Monday, May 31, 2010


I am a huge fan of John Cleese. Just check out the autographed 'Fawlty Towers' stuff on my office wall. From television to the movies, his manic energy is hilarious. This is one of his lesser-known films. Enjoy!

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, May 28, 2010

Robin and the 7 Hoods

Let me preface my review by saying that this isn't a great movie. But it is a movie with great moments and a unique history. I believe that those moments and the film's unique history make it worth a viewing. Plus, as a youngster, this was the only musical that I would watch. It holds a special place in my cinema heart.

Robin and the 7 Hoods tells the story of Robin Hood, but moves the setting to prohibition-era Chicago. Frank Sinatra plays Robbo, the leader of one of the "criminal" gangs. With Dean Martin as Little John and Sammy Davis, Jr. as Will at his side, Sinatra is attempting to keep his criminal enterprises going in the face of pressures from the Sheriff, played by Victor Buono, and opposing gang leader Guy Gisborne. Gisborne is portrayed with very over-the-top glee by Peter Falk. Soon Bing Crosby shows up as a pedantic orphan who has benefited from Robbo's charity. He spreads the word of this "munificent perspicacity" of giving to the press and all of Chicago loves the new Robin Hood.

As I said, the film isn't great, but some of the moments are fantastic. This is the film in which Sinatra debuts 'My Kind of Town'. This homage to the city of Chicago is now legendary, but many think it is from the musical 'Chicago'. No, it is from Robin and the 7 Hoods. Also wonderful is a tap/song number from Sammy Davis, Jr. entitled 'Bang! Bang!'. He sings and tap dances his way through the shooting up of a rivals illegal casino. Is there anything more entertaining than a great tap number combined with pistols and a tommy gun? I didn't think so. Most impressive is Bing Crosby. His portrayal of a depression revival minister singing about the evils of alcohol is the show stopper. I challenge anyone to watch this film and not come away singing about the evils of 'Mr. Booze'.

The film's history is also a key part to my interest in Robin and the 7 Hoods. This is the last musical made by Bing Crosby. It is also the last time that the lead elements of the "Rat Pack" get together for a film. Those two facts make it necessary viewing from a cinema history perspective. The fact that you get a couple of great song and dance numbers just adds to the fun. The film also has a darker side to its history. This film was plagued by issues outside of the studio. They filmed a scene involving a kidnapping, but when Frank Sinatra's child was actually kidnapped the producers cut that scene from the film. Also, there is a scene, early in the movie, where the principals attend a funeral. This was being filmed at the same time as the assassination of President Kennedy. Sinatra and Kennedy had been close and this cast a large pall over the cast and crew. Things were so bad that, later, actor Victor Buono said that it was a "minor miracle" that the film was finished at all.

So keep in mind the history while you watch this movie. Feel free to enjoy the songs while you wince at some of the dialogue. But most of all have fun. I know I do whenever I watch Robin and the 7 Hoods.

Filmed in 1963, directed by Gordon Douglas, written by David R. Schwartz, songs by Sammy Cahn and James van Heusen, starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Bing Crosby and Peter Falk.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Dirty War

Interesting film about the lead-up and aftermath of the explosion of a "dirty bomb" in London. This film shows the terrorist event from many different angles. It reminded me of the British 'Traffik'. While that was about the drug war and this is about terrorism, the films are similar in their scope. Dirty War shows the bombing from many different perspectives. This film focuses upon the terrorists as they prepare to carry out their attack, the first responders training and dealing with the event, politicians dealing with the pressures of such a disaster and investigators trying to apprehend the terrorists and stop the explosion. The film also deals with the aftermath of such a tragedy. Showing how unprepared we may be for such dealings is an important part of Dirty War.

