GHOST WORLD: “Well maybe I don’t want to meet someone with my interests. I hate my interests.”

Ghost World – 2001 – 112 minutes – ★★★★1/2

Directed by Terry Zwigoff

Starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Brad Renfro, Illeana Douglas, Bob Balaban.

Where to watch:  Criterion Collection blu-ray, released in 2017

We’ve all known someone like Enid.  Remember the self-proclaimed “outsider” in high school who spoke dismissively of everyone?  The person who dressed with a seeming disregard for fashion, but simultaneously cultivated a look designed to attract attention?   When someone ridicules Enid’s green hair and leather jacket, telling her that punk is over, she angrily says that she is not displaying copycat punk, but a genuine 70’s punk look.  What’s the difference?

The movie begins with Enid (played by Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) graduating from high school.  And they have a plan, of sorts.  They will get jobs, and rent an apartment together.  That is as far as their concept of “adulting” has taken them.

While looking at apartments in the classifieds, the girls see a missed connection ad, written by a  man who helped a woman find her contact lens and believes they may have “had a moment.”  Enid responds to the ad, pretending to be the woman in question and setting up a date at a retro diner called Wowsville.   Enid and Rebecca show up at Wowsville to spy on the man and have a laugh at his expense.   When he shows up in his prearranged green cardigan, Seymour (played to perfection by Steve Buscemi) is just as pathetic as they imagined he would be.  But his growing discontent at his absent date becomes unbearable for the girls to watch.

What starts as a cruel joke leads to the  friendship at the heart of the film, as Enid follows Seymour home, and finds in him a kindred spirit.  Seymour is also an outsider, who claims he “can’t relate to 99% of humanity.”   Enid claims that she will help Seymour find a woman, and they bond over the course of the movie.

While Rebecca begins to move on with her dream, getting a job and finding an apartment, Enid seems stuck.  Those high school classmates that she looked  on with such disdain?  Perhaps she isn’t so ready to leave that world behind.   Her feeling of confusion, of being trapped in the netherworld between childhood and adulthood (whatever that is) is captured perfectly.  This movie does have a plot, and a story arc, but it is by no means a conventional film.  The genius of this movie is in the little things, the small details, the background characters that inhabit this almost fairy-tale world.

At least Seymour is self-aware enough to realize his life could be better.  He owns 1,500 vintage 78’s, having pared his collection down to “just the essentials.”    But he understands that his passion for his hobby has helped to sequester him from the world.  “You can’t connect with other people, so you fill your life with stuff” he tells Enid., a commentary not just on himself, but on consumer culture.   The sad irony is that in helping Seymour to expand his horizons, Enid begins to lose him, much to her disappointment.  After all, he is the one who gets it, who gets her.  He can’t become one of “them.”

There is an underlying theme in the film that attacks not just consumerism in general, but the lack of authenticity in modern society, whether in the 50’s diner that plays innocuous 90’s electronic bubble gum pop, the aptly named band Blueshammer or Enid’s art teacher (the always wonderful Illeana Douglas) who isn’t so much concerned that art moves people as that it makes a “statement”, and any statement will do.

This is a movie about people whose lives are in stasis.  Everyone is looking for a change, looking for the spark that will get them from here to there, wherever “there” may be.   No one is more symbolic of this than Norman, an old man sitting on a bench every day at a decommissioned bus stop, waiting for a bus that will never come.  Until it does.  Maybe belief has to precede action.

The movie is based on a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, and retains the emotional feel and overall aesthetic of the book, while expanding the story greatly.   The performances in the film are wonderful throughout, not only in the main characters, but also those who show up for a scene or two, or inhabit the background.   The late Brad Renfro has a good supporting role, as does the sublime Bob Balaban.

Ghost World is a movie that rewards multiple viewings.  There are so many subtle details are that easily missed.  Listen for the TV commercials, heard but never seen, for an oil company that cares about the environment.  Or watch the background of the scene where Enid and Rebecca go apartment hunting.   Did you see that young woman pass left to right, on screen for only a couple seconds?  (Yes I meant the pregnant woman, smoking a cigarette and toting an open bottle of beer! )  I won’t disclose any more;  I’ll leave it to you to find our own details.

It’s impossible to talk about this movie without mentioning the music.  Most of the soundtrack consists of existing music rather than original scoring.  And the director Terry Zwigoff  assembled one of the most unique soundtracks ever created for film.  The opening credits feature  “Jaan Pehechan Ho” an Indian song from the 60’s movie Gumnaam, which is so infectious I couldn’t get it out of my head for days.  The bulk of the film features music from the 1930’s, early blues and Lionel Belasco instrumentals which fit so perfectly, it’s as if they were written expressly for the movie.

This is a movie that takes chances; it mixes tone, it doesn’t follow a conventional story line, and it has an ambiguous ending.  That can be a recipe for disaster if it doesn’t work.  In this case, everything works perfectly.  I love this movie.  I love every single minute that I  inhabit this world, and I’m sad when I leave it.

