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Monday, January 26, 2015

Movies of My Life: 1967

Hollywood was changing by 1967. It was the year for some groundbreaking films. 
(1) The Graduate

Even seeing edited versions of this film on TV when I was growing up, I still knew it was very special. Director Mike Nichols uses cinematic techniques to their utmost to tell the ultimate generation gap story of the 60s. Simon and Garfunkel’s music gives it just the right punch, and Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft are perfect.

(2) Bonnie and Clyde
Who would have thought a movie about a bank robbing couple from the 1920s would be a commentary on Vietnam? Funny, fast, and bloody, the movie changed Hollywood and became a box office smash.

(3) Cool Hand Luke
“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate,” became one of the most oft quoted movie lines of all time. (Number 11 on AFI’s list of memorable quotes.) Paul Newman was transcendent as a Christ-figure on a Southern chain gang.

(4) In the Heat of the Night

The interaction between Sidney Poitier as a super smart big city detective and Rod Steiger as a snarly Southern police chief trying to overcome his racial prejudice makes it impossible to take your eyes off the screen. My favorite scene is at the train station where Chief Gillespie is trying to convince Virgil Tibbs to help him solve the crime and Tibbs can’t resist the idea of showing these small town racists just how smart he is.

(5) Wait Until Dark
Alan Arkin, who usually plays such sympathetic characters, is terrifying as a psychopathic criminal trying to get the best of a blind woman played by Audrey Hepburn, but she changes the odds in the end.

(6) Week End
A bizarre film by Jean Luc Godard, it’s here for one reason. The tracking shot of a traffic jam, which I think is one of the best scenes in cinema history. Godard tells us tons about these anonymous people, and about life, just by sliding by them, as our main characters make their way to a murder.

(7) In Cold Blood
My favorite piece of film trivia: In a swirl of coincidence, the favorite movie of murderer Perry Smith, portrayed by Robert Blake in this movie, was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, in which Blake had a small role as a Mexican newspaper boy when he was just 14. Of course, Blake himself would later be indicted for murder, but unlike Smith, he gets acquitted.

(8) Five Million Years to Earth

Titled Quatermass and the Pit in England, it was the last and best of a trilogy. Construction crews dig up the remnants of ancient astronauts in a London subway station – giant insect shells inside a sleek spaceship that has psychic power over humans. The set up is well constructed and gives you a bit of a shiver.

(9) The Jungle Book
When I was a kid, I had the soundtrack for this movie on a record album. It not only included the great songs from the film (“Bare Necessities,” “I Wanna Be Like You,” “Trust in Me”) but some of the dialogue as well, which I memorized with my friends.

(10) Barefoot in the Park
Jane Fonda and Robert Redford are adorable as a young couple learning how to get along in a sixth floor walk-up apartment. Neil Simon’s stage plays were the starting point for so many good movies in the 1960s and 70s. He adapted this one himself.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Movies of My Life: 1966

My kind of year: westerns, science fiction and some cool foreign films. 

(1) Blow-Up

Like all of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, the pacing is slow, but every image on the screen is packed full of meaning. A fashion photographer thinks he snapped a picture of a crime... or did he?

(2) Fahrenheit 451
French director Francois Truffaut makes an English language film based on a science fiction novel by an American writer (Ray Bradbury) starring an Austrian actor (Oskar Werner). The opening credit sequence, narrated over zooms of TV aerials (no written words, of course) and the final scene (which I won’t describe, in case you haven’t seen it) are unforgettable. There’s some good stuff in between, too.

(3) Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
This movie broke all kinds of taboos about language and presented two of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as frumpy hostile intellectuals. Mike Nichols’ first film starts funny and turns tragic.

(4) A Man and a Woman (Un homme et une femme)
One of my favorite romantic films, with a musical score that always makes me feel good.

(5) Seconds
Frightening science fiction film about a man who gets a second chance at life with a new identity and the face of Rock Hudson.

(6) Fantastic Voyage

The inspiration for numerous health education videos, the silly premise of shrinking down humans to explore inside a human body is still lots of fun.

