BIRD BOX or how to make a hit horror movie.
Netflix's Bird Box, directed by Susanne Bier (The Night Manager TV series) and written by Eric Heisserer (Arrival) from a book by Josh Malerman, has created a sensation. While Netflix never releases audience numbers, Bird Box seems to be a hit. Of course, 'hit' must be in context. Hit shows on the major networks like The Big Bang Theory have upward of 18 million viewers. In-theatre only movies have more viewers - Black Panther sold over 70 million tickets.
The consensus is that Bird Box had 26 millions viewers (compare that to the Golden Globes with 18.6 million). Whatever the numbers, Bird Box is a hit, generating not only viewers but buzz: Is it a joke, this 'thing' or 'no-thing' that causes people to kill themselves? What makes this story go? Not the characters who have no or little backstory, or the simple plot: if you see 'it', you kill yourself.
Bird Box, for the 300 million or so who have not watched it, is about a woman, Sandra Bullock (I am not using character names because, as I said, the characters have no backstory and, in fact, the movie uses the 'public perception' of the actors to fill-in for character development, like casting John Wayne in a western - you know who this guy is based on who is playing the part), who is pregnant but without a husband or father of the child who left, apparently, soon after he did the deed. Her sister, Sarah Paulson, wants to help her since Bullock is not a happy mother-to-be and is even told by her doctor that most mothers end up loving their child. Bullock is so unconvinced that she doesn't want to know the gender of the baby and, in fact, she ends up calling it "Boy" (and a same-age girl she ends up taking care of, "Girl").
The movie is told in two simultaneous parts, five years apart. So, we see the world-wide epidemic of suicides and how it quickly infects the California community where Bullock and Paulson live. There is no explanation, suddenly, people start doing crazy things - banging their heads until they die, driving cars into other cars, stabbing themselves. These scenes of the 'beginning' of the epidemic are interspersed with scenes from five years later when survivors Bullock and her son and "Girl" are in her care as she tries to get them to safety. The key to survival is being blindfolded whenever outside and not looking at 'it.'
The buzz reminds me of the public's reception of Rosemary's Baby almost 50 years ago. That movie saw newly weds, Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes, move into a Manhattan apartment. Cassavetes is an actor up for a big part. He gets it when the actor who was selected, suddenly, goes blind. Soon after, Farrow gets pregnant and is stuck at home getting unwanted advice and help from an elderly couple who live next door. It turns out that they are a witch/warlock pair and her husband sold Farrow to these demons so that her child could be the new Beelzebub. It's a thrilling and scary movie, a roller coaster ride through the terrors of pregnancy and a parent's worst fears realized - little Johnny turns out to be a devil, literally.
Just as in Bird Box, the characters in Rosemary's Baby were not fully drawn. The young couple seem to have landed in Manhattan from the moon, no family and very few friends. There are really only 4 characters in the movie - the young and elderly couples. The plot is not explained very much - yes, a few minutes are spent on talking about witches and warlocks, but nothing that makes any impression other than that they do exist.
And that is how to have a hit 'horror' movie. One exciting scene after another, keeping the audience occupied with visuals that are arresting and moments that are shocking. In Bird Box, John Malkovich plays his stereotypical angry, bitter, suspecting character. Trevante Rhodes plays the guy we met in Moonlight. There are other stereotypes you will recognize - happy, overweight pregnant woman who is actually a lot better person than we think, odd couple 20-somethings who end up in bed (well, doing it but not actually in ...), sympathetic looking guy who turns out to be a monster, unsympathetic guy who turns out to be right - you've met them all before but not in this movie.
Anyway, it's a fun 2 hours. It comes to a kind of conclusion, just like Rosemary's Baby. And at the end, Sandra Bullock gets to go on another scary, dangerous, thrilling ride - this time in a boat not a bus, but it's the same ride and the same plucky Sandra who survives.
Adam McKay's Vice is a 2 hour and 12 minute SNL sketch (McKay is an alum of that show) - with better make-up and actors.
The movie follows former Vice-President (under Bush II) Dick Chaney from his wildwood days in Wyoming (two DUIs) to the White House. The journey is long, with stints as Chief of Staff (Ford), Congressman and Secretary of Defense (Reagan). The overall theme is that but for his wife, Lynn, Chaney would have been a drunken cowboy with a serious heart problem.
The acting is superb. As Chaney, Christian Bale projects a man willing to do anything to get what he wants. Amy Adams as his wife, Lynn Chaney, keeps her husband's ambition on track as Lady Macbeth. Steve Carell as Dick Rumsfeld is as smarmy as the original. Sam Rockwell as Bush II brings the lights-on-but-nobody's-home quality to a President defined by his being the puppet for whatever special interests happen to see him last. Tyler Perry as Colin Powell is more a cameo than a role played by an actor whose name is above the title.
What Chaney wants is power. One of the flicks themes is how Chaney & Company pushed a theory called 'The Unified Executive', a nebulous phrase that really is just old The Imperial Presidency dressed up to sound legal. The argument is simple and best expressed by Richard Nixon who famously said, "If the President does it, then it's legal."
McKay tells the story of the rise of Chaney with the tools used mostly in TV comedy sketches. For example, when discussing the run-up to the Iraqi War, we see Chaney and his minions at dinner when the waiter (Alfred Molina, uncredited) goes through a menu listing all of the crazy constitutional theories they put out to justify their illegal acts. The scene ends with Chaney saying that they will have all of them - of course.
Vice tries to be a real biography when it shows Chaney supporting his gay daughter (Alison Pill in a role as small as her name) even though he and his supporters have been virulently anti-gay. I am not sure where this part of the story goes because when his other daughter , Liz (Lily Rabe) runs for Congress and says she is against gay marriage, we see his gay daughter call Chaney and cry that she has been betrayed. This incident shows us a lot that is wrong about Vice. Liz is a grown woman yet Vice wants you to believe that her father made this decision for her,
Vice is about an 45 minutes too long. All the stuff before the Bush II years is just a set up to show us how Chaney & Company took the US to war in Iran (the movie claims it was for PR reasons - huh?) and destroyed the US constitution's check and balances form of government. While the movie has some interesting quirks - the menu bit and others that are based on the techniques used in sketch comedy - it is far from a scathing portrait of how the US ended up where it is, scorned by most of the world and a plutocracy. There are some laughs and surprises, like any good comedy sketch, but nothing that is worth 2 hours and 12 minutes of our time.
ON TCM JANUARY 2019
This month, Kathryn Grayson is the star of the month. From the first time I saw her, in Kiss Me Kate on TV, I was hooked. A beautiful lady with the pipes of a nightingale, Grayson was a much better actress than she was given credit for. So leave yourself some time on Tuesdays this month to check out this great actress with a great voice.
1/1 TWENTIETH CENTURY This is a madcap comedy starring John Barrymore in his best movie performance and Carole Lombard in the role that made her a star.
1/2 VIVA ZAPATA! Elia Kazan directs Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn in a John Steinbeck script about the rise and fall of Mexico's greatest revolutionary.
1/3 SPARTACUS This is the best epic ever filmed. Stanley Kubrick was brought in to direct when producer/star Kirk Douglas fired Anthony Mann. Every performance in this all-star cast is one of, if not the best, of their careers. The Dalton Trumbo script is the best he wrote and the score by Alfred North is a classic.
1/4 CYRANO DE BERGERAC Jose Ferrer in a virtuoso performance as the greatest swordsman in France. This translation of the original French script is also the best.
1/5 BLUE GARDENIA Fritz Lang directs Anne Baxter, Richard Conte, Ann Sothern, Raymond Burr, Jeff Donnell, George Reeves and Nat King Cole (he's the cafe singer who croons the title song) in this classic film noir.
1/6 THE LETTER Bette Davis emerges from a dark shadow to shoot a man, several times, as the movie begins. Was she defending herself after being attacked by him? Or was he being murdered in cold blood?
1/7 THE CLOCK Vincente Minnelli directs his then-wife Judy Garland in her best non-singing role as a young woman who falls in love with soldier Robert Walker.
1/8 THE NAKED SPUR In the 1950s, Jimmy Stewart made a serious of adult westerns and this is the best of them.
1/9 MAN ON A TIGHTROPE One of Fredric March's best performances as the head of a small circus trying to get his people threw the Iron Curtain.
1/10 THE CONSPIRATORS Hedy Lamarr heads an all-star cast of character actors in this take-off on Casablanca.
1/11 FIVE CAME BACK Did you like the TV series, Lost? Then this is for you.
1/12 A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS Fred Zinnemann directs Oscar-winner Paul Schofield in the best movie about henry VIII and his times.
1/13 A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN Over 25 years old and still as fresh as the day it was released - but remember, there's no crying in baseball! And Madonna is very good too.
1/14 THE PUBLIC ENEMY James Cagney becomes Jame Cagney in this early crime flick.
1/15 ANCHORS AWAY Kelly, Sinatra, Grayson - they sing, they dance, they make moview history.
1/16 MONKEY BUSINESS There is no reason to watch this movie except for the fact that it is very funny with Cary Grant playing the nerdy scientist who discovers Marilyn Monroe.
1/17 THE HAPPY THIEVES A good caper flick with Rex Harrison and Rita Hayworth.
1/18 KING RAT Prisoner of war camp movie that made s star of George Segal.
1/19 THE BIG CHILL Almost every major actor of a generation gets his/her start in the movie about growing up, finally.
1/20 MURDER MY SWEET Dick Powell grows up and becomes a film noir star.
1/21 A SOLDIER'S STORY African-American soldiers have their lives turned upside down in the tale of murder.
1/22 THE TOAST OF NEW ORLEANS Grayson and Lanza sing.
1/23 BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE Not a great movie but just fun to watch Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak and Jack Lemmon.
1/24 KISMET Minnelli directs this light-weight but fun film.
1/25 THE FOUNTAINHEAD Gary Cooper as an Ayn Rand hero swimming against the tide and picking up a besotted Patricia Neal.
1/26 HIGH SOCIETY Musical remake of The Philadelphia Story with songs by Cole Porter sung by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly, Celeste Holm and Satchmo!
1/27 THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY A non-singing Julie Andrews falls in love with a cowardly James Garner.
1/28 BULLIT Tough crime drama with Steve McQueen in the best car chase ever filmed - until The French Connection.
1/29 KISS ME KATE Cole Porter takes on Shakespeare and comes up a winner.
1/30 WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE See why Bette Davis is Bette Davis - an unswerving commitment to a character no matter where it takes her.
1/31 THE PLAYER Robert Altman looks at Hollywood - it ain't pretty but it's a lot of fun.
BAD SEEDS (Mauvaises Herbes)
Once in a while a movie comes along that speaks to you.
Sometimes, it's a big, important movie like The Godfather or quiet important movie like Howard's End.
And sometimes, it is just the right movie at the right time. In 1978, my wife and I went to see a movie and it was sold out, so we looked at what other movies we could see and for unknown reasons we selected a French comedy because I recognized one of the actor's name - Ugo Tognazzi. The movie was La Cage aux Folles. If you have never seen the original French movie, give yourself a New Year's present, see it.
Forty years later, lightning struck again, but this time surfing the innumerable choices on TV with my sister, looking for anything that wasn't about sadistic murderers or alien invasions. And, viola! There was Mauvaises Herbes or Bad Seeds, another French movie, this time taking place in Paris instead of Nice and on Netflix instead of a movie theatre. What drew us in was its female lead, Catherine Deneuve, looking every bit as beautiful as she has always been, but a beauty tempered by time and experience.
The story was simple - she and a thirty-ish Arab refugee, Wael, (Kheiron who also wrote and directed) have a neat scam that trades on people's prejudices about elderly woman and immigrants. When they get caught, it's not by the cops, but by an old male acquaintance of Deneuve's who threatens to turn them into the police unless they help him. He runs a summer program for 'bad seeds', six problem teens who are close to dropping out of school.
Wael becomes their teacher and his first challenge is to get the kids to speak - they have banned together, promising not to say a word. Wael solves this problem ingeniously then goes on to teach the wayward teens lessons in life.
