Saturday, October 30, 2010

One, Two, Three

Three are 3 fantastic reasons to see One, Two, Three.

One:The script

This hilarious film is based upon a play by Ferenc Molnar and was adapted for the screen by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. It is tight, quick and quite funny. The lines are thrown at the viewer in rapid-fire succession. The first time you watch the film you will miss some of the jokes because you are chuckling, snorting or laughing out loud at the joke previous. The second half of this film reminds me of 'Airplane' by Zucker/Abrams/Zucker. They just throw joke after joke at you and let you pick out what you enjoy. The film has intellectual jokes, political puns and slapstick humor all combined. Diamond and Wilder collaborated on some of our greatest films. They combined on 'Some Like it Hot', 'The Apartment', 'Irma La Douce' and 'The Fortune Cookie' among others. Great fun!

Two:The direction

Directed by master film maker Billy Wilder, the pace of One, Two, Three is frenetic in its slow parts. There is so much energy going that I feel for the actors during filming. But instead of pausing for laughs, as so many modern "comedies" do, Wilder just keeps the jokes coming. Missed one? Don't worry, there are more on the way. Quickly! He uses a deep cast to move the story along. Anne Francis, as the executive's wife, is put to particularly good use. Extremely dry, almost dead-pan, in the delivery of biting social satire. Fabulous!

Three:James Cagney

Cagney is best known for dramas. But his comic timing here is fantastic. It is his power, on screen, that keeps the movie jumping. No time to revel in the punchline, it is on to the next moment. He is loud, obnoxious, overbearing and perfect for this role. It is wonderful to see an actor best known for heavier roles pull off a comedy with such apparent ease. 1962 was a deep year for acting Oscar nominations with 'Judgement at Nuremberg' and 'The Hustler' both having terrific performances, but Cagney deserves mention for this film. Comic performance rarely get notice by the Academy. That is too bad.

Filmed in 1962, directed by Billy Wilder, written by Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond from the play by Ferenc Molnar, starring James Cagney, Anne Francis, Horst Buchholz and Pamela Tiffin. For an amazing look at Billy Wilder get the book 'Some Like it Wilder:The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder' by Gene Phillips. It makes for fascinating reading for any film aficionado.

Wednesday, October 27, 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! Also, today is his 71st birthday. Happy Birthday John!

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.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Baader Meinhof Complex

During the 1970s, West Germany was worked into a state of near panic by a terrorist organization known as The Red Army Faction (RAF). This fantastic film tells the story of their "rise" to prominence, the massive efforts of the German government to arrest them and the eventual fate of the major players. The attention to detail and accuracy are fairly strong, which is something I appreciate. To often film makers will change history to "make it more interesting". Not too much in this film. Just a gritty and horrifying story of murder, fear and crime run amok.

Director Uli Edel does a wonderful job in telling a complex story. With the focus on not just the terrorists, but their pursuers, we get a rich and deep story of corruption. The corruption of idealists who say they want to change the world for the better, the corruption of the police who say they want to protect freedom and the corruption of the public in their ever-increasing demand for "safety". Over the last 40 years many aspects of life have been radically and permanently altered in the name of safety. I don't know how much safer we may be, but massive terror activities of the RAF helped to start us down this road.

Martina Gedeck portrays Ulrike Meinhof. She is one of the leaders of the RAF and is, perhaps, the soul of the group. Gedeck's acting helps viewers understand what could push someone into terrorist activities. For me, she is the focal point of the film and really held the story together. Moritz Bleibtreu plays the other half of the leadership Andreas Baader. While Meinhof pulled at my empathy, Baader repelled me with his petty crimes and desire for blood. I found myself both sympathizing with and abhorring the RAF simultaneously. An odd emotional concept, but an interesting one.

The Baader Meinhof Complex is a fascinating look at the repulsive activities of the RAF and the German government's effort to capture them. It also holds many parallels for society today.

Filmed in 2008, Directed by Uli Edel, written by Stefan Aust and Edel, starring Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanan Wokalek and Bruno Ganz. This film was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film as well as German Film Awards for Best Film and Best Director.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Informer

While The Informer is a film worth seeing, it is the cinema history and technical innovation that set this film apart. This film won director John Ford the first of his record 4 Academy Awards for Best Director. Ford his famous primarily for films that came after this ground-breaking drama. But it is in this film that you see his transition, as a director, from silent films to "talkies". He still uses many silent film techniques including long close-ups and exaggerated facial expressions. But here, in The Informer, he uses the musical score like no film had before. So much of the mood is set by the music. Max Steiner also won an Academy Award for the score of this film. Also, the lighting and camera work are all precursors to techniques that would dominate film making to come.

The Informer tells the story of a down-on-his-luck Irishman in Dublin in 1929. He is broke, hungry and a victim of the British occupation of Ireland. He has been working for the IRA in their effort to free Ireland. Victor McLaglen portrays Gypo Nolan. McLaglen becomes a regular in the John Ford troupe of actors and wins an Oscar for Best Actor for this film. Gypo is not-so-bright, but good with his fists. For six months Gypo has been sheltering his friend, Frankie McPhillip, from the British authorities who want him for murder. But the lack of opportunity, the poverty, the despair finally catch up with Gypo. He turns in his best friend for the reward money. The film tells the story of how Gypo deals with the guilt of informing and his effort to avoid the suspicions of the IRA.

