Sunday, January 31, 2010


Overwhelming tension builds throughout this intense tale of the Cold War during the 60's. Henry Fonda portrays the President of the United States. He is faced with the very real possibility of the end of life on Earth. Through a series of mistakes, a group of American bombers are sent on a mission to nuke Moscow. Fonda must make immediate decisions on how to save humanity, speaking with the Russian Premier on the "hotline" while the minutes to nuclear annihilation speed by.

The final decisions and actions are monumental. You must watch Fail-Safe to its last gripping minute!

Based on the bestselling novel by Eugene Burdick and Henry Wheeler. Walter Bernstein does a terrific job of transferring the tension from the pages to the big screen. Director Sydney Lumet has the difficult task of creating drama with dialogue. He conquers this task admirably. Lumet also uses lighting and camera work to aid in creating drama.

Henry Fonda does his usual fine job as the President. All the pressure that comes with the job is apparent. Fonda uses not only his voice, but body language and facial expressions for maximum effect. Larry Hagman, of 'I Dream of Jeannie' and 'Dallas' fame, does a wonderful job as the translator. Walter Matthau is featured as a "hawk" pushing the President to "finish the job".

Fail-Safe is a dynamic metaphor for the Cold War. Two nations each intensely afraid of the other. Two sides within each nation arguing over peace vs. war. Most of humanity having no idea how close we came to a nuclear end. Perhaps we don't know how close we are today.

Filmed in 1964, directed by Sydney Lumet, written by Walter Bernstein, starring Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman, Fritz Weaver and Dan O'Herlihy.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Duck Soup

Anarchy. It is the only word to describe the Marx Brothers. You either love them or hate them. Just like with all things uncontrolled, there is no middle ground. Personally, I appreciate anarchy. Ever since I was a kid I enjoyed the unstructured life. And I deeply appreciate the Marx Brothers. The constant sarcasm and in-your-face one-liners are fantastic. If you are looking for a coherent plot or linear storytelling, skip this movie. It is 68 minutes of sarcasm, jokes and anarchy.

Duck Soup has the thinnest of plots. Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) is appointed Head of State of Freedonia. He decides that war with the neighboring country of Sylvania is needed. Chico and Harpo play spies that constantly switch sides. Zeppo, the "fourth" Marx Brother, portrays Firefly's aide. This is the last of the films in which Zeppo appears on screen. The point of the film is to provide each brother their opportunity to wreak havoc upon the audience. No moment is too precious to escape the jokes, insults and/or sarcasm. Politics, romance, movie musicals, government and war itself are all insulted and ridiculed at one point or another. Looking back, many critics reference Duck Soup for its anti-establishment humor. The Marx Brothers used this film to satirize European Dictatorships, Western governmental policies and all forms of authoritarian regimes. They were so effective that Mussolini banned this film in Italy. Groucho is later quoted as saying he just wanted to make a funny movie and that they had no plan to make some grand statement. I think both attitudes are true. The Marx Brothers did seem to want to make "just a funny movie", but they did so by poking fun at so many of the troubles of the 1930s.

One other bit of information that I find intriguing. Duck Soup was released in 1933 to critical disdain and was a bomb at the box office. Now, almost 80 years later, it is listed in most of the greatest film lists. It is hailed as "satiric masterpiece" and "quintessential Marx Brothers". The brothers just wanted to make a funny movie and, initially, were most disappointed with the public reaction. This film was, at first, a total flop. But by now I am sure that they would be proud of the movie and how the audience has connected with the message and humor of Duck Soup.

There are a few scenes in this film that have been copied many times. The most famous of which is the "mirror" scene. In this scene, Harpo has broken a mirror and attempts to mirror the image of Groucho move-for-move. Harpo later recreated this scene on 'I Love Lucy', but with the roles reversed. On the tv show, Lucy attempts to mirror Harpo. Also, classic jokes that have been repeated millions of times find their fame in this film. Lines like "any four year-old could understand this report. Go out and find me a four year-old because I can't make heads or tails of it." That joke has been used, in one form or another, in movies, tv and on stage ever since.

Filmed in 1933, directed by Leo McCarey, written by about a dozen people, starring the Marx Brothers.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Miracle Mile

It's the middle of the night. You are at a L.A. coffee shop, late for a date. The phone rings and you decide, since it's ringing, to answer the phone. The panicked voice on the line mistakenly thinks he is talking to his dad. The voice informs you that "the button has been pushed" and that in 70 minutes "they will hit us back". You then hear gunfire and a different voice tells you to "forget everything that you heard". Was the call a prank? Is nuclear war about to start and is the end of the world about 70 minutes away? Do you run? Who do you tell?

That is the premise for Miracle Mile. Writer/Director Steve De Jarnatt created a situation that everyone on Earth faces, in one way or another. We all have the sceptre of nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads. This film stars Anthony Edwards (of ER) as Harry Washello. Harry is the unlucky (or is it lucky?) one who answers the call. He was at the diner to meet his new love Julie (played by Mare Winningham). He missed their date and she is not there. The phone rings and the entire world is changed. Or is it? The call could be a prank. He tells the few other patrons in the diner of the call. Some think he is drunk, others think he is nuts, and a few think the call is accurate and make plans to get out of LA pronto.

