Tuesday, August 30, 2011

July 2011

I spent last month catching up on all of the iconic movies I'd somehow missed—everything from Rebel Without a Cause and Hud to Sophie's Choice and The Godfather. I saw so many famous movies that I thought it might be fun to even the scales by doing a program of "Movies You've Never Heard Of." Naturally, I know some of my movie-loving friends will have heard of some of these, but the idea was to choose little-known films that might turn out to be gems. Even if most of them were not, it was certainly an interesting variety of flicks. Owing to a variety of circumstances—Joan was out of commission for most of the month, I did some traveling—I only found myself in a theater seeing a first-run movie once in July. (Also, there wasn't a whole lot of new stuff worth seeing.) I'll start with the theatrical offering and then move on to the DVDs. Naturally, I'm very curious about which of these movies you've actually heard of!

BEGINNERS (2011)—Ewan McGregor, recently seen in last year's Polanski thriller The Ghost Writer, plays Oliver, a sad-sack artist whose 70-something dad (Christopher Plummer) comes out of the closet and starts a relationship with a much younger man. The film, which is presented in non-linear format, rewinds and fast-forwards through various stages of Oliver's life—as a young boy whose half-Jewish mother nurtures him, as a mostly morose adult who deals with his elderly father's revelations, and finally after dad's passing from cancer. It is during this final phase that Oliver meets and romances Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a film actress of French extraction. The film is rarely comfortable spending more than five or ten minutes in a particular life phase before jettisoning the narrative and perching on a different platform of Oliver's life. His relationships—with mom, dad, lover and dog—are tenderly rendered, although the movie often demands the viewer's extreme patience to reap the maximum rewards. (8)

TRIANGLE (2009)—What would Dead Calm be like if David Lynch directed it? This psychological horror flick puts five survivors of a sailboat wreck on an ocean liner with no passengers, only to battle strange murderous forces…and if you think that sounds strange, you ain't heard nothin' yet. Melissa George, an Aussie actress doing a passable American accent, plays a Floridian who inexplicably gets trapped in a kind of time loop on the water. For viewers who don't mind leaving reality behind, this is an intriguing puzzle-type movie, but after a while, I grew restless with its instant-replay mentality. Still, it gets points for originality. (7)

PUNCHING THE CLOWN (2009)—This (extremely) independent film was co-written by one of my favorite comedians, Henry Phillips, who also stars as himself. It follows his "rise" to "fame" via a series of cringeworthy events, mostly involving audiences and executives who just don't "get" him or his satirical tunes. While not completely successful as a comedy film, it does serve to introduce the viewer to Henry's hilarious songs, and there are half a dozen moments of true genius—particularly a sequence involving the origin of a certain bagel, and another where his brother inadvertently cock-blocks Henry's attempts to score with a young woman. There's also an amusing turn by a sophomoric musician named Stupid Joe whose idiotic numbers inexplicably bring the house down. (8)

THIRD MAN ON THE MOUNTAIN (1959)—The story of a boy who aspires to fill his late father's shoes as a mountain climber. He joins forces with another renowned climber (Michael Rennie) to conquer the Citadel, a daunting mountain in the Alps we know as the Matterhorn. Exciting action, good performances, excellent Disney production values and scenery make for a truly superb adventure. (9)

IF I HAD A MILLION (1932)—Amiable anthology comedy from Paramount about an ailing tycoon who decides to leave a million bucks each to various strangers. Each story focuses on how the recipient uses (or misuses) the windfall. Cute, though a bit silly in parts. W.C. Fields has a great bit in a story about getting revenge on selfish drivers. (8)

THE MARK (1961)—Long before the word "pedophile" entered the common public lexicon, 20th Century Fox distributed this sympathetic look at a would-be child molester. After serving a couple of years in the clink for abducting young girl, Jim Fuller (Stuart Whitman) has made great progress in therapy—a new job, a budding romance and a gradual washing away of "those" desires—until something happens to cause his world to unravel. Based on a novel by Charles E. Israel, this is a compelling psychological study of a guy you root for despite what he's done in the past. Whitman is excellent as the reformed but confused patient, Rod Steiger is typically wonderful as his shrink, and Maria Schell performs beautifully as his new love interest. Excellent plotting and screenplay. Interestingly, when Whitman was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, his competition included Schell's brother, Maximillian Schell, for his role in Judgment at Nuremberg. Schell won. (10)

THE GIRL NEXT DOOR (2007)—Not to be confused with that 2004 teen sex comedy starring Elisha Cuthbert. What starts out something like Stand by Me—a man's nostalgic look back at life in the 1950s—turns ever-more horrifying as we meet the boy's neighbors, headed up by a sadistic woman who, with her biological kids, are brutalizing and torturing two foster girls they've taken in. Based on a true story, it's just about as unwatchable as any horror movie ever made—have any people watched the whole thing without covering their eyes? Seems pretty unlikely. This doesn't work particularly well as drama, but as a sadistic and disgusting experience, it ranks right up there. (7)

