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Films I saw in 2012

December 24, 2012 by , under Films, Films 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Films I Saw in 2012

 (New reviews are added each evening)

Watching Films is our way of fulfilling a deep-seated need

to nestle ’round the campfire listening to our Story Tellers. 

This is when and where we express our fears of the Unknown,

debate the Mystical, and find support for our assumptions about

the Sunlit World.

 

CODES: “again” = I’ve seen it before, “WOTO” = We Own This One, “IMDB” = my opinions also found on The Internet Movie Data Base site

Below are the majority of the films I’ve seen to date this year.  Those most recently viewed are placed at the top of each selected category.

Last updated: 12-31-12

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2012  MOVING PICTURES    *    NEVER enough time, SO many films ====================         =========================

 

 

1.
“FILMS THAT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE”

 

 

 “It’s a Wonderful Life” (again and again, twice this year, 1946):  It’s a great film and story with wonderful acting, gorgeous black & white photography, important philosophies… why, it has everything.  Jimmy Stewart was at his best.  Donna Reed?  What a girl-next-door-babe!  Clarence the Angel?  Perfectly innocent and effective.  Bert & Ernie?  I suppose they are a major realization for Sesame Street fans!!  The children – fragile and pure.  Sam Wainwright – the goofy, life-time friend, no matter how rich he became.  Evil Mister Potter?  The man we love to hate (hissss!), played by Lionel Barrymore (Drew’s grandfather).  The rejected kid at the dance who opens the dance floor on George & Mary?  Remember “Alfalfa” in “The Little Rascals”/”Our Gang”?  That’s him!  You KNOW what “Potter’s Field” is slang for, right?  It’s the generic name given to graveyards for people who died alone, broke, and unclaimed.  Uncle Billy?  I relate to His memory problem and having a Raven as a bird-pal.  Violet?  We ALL knew (or know) a Violet…the good-hearted gal who relied heavily on appearances.  One of the prettiest photographic scenes is early in the film when George and Mary are just leaving town in the taxi for their honeymoon: it’s raining and they stop to look back at what appears to be a “run” on the Savings & Loan.  As they peer out the back window of the taxi, THAT shot is pure beauty.  Do I still get misty with a film that I’ve easily seen 50 times?  YES.  I tear up when Mr. Gower realizes that young George caught his prescription mistake, and when adult George comes home in the evening shattered from the day’s events – and he SNAPS.  This film’s heart is in the RIGHT place SO often for SO many reasons.  I’ve always shaken my head in amazement at people who see it as schmaltzy.  Yes, it seems to have those moments, but they’re not clichés – they are minimal and needed as RELIEF from the overwhelming amount of loss, frustration, fragility, anger, near & true violence, nasty characters, and shocking realizations.  I see it as a TRUE spiritual journey along a frightening road.  This film by Frank Capra, and “Wings of Desire” by Wim Wenders, are my Top Two Films of All Time.  WOTO IMDB

“L’Enfant” (“The Child”) (again, French, 2005):  This IS a profound film.  We meet a teenage girl who has a new baby boy.  She seeks someone named “Bruno”.  Bruno is the father – and much more – and much less.  I cannot discuss the story line without harming it for you, so excuse my vagueness.  “L’Enfant” is an interesting combination of main characters – two “children” who have a child: one affected by the arrival of this new being, and one so locked into Existential life nothing seems to connect.  The locations, sets, camera work, dialog, sound, and the acting (!) by two brilliant young actors – Jeremie Renier and Deborah Francois – make this new film by the Dardenne brothers a serious, emotional, intelligent look at (contemporary European) Human Life.  Deservedly, it won the Palme D’or at Cannes.  WOTO IMDB

“Lawrence of Arabia” (again, 1962, 227 minutes, British):  One of the top five finest character studies (in film) of all time.  This is a true story, but so huge, so sweeping, you’d think it was a Hollywood Historical Fantasy.  Watch a naïve young man, T. E. Lawrence, rise through the ranks of the British Army during World War One, with a very complex relationship to his uppers and the desert tribes of the Middle East… which fuels his intense personality and his perceived destiny in the strangest, most successful, and deluded of ways.  EVERY aspect of the making of this “larger than life” story reflects its nature – the original film was shown in luxurious Cinemascope, the orchestral scoring (in massive stereo) was created by Maurice Jarre, the photography of the desert landscape is often shot at a distance, the film is long enough it provided an audience break (with orchestra) at the half-way point, it was directed by David Lean (who would go on to do “Dr. Zhivago”), and, it’s full of top actors: (introducing) Peter O’Toole, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guiness, Jack Hawkins, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy…  And, to top it all off, you may find painful warnings about our current situation in the world.  WOTO

“God Grew Tired of Us” (again, 2006):  Documentary.  This film explains a little about the late 1980’s/early 1990’s holocaust in war-torn Sudan.  It follows the desperate escape of starving, orphaned children across a thousand miles of deadly terrain full of murderers, lions, and hyenas until those who survive reach “safe camps”.  These become their parentless homes.  Finally, after as long as fifteen years, a lucky few are picked to come to America and start a new life.  What these grateful, frightened, confused, anxious young men find is the real United States.  They are given three months to “adapt”, find work, pay back the government, and make it on their own.  It will make you both proud and ashamed… proud and ashamed in many, many ways.  WOTO 

“Grand Canyon” (again, 1991):  I love the feel of each and every scene.  Some of them have stuck to me like emotional glue – even after 21 years.  Some I’d forgotten but was immediately brought right back in.  I love the woven script (this is an early example of a style we now take for granted), the characters are layered and believable, the storyline and its points are nothing to dismiss.  The acting – by Danny Glover, Kevin Klein, Steve Martin (no, this is not a comedy), Mary McDonnell, Mary Louise Parker, Alfre Woodard, and others – is superb.  “Grand Canyon” is an often difficult film to watch – it’s sad, violent, harsh, depressing, frustrating – but well worth your effort, with excellent messages waiting for you.  It’s also full of heart.  It’s also warming, hopeful, inspiring, smart, and accurate.  WOTO IMDB

“Temple Grandin” (2010):  What I said last year: “I expect this film to end up in my TOP category after another viewing and more consideration.  For now, I’ll say this: Claire Danes is (and always has been) a brilliant actress, and had this film been made for “screen”, she would OWN the Oscar for Best Actor.  She rose to a challenge.  This leads me to the story of Temple Grandin, a person born with Autism, who struggles every day with her uniqueness, but, despite the impediments shoved in front of her by many people, and with the glorious help of a few generous adults in her life, she not only coped, but has changed the world for millions of lives – most of whom are Cows.  No, this is not a comedy, and I’m not going to trough-feed you her life.  Danes spent time with the real Grandin (who is also a Professor at Colorado State University) and, along with Julia Ormond, Catherine O’Hara, and David Strathairn, will keep you glued to the story, its characters, and its emotional highs and lows with such power you can scarcely breathe.  Added to that, notice the unique and effective use of photography, editing, and sound.  How do we “represent” Autism?  See “Temple Grandin”.  See it NOW.”  What I say this year:  “And now it IS in my top category.”  WOTO

“In Darkness” (Polish, 2011): is Agnieszka Holland’s latest film.  I am a fan.  Among her many projects, she created “The Secret Garden” and “Europa Europa”.  This true story is “simple”: Nazis take over Lvov Poland, put the Jews in fenced ghettos, and soon begin the extermination.  Opportunistic Poles (also under the thumb of the Nazis, but not rounded-up) begin charging huge fees to the Jews for food and “protection”.  A group of Jews are hidden in the sewers.  As the viewer, you exist with them in this dark, deadly, disgusting world for 14 months (2 hour 23 minute film).  Beautiful photography, a minimalist score, matter of fact harshness, and the facts will leave you exhausted and appreciative. 

 “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (again and again, 1966):  Taken from Edward Albee’s stage play, this screenplay by Ernest Lehman won nearly every award 1966 could offer up in its honor.  Starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, co-starring Sandy Dennis and George Segal, this is one of the most intense, insightful character study films of all time.  Each character and plot point is slowly, painfully revealed through psychological autopsies of lost souls who seem to have died long ago.  The photography and lighting are stark, the music score is spare, tender, and sad, the dialog equal to needles under fingernails, and the acting beyond belief.  It is brilliant.  WOTO 

“12 Angry Men” (1957):  Occasionally I slam into a film that all my life I seem to have believed I saw.  I suppose its fame is SO ingrained, its title SO recognizable, I “absorb” it as my own.  I don’t know… but “12 Angry Men” turns out to be one of them.  What a revelation!  Directed by one of my favorite directors, Sidney Lumet, this one is right up there with “The Pawnbroker”, “Failsafe”, and “Serpico” (also his), with a similar thematic feel to “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, and the dialog-heavy intensity of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?”.  Great b/w camera work, superb dialog, fascinating acting… and all set in one room around one long jury meeting table.  It is NOT a “crime” or “courtroom” drama.  This is about twelve random men with their own personalities, mental capabilities, and biases trying to decide the fate of someone they do not know within a system that is not part of their daily experience.  It is fascinating, gripping, maddening, and sad… plus encouraging.  WOTO

 “June Bug” (again, 2006):  This is a unique, patient story full of funny, odd, awkward, sad, and common moments set in North Carolina.  A recently married, urbane Chicago couple travels down South to 1) woo a folk artist to sign with their gallery, and, while there 2) visit his family (who she’s never met).  SHE finds much more than she can comprehend (which is not to say the family DOES), but in the process discovers more about her husband, his roots, and herself.  The editing, timing, and calm shots gave June Bug a tone of meditation, revelation, lovely optimism, and empathetic brain-deadness.  The characters are absolutely believable, weird, charming, lovable, not lovable, flawed, and typical like all of us.  I was totally charmed by Amy Adams, who plays the sparkly pregnant girl with an almost relentless sense of wonder and optimism.  EVERYONE else does a great job – Embeth Davidtz, Ben McKenzie, Alessandro Nivola, Frank Hoyt Taylor, the fabulous Celia Weston, and Scott Wilson.  Can Profound be hidden in the Common?  Absolutely.  “June Bug” is a SUPERB film.  WOTO IMDB

“Stranded” (French/Spanish, 2007):  Maybe you remember or have read about the 1972 plane crash in the Andes Mountains, where the survivors had to then stay alive in the snow, at 18,000 feet altitude and 30 degrees below zero, during the threat of avalanches, with close to no food… for 72 days?  It’s true, and this is a documentary of that nightmare told by the survivors, their photographs, and very artful film recreations.  As it did me, “Stranded” will leave you gasping and shaking your head.  Even as you learn what they did, you won’t know HOW they did it.  This group is very open, especially thoughtful, and quite wise is their ponderings over the 35 years since their trials.  You will ask yourself The Big Questions, and be grateful you AREN’T required to answer them.  WOTO

“The Grapes of Wrath” (again, 1940):  Author John Steinbeck approved this film version of his book, despite changes that needed to be made for censors.  Set AND made in the Depression of the late 1930’s, starting in Oklahoma, we follow a destitute and harassed family as they attempt to reach “the land of milk and honey” (California) for jobs.  Their journey is the stuff of… well, humans and their stories.  The photography and lighting is some of the finest of all time.  The story, unabashedly pro-Common Man – self-governing, self-policing, self-motivating – Unionizing – Socializing, if you will – is pure Great Depression.  The hero isn’t a god – God is within each of us – we are simply in a position to choose heroism.  This is a large, sweeping, gritty, shadowy, rough film with tight lips and squinted eyes, bearing the pain and continuing on, stopping to mourn but not to abandon.  It has its speeches, and they are glorious.  The horizons are wide, though the moment is short.  It is full of symbolism and yet remains personal.  Only the most hardened or inexperienced or uneducated would see this film as somehow less than what comes from Hollywood now.  I also suggest you see the dvd version with the running commentary by two experts, one on John Ford, one on John Steinbeck.  THIS is worthwhile.  WOTO  IMDB

“The Bridge on the River Kwai” (again, 1957):  I saw this film first-run in the theater.  My Dad took me.  Perhaps it was his way of trying to show me a little about War – World War II – the war he’d experienced a mere 12 years earlier.  I was only seven years old yet the film had me mesmerized with its sweeping actions and ideas, its battles of will and subversion.  It left enough of an impression I have made a point to check in with it every few years.  It never fails to involve me (and not in a child-like manner).  It is BIG.  This is a BIG film.  Directed by David Lean, you would expect so.  Set deep in the jungles of a far away place during World War II, this is the story of hundreds of British soldiers (and one American) being held prisoner by the Japanese.  It is a story of Will vs Will, yes, but also the slow, subtle, changing beliefs within all main characters… leading us to an amazing conclusion.  This is a masterpiece of cinematic storytelling.  WOTO

“Treasure of Sierra Madre” (viewed twice in 2011, 1948):  Once in a great while, a film comes along I have long believed I’ve seen before and would like to see again.  I begin watching it, don’t recognize this or that scene, and blame it on my failing memory.  Eventually, I realize – once in a great while – a film is so famous – a film about which I’ve heard so much – a film on everyone’s Top lists – a film I’d come to assume I’d seen… I hadn’t.  THIS is one of them.  What a wonderful “discovery”!  Starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, and Tim Holt, directed by John Huston, and winning three Academy Awards, this is the story of great poverty, existential realities, the power and danger of groups, acts of faith and insanity, and greed versus righteousness.  It has everything.  It is beautifully photographed, its story well told, its actors in top form, and, for 1948 Hollywood, it is one of the grittiest, sweatiest, dirtiest, smelliest, most feral feeling films up to that point.  Bravo.  Again.  WOTO

“War Torn 1861-2010” (2010):  This is a profound documentary of first-person accounts of “shell shock” / “post-traumatic stress disorder” from the Civil War to our current involvements.  “War Torn” is not an anti-war or hawkish propaganda piece.  It contains no romance or suspenseful tales.  This is a straight forward look at what war does to the minds, hearts, and souls of those we ask to be warriors in our name.  I’ve never heard clearer, more painful descriptions of the causes and results of delayed mental / emotional problems than in this documentary.  Every one of us should see this 67 minute revelation.

“Synecdoche New York” (again (3rd viewing), 2009):  Warning: This film will require multiple viewings.  You will NOT absorb all it offers in one viewing.  My guess is 3-5 viewings will be required for a solid grip.  It was written and directed by C. Kaufman (who created “Adaptation”, “Being John Malkovich”, and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”).  Starring a huge, talented cast including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis, Tom Noonan… wow.  Okay, now with the introductions out of the way… I don’t know what to say about the film.  It is very complex, extremely challenging, constantly changing, full of unusual and surreal ideas set in gritty realities (yet somehow also dream-like), has dialog that demands you listen, time-warps, spatial inbreeding, details galore, and is occasionally slightly humorous but generally very sad, paranoid, and desperate.  What IS it to be a particular person – in this case, an artist – and pay the unique price?  How many kinds of loss are there?  When is “dedication” distraction, or destruction?  How do you feel about aging and dying?  What do you want to leave behind?  Is being appreciated important to you?  Okay, there’s a starter set of questions you’ll be asked.  You’ll also be presented with a variety of scenarios related to these and many more questions.  This work makes Kaufman’s other films look like Haikus.  You’ll have to work for this one, I guarantee you.  If you’re feeling lazy or sloppy or silly, wait for another opportunity to see “Synecdoche New York”.  It will probably be considered one of Kaufman’s masterpieces, and you need to be at your best.  WOTO

“The Thin Red Line”(again, 170 minutes, 1998):  I don’t know how many times I have watched this masterpiece by Terrence Malick, but I have no intention of stopping.  It is one of the most thoughtful, poetic, melancholy, and beautiful films (shot by John Toll) in ANY category, but is certainly tops in the war/anti-war genre.  Though loaded with stars, they do not have that “glow” around them… their abilities and the roles are that good.  Included in this talented cast: Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, John Cusack, and John C. Reilly.  Scoring by Hans Zimmer is amazing and heart-wrenching.  Ambient sound recording is elegant, rich, and frightening.  Every aspect of “The Thin Red Line” creates awe.  The power of this film is overwhelming – leaving you exhausted, exhilarated, and saturated all at the same time.I know it’s difficult to imagine a tense, graphic, violent war film that is also poetic and beautiful, but this is a unique film – a work of Art – which, for its success, demanded a perfect team of brilliant people.

Once in awhile I encounter Art so good it makes me think “If this person never created another thing, his/her entire life would be justified by this one result”.  Of course that’s not true.  This is NOT how artists work, and it would be a tragic circumstance.  But, my reaction IS complimentary to that singular result.

With “The Thin Red Line”, you know you’re in for something special from the opening scene, music, and narrative.  We’re headed somewhere natural, fascinating, subtle, temporarily quiet, ominous, and guaranteed to bring doom to something – someone – everyone – because it is all Of This World.

The ambient sounds are heightened for their lush sense of Life, yet are also tools for possible survival.  Your senses are more important than your logic.  You are Of This World… and so is everything else.  You NEVER turn off your ears.

The narration floats over the events like spirits full of doubt and confusion.  You realize these are the thoughts of the soldiers with whom you are now traveling.  Their physical senses keep them in the moment much of the time, but for split seconds or ten glorious minutes of sleep – whenever possible or when absolutely necessary for their sanity – they have visions of their old lives with a friend or parent or lover or piece of existence that now seems gone forever.

The camera glides along the ground like an animal in stealth, moving through the tall grass or bamboo forest or around rocks as a means of survival while at the same time on the hunt.  At times, the soldier, you, move as though in a trance.  Suddenly, the moment is shattered into a directionless, whirling mess of a nightmare.  Sounds scream then muffle, pieces of things fly past, on, or through you; sights are mere blinks of vision while you try to avoid whatever might bring blindness.  You are as likely to look straight up into the tree tops as down at your feet or off to the horizon.  The dangers are in hidden holes, slitted mounds, treetops, or pouring over the backside of a hill.  The flash from a gun barrel arrives before the bullet, but the bullet arrives before the sound.  You never hear “your” bullet coming.  You are never given the luxury of such time.

The camera is also a meditative glance at other lives trying to exist in their world while particular humans battle through it.  Island natives, colorful parrots, dramatic bats, hungry dogs, a baby bird, an alligator… all there to show how life continues – and ceases – unconcerned with our momentary beliefs and actions.

The scoring is oddly present much of the time, yet never the star of the scene.  It simply delivers a constant sense of dread or sadness, no matter what seems to be apparent.

There are so many amazing moments of acting, I cannot go into them.  It’s difficult to call some actors “supporting” when what they did is so memorable.  This includes many of men in roles of the Japanese enemy.  I will say that Jim Caviezel, and especially Nick Nolte, both in lead roles, are astounding.  Sean Penn has a solid role, but it did not challenge him… he simply knew how to do what was asked of him.  Adrian Brody, John Cusack, and Woody Harrelson show what they can do, but are seldom the center of things.  George Clooney, listed high on the roster, actually has a very small, insignificant role.

“The Thin Red Line” is not so much a pro or con statement about war as it is a poem about Life we often put off balance – and then demand others correct.  WOTO

“The Civil War” (again, 1989, 9 parts, c. 630 min, Ken Burns):  This is one of the FINEST documentaries of all time.  Though no film can be everything to everyone, this one does its best, and its best is very good.  It covers the pre-war, war, and post-war periods with great detail, insight, interesting personal notes, AND never becomes heartless.  It was a horrible, HORRIBLE war that shocked even the sensibilities of a 19thcentury people unfortunately accustomed to tragedy and death.  You will learn and feel much, and feel grateful for it.  Could you possibly ask for more?  WOTO

”Shooting War – World War II Combat Cameramen”(again, 2000):  This is a documentary about the photographers of WWII.  It is SO insightful, interesting, sad, brutal, and intense, I couldn’t stop thinking and talking about it for days.  Over the last twelve years, I’ve collected more than 550 hours of WWII film footage and over 44,000 pages of books on the same subject.  This documentary remains one of the most insightful studies, and, one of the most brutal.  You will see the very last thing some cameramen saw through their viewfinders before they too were killed; you will watch people commit suicide who believed Americans would torture them; you will see living pieces of dying bodies; you will see people drop to the ground under the final slam of a bullet… you will see much of what real war is, unsanitized (unlike many other footage collections).  These cameramen, most of whom did NOT carry a weapon, became the eyes of an astonished and often unbelieving world of people who could not imagine the horrors brought upon innocent non-combatants – civilians, women, children, the aged.  These men, who carried cameras, many of whom gave their lives, are the ones who have NOT allowed history to be easily manipulated, exaggerated, underplayed, or denied.  WOTO

“The Crucible” (again, 1996):  This has been, is, and will continue to be one of the most powerful scripts and films of my life.  Prepare for a slow, steadily increasing pitch of concocted insanity that builds in 17th century Salem Massachusetts, as a group of silly, flighty girls set the stage for their conniving parents to begin a “witch hunt”.  The mass hysteria, greed, ulterior motives, threats, and power plays intensify until you – right along with the residents of Salem – cannot fathom or manage another moment of this delusion.  Arthur Miller wrote this American Icon during the McCarthy “Commie hunts” of the early 50’s.  There are GREAT sets and costuming.  There is superb acting by Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, Joan Allen, etc.  I am awestruck by the power, intelligence, and soul of this TRUE MASTERPIECE.  I do not use these words lightly.  This film WILL change your life.  WOTO  P.S. – While you’re at it, see his “Death of a Salesman” and “Focus”.

“The Bicycle Thief” (again, Italian, 1948):  Set in contemporary Italy soon after WWII, this is the painful and very direct story of a family man out of work and his attempts to keep his wife and children fed and clothed.  Directed by Vittorio De Sica (who also did another of my favorites, “Umberto D.”), this Italian Realist film uses simple camera movements, natural lighting, black and white imagery, and non-actors to tell a story of Existential pressures.  It has social conscience, asks for change, and is honest in its descriptions of Life then and there.  There are no super-heroes, huge action scenes, tantalizing sex romps, or gauzy romances.  This sort of film paved the way for later directors I also admire, such as Werner Herzog.  If you’re looking for escapist fare, go somewhere else.  If you’re looking for a great film, go here.  Try to find a RESTORED dvd version, as the older copies can be rough with difficult to read subtitles.  WOTO

“Andersonville” (again, 1996):  – This is an historical re-creation of our own, true American tragedy – a P.O.W. camp during the Civil War – and what THAT experience demanded of those interned.  “Andersonville” is certainly an anti-war film and a true story, but it takes the time (168 minutes) to look within individuals for the complexity of dealing with horror… offering slivers of consolation when it can be found.  Although there are a few tiny problems with continuity, and compromises with its night lighting, the sets, costuming, makeup, and acting are ASTOUNDING and heart-rending.  This huge effort adds up to a major statement about the depths we humans can sink and heights we can reach when pushed far beyond that which our upbringings prepared us.  Its elegant ending brought me to one of the tearful moments I experienced in with fine work.  WOTO

“The Endurance” (again, 2000):  Documentary.  “In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton set sail on the Expedition with 27 men aboard, aiming to cross Antarctica. But when the vessel became stranded in frigid, deep waters (and crushing ice), the crew began a battle of the human spirit, testing the limits of endurance as they strove to overcome the debilitating setback.”  Miraculously, they succeeded in capturing the experience in journals and on film.  What is MOST profound about this story is what you learn from the mouths and diaries of survivors & their families, which leaves you gasping for air and feeling you can NEVER EVER AGAIN WHINE ABOUT A SINGLE THING in your cushy, little, safe, easy, pampered life.  This is one of the most difficult, torturous trials of life of all time.  These men were the toughest, bravest, most steadfast, determined humans to walk the Earth.  It BOGGLES my mind to think of what they faced and what they did in their attempts to survive.  Wow.  See this!  Get some perspective.  Find yourself without words.  WOTO IMDB

2.

“ FILMS EASILY WORTH TWO HOURS OF YOUR LIFE “

 

 

“Rebecca” (1940): I was SHOCKED! I dislike most of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Yeh, yeh. I know. Sacrilege. But, his popularity has always baffled me. I was SO baffled, I went out and bought a near-complete set of ALL HIS FILMS! Conclusion: the earlier, the better. However… “Rebecca” is a stand out – a wonderful psychological suspense drama – MUCH better than most of his, and able to hold its own against any other directorial effort. Its visualization is superb. Joan Fontaine is astoundingly great and carries the film. She is luminous, fragile, fearful, defensive, insecure, and adorable. Laurence Olivier, George Sanders, Judith Anderson, and others are very good. At 132 minutes, it requires some patience, but the time is used to set you up then keep your head spinning as it is sent off in different directions. A total pleasure. WOTO

“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (again, German, 1919): For the sake of perspective, let’s just call this a “one hundred year old film”. Despite how contemporary audiences approach and “view” popular movies, no one in our era can enter a film this old – let alone one this experimental and artistically linked to movements and philosophies of THAT era – without an education in the time and place from which it grew. Otherwise, “Cabinet…“ will only cause the uneducated to snicker as though they have greater insights or a lack of patience with the obvious. This is not the place for an education. You WILL see amazingly crude, geometric, tilted, distorted sets with odd lighting and painting, harsh actor movements, and a jagged storyline which only gets more disoriented the further along you go. It will leave you confused and – if you care – upset. It will feel unresolved. This is where you come in. Either be willing to learn about a film considered one of the most important of ALL time, or skip it altogether. One or the other. Trust me. There is no casual in-between with this one. WOTO

 “Chloe” (2009): Nearly everything director Atom Egoyan has done, I love. This is no exception. With his identifiable ambivalence and fascination with the mysteries of the human heart, he approaches the subject in a similar manner to “Exotica”. The superb and powerful Julianne Moore, solid Liam Neesom, and talented and beautiful Amanda Seyfried star in this story of a flirtatious professor, an insecure gynecologist, and needy but very insightful hooker who begin crossing paths. Although there are twists and turns to the plot, Egoyan is more of an explorer than a garden designer. Expect to be consumed in places you may or may not have considered part of your own backyard.

 “Things to Come” (again, 1936): I have never seen this film in a fresh restoration, but would like to own one. (I own two poor VHS versions, one put out by “United American Video Corp”. I have researched and ordered a supposedly improved version on dvd by Image Entertainment. More on that later.) You WILL need patience and forgiveness with the quality of its film transfers… probably in their 88th generation by now.

And, there are caveats with my enthusiasm for this futurist style sci-fi film: If you don’t care about no-holds-barred set design, costuming, and special effects, it will be of less interest to you. (Much of its look was taken from such designers as Norman Bel Geddes (and his book “Horizons” of 1932), the general atmosphere of “streamlining”, and recent and upcoming World‘s Fairs.) If a “prediction” film (taken from H. G. Wells book and screenplay) – which is fascist-sci-fi – sounds interesting, you’ll love this one.

It covers the one hundred year history of “Everytown” (in Britain) from 1936 to 2036. To write this book in 1936 required little courage, only talent. To make this film in 1936 took courage and talent. From the silver screen, it looked down on the public and said “YOU are in DENIAL!” After all, World War II was brewing in Europe… but still short of incidents making it an undeniable certainty. “Things to Come” is a dark look at the threat of war, war itself, its long term effects, and the odd but understandable fantasy solutions concocted in the 1930’s. (In that sense, it reminds me of a scientific version of “Gabriel Over the White House” (1933) – another truly unique response to a collapsing world.)

“Things to Come” is both silly and smart, ugly and beautiful, preachy and realistic, but isn’t an excuse for a sugary love affair.  H. G. Wells may have not had the distant future pinned down, but he nailed the near future to the wall. WOTO

 “Everyday People” (2004): Written and directed by Jim McKay. This is an ensemble work set during one very stressful day in an old, established NYC neighborhood restaurant/bar scheduled to be sold and razed. Although on the surface this film appears to be another (gimme a break) look at racisms, its real subject is stereotyping and the lack of respect shown in making assumptions. This one takes a refreshing stance by not letting them (or US) get away with initial reactions to who we think we know. For that, I admire it. It is also well scored, photographed, dialoged, and acted. Let’s call it one of the “hidden jewels” of 2004. WOTO

“Into Thin Air” (1998): This is a solid recreation of a real attempt to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. The guides have varying motives for doing this climb: money, recognition, the Challenge, etc., and have differing views on what and how it should be done. Two features of humans are showcased: arrogance and heroism. This climb goes very wrong, generally for reasons they suspected from the start. Still up they went. You WILL hold your breath in this Thin Air. WOTO

“Smash-up” (1947): Starring the lovely Susan Hayward, plus Lee Bowman, Marsha Hunt, and Eddie Albert. This is the story of an insecure woman who tries to find courage and stability through alcohol. The “solution” is a disaster, of course. “Smash-up” is a harrowing depiction of little, poor decisions growing and adding up to an entirely huge, terrible existence. Although I could do with a little less music, this film is a serious and painful look at the disease, the inflicted, and the by standing victims. Susan Hayward is fantastic. WOTO

“A Christmas Story” (once a year, every year, since 1983):  We watch this one every year near Christmas.  We know it by heart, and continue to love it.  (Let’s see – I think this means I’ve seen it about 28 times!)  For me, it’s unavoidable since it tells the story of MY EXACT childhood!  No, REALLY!  From the coat “Slick” wears, to the coal furnace, the school design, the heavy winters, the coon skin cap, the toys, to the tongue on the flag pole… except I never got the chance to shoot my eye out with a BB gun – the absence of which I’ve always regretted …. UNTIL THIS YEAR!  I NOW OWN A RED RYDER BB RIFLE!!!!  The story is set exactly 10 years earlier than when my experiences begin, but in Indiana THAT means little.  (It was written by Jean Sheppard, who grew up in northern Indiana.)  The period sets, costumes, cars, etc. are near flawless (even if there IS some of that “Clean Car Syndrome”).  Believe me, I’ve studied it… but, there is ONE LINE of dialog precisely BACKWARDS, a real mistake.  One day you might catch it.  Might not.  Good luck!  There are plenty of continuity slip-ups that’ve taken me all these decades to notice.  The cop car that pulls up to the flag pole is a late 1940’s (’47 or ’48) model.  Oops!  While you’re at it, try to determine in EXACTLY what year “A Christmas Story” is set!  It CAN be discovered.  FYI: the original family home has been restored and made to look EXACTLY like it did in the film!  You can take tours.  Also, the “leg lamp” is being reproduced.  You can now have your very own (though miniature)!  This is a film of simple humor, tenderness, nostalgia, and joy through the eyes of both children AND adults.  WOTO IMDB

“Mad Love” (1935):  Caveat: This film is worth it for the lighting, cinematography, and sets, whereas the story is a basic, predictable horror/sci-fi effort.  Pick your priorities.  Starring Peter Lorre (extra creepy), Frances Drake (lovely), and Colin Clive (later to become Dr. Frankenstein); directed by Karl Freund (“Metropolis”), with sets by Cedric Gibbons.  We have some heavy hitters behind the making and look of this late “Expressionist” style drama, with all sorts of tilted angles, illogical lighting, and diagonal set painting to enhance the unstable feeling of this story.  Visually, this is a beauty.  A BEAUTY.  This, and its vestiges of Expressionism, are why I suggest it. 