The film follows the choices and chaos that ensue as the word of the possible attack upon LA spreads. Harry refuses to leave without Julie. His determination not the leave her behind becomes the focal point of the film. With the clock ticking can he find her and get her out of town?

The script, wardrobe and acting all leave something to be desired. De Jarnatt has not directed a major film since Miracle Mile. But there is something in the quirky love story and the race against time that attracts me. I find myself rooting for Harry and Julie, even through some of the ridiculously stupid decisions they make. And who knows, under that kind of pressure, perhaps anyone would make stupid choices as well. De Jarnatt's script also shows the quickest move from quiet to chaos ever filmed. His personal belief in humanity appears to be very thin indeed.

Miracle Mile is not a great film. This movie is more "less than famous" than "classic". But I did enjoy it. Perhaps you will as well.

Note: Look for some actors who are unknown at the time. 'Forrest Gump' pal Bubba (Mykelti Williamson) has a small part. He plays the carjacking victim Wilson. Also Denise Crosby, from 'Star Trek:The Next Generation' is Landa in the diner.

Filmed in 1988, directed and written by Steve De Jarnatt, starring Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham, Mykelti Williamson and Denise Crosby.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Set during the Great Depression, this story of a dance marathon provides an existential reflection of life under immense pressure. The dancers represent all the difficulties and hopes of this dark period in American history. Jane Fonda plays a self-loathing woman bent on her own destruction. She somehow attracts the interest of Michael Sarazin with shocking results.

The despair of people during the Depression is ever present in the collection of dancers. The "contest" is a destructive attack on the physical and emotional endurance of all the participants. How each of them handle this pressure is the true tale told here.

Gig Young plays the caring and sleazy promoter of the dance marathon. He received an academy award for his attention-demanding performance. But it is the story of the dancers, led by Fonda and Sarazin, upon which the movie rests. The cast does a fabulous job. Desperate for the prizes the contestants battle for weeks against all odds. They Shoot Horses, Don't They? requires your attention through the last moment.

Director Sydney Pollack handles the adaptation of the Horace McCoy novel with a deft touch. The subject matter requires respect, but Pollack keeps the film from falling into the maudlin. The adaption of the script by James Poe and Robert E. Thompson is bravely done. The novel is hardcore and so is the film.

Filmed in 1969, Directed by Sydney Pollack, Written by James Poe and Robert E. Thompson, Starring Jane Fonda, Michael Sarazin, Gig Young, Red Buttons, Susannah York and Bruce Dern.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Oscar's Big Mistake

No, that is not the title of the new film starring Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street. Instead I am using my blog to unload about my personal disdain for the 1980 Academy Award for Best Picture. The 1980 award goes to the "Best Picture" released in 1979. '79 was a fabulous year for American cinema. Over a dozen great films came out that year. And none of them won the Oscar! Below is a list of just some of the films that came out in 1979. The list is of films that did not win Best Picture. The winner is listed at the very bottom of this blog.

There are 5 films starting with the letter 'A' that came out in '79 that were better than the winner:

'Alien' perhaps the most intense fear I ever experienced watching a movie. Ridley Scott did a fantastic job and Sigourney Weaver was great. The first woman to star as the hero in a big-budget action film.

'All that Jazz' Bob Fosse's semi-autobiographical masterpiece. Great music and dance and Roy Scheider (taking over from Richard Dreyfuss) is terrific.

'A Little Romance' wonderful coming of age love story featuring a very young Diane Lane. Read my earlier blog.

'Amityville Horror' based upon a "true" story. Scary in its simplicity. That is one creepy little girl.

'Apocalypse Now' A monumental epic. Francis Ford Coppola used every bit of his talent to bring this vision of the horror of war to the screen.

Other great movies that came out in 1979:

'Norma Rae' Sally Field wins an Oscar for her portrayal of the labor organizer.
'Breaking Away' touching coming of age story set against bike racing.
'China Syndrome' Jack Lemmon fights the nuclear power industry. After Three Mile Island, this film shocked the US.
'Manhattan' Woody Allen's homage to the city he loves.
'Being There' Peter Sellers wows audiences by being subdued and still funny.
'La Cage aux Folles' Hilarious French film. Later remade in English as 'The Birdcage'.

1979 was also a year for great cult/indy/off-beat movies:
'Monty Python's Life of Brian', 'Quadrophenia' (my earlier blog), 'The Jerk', 'The Black Stallion', '10' and the first 'Star Trek' movie all get better ratings, more attention and higher ratings than the eventual Oscar winner.

And the winner is:

'Kramer vs. Kramer'. I know, it was an okay movie. But better than 'Alien', 'All that Jazz' or 'Apocalypse Now'? NEVER! For an at the time naive 19 year old it was most disappointing. I gave up on the Academy for the next few years. I guess I am still a little bitter. Thanks for letting me vent my disgust. I think I even feel happier having shared my opinion.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Dersu Uzala

This is a beautiful film. Beautiful to view with its magnificent cinematography. And beautiful in emotion. The relationship between the main characters is heartwarming. The scenery is a joy to behold.