YOU CAN COUNT ON ME (2000)—Single mom Laura Linney grapples with her loose-cannon brother (Mark Ruffalo), hardass boss (Matthew Broderick), boyfriend (Jon Tenney) and son (Rory Culkin), all of whom put something on a strain on her life. Interesting, touching drama about believable people with genuine flaws. (8)

52 PICK-UP (1986)—Based on an Elmore Leonard novel (so Connie has undoubtedly heard of it), this crime drama has some problems—chiefly second-rate direction by John Frankenheimer and a cheesy-sounding synthesized musical score. But the hard-nosed blackmail and revenge storyline kept me interested, and there are some deliciously slimy performances by bad guys Clarence Williams III and John Glover that make it a passable way to kill a couple of hours. (8)

I NOT STUPID (2002)—This dramedy follows the adventures of a trio of Singaporean youths, as well as the trials and tribulations of their parents. It's a satirical, mildly amusing and sometimes even exciting story about blind obedience, the fear of failure, competition, corporal punishment and kidnapping! (I have to admit that some of the humor was, at least for me, based on hearing a lot of the characters speak English in their very strong native accent, as well as the "Singlish" dialect, although most of the movie's dialogue is in Mandarin.) Writer-director Jack Neo keeps things moving at a nice clip, and there are a couple of quite lovely Asian females in the cast to keep me spellbound. This was followed by a semi-sequel, which I might view when I do a month of strictly foreign films. (8)

QUARTET (1948)—I have always been a fan of anthology movies, ever since seeing the horror compendiums Tales from the Crypt and Asylum in middle school. There are actually quite a few non-scary examples, including If I Had a Million, from earlier this month, and one that I viewed last year called O. Henry's Full House (1952), which offered five adaptations of O. Henry short stories. Quartet is the first in a series of three films based on the short stories of W. Somerset Maugham, who appears at the beginning of each to introduce the adaptations. The four tales in Quartet are alternately dramatic, amusing and touching, and the three film adaptations of Maugham's work had the bonus result of leading me to read several of his excellent short stories not adapted into film, notably "The Man With the Scar" and "The Treasure." (8)

TRIO (1950)—Here's the second of the three Maugham anthology films, with three tales instead of four. This time, we get two shorter stories and a longer one that lasts for about an hour; as a result, the third (about some people staying in a sanitarium) drags in comparison to the first two, and it's my least favorite of all so far. But the opening tales are both excellent. (8)

ENCORE (1952)—Third and final of the Maugham anthologies is just as enjoyable, although the second story in Encore is similar to the second one in Trio—both are about annoying individuals aboard a cruise ship who ultimately find their way into your heart. Glynis Johns, the British beauty I discovered about a year ago in 1952's The Card (and subsequently enjoyed in 1953's Personal Affair) is in the third story as a high-diver who loses her nerve. Maugham's presence adds a lot, even though he's no Hitchcock in the introduction department. (8)

LIFE, ABOVE ALL (2010)—A South African film in the Sotho language, but based on an English-language novel called Chanda's Secrets by Allan Stratton. It's a powerful, absorbing but very depressing story about a 12-year-old African girl grappling with numerous issues, from her mother's AIDS and her best friend's resorting to prostitution to the superstitions and fears of her neighborhood. It's a very sad movie, but never dull, with extraordinary photography and a powerful message, to say nothing of the emotional and devastating performance of Khomotso Manyaka. (9)

A KIND OF LOVING (1961)—The poster might lead you to believe that there are female vampires in this movie. There aren't. Charming Alan Bates meets a pretty girl (June Ritchie) at work and begins dating her; the first section of the movie is a romantic bliss-out. Then he gets her pregnant, they're forced into marriage, and everything falls apart. Bates and Ritchie are outstanding; director John Schlesinger would go on to direct Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Marathon Man (1976). (8)

QUEEN BEE (1955)—Last month, I got a taste of Joan Crawford as a beautiful cruise-ship passenger in 1932's Grand Hotel. Now we enter more obscure territory, 23 years later, and Joan isn't so young anymore. By now, the 50-year-old fully resembles her Mommie Dearest caricature, and her villainous persona is in full swing. In Queen
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GETTING IT RIGHT (1989)—Randal Kleiser, the American director of Grease and such slimy follow-ups as The Blue Lagoon and (yecch!) Summer Lovers, was a curious choice to direct a British romantic comedy featuring (among others) Helena Bonham Carter, Lynn Redgrave and Sir John Geilgud. I believe I acquired it because I'm a fan of Jane Horrocks, who plays one of three potential love interests for Gavin Lamb, played by the somewhat wooden Jesse Birdsall, who isn't quite good enough to play the lead. Fortunately, the rest of the cast saves the picture. Gavin is a handsome but introverted 31-year-old straight hairdresser (as if there could ever be such a thing) who must overcome his shyness and somehow forge a love life for himself. Carter, Redgrave and Horrocks are the ladies in his life, and it won't take any viewer with above-average intelligence to figure out who steals his heart. The film meanders for a while, but finally gets its footing—all it really needs is Hugh Grant in the lead, and a film score better than the insufficient synth job that was obviously all they could afford. (8)