Some people see the ending of the movie as a pretty dark and final metaphor.  I guess it depends on what you bring to it, but I think this misses the overall tone of the film.  Enid ultimately wreaks havoc on the life of Seymour, and his only response is to forgive her.  In this forgiveness she finds the courage to believe in herself.  I think the future could be bright for Enid.  Maybe even Seymour will love again.  But he’ll always keep those 78’s.  Just the essentials, of course.

 

 

Woman of the Year: “You’re practically the only woman I would’ve walked out on last night.”

Woman of the Year – 1942 – 114 minutes – ★★★★

Directed by George Stevens

Starring Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, William Bendix, Dan Tobin, Fay Bainter, Reginald Owen.

Where to watch:  The Criterion Collection blu-ray, released in 2017

Bogie and Bacall may be the most celebrated couple from Hollywood’s golden age, but Spence and Kate can’t be far behind.   Both Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn were under contract at MGM studios in the early 1940’s, and both were riding high.   Tracy had won back-to-back Oscars in the late 30’s, and Hepburn was coming off of the smash hit play and film The Philadelphia Story.  They certainly knew of one another at the time Woman of the Year went into production, but they had never met.   So in this film we get the rare treat of watching not just two characters fall in love, but watching the actors fall in love too.

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Spencer Tracy plays Sam Craig, a sportswriter for the New York Chronicle.   Early in the film Sam is sitting in his local watering hole with a couple of other sportswriters, when he hears a woman on the radio named Tess Harding (Hepburn) who has the nerve to disparage the game of baseball.  Sam is upset by this;  America is at war and baseball is our national pastime.  So he responds to Tess in his column, despite the fact that she is also a columnist for the same newspaper.  She responds to his column with one of her own, and the editor summons them both to his office; after all, he can’t have two of his columnists attacking each other.  This sets up one of the most memorable on-screen meetings of all time.  Sam is in a sour mood when he walks in the room, but his mood changes immediately when he sees Tess.  Their mutual attraction is unmistakable, from the first time they share the screen together.

This is in essence an “opposites attract” story, but the two characters don’t represent the stereotypes that the viewer might expect.  Yes, Tess is very worldly, speaking several languages, and well-versed in world issues.  But she is not demure;  she is actually more sexually aggressive than Sam.  And while he is a sportswriter, he is no coarse buffoon.  He speaks plainly and reacts rationally, even when faced with seemingly irrational events.

One of the joys of this movie is the way it plays with stereotypes, (for most of its length anyway).  Sam invites Tess to a baseball game, and there are funny moments as he tries to explain the game to her.  But by the end of the scene, she is fully involved, cheering the Yanks along with everyone around her.

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Sam has a harder time adjusting to her world, and we get some more funny moments as he attends a gathering at Tess’s where everyone seemingly speaks a different language.   It is clear that these two are in love, and Sam impulsively asks Tess to marry him.  She agrees, and the rest of the film follows Sam’s growing disillusionment as he tries to adapt to her ever busy, ever changing world, and Tess’s ultimate realization that the wedding vows she utters are more than just words.

This film is funny and fresh for most of its length.  But it seems to take a slight step backwards in the final scene.  This scene, (which was a rewrite that Katherine Hepburn detested) mocks Tess’s lack of ability in the kitchen.  What makes the scene truly funny are Spencer Tracy’s subtle, almost deadpan reactions to what is going on around him.  But it also seems to imply that a woman can’t have it all in 1942.   While this closing scene marks the movie as a product of a different time, it is still worth viewing.  It is a genuinely funny comedy, which caused me to laugh aloud several times.  And of course, we also have the pleasure of watching Spence and Kate get to know each other, get comfortable with each other, fall in love with each other.

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If you pick up the Criterion version of this movie, be sure and watch the two documentaries that are included.  Both are feature-length, and well worth the time.  The first is about the life and career of director George Stevens.  This documentary (written and directed by his son) paints the picture of a quiet, dignified man who created an impressive body of work and deserves to be mentioned alongside the likes of Ford, Hawks and Capra.   The other documentary is a tribute to the life of Spencer Tracy, narrated by Katherine Hepburn.  She speaks openly and honestly about their careers, their relationship, and his passing.  It ends with one of the most moving scenes I have ever witnessed.  In it, Hepburn reads a letter she had written recently to the long-dead Spencer Tracy, with her emotion getting the better of her at the end.  (You can watch this scene below.) What a brave woman she was, to share this with the world.  And what a great love she clearly had for him.  God bless them both.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane: “I didn’t bring your breakfast, because you didn’t eat your din-din.”

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? – 1962 – 133 minutes – ★★★★

Directed by Robert Aldrich

Starring Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono, Marjorie Bennett, Maidie Norman.

Where to watch:   Warner Bros. Anniversary Edition blu ray (Comes in collectible digibook, with loads of extra features).

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The new anthology series Feud debuts March 5 on FX, with season one (Bette and Joan) focusing on the often tortuous (and occasionally tortured) relationship between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.   I expect good things from this series.  Creator Ryan Murphy hasn’t made a real misstep yet, and the casting of Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange in the starring roles certainly looks promising.  So this seems like a perfect time to take a look at the movie that launched the titular feud.