Interspersed with this story is the story of a small boy in an unstated Arab country that is being torn apart by violence. His family is murdered and he has to live on the streets. How he does that and how he gets brought to an orphanage run by nuns is the parallel story from the boy's point of view.
Add into the mix a corrupt cop, a story of autumnal love, a neat trick to getting an attractive girl's phone number, six troubled but fascinating teens and just the right amount of menace and mayhem - and Viola!
Just as forty years ago, I was left with a warm glow that made me think not all is Trumpian gloom, that there is a way to find a life both fulfilling and sustainable, that the good, by adapting itself to this crooked world, can prevail.
I know, it's just a movie.
I cannot think of any more popular subject for movies, TV shows, plays and books than the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in England and Mary in Scotland. The time period is almost a century long, from Henry's ascension to the throne in 1509 to Elizabeth's death in 1603. Before we get to the fictionalized version of their stories, let's look at the facts.
Henry VIII came to the throne when he was only 17 years old. He married a Spanish princess, Catherine, who was Henry's deceased brother, Arthur's, wife (Arthur died at 15 and Catherine swore the marriage had never been consummated.) Henry went through a succession of wives in an attempt to father a male heir. When the Pope refused to allow him to divorce Catherine, Henry broke from the Roman Catholic Church and established the Church of England, bringing Protestantism to England. His marriage to Catherine produced a Catholic female, Mary Tudor, who reigned briefly after Henry's death but was succeeded by Elizabeth I, Henry's child by Anne Boleyn, his second wife, who reigned for forty-five years, but left no heir.
Mary Queen of Scots' grandmother was Henry VIII's sister and therefore Mary and Elizabeth were cousins, once removed. In the tangled web of European royalty, this was not exactly a close relationship. More importantly, Mary was raised a Catholic and Elizabeth a Protestant. At that time, the religious affiliation of a monarch could determine whether a country remained Catholic or not. The 1500's saw the rise Martin Luther and the Reformation in Europe, the beginning of Protestantism.
The story of Mary and Elizabeth has fascinated writers for almost five centuries. Elizabeth has been played on screen by every generation's great actress from Sarah Bernhardt to Cate Blanchett. Bette Davis played her twice, in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and The Virgin Queen.
Mary, also, has a long cinematic pedigree, dating from cinema's earliest days when Thomas Edison in 1895 made an eighteen second movie showing Mary's execution. In 1936, Katherine Hepburn played her in a John Ford film. In 1971, Vanessa Redgrave portrayed the doomed Queen while Glenda Jackson gave us a preview of her much lauded TV portrayal of Elizabeth I.
Now, a new movie, Mary, Queen of Scots, is devoted to the relationship between the two monarchs and has given Saorise Ronon (Lady Bird) as Mary and Margo Robbie (I, Tonya) as Elizabeth the chance to put their marks on these iconic roles. British theatre director, Josie Rourke, makes her film directorial debut of a Beau Williamon (House of Cards (Netflix)) script.
The performances of the two divas are very good, but, sadly, wasted in this plodding attempt to light a fire under this oft told story. The movie's sets and costumes are the best part of the movie, and credit must be given to the open casting, giving Adrian Lester the opportunity to play an English Lord who acts as an ambassador for Elizabeth to Mary.
The problems start immediately with one of those written prologues we see in so many historical dramas. Whenever I see one of these prologues I want to shout at the screen - a movie should not seem but be! If a fact is important, make it part of the movie, a visual medium, even in its silent era.
From there, the movie both tells us too little and too much. For example, it keeps referring to Mary and Elizabeth as 'sisters', which, if they were, would make their relationship very different. Also, the movie has Mary and other characters claim that she has a more legitimate claim to the English throne than Mary. Not true. It does show the importance of religion in the quarrel between the two Queens, but it does not make clear that, at that time, Scotland was a seperate, legitimate country from England.
The movie revolves around Mary's marriages, first to an English Lord and then to a Scottish nobleman. She does have one child, James, by the Englishman. Elizabeth never married and we see the physical change she undergoes when she contracts smallpox, scarring her face and causing her hair to fall out. Both women find themselves alone in a court of men, all of whom think that they know better than a woman what is best for her and their country. The founder of the Presbyterian Scottish Church, John Knox (David Tennant), rails against Mary, preaching that a woman can never rule a country. Mary is betrayed by the men in her life, including her half-brother. Elizabeth is shown to be more successful because, as the script claims, she becomes more man than woman.
When a country is ruled by a monarch, the monarch's children are not just fodder for tabloids, as they are today - no, having a child to ascend to the throne was one of the most solemn duties of a monarch. Mary succeeded; Elizabeth did not.
While history shows that Mary and Elizabeth never met, no fictional version of their story can resist a meeting of the two protagonists. In this version, they meet in what looks looks like a 16th century laundromat, with semi-transparent sheets screening them from each other's view as they walk around in a kind of textile version of Orson Welles's House of Mirrors in The Lady From Shanghai. It doesn't work. Rourke is betrayed by her theatre background as she forgets that five minutes in movietime can seem like a lifetime - the cousins seem to spend an eternity walking among the sheets before coming face to face.
A final word to anyone who wants to fictionalize this story in the future, forget the facts and follow the drama.
ROMA AND BRUCE ON NETFLIX
Two movies are new to Netflix this month and both come from other media.
Roma is a film by oscar-winner Alfonso Cuarón that was released in a couple of theatres in November, but had already had its world premiere at the 75th Venice International Film Festival on August 30, 2018, where it won the Golden Lion. Releasing it in a limited number of cities is Netflix's strategy for making the movie eligible for Oscars and other film awards. In some areas, you can still see it in a theatre.
Springsteen On Broadway was a sold-out hit (grossing over $75 million in less than 300 performances) for rocker Bruce Springsteen that opened on Broadway in October, 2017 and was scheduled for only a two month run, but kept getting extended because of demand and, finally, closed on December 15, 2018, just a few days before a filmed live version appeared on Netflix. The Netflix airing was announced only in July, 2018, but it wasn't hard to surmise that the show would be filmed for posterity - and money. Last June, the show received a special Tony award (it wasn't eligible for a competitive Tony award because it did not provide the 850 or so tickets (+ 1s making it 1700 free tix) to Tony voters within eight weeks of its opening).
Both Roma and Springsteen On Broadway share the distinction of being very unusual movies.
Roma is Cuarón's look back (to 1970) at his childhood world in Mexico (the title refers to the Colonia Roma, a neighborhood in Mexico City). It is a black and white movie that, on a TV screen, looks like it is always slightly washed-out. Cuarón wrote and did the cinematography, too.
Roma looks at a year in the life of an upper-middle class family consisting of parents (the father (Fernando Grediaga) is only in a few scenes) , three children, grandmother, two servants (indigenous descendants as opposed to the obviously European-descended family) and a dog.
The movie's principal character is Cleodegaria "Cleo" Gutiérrez (Yalitza Aparicio) one of the family's two live-in servants. We follow her as she cleans the large house and cares for the children. She is more than just a servant - she is part of the family.. When she becomes unexpectedly pregnant, her life changes very little even though she fears being fired by Sofia (Marina de Tavira), the mother of the family. Sofia has her own problems when her husband leaves her early on in the movie although she tells the children that he is on an extended business trip.
Very little 'happens' in this movie. The plot is non-existent except for a chilling scene when student demonstrators are attacked by the police and a civilian paramilitary group shoots and kills a student in Cleo's presence. She sees the father of her expected child (who has abandoned her) in the murdering paramilitary group and this incident triggers her water breaking. What happens next is the best part of the movie as Cleo is rushed to the hospital.
Many critics have praised Roma as a poetic look at ordinary life, and that it is. While I found much of it slow and less 'poetic" than just an ordinary, it does have merit in showing life as it was lived by ordinary people living with the extraordinary complications that confront most of us in our everyday lives.
Roma's greatest asset is the acting of all of the people in the movie - or I should say, the semblance of non-acting. This kind of acting has a long tradition in mainstream movies, dating back to Marlon Brando's performance in The Men (1950) and culminating with Lee Strasberg's portrayal of aging mobster Hyman Roth in Godfather II. Although it has been more than 40 years since I first saw that movie, I remember the shock and thrill of seeing Strasberg in his first scene, sitting in the living room of a simple Florida home, watching a football game as Michael Corleone enters. I had never seen an actor like him. Not a trace of technique, not a hint of a performance, just being. Perhaps Cuarón was able to elicit these magical performances because almost the entire cast consists of first-time performers on screen.
Springsteen On Broadway is two and a half hours of just Bruce (his wife, Patti Scialfa, makes a brief appearance) telling stories and playing music. It is NOT a concert and he plays only a few of his many 'hits.' Instead, Springsteen On Broadway is the story of a man who made his living performing the magic act of making spellbinding, story-based music. He uses the usual microphones you see at a musical performance instead of those used in the theatre and this establishes, immediately, that he is not an 'actor' but rather a performer who tells stories. In fact, he ignores the mics and often walks away from them so that his voice has no amplification and this makes his performance even more 'real.' Director Thom Zimny has done a masterful job of keeping the show moving, having unobtrusive stage hands bring out to Bruce various guitars and an harmonica.
From the beginning Bruce tells us that he wore 'workingman's clothes' on stage, sang about factory-workers and laborers but he never had a 'real' job, never worked normal hours and never ever was even in a factory. He made it all up. That, he tells us, is how good he is.
Actually, he took on the persona of his father who did all the things that Bruce sang about, but never did himself. Growing up in Freehold, NJ, he tells of life in a small town in the 1950s and 60s in his dysfunctional family dominated by a cold, distant father. When he became a full-time musician, he headed not to New York (only an hour away) but to the New Jersey shore, where he was a one-way road to oblivion. He had to get away from the Jersey shore and, more, out of his small-time mentality to make it and to do that he had to take that leap that all artists must take out of their comfort zone and into the abyss. In his case, the abyss was a three day trip across the USA in a van, driving a motor vehicle for the first time in his life.
So Springsteen On Broadway is a look back by an artist to his childhood, too, and, just as Cuarón uses storytelling and film to transport us back, Springsteen uses his own artist's tools to transport us to a different time and place - his poetry, his words, his music and his inimitable bravuro style.
DECEMBER 2018 ON TCM
"Tis the season to be jolly!
But on TCM, in December, you can watch everything from the the sorrow of a war-displaced mother and daughter in Italy (Two Women) to the tuneful Irving Berlin classic, Holiday Inn.
Here are my takes on a month of classic flicks that will bring all the laughter and tears that movies have to give to you on your own TV:
12/1 Crack-Up - for those of you who thought that Pat O'Brien was just decoration for all those Irish-themed movies, here he is in an real Hitchcockian thriller with an excellent supporting cast.
12/2 The Shop Around the Corner - Jimmy Stewart is as good as he gets in this touching Xmas story about the owners and workers in a gift shop. Do yourself a favor, watch this movie. I guarantee it will become one of your favorites.
12/3 King Solomon's Mines - Before there was Indiana Jones, there was Allan Quatermain.
12/4 Norma Rae - with her bio recently released, Sally Fields is in the news - and she shines in this rare Hollywood movie about a female worker trying to make a better life for herself and her family.
12/5 Two Women - Sophia Loren won an Oscar for a displaced mother during WWII trying to keep her daughter safe.
12/6 A Midsummers Night's Dream - watch the stars of old Hollywood make Shakespeare come alive in this magical movie.
12/7 The Graduate - this is the movie that made a star of Dustin Hoffman. I will say one word about it - plastics.
12/8 Meet John Doe - a fired feature writer (Barbara Stanwyck) concocts a story about a homeless man (Gary Cooper) who is going to kill himself on Christmas, and gets her job back.
12/9 O. Henry's Full House - there was a time when Hollywood put out several movies that were 4 or 5 short films in one. This is one of the best, narrated by John Steinbeck. Chock full of stars from Marilyn Monroe to Charles Laughton.
