Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is in A Lonely Place

Movies watched:  Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, In A Lonely Place,  I’m A Stranger Here Myself  (condensed version).

Where watched:  Regal Auburn Cinema 17, Home

Movie times:  103 minutes, 94 minutes, 41 minutes

Total elapsed time:  2 days, 3 hours, 39 minutes

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Every month, TCM sponsors a re-release into theaters of a classic film.  Generally they choose movies from the golden age of Hollywood, although some are more recent.   The offering for May was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,   I was a bit surprised by this at first, until I realized it was the 30th anniversary of the film’s original release.  Wait a minute.  Thirty freaking years?  Is that possible?  I remember seeing this in the theater.

1986 was a tough year for me. I had been uprooted from my hometown, and forced to move with my mother to a new town, in a new state.  I missed my friends, I missed my grandmother, and I hated the weather.   Things would get better the following year, when we moved again, and I had a chance to settle in and make some friends.  At the time though, I saw no hope.  Music and movies became my consolation.  And this movie spoke to me, as it did to every teenager who saw it.

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What was it about John Hughes that allowed him to tap into the teenage experience in a way that few other writer/directors ever have?   He didn’t pander, or condescend.  He created teens that were fully fleshed-out characters, dealing with real situations, and responding to those situations with real emotion.  That isn’t to say his movies didn’t have stereotypes.  Ben Stein, Edie McClurg, and Jeffrey Jones’ characters were caricatures on the page;  they became so real, and so memorable, because they were portrayed brilliantly.

So this is one of those rare movies that plays well today despite a visual aesthetic and soundtrack that ground it firmly in the 80’s.   There is a bit more of a melancholic feel for me watching this film on the big screen 30 years later,  mostly because John Hughes is no longer with us.   It was great to see it in a theater that was more than half full, with a crowd that was boisterous and lively, quoting lines and singing aloud to “Twist and Shout”.  It was also great to experience it in the theater with my son and his girlfriend.

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“I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”    Was  ever a better line of dialogue uttered in any film noir?   How fitting that it is uttered in a movie about a Hollywood screenwriter.  It’s hard to imagine a more disparate pairing of movies, watching this after Ferris Bueller.    

In A Lonely Place stars Humphrey Bogart as down-on-his-luck screenwriter Dixon Steele.  Dixon is one of Bogart’s greatest performances, and one his least likable characters.   Dix Steele is intelligent and principled, but has a temper, and this temper causes him to cross a line.

Bogart wanted his wife Lauren Bacall to play the romantic lead, but Warner Bros. would not release her, so Bogart ended up acting opposite Gloria Grahame.  While it would have been nice to have one more Bogie/Bacall pairing on the big screen, it is hard to imagine anyone improving on Grahame’s performance in the role.   Gloria Grahame was married to Nicholas Ray, the film’s director.  At least she was when production began.  Their marriage was rocky from day one, and during the production of this film they reached the breaking point, and actually separated during filming.  To their credit, they were discreet and professional on the set;  there was not a hint of what was happening in their personal lives.

Although it’s impossible to avoid the parallels in the Nick Ray/Gloria Grahame relationship, and that of the characters onscreen.  When Bogart walks away at the end of the movie, moving slowly like a wounded animal, and Grahame watches, with genuine sorrow in her eyes, it’s hard not to imagine that she is thinking about her own collapsing relationship.

This is a fantastic movie, quite different from the standard fare of the day.  There is a murdered girl, and Bogie is suspected in her murder.  That sounds like a very typical set-up for film-noir.  But in this movie, the murdered girl, and the hunt for her killer, are treated almost as an aside.  The real story is about the relationship between Bogart and Grahame.

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Dixon Steele is a difficult character to figure out.  He’s hard to like.   There are moments when the audience is with him.  But just when we start to admire him, he does something completely self-destructive.  We certainly never stop rooting for him.  I think the key to understanding his character is his experiences during the war.  This is referenced multiple times, the fact that Steele hasn’t written anything good since “before the war”, that he hasn’t been the same since “before the war”, the implication being that the war changed him.  Not only has he struggled as a writer in the years following, but he’s struggled with his temper, which costs him quite a bit.

This movie is a must-see for fans of Humphrey Bogart, who will surely add Dixon Steele to the list of great Bogie characters, right along side Rick Blaine, Philip Marlowe, Fred Dobbs and Charlie Allnut.  The Criterion Collection did a fantastic job with the blu ray release;  here is hoping that they will release more titles from Nicholas Ray, an underrated director who has a lot of noteworthy and influential movies to his credit.

Included on the Criterion blu ray is a truncated version of a documentary film about Nicholas Ray.   I’m including it here because it did debut on the big screen, albeit briefly.  Why was it trimmed by 20 minutes by Criterion?  Probably because they couldn’t clear the rights to all the footage.  Or else they just didn’t feel the remaining portion was necessary.  Regardless, we see here the image of Nicholas Ray in the last years of his life, looking very haggard, older than his years, but still passionate about film.   It is sad to see him in an on-set spat with a girl several decades his junior, who was apparently also his lover at the time.    He looks like a broken man, but the passion for movie-making lasted as long as he did.  One of many times I’ve been reminded of the words of Pete Townshend:  “After the fire, the fire still burns.”

A John Williams double feature (the actor, not the composer!)