“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (once a year, every year, since 1991):  This is one of three Xmas movies my wife and I really DO watch EVERY year within two weeks of the holiday.  It’s nothin’ but stoopid, slapstick, dry, hilarious fun… or… we be rill dum, but we no care!  Chevy Chase created a niche with the character Clark Griswold, a highly mediocre, frustrated but well-intentioned suburban Everyman married to his lovely & loving wife (Beverly D’Angelo – with the only sexy overbite in movie history).  This film is FULL of people who would soon become stars:  Randy Quaid, Juliette Lewis, Brian Doyle Murray, Doris Roberts, etc.  Expect nothing but laughs.  Roll with it.  It’s a no-brainer night… and worth every danged no-brain cell.  While you’re at it, watch for references to “It’s a Wonderful Life” and a few continuity slip-ups.  Consider it sport.  It’s time to relax and just have fun.  WOTO

“Drop Dead Gorgeous” (again, 1999):  This is one of the funniest films I’ve seen, and I’ve seen it many times!  It’s a pseudo-documentary about the 50th anniversary of an insipid Teen Beauty Pageant held in small town Minnesota America.  Kirstie Alley plays the neurotic pageant organizer and former Teen Queen; Kirsten Dunst is the good-hearted, glass-is-half-full teen who innocently benefits from disasters around her.  There is a wonderful group of talented women playing various levels of crazy involved in such an event, including Amy Adams, Denise Richards, and Brittany Murphy.  Although not quite up to “Waiting For Guffman”, “A Mighty Wind” or “This Is Spinal Tap”, it’s close – VERY close – and that’s saying a lot.  …Maybe it IS as good…  WOTO

“Kids” (again, 1995):  Written by the same person that created “Gummo” (Harmony Korine), this first effort – “KIDS” – announced a new talent on the block.  With the same documentary style, and all the doubts as to whether ANYONE is ACTING at all, you are “privileged” to hang with a bunch of feral city kids as they stumble their way through their daze.  One reviewer said it made him want to go get a vasectomy.  I agree.  Directed by Larry Clark, “starring” Leo Fitzpatrick, Justin Pierce, Chloe Sevigny, and many others, this one just makes you sick with the honest ugliness of these lost souls.  It’s a good film.  It’s also unpleasant as hell.  I’ve seen it numerous times.  WOTO

“Steamboat Bill Jr.” (1928):  Buster Keaton at his best, who I far prefer over Charlie Chaplin.  Keaton is a young college lad coming “home” to meet his steamboat captain father.  Needless to say, he is straight from the “ivory tower” and knows little of this river world.  As the film moves along – at first like a calm river, then picking up speed until it becomes a raging torrent of AMAZING comedic stunts – you more and more admire Keaton’s comedic and athletic abilities (doing his own stuntwork).  I’ll put a big thank you into whoever had a LEGITIMATE and VERY GOOD original silent film music organist design the accompanying music.  It gives you a superb sense of what audiences in 1928 would have heard, and why no one was in THAT much of a rush to leave them for “talkies”.  This 2003 sepia-tone dvd was issued by Quality Special Products, DSSP Inc., of Quebec Canada.  WOTO

“Kings Row” (1942):  Although somewhat soapy in its presentation, this Depression/WWII era film about 1890-1910 in a small American town has captured a certain truth about what lies below the surface of all we hold close, and examines the ways in which people deal with it.  “Kings Row” – an ironic name for this town – brags about its decency from the town’s Welcome sign on in.  Slowly… ever so slowly… the shine goes dull and dark… But, this is NOT a contemporary style Dark film.  No Werner Herzog, David Lynch, or Atom Egoyan visions.  Just Reality and Hopes set at the turn of the last century in the middle of that century… a century filled with the horrors of world wars.  Considering when this film was made, the timing was very good to remind ourselves that YES, things are NOT perfect !!! but damnit, it was NOT time to give up, there ARE ideals worth keeping, and we might just WIN!!!  WOTO

“Calendar” (1993):  This is by one of my favorite directors, Atom Egoyan, whose one interest is exploring the complexities of the human mind and spirit.  I’m not going to mention much about the plot, because part of its profundity arrives through your own work as you watch, think, and debate.  Egoyan, like any good artist, expects you to do YOUR part in this attempt to communicate.  Here, his very patient, seemingly repetitive scenes (which at first tested MY patience and, had it not been for my previous experiences with his work, nearly caused me to abandon it), builds toward a very sharp point – if you’re willing to be intellectually engaged.  He provides the clues, you provide the conclusion.  Wait until you are in a very alert, observant mood ready to dissect what you see and hear.  It’s worth the effort.

“Rebel Without a Cause” (again, 1955):  For a film that’s over a HALF CENTURY OLD, it continues to stand on its own very well.  Yes, there are “quaint, dated” moments (in comparison to the, what?, “REAL” world now?), but, shelving our contemporary cynicism, James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, and Ann Doran do a wonderful job with a strong script.  The photography is often artful (but I think the film would’ve been visually stronger in black & white), and the scoring is sometimes heavy handed like every other film of that period, but the issues raised – although shown with less complexity – are not outdated in concept.  Children STILL need guidance, STILL need parents, STILL need role models, and REMAIN confused and frightened about how to deal with the world.  There is nothing passe about that.  WOTO

“East of Eden” (1954):  Directed by Elia Kazan, this story is taken from the last third of John Steinbeck’s novel, and it stars James Dean, Julie Harris, and Raymond Massey.  Dean and Harris are the ones to watch.  Magic.  They’re too young to be this good!  The story itself leans a little heavy on the soap, but is more than made up for with the acting, locations, and sets.  The lighting gets a tad surreal at moments, and one scene is shocking weird in its “illumination”.  None the less, it’s easy to see why this film started Dean’s major (and short-lived) career.  WOTO

“Boomerang” (1947):  This is no “On the Waterfront” but it’s a solid social pressure / courtroom drama by Elia Kazan.  The timing of its making is interesting.  This true story was recreated right after WWII.  You’d think everyone was VERY defensive for the Rights we hold close.  “Rights” are an evasive concept when put up against greed and SELF-righteousness. There are lots of sleazy characters to hate.  This one will keep you watching from start to finish.

“Grand Hotel” (1932): Set in Berlin, this is a contemporary film made just before Hitler took total power.  Germany was itself in a Great Depression.  The film is placed inside the luxurious, very expensive “Grand Hotel”, while stories of residents are woven together in various ways.  This is certainly the earliest film I’VE seen where ensemble plot-weaving is done – and done well.  The sets and décor are fabulous Art Deco by Cedric Gibbons, the stars BIG, the photography strong, and the plot lines interesting (especially as it moves along).  This is NOT a “glamour” film.  In fact, the various characters and their flaws are in contrast to the “timeless” beauty of The Hotel.   Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt star.

“Panic in the Streets” (again, 1950):  This is a superb Noir thriller about a murder which becomes very complicated once a contagious plague is discovered in New Orleans.  Tracking down the killers and all who had contact with them and/or the dead man starts the clock ticking.  They have little time, a large population, bureaucracies to hurdle, and criminals trying to hide the crime and themselves.  Richard Widmark, Jack Palance, Zero Mostel, Barbara Bel Geddes, Paul Douglas.  Directed by Elia Kazan.  Intense, believable, and gritty.  Beautiful camera and lighting work.  WOTO

“Broken English” (2007):  Starring Parker Posey, and written/directed by Zoe Cassavetes (John’s daughter), this is a contemporary tale of 30-something urban life and one woman’s awkward, neurotic attempts to find love… or something like it.  The scoring is moody, the photography unobtrusive, the dialog revealing, and Posey’s acting great as always.  Also acting: Gena Rowlands, Griffin Dunne, Drea de Matteo, and Peter Bogdanovich.  Not that it matters much, but there is one continuity mistake no one should have missed while editing this film.  I think the choice of title was weak, and the use of Marianne Faithful’s song “Broken English” entirely inappropriate for the content of the film.  None the less, the body of the film is a solid, insightful, emotional examination of insecurity, confused desires, and desperate acts.

“In Bad Taste” (    ):  Disclaimer: if you HATE films by John Waters (even “Hairspray”, which is the ONLY film of his I love) and you want to avoid documentaries, opinions and learning, skip this one.  If, on the other hand, you have a sneaking suspicion that he deserves another look, rent “In Bad Taste”.  Waters is far from stupid, and deeply consumed by his unique vision.  How can that NOT be interesting?  This is a much better look at his work than was “Divine Trash”.

“Chicago 10” (1968/2006): This is a documentary about the 1968 Democratic Convention and the Peace/Anti-war protests planned for demonstration in Chicago.  The result was a heavily reactive, militaristic, violent series of clashes between civilians, soldiers, and police.  Each day became more intense and confrontational, while the protest leaders were scooped up and prosecuted for … well, whatever the mayor, judge, and system could concoct on the spot.  No one was perfectly right, and stupidity was shared by many, but those in power made the largest mistakes and fueled an already unstoppable public fire.  Using original film and audio footage, and the courtroom transcripts (with contemporary animation for the visuals, since filming the trials was not permitted), this is a look at the insanity of America in 1968.  Anyone who is nostalgic for or romanticizes those daze was not there.

“Chapter 27” (2007):  Jared Leto plays the crazy man who killed John Lennon.  This film covers the last three days of the murderer lingering around the “Dakota” hotel.  Leto is spine-tingling.  Frightening.  Absolutely nailed nuts.  Speaking of which, Lindsey Lohan does a fine job as the friendly-but-hesitant girl he meets.  This is a narrow, focused story that does not wander from its one goal.  Depict insanity.

“Spellbound” (again 2003):  Documentary.  Follow eight school kids from the local to top levels of competition in THE National Spelling Bee.  This is NO game, folks.  These kids are intense.  Yeh…and so are their parents, even if they try to hide it from the cameras.  You won’t like all the parents, oh no, and you will empathize with all the kids.  The film is nicely set up, with a little background of each kid, their homes, family, school, town… and once “we” are over those hurdles, it’s on to Washington, D.C..  High stress.  You’ll pop a vein in your head, right along with them.  It’s a wonderful documentary.  Totally engaging.  WOTO

“Brokeback Mountain” (again, 2006):  There was never any doubt I would like the photography, sound, scoring, and, most probably, the acting and casting.  As it turned out, I LOVED them.  After all, this is the same man who made “The Ice Storm” – a great film.  Then again, I was nervous that this could somehow be another “Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon”… and boy did I dislike that one.  “Brokeback” is as good as “Ice” in all the ways I expected.  What had me concerned was the story.  I kept asking myself if this was ENOUGH of a story… after all, the minority-on-the-outside/in-the-closet is a well-trodden subject.  Was it getting all its attention merely due to the “cowboy” context, and would this film be of ANY interest if set in Miami, San Francisco, or New York City, and the male characters were urbanites?  What Ang Lee did was walk a very fine line, and present the specifics more as environment than subject.  “Brokeback Mountain” was more about love, obsession, truth, responsibilities, honor, honesty, and a huge amount of sadness… the Big Stuff.  Although a few, tiny errors exist in the film I’ve already forgotten what they were.  This is very high level film making.  I will see it again and again.  IMDB WOTO

“Edward Scissorhands” (again, 1990):  Simply one of my favorite FABLES of all time.  It has humor, drama, delicate emotions, great and fun design, and morals.  This is Tim Burton at his best.  In this film there is not one thing I would want to change.  That’s that.  WOTO

“12 Monkeys” (again, 1995):  Terry Gilliam is one of my favorite creative film makers.  He always has a unique vision, evident in this story of the future, past, and present.  Although I prefer “Brazil” over “12 Monkeys” for a vision of the future, think of “12…” as “The Terminator” and “They Might Be Giants” meets “Brazil”.  Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt (in a great, crazy-man role!) star in a time-travel tale in which the destiny of the human race might be at stake… unless our hero (?) (Willis) is just plain nuts.  The deeper we go, the less certain EVERYONE – including you – becomes.  WOTO

“The Castle” (German, 1997): Written by Franz Kafka, directed by Michael Haneke.  I like Kafka’s work (“Metamorphosis”, etc.), and I’m beginning to admire the courage of Haneke’s film making choices (though I have ambivalent feelings about his “Funny Games”).  Kafka did not finish “The Castle”, yet Haneke made the film with its missing sections, no ending, and a heavy narrative.  The story is quickly established as one man’s journey into a bleak, cold, paranoid, absurd world of inefficient bureaucracy and pettiness.  The trudging pace, rhythm, colors, sounds, sets, costuming, make up, acting… every component… is tightly controlled to create the singular effect of numb discomfort (yet, in its absurdity, often funny).  And fear not: the “non-ending” is in no way frustrating, for the story has already made it abundantly clear conditions in this small, ramshackle village near an unseen castle will maintain status quo.  This is the kind of auteur film I admire for its clarity of purpose and higher Art goals.  

“O Brother Where Art Thou?” (again, 2000):  The Coen brothers interpret Homer’s “Odyssey” in this typically quirky, interesting, funny, dark, and did I say quirky ? film.  Starring George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, Holly Hunter, Charles Durning.  Three men escape a chain gang in the 1930’s Depression Era South.  Thus begins their journey of adventure, riches won and lost, Sirens, Prophets, danger, temptation, and Destiny.  High quality entertainment is what this is.  It even makes you think you might read Homer’s original Greek epic… but I doubt it’s as entertaining.  Oh, and there’s great music too.  WOTO

“I Wake Up Screaming” (1941):  If you like Film Noir, this is a witty, serious crime drama.  At times, it was difficult to decide what they were trying to DO with the film.  Its score, from the late 30’s, was made of bits and pieces of popular music used repeatedly like cut pieces of fabric in a quilt.  The script would slip into witty (and even funny) moments although nothing of the moment asked for it.  Betty Grable, Victor Mature, and Carol Landis starred along lots of character actors some of you will recognize. “I Wake up Screaming” keeps you guessing, did eventually offer up a solution, but kept its oddball character.  The GREAT thing about this film was the photography – highly intelligent compositions with some of the best Noir lighting and angles of all time.  I was in a near-constant state of admiration for the “look” of this film.  WOTO IMDB

“A Mighty Wind” (again, 2003):  IF you loved “This is Spinal Tap”, “Waiting for Guffman”, and/or “Best in Show” (I especially love “Guffman”), you’ll also love this one about “the” reunion of the “best” of the (worst of the self-deluded, cliché) folk groups of the early 1960’s.  (They are based on the “New Christy Minstrels”, the “Kingston Trio”, and “Ian & Sylvia”.)  As usual, Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy assembled THE finest group of THE driest comedians of ALL time, and allowed them to improvise their characters.  Each actor had to LEARN to play an instrument for their role, and were given “perimeters” for their character… and were then set loose to create most of the dialog right on the spot.  They also wrote the “folk” music you’ll see and hear.  Of course it’s perfectly terrible, which means it’s ACCURATE to the period.  Self-delusion is always Guest’s theme.  All of his characters and groups, no matter what the setting in his films, truly believe they are talented, know what they’re doing and saying yet see no irony or contradictions, and press on in the faith that others see them as they see themselves.  It’s a lovely, sad, hilarious, pathetic, mind-boggling, brilliant experience, as usual.  We see this film at least once a year.  WOTO  IMDB

“Little Shop of Horrors” (again, 1986): This is almost a musical.  I can’t call it an official musical or I’d have to take back my declaration that I DETEST ALL MUSICALS, but, it is a wonderful, funny, “Musically Inclined” comedy horror film.  Do NOT confuse this with the AWFUL earlier version (1960, Roger Corman).  They have nothing in common, thankgod.  The later version is funny, witty, plays nicely off the idea it last came from the stage, has silly, original music, much better casting for the roles, great sets, and just enough “edge” to avoid that unfortunate “shtick” so common in the 50’s.  Rick Moranis, a superb Ellen Greene, an insane Steve Martin, Vincent Gardenia, James Belushi, Christopher Guest, a whacked-out John Candy, and a really creepy Bill Murray star.  Watch the supporting cast.  You’ll see people who would later come forward.  WOTO

“Crossfire” (again, 1947):  Solid film noire, with Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Robert Young, and other hard-as-nails types, including the tough broads with which they killed nights (including Gloria Grahame).  This is a murder mystery, wonderfully lit and photographed, shot almost entirely at night and full of attitude but never overplayed.  The story focuses on men who have lost their way.  The walking wounded.  They are back from the War with nothing to do and no way to burn off their anger, fear, guilt, and confusion over what they experienced.  “Crossfire” is also an early entry into the issues of post-war racism, and only goes preachy for about a minute.  Dialog is minimal and masculine.  This is a gorgeous, tight, understated, dark film.  WOTO

“Shakespeare in Love” (again, 1998):  Since my last viewing of this film, I’d forgotten how much I enjoy it.  The sets and costuming are wonderful – rich in detail and entirely de-glamorized.  (How can an era which produced such great music spawn such awful clothing?  Anyone who is someone looks like they were sprayed-down in horse hoof glue and rolled through a crafts store until head-to-feet were entirely encrusted in gaudy doo-dads and thing-a-mabobs!)  The dialog is snappy, witty, and loaded with “insider” jokes.  It demands you keep on your toes.  Although generally a comedy, there are moments of passion and sadness nearly equal to “Romeo and Juliet” itself.  The multiple parallels drawn throughout the story are fun to catch and assemble.  WOTO

“The Children of Theatre Street” (American / Russian, 1977):  This is a documentary about Soviet Russia, “their” children, and the famous Kirov School of Ballet.  Though the film starts slow with a oddly paced intro and narrative by Princess Grace (Grace Kelly), and the production quality is dismally low with poor video tape, we are allowed to watch over shoulders as the very select, calculating school board chooses 20 kids from thousands of applicants.  We then continue watching as they face eight years of grueling work-study asking more of their bodies, minds, and souls than they could have possibly imagined.  All the while, they seem to understand very few peers reach the glorious heights of fame as an international representative of Ballet AND Mother Russia, but are fairly assured their government WILL tell them where they MUST perform as in-country dancers for the hinterland populace of this immense, very controlled homeland.  “The Children of Theatre Street” is both inspiring and chilling as you slowly put two and two together: this is NOT the U.S.A., motives and behavior are NOT driven merely by personal desire, expectations are understood within a VERY different context, and the end results are NOT a simple matter of individual choice.  And, Ballet IS a gorgeous craft and interesting Art form. 

“Whale Rider” (again, 2003):  When a movie has NO stars you can assume it has great faith in the content and production of its ideas.  This is a beautiful film, based in a culture about which most of us know nothing.  The symbolism within the “old” culture struggles against the energy of the “new” culture here.  At the center is a young girl, unwanted by some merely because she is female.  However, you can feel the Destiny at work, and the surprises are small, as events unfold.  Photography and sound are beautiful, and the dialog painfully direct (which is in strong contrast to the mysticism of these people).  Most of the characters are stoic throughout the story – but when the time comes, the actor’s talents become more evident, as emotions are shown.  A wonder-full film.  WOTO     

“The Children are Watching Us” (1944):  by Vittorio De Sica, who is one of my favorite Italian directors (“The Bicycle Thief”, “Umberto D.”).  De Sica’s insights are especially good when it comes to the visions of adults and children within their relationships.  Everyone gets equal attention, nothing is sentimentalized, and seemingly small mistakes are explored until their profound meaning is revealed.  This is a heart-rending film about a young boy, his father, and his mother who has “issues”.  Made DURING WWII but not released until after the war, it is both a harsh look at the behavior of adults and the stage they set for their children’s future, and, the oppressive, watching-over-your-shoulder environment of Mussolini’s ruling era.  The photography is beautiful and feels fresh.  It is “New Realism” at its best while stopping short of becoming documentary-style, intellectual abstraction.  “The Children are Watching Us” is a STORY and has a MORAL…. and you may cry.

“The Life of David Gale” (again, 2002):  An activist in the anti-death penalty movement (Kevin Spacey), is accused and found guilty of murder.  He’s headed towards the executioner, has four days to convince a woman reporter (Kate Winslett) he’s innocent, and she, eventually believing him, begins to investigate.  Also starring Laura Linney, this is a VERY complex, VERY interesting, twisty-turny whodunit, that will stay ahead of you, and leave you nearly breathless in realizations.  It’s great dramatic fun as you’re slapped over and over with new bits of information.  WOTO

“Trans Siberian” (2007):  Starring Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, and Ben Kingsley, nearly all of this film is set on a train crossing where else ? but contemporary Siberia – huge, bleak, cold Siberia.  This is a high level suspense drama with plenty of doubts about the identity of people, their motivations, what they know, and why they know it.  The story builds in tension and holds you tight – racing along the frozen tracks in this middle-of-nowhere drama.  WOTO

“Snow White: A Tale of Terror” (2002):  Yesterday, I found a film for which I’d been casually searching (used): “Snow White: A Tale of Terror”.  It stars Sigourney Weaver and Sam Neil and young actors whose names I cannot remember.  You’d be hard-pressed to recognize it as the “same” story laid out by Disney.  This one is based on the Grimm’s story… and those brothers didn’t play around.  Their story is much more interesting and very, very dark.  The making of this film is rich in detail, wonderfully creative, and full of scenes so memorable I, for one, could not let it go un-owned.   The makeup, costume, and set designers (artists) had a blast while laboring on this project.  The photography, scoring, and sound are perfect for the story. 

Sure, I had my very first animated crush on Disney’s Snow White girlie-girl.  Really.  I longed… to touch… her flat, non-existent surfaces… her pale Pantone white smooth surfaces… but eventually I grew up… and my crush on a Flat Snow was replaced by my falling for Real Snow in this movie.

She’s feisty, moody, troublesome, hard headed, has breasteses, and isn’t a sucker for the first pretty-boy who gallops up in silk pantaloons.  The Witch of a Step Mother has a history which explains her slow downfall into Evil.  And Dwarfs?  You don’t know no stinkin’ Dwarfs!  Take your Sleepy and Sneezey and round-file ‘em!  WOTO

“Sense and Sensibility” (again, 1995):  It takes a special mood for me to watch what [for the sake of brevity I’ll call] “chick flicks”.  It takes an incredibly special mood for me to watch “period films” of the constipated British upper class.  However, the mood does come along, and when it does this film is a high quality example.  Centered on the acting of Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson, this Jane Austen story looks at the cultural restrictions put upon women of that time and place.  Everyone followed an incredibly tight set of rules even when it threatened destitution or death.  It is a story worthy of pondering by any member of any culture.  Expect superb photography and solid supporting role actors as well.  WOTO

“Jeremiah Johnson” (again, 1972):  I’m not big fan of Robert Redford – rather, the roles he’s taken over the years – but this is a definite exception.  He’s in his element as a man who returned from the Civil War, found he could no longer tolerate “society”, and, though absolutely unprepared for the future path he has chosen, heads into the Rocky Mountains to live without further “civilized” human contact.  Presented as a “legend”, we are told, shown, and sung his story.  It is as funny as it is horrifying, sad as it is happy, violent as it is peaceful.  This is a realistic (there are very few 1972 compromises except for the treatment of Reford’s hair and beard, and the implied subtext of that era – men returning from the Viet Nam war), gritty, insightful depiction of those who don’t live “off” the land, but WITH the land – which IS, after all, The Boss.  I have appreciated this film for 40 years, and do not expect my viewpoint to change except for further appreciation.  WOTO

“Rock n Roll Invaders – The AM Radio DJs” (1998):  This documentary takes a long, anecdotally-based look at AM radio, rhythm and blues, “sepia” stations, rock and roll, racism, pop music theater shows, and the DJs who helped use the air and their influence to break barriers… while some fell into the “Payola” scandals of the mid-1950’s.  Production quality is varied and often low, but for those interested, this is a must-see insider experience.  

“The Battle of the Sexes” (the KINO restored version, again, 1923):  By D.W. Griffith?  Really?  The man who brought you those huge, sweeping dramas?  A comedy?  That’s right!  On the other hand, this is also a drama.  Caveat: You must forgive some of the nearly 100 year old acting style.  It comes from the stage, and many actors had not made the shift to the camera with its close-ups and other concepts entirely foreign to Broadway.  As a film, this is probably the most beautifully photographed silent film I’ve ever seen (by Karl Struss and Billy Bitzer), and quite funny… for awhile… and then it gets serious.  I must say, much of the physical comedy and drama is of the highest quality for its time, and some of the actors – especially the girl who plays the “daughter” – really uses her face with the insight she’s playing to a lens not a group of people off in the distance.  This is a morality tale.  It was made BEFORE the Great Stock Market Crash, BEFORE the first skyscraper – the Chrysler Building, when Jazz was early and wild, liquor was a no-no, sexual behavior and gender roles were being questioned… this was an exuberant and trying time.  Think of it as the 1960’s.  “The Battle of the Sexes” was expertly made, most of the actors were top notch for their time, the new music written for it (by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra) was good (see the KINO restored version of this film), and, like I said, the photography is fantastic.

“Gabriel over the White House” (1933):  I suppose it would help to be interested in both politics and history to make the most of this strange, dark, crazy pessimistic-cum-crazy optimistic drama created during the Great Depression about the Great Depression:  A typical sleaze of a politician wins the Presidency of the U.S..  It’s an ugly scene created in some imaginative ways.  (Watch for “Little Dickie” of “Our Gang” as his nephew.)  Then our self-involved President gets himself in a car crash (at 95 mph on Washington D.C. roads …  I see nothing much has changed!).  When he exits a coma, we have a New Man ready to create a New Deal.  Yes, the rest of the story is one funded and guided by William Randolph Hearst as a primer for what he’d like to see our upcoming REAL President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, do.  We are shown visits by Gabriel the Angel through the use of lighting changes and slight breezes.  Gabriel apparently leads our President to cut through the bureaucratic crap, adopt a “Dictator” stance, shift our policies to Socialism, and our tactics to Fascism.  Problems with gangsters?  Give them one warning to leave the country.  If they don’t go, round ‘em up, run ‘em through a military court, pronounce ‘em guilty, and shoot ‘em…  dead.  This film is REALLY interesting for many reasons, not the least of which is it was made in 1932 and held back until ’33 when F.D.R. took over, which was the same year that Hitler took over Germany.  Socialism, Fascism, AND Communism were being discussed in THIS country as possible viable alternatives to the current mess.  I liked much of the photography, the sets (oh my god, the Cedric Gibbon’s designed mobster’s high style Art Deco apartment!)… even the slightly stiff dialog and deliveries.  At other times, the compromises deserved a quick laugh (model planes dive bombing model ships, firing squads aiming their rifles about three feet from the blindfolded criminals, creating 95 mph in cars through the use of speeded-up film, etc.).  None the less, I found “Gabriel Over the White House” creepy, interesting, entertaining, funny, ugly, naïve, very smart, and slightly surreal.  Think 1930’s Frank Capra on L.S.D..  WOTO

“MICMACS” (twice this year, French, 2009):  This interesting and often funny film is by the same director who did “Amelie” and “City of Lost Children”, Jean-Pierre Jeumet.  The man has a vision, that’s for sure.  Full of absolutely unique sets, costuming, scenarios, and character stories, “MICMACS” could be said to have its roots in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” mixed with “Mission Impossible” mixed with “Mystery Men” and an appreciation for Tim Burton and steam punk… BUT it is unmistakably Jeumet.  This is a comedic suspense crime drama running on revenge and overflowing with fantastically grimy detail… but always humorous.  Wierd.  WOTO

“Freaks” (1932): Created by Tod Browning – a major silent film director in the 1920’s – this is a morality play about mistreated circus sideshow freaks who, as a group, defend themselves against the attitudes and behaviors of “normal” humans. (Browning himself had been a sideshow contortionist.) As a director, he was well-known for taking on / creating bizarre subjects (“The Unholy Three” (1925), etc.). Yet, “Freaks” went too far for the sensibilities of the public and the new set of rules being wielded by censors in an increasingly hesitant Great Depression environment. (Even Betty Boop was censored!) Sadly, this film marks the beginning of the end of Browning’s career. As usual, contemporary negative reactions were a knee-jerk visual response to a story that had much more than shock value. It takes a stand, demanding all people be given equal respect… but the Knee-jerks won. The film was outright banned or often edited down as much as thirty minutes, and never garnered the attention other socially-conscious films of the time received. Those who enthusiastically applied to be in the film were in fact circus sideshow “freaks” with true “deformities”, and some of them were also professional actors who showed up in later films such as “Tarzan” and “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), all the way to 1985’s “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”. In somewhat the same manner as Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (its haphazard distribution and editing caused many versions, most being lost and requiring nearly a century of detective work and laborious restoration to get a solid example reassembled for fresh eyes and minds), the film “Freaks” suffered the same treatment and will require similar attention. Even in my limited experience, I have seen two versions of apparently four or five resulting from forced editing by censors. None the less, this 2004 Warner Brothers / Turner Entertainment version is a good one, with added special features explaining many issues you will want discussed. WOTO”

“The Descendants” (2011):  This is one of the top ten most emotionally complex films of all time.  Have a clear head and a full heart when viewing.  Starring George Clooney – again proving he may be the most versatile actor today – we meet his wife, his kids, his relatives, his friends, his acquaintances, and more.  Every character is multi-dimensional, and not as simple as first presented.  Although described as a “tragic-comedy”, I’d say drop the “comedy” and expect this to take you to many places asking “How would I handle this??!”  It is a very rich experience. 

“Raising Arizona” (again, 1987):  Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, and Frances McDormand star.  The Coen brothers write and direct.  This is a weird, funny story about a VERY unlikely couple who, when finding themselves “barren”, kidnap a baby for themselves.  Somehow this tale of criminals-who-kidnap has humor and heart.  Every character is a mess of contradictions and quirky details.  The entire experience is over the top, unbelievable, and surreal.  A unique film.  The Coen brothers would go on to make much better films – deeper, more sophisticated works – but their love of oddball humans and environments show up right at the beginning.  WOTO

“Wendy and Lucy” (2008):  Michelle Williams carries this entire independent film on her shoulders, and does a fine job.  Created by Kelly Reichhardt, this is a patient, somewhat Existential road story of one young woman (with her dog) who faces numerous challenges while trying to reach Alaska.  This is not an action film and barely a drama.  Its tone is very low-key – a slice of wayward homeless life that focuses on muddled determination.  Production values are low budget, but the entire project is so pure and honest, without the least bit of pretentiousness, I admire it greatly.  It is fresh and honest.  Produced by Todd Haynes.   WOTO

“The Iron Lady” (2011):  There are a couple reasons to see this film: 1) you’ll learn a little more about British politics and/or the Falkland Island war, and 2) you’ll be blown away by the acting.  Meryl Streep is amazing, as are many of the other actors.  Also effective is the photography, the editing back and forth through time and realities, etc..  Mainly, it’s the acting.  Let’s face a fact here – the lives of politicians seldom make for more than mere “timely” subjects, so I don’t expect this film to go marching off into the sunset EXCEPT as a superb showcase for what great acting can reach. 