(7) El Dorado
Howard Hawks loved his 1959 movie Rio Bravo so much that he basically remade it this year. Again, John Wayne plays the leader of a group of men protecting a Western town against a villainous rancher and his gang. Robert Mitchum takes Dean Martin’s role as the lawman turned town drunk, Arthur Hunnicutt replaces Walter Brennan as the old geezer, and James Caan stands in for Ricky Nelson as the young whippersnapper. I think Rio Bravo is better, but this one is still above average.

(8) What's Up, Tiger Lilly?
If you can’t afford to shoot your own movie, buy someone else’s and add new dialogue. In his directorial debut, Woody Allen redubs a Japanese gangster movie and adds original scenes to create a farce about the search for the world’s best egg salad recipe.

(9) The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The final collaboration between director Sergio Leone and actor Clint Eastwood, this movie demonstrates Leone’s masterful editing between extreme long shots, extreme close ups, and everything in between, and features the iconic score by Ennio Morricone.

(10) The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming
Alan Arkin is delightful as a Soviet naval officer whose submarine has gone aground off the coast of a New England island. This Cold War comedy features a great cast including Carl Reiner, Brian Keith, Eva Marie Saint and Jonathan Winters.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Movies of My Life: 1965

Not one of my favorite years, but still some interesting flicks here.

(1) A Patch of Blue

The same year Martin Luther King Jr. led the march from Selma to Montgomery, Sidney Poitier was breaking stereotypes on the screen. I watched this movie so many times growing up, I know it had an impact on me. Poitier plays an educated black man who tries to help a blind girl escape from her abusive mother and her sheltered life. This movie is overshadowed by his work from 1967 (when he had three box office hits released just a few months apart), but its subtlety is exquisite.

(2) Repulsion
Wow! Catherine Deneuve plays a disturbed woman who’s left alone for the weekend. Seems like a simple enough story until she starts letting her delusions get the best of her. It’s Roman Polanski’s first English-language film. 

(3) Alphaville
Jean-Luc Godard deconstructs the science fiction movie with no special effects, costumes, or gadgets. A Ford Mustang stands in for a spaceship. The futuristic city is just Paris in the 1960s. The hero of the story is Lemmy Caution, a character that appeared in numerous crime dramas previously. He dresses, talks, and acts just like any film noir hero from the period. It’s an unusual take on a familiar genre.

(4) The Sound of Music
Christopher Plummer, who plays Captain von Trapp in this movie, called it “The Sound of Mucus.” Critic Pauline Kael called it, “the single most repressive influence on artistic freedom in movies.” Still, I love it. Great songs, great cinematography, Julie Andrews. Maybe there is a “luxuriant falseness” to it, as Kael says, but it’s the kind of “luxuriant falseness” that’s really entertaining.

(5) Flight of the Phoenix

I like stories about disparate groups of people stranded together, trying to make the best of it. This one has the advantage of the angsty postwar Jimmy Stewart as an airplane pilot arguing with an overly self-confident German engineer (Hardy Kruger) about what to do with their crashed plane.

(6) Crack in the World
One of the best in the “unintended consequences” category of science fiction movies from this era. A group of scientists trying to tap into the geothermal energy at the Earth’s core inadvertently cause the global catastrophe of the title.

(7) The Collector
Super creepy movie about a butterfly collector, played by Terence Stamp, who turns his attention toward “collecting” a young blonde art student. The movie and the book on which it was based have had some real life “unintended consequences.”

(8) The Greatest Story Ever Told
In 1964, we had an Italian Jesus. In 1965, he’s Swedish. Max Von Sydow plays Christ in this dark blockbuster that follows Jesus’s life from nativity to resurrection. The movie has an all-star cast, and perhaps it’s worth sitting through its four hours just to hear John Wayne as a Roman Centurion say, “Surely this man was the Son of God.”

 (9) Cat Ballou

Lee Marvin plays two roles – a drunken has-been gunfighter and his villainous brother with a silver nose, while Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole perform as a kind of Greek chorus with banjos. Jane Fonda stars as the title character in this comedy western.

