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.

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