“Oranges and Sunshine” (British/Australian, 2011):  Starring Emily Watson, this is a dramatization of the true story of Margaret Humphreys who, only a few years ago (and still involved), began uncovering a deep, dark “ignored” secret in England and Australia regarding missing children.  Except for the fact it’s true, you’d have a hard time believing this could have happened at all.  Watson is a favorite actress of mine, the supporting roles are quite good, and this “small” film is big in its story and production.  This film is totally worth your time and realization.   

“Copland” (again,    ):  Starring Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Ray, Liotta, Robert DeNiro, Cathy Moriarity, Janeane Garafalo, Michael Rapaport, Annabella Sciorra.  This is a good story of cop corruption and redemption.  A small community on the “other side” of the G.W. Bridge out of New York is populated by nearly all NYPD… a corrupt self-defense concept that turns in on itself.  Their boot-lick sheriff (Stallone) is the perfect Do-nothing, Look-the-Other-Way lap dog.  Things get out of control – something that can’t be allowed.  This is the ONLY film I can recall where I liked both the casting and the acting of Stallone.  The other actors … they’re always good at what they do.  This is a strong story with good photography, effective scoring, you name it.  It’s no quite up there with “Serpico”, but it’s a good one.  WOTO IMDB

 “The Nazi Officer’s Wife” (2003):  Documentary.  Interviewed is an Austrian woman, Edith Hahn, who, as a young woman in Nazi occupied territory, finds herself needing to survive by taking on a new identity.  What she did, and how with whom as help, is her amazing story. 

“Certified Copy” (French, Italian, English, 2010):  This is a unique vision created by director Abbas Kiarostami, starring the amazing Juliette Binoche.  I think this may be the role of her life.  It’s a somewhat mysterious story that moves in and out of clarity as a man and woman wander rural Italy for an afternoon trying to communicate their beliefs about Art, originality, and relationships.  The debates are essentially intellectual (and interesting enough) but it is the emotions and interactions of these two that give it such drama, pathos, awkwardness, tenderness, and humor.  Revel in it. 

“Into the Abyss” (2011):  This is a documentary by Werner Herzog about a particular murder case, the killers, their families, and their other relationships.  Herzog has his unique vision – and in this case an added agenda – but he none the less creates a compelling, disturbing film populated by lots of people who are allowed to talk long enough to reveal their very troubled points of view.  You thank god none of them live on your street, or if they do, you’ll never wave or open your door to them… not if you’re smart.

”The Lion in Winter” (1968):  Adapted from the original stage play, this is a brilliant dialog film in the demanding tradition of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?”, but set in the 12th century with Henry II and his conniving family members.  It’s a room full of snakes in that castle.  Every line, thought, and action is further fodder for retort and revenge.  It’s written very much in the attitude of Shakespeare but without the rhyme.  “The Lion in Winter” is smart, witty, dark, funny, and well acted by all.  Peter O’Toole, Katherine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, Nigel Terry, and others star in an incredibly literate, intense story.  The sets are beautifully gritty, but the lighting is compromised.  Spotlights alter fire and candlelight logic at every turn.  I found this the only flaw but one that nagged me throughout.  1968 was an epic year for films.  WOTO IMDB

“Murderball” (doc., 2005):  This is a documentary about paraplegics who formed a wheelchair version of Rugby, have gone international, and complete in a section of the Olympics.  It is sad, rough, violent, funny, and encouraging.  They have something to say, and you’d better listen… or they’ll kick your ass.  WOTO

“The Road” (again, 2009):  Something terrible happens on Earth, and for those who survived the collapse of culture happens fast.  A father and his son are soon living “on the road” as they try to reach the southern coast, hoping for a more temperate climate and the slim possibility of edible animal and plant life… all the while dodging roving bands of post-apocalyptic thieves and cannibals.  For as outworn as this scenario could be, it is incredibly well-written, offers insight, great acting, and flawless sets, costuming, and make up helping to establish the believable tattered remains of a world gone for a decade.  Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, and a young talent – Kody Smit-McPhee, star.  Adapted from the book by Cormac McArthy.  It is not as Existential as you might expect.  Painfully realistic morals are in place, decisions are being made, and emotions are present to feel.  This is perhaps a flawless film experience, comfortable or not.  WOTO 

“Agnes and his Brothers” (German, 2004):  You read that right.  Created by Oskar Roehler, this is the story of a wounded family.  If you read the viewer “ratings” on it, you’ll see low scores.  Since it is an interesting, well-acted, nicely photographed, appropriately scored film… I can only assume the negative responses are because it is SAD and TRAGIC.  Well look, people, don’t kill the messenger!  Watch Benny Hill episodes instead!!  “Agnes and…” is deeply psychological and emotional, with people wearing their wounds on their sleeves.  Think Ingmar Bergman but with action.  Think Todd Haynes but without the steroids.  Starring Martin Weiss, Moritz Bleibtrau, and Herbert Knaup. 

“Clockwork Orange” (again, 1971):  Though not as focused at “Dr. Strangelove” (and perhaps as equally vague in focus as “2001: A Space Odyssey”), “Clockwork Orange” is full of great indictments of where we were headed if not careful… and careful we weren’t.  This 41 year old film, depicting the near-future (ours), seems very contemporary and, dare I say, almost “commonplace” now, instead of what was then definitely on the edge of unbelievable and shocking in terms of violence, the media, governmental intrusion, political maneuvering, and collapsing urban environment.  Recreational rape?  Random ransacking?  Prisoners as guinea pigs?  The only large, visible aspect of this film that has dated itself is the costuming and décor, but let me tell you – it’s a WONDERFUL sampler of the late-Mod, Post-Moon-Landing Hi-Fashion expressions of a scientific and cultural future opposite of the Hippie/commune prediction.  My doubts about “Clockwork”: it could’ve been pared down a little and not lost meaning, and, Kubrick could have taken on fewer story components.  THAT said, this one is still nearly as brilliant as “Strangelove”, and equally interesting as “2001”.  WOTO IMDB

“Welcome to the Dollhouse” (again, 1996):  It is THE DEFINITIVE “Junior High is Hell” film.  Follow one typical kid through just a few daze of Junior High life.  It’s as amazing and funny as it is painful and dark.  Solondz’ production values are slightly less refined here, but that is of no concern.  This is a bleak, suburban story full of angst, pettiness, silliness, embarrassments, personality flaws, and real dangers.  Across the board, the cast is outstanding in their portrayal of typical, flawed, middle class life.  Are there always people in the herd who are singled out and pecked all their lives by the others?  Yes.  WOTO

“Life During Wartime” (2009):  Todd Solondz is an interesting filmmaker, and I expect I’ll always see whatever he creates, but this one – at least as a first-time view – came in under my expectations.  I prefer “Happiness” and “Storytelling”, with “Welcome to the Dollhouse” remaining my favorite.  “Life…” seemed a little too repetitive of “Happiness” (and yes, I understand he was in part retelling the same story but with different actors, etc., which I DID find intellectually interesting), yet let’s face it, the “shock value” of certain ideas can only go so far and then an artist might find themselves painted into a corner.  My thoughts are inconclusive on this film, and I feel like I need to see his next film for more perspective.  “Life…” had well-chosen actors who did a fine job as Solondz directed, but it’s clear the results are not of collaboration but a single vision, and it’s this single vision I want to continue watching.

“Faithless” (Swedish, 2000):  Written by Ingmar Bergman, directed by Liv Ullmann, and starring a VERY talented actress Lena Endre.  Okay, let’s get THIS out of the way right now:  If you like action, comedy, and English, this isn’t the film for you tonight.  This is classic Bergman – it starts with subtle depression, and spirals down from there.  This is nearly pure dialog presented on film.  Ullmann was not only Bergman’s main actress, and wife, but also protégé.  And, the film appears to be made on the bleak island where Ingmar spent his last years in isolation, in what might be his home.  Why pay for sets when you have all you need right there at home?  “Faithless” is about having less and less faith which becomes less and less helpful.  This is 2 hours and 22 minutes of scarred psyches.  It will wear you down… but in a good, artistic way.  Endre’s acting is close to amazing, and most of it is done with her face.  Watching this film is like reading a Kafka book – you know not to hope for a Disney ending.  Still, it’s powerful, emotionally complex, and tests your dosage of Prozac.  WOTO

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (2012) was good… COMPLEX, and good.  It is SO good and SO complex, my wife and I watched it two nights in a row!  (You have no idea how RARE it is for her to request such a thing!)  The story is set mainly in eastern Europe, 1973.  The Cold War has been fought for more than twenty years.  007 is nowhere to be found.  No Aston Martins with ejector-seats.

The film has two main goals: to present the lives of Cold Warrior spying as a lonely, deadly game of paranoid Chess, and, to make certain every visual and audio component of this film creates the bleak, cold, dank, confusing, lonely, fearful feeling.  Goals met.  It is a very disciplined film.  No flights of artful fancy where designers show chops simply to attract their next gig. 

“One Hour Photo”, and “The Ice Storm” are other films that come immediately to mind for their “Problem set / Solution found” approach.  “The Blair Witch Project” and “Vagabond” are also examples. 

“Hart’s War” (again, 2002):  This is a film about perceptions and honor, written as a WWII/P.O.W. story set in Germany during the winter of 1944-45.  You’ll be struck first by the great photography and scoring, then by the memorable scenes taking place within them. Much of it takes place in P.O.W. huts and a makeshift “court room”.  Although headed by talented actors, most are well-submerged in their characters.  “Hart’s War” is a complex work, with a cautiously revealed plot entirely necessary to make its points.  The truth MUST arrive slowly.  This is a serious and admirable film at every level which discusses humankind’s most cherished, defended beliefs.  WOTO  IMDB

“The Madness of King George” (again, 1994):  This is an Academy Award winning recreation of a fascinating, near-total disaster in the life of King George (and the country of England).  Suddenly struck with an unexplainable mental collapse, all the hangers-on begin jockeying for new positions while trying to eliminate the ailing King.  Starring the amazing Nigel Hawthorne, this is one of the finest character studies of all time.  I’d put it up there with “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Taxi Driver”.  Also starring Helen Mirren, Ian Holm, and other fancy-pants characters you will love to hate.  It is also fair to expect solid photography, scoring, etc.  WOTO

 Mystic River” (again, 2003):  Talent all around.  Directed, produced, and scored (!) by Clint Eastwood, with many of the actors I admire most:  Sean Penn, Laura Linney, Marcia Gay Harden, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburn, & Tim Robbins.  Add a strong suspense/crime story (with a few plot line “holes” that were probably explained in the original novel) composed from the history and psyches of three childhood friends, use great photography, supportive music… and you have one serious, high quality drama.  It is not a pretty sight, and there are no winners or heroes to be found, but it rings of truth – lives that repeatedly circle around shared and private histories, that never get clarified, that never utter what needs to be spoken.  The meanings and characters of this story are larger than the little lives depicted.  This is the stuff of epics.  Eastwood created a film equal to his superb film “Unforgiven”, with its use of gritty realism set in a specific time, place, and people, which rises above them to present our largest concerns as humans.  WOTO IMDB

Diabolique” (again, 1996):  I’m again watching the newer, American version of ‘Diabolique’.  It’s a decent suspense drama… FUN twists and turns that keep you wondering and jumping out of your seat.  But, there’s only one reason I – a VERY biased person in this case – watch this film repeatedly: plain jane Sharon Stone is paired with the most beautiful woman on the planet – the one, the only, the Oh My God     Isabelle Adjani.  I first saw her in Werner Herzog’s version of ‘Nosferatu’.  Not only was that film a revelation of story telling that finally explained to me the sense of doom, sadness, and sexuality of the Vampire legends (none of that Bela Lugosi / Hollywood junk), added to my admiration of Herzog as a film maker, and solidified my interest in the acting of Natassia’s crazy father – Klaus Kinski – but introduced me to, well, like I said:  Oh My God, Issy.  How can one human be so gorgeous?  I suppose it had to happen once, with all of the eventual genetic possibilities here on Earth.  And to think I was alive when it happened…  WOTO        

“Interview with a Vampire” (again, 1994):  The reviews back then were only luke warm… but I think it’s better than that.  My initial hesitation was in casting all the male vampires with Hollywood pretty boys (Cruise, Banderas, Pitt, Slater) – yet this somehow added an ever sadder note – maybe because these vampires had NO trouble attracting and killing – which, for them, made consuming easy but added to the boredom and guilt of their eternal Hell.  This is also the film that caused me to follow the career of Kirsten Dunst.  Fabulous.  WOTO

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2010):  Another of Werner Herzog’s amazing documentaries.  This is about a deep cave covered over by an avalanche approximately 20,000 years ago and hidden from all humans until its discovery in 1992.  Here was found the world’s oldest (35,000+ years) cave paintings, skeletons, tracks, and scratches of long extinct animals, and human hand prints made during this prehistoric era.  Also seen are pristine stalagmites, pieces of charcoal, etc..  Herzog has been the only film maker allowed in to document these wonders, which have been protected and strictly controlled by the French government ever since.  Add Herzog’s unique combination of matter-of-factness, mystical ponderings, and wry sense of humor, and you have another must-see film.

“Rescue Dawn” (2006):  Written and directed by one of my favorite directors, Werner Herzog, this film is about a man he admires very much, Dieter Dengler.  This is the second film he has done about Dieter, whose life is made of the horrifying and glorious moments reserved for the very few.  I suggest seeing Herzog’s documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” first, then “Rescue Dawn”.  Set in 1965 Laos, a group of soldiers (whose existence is not acknowledged because America claimed no war involvement outside of Viet Nam) are faced with life in a prison camp in the middle of the jungle.  This is about the men, the camp, and an escape attempt.  Every actor in this film put themselves through a lot to get this done, as you will see for yourselves.  Major kudos go to Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, and all the others.  The photography is great, the scoring – as always in Herzog films – interesting, the credibility (lack of CGI) is superb.  In this film every viewer will find a reason to emotionally “relate”.  WOTO

“3:10 to Yuma” (2007):  I’d heard this was good, and it was – as easy-view entertainment.  I loved the high quality detailing – within close up shots, sets, sound, etc..  The story is classic good vs bad, right overcoming wrong, and wrongs made right.  Christian Bale and Russell Crowe star.  It’s a “chase flick” at heart.  There are a few continuity and logic problems in it, but they’re easy enough to overlook.  Relax, enjoy, prepare for lots of violence and very few women.  WOTO

“Encounters at the End of the World” (2007):  Documentary by Werner Herzog.  You’d never mistake a Herzog document for anyone else’s.  There is always his signature unique use of music and imagery, his dark narratives and unusual probing questions, and the lingering sense he sees all catastrophes as exclusively the result of human behaviors.  Werner is German.  He is insightful, entertaining, occasionally almost funny, reverent and dedicated to his chosen subjects, not nearly as angry as he was in his youthful film making years, yet will always (?) retain his lack of faith in humans to be without selfish ulterior motives.  And frankly, it’s hard to argue with him.  THIS documentary is about his personal look at the Antarctic – the South Pole – and the researchers who have chosen to live the odd, isolated yet communal life in the harshest environment available.  He finds beautiful sights, unusual people, foreboding signs, and his style of “poetry” at every turn.

“Saving Private Ryan” (again, 1998):  Directed by Spielberg, starring Hanks, Sizemore, Ribisi, Burns, Danson and many more actors, this is one of the most visually brutal and detailed films of all time – necessarily so within the context of an increasingly PERSONAL WWII story.  The audience is dragged along for the fights, exhaustion, panic, gore, revenge, blind speed, frozen fear, confusion, and moments of simple clarity.  “Saving…” has much in common with “Black Hawk Down”, “We Were Soldiers”, “Platoon” and the monumental “Band of Brothers”.  We look back at and ponder World War II.  We compare it to wars since.  WWII is OUR gauge.  We KNOW this one had to be done despite its human costs.  THOSE soldiers are – and deserve to be – our heroes.  WOTO

“Quicksand” (again, 1950):  Starring Mickey Rooney, Peter Lorre, Barbara Bates, and the lovely girl-next-door Jeanne Cagney, this is a dandy drama about a decent enough fella who allows himself to slip into deeper and deeper trouble from double-dealings.  “Quicksand” is a very good title for this Noir, and all the actors are well-cast for their roles.  The pacing changes abruptly at the end, about which I debate its effectiveness, but this story is about the spiraling down, and it’s very good.  For those of you who like to watch for sets, costumes, and cars, this movie is full of them.  WOTO

“Dog Day Afternoon” (again, 1975):  Winner of numerous awards that year, and featuring top notch work by Al Pacino, Charles Durning, and others (plus great bit parts played by future stars like Carol Kane), this one does nothing but get better with each viewing.  Real life events are retold about 3 men who, with no real experience or plan, set out to rob a bank.  They could be the trio that defined the term “clusterfuck”.  This film, part period piece but essentially a commentary on the media, is brilliantly written, decently photographed, and effectively paced to feel fast yet painfully grueling.  If you love Pacino in “Serpico”, you’ll also love him in “Dog Day Afternoon”.  He was on a great “role”.  WOTO

“Bergman Island” (documentary, Swedish, 2006):  Caveat: To enjoy this film you must have seen some of Ingmar Bergman’s films and appreciate them, or become intellectually baffled by them and want more insight into the man himself.  This film has no other goal than to delve into the man.  Marie Nyrerod did a fine job of bringing him out into the open – a man who, in his last years (died 2009, age 89), was a recluse on a harsh, cold Scandinavian island.  You will come to see he drew heavily from his own life, and, due to his personality, brought into his sphere others who no doubt had varying degrees of regret.  His upbringing, his career, his films, his behavior, his beliefs, “his” island… became a very tight, understandable world of sadness, fear, and isolation.

 “The Prowler” (1951):  Written by Dalton Trumbo, directed by Joseph Losey, starring Van Hefflin and Evelyn Keyes.  This film has been beautifully restored – and DESERVES it.  Film Noir has become one of my favorite genres.  Although often lower budget, the lighting and photography are often better, the scripts rough and tough, and the characters more interesting and less predictable.  It’s an imperfect world, and Noir shows every flaw in gorgeous black and white.  “The Prowler” is about people choosing lust and greed as their guide for behavior.  They’re not special people – they mere have less self-restraint.  Their moral compasses are off.  There’s a fair chance they are doomed.  Realizations may never arrive… just like in Real Life.

“Lost in La Mancha” (2002):  This is a documentary about artist/director Terry Gilliam setting out to make his biggest budget European film of all time – “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”.  I’ll say up front I admire Gilliam’s creativity, sense of humor, and willingness to fight for his ideas.  That said, this documentary is – in ALL its irony – a testament to both Gilliam AND Quixote.  If there was ever a documentary about film making that film students should see, this is the one.  Had I seen it as a younger artist, it would have scared me to death, and, if I’d had enough sense to acknowledge my weaknesses, I would have VOWED then and there to NEVER: attempt a large film with investors, crew, and cast, using exterior scenes and natural light.  Its revelations would have immediately turned me to study those artists who worked alone, used their own money, and stayed indoors.  Were there such film makers?  Yes.  Are they famous?  Have YOU heard of them?  No.  I would have shared that destiny.

“One Eyed Jacks” (1961):  Directed by and starring Marlon Brando, this morality play set in the Old West may be a little drawn out but deals with lots of issues – both “timeless”, and contemporary to 1961.  Crime, revenge, murder, forgiveness, lying, cheating… not to mention racism, illegitimate pregnancy, and the “mingling” of the races… are all tackled in this story.  The photography is wonderful despite its distorted Technicolor skin tones, the locations are bleak and grand (Wow, the coast near Monterey, California!), the pace very (too?) patient, and the twists, turns, and turn-abouts plentiful.  Also starring are Slim Pickens and Carl Maulden, along with lots of people who Hollywood bosses were hoping they could form into stars – but failed.  WOTO

“Benny’s Video” (Austrian, 1992):  I’ve been slow to arrive at an exploration of Michael Haneke’s films, but no longer.  Having already seen “Fun Games” and “Cache”, “Benny’s Video” seals the deal.  I want to see ALL of his work… despite its often being violent and psychologically disturbing.  I liken him to a next generation, unemotional Werner Herzog in his subjects and outlook.  In Haneke’s world, people take actions but don’t explain them to you.  YOU are expected to sift through the images and words, assembling an explanation suitable to your beliefs and fears.  Don’t get me wrong.  Haneke is not a sensationalist.  He is not OUT to shock you for its own sake… but he will shock you.  Trust him to have a point (like Herzog), even when he won’t give it to you on a silver(screen) platter.  There are three main characters in “Benny’s Video” – Benny, a teenage boy, and his father and his mother.  All the issues are within these three – the alienation, disconnection, and rationalization.  See the special feature interview with Haneke AFTER the film.  His appearance and demeanor will not fit your preconceived image, I promise, but his intelligence will outdo your expectations.

“Beach Red” (again, 1967):  Produced, directed, and starring Cornel Wilde.  I saw this film back in the late 60’s and it blew my mind.  It was perhaps the most powerful film I had seen up to then.  I never saw it again – until now.  How would I react after forty five additional years of art training, viewing thousands of films, studying World War II, and that much more life experience?  Very well, thank you.  Unlike stumbling across your old Beatles wig or wide wale cord bell bottoms, this remains a rough, thoughtful war/anti-war statement.  I now see it was also the very solid inspiration for one of the best of the genre: “The Thin Red Line”.  We stay with two groups of experienced and inexperienced WWII soldiers – one American, one Japanese – on a small island in the Pacific.  They hunt each other.  Things don’t go well.  “The Thin Red Line” shares the single group idea, as it does the individuality of its characters, the thought-narrative of many of them, and the Existential and other philosophic debates given rise by the tension, fear, and sadness of these men.  “Beach Red” may have its “1967 flaws” portraying the 1940’s, and wear its position on its sleeve, but it is a no-nonsense, earnestly accurate depiction that no one can dismiss.  Although I recommend “The Thin Red Line” (1998) over “Beach Red”, I suggest seeing both.

“El Mar” (Spanish, 2004):  Set during and after the Spanish Civil War, think of this story as a dark, tubercular, gay, mirror-world “Stand by Me” with lots of self hatred and misdirected violence.  No, really… and, it makes for a unique viewing.  Early on, as I’m watching (it’s very well acted, and a beautifully photographed and scored film) I’m thinking “There’s an undercurrent here…” (which becomes overcurrent as it progresses).  Later, I watched the dvd previews for other films.  “El Mar” was released through a specialized company (“Picture This!”) with which I was unfamiliar.  Sadly, it appeared this film was alone in depth, complexity, and solid production values.  Alert: This is for adults only, and be prepared for intense violence.  WOTO

“Zelig” (again, 1983):  This is one of Woody Allen’s lower profile but equally high quality films.  It’s so full of interesting moments, witty lines, social criticisms, and psychological tongues-in-cheeks, you hardly want to laugh lest you miss something.  Allen and Mia Farrow star in this film made by the same Team as always.  (If it ain’t broke…) “Zelig” is a “documentary” about a troubled soul, Leonard Zelig, who, in the 1920’s, came to be known as the “Chameleon Man”.  Through the use of black and white film footage and period recording techniques (and no digital trickery in 1983), a complete world exists here.  Start to finish brilliance.  WOTO

“Behold a Pale Horse” (1964):  Starring Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, and Omar Sharif.  Set in and after the Spanish revolution of 1937-39, we are presented with a moody story of men struggling with issues of morality tied to the past, present, and future.  Each man “MUST” do something about his lack of resolution.  Included is a young boy who seems to be a spark.  This is not a war film.  This is a debate about what is right and wrong, when and why.  The camera work is shadowy and powerful.  The score, by Maurice Jarre, is often stripped to minimal in a very effect manner.  I never once questioned the sets or continuity.  These men were at peaks in their careers.  WOTO

“All the President’s Men” (again, 1976):  Focusing on the Watergate Scandal, and made soon after Nixon’s resignation due to his & his staff’s lying under oath, this film came out.  It was an exciting, tense, boiled-down depiction of what had become a huge mass of confusing facts with which the public had wrestled.  History aside, is this a good FILM?  Yes.  It’s well acted and well made.  It tells the story in a clear manner, and gives us the broader meanings.  Does is have enough intrinsic substance to interest someone who is uninformed and uninterested in this episode of history?  I doubt it, but I could care less about someone so ignorant and so lacking in curiosity.  This film reminds us Patriotism comes in MANY forms, not just one or two.  Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Warden, Hal Holbrook, Jason Robards star.  See small, early roles by Meredith Baxter(-Birney), and many others.   WOTO IMDB

“The Caine Mutiny” (1954):  Nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor (Humphrey Bogart), this is a tense drama about the collapsing psyche of a WWII ship commander and his increasingly fearful crew.  The story is halved – on the sea, and in the courtroom.  Also starring Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray, Jose Ferrer and a ton of character actors you will recognize from the period, this screenplay from the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Herman Wouk is top notch in almost every way.  I had my doubts about the purpose of a “love interest” mixed in with serious issues (ah, Hollywood), and the rough jumps from original documentary war footage to recreated war footage (which were very understandable for this time).  It was fascinating to again see Bogart in a paranoid Jekyl / Hyde role.  This one is totally worth two hours of your life.  WOTO

“Peggy Sue Got Married” (again, 1986):  One of the first things that strike you is this film is FULL of soon-be-stars.  Kathleen Turner and Nicholas Cage head it up, although they too were just beginning careers, but you’ll spot Joan Allen, Helen Hunt, Jim Carrey, and others that would soon have their own spotlights.  As for the story, I’ve always loved it.  Yes, it appears to be just another 50’s nostalgia flick
on the surface, and yes, the “back to the future” angle was used by many at that time, but THIS one has what the others don’t: SOUL.  This is an honest-to-god look at life, friendship, love, destiny, insights, regrets, choices, tradeoffs, and balances.  “Peggy Sue Got Married” is truly bittersweet, often funny, a great one at which to stare (cars, decor, the gorgeous young Turner), but what it mainly offers – and does it quite well – is the chance for you to put yourself in the same place, and travel along – to your own history – look again at your roots, and LOVE them for what they were.  That is not nostalgia.  That is maturity, and forgiveness.  Amen.  WOTO

“Mutiny on the Bounty” (again, 1935):  Starring Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, and a cast of talented men, this is the true story of a four year voyage headed by one of the worst captains of all time – Captain Bligh.  Cruel, petty, paranoid, vindictive, and delusional, Bligh – brilliantly brought back to life by Laughton – has come to epitomize the worst in men, and for whom Mister Christian (Gable) and the crew runs out of patience and time.  This film still packs a punch (Best Picture for 1935), and should be seen by anyone who loves historical recreations, action, drama, and psychological studies.  WOTO

“A Bug’s Life” (again, 1998):  I think I enjoyed this one nearly as much as the “Toy Story” series.  It is beautiful, funny, witty, and enjoyable.  Pixar remains the leader in compu-animation… NOT just due to visual quality (my GOD the textures, reflections, shadows, colors of light, subtle movements, and detailing!!), but for the story line, sound tracks, etc.  Alright, the script IS based on “The Seven Samurai”, but it’s a good story!  WOTO

“High Sierra” (1941):  This is the one that made Bogart a star.  He, Ida Lupino, Joan Leslie, Alan Curtis, Arthur Kennedy, Henry Hull, and Henry Travers fill out a screen play written by W. R. Burnett and John Huston, and directed by Raoul Walsh.  This is a BEAUTIFULLY photographed Noir-ish crime drama using now-classic roles but with unique characteristics.  It is also a film of its time.  The plot is tight, moves at a stimulating pace, zigs and zags with mini-scenarios, yet never loses sight of its main goal.   WOTO

“Bitter Victory” (1958):  Although in some ways a standard WWII war film, in the hands of director Nicholas Ray, “Bitter Victory” has more unique moments than most films of any genre, especially up through the 1950’s.  This is a deeper, darker look at the human psyche when faced with difficult decisions.  No one is entirely clean, no one is completely dirty… and no one has the right to judge another but we do it all the time.  Starring Richard Burton, Curd Jurgens, and Ruth Roman.

“Bigger Than Life” (1956):  James Mason plays a decent man whose body begins causing him great pain, and he needs to find a solution.  In the process, things go wrong.  Real wrong.  You will be glued to this story.  Barbara Rush co-stars as his wife.  Walter Matheau plays his supportive co-worker and friend.  I am a big fan of director Nicholas Ray, the director.  Look him up sometime.  He probably did a film you love and you didn’t even know it.  I generally think of his films as rough, insightful, tense, and full of emotions – including caring.  I also think of him as a “b/w” guy… but “Bigger Than Life” is in color.  I hate that color film became the default film by the 1950’s.  Here, Ray uses color film as only an artist who deeply understands black & white could.  The colors are in a limited palette, often placed against neutral tones, and usually localized to focus attention and express an emotion.  Ray was smart.  The look of this film is BEAUTIFUL and ominous at the same time.  The scoring – from the opening scene on – expresses a schizophrenic state soon to arrive.  If there was EVER a color film that exemplifies Film Noir, it’s this one.