(10) Dr. Who and the Daleks
I’ve been a fan of the Doctor Who TV series since the 1980s, when PBS began broadcasting the Tom Baker episodes. This movie has The Doctor (played by Peter Cushing) and his most famous enemy, the Daleks, but it veers too far away from the canon of the series. It’s only in this list because it was the first movie my wife Karen and I watched together when we started dating. The fact that she still watches Doctor Who with me 30 years later says a lot about her endurance!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Movies of My Life: 1964

1964 had more than its share of political movies, plus some fun comedies, James Bond, and Jesus Christ!
(1) Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb defines “black comedy” as “comedy that employs morbid, gloomy, grotesque, or calamitous situations in its plot.” Can anything be more “morbid, gloomy, grotesque, or calamitous” than global nuclear war? Yet this movie is hilarious. “Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room”... Crazy character names like Gen. Jack D. Ripper, Col. “Bat” Guano, Soviet Premier Dmitri Kissov... And of course, Slim Pickens riding a nuclear warhead like a bucking bronco. It’s beautiful in its blackness.   

(2) Band of Outsiders (Bande à part)
This is probably Godard’s most accessible film, and one of the most fun. The dance scene in the cafe and the race through the Louvre have become iconic. (Even Saturday Night Live parodies the dance scene.) Quentin Tarantino loves this movies so much that he named his production company, A Band Apart, after it.

(3) Seven Days in May
If Dr. Strangelove is a political satire, then this movie would be a political horror story. A Marine colonel, played by Kirk Douglas, uncovers a military plot to overthrow the president of United States. The coup is led by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, played by Burt Lancaster. Seeing Douglas and Lancaster in verbal conflict is entertaining enough, but the intrigue is dynamite, and the idea, disturbing.

(4) The Pawnbroker
One of Rod Steiger’s finest performances as the survivor of a Nazi concentration camp who runs a New York pawnshop. The movie switches from his brooding, asocial behavior in the present to flashbacks of his brutal treatment from the Nazis.

(5) Father Goose
I love this little movie with Cary Grant as a drunken expatriate living in the South Seas during World War II and Leslie Caron as a French governess to a bevy of stranded school girls. The burgeoning romance of the “Filthy Beast” and “Miss Goody Two Shoes” is delightful.

(6) The Gospel According to St. Matthew
It took a Marxist atheist to direct a really accurate adaptation of the gospel. Italian neorealist Pier Paolo Pasolini focused on one gospel account rather than a compilation and took the dialogue directly from the Bible. (It’s said he used a Bible on the set rather than a screenplay.) The opening sequence, which cuts between the pregnant Mary and the disappointed Joseph, is priceless.

(7) Goldfinger
Perhaps the best of Sean Connery’s James Bond movies. The image of the girl painted completely in gold lying dead on the bed still haunts me, and Shirley Bassey’s rendition of the title song is just as memorable.

(8) The Best Man
Yet another political film from 1964, this one dramatizes a battle for the party nomination between two top candidates played by Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson. The screenplay by Gore Vidal has the same insider’s view that I loved in Advise and Consent (1962).

(9) A Shot in the Dark

The second (and I think, the best) of the Inspector Clouseau movies with Peter Sellers. This film features Elke Sommer as Maria Gambrelli (I love hearing Clouseau say her full name over and over again), and there's a wonderful scene in a nudist colony.

(10) Island of the Blue Dolphins
This movie was on television often when I was a kid, and I watched it every time. Not a big blockbuster, it was a simple story about a Native American girl who gets stranded on an island for several years. The book was a Newberry award winner, and after seeing the movie so many times, I finally read the book. (Yes, I do read occasionally.)

Other favorites from 1964: Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, Fail Safe (yet another political thriller), A Fistful of Dollars, The Night of the Iguana, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao and Lady in a Cage.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Movies of My Life: 1963

After my list for 1962 included two of my favorite movies of all time (To Kill a Mockingbird and Lawrence of Arabia), I was even more surprised when I started on the list for the next year and discovered one of the most important movies in my life.