THE BALLAD OF LITTLE JO (1993)—Leonard Maltin raved about this little Western period film in his book 151 Best Movies You've Never Seen, calling it one of his "favorite unsung movies of the 1990s." Inspired by the true story of a man laid to rest when it is discovered that "he" is actually a "she," the film stars lovely Suzy Amis as Josephine, a woman seduced, impregnated and eventually thrown out of her home. She finds that being pretty and single in the Old West is a dangerous combination, so she cuts her hair, wears men's clothing and gives herself an ugly scar on her face to pass herself off as a dude. Everybody falls for it, of course, except the viewers, who wonder why none of the characters in the movie point to her and say, "Hey! That ain't no man! That there's a lady!" I realize that this is based on a true story, but no way in hell was the real "Little Jo" a knockout—I'm sure the real-life Jo more closely resembled Sandra Bernhard or Janet Reno. If you can overlook this basic flaw, it's a decent movie—it even has a romance in it, although tragically brief. (8)

June 2011

During the last couple of years, while delving into my personal collection of movies on DVD, it has been my hope to scratch a lot of the "iconic films I've never seen" off my must-see list. The problem is that I tend to be drawn to more independent, lesser-known and cult-type titles than the ones critics are always trumpeting about (The Godfather, Sophie's Choice, Deliverance, etc.) as so many of them just sound boring to me. A lot of universally praised films, from Gone With the Wind to The Maltese Falcon and Lawrence of Arabia, tend to leave me cold because I simply don't care for "film noir" and big "epic" blockbusters. (Connie calls it the On the Waterfront Syndrome.) Nevertheless, in recent times, I have tried to unburdened my movie load by having finally forced myself to watch classic films such as Chinatown, The Philadelphia Story, Dr. Zhivago, Blow Out, Bringing Up Baby, The Sound of Music, The Third Man, Judgment in Nuremburg, How Green Was My Valley and How to Steal a Million, among others.

Despite having eliminated those famous films from my list, there remains an staggering amount that I still have never seen. So this month, in choosing older movies, I set about on an ambitious journey by single-mindedly focusing on those "classics" I felt most guilty about having missed. Even given the considerable reputation of all of these films, I knew I wasn't going to like everything. Still, I feel very relieved to be able to say I have, at long last, seen Sophie's Choice. With the arrival of summer, I found myself freed from the responsibility of having to watch the ten or so regular TV series I still follow, which left a lot of extra time to watch films. And with 29 total on the docket, that was very nearly a film a day for the month of June.

So what did I learn? Two things: first, just because a movie is universally considered to be a classic, that doesn't automatically mean it's good; and second, I'm not so simpatico with the whole "antihero" craze—after failing to be charmed by Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull), Tony Manero (Saturday Night Fever), Lewis Medlock (Deliverance), Sonny Wortzik (Dog Day Afternoon) and Jim Stark (Rebel Without a Cause), I think I can safely say that unlikable and unsympathetic male leads in movies are not my cup of tea—Hud being a notable exception.

I intend to balance everything out in July by leaping back into the obscurities pile with a special program of "Movies You've Never Heard Of." In some ways, I am more excited about watching those.


A LITTLE HELP (2011)—A somewhat overlong dramedy that casts cutie-pie Jenna Fischer (Pam from TV'sThe Office) as Laura, a woman suffering from a variety of problems—cheating spouse (Chris O'Donnell), unappreciative son, bitchy sister, condescending mom—that no amount of beer and cigarettes can make go away. And then things suddenly take a turn for the worse. The movie's theme is how lies infect the soul: how they grow, like a cancer, and end up spoiling life. There are good turns by Ron Liebman and Lesley Ann Warren as Laura's parents, and Kim Coates as a shifty attorney—the embodiment of dishonesty. It's not a great movie, but I found myself caring about the characters, warts and all (for once, Fischer is photographed in a way that is not especially attractive). A nice effort by first-time feature writer/director Michael J. Weithorn. (8)