The cast is made up of unknowns and none of them get major screen time. This movie is primarily a "procedural" where we are included in the workings of many types of professionals. It attempts to be informative and not fear-mongering. The fact that most cities are under-prepared for a radiation-filled explosion should come as a surprise to no one. The devastating effects of radiation makes it almost impossible for anyone to be fully prepared. There is a quick debate in this movie about that very fact. I also appreciated the films dispassionate look at all the involved parties. From fire fighters to politicians to police investigators to terrorists Dirty War tries to show us the motivation and tactics used by all the parties.

The film is a little disturbing. The idea of being trapped in a major city, with hundreds of thousands of people, while a radiation-laced bomb is exploded should disturb anyone. However, the film makers did a fine job of showing us some of the realities of just such a disaster. The script is compact, most of the characters seem real and the story moves at an excellent pace.

Filmed in 2004, directed by Daniel Percival, written by Percival and Lizzie Mickery, starring Gavin Abbot, Joanne Adams, Shamshad Akhtar and Fuman Dar.

Wednesday, May 26, 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! One interesting note:This film was banned in Brazil upon its release. The military coup that had just taken place there was too similar to the one portrayed in the movie.

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.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Soylent Green

I wore my new Soylent Green T-shirt today. This is the second time that I have worn this shirt and the response is amazing. Every where I stopped someone came up to me to ask about the shirt or to comment about the movie. As my family and friends know, I am a bit of a T-shirt collector. I have about 80 in my closet right now. All have logos of interesting places I've been, things I've seen or movies I love. But of all the hundreds of specialty shirts I've worn over the years, this one has garnered the most interest by far. I find it surprising that a nearly 40-year old film, and a cheesy sci-fi one at that, is the thing that encourages people to talk about their experience of cinema. Obviously, something struck a chord within the viewers of Soylent Green.

Soylent Green stars Charleton Heston as police detective Thorn in New York City in 2022. The city is the home to more than 40 million people. The entire planet is overcrowded, underfed and out-of-resources. People are sleeping in the streets, rioting for food and desperate for any and all of life's necessities. He is charged with investigating the murder of a high-ranking executive in the Soylent Corporation. Soylent has recently introduced a line of amazing food products, of which Soylent Green is one. The nearly starving planet eagerly stuffs their faces with the new items. The Soylent Corporation has told the world of a new source for food in the oceans and they are making huge fortunes selling the foodstuffs.

Dt. Thorn shares an apartment with a researcher named Sol, aptly portrayed by Edward G. Robinson. This is the last film in Robinson's illustrious career. Sol and Thorn are lucky to have a place to live. Most people are sleeping on the street, in stairwells or worse. Sol's research leads him to find important clues in the death of the executive. But Sol longs for the days when food was real, it tasted like something and could be obtained simply by going to the store. There is a touching moment when Thorn shares some strawberry preserves with Sol. Sol is so happy to enjoy something so wonderful and yet even more depressed at the thought of what Earth has become.

No spoilers here. I am sure that almost everyone has seen the film, or one of the many references to it with modern pop culture. But, just in case, I won't give any details. If you have not seen Soylent Green, do yourself a favor and get it. There is a collective experience with which you are not connected.

The release of this film was only a few months after the initial report 'The Limits to Growth' from the Club of Rome. Issued in 1972, this report foretold of the coming apocalypse for the planet. The Club of Rome insisted that there were too many people using too many resources and that Earth was headed for destruction. Almost every "fact" that the report used was distorted and every one of their predictions has yet to happen. Yet millions of people still believe that we, as a species, are destined to hunger, disease, overpopulation and over consumption of all resources. It is almost 40 years since their report and the only places on Earth where people are starving are where citizen's own governments prevent the movement of foods. There is enough food on Earth to feed every human being. The Club of Rome continues to issue reports predicting our imminent demise. They have been doing so for 40 years and will continue to do so for 40 more. You must choose between despair and malaise or a belief in the basic goodness of people and our ability to adapt. I choose hope over despair.

Filmed in 1973, directed by Richard Fleischer, written by Stanley R. Greenberg, starring Charleton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young, Joseph Cotton and Chuck Connors.