“Basquiat” (again, 1996):  If anything, I’m even MORE impressed with the film my fourth time around.  Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat, and a huge cast of top actors (David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Parker Posey, Claire Forlani, Courtney Love…), set the tone for this recreation of the early 80’s New York art scene – complete with all the emptiness, shallowness, politics, and greed necessary to build and destroy careers, a.k.a. “artists”, a.k.a. “people”…and Julian Schnabel, who created this film, should know.  It’s a sad film.  The outcome is telegraphed in whispers-to-sledge hammers as the young artists’ career falls into the spotlight, warms him, encourages him to flames, and burns him to cinders.  It was another marriage made in Hell… PERFECT lore to keep the art market glowing.  WOTO

“The World According to Garp” (again, 1982):  Robin Williams, Glenn Close (in her debut role), John Lithgow, Swoozie Kurtz, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Amanda Plummer, Mary Beth Hurt star in the film adaptation of John Irving’s novel.  When I saw this film first run in the theater, the story left me a little confused, but I knew I’d seen something unique.  Over the years I’ve repeatedly seen it and I have no further doubt about the story line or its point: You have lots of choices in life, and lots of reactions available to you as circumstances come flying at you.  HOW you deal with them is what is ALWAYS under your control.  This is a quirky, funny, sad, occasionally violent, out-of-left-field film still quite worthy of your viewing.  WOTO IMDB

“San Francisco” (1936):  This is a BIG movie.  MGM, naturally.  “San Francisco” set the bar for huge, sweeping, Hollywood dramas.  (“Gone with the Wind” would take the high bar challenge three years later… but unfortunately, THAT movie was just so… very… Southern… and I’m not a fan.)  Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, and Jeanette MacDonald star as archetypes of America as it stumbles, spits, and booms into the 20th century.  Some might call it a “musical”, but I assure you that if it was I wouldn’t have seen it through.  The music is set within the context of stage presentations which are used to represent various lifestyles existing at the same time in that one town (and, of course, across most of America).  Mixed with this “period” film of 1905-1906 is the VERY mid-1930’s Great Depression “can-and-will-do” attitude of the New Deal, nationalism, isolationism, and internal cooperation.  Seldom do I get caught up in the “sweep” of grand films, but this one – having patiently built its characters and using the latest and best mega-special effects for the inevitable terror – often had me glued to it and feeling some of the intended emotions.  All three lead actors were wonderful.  Jeanette MacDonald is glorious.  WOTO

“On Dangerous Ground” (1952):  If you love Film Noir like I do, you’ll love this one.  The first part is loaded with crumbling wet nights in the big city, cops and criminals running amok, and the whole goddamm mess tiring.  Starring Ida Lupino as a blind innocent, and Robert Ryan as the battered, emotionally cold, ready-to-snap burned-out cop, this story starts in the city, goes to the country, and makes a couple U-turns after that.  The photography and scoring are wonderful and often harshly realistic.  There’s a no-nonsense Nihilism stinking on every surface.  When Ryan has gone too far, he’s sent on another investigation out of town.  This is when things get complicated for him…

“Born Yesterday” (again, 1951):  Think “My Fair Lady” mixed with “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “All the King’s Men”, with stars Judy Holliday, William Holden, and Broderick Crawford.  Holliday won Best Actress for her role – and for good reason.  Though much of this film is a sharp comedy, there is also a dark streak running through it by way of Crawford’s “crude mug” role, and the corruption of government officials theme.  You can see this story has its roots on the stage, but still takes advantage of movie possibilities.  WOTO

“Pride and Prejudice” (2006):  Starring Keira Knightley, Donald Sutherland, Judi Dench, Brenda Blethyn, Jena Malone, and others.  Definitely a “chick flick” on one level – full of girlie concerns and lots of giggles and bouncing, but this is also a painfully Existential look at girls/women trying to stay “protected” in the care and service of parents, then a husband.  “Period” films are interesting from a potential historical recreation challenge point of view, and as a way to compare the changes and continuities of one culture and era to another – as compared to ours – as we NOW view both.  I admit I have not read the book, but if this latest film version is true to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, her world was indeed as dull and difficult as it was cloistered and ritualistic.  (As you can read, I did not put much weight on the soap and romance angles.)  WOTO

“Objectified” (2009):  This is a documentary on Design and Designers, the worlds in which they think and act, the worlds for which they create Things, and the meaning of it all.  You’ll meet the intelligent, the pretentious, the conflicted, the famous, the here-today-gone-tomorrows.  “Objectified”, like the film “Helvetica”, discusses (and opens many eyes) to the world through which we blindly stumble, making it clearer, more fun, more interesting, and more comprehensible.  Whether it’s a car, building, toy, spoon, or software program, it WAS designed (hopefully with much work and consideration).  If it was designed WELL, you may not notice it.  If it was designed POORLY, it is one of the irritants of your day, and may very well kill you.  You should take it personally.

“Homicide” (again, 1991):  Written by David Mamet, whose work I either LOVE or HATE.  Joe Mantegna is great as a detached and effective homicide detective, who, when faced with what first appears to be a standard murder, becomes increasingly involved in the investigation as he peels back layers of not only the crime but his own self-hatred, doubt, and death wish.  This is a strong character study.  “Homicide” is both mysterious and grounded.  Mamet’s machine gun dialog WORKS well in this setting of men who are under constant pressure and keep trying to blow off enough steam to get through the day.  Bill Macy does a fine job as his partner.  If you like this one, see Mamet’s “Glen Gary, Glen Ross”, and “Red Belt”.  WOTO

“Normal” (again, 2002):  THIS IS WHAT I WROTE A FEW YEARS AGO AFTER A VIEWING: “An HBO production, this one HAS the feel of made-for-tee-vee, unlike other high quality HBO projects, such as the newer version of “Lolita”.  The acting is pretty solid, but the complexity of the subject (a man – Baptist and farmer in the Midwest, who’s been “happily” married for 25 years – “outs” himself as a female caught in a male’s body).  The story does not delve into the psychology of such a person, and instead, samples the reactions of others to him, most of which are expected and tragic, of course, and, when the really tough situations come to a head, the script lets everyone off the hook with easy solutions.  This was most disappointing.  Jessica Lange shed a few crocodile tears, but overall, the actors are worth the watch, in a story that is intellectually weak.”  THIS IS WHAT I WRITE TODAY AFTER ANOTHER VIEWING: “I was a little unfair to the film.  What I meant about “made-for-tee-vee” was there is an “edu-info” angle to its making, not necessarily a product of poor quality.  The acting by Jessica Lange and Tom Wilkinson isn’t “pretty solid”, it’s very solid.  It is perhaps both of their best work.  I retract my comment about “crocodile tears”.  And, I no longer criticize the film for not delving into the past (his psychology).  It has a perfect right to start in its own here-and-now, and on occasion give a quick glance into his childhood.  This film IS just as much about the reactions of others as it is the struggle of the man himself, and the solutions are not as easy as I first implied.  “Normal” is well worth viewing for the its issues of living in a particular culture, and for the chance to watch Lange and Wilkinson (as well as some of the support cast).  WOTO

“Lolita” (both versions) (again & again, 1961 & 1997):  “DON’T MESS WITH STANLEY KUBRICK, right?  What are you going to DO, make a BETTER “2001 – A Space Odyssey” or a BETTER “Lolita”?  I would not think so!  THEY’RE SACRED GROUND!

I read the book “Lolita”, own both versions of the film, and I finally set up what I’d wanted to do for years…watch BOTH versions of “Lolita” in ONE evening for a solid comparison…and, folks, Kubrick lost.  Adrian Lyne won with his 1997 version.  I feel sort of weird even saying it – because Kubrick was a great film maker – but it’s true.  He came in second.

Don’t get me wrong.  Kubrick’s “Lolita” is good… sort of.  The b/w photography is full of rich grays, luminous whites, and velvety blacks equal to “Dr. Strangelove”.  The camera work is great.  Sue Lyons is gorgeous.  But, Nelson Riddle’s score is light, silly, and overbearing to the point of whitewashing serious issues in the story. Combined with scenes nearly “Laurel & Hardy” in their presentation (such as Humbert and the hotel butler wrestling with a fold out cot, as Lolita sleeps), dilute and mock otherwise very intimate, taboo, disturbing ideas…which is the original intent of the book, in my opinion.
Yes yes, Kubrick was up against the standards of 1961, but that is an INSUFFICIENT explanation.  The film was originally restricted, and with that signal, we can assume everyone agreed that the subject matter of “Lolita” was serious, mature stuff.  To then treat ANY component or scene with silliness seems aesthetically mistaken.  Was Kubrick trying to add irony?  Sarcasm?  I doubt it.  The film is not “set up” that way.  There ARE lots of dialog innuendos (tame by contemporary standards), but, AGAIN, they’re improperly presented as nearly the reading matter of bathroom joke books.  Har har.  Tee hee.
Kubrick leaves out a VERY important section from the book, which gives us crucial insights into the childhood of Humbert – setting up his entire psychological future!  He’s not a pervert.  He’s a man whose growth froze at age 14 due to a great loss at a very important time in his life.  He’s stunted, sad, confused, broken, and full of deep longing.  Despite his own intellectualization about those years, emotionally he hasn’t moved a single step forward.  Lyne’s version gives us those insights so we can not only watch the “Lolita” story unfold, but understand it.  Kubrick ignored it.
Under Kubrick, Shelley Winters plays Lolita’s mother, and as you might expect, does it in her typical (her only?) over-the-top, harpy style.  None the less, it works well enough for the story.  James Mason plays Humbert Humbert, which I don’t quite
believe.  He’s too removed, too intellectual without revealing much emotion…and it’s EMOTION that drives H.H. down his long, destructive path.  Peter Sellers has the role of Clare Quilty, the play-write.  He is ever-present (with a relentlessly visible and entirely useless Beatnik ‘wife’), and takes on numerous “identities” while stalking Lolita and messing with Humbert’s mind.  Although this COULD have been dramatic, it tends to be Peter Sellers-style shtick comedy – which is entirely out of place – because we KNOW Quilty IS a pervert and a sadist, who cares nothing for other humans.  Sellers was terribly miscast.  Sue Lyons, although beautiful, acts less like Lolita’s 14 years, and more like someone else (or herself) at 18.  She’s a little too sophisticated, savvy, and self-aware.  Lyon’s acting range is narrow, which limits the 14 year old character from being the moody, quirky, schizy, silly, deadly, unpredictable, awkward, sexy mess of a girl-woman.
I feel certain that the author Nabokov would give the nod to Adrian Lyne’s depiction of his book.  I’m sure the author was glad to see Kubrick do what he DID, but with the comparison WE can NOW make, there’s very little about which to waiver.  Lyne, his film-making team, and the actors, win.  Lyne managed to tell a more coherent story, with much more emotion, no distractions or side trips, in an aesthetically tight manner, with appropriate and talented actors.  (Though there are small continuity slip-ups.  Watch the flat tire scene as they are traveling the mountains, her brilliant red lipstick as she and Humbert violently kiss in the motel room…)
(Earlier comments of mine about Lyne’s version):  “I see this film about once a year.  The fact that ANYONE would have the AUDACITY to even TRY to take on a film already so DEFINED – ICONIC – especially by Stanley Kubrick – shocks me.  Next, that ANY attempt could even possibly equal the original?  Oh my god!  And, that this version FAR OUT-PERFORMS the original!?!  How could this BE?!  I believe THIS is the film version of “Lolita” author Vladimir Nabokov would have approved (and perhaps Kubrick as well) but could NOT produce it in those earlier years.  The subjects are delicate right from get-go.  To choose Jeremy Irons as the haunted, tortured Humbert Humbert was perfect.  That’s his territory.  To then choose a new actress – indeed, Dominique Swain was introduced in THIS film – was not only risky, but, Swain had to play the 14 year old Lolita while she (Swain) WAS 14.  The scenes in which she not only participated but had to ‘understand’ in order to effectively perform astound me.  When I read background about the making of these delicate scenes, I’m impressed with the efforts made to keep everyone comfortable in otherwise tense, awkward situations so crucial to the story.

Watch also for the witty, often subtle symbols used to depict various states of mind and sexuality, or as warnings of things to come… a finger gently inserted into and tugging at the leather loop of a dog leash; night moths unable to deny the brilliance of an electric zapper – dying a gloriously violent death; Lo’s teeth retainer tossed into “Hum’s” cool summer drink; insects stuck to a curl of fly paper; the nightmare of dripping water wearing a hole through soap; the bananas; on and on…
Melanie Griffith plays “Lo’s” mother, and does a fine job but it is a “short-lived” role.  THIS film is all about Irons and Swain and what they do so flawlessly and intensely – bringing sadness – GREAT SADNESS – loneliness, sexuality, confusion, guilt, passion, humor, melancholy, and tragedy to us.  Backing it up is elegant camera work and editing (for the most part) – never overbearing or self conscious yet never common.  Scoring is by the master – Ennio Morricone – who has managed perhaps the definitive collaboration between visuals, dialog, and orchestration.  HE makes the psychic wounds unable to heal.  His music is exquisite.

All this…and made for Showtime cable TEE-VEE??!  Let the stereotypes and snobbishness about television die the lonely death of an old stereotype!  This has all the Art and humanity one has any right to expect from a single work.

 

(A postscript:  Since her premier in “Lolita”, Dominique Swain has lead a career of grade-B films, cast unfortunately as the nymphet/sex object, but without the intelligence of her first, wonderful role.  As of this writing, Swain would be about 24 years old.  There is STILL plenty of time to DUMP her agent and get someone with good judgment who can guide her career with the respect it deserves.)  WOTO & WOTO, IMDB

 “The Good Earth” (again, 1937):  There are things about this film I LOVE… and things I “hate”.  The cinematographer, Karl Freund, was brilliant.  Each frame is beautifully composed, moved, and lit.  The photography also has that 30’s style I’m prone to think was the finest decade of b/w photography with its strong sense of light, all those silvery grays with flashes of white and black, and the upshots of people looking off into their futures.  Romantic and artistic both.  The story itself, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Pearl S. Buck, is a huge arc – an Epic – and though somewhat predictable for the era of the Great Depression, it’s strong.  Okay, now we have to talk about makeup and acting.  A stage play was first created from the book, and it shows here.  The makeup was designed to be seen from the back row of a theater, NOT close to a lens.  It’s AWFUL.  The acting is stiff, posed, and exaggerated – again, designed for the back row not the lens.  So “The Good Earth” is truly a mixed bag of results (but winning at least two Oscars).  The cinematography is worth the price of admission as far as I’m concerned.  The story holds up.  You’ll need great tolerance for the makeup and acting.  Determine your priorities from here…

“Best in Show” (again, 2000):  There is NO such thing as a bad Christopher Guest movie.  His mockumentaries are fresh, incredibly dry, hilarious, full of insight, and always focused in on small, flawed fish in small, polluted ponds – who have really big faith in themselves.  Superb.  “Waiting for Guffman” and “A Mighty Wind” remain my favorites, but “Best in Show” takes a red ribbon.  Guest is always willing to let his talented actors improvise.  They team up for such subtle and insane small moments I am nearly speechless at what I see and hear.  I try not to laugh nearly as much as I want for fear of missing the next lightning fast moment.  WOTO

“The King of Masks” (Chinese, 1999):  Nearly epic, this drama follows an old man who makes a meager living as a street performer.  He is masterful at what he does, and desperately wants to pass his “secrets” on to a son – tradition requiring this be done only from an elder male to a younger male.  Through bizarre circumstances, he ends up with a boy… but, after all, this is not the solution he sought.  “The King of Masks” is thoughtful, brutal, tender, clearly NOT of our culture, fascinating, and emotional.  Photography is sometimes gorgeous, scoring is delicate and moving, and the acting is often so effective it loses its “foreignness” and reaches “universal”.

“Beijing Bicycle” (again, Chinese, 2002):  This is a “pure” film.  Don’t believe the blurb written about it: Two boys learn sharing through the use of one bicycle.  The blurb couldn’t be MORE WRONG.  This story has one of the smoothest, most linear, singularly focused goals I’ve experienced in a film since “The Field”.  There are no plot twists, no what-ifs, no “oh my god, I had no idea THAT was happening!” moments.  “Beijing Bicycle” is a simple, yet symbolic film about a young man who comes to the big city, gets a job as a bicycle messenger, and things quickly go from uncomfortable, to bad, to awful, to worse it seems.  “Guei” (the messenger) wasn’t raised to recognize the ways of a metropolis – which tries to chew him up piece by piece.  We get to “know” other characters who we believe (along with Guei) ARE who they appear to be.  “Beijing Bicycle” has to be the finest expression of what I would expect to be the current set of fears by those in China who see their future as an unknown, with the “replacement model” being the U.S.A. and/or (?) their long-time enemy, Japan.  This story expresses the huge doubts caused by the loss of Mao and the Communist-controlled way of life.  Even if it WASN’T perfect, it was familiar, and many of these “new world” issues did not happen Back Then.  Those who are (literally) “buying” into the free market concepts are losing their pride, identities, and souls.  Watch for the slow, steady transitions of situations and characters.  Watch for the symbols of decadence, unhealthy living, improper greed, corruption, and sadness – all within a small group of teens.  WOTO IMDB

“Don’t Look Back” (French/Italian, 2009):  Written and directed by Marina de Van, starring Sophie Marceau and Monica Bellucci, this film is going to do the “INKBLOT” on you, just like it did my wife and I.  She saw an eventual story line that helped clarify the superbly created disorientation.  I saw a psychological state in need of further transformation.  You will meet a woman and her family.  Her ability to recognize the reality she has come to accept begins to falter, then collapse.  She sets out on a journey to “understand”.  You see the entire world through her eyes.  You become just as disoriented.  It is very disconcerting, especially in this “era” of additional threats by Alzheimers disease.  Then again, is this a horror film, a sci-fi, a fantasy?  I say no.  I’m going to stand behind my opinion for now… but what I CAN say (with less vagueness) is the lead actors are amazing, especially Marceau, and you will be glued to “Don’t Look Back” even when confused.

“Stanley & Iris” (again, 1989):  Robert DeNiro and Jane Fonda star in this story about the working class Struggle with Life – hard working people who can just barely get by, each with their limits and lacks.  These two actors brought it to life.  Jane Fonda is AMAZING in this one, and it’s a real pleasure to see DeNiro in a subdued, gentle role.  I’m not a big fan of heavily scored films, but this one, by John Williams, for all of its sweeping orchestral work, seems somehow perfect.  “Stanley and Iris” is a story of common people with sad stories who work hard to find the joy.  WOTO

“The Graduate” (again, 1967):  Written by Mike Nichols and Buck Henry, directed by Mike Nichols, set décor by George Nelson.  Though VERY much OF its Time, “The Graduate” has held up surprisingly well over the last 45 years.  Its look at upper class wealth – the emptiness, hypocrisy, and pent-up frustrations – remains hilarious and tragic.  We are left “rooting” for the youngsters trying to find their way out of the maze of tantalizing, mind-numbing offers to continue status quo.  Was Dustin Hoffman ever really that young?  (Yes!)  Was Katharine Ross ever cuter?  (No!)  Was Anne Bancroft ever edgier?  (I’ll have to think about that…)  This film was somewhat shocking in its time, the subplots continue to make us squirm uncomfortably, and the social class / age divisions remain hilarious and awkward.  This time around I noticed some of the witty editing, camera uses, tiny continuity problems, and the terribly overused music by Simon & Garfunkle.  See if you can spot the one-second no-name premier of Richard Dreyfuss, and note the large number of character actors who would go on to have larger (not necessarily more respected) recognition.  WOTO

 “The Big Lebowski” (again, 1998):  Unique films come from the Coen Brothers, and this is one of them: a twisted comedy – dark, ridiculous, grounded in the common but far from it, these characters move within their little world like mice being tested in a maze by a sadistic, sarcastic, smart ass god.  Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, John Turturro, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and others create a skewed but believable scenario of bowling, beer, and possible crime.  Oh, plus, this film MUST hold the world’s record for use of the word “fuck”… and every single time was absolutely necessary… at least in the world of “The Dude” and his buddies.  It’s all they got, man.  That… and their balls.  WOTO

“The Dresser” (1983):  I seem to remember hearing good things about this film back in ’83, but I never followed up on it.  Only now, 29 years later, have I seen it… and it is AMAZING.  Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay star as an aging, weakening Shakespearian actor and his incredibly dedicated assistant (“dresser”).  This story is a poem to the theater, very intense, sometimes funny, often pathetic and maddening, and very sad.  Set in WWII Britain, we follow a well-worn stage troupe as everyone tries to put on another performance of Shakespeare while outside German bombs fall and inside the leader (Finney) screams unreasonable demands and hallucinatory thoughts.  His collapse seems imminent… his assistant (Courtenay) thinks otherwise… and the curtain will rise in short order.  This film has nearly the intensity of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, if that tells you anything.  WOTO

“Hero” (again, 1992):  Full of stars and soon-to-be’s, this is a hilarious, witty, and cynical view of the media, fame, reputation, and truth.  In this one, Dustin Hoffman nearly matches his sleaze role as “Ratso” in “Midnight Cowboy”, Geena Davis is great as the driven tee-vee reporter, Andy Garcia is the opportunist who carries the lies, and everyone seems to be naively under our microscope.  “Hero” reminds me of “Wag the Dog” – ALSO a sharp commentary on hype and propaganda.  WOTO

“Rome Open City” (Italian, 1945):  Directed by Roberto Rossellini, cowritten with Federico Fellini.  Here begins Italian Neo-Realism in film making.  Created DURING WWII and only months after the German occupation of Rome, this is a rough, crude look at life there, then.  My short review is not the place or time to discuss how “Neo-Realism” came about, but I DO suggest some homework prior to viewing this work, which will give you needed insight and the start of an acquired taste.  The dvd put out by Criterion / Janus has some excellent special features about that era, interviews with Rossellini and others, and very insightful points of view on what set “the stage” for such a radical shift in film making.  As for the film, it has its powerful moments and scenes of good acting, but stands more for its contribution to change and history in Art.

“The Help” (2011):  It’s 1961-62 in Mississippi.  There are poor black servants and comfortable white employers.  A young woman – hoping to become a writer – wants to create book of interviews with black maids who describe their lives as second class, background help.  Okay.  We’ve seen plenty of films about 1950’s / 60’s segregation and integration.  We’ve seen plenty of films about the systemic racism found especially in the southeast U.S..  This story is powered from the viewpoint of the maids, and many of the scenarios are expected.  Many of the characters are essentially one-dimensional stereotypes: all the black adults are all heroically patient and tight-lipped in their suffering, and all the white adults are evil and stupid.  THIS did little for me.  HOWEVER, the acting of ALL the lead and support actors is SUPERB.  SO good, I’d see “The Help” again just for the acting.  Really.  The acting is SUPERB.

“The Killer Inside Me” (2010):  Casey Affleck stars as a 1950’s west Texas sheriff who begins to lead a double life which escalates as local pressures ask more and more from him, and his psyche descents into darker and darker places.  Adapted from Jim Thompson’s novel, and directed by Michael Winterbottom, costarring Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba, this is a low-key, fascinating, explosive character study most notable for the overlay of first-person narration (the thoughts of the sheriff).  It is a tense, sometimes violent film made even more so by the easy going lulls and the seeming perpetual drive of a distorted mind.  Affleck, Hudson, and Alba are fantastic.  There is a 1975 film version of this same novel.  I have not seen it.

“City Lights” (again, 1931):  I am not a die-hard fan of Charlie Chaplin, but this one – with its comedy and romantic pathos – along with “Modern Times” – a social satire – are both wonderful in their own ways.  “City Lights” was his last “silent” movie (though he wrote and used a recorded score and a few other sound effects as the bridge) into his “talkie” film career.  Chaplin’s sense of composition, choreography and timing can be wonderful, but watch out – he can really beat to death a joke.  His co-star, Virginia Cherrill, the Beautiful Blind Girl, is glowingly lovely and equals or betters Chaplin in subtle gestures, especially in close-up shots.  The story has a straight line, but weaves about as it gets there, with additional characters and scenarios providing pure entertainment in a contemporary, 1931 Art Deco urban environment.  It’s a wonderful “just go for the ride” comedy and romance with a knock-out ending worth the entire trip.  He also loads in a few comments about social class, World War I, the Depression era economy, and, in an almost dismissible way (to us now), a scene with integration of the races.  Chaplin was no slacker, that’s for sure.  WOTO

“Auto Focus” (2003):  Assuming this is an accurate biography, it’s a sad one indeed.  Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear), “star” of the lame 1960’s t.v. sit-com “Hogan’s Heroes”, is a mediocre talent awash in a growing self-delusion, and, has an addiction to porn.  His best friend – his “connection” (Willem Dafoe) – is a cutting edge video tech, who helps his obsession in new ways.  Everyone gets something from this deal… EXCEPT his wives (Rita Wilson, Maria Bello) and kids.  He’s a has-been in no time, but it takes years to finish the easily foreseen downward spiral.  Even Crane sees it coming.  He’s “addicted” and he’s not going to change.  He has plenty of time… but, at every turn, chooses to be doomed.  Lead actor Greg Kinnear is amazing.  He carries the film.  Willem Dafoe and Rita Wilson are also good.  This is NOT a film for kids.  If you have the Special Edition dvd including the documentary on the follow-up fourteen years later, make sure to watch it also.  WOTO

“Overnight” (2004):  Documentary.  This film follows a group of young men who are musicians.  During spare moments, one of them writes what he feels is a good movie script (called “The Boondock Saints”).  Overnight, they become “stars” on the rise, schmoozing and boozing with the big names.  Can they handle it?  Will the movie be produced?  Will their band get a cd?  This is a fascinating look aimed at one of the men who claims to be the leader, the spokesman, and the boss.  He has a foul mouth, a drinking problem, and an ego problem – yet it seems like everyone is rubbing his shoulders to make sure they get a piece of this or that action.  You will want to laugh, but you’ll mainly wince.  WOTO

and, because of seeing “Overnight”, I decided to rewatch “Boondock Saints” (which is my collection):

“The Boondock Saints” (again, 1999):  As violent as “Pulp Fiction”, with characters nearly as quirky and interesting, this story is one of cops, mafia, and vigilantes, but with a slant you probably haven’t seen before.  Sure, there ARE bad guys, and they do bad things… and SOMETHING needs to be done about them… but what, and by whom?  Willem Dafoe, Sean Patrick Flanery, Norman Reedus, David Della Rocco,
and Billy Connolly star in this Shakespearian/Peckinpahish/Tarantinoesque tale of Righteousness.  “The Boondock Saints” is a stylish film – almost too stylish, considering the barely and only occasionally comedic but always dark content – with scoring that is layered thick over the action.  DaFoe’s acting is totally quirky, over the top and enjoyable as a CIA Agent with no one to rein him in.  Think “Pulp Fiction” set on the mean streets of lower middle class Irish Brooklyn or Jersey City.  WOTO

“Men of Honor” (again, 2000):  I don’t use this term often:  INSPIRATIONAL.  Robert DeNiro does his usual, masterful job of being a complex hard ass.  Cuba Gooding Jr. knocked me out.  He was superb.  The concept is simple:  Don’t give up in the face of any adversity… and man, there was enough adversity here for a hundred men, but in this true story, it was all piled on one man.  If it weren’t a true story, it would be unbelievable.  Its Hollywood treatment (irrational/convenient editing, excessive/sweeping music score, speeches where there should be dialog, etc.), downgrades its real life truth – which is dramatic and real.  You WILL be both very ashamed AND very proud to be a member of the human species.  You will wish (and doubt) you have the courage and strength of Carl Brashear.  Through Gooding, Brashear gives you something for which you can aim.  DeNiro and Gooding (plus strong supporting actors, Michael Rappaport, Hal Holbrook, Charlize Theron…) give grit to what is otherwise silver screen sheen.  These actors and the truth behind “Men of Honor” are why I stand by this film.  WOTO

“The Interrupters” (2011):  This is a documentary about a group of ex-cons who decide to organize as a group to literally step between warring individuals, families, and gangs in Chicago.  It is intense, sad, frustrating, and hopeful.  It is ugly, pathetic, maddening, and – on the rare occasion – funny.  These people – the “Interrupters” – are NOT paid nearly enough to do what they do… but they did not join with money as their first goal.  They first need to right wrongs in which they were a part.

“Winterset” (1936):  First a stage play (winning the Pulitzer Prize) then a screenplay by the same writer – Maxwell Anderson – this early, pre-Noir-style work called for Depression Era fairness for those who suffered the most.  Set in dark stone hovels under the Brooklyn Bridge during a cold, relentless period of rain and sleet, we are first shown the problems immigrants faced in this country (a la Sacco and Vanzetti), then fast-fowarded to contemporary 1936.  We now understand the motives of the main characters (starring a young Burgess Meredith, Margo (who you may remember from Capra’s film “Lost Horizon”), Eduardo Ciannelli, Maurice Moscovitch, Paul Guifoyle, John Carradine, Mischa Auer, and Edward Ellis).  The sets are dark, dank, claustrophobic, and reek of stink and poverty.  The scoring supports nicely (nominated for an Oscar).  Scenes such as the people dancing on cobblestones to a calliope (and the resulting tension) add another desperate, almost surreal flavor.  Add in a touch of gangster / Greek tragedy, and a few moments of grandiose speeches (in the style of “Grapes of Wrath”).  For what could now be called its “overly expressive” moments, it keeps your attention, offers unique resolutions, is NOT dime-a-dozen entertainment, and has you thinking about it long after.  It received the Venice Film Award for photography.  Anderson also wrote “Key Largo” and “The Bad Seed”.  For me, this was a wonderful surprise of a film about which I’d never heard a word.  WOTO

“The Devil’s Double” (2011):  Part documentary, part recreated history, part fiction; this is a look inside the depraved life of Uday Hussein (son of Saddam) during the 1980’s (before the fall of Iraq’s regime).  Decadent, psychopathic, violent, self-serving… this only begins to describe the Hussein family.  We see their world through the eyes of a man forced to become a “double” for Uday.  It’s a true nightmare.  The production quality of this film is quite good.  Work with photography, lighting, scoring, and editing are effective.  Lead actors are strong.  Some of the visuals are not for the squeamish, but you cannot stop watching the surreal lives of these mortals delusional with power.  Continuity was occasionally questioned, but I might be mistaken.  Think of this as a Middle Eastern political kingdom gangster movie a la “The Godfather” based in fact.

“American Graffiti” (again and again, 1973):  Because of how its been used for the last forty years I’ve come to hate the “N” word, but this was perhaps the first “Nostalgia” film made by and for the Baby Boom generation.  As we reached our twenties, much of the 1960’s had gone increasingly sour for everyone.  John, Martin, Robert, and Malcolm were assassinated; Jimi, Janis, Jim, Tim, and Nick killed themselves; our cities were burning; Johnson and Nixon were yet to be confirmed as liars, and their Viet Nam war dragged on without a plan or an end in sight.  The tag line for “American Graffiti” seemed especially poignant: “Where were you in ’62?” – 1962 being chosen for its status as the “last year of innocence” before the assassination of J.F.K. – which was the beginning of the end of assumed optimism.  For its contemporary audience, “American Graffiti” was set a mere ten years earlier.  It gives us people, places, situations, and emotions common to many of us.  This film tells the story of a few teens in a small town on their last evening as a life-long Group of very close friends… a profound, frightening, and sad turning point each of us must face.  Futures loomed but there remained one last, thoughtful, panicky, manic night.  “American Graffiti” is usually not credited for its experiments and innovations (right up to its “epilogue”), but try and find a film that does it earlier.  George Lucas started with a bang.  WOTO

 “Bitter Harvest” (or “How Harry Became a Tree”)(Irish, 2001):  IMDB.com has this film listed as a drama.  Netflix: a dark comedy.  IMDB is correct.  Set in the small, rural village of Skillet, Ireland, in 1924, this is the story of stupid, petty people who make things worse for themselves on a daily basis.  We all know such folks, but it becomes interesting to watch their destructive processes when we are at a safe distance from the mess.  Beautiful photography and bleak landscapes provide the look for a damp, chilly, stick-and-mud existence pockmarked by petty thinking and the idiotic need for stimulation of any kind.  Well acted, beautifully lit, and fantastically designed ramshackle huts and décor set the tone to remind us our small ideas can lead to big results.

“I’ll Cry Tomorrow” (again, 1955):  Susan Hayward won Best Actress at Cannes, and an Oscar nomination for her role as Lillian Roth – a rising star who discovers booze.  She’s on a one-way slide downhill for much of this story, with glimmers of delusional alcoholic faith, earnest attempts to go straight, frightening bottoming-outs, and a stumble into AA.  Hayward and the supporting cast deserved all the attention they received.  This is the real stuff.  The acting is occasionally “theatrical”, but easily justified when seen as part of the characters’ personalities.