12/10 Paths of Glory - this early Kubrick WWI tale stars Kirk Douglas, Adolph Menjou and incredible performance by the underrated George Macready.
12/11 Stagecoach - John Ford's masterpiece about the West. John Wayne and Monument Valley became staple stars of Westerns after this movie.
12/12 Jailhouse Rock - ok, so it's not Singing In The Rain. It is one of The King's best.
12/13 Page Miss Glory - a screwball comedy that delivers.
12/14 To Sir, With Love - somebody decided to cast Sidney Poitier as a teacher in a lower class London school where he teaches the kids how to grow up - and it works. Lulu's debut.
12/15 The Naked and the Dead - making great novels into movies is not easy, and this one shows why. Still, there is just enough of the fire of the book to keep us watching.
12/16 Children of Paradise - French film about love, life and the theatre.
12/17 Rififi - this is the daddy of all caper flicks, and it's French to boot.
12/18 The Absent Minded Professor - Fred MacMurray does his Disney thing.
12/19 Oliver Twist - David Lean adapted Dickens' classic story of a boy who gets taken in by a gang of child thieves.
12/20 Anna and the King of Siam - the non-musical version of the King and I starring Rex Harrison as the King of Siam. Hey, this was Hollywood in the 1950s where the Jewish-born Ira Grossel (known to us as Jeff Chandler) could get nominated for an Oscar for playing Cochise.
12/21 The Way We Were - Barbra's best acting role. Robert Redford had to be talked into playing the iconic Hubbell by director Sydney Pollock.
12/22 Ben Hur - saw this for the first time in a great, classic movie palace in Philadelphia, The Boyd. Sadly, along with about a dozen other movie palaces in the City Developers Love, The Boyd was demolished. But we still have Ben Hur with a much underrated performance by Stephen Boyd.
12/23 Holiday Inn - Irving Berlin's score introduced the world to Happy Holidays, Easter Parade and White Christmas. The later two songs were so popular, they were the titles of two other movies about the holidays.
12/24 In The Good Old Summertime - this is the musical version of The Shop Around the Corner with Judy Garland.
12/25 Lover Come Back - Doris Day is not everyone's dish, but she will make a believer out of you in this sophisticated comedy with her favorite co-star Rock Hudson.
12/26 Deliverance - if you have a holiday hangover, this is the movie that will snap you out of it.
12/27 Pitfall - did you like Fatal Attraction? Then you will like this film noir look at infidelity.
12/28 A Hard Day's Night - rock groups don't make critically acclaimed movies, except for the Beatles.
12/29 A Tale of Two Cities - this is a great movie from a great novel. Ronald Coleman gives one of the best performances by an actor in a movie. Watching this classic will be a far, far better thing you can do than anything else.
12/30 Love Me or Leave Me - this is Doris Day's best performance as the apple of minor gangster James Cagney's lustful eye. There is a scene at the very end of the movie where she is singing the title tune and he has to decide if he is going to let go of his passion for her - it all happens on his face.
12/31 That's Entertainment - bring in the New Year with some of Hollywood's greatest musical moments.
NOVEMBER ON TCM
As the calendar wends its way toward the Holidays, TCM presents a November full of classics, both known and yet to be discovered.
The Star of the Month is Glenda Farrell, one of Warner Brother's wise-cracking dames whose best known role is just that in Frank Capra's Lady for a Day which was remade by Capra three decades later as A Pocketful of Miracles (too bad TCM doesn't run them together). I once heard Capra told the story that Frank Sinatra was supposed to star in Miracles, but bowed out at the last minute, so he was forced to hire Glenn Ford (a star at the time) and as a result of hiring Ford, he had to agree to Hope Lang (Ford's girlfriend) playing Queenie Martin, the role played by Farrell in Lady (where her character was called Missouri Martin).
Here are our daily picks for November on TCM:
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY - If you haven't seen it, see it. Stanley Kubrick's spot-on vision of the future. Almost 50 years later and this movie looks as fresh as the day it was released.
HOME BEFORE DARK - Jean Simmons is one of the finest actresses of her time and this movie shows all her talents, with a rare appearance by Dan O'Herlihy and a surprising solid performance by Rhonda Fleming.
RED RIVER - Howard Hawkes' bovine masterpiece with iconic performances by John Wayne, Montgomery Clift and Walter Brennan. A young John Ireland steals every scene he is in.
THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES - Frank Gilroy's Pulitzer Prize-winning play comes to the screen a little worse for the transition, but worth it to see Patricia Neal at her peak.
LITTLE CAESAR - You've heard about it and its famous last line - Is this the end of Ricco? - now see why all the fuss was made - it's a great picture.
CASABLANCA - I put this on the list because there are some out there who have never actually sat down and watched this classic - one surly, myopic critic called it the best bad movie ever made.
TARAS BULBA - There was a time when this is what passed for a blockbuster movie in the waning days of studio Hollywood (1962). A Star-spangled (Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis) bomb. But a few good moments.
SALOME - Every once in a blue moon, you should force yourself to watch a silent movie. This one is about as crazy a movie as you will ever see.
WATERLOO BRIDGE - Some movies give tearjerkers a bad name and some show that even a tear-jerker in the right hands (Mervyn LeRoy) with the right cast (Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor) can be a fine movie.
THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI - For those who have never seen this, you are in for a treat. And please don't think this is 'just an adventure or war movie.' It is a classic, in part, because the most sympathetic character in the movie is the enemy - Japanese Colonel Saito played by Sessue Hayakawa.
BREAKING AWAY - This movie is about as far away from Kwai as a movie can get - it's about a mid-western kid's yearning to be a great cyclist.
JOHNNY EAGER - Robert Taylor as a gangster who falls for the DA's daughter - better than it sounds.
MARTY - In the Hollywood of the 1950s, this movie stuck out like a brown suit in a wedding party. Take a look at how a low-budget look at low middle-class living won the Oscar amidst a swirl of Tecnicolor extravaganzas.
WUTHERING HEIGHTS - With Laurence Olivier wooing and losing then winning and losing Merle Oberon in the wilds of Bronte-land, filmed by Gregg Toland for William Wyler, Luca Brasi would shed a tear.
JOURNEY TO ITALY - Rossellini directs Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders in a tale of a marriage on the Italian rocks.
THE BLUE ANGEL - This is the movie that made Marlene Dietrich a star. She plays a vixen who ensnares a much older teacher played by Emil Jannings. Before Muni, Tracey, Brando, there was Jannings.
GANDHI - Ben Kingsley is one of the world's greatest actors and this is the movie that put him on the map.
AMERICA, AMERICA - Elia Kazan makes a movie about how an immigrant finds a way to get to America.
THREE ON A MATCH - In the early 1930s, Hollywood was free to make the kind of movie that told a realistic story in a daring and inventive way - before the self-imposed Code destroyed any chance of doing that for 40 years. This is an example of the Hollywood that could have been.
BROADWAY DANNY ROSE - a small-time agent can't let go of his stable of losers, until one day, one of his misfits suddenly fits. Mia Farrow's best performance.
THE GREAT MCGINTY - Preston Sturges is not a household name, but he is the Mark Twain of movies. His tale of a homeless man who fights his way to the Governor's office is priceless and the funniest movie ever made about politics in the USA. Akim Tamiroff should have won an Oscar.
MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE - If you ever doubted that Cary Grant is one of the greatest actors ever, watch this comedy about building a house.
GUNGA DIN - A close friend of mine saw this when it was released and he was just a child. That friend always talked about it in reverential tones. You will too.
THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY - Michael Crichton's greatest movie from his own novel. This movie is one helluva ride.
SOME LIKE IT HOT - Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag. Marilyn Monroe at her best (all those directors and actors who claim that she was a pain in the neck, well, they should be so lucky as to find another pain in the neck like her to be in their movie). Billy Wilder making a movie only he could have concocted.
LADY FOR A DAY - A take on Pygmalion, directed by Frank Capra, written by Robert Riskin from a Damon Runyon short story, this is one of the best pre-code movies.
THE LAST PICTURE SHOW - My brother, Robert, claims that the 1970s was the best decade for movies. That's a period. This movie proves his point. Peter Bogdanovich poured all he knew about making movies into this look at a Texas small town about to be buried in its past. Yet, because of all the great movies of the 70s, this one sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.
THE OUTLAW - When Howard Hughes produced this 24-carat piece of schlock, he used all of his many skills, especially in PR, to make it a hit. Jane Russell was never bigger. Take a look at a piece of history.
12 ANGRY MEN - Used in law schools to teach how NOT to try a case - it's a pretty poor lawyer who leaves it up to an enterprising juror to save his client from the electric chair. But, Henry Fonda does that amidst the finest supporting cast ever put on film.
JIMMY THE GENT - Another pre-code movie that has a wealth of pizazz - including one of the few movies with Jimmy Cagney and Bette Davis. Now that's super-pizazz.
THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER
Or What happened to prodigies?
It's almost like a sign from God.
That is the poem written by a precocious six year old boy, Jimmy (Parker Sevak). He is in the kindergarten class taught by Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhall), a middle-aged woman who feels she has missed her chance to be an artist, a poet, but, now, has been given the gift of nurturing a child-genius from her class whom she compares to Mozart.
Based on an Israeli movie of the same title, Sara Colangelo's The Kindergarten Teacher examines the life of a teacher who, like the old adage states, cannot do so she teaches.
Lisa has taken an adult education course in writing where she reads her haiku poems to the class. Her stilted poems never quite convey her yearnings and disappointments or her deep feeling that she and all of her family and friends are failures. When the class and its flirty, handsome teacher (Gael Garcia Bernal) greet her epiphanies with indifference she realizes that the time to learn enough to become a poet has passed her by. She reads her poem to her husband (Michael Chernus) who greets it with encouraging words but, obviously, is not moved by it.
When Lisa, accidently, hears Jimmy recite the "Anna" poem she is struck by its deep, moving simplicity. Knowing how wonderful it is, she passes it off as her own poem in her writing class and suddenly she is the star of the class.The poems (written by Kaveh Akbar and Ocean Vuong) are simple yet moving.
Lisa's motives are mixed. She wants the recognition given to her by these stolen gems, but, also, she wants to help this poet-prodigy. She contacts his single-parent dad who runs a strip club. He ignores her but she goes to the club and confronts him. He tells her that he is not interested in his son becoming a literary aesthete like his brother who has a job as a glorified spell checker (editor) at a newspaper earning a pittance. While he is happy his son is doing well, he is not going to go out of his way to encourage his son to be a poet.
Ultimately, The Kindergarten Teacher is about the kind of world we want. Do we want a world that encourages artist? Rewards them? Being an artist is hard and usually not a financially rewarding profession.If you had a choice - great but poor artist child or lottery-winning but soulless child - which would you choose?
BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE
All of us have secrets. All of us seek redemption.
But what if the secrets are deadly and the redemption is phoney?
In Bad Times at the El Royale, writer/director Drew Goddard takes us to a run-down hotel/motel on the border between California and Nevada (near Reno) in the late 1960s. The border is more than geographical, it is an existential border between lives that could be and lives that are.
The 'prequel' opening shows a man burying a bag under the floorboards of one of the rooms. Ten years later ....
Four travelers arrive: a traveling salesman (Jon Hamm), a priest (Jeff Bridges), a singer (Cynthia Erivo) and a mysterious young woman (Dakota Johnson). Each of them appears to be something other than who they claim to be. Even the motel clerk (Lewis Pullman) is a bit off - he is preoccupied by something other than his simple duties.
What happens in the next 2 hours and 20 minutes is a roller coaster ride that starts slowly in order to build up to its dramatic moments so that it can get over that peak of background detail and start the real ride. And while Reno had very little rain in the 1960s (its yearly average has nearly doubled in recent years due to the fake global warming) its yearly average rain falls in one night soaking the characters and their shimmering world.
It is difficult to review a movie when almost everything you can say about its plot is a spoiler. So, let's forget the plot - it's just a vehicle like the cars you ride in on the roller coaster.