The film is based upon the novel 'Make Room! Make Room!' by Harry Harrison. While the setting is the same, the film is very different from the novel.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


This is one of the most intense and terrifying films ever made. You can keep your chainsaws, hockey masks and clown faces. Deliverance will curdle your blood. Not with gore or fake blood, but with intense fear. "He's got a real pretty mouth" will never be spoken again without millions of people cringing. I get a sinking feeling in my stomach just thinking about this film.

Deliverance tells the story of four businessmen who decide to raft down an Appalachian river before it is dammed. After the construction of the dam is finished there will be no more rapids. But, for now, the river is a force of nature. Along the way they meet some of the local mountain people. There is a clash of cultures that is amazing. In just a few hundred miles within America the differences between the city businessmen and the mountain people is astonishing. Director John Boorman's decision to hire almost all locals for the secondary parts adds to the realism. Some incredibly dangerous river rapids are feared by the men from the city. But they should fear two of the locals they will meet much more. For those who have yet to see Deliverance I will not spoil the shock, but be prepared for a major plot-twist.

Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox and Jon Voight portray the canoers. Each play their persona very well. But it is the menacing villains, played by Bill McKinney and Herbert "Cowboy" Coward, who fill me with fear. They are two of the finest movie bad guys ever! I still get nervous, apprehensive and a little disgusted when they appear on screen. Director Boorman and screenwriter James Dickey, who adapted the screenplay from his novel, do a fantastic job. They allow the beautiful and powerful wilderness to be a major part of the movie. The mountains, countryside and especially the river should be given acting credits. Nature is a major player in this movie.

Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond deserves rave reviews. It is not easy to capture the raw energy and excitement of roaring rapids while still keeping the film personal. His work on Deliverance is top-notch. He also deserves kudos for 'The Deer Hunter', 'Close Encounters' and 'Heaven's Gate'. The year after the release and success of this film hundreds of people attempted to recreate the film and shoot the rapids shown here. 31 people drowned attempting to canoe this extremely dangerous river!

Many people exit Deliverance humming the Dueling Banjos music. The scene with Ronny Cox and Billy Redden "dueling" is a classic. The single went on to be a big seller and the footage of the "bluegrass battle" is a popular item on youtube. Use this link to see just the banjo sequence. I am not sure why it is called 'Dueling Banjos' when one of them is playing a guitar?

Filmed in 1972, Directed by John Boorman, written by James Dickey, starring Burt Reynolds, Ronny Cox, Jon Voight and Ned Beatty.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Silent Partner

This film has everything. A tight and tense script from the early career of Oscar winning writer/director Curtis Hanson ('L.A. Confidential'). A terrific, understated performance from Elliott Gould. Christopher Plummer as the villain/criminal mastermind. The type of crime against their employer that almost everyone has wished for at some point in their working career. It was filmed in the 70s so everyone is sleeping around and bras are no longer worn. John Candy, in a very small part, gets the beautiful girl. Just enough violence to keep you wondering about the fate of our anti-hero. Verisimilitude abounds. It seemed entirely an entirely plausible crime to me. The Silent Partner has plenty of tension, plot-twists, solid acting, taut direction, Christopher Plummer in drag and no bras to be seen. What more could you want in a crime thriller?

Elliott Gould portrays Miles Cullen. He is the senior teller at a large bank in Toronto. He notices some suspicious behavior and believes the bank is about to be robbed. But instead of notifying the police he decides to keep some of the bank's cash for himself. The robbery takes place, the bank robber gets a little money and Gould gets a lot of money. Gould is elated. His life has been very sedate, almost boring, and the excitement of being a thief, along with the cash, has brought him a new interest in life. A few nights later his phone rings. The bank robber has figured out that Gould kept most of the proceeds of his robbery and he wants the money. Now! And so the game of cat and mouse begins. Plummer, playing the bank robber, is his most menacing self. Can Gould outsmart Plummer and keep the money without being caught or killed?