The movie opens on the vaudeville stage, with a young blond girl singing and dancing for a star-struck crowd.  She is not only a popular performer, but a bit of a marketing phenomenon as well.  Her father hawks life-size Baby Jane dolls (with matching blond ringlets) from the stage.   Jane’s dark-haired sister Blanche stands in the wings, radiating envy.  Not only does Jane get all the attention, she is also a spoiled brat.

Twenty years later, the tables have turned.  Blanche is a popular Hollywood actress, while her sister Jane struggles to keep herself out of the bottle long enough to act coherently.  One night after a party, an accident occurs, leaving Blanche paralyzed.  Did her own sister run her down?

This is the set-up of the movie, which jumps to the early 60’s, where we find Blanche (Joan Crawford) dependent on her sister Jane (Bette Davis) for her care.  Jane is resentful of her sister’s popularity before the accident, which had eclipsed her own, and resentful for having to care for her.   Jane is drinking far too much.  She also appears to be going completely bonkers.

This film does a marvelous job of slowly increasing the tension, as Jane’s behavior towards her sister grows more sadistic.  We begin to wonder if Blanche can possibly survive her sister’s cruelty.   I found myself really rooting for Blanche by the end of the film, which has an ending as strange and unpredictable as the movie deserves.

The first time I saw this movie was on late-night cable, maybe 15 years ago, and my memories were of rather campy performances.  Seeing it again, I was astonished at what a well-made film it is.  The bulk of the movie takes place in the Hudson sisters’ house, and the black-and-white cinematography, set design, musical score, and Oscar-winning costumes all combine to create a perfectly realized setting.   The acting is quite good throughout.  Joan Crawford creates a truly sympathetic character (and it takes a lot for me to sympathize with Joan Crawford.  Ever since seeing Mommie Dearest on HBO when I was about 10, she has thoroughly creeped me out).   And sure, Bette Davis’ performance does become campy at times, but in this particular role, I don’t think the term “too much” applies.

If you read enough of my reviews, you know I’m all about the character actors.  So I have to mention a couple. Victor Buono chews up the scenerey in his Oscar-nominated supporting role as a petulant man-child who is able to transform himself into a charming, Peter Ustinov-sounding English gentleman to woo Bette Davis out of some cash. Poor Victor died very young, but left his mark in this and a couple other fine roles.   And Maidie Norman is great as the housekeeper, who brings both tenderness and strength to her role.  Maidie had a long and prolific career, mostly in television.  If you are my age, you probably saw her in 15 different shows and never realized it.

Director Robert Aldrich had a very solid career, and he is almost forgotten today.  He basically launched the “crazy old lady” (some prefer “psycho biddy”) sub-genre with this movie, which had many imitators (most famously Aldrich’s own Hush, Hush  Sweet Charlotte).

The Feud series contends that the movie studio encouraged on-set rancor between the two stars.  I don’t know if that is true, but it certainly didn’t bleed over into the finished film.  (Well, Bette Davis does really seem to be enjoying herself when slapping and kicking Joan around).  It is rumored that  Crawford was upset when Davis received an Oscar nomination and she did not.  Bette Davis believed that Joan Crawford was campaigning against her, which may have contributed to her loss.  Or maybe, dear Bette, Anne Bancroft won for The Miracle Worker because she deserved it.   At any rate, Crawford had the last laugh.  Because Anne Bancroft was unable to attend the ceremony, and Crawford made arrangements in advance to accept the award on Bancroft’s behalf if she won.  Crawford’s smile as she walks out to accept the award  is certainly quite gleeful.  How much of that is because Bancroft won, and how much because Davis lost?

At any rate, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a good psychological thriller that holds up well after 55 years.  Below you can watch the clip of Joan Crawford accepting Anne Bancroft’s Oscar for Best Actress.

 

 

Grosse Pointe Blank: “I killed the president of Paraguay with a fork. How have you been?”

Grosse Pointe Blank – 1997 – 107 minutes.   ★★★1/2

Directed by George Armitage.

Starring:  John Cusack, Minnie Driver, Joan Cusack, Dan Aykroyd, Alan Arkin, Jeremy Piven, Hank Azaria.

Where to watch:  15th Anniversary blu -ray (which unfortunately contains no extra features other than a standard format trailer).

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Early in this film, the character Martin Blank (John Cusack) receives word of his upcoming ten-year high school reunion.  Most viewers will relate to Martin’s anxiety surrounding this event.  To go or not to go?  What will it be like to see everyone after so many years?  What if he runs into his old flame, a girl that he still hasn’t gotten over?  And the person he has been hired to assassinate, should he kill him before or after the reunion?  OK, maybe that last part is not so relatable.