The real story is the interaction of the iconic characters that Goddard takes from classic film noir movies: the good/bad guy, the beautiful and beautifully talented victim, the child-like bad girl, the break-the-rules cop, the killer seeking redemption and finding it only through doing what he does best, the charismatic psychopath cult leader - yeah, there's a lot going on in this movie. All of this is wrapped in up in reflecting mirror paper that gives it all a House of Mirrors quality.
Vaguely reminiscent of a score of film noir classics, but still its own wonderful mixture of crashing iconic plots, Bad Times will take you to places you have only nightmared about.
Finally, it has one of the best juke box scores of any movie in recent years. With more than a dozen hits from the 60s, many of them sung by the impeccable Ms.Erivo (who won a Tony for her performance in The Color Purple), Bad Times is - ok, I gotta do it - Bad Times is a guaranteed good time for you. Sorry.
OCTOBER 2018 ON TCM
The star of the month is Rita Hayworth. She was a triple threat - a great beauty who could act, sing and dance. I think that she was Fred Astaire's finest partner after his years with Ginger Rogers.
Take a look at Fred and her doing the Shorty George - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z08FrM6J4hE -
or their impeccable dancing to I'm Old Fashioned - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jwmjx8gpzrA.
Here are my daily picks for your watching pleasure this month on TCM:
10/1 - Tunes of Glory - An acting tour de force with Alec Guinness, John Mills and Dennis Price.
10/2 - You Were Never Lovelier - Astaire, Hayworth, Kern - you can't beat that trifecta.
10/3 - The Phantom of the Opera (silent) - Lon Chaney in one of his iconic roles.
10/4 - Dinner at Eight - This was one of the first ALL-STAR CAST movies with many of MGM's great stars in one package. Jean Harlow steals the movie.
10/5 - Night Train - early Carol Reed (The Third Man) thriller with Rex Harrison and Margaret Lockwood.
10/6 - OBJECTIVE, BURMA - Raoul Walsh directs Errol Flynn in an early realistic war pic.
10/7 - A STAR IS BORN - Judy Garland and James Mason in the best dramatic musical written for the screen. The Arlen-Gershwin score, Moss Hart script and George Cukor direction make this a movie that cannot be missed.
10/8 - HIS GIRL FRIDAY - Howard Hawkes took the story of a reporter who is always at war with his editor and made them a divorced couple, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.
10/9 - THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI - Orson Welles tells a tale of murder and deceit.
10/10 - THE JOURNEY - Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner in a Cold War film with a lot of warmth.
10/11 - TALL STORY - Jane Fonda's debut - she's a college girl with a plan - to hook star basketball player Anthony Perkins. Ray Walston, Anne Jackson and a gang of other great actors make this a gem. Hey, I even like the song.
10/12 - THE CANDIDATE - Robert Redford stars as the clueless candidate in a spot on look at politics in the USA.
10/13 - THE NIGHT DIGGER - Roald Dahl wrote this strange wonderful movie with Patricia Neal.
10/14 - CITY LIGHTS - I know, you don't like silent movies - get over it and watch one of the greatest movies ever made - by Chaplin.
10/15 - THE LADY REFUSES - OK, not a classic but not bad for 1931.
10/16 - PAL JOEY - Sinatra at his best with a great Rodgers & Hart score, Nelson Riddle arrangements and Kim Novak and Rita Hayworth to make it all shine.
10/17 - THE MORE THE MERRIER - Three people share a room and fall in love - just watch it and see.
10/18 - STAGECOACH - 1939 was the year when Hollywood hit all the right notes and this western by John Ford made John Wayne a star and created the western movie template. Even if you don't like westerns, you will like this one. I guarantee it.
10/19 - TIME WITHOUT PITY - Michael Redgrave in one of his usual outstanding performances - and the rest of the cast isn't too shabby either.
10/20 - SLITHER -James Caan and Sally Kellerman top this excellent cast in a caper movie.
10/21 - GYPSY - The grandmommy of all stage door mother movies. Year by year, this movie gets better as audiences get to see other Mama Roses and realize that what Rosalind Russell and company pull off is not as easy as they make it look.
10/22 - SUSPICION - Cary Grant's ne'er do well playboy marries Joan Fontaine's prim General's daughter in this Hitchcock gem about what makes opposites attract - money and murder or love and redemption?
10/23 - SEPARATE TABLES - Wendy Hiller, Burt Lancaster, David Niven (Oscar winner for his role as a troubled ex-colonel) and Rita Hayworth inhabit a dreary small hotel living lives of quiet desperation.
10/24 - THE DAWN PATROL - Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, David Niven, Donald Crisp AND Barry Fitzgerald fight the good fight in this WWII drama.
10/25 - HIGH ANXIETY - Mel Brooks takes over a psychiatric clinic headed by Harvey Korman and Cloris Leachman in this hilarious tribute to Hitchcock.
10/26 - KATHARINE HEPBURN: ALL ABOUT ME - If you like or dislike the lady, you will enjoy this rare glimpse at a life lived large.
10/27 - DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE - Victor Fleming directs Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner in this version of the classic tale. Bergman is incredible and does that rarest of rare things - steams the move from Tracy.
10/28 - THE YELLOW ROLLS ROYCE - The plot follows the ups and downs of a - yes, you guessed right. In the mid-1960s, this is what the studios thought would be a hit.
10/29 - WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE - OK, you must have heard of this one - but don't let that fool you - Bette Davis is incredible.
10/30 - KING KONG - The original - and it is as strange and alluring as any movie ever made.
10/31 - THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH - Roger Corman at his sleazy best with Vincent Price.
THIS MONTH ON TCM - SEPTEMBER 2018
A New Feature on itsjustamovie.com
As a movie fan who began to watch old movies on 'UHF' channels when they first appeared on TV, I thought that I would pass along some of the movies I look forward to watching this month on TCM, the new, improved classic movie channel with no commercials - back in the day, UHF was a popular venue for commercials like : 'ALL THE MUSIC YOU LOVE' on 36 albums with your first album FREE then only $12.99 a month plus shipping and handling!
So, here are my picks for what to watch in September on TCM (not necessarily the best movie playing that day, but a great one).
9/10 - D.O.A. - one of the first great noir movies. The versatile Edmund O'Brien plays an accountant who goes on a fatal vacation. If you haven't seen this one, you are in for a treat.
9/11 - Until Dark Wait - Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman who is taught how to cope for herself by Alan Arkin in one of his most memorable roles.
9/12 - A Night at the Opera - The Marx Brothers are in the hands of the MGM artists and turn in their most polished performance. Don't miss the 'sanity clause' bit between Groucho and Chico.
9/13 - Rio Bravo - John Wayne is a local sheriff who has to arrest the most powerful man in the territory's no good brother on murder charges. Dean Martin and the always scene-stealing Walter Brennan are along for the ride.
9/14 - King of Hearts - lunatics escape the asylum during WW I - or have they?
9/15 - The Best Man - Henry Fonda wants to be nominated for President at his party's convention but is being opposed by a loud mouth demagogue. Gore Vidal's script is as biting as it is real and an old timer, Lee Tracy, gives his finest performance.
9/16 - Monkey Business - Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe in a farce about an elixir that makes you a kid again.
9/17 - The Loved One - maybe stranger movies have been made, but few that are funnier. Robert Morse makes his way through Hollywood, one corpse at a time.
9/18 - Out of the Past - a seminal film noir classic with everybody's favorite bad boy - Robert Mitchum and everybody's favorite bad girl, Jane Greer.
9/19 - Oceans 11 - the original. This one has a plot and actually works because the set-up that a bunch of former GIs from the same unit in WWII were never very good at anything on their own, but as a team - robbing the casinos in Vegas is child's play compared to beating the Nazis.
9/20 - The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone - Tennessee Williams script starring Vivien Leigh in one of her final performances and Warren Beatty in one of his first,
9/21 - Dr. Dolittle - Rex Harrison is a doctor who talks to the animals. The music and Samantha Eggar make this movie worth watching.
9/22 - The Professionals - Richard Brooks decided to make a movie for the fun of it and he took along Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Willie Strode, Jack Palance and Ralph Bellamy. Along the way, Brooks picked up 2 Oscar nominations for script and directing and his cinematographer, Conrad Hall, picked up one too.
9/23 - Far From the Madding Crowd - directed by John Schlesinger, adapted from the Thomas Hardy novel by Frederic Raphael and starring Peter Finch, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp and - the reason to watch this slightly overcooked period drama - Julie Christie.
9/24 - The Last Waltz - the Band's final concert as filmed by Martin Scorsese.
9/25 - Pat and Mike - Tracy and Hepburn play a sports agent and the athlete he signs up. They don't make movies like this anymore - just a solid, very good, funny movie.
9/26 - The Silencers - the opening credits featuring a stiptease by Cyd Charisse is the best thing in this movie, but spending 90 minutes or so with Dean Martin is not the worse way to wile away the night.
9/27 - The Little Foxes - Bette Davis plays a southern Gordon Gekko with a husband who has a heart of mush and two brothers who think they should run the show. OK, here it is short and simple - one of the best movies ever made. There.
9/28 - Suspicion - Penniless playboy Cary Grant marries prim heiress Joan Fontaine - for her money? It's Hitchcock so you know you're going to enjoy the ride.
9/29 - The Big Sleep - this original Philip Marlowe adapted from Raymond Chandler's novel by - get this - William Faulkner. Howard Hawks directs.
9/30 - That Hamilton Woman - Vivian Leigh and her then husband Laurence Olivier in the story of a British Naval hero and his mistress during the Napoleonic Wars - it's better than it sounds.
TEN BEST COURTROOM MOVIES
As a writer and a trial attorney, I have often cringed at the way some movies portray what goes on in a courtroom. All of America saw the O.J. trial, but that was a very unusual case that was far from the typical trial, let alone murder trial.
In most cases, there is one attorney for the defense and one attorney for the prosecution, or, if it is a civil case - that's where nobody goes to jail but one party is suing another usually for money damages, as in an auto accident - then there is one attorney for the person suing (plaintiff) and one for the person or company being sued (defendant).
Most trials last for a few days, rarely more than a week. Usually, there is no publicity about the case. Many cases are tried by a judge, alone, without any jury. If there is a jury ( and every criminal defendant has the right to a jury trial, but, as I said, many waive that right) then the jury is selected in a few hours.
What distinguishes the good courtroom movies from the not so good is how effectively the movie uses the elements of a trial to heighten the suspense, the drama being portrayed.
Many lists of best courtroom dramas list movies that are only tangentially about the courtroom. For example, I think Michael Clayton is a great movie, but very little of it is about what happens in a courtroom. Rather, the movie is about attorneys and the role they play in our system of justice. The 'title character' is a 'fixer' - he gets things done, usually outside of the courtroom. The center of the story, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson in an incredible tour de force performance), much like Howard Beale from Network, is an attorney who 'goes off the deep end' because, finally, he breaks through the barrier that allows attorneys to represent evil people and companies without any guilt. Arthur feels guilt and that changes his life.
So, in my professional opinion, here are the ten best movies at portraying what happens in a courtroom.
ANATOMY OF A MURDER - It does not get any better than this. The book on which the movie is based was written by a prosecutor with vast courtroom experience. The story is simple - an army officer (Ben Gazzara) kills a man whom the officer's wife (Lee Remick) claims raped her. There is no question that he killed him and the only question is - can he be found guilty of murder? His attorney (Jimmy Stewart in one of his best performances) coaches Gazzara in the subtle way that most attorneys do by telling him that there is only one way he can be found not guilty - if he was in the grip of an 'irresistible impulse' (a form of insanity). Most of the movie takes place in the courtroom. If you haven't seen this one - you are in for a real treat.
WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION - An ex-soldier (Tyrone Power) is accused of murdering an older woman for her money. The alleged murderer is married (to Marlene Dietrich). An aging barrister (Charles Laughton) takes on the case against his doctor's orders (he was recovering from a heart attack). While much of the story is told in flashbacks, the bulk of the movie is the trial - and there are incredible performances by all involved!