Movies watched:  Sabrina, Dial M For Murder

Where watched:  Home

Movie times:  113 minutes, 105 minutes

Total elapsed time:  1 day, 23 hours, 31 minutes

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Sometimes only an Audrey Hepburn movie will do.   Have you ever been to a really good massage therapist, one who knows exactly where that troublesome spot in your shoulder is, and soothes the pain away?  Audrey’s movies have that effect on me.  She can smooth over the rough spots.  Not all of her movies;  Lord knows she was in her fair share of crap.   But most of her performances are great.  Roman Holiday, Funny Face, and my favorite, Sabrina.

Sabrina has two of the greatest leading actors of all time in it:  Humphrey Bogart and William Holden.  Holden was at the peak of his career here, while Bogart was only a couple of years away from his sudden and far-too-early death from cancer.  There was tension on the set;  Bogart, who was a consummate professional for most of his career, could be petty and petulant when things were not going his way.   He felt like an outsider on this film, not part of director Billy Wilder’s sanctum sanctorum.  The off-screen tension does not appear on-screen, but there is no real chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn.   This is a typical Billy Wilder movie in that it mixes tone, and does so very well for the most part.  But most of the scenes that feature Bogart and Hepburn alone have a palpable melancholy undertone.  Is it a perfect film?  Far from it.  But overall, it is delightful, and charming, and it is a thousand times better than the remake.

In addition to the leads, there are a lot of great character actors in this movie.  Nancy Kulp (who would stake her claim to fame as Miss Hathaway in TV’s Beverly Hillbillies) plays a servant in the Bogart/Holden household.  Francis X. Bushman also has a small role.  Also featured in this movie is the fantastic character actor John Williams, in the role of Thomas Fairchild, Sabrina’s father.

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John Williams is one of the most trustworthy and stalwart character actors of all time.  He was so reliable that Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder both used him multiple times.  He is the epitome of British charm and class.  After re-watching his brilliant performance in this movie, I decided that I wanted to see some more of John Williams, so I decided to re-watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder.  

I have already written two detailed entries on Dial M For Murder on my other blog, dedicated to Alfred Hitchcock.  If you would like to read those entries, please look here and here.

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John Williams does not even enter this movie until the 55th minute, almost the halfway point.  But his character is arguably the  most important in the entire movie, for he is the one that unravels the mystery, and saves a life.  John Williams won a Tony award for playing the role of Inspector Hubbard in the Broadway performance of this play.  He was one of only two actors from the Broadway performance who reprised his role in the movie version.

John Williams appeared in 3 Alfred Hitchcock movies and 2 Billy Wilder movies.  He also appeared in 9 episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series (the most appearances by any actor), as well as appearances in The Twilight Zone,  Family Affair, Night Gallery,  and several other TV shows and movies.

Sabrina may be the most memorable performance of John Williams’ entire career.  His affection for his daughter Sabrina, and his sense of obligation and duty to the Larrabee family, are so believable   If you have not seen actor John Williams before, you owe it to yourself to watch these movies.  He is unique, eminently talented, and unforgettable.

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Find The Wrong Man? Sounds like a Mission Impossible.

Movies watched:  The Wrong Man, Mission: Impossible, Mission: Impossible 2, Mission: Impossible 3, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Where watched:  Home

Time:  105 minutes, 110 minutes, 123 minutes, 125 minutes, 133 minutes, 131 minutes

Total elapsed time:  1 day, 19 hours, 53 minutes

I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man so i could post a rather detailed analysis on my alfredhitchblog site.  When watching the Hitchcock movies, I often watch the films (or at least sections of the films) multiple times.  So I wondered, should I count multiple viewings of the same movie in my cumulative time total?  I decided against it.  At any rate, The Wrong Man is a very good, and very underrated Hitchcock movie.  If you want to learn more about it, check out my alfredhitchblog review here.

I then watched all 5 Mission:  Impossible movies in a row.  (Not all in one day, but over the course of a week).   This is my favorite action movie franchise, by far.  Each movie has a different director, each one has it own look and feel.  And there are no duds in the series.  So here are some random observations on the movies in the series.

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The original Mission:  Impossible is often mentioned as the slowest-paced entry in the franchise.  Yet it set the template that has been followed in every successive film.   There is a break-in, or heist, at a high-security facility, and there is at least one high-speed chase.  I’m a big fan of Brian DePalma, and although he is often guilty of the style-over-substance claims made about his movies, he often has a style worth watching.  Someone who saw the later entries in the franchise first would probably be bored with this movie, because it is a bit slower paced.  But the story never lags, and the characters are all interesting.

The head of the IMF changes in each movie.  In this entry he is played (quite well) by Henry Czerny.

I won’t say who the “bad guys” are in this one, in case someone hasn’t seen it, because identities are not what they seem.

Team members:  Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Beart, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emilio Estevez, Ving Rhames, Jean Reno.

As the franchise-launching movie, this film made almost half a billion worldwide (big money in 1996), and while not perfect, it is Mission:  Enjoyable.

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Mission:  Impossible 2 could not be more different from the first film.  John Woo has a very distinct aesthetic, and it is all on display here:  the doves flying in slow motion, the two-fisted handgun shooting, the balletic motorcycle chases.  The first movie was shot in a cold, muted color palette.  The sequel has a deep, rich tone.

The plot of this movie owes a nod to Alfred Hitchcock.  The idea of a woman seducing a bad guy to obtain information is borrowed directly from Notorious.   On the movie’s commentary track, John Woo also says that the car chase sequence between Tom Cruise and Thandie Newton was inspired by Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief.  