Martin is a paid assassin,  who is good at what he does, and claims to have no moral qualms.  “If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to deserve it” he tells his psychiatrist.  Martin is having recurring dreams about his high school sweetheart, Debi (Minnie Driver).  He stood her up on prom night, and still has some anxiety.  Of course this is nothing compared to the anxiety his psychiatrist (Alan Arkin) experiences, because he has a killer for a client.

Martin Blank is being pressured by a business rival, Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) to join an assassin’s guild of sorts.  Martin wants no part of it, which makes Grocer unhappy.  It is at this point that Martin has a job opportunity in the same area that his reunion will take place, so he decides, after some prodding from his business partner (Joan Cusack) to kill two birds with one stone.  He can take out his target, and go to the reunion.

The rest of the movie is set around reunion weekend in Grosse Pointe, Michigan (hence the movie’s clever title).   The story is really two stories happening at once.  The drama of returning home after ten years, and reconnecting with family, friends and lovers;  and the day to day workings of an assassin who is himself being targeted by more than one person.

While this mixing of tone may not work for everyone, ultimately the film is funny, charming, and entertaining.   When Martin reconnects with Debi, there is a genuine chemistry between the two, which is fun to watch in all of their scenes together.  The ending of the movie does not quite work for me.  It is a bit frustrating to watch a movie that takes chances, and mixes tone well, kind of give up on itself in the last fifteen minutes, becoming very predictable.

The performances are great, throughout,  Cusack is a unique actor.  Give him the right material, and he fills a niche that nobody else could touch.  Come to think of it, one could say the same about his sister, Joan, who is also good in this movie.  Minnie Driver is just pitch perfect in her role.  Aykroyd plays his part over the top (does he know any other way?) but it works here.   Alan Arkin plays his small part so well,  you would swear it was written expressly for him.  This film is also a reminder that Jeremy Piven was funny before he became a total dickhead.

Director George Armitage is a bit of a mystery.  He came up in the stable of young directors that got their start under Roger Corman. (I don’t think you can overstate how influential a figure Corman has been to cinema). Armitage first made a name for himself with Miami Blues in 1990, which received positive reviews, but didn’t make a ton of money.  He didn’t direct again until this movie in 1997.  Why the long gap?  Grosse Pointe Blank would be the critical and commercial peak of Armitage’s career.  Another 7 years would pass before his next film, The Big Bounce, which was panned by critics and lost a lot of money.  Since then, Armitage hasn’t directed anything.  Again, I don’t understand the gap.   One would think he could have parleyed his success from Grosse Pointe Blank into other movie offers.

One cannot talk about Grosse Pointe Blank without talking about music.  The movie features snippets of dozens of songs, predominantly 80’s New Wave.  Minnie Driver’s character, Debi, is a DJ at the local radio station, which is an excuse to squeeze even more songs into the movie.  The late, great Joe Strummer of The Clash scored some music for the movie as well.  There is a great moment that features Guns ‘n Roses version of “Live and Let Die”, segueing into a muzak version of the same song as Cusack enters a convenience store.  I’m not sure if that was Stummer’s idea or not, but it’s a subtle moment that works well. I remember seeing this in the theater with my best friend Tom, and we both laughed at this moment.

This movie turns 20 this year, and it has aged pretty well.   So, if you like:  John Cusack, dark comedies, 80’s alternative music, or people getting stabbed in the neck with pens, this is the movie for you.  It is far from perfect, but it takes chances, and just like Martin Blank, it hits its mark more than it misses.

The disparate three: Fast Times At Ridgemont High, The Music Man, The Player

Movies watched:  Fast Times At Ridgemont High  (home – 90 mins.), The Music Man (home – 151 minutes), The Player (home- 124 minutes).

Total cumulative time:  4 days, 12 hours, 2 minutes.

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I don’t know what possessed me to re-watch Fast Times At Ridgemont High.  Having seen Ferris Bueller again in the theater over the summer, I think I was interested in doing a comparison of sorts.  They are two of the smartest and funniest teen movies of the 80’s, but their approach to subject matter is dramatically different.

Over the course of the movie, we follow the exploits of several high school students, including jocks (Forrest Whitaker), stoners (Sean Penn, Eric Stoltz), shrinking violets, eager to experience teenage love but unsure how to proceed (Brian Backer, Jennifer Jason Leigh), and others who pass of their inexperience behind braggadocio (Robert Romanus, Phoebe Cates).

The cast are all quite good;  Sean Penn’s Spicoli is probably one of the most remembered, and quoted, characters from 80’s comedies.  Judge Reinhold is very good as Jennifer Jason Leigh’s older brother.   And Ray Walston, who quietly built a very solid and long-lasting career as a character actor, is perfect as teacher Mr. Hand, Spicoli’s comedic foil.

The movie takes a very frank and realistic view of sex, and yet the most memorable scene in the movie is a fantasy.  Of course I’m talking about Phoebe Cates’ topless scene, which is masturbatory fodder for Judge Reinhold’s character.