This is not a perfect film. Some of the tone is dated and the acting is a little stiff. However, it is an important film. Well worth seeing to view the blossoming of the amazing talent that is director John Ford. He also won Best Director Oscars for 'How Green was my Valley', 'The Grapes of Wrath' and 'The Quiet Man'. He is in the discussion for best American film director.

One other Oscar note about The Informer. Screenwriter Dudley Nichols won the Oscar for Best Writing for this film. He goes down in Academy history as the first person to refuse his award.

Filmed in 1935, directed by John Ford, written by Dudley Nichols, starring Victor McLaglen, Wallace Ford, Heather Angel, Una O'Connor and Preston Foster. For John Ford buffs, such as myself, you can look for many of the John Ford regulars throughout this film. This movie was a box-office bust upon its release. But it was re-released after winning 4 Oscars. It then grossed in the millions. It was only 1935, but the Academy Awards were already proving their financial worth to the studios.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Thank You for Smoking

Since today (Oct. 19th) is director Jason Reitman's birthday, it only seemed appropriate to write about this fantastic satire.

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, October 16, 2010

King Rat

George Segal portrays Corporal King. King is an American POW in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War Two. The camp has no fences nor wires. Just an impenetrable jungle from which there is no escape. Cpl. King decides to try to make the best of a horrific situation. He is a street hustler extraordinaire and he uses those skills to obtain small luxuries. Like food. King Rat focuses upon the trials of life within a POW camp.

King finds he has not one, but two enemies. The Japanese guards are one, but the jealous British prisoners within the camp also become a source of difficulty. Most of the camp is British and they prefer a more traditional view of relations with the Japanese. King is always "working the angle" to find a way to make life more bearable. Many other prisoners become more of an obstacle than the guards themselves. With the British prisoners on one-side and the Japanese guards on the other, King must walk a fine line between them if he is to survive.

This film also has a secondary storyline about the role of class in our society. Most of the British POWs are officers of fine breeding while King is an enlisted man of a questionable background. Some of the "upper-crust" British feel it is beneath them to work with someone like Cpl. King, let alone be bested or dependent upon him. This class-warfare intrigue is still in question today. Are some people better than others because of who they are? Rich vs. poor, male vs. female, white vs. black, educated vs. street smarts are all still issues plaguing humanity.

This film is based upon a best-selling novel by James Clavell. Clavell spent much of his literary life writing a series of best-selling novels about Asia and its interaction with the West. From 'Shogun' to 'Noble House' to 'Gai-Jin' all of Clavell's novels about Asia are intriguing. The mini-series based upon 'Shogun', starring Richard Chamberlin and Toshiro Mifune, is still one of my favorite television events. And this novel is one of his best.

Whether you like intense drama or prefer intellectual action, King Rat will provide some enjoyable entertainment. Upon viewing please keep one question in the back of your mind. If you were in a similar situation, would make a deal for food or would you starve for principle and honor?

Filmed in 1965, directed by Bryan Forbes, written by Forbes from the novel by James Clavell, starring George Segal, John Mills, Tom Courtenay, James Fox and Denholm Elliott.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Art of the Steal

This 2009 documentary not only fascinated me, but it enraged me. It is the story of the fantastic art collection of Dr. Barnes. Dr. Barnes passed away in 1951 and was one of the first Americans to bring post-impressionist and modern art over from Europe. In the early 1920s he organized a showing of his large collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. That exhibit was ridiculed and insulted by the established art world in and around Philadelphia. He then created an art school, moved his collection to a large mansion in the suburbs and sheltered it from large public displays. Upon his death his only request was that the art "never be moved or sold" and that it not be shown to large crowds.

Fast-forward to the 1990s. Now his collection is one of the most revered in the world. The Philadelphia art establishment that ridiculed and insulted him now want to get their greedy, grubby paws on all that art. Lawyers are hired, stooges are put in place, trusts are busted and wills are ignored. Oh well, who cares? Dr. Barnes is dead and the powerful and famous want the art.

The Art of the Steal documents the history and future of this fabulous art collection. As I said, I got a little angry while viewing this film. My wife left the room and told me not to tell her what happens. But, in many ways, that is the sign of a great documentary. I think you too will be angry, frustrated and/or sad by the goings-on documented here. One thing you won't be is bored!

One note about the Dr. Barnes collection. I have traveled to many parts of the world to see great, and not-so-great, art. I have never seen this collection and would love to. But, I respect the wishes of the man who worked so hard to put this collection together more than I desire to see the art. A dying man's wishes, spelled out to the letter in his will, should be followed.