Both the writer and the director deserve lots of credit for making this a good film. Writer Curtis Hanson adapted the Anders Bodelson novel 'Think of a Number' into a nice, tight package. You can see the beginnings of the career that would later lead to the film noir masterpiece 'L.A. Confidential'. Director Daryl Duke takes the script and films a wonderfully compact movie. There are few extraneous happenings. Just plot and character development that moves the story along. Duke also gets a top-notch performance out of both Elliott Gould and Christopher Plummer. Gould plays the bank teller with an understated ease. You are never sure of his motives or plans. Plummer is the embodiment of quiet evil. He is menacing from the first time you hear his voice.

Writer Hanson and Director Duke have made a nice thriller. If you like a good suspense movie pick-up The Silent Partner.

Filmed in 1978, directed by Daryl Duke, written by Curtis Hanson, starring Elliott Gould, Christopher Plummer, Susannah York and Celine Lomez. Warning:There is one scene, towards the end of the film, that is slightly gruesome. Just in case you want to close your eyes.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Apartment

Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter. Baxter works at desk number 891 on floor number 19 for one of the largest insurance firms in the world. His desk sits in the middle of a giant room full of desks. Each is home to another worker just like him. C.C. Baxter often stays late, working without overtime pay, to get things done. He is a responsible, well-liked, anonymous cog in a giant insurance machine. Yet, C.C. Baxter is getting positive reviews and references for promotion from executives throughout the company. Many of the senior executives know C.C. Baxter and he is in contact with execs all over the firm.

Fred MacMurray portrays Mr. Sheldrake. He is the president of this monstrous insurance company. He wants to know why so many executives, from different divisions, are giving Baxter glowing reviews. Why are these execs pushing for Baxter's promotion? Earlier in the firm's history a similar story played out. In that case, the junior nobody was running a book-making operation and taking bets from all the other employees. What is the story with Baxter?

Shirley Maclaine plays Fran Kubelik. She is an elevator operator for the firm. Everyday dozens of employees ride her elevator to and from their offices. She is cute, personable and most witty. She avoids all the advances from every executive as they try different ploys to get her to go on a date. The fact that most of them are married doesn't seem to slow down her would-be suitors. But, so far, she seems to have avoided all entanglements.

Baxter has chosen an interesting path to success. He lends out his apartment to executives at the firm. They use his place to rendezvous with their mistress. This makes him very popular. In exchange, they give Baxter glowing performance reviews and recommendations for promotion. He is soon on the fast track to the top floor. Since he lives alone and has little company the situation seems to be perfect. But he develops a fondness for Miss Kubelik. He is now torn between pursuing the lovely and witty elevator operator and advancing his career. When the head of the company, Mr. Sheldrake, wants to use his apartment the choice becomes even more difficult.

Billy Wilder directed and co-wrote The Apartment. He was coming off the giant success of 'Some Like it Hot' (my review) and was on top in Hollywood. He teamed with his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond for this sarcastic yet warm comedy. Casting Jack Lemmon was his best decision. Lemmon can toss-out one-liners with the best. He has impeccable timing and uses subtle voice and volume changes to deliver lines at their sarcastic best. In this movie, he is a character with which the audience can relate. We want him to succeed, to find happiness and love, to move beyond his lonely existence. Shirley MacLaine is fantastic. A truly wonderful, understated performance. She portrays the woman with a tough exterior covering for her disappointment with life to perfection. Also, Fred MacMurray plays the philandering husband with a zest that is spot-on. He is a cheating wretch, but he is also charming. You can see why women would be interested even while they know it is not going to go well.