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This movie was made by a woman director (Amy Heckerling), a rarity in the 1980’s, and her touch is all over the film.  The very unromantic scene in which Jennifer Jason Leigh loses her virginity (we see her POV as she is lying on the bench in the baseball field dugout, an older guy on top of her, and she is reading the graffiti on the ceiling) is something that more than a few women can relate to, in emotional tone if not in specifics.  And yet, Amy Heckerling still has the obligatory topless shot.  That’s an interesting tightrope to walk, but Heckerling demonstrated that she belonged in the “man’s world” of directing.

The mall scenes in this movie were shot in the Sherman Oaks Galleria,  which was nestled in the San Fernando Valley.  It is now long gone.  I visited that mall several times when I was a kid, and seeing the mall scenes, places I walked, shopped, ate, takes me back.  I can almost smell the Galleria when I watch those scenes.   Everyone who experienced high school  can find something to relate to here.

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I could expound on the joys of The Music Man all day.  It is my favorite musical, bar none.  I’m not a musical fanatic;  most of Rogers and Hammerstein’s stuff just doesn’t grab me, although I make an exception for The Sound of Music because, well, it’s just so darned good, no matter how sappy.  My introduction to this movie was the soundtrack.  My grandmother had a large vinyl collection, which I was allowed to play from a very early age, as long as I promised to handle her records with care.  I played all almost all of her records, some only once.  But others I grew to love, and The Music Man soundtrack was one.  Meredith Wilson, the author, has a unique way of writing, both musically and lyrically, and I took to it immediately.  So when I saw the movie on television when I was 8 or 9, I already knew all the songs.  It was so amazing to see the glorious visuals that accompanies the music, surpassing everything I had imagined in my mind.

As a child, I had the biggest crush on Shirley Jones as Marion the Librarian; I wanted to be the brilliant, dynamic Robert Preston, wooing her, singing to her.  The movie deals with a traveling salesman calling himself Professor Harold Hill, who is a shyster.  He comes into town, sells the townspeople on the idea of a boy’s band, collects money for instruments and uniforms, then leaves in the dead of night.  But in River City Iowa, he has met his match.  He forms a bond with Marion the Librarian (Shirley Jones) and her younger brother, Winthrop (played by a young Ronny Howard), and is forced to look at his choices in life, and make a change.  Will it be a change for the better?  I’m sure you can figure that out.  After all, this is a big Hollywood musical.  This movie might not be for everyone, but if you’re at all a fan of musicals, you could do worse than to spend a couple of hours in River City.  This is a movie I watch at least once a year, and I never tire of it.  It nourishes my soul.

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Finally, I re-watched Robert Altman’s The Player, because The Criterion Collection released it on blu-ray.  It looks fantastic, better than ever.  This movie is a very cynical look at Hollywood, and the making of movies.  It is just as relevant today as ever.

Some reflections:

The first shot of the movie goes on for several minutes, a bold opening which introduces many of the central characters, and gives us a sardonic look at the movie pitch process.  First of all, we see Buck Henry pitching The Graduate 2.  The fact that Henry wrote the screenplay for the original makes this joke really work.

I also thought it was really ballsy of Altman to have Fred Ward’s character reference Orson Welles’ tracking shot from Touch of Evil and Hitchcock’s uninterrupted takes in Rope, within his own uninterrupted tracking shot!  And he pulls it off, the clever bastard.

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This is a self-referential movie that is in on the joke, winking to the audience as it tells the story of studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), who may be on the way out.   He’s also receiving death threats at work in the form of post cards.   Griffin confronts the man who he believes is threatening him, and an accident occurs in a movie theater parking lot.  Or was it an accident?

Soon Griffin Mill is a murder suspect, dating the girlfriend of the dead man, and trying to keep his job.  In the Hollywood of old, the murderer never gets away with it;  justice must be served.  But the Hollywood of the early 90’s was all polish, all glamour, and times were changing.

When this movie first came out, seeing all the Hollywood celebrities who play themselves in this movie was very cool. Many of them are not even cameos;  they are extras, populating the background of various scenes.   Now, many of those people are no longer with us.  They are ghosts, haunting the background, adding a slightly more somber tone to the proceedings, and somehow making the movie even more effective.  There’s Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows.  Gone.  Jack Lemmon.  Gone.  James Coburn.  Gone.  Rod Steiger.  Gone.  Peter Falk.  Gone.

Let’s not forget director Robert Altman.  He’s gone too.  But he left behind one hell of a body of work.  Far from perfect, but every bit his own.  If you’ve never seen an Altman film, this is perhaps the best place to start.

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Three from 1950 (Harvey, Panic in the Streets, Born Yesterday). Plus The Secret Life Of Pets

Movies watched:  Harvey (home – 104 minutes), Panic in the Streets (home – 96 minutes), Born Yesterday (home – 103 minutes), The Secret Life of Pets (Bonney Lake Regal Tall Firs 10 – 90 minutes).

Total cumulative time:  4 days, 5 hours, 57 minutes

Boy, am I behind on my movie journal.  Work, vacation, more work and all of a sudden a month has passed.  So time to get caught up.