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD - A small town lawyer, Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), in the deep South in the 1930s is given the job of defending an African-American (Brock Peters) accused of raping a white girl. The story is told from the point of view of the lawyer's children, especially his six year old daughter, Scout. This movie and the character of Atticus Finch are used as a template for what every attorney strives to be, but rarely achieves.
MY COUSIN VINNY - Newly minted attorney Vincent Gambini (Joe Pesci) and his fiancee, Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) come to the rescue of Vinny's cousin who is accused of murder in Alabama. Trouble is, Vinny has no idea how to try a case let alone a murder case. His ignorance proves to be his best asset. Law professors use this movie to teach trial tactics. The lesson is simple: forget what you've been taught and go with what you know. Bonus - this is one of the funniest movies you will see.
JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG - Is a society guilty for the crimes of its leaders? A group of judges and lawyers in Germany during the Nazi reign are put on trial for crimes against humanity. Maximilian Schell won a Best Actor Oscar for portraying their defense attorney. Spencer Tracy is at his best as the American judge who has to decide whether Nazi judges can be found guilty for applying inhumane laws. Every year, this movie becomes more relevant.
INHERIT THE WIND - Can laws be passed denying the teaching of certain scientific findings? A fictional account of the Scopes Monkey trial in which a Tennessee teacher is prosecuted for teaching evolution in his classroom even though there is a state law banning it. Spencer Tracy (the Clarence Darrow character) defends the teacher against prosecutor Fredric March (the Williams Jenning Bryan character). Another movie that has come back into relevance with the denial of global warming by some politicians.
ADAM'S RIB - Tracy and Hepburn. They are both lawyers. When a wife (Judy Holliday) shoots her husband (Tom Ewell) prosecutor Tracy is assigned the case. Hepburn decides to defend her. The courtroom scenes are some of the funniest ever written. The writers, Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, were married so the interplay between Tracy and Hepburn has the feel of a real couple. All are in the very capable hands of George Cukor who specialized in movies about couples (The Philadelphia Story, Gaslight, Born Yesterday and A Star is Born (Garland-Mason version)).
JAGGED EDGE - Husband (Jeff Bridges) is on trial for killing heiress wife and hires former prosecutor (Glenn Close) to defend him. She falls in love with him. The courtroom scenes with prosecutor Peter Coyote are spot on. I think this is the only very good script written by Joe Eszterhas who is famous for these kind of edgy, sexy thrillers.
THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE - Keanu Reeves as an attorney who sells his soul to the devil (Al Pacino) to get ahead. Reeves must defend a bunch of sicko, abusive men. His courtroom tactics are some of the best ever put on screen. The movie, itself, would be a classic but for its excursion into horror movie territory. In spite of that, this is one of Pacino's best performances as he argues for reigning in hell rather than serving in heaven.
THE LETTER - Bette Davis shoots her lover as the movie opens so this is not a who-done-it but rather a why-did-she-do-it. While the courtroom scenes do not take up much actual time, the conflicts that the attorney (James Stephenson) must face in defending someone whom he knows is guilty are well presented. There were two endings shot for this movie - I think they used the wrong one. In spite of that, this is a movie that goes to the heart of what it means to try to make a just world.
TOP 10 FILM NOIR MOVIES
SUNSET BOULEVARD - An aging silent movie star writes her comeback movie with the help of her much younger lover, a down-and-out writer. Both get more than they bargained for.
THE THIRD MAN - An American writer of throw-away western novels travels to post-WW II Vienna to meet his old pay, Harry Lime, and discovers that Harry is dead, sort of.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY - A wise-cracking insurance salesman falls for a wanna-be widow and concocts a plan to cash in on the accidental death (with a little help) of her husband.
WHITE HEAT - An undercover cop shadows a mad killer and hopes to nab him before the looney bin does.
THE ASPHALT JUNGLE - a big-time caper goes wrong when the criminals are undone by their own demons.
THE MALTESE FALCON - A private eye is hired by a mysterious woman in search of a priceless statue of a precious jewel encrusted falcon, the stuff that dreams are made of.
THE KILLING : A plot to steal loads of money from a racetrack goes terribly wrong when a hen-pecked robber decides to let his cheating wife in on the details.
D.O.A. - An accountant on a vacation finds that he has been murdered and now must find his killer and why he was murdered.
KEY LARGO - A gangster who was deported comes home and finds himself confronted by an old dying man, his daughter and an ex-GI who doesn't know what he fought for but finds out.
THE BIG HEAT - Corruption is deeply embedded in a big city police department and there is little that one honest cop can do, but when he tries and his wife gets killed by the bomb meant for him, he gets help from an unusual source, the killer's moll.
So what makes a movie 'film noir?'
There is a lot of reasonable disagreement about that - and I am not certain that it matters. Film noir is more about a feeling, a style, a way of looking at the world through blue-tinted, cracked glasses. Directors like Billy Wilder have this feeling built into almost every movie he made. Look at The Apartment, a great movie that is both funny and sad. It borders on the noir - if the cheaters who use the apartment weren't so ridiculous and if the woman had been killed by the boss to prevent her from telling his wife, it could easily have turned noir. Or look at Some Like It Hot - all the elements are there, but instead of 'blue-tinted' the movie is bright orange with the gangsters being more inept that the musicians. It is no coincidence that the most successful (artistically) Wilder movies were all black and white.
In looking at film noir flicks, there are a few common elements. Almost all film noir have these elements and the best have them is spades.
There are 5 essential ingredients:
When it was made. From 1940 to 1960 is when film noir movies were made. After that, there are many movies that contain film noir elements but all are a reaction to the original genre. Take Chinatown. It has many film noir elements but it reacts to the genre and is best appreciated by those who know the original genre. For example, the first scene shows Jake, the P.I., meeting with a client whose wife he followed and proved was cheating on him. This is a reaction to Raymond Chandler's P.I. Philip Marlowe who tells us that he doesn't do 'divorce cases.' Jake not only does divorce work, it's his "métier" as he tells us.
Murder. No murder, no noir. Period. Sometimes the murder is at the heart of the story (Double Indemnity) and sometimes it is woven into its fabric, like Harry Lime's murder of those who are treated with his tainted penicillin.
Woman. There is always a woman at the heart of any film noir movie, often more than one. In Double Indemnity, there is Phyllis Dietrichson and her step daughter, Lola. The lady isn't always a femme fatale - take White Heat: there is the luscious, lovely Mrs. Cody Jarrett, but the real lady of the movie is Ma Jarrett who is as tough as her son.
A Big Dream. There are lots of movies about murders and crime and punishment, but a true film noir has more than that - it has a Big Dream at its core. Often, the best film noir movies have many Big Dreams, one for each major character or more than one. In Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond wants to recapture the glory of a bygone time when she was the Queen of Hollywood and when every man wanted her. Joe wants to survive in Hollywood.
Deception. It is as simple as 'oh the tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.' In Sunset Boulevard, Joe thinks Norma's script stinks and he won't tell his friends how he is able to afford silver cigarette cases.
SPIELBERG’S BRIDGE OF SPIES
Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is a Cold War drama set in the early 1960’s. The movie is crowded with stories that all crash into each other. Sadly, they never generate any real drama. How could the man who made Jaws come to give us movies that have about as much drama as an election for President in Russia.
The movie starts by showing us a guy painting a self portrait. Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance, recently of Wolf Hall fame). is a very unlikely spy, seemingly a simple man engrossed in his work as a painter. When he is arrested, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance defense attorney, a ‘common man’ type who lives in Brooklyn with his wife and children, is picked by the Bar Association to represent the suspected Russian spy. Out of the blue so to speak, we are told the story of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), the pilot of a US spy plan shot down while over the USSR. Powers is taken prisoner by the Soviets.
Gee, I wonder how these dots are going to get connected?
Donavan insists on giving Abel the best defense he can. In the process, he becomes as hated a figure as Abel. The trial judge, the newspapers, his friends and even his family, all try to convince him that he only has to go through the motions of representing Abel and no one expects him to get Abel acquitted because we all know he’s guilty, right? Well, yes, we all do. The audience is shown from the start that Abel really is a spy so there is no suspense there. Abel’s trial turns into a ‘show trial’ in spite of Donavan’s efforts. Donavan’s only success comes when he convinces the trial judge to sentence Abel to 30 years instead of the electric chair.
And this is where the plot connects the Powers spy plane story – the CIA wants to exchange Abel for Powers. It asks Donavan to act as negotiator because the US government does not want to get involved directly in the negotiations. Donavan accepts and heads to Berlin.
Now the movie could have just told us these stories and it would be a straight cold war drama – but no, its hero Donavan isn’t going to just be a pawn for the CIA. So, enter a US student studying in Germany who is caught on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall on the day it is erected. It seems he is trying to save a girl he is in love with, or maybe it’s just a friend – it doesn’t matter because the student is just a plot device. He is arrested on charges of being a spy for a reason that will become clear.
Donavan, after a series of cat and mouse games with various agents of the Soviets secures the deal to release Powers, but he will not agree to it unless the student is also released. The CIA goes nuts – it wants Powers and doesn’t care about the student. Donavan won’t budge – he is a decent American and we all know that decent Americans are far better than their duly elected ghastly government. Pont made. Story of stupid American student understood – he is there to be rescued.
The screenplay was pieced together by more than one person – three or maybe two and a half - Joel and Ethan Coen were brought aboard to redo the original Matt Charman script. For this reason, the script is choppy and none of the characters is fully realized – except Donavan. What I hated about Mark Rylance in Wolf Hall was his stoical almost comatose attitude to everything that happened. In this movie, he is actually more deadpan, but his lack of concern about everything is used in the plot. On more than one tense occasion, Donavan asks his client if he is worried and Abel always answers, “Would it help?” It might help if Rylance moved an eyebrow once in awhile.
The movie is 2 hours and 20 minutes long and could have been brought in less than 2 hours. There are lots of Spielberg ‘mood shots’. The music is like listening to crème puffs oozing out their goo then exploding at the ‘dramatic’ points – John Williams was ill (probably indigestion listening to his own scores after Jaws) so Thomas Newman filled in as pastry conductor. There are a lot of appearances by fine actors (Alan Alda among them) who are given about as many lines as Rylance has facial expressions.
Keeping in character with Bridge of Spies, I am now going to do a flip and stitch in a new perspective – in spite of all the above, go see it. Tom Hanks is just so good at playing these kinds of roles that you shouldn’t miss it. Not the showy stuff of Forrest Gump or Philadelphia, but the kind of roles that Henry Fonda gave us in 12 Angry Men and a host of other films. Another quietly fantastic Hanks’ performance is worth the price of admission.
Ron Shelton wrote and directed this movie about a minor league baseball team and its owner, a very liberated lady of means.
Leading off is everybody’s favorite liberated lady, Susan Sarandon, playing the club owner. Every spring, she selects one player on her team to go the distance with for the season. Opinionated, sexy, articulate and more sure of herself than Mike Scioscia with a line-up card in his hand, Sarandon as club owner Annie Savoy has the perfect name and the perfect part to show off her considerable comedic talents.
Batting second is Robert Wuhl playing an infielder who is bound to be a life-long minor leaguer. Wuhl is just fun to watch as the guy who is always a hit short of a star. When there is a too-long meeting at the mound between the pitcher and catcher, Wuhl runs out to put in his two cents – and hits a homer with his straight-faced advice.
Tim Robbins is batting third in this line-up while playing Evie Caleb ‘Nuke’ LaLoosh, a fire-balling pitcher whose incredible number of strikeouts is only excelled by his walks. He can lose a no-hitter. Robbins is at the start of his excellent career just as ‘Nuke” is.
Annie savoy picks Nuke as her season partner and it certainly helps their chemistry that they fell in love during the filming of this movie (Shelton became their first child’s godfather).