The head of the IMF:  Anthony Hopkins

The bad guys:  Dougray Scott, Richard Roxburg

The team:  Tom Cruise, Ving Rhames, John Polson, Thandie Newton

Crazy stunt actually done by Tom Cruise:  rock climbing, high-speed motorcycle chase

This is the lowest-rated movie in the franchise on Rotten Tomatoes, currently sitting at 57%.  While Woo’s slo-mo shots and flying doves get old in a hurry, the movie is engaging, and actually better than I remember it.   This is Mission:  Congenial

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It’s kinda weird to think of Mission:  Impossible 3 as J.J. Abram’s directorial debut.  Who would’ve believed that he would go on to revive the two most popular sci-fi franchises in movie history.   He definitely has a sure hand here.   Ethan Hunt, the IMF agent played by Tom Cruise, is married in this installment, to the beautiful Michelle Monaghan.  She thinks he works for the Dept. of Transportation.  Boy, is she in for a surprise, when Hunt’s professional and personal world’s collide.   The stakes are much higher when Cruise is fighting to rescue his wife.

The head of the IMF:  Laurence Fishburne

The bad guys:  Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eddie Marsan

The team:  Tom Cruise, Ving Rhames, Keri Russell, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Maggie Q, Simon Pegg, Billy Crudup

This movie is currently rated at the very modest 70% on Rotten Tomatoes.  I think were it made today it would be rated higher, because it is a very good movie.  Philip Seymour Hoffman is the best villain in the franchise to date.  The relationship between Ving Rhames and Tom Cruise is solidified with the banter they have during the mission.  The film looks great, and the stunt sequences are fantastic.   It also has a very high re-watch value.

Mission:  Rewatchable

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Brad Bird was a bit of a shocker to direct this movie.  He had only directed animated movies up to this point.  Granted, they were all fantastic (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille), but handing him the reins to this franchise was still surprising.  All he did was direct the best movie in the franchise to date.  This time around, the IMF is disavowed, and a handful of “ghost” agents must try to prevent a world catastrophe, and clear their names.   This is the longest movie in the franchise, but doesn’t feel like it.  It is engaging from the first minute to the last.

IMF director:  Tom Wilkinson

Bad guy:  Michael Nyqvist

Team members:  Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton

Crazy stunt actually done by Tom Cruise:  Climbing, and hanging off of, and running down the side of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.  This sequence, shot in 70mm, is one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed, and is beyond breathtaking on the big screen.

My only (very minor) quibbles with this movie:  Ving Rhames character Luther appears only in cameo.   I also thought it was a missed opportunity not bringing back either Maggie Q or Jonathan Rhys Meyers from MI3.  That being said, this is an incredible movie.

Mission:  Exceptional

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I went to see this movie with some trepidation.  It seemed like Brad Bird’s installment could never be topped.  Also, Christopher McQuarrie was known more as a screenwriter than director.   Would he be able to handle it?  Yes, he would.  This movie has the most repeat characters of any movie in the series.  Basically Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, and Ving Rhames are the team now.  This time Cruise is after the Syndicate (who was mentioned at the very end of MI4), a creation of the original TV series.

McQuarrie quite rightly realized that he couldn’t top the Burj Khalifa sequence from the last movie, at least in terms of spectacle.  So he didn’t try.  He went in a different direction.    Of course Cruise does some crazy stunts.  But the centerpiece of this movie takes place in the Vienna Opera House, and it is one of the best sequences of the entire franchise.  Sean Harris, in the role of Solomon Lane, the head of the Syndicate, is a great villian, arguably the best in the franchise.  Hopefully we haven’t seen the last of him.

This film has the best look of the series.  Academy Award-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit lit this film brilliantly.  It doesn’t have the look of a “typical” action movie.

IMF head:  Alec Baldwin (he’s actually the CIA director, but the CIA absorbs the IMF in this movie)

Bad guys:  Sean Harris, Jens Hulten

Team members:  Tom Cruise, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Ferguson

This movie does not surpass the last entry in the franchise, but it does not try to.  Christopher McQuarrie has made a movie that is as exciting, and entertaining as any other in the series.

Mission:  Spectacular

I’ll be your Eye in the Sky, then we’ll sail away to Key Largo

Movies watched:  Eye in the Sky, Key Largo

Where watched:  Parkway Plaza 12, home

Time:  102 minutes, 101 minutes

Total elapsed time:  1 day, 7 hours, 46 minutes

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Last time I saw my son Kevin, we decided to see Eye in the Sky.  It had a short theatrical run, so we had to see it in a theater that doesn’t really show first-run major releases.  I was just glad it was still available to watch somewhere.

Eye in the Sky is a movie of our times;  it involves a British military intelligence unit, headed by the always impressive Helen Mirren.  The British are tracking some potential terrorist subjects in Kenya, and hope to arrest them if their intel proves good.   What if that intel shows that the terrorist suspects may be planning an imminent attack?  Is a drone strike, killing them all instantly, a justified use of force?  What if innocent people in the vicinity may be killed as a result?  These are the tough questions that this movie asks.

The movie devolops gradually, building to a slow burn, and takes a darkly comic turn as various diplomats on multiple continents all try to pass the buck when it is time to authorize the drone strike.   The cynic in me questions whether so much debate would ever occur, particularly in the United States, where drone strikes are the weapon du jour, used with impunity, and causing the deaths of many civilian casualties.  Of course, this is a British movie, not an American one.