BRIDESMAIDS (2011)—The filmmakers rope the audience in with the promise of dirty jokes and raunchy toilet humor, but send you home with a couple of touching redemption stories and an unexpected tear in your eye. Kristen Wiig, the talented comedienne of Saturday Night Live, co-wrote and stars in this occasionally sophomoric comedy about a woman whose best friend since childhood (SNL's Maya Rudolph) is about to get married. But gathering the bridesmaids together throws a stick into the spokes when another close friend of Rudoph's—the absurdly rich and stunningly beautiful Rose Byrne—ignites a tragicomedy of jealousy and hurt feelings within Wiig, eventually causing her life to unravel. At its best, the film wavers between amusing absurdity and laugh-out-loud hilarity, much of it deriving from jokes about Byrne's wealth and high standing, and she all but steals the movie from Wiig; love interest Chris O'Dowd, meanwhile, establishes himself firmly as the Irish Judge Reinhold. (9)

SUPER 8 (2011)—SPOILER ALERT: A alien from another planet is helped by a group of children to go back home, while all the mean adults just want to hold him hostage and study him. Hey, wait a minute...isn't that the plot to another movie? The summer blockbuster of 2011 gleefully rips off the summer blockbuster of 1982. J.J. Abrams' film is a generally entertaining, but equally confounding, tribute to both Steven Spielberg's sci-fi movies and to his own childhood passion for filmmaking. It's all about the 1970s, and great attention to detail has been given to conjure up an authentic Seventies feeling. But the filmmaker doesn't commit himself to the story—there are entirely too many references to Spielberg films, even cribbing specific pieces of dialogue, to the point where it becomes too distracting. Probably the year's biggest letdown, not because it's awful, but because it could have been so much better. (7)


THE BOUNTY (1984)—To be a real "purist" during this month's project, I ought to have started with the Clark Gable version of Mutiny on the Bounty (or the almost-as-famous Marlon Brando remake). But I thought it might be interesting to start with this update, which pits Anthony Hopkins' Capt. Bligh against youthful Mel Gibson's Fletcher Christian. (Mind you, I made this decision well before I had any inkling that there would be a steady stream of beautiful topless island women on display.) Because it's told in flashback, this telling of the story establishes from the get-go that Gibson—who starts out as Hopkins' buddy—is going to play a major role in the mutiny that follows, which sort of blunted a bit of the suspense for me; I'm not sure if earlier versions of the story take the same approach. Also, this version is supposed to humanize Capt. Bligh somewhat, although he is still a bit of a psychopathic madman. While I enjoyed it for the most part, it doesn't really add up to much except a mildly interesting history lesson. (8)

RAGING BULL (1980)—At long last, another classic to scratch off the cinematic bucket list. Thirty years ago, it seems everybody except me watched Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) implode on the screen as the middleweight fighter who destroys competitors in the ring while simultaneously destroying his personal life with his nasty jealous streak. As I've repeated made clear in my blog, it's always a struggle for me to enjoy movies where the central character doesn't have an ounce of likability or empathy, and DeNiro plays LaMotta as 100 percent unsympathetic. (It should also be said that I've never been a fan of the dark and gritty oeuvre of Martin Scorsese, whom I acknowledge is one of the country's most popular and respected film directors. That being said, I very much enjoyed his comedy After Hours and his "Life Lessons" segment of New York Stories.) Like The Bounty, Raging Bull serves as a peripherally interesting history lesson, but as a piece of entertainment, it's a struggle to endure. The boxing scenes are some of the bloodiest and most gruesome I've ever witnessed. (6)

GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS (1939)—Robert Donat is amazing in this story of a British schoolteacher whose 63-year career unfolds in just under two hours. His makeup and acting are extremely impressive as we watch him transform from a relatively young man to a sprightly old geezer. Greer Garson appears as his love interest. Sentimental but good fun; based on the novel by James Hilton, who in turn based Mr. Chips on his real-life teacher at Cambridge. (8)

BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S (1961)—Paul Varjak (George Peppard) is a writer who lives in an apartment upstairs from Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn), with whom he falls madly in love—attracted, I assume, to her rudeness, selfishness, illogical behavior, dipsomania, greedy addiction to expensive jewelry, illegal undertakings (she delivers coded messages to an underworld mob boss in Sing Sing), general mischievous impulses and lack of imagination (she can't be bothered to think of a name for her pet cat). And Paul overlooks the fact not only that she had her first marriage (to Jed Clampett!) annulled, but also that she doesn't even bother to tell him (Peppard) that she was married and divorced at all. And why does Paul overlook all of her flaws? Because she's pretty and she has a British accent, of course! Another thing Holly does is smoke constantly, which as anybody who knows me can tell you is an immediate turnoff—how disgusting and off-putting it is that the iconic image of Hepburn clutching her oversized cigarette holder did so much to glamorize smoking. (Hepburn died of cancer.) Half of the "jokes" in this alleged comedy involve an ridiculously stereotyped caricature of a Japanese landlord (played by Mickey Rooney) bellowing that he "gonna call the po-reece on Horry Gorightry" because she's always losing the keys to her apartment and having to buzz him to let her in, or making a racket, or whatever. Paul and Holly wind up together at the end, but how long will they stay together before he strangles her? (5)