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Harvey is a movie I first saw as a child.  Anybody in my general age group who grew up in California will remember the “Family Film Festival” on KTLA 5, hosted by Tom Hatten.  This is one of hundreds of movies that I was first exposed to watching that program.    The movie is based on a play by Mary Chase, and the film retains much of the dialogue and pacing of the play.  In the film, Jimmy Stewart plays a man named Elwood P. Dowd, an affable gentleman, who has a 6 foot tall invisible rabbit for a best friend.  His sister and niece, who are living with him, want to have him committed, because of his imaginary friend.  Much of the movie involves the sister’s attempt to have Elwood committed to a mental hospital.    The movie mixes comedy with moments of genuine affection, made all the more believable by Jimmy Stewart’s perfect performance.

It is a movie so gentle in tone, that I’m afraid it would be lost on many people today.  That’s a shame, because it still plays very well.  In addition to Stewart, there are several other standout performances.  Stewart’s sister is played by the great stage actress Josephine Hull, who won an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Veta Louise Simmons in this movie.  Hull played a similar character in Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace, equally well.

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Jimmy Stewart gestures towards the great Jesse White

There are several other great performances, including a couple of character actors that nobody else would probably know or recognize.  But I would be remiss if I did not mention the great Jesse White.  Jesse is spectacular in this movie, making the most of every moment he is onscreen.  He also provided what is arguably the funniest moment in the movie, when he is reading the definition of “Pooka” in the encyclopedia.  His line delivery is perfect.   If you watched any TV shows made between 1955-1975 then you know Jesse White.  Check out his credits, you’ll be amazed at how prolific he was.  The man did not stop working for over 40 years.  He guest starred on “The Andy Griffith Show”, “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, “Bonanza”, “The Munsters”, “Perry Mason”, “The Love Boat”, “Happy Days” and even “Seinfeld” (his last appearance before his death in 1997).

If you want a simple, funny, good-hearted movie, you could certainly do worse.

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Watching Harvey got me thinking about what a great year for movies 1950 was, so I decided to watch another one:  Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets.  So first of all, Kazan was a very solid director who made at least 4 or 5 outstanding movies.  Yes, I know he named names.   But the man is dead, so let’s celebrate his art and forgive him his tresspasses.   Remember the 1999 Oscars, though?  When Kazan got his Lifetime Achievement Award?  Remember how uncomfortable Scorsese and DeNiro looked flanking Kazan on stage, like they would rather be somewhere else?  Some people made a point of standing and applauding loudly, others pointedly did not clap.  (You would think not clapping is the same as just sitting, right?  But no.  Not-clapping is a distinct action.  If you don’t believe me, just look at Ed Harris and Amy Madigan in the audience shots.  They are the living embodiment of “not clapping.”)  Then of course there is Spielberg, who tried to appease everybody by clapping, but not standing up.  Jeez, he really pisses me off sometimes.

I guess I’m more interested in talking about things peripherally related to the movie, so I’ll be brief about it:  it’s good.  There is a potential epidemic breaking out in New Orleans.  A contagious disease that could kill lots of people.  Richard Widmark is the man trying to track down an infected man.  But gangster Jack Palance and his henchman Zero Mostel (yes, I said Zero Mostel) are after the same man.  Who will find him first?

This is a magnificent movie, with elements of noir, but also a bit of documentary feel, as many scenes were shot on location.  Kazan was one of the first directors to do so regularly, which brought a rarely-seen gritty realism to his movies.  “Ahead of it’s time” is an over-used phrase, but I think it applies to this movie.  I’ve seen it three times now, and I like it more with every viewing.  I don’t remember what  I first saw Richard Widmark in, when I was a kid.  It might have been the episode of “I Love Lucy” he guest-starred in.  Then I probably saw him in Murder on the Orient Express.  I just know that I didn’t like him.  He seemed odd-looking and blustery.  Now that I’m older, I still think he’s odd-looking and blustery, but he was a versatile actor who gave some great performances (Judgment at Nuremberg, anyone?)   His occasionally manic performance in this movie suits the material.

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Of course Palance was almost always typecast as the bad guy.  He came to resent that, but he could play a bad-ass as well as anybody.  Of course he was helped by his angular face and whispery voice.  It made him seem more threatening.  His character in this movie, Blackie, recently appeared on Empire magazines’ “50 Greatest Villians” list, and I can’t really argue with that.  Zero Mostel is good too.  And lest I forget the lovely Barbara Bel Geddes, who plays Widmark’s wife.  I absolutely love Barbara. Most people know her as “Miss Ellie Ewing” from Dallas.  To me she will always be Midge, from Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  She never disappoints.

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I was having so much fun in 1950 that I decided to stay there for one more movie:  Born Yesterday, directed by the George Cukor.   This movie was based on the popular Broadway play of the same name.  The plot involves an uncouth tycoon (really just a gangster who struck it rich), who comes to Washington D.C. to hobnob with some politicians, and see if he can tuck a few votes in his back pocket.  He is played by Broderick Crawford, another character actor with a very prolific career who is primarily remembered for one movie, All the King’s Men.  He was also in one of the most embarrassingly bad movies ever made, Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood.  (Look it up.  It’s one of those rare movies that is such a train wreck, you can’t stop watching. It has cameos from dozens of actors well past their prime.  Everyone from Billy Barty to Stepin Fetchit.  Seriously.  I’ll have to review it later this year.  Maybe a week’s worth of bad/good movies).