(1) 8 1/2 (Otto e Mezzo)
When you walk into my office, the first thing you see is a poster for this semi-autobiographical (some would say self-indulgent) film from Italian master Federico Fellini. When you hear me announcing arts events on Ann Nicholson’s “Arts Scene” program, the musical background is the circus theme from this movie. At one time in my life, you would often see me sporting a black fedora my wife bought me, styled after the hat worn by the film’s main character, Guido Anselmi. And to think, the first time I saw this film, I hated it, which is why you should never let the first viewing of a movie be your last. The complexity of Fellini’s creation is what I love so much about this film – moving seamlessly from reality to fantasy to dream sequences and flashbacks (sometimes it’s hard to know which one we’re experiencing); allusions to Pinocchio (notice how Guido touches his nose when he’s lying); themes hidden inside of word play and psychology (Asa Nisi Masa, the secret word revealed by the mind reader is a sort of pig-Latin for “anima,” about the feminine nature in men); and its dark humor (the opening dream sequence seems grim, but I think it’s hilarious). The first time I showed this movie in a college class, they were all unimpressed. The second time, I preceded the screening with a 30 minute lecture on some of the things to watch for, including those I mentioned above. The class broke out in spontaneous applause after it ended.

(2) The Haunting
 This is, by far, my favorite ghost story on film. Like so many movies about ghosts, it’s the story of a group of people who spend the night in a haunted house, and it has a similar title to several of them (see my blog post, “Hell House, Hill House,What the...” for more about this phenomenon). What makes this movie so special is the character of Eleanor, played by Julie Harris. Eleanor is a timid woman with psychic abilities who considers this trip to a haunted house a vacation. After spending years caring for an ailing mother, Eleanor suffers from social anxiety, suppressed rage, and perhaps some delusions. She’s just the kind of “steady” person you need in a haunted house tale.

(3) Lilies of the Field
A beautiful film about a black Baptist handyman (Sidney Poitier) who is hornswoggled into building a chapel for some East German nuns to serve Mexican American Catholics in the Arizona desert. Poitier became the first African American man to win a competitive Oscar for the lead role in this film. While Poitier’s career was filled with strong performances, there’s something so simple and stirring about this role I just love it, especially when he teaches the nuns the song, “Amen.” (Interestingly, Poitier’s singing was dubbed since he can’t carry a tune.)  

(4) The Birds
Trust Alfred Hitchcock to take something as innocent and natural as a flock of birds and turn it into a subject of horror. After viewing this film, you will never see a large group of birds settle in one spot without thinking about the schoolyard scene (or Mel Brooks’ parody of it in High Anxiety). There’s no practical explanation as to why the birds go on a rampage, but the attacks seem to parallel psychological conflict in the characters, making this movie much more than a “nature gone wild” story.

(5) Hud
I haven’t seen this movie in years, but the character of Hud, played by Paul Newman, remains number one in my mind when I hear the phrase “anti-hero.” Hud wasn’t just disillusioned or self-absorbed. He was amoral. And proud of it.

(6) Lord of the Flies
William Golding’s novel (a favorite of high school teachers everywhere) is brought to life in gritty black-and-white. Of the ghosts, killer birds and mad scientists mentioned in the list for this year, the scariest by far are British schoolboys left to their own devices.

(7) X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes
This low-budget Roger Corman sci fi thriller would be just another story of a mad scientist suffering the unintended consequences of his crazy experiments except for the metaphysical nature of Dr. Xavier’s x-ray visions. He describes what he sees as he looks outside: “The city... as if it were unborn. Rising into the sky with fingers of metal, limbs without flesh, girders without stone... A city unborn. Flesh dissolved in an acid of light. A city of the dead.” The ending at a revival tent is unforgettable.

(8) It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
My son says that you should beware of comedies that are longer than 90 minutes, and I tend to agree with him. Usually, you can’t maintain laughs for two hours. This movie is more than three hours long, and while it does get tiresome, it features some of the greatest screen comedians of the 60s, including dozens of cameos, many by comedians from an earlier era. It’s worth it just to see them all in one film.  

(9) Charade
How can you not love a movie with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn? This film is sometimes called, “the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made.” The director was Stanley Donen, but the film possesses a lot of the elements you’d find in a Hitchcock picture: characters pretending to be someone they’re not, murder and mayhem, secret agents, a macguffin, and Cary Grant, of course. (You can catch a “Home Fry-ed” version of this film on UALR University Television occasionally.)

(10) The Pink Panther
Peter Sellers created one of the most iconic comedy figures of cinema for this film, Inspector Clouseau. David Niven got top billing as a debonair jewel thief trying to steal the priceless “Pink Panther” diamond, but it was Sellers who stole the show. The character of Clouseau appears in ten more films, the best of which starred Sellers.