Dersu Uzala was written and directed by Japanese master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. He is best known for 'Seven Samurai' and 'Rashomon', but many have missed this wonderful film. Set in Siberia during the early 1900's, this is the story of a Russian surveyor sent to map the wilderness. He is an army officer and has a small compliment of enlisted men to assist. He, and his men, have guns and equipment and are quite confident that they can handle the job with ease. But Siberia turns out to be much tougher than they expected. While on their surveying mission they meet the title character, Dersu Uzala. He is a member of the Goldi people and is a man who has become one with the forest. The Captain of the Russians hires Dersu to be their guide. This decision comes to save him, and his men, on different occasions.

The film is a study in contrasts and our ability to overcome them. And, perhaps, cherish our differences instead of ridiculing or fearing them. Captain Arseniev, played by Yuri Solomin, is army trained, a man of the city and has a belief in science. Dersu Uzala, portrayed by Maxim Munzuk, is a man of the forest, calls everything "men", because everything has a spirit, and he has a lifetime of experience. But they each see the value in what the other brings to their relationship. They become very close and each treasures the other person. The two actors do a fine job sharing their character's affection for each other with the audience. I felt as if the Captain and Dersu truly understood and cared for each other. The film, in totality, is also a contrast. We get an intimate feeling for the characters while the scale is the large natural wonder of Russia.

The other big "actor" is the landscape itself. Filmed in Siberia, the forest, rivers, mountains, steppes, ice and animals all become the third main character in the movie. Kurosawa has always shown a wonderful eye for cinematography. He uses length to convey to the viewer a sense of awe and beauty and the massive scale of Siberia. There are long shots of the wild with no cuts, long lenses used to include many aspects of the landscape and long interactions between characters for us to get to know their inner selves.

Dersu Uzala won the academy award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1976. The writing and directing of Akira Kurosawa earned that award. This film is in Japanese and Russian with English subtitles.

Filmed in 1975, directed and written by Akira Kurosawa, starring Maxim Munzuk, Yuri Solomin and Siberia.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Thank You For Smoking

This is laugh-out-loud satire. It is biting in its sarcasm and bulls eye accurate in its spoofing of the political correctness movement. The humor is dark, which is just the way I like it! There must have been a dozen moments in which I thought "thank you for saying that". Too much of our society has been cast asunder in an effort to never offend, bother or upset another person. I welcome offense, celebrate bother and, to anyone who wishes to offend me, I say "good luck". Let's celebrate our differences, even those that are upsetting. It is our differences that make life interesting.

Thank You For Smoking follows a tobacco lobbyist/spokesperson as he attempts to persuade the public that smoking just might not be as bad as everyone wants you to believe. Aaron Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, the lobbyist for tobacco companies. He travels America, giving speeches, debating on television and all-in-all battling for the right to smoke. A fictional Vermont Senator, portrayed by William H. Macy, decides to put a poison label on every pack of cigarettes. The two of them battle for public opinion. Naylor takes up with an attractive reporter, played by Katie Holmes, who later betrays his trust and spills all of his dark secrets. Naylor does his job and spins the tobacco story while trying to remain a role model for his twelve year old son.

Aaron Eckhart says that after he read this script he dropped out of another project to play Nick Naylor, heroic tobacco spin-doctor. I believe that almost every actor involved felt the same way. So much of this script is fabulous. Every character has at least a few terrific lines to excite the actor. This film was written and directed by Jason Reitman. He has since gone on to write and/or direct the box office hits 'Juno' and 'Up in the Air'. The hard-hitting sarcasm in this movie is fantastic. But the film also has a personal and sentimental side. The relationship between father and son is touching.

The film is based upon the best-selling novel by Christopher Buckley. Both Reitman and Buckley are the sons of big names in their fields. Jason is the son of Writer/Director Ivan Reitman while Christopher is the son of Author/Columnist William F. Buckley. Perhaps there is genetics at work? Even though the novel was a best-seller it took almost 15 years for the book to hit the big screen. The Hollywood studios must have decided that it was too "sensitive" a subject about which to make a film. There have been six disgusting films in the 'Saw' series, but a look at lobbying, tobacco and political correctness is too sensitive? In what world do movie executives live?

There are many wonderful performances in supporting roles. Besides Eckhard, Holmes and Macy, JK Simmons, Robert Duvall, Sam Elliott and Rob Lowe all have terrific parts. I am certain that they all jumped at the chance to be in Thank You For Smoking. This kind of ensemble film, with a fantastic script, must be an actor's dream. I believe they enjoyed being in this movie as much as I enjoyed watching.

Writer/director Jason Reitman has a wonderful quote about his films. "I don't want to make films that give you the answer. If there is a message to my films - and I hope there isn't - it's to be open-minded." I couldn't agree more!

Filmed in 2005, directed and written by Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Christopher Buckley, starring Aaron Eckhart, William H. Macy, Katie Holmes, Sam Elliott, Rob Lowe and Robert Duvall.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry

If you have seen this film, you may be wondering why it is included in a blog "dedicated to great movies". The dialogue is horrible, the acting is way over-the-top and the plot is simplistic. But there are two major reasons to enjoy Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry.