Broderick Crawford’s girlfriend (played by Judy Holliday) comes with him to D.C.  She appears as a typical ditzy blonde, with an annoying high-pitched voice.  But there is nothing typical about her performance.  She practically originated the character.  It has been imitated, but never equaled.  And don’t even mention the God-awful remake with Melanie Griffith.  If you do, I will come to your house and pee on your car.  Judy Holliday gives one of the best performances ever captured on film.  Male or female.  Ever.  You got a problem with that?  You  seen the movie?  Didn’t think so.  She mixes tone so well.  She makes you laugh at her character at the same time she is endearing herself to you.  Then a little later she breaks your heart.  It is a rare performance that can have you laughing so hard your chest hurts, then later wiping away tears.  She does it all without every being a caricature.  She is a real, honest-to-God woman, something today’s movies could use more of.

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Judy Holliday won the Oscar for Best Actress for this role, beating both Bette Davis in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, two of the most iconic female roles of all time.  And guess what?  Judy deserved it.  Judy died of breast cancer at the oh-so-young age of 43, leaving this one indelible performance to define her career.  And let’s forget William Holden.  His character is hired by Crawford to “educate” Judy Holliday.   Do you think they fall in love along the way?  Holden is a personal favorite of mine, in this movie, and just about everything else he did.  I think you could make a strong argument for him in “best actor of all time” discussion.   This movie deserves a bigger audience;  I only wish the remake could be “unmade.”

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I don’t really have much to say about The Secret Life of Pets.  I watched it.  It was mildly entertaining.   A child would probably enjoy it more than I did.  I was aware of who did the voices, but thought that any of them (except maybe Kevin Hart) could have been interchanged with about 87 other people and it would not have altered the movie in any way.  Remember when animated movies had real voice talent?   Give me Phil Harris and Sterling Holloway any day.  Maybe I’m just becoming a crotchety old man.  While we’re at it, get off my lawn.

Two from Spielberg (Jurassic Park, The Lost World), two from Kubrick (The Killing, Killer’s Kiss)

Movies watched:  Jurassic Park (home – 127 minutes), The Lost World:  Jurassic Park (home – 129 minutes), The Killing (home – 85 minutes), Killer’s Kiss (home – 67 minutes).

Total cumulative time:  3 days, 23 hours, 24 minutes.

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The Steven Spielberg blu-ray box set from Universal finishes out with his two entries in the Jurassic Park series.   The original was another game changer.  Based on the bestseller by Michael Crichton, the movie features a theme park of sorts, populated by dinosaurs, brought back from DNA found in mosquitoes trapped in amber.   Of course, things don’t go as planned in Jurassic Park, because “Nature finds a way.”  One of the reasons the premise is so appealing is because the science seems plausible, and perhaps prescient as well;  scientists are doing genome sequencing on woolly mammoth DNA right now, and may be able to clone one in only a couple of years.

When Jurassic Park was first released I was working at a Jack-in-the-Box in Whittier, California.  Almost every Friday night, a group of co-workers would go see a movie.  We would just pick from the current week’s new releases.  So this particular Friday night, the debate was between Jurassic Park and Last Action Hero, which both opened on the same day.  (It’s funny to think of now, but the box office prognosticators were split over which movie would take first place.  Nobody knew what a juggernaut Spielberg’s film would become).  It was timing that made the decision for us.  There was a JP showing in about 45 minutes.   I have seen hundreds of movies in the theater, and that night was one of the most thrilling, exciting, purely visceral experiences I have ever had in a theater.  The T-Rex attack sequence was amazing;  everybody gasping, screaming, jumping in their seats, at precisely the same moment.  What a great shared experience, and what a demonstration of how masterful Spielberg’s direction was.

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And how about the cast?  Every character (and actor) is distinct and believable.  Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neill had quietly been doing great work for decades;  this film brought them the bigger audience they deserved.  The screenplay is near perfect, the score (John Williams again, who else?) is memorable, the effects hold up well.  Jurassic Park did for movies in the 90’s what Jaws did in the 70’s.  This is Spielberg upping the ante.  And it still holds up today.

Because this movie was such a runaway success, a sequel was basically a foregone conclusion.  So Michael Crichton, who had not intended to write a sequel, wrote a second book.  Crichton killed off the Ian Malcolm character in the first book (which the movie thankfully did not), and I love the way Crichton just casually brought Malcolm back in his sequel.