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It works so well, on so many levels, because it does not appeal to maudlin sentimentality.  It is gut-wrenchingly hard to watch at times, but it feels very real. It does not moralize, or proselytize;  rather it shows the hard choices and very real consequences that result from our modern form of technological warfare, by giving a face to the faceless, those who are usually just listed as “collateral damage” in a blurb that vanishes almost as quickly as it is forgotten.

The performances are all stellar, and particularly impressive because the lead actors never worked together.  Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, and Barkhad Abdi all shot their parts of the movie separately.  The fact that they flow so seamlessly together is a testament to the great direction of Gavin Hood.  Hood may best be known for writing and directing the Oscar-winning film Tsotsi.  Since then he has directed a couple of big-budget Hollywood action movies, with mixed results.  This is arguably the best movie of his career to date.

The ending of the movie is very sobering, made all the more so with the simple dedication to the late, great Alan Rickman just before the credit roll.   Rickman could play over-the-top (his Hans Gruber was the template for every Euro-villain in every action movie of the last quarter century), and understated (revisit Sense and Sensibility if you haven’t seen it recently) equally well.  His tone of voice, and the manner in which he delivered his lines, were instantly recognizable, and unforgettable.  Rest in Peace, Alan.

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When I saw that Warner Brothers was stepping up their “Archive Collection” releases on blu-ray, I jumped at the chance to own the great Key Largo.  It sure does look fantastic in the hi-def format  It’s just a pity that Warner Bros.  isn’t taking the time to add any extra features.

Key Largo is based on a stage play, and has the feel of one, with most of the movie set in the confines of one hotel.  Humphrey Bogart plays an ex-soldier, who is paying a visit to the wife and father of one of his men, who died in combat in Italy during WWII.  The wife of the dead soldier is played by Bogart’s wife Lauren Bacall, and the father is played by curmudgeonly old Lionel Barrymore.  They are the proprietors of a hotel, and what Bogart does not realize when he arrives is that there is a secret guest staying in the hotel:  a gangster named Johnny Rocco, played to perfection by Edward G. Robinson.

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Bogart’s character tries not to get involved in a conflict with Robinson and his men, even as the situation escalates.  Bogart claims, much as his character Rick said in Casablanca, that he only looks after himself.  Robinson tries to provoke him, and ultimately Bogart’s character rises to the occasion, and saves the day.   This movie is just about perfect, with John Huston directing a screenplay that he co-wrote with Richard Brooks.  This was the  fourth collaboration between Huston and Bogart,  a pairing that would become one of the most celebrated collaborations between actor and director in movie history.

The performances are stellar throughout, but a couple deserve special mention.  Of course Edward G. Robinson chewed up the scenery as he always did when in gangster mode, and Bogart was the quiet understated hero.   But it was Claire Trevor who won an Academy Award for best-supporing actress, in her role as alcoholic, over the top showgirl, who was once Johnny Rocco’s main girl.   The famous scene in which Rocco requires Claire Trevor’s character Gaye Dawn to sing for a drink, is still very powerful and moving.

Also worth mentioning is the character actor Thomas Gomez, who plays Curly, a member of Rocco’s gang.  Gomez gives a very memorable performance, one of the best in his career.  Gomez was the first ever Latino actor to receive an Oscar nomination in an acting category.

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Edward G. Robinson, center, as gangster Johnny Rocco. The great character actor Thomas Gomez is far right.

This movie is deserving of the label “classic”, with great writing, directing and performances.  If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and give it a go.  The Warner Brothers blu-ray looks fantastic.

This movie inspired a not-entirely bad  song in the early 80’s, from one hit-wonder Bertie Higgins.  I apologize for the horrific video, just remember it was 1982.  My God; the beard, the white jacket open to his midriff, the arrogant puff on the cigarette, quelle horreur!

Japanese double feature: Spirited Away, High and Low

Movies watched:  Spirited Away, High and Low

Where watched:  Home

Time:  124 minutes, 143 minutes

Total elapsed time:  1 day, 4 hours, 23 minutes

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Spirited Away is the first Hayao Miyazaki movie I ever saw.  I remember taking my son Kevin to see it when it was released in theaters.  That was about the time that Disney became the American distributor for Studio Ghibli.  I was completely unprepared for the world that he created.  This film is an absolute masterpiece of animation and of story, very deserving of the Best Animated Feature Oscar that it won in 2003.

And it holds up very well today.  Disney has released almost all of Miyazaki’s catalog in English language versions, and they have employed top-notch voice talent for the movies.  This one features Daveigh Chase in the lead role of Chihiro, as well as Suzanne Pleshette, David Ogden Stiers, and John Ratzenberger.

But it is the original vision of Miyazaki and the artists at Studio Ghibli that make this so timeless.  The movie is about a young girl named Chihiro who is moving to a new city with her parents.  As they approach their new house they see a derelict theme park, and begin to explore.  But this is no ordinary place;  after dusk, strange things begin to happen, including her parents being turned into pigs!

Chihiro finds herself in a bath house for members of the spirit world, and meets dozens of fascinating and original characters.  My personal favorite are the “soot sprites”.  And also the river spirit, who comes to the bathhouse to be cleansed, and is full of garbage, including a bicycle.  This is based on a real life episode when Hayao Miyazaki helped to clean a polluted river near his home town, and they found a bike stuck in the mud of the river  bottom and had to pull it out.

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For anyone who is averse to the idea of watching Japanese “anime”, let me put you at ease.  Hayao Miyazaki is not like anything else you have ever seen, American or Japanese.  His films will transport you to another place, they will move you and astonish you.  And if you have kids, they will really dig it for sure!