REPULSION (1965)—Director Roman Polanksi's first film in English, it's a psychological thriller about a pretty girl who is becoming progressively more unglued—it's Black Swan without the ballet. In fact, if I'd seen this film prior to Black Swan, I'd probably have viewed the 2010 Natalie Portman flick as wildly derivative of Polanski, and retroactively, I definitely do. I expect quite a lot of films have borrowed from Repulsion. It brought to mind a horror movie I saw last year, Fright, which starred Susan George as a similarly beautiful blonde woman alone at night and fending off attackers, although hers were all real, none imagined. Repulsion is definitely a creepy film, perfect for watching late at night. (8)

SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977)—This is one of the top-five "iconic" films released during my lifetime that I inexplicably missed. I have always really enjoyed the soundtrack music, but nothing about the movie ever compelled me to watch—I just find it boring to watch people dance (at least to disco). I forced myself to sit through the film just to finally say I've seen it, but it was rough going because I couldn't muster the strength to care about the protagonist, Tony Manero (John Travolta) or any of the other characters, for that matter. Travolta is a curious entertainer; I find I either love him (Urban Cowboy, Pulp Fiction) or despise him (Blow Out, Hairspray). This one has aged terribly. (4)

HOLIDAY INN (1942)—Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire in the famous Irving Berlin musical that contains romantic hijinks, big production numbers and lots of great songs. The chemistry between the two leads (and female star Marjorie Reynolds) is copious. Plenty of good humor and melody. (9)

SHANE (1953)—Alan Ladd is the mysterious hero who rides into the lives of homesteader Van Heflin and his family and winds up working for them—and protecting them from some vicious bad guys. (Pretty much the plot of every Western.) Beautifully realized, directed and filmed, with some excellent brawls. (9)

HUD (1963)—Paul Newman won much acclaim for his role as Hud, the selfish and snide title character, son of a deeply moral Melvyn Douglas (the apple didn't just fall far from this tree; it fell in the next continent). Hud drinks, sleeps with married women and apparently contributed to the highway death of his older brother some years before; his nephew (Brandon De Wilde) nonetheless idolizes Hud, and their relationship is key to the success of the film, as the kid must choose between grandpa and uncle (i.e., good and evil). Patricia Neal won an Oscar for her portrayal of the family housekeeper, who tries to resist Hud's advances. One of the best movies ever to contain a cow holocaust! (9)

SOPHIE'S CHOICE (1982)—I have no idea how I missed this one. Based on a very popular William Styron novel, the film version (I guess) sounded a bit boring to me in my youth, but I'm glad I finally got around to watching it. Meryl Streep is fascinating to watch as Sophie, a concentration camp survivor who balances a romance with cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs Kevin Kline and gentle writer Peter MacNicol (later of Ally McBeal). Quite compelling. (9)

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968)—Here's director Sergio Leone's follow-up to his "Man With No Name" trilogy, a Spaghetti western that casts Henry Fonda in an atypical role as a sadistic killer. Fonda wants to steal luscious Claudia Cardinale's land, but she is protected by Jason Robards and Charles Bronson, the latter of whom has a very personal vendetta against Fonda. The movie is long (175 minutes) but generally mesmerizing, with cool directorial touches throughout. Watching this film, it's easy to see what inspired Quentin Tarantino; meanwhile, it has inspired me to watch the original Clint trilogy, as well as Leone's follow-up to this film, Duck You Sucker. (9)

DELIVERANCE (1972)—I was generally familiar with the story of this film, and have seen the famous "squeal like a pig" scene on TV (where it was obviously truncated), but I've never actually watched the film from beginning to end. Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox ill-advisedly take a canoeing trip down a river and run afoul of dangerous rapids and rednecks. I kept thinking, "Well, this is what you get for not staying at home." Reynolds in particular is an extremely arrogant "protagonist" I had a hard time sympathizing with. All the hillbillies in the movie (especially the inbred banjo player) are terrifying. (6)

SOUNDER (1972)—Released the same year as Deliverance, Sounder is quite a different kind of film. Set during the Great Depression, Paul Winfield is a poor black sharecropper who, along with Cicely Tyson, raise their young kids and often have to send them to bed hungry. When Winfield is sent to jail for stealing food for his family, their son David Lee (Kevin Hooks) makes a trek to the "pen" to see his dad. The movie is based on William H. Armstrong's novel, which I presume contains more about the titular dog. Right before seeing this film, I had finished reading Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help, which is also about pure-hearted black people and despicably racist whites. Interestingly, Cicely Tyson is in the movie versions of both stories. (7)

WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954)—I was curious to see how this Irving Berlin musical compared to his earlier Holiday Inn, which also starred Bing Crosby. Inn co-star Fred Astaire was asked to appear in this film, but turned it down after he read the script; he was replaced by Danny Kaye. Although not as charming or well-written as Holiday Inn, it is a very similar film—not exactly a remake, but not exactly a different movie either—about show-biz singers who popularize a hotel by doing their act there. Similar romantic hijinks make up the plotlines of both movies as well. The best thing in this film are funny Danny Kaye and the typically tuneful Irving Berlin songs. Oh, and Vera-Ellen is a genuine cutie pie (while her movie sister, Rosemary Clooney, is rather plain in comparison). (7)

GRAND HOTEL (1932)—Birth, life, death, love…and, inescapably, money. They all configure in this lavish, soapy drama, the grandaddy of all "multiple characters under the same roof" genre (last month's Ship of Fools is another example). Guests—and permanent residents—of Berlin's Grand Hotel include a lonely ballet star (Greta Garbo), a crooked industrialist (Wallace Beery), a dying employee of the former (Lionel Barrymore), a thief with a heart of gold (John Barrymore, Lionel's real-life brother), a pretty stenographer (Joan Crawford) and a disfigured WWI veteran (Lewis Stone). Most of them cross paths in important ways, and not everybody gets out of the hotel alive…based on an Austrian novel, which was turned into a successful play by the screenwriter of this movie—which is notable for being the only film to win a Best Picture Oscar without being nominated in any other category. Young Crawford, by this time a veteran of dozens of movies, is still unrecognizable as the rather scarifying Mommie Dearest I most associate her as looking like. Good fun. (9)

MISTER ROBERTS (1955)—About time I finally got around to watching this comedy-drama war flick, which takes place toward the end of WWII. Henry Fonda played the title character in the play version for years, and he's typically perfect onscreen as the lieutenant of a cargo ship who must contend with the tyrannical captain (James Cagney) while trying to keep order among the 60+ crew members who are denied liberties and generally bossed around. Jack Lemmon provides the comedy, including the film's hilarious punchline. (9)

THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957)—Fascinating WWII movie about British soldiers in a Thailand-based POW camp, where the Japanese captors are forcing our heroes to build a railroad bridge with an important deadline looming. Alec Guinness plays the British officer who initially resists (and is tortured by) the Japanese camp leader, but gradually compelled to collaborate with enthusiasm on the bridge—with tragic consequences. Based on the novel by Pierre Boulle (Planet of the Apes), the film is an exciting yarn, and even though I basically knew beforehand how the story was going to end, there were some twists I found genuinely suspenseful, unsettling and astonishing. (9)

THE GODFATHER (1972)—I'll be honest: I was very reluctant to watch this film, which sits ever so piously at the very top of many critics' best-ever lists. I realized a long time ago that films having to do with spies and the Mob just make me feel utterly confused. I never know who's working for whom, what's going on or who's getting double- and triple-crossed. I don't even have a rudimentary knowledge of what all these organizations are supposed to be doing half the time. Still, I guess it's important to watch The Godfather, given all its accolades, so I sat down with a kind of "Cliff's Notes" (aka the Wikipedia entry), as well as the film's screenplay, so I would have an easier time following the labyrinthian plot and cast of characters. I'm glad I had those available, because it did make it much easier to understand—I ended up feeling like I was doing a project for school rather than losing myself in a great movie, although I admit there were several suspenseful scenes that made watching this extremely long film more endurable. I also realized in retrospect that I had actually seen a few of the more famous scenes (i.e., head of stallion, Sonny's murder) on TV many years ago. Looking at the film with a fresh perspective, I found it extremely implausible that these mobsters not only decapitated the racehorse but successfully sneaked its head into the bed of Woltz, the film mogul, without being heard or observed. All the performances, especially Brando in the title role, are superb. Now I guess I gotta watch the squeakuel. (8)

DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975)—Yes, this bank-robbery-went-awry actually happened. Yes, the capable performers throw themselves into the story. No, I could not muster up the energy to care about protagonists. This is yet another anti-hero movie, which I am notoriously uneasy with. "But what about Pacino's powerhouse performance?" you ask. Sure, he plays the part of a scummy, annoying, selfish dirtbag to the hilt. I just didn't like the guy. By comparison, I recall really liking Pacino in an equally unlikable criminal role, Scarface, which I found mesmerizing. Go figure. (5)

