual budget. He had to fight with the censors over the violence and sexuality, as well. (Amazingly tame by today's standards, though, of course.) However, it all paid off as Psycho was a huge hit with audiences. In fact, it was the most profitable film of Hitchcock's career. It remains a highly popular film. I like it very much, too. It's not my favorite from Hitch, but I can see why it's high on the list.

Star Wars (1977)
This was my first movie in a theater. Apparently, I sat captivated in my seat for the entire two hours without budging. Considering that I was a rambunctious three-year-old at the time, that speaks to how much I enjoyed this film. I do remember making myself hoarse the next day from imitating Chewbacca's various yells. Chewbacca was my first favorite movie star, and when I got to meet the man behind the furry mask, Peter Mayhew, a little over a year ago, I was more moved than I expected to be. Who hasn't seen this movie? Really.

The Searchers (1956)
John Wayne won his Oscar for playing Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, but I really feel that this was his best performance. Ethan Edwards is also probably the most complex character Wayne has ever played. When his nieces are kidnapped by Comanches, Edwards sets out on a years-long Homeric odyssey to find them. Some critics found the movie a little repetitive, but I think that was director John Ford's way of conveying the frustration inherent in the long search. Good movie. If you like Westerns, you should definitely check this one out.

City Lights (1931)
As I've said before, it's hard for me to pick my favorite Chaplin film, but this is one of the tops for me, definitely. This one has the prize fighting sequence, which is absolutely one of my favorite scenes ever on film. This is a great film. I'm definitely with the AFI voters on this one.

I still recommend seeing the whole movie, but here is that boxing sequence from the aforementioned City Lights.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Movie Guy: AFI Countdown 20 to 16

We've made it to the top 20 of the list, although I'm not sure that every one of these belong here.

It's A Wonderful Life (1946)
When it was originally released this film received mixed reviews. and it actually lost money at the box office despite being nominated for a number of Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It might have disappeared from the American consciousness altogether if not for a clerical error. Failure to renew the copyright of the film allowed it to go into the public domain in 1973. This meant that TV stations could show it for next to nothing. And they did. Boy, did they ever. It became a staple of December programming and re-entered the hearts of viewers as the quintessential holiday film. Not lacking at all in sentimentality (it is a Capra movie, after all), It's A Wonderful Life still boasts some strong performances, and "the phone scene" stands as one of the most titillating moments ever captured on film. It is best viewed within 45 days of Christmas when we are all a little less immune to the overly-saccharine, but it is still a pretty good film.

On the Waterfront (1954)
This is my favorite Brando performance. I've never read anything to confirm this, but I can't help but feel that Stallone based Rocky Balboa in part on Brando's Terry Malloy. The earnest but not particularly bright former boxer is unwittingly drawn into the middle of a conspiracy of corruption, violence and murder in the longshoremen's union. Though there is no final fight with Apollo Creed, Terry Malloy's battle is every bit as inspirational and cheer-inducing as Rocky's - and then some. This movie absolutely belongs in the top 20 of any list of the greatest American films.

The General (1926)
I love this movie. Buster Keaton strikes a perfect balance between comedy and action in this tale of a railroad engineer who uses his engine - the General - to rescue his lady love during the Civil War. Keaton was a master of the visual gag, and this film has many of his best. It's also an endearing love story, even though (or especially because) Keaton's hapless Johnnie Gray is far from the typical leading man.

The Graduate (1967)
This is a funny film. It is a little dark and off-putting at points, though. It has a clever script, and Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft are very good as Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson, though neither of the characters are particularly likable, in my opinion. this is another one of those "iconic" films like Easy Rider that I think isn't quite as amazing as people seem to remember it as being. This is a far superior film to Easy Rider, though, and I do think it belongs on this list, but I also think #17 is a pretty generous ranking.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Here's another one from Billy Wilder, which, to me, cements him as one of the world's greatest directors of all time. This tale of a faded Hollywood star's descent into madness is one of his best dramatic films, and Gloria Swanson and William Holden are just perfect casting. I find it amusing that there were many stars of old Hollywood at the time who very deliberately denounced this work of fiction as not being an accurate depiction of older Hollywood stars. Did I mention that this is a work of fiction? We're already pretty high on the list at this point, but I am of the opinion that this film could stand to be ranked even higher.

In 1993, Andrew Lloyd Webber adapted Sunset Boulevard as a musical. It found its way to Broadway in 1994 starring Glenn Close, here performing the show-stopping "With One Look."

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Movie Guy: AFI Countdown 25 to 21

Three of the films in this bunch have a very personal connection for me. The other two I just really like.