1. Outrageous car chase. The car chase became a focal point for film in the Sixties. Films like 'The French Connection' and 'Bullitt' (see my earlier blog) used car chases as dramatic moments of action. Many viewers, after seeing these films, talked about Bullitt's chase through the streets of San Francisco or Popeye Doyle's chase of the train as being the best part of the film. In the Seventies film producers and directors took the car chase to the next level. Movies like 'Gone in 60 Seconds' and Ron Howard's directorial debut 'Eat My Dust' were car chase films as a genre. The rest of these films served as secondary moments. The car chase is the movie. So too with Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. I believe it is no coincidence that this time period coincides with the great American muscle cars. We were building bigger engines and faster cars for consumers. That too is reflected in this car chase film movement.

2. The ending. This film has one of the greatest endings ever. No spoilers here. Just watch the movie. Grimace upon some of the dialogue and acting. Enjoy the car chase. Experience the ending and drop me a line. What did you think?

This film tells the story of Crazy Larry, played by Peter Fonda, and his mechanic Deke, portrayed by Adam Roarke. They dream of making it big in NASCAR. But they lack the funds necessary to build the race car of their dreams. So they decide to steal the cash. Dirty Mary, actress Susan George, is a young woman who decides to go along for the ride. Larry and Deke have planned every aspect of the robbery and getaway and are sure of their success. Of course, things don't go as planned. Soon sheriff Everett Franklin (Vic Morrow) is on their trail.

The plot is just a vehicle (no pun intended) to get to the car chase. Filmed throughout the agricultural districts of central California, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry is all about the car and the chase. Muscle cars abound. One detail that I appreciate is that after crashing the beautiful 1969 Dodge Charger R/T mechanic Deke must perform some repairs. This added touch of realism is refreshing. Most car chases have the vehicles careening around without fail until the final crash. It is nice to see that, at least sometimes, when you crash a car at 100 miles an hour it just might get damaged.

Filmed in 1974, directed by John Hough, written by Leigh Chapman and Antonio Santean, starring Peter Fonda, Vic Morrow, Susan George and Adam Roarke.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Man Who Would be King

This is an adventure movie as they were meant to be experienced. Sweeping in scale, featuring megastars Sean Connery and Michael Caine, directed by all-time great John Huston and filmed across Asia. Gods, war, friendship, unique cultures, Kafiristan, a quest for a Crown, Alexander the Great, and tons of adventure. What more could any film buff want?

Based on the Kipling short story, this adventure finds two British soldiers (Connery and Caine) in search of riches. Their travels bring them to Kafiristan. They form their own army and proceed to conquer the natives. After a near-death experience the Kafiris believe Connery to be a God. Our two heroes decide that being a God could be better than being Kings. But heavy is the head that wears the crown. Ego and greed separates these pals and brings darkness and devastation upon them.

The wonderful script by director Huston and Gladys Hill borrows loosely from Rudyard Kipling. Christopher Plummer does a terrific job portraying Mr. Kipling who has become a character within this film. Both Connery and Caine are fantastic and the scenery, pomp and ceremony are wonderful. The Man Who Would be King is a true adventure film for you to enjoy.

Filmed in 1975, directed by John Huston, written by John Huston and Gladys Hill, starring Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Christopher Plummer.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Hustler

I invited a few friends over to watch this film. None had ever seen it. They were all quite impressed by this hidden gem. Nominated for 4 acting Oscars, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and more. The Hustler tells the story of Fast Eddie Felson, pool-hustler extraordinaire. He travels the small-time circuit looking for people to hustle in a game of pool. He is, of course, better than anyone he ever meets. He allows them to win, ups the stakes and takes them for everything they've got. Many of his opponents don't appreciate the treatment. Later he challenges Minnesota Fats to a big-money game. The action between Fast Eddie and Fats is intense and furious.

The atmosphere of pool halls can be felt by the viewer. I can smell the smoke, taste the beer, feel the desperation while I watch. The cinematographer Eugen Shuftan won an academy award. The Hustler also won for art/set direction. Both are well-deserved. However, it is the actors that carry the movie. Paul Newman is stunning. He is Fast Eddie Felson. Both he and fellow nominee Jackie Gleason did all their own pool shots for the film. Piper Laurie, as Fast Eddie's on-off love interest is amazing. I truly feel for her as I watch. George C. Scott, who refused his nomination for best supporting actor, is fantastic as Newman's big backer.

The Hustler is also credited with saving pool in America. The game was being outlawed and run out of many American cities and towns. Pool was thought to be decadent. According to R.A. Dyer's book 'Hustler Days' pool was on its death bed. Then this movie came out and brought pool back into the mainstream. Millions started playing, pool halls opened across the land and the game was saved. Not bad for a movie.

Filmed in 1961, directed by Robert Rossen, written by Rossen and Sydney Carroll, starring Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, Michael Constantine and George C. Scott.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Arsenic and Old Lace

This is a screwball comedy for the ages. Hilarious to this day. Laser quick dialogue, over-the-top performances, wonderful direction and the absolutely impeccable timing of the great Cary Grant. What more could one ask for in a movie?