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The concept of The Lost World:  Jurassic Park  is pretty straightforward.  The idea is that the character of John Hammond (Richard Attenborough, appearing in a cameo) had a second island, called Site B, where dinosaurs were still flourishing.  Is it plausible that Hammond would have had a second island, and never mentioned it to anyone in the first movie, or book?  It stretches plausibility, but it works.  So Hammond sends Ian Malcolm (played once again by Jeff Goldblum) to Site B to document the dinosaur activity.   Also along for the ride are Vince Vaughn and Julianne Moore, as well as Richard Schiff and Vanessa Lee Chester as Goldblum’s young daughter, who stows away on the voyage.  There is a competing team on the island, who are there to hunt and capture dinosaurs, to transport them to the mainland for use in a new commercial enterprise.  The dinosaur hunters are led by the always brilliant Pete Postlethwaite, who wants to kill a T-Rex, the ultimate big-game trophy.

The first time I saw this movie, in the theater, I had a basically positive response.  Seeing it now, it does not hold up terribly well.  It is just a pale imitation of the first movie.  The acting is good, there are a couple of good set pieces, but it is missing the sense of wonder that made the original more than just a run-of-the-mill thriller.   The original movie had Spielberg’s imprint on it in virtually every scene.  His touch is mostly absent from the sequel. lostworld2The finale of this movie, which features a T-Rex on a rampage through the streets of San Diego, is my least fovorite part of the film.  It borrows heavily from King Kong.  I’m not sure why it bothers me so much, but the original Jurassic Park had seemed like a special film, and somehow moving this the mainland at the end just turns it into a very run-of-the-mill monster movie.  This may be one of the most uninspired movies in Steven Spielberg’s entire catalog.   It is definitely worth watching, at least once, but is a weak follow-up to the original.

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Stanley Kubrick is one of those directors whose name carries a certain cachet.  I am not a member of the cult of Kubrick;  I do not fawn over his movies as many other cinephiles do.  But I do appreciate his unique visual style.  Kubrick started out as a photographer, and he always had an eye for framing.  But his movies often have a languorous pace that I find frustrating.  The Killing was Kubrick’s first feature-length movie that he made for a major studio.  It is small budget, compared to his later films, but it has a fantastic visual flare.

The Killing tells the story of a group of guys who are planning to rob a race track, and walk away with the day’s take.  The group (led by the great Sterling Hayden) have planned everything down to the last detail.  Unfortunately, one of the gang (the unforgettable character actor Elisha Cook, Jr.) spills the beans to his unfaithful wife, and soon their best-laid plans have gone awry.

This movie is one of the best film-noir of the 1950’s, and has been vastly influential.  It is one of the first movies to feature a fractured narrative structure, in which the same time period is viewed multiple times, from the viewpoint of different characters.  Quentin Tarantino has cited the influence of this movie on his early films, especially Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown.  The word genius is thrown about so frequently in Hollywood that is has lost all significance;  but I think Kubrick was truly a cinematic genius.  Few people in the history of movie-making have made a movie this visually sure-handed, at such a young age;

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Anyone who likes heist movies, caper movies, or film noir will certainly enjoy this film.  And lovers of film will probably recall several movies made in the last 60 years that owe a debt of gratitude to this movie.  It is well-paced and features solid performances throughout.  The Criterion Collection did a fantastic job with their blu-ray version of this movie, it has never looked so good.

If you purchase this Criterion blu-ray, you will be able to view the Kubrick movie Killer’s Kiss, which is included as a bonus feature.  Killer’s Kiss is the movie that Kubrick made right before The Killing.  Essentially, he made this movie to try and get a deal with a major studio.  Killer’s Kiss was directed, shot and edited by Kubrick on a ridiculously small budget.  But his talent for framing, and his attention to detail, is already apparent at this point.

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This very short movie (which breezes along at only 67 minutes) features a boxer who falls for a young woman that he sees in an adjacent apartment building.  They plan to move away together.  The only problem is, the girl has a night-club owner cum gangster who is in love with her, and does not want to give her up.  In order for our boxer hero to get the girl, he is going to have to fight for her.   The cast are all a bunch of unknowns.  One of the most interesting things about this movie is the casting of Frank Silvera (a black actor, born in Jamaica) as the lead antagonist.  It was not customary for a black man to get a prominent role in a movie in the 1950’s, (unless it was a role that specifically called for a “person of color”) and Kubrick cast Silvera because of his acting ability, not his race.  You will probably recognize Frank Silvera;  he was a good character actor who appeared in dozens of TV shows.

Kubrick’s camera work is so sure-handed.  There is a great shot on a rooftop, in which we watch our protagonist (played by Jamie Smith) run around the entire rooftop, searching for a means of escape.  The camera tracks him as he runs towards the camera, then away, then back again.  There is also a brilliantly chaotic fight sequence which involves axes and a mannequin warehouse!   Once again, Kubrick’s visual flare is astonishing.

killerskiss2Nothing that is seen on screen in a Kubrick film is ever accidental;  he meticulously planned and framed every single shot.  Look at this shot above, which is just one throwaway in a long sequence.   It is pitch-perfect.  If you are a fan of Kubrick, then it is well worth watching this movie, to see his early genius on display.