Kevin Costner bats clean-up and does most of the heavy lifting as Crash Davis, an aging catcher who has spent so many years in the minors that he is approaching the record for most home runs hit in the minor leagues. It’s not the title he wants. As he says, “I’m the player to be named later.”
You don’t have to like baseball to like this movie but it helps. It’s most famous sequence is when Annie invite Nuke and Crash to her place for a ‘tryout’ and Crash answers Annie’s question about what he believes in with a famous speech –
Well, I believe in the soul... the cock...the pussy... the small of a woman's back... the hangin' curveball... high fiber... good scotch... that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent overrated crap... I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a Constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve, and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. Goodnight.
As Crash says Goodnight to Annie and Nuke, she runs after him and Crash rejects her offer to become her drone of the season with a great line, “I’m not interested in a woman who’s interested in that boy [Nuke].”
Bull Durham is a lot of fun. It is one of the three best baseball movies ever made – along with Major League and A League of Their Own.
Ron Shelton will be at the screening, probably to pitch the new musical based on this movie that opened in Atlanta in 2014. The NYT went all the way down there to give it a solid 2 out of 4 stars. Now, it may be headed to Broadway.
The last time baseball was the subject of a Broadway musical was Damn Yankees – but back then musicals were made into movies and not the other way around.
Writer/Director: Ron Shelton
Cast: Kevin Costner; Susan Sarandon; Tim Robbins; Trey Wilson; Robert Wuhl
TCM FESTIVAL: SUNDAY, APRIL 29, 4-6PM AT EGYPTIAN THEATRE
TEN COMMANDMENTS (1:30-6:00 PM) CHINESE IMAX THEATRE
SILK STOCKINGS (3:30-5:45 PM) CHINESE MULTIPLEX HOUSE 1
HAMLET (1948) (3:45 – 6:15 PM) CHINESE MULTIPLEX HOUSE 6
A mobster who is going to rat on his fellow mobsters is being baby-sat by San Francisco cops. When things go wrong – we have a movie.
Steve McQueen plays Bullit, a detective with a sense of style worthy of a James Bond. McQueen started acting on TV in the early 50s and by !958 got his own series, “Wanted Dead or Alive.” His first big movie break came in 1960 when he was one of The Magnificent Seven. A couple of years after that, he played another memorable cog in another hit adventure movie, The Great Escape. Then came a series of good off-beat movies that were so-so hits: Soldier in the Rain (opposite Jackie Gleason), Love With A Proper Stranger (with Natalie Wood), Baby the Rain Must Fall (teamed with Lee Remick in a Henry Foote script), The Cincinnati Kid (heading a stellar cast including Karl Malden, Rip Torn, Tuesday Weld, Ann Margaret and E.G. Robinson) and finally a certified Major Motion Picture – The Sand Pebbles, directed by Robert Wise with a $12 million budget and an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. The next year, 1968, McQueen hit the jackpot with two of his most iconic movies, The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullit.
The very name of the movie, Bullit, conjures up a hard-nosed but sleek purveyor of death. McQueen is just as comfortable in the seat of his Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback as he is in the arms of Jacqueline Bisset, Bullit’s oh-so-hip girlfriend. The plot doesn’t make a lot of sense but who cares? Robert Vaughn as a politician-on -he-make provides the rich-but-clueless push-back to McQueen’s street savvy rule-breaking-but-effective cop.
Of course, the highlight of the movie is the car chase (sorry Jacqueline). It’s not only McQueen vs. the bad guys, it’s Mustang vs. Charger, Ford vs Dodge, light vs dark! The chase begins in typical McQueen-cool fashion. The bad guys are chasing McQueen when, suddenly, they find that now McQueen is chasing them – for about 12 minutes. And yes, McQueen was driving, at least for some of the chase. It is not a spoiler to tell you that McQueen survives and the bad guys don’t.
But the movie ends on a bittersweet note. Bullit triumphs but there are no kudos, no medals, no citations – just another day with Jacqueline lying in bad asleep and Bullit washing his hands. But can the dirt of years of hauling away human garbage ever be washed off? Heavy man, heavy.
Writer: Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner from a novel by Robert Pike
Director: Peter Yates
Cast: Steve McQueen, Jacquline Bisset, Robert Vaughn, Simon Oakland, Norman Fell (and watch for a cabbie played by Robert Duvall)
TCM FESTIVAL: SATURDAY APRIL 28, 11:45 AM TO 2 PM, TLC CHINESE THEATRE IMAX
OUTRAGE (11:30 AM– 1:00 PM) EGYPTIAN THEATRE
KRAMER V KRAMER (11:45 AM -1:30 PM)CHINESE MULTIPLEX HOUSE 1
THIS THING CALLED LOVE (11:30 AM TO 1:30 PM) CHINESE MULTIPLEX HOUSE 4
WHEN YOU READ THIS LETTER (11:45 AM – 1:45 PM) CHINESE MULTIPLEX HOUSE 6
WINDJAMER (10 AM – 12:45 PM) ARCLIGHT CINERAMA DOME
The Days of Wine and Roses is the story of two adults who meet and marry. They live a kind of 1950's dream life with, at first blush, a harmless annoyance: he liked to drink but she has been brought up a teetotaler. She does like chocolate so he convinces her to drink Brandy Alexanders (cognac, crème de cacao, and cream). Both end up having addictive personalities and cannot stop drinking. Soon, he loses his job as a PR person and they begin a slow and painful descent into alcoholic hell with stops on the way for alienating friends and family, attempting to reform and arguing over who is to blame for what has happened.
The Days of Wine and Roses began as a TV drama on the legendary Playhouse 90. Written by J.P. Miller, directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie, the live TV version is available on YouTube.
For the movie, Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick were brought as was director Blake Edwards. Only Charles Bickford as her father was hired from the TV version.
In 1962 when the movie was released, alcoholism was rarely portrayed on the screen. Most famously, there was The Lost Weekend which was a Best Picture winner in 1945, also winning Best Director for Billy Wilder and Best Screenplay for Wilder and Charles Brackett. But that movie depicts an alcoholic falling off the wagon while Days shows us a couple who become alcoholics almost as part of their courtship and then marriage.
This movie is a serious but entertaining look at real people with real problems in a real world. The fact that Lemmon and Remick, two of the most likeable and talented actors of their time, are the couple who live out this nightmare make the movie all the more heartbreaking.
Take a look and see what movies can be.
Dunkirk by writer/director Chris Nolan is the story of how the British at the beginning of World War II were able to snatch a small victory from the jaws of an enormous defeat.
The Germans had deployed their new military tactic, the Blitzkrieg, to run over the low countries, then conquer France in less than three weeks. In doing so, it defeated the combined French and British armies. The remnants of those armies found themselves on the beaches of Dunkirk, with the Germans on one side and the English Channel on the other. While England was less than fifty miles away, there were almost 400,000 troops on the beaches of Dunkirk and evacuating them would not be easy.
Hitler was convinced by Air Marshall Goering that the task of eliminating the troops on the beach was best left to the Luftwaffe and that the ground attack should be halted. After weeks of non-stop attacks, they could use the rest.
At that time, the British had the largest fleet in Europe, but getting the troops off the Dunkirk beaches was a tactical nightmare. Large ships became easy targets for German bombers, especially the terror-evoking dive bomber, the Stuka.
I saw Dunkirk at the Aero theatre in Santa Monica where the attraction was not only the large screen 70 mm presentation of the movie, but an after-movie talk with the writer-director, himself.
Dunkirk concentrates on three characters: a young British soldier’s attempts to avoid getting killed (designated in the movie with the title, The Land), a British pilot’s crossing the English Channel in a spitfire (the British fighter plane) to shot down German planes harassing the rescue attempt (The Air) and a 50-ish Englishman, played by Mark Rylance, who crosses the channel in his own small boat, the Moonstone, to pitch in (yeah, The Sea).
The movie is all about the special effects and the visuals. There is no attempt to give any of the characters, even the main ones, any kind of back story. Yes, we sympathize with them, but they are fighting Nazis so it isn’t that hard to guess where your sympathies will land.
Perhaps no incident portrays the lack of any serious story telling in the movie better than what happens to a teenage boy who makes the trip from England to Dunkirk on The Moonstone to lend a hand. Along the way, the Moonstone picks up a British sailor whose boat was sunk. He acts very strange and insists that the small boat turn around and go back to England since there was nothing that it could do at Dunkirk. Rylance ignores him and later tells his son that the man is obviously ‘shell-shocked.’ When this sailor tries to physically force Rylance to turn around the boat, he pushes the teenage boy down stairs and the boy hits his head which starts to bleed profusely. As they are caring for this young boy who appears to be in extremis, The boy says that all he ever really wanted is for his name to be in the local newspaper for doing something good. Need I tell you what happens when the boy dies and the Moonstone makes it back to England with a score of rescued soldiers?
And that is how the entire movie moves along, one plodding moment to another. Yes, some of the visuals are very good and so is the sound. You may have noticed that I have not mentioned most of the actors. In fact, in 45 minutes of talking about the making of the movie, neither did Nolan. The actors are irrelevant to his way of making movies. He did go on and on about how he wanted to make a movie to a certain beat or rhythm that would go like a bolero with all crescendos. Yeah, right.
The hook for this movie is that it is ‘unlike any other war movie.’ Not really. The idea of isolating a few stories in a battlefield of dramas is as old as All’s Quiet on the Western Front. Technically, it cannot hold a candle to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. And as for portraying the reality of warfare, Kubrick’s The Paths of Glory is far superior.
So, why all the buzz about Dunkirk? It is fairly short for a ‘war epic’ coming in at 1hr, 46m. And it does have the kind of appeal that video games have. In fact, there were many moments that made me think that Nolan was more inspired by Call of Duty than Battleground. If that is your kind of thing – and Dunkirk’s box office of over $500 million is proof that there are a lot of people (my guess, mostly teenage males) who love this kind of mindless visual house of thrills – then go see it. Believe me, it’s a hell of a ride, if not much of a movie.
In the late 1920s, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote a fast-paced play about a reluctant newspaper reporter and his ink-soaked editor. It was called, Front Page and it was a hit. In 1931, it was made into a movie with Pat O’Brien (Hildy) and Adolph Menjou (Walter). It lost something in the transition from stage to screen as so many plays did – and do (e.g. August: Osage County).
Then in 1940, Howard Hawkes had the inspired idea of giving the fighting reporters a license to fight – he married them. Since it was 1940, one of the roles went through a sex change and suddenly the movie came to life.
Cary Grant plays the ex-husband editor and Rosalind Russell is the reporter who left to get a divorce in Reno and returned with a fiancé, Ralph Bellamy. The dialogue is faster than a speeding bullet and you will have to see this movie more than once to catch even a small percentage of the repartee.
Roz visits Cary at his office at the newspaper to tell him that she is quitting the newspaper and reporting and will go to upstate New York to live with her new husband who doesn’t want her to work. Here is a sample of the sparring and remember that this is spoken at break-tongue speed and often overlapping:
Walter: What's the use of fighting, Hildy? I'll tell you what you do. You come back to work on the paper, and if we find we can't get along in a friendly fashion, we'll get married again.
Hildy: Oh Walter, you're wonderful - in a loathsome sort of way. Listen, Walter, you are no longer my husband and no longer my boss. And you're not going to be my boss.
Walter: All right, take it. Work for somebody else. That's the gratitude I get.
Hildy: Oh, I wish you'd stop hamming.
Walter: What were you when you came here five years ago? A little college girl from a school of journalism. I took a doll-faced hick.
Hildy: Well, you wouldn't take me if I hadn't been doll-faced...
Walter: Listen. I made a great reporter out of you, Hildy. But you won't be half as good on any other paper and you know it. We're a team. That's what we are. You need me and I need you, and the paper needs both of us.
Hildy: Sold American! Listen, Walter, the paper's gonna have to get along without me. So are you. It just didn't work out, Walter.
Walter: Well, it would have worked out if you'd been satisfied with just being editor and reporter - but not you! You had to marry me and spoil everything.