”Rabbit Hole” (2010):  From the Pulitzer Prize winning stage play comes this film version starring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, and other talented established and new actors.  This is one usually quiet but always painful story of a middle aged couple, the traumas they have faced and continue to face, those who surround them, those who share similar circumstances, and EVERYONE trying to cope as best they can.  No one escapes unscarred.  No one receives all the scars.  It is what it is… “like a brick in your pocket”.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” (again, Spanish, 2006): won 3 Academy awards.  They were deserved… but I suspect the film leaves quite a few audience members scratching their heads.  The story has two strings – one historical, about the end of WWII in Spain when those in power are trying to clear out the last of the rebels, and, one increasingly fantastic, about a young girl who stumbles into a world of mystery, threats, and very strange events.  It will move back and forth from one set of “realities” to the other: dark Fact and dark Faerie Tale.  Think of one as the ADULT stage for the Struggle, and the other as the CHILDS’.  Political and archetypal.  The character and set designs are interesting – wonderfully unique, bizarre, dark, and frightening.  THIS IS NOT a movie for young children.  NO.  It is violent and full of visualized nightmares.  WOTO IMDB

“Raising Victor Vargas” (again, 2002):  Grandma has the job of raising her three grandkids.  The parents are gone.  That’s all we know.  Victor is the oldest of the kids, and the role model.  They do not live under the best of circumstances, but traditional Grandma is determined to keep them decent.  Set in contemporary
ghetto lower east side NYC, “RRV” is a slice-of-life look at the typical struggles of typical teens during a typical week.  It is an intimate and honest look, with surprisingly subtle acting from new, young actors Victor Rasuk, Judy Marte, Melonie Diaz, Kevin Rivera, Silvestre Rasuk, and Wilfree Vasquez.  It has real heart, and finds a way to present it without cliches or banging you over the head.  Very nice.  WOTO

“Matchstick Men” (again, 2003):  Nicholas Cage, Alison Lohman, and Sam Rockwell star in this interesting story of con artists and the people they con, love, hate, or about whom they’re ambivalent… not to mention how they feel about themselves… not to mention the complexity of the con.  Cage plays another quirky character inside a twisty-turny but seemingly direct plot that provides interest and a few new thoughts about the nature of relationships.  All the leads and supporting cast do wonderful jobs, and some of the biggest surprises and loosest ends do get tied up at the very end, I promise!  WOTO

“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939):  Preceding “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Mr. Smith…” is a huge, powerful, romantic, painful story of one small, naive man against the savvy big and many.  Jimmy Stewart is a patsy of a new Senator for the hardened, graft-filled U.S. Senate.  He has no clue what’s being done to him.  The “Machine” is chewing him up… and then the film gets rolling.  It is NOT a pretty sight.  This, like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, first appears to be full of overused, sugary ideas and lost ideals.  But the film won’t let you go when you reach that easy point.  You are pushed beyond your current little bitterness about what Life has delivered and begin seeing the Bigger Picture: We all matter, we all play a part, we all have potential, and we all must be brave.  And, it’s true.  Don’t let a 1939 film fool you.  THAT audience had been and was facing much tougher circumstances than for which WE in 2012 would seemingly ever have the guts.  Frank Capra was hitting his stride and speaking for all humans.  He made masterpieces, this was one of them, and you will be less without it.  WOTO

”State of the Union” (1948):  Originally a stage play (and in the film you can see and hear those roots), this movie version was created by Frank Capra.  Starring Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Angela Lansbury, and a huge cast of character actors (often seen in Capra films), this is the story of an already powerful, wealthy man who, though hesitant, is convinced by political groomers and glommers he should run for President of the United States.  Slowly he is brought along to the point of … well, I’m not going to ruin it for you, but I will say the film is listed as a comedy – and there ARE comedic moments – but it’s mainly a very edgy, angry look into politics and greed.  I may prefer “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” as another Capra work with similar interests, but “State of the Union” is a good, tough film that reminds everyone what America has tried to be when at its best.  And, it IS a primer for anyone who wants insight into the political system.

“Happy Times” (Chinese, 2002):  Though this film is billed as a “comedy”, and IS often funny, “Happy Times” begins with one scenario and attitude, and slowly, steadily changes into others.  You would be right to expect the director of “Raise the Red Lantern” – Zhang Yimou – to take you to thoughtful and emotional places within lives always more complex than unsophisticated stories allow.  This is a unique, funny, tender, aggravating, pathetic, maddening, warm, elegant, and sad look at just a few of us… who this time happen to be in China.  WOTO

“Another Earth” (2011):  Starring a rough beauty – Brit Marling – and William Mapother.  DON’T let the previews give you the impression this is just another “sci-fi” flick intended to entertain teenaged boys or twenty-something stoners.  No.  This is a quiet, meditative, moody piece about Life.  We all make mistakes, we’re all stupid, we all cause pain, and none of us should get off light.  Then, along comes an event you certainly never expected, and it appears to offer you a fresh start or at least a way out.  Do you take it?  This is a patient, sad story with secrets and scars.  Highly recommended, especially for people who already appreciate Bergman, Herzog, Ozu, or Wenders, and don’t demand a simple resolution.

“Young Adult” (2011):  Starring Charlize Theron (who continues to prove she is one of our finest actresses) and an entire cast of talent who does the writing, casting, acting, set designing, filming, etc..  This is the story of a dreary, deluded mess of a young woman who supposedly has “everything” – living the high life in the Big City of the “Mini-Apple” (Minneapolis) – yet feels empty.  She decides to return to her home town and relocate (or steal, if necessary) her glory days.  Every admirable aspect of this film is aimed at depicting the desperation of a person on the verge of collapse who seems determined to smash against reality until she is shattered.  Believe it or not, much of it is humorous in a dark, pathetic way – a VERY pathetic way – an EMBARRASSING PATHETIC way – where the choice is either laugh or cry, get on with life or end it all.  I highly recommend “Young Adult” as one of the best of 2011.

“Chinatown” (again, 1974):  One of the finest neo-Noir crime dramas of all time, it was directed by Roman Polanski, and includes great acting by Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, and a cast of wonderful character actors.  “Chinatown” has a webby, complex plot full of liars, cheats, and dead ends set in pre-WWII Los Angeles – a sleepy “little” town with growing pains caused by those who want to make the big money.  Made during the first American Art Deco REVIVAL, it uses great locations, and costuming that is solid but sometimes self-conscious.  Its overall tone is set right from the opening credits, and is carried through with costuming, score, lighting, props, and character details. (However, it does have a bad case of “clean car syndrome”, and I did spot one moment of discontinuity.  Hey, it’s a “sport” once you’ve seen a film 10 or 20 times…)  WOTO

“Birth of Flight” (British/Australian, 2010):  This is an 8 part, 7 hour documentary series on the history of airplanes.  Dull?  Hardly.  It’s packed full of spectacular, original film footage of every imaginable thing people thought they could get (and keep) in the air – from the wackiest (WHAT were you smoking?) to the most functional, beautiful, and powerful machines then on Earth.  It also looks at the people who designed, built, flew, and died for these grand efforts to stay aloft.  I can’t say anything kind for the scoring, but found the (South African?) pronunciation of some words interesting.  WOTO

“The Dark Corner” (1946):  Fine Noir thriller set in the gritty city of post-WWII New York – and the office of a down-n-out mug of an investigator who has his own history and ain’t all that proud of it.  Mark Stevens, Lucille Ball (BEFORE she was “Lucy”), William Bendix, and Clifton Webb star.  Lots of slam bang, hard shell, tough talkin’ men, wary women, shifty vixens, and weasely high hats.  And, expect some of the finest Noir lighting, shadows, textures, and compositions ever.  A feast of artistic black and white.

“Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father” (again, 2008):  This is an extremely complex, increasingly painful yet hopeful, sad yet joyous story about Evil vs Good.  It is about Love and Hate, and the Law vs Vengeance.  It is about the deepest of sadness and all of our attempts to make sense of its cause.  I don’t want to discuss the details.  See this documentary.

“Fur” (2006):  You need to go into this film with every bit of your Suspension of Disbelief in place.  Don’t know what I’m talking about?  Look it up and come back.  For all of us who are admirers of Diane (DEE-ann) Arbus’ photography of the 1960’s-70’s, THIS FILM IS NOT actually about her – and it says so right up front … sort of – it’s “an imaginary portrait” of the period of her life before she picked up the camera and went all the way down the rabbit hole.  Yes, it provides an excuse for how her previous world might have pushed her along, but it’s all fantasy, so don’t get attached to it.  Well then, if it’s NOT really about HER, who IS it about ? … It’s about artists and anyone else trying to expand their horizons, especially those who begin to understand it will mean discarding the comforts of their old lives.  It’s for those people who have secrets and nowhere to share them; people who are FORCED to BE secrets and must respond; and, people who oppress others and should reconsider their behaviors.  This is about facing one’s uniqueness with courage.  Nicole Kidman is great as always.  WOTO

“Animation Legend: Winsor McCay (date?):  If you want to see superbly drawn animation now over 100 years old, you must go to Winsor McCay.  HE IS The Man.  There is such JOY in his invention of this new technique called “the moving ink pen animation”, you cannot resist this “simple” but elegant work.  Although I prefer his sequential-frame cartoons one would have seen in magazines and newspapers of the time (they are, of course, much richer and more complex), the fact he was willing to make 25,000 individual pen & ink drawings for a short animated film is amazing.  You will also see he was the Source of inspiration for ALL animation to follow – from Disney and the Fleischer brothers and Robert Crumb to scenes later used in early object animation such as “King Kong”.

“Radio” (again, 2003):  As film fans, we can become so full of contemporary expectations about what makes a good film AT THE MOMENT, that if we’re not careful, we could overlook a gem like “Radio”.  It doesn’t have a twisty plot, surprise ending, special effects, imaginary creatures, anyone dancing across tree tops, or blood splattering everywhere.  It’s a true story about two men – a football coach (Ed Harris), and a young man who exists on the edge of society (Cuba Gooding Jr.) in a small town.  Bless both actors for signing on to this effort.  If you need a strong, emotional reminder about Priorities in Life, and want to FEEL inspired… heck, even if you just want to FEEL… and FEEL A LOT… see “Radio”.  Debra Wenger and others do solid work in their roles, which in this case, is to support the greatness of Harris, and the blinding brilliance of Gooding.  THIS alone caused me to watch “Radio” twice in one week when I first encountered it.  WOTO

“The End of the Affair” (again, 1999):  Ralph (pronounced “rafe”) Fiennes, Julianne Moore, and Stephen Rea star in a Neil Jordan film about love, honor, weakness, perspective, and forgiveness in war-torn London during WWII.  On the surface, this is a romantic drama involving a “triangle”, but it goes much deeper and shows wise sensitivity to the real complexities of Life.  Moore is, as always, amazing, with Fiennes and Rea close behind.  This story requires attention from start to finish as it reveals various perspectives which slowly answer most of your questions.  It is a weighty film with lots of longing and darkness, rainy nights, V-1 bombs dropping from the rarely sunny skies of Britain, and people following people trying to understand other people.  The making of the film includes strong photography with an astounding sense of color, a rich (though somewhat unexplored) score, continuity and detailing of the highest order, and dialog that will make you wish you’d “thought of that” or that you could remember it next time it’s needed.  This film may end up in my top category yet…  WOTO

“Facing Windows” (Italian, 2003):  A young, working class couple encounters an older man who has lost his memory.  He ends up in their home.  Here discoveries are slowly made through splinters of his memories, scraps of paper, and the woman’s attempts at sleuthing.  Everyone has their secrets, everyone has their talents, everyone has their weaknesses.  This is an interesting, passionate, sad, and fulfilling story.  WOTO

“Kinsey” (again, 2004):  Liam Neeson and Laura Linney star as the awkward but intellectually curious couple who stumble into the long-needed idea of sex research – an investigation which continues to this day.  The process of their reaching the concepts, beginning the surveys, expanding the research, gathering “followers”, and fighting for funding is an interesting story.  Completely woven into this set of linear events is a second one: that of Professor Kinsey’s character – his childhood, sexual orientation, his Obsessive/Compulsive disorder, his inability to leaving his topics for the mundane niceties of dinner chat… which made him less and less someone to “invite”, and always present – the effects of his domineering and demeaning father, played brilliantly by John Lithgow.  Laura Linney is one of my favorite actresses, and she does not disappoint.  This is a truly great character study driving an interesting historical cultural shift.  WOTO

“Christ Stopped at Eboli” (Italian, again, 1979):  Directed by Francesco Rosi.  This is an interesting, quiet film about being imprisoned in a place no one would willingly go – in this case, the poorest, least productive and educated, most diseased, remote regions of southern Italy.  Set in Mussolini’s 1930’s Fascist environment, a political prisoner – an artist – urbane and educated – is banished to and must remain in such a place within his own country.  Here, his former cosmopolitan life is of little use.  He struggles with and learns from the local people who seldom have contact with the outside else except an occasional letter from relatives who escaped to America.  “Christ Stopped at Eboli” is worth your consideration on numerous levels – photography, acting, dialog, scoring, subtlety, and political implications.  My one constant problem with 70’s color films, especially Italian, is their quality of production.  Perhaps it was the growing use of video tape recording.  Plus, the dvd I viewed this time was a digitized copy of what I believe was a vhs copy of a vhs copy of the film, which had colors and lights and darks shifting, admirable but flawed translations, and an odd echo to some of the studio sound effects added later.  IF there IS a restored version, make sure it is your choice.  WOTO

“Half Nelson” (again, 2006):  Starring a very effective Ryan Gosling, and talented young actress, Shareeka Epps.  Gosling is a middle school teacher and a girl’s basketball coach.  Epps is his student and a loner, even on his b-ball team.  She seems to need him, and he responds by caring for her.  Then she makes a discovery about her teacher – her favorite teacher – someone almost like a friend.  She also has a mother who works double shifts as an EMT, and a “father” who is far from a good influence.  She has what she has.  THESE are the three adults in her life.  THESE are the adults who matter in her life.  Exactly WHO IS caught in this “half nelson” grip?  This is a low-key, nicely scored, grittily photographed, slow-to-reveal, slow-to-change story full of set-backs, little insights, sadness, and glimmers of decency and hope.  It is a very fulfilling experience.   WOTO IMDB

“Devil’s Playground” (documentary, 2002):  The title refers to the world OUTSIDE the Amish community – according to the Amish.  This is a look at much of Amish culture / religion in America, but focuses on the youth – especially those age 16 and above who are allowed to visit or join “the world” beyond their community, and experience as much of the Devil’s Playground as they choose.  This is the period (“Rumspringa”) in which they decide if they want to join the Amish church, and if so, make final preparations to forsake ALL outside life.  As you can imagine, it is both frightening and exotic for all of them, with terrible, predictable, and interesting results.

“Tsotsi” (again, South African, 2005):  Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film 2005, enter it knowing you’ll be slammed with stress… but don’t run away.  “Tsotsi” is totally worth your effort.  You will follow one teenager and his feral buddies, all existing (and nothing more) in the deepest squalor of shanty town Johannesburg, South Africa.  These “children” are worse than vultures, and for them life has no meaning, no value.  By pure, violent, chance, Tsotsi finds himself on a new road without a map.  His careening along MAY or may NOT lead towards a flawed version of Redemption.  I was absolutely riveted to this film, and amazed at the unique power offered by some of the scenes.  The acting by all, and especially by the young lead Presley Chweneyagae, was all-consuming.  I may put this film in my top category after another viewing or two.  WOTO IMDB

Eames – The Architect and The Painter” (again, 2011):  This is a documentary, and a very good one.  It describes the complex career of designers Charles and Ray Eames, the brilliance of their ideas and products, their roles in these collaborations, the power and notoriety they gained, and the seldom-mentioned dark clouds in their relationship.  The film also contains LOTS of interviews with other designers who worked UNDER them.  Yes, you’ll meet a shish kabob of valid egos with their points of view – all intelligent people.  There is NO doubt that the Eames’ helped make Modernism a truly practical and reachable philosophy through their total involvement with Design, not mere decorating.  Immersed in everything from materials and prototypes to production and marketing, they DEFINE a True Design team.  See this and understand more.

“Micmacs” (French, 2009):  By the same director who did “Amelie” and “City of Lost Children”, Jean-Pierre Jeumet.  The man has a vision, that’s for sure.  Full of absolutely unique sets, costuming, scenarios, and character stories, “Micmacs” could be said to have its roots in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” mixed with “Mission Impossible” mixed with “Mystery Men” and an appreciation for Tim Burton and steam punk… BUT unmistakably Jeumet.  This is a comedic suspense crime drama running on revenge and overflowing with fantastically grimy detail… but always funny.  Weird.  WOTO

“In America” (again, 2002):  This is a SUPERB drama about a young Irish couple who moves to America (Hell’s Kitchen N.Y.), to start over with their two young daughters.  Is life difficult?  Oh yes… but, life is perhaps more difficult because of their pasts than the present.  We slowly learn more about each of these people – family and neighbors.  Tender, sad, funny, painful, very painful, gentle, maddening, poetic, mystical… the story is one of understanding, forgiveness, and the circle of Life.  ALL the actors (Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton, Djimon Hounsou), including the two young girls, are so GOOD that you don’t want the film – them – to go away.  It is written, photographed, and acted in such a delicate, balanced way, that you are constantly seeing “reality” from both the children’s and the parent’s points of view.  “In America” is a must-see.  It is brilliant and powerful.  I may put this one in my Top category.  It’s almost there now.  WOTO

“Frank Capra’s American Dream” (1997):  This documentary takes a thorough look at Frank Capra’s life and career as a director.  It’s the story of American opportunities.  His life is reviewed from pre-film involvement to his death, with much of the time studying his films, their meanings, the sub-texts, and the cultural atmosphere in which they grew.  I found this a fascinating film, well constructed, and full of insights.  If you like even one Capra film, this entire document will interest you.  If you think Capra films are “sappy” and you desperately NEED to cling to your belief, do NOT see this biography and critique.  WOTO

“Meet John Doe” (again, 1940):  Before Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” there was “Meet John Doe”.  Capra mortgaged his home to make this first independent film – gambling everything – while The Great Depression dragged on.  Europe was at war.  America was still undecided… and unattacked.  Capra had things to say, and he said them.  This story may lack some of the finesse of “…Wonderful Life,” but it’s a strong, socio/economic/political statement – not only about THAT era, but MOST times for MOST people in MOST places.  Capra made uncommonly good films about common people who HAD to fight to overcome their obstacles.  Gary Cooper improves with every moment of this story, finding his “zone” towards the end – as a brooding, doubting, disheartened but decent man.  Barbara Stanwyck is on her game throughout.  You’ll see many of Capra’s favorite character actors here, who joined him in film after film.  If you like “…Wonderful Life”, this one will be of great interest to you.  If you like the film version of “The Grapes of Wrath” (with Henry Fonda), you’ll probably feel this 1940 Capra effort was on equal footing.  WOTO

“Higher Ground” (first viewing, 2011):  Vera Farmiga isn’t merely beautiful, she’s a talented director and a great actress.  Combined with the writer of both the book (“This Dark World”) and the screenplay, this film is a powerful yet understated look at ambivalence and doubt.  Here the setting is organized religion, though many stages could be used for the subject.  I knew immediately I wanted to OWN this work.  It will do nothing but offer more rich insights each time I see it.  The entire cast is talented; the sets and costuming fantastic in their commonness; the dialog perfectly natural and the counterpoint to Farmiga’s subtle acting; the photography honest, informative, unpretentious.  This has it all.  It is humane, philosophical, psychological, emotional, and intelligent.  WOW.

“The Stranger” (again, 1946):  Starring and directed by Orsen Welles, with Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young.  World War II had just ended.  Did an American audience want to see a film about Nazis who might now be infiltrating Middle Town America,  and the undercover agents trying to track them down?  I can’t say, but this is a GOOD cat-n-mouse suspense Noir with weasley bad guys slipping in and out of the shadows, hard nosed good guys that never seem to go away, and trusting, luminous gals (Wow, that Loretta Young!).  The photography is superb, the pacing good, the acting about what you’d expect for top stars in 1946 (Young is especially strong), with a story that couldn’t get more pertinent to that time.  WOTO

“Bob Roberts” (again, 1992):  This is a wonderfully sarcastic and dark mockumentary of a political campaign in Pennsylvania, between the arch-conservative, faux-Dylanesque newcomer Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins), and the tired, seen-it-all incumbent, Senator Paiste (Gore Vidal).  Also cast are Allen Rickman, Helen Hunt, Susan Sarandon, Jack Black, John Cusack, and many other talents that make this a totally satisfying, snide look at politics, spin-meisters, and event coverage.  I was especially impressed with Giancarlo Esposito as the very intense Left wing investigator conspiratorialist.  In an ironic, possibly accidental manner, the film’s attempts to skewer the Right (well deserved) make it equally easy to analyze the Left for the same thematic flaws such as greed, power, hypocrisy, media manipulation, spotlight hunger, etc..  WOTO

“Racing with the Moon” (again, 1984):  Richard Benjamin directed Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage, Elizabeth McGovern (all still in their teens?!) (and in minor roles: Crispen Glover, Carol Kane, Michael Madsen, and Dana Carvey)… in this “showcase” film, where lots of talent got a major boost.  Set in 1942 in a small seaside village, and only weeks before two best friends ship out to the Marines and the fury of WWII, we share intimate, funny, pathetic, sad, frightening, and ambivalent moments with flawed but decent people we come to believe we know and deep down just have to like.  This is a bittersweet story – not sugary nor hopeless.  It’s rich with mixed emotions and that confusing, frozen summer between children and adults.  Scoring is appropriate and nicely demure, photography is somewhat contrived in spots, but that was 1980’s.  The “truth” of the simple story, sets, décor, costumes, dialog and the talented actors are why you will appreciate “Racing with the Moon”.  Think of it as a unique film with relationships to “Stand by Me” and “Summer of ‘42”.  WOTO IMDB

“The Nutty Professor” (again, 1963):  Jerry Lewis was funny…and then he went out of fashion and was no longer funny.  The world changed right under him.  I’ve never been a big fan of his, but one film stands far above the rest, and THIS is the one.  In case you’ve seen only the Eddie Murphy take-off, do DO NOT think one replaces the other.  They do NOT.  ALL films are “period pieces” – since they cannot escape the era from which they were born – but “The Nutty Professor” captures not only the best of Lewis’ sense of humor, but, by pure chance, a time soon doomed.  Begun in late 1962, and completed in early/mid 1963, “The Nutty Professor” arrived during the last few moments of what I consider the “1950’s”.  Within a couple of months of its release, our President would be assassinated – and America would change SO dramatically, we continue to feel it today.  (And, by the next year, the Beatles would arrive.)  The 1960’s began.  So, this film of Jerry Lewis’, depicting an isolated, cloistered nerd of a professor; properly dressed conservative students; and, a greasy-headed cigarette-sucking Hugh Hefner rat-pack style sexist, were images that died alongside John F. Kennedy.  This is a FUNNY film, I laugh a lot, and stare even more at the astoundingly cute Stella Stevens, but underlying the characterizations come a queasy feeling – which, by my personal experiences, were relatively accurate – and deserve little nostalgia.  WOTO

“Winter’s Bone” (again, 2010):  With a very talented cast of actors, strong scoring, great photography, sensitive audio, sets that may have not been sets, costuming and makeup that is dead-on perfect, and… well, you know how something can feel so real that you can’t imagine someone created it?  This is everything in “Winter’s Bone”.  Set in the far-back country of Appalachia amongst people who have never been nowheres and figure they’s all family somehow or another, this is an evenly paced, ever-intensifying story of poverty, desperation, and trying to hang onto it because that’s all you got.  Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey, and others star.  This film rightly won the “Grand Jury Prize” at Sundance Film Festival.  WOTO

“You Don’t Know Jack – the Life and Times of Jack Kevorkian” (2010):  Doctor Death.  Murderer.  Human Rights.  The Mercy Machine.  Dr. Kevorkian.  Assisted suicide.  I went into this film with three biases: 1) I always thought Kevorkian was right, but; 2) I thought he was THE worst person to represent him(self) to the public and courts; and 3) I knew Al Pacino would be GREAT.  I saw nothing to change my mind on any of those points.  Directed by Barry Levinson, also starring Brenda Vaccaro, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, and Danny Huston, and with Pacino as good as he was in “Serpico”, this was a totally rich, occasionally funny (!), but mainly very serious and often sad look the suffering of people and one man who tried to find a solution.  This is a totally significant experience.  WOTO

 

3.
“Hey, relax and ride the sofa”

 

 

“The General” (again, 1927): I love Buster Keaton, and I often enjoy silent films as an artistic alternative to the scream of many contemporary films. There are many witty moments in “The General”, but having recently also watched “Steamboat Bill Jr.” (made only one year later), I’m spoiled by its snappier pace and varied stunts. By comparison, “The General” needed trimming and more variety. I still enjoyed it, but found my thoughts wandering – and that’s not good. WOTO

“Wild Hogs” (2007): This is just plain hilarious, stupid fun if you like the subjects of men at their dopiest – in mid-life crisis – who decide to “get away from it all” on their motorcycles. It’s a “City Slickers” template with a rougher edge. Totally enjoyable. WOTO

Bongwater” (1997): Stoners, losers, lazy whiners – all lost souls wearing suits of bullshit. Laugh at them but seldom with them as they stumble through their useless daze and nights. Luke Wilson, Alicia Witt, Amy Locane, Brittany Murphy, Jack Black, Andy Dick, Jeremy Sisto, Jamie Kennedy, Scott Caan. WOTO

“The Secret Life of Girls” (1999): Starring Linda Hamilton and Eugene Levy. This is a “nostalgia-comedy-drama-meander” through the mid-1970’s. It does not have the depth of “Stand by Me”, “Summer of ‘42”, or “American Graffiti“, nor the intensity of “The Ice Storm”. Its goals are unfocused but there are great sets, some wit, and occasional insight accompanied by lots of ambivalence, silliness, and a complete lack of explanation why someone chose the title of this movie. Its okay on a lazy afternoon. WOTO

“Clockwise” (British, 1986): Starring John Cleese (of Monty Python) as a school headmaster who prides himself on being an accurate multi-tasker who‘s always in control. Naturally, the movie begins throwing more and more in his path as he tries to accomplish what he sees as a very important day. Unfortunately, the barriers quickly fall into predictable categories of shtick… sometimes entertaining, sometimes tiresome.

“Bless This Child” (2000):  Well, this is sort of a “Rosemary’s Baby” kind of movie, with Gothic overtones, lots of mystical Catholicism, punk rockers as Satan worshippers (embarrassing), and the Little Girl Who’s Different.  It’s not a bad story, it’s nothing super unique.  It’s a decent suspense/ghosty/spinning-things story with some pretty good special effects.  Kim Basinger stars, which is not a plus, but the director kept her bad acting subdued to the character.  WOTO

“Dragonfly” (2002):  This is a psychological suspense drama with ghosty twists to it.  It’s quite fun for the first 90%, then it begins falling apart, loses its edge, and goes entirely soft… sort of like bad sex.  None the less, it’s fun while it’s hard, hot, and heavy.  Go for the ride if you can’t find someone who promises a good finish.  WOTO

“The Testament of Dr. Mabuse” (again, German, 1933):  Although directed by Fritz Lang and considered one of his masterpieces, I found this one slow going at times.  Made in Germany as Hitler was coming to power, it’s not difficult to sense the unstoppable threat, relentless plotting, and contagious insanity “in the air” at that time.  The film was immediately banned in Germany, and Lang escaped Nazi oppression.  Dr. Mabuse (mah-BOOZeh) is a maniacal genius with huge, devious plots to destroy decent Germany and anyone in his way.  The acting is Expressionistically exaggerated, the sets and costumes are often wonderful (contemporary Bauhaus and Art Deco design), and the photography is strong with special effects that were, for the time, reasonably advanced and appropriate this hallucinatory story.  I LOVED the opening minutes with the relentless pounding and shaking of a worn-out industrial environment.  WOTO

“The Blue Bird” (1940):  THIS is an interesting film, but not for any other reason than the fact it’s fun to compare it to the film it ripped off – “The Wizard of Oz”.  Clearly an attempt to “cash in” on the success of “Oz”, this oddball fable takes all the “Oz” elements, puts them in a salad spinner, then a blender, then covers them in a different dressing, and call its “The Blue Bird”.  Shirley Temple is twelve years old here, and plays the role of a spoiled little bitch of a girl – which I’m sure she enjoyed after what her career had demanded from her up to then.  However, the public did not agree… thus, the obscurity of this curiosity.  Here’s the fun part: for all of you “Wizard of Oz” FANS, identifying and analyzing its bits and pieces shish kabobbed onto the “Bluebird” skewer would be a fun evening with friends.

“Gojira” (“Godzilla”) (Japanese, 1954):  Everyone’s heard of “Godzilla”, but few of us have heard of “Gojira”.  This was the movie made by the Japanese for the Japanese.  It is a much darker, better film than the simple, kitschy movie we “foreigners” know (which is why I have “Gojira” in THIS category and not the much lower “QUICK! DUCK!” list).  Keeping in mind the Japanese deserved loss of WWII – culminating in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – was only nine years earlier, “Gojira” is full of atomic references, mass destruction, and moral warnings aimed at the world, including criticisms by the Japanese for the Japanese.  Yes, the “special” effects are questionable to downright silly, but the INTENT of this film is not – and that is the striking difference which makes this a worthwhile, interesting view.

“Unknown” (2005):  This is an interesting crime suspense thriller set in an abandoned building out on the desert.  Inside, a number of men – bloody and unconscious – slowly wake to assume whatever bad happened isn’t over.  The problem is they can’t remember who they are, the nature of their relationships, or why they’re in this place – and they figure people they don’t want to know will return.  Oh, and there’s also the problem the building seems impossible to breach.  This is good, tense stuff.  Very entertaining.