HIGH NOON (1952)—Every time I see Gary Cooper in a movie, he's about 25 years older than his romantic partner. This one is no exception, although it would be a stretch to emphasize the romantic element of this Western. The plot is simple: Small-town sheriff Cooper put away a dastardly villain who's now inexplicably being released—and he's coming in on the noon train to seek revenge. He hustles to deputize some of the residents, but nobody wants to offer their help—they all value their lives for some reason. If you can't guess the ending from what I've told you, well, think harder. I found the musical score of this movie to be extremely overbearing and distracting to the action. (7)

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944)—Here's a classic example of the danger of having heightened expectations. I've always heard this was a classic musical, so I was prepared for something along the lines of Oklahoma or The Music Man. It stars the great Judy Garland, whom I loved in The Wizard of Oz, but have only rarely encountered outside of that film. Oz packs innumerable tunes and story developments into its paltry 101 minutes; St. Louis, by comparison, has a quarter of the songs and practically no story, so it feels like an incredible slog at 113 minutes. The plot can be summarized thusly: "A cute boy moved in next door, but we might have to move to New York." The movie is colorful, and has some great performers (especially little sister Margaret O'Brien, who won a special Oscar), but desperately needs more story. I was also somewhat put off by Mary Astor's sloppy piano "playing" (she mimics to a pre-recorded track, abysmally) and the numerous "outdoor" scenes that are so obviously movie sets. (7)

REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955)—West Side Story without New York, the interracial romance or the Sharks. But it's got plenty of knife-wielding teen punks and Natalie Wood! The film stars James Dean, a troubled teen nobody understands—not his shallow parents, not his classmates, not the cops who arrest him for public drunkenness…not even the other juvenile delinquents. Only pretty Natalie and troubled teenager Sal Mineo care about him—which is unfortunate, since she's a two-faced ninny and he's a total psycho! In other words, the number of likable people in this movie is basically nil. This is a classic film about the generation gap and the inability of human beings of all ages to truly communicate—especially when they're as stupid as the people who populate this unbelievably dated movie. Ironically, Dean plays a kid who plays a game of chicken involving an automobile (which leaves one character dead), and Dean himself was dead from a car accident by the time the film was released. What was perceived as sensitive and thrilling half a century ago doesn't really go over that well today, I'm afraid. (4)

THE DEER HUNTER (1978)—An interminable and harrowing three-act film about the toll taken on three Pennsylvania steelworkers who have an extremely rough time of it in the Vietnam war. "Woefully depressing" is an understatement. The original script was about guys who travel to Las Vegas to play Russian Roulette; the script was revised to take place in Vietnam, and they left in the Russian Roulette, even though there has never been any documentation of the game being played in that country, at least during the war. (6)

THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971)—Sad and poignant, this is the second adaptation of a Larry McMurtry novel I've seen this month, the other being Hud. Like the earlier picture, this is in black and white and takes a stark look at a small Texas town and the tortured inhabitants within. The young people do whatever they can to feel alive, while the older folks seem trapped in a dead-end world of nostalgia, longing and regret. Cybill Shepherd is excellent as the fickle but beautiful young Jacy, who flits from boy to boy without batting an eyelid, while Ben Johnson, Ellen Burstyn and Cloris Leachman are all wonderfully memorable as a few of the past-40 crowd. I've already got my hands on the sequel, Texasville. I'd quite like to see The Last Picture Show again someday. (9)

THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995)—Regrettably, the famous twist ending had been spoiled for me quite a while ago, but I decided to take a chance on the movie because so many have lauded it as being essential. Well, I certainly do wish I had not known the answer to the question "Who is Kaiser Söze?" before sitting down to watch the movie, but I was somewhat able to appreciate the movie's setup and construction, as it is ingeniously plotted…still, it's kind of like knowing the punch line to a joke that you have to sit and listen to anyway. (7)

THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963)—How did I ever miss this picture? It's a great adventure, full of heart-stopping suspense and scary Nazis! Like Stalag 17, it's a great POW camp picture, and the film's flutey jingle reminded me of the theme from Hogan's Heroes. I'm really glad I finally caught up to seeing this rollicking thrill ride, despite so much of the last third being rather downbeat. (9)

I'm curious to know...how many of the "Classic 26" movies on my list have you seen?

May 2011

Egad, only seven movies this month. Well, that's still a better showing than March. And while I did poorly in quantity, I seem to have made up for it in quality. Excuses: Have been distracted by too much TV. Lately I have been re-watching favorites The West Wing with Joan and The Larry Sanders Show by myself, as well as burning through the entire first season of Downton Abbey with Jay during my visit to Palo Alto in May. This is all in addition to the regular TV series I watch, which include Modern Family, The Office, 30 Rock, Desperate Housewives, Law and O:der: Special Victims Unit, American Idol, The Simpsons, Grey's Anatomy, House, South Park and Saturday Night Live, to say nothing of Letterman, Leno and Jimmy Kimmel on late night. Fortunately, all but the talk shows have wrapped up for the season, which should leave more time for movies over the summer. Here's what I managed to squeeze in to my busy schedule during May, starting with the first-run flickers.