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
So, I never met any of my grandparents. I know them only through photographs and second or third-hand stories. My mother tells me that her father, John Michael "Jude" Burns, was a tall man with large hands and a deep voice. She said that he was a lot like Lee Marvin or Fred MacMurray, so - since there are few Lee Marvin films appropriate for an eight-year-old, I saw MacMurray's Follow Me, Boys and The Absent-Minded Professor a number of times as a kid. I would sometimes have imagined conversations with my grandfather, asking his advice about how to deal with a bully or how to encourage my little brother to eat his broccoli. I never received any answers, of course, but I always felt better after the conversation. Then, when I saw Gregory Peck play Atticus Finch in this film, something clicked in my brain. Though Jude Burns had been a career soldier and not a small-town lawyer, I couldn't help but feel that I was watching my grandfather on the screen. What's more, I found that there were now sometimes answers to the questions that I posed to the ether. My brother's aversion to his green vegetables were a lost cause, but - when it came to doing what was right versus what was easy, standing up for someone who was being wronged, dealing with people who disliked me for seemingly no reason - I now had a clear moral compass of grandfatherly advice. What does this have to do with the quality of this movie? Not much, but this is my blog, so . . . there you go. This is a well-crafted movie, appropriately filmed in black and white, that looks at complex issues of  racial prejudice through the eyes of a child and shows us that many the issues are not so complex after all. Wrong is wrong. Right is right. People are people. Freedom isn't an exclusive club. If you haven't seen this film, change that as soon as possible.

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
When I was little, I was prone to nightmares (I still am sometimes), so my mother did her best not to let me watch too many T.V. shows with scary aliens. I still recall a recurring nightmare that had its origins in a re-run of the original Star Trek series, so, when the words "Captain's Log" were heard on the television, my mom made me change the channel. This was basically calamitous for a kid whose favorite movie was Star Wars, and who just could not get enough of science fiction. Fortunately, I found a work-around. Re-runs and current episodes of the British sci-fi show, Doctor Who, played on PBS - the same channel where I watched Sesame Street and The Electric Company. In my house, it was referred to as "the educational channel." I ate it up, and, when my mother asked from the other room what I was watching, I could say with full honesty: "The educational channel, Mom." (A few years later, this was how I got to watch Monty Python as well.) What I loved - what I still love - about Doctor Who is that, unlike Captain Kirk with shields up or phasers set to stun, the eponymous Doctor would greet the strangest, most horrific-looking creatures with a tip of his hat, an extended hand, and a smile: "Hello, I'm the Doctor. How do you do?" Sometimes this greeting was met with a response that required quickly turning around and running in the other direction, but it never changed the fact that his default, first-encounter protocol was curiosity, openness, and friendship.
It was with this philosophy installed that I sat in the dark theater and watched as Elliott (Henry Thomas) invited the strange, alien visitor into his house by way of offering candy. (Jelly Babies, anyone?) His extension of friendship to a creature that - for all he knew - was going to suck out his brain, made me feel that Elliott, like me, knew well the British gentleman(men) in the blue box on "the educational channel." I, like many kids, lived vicariously through Elliott as he taught, learned from, and became best friends with the visitor from another world who just wanted to find his way home. If you didn't get to see this movie somewhere between the ages of 7 and 10, I'll admit that you may have missed out on just a little bit of age-specific magic in this film. That doesn't mean, however, that it isn't still one of the best science fiction films ever. I know that some purists dismiss it for its sappy, kid-oriented sentimentality, but maybe they just need to sit back, enjoy their Reese's Pieces and Jelly Babies, and think about how cool it is to meet somebody completely different for the first time.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
My paternal grandfather's name was Orville Grant "Guy" Darnell. All that I really have of of him is a photograph. Killed in a car accident when his eldest child - my father - was only ten years old, I have very little knowledge of his personality or character. I know that he was, in reality, much shorter than the 6'2" Henry Fonda who plays the proud Tom Joad in John Ford's Great Depression epic. I have no idea whether or not Guy Darnell would have been an advocate for social justice, but when Joad says, "Maybe I can just find out somethin', just scrounge around and maybe find out what it is that's wrong and see if they ain't somethin' can be done about it," those are the words of my ancestry as far as I'm concerned. See this film if you haven't already.

Some Like It Hot (1959)
When I think about my favorite directors, I often think in terms of their given styles. Hitchcock made a particular type of movie, and he did it better than anyone else. John Ford has a distinctive style. So does Capra. Modern directors also tend to work within particular genres. It's very difficult for me to find a category for Billy Wilder. From poignant drama, to noir thriller, to screwball comedy - the hallmark of Wilder's direction seems to be that he is just very good at making films.
This is one of his greats.

Chinatown (1974)
Did I mention that I really like detective stories? I may have mentioned that. Well, this is a particularly good one. It's a little bit neo-noir but with a slightly more bleak European sensibility courtesy of director Roman Polanski who over-ruled screenwriter Robert Towne's Hollywood ending for something a little more . . . well, you'll see. If you want to call yourself a Jack Nicholson fan, you have to be sure that you've seen this movie, in my opinion. I don't know that I called it his best performance, just because he has so many great performances, but I'd say that it's quintessential Jack.