Wilder's direction, along with his script, is wonderful, as always. Wilder won 6 Oscars in his life with 3 of them coming from this film. The Apartment won Best Picture while Wilder won Best Director and for Best Screenplay. His name is littered throughout my website. He also directed 'Double Indemnity', 'Some Like it Hot', 'Witness for the Prosecution' and 'Stalag 17'. I can safely say that if you are considering watching a movie that is directed and/or written by Billy Wilder you should get it. You won't be disappointed!

Jack Lemmon as C.C. Baxter faces a tough choice in The Apartment. He must choose between his career and love. You, however, face a simple decision. Should I watch this move today or tomorrow?

Filmed in 1960, directed by Billy Wilder, written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray.

Tuesday, May 18, 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. The part played by Cary Grant was originally offered to both Ronald Reagan and Jack Benny. To our benefit, both turned it down.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Witness for the Prosecution

I love courtroom dramas. This film is one of the best. I think Billy Wilder is a fantastic director. This film is one of his best. Charles Laughton is a terrific actor. This movie is one of his best. I love classic cinema. Witness for the Prosecution is one of the great classic movies.

This movie is based upon a play written by mystery master Agatha Christie. There are enough twists and turns to keep any mystery fan happy. The whodunit and why they did it quotient is quite high. Ms. Christie's reputation for leading us down a mysterious path comes to full fruition here. And because she originally wrote this for the stage, the dialogue is wonderful. Lots of clues within lies wrapped in intrigue. But Billy Wilder took the Christie play and changed it from just a murder mystery into a full-blown character study. The roles of the defendant, played by Tyrone Power, and his wife, wonderfully portrayed by Marlene Dietrich, are diminished in the film to give us more of the barrister (lawyer) played by Charles Laughton. Laughton demands your attention no matter what he is doing. From 'Mutiny on the Bounty' to 'The Big Clock' (read my post) to 'Spartacus' to here, Laughton's work is always fantastic. Wilder wisely chose to focus more upon his character and less on the defendant. Because this is a film and not on stage, Wilder was also able to show us many different settings. The play takes place entirely in a courtroom.

The mystery involves the murder of a woman whom Tyrone Power has befriended. Her body was found by her maid and she has identified Power as being at her home near her time of death. Dietrich plays his wife. He helped her escape from post-war Germany. For this she feels a great deal of gratitude. Power hires Laughton to be his defender in court. Every bit of evidence points toward Power. Can Laughton get his acquittal? Did he actually commit the murder? Who is the Witness for the Prosecution?

Along with Laughton, Marlene Dietrich does a fabulous job. She portrays the wife of the defendant with a cool air that perfectly fits her role in our mystery. Also added to the film is the wonderful character actor Elsa Lancaster. Her part, and the health woes of the barrister, were added to provide depth to the movie. Almost the entire cast is fantastic. The lone exception:Tyrone Power. I know he meant to play anguished once the trial is underway, but his portrayal was so over the top it foreshadows current over-actor Al Pacino. Lots of screaming and hair-pulling, but little genuine acting.

Oh well, don't let that deter you from enjoying this fantastic film! Witness for the Prosecution is one of the best courtroom dramas ever filmed. It features a great script, world-class directing and terrific acting (ignoring Mr. Power).

Filmed in 1957, directed by Billy Wilder, written by Larry Marcus from the Agatha Christie play, starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Elsa Lancaster and Norma Varden.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Thin Blue Line

I got so angry and frustrated watching this fascinating documentary. Could no one see that Randall Adams was innocent? Why was he on death row in Texas? Why would the police trust the word of a many-time repeat offender and use such zeal in prosecuting this man? The vitriol began to spill from my lips as the film continued. We live in a wonderful country and still innocent people are being sent to their deaths.

Any time a movie can stir up such emotion it must be seen. I had avoided The Thin Blue Line because I knew many of the details. I wasn't comfortable with those details and knew that they would be difficult to watch. However, I am now very glad that I have seen this magnificent documentary. Director Errol Morris spent two-and-a-half years filming all the main players he could get to appear. He then recreated the scene of the crime from each of their perspectives. Each new witness, lawyer, police officer or defendant added new information. This movie plays like a mystery that has its secrets revealed.