Next up I decided to watch an Akira Kurosawa movie that I have owned on blu-ray for awhile but hadn’t gotten around to watching.  And that is High and Low.  It’s amazing how many different sources Kurosawa drew on to make his movies:  Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Gorky, many traditional Japanese sources, and for this movie the 50’s noir detective writer Ed McBain.  (McBain was a pseudonym for Evan Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock’s The Birds.)   The novel, titled “King’s Ransom” is a great potboiler detective work, that breezes along at just under 200 pages.  Kurosawa would use this as a launching pad for a much broader and bolder story.

I have loved Kurosawa’s samurai movies for a long time, and I was interested to see how he did with this contemporary picture.  And I have to say that this is probably my favorite Kurosawa movie.  The movie involves a kidnapper who thinks he has taken the child of a wealthy industrialist, but accidentally takes the child of the wealthy man’s chauffeur by mistake.  Will the rich man still pay the ransom, even though it is not his child that was taken, and even though it may break him?  Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune plays the industrialist, who is involved in a power play at the shoe company he works for, when the kidnapping occurs.   This movie is not only a gripping suspense story, but also a movie with a moral center, that asks some real questions, and leaves the audience members to form their own conclusions.

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So check out the composition of the shot above;  it is staged almost like a play.  The first 55 minutes of the movie follow very closely the plot of the original Ed McBain novel, and it all takes place in the house of the protagonist.  As a matter of fact, it almost all takes place in the same room.   Toshiro Mifune’s performance is astonishing, playing businessman as samurai. He exudes confidence when the movie opens, then his anger and frustration build in a slow burn, until he erupts into action.

Then, Kurosawa does something astonishing.  He takes the film in an entirely different direction.  The last hour and 20 minutes are entirely original, having almost nothing to do with the novel.  It begins with a scene shot on a bullet train in Japan.  This sequence was actually filmed on a moving train, with 9 cameras, and lasts around 6 minutes.  It is one of the boldest and most exciting sequences ever captured on screen.

After this the movie becomes a police procedural, and Mifune all but disappears for over half an hour.  This section is very well structured.   We then get a sequence in a jazz club, which is filmed with no dialogue, and is as over-the-top as Kurosawa ever got in a movie.  Then the movie visits a street of heroin addicts, and becomes very expressionistic, in contrast to the early documentary-like police scenes.

The movie is brilliantly structured, and really holds up by today’s standards.  And the Criterion Collection blu-ray looks exquisite in hi-def widescreen.  The conclusion, in which Mifune faces the kidnapper through a prison window, is both enigmatic and powerful, leaving as many questions as answers.

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If you are a fan of Kurosawa, then you absolutely have to see this.

After we ride the Midnight Special, we better Take Shelter

Movies watched:  Midnight Special, Take Shelter

Where watched:  Lakewood Towne Center, home

Time:  111 minutes, 121 minutes

Total elapsed time:  23 hours, 56 minutes

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My best friend Tom has been singing the praises of writer/director Jeff Nichols for awhile now, and he asked me if I wanted to see his newest film, Take Shelter.  Of course I said yes.  Up to this point, the only Nichols film I had seen was Mud, the Matthew McConaughey flick from 2012.  I liked that movie, but I didn’t love it.  The story line was original, and the story worked for the most part.  I just felt that the languorous pace did not justify the payoff.  But this was clearly a director who was making his movie.

So Midnight Special stars Jeff Nichols’ go-to actor, Michael Shannon, as the father of a boy who has some strange powers.  The boy’s mother is played by Kirsten Dunst, and it’s nice to see her having a bit of a resurgence with this and the most recent season of Fargo on television.  Also featured prominently is Joel Edgerton, an actor who continues to impress with every performance.  Obviously Jeff Nichols enjoys casting kids in central roles; all of his movies involve children as central plot figures.  And the child actor, Jaeden Lieberher, who already appeared in the slightly overrated St. Vincent, is quite good in this movie.

The movie moves at the pace of Nichol’s earlier movies, with the plot advancing deliberately, then suddenly exploding into action.  Some have seen this movie as an allegory for faith, or religion.  Nichols himself says it is all about parenthood.  Nichols is a true auteur, in the sense that Hitchcock and Kurosawa were;  his fingerprints are all over his movies, good or bad.  This movie may actually suffer for the big-budget special effects at the end, which almost seem out of place.  His last movie, the aforementioned Mud, was made for just under $10 million, a bargain by today’s standards, and grossed over $30 million.  So for this movie his budget was closer to $20 million.  But I’m not sure those CGI effects were really necessary to tell the type of story that Nichols wanted to tell.  He should just stick to making his movies, and his audience will find him.

So much as I thought with Mud, I would say this was a good, but not great film.  Definitely worth watching.

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So then Tom loaned me Nichols first two movies so I could watch them at home.  I watched Take Shelter, and I can say that so far this is Jeff Nichols’ masterpiece.  It is close to a flawless film;  the writing, directing and performances all work seamlessly together.   Michael Shannon stars again, as a man who begins to have visions about a violent storm approaching.  His dreams, and his preparations for this storm, begin to take a toll on both his job and his family life.  His mother was institutionalized for schizophrenia many years earlier.  Is he following in her footsteps?  Is he seeing true visions of the future?  I will leave it to you to see the movie and draw your own conclusions.