When I first started watching Doctor Who, this was my Doctor: Tom Baker, the 4th Doctor.

Movie Guy: AFI Countdown 30 to 26

I consider each of the five movies in this entry to be must-see films: Coppola pulls a masterpiece out of a mess, Wilder gives us one of the better noir thrillers ever made, Mankiewicz presents a perfectly witchy Bette Davis vehicle, Zinneman presses us toward a literal deadline in the Old West, and Capra lifts us above the corruption of the political machine.

Apocalypse Now (1979)
There is an entire movie devoted to the nightmare that making this film actually was: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991) is a documentary co-directed by Eleanor Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola's wife. It is amazing to me that such a good film can come out of such disastrous circumstances: way behind schedule, way over budget, afflicted by natural disasters (Typhoon Olga destroyed many of the sets), health problems (Martin Sheen had a heart attack), and then, of course, there was Marlon Brando (a bit of a natural disaster himself on set). And still, for all of its troubles, the end result is a haunting, surreal journey from civilization into the heart of war and madness.

Double Indemnity (1944)
This role was quite a departure for the usually amiable and fatherly Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, a slick insurance salesman who is drawn into an adulterous and murderous affair with the sultry Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Director Billy Wilder co-adapted the screenplay with Raymond Chandler, so we get lines like this:
"Should I laugh now, or wait 'til it gets funny?"
Edward G. Robinson was reluctant to accept a supporting role in this film, having spent most of his career to that point in leading roles. I'm glad that he decided to do it. He's perfect.
Another brilliant film from Billy Wilder.

All About Eve (1950)
Claudette Colbert was originally going to play a more congenial Margo Channing, but when she had to drop out before filming due to a back injury, Bette Davis was brought in as a replacement. Davis's more "prickly" on-screen presence warranted a re-write of the script, and that's why he have this resplendently wicked film. This role was a major comeback for Davis who'd had a string of poorly performing films just before this role fell into her lap. Many consider this to be her best role ever. (I think I'm in that camp.)

High Noon (1952)
Gary Cooper was a gifted movie actor, and the camera loved him. This is one of my favorite Cooper films and one of my favorite Westerns. Director Fred Zinnemann masterfully builds the tension toward the approach of the noon train carrying outlaws bent on revenge against the retiring sheriff (Cooper). Cooper strikes a careful balance between pride and desperation as he refuses to run even as the townspeople refuse to help him. I particularly enjoy the use of "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'," as a theme throughout the film. It won an Oscar for best song and was performed by Tex Ritter. (John Ritter's dad. Jason Ritter's grandfather.)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) 
This film manages to be incredibly cynical and naively optimistic all at once, as Jimmy Stewart's Junior Senator Smith struggles against corruption and apathy in Washington D.C. The filibuster scene is memorable for Jimmy Stewart's earnest performance. In fact, it is the on the strength of the performances of Stewart, Claude Rains, and Jean Arthur that this film manages to keep from being just so much schmaltz. It is funny now to think that this movie was denounced as being un-American in 1939, but I guess Senators don't like movies in which they are portrayed as being completely corrupt but for one member. Fun movie. Not groundbreaking, but fun.

*BONUS* Here's Tex Ritter performing "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'," from High Noon.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Movie Guy: AFI Countdown 35 to 31

As we get further down the list, I am assuming that an increasing number of you have seen the films on this list. I'm going for a bit more brevity in my assessments of the films . . . at least the ones that I like, that is. Today, I'm a fan of all five.

Annie Hall (1977)
Though it still has many off-the-wall comedic moments (breaking the fourth wall, slapstick) this film was a departure from Director Woody Allen's previous work in farce and satire, and it opened the door to his later work in more "serious" comedy and drama. Of course, as Roger Ebert observed: Annie Hall is probably everyone's favorite Woody Allen movie. (I think mine is actually Hannah and Her Sisters. . . or Bullets over Broadway . . . or Manhattan  . . . or maybe it is this one.)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
This film was the first full-length cel animated feature, and Walt Disney had to mortgage his house in order to finance the nearly $1.5 million production costs. Now, as you have probably figured out, Walt managed to cover his mortgage off of the success of this film and then some, effectively launching what would become the Disney empire. Obviously, this film has historical significance, but is it actually better than the many Disney films that would follow: Sleeping BeautyBeauty and the BeastThe Lion King? Hard to say. I suppose that there are a few films on this list that are "weighted" in the same way. I'm not going to be the one that says Sleepy, Dopey, Sneezy and the gang shouldn't be here.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy, a small-time criminal gaming the justice system to serve his sentence in a mental institution instead of in a labor camp, is an anti-hero with the emphasis on "anti." That his anarchist sensibilities have him leading a revolt against the unyielding authority of Nurse Ratched likely surprises McMurphy as much as anyone. The performance earned Jack Nicholson his first Oscar, and the movie itself took "the Big 5" for that year (Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay.) Brilliant movie.