This film is based upon a very successful Broadway show. The producers of Arsenic and Old Lace perfected a movie making equation that is still being copied today. They hired one of America's top directors, Frank Capra. They added the perfect comedic skills of superstar Cary Grant. Joining them were red-hot script adapting brothers Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein. Then the two women who perfected the Brewster sister's characters on Broadway, Josephine Hull and Jean Adair, join the cast. Add fantastic character actors like Peter Lorre, Jack Carson and John Alexander. Put all these things together and the result is a classic dark comedy. I challenge anyone to watch this film and not have a good time. It is impossible!

The plot follows Mortimer Brewster, portrayed by Cary Grant, as he returns to see his aunts. He is there to inform them he is getting married. Since he is a celebrity who has sworn to "never marry" the press is hot on his tail. Upon arriving at his aunt's home he finds that they have been murdering men to whom they rent their spare room. The women feel they are "ending the loneliness of these poor old men". He is stalling the bride while attempting to learn more about these murders. Soon the police are involved, the crazy family members are running about, the brother who has escaped from jail arrives and the sisters are planning a new murder. The perfect script for a comedy!

As I have been working on this blog I have viewed some films for the first time in years. One thing has become very clear. Cary Grant is a comedic genius. I wrote about his timing in an earlier blog 'His Girl Friday'. And seeing Arsenic and Old Lace again just confirms my belief. Other film funny men receive more credit today, but his timing, use of facial expression and body movements and choice of scripts has caused me to search out all of his films.

Director Frank Capra is one of America's greatest. His films include this one, along with 'It Happened One Night', 'You can't Take it with You', 'Mr. Smith goes to Washington', 'Mr. Deeds goes to Town', and Christmas classic 'It's a Wonderful Life'. If you have the opportunity to see any of these films - Take It! They are fantastic.

I don't know how to explain why the story of two senior citizens who murder men who rent a room is funny, but it is. Enjoy Arsenic and Old Lace.

Filmed in 1941, but released in 1944, directed by Frank Capra, written by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, starring Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey, Josephine Hull and Jean Adair.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Double Indemnity

Every short list of great American cinema includes this film. Far and away, Double Indemnity is the best and purest example of "film noir". To me, the heart of "noir" is that an evil temptress must seduce a pure and good person over to the dark side. In this case Barbara Stanwyck provides the temptation and Fred MacMurray is the one being corrupted. Edward G. Robinson plays the third vital role:the moral authority that must pursue and capture the evildoers. All three are perfect in their roles. Stanwyck convinces MacMurray to move from good to evil and Robinson works to bring them to justice.

Film noir is a cinema movement that experienced its heyday in the 1940s. As the world battled evil and tyranny in World War Two so does the movies. After the war ends, the movies continue to provide the classic evil corrupting good story line, but instead of nations the focus is upon individuals. An important aspect in this movement is the woman being of questionable morals and virtue. So much of Hollywood was hindered by the Production Code. This code greatly inhibited Tinseltown's ability to show women in this light. Film noir allowed for women to be sexual, tempting and criminal. All things that were greatly discouraged by the code.

Double Indemnity was directed and co-written by the great Billy Wilder. He, along with Raymond Chandler, turn James Cain's novel into a film filled with biting dialogue. The script is what makes a simple crime movie into the embodiment of an entire cinematic movement. Billy Wilder is one of the great directors and his work here is perfect. Lighting, camera movement, dialogue, acting and staging all combine to create an American masterpiece.

Stanwyck plays a woman who wants her husband dead to collect the insurance money. MacMurray portrays the hapless insurance salesman seduced into helping her collect on the "double indemnity" clause in the policy. This clause means that Stanwyck collects double if her husband dies in an accident. Robinson is MacMurray's co-worker who is the insurance company's specialist in finding fraud. The trio are perfectly cast in their roles. Each provides a wonderful platform for the different elements of the story to evolve.

This is one of my personal favorites. It is crisp, entertaining and intelligent. I hope you enjoy it as much as I.

Filmed in 1944, directed by Billy Wilder, written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Little Romance

This is one of the greatest date movies ever made. A Little Romance is the story of first love as it should be told. Set in Paris and Venice, Diane Lane (in her debut film) plays a bright, precocious girl who falls for a Parisian boy (Thelonious Bernard in his only film). When her mom explodes over their romance an experienced conman (Laurence Olivier) takes them on a roadtrip of love and romance.

A Little Romance is an engaging film from director George Roy Hill. It is sweet without being sugary, tender without being ridiculous and a wonderful story of first love and coming of age without being cliched or obvious. Director Hill gets the most from the young actors and Laurence Olivier plays a role without being over the top. The performances are touching and the story grabs at your heart.

Georges Delerue won a well-deserved academy award for the score. The music is an important part of the film. It amplifies mood and storytelling while being subtle and poignant. The scenery around Europe is a visual treat. Is there a tandem of more romantic places than Paris and Venice?

Sally Kellerman does a very nice job as the mom and Broderick Crawford's cameo, as himself, is a blast. But it is the two young lovers that grab your attention as you root for their success!