Just out of curiosity, I googled the phrase “Take Shelter allegory” to see what popped up.  There are people who think this movie is about religious fanaticism, doomsayers, and even climate change.  Personally, I think the most important word to think about when watching a Jeff Nichols movie is “family”.    This movie comes highly recommended, and is a great starting place for Jeff Nichols’ films.  But I applaud his entire catalog.  He is original, he makes the movies he wants to make, and he requires his audience to be active participants and bring their own thoughts and feelings to bear.  He reminds me of directors like Michael Haneke and Julio Medem, whose films are not always great, but are always original.  And because of that, I will always go along for the ride.

After My Dinner With Andre, we’ll stop On The Beach

Movies watched:  My Dinner With Andre, On The Beach

Where watched:  Home

Time:  111 minutes, 134 minutes

Total elapsed time:  20 hours, 4 minutes

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My Dinner With Andre existed for me as nothing more than a pop culture reference for many years.  It was one of those movies alluded to knowingly by others; an offhand remark, a laugh, and then the conversation would move on.  My cynical teenage mind just assumed it was one of those movies that people discuss without having actually seen it.

When I finally did see it, in my twenties, I was fairly impressed.   The idea of two guys sitting at a table talking (and lets not forget the eating and drinking, an important part of the setting) for nearly two hours is simplicity itself.  But how to keep it entertaining?   The screenplay, written by the movies two stars, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory never lags.  The pace of the dialogue sometimes slows, then quickens, much like a natural conversation would, but it keeps moving.  Director Louis Malle keeps things interesting as well, with some subtly shifting camera set-ups that keep things fresh without drawing too much attention to themselves.

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This movie is so natural that it has the feel of a documentary, and most of the things referenced really did happen:  Gregory really went to Poland, Shawn really did teach Latin, to name a couple.  But the characters “Wallace Shawn” and “Andre Gregory”  are many layers removed from the actor/writer Wallace Shawn and the actor/director Andre Gregory.   Think back on memorable conversations you have had with one of your best friends, those talks that move from the banal to the sacred.   Now imagine trying to distill those conversations years later into a single dialogue with a through-line and a dramatic conclusion.  That is pretty much how this movie was constructed.

Seeing it now, it holds up incredibly well, because the things discussed are all very human.  I love the talk about the electric blanket, I love Wallace Shawn defending his love of simple daily pleasures, then later admitting his fears.

This movie at times reminds me of some of the great talks I have had with my friend Tom over the years.  I feel like we are having one never-ending discussion, interrupted and resumed many times.  All the best conversations should introduce more questions than answers, and leave one with a sense of the profound.   This movie certainly does that,  because it is about life;  because it is life.

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Remember the end of Waiting for Guffman when Corky St. Clair was showing off his My Dinner With Andre action figures?  If only they were really a thing.

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During the cold war, there was a wave of apocalyptic anti-nuke books and movies, many of them quite good.  Of course everybody knows Dr. Strangelove, which has stood the test of time because of its comic tone and great performances.  On The Beach is another movie from the same time period.   It does not hold up nearly as well.

I wanted to revisit this movie because I finally read the novel by Nevil Shute.  (A novel I bought about 15 years ago, I might add.  And there it sat on its shelf, mocking me, taunting me, until I just couldn’t take it any more.)  The book, which examines the last year of human life on earth after a nuclear holocaust, was powerful and memorable.   The movie though, is primarily forgettable.

It has a lot going for it.  It was directed by Stanley Kramer during his hot streak (sandwiched between The Defiant Ones and Inherit the Wind), starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and a pre-Psycho Anthony Perkins.  The performances are all good.  Mostly.  Okay, I have to get this off my chest.  I don’t like Ava Gardner as an actress.  Can’t stand her, to tell the truth.  She may be my least-favorite actress.   I just can’t trust the acting choices of any woman who could be married to both Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra.  I mean seriously, are you effing kidding me?

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Gregory Peck, looking so Peckish, and Ava Gardner, probably looking for the nearest open bottle.

Seeing this movie in the theater in 1957,  when the threat of a nuclear war seemed very real, must have been a frightening, sobering experience.  But today it seems a little out outdated.   Most of Stanley Kramer’s other social commentary films are still very relevant today, but this one just does not captivate.  It looks great on the Kino Lorber blu-ray, and fans of Stanley Kramer or Gregory Peck should definitely give it a go.

Support Your Local Sheriff and/or Gunfighter

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Movies watched:  Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter

Where watched:  Home

Time:  92 minutes, 91 minutes

Total elapsed time:  15 hours, 59 minutes

When I saw that Twilight Time was releasing these two titles on one blu-ray, I was pretty excited.  These two Western parodies were mainstays of my youth, shown frequently on television.  I hadn’t seen them in many years.  I wondered how they would hold up.

Of course any conversation about western parodies begins and ends with Blazing Saddles, and rightly so.  There have been other good western comedies, such as Bob Hope’s The Paleface.  Then there is The Apple Dumpling Gang, which seemed very funny when I was little, but doesn’t really work.

The first thing I noticed about Support Your Local Sheriff on blu-ray is how great it looks.  The transfer is absolutely superb, and I was blown away by the detail.  Director Burt Kennedy was essentially a B-movie western director, but he had a good reputation for making movies on a small budget that usually turned a profit.  This movie stars James Garner as a man who is just passing through a mining town, on his way to Australia of all places.  There is plenty of broad physical comedy, which just seems corny today.  But Garner makes the movie watchable, with every glance, every line of dialogue just right.

