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.