The collection is perhaps the greatest private art collection in the world. It contains, among other pieces:

181 pieces by Renoir, 69 by Cezanne, 59 by Matisse, 46 by Picasso, 21 by Soutine, 18 by Rousseau, 16 by Modigliani, 11 by Degas, 7 by Van Gogh, 6 by Seurat as well as pieces by El Greco, Gaugin, Manet, Goya and Chirico. Amazing.

Made in 2009, directed by Don Argott.

Saturday, October 9, 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).

Thursday, October 7, 2010


Since this film is featured on TCM tonight, I decided to post my article about this sci-fi classic again.

This is a film that is begging for a remake. The plot is true-to-life and the tension is palpable. I have seen this movie 4 times and each time I find myself emotionally attached to the outcome. I know, logically, what is going to happen, but I still root for the success of the rescue. That is verisimilitude!

Marooned follows the story of 3 astronauts who, after 5 months in orbit, attempt to return to Earth. They are in their small, tight re-entry vehicle. But the engines won't fire and they can't re-enter the Earth's atmosphere and get home. Because of a lack of fuel they can not return to the space station that has been their home in orbit. They have only a small amount of oxygen. What can they do? Can NASA bring them home safely?

This film was made in 1969 and released just a few months before the actual Apollo 13 mission that had such similar problems. You can call it manifestation or prescience, but the scenes on the screen in Marooned were real for the astronauts of Apollo 13. I think that is part of the reason why this film has been overlooked. Since the real thing happened just a few months later, why bother with a movie? But noted director Frank Capra started on this film 5 years before. He pushed to get this movie made, but could not film it within the budgetary constraints put upon him. So he eventually faded and, to much disappointment, never made another film.

This movie was directed by John Sturges. Sturges had a long and illustrious career that included 'The Magnificent Seven', 'The Great Escape' and 'Ice Station Zebra' among many successful and entertaining films. This is one of his best. The script, written by Mayo Simon is based on the novel by Martin Caidin. The script is very tight. This film has no backstory nor superfluous elements nor dialogue. I like that. Most space movies contain lots of stories about the character's lives before the space part starts. Not here. The film opens with the lift-off of the rocket. All 3 astronauts are married, so there is no need for a romantic storyline either. Just intelligent and tension-filled drama.

The special effects could use an update. Even though the effects won an Oscar in 1970, they play as slightly out-of-date. I would love to see a remake. I rarely say that about a film that I enjoy, but Marooned deserves the modern treatment. Replacing the cast, however, could be most expensive. Gregory Peck stars as the "chief" of NASA. Richard Crenna, Gene Hackman and James Franciscus portray our three marooned astronauts. Richard Janssen is the gung-ho pilot who is pushing for a rescue mission. And Lee Grant, Mariette Hartley and Nancy Kovack play the wives. That is a top-notch cast for any film. They do a terrific job of conveying to us the pressures and tensions that such a situation creates. I also appreciate the lack of a soundtrack. No music. But lots of sound effects. In space there is no singing, just lots of small noises. Too many directors feel that they must use music to tell us when we should be scared, or emotional, or excited. Sturges has the dialogue and actors tell the story, not the composer.

Filmed in 1969, directed by John Sturges, written by Mayo Simon, starring Gregory Peck, Gene Hackman, Richard Crenna, David Janssen and James Franciscus.

Spoiler Alert: Don't read on if you have not seen the film.

Even though I have viewed Marooned multiple times, I still get upset about which characters are rescued and which perish. If anyone is to die I want it to be the self-centered, wimpy guy and not the hero. I'm just saying.

Monday, October 4, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird

Ranked #2 on American Film Institute's (AFI) list of Most Inspiring movies.

Ranked #25 on AFI's list of Greatest Movies of All Time.

Ranked #1 on AFI's list of Courtroom Dramas.

Atticus Finch voted top screen hero of last 100 years by AFI.

The Harper Lee novel upon which this film is based won the Pulitzer Prize. It is currently the most assigned book in the US among high school students.

To Kill a Mockingbird is Clark Kent/Superman's favorite film.

Ranks #54 on IMBD's voters list of all-time best films.

Gregory Peck won the Academy Award for Best Actor.

To Kill a Mockingbird also won Oscars for Best Writing and Best Art Direction.

Nominated for 5 other Academy Awards including Best Director and Best Picture. It lost out, on both awards, to 'Lawrence of Arabia'.

This list shows how large an impact To Kill a Mockingbird made upon its viewers. The film's powerful message about race relations rings as true today as when it was made. The script is compact and intelligent, the acting fantastic and the Robert Mulligan direction is perfect. By focusing this story upon the children, novelist Harper Lee and screenplay writer Horton Foote keep the story simple without being simplistic. They make strong statements about racism, poverty and innocence while entertaining us from beginning to end.

A wonderful film. It is worth a watch every few years!

Filmed in 1962, directed by Robert Mulligan, written by Horton Foote, based upon the novel by Harper Lee, starring Gregory Peck, Brock Peters, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, Frank Overton and Robert Duvall in his screen debut.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Seven Days in May

This great thriller is on TCM on Saturday October 2nd at 11AM Eastern. Don't miss it!

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.