Hildy: I wasn't satisfied? I suppose I proposed to you?
Walter: And I still claim I was tight the night I proposed to you. If you had been a gentleman, you would have forgotten all about it. But not you.
[Hildy throws her pocketbook at the back of his head, but he ducks]
Walter: You're losing your eye. You used to be able to pitch better than that.
The plot is silly but moves along and keeps pace with the dialogue. The supporting cast is superb – convicted cop-killer John Qualen, corrupt Sheriff Gene Lockhart and more corrupt Mayor Clarence Kolb keep the pace at warp speed.
There are few movies that capture the marriage of journalism and politics as well as this one. Lies seem to be the common bond.
HIS GIRL FRIDAY
Producer-Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Charles Lederer
Based on the play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
Cast: Cary Grant (Walter Burns), Rosalind Russell (Hildy Johnson), Ralph Bellamy (Bruce Baldwin), Gene Lockhart (Sheriff Hartwell), Helen Mack (Molly Malloy), Porter Hall (Murphy), Ernest Truex (Bensinger), Cliff Edwards (Endicott), Clarence Kolb (Mayor), Roscoe Karns (McCue), Frank Jenks (Wilson) Regis Toomey (Sanders), Abner Biberman (Diamond Louie), John Qualen (Earl Williams), Alma Kruger (Mrs. Baldwin) Billy Gilbert (Joe Pettibone)
This month, you can watch Fritz Lang’s great movie about murder, madness and responsibility on TCM. Peter Lorre gives one of the greatest performances in movie history as the compulsive killer of children.
This movie is the first police procedural as it details all the different ways that the police use to try and catch a serial killer. As a police official points out, this is the most difficult crime to solve since the killer acts purely on impulse, taking advantage of circumstances to fulfill his mad obsession to kill.
If you have never seen it, I can guarantee that you will never forget it.
Oceans 11 was a movie made by and with The Rat Pack, a group of Hollywood pals, most famously, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Peter Lawford who found the story and pitched it to Sinatra who liked it.
The movie was about a daring plan to rob all the major Las Vegas casinos on New Year's Eve at the stroke of midnight. While the movie was being made, Sinatra and pals performed in the very casinos they were robbing in the movie. It was the first major cross-media marketing in show business.
Oceans 11 was a big hit. What held the plot together was more than the chemistry of its stars - it had a story. Danny Ocean headed a platoon of soldiers in WWII that was a great fighting unit, but, after the war, when they went their separate ways, they all flopped. Danny is an ever-losing gambler whose wife left him because he can't see a woman without making a pass. Dean Martin's character is a two-bit singer still playing the lounge. Davis works on a garbage truck. Lawford is a rich mama's boy, still dependent on her for financing his playboy lifestyle. The caper to rob the casinos is not just a chance to finally strike it rich, it's a chance to be a team one more time - to go back to being part of a something bigger than any of them could ever be alone. To fight the goof fight once more, but this time, victory pays. What causes their downfall (this was 1960, crime did not pay) are their individual faults. A woman Danny played around with then dropped takes revenge. Lawford's new 'stepfather' agrees to help the casino's owners get back their money and he tracks the heist to his new stepson and his friend, Ocean.
Great caper movies are all about characters and relationships, just like all great movies. Sure, there has to be some gimmick, some kind of raz-ma-taz to make us sit up and think - wow, cool. But it needs something more - it needs a reason for the heist.
One of the first caper movies was The Asphalt Jungle, a John Huston movie about a jewelry heist and a bunch of underworld characters who can never escape the flaws that have kept them losers for most of their lives. Rififi , The Killing, Topkapi, How To Steal a Million (the only rom-com caper film ever made), The Thomas Crown Affair, Seven Thieves, Thief, The Great Train Robbery (a period piece caper), The Sting (the only caper movie to win Best Picture) a pair of English caper-comedies, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers and more recently, The Score. All have a common element - the caper is just the excuse for the characters to do something else, something that's more than just robbing money, something that's about soul.
In 2001, Warner Bros. dusted off the Oceans 11 script and developed a new franchise with George Clooney taking on the role of Danny Ocean. There have been three Oceans movies, all a little worse than their predecessor. The main problem is that they are all just about the caper. There is nothing that ties the group of thieves together other than their quest for bucks - kind of like the movies themselves. They all made a ton of money, so they were all successful. Right?
Now, WB has gathered eight actresses to star in a #metoo Oceans movie - Oceans 8. I am certain that some genius at Warners came up with the number 8 as the rounded, sensual, feminine equivalent to the double penile 11. Oceans 8 stars eight actresses led by Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett. The conceit is that Bullock is Danny Ocean's felonious sister. Her caper is to steal $150 million in diamonds from a Met Museum Ball during Fashion Week in New York. It will be released on June 7.
There is nothing to suspect from the trailer that Oceans 8's makers have understood the true nature of a great caper movie, but one can hope. What we do know is that if this movie is more successful than the distaff Ghostbusters was, then we will see an Oceans 18 (combine the casts for a movie that stars both men and women? What an idea!), Jane Bond (Gillian Anderson has been mentioned), Hilliary Potter, Missioness: Impossible and Spider Woman - wait, they made that one already and there will be no more female arachnid movies. But there will be more action and franchise movies led by actresses. Of course, that is a good thing. But what is not good is if the makers of these movies just substitute females for males and change nothing else. Men and women are different - there are no female mass murders and the senseless violence that seems to be attractive to most young males is not to most young females. So, please include more women in franchise movies, but make them from that feminine point of view and not just a rehash of the same senseless and unreal violence but with lipstick. Let’s really change movies, for the better.
Mel Brooks wanted to make a movie about how two producers schemed to make a killing on a sure-flop musical entitled, Springtime for Hitler. The problem was that no one wanted to finance a movie titled, Springtime for Hitler.
After several years of begging, Sidney Glazier agreed to produce it and the money was put up by Joseph Levine, a producer with an international reputation. Like many movies that end up being classics, The Producers was made by people who ended up hating each other (well, except for Gene Wilder, of course). It was a very unhappy eight week shoot in NYC. Then came months of editing. Finally, it was released, sort of. It opened in a small theatre in suburban Philadelphia (Glazier's hometown) where I saw it. There were not a lot of people in the theatre and no one was laughing except for me and a friend who had seen it the night before and dragged me to it the next night.
Then, it was released in New York. Most of the critics didn't get it - they criticized the movie for being about a musical based on the life of Hitler. One critic wondered if they were going to do a musical about cancer next. In spite of the mixed reviews, the movie made money in NYC but was, generally, a flop. The fact that the producers in the movie wanted to produce a sure fire disaster musical as part of their scheme to steal millions and that is why they produced a musical about Hitler was overlooked. A musical about Hitler? This was blasphemy!
Traditionally, movies are considered the creation of their directors, that is, since the French New Wave declared the director to be the guiding hand on all movies.
Gore Vidal once said that when he was in Hollywood in the 1950-early 60s, the people who made movies would have thought it hilarious that people believed movies were made , mostly, by directors. It was the producers who made movies.
As in all arts that deal with telling a story, it all begins with the writer. In the case of The Sea Wolf, that was Jack London. In 1904, he wrote The Sea Wolf and it was a bestseller, as were most things written by London. The book told the story of Wolf Larsen, a sea captain who was cruel, intelligent, cunning, violent and crazy. The plot is simple: Larsen's ship, The Ghost, rescues from a shipwreck a dandified writer, Humphrey van Weyden, who is subject to all kinds of cruelties aboard The Ghost. Eventually, van Weyden and another shipwreck victim, a young woman, escape from The Ghost and it is the skills they learned aboard The Ghost that keep them alive.
For the movie, the producers, Warner Bros., hired Robert Rossen to write the screenplay. Rossen re-wrote the story, keeping Larsen and van Weyden pretty much as they are in the book, but re-imagining one of the shipmates into a major character, Leach (John Garfield), and changing the one female in the story, Ruth Brewster (ida Lupino), into a wanted criminal. Instead of van Weyden falling for the girl, Rossen has Leach become her soul mate.
Strangers On a Train is one of the best Hitchcock movies - and best movies - ever made.
The plot is super simple: two men meet by accident on a train. Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is a famous tennis player and is recognized by Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), a aging ne'er do well. Bruno tells Guy about his father who is always complaining about the money that Bruno spends. Bruno reads the gossip columns so he knows that Guy wants to marry a Senator's daughter but his cheating wife won't give him a divorce. Bruno suggests that they 'swap' murders. That way, the police will never figure it out because there will be no motive.
Unbeknownst to Guy, Bruno thinks they have made a deal and kills Guy's wife. The scene in which he strangles her as seen through her broken eyeglasses which have fallen to the ground is every bit as chilling as a certain shower scene Hitchcock shot about a decade later.
Bruno then goes to Guy and expects him to reciprocate. Robert Walker should have won an Oscar just for the way he said, "Guy" as he calls on Haines so that he could give Guy the keys to his father's house and details on where his father's bedroom is.
When it becomes clear that Guy does not intend to murder Bruno's father, Bruno decides to plant a cigarette lighter that belongs to Guy at the murder scene of Guy's wife, framing Guy for the murder.
The cast is top notch from the two leads down to the two detectives (Robert Gist and John Douchette) who are tailing Haines to try to pin his wife's murder on him. The music by Dimitri Tiomkin is perfect.
But the BIG story of Strangers is that the screenplay is by Raymond Chandler, among others. There are many elements of Chandler's best work in this screenplay. The story is told almost exclusively from Haines' perspective, just as Chandler's Marlowe books are. His first screenplay was a gem, Double Indemnity. He did not like working for Hollywood because, as is still the case, the writer is just an employee of the studio and the studio or director or even the actor can make changes to the script. Chandler did not like anyone changing even a comma - so there were lots of conflicts. And there were also a few of the best film noir films ever made.
The Ten Commandments or Put Through Demille Again
The Ten Commandments is to movies like those paintings of dogs playing cards is to art - I mean, how do those dogs do it? And that is what we all ask whenever we see this movie: how did they do it?
Watching TTC at the Grauman Chinese Theater, on a big screen and with a few hundred other people, the special effects are really special, especially since this was all done 60+ years ago without any CGI. Yes, as one critic said 60+ years ago in his review of this movie, we are put through DeMille again, but oh what a DeMille!
Craig Barron, a visual effects Oscar winner and Ben Burtt, a sound effects Oscar winner, introduced the movie at the TCM 2018 Festival. They brought along some video to explain how DeMille and his team did it - from Pillars of Fire to the parting of the Red Sea. They emphasized that most of the special effects were done in layers, that is, there was more than one element of special effects involved in each special effects scene. For example, the parting of the Red Sea involved a triple matte plus three dimensional sets and special sounds. Even less gaudy effects were multidimensional. When Moses and his wife to be are at the base of Mount Sinai, the Mount is a matte scene but to add depth to it, the smoke surrounding the peak was real, made by special smoke machines.
Just as the special effects have taken prominence in this review, so too in the movie. None of the characters is especially intriguing: Charlton Heston (Moses) is just your ordinary born-Jewish-but-left-in-a-basket-in-the-Nile River- to-be-found-by-Pharaoh's daughter-and-made-into-a-prince-of-Egypt. Yul Brynner (Rameses) is the put-out-actual-son-of Pharaoh-who-hates-his-pseudo-half-brother. Anne Baxter (Nefertiti) is the woman -in-the -middle.
I expect that it is difficult to act in a movie that is almost 4 hours long and you are expected to bring to life a story that is more than 3,000 years old. All those special effects making it vital that the actual human beings on the set perform their parts as well as can be expected while on the clock so to speak - these effects are intricately timed. Every. Word. Spoken. In. This. Movie. Is. Spoken. LIke. There. Is. A. Period. After. Each. Word. Really. Only Brynner is able to stitch together a character from these shopworn cliche-spouting metronomes passing for people.