The Godfather Part II (1974)
This film takes the unique approach of simultaneously being both a sequel and a prequel to the hugely successful first Godfather film. We continue the story of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) having stepped into the shoes of his father, Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando in the original) as the head of the Mafia family while we also look at the rise to power of the younger Vito (now played by Robert DeNiro.) In my opinion, this film is such a good sequel that it is inexplicable to me that it would fall anywhere else on this list other than immediately following its predecessor (#2 on this list). In fact, there is a version of the films edited together in chronological sequence (with some added unused footage) called The Godfather Saga. I haven't seen it myself, but - when I find myself with seven hours to kill - I think it would be an intriguing way to see the films.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
I love detective stories. I particularly love good ones, and this hard-boiled story by Dashiell Hammett is one of the best. Brought to the screen by John Huston as a slick noir thriller, this adventure of Detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) set the standard for gritty crime dramas for years to come. If you haven't seen this film, I highly recommend it, and -for added fun - I would suggest viewing this as a double feature with the 1946 film The Big Sleep (Bogie as Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe). Let me know when you do. I'll bring the popcorn.

The Big Sleep didn't make the AFI 100 list, and that's a shame, because it is another of my favorites. It's been remade a couple of times very well, but the 1946 version with Bogart and Bacall is the best.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Movie Guy: AFI Countdown 40 to 36

Climbing ever toward the top of the AFI "mountain," here are 5 more films upon which the AFI and I wholeheartedly (mostly) agree:

The Sound of Music (1965)
The story of a free-spirited young governess who brightens the lives of a widowed naval captain and his morose children through music and song was a hit on Broadway and it was a huge success as a movie. Critics were mixed about both, with "saccharine" being the operative buzzword for the story's failings. Personally, I think that the sweeter the main story is, the greater the impact later when the clandestine rise of the Nazi party in Austria is revealed.
Filmed in the beautiful Austrian countryside and carried by the luminous Julie Andrews, this film may be the most sugary film about the insidious spread of the Third Reich, and I think that's just fine, because it serves as a reminder that when fascism and prejudice rule: everyone is affected.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Stanley Kubrick makes the list again with this black comedy based upon the thriller novel Red Alert. Kubrick had intended to make a straight thriller, but as he wrote early drafts of the screenplay, he began to notice the dark humor inherent in cold war paranoia and the politics of mutually assured destruction. Great performances by George C. Scott, Keenan Wynn, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, and Peter Sellers (in three roles) elevate the already sharp script to the level of brilliance.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
This is a very different type of Western from director John Huston. Instead of cowboys, we have down-on-their-luck gold prospectors in Mexico, and our "hero" Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) isn't much of a hero at all and is quite the opposite further into the film. This is a great story, but very bleak. Bogart's performance is stellar, but Bogie fans looking for his usual charm are likely to be disappointed by the feckless Dobbs. I like this film, but it isn't one of my favorites. Still, I think it belongs on the list. I just might swap it places with 12 Angry Men.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
We meet three servicemen returning from World War II on board the same transport plane. One of them (Harold Russell) has lost both of his hands as a result of battle. The other men (Frederic March and Dana Andrews) have injuries that are far less visible. March's character finds that he is quite fond of drink upon returning to home, and we find that Andrews's character is having an extremely hard time adjusting to life after the war. In a very dramatic sequence late in the film, we realize that he is suffering from PTSD (though it was called something else in those days) - one of the first mainstream films to deal with that affliction. This film is also notable for casting a disabled veteran (Russell) in the role of a disabled veteran. Russell was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but the Academy wanted to make sure he was given an Oscar (and they probably didn't think that a non-professional actor would really win), so he was given a special Oscar "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans" early in the awards ceremony. Russell then did actually win the Best Supporting Oscar as well, giving him the distinction of being the only person to win two Oscars for the same performance. I really like this film, and the performances by Frederic March and Myrna Loy elevate this above melodrama.

The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)
Like most people my age, Sir Alec Guinness is to me - first and foremost - fatherly Master Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars (1977). In the years since, I have found many performances from the talented Sir Alec that are far superior. One of these is the role of by-the-book British Lt. Colonel Nicholson in this film. What I love about this film is that it's hard to know who to root for: Nicholson is building a bridge for his Japanese captors as a way of boosting morale among his men in the camp. Meanwhile, the shifty Shears (William Holden) is coerced by the British Army to destroy the bridge because of its advantage to the Japanese. Great cinematography. Great performances. Great film.

Writing about the The Best Years of Our Lives, I was reminded of this routine by the late, great George Carlin: