Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top Ten List for 2010

Traditional top ten lists are for excellence in film making, achievement on artistic merit and recognition of special accomplishments. I have a different criteria for my first list on this blog. These were simply the movies that I got the most satisfaction from seeing, usually an emotional response, but easily measured by a simple critical standard-would I pay full price to see it again?


This is my favorite movie of the year. I paid full price to see it three times in theaters and sat through one of those trips twice. I have it on my i-pod and watch part of it every week. Roger Ebert says it is hateful and disgusting, Roger you are further away from the critic I once loved watching every week. I still respect you but you are off on this. Hit Girl is my favorite character in movies in the last five years and Nicolas Cage as Big Daddy is hysterical. The use of music is wonderful and the integration of a comic in the story was excellent. I am not a comic book guy but I appreciated the way this movie gets that culture.


This may be the best movie on the list. The story is wonderful, the actors are perfectly cast, the movie is paced well and it looks terrific. I have three animated movies on my list and Pixar is represented but it was not the best this year. I love Toy Story 3, it will appear momentarily, but it is not as fresh and surprising as this was. I laughed a lot and I cried as well. I even went out looking for the toy. If we are talking about award worthy films, this should be on your list also.


For serious lists of great films this year, you will find this movie. For my list it appears because of the emotional resonance. The story concerns facing your fears, as the world is being confronted by the greatest threat to civilization that ever was. The two leads are amazing, and I expect both will be awarded many honors. Any movie that points out the nobility of those that stood up in World War 2, even this indirectly, has some value to it. I just saw it and expect I will see it a couple more times before it makes it to home video as the Academy Award winning best picture of 2010.


I told you it was coming, Pixar so far has not made a movie that I have not loved. Most third films in a series are weak payoffs and simply designed to generate cash. This movie like it's predecessor, exists for good logical story telling reasons and it brings us back in contact with characters that we have loved for more than fifteen years. It also brings all of us back to the wonders of childhood and the beauty of real imagination. Like Meryl Streep has a permanent place on Oscar lists each year for the quality of her work, Pixar fits the same mold for animation.


You can read a full commentary on this film in the blog on another posting. I am surprised at how much I liked it because I am a huge fan of the original. Jeff Bridges is no John Wayne, but he takes this part in a different direction primarily through actor's choices, and it works. The movie is beautiful to look at as well.


Maybe you don't expect a horror movie to make this kind of a list, but this is a sharp little movie with a lot of things going for it. The story is creepy enough to freak you out, there is a lot of tension and atmosphere. All of the actors do a solid job, but the sheriff and his deputy deserve special praise. I am a sucker for a small budget film that accomplishes everything it sets out to do, this movie meets that criteria.


What else is there to say? Aaron Sorkin writes dialog that actors should kill to do, and he put together a story that gets to the ideas and themes he wants regardless of fidelity to the truth. David Fincher is a great director, who's best film "Zodiac" was ignored a few years ago, and now he is getting appropriate recognition. This movie is entertaining as hell and will make you worry about the future of civilization at the same time.


A movie most of you will never have heard of, featuring the best performance of Andy Garcia's career. He is truly funny and honest in this slice of life comedy set in a odd location in NYC. I can't promise anyone who reads this the same deal, but if you know me, and you rent this movie and do not enjoy it, I will pay for your rental. How is that for a guarantee? The rest of you, check it out, it is not the finest movie ever made but it is a sharp funny and touching two hours that is a better way to spend your time than 95% of the other things you might be doing.


I'm old enough to enjoy the idea of older actors hamming it up just to show that they still have it. This will never win any awards but it will entertain you and make you wish that Bruce Willis never stops playing hard guy characters and that Morgan Freeman was in everything. Stuff explodes, wisecracks get made and John Malkovich goes over the top, what could be better?


This was a movie I knew nothing about, had minimal expectations for and is really not designed for me at this stage of my life. I loved it. I was surprised by the tone of the film, the cleverness of the dialog and the visual images. I saw it in 3-D and enjoyed it despite that. The minions in the movie are worth the price of admission, but there is a warm-hearted story here regardless of what the title implies.

There are other notable films, I will have a couple of more postings for you. I limited myself to movies I actually saw, and this year I was below my annual average. I went to see about 55 films in theaters this year, and on the next posting I'm going to share why that list shoud have been smaller. For now Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

True Grit 2010

Many critics and film fans have suggested that John Wayne won his sole Academy Award as a result of a sentimental nod to his career, rather than for the actual performance in the original True Grit. There is nothing wrong with that if it is true, it often happens that the Academy seems to do make goods when they have failed to deliver in the past. I think however that the people who truly believe this about the 1969 Wayne performance must be blind. John Wayne does a comedic turn as a cowboy, much more effectively than Lee Marvin four years earlier, and he is bad-ass John Wayne to boot. Wayne did many westerns with strong comedy themes, although he was not usually the clown, someone else in the picture was. Here he was front and center as a near tragic washout, with a drinking problem and a pig headed attitude. You could laugh at what he said, what he did, and what he was. The tone was sentimental and the movie played for pure entertainment purposes. I saw this movie in theaters when I was a kid, I must have been just eleven, but I knew I was watching something special because I enjoyed it so much.

The Coen Brother's version of True Grit is just as special, but with a completely different tone. When the shot for shot remake of Psycho came out several years ago, everyone wondered why do it? The answer is is this movie, to see how tone and performance can alter the way we see the story. True Grit is not a shot for shot remake, in fact the Coen Brothers claim it is not a remake at all. The word "re-imagining" has been invented by film-makers to justify taking old movies and doing them again, without sounding like you are simply trying to cash in on the same story twice. I first remember hearing the phrase used to describe Tim Burton's version of Planet of the Apes. True Grit is the first time I have heard the phrase used where it is clear that there was a re-imagining of the story. Unlike the other remakes that tinker with the story and try to put a twist on it to make something new, this version of True Grit tells the exact same story, with much of the dialog exactly the same as the original, but it changes the tone of the story in subtle yet dramatic ways.

The music in the film is elegiac, at the start of the film it is mournful for the father that has been lost. At the end of the movie it is a tribute to heroes that have passed. Most of the film highlights traditions, ways of speaking and mores that are also dead and gone. In the original Wayne version of the film the cinematography was crisp and beautiful to look at but it did not call attention to time or place, it was simply workmanlike to move us through the story. In the current version, the cinematography tells a story also, about the harshness of the life in those days, the isolation and loneliness that a body would feel in a place that was not unknown, but was less than well traveled. The images, lighting and color palate suggest a way of life that is long gone. The dialog in the film highlights this tone even more. While many of the same lines were used in the original, there are more examples of the archaic speech patterns in this version. They turn the English language into a foreign sounding flow of syntax and adjectives. This is another reminder of how the world has changed.

Since the performances are the substance of the original's strength, it is essential to compare the work done in these roles. Jeff Bridges' take on Rooster Cogburn is substantially different than John Waynes. Wayne was likable, even when he said or did things that as an audience we might not approve of. There was never any doubt that he was a Hero, even if it was a tattered one. Bridges on the other hand is likable sometimes and despicable other times. We can believe that he has abandoned the chase and is leaving Mattie on her own. His intolerance of others is not just comedic contentiousness, but plain disdain for the opinion of others. He also sounds like someone who is drunk most of the time, phlegm in his voice and marbles in his mouth. His take may be the more accurate view of a lawman in the times, but it is not as iconic. It may suffer a bit in the Awards season because it is so similar to the role he played last year in Crazy Heart that he may not get credit for the hard work it takes to play this kind of a drunk. His character in last years film is much close to the John Wayne performance than the same character he is playing.

Matt Damon is a tool, but he is also a good actor and a bright guy. He has it all over Glen Campbell as an actor so it is really not much of a comparison. Glen Campbell was a singer/guitarist who was making his big screen debut, and as far as I can tell his only theatrical acting feature. Damon is an actor/writer with awards and dozens of feature film roles to his credit. The resolution of his character's storyline is a little incomplete, but much more satisfying in the new version than in the 1969 version. Both times, the role was set up for comedic purposes, and both times it works as a way of injecting some sly humor into the story and providing a solution to a story element.

The character of Mattie Ross is pivotal to the new version of the story, in the long run the issue of "True Grit" is that she is the one that has it all along. Kim Darby was an actress that I don't think anybody ever cared much for. She was well cast in some things but not especially versatile and her looks were a bit bland. I thought she was believable as a fourteen year old when I first saw this movie, when I see it now she seems a little old. Hailee Steinfeld is fourteen and plays older because the times seem to demand that sort of maturity in those situations. Darby's take on the character seems petulant and obstinate while this new young actress comes across as steely and resolute. She is in nearly every scene in the film and stands up well next to professionals like Bridges and Damon.

Josh Brolin is third billed in the new version but his part is relatively small. He is perfectly cast as the prairie scum that kills Mattie's father and sets the story in motion. There is humor in his role but the menace is much more in evidence than in the part as played by Jeff Corey in the Wayne version. Both takes on the character show us a low life who brings misery into the lives of those he has contact with, but the part adds just enough more in the new tale that we understand it a little better. Barry Pepper plays Lucky Ned Pepper in the new film, he has the unfortunate task of filling in for one of the great actors of the 2oth century, Robert Duvall. Both times the role is written for a fairly generic bad guy. Duvall added some charisma to Ned Pepper, and you can tell he was a leader, even if it was of horrible human beings. Barry Pepper works because he has a maniacal gleam in his eye. He uses the same manner of speech as the other main characters and delivers it with gusto. His retort to Rooster that his threat is "Bold talk for a one-eyed fat man" is acceptable but lacks the sense of superiority that Duvall used when he delivered it.

There are a dozen character parts in the original that were fleshed out more than in the new version. The members of the Ned Pepper gang get very little focus in the 2010 film, and the scene in the cabin while maybe more jarring, is limited by the absence of Dennis Hopper as Moon. Of course the background character I payed most attention to was Col. Stonehill the horse trader. The comedic interaction between he and Mattie is a chess game that everyone can watch and enjoy. This years version was fine, the actor Dakin Matthews has an expressive face and gets most of the laughs with his eyes, but frankly he is simply outclassed here. Strother Martin appeared in all three of the great westerns from 1969, True Grit, The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In each of those pictures he is hysterical, but the utter frustration, flummoxing, and final surrender he does in the original True Grit cannot be matched. His voice is so appropriate, and well developed, that all that arcane dialog sounds like it was written specifically with him in mind.

Either version of True Grit is something that is worth your time. If you are one of those people that worship at the feet of the Coens, you will not be disappointed, and if you think John Wayne is definitive, you are right, but that doesn't make the new version any less valid. The new version is darker in tone and strains to be saying something that may not need to be said. It is also funny, dramatic and filled with lines that are simply fun to listen to good actors saying.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Must Share

Christmas Movies

I have created a bit of a monster. My youngest daughter is as nuts as I am about movies and she has us on a movie a day schedule for the month of December. There is of course a Christmas theme and most of the movies are playing on a variety of channels if you look around hard enough, but she has a particular order and reason that she wants us to watch each film. I like that her mind works that way but I am a little frightened about the meticulous process that we must follow, "Can you say 'Control'?"

We all have favorite movies that we see at Christmas, I am struck over how many of them are barely Christmas related. We started off our month with Die Hard, the quintessential action movie of all time. It is set at a Christmas party and most people barely remember that. The movie is sprinkled with references to the holiday but it plays so much like a summer movie that you may forget this. Of course the weather outside will do nothing to remind most of the country that it is Christmas, in Southern California we don't have Winter Season, we have awards season. The closest we get to snow in the original Die Hard is at the end when debris if floating all around the Nakatomi Plaza. Later this month we have Gremlins, which contains the single most depressing Christmas story ever.

I mention the strange Christmas settings because my daughters favorite Christmas movie is not really about Christmas. There is one extended segment set at Christmas and that is what qualifies it for our list. She had a Cinema minor at U.S.C. and took a couple of classes in a series about Hollywood film genres. Her professor in the Musical class she took had this as his favorite musical, and she knows a heck of a lot about the movie, "Meet Me in St. Louis". We watched this the other night and it is of course pure gold. Set nearly a hundred years ago, we get to know a family from St Louis and their loves and foibles. Judy Garland sings and looks wonderful, and the stories are heartwarming and funny. The Christmas segment has the amazing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", followed by one true moment of despair as Tootie, the youngest sister breaks down and frightens her whole family with the anxiety and hopelessness that the rest of them are feeling but can't quite give voice to. When I hear kids today dismiss movies that are older than they are, this is one of the treasures that I feel bad for them missing.

I am in the afterglow of the Trojan Victory over the Bruins yesterday and I just felt like a little commentary was needed to start the morning off right. This is not a full review and I don't want to promise an entry a day for the movie project, but everyone who reads this might want to know that I am still going to provide some regular insight on the Movie Day I am having. Maybe this next year the goal will be to comment on all the films we see in theaters. I am going to add a slideshow for the movies we are watching here during the holidays, if you keep your eyes open, you may find a post or two on them.

Here is a link to You Tube and the Movie Clip of Judy Garland singing.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

General Update

I have been busier than I thought the last two months so I have been unable to keep up with the blog. I still plan on posting about a couple more of the 80's teen comedies, but I will have to wait a bit for an upcoming break. We are planning a Christmas themed blog during December, with some brief posts about the movies we are counting down as a sort of advent calendar. Hope you all make it back for some more reflections, and enjoy the links I manage to post until then. Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Valley Girl (1983)

OK I promised I would follow up the movie a day summer project with a theme that you folks voted for. Despite the fact that it is October, the month of of Halloween, you choose teen comedies of the 80's rather than Horror films. I think we can thank Allyson for pursuing this so relentlessly. I hope you all will enjoy these comments on the teen films. I was in my twenties and married when all these movies came out, so my perspective was always a little different. I am a big sentimentalist, I cry at commercials sometimes, so it is easy for me to get sucked up into a romantic comedy with some John Hughes drama layered on top. I am a lot busier than I thought I would be, so I don't have as much time to write as I was hoping for, but I will try to get in an entry a week and if I can I'll add some extras.

We are going to start with one of my wife's three favorite films. I know we saw Valley Girl in movie theaters a half dozen times at least. In fact, we went to a double feature of Valley Girl and a Cheech and Chong movie (Still Smokin or Nice Dreams), and the stoner flick was so bad, we stayed and watched Valley Girl again to get the bad taste out of our mouth. Valley Girl is just plain sweet. There is a tenderness to the relationship between the two leads that sucks you in if you have a romantic bone in your body. This was Nicholas Cage's first starring role and he hit it out of the park. He showed in this movie that he was an actor to watch, even if at times he was watchable simply because he was being himself. Here he is a real character and as an actor he makes us believe he is in love and suffering from the pain of uncertainty in his relationship. He is very funny in the section where he begins courting Julie and his casual charm in the Health Food store her father and mother run is really endearing. He has that shy smile and aw shucks manner that should make any girl think he was worth checking out.

Julie is played by Deborah Foreman, an actress that only make a couple of other films that I ever heard of. I can see immediately why she was so right in this role and may not have been right for other parts. She is cute pretty, with delicate features that look as if they will harden as she grows older. For a sixteen year old she was a perfect teen dream. I liked the relationship she had with her parents in the movie. She mostly disregards her friends, and with good reason, they are mostly shallow and don't see the things in Randy that she sees. The whole opening scene with the girls at the mall was the catalyst for the movie. The song "Valley Girl" was created by Frank Zappa after listening in on his daughters phone conversations with her friends. He was fascinated with the slang they spoke and the cadence in their delivery. The movie came out a couple of years later, it had no official connection to the song and it does not appear in the movie, but it it clear that the girls in the movie are based on the sort of girl lifestyle that Zappa had lampooned with his work.

If you listen to the dialogue in the movie, you will hear many of the lines from the song being spoken in the mall scene and when the girls are together. As much as the Zappa song was an inspiration for the movie, the real basis of the film is Romeo and Juliet. This is a story of crossed lovers that pursue their passion despite the opposing forces of their families. Not their actual families but the cliques they have cast their lots with. Julie is a preppy type from the valley who's life revolves around shopping and her friends. Randy is the brooding outcast that lives a decadent Hollywood lifestyle filled with clubs and music that Julie and her friends would think is too loud. Her friends disapprove of her relationship with Randy not because he is wrong for Julie, but because he is wrong for the in-group that they are part of. He threatens their connection to her, which threatens their vision of themselves. The connection to Shakespeare's star crossed lovers is highlighted by a brief shot of them kissing under a movie marquee that features the film title playing in the theater.

The supporting characters add a lot of humor to the movie. Michael Bowen plays the boyfriend that Julie dumps right before she meets Randy. He is "the most bitchin dude in the Valley", "What other dude can touch me?". He is a stereotypical preppy smug Don Juan of the high school scene. We know he is a bad guy by the way he uses other girls to try to manipulate Julie and to boost his own ego. Beth, is the step mother of one of Julie's friends and she has a Mrs. Robinson vibe going with one of the guys that her step daughter is into. Every time we see the movie and hear the song "Monster of Love", we crack up. That story line has nearly nothing to do with the main plot, but it sets up some fun scenes and there is a pretty good payoff with it at the end. Finally, Fred is Randy's best friend, he is part of that Hollywood outsider scene, but he is also a big goober who is more awkward and confident than a puppy. He throws himself into situations that are way over his head and can't admit that he is basically clueless. I have seen the actor that played Fred in a couple of things over the years, I hope he has had a good career but it must be tough to peak with a performance like this in a movie where you will always be overshadowed by your co-star.

I taught at Cal State Northridge for three years from 1982 to 1985, so most of the people and places were very recognizable to me. During those years I was really into music, I listened to KROQ and went after my classes on Fridays to record stores to look for music I'd heard and enjoyed. There must be a dozen songs on the soundtrack of this movie that I bought the albums of the artists for before the movie existed. Sparks, Gary Myrick and the Figures, Modern English and the Plimsouls were all in my LP collection, and then the movie came and those artists were all featured. The Plimsouls especially since they are the band that plays in the nightclub that Randy hangs out in. The most overused song from a band in the early 80's is Modern English's "I Melt for You", it is a wonderful song that has become something of a cliche. The cliche starts here because this was the first movie to use the song a romantic theme in a film. The end of the film has a "Graduate" vibe with a somewhat uncertain but hopeful expression on the faces of the leads, and then that song starts playing and everything is going to be OK.

This movie was championed by Siskel and Ebert on their movie review show. Both of them spoke of how much better it was then many films aimed at adults and really miles ahead of some of the dreck that targeted kids. I would have to look back but I think both of them had it on their top ten films of the year for 1983. I had always thought of 1984 as the best year for movies of the 80's but two of my wife's favorite films are from 1983, Valley Girl and The Right Stuff. I am really glad to have the memory of seeing those movies in theaters with her, and we still love them enormously, before the DVD of Valley Girl was released, I had to buy a copy for her for a gift, an out of print Laserdisc cost me $70 on ebay, but it brought a whole lot of pleasure to our lives. If you want a great teen comedy from the 1980's, this is the gold standard..see it.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Thursday, September 16, 2010


I have had almost a week and a half off since I finished the Summer Movie Project and I am starting to get antsy. I did enjoy writing about the movies and experiences that made up that time in my life. I have decided to start my next blog project in the first week in October. I would like your help in choosing exactly where to focus. I have pulled nearly a hundred films from the 1980s out from their place on my DVD shelves. I thought that we could share a genre for the month. I will try to write about two films a week in that period. The question for you is, what kinds of films would you like to have me work on? I have classified them into several categories in the poll on the right. I would like you to vote for a category you would most like to see. If I can get twenty or more people to participate in the poll, I promise I will use that category to draw the films from.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Novelty title sequences

Novelty title sequences

I found this nifty article linked on IMDB, I don't want to lose it and I think anyone interested in movies will enjoy it. So click away and learn a little.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Time After Time 1979 A Movie A Day Day 97

Nearly a hundred days ago, I started this project in a pique. Since my summer classes did not start for three weeks after the Spring semester was over, I had time on my hands and I did not want to fritter it away without having accomplished something. The idea of a blog, based on watching a movie every day seemed very appealing. I can watch five movies a day if the time is available, it is usually my pleasure. I wanted a theme to work around the movies so I chose films that I saw when I was growing up. I was twelve when the seventies started and twenty-one when they finished. Since it was Summer, I thought it fitting to write about Summer films of that time. There have been an amazing variety of movies covered in the last 97 days. I found however, that when movie watching becomes an obligation, it is not always a pleasure. There were several times during the Summer when I was stressed out about getting my movie in. I missed one day when we were in Vegas, and Amanda took over for the week that I was in Alaska. Squeezing in a film, between dinner and going out, or taking one with me on my ipod when we were on the road, are examples of the kinds of effort I made to keep up. If you check the time on the posts, you will find a number that just managed to get in before the stroke of twelve. I have every intention of continuing to write about movies and probably my life, but I am not going to keep it on a calendar like I did for the past three months. I look forward to going to school tomorrow, teaching my classes, coming home and then doing as I choose rather than forcing myself to watch one of the movies from the list. Don't misunderstand, I have enjoyed watching most of the movies, even if I did not enjoy the movie. It is my pleasure now to introduce you to the final post on this project.

"Time After Time" is 100% a pure pleasure. If you have not seen this movie, you are in for a treat when you do. There are so many terrific elements here that starting is a dilemma. Probably it is best to start with the set up. It is 1893 London and a group of Victorian era gentlemen are dining. We have seen the murder of a prostitute just a few moments before, but that can surely have nothing to do with this distinguished group of men. The host is Mr. H.G. Wells, writer and it turns out inventor. He is there to revel to his friends his newest invention, a time machine, and to announce his plan to travel to the future utopia he expects in three generations. When Scotland Yard shows up at his door, in pursuit of Jack the Ripper, it is only when He discovers his Time Machine is missing that he figures out that one of his friends, is indeed the Ripper and has escaped to the future. When the machine automatically returns to it's place in his basement, he decides to pursue the criminal to save the civilized world he imagines will be overwhelmed by a sick murderer in it's midst. I can't visualize a better set up of a story, H.G. Wells pursuing Jack the Ripper across time. The concept alone is priceless but it is developed by a very good storyteller named Nicholas Myer. He wrote a Sherlock Holmes novel that was then made into a movie he directed. "The Seven-Percent Solution" uses a similar mixture of characters, like Holmes and Sigmund Freud, to tell an adventure story. "Time After Time" is a thriller with a science fiction element. By itself that would be satisfying, but Myer adds in the perfect ingredient to make the picture an essential in my opinion. He adds a love story. A story that crosses a century of attitudes and the usual thriller elements to make us truly care about the outcome.

Over the years thousands of writers and millions of film fans have written about and witnessed what is called "screen chemistry". Errol Flynn and Olivia deHavalind had that chemistry and it helped them make eight films together that really worked. Most of you can think of actors that have meshed together so well on screen that it is hard to separate them. Romantic chemistry like Tracy and Hepburn or comradely like Redford and Newman. I would be hard pressed to think of another screen pairing where the chemistry came together so quickly and completely, right in front of us, as the matching of Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen. From their first scene together, you can feel them falling for each other. I had never imagined McDowell as a romantic lead before this movie, afterwords I wondered why he was not cast that way all the time. This was only her second movie, and she was a complete charmer in both of the films. I admit that I had a big crush on her, she was pretty without being glamorous and sweetness just falls off of her like frosting off the sides of a cake. There have been other star romances based on working together in a picture, this one surprised me not one bit. They were married for ten years, I'm sure she loves Ted Danson her current husband, but in my mind she and McDowell will always be a couple. The screenplay lets an unconventional pairing pull us into the events. It is a fish out of water story in both directions.

As antagonists go, is there anything more provocative and potentially frightening than Jack the Ripper? In this story he is established as a surgeon, a chess player who regularly outwits the brilliant H.G.Wells, and a vile disturbed killer. David Warner is an actor that I have enjoyed in dozens of movies. He has never quite had leading man status, and he reminds me of an English version of Donald Sutherland. He is versatile and proficient. As Dr. Stevens, aka the Ripper, he creates a sense of malice immediately. There are some good chase scenes in the movie but the exchanges between him and the other two character are the best parts of the story. In one scene, Wells has tracked him down in his hotel room, and he shows Wells the TV news. He knows exactly how to wound his former friend, despoiling his vision of a Utopian future of peace and equality. It is a fine performance, and it is aided by some clever script points which make the movie look at more than just the action/thriller components.

The detective story is also well told. Wells pursuit of the Ripper is very smart and utilizes the fact that both of them are not of the times. The film is set in 1979 so there are the usual changes in the world for us to notice. The price of gas is 67 cents a galleon, the menu at McDonald's has most of the items under a dollar. One of the banks in the city of San Francisco that Wells tries to track Stevens down through is the National Bank of Iran. Of course with a time machine, he is able to discover the scene of a future crime, but in trying to get the S.F.P.D. to follow up, he makes an error that all of us in the audience will see but he does not realize will undermine his credibility. The story is set up to work logically as a puzzle in a very complete form. All time travel stories have conundrums that might undermine them. This one is no different, but once you are following the story, the paradoxes will not make any difference to how you feel. There is a twist that I remembered I did not see coming the first time I saw the movie. It created some very harsh emotional elements for a short time, and when it is resolved, I was rejoicing, even though I had been manipulated, because I cared so much about our two lovers.

The only flaw in the film is that the time travel sequences are not really interesting. In "The Time Machine", the 1960 George Pal telling of the story, the movement through time was indicated in a clever visual manner. Here the time travel element is a series of photographic effects that work at showing how the trip might be but are not all that strong in the creativity department. Don't let that put you off of the movie, after all its two minutes of the two hours. This is not a special effects movie, it is a film about special people and ideas. It is gratifying to finish this series with a movie I adore and a chance to encourage anyone who reads this to revisit it or if you are lucky, see it for the first time.

Watch This space for future blog projects, but don't expect a daily update, I would need a Time Machine of my own to make that work with my regular class schedule.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Omega Man 1971 A Movie A Day Day 96

As I was struggling to find copies of movies for the blog, I looked back over my original list and saw "The Omega Man" listed there in 1971. I guess my timing is a little off, this is a movie that I bought on Blu-Ray and watched just a few months ago. I suppose having seen it so recently, I tricked myself into believing that I had already used it for the blog. A little review shows that this is not the case and so I get to finish up this project with a film from one of the early years in my time requirement, and tomorrow's entry is from the last year I was reviewing for the project. A span of nine years covered in two days.

I'm excited about today's movie for a pretty specific reason, this is one of the earliest movies that I went to see by myself. I'm not talking about seeing it without my parents, I mean I went and no one that I knew went with me. Some of you may think this is an odd habit and some may find it normal. I am usually a pretty social person. I don't like being alone much, and I enjoy doing things with my family, both then and now. Once I figured out that I liked going to the show, even by myself, I was in trouble, because it is rare for me to skip a film I'm interested in, simply because no one else is. In the Summer of 1971, my family spent most of the season at Lake Gregory, near Arrowhead California. My father had put together with some investors, an elaborate staging of his Illusion show, and we were presenting it in a big circus sized tent. We started doing the show nightly except on Mondays, but the crowds that were supposed to be at this location did not appear. After a couple of weeks, we dropped down to Thursday through Sunday shows. The only nights that we were sold out were the three nights around the Fourth of July weekend. My Dad got very sick that summer, the investors lot a ton of money, and I was left to my own devices on the days we were home from the lake. It was one of those nights that I strolled up Garfield Ave, and cruised into the El Rey theater. Here, Charlton Heston and I became close friends.

I hear the Yenny's talk about scenarios for dealing with a Zombie Uprising, and my future son-in-law runs a group of hacker's that are Zombie Hunters on weekends. My first visualization of the end of the world and a zombie apocalypse, comes from "The Omega Man". Before the movie came out, the book that the movie was based on was promoted with a paperback release, featuring an image of Charlton Heston, staring down the reader through a high powered rifle with an infra-red scope. That looked cool to me and I bought the book and read it(In fact it may still be in a box in the garage). It turns out that the hero is not pestered with zombies, but rather vampires created by a biological disaster. When I get to the movie, they are not vampires and they really are not zombies. We have survivors of biological warfare, who have created a cult of Luddites, determined to turn their back on technology and the past. Heston's character is the lone survivor of the plague that is unaffected by any symptoms. He was researching a cure when involved in a helicopter crash and was only able to test the serum on himself before the world collapsed.

Anyone recognizing this as the plot from the Will Smith movie "I Am Legend" should know that that movie, this movie and the Vincent Price film, "The Last Man on earth" are all based on the Richard Matheson novel. He wrote some great Twilight Zone episodes and a book and screenplay for another film on this list, The Legend of Hell House. Spielberg should send him money every year because he also wrote Duel, the TV movie that turned Spielberg into a star. None of the three movies is exactly true to the novel, but I like this one the best. The opening section of the film, with Neville, tooling around L.A. in a red convertible, with no one else around is very creepy. The Will Smith version, focuses on this for the first hour or so, and it is the best part of the movie. Once we get some plot and other characters, the movie falls apart. "The Omega Man" does not suffer from that, it is a lot tighter, the lonely guy sequences are just enough to create fear and empathy, and then the others come in. The plague ravaged survivors are blind in the light, and zombiefied in their appearance, but they do speak and have their own twisted reasoning. The morality play is a lot more effective in this version than in the others because the plague infested have an agenda and can articulate it. We may see them as wrong, but they can be understood. Anthony Zerbe, another one of those great character actors who everyone recognizes but not everyone knows, plays the leader of this death cult. He has had bigger parts in movies over the years, but I always remembered him for this role which freaked me when I was 13.