“Jailhouse Rock” (1957):  There was the Edgy, Cool Elvis, the Lame Elvis, and the Fat, Drugged Elvis.  You want to see the pre-1960, Edgy Cool Elvis, and “Jailhouse Rock” fits the bill.  He’s a self-centered punk.  Cocky and dislikable.  Treats everyone like shit.  This one’s fun.  It’s not a great film, it’s a star-vehicle movie, but Elvis still had “It”.  Plus, the sets, hip jive, and feisty characters are swingin’, Daddy-O.  WOTO

“Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (again, 1987):  Steve Martin and John Candy star in this hilarious, gross, ridiculous, always almost believable and occasionally touching movie about two men – initially strangers to one another – trying to get home in time for Thanksgiving.  It’s a disaster… and my wife and I laugh a lot.  The choice of locations and peripheral characters are flawlessly bleak and mediocre.  The typical, overbearing Eighties music is there, of course.  Don’t let that stop you.  This is great fun.  WOTO

“Absolute Power” (again, 1996):  Taut, nicely paced crime/corruption suspense drama with Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Laura Linney, Ed Harris, E. G. Marshall, directed by Eastwood.  Set in Washington D.C., this one sets off a drama that spreads like poison through the lives of the innocent, suspected, and guilty.  Engaging and exciting.  WOTO

“Doctor Zhivago” (again, English, 1965):  I LOVE David Lean’s other British based films, such as “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia”.  They are profound.  However, I have problems with Zhivago.  Yes, it’s EPIC, beautifully photographed, made of amazing sets, and full of swollen moments… but I AM bothered at how the Russian Revolution is used as a back drop for a mere lusty affair.  (It is the same complaint I heard about the film “Pearl Harbor”, which I have not seen.)  I’ve also come to realize that Omar Sharif had little going for him except good looks (?) and those deer-caught-in-headlights staring eyes, which made all the girls go googlie.  All he does – all he’s capable of doing – is GAZING.  GAZING at any and every thing.  “Lara” (the mistress, played by Julie Christie, who made all the guys go googlie), has a daughter… well, PART of the time.  Whenever the little girl is inconvenient to the story, she simply vanishes – no longer exists – and the adults play at being single for as long as they want.  I learned that all Russians – at least back during WWI – spoke with heavy British accents!… except for the Russian prisoner on the train, played by Klaus Kinski (!), with HIS heavy GERMAN accent.  Go figure.  While watching, and thinking back to the time this film was made, the Cold War was on, and NO WAY would this story have been shot in the REAL Moscow (or ANY of the U.S.S.R.).  The huge areas of “Moscow” were SETS, and the villages, countryside, etc. were (as I read in the end credits) shot in Finland and Canada.  Ah, the old Big Budget movies.  Maurice Jarre scored the film.  There are many lovely passages that add romance and drama to the scenes, but I did grow tired of the “variations on ‘Lara’s Theme’” pounded at us.  I was nearly flinching by the end… and the end is over three hours away.  Note:  there is a lengthy orchestral piece prior to the film’s first scene, and during the intermission.  This was used to cue the very large audiences, in the huge, wide-screen cinemascope theaters, to get into their seats and settle down.  And of course, in those days people still behaved and respected the other movie goers (especially at those expensive, special theaters), so they DID settle down, they DID shut up, and they waited until after it was over to discuss it.  You didn’t drag your babies and chickens to the movies, or have cell phones.  I saw the film late first run.  We dressed up, went downtown to one of the palaces of film presentation, and treated it like what it was – a special occasion.  A Time Lost.  WOTO

“The Last Time I saw Paris” (again, 1954):  Fast Flashback: It’s V-E Day.  All of Paris is celebrating in the streets.  Van Johnson is on his way to America but in no rush.  There, nothing and no one was waiting for him.  Suddenly, out of the millions of Parisians yelling, dancing, and hugging, a beautiful young woman (the absolutely luminous Elizabeth Taylor) runs up and gives him the kiss of his life.  Here starts the story.  Though a romance, “Last Time…” has a larger sweep with valid issues staring directly at young, post-war couples.  The roles taken by these stars are refreshing.  Some of the drama is not given the time and subtlety it deserves, which kept it from my next higher category.  Good child actors are hard to find.  This one proves it.  I have seen only un-restored copies of this film.  The color is faded, shifts, and is “off” at times.  I’m ready to watch it again after this is fixed.  WOTO

“Detour” (1945):  Great little Noir story made on a fast, shoestring budget.  Heavy on the dialog with tough talkin’ Joes, connivin’ femme fatales, and Existentialism but light on the production quality, continuity, and visual logic, it’s none the less an interesting plot with good twists and philosophic ironies.  1945 – when everyone may have seen the end of the war on the horizon but was worn out tired, pessimistic, sad, and no doubt given to bouts of hopelessness.  “Detour” is a small diamond in the rough expressing all of that.  WOTO

“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2011):  This is an ensemble movie using some fine actors and the story is occasionally wonderful, but the bulk is too predictable, has simplistic characters on typical “reversal journeys” and there are clichés.  It is pleasant, one-time entertainment I think wanted to be significant (or at least gain an old person cult following like “Cocoon”) for aging Baby Boomers.  

“Finding Forrester” (again, 2000):  The story is too predictable for my taste – especially the last half hour – and many of the plot points are on steroids, but it has its heart in the right place.  This is a film about hopes, dreams, losses, art, growth, friendship, and facing the moral dilemmas of Life.  The same writer created “Good Will Hunting” (which is NOT a recommendation, as I did not like it at all) – and this time did a better job.  There are lots of lines you’ll hope to remember – and use – when the right circumstance arises.  WOTO

“The Bishop’s Wife” (1947):  The year after “It’s a Wonderful Life”, Hollywood decided we needed another Xmas-angel-faith-relationship-life-changing-realization film.  Under the surface details, this one is like a non-sequel sequel.  It even uses some of the same scenarios and actors in very similar roles.  NONE of this would have been missed by the audiences of 1946-47.  Is it as good?  No, but it’s enjoyable.  Cary Grant is charming as a stylish Angel, Loretta Young is absolutely luminous and sweet, David Niven is cold and calculating (and very much in need of a lesson), and many other characters you can easily place into the “It’s a Wonderful Life” positions.  “The Bishop’s Wife” is almost shocking in its blatant Siamese twin relationship to Frank Capra’s beloved classic.  WOTO

“The Client” (1999):  Introducing Brad Renfro, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon, Mary-Louise Parker and others, this is a crime / courtroom drama about a young boy who becomes the unwilling witness to crimes of great concern to both criminals and spotlight hungry lawyers.  Good, solid, tense entertainment.  WOTO

“House of Strangers” (1949):  This is a Noir film but it somehow feels less like one.  Perhaps it’s the lengthy feuding family soap opera mixed in with Richard Conte’s dark, mean character, and Susan Hayward’s beat-me, demean-me, love-me character.  Good Noir characters don’t ask for, let alone want to be explained or analyzed.  They just ARE – and to hell with you if you don’t like them.  Edward G. Robinson (as the bank tycoon) and his four sons seem to receive justifications for their problems and actions.  It’s too wimpy for these films.  I’ll see it again, but for Conte and Hayward mainly.  WOTO

“A League of Their Own” (again, 1992):  Written and directed by Penny Marshall, starring Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, Lori Petty, Jon Lovitz, David Straithairn, Garry Marshall, Bill Pullman, and glimpses of others who would become stars, Tea Leoni included.  It’s 1943.  The men are at war.  A candy magnate wants to support a women’s baseball league.  It’s fraught with apathy, sarcasm, incompetence, and vitality.  This is both a funny and bittersweet Hollywood spin on real life circumstances.  Hanks is especially funny and pathetic as the down-n-out coach.  WOTO

“The Ice Harvest” (2006):  Entertaining crime comedy/drama with lots of double and triplecrosses.  It set in the American Midwest during a bleak day and night before Christmas.  A variety of lost, greedy souls are on one another’s paths.  Starring John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, and Connie Nielsen.  WOTO

“Death Wish” (again, 1974):  I remember when this film first came out.  Its ideas were being debated by everyone who saw it, just as they were IN the film itself.  The world is out of control, and innocent people are being hurt and killed.  How do we – the Average People – get the world back under control and safe?  Based on the novel by Brian Garfield, Michael Winner’s film tapped directly into the pulse of the early 1970’s, when crime was rising to another new, higher, more intense level of violence, and people were scared – CONFLICTED and scared.  One man (Charles Bronson) becomes an Activist in New York City after his family is attacked.  He is eventually labeled “The Vigilante” by the media, the public cheers him on, the police aren’t sure they want to catch him… everyone is conflicted, even the criminals, who begin to “cool it”.  Not much has changed since those times, except criminals carry bigger weapons than they did then, and no one has scared them since the “Subway Vigilante” – Bernard Goetz – took care of business in December of 1984.  PS:  Watch for Jeff Goldblum in a small role, and Christopher Guest in a tiny role.  Herbie Hancock does a great musical score.  WOTO

”The Seven Year Itch” (again, 1955):  Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell.  There’s no attempt to hide the fact this film was taken from a stage play.  Watch this one for pure, light, occasionally witty entertainment.  It’s slightly sexy, goofy, and VERY 1955 in its thinking.  Marilyn, as is often the case, is overly made up (VERY 1955) but is still so luminous she shines through (but is not the 22 year old she plays – she was 29 at the time and would live only another 7 years).  Ewell is the bumbling, fantasizing middle aged (38) Everyman.  This is period fun, period.  Relax and enjoy.  WOTO

“The Big White” (2006):  It’s full of great comedic stars and has a dark edge.  Mix “Ruthless People” with “Fargo”, drop the quality some, and you get “The Big White”.  Holly Hunter and Giovanni Ribisi are the standouts, but don’t discount Robin Williams, Alison Lohman, Woody Harrelson, Tim Blake Nelson and others.  WOTO

“The Statement” (again, 2004):  A Nazi war criminal has been hiding (in France) for decades, leading what may have been a decent life ever since.  None the less, he’s always been on The List of those to be hunted, found, and killed – whether he knew it or not.  Thus goes the plot.  You’ll notice weak continuity details, a somewhat muddled story, and good acting from Michael Caine and Tilda Swinton.  It’s an entertaining and suspenseful enough film for a ride on the sofa.  Sometimes that’s all you need.   WOTO

“Fair Game” (2010):  I don’t like preachy, edu-agenda films, and this one has that flavor.  None the less, “Fair Game” tells one version of an incident a few years ago when our government “outed” one of our CIA agents (Valerie Plane) as punishment for an outspoken (anti-war) spouse.  Frankly, when something has that “agenda” tone, I don’t trust it, but let’s put that aside.  Sean Penn does a decent Sean Penn, but this role certainly didn’t challenge him.  Naomi Watts is worth watching, along with a number of other actors.  The constant moving jitter of “live” camera has become a movie cliché, especially when used relentlessly.  It’s tiring.  It’s too easy.  If you followed the news, you know how this turns out.  It’s no “All the President’s Men” but it’s still pretty good. 

“Trapped” (again, 2002):  As I basically said last time: “I rented this one to watch Charlize Theron do her job (as the Mom) – and I was NOT disappointed – at all.  Kevin Bacon was good, but the role wasn’t much of a stretch (as the bad guy).  Taylor Vince Pruitt was good, and his role reminded me of what I already knew he could do – as he’d done most of it in the much better film “Heavy” (with Liv Tyler) (as the fragile, withdrawn person).  Dakota Fanning, the little girl who plays the daughter, should have a great career ahead of her.  She’s more believable, and has a wider range, than any child that age I’ve seen in a long time.  Courtney Love does a good job, too, but doesn’t reach inside you.  The man who plays the Dad, Stuart Townsend, was, well… forgettable.  This is a standard, clock-ticking kidnap story full of exciting photography, action music, and tense moments based in reality… but, at a certain point it goes over the top and loses credibility.  It becomes implausible, and that was disappointing.  Watch “Trapped” for the acting, and the first 7/10 of the story.”  WOTO

“My Afternoons with Margueritte” (French, 2010):  Starring Gerard Depardieu and Gisele Casadesus, this is the story of an illiterate, middle-aged working man who meets an delicate, well-educated, 95 year old woman, who, like him, counts pigeons in the park.  They slowly learn more and more about one another.  This is a tender and predictable film with healthy reminders that bear repeating.

“The Artist” (2011):  A contemporary, near-entirely silent film?  Yes, about the silent film era as it transitioned into sound.  Careers were destroyed, careers were made.  If you already know this, then there’s nothing else to learn from this film.  It’s a melodrama in that old style.  What you can enjoy, however, is the photography, lighting, sets and costumes, and a few witty scenes.  That’s it.

 “Sundowners” (1950):  This western is more interesting than many, mainly due to more complex characters and choices given them throughout the story.  Starring Robert Preston, Robert Sterling, Chill Wills, and the lovely Cathy Downs.  I saw a very poor copy of the film, and I’m sure it could be a good looking Technicolor mini-epic with a restoration.  This is NO “Shane”, but it’s pretty good.  WOTO

“Second Chorus” (again, 1940:  I pretty much HATE musicals, but once in awhile something slips past me because of dancing, décor, costuming, and/or deep kitschiness.  Well, when it comes to DANCING, there’s Fred Astaire (despite his singing) and Paulette Goddard in this one.  If that wasn’t enough, it IS a 1940 film, which means some pretty good Hollywood Deco, some cool dancing, and the Artie Shaw band, baby.  Dig.  WOTO

“The Last Time I saw Paris” (1954):  Two words: Elizabeth Taylor.  She was certainly at her most luminous.  Swirling about her were other fine actors: Van Johnson, Donna Reed, and Walter Pigeon.  The film is set in Paris on V-E Day.  An almost random (fateful?), romance begins between Taylor and Johnson (hardly a convincing couple when you looked at them), but the story has a strong arc of joy, sorrow, and resolution.  Just watch to gawk at Liz.  That was enough for me!  WOTO

“Unthinkable” (2010):  Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Sheen, and Carrie-Anne Moss in a high-tension cat-and-mouse thriller about a terrorist and those who are supposed to extract his knowledge in a very short period of time.  Engaging throughout (though a little too transparent in its news-relatedness), my only issue is with the style of the conclusion.  Somehow the last thirty seconds left me unsatisfied.  That’s all I can say (so far).

“The Cove” (2009):  This is an agenda-documentary.  It’s about the caging (entertainment industry) and killing (eating) of Dolphins.  If you are capable of skipping over the guilt of former “enablers”, dismissing the “bravado” of self-proclaimed hero-activists trying to undo the evil people and systems they see as wrong, and, if you are willing to always question the facts as they are presented, you’ll find this an interesting look at the Self-Righteous (on every side of a couple issues they raise) and how the combination of big business, cultural differences, and defensive, stubborn self-interest guarantees that a lack of workable solutions will be found.  THAT is the real message here, though everyone involved will deny it.

“Boom Town” (1940):  Starring Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert, and Hedy Lamarr.  The original all-American oil-drilling saga about competing powers, friends and enemies, love and hate, wealth and poverty all wrapped up in the late Depression / Pre-United States WWII era.  (Here, poverty wasn’t inevitable, and Hedy Lamarr – a German/Austrian – was called a Dutch woman in the film.)  It has drama, comedy, great sets, above average-to-great special effects, beautiful b/w photography, plenty of soap to drive the relationships, and an oil town so mucky, so dismal, so THICK and TAINTED, you can almost taste it.  Ugh.  Very enjoyable!  WOTO

“Ondine” (2009):  Although interesting and VERY Irish (expect difficulty understanding some of the speech), this is no “Secret of Roan Inish” with its deep, lyrical charm and mythology, nor a stupid comedy like “Splash”.  A fisherman (Colin Farrell) hauls in his net to find a woman in amongst the fish.  His daughter decides she must be a Selkie (a woman-seal creature), and indeed, this “catch” brings him surprising, good luck for awhile – at least while it’s easy and convenient to loll around in the idea of a magical story.  Things change.  While I’m here, I’m going to suggest that subtitles should be offered even when the “shared” language is considered the “same”.  Accents can be nearly as difficult as foreign words.  I had a TERRIBLE time with “Trainspotting” for example.

“City Island” (2009):  This is a sometimes biting but usually farcical comedy about a family that seems incapable of sharing the truth with one another.  Andy Garcia, Julianna Margulise, Emily Mortimer, Steven Strait, Alan Arkin star.  You KNOW someone’s something’s gonna eventually blow up.  It does.

“Fallen Angel” (1945):  This is a great Film Noir, starring Dana Andrews, Alice Faye, Linda Darnell, Charles Bickford, and lots of character actors from the time.  The photography is strong, the scoring moody, the sets appropriate, and the dialog full of tough guy talk and hot dame repartee.  Crime, passion, sleazy motivations, innocent girls, booze, rooms full of smoke, and a few twists and turns.  Truly a top notch example of the genre.  WOTO

“The Sandlot” (again, 1993): Inspired from “The Little Rascals”, “A Christmas Story”, and “Stand By Me” (but without the depth), this is a lighter, fun story (set in 1962) about a group of boys who love baseball, their free time, and their goofy, confused, adventurous, wing-it, mythical lives.  It’s pleasant viewing for an evening on the sofa.  WOTO

“Mr. Wong, Detective” (1938):  Boris Karloff and his lispy British or whatever accent dressed as a Chinese detective is the silly point of this film.  Low cred.  But, the whodunit factor is high here, and will keep you guessing all along.  It’s a fun one.  And, when things get slow, there’s Donald Deskey and other late Art Deco designer furnishings, cars, fashions, and buildings available for staring and lusting.  WOTO

“High Crimes” (again, 2002):  Ashley Judd does another good job along with Morgan Freeman and Jim Caviezel, in this fairly standard whodunit thriller.  Unfortunately, who DID “it” comes too easy.  All you need do is to look in the exact opposite direction… then look back where you started.  THIS is now passing for Intricate Plot.  None the less, the lead actors are fun to watch while the plot twists in the ways you suspect.  WOTO

“Waiting for Superman” (2010): Documentary with a slant by David Guggenheim.  It is about the state of public education in America and what is or isn’t being done about its problems.  Some of the information is interesting and discouraging.  He follows a number of families with children determined to “make it” despite the condition of their local schools.  Here’s the set up: NO time is given to an in-depth look at the majority of parents who are uninvolved or discouraging in the education of their kids.  MOST of the focus is aimed at voting against public schools, city bureaucracies, and teacher unions – pushing instead for charter, magnet, and private schools, merit pay for teachers, and standards of learning exams for students.  I.e., let’s keep looking everywhere BUT in the HOME for the answers as to why kids ARRIVE to school with an existing sense of day care-itis, a general sense of dislike or distrust, a lazy and entitled attitude, and an all-around negative, hopeless attitude.  Are there problem teachers and administrators?  Yes.  Are their vested interests in not only the status quo but the industry of perpetual “new” ideas and promises?  Yes.  Are students affected by the school environment which is seven hours of their day?  Yes.  NOW let’s talk about the OTHER seventeen hours based at home… or is that just a little too close to home?

“The Fabulous Dorseys” (again, 1947):  Made as the Dorsey brothers careers were on the wane, this is a sometimes highly romanticized look at The Past, with a tougher eye as their careers advance.  The story isn’t the payoff here… it’s seeing the real musicians do their music “live” for the film.  If you like Big Band jazz, you’ll enjoy this movie.  Also showcased is Janet Blair, Paul Whiteman, William Lundigan, Sara Allgood, Arthur Shields, Art Tatum, Charlie Barnett, Henry Busse, Bob Eberly, Ziggy Elman, Stuart Foster, Helen O’Connell, and others.  WOTO

“A Sentimental Journey – America in the 40’s” (documentary, 1997):  Hosted by Charles Durning.  This 3 vhs tape set put out by Reader’s Digest has the weaknesses you would expect from R.D. – a mixed bag of skimmed subjects, less than super production qualities, interviews with some people who seem to have little to offer… and yet deep down, especially with what Durning delivers, it has a serious, soul-searching, somber and respectful tone that keeps this look at the 1940’s from dancing off into nostalgic delusion.  That’s why I stuck with it.  It has an emotional truth to it.  WOTO

“The Dish” (Australian, 2000):  Based on a true 1969 story, it is about a small town in Australia that maintained the “back up” radar dish for NASA – the only one on that side of the planet able to capture video images.  And, the FIRST MOON LANDING was about to be attempted.  “The Dish” is a low-key comedy set in something like an Aussie version of Mayberry, but because of the subject – near and very dear to many of our hearts – it also revives a sense of awe, excitement, and pride in humanity seldom felt by so many at the same moment.  THIS was a TRUE MILESTONE in Human History.

“The Hollywood Sign” (2002):  Rod Steiger, Burt Reynolds, Tom Berenger in a dark comedy crime/heist movie.  The three leads play actors who never made it, and eventually stumble across an opportunity to run a deal that will either make them rich or dead.  The humor is in their pitifully bad acting, naïve thoughts, and stupid mistakes.  The movie loses focus once in awhile when it tries to present the “humane” side of things.  Screw that.  Stick with the heist.  The story has a couple of fun plot twists as well.  WOTO

“Going in Style” (1979):  Totally entertaining in its dry, patient timing and humor … and what would you expect from George Burns, Art Carney, and Less Strasberg?  Three old guys, now roomies to save money, kill their time on park benches.  It’s an exciting day if they get to yell at a kid.  George comes up with idea – mainly to add pizzazz to their humdrum.  Rob a bank?  Ever done that?  No.  Which one?  How could it matter?  When?  Soon, why not?  How do you do it?  I dunno!  At this point, the story could go numerous ways, any one of which you might guess.  But, THIS one takes two paths: one funny, one sad.  It left me not only with mixed emotions, but mixed feelings about the film.  None the less, I enjoyed the journey.  WOTO

“In the Cut” (2004):  There are reasons to see this film:  Meg Ryan performs an unusual, interesting role as a plain-jane nobody living with hidden fantasies (perhaps THE dramatic role of her career to date); Jennifer Jason Leigh creates another of her patented, screwed-up women roles; and the fact this is a murky, almost hallucinatory, violent crime drama done by Jane Campion.  The story itself, by Susanna Moore, pulls a few too many obvious tricks to divert your attention from The Unknown Killer, but Campion takes it in a Noir-ish, swirling stew of lust, paranoia, and violence.  If it weren’t for the “diversionary” tactics used throughout the film, I’d have it in the next higher category.  WOTO

“Rango” (2011?):  This one isn’t by Pixar but Dreamworks, which puts it in second place, but… it has SOME funny, witty moments, and SOME beautifully drawn animation.  We are given the story of a reluctant Hero – a bug-eyed lizard who is forced into an adventure that will change his tiny life.  (Think Barney Fife.)  The dialog is loaded with 1) “adult” humor kids will not catch, 2) tons of other movie and actor references which would be fun to “notepad” with friends one evening (have a competition!), and 3) silly jokes everyone can enjoy.

“Danny Deckchair” (Australian, 2004):  In many ways a standard, predictable, romantic comedy, and certainly low budget in its special effects, this little film still has a certain charm and silliness you can enjoy.  A simple guy leads a typical working class life in suburban Sydney.  He TRIES, okay?  Still, he’s burning out.  He gets a hare-brained idea how to add excitement to his day… but it goes way above and beyond what anyone could have predicted.  Well, except that it IS predictable.  Sit back, float with it, take the trip.  Don’t ask much – and it WILL entertain.  WOTO

“Spy in Black” (1939):  In real life, 1939 was a tense year for Britain, Europe, and Scandinavia.  Hitler was already throwing his weight around, but only at those he knew were closer to defenseless.  He was a coward, not a fool OR a genius.  Still, he’d convinced all those concerned that if THEY would give him pieces of OTHER countries he wanted, he’d leave those concerned alone.  This line of crap actually worked, Russia got in on the action, and soon Czechoslovakia and Poland were swallowed up.  All through the 1930’s, with the writing literally on the walls and in the shop windows of “undesirables”, masses of humanity tried to escape the Nazis and their collaborators.  It was in THIS VERY TENSE, REAL environment that “Spy in Black” was set.  WWII had NOT begun (yet), so this story takes place in WWI, 1917, with who else but the British against the Germans.  This is a typically British – a low-key drama with lots of people slipping in and out of the dark and fog as spy versus spy versus counterspy.  There are some slick surprises in this Noir work.  WOTO

“The House on 92nd Street” (1945):  This is a fresh-out-of-the-War retelling of a German spy ring in America who got hold of U.S. atomic bomb data in the early 1940’s.  VERY serious business.  The film is done in a semi-documentary, “Dragnet” style and, although heavy on the FBI propaganda pitch, is a true story using many of the real people and locations (with reenactments as needed).  I found it fascinating what and how – over seventy years ago – the Allied counter-espionage efforts accomplished without any such thing as computers, the web, etc..  This is NOT a film about lighting, acting, camera or sound work.  This is about information.  WOTO

“Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (again, 1936):  Starring Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, with the usual cast of character actors Frank Capra trusted, loved, and hired repeatedly, this is the story of a simple, small town man who is suddenly grabbed and thrown into the limelight, surrounded by wolves, and may very well be eaten alive.  Capra clearly likes the Every Man, and clearly dislikes opportunists, slackers, and cons, which shows in nearly every film he created.  What also shows is his love of the American ideal – and the people who acknowledge it is dream – but a dream worth trying to reach using the freedoms we try to improve.  “Mr. Deeds…” is perhaps the start of Capra’s social conscience films, and though rough around the edges, it is funny, quirky, disgusting, sad, and inspiring.  I view his films like I do other artists: each work is practice for the next.  For Capra, it all culminates with “It’s a Wonderful Life” – mature, balanced, finessed, subtle, yes inspiring, and very elegant right out to the edges.

“Joyless Street” (“Die freudlose Gasse”) (1925):  This is the silent film that introduced the world to Greta Garbo.  No doubt about it, she had something.  Her acting was unique, and she was luminously dark.  Add in dramatic lighting and photography – nearly Expressionist in its pre-Noir style.  Sadly, MY copy held the most inappropriate and completely disengaged baroque classical music as a score as has ever been forced upon a film.  And, it appears my version was essentially edited in half!   The ORIGINAL length is listed as 125 minutes.  Often, American theaters chopped the hell out of foreign films, assuming our “locals” couldn’t sit still for two hours… Either way, what you’ll get is are some stunning visuals, characters worth watching, and a classic, soapy, morality tale – this one set and made in Vienna during its Great Depression, which set a REAL “stage” for the opportunist Adolph Hitler.  WOTO

“Penthouse” (1933):  Starring Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy (in her first major role).  This is a very stylish, lightly dramatic crime whodunit set in the very Moderne penthouses of New York City.  Loy is clearly the shining star – cute, feisty, ready for anything.  Baxter can keep up, and is a good foil to her.  You can also expect some laughs with the Man Servant, and the Kingpin with a Heart.  “Penthouse” was done in a clear, shining, Art Deco Hollywood style.  WOTO

“Hugo” (2011):  This is an entertaining little fantasy about a boy who must find his destiny through the most literary and mechanized means imaginable.  It is a visual treat but has a predictable story.  It reminds me of other CGI and steam-punk projects, with too many bland characters but a couple great ones, and the entire work demands you suspend your disbelief or the continuity problems will drive you nuts.  Mainly, this film is a charming, emotional love poem to early film making – especially if you already know something of the history of films (and it does include “lessons” in the film).

“Wonderland” (2003):  This is a dramatic but fairly accurate recreation of the post-fame life of porn star John Holmes.  Is it a typical story of a shooting star?  Yes.  And, it’s made at an acceptable level.  Starring Val Kilmer, Kate Bosworth, Lisa Kudrow, Josh Lucas, and Dylan McDermott (the least believable), this is the story of the last phase of a tragic life and those taken down with it.  What adds MORE punch to this film is the second full-length disk, which is a true documentary about Holmes.  Seen together, they remind one how many bad choices can be made, who you associate with matters, and your delusions will assuredly collapse.  WOTO

“Dressed to Kill” (British, 1946):  Adapted from a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle book, this is another witty, above average whodunit starring  Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce – in where else but foggy London, with a slinky femme fatale and missing printing plates for the British five pound note!  Intrigue!  Murder!  Cat and Mouse moves!!  That’s all I need to say.  WOTO

“Witness” (again, 1985):  Sure, there are all the action/drama clichés, along with the patented Harrison Ford Pair-O-Facial Expressions.  Of course there’s a beautiful woman who gets naked, and bad guys with all kinds of guns.  Given this, don’t expect a truly unique experience, and yet, the SETTING – in an Amish community – DOES separate it enough from other films with otherwise same components.  Directed by Peter Weir.  Kelley Lynch, Lucas Haas, and if you watch closely, other eventual stars are in this entertaining story.  Just for fun, watch for a very young Viggo Mortensen.  Watch Kelly (the Amish love interest) Lynch’s makeup do flip-flops: if it’s a scene about the Amish, no make up; if it’s a scene about romance or sex, make up!  The Amish must be a bunch of hypocrites!  The scoring is, as my wife put it, “overbearing”.  It has that Eighties electronic sound, and is used in nearly identical fashion whether it is a pastoral, violent, thoughtful, or sexual scenario.  One size fits all.  Maurice Jarre did the score.  He’s usually better than that.  Danny Glover plays an evil man.  That’s a nice switch.  There are continuity problems, which are always fun to score when the film gets boring or predictable. There are a few extremely memorable scenes.   WOTO

“Public Enemies” (2009):  This is a fairly accurate recreation of the criminal life of John Dillinger.  Set in 1920’s and 30’s mid-America during the Great Depression, we watch Dillinger – one of the last surviving “romantic” bank robber / killers play cat-n-mouse with J. Edgar Hoover, Melvin Purvis, and the newly forming F.B.I..  Toss in the Love Interest, of course.  Fine.  Should be plenty.  Johnny Depp, Christian Bale (!), Marion Cotillard (!), Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Giovanni Ribisi… what could go wrong?  Well, very little, but… despite some great actors, Michael Mann did not extract their best; despite great sets, Michael Mann had continuity flaws (including the Classic “instant-ON” tube radio); despite wonderful photography (but a very poor special effect), fine scoring, effective costuming, etc., Michael Mann’s effort left me… not cold, but cool.  Everything added up to about a 75% effort.  Something was always missing, that last, most important level: depth, soul, connectedness, fully expressed insight.  Missing.  You leave the film feeling “dramatized” but empty.  “Bonnie and Clyde” gets closer to the goal.  See that one (again).  WOTO

“The Debt” (2010):  Solid acting, strong and complex plot, dramatic scoring, good photography, sets and lighting… hey… what’s not to like?  Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Ciaran Hinds, and Tom Wilkinson bring the story to a highly believable level.  But, if you know just a little about Israel’s policies and shadowy death squads that hunt escaped Nazis (to this day), you’d have to roll your eyes at the procedures used (in the plot) to successfully kidnap, maintain (!), and safely move an enemy until courtroom justice can be fairly administered.  Huh uh.  That’s way too much trouble.  Slip in, kill, slip out, never mention it.  Enemy: dead.   Next one on the list…

“Scarlet Street” (again, 1945):  Depending upon how you feel about Film Noir, you’ll either enjoy this one a lot, or want to put it in the category below.  Imagine Edward G. Robinson as a meek, mild, hen-pecked husband.  Difficult to do?  It was for me… for the first few minutes… and then his ability to create this character makes you forget his gangster roles.  Imagine Dan Duyrea as a sleaze ball.  Yes, he does a good job of THAT.  And finally, what about Joan Bennett as a VERY hot, beautiful, manipulative Noir broad?  No problem there.  None.  “Scarlet Street” is directed by Fritz Lang, who was my initial reason for seeing this film.  As it turned out, the story – albeit a tad longer than necessary? – is a dandy.  We have dark revenge, twisted irony, plot surprises, moral lessons, more darkness, and blinding, harsh glare all in the same steamy story.  WOTO

“Topper Returns” (1941):  This is a wacky farce whodunit starring Roland Young, Joan Blondell, “Rochester”, MM mm Carole Landis, and a couple of very cool cars.  The plot drags in spots and could’ve used someone with sharp scissors to trim it down, but it’s still fun.  WOTO

“Beaufort” (Israeli, 2007):  Oscar-nominated, a film about men in war… and yet it’s in THIS mediocre category of mine?  ‘Fraid so.  The film is divided into two emotional rivers – each draining strength off the other.  One: a reasonable look at a brotherhood of men caught in the bleak world of war – hours and days of mind-numbing boredom with occasional moments of absolute terror and devastation.  The other: a major desire to retell a recent (1999-2000) Israeli story to Israelis, with the built-in assumption the audience will be affected by not just what they see in the film, but what they know from the real and personal experiences.  Had THIS aspect been downplayed or kept absent, we’d have a better film along the line of (but not equal to) “Das Boot” and other claustrophobic, wall-climbing battle stories.  However, as it is, we – an international audience – are presented with a default one-sided story (you never even SEE an “enemy” soldier) missing a wiser look the broader understandings undistracted by the specifics which will not matter to the LARGER, “outside” audience.