The documentary follows the story of Randall Adams. He had been convicted of murdering a police officer, in Dallas, Texas, and sentenced to death. He had maintained his innocence before, during and after his trial. The police spent almost a month hunting down the "cop killer" before a multi-time criminal named Adams as the shooter. He only volunteered this information after being caught for more crimes and was facing another stint in jail. Director Morris painstakingly interviews both Adams and his accuser, many police officers that were involved, the judge that oversaw the trial and Adams' defense lawyers. The Thin Blue Line is the result of all that amazing work.

Please don't let the powerful emotions scare you away from this terrific film. Yes, it creates strong emotions, but we all should be aware of what is still going on within the justice system. Rent, buy, netflix, somehow obtain this movie.

Filmed in the mid-80s, directed by Errol Morris, starring the actual participants. Errol Morris would go on to win an Academy Award for his wonderful documentary 'The Fog of War'. That is also excellent.

Wednesday, May 12, 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. For more detail, you can read my earlier blog.

'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', 'Mad Max' 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 is 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, May 10, 2010

Mildred Pierce

As frequent visitors know, I love film noir. I enjoy the mystery, relish the dialogue and the visit to the dark side of humanity makes for good viewing. Mildred Pierce is both a classic of film noir and a pioneer. It has all the elements that make for classic noir. It has the seduction of a good person by an evil woman. That good person then descends into a life of crime and destruction in an effort to obtain or keep that woman. That descent over to "the dark side" gives noir its biting truth. Eventually the piper must be paid for all this darkness. And in Mildred Pierce that darkness includes murder.

But this movie is also a pioneer. The protagonist in film noir is, usually, a man being seduced by a beautiful woman. Here it is a woman descending into crime and manipulation for the love of her own daughter. Mildred Pierce struck a blow for feminism long before it became a popular movement. There were strong women in films before this one, but not in film noir. Noir was reserved for leading men. Studios felt that audiences would have trouble with a woman leading a dark movie. But they were wrong. This movie was quite successful at the box office and won a Best Actress Oscar for leading lady Joan Crawford. The fact that 3 vital roles were all played by women is important in film history. This film showed that no parts should be off-limits for women and that audiences will appreciate a well-made film no matter the gender of its leading actors.

Based upon a novel by leading noir writer James Cain, Mildred Pierce tells the story of a woman that will do anything to please her daughter. Of course, this indulgence of a young woman has lead her daughter to become quite spoiled and selfish. All discussion of this movie inevitably leads to how much the viewers hated Veda (the daughter). She is portrayed, with wicked smugness, by Ann Blythe. Blythe was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for her terrific performance. Anytime you can get the audience to despise you as much as they did Veda, you know that your performance is top-notch. Eve Arden is also wonderful as Mildred's friend/business partner Ida. Her dialogue, in usual Eve Arden fashion, is biting and satirical. She too was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. But it is Crawford that carries the film. She deserved the Oscar, beating out some of the titans of her age like Gene Tierney, Greer Garson and Ingrid Bergman.

Classic film noir, wonderful writing and acting and a strong blow for women actors. Revel in the wonder that is Mildred Pierce.

Filmed in 1945, directed by Michael Curtiz, written by Ranald MacDougall from the novel by James M. Cain, starring Joan Crawford, Eve Arden, Ann Blythe, Jack Carson and Zachary Scott.

As I said, I love film noir. Previously, I wrote a piece about my favorite 'Double Indemnity'.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Little Romance

This is one of my Mom's favorite films. She was so excited to see it mentioned here. Happy Mother's Day!

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. One bit of trivia:Two of the films that Lauren and Daniel watch together are 'Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid' and 'The Sting'. Both were directed by George Roy Hill.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Conversation

This is an odd and intriguing little film. Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, The Conversation was his project immediately following 'The Godfather'. While 'The Godfather' was massive, in both scale and success, this film is much more intimate. There is a small cast, simple sets and very little in the way of "action". This movie is very cerebral and is driven by the script and the excellent performance of Gene Hackman. Hackman portrays Harry Caul. Caul is a surveillance expert that has been hired to record an "unrecordable" conversation.

Two people spend their lunch break walking throughout a crowded city park. They never sit down, separate from each other nor allow anyone to get close. Caul has to hire a number of people to be able, with great difficulty, to record their discussion. Why are these people being watched? Are they criminals, cheating spouses or victims of a personal invasion of privacy? What are they talking about? How will this conversation effect those around them?

The job is a difficult one and it takes Caul a lot of work to piece together what was said. Upon finishing the tapes he attempts to deliver them to "the director" (his client). The director's assistant will not allow Caul to deliver the tapes directly and attempts to intervene. Unhappy with the situation, Caul refuses to hand over the evidence and keeps the tapes for himself. Earlier in his career Caul produced some evidence that lead to the death of an innocent family. This has plagued him to this day. His paranoia/guilt has wrecked his life and made it impossible for him to have any personal relationships. He becomes convinced that some nefarious activity is about to take place and is torn on how to become involved or if he even should become involved. At some points he even wonders if what he is seeing is true or delusion.

I won't say anything about the last third of the movie. Once you watch, please feel free to drop me a line ( and let me know what you think happened. The ending of The Conversation has been discussed in film schools, cafes and living rooms since its debut. Also, the film has a haunting jazz score. Composed by David Shire, the score is also featured in film schools for its effect upon the viewer. It is both integral to the film and non-invasive for the viewer.

This movie is small and intimate. We learn a great deal about Harry Caul as a person and about "eavesdropping" as a profession. Even though this film is 35 years old it is still impressive to think about the ability of others to spy upon us. Do you have any secrets you wish to keep? It may not be possible!

The Conversation features a top director in Francis Ford Coppola. He also wrote an interesting script. The cast is superb with Gene Hackman leading the way. The movie builds, slowly exposing the conversation along with the characters to keep us involved and intrigued through a unique ending.

Filmed in 1974, directed & written by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Gene Hackman, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford, John Cazale, Teri Garr and Cindy Williams.

Some trivia: The opening sequence involves a mime. That mime is Robert Shields, best known as part of 'Shields and Yarnell'. He was actually working as a street mime in that park at the time of the filming. Both Coppola and Hackman consider this to be their favorite of all the films that either have made. Coppola was nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. He lost out to Robert Towne for the fabulous 'Chinatown'. Use this link to read my earlier article about 'Chinatown'. The film was nominated for Best Picture, but lost out to another Coppola film 'The Godfather Part II'. It was a good year for Francis Ford Coppola!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Paths of Glory

This film is the reason I began this blog. A fantastic film that has been under-appreciated and under-viewed since its debut.

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.

Roger Ebert wrote a wonderful, detailed look at the imagery in Paths of Glory. You can read it here.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


Although I am not a huge Alfred Hitchcock fan, this is my favorite of all his films. Simple in setting and story, but rich in character! Lifeboat focuses on a small group of survivors of a German U-Boat attack upon their merchant ship during a World War II Atlantic crossing. This group of survivors find themselves thrown together in their lifeboat. Unsure of what to do, which way to head, even of their very survival. How do people of all walks of life, different nationalities, income levels, genders and races react under immense pressure? Can they overcome the elements, and their own prejudices, to find their way home?

Based upon a play by John Steinbeck, Lifeboat is Hitchcock at his best. The restriction of only one set (the lifeboat) and no new characters could be daunting for a film maker. But Hitchcock uses his penchant for experimenting to his advantage. I never felt as if the movie suffered due to the lack of new elements. No new characters means we get to know these people in great depth. No new sets means that we focus upon story not on cinematography or costumes. The original Steinbeck work was written for the stage. Screenwriter Jo Swerling takes advantage of the fantastic dialogue to give us a depth of connection with the characters that few movies ever achieve. I found myself agreeing or disagreeing with the statements being made and with the choices made on a very personal level.