Anyway, my vision of how to deal with the end of the world starts with this movie. Drive a cool car, build an impenetrable fortress, stock it with food and luxury. Don't forget when you are out to stop at the theater where you have a generator set up so you can run a movie for yourself every once in a while, even if it is the same movie for the rest of eternity, and even if it is Woodstock. The only drawback in my plan is that I'm not as smart as Heston's character, and I'm not as badass either. Maybe that's why I wanted to be Charlton Heston when I grew up. Along with "Planet of the Apes" and "Soylent Green" he made the best trio of thought provoking science fiction films in my life.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) A Movie A Day Day 95

I'm finishing up the summer blog this weekend, and I have been running a little low on my films. When I started the project, I had a list of nearly 150 films that I could choose from. Originally there were just over forty in my collection. That included DVDs, Blue Ray DVDs, Laserdiscs, and video tape. Then I scanned all the Satellite Channels we subscribe to, looking for movies to add to the collection. I found about a dozen that I could use from that pool. I started haunting Wal-Mart, Target, and F.Y.E. (For Your Entertainment, formerly the Wherehouse) and made purchases that account for nearly twenty more. When I made some purchases, I was a little more flush with cash then I am right now. I recently took advantage of Blockbuster On-Line, for a free two week period and have rented a few films to use in the blog. Today however, I did not receive the DVDs from Blockbuster to finish off my project, so I am dipping into a slightly different pool to keep things consistent. Earlier in the summer I mentioned that I purchased several of the Pink Panther films to use for this series. One of the movies I bought, I discovered was really a Winter release and so fell outside the scope of my purpose. So for only the second time this summer I am going to cheat a little on the rules.

The Pink Panther Strikes Again, is the fifth movie in the series, it is the fourth to star Peter Sellars. He and Blake Edwards apparently had a falling out at one point and the part was played by Alan Arkin for one film. After the two reconciled, they revived the series in the 1970's with a set of increasingly outlandish films. Some are better that others, all offer some entertainment but the formula became even more predictable than a James Bond Movie. There would be an opening set up, a fight with Cato, an introduction of characters that play a part in the story, and then a series of events that give Peter Sellars a chance to do his slapstick best to keep us amused.

As the series went on the one thing that always seemed to maintain it's quality was the opening titles which featured the animated Panther and Clouseau, and the amazing theme song from Henry Mancini. The work for the title crawl in this installment was done by Richard Williams, a brilliant animator that worked outside of the system at times. In my laser collection we have a copy of the full length Williams feature, The Thief and the Cobbler, it is a weird picture that gives you a sense of how creative the Williams studio could be. For the "Pink Panther Strikes Again", the title sequence consists of a series of short tributes to other films, and features the Panther as Dracula, Batman, Alfred Hitchcock, King Kong, and even Maria from the Sound of Music. That was probably an inside joke because Blake Edwards is married to Julie Andrews.

Most of what happens in the movie is explained by the trailer above. Clouseau's old boss has gone mad, and is blackmailing the counties of the world into trying to kill Clouseau. This leads to a long sequence in the middle of the film, where a series of assassins, end up killing each other both on purpose and accidentally, as Clouseau wanders through the proceedings oblivious of the danger he is in. One of the assassins is the English actor Deep Roy, he has been in several films over the years, it is his performance that makes up all the Oompa Loompas in the Tim Burton, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory". He is also Mr. Scott's assistant in the new Star Trek.

Once again, Peter Sellar's accent is the basis of several jokes. It is just off enough that you can see why others would not understand him. Edwards is not afraid to make a bad joke, and frequently they are the funniest pieces in the movie. Two stood out for me in this entry. After an explosion in his apartment, Clouseau is asked what kind of bomb it was, his answer, "the exploding kind'. See, it's dumb but so out of the blue that you laugh because it surprises you. Toward the end of the film, he encounters a wire hared dachshund, and asks the hotel manager as he is bending down if his dog bites. The old man replies "no", and Clouseau proceeds to try to pet the small dog. It leaps up and nearly rips him a new one. As he confronts the old man he says, "I thought you said he doesn't bite". To which the hotel manager replies, "that is not my dog". This has got to be a really old joke, but they make it work.

Herbert Lom plays Dreyfuss, and he does an over the top maniacal performance which he was clearly encouraged to do. Sometimes it seems to go a bit far, but I did like the parody of him playing the pipe organ wrapped in a black cape. You see he played the Phantom of the Opera in a 1962 horror film. This is a middling entry in the series. Most of the jokes seem flat, but when they hit there is a good laugh. If you have enjoyed any of the other 70's panther films, you will probably like this one.Watch for the celebrity look a likes that play Henry Kissinger, and Gerald Ford. Those references, and the jokes about the President being clumsy, set the film clearly in it's time. So I guess the best way to view it is as a relic of the Me Decade.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Breaking Away 1979 A Movie A Day Day 94

I have written before that the summer of 1979 was my favorite growing up. There are a number of reasons for this and I have mentioned some of them. I need to talk about today's movie in the context of some of the other reasons. These other reasons are not really the fun things that I mentioned before; graduating from college, not needing a job, floating in the pool or anticipating graduate school. The summer of 1979 happened in the shadow of some pretty hard events in my world. Dolores graduated from college the same time as I did, but her celebration of this and mine was tempered by the death of her father just a week before commencement. He had been sick and suffered several strokes and heart attacks in his last few months but it still was a shock that Tex Duckworth was not there with us. Dolores and her brother and sister were a little stuck trying to figure out what was going to happen with them. They had to grow up a little faster because there was no family home to return to. They made due, getting jobs and living together for several months before moving off on their separate lives. In March of 1979, before the National Debate Tournament, my two closest friend on the debate team were in a horrible accident on their way to spend some recreation time with friends in Colorado. While driving through Arizona, a drunk truck driver rear ended them and Leo Mohr, who was captain of the Trojan Debate Team, was killed. Rick Rollino, my debate partner, was severely burned, and although he would live, it was clear that his life was going to change. All of us have burdens that we carry with us on a daily basis, most of them are minor annoyances. Being part of an accident like this, losing a close friend, and being physically changed in many ways could easily lead to bitterness and depression. I have not spoken about the mental aspect of this with my friend Rick for thirty-one years. I never thought I needed to because, while he might have been depressed, he never showed it. I have never heard him let a bitter thought out of his head concerning any of this in all the time that has gone by. I know I have cursed the world a few times about it. Every March it pops into my head and I resent that Leo is not around and I wish that Rick didn't have to be hurt. The truth is most of the rest of the time it doesn't occur to me because Rick is the same guy he always was. I forget the physical changes, because there is so little change in the rest of him.

You might be wondering why this somewhat maudlin story is connected to this movie. There are a couple of reasons. First of all, the theme of the movie is about growing up and becoming the person that you are meant to be. The character of Dave in "Breaking Away" is a wonderful guy, but he is trying so hard to be something different he doesn't notice the effect it is having on everyone around him. His friends are struggling with unmet dreams, and he is still dreaming. His father is frustrated that his health keeps him from doing the work that he loved, but his son is driving him crazy and giving him as much worry as the old job did. The girl he woos is going to be hurt when she discovers his Italian persona is all an act. There is nothing wrong with being a little afraid of the future, and certainly nothing wrong with dreaming big. There is a problem however, if you run away from yourself. That is the lesson that Dave learns in the movie. It is a lesson that I learned quite a bit from my own friend's experience in the hospital. When I would visit Rick, he made fun of the stupid things I might have said, or he laughed at the dumb joke I might have made. He wasn't stoic, or reserved or bitter. Rick was the same guy I knew, and I was moving into my adulthood more effectively because of that. I found out the strength I had by helping the love of my life get through her transition to being an "orphan". I also discovered a capacity to think of others more because of my friendship with Rick and my position on the Trojan Debate Squad as an assistant coach. John DeBross, my mentor and the Director of Forensics at USC, along with Lee Garrison, the Director of Debate and the guy I modeled my life on, both asked me to work with Rick to make sure his return to school, and competition went as well as it could while he was still recovering. It meant a lot to me that they saw my friendship with Rick as a way to help him and the team out. Truth be told Rick did not need much help. He was very self sufficient, and I wanted to be that way as well. So like Dave in the story, I had to learn to look not just at what I wanted, but at what would help others be the people they wanted to be as well. The character Mike, played by Dennis Quaid, is the former football star who is rapidly losing any vision of the future that is positive. Rick could easily have become that guy. So could I. It is friendship that gives them some faith that things will look up.

The second reason that I have always identified with this movie and the characters is simple. This was the first movie I saw with Rick after he got out of the hospital. I think it may have been the first time he had gone out on his own since his injuries. Dan Hasegawa and I, drove down to Torrance, picked Rick up and traveled up to Westwood to see this movie in what was then an exclusive engagement. Rick had pressure gloves on his hands for the skin grafts and a Bandage on his head that looked like a turban. We had dinner somewhere I don't remember, but I do remember that we went to the late show that night and we did not get back to Torrance until nearly mid-night. All three of us enjoyed the movie immensely. Thinking about it, we were basically the same age as the characters in the film. Sometimes each of us was morose like Cyril, hot-headed like Moocher, frustrated and confused like Mike, and fearful but a little bit of a dreamer like Dave. One of the things that this summer of 1979 always reminds me of is that we all grow up. We don't see the little things that change on on a daily basis, at least most of the time. While I was goofing off a lot that summer, I also know that I was becoming the person I wanted to be. I wanted to be a friend that someone could count on,I wanted to be the guy that someone else loved so much she would put up with my faults. I wanted to be a professional in my field, and I also wanted to keep dreaming. "Breaking Away" is a reminder of all of those things.

Now a few things about the movie for those of you who came here for that. Filmmakers are often criticized for cashing in on the "Rocky" formula; the underdog overcoming long odds and having a feel good moment to polish off the film. There are a lot of hackneyed movies that do this and don't really earn the emotion that comes with that conclusion. "Breaking Away" earned every cheer and every tear and every laugh in it. There are no pat answers, no cheap jokes. The characters are not always likable. In the end we do like them because we went on the whole journey with them. As I watched the trailer, I thought they did a good job of selling the movie. I thought it was good because it emphasizes the humor and coming of age story, but it doesn't tip it's hand at how deep the movie is about so many things. You want to see the movie, but when you do you know that you got so much more than you expected, that you have immense respect for what you just witnessed. At Awards time, many movie-goers cheer for the sleeper film, the one that sneaks past the prestige products and artful pet efforts of directors and into the limelight. "Breaking Away" is the original little film that could, it received five Academy award nominations, including those for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay. The only shame that exists, is that Paul Dooley, who plays Dave's father, did not receive recognition for his work in the movie. He is incredibly funny and very real. Both he and Barbara Barrie as Dave's Mom, have excellent scenes in the movie with Dave. The four lead actors are young but very solid. Dennis Quaid has had a terrific career, despite not achieving the stardom levels that many expected. Daniel Stern will always be associated with the "Home Alone" movies, but I always think of him as the voice of the adult Kevin from the Wonder years. Jackie Earle Haley, was a child star, and disappeared for twenty-five years. Now he is back on the Hollywood radar and received Academy attention for "Little Children" and was my favorite Watchman in the "Watchmen" movie. I have not seen much of Dennis Christopher over the years. A couple years after "Breaking Away" he starred in a horror thriller I saw called "Fade to Black". I know I recognized him in something a couple of years ago, but I have forgotten what it was.

A lot of things stand out about this movie. I saw the thanks at the end for the Cinzano teams assistance in making the movie, if ever there was an example of bad product placement it was here. I was as heartbroken as Dave to discover his heroes were not all that he dreamed. His humiliation at their hands and the dramatic breakdown that follows in his fathers arms, puts a Black Eye on anything associated with the Cinzano name. I know it was just a movie, but imagine that it was a Pepsi truck that ran over Bambi's mom, you know that Pepsi would never be a product you would feel the same about. The University there in Bloomington, looks like a mid-western university should. Those four guys sitting above the stadium watching football practice is a reminder of how they are outsiders in their own home town. The quarry swimming hole looks amazing, and it will simply remind kids living in big cities of the pleasures they miss by doing so. I loved the scene where Dave is paced by the Cinzano truck on the highway, and the way that the unnamed driver instinctively knows what he needs as they are traveling along the road. All the jokes about Italian music and language are not mean spirited, but rather reflect the awkwardness the dad feels around his own house. We get a lovely serenade, opera music in the house and joyful singing during the bike scenes. There is so much to laugh at in the movie, you might forget that it is also a dramatic story. The events are not earth shattering, the characters are certainly not glamorous. Yet you will feel moved and attracted to everyone eventually. (Except those Damn Italians).

Big Jake (1971) A Movie A Day Day 93

This is a Key Dialogue scene, not the trailer. Beware of Spoilers.

I was sure I saw Big Jake when I was a kid. I know Duke had Richard Boone is some of his other movies, but I thought it was this one I remembered him from. As I was watching however, I did not remember any of the scenes that I saw or plot elements. It was near the last part of the movie that I figured out what happened. We came in late to Big Jake, and saw only the climax of the picture. Believe it or not, it was playing with "Easy Rider". We sat through "Easy Rider" but it was late so we did not stay for the late screening of Big Jake to catch up on the opening. I think I saw this with either Don Hayes or Pat Simpson, and I have an image of my brother Chris getting us into the movie. I do know that we saw it at the Monterey Theater, which was on the border of Alhambra and Monterey Park, located on Garfield Ave just south of Hellman. It was referred to as the make out theater because the seats in the back were on a strong incline, almost like stadium seating today. That gave the movie house the impression of a balcony even though it did not have one. I never took a girl to the movies there so I don't know if it lived up to it's nickname. By the time Dolores and I were married and living just a few blocks north of the theater, it had changed hands and showed primarily Asian films.

There is quite a bit of broad humor in Big Jake, but it never reaches the level of a movie like "McClintock". In fact from the beginning there is a pretty serious tone. A narrator introduces us to the nine men that the film opens with riding across a meadow. They are a band of cutthroats that no one would want to meet. We get a cross cut scene of a ranch, where daily events are unfolding in a lazy and somewhat warmhearted manner. We know immediately that these two sets of people are going to cross paths and the result will not be pretty. Sure enough a pretty violent assault takes place, there is a lot of blood for a John Wayne Western. In the old days a cowboy got shot and fell down, this movie came out a couple of years after "The Wild Bunch" and you can clearly see the influence. Squibs burst and guys hit with big guns fly backwards, they dont just fall down.

The time is established as 1909, so there are things in this movie that would be anachronistic in most westerns. If you look at other westerns on this list, you will see that some are set after the turn of the century. The past fading in the face of the future was a big theme in movies at this time. In this movie, it is hinted at but the cars, automatic handguns and motorcycles, are basically just used to make the action a little bit different. They have almost nothing to do with the story. After killing nearly a dozen people on the ranch, the bad guys kidnap the little boy we had watched taking a piano lesson. His grandmother played by Maureen O'Hara, sends for her absent husband. We are never sure what came between them, but it turns out this is not a reconciliation story, it is a straight action picture. After Wayne gets on the trail, we never see O'Hara again and she is only referenced briefly later in the movie. Wayne is accompanied on his task to deliver the ransom money by his two estranged grown sons. There are some scenes where the familial bonds need to be restored but they are not lingered over. John Wayne's own son played one of the grown boys, the other is played by the son of Robert Mitchum.

Most of the action is pretty standard. The tension in that opening set up is never matched again during the story. The actors seem to be rushing some of their lines and the performances are not as naturalistic as one would expect in a John Wayne movie. They bad guys are nasty people but they are not stupid and they have a good strategy for trying to make the switch of the boy for the money. This leads to the scene that you will find above. Of course Big Jake and his sons are more than a match for most of the crooks, but the character played by Boone, is a particularly nasty piece of work. This movie was written by the same guys who wrote "Dirty Harry" and you can see that they wrote psychopaths pretty well.

About half of the John Wayne movies he made in the seventies are excellent, the others are merely serviceable. This one fall into that later category. It is not a great Wayne performance, and the story does not have any depth to it. There are some good set pieces, but there are other scenes that don't seem to go anywhere. I can't write off a John Wayne western just because it has automobiles in it, after all, I love "The Shootist". I do think that horses should always be the mode of transportation for cowboys. This one is entertaining enough but not truly special. I'm getting close to wrapping up for the summer, so it is nice to have one more from the Duke, I just wish it had been a little stronger.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

ORCA THE KILLER WHALE 1977 A Movie A Day Day 92

Sometimes I wish my memory was not as good as it is. Then I would be able to forget this silly piece of junk and live my life in greater happiness. As it is, I promised I'd watch 1970's summer movies, and this was on the list. It is just as dismal as I recalled it was. A rip-off of one of the greatest films ever made, and it spoils the memory of Richard Harris, an actor about whom there is much to admire. This was, unbelievable as it is to imagine, directed by an Academy Award Nominated film-maker. One year before this, Michael Anderson directed a movie that I quite enjoyed, "Logan's Run". Twenty years before this he did "Around the World in Eighty Days". Sadly I think whatever talent he had was not available here, or maybe the script was just so wretched that he could not do anything with it.

You could start off hopefully, believing that we are going to see a low brow but entertaining poor man's version of "Jaws". There is however, no sense of adventure, no cheap thrills, and no humor worth a single laugh. The first five minutes of "Jaws" had romance, laughter, tension and horror and then the movie takes off. The first five minutes of "Orca" we watch killer whales attempt to mate and we don't even get a money shot, we get sappy music that suggests something deep and meaningful but is just slow and unmelodious. Two days ago I was praising Ennio Morricone for his score of "Two Mules for Sister Sara". I literally can't believe he is responsible for this dreck. There is no tension, excitement never builds, the music sounds like it is background music in an aquarium. At one point it sounded like they might attempt a "Theme" for the killer whale, much like the one for the shark in that far superior picture, but it is abandoned quickly, like most of the ideas that the movie pretends to be about.

The rip-off begins by having a grizzled Irish fisherman (check), hunting a great white shark (check), on a battered vessel (check) and crossing paths with a scuba diving scientist (check). After that it all goes to hell. Sometimes the scientist sound like she is warning the fisherman about the Orca's intelligence, other times she is denying that it could be doing the things she warned about. The Indian with the Mythology from his tribe speaks respectfully of the whale, and is all to quick to join in the task of killing it. We supposedly can communicate with these intelligent creatures, but not in a sophisticated way. The fisherman inadvertently kills the Orca's mate and the unborn offspring spontaneously aborts right on the deck of the boat. After this the whale is pursuing the ship captain, even on land. There are some weird lighting effects to make the killer whale look demonic but to me it simply looked like someone was pointing a red flashlight at it. There is a barely mentioned parallel with the captain's wife and child having been killed by a drunk driver a few years before. The truth is we never care about anyone in the movie so when they die or are maimed it is just an incident in the story.

Three or four places in the movie, Charlotte Rampling playing the scientist narrates events and subtext for the audience. The voice over in "Blade Runner" was five times less annoying and made ten times as much sense but most lovers of that film know that it should never have been there. Same with this one. The only characteristic that Harris has is his Irish accent. Otherwise there is basically no character there. He is just a wooden figure to be moved around the game board until the movie is over. Keenan Wynn is a character actor who is given no character to play, I'm not sure if he had more that a couple of lines. Bo Derek is in the movie, and she has that 70's pretty girl look about her. You would never know that in two years she would be the sexiest thing on the planet. Anyone who says she is acting in this movie, doesn't have a leg to stand on.

My only fond memory of this movie takes place after it was over. The movie came out in 1977, the same year as "Star Wars" and a year before "Jaws 2". So it is intended as a picture for a younger crowd, Dolores and I took her brother Danny to see the movie. He was about sixteen, and we went to the Cerrito's Shopping center to the multi-plex there. As we were walking out of the aisle, Dolores stepped in a popcorn bucket and went most of the way to the ground. Danny stepped right around her and said to everyone else coming out of the same aisle, "Somebody should help that poor lady", and then he kept on walking. We laughed about this a hundred times since then, and I still say out loud "Somebody Help that Poor Lady", when Dee stumbles or drops something. So although the movie was not good, there was some value in exiting the theater that had nothing to do with being thankful the picture was done.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Anderson Tapes 1971 A Movie A Day Day 91

I remembered this movie extremely well, even though I have not seen it for twenty years. The first time I saw it was on it's release in 1971. Sean Connery appeared in his last "Official" Bond project the same year this came out (Diamonds are Forever). In this movie the character has none of the charm or sophistication of 007. Duke Anderson is a tough burglar, capable of violence but not really prone to it. There is a self righteous speech he gives to the psychologist at the prison on the day that he is released, that indicates he is angry and a bit of a sociopath. From the very beginning though, we see a pretty good relationship with a younger criminal and an old timer, that tells us that though he is a crook, he may not be a bad guy to know. I don't think I saw many movies with my friend Mark Witt. We met at Margarita Elementary School in the 7th grade, and we were good friend until we graduated Alhambra High. I seem to recall going with him to the Alhambra Theater for this film. Although I remember the film quite well I am a little fuzzy on the circumstances.

Sidney Lumet is the director of this movie and he made several excellent crime films in the 1970s. Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico are the best known of these films, both are rightly celebrated. It is unfair that this movie does not have the same reputation. The actor's roles are not as flashy, but the direction of the movie is taut and very much in keeping with the gritty atmosphere of other New York based crime films. Let me point out two illustrations of how this movie reflected a real New York early 70's vibe. The police squad that is asked to enter the building that is the scene of the crime, is shown struggling to get across the rooftops of the building next door. Their climb up a wall is not smooth but rather quite labored. Garrett Morris, who later appeared on the original Saturday Night Live, plays the leader of the team. After he slides down the rope from one building to another, and lands on the roof, he looks down at his hands. The skin on his palms is torn, there is blood and obvious pain on his face. This is not some anonymous SWAT team, that mechanically does their jobs like perfectly programmed robots. These are guys struggling to do the best they can in the situation and not always rising up to the moment gracefully. Another example of the grit that Lumet adds to the movie is a short insert that has nothing to do with the story. I would be really surprised if it was even in the script. Two ambulance attendants are down on the police perimeter getting the ambulance ready if the police raid goes bad. One of them is replacing a pillowcase on a pillow in the ambulance. If you look quickly, you can see that the pillow has a big bloodstain on it. The case will cover that and make the pillow look fresh, but we all know that there is nothing clean and starched about what is going to happen. It's a two or three second shot that tells you this is real.

This is Christopher Walken's first adult role after being a juvenile actor on Broadway and TV. You can tell by watching him that there is something different and compelling about him as an actor. I already wrote that these were not flashy acting roles, this is an ensemble crime drama, but everyone adds some special touches. As they get released from prison, Walken's character talks about wanting to just eat America up it is so great. He has a fun flair with that line. Martin Balsam is in this movie doing a gay character and the stereotyping is something that GLAAD would be all over today. Both Balsam and Connery are wearing toupees,but we are supposed to notice Balsam's character has one on. Alan King plays a mob boss who is financing the teams elaborate holdup, I mentioned Garrett Morris already. Dyan Cannon, is once again the bombshell looker (or in this case hooker) that fills the female part, but it is a small role as well. It should be noted that there is some sexuality but no nudity. It was shot in the discrete style of the early seventies. If you compare it to Sidney Lumet's last movie,"Before the Devil Knows You Are Dead" you will be amazed at the shift in cultural guidelines.

The story is told in a distinct style that in part explains the Title. This crime was being planned and many police agencies should have been able to figure that out. The mob boss is wiretapped by the IRS, the decorator is the subject of an FBI investigation on antique fencing, the girlfriend is being eavesdropped on by her client who hired private investigators to wiretap the apartment he provides her. The Kid played by Walken is being monitored by the Narcotics Bureau in NYC. Of course there is a lot of public electronic video as well. This movie was made in 1971, here we are today talking about some of the same privacy issues and now everybody is watching on-line. In my blog on "The Life of Brian", you will find a link to a web cam at the Chinese Theater. You can look at Tommy Trojan 24 hours a day. So the premise of the story is we hear about all the set up through the surveillance that is going on. Pieces of the puzzle are brought together in an interesting way. The outcome is told in an equally interesting manner. We get a series of flashbacks from interviews done with the victims after the crime is over. Storytelling is very innovative and interesting in the screenplay and shooting of the movie.

All of this came out two years before we had heard of the Watergate Tapes and the famous 18 minute gap. When the feds doing illegal wiretaps here that the character played by Connery is on their tapes, they panic and start ordering the tapes be erased. This was really prophetic,given the way the Watergate investigation went down and the Oval Office tapes robbed Nixon of his legitimacy. Today, with digital recording, the information would end up in so many places, you could never be sure that it was all wiped out. The climax of the film involves a shootout, a brief car chase and crash and some mystery. It happens quick so pay close attention. If you are reading this blog because you are interested in 70's films, you really should see this. It is not well known, but it has all the hallmarks of a classic 70's heist picture. I suggest a double feature with this and the original "Taking of Pellham 123", you will have a great afternoon or evening in the presence of real film makers.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Two Mules For Sister Sara 1970 A Movie A Day Day 90

Alright, one last Clint Eastwood picture before the end of the blog. Clint single handily kept the western alive in the 1970's. Sure there were occasional westerns, but just about every year for the entire decade, there was a Clint Eastwood Western. He started off the decade of the seventies with this Spaghetti Style western, shot not by Sergio Leone, who had made him a star in his man with no name trilogy, but by his American director of choice, Don Siegel. This movie was also shot in the U.S. and Mexico, not in Europe. It has most of the same atmosphere as the Spaghetti Westerns, but with stronger film stock and actors whose lip movement matches the words they are producing. It also has a score by Ennio Morricone, who did the Leone westerns and turns in a nice theme that is irritating because it gets in your head and stays there. Allison did not care much for the "simulated"mule brays that are part of the tune, but I think they are a very nice touch to distinguish this music from some of the other scores that Morricone wrote.

Shirley Maclaine, is still working,and at the time this movie came out, I think she was top billed. When I was eight or nine I had a little crush on the red-headed girl that lived on the corner, Barbara Duffy. I saw this movie when it came out and I was 12, Shirlee Maclaine is cute as can be and very sexy. I never dated a woman with red hair but if Dolores wanted to go all Shirley red, I wouldn't mind for a week or two. The opening scene is probably not supposed to be too sexy, after all the rotten cowboys are about to take advantage of the poor girl, but her red hair and fair skin being substantially exposed, is enough to imprint on a 12 year old. Her politics and personal life are not my cup of tea, but she is a terrific actress who has a very strong on screen persona. The match-up with Clint works very well. He has that steely eyed look, and she uses her pixie like demeanor to bring some warmth to a cowboy performance that would simply be an echo of earlier successes. His humor in the film is much more directed at sexuality issues than the violence that occurs.

For a mainstream, 1970 film, it is pretty violent. There is an execution scene in which the wall behind the prisoner is splattered with blood when the firing squad lets loose. In the big battle scene at the end there are several shots of the damage that might be done by a revolutionary wielding a machete. Although we do not see the human repercussions, this is another western from the time that uses the trope of attacking a train with dynamite. I must have seen that a dozen times in movies that came out from 1969 to 1976. Each film tries to give it a little bit of a twist, here it simply is a plot complication, rather than an integral part of the story. The most gruesome bit of business in the movie is the thing that I remembered best from seeing it the first time. Clint is shot with an arrow that does not come out the back. He has the Sister, carve a groove in the shaft, fill it with gunpowder and then as he lights the powder, she pounds the arrow through his shoulder and out the back. There was some tension, some humor and a little down home remedy all in this scene.

I saw this movie with my father in 1970. I am pretty sure it was just the two of us and I was probably the one who suggested the picture. I have a memory of it playing with a Gregory Peck film from the same period; either "The Chairman" or "Marooned". I know I saw both of them, but I can't quite remember which one was with this movie. I also think we saw this on the west side of L.A., maybe near Venice or the Airport. It isn't of critical importance, it is just a little detail that is in my head and seems to be accurate. As far as I know, my Dad liked the picture. I was doomed to be an Eastwood fan after this. I don't think I had seen any of his other movies before, so this is really my first memory of Clint. Probably not a bad bookend with Gran Torino, nearly forty years later.

These movies span the majority of my life, and they celebrate a transition in the way violence is portrayed. A western from the early days focused on the story, and violence was the tool of resolution for conflict. Today, a movie like Clint's last starring performance, shows that violence is the story and what the consequences of that violence can be. Not all the movies that are made these days are infantile views of the world designed just for audience gratification. I do however have to say that I like me a little instant gratification from time to time. Modern revenge stories have replaced the western for the cathartic use of violence, but it is fun to go back and see how they did it in the old days of the cinema. Thanks Clint Eastwood, you have entertained me my entire life and your absence from the screen is a bitter pill that I have to swallow. Gene Hackman, Sean Connery, and Clint Eastwood have all retired from on-screen acting roles, and my world is a lot sadder for it.