Garner befriends the town mayor,played by Harry Morgan, and he eventually falls for the mayor’s daughter Prudy, played by the charming and short-lived Joan Hackett.  Garner defends the town from the Danbys, the local cattle baron family that makes life hard on its citizens.  Walter Brennan plays the leader of the Danby clan, and a young Bruce Dern plays his young, dim-witted son.

Despite some of the jokes falling flat today, the movie does hold up, primarily because the performances are all quite good, especially those of Garner and the unforgettable Jack Elam, who steals every scene he is in.

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Here, Garner tries to pass of Jack Elam as the fastest gun in the West.

The movie was so successful that a follow-up was made just a couple of years later, titled Support Your Local Gunfighter.  It is not a sequel, but does feature many of the same actors, playing different characters.  It was also directed by Burt Kennedy, and also stars Garner, Elam and Morgan.  Morgan’s daughter  in this movie is played by Suzanne Pleshette.  This movie involves to feuding mining families, and has a similar comedic tone to the earlier film.

Unlike the first movie, in which Garner was an accomplished gunman, in this one he eschews gunfighting, using his wits to get out of some sticky situations.  This movie is not as strong as the original, but is definitely a suitable companion piece.  Jack Elam is just as funny in this one as he was in the earlier film.  If you are a fan of James Garner, or Western comedies,  they make a good double feature.  Twilight Time has done a great job once again with this blu-ray release.

In both of these movies, Jack Elam breaks the fourth wall at the end, giving the audience a closing narration, describing what happened to the characters.  It is nice to see Elam close out the movies, and have his starring moment.support5

 

 

 

 

The Palm Beach Story, and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

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Movies watched:  The Palm Beach Story, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Safeguarding Military Information

Where watched:  home

Elapsed time:  88 minutes, 122 minutes, 9 minutes

Total cumulative time:  12 hours, 56 minutes

If you watch a lot of movies, then you have felt the influence of Preston Sturges, even if you’ve never seen one of his movies.  Many directors and writers over the last 75 years mention him as a major influence.  Are you a fan of the Coen brothers?  Preston Sturges’ fingerprints can be seen on several of their films, especially Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, and Hail, Caesar!  The Coen brothers “borrowed” the title O Brother, Where Art Thou? from the Sturges film Sullivan’s Travels.  Sturges was the first Hollywood writer to transition to director;  he paved the way for John Huston and Billy Wilder.   His films have elements of screwball comedy, but often mix tone, and don’t necessarily have a conventional plot structure.  Preston Sturges seems self-indulgent;   he wrote and directed what amused him.

     The Palm Beach Story is about a woman (played by Claudette Colbert) who leaves her husband (Joel McCrea)that can’t provide for her, because he can’t find investors for his crazy inventions.  She meets a millionaire (played by Rudy Vallee) named John D. Hackensacker (clearly  based on Rockefeller) and seduces him.  At the same time,  Hackensacker’s sister (played by Mary Astor) falls for Joel McCrea’s character.   The set-up sounds like it could be a Shakespeare comedy.  There are sections of this film that are laugh-out-loud hilarious, even by today’s standards, particularly when the members of an “Ale and Quail” hunting club shoot up a moving train that they are traveling in.   If you watch enough Sturges movies you will start to see the same faces over and over;  he had a stock company of actors that he used repeatedly.

I’ve never found Claudette Colbert particularly attractive, but she certainly is charming in this movie.   By this time she had already won an Oscar in Capra’s It Happened One Night.  The more I see of Joel McCrea, the more I like.him.  The entire cast is exceptional really, making the most of Sturges’ screenplay.  The beginning and ending of this movie are a bit bizarre, something that could only come from Preston Sturges (or the Coen brothers), but it works.  While this is not my personal favorite of his movies, I would recommend it highly to anyone who likes classic Hollywood comedies, or the offbeat comedies of the Coens.

Sidenote:  This movie was released by Paramount in 1942.  I already wrote about a movie I watched called I Married A Witch,  which was also made at Paramount in ’42.  But Paramount had an excess of films that year, so they sold the Witch movie to United Artists, who were in need of titles to distribute.  Can you imagine a studio today having a glut of movies in the can, and selling off titles?  It would never happen.

Safeguarding Military Information is a short film that was originally made for the military, but was shown in theaters during World War II, so I will include it in my movie watching time.  It was written by Preston Sturges, and features Sturges regular Eddie Bracken in one scene.

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There was another director named Sturges. I’m talking about John Surges of course (no relation to Preston).  John Surges was a manly man;  most of his films focused on men in situations where their resolve is tested.  The women in John Sturges movies are usually window dressing, there just to comfort the men.

So just a few quick observations about this film:

Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas were both big stars by this point, and they both provide effortless and powerful performances.  Lancaster may be the best Wyatt Earp to ever grace the screen.  As far as Doc Holliday goes, I would put Kirk Douglas somewhere in between Val Kilmer and Victor Mature.

This movie was shot in VistaVistion, Paramount’s widescreen process.   VistaVistion movies look amazing on HD televisions, especially in blu-ray.  The colors and depth of focus are breathtaking.

DeForest Kelley  (who will forever be remembered as “Bones” McCoy on Star Trek) plays Morgan Earp.  That’s him in that famous shot at the end, walking with Lancaster and Douglas to the O.K. Corral.  That’s Bones!  DeForest was under contract to Paramount at the time.