As the plagues of god pile up, we are told that the Hebrew exodus from Egypt was the first birth of Freedom in the world. It seems Freedom needed a lot of help to get started and still needs help to get it over the twin humps of Facebook and Amazon - we know what you watch, what you think, what you talk to other people about, who your friends are, what you read and listen to, where you shop and what you buy, where you live, eat and sleep. Where's your messiah now?
I, Tonya (Directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Steven Rogers) is a ground-breaking new film about the unstated class system in America.
I, Tonya is that rare movie that puts you, the audience, into the center of what the movie is about.
I, Tonya tells the story of what really happened when a world-class ice skater from the wrong side of the tracks had her main rival whacked, literally.
I, Tonya tries to do for film what Picasso did for art and William Faulkner did for the novel – to capture reality from more than one side, one point of view.
OK, this movie works on so many levels, every time I started to write this review, I kept changing it. So I decided to use all of them because that is what this movie is about: reality in all of its many dimensions.
The story is simple and one that many of you will remember. Tonya Harding (Margo Robbie) was a great American ice skating champion who was the first woman to do a triple axel (three and a half rotations) during a competition. Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) was a great American ice skating champion and in direct competition with Harding for the Ice Skating Champion of the 1994 Olympics. One day, coming from practice, Kerrigan is whacked in the knee by an unknown assailant.
What is not so simple is the world that Harding came from. Her mother (Allison Janney) is one of the great Dearest Mommy mothers ever portrayed in film. And she even hits Nancy with a hair brush. The more success Nancy has, the more her mother insists that it is because she pushed and slammed and even knifed Nancy to be the best.
When Nancy meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), she is only 15 years old, but she desperately needs someone to love her and Jeff is it. Sadly, he, too, cannot keep his slaps and punches to himself and worse, he is not too bright. When Nancy tells her mother that she and Jeff are going to be married, her mother advises, “You fuck dumb, you don’t marry dumb.”
Jeff has a friend who is even dumber than he is, Sean (Paul Walter Hauser). When Nancy gets a death threat just before the American championships, Sean suggests that they get back at Tonya’s biggest competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, by doing the same to her. From such stupid, small ideas comes a scandal that made tabloid news seep into mainstream news so that today, one cannot tell one from the other. In 1994, Tonya became the second most recognized person in the world behind President Bill Clinton.
The story is told by the major characters in interview format that is interspliced with action scenes of what is being described. Director Gillespie keeps switching the format so that we are constantly being thrown from one person’s reality to another’s. By the time we get to ‘the incident’ (and Harding tells us, OK, that is what you are all here for), we are not certain who to believe and what really happened. What we are certain about is our complicity in the circus that surrounded the tragedy of Harding’s life. As she tells us, she was abused all of her life and (looking straight into the camera) “lastly by you.”
The acting is some of the best you will see this year. Robbie is incredible. The makeup, the spectacular skating of Harding and, especially, the parental and spousal violence are so real that they make us understand more than ever that the movies are now at a stage where they can create reality, any reality, that they want to create. What is real becomes just as nebulous as what is true.
I, Tonya is about class, both as in classy and as in class status. Harding was from the wrong side of the tracks and her ‘class’ is not something she could hide any more than she could hide her ambition. As she continues to be the best female ice skater in America, but is never named the best by judges for the American Ice Skating Association, her frustration mounts until she finally confronts a judge in a parking lot who is visibly scared of her. He admits that her mediocre scores have nothing to do with her skating but rather they are because the Association does not want her to be the face of American Ice Skating.
In the irony to end all ironies, that is exactly what Tonya Harding becomes.
Director: Craig Gillespie
Writer: Steven Rogers
TULLY, A MOVIE ABOUT BEING A MOM
No, this is not Sully, the movie about the pilot who landed the jet on the Hudson River. And after seeing the movie, I can tell you that they could have called this movie a lot of other things, so why they insisted on calling it Tully is not something you will find out in this review, although the name does have some significance to the movie, but if I told you what that is, it would be a spoiler.
Tully had its Hollywood premiere on April 18 in Los Angeles at the Regal Theatre. Written by Diablo Cody (Juno), directed by Jason Reitman (Juno) and starring Charlize Theron, Tully is the story of a woman, Marlo, who has just given birth to her third child, Mia, while trying to keep a semblance of the person she was for most of her life, a beautiful, funny and fun-seeking girl.
Something happened to Marlo after her second child, Jason, who developed or was born with serious mental problems. Marlo had depression after his birth and neither of them has fully recovered.
Marlo if is fed up. Her body is this machine that needs constant care just to keep working, ballooning up 50 pounds with another person inside it, then becoming a milk factory to feed and care for this crying, lovable, shitty, sucking baby that needs you 24/7. Tully does for motherhood what Saving Private Ryan did for soldiering – it took it out of the dream factory and put it into the real factory where things get down and dirty. It made war real as Tully makes motherhood real. Mothers gain weight while pregnant and most don't lose it. Breast-feeding babies is hard work and often hurts. And no matter how progressive we think our times are, women still have most of the household duties, including caring for the kids. When Marlo goes off for a night on the town, her husband instinctively says that she has never left the kids alone like that before. When he is reminded that he was home with them, he responds, 'oh, yeah, right.'
Her husband, Drew (in a fine performance by Ron Livingston), tries to help, but he has a job and spends all of his spare time fantasizing he is in charge as he zaps bad guys in video games. Her brother (Mark Duplass) has hit the jackpot in America, having the right job at the right time that makes him rich. As a present, he offers her a 'night nanny,' a caretaker who comes over at night to allow a mother to get some rest.
Enter "Tully", a 26-year-old stand in for Diablo Cody – she's smart, funny, caring, understanding, quirky – you saw Juno, right? Tully is Marlo's Savior (yes, capitol S because that is what she really is, grace from God). Tully takes over and suddenly, everything goes right for Marlo. She is once again becoming the woman who started this journey three kids, fifty pounds and one nervous breakdown ago. Tully is cleaning the house, making cupcakes for the kids to take to school and even joining Marlo in bed to help revive her husband's fast fading attraction for her. Wait, wait – she what? Yep, she does. Or maybe...
It all comes to a head when that night on the town with Tully turns into a near death experience. There is an accident and Marlo is almost killed. It is at this moment that the movie loses its way and decides to put on a glitzy sequined sexy gown to cover its gritty but honest overalls. Everything that happened to Marlo for the several weeks that this movie shows of her life is reduced to one shamefully lurid fact.
Of course, the movie probably got made because of that last-minute turn-around. It’s the kind of thing that has made huge hits of other, rather mundane and much less deserving movies. In fact, you can almost say that Tully has stolen an idea from a very successful movie of yesteryear. But hey, who remembers yesterday let alone yesteryear?
Go see Tully. It's 90 minutes of great acting, fine directing, good writing – and 4 minutes of thinking - oh no, I wish they had just let this movie be what it is, a fine movie about what it takes to be a mom. It’s a really good movie - until it isn’t.
And they should have waited to release it on – that's right, Mother's Day.
Running time: 94 MIN.
PRODUCTION: A Focus Features release of a Bron Studios, Right of Way Films, Denver and Delilah Productions prod. Producers: Diablo Cody, A.J. Dix, Helen Estabrook, Aaron L. Gilbert, Beth Kono, Mason Novick, Jason Reitman, Charlize Theron. Executive producers: Jason Blumenfeld, Jason Cloth, David Gendron, Ali Jazayeri, Ron McLeod, Andrew Pollack, Paul Tennyson, Stan Thomas, Dale Wells.
CREW: Director: Jason Reitman. Screenplay: Diablo Cody. Camera (color, widescreen): Eric Steelberg. Editors: Stefan Grube.
WITH: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston, Emily Haine, Elaine Tan.
The story Martin Scorsese tells in The Wolf of Wall Street is classic Americana: a social climber, Jordan Belfort, strikes it rich by taking H. L. Mencken’s advice, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”
Belfort gets rich by selling penny stocks to people who don’t know any better, then gets ever richer by selling them to people who should know better, but as they say on Wall Street, "You can't make money investing in what you should."
And making money is the name of the game and it's the only game ion town. Here's to you, unscrupulous scumbags!
Wolf is all about excess. Cocaine by the pound snorted, quaaludes by the carton popped, prostitutes by the score banged, Cristal by the case spilled, money in the millions squandered, and scenes of indescribable decadence are all part of the Scorsese palate in creating Wolf. And it’s almost three hours long.
Shortly after it was released, the daughter of one of the con men depicted in the movie wrote an open letter to Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, telling them what scum they are for making a movie that praises the lifestyle of people who have destroyed lives with no more thought than killing a bug. She tells them that she is officially turning over to them the shame she has felt for years at being this guy’s daughter.
Actually Scorsese and his writer, Terence Winter, just depict — and not necessarily praise — the lives of these lowlifes; but showing lowlifes getting extremely rich while defrauding people and living the life of the rich and fatuous is as close to praise as you can get in this country.
Who's the hero?
The problem of portraying evil without making it look appealing dates back to the the birth of western literature. No less a writer than John Milton struggled with the problem in his magnum opus, Paradise Lost. All the critics agree that the most interesting character in Milton’s tale of good versus evil is, well, evil, as personified by the mother of all evildoers, the devil himself, Lucifer. Everybody prefers Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll.
The history of the movies is studded with blockbuster hits about bad guys whose lives are full of violence, greed, addiction, and that fourth horseman of modern depravity, casual sex. The problem is that from Valentino’s Sheik — he kidnaps the woman he wants — to Jordan Belfort, movies make heroes of the bad guys they portray.
And no matter how hard a filmmaker tries to show us how bad a guy is, audiences love them.
Take The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola shows the transformation of Michael Corleone from a WWII hero who wants nothing to do with the family business of crime and punishment to the most ruthless mafia don in America. I saw the movie shortly after it came out at the long-gone Fox movie palace on 16th and Market in Philadelphia. The culminating scene in the movie is a now-classic montage: Michael acts as the godfather to his nephew (whose father he soon will have garroted), renouncing the devil. This scene is cut together with scenes where Michael’s henchmen murder his rivals. As each mafia don was brutally wiped out, a cheer went up in the theater. The audience was applauding Michael’s bloody triumph.
Why, I wondered, was everyone applauding this murdering conniver?
The answer is simple — people love to watch bad guys be bad. Maybe it’s because it provides an easy answer to why so many of us perceive our own lives as failed. If I had been willing to [murder, cheat, betray, steal], I would be rich and successful too. Of course, in the old Hollywood, all these bad guys ended up like their template, Lucifer, in hell. But finally Hollywood came to the conclusion that the American people can take the truth: greed is good.
What sets Wolf apart from the other classics that celebrate the bullies is the fact that Wolf is not a very good movie. For three hours, we watch a super-salesman hump, snort, cheat, hustle, and deceive his way to the top of the FBI Wall Street hit list. (By the way, the FBI’s history of prosecuting Wall Street elites proves that its Wall Street hit list is a very short list, and you have to be really, really bad to get on it). In the end, the Wolf loses all the money he stole from others and ends up selling himself as a self-help guru. As the daughter who turned over her shame says, these guys always land on their feet.
Where do you draw the line?
So is a filmmaker or writer or artist promoting the evil he or she portrays?
Not necessarily, but how much sex do you need to show before you fall into the porno well? Is it just the fact that you’re not showing the actor’s penis that makes such depictions art and not porn? There is such a thing as violence porn. How about financial porn? In Wolf, greed is not only good, it’s the reason for living.
So what is Scorsese trying to tell us? Our country has gone berserk by letting guys like this get away with financial butchery? Is this an “only in America” tale? Maybe. If so, Wolf fails because the idea that this movie is an indictment of the system is nowhere to be found in the movie itself. In the end, we have one more movie that is about all that the people who made it claim to hate.
At least at the end of The Godfather Michael is forced to lie to the one person in the world he loves, his wife. And by doing that, he destroys the one thing he claims to care about, his family. Jordan Belfort cares about no one and nothing. Even when he loses his family, his friends, and his money, he couldn’t care less.
Frankly, neither could I.