Filmed in 1979, Directed by George Roy Hill, Written by George Roy Hill, Allan Burns and Claude Klotz, Starring Diane Lane, Thelonious Bernard, Laurence Olivier, Arthur Hill and Sally Kellerman.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Rollerball (1975)

Important Note: I am referencing the 1975 version, not the 2002 remake.

This film is often cast aside. Called "simple science fiction", "violent" or a "sports movie". While all of these things are true, the message that I get from director Norman Jewison is one of personal rebellion and individual freedom. The main character, Jonathan E., is the biggest star player in the future sport of Rollerball. Set in 2018 (which is 43 years in the future from its release) corporations rule the world. There are no nations, no wars, no poverty and no individuals. All, except the few ruling "executives", do what they are told in exchange for having their basic needs met by the corporations.

To distract people from their lack of opportunity or creativity the corporations invent a new sport. Much like the Romans before them, humanity's new rulers use violence to divert the populace. The game is designed to show that the individual has no chance in society. Only through collective efforts can one survive. Until James Caan. He plays Jonathan E. the star of the game. He has played longer and better than anyone before him and is becoming an individual superstar. The corporations must show everyone that the individual can not succeed. Jonathan E. decides that his desire for freedom and choice are worth fighting for!

Towards the end of the movie, Caan discusses how the powerful provide basic needs to people in order to take their freedom. His ex-wife states that having your needs met is freedom. But Caan refuses to buy into this line of thought. I celebrate this message of Rollerball. Whether it is by corporations or government too often individual people in our society are pressured to surrender their freedom in exchange for some need being met.

James Caan, as star Jonathan E., and John Houseman, as the head of the corporation trying to dethrone him, put in solid performances. Houseman was coming off his Academy Award for 'The Paper Chase' and Caan was huge from 'The Godfather'. Jewison puts them both to good use. They provide an excellent contrast. Houseman represents the stoic corporate world with aplomb while Caan embodies the individual. Great casting that carries the metaphor throughout their interchanges.

The action sequences in Rollerball are quite violent. This film deserves its 'R' rating. The sport scenes do remind me of the Roman gladiatorial contests. The blood lust even spills over into the crowd. But the message of the individual vs. the collective is the true point of this film.

Director Jewison chooses to use Bach's 'toccata in D minor' as the theme for this movie. In what I consider to be a bit of an homage to 'A Clockwork Orange' Jewison goes with an almost entirely classical score. The Bach music is fantastic. Strong and powerful music for a strong and powerful film.

In a few weeks, on Jan. 30, 2010, director of Rollerball Norman Jewison will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Director's Guild. It is well-deserved! Along with this intriguing film he directed 'In The Heat of the Night', 'Fiddler on the Roof', 'Moonstruck', 'The Hurricane', 'The Thomas Crown Affair' and many others.

Filmed in 1975, directed by Norman Jewison, written by William Harrison, starring James Caan, John Houseman, Maud Adams and John Beck.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Hearts of Darkness

Excellent documentary on the making of Francis Ford Coppola's epic Apocalypse Now. Unprecedented access into the making of a major motion picture with hours of footage provided by Coppola's wife Eleanor. Documentary also includes interviews, filmed a decade later, with Francis and Eleanor Coppola, Martin Sheen, Vittorio Storaro, Laurence Fishburne and others.

The filming and production of Apocalypse Now is as much an epic as the final film. A typhoon destroyed all the sets, Martin Sheen has a major heart attack in the middle of filming, Harvey Keitel is replaced as the lead, Marlon Brando refuses to cooperate, the Philippine Army yanks all the helicopters, and Coppola has to put up his own money to see the film finished. A 100 day schedule balloons into 238 days of intense filming.

Most intriguing is the parallel between the script and Coppola's experiences filming. His own self-doubt and the constant strain as writer/director push him into a kind of madness that is reflected in the main character Willard (Martin Sheen). It is only through force of will that the film is finished. And it is only through that same force that Willard can complete the mission onscreen. Coppola and Willard share an obsession that sees them through unbearable pressures.

One warning. The documentary is rated R primarily due to the footage of a native animal sacrifice scene. While the footage lasts less than a minute it is accurate and somewhat disturbing. You may wish to fast forward through the scene.

Filmed in 1976-77 with additional footage shot in the late 80's, directed and written by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Murphy's Romance

Murphy's Romance is a wonderful romantic comedy. Sally Field plays Emma Moriarty, a woman that moves, with her adolescent son, to a small town in Arizona. She is looking for a fresh start on life. She rents a horse ranch and attempts to rebuild her life and herself in this most rustic setting. James Garner plays Murphy Jones, the town pharmacist and philosopher. He has a prosperous business and is settled in this small community. While there are many bumps along the way, Emma and Murphy belong together. Can they each overcome their baggage and be together?

This film is charming and sweet without being syrupy. It is written for adults. People who have experienced some of life's successes and failures. Who have loved and, perhaps, lost. The script, written by Harriet Frank and Irving Ravetch, is intelligent and entertaining. I deeply appreciate writers that respect the viewer and who write for film goers who are able to follow a plot.