“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008):  Last night, my wife and I watched Woody Allen’s latest (?) film – improperly billed as a comedy.  It’s not funny.  Nor is it much of a drama.  It’s just sort of hangs there in the middle.  I viewed a group of people flounder along and fail to find resolutions for those things they claimed were banes of their existences.  After it was over, my wife said “Well, that was a one-time view”.  I tend to agree.  Nothing was bad, nothing was especially good (interesting), and nothing seemed to be learned or put into action by any of these characters.  I need to ponder it more, but I suspect I’ve already learned enough about this condition from people I’ve known in real life.  One way or another, I at least want to LEARN from an experience.  WOTO

 

 4.

Not Quite So-sofa but not quite Crap

 

 

“The Peacemaker” (1997):  A terrorist group hijacks ten atomic warheads. Things appear to go wrong, people are alerted, and a vague chase begins. George Clooney and Nicole Kidman team up to save the world. It is a Hollywood “cartoon”. With one-dimensional creation reigning supreme throughout this film in all its aspects, the only positive aspect is its twists-n-turns movement despite an obvious outcome. This was an acting walk in the park. A paycheck for Clooney and Kidman. Hey, I understand. I too have bills to pay. WOTO

“9 1/2 Weeks” (1986):  This was sure a big deal when it came out.  Yeh… well… it was the 80’s.  It took the standard “We’re from different sides of the tracks” theme mixed with MTV style scenes pumped up with contemporary music, lots of backlighting, lots of the color black and the Techno look to everything (not that there’s anything wrong with that…), the money-honey wall street ‘tude, and everything dripping with faux-sex.  Young Mickey Rourke isn’t nearly as good as older Mickey Rourke, however, Kim Basinger (I’m NOT a fan) was better than I expected (going by her later movies).  This is a brainless film with some good late-teen erotica.  WOTO

”Bonhoeffer – Agent of Grace” (1999):  This version of his story is mediocre, with low production qualities and some continuity issues.  It’s simply weak.  I don’t hate it, I don’t love it.  Meh.  If you want to learn more about this man, there is a much better film – a documentary: “Bonhoeffer” (2003), Finnish. 

“Night and Day” (1946):  I’m going to take it easy on this one.  I hate musicals.  I hate their lurid, out of context, hallucinatory fluffiness.  This one, based (?) on Cole Porter’s life, has one buffer: nearly all the music is set within the context of rehearsals and shows.  None the less, this post-war, Technicolor bad dream covered over in avalanche of pastels and adhesive rhinestones is NOT my cup-o-joe.  If you love musicals, I don’t know, maybe you’ll love this one too… but I doubt you and I can have a relationship.  WOTO

“Twin Peaks Fire Walk with Me” (1992):  I’m a fan of David Lynch’s potential in making films.  I’ve followed his work since “Eraserhead” and “The Elephant Man”.  Lynch made “Fire Walk with Me” AFTER his television series “Twin Peaks”.  I saw a couple episodes of the series.  It was unique for tee-vee but weak for Lynch.  The film upset fans of the t.v. show.  They felt it abandoned the series.  I’ve now seen the film, and felt it too was weak for Lynch… i.e., the entire Twin Peaks experience is weak and strained in comparison to some of his other work.  I love some of his sets and costuming, the photography and lighting, the scoring (by Angelo Badalamenti is brilliant as always, his characters, and the actors work (but Chris Isaak is awful).  Lynch always walks a fine line in telling a story – between the cohesively incomprehensible and the transparently surreal.  This one is the latter, and that is not a compliment.  WOTO

“Meet the Robinsons” (2007):  Disney bought Pixar but promised to not interfere with their team.  Smart move.  Disney, who made “Meet the Robinsons”, shows why they should stay away from the best: they aren’t.  From the blatant story line and shallow characters to the spotty visual results and huge mistakes in scoring, this is a turn-your-brain off, enjoy-some-scenes, and expect-nothing-more animated movie that desperately wants to be equal to Pixar quality but has no clue how to go about it.  You can’t “hate” it, and though only occasionally funny or witty, all it’s trying to do is what Disney typically does – 1) Sell more Disney, and 2) tug at lowest common denominator heart strings… to sell more Disney.  All I can hope – nearly pray for – is they keep their controlling hands off their brilliant, black sheep adopted child, Pixar.  WOTO

“Thelma & Louise” (again, 1991):  I saw this “period piece” first run in the theater.  The audience was composed of fools who soured my chance to properly experience it.  I gave up on theaters because of such crowds.  Since then, I MAY have seen it but I’m uncertain… so here we are in 2010 and I had the chance to try it sans idiots and jerks.  Let’s put it this way – “Thelma & Louise” aged like a twenty one year old Quickie Mart wine.  There are two good reasons to see this film, but first the reasons to avoid it:  It’s still very much a product of the 80’s, which means inappropriate, loud scoring and song placement stuck willy-nilly over the moving pictures; cheezie lens filters; incredibly blatant, stylized, and (again) inappropriate lighting running the gamet from their T-bird dashboard to entire mountains; continuity problems up the wazoo including no one bothering to make certain it was correctly day or night, or the car was supposed to be clean or dirty, etc. during a single scene; and, not surprisingly, every male character in this feminist/victim tale is a one-dimensional caricature of a cliché of a stereotype.  We’re talking laughable film making.  So then, what’s to like?  What’s to like is the acting of Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis.  THEY are the ONLY reason this one isn’t in my Category 5.  WOTO

“Shenandoah” (again, 1965):  Classic 1960’s moovie set a hundred years earlier (Civil War) but totally 1965-contemporary in its use of young tee-vee stars, fashionable hair-dos, issues of their day thinly disguising Issues of Our Day: women’s rights, integration, the peace movement, individual rights, governmental control… you name it.  This is Hisstory rewritten so we can talk to ourselves.  Go in with this understanding – AND a sense of humor – and you’ll enjoy much of it.  There are also the incredibly artificial, choreographed fight scenes, lacks of continuity and logic, lighting that requires total suspension of disbelief, and enough literary ironies to choke a family of nine.  One saving grace:  James Stewart acting circles around every other human near that camera.

“Mark of the Vampire” (1935):  If I say Bela Lugosi, you’ll get the wrong picture.  Think more along the line of Lionel Barrymore, director Tod Browning (who did “Freaks”), and set decorator Cedric Gibbons.  Yes, there’s silliness to this film, but the photography and lighting are wonderful, and there’s a super twist to the plot you will NOT see coming!  It’s not a great film, but has some good components.  WOTO

“The Mask of Fu Manchu” (1932):  You really need to be in a forgiving mood – and prepared to put your brain on a shelf – when watching 1930’s “serial” style movies.  If you see the name Boris Karloff, it’s a good warning.  Even if they put him in Chinese clothing, make his eyebrows pointy, and droop his eyelids, he’ll still have that cheesie-dramatic, English lisp of a voice.  The surprise here was Myrna Loy as his lovely but deadly Chinese daughter.  This was VERY hard to swallow.  I kept expecting her to fire off some witty wisecracks.  Then there was The Handsome Man, the Loving Father, the Dedicated Servant, the Mindless Slaves… et cetera… rounding out the “dramatic” cast.  The story and its construction are just silly.  So WHAT was there to enjoy?  The sets were done by THE Art Deco movie dresser Cedric Gibbons.  Not only is everything he touches full of style, but he does a weird, good job of never letting go of the Moderne style even when depicting Asian palaces, torture rooms (and these are dandies!), and ancient tombs.  Ya just gotta love that!  WOTO

“Murrow” (1985):  Starring Daniel J. Travanti, Dabney Coleman, Edward Herrmann.  The power is in the story of Edward R. Murrow, not in this particular telling.  The film has the look and low production qualities you would expect from 80’s television.  Editing is choppy, continuity has mistakes, photography is seldom more than the capture of images, acting is acceptable, special effects bad.  If you want to see a higher quality take on Murrow’s life, see “Good Night, and Good Luck”.  WOTO

“A Shot in the DarK” (again, 1964):  When I say “again”, I mean I’ve seen it before and just saw it again.  I saw this one in 1964 – and 2012.  Things change.  This is probably the least funny of the “Inspector Clouseau” series with Peter Sellers.  See ones with the title words “Pink Panther” in them.  They’re better.  However… Elke Sommer is STILL a Babe-O-Rama in this silly flik (despite most of her awkward hair dos), and restirs the heart (or something) of the 14 year old boy who first saw her on the screen 48 years ago.  A Sixties hottie, for sure!  WOTO

“Gung Ho” (1943):  If nothing else, I learned that “Gung Ho” is Chinese for approximately “Work Together”… but read on.  I have a larger point to make.  This is a WWII recreation of specially trained Marines aimed at taking the island of Makin (in the Pacific) during 1942.  The film was made only about 12 months later than the real events.  This means it was put together fast.  It was put together fast because “Gung Ho” was aimed at the public.  It was aimed at the public because we needed all the encouragement, steam, and faith there was to be found in the midst of a war we were still losing.  War films made DURING that war are unlike others.  These are made with a heavy hand.  There is no time for subtlety.  They are propaganda.  Every side concocts encouragement.  Every side wants their people to behave like a Team, to follow orders, and to inspire and threaten others to tow the line.  Every side wants to win, and no side is utterly convinced they are invulnerable.  (Those who are always see their own defeat.)  I like this genre of film because propaganda is of interest to me, and these movies tell a certain kind of “truth” that isn’t found outside their current era’s atmosphere.  That “truth” is told in two ways: 1) more and accurate details of people, equipment, and places (because the public was better informed and motivated), and 2) the emotional truth of that public is laid bare for us to see and question from the convenience of our cozy armchairs (“The only good Jap is a dead Jap” etc.).  If there IS such a thing as a Righteous War – if there IS such as thing as True Evil – and IF True Evil requires others to sacrifice themselves to defeat it – then I cannot fault “propaganda” as a method of refueling the disheartened, doubtful, and tired survivors.  Let the more balanced views come before or after the battle.  THIS is why I find such B-grade movies fascinating.  WOTO

“Wasted” (2002):  Texas teens – good, white suburban kids – addicted to heroin.  Produced by MTV, complete with its shaky camera video look, and having some of the script style of an After School Special, this is none the less a worthwhile film for the under-21, hopefully still reachable crowd.  Unfortunately, it nearly denies the nightmare of drug withdrawal.  Nick Stahl is good, Summer Phoenix is great, and others are also good in their relaxed, believable lead roles.  They were a pleasure to watch in their codependent, rationalizing, pathetic ways.  WOTO

“Ruthless” (1948):  Starring Zachary Scott, Louis Hayward, Diana Lynn, Sydney Greenstreet, Lucille Bremer, and Martha Vickers.  This is a pot-boiler cousin to “Citizen Kane”, where the good go bad, spend their lives in focused misery, and fail to find the way back to the heart.  Bitterness, conniving, existential dog-eat-doggery abound in this stylish-but-lower grade morality play.  WOTO

“Five Corners” (1987):  Have you ever met someone who tries their damnedest to be liked by everyone?  That’s this film.  It attempts to not only weave about seven different stories together, but be a nostalgia flick, a brutal drama, and a comedy.  Director Tony Bill just couldn’t handle it, I guess.  Lots of loose ends were left dangling for no good reason… there wasn’t even a sequel or action figures prepared for a follow-up.  Actors Tim Robbins and Todd Graff are acceptable at best, Jodie Foster does a better job, but it is only John Turturro who shines – and he’s a psychopath.  The sets are also very good.  The costuming is a little too self-consciously “1964”, the time in which this film is set.  See it for Turturro, or see it to kill time.   WOTO

“Seven Doors to Death” (1944):  Late WWII whodunit mystery with some snappy patter and characters set in what must have been considered the precursor to a shopping mall.  Lots of shots fired in the dark, women screaming, bodies hitting the floors, and plenty of doors cracking open and quietly closing.  Unfortunately, the story seemed muddled and not worth trying to “figure out”.  WOTO

“Music Within” (again, 2007):  This movie is based on the true story of the man who eventually came to lead the Americans Disability Act.  Here’s the good news:  some of the acting is pretty good.  Michael Sheen as “Art” is great.  GREAT.  Unfortunately, everyone else is mediocre, the “period” sets, cars, costumes, music, etc. are off as much as 10 years from the year claimed, other continuity problems exist, the story as told is shallow, too fast, and lacking in detail, the music score does the “let’s use hit tunes from that year” shtick, the vehicles have “Clean Car Syndrome”, and there’s a general made-for-tv, “edu-info” feeling to the “lessons” being crammed into this story.  All in all, this is an amateurish effort, and the only two reasons I have it in THIS category (not lower) is you may want to learn how the Disabilities Act came about, and watching Sheen is a tremendous joy.  WOTO

“The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming” (1965):  After a somewhat mysterious opener, the film takes off as a decent farcical comedy (with Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, Alan Arkin, Brian Keith, Theodore Bikel and Jonathan Winters) but slowly morphs into an unabashed and obvious socially conscious drama.  Prepare to be slapped in the face with a mid-60’s “The Youth of the World is Our Only Hope” message.  I like this film for two reasons: the better comedic moments, and, its being a true Period piece implying our struggle out of the Cold War and into the Peace Movement…for all its naiveté.  WOTO

“Howl” (2010):  Using only audio records and transcripts of Allen Ginsberg and others, this is a highly “artistic” look at his creation and publishing of the poem “Howl”, and its ensuing court battle against censorship.  It is, in other words, a star-filled documentary of sorts, but filled with animation purporting to “illustrate” passages of the poem.  And there is the problem.  The animation is colorful, active, and flashy – demanding – which steals audience energy and focus from the Art it was obligated to support.  My wife ended up closing her eyes so she could focus on the content of the words.  I watched, but knew I was viewing animation made by an artist who did NOT (?) understand his/her role as an illustrator, and attempted to use “Howl” as an opportunity to prove THEIR own worth.  If any artist wants to show their personal best, they create their own work.  They do not ride on the famous backs of others and cast a shadow upon their clients.

 

 

5.
“QUICK !   DUCK !!

It just hit the fan !!

 

 

 

“Life with Father” (1947): You’d think with William Powell, Irene Dunne, Elizabeth Taylor, and Zasu Pitts something could be done with ANY script thrown in front of them… but not this one. “Life with Father” is supposed to be loaded with snappy dialog, non-stop wacky interactions, and lots of that “Gay (18)90’s” nostalgia. Ugh. I didn’t like the characters, the 1947 vision of 1888 was probably as “off” as most other Hollywood efforts to cash in on “olden daze”, and try as they no doubt did, the actors were unable to beat that script into anything beyond frantic obnoxiousness. WOTO

 “Mothra vs Godzilla” ( “Godzilla vs The Thing” ) (again, Japanese, 1964):  There are good films, bad movies, good bad movies, and bad bad movies.  This one is just a bad movie.  It’s dopey, dull, and really dull. 

“The Charles Bukowski Tapes: Vol. 1” (1983):  If you like Bukowski’s poetry, read it.  If you want to beaten to death with 240 minutes of amateurish video tape, a mind-numbing format, and the drunken slurs and slurring of a worn-out man, see this French “interview”.  Like the proverbial drunken monkey at a typewriter, yes, he DOES say some things worth hearing, but the cost is too high. 

“Exodus” (again, 1960):  Nominated for three Academy Awards, running 3 ½ hours in length, starring Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Sal Mineo, Peter Lawford, and Ralph Richardson, this film asked a lot from a 1960 audience but asks much more from a 2012 audience lacking patience, motivation, perspective, education, and perhaps a more sophisticated set of film going expectations.  It has not aged well.  “Exodus” is long, often slow-moving in its attempts to organize and clarify, and yet assumes the viewer was/is already reasonably aware of Israel’s choppy beginning.  True to Hollywood form, “Exodus” sometimes puts style above logic and continuity (stars wear 1960 hair styles in1946; lighting is unintentionally surreal, especially for night scenes), inserts profitable box office actors whether or not s/he is appropriate to the role (Paul Newman was at one of his peaks (in the “Hud” era), but he was NOT well-chosen as the revolutionary Jewish son of a revolutionary Jewish father who established the first plot of Israeli land in Palestine.  Peter Lawford as a racist didn’t quite fit, Eva Marie Saint as the narrow-minded-but-lovely-sexy American was optimistic, and Sal Mineo as the young, shiny-faced, determined Jewish terrorist killer was really out there), many of the characters are predictable with clear fates, and the script tells the viewer what to think.  It is one of those big, sweeping films which received much attention at the time because it was OF its time.  Its large point of view is slanted to one side (Israel vs the World) but is somewhat mitigated by admitting to infighting of Jewish factions.  “Exodus” was a Product, and written all over it is “Made in Hollywood with the Stamp of Approval by those Holding an Interest”.  WOTO

“Chained for Life” (1951):  You may know the Hilton sisters – the Siamese twins – from the 1932 film “Freaks”.  They were coaxed into a second film nearly twenty years later – a lame exploitation film over which there was little to sympathize, groan, or laugh.  It’s simply dull.  DULL.  They’re terrible actresses, the production is terrible, the script is terrible, all of it is TERRIBLE.  Not good terrible, not fun BAD.  Just ignoring-worthy. 

“Peter’s Friends” (1992):  This movie SOOOOO wanted to be the “The Big Chill” for the next generation.  So much.  And, that is its problem.  The plot was fully stolen, and with that attitude came a lack of character depth.  You don’t care about any of these “friends” – you feel no attachment or concern – which can only prove it’s the material not the actors.  It is fair to expect Kenneth Branagh, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, and others to give you something of substance, but each was handed a tee-vee dinner and told to behave as though this was a fine, 15 course meal.  WOTO

“Blindness” (2008):  It had to eventually happen.  I have counted on Julianne Moore to make good career choices since Day One.  Well, it’s Day Thirteen, and a bad day it is.  “Blindness” is the biggest mess of terrible dialog, illogical circumstances, continuity screw-ups, and bad directing its only value can be as an unintentional comedy.  Also starring are Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover, and other actors I have respected.  I can only wonder who read the script and said “NO WAY!  NO THANK YOU!!”  I can’t even begin to describe it.  Just think “The Road” mixed with “Lord of the Flies” set in a concentration camp in a large American city, throw in a disaster moovie contagion, and… then downgrade it from a A to an F.  There ya go.

“Run for Cover” (1995):  This was rented by mistake.  I wanted “Run for Cover” (1955) directed by Nicholas Ray and starring James Cagney… and let me tell you, THIS AIN’T IT.  THIS is pure shit.  Not funny-laff-at-it shit, not tacky-good shit, just plain shit.  It’s the kind of film you’d make your film students watch so they’d be scarred enough to never make these mistakes themselves.  It was one big mistake, start to finish.  Just awful.  NOT Ed Wood awful, just PLAIN awful.

“For Richer or Poorer” (again, 1997):  Tim Allen and Kirstie Alley star as two rich, “high style” New Yorkers who have to go on the lam avoiding the IRS.  Most of the film is predictable and slapstick.  Moments of actual wit are few.  They try to “hide” in an Amish community.  Guess what?  They have trouble fitting in!  WOTO

“High Plains Drifter” (1973):  This is an early directorial effort by Clint Eastwood.  He also stars in it, of course.  What is most interesting is seeing this effort to combine his earlier Spaghetti Western successes as “The Man with No Name” with current interests.  All the same themes are remain – the Mystery Man with No Name; town full of staring, paranoid people; the stink of corruption everywhere; the Problem that Needs Solving, and Karma waiting to kick nearly every single ass.  The photography, scoring, story, the men, the women, sets, the landscapes… it’s all Spaghetti-esque, but doesn’t quite match up.  There’s that last 10% missing – the High Style of those Low Budget Italian films.  For example, Dee Barton may have longed to create a “haunting” score for “High Plains Drifter” but he ain’t no Ennio Morricone, folks.  That’s all.  Go in expecting less than 100%, and you’ll enjoy this addition to the genre.  Go in as a big fan of the original Italian films, and you’ll be left wanting more an hour later.  You get the joke.  WOTO

“Battle Royale” (Japanese, 2000):  A middle school classroom of students are kidnapped to an island and told they have three days to kill all of their classmates and be the one and only survivor allowed to leave.  The first twenty minutes have a certain snide Pop culture ‘tude about it, but it doesn’t take long before it simply becomes what it set out to be: a badly bred cross between the “Survivor” tee-vee show and “Lord of the Flies” delivered by Quentin Tarantino if he were Japanese, wrote video games, and was loaded on Red Bull “energy drink”.  This is one big crouching drag on and on.  Skip it.

“Gidget goes Hawaiian” (1961):  Unlike the original 1959 “Gidget” (with Sandra Dee) which has a certain innocent, kitschy charm, THIS “Hawaiian sequel” has nothing to offer.  In its bizarre way, it attempts to be “relevant”, but gives us characters entirely self-centered, unlikable, and tainted by the world.  (James Darren is the least affected of the bunch.)  Deborah Walley, in her first film and playing the lead role of Gidget, is not cute, attractive, or believable.  All the adults are idiots.  All the teens are connivers.  The special effects stink.  Someone got the brilliant idea to turn this one into a partial “musical” – and DEFINES the reason I hate musicals.  If “Gidget” was for teens, “Gidget goes Hawaiian” was for bitchy teens.  Ugh.  WOTO

“9 to 5” (again, 1980):  When countries go to war, they do this out of huge, apparently irreconcilable differences of opinion and perceived threats of unwanted change.  Each faction must paint a picture of the opposition as Wrong, with Evil Intent, and in Need of Defeat.  The Enemy must be simplified for easy hate.  The same can be said for factions of a culture in transition.  “9 to 5” is a classic example of flat stereotypes, goods vs evils, a simple story and a simple resolution.  The public will not understand or tolerate a more complex view of their current conditions.  This movie, at the beginning of the second decade of “’Feminism”, made every effort to propagandize but popularize serious issues with the pandering of a kindergarten teacher to children.  This movie was popular when it came out, despite theme songs and bad acting.  It did what it set out to do.  Now, with the distance of 32 years, it is embarrassing.  This is one Period Piece I don’t need in my collection.  If you’d like the dvd of “9 to 5”, I’ll GIVE it to you.  WOTO

“The Mysterious Mr. Wong” (1935):  Maybe you’re a Bela Lugosi fan?  Yes?  In that case, you won’t mind his playing an ancient Chinese man with a Transylvanian / Count Dracula accent, in New York City.  Expect a thin, unresolved plot, with lots of stereotypes, snappy patter, and stupid decisions to keep the action moving along.  Expect a bunch of American white guys with fu-man-chu moustaches and scotch tape to arch their eyebrows filling in the other Chinatown roles.  Anywhere you follow Bela, expect dumb to be there waiting for you.  This one has the depth of a Saturday afternoon serial.  WOTO

“Brand New World” (2004):  Once in awh I make a mistake.  Despite all the signs, my choices sometimes lead nowhere.  Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Jonathon Schaech, Julie Cox, Sammi Davis, Twiggy Lawson, Emily Lloyd… Music by Wendy Carlos… !!!  …and yet, NOWHERE.  Hidden somewhere in this small, awkward film was an attempt to describe women trying to deal with men who were ill-adapted soldiers of a recent war.  But mainly what you get is an uncooked shish kabob of poorly realized reality vs hallucination in the distant hope it can join the likes of “Apocalypse Now” mixed with “How I Won the War” and a dash of “M*A*S*H” but set in the Falklands (?) with British military and civilians “guarding” their success on a forlorn, sweepingly beautiful, bleak island.  THAT is the only reason to see this film: the landscapes.  Oh, and if you’re curious as to what Twiggy (THE “Twiggy”) looks like in 2004, this is your chance.  WOTO

“The Fourth War” (1990):  Once in awhile I make a mistake.  Despite all the signs, they sometimes lead nowhere.  John Frankenheimer.  Roy Scheider.  Jurgen Prochnow.  Harry Dean Stanton.  !!!  Nowhere.  The only good thing about bad films is they are fun to describe: It’s 1988 on the Communist border between Czechoslovakia and Germany.  Red and American guards sit bored in their own shanty encampments.  Along comes a loose cannon commander.  A Rogue.  Attitude.  Escalation.  All hell breaks loose.  The story becomes less and less credible until finally you feel like you’re watching “Rocky VIII”.  Continuity is thin-to-nonexistent.  Special effects were done by undergraduate set and pyrotechnic juniors.  Scoring – and let this be a warning to you for future choices – was by Bill Conti.  Think big, sweeping, relentless orchestral movements overstating the mundane and smeared upon inexplicable scenes in the style of “Chariots of Fire” meets “Star Wars” meets “Rocky I through XII” meets Italian Spaghetti Westerns in Oom Pah Pah Germany.  And then there’s The Ending.  A train wreck of an idea.  Just awful.  AWFUL.  Still, THIS was fun to write…  WOTO

“Road to Bali” (1952):  Technicolor shtick from start to finish with – if you’ve never noticed – the VERY gay “comedy” team of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, along with the ONLY reason I watched this awful thing – Dorothy Lamour, sadly slathered in paint, rhinestones, and silks.  IF you love bad, rapid-fire, vaudevillian patter and songs, then you’ll love this post-WWII diversion from quality.  WOTO

“Ma and Pa Kettle go to Town” (1949):  Let me get the one “plus” out of the way… I bought this AND watched it to see location film of New York City in 1949, and Hollywood’s studio version of same.  If THAT is enough for you, then see this moovie.  If not, run like a McCoy with a Hatfield on your tail.  For those who DON’T know who Ma and Pa Kettle were, think precursors to The Beverly Hillbillies yet less animated and just as stupid and without the slightest concept of birth control.  The film quality is really nice.  (That’s sort of like saying your ugly brother is a very nice person…)  Continuity, on the other hand, is, well… what in the Sam Hill is that there whachacalltit ? “canteen doohickey”?  They’re riding in a taxi, taking in the sights.  It’s raining on the right side of the street, dry and sunny on the left side.  Hey, you take what stock footage was on the table at the moment.  They walk out of a restaurant.  It’s day time.  They take two steps, and it is night time.  “The Big Apple – A Weird and Scary Place!”  In Ma and Pa’s defense, I must say they’re not nearly as IRRITATING as Granny and Jethro.  WOTO

“Chuck Berry – Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll” (1986):  If you like old Chuck Berry recordings from the 1950’s, and don’t want to damage your feelings about them, DO NOT view this 1986 documentary!!  It’s always sad to see someone still relying on successes from 30, 40, 50 years earlier, and whose ego depends entirely on convincing others of the ongoing, living value of endless re-presentations.  If that isn’t enough, he’s disagreeable, nasty, self-centered, demanding, pompous, angry, and can’t sing a note.  (He’s always yelled / spoken his lyrics, if you think about it.)  His entire focus is on money and getting the show done so he can leave.  He can’t recall the date of the wedding anniversary with his wife, but can tell you what he made at a gig in 1952.  He’s mad people won’t pay him more for his pimped-up Caddies and Lincolns, he’s mad the world isn’t fair, he’s mad when someone else expresses an opinion, he’ll slug you if you say hi at the “wrong” time, and he’ll bore you to death with the same old shtick show after show after show after show….

 

6.

Uh… Say WHAT?”

 

 

“Vampyr” (German, 1931):  After first viewing:  By Carl Dreyer, famed director of 1928’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (which I LOVE).  Hoping that ANY other film of Dreyer’s would match the quality of “…Joan” seems unfair, and “Vampyr” IS interesting…I’m just not sure what to DO with it.  The vampire is a VERY illusive character in this film…and I like that idea, which creates more uncertainty and suspicion, but it was also vague… leaving me befuddled.  I appreciated the camera work, lighting and “fog”, music, extensive use of double exposures for an out-of-body quality, the idea of shadows independent of their “host” source, and the acting of one woman (name unknown), who was bitten.  With no makeup or pointy teeth, she gives a truly scary interpretation of evil infecting a human.  (THIS scene was equal to the quality of “Passion…”)   I need to watch this one again.  WOTO

And,

After second viewing:  Well… for me the story is clearer but not clear, and it IS creepy at times, but slow and often dull.  It goes almost nowhere, and leans towards a suggestion of surrealism more than expressionism, etc..  Unique camera tricks kept me more interested than the story or most of the acting.  Scoring was good, lighting demanded your constant suspension of disbelief (there was no “night” all night long…), and, by no fault of Dreyer, I watched a KINO copy, which was rough, unrestored, faded, and oddly enough, used sound sometimes and subtitles others.  Language is German, and subtitles, though in English, are in an awful Ye Olde Deutschland font nearly impossible to read in the flash of a subtitle.  This is a film that has a certain place in a niche of history, but is not that interesting a work in and of itself in 2011.

And,

After third viewing:  I have seen the restored dvd version.  It is, of course, much easier to view.  The “vagueness” to the story seems to remain, and I’m going to assign this to culturally different signals I am not catching.  By FAR, I prefer his BRILLIANT “The Passion of Joan of Arc”.  WOTO

”Careful” (Canadian, 1992):   Created by Guy Maddin.  How do I explain I was both equally fascinated AND bored by this very unique work?  I read one description of this film as “German Expressionism meets David Lynch in Freudian therapy sessions”.  That’s very good.  The visual and audio distortions, use of color, abstracted lighting and sets, stiff acting, historical film style references, etc. were truly interesting.  Some of the dialog lines were wonderfully surreal.  I was artistically GLUED to this film by how it was MADE… but the “script” lacked the story-energy to keep it going in any direction long enough to be “followed”.  It is one hour and forty minutes in length.  I ended up wishing it’d been one hour – about the point when I began to drift from the visuals and audio, and was in need of other components to carry me further.  Perhaps I need a second viewing.

Last night, with some hesitation and an almost morbid curiosity about this film and our original, youthful impressions way back in 1959, my wife and I decided to watch the 3.5 hour “Ben Hur”.  What we expected was a big pile of Hollywood dopiness.

We (especially I) must have been in a generous or forgiving mood.  It’s true – Hollywood did its best to make a glitzy, embarrassing film, and yet: a) the 1959 public loved it, and b) we, mysteriously – in 2012 – sat tight and enjoyed it:

“Ben Hur”
(again, 1959):  When very young, my wife and I both (independently) saw this film first-run in our local theaters.  “ELEVEN Academy Awards!”  Glamour!  Action!  Romance!  Drama!  Religion!  Revenge!  And, there was of course The Chariot Race, which, according to everyone who knew anything, caused the death of two stunt men during filming – AND – because the camera shots were so good, they left them in the movie!  It was with these memories (and suspicions) we decided to re-view a movie that could not possibly hold up to our early, naive impressions or the hype of a studio.