Hitchcock also takes advantage of a deep cast. Tallulah Bankhead stars as Connie Porter, a wealthy socialite/writer who travels the world covering the war. She is the first person to be in the lifeboat. Quickly the other survivors join her as their ship is sinking. Hume Cronyn, Mary Anderson, Henry Hull and Canada Lee all do fine jobs in supporting roles. But it is the conflict between Walter Slezak, as the German U-Boat Captain, and John Hodiak, as the sailor who takes command of the lifeboat, that moves this movie forward. Slezak does a perfect job portraying the German officer. He is both conniving and helpful in the most authentic of performances. Hodiak also shines with his leftist ranting and demands for action to keep us focused on this most difficult of situations. All together a terrific cast.

Take the greatest American writer of the 20th Century and add an international icon of a film director. Dump in a deep and strong cast and you end up with a fantastic film about human emotion under pressure. Would you crack?

Filmed in 1944, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, written by Jo Swerling from a play by John Steinbeck, starring Tallulah Bankhead, Walter Bendix, John Hodiak, Walter Slezak and Hume Cronyn. For an in-depth look at another fantastic film penned by Steinbeck, read my post about 'The Grapes of Wrath'.

One question. After this film's release in 1944 some critics labeled this film as "pro-Nazi". I don't find that at all, but I wonder what is your opinion?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

"Money is the root of all evil". Or the saying goes. But this film illustrates how money reveals our true nature. It does not corrupt, money just provides corrupt people with opportunities. Just like alcohol, money is a truth serum. It reveals the darkest depths of your being.

Gold is the Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt play two down-on-their-luck Americans looking for opportunity in rural, mountainous Mexico. They are great buddies looking for work. Any work to keep food in their stomachs and beer in their bellies. After being cheated out of their pay they find solace in a flophouse. There they meet Walter Huston. In his Oscar-winning performance, Huston portrays Howard, the grizzled old prospector. After forcefully collecting their owed wages Dobbs (Bogart) and Curtain (Holt) decide to team up with the prospector and find their fortune.

The first half of the film is an adventure film as the 3 leads search for gold. The second half is a drama. The effect of wealth and gold upon our characters is the true genius of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Each of the three must deal with the effects of greed, suspicions, mistrust and paranoia. All these emotions rise in our trio of prospectors as they find gold. Can their partnership and friendship survive this new found wealth? Can they trust each other? How do their relationships change? The gold reveals their true personalities. How would you deal with a windfall? Would you be any different than you are today?

Written and directed by John Huston. He received academy awards for both of these efforts. They are well-deserved. Treasure lost the Best Picture Oscar to 'Hamlet'. I challenge you to find anyone who would rather watch Olivier overact in 'Hamlet' than relish Bogart and company in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I doubt any such person exists. Except for, maybe, Olivier's Mom.

This is an adventure film with a challenging message. It is both an exciting movie to watch and a movie that can cause some introspection. Enjoy both activities!

Notes: Headline followers may want to pay close attention to the young boy selling lottery tickets. That is a very young Robert Blake. Also, this film is based on the fabulous novel by B. Traven. We are unsure of the author's birth name. He spent most of his life in Mexico, fighting for the rights of the indigenous peoples. The story goes that he was invited to visit the set. He refused, but said he would send his assistant. He then pretended to be the assistant while using one of his many assumed names. This is most ironic because he was offered $1,000 per week to be an advisor on the set. He turned it down to keep his anonymity.

Filmed in 1948, written and directed by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, Walter Huston and Bruce Bennett.

The movie's oft-quoted line "Badges? We ain't got no badges! We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinking badges!" was voted as the #36 movie quote by the American Film Institute (out of 100).