Three of the people in this 60-year-old movie are still with us:  Kirk Douglas,  the awesome character actor Earl Holliman, and the beautiful Rhonda Fleming.

There are a ton of other great character actors in this, including:  Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef, Whit Bissell, and John Ireland.  Also look for a young Dennis Hopper.

Charles Lang Jr.’s cinematography is breathtaking, and Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is one of the classic western scores of all time.

 

 

 

Quick stop at 10 Cloverfield Lane, then I’ll take you down to Chinatown

Movies watched:  10 Cloverfield Lane, Chinatown

Where watched:  AMC Southcenter 16, home

Elapsed time:  103 minutes, 131 minutes

Total cumulative time:  9 hours, 17 minutes

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When my friend Reggie asked if I wanted to see 10 Cloverfield Lane, I was hesitant.  I never saw Cloverfield, and I knew they were at least obliquely related.  (Cloverfield is one of those movies that sat in my Netflix queue for years.  It would slowly move up, then down again as more interesting things supplanted its position.  I realized at some point that there was always going to be something I wanted to watch more).  But the trailer looked intriguing, and at least it wasn’t that handheld, found footage crap which was another turn off for me with Cloverfield.  Plus, John Goodman.  Then I saw it was 90% positive on Rotten Tomatoes, and that was enough.

This movie does have a lot of things going for it, most of which I can’t discuss without ruining plot points.  It does involve three people holed up in a survivalist’s bunker, from what may or may not be some kind of attack.  An attack from whom, or what, I won’t mention.  The set-up is excellent; the viewer knows only what Michelle (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) knows.  On a visceral level, the movie works.  There are some great suspenseful moments, and some twists you probably won’t see coming.  John Goodman is solidly creepy, and John Gallagher is entertaining, although his dialogue has some inconsistencies (which is the screenwriter’s fault, not his).

There are certain parts of the story that don’t really hold up to close scrutiny, but i won’t fault the movie too much for that, because it really doesn’t give you time to stop and ponder.  If you saw Cloverfield,  then you know it involved aliens, and I’m sure you’re wondering if this film goes there.  I’m not going to give anything away.  If you like a good thriller, that might make you jump in your seat a couple of times, then give it a try.

Side note:  we were at the theater early, and this couple came and sat to my immediate left, with one empty seat between.  At the time, there was nobody else in our row, and the row in front was empty.  I was a little surprised they chose to sit so close, and even more surprised when the dude began spitting his chew into a little cup.  I’m sure guys must chew tobacco at the movies, I’ve just never witnessed it before.  He had his own little supply of Dixie cups in his pocket which he proceeded to spit in for the duration of the film.  Charming.

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Speaking of charming, here is an image from Chinatown.  One of Jack Nicholson’s great monologues, where he tells Faye Dunaway “I damn near lost my nose.  And I like it.  I like breathing through it.”  I’m not sure if screenwriter Robert Towne was writing specifically for Nicholson, but I can’t imagine any other actor in 1974 delivering Jake Gittes’ dialogue as well as Jack does.  Townes’ screenplay is exceptionally well written.  Did you ever ask yourself why the movie is called Chinatown?  The movie does not take place in Chinatown, except for the last scene.  The movie is not about Chinatown at all, at least not on the surface.  This is a movie of layers.  It is about a murder mystery, and infidelity.  It is about water and power, and the making of Los Angeles, and it is about Chinatown.  Chinatown is mentioned three times, in three different conversations that Nicholson’s character has with others, and each give us a little information about what happened there in the past.  Robert Towne said that Chinatown is a metaphor for the futility of good intentions.   I assume he was talking about the place and the movie.

Roman Polanski’s direction is fantastic, and his technical team great too.  He had to replace both the cinematographer and the composer during production.  Normally making changes midstream spells disaster, but the cinematography in this movie is exquisite, even more so on blu-ray. And Jerry Goldsmith’s score is the stuff of legend;  brought in at the last minute, he wrote and composed the score in nine days, and the result is astonishing.  Once you hear that opening cue for trumpet, you’ll never forget it.

Jack Nicholson was at his peak here, so effortless its kinda scary.  I was never a big fan of Faye Dunaway, and I’m not quite sure why.  She is a good actress, but there is an emotional distance that keeps me from connecting.  Of course this role requires a distance, and she has that gut wrenching scene (you know the one) which levels both Nicholson and the audience.  The supporting actors are great in this movie too, especially Burt Young, best known for the Rocky movies, and John Hillerman, best known for “Magnum, P.I.”  And John Huston, best known for being John Huston.  Who could ever forget that gravelly voice, and the way he continually mis-pronounces Nicholson’s name as “Mr. Gits” is a great touch.

This movie was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, with Towne being the only winner, for best original screenplay.  That was the year Godfather II cleaned up at the Oscars, although would you believe The Towering Inferno won best cinematography and editing over this film?   Chinatown is one of the greatest examples of American film noir, and one of the best movies of the 70’s.   The ending is brutal and unforgiving, but it couldn’t end any other way.  After all, its Chinatown.

(Footnote:  I watched this movie on Saturday 3/12/16.   After watching, I was doing some research, and discovered that the St. Francis Dam in California broke on this same day, in 1928.  That dam’s failure, which resulted in the deaths of over 600 people, is referenced briefly in Chinatown.  The character of Hollis Mulwray is modeled after William Mulholland, who lost his job and much of his good reputation after that dam’s failure.  It also is no understatement to say that Mulholland’s aqueduct built Los Angeles.  He just had to steal a little water to make it happen),