Director Martin Ritt does a fine job supporting two great actors. Under his direction 13 different actors received Academy Award nominations. Ritt allows the story to unfold and for us to get to know, and like, Emma and Murphy. James Garner received his first Oscar nomination for Murphy's Romance. It is well deserved. Garner does a terrific job. He is attractive and personable, while still seeming reserved. Sally Field's acting is also superb. Her ability to be both a weak and strong woman in the same film is not easy.

This is a terrific date movie. It has strong leads and an interesting story line. Murphy's Romance should bring a sense of romance to any viewer.

Filmed in 1985, directed by Martin Ritt, written by Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, starring James Garner, Sally Field, Corey Haim and Brian Kerwin.

I wrote about my appreciation for James Garner in an earlier blog about 'The Americanization of Emily'. You can read that entry here.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Seven Days in May

This is a political thriller starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Lancaster portrays an Air Force General who is organizing a military coup against the U.S. Government. Douglas portrays his aide who discovers the plot. Can he stop the plot before the takeover by the military? Who can he trust?

Seven Days in May was directed by John Frankenheimer. Frankenheimer is best known for his disturbing masterpiece 'The Manchurian Candidate'. Seven Days in May is taut and compelling. The story builds to a very satisfying finish. The script was written by Rod Serling, based upon the excellent book by Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey. I remember, as a teen, reading this book and not wanting to put it down. I wondered if it was possible, in our great democracy, for the military to take over? That question has been repeated, in novels and the media, for the almost 40 years since this film debuted. The Serling script treats the viewer as intelligent and worthy of respect. No cheap tricks, just a well-honed plot and tension that builds throughout.

While this movie was being filmed the production staff asked for governmental assistance with locations and background information. The Kennedy White House was most helpful. The Kennedy brothers had both read and enjoyed the book and were looking forward to the movie. Not so with the Pentagon. The military demanded "approval" of the script before they would help. Frankenheimer felt that this was "covert censorship" and refused to provide them with a script.

The cast is loaded. Besides Douglas and Lancaster, Fredric March plays the President of the United States. He is superb. Just snooty enough to be a President while still seeming somewhat human. Edmund O'Brien portrays a U.S. Senator helping to stop the plot. He won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Academy Award for this film. Ava Gardner, Richard Anderson, Martin Balsam and John Houseman, in his screen debut, all add depth to this fine suspense film.

This is an intelligent political drama. Seven Days in May has a deep cast, fine direction and an intriguing script. Enjoy!

Filmed in 1964, directed by John Frankenheimer, written by Rod Serling, starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Edmund O'Brien, Fredric March and Ava Gardner.

Note: I reviewed another John Frankenheimer film, 'Seconds', in my first blog. You can read it here.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

computer problems

No, that is not the name of some really obscure Keanu Reeves movie. Instead, my computer exploded. Sorry for the delay. I am going to get a new computer right away.

Look for more exciting info and photos tomorrow (Monday). Thanks for visiting and may there be no computer issues in your future!

Please leave any comments, positive or negative, you might have in the comments section of each blog. Or, if you prefer, you can email me at

Have fun!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Panic in Needle Park

The most obvious reason to view The Panic in Needle Park is because it is Al Pacino's first movie. This is before he lit up the screen in 'The Godfather' and 'Serpico'. His ability to capture your attention is evident from the start of his now lengthy career. This film tells the story of Bobby and Helen. They are two young people who become heroin addicts in New York City. The film is gritty and raw, but not as disturbing as Sid and Nancy. There have been many films about drug use and abuse. This is a compelling one.

Pacino plays Bobby, a small-time hustler who steals and deals his way through life. He boasts to Helen about spending time in 8 different jails. Kitty Winn portrays Helen. Helen has split from her relationship with Marco (played by a very young Raul Julia). From the start Bobby finds her most interesting. They become a couple that dabbles in drugs. As the story moves forward Helen becomes deeply addicted to heroin. They both attempt to move beyond the despair of drug abuse, but, somehow, can never seem to escape. Crime, drug dealing and prostitution become part of their daily lives.

The script was written by some literary heavyweights. The Panic in Needle Park script was co-authored by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne and is based upon the James Mills novel. The film provides what appears to be an accurate view of the life of heroin addicts in Needle Park. It is a life of danger and despair, but Bobby and Helen's feelings for each other cast light upon their dark world. Director Jerry Schatzberg pulls no punches in showing us the underbelly of the drug culture.

Look for appearances by actors who would later gain some fame and notoriety. Raul Julia, Joe Santos (Hill Street Blues), Kiel Martin and Paul Sorvino are all in this movie. Just pay close attention because they go by quickly. I am not sure why Kitty Winn never became a bigger star. She is fantastic in this film and shows the ability to connect with audiences. She later played 'Sharon' in 'The Exorcist'. I wonder why she left acting and what she is up to today.

This is a difficult film to watch because of the life choices made by the characters. But, in some way, their care for each other provides a positive message among all the negatives.

Trivia: Kitty Winn is the granddaughter of General George C. Marshall. Marshall was the U.S. Chief of Staff during World War Two and went on to lead the 'Marshall Plan'. This plan provided the funds for Europe and Japan to rebuild after the War.