RABBIT HOLE (2011)—Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, devastated by the death of their young son a year or so earlier in a car accident, are still trying to put their lives back together, albeit in drastically different ways. Eckhart still clings desperately any and all memories of the boy, including video clips. Kidman can't bear to even live in their house anymore, as it's full of haunting memories she'd rather put out of her mind. She rejects their therapy sessions, while he is attracted to a woman (Sandra Oh) who attends them. Meanwhile, he's freaked out when she begins to develop a friendship with the teen who ran over their son. Will they be able to pull themselves out of the abyss? What sounds like a dreary story never truly depresses—it's actually quite compelling material, and has a hopeful resolution. (9)

RIO (2011)—It's so wonderful to see a fun movie with somebody you love. One of my all-time movie highlights will be attending an afternoon screening of this animated charmer with my niece, Emma. Both of us really enjoyed its good humor (and each other's company, of course). Lots of cool bird characters, voice characterizations and colorful animation—the only debit is the gross depiction of a continually drooling bulldog voiced by Tracy Morgan. Otherwise, a grand piece of entertainment suitable for kids and adults alike. (8)

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011)—This is one of Woody Allen's more enjoyable efforts from the past 15 or so years, and it has become his biggest box-office hit. Harkening back to the fantastical time-continuum themes present in The Purple Rose of Cairo, Woody gives us an ill-suited engaged couple (idealistic Hollywood screenwriter Owen Wilson and bitchy Rachel McAdams) pursue markedly different paths in the City of Love. Nothing in the film matches Woody at his humorous best—those days are long over—but it's a lightly entertaining yarn, with flashes of sparkling wit. Although she has a small role in this, the character I remember most fondly is the drop-dead gorgeous Léa Seydoux, a fashion model turned actress. (8)

THOR (2011)—A rip-roaring action superhero treat for boys of all ages. The mythological God of Thunder, who naturally lives on another planet, is exiled on Earth and undergoes a standard movie redemption story that's nonetheless a sheer delight, with a deliciously nasty villain, lots of comic-book suspense and Natalie Portman, freed of her Black Swan leotard. I'm already anxious for the sequel! (9)

SHIP OF FOOLS (1965)—I suppose I was drawn to the idea of a cruise-ship movie, as I become more obsessed with ocean liners as I get older. Like the title suggests, this ship's passengers are a pathetic lot—more racists, Nazis, boors, dumkopfs, cowards, drunks, bickering lovers and self-absorbed ninnies than you can shake a stick at. The closest thing to a sympathetic character is dwarf Michael Dunn (evil Dr. Loveless from The Wild Wild West), who breaks the fourth wall at the beginning and end of the picture to remind us that the ship is basically a metaphor for the world—we're all basically assholes. Based on the bestseller by Katherine Anne Porter, who was bummed by how much of her story got left out of the movie. (6)

ACE IN THE HOLE (1951)—One of the rituals of my movie obsession is trying to work through the remaining filmography of Billy Wilder, who is probably my very favorite director of the past. His catalog is limited but truly astonishing: Sunset Blvd., Stalag 17, Witness for the Prosecution, The Apartment, One, Two Three, Irma La Douce, Kiss Me Stupid and The Fortune Cookie are all huge favorites of mine. Originally released as The Big Carnival (against Wilder's wishes), this was one of the director's rare flops. Kirk Douglas plays a boozing, immoral journalist who capitalizes on a cave-in victim's crisis to his own advantage, with disastrous results. Although it's a decent depiction of the dangers of blind self-servitude and corruption, the journalist in me couldn't help rolling his eyes at some of the more farfetched aspects of the story. Not among Wilder's best, but still an interesting piece of work. Later re-released with its original title. Still gotta watch Emperor Waltz, Spirit of St. Louis, Love in the Afternoon and The Front Page, and I suppose I should give The Seven Year Itch another try. (8)

WAKING NED DEVINE (1998)—The titular Irishman wins the Lotto, and promptly drops dead from shock. This exceedingly gentle comedy involves the subterfuge undertaken by the rest of his tiny village (population: 52) who attempt to hide Ned's death and share in the winnings. There's a microscopic romantic subplot about a pig farmer who has eyes for a single mom and an even more microscopic twist involving a scary-looking old bitch who throws a monkey wrench into the village's plan. The film is lighter than air, but genial enough, with a satisfying (and surprisingly dark) conclusion; at a scant 90 minutes, it still feels overlong. (7)