Filmed in 1971, directed by Jerry Schatzberg, written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, starring Al Pacino and Kitty Winn.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Pumping Iron

This documentary covers the epic battle between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno for the 1975 Mr. Olympia title. Pumping Iron covers a 4 month buildup as bodybuilders throughout the world prepared for the finals in Pretoria, South Africa. While everyone in the movie is built, somehow Arnold appears bigger and better than everyone else.

It is fascinating to see these two future stars in their "natural" environment. Arnold is a five-time defending champion who, at age 28, is tops of the bodybuilding world. Schwarzenegger is about to shift from competitive bodybuilding to starring in movies. The "Terminator" to be exudes charm and personality throughout his workouts and public appearances. He excites the crowd and gathers the fans no matter where he is. Ferrigno is the up-and-coming challenger. Ferrigno is 24 and about to burst upon the bodybuilding world and, in a few years, would be forever known for his role on 'The Incredible Hulk' television show.

Filmmakers George Butler and Robert Fiore captured over 100 hours of workouts, appearances and interviews in the months before the final. They do an excellent job of presenting what could otherwise be very boring material (guys lifting weights). The attention to personality and detail make this an informative and intriguing documentary.

As I watched this movie, while eating some Mac and Cheese, I felt like getting back in the gym and pumping iron again. To me, that is the sign of an excellent film!

Filmed in 1975, directed by George Butler and Robert Fiore, based on the book by George Butler and Charles Gaines, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robert Katz and Lou Ferrigno.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


I love British comedies. Especially 'Monty Python'. One of the greatest gifts I ever received is the '16 ton Megaset' of DVDs which I got for my birthday. (My birthday is September 4th just in case you want to send gifts!) And of all the cast of 'Python' John Cleese is my favorite. His manic energy and always "ready-to-explode" personality are hilarious. From 'Monty Python' to 'Fawlty Towers' to 'A Fish Called Wanda' Cleese delivers laughs. Which is why I was so excited to go see Clockwise when it first arrived in Los Angeles in 1986. I never understood why it received so little attention in the U.S. It was a big hit in England, but never caught on here. It should have!

This film tells the story of one ill-fated day for a British school headmaster that is obsessed with punctuality. Headmaster Stimpson, played by Cleese, is to travel 150 miles to become the chairman of the national headmaster organization. He, and his students and family, are most proud. Of course, the journey is filled with nothing but problems. Everything that can go wrong does. Travel problems, luggage issues, a visit to a monastery and many other roadblocks stand between Headmaster Stimpson and his moment of glory. You can see the pressure building within Cleese every step of the way. His fans know that you can only hold John Cleese in for so long. How and when that massive pressure gets released is the question.

Clockwise is one of the few times that Cleese neither writes nor directs his appearance. Writer Michael Frayn does a wonderful, if at times painful, job of destroying each new chance at success for our beleaguered Headmaster. Each obstacle is small and can be overcome, but the succession of events builds throughout. Director Christopher Morahan does a terrific job at the helm. He allows Cleese to be Cleese, but insists he stay within reasonable bounds. At least most of the time.

Clockwise is manic, pressure-filled laughs as only John Cleese can deliver. If you are a fan of John Cleese, this is must see. If not, you should probably avoid this movie. It might not work for you.

Trivia Note: The school in this film is named Thomas Thompion. He was a pioneer of clock and watchmaking in the 17th Century. Quite fitting for a movie about being on time.

Filmed in 1986, directed by Christopher Morahan, written by Michael Frayn, starring John Cleese, Penelope Wilton, Sharon Maiden and Stephen Moore.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Paths of Glory

Happy New Year to everyone! This film, and others like it, are why I started this blog. The movie is great and I hope you enjoy it and 2010!

I consider this to be the best film that remains unseen by many. Voted to almost every "greatest" movies poll it is must viewing for anyone who enjoys movies! This film is about World War I, but Paths of Glory is the most anti-war movie ever released. Leonard Maltin says "shattering story of the insanity of war" and "stunningly acted and directed". The New York Times says "its message growing only more pertinent and potent with each passing year". I say it is one of the most powerful films that I have ever seen. Just writing this blog refreshes the emotions I experienced viewing Paths of Glory. Anger, frustration, disgust, I want to yell at the participants about their actions. Any film that can do that should be seen by all.

Director Stanley Kubrick's best work. I love Dr. Strangelove. I have seen Spartacus about a dozen times. A Clockwork Orange still intrigues me. But Paths of Glory is his crowning glory. This film is superbly acted, written and directed. Kirk Douglas is powerful. Adolphe Menjou and George Macready are terrific as Douglas's commanding officers. The script, written by Kubrick, Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson is top-notch. Based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb which is based on the actual trial during World War I.

One important fact. The film is about French officers and soldiers during World War I. After this film was released it was banned in France!

Paths of Glory tells the tale of an ill-advised, almost suicidal, French attack upon a German position. Douglas, portraying the field commander, does not want to proceed. He is pressured into making the attack with disastrous results. 3 of his men are chosen to be tried for cowardice after the failed action. Douglas defends these men at their trial. I find that I run out of adjectives as I write this entry. Stunning, superb, powerful, emotional and must-see are just a few.

Filmed in 1957, directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by Kubrick, Willingham and Thompson, starring Kirk Douglas, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready and Ralph Meeker.