We were right.  It’s a very long, extravagant, glitzy Hollywood product full of bad lighting, silly costuming, and continuity mistakes… yet, we kept watching… in part due to the “driving by an accident” syndrome when you can’t help but stare at the horror of it.  All the stars wore hair perfectly stylish for 1959 – not A.D. Zero-and-counting.  We laughed aloud at “special effects” such as The Star leading The Wise Men to The Manger.  (My God!  There’s a fast-moving star with a Halo AND a Spotlight!  Grab some expensive stuff and we’ll FOLLOW IT!!)  I saw things I KNOW inspired Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian”.  Plus, we watched a woman’s hair MAGICALLY go up on her head, come down, and go up again in one short scene.  (It’s ALIIIIVVVEEEE!!!)  We hiked DEEP into Leper caves apparently lit by side windows and skylights.  This WAS TRULY a Time of Miracles!!!  Yes, we – especially I – enjoyed taking potshots at the incredible……………. yet we kept watching.

The story IS engaging, even when entirely predictable and telegraphed through the very strict “representational“ sound structure of the scoring.  (“Ben Hur” could nearly be understood without dialog or images and you‘d still “know” the story entirely by its music!)  (Let’s call this type of scoring “overstatement”.)  Yet, the tale goes many directions, makes various turns, and shows both human flaws and crowning glories.  I admit being baffled by our tolerant reactions to such a long film with so many unintentionally laughable aspects… but there we sat, awake, alert, sticking with it for more than its being an easy target for jokes, detached from personal issues of devoutness, and following the story despite its many production flaws. 

It IS a Miracle!

“My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?” (2009):  Directed by Werner Herzog, produced by David Lynch.  This is a semi-true but highly adapted story of a young man who is going insane and is very driven by a “vision”.  I therefore see why Lynch, but especially Herzog, was attracted to the film’s potential.  I am a HUGE fan of Herzog’s work, and often a big fan of Lynch’s.  However, THIS time I’m having my doubts despite some interesting photography, scoring, and acting.

Lynch, at his best, takes the viewer on frightening excursions into very foreign places created by the fragile psyches of his characters.  Herzog, at his best, takes the viewer into somewhat normal appearing but fated circumstances, and confronts the viewer with his dark vision showing the characters almost as pawns in a much larger game.  In other words, they both deal with The Dark, but come to it along different roads.  I figured this film would be either a great double 1-2 punch, or 1/2 of a weakened single punch.

Werner Herzog moved to the United States.  As an artist, he decided to experience his new environment by interacting with it – w 66r25ng w5th d5fferent f530 crews, try5ng 64t new c633ab6rat56ns, etc..   ad05re Herz6g’s attem-ts t6 “stretch”… b4t th5s a3s6 mea2s new threats.  f y64 are fa05liar w5th ynch’s w6r2, y64’33 s-6t h5s “5ns-5rat56ns” and 5n-4t.  Y64’33 s-6t Herz6g’s r63e a3s6.  H6wever, 6ne see0s t6 neutra35ze the 6ther.  There ARE w6nderf43 scenes, s60e 6f wh5ch  I 3earned were created by Herz6g a36ne as 50-r6ve – i.e., he was working alone for the moment.

This was a meeting of Independent Giants of the Dark.  Their size and power caused them both to pause and cooperate way too often.  This made them weak, not stronger.  It was an interesting experiment.  It did not work… not to the degree I expected of each of them individually nor as a breeding experiment.  Only one chef in the kitchen, please.  Auteurs can’t tag team.  It’s like mixing metaphors.”

(PS: Above, the gobbledygook in paragraph two happened entirely on its own.  My keyboard suddenly started giving me different figures even though I was hitting the right keys.  Then, just as quickly, it cleared itself up again.  It has NEVER happened before.  It could ONLY happen as I was talking in a critical manner about Herzog, and Lynch…)

“Sex Madness” (1938):  I THOUGHT this 57 minute edu-sex film would go into my “Guilty Pleasures” category (so many of them do), but THIS movie is here in the “Uh… Say WHAT?” category due to the weirdest case of celluloid chopping perhaps ever to cover the floor.  “Sex Madness” WANTS desperately to tell you the story of two youths whose lives are dramatically altered by not listening to the advice of their elders and doctors, and find themselves afflicted with Syphillis.  However, the cutting of this thing – apparently done by monkeys with scissors tapes to their hands – jumps frantically and confusingly to such a degree, all moral lesions – sorry, LESSONS – are lost, and no story line threads reach conclusions that satisfy.  Everything else fits the bill for “Guilty”, but the editing makes it nearly surreal.  WOTO

“The Lion Roars” (1980’s I think):  This is a three-nighter documentary on the history of MGM Movie Studios.  If you love older films and background stories about who made what with whom and why for what price, this is a dandy.  If you hate poorly written narrative delivered by the absolute worst choice possible standing in front of questionable sets, I warn you now, it stinks.  Imagine Richard Burton being the host for a serious study of The Three Stooges, or Pee Wee Herman being the host for a look at the career of Ingmar Bergman.  WTF???  It’s that bad.  But, again, when they go TO the films, history, and interviews, this is very informative.  Oh, and keep in mind all the emotional memories you are seeing from old actors ARE from yes, ACTORS.  Just sayin’…  WOTO

“Trekkies” (1999):  One moment you’re feeling sorry for them, then you’re laughing at them, and then you’re so embarrassed over their delusions you don’t know what to do.  This is a documentary about the people who LIVE “Star Trek” – who, like the Dead Heads, have no significant work or personal life, pattern their real lives after a tee-vee show, have a huge need to belong somewhere… anywhere, and find a pathetic consolation in this “world”.  Some of them are just goofy, some disturbed, but I suspect most are simply very, very lonely.  Yes, the Star Trek conventions pull in big bucks, and yes, most of the original stars have moved on to… well… um… nothing… so they’re “thankful” for this massive group of lost, adoring souls – these obsessive-compulsives – these costumed admirers – but, at the same time, you can see it in the aging ex-stars faces – they think the whole phenomenon is pretty twisted too…. except for a couple of them who have glorified the show themselves – and THAT gives you the creeps too.  WOTO

“Black Jesus” (1971):  There were a lot of C-grade “blackspoitation” flicks made during the late 60’s and early 70’s in the United States.  They were filled with afro-dos, pimped-out rides, poly-bells, us-against-thems, poor production values, and plenty of funky soul music.  Despite the title, this one does not fit the pattern.  First, it’s Italian, so the look is more “spaghetti western” than “grits in the city”.  Next, it’s set in the Belgian Congo.  Yes, there is a “struggle against the Man” theme, but it’s a quirky spin on the stories of Jesus the revolutionary.  The dialog is spare, the photography often beautiful (though I own a lousy, rough copy of a copy of a copy), the design made me wonder if its roots were a stage play, and the scoring was repetitive (without a lick of Funk).  I believe this one was made for an African audience which no doubt had a very different sensibility.  I was left feeling ambivalent as I shed my funky expectations and the copy’s poor presentation, and tried to reconsider what was clearly a low-budget film with plenty of weaknesses but demanded further interpretation.  WOTO

 

7.


“Guilty Pleasures”

(Okay, you caught me!)

 

  

“Forbidden Planet” (again, 1956): Filled with the optimisms and fears of atomic technology, nearby memories of WWII, and the potential good(s) of newness espoused and consumed by all Americans, “Forbidden Planet” is a classic 1950’s sci-fi/Cold War look at 1956 dressed up as 2227 A.D.. Despite the human willingness to explain fears as caused by “the alien”, this story flirts with the need to address – with more wisdom – our Selves (in the spirit of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Village of the Damned“ – my personal favorites of the era). However, “Forbidden Planet” is not an equally profound presentation of the idea. It is loaded with funky “futuristic” sets, costumes, and machine designs by the great Cedric Gibbons; has the very tempting, innocent Anne Francis; the suave but evil Professor Morbius (he has a beard, of course); the clean shaven Decent Guy Space Commander Adams; and the big, bubbly buddy of a juke box robot – Robby. WOTO

“Shoot ‘em Up” (2007):  This is a 100% ridiculous, extreme, implausible, silly, high speed, insanely violent comic book-of-a-movie so full of stunts and color, angles and editing, sounds, cheezie witty lines and 500-ways-to-splat-a-body it’s fun.  Clive Owen is the anti-hero, Paul Giamatti heightens the definition of Evil, and Monica Bellucci supplies the sex.  WOTO

“Austin Powers – International Man of Mystery” (again, 1999):  This is witty, stupid fun, especially perhaps if you are old enough to have “swung” through the 60’s yourself, and know by heart “Laugh-In”, “Goldfinger”, and “Hard Day’s Night”… at least the parts you saw from the back seat of your car at the drive-in!!  YEH baby!  WOTO

“The Fugitive Kind” (1960):  I’m going to say of this film much of what I did about Tennessee Williams other extremely tawdry stage/screen play “Baby Doll” of 1956:  When you think of Williams scripts, you think of the South – grimy, tortured personalities; steamy, reeking lust; bursts of useless anger; and eccentric, ready-to-snap characters.  Well, take them and multiply times twenty.  Although generally low key at its start, this story is over-the-top decadent, dark, and tortured.  Set in a collapsing, long-gone Southern hole of a burg full of ratty, sweaty characters on the verge of death or living Hell, this is where we enter.  “DECADENT” is what keeps coming to mind for “Baby Doll” and “The Fugitive Kind”.  Decadent Southern Gothic.  WOTO

“Butterflies are Free” (again, 1972):  There are a couple good reasons to see this film: 1. It’s a late Haight-Ashbury period-piece, filtered through five years of commercialized, mediocritized, Smiley Face acceptance – sort of like The Brady Bunch but with a little edge and some sex. 2. Goldie Hawn, still a star on the t.v. show “Laugh-In”, takes the role of a freedom-loving, flaky girl-woman, who spends half the film in her bra and underpants in front of a blind guy…and us.  Us lucky guys.  The “messages” in the film are basic to the period, lack all subtlety, and are easy for all to find and understand.  This is not a challenging film, but it is an artifact of that time period between the collapse of the Hippie Counter Culture and the rise of Disco.  Watch the live-shot street scenes.  This is NO LONGER the Summer of Love, Peace, Beauty, and innocent drugs.  The heavy shit is slipping in.  WOTO

“Escort Girl” (1941):  This is NOT one of the best of the Depression Era morality plays, but it’s a fair one about a Mom who owns an “escort business” and tries to hide The Truth from her daughter.  There are, as you might expect, some tragic consequences… however, you also get to see some fine designer furniture along the way!  WOTO

“Hairspray” (again & again, 1988):  I’m not a big fan of John Waters’ earlier films (“Pink Flamingos”, “Polyester”, etc.), nor any SINCE (“Cry Baby”, “Pecker”, “Cecil B. Demented”, etc.).  No others struck me as having even a little of that perfect balance of kitsch, nostalgia, uniqueness, budget, actors, humor, accuracy, sets, costumes, dialog, and truths I find so wonderful in “Hairspray”.  Ricki Lake got her “big” break as the very cute and overweight teen (“Traci”) whose only dream is to be on the local t.v. teen dance show.  Her best friend, Penny, has 4 ponytails and sucks on fireball candies all the time.  Together, they champion the integration movement of Baltimore!  If you’re delicately P.C., you’ll probably find this film insulting and tasteless… but John Waters has a message for you: “GOOD!”  Pia Zadora and Ric Ocasek as the Reefer Beatniks are great; DIVINE-Divine plays the double roles as Traci’s Mom AND the nasty old man who owns the t.v. station; Jerry Stiller is Traci’s Dad who runs a novelty shop; Debbie Harry (former lead singer of “Blondie”) plays the deadly competitive mother of a nasty, spoiled blonde teen “princess” who always wants her way, and her Dad is played by Sonny Bono.  It never lets up.  You’ll learn a few new dances such as “The Roach” and “The Bug”.  Waters does a cameo performance as the voodoo psychiatrist who tries to cure Penny of her attraction to a black classmate.  Pat and I use this one as one of our prime “feel good & laff yourself silly” movies.  We watch it once or twice a year.  Obviously, we think it is worth a couple hours of your time!  (And P.S. – we refuse to see the Broadway stage version, and doubly-refuse the new film version made from the stage version made from the original.  NO way.  There ARE films that should never be attempted again.  This is one of them.)  Just say NO.  WOTO

“Cleopatra Jones” (again, 1973):  Any gorgeous, black, special agent, kung fu-in’, kick ass, gun totin’, international-but-from-the-hood model who needs special hydraulic roof panels in her custom ‘Vette, just so she can get her AFRO in and out the vehicle, is awright w’me.  Best line (as she’s trying to get info from a sleaze-ball): “Hey Sistuh, don’ be cuttin’ up m’Dubba Knits!  I’ll rap wi’chya!!”  (Slight condensation for you.)  Sure, you’ll see that late 60’s / early 70’s reverse racism, raised fists, and plenty of fashions that should have been made illegal if for no other reason than being a fire hazard, but you’ll also see higher production values than in my other favorite “blacksploitation” flick “Super Fly”.  “Shaft” went mainstream.  “Cleo” and “Fly” were intended souly for the urban black youth and middle aged of the time.  They are ALL GREAT Period Pieces.  WOTO

“Fistful of Dollars” (again, 1964):  This is the soundtrack to my teenage life in the back seat of cars at drive-in theaters.  After Clint Eastwood left the t.v. show “Wagon Train”, he was fortunate (?) enough to become the Spaghetti Western “Man with No Name” STAR – the poncho-wearing, cigarillo-chewing, steely-eyed, fast-drawing anti-hero of Italian Westerns.  This grade-B movie series found its way to us through the grade-B venue of outdoor auto theaters.  They’re cheaply made, dubbed (except for Clint), and full of clintches, ‘scuse me, clichés…yet oddly entertaining, as he kicks tons of ass (yet there’s hardly a drop of blood to be seen in all of “Mexico”; there’s only one babe in the film (major babe-o-rama) yet he never even kisses her; he deals with hundreds of nasty smelly pig-men bandidos, yet no one utters a profane or vulgar word…it’s a surreal world where our anti-hero plays one side against the other in the dusty border town of “Down Mexico Way Out West”.  It’s just plain(s) fun.  The validly good quality lies in this early score by Ennio Morricone, who would go on to write the music for the following Spaghettis (“For a Few Dollars More”, and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”), and “The Battle of Algiers”, to the haunting music for the newer “Lolita” thirty years later, and, I hope, is still alive and creating.  “Fistful of Dollars” goes easy on the brain, is full of continuity and reality problems, and yet I NEVER tire of it.  THAT is a “Guilty Pleasure” of the highest low order.  WOTO

“For a Few Dollars More” (again, Italian, 1965):  Some of you won’t remember and may not know Clint Eastwood, after leaving his debut gig as “Rowdy Yates” on television’s “Wagon Train” weekly, began his movie career as “The Man with No Name” – a no-nonsense drifter who wore a serape and always chewed on a thin brown cigarillo – in a new genre immediately coined the “spaghetti western” (because they were shot in Italy).  “For a Few…” was installment two of three.  First, and my favorite, was “Fistful of Dollars”, and third: “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”.  Except for a couple of the lead actors, all were Italians playing Mexicans (speaking Italian and dubbed in English with no finesse).  The Italian landscape and light is very similar to the American southwest and northern Mexico.  Still, there is SOMETHING SO exaggerated, campy, and Italian-macho about these stories, they couldn’t have been American.  Scored by Ennio Morricone, and done with the same high-drama pitch, you can’t help but like these things.  They are blatant, thoroughly 60’s (think raggedy, sweaty, stubbly, Italian James Bonds in the Wild West), with no room for women (but a few tits), with lots of squinty men staring at one another (yet no one questioned these guys heterosexuality at the time), lots of show downs and shooting (but very little blood – these were NOT Peckinpah movies), and not a hero to be found either side of the Italian Pecos.  WOTO

“Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring” (1971):  This is a crappy made-for-tee-vee movie in the very worst tradition… but it was interesting for two reasons:  1) Sally Field, and 2) Linda Ronstadt.  First the crap: Terrible photography, terrible editing, laughable “special” effects, and a terribly predictable period story of the Martini Generation vs the Marijuana Generation (think AWFUL interpretation of “The Graduate” + ).  David Carridine, Jackie Cooper, Eleanor Parker, Lane Bradbury, Harry Lauter … they’re all okay… but they have nothing with which to work.  They were handed a turd of a script, and a director didn’t understand that.  Although she was about 24 when the movie was made, Sally Field truly looks like the c. 17 year old in the story.  For me, this was interesting, as was discovering new-to-me, never-put-on-an-album songs created for this movie and sung by Linda Ronstadt.  The story of The Generation Gap and all its hypocrisies, set in cliché-ridden “Suburbia” and “Hippie Commune”, was embarrassingly bad.  “Continuity” didn’t exist.  It was night, and someone would look out a window at a world lit at high noon.  Just awful.  Laughable.  But, not GOOD BAD, just bad.  Watch it for Fields or Ronstadt, or don’t watch it at all.  WOTO

“She Shoulda Said No!” (1949):  This is an unusual “edu-propaganda-warning flick in that the production values are much higher and some of the actors are actually recognizable from other films!  It’s anti-Marijuana – full of silly exaggerations and lies, but “She Shoulda Said No!” moves more like a soapy drama with just a touch of Noir than a thirty minute classroom reeler.  Bonus: a very early use of the Theremin to make the sounds of “marijuana intoxication, hallucination, and addiction”.   WOTO

“Ten Nights in a Barroom” (1931):  Most “Guilty Pleasure” films cause you to shake your head in amazement if not laugh at them.  I have to ADMIT this one, set in 1911, was classically aged soapiness but GOT to me.  I enjoyed the acting – overdone but not off track.  Scoring was the sort you never hear anymore, sets were rough but better than many low budget movies, and instead of being an edu-preachy film, it taught by example, which was not always predictable and definitely emotional.  It actually pulled me in.  WOTO

“Robocop” (1987):  There are probably four films from the Eighties that are typically, perpetually stupid predicting “The Future” by simply showing the Present on Steroids: “The Road Warrior” (1982), “The Terminator” (1984), and the later “Robocop”.  The difference is, despite their flaws, I enjoy their funky, dark humor.  “Robocop” starts VERY 80’s, slips sideways into the Futurist 80’s with an awesome and completely unreliable “law maintenance” machine, and off we go to the races… with corrupt corporations, slime-filled cities of urban decay, hoodlums galore, the Only One who can save the day (with ALMOST a love interest), and snappy one-liners in the style of Schwarzenegger.  And, it’s clear this movie product was set up as a sequelized release with accompanying action figures, etc..  The fourth film?  “Blade Runner” (1982)… but I have a harder time calling that one a “Guilty Pleasure”.  Much of it is just plain good, with the future depicted in a very different way (but somehow they all decided “the Punk Look” WAS the “future”…  Go figure.  Fashion wins out.  Temporarily.  As always.  Perhaps the Eighties Sci-Fi flurry really began with 1979’s “Alien” – one of the best Sci-Fi’s of all time.  WOTO

“The Road to Ruin” (1933):  Two high school girlfriends head down the wrong path… riding in cars with boys driving poorly, deceiving parents, wild dancing and the Jazz music, staying out late, trying alcohol, trying cigarettes, kissing, then… there is no turning back.  They’re on Tragedy Throughway.  Watch for great Art Deco costuming, cars, sets, and funky dialog with average-to-very-bad acting – all wrapped up in a classic early 30’s Morality Play.  Wonderfully terrible.  Like driving by an accident.  You just gotta keeping looking.  It was entirely the fault of the parents.  WHERE were their loving limits????  NOW it’s TOO LATE…  WOTO

“Follow that Dream” (1961):  I haven’t laughed harder or had more fun at someone else’s expense in a long time.  Poor Elvis.  WHATEVER his manager – “The Colonel” – told him to do, he did.  Imagine a movie set on an island containing (and keeping) nothing but a population of deeply confused, naïve, happily stupid people who bumble through their daze laffing, frolicking, being cornfused, and having their little scuffles and blossoming interests without EVER being disturbed by that troublesome world beyond their island para-dice.  One of them never changes his shirt and tie, one of them has breasts that change size and shape throughout the movie, one of them sings love songs but ain’t never done no lip-lockin’ with no gurl, one of them pays other people big money to use their fishing pole, one of them spends his life tryin’ to build an outhouse, others dress up like mobsters or bank employees or beach bums, the girls wear clothing that cinches their waists (to the point of ribs breaking, no doubt), there are twin boys who never blink… it’s a real freak show, but, like I said, they are happily stupid.  Okay, okay… that’s NOT the plot of this awful Elvis-flik, but it should be.  Really, you’ll have more fun if you go in with my suggestion right from the get-go, instead of letting it come to you half way through the film.  This way you can laugh the ENTIRE time.  THIS one is SO in my “Guilty Pleasures” category!!!  WOTO

“Delinquent Daughters” (1944):  Want to know how decent children turn into teen criminals and corpses?  This “edu-movie” will explain it.  Want to know how to fix these cultural problems?  This same movie will explain that too!  While you’re at it, slap that ditzy blonde into silence, wouldja?  WOTO

“Reefer Madness” (again, 1936):  Although this is the one that grabbed cult status over the years, it’s actually the least entertaining of the three (see below), and you should make a point to find “Marihuana”, “The Marijuana Menace”, and “The Cocaine Fiends”.  There is less stylish Art Deco décor in “Reefer Madness”, but some crazy dance scenes, a cool 1936 Ford convertible, one clean-n-neat little bullet hole, and solidly bad acting (of course).  WOTO

“Gidget” (again, 1958):  If you’ve ever wondered about the origin of that name, it’s explained in this first (and “best”) installment of the “Gidget” series, starring Sandra Dee.  Cliff Robertson and James Darren also star as “surf bums”.  It’s a dopey moovie, but it has a silly, innocent sweetness to it that’s hard to resist.  “Francine” (“Gidget”) is a typical, flakey, bouncey, enthusiastic teenybopper of her time.  She’s surrounded by decency, guardians, tolerance, and rules which have her pinging around like a pinball in the social life at the summer beach.  Nothing is deadly, nothing is permanent, nothing blows up or burns down… though she does her darndest to make bust exercises work before the Big Luau in ten days.  Gidget has “adventures”.  You’ll meet the whole gang.  No one is an addict, killer, rapist, or willing to drive off the rocky coast.  The other easy-snack treats are the clothes, hair styles, cars, and décor.  You’ll even get The Four Preps performing on the sand in a horrifyingly mediocre hootenanny.  (Was there any other kind?)  Sandra Dee was tiny.  Her waist must have been sixteen inches.  I did a little homework.  She was a fashion model in New York (she could easily pass for Brigitte Bardot’s daughter), gave up that life, went to Hollywood to act and try to get straight from Anorexia.  She married Bobby Darin.  That last seven years.  He died at 36, she slipped into alcohol and drugs, never quite shook the Anorexia, and died at 62 of Renal failure… but she sure was cute forty seven years earlier.  WOTO

“Goldfinger” (again, 1964):  Sure, there’s the bosomy blonde babe who gets herself killed, stripped, and painted gold; there’s “Odd Job” the mute, guillotine-hat-throwing Korean with a smirk; and there’s a laser ray about to cut 007’s genitals right up the middle… but it’s the car…the Aston Martin DB5 with all the cool gizmos that keeps me coming back.  Sure, there’s the ass-slapping “Go away.  This is MAN talk.  That’s a good girl” James Bond; the fat, conniving killer Kraut Goldfinger; and OO7’s “Well, that’s James… boys will be boys!” boss.  And yes, there’s the Evil Babe “Pussy Galore” who can fly a plane, fight a man, and f*** to beat the band.  This is the BEST of the James Bond flix, bar none.  The Cold War never had it better.  Shaken, not stirred.  WOTO

“Marihuana” (again, 1936):  Moralistic story, decent production values for a grade-B movie with bad acting, but the Art Deco sets, fashions, dancing, and detailing are very cool.  You’ll watch innocent high school guys-n-gals fall prey to greasy headed, pencil-moustachioed older men who deal in drugs.  First it’s beer, then wine, then marihuana, THEN cocaine and heroin.  Yes, there’s full frontal nudity, near sexual scenes, shocking immoral situations, shocking scenarios… THIS one has it ALL… PLUS a major lesson to be learned in the end.  You’ll gawk and laugh all the way to being scared straight.  WOTO

“Shaft” (again, 1971):  “He’s a baaaaad muh thuh f/SHUTCHO MOUF!  Hey, I’m jus’ talkin’ ‘bout Shaft!  Then we kin dig it!!”  Okay, “Shaft” is a standard issue urban crime drama with poor production qualities (but damned good scoring by Isaac Hayes).  So what else is to like?  First, it’s FUNKY.  Wocka wocka right-on m’brutha FUNKY.  Second, and more importantly, it is a DEFINITIVE Period Piece created when our culture was flailing between Peace/Love and Violence/Hate, the Haves and Have Nots, the Whites and the Blacks, the Victims and the Victimizers… all while the Viet Nam war screamed from our tee-vees every night.  The Black Panthers were still around, gasoline was thirty cents a gallon, one seed of marijuana could get you twenty years in prison, and big horsepower and snub nose .38s were boss.  Everything, from the lingo and fashions to the relentless racial and social class hyper-awareness, pounds it home to you, baby.  THIS was 1971.  The Art Nouveau revival was fading, the Art Deco revival was starting up but Disco scene had yet to arrive from Europe.  The Space Age was OUR only communal pride, Nixon had yet to be caught, and our culture was wallowing in a mish-mash potpourri of nostalgic escapisms.  “Now” was just too much.  “Now” was not working.  Our youth culture icons were killing themselves faster than we could mourn, our only politicians offering hope were all murdered, our students were being investigated by the FBI and shot down by the National Guard.  Every thing was seen in black and white, and Black and White.  THIS was 1971.  You could feel your adrenalin pumping.  It was a VERY MIXED [up] time.  WOTO

“The Baby Sitter” (1969):  “Say, are you one of those ‘Hippie’ chicks?”  “Gee, I don’t know… I DO know I like to be FREE!”  This is what drive-in movie theaters were all about, baby!  A backseat excuse to test the springs.  And, if the drive-in was waaaay out in the country where no neighbors nosed around, you could flash some cute, thirty foot high titty-n-hiney to spice up your dopey ass, grab the money and run, grade D flik.  Does it really matter WHAT the story is?  Nah.  Not at all.  It’s tacky, low-budget, titty-lation for the youth of America who could not or would not enter the sticky floor world of downtown porno houses.  This is a justifiable “Cult Classick”…       (+ This from IMDB.com: “Patricia Wymer was a lovely, charming and vibrant bubbly blonde actress who only appeared in three enjoyably trashy low-budget exploitation features during her regrettably brief cinematic career. Patricia started out as a dancer on the short-lived groovy 60’s rock’n’roll music variety TV show “Malibu U.” (She’s one of the cute dancing girls featured in Leonard Nimoy’s amazing music video for the goofy novelty song “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.”) Wymer both graced the cover and did a nude pictorial for the August, 1968 issue of the adults only magazine “Best for Men.” In 1969 she acted in two movies: she’s a coven witch in the nifty horror outing “The Witchmaker” and was delightful in the titular starring part of sexy and radiant free-spirited hippie pixie Candy Wilson in the immensely entertaining drive-in blast “The Babysitter”.  Alas, following her typically lively and engaging portrayal of the eager and precocious Mindy Evans in the fun high school romp “The Young Graduates” in 1971 Patricia Wymer abruptly stopped acting and seems to have vanished altogether into thin air.”  WOTO

“Blonde Savage” (1947):  THIS one is almost “Hit the Fan” category, but there are a few things to lovehate about it: The Blonde isn’t a savage, first of all.  In fact, she’s  a very cute 40’s big band vamp if anything.  And, the “jungle natives” are a sad lot of black extras picking up some easy but stupid work, the special effects are laughable, the “logic” of the story keeps falling to pieces, you can “see” the script lines as they are “read” by all the actors, the characters are flatter than the Sunday Comics, and, well, this is a White Man’s World over there in the African jungle, let’s put it that way.  WOTO

“Hot Rod Girl” (1956):  This has it all:  Swingin’ Chicks and Chickens, Way Out Daddy-Os, juke boxes, hang outs, hot rods, dead youngsters, law breaking, drag strips, Chicago box cars and Ducktails and Elvis jelly rolls, a small town with concerned adults, more hot rods, southern California convertible life, and plenty of phony scenes with fake backgrounds, slow cars supposedly speeding, fast cutaways to create “action”, actors with stand-ins that don’t look a thing like the “stars”, fist fights without one connection, the Understanding Girlfriend, The Ditzy Broad, The Brooding Hero, The Trouble Making Punk, The Comic Relief (Frank Gorshin!), The Supportive Cop (Chuck Connors!)… man, this is one Way Out Scene, Baby.  And DIG that Hot Rod Girl in the brand new T-Bird!  See this one for the cars (the REAL hot rods of old), the concerns of 1956, and the wonderfully stagy environment in which these (mostly) wayward-but-good-hearted teens supposedly roam.  WOTO

“The Lost World” (silent, 1925):  The FIRST object animation film.  It’s pretty good too, considering.  I’ll bet it ASTOUNDED the 1925 audience!!  This story (by Arthur Conan Doyle) set the stage for all others – from King Kong (8 years later!) up to today.  THAT’S saying something.  Though full of laughable moments – only some of which were intentional – there are also scenes where you might just say “Dang!  That’s pretty good for nearly a hundred years ago!!”  WOTO

“The Giant Gila Monster” (1959):  Classic bad 50’s sci-fi drive-in movie fodder intended to provide an excuse for girl to slide over into the protective arms of her boyfriend behind the wheel.  Vanishing teenagers, the desert at night full of weird buzzing sounds, hot rods, monsters, hip talk, cool rods (the REAL thing!), and adults who do or don’t understand “kids nowadays”.  If you’re a hot rod fan, this one is a must.  WOTO

 

 

8.

“This isn’t a “Film”, but I don’t know where else to put it”

 

 

“Easy Rider” (again, 1969):  Well, it IS a film but I have SUCH ambivalent feelings I don’t know where put it.  This film devastated me in 1969.  Why?… because it reflected the realities and the fears of that time.  It hit home.  My home.  Time passed and I came to see this movie as merely a low-budget, sloppily-made, vaguely motivated Grade C project with weak-to-nonexistent acting, incessant scenery shots that added nothing but minutes upon minutes to a “road” trip, and a sad testament to the results one gets when marijuana gets in the way of trying to create something… ANY thing..  You get the feeling this movie was assembled from [what should have been] out-takes.  The score was one big cliché of an idea.  “Easy Rider” has been on my “Worst Films of All Time” list for a long, long time.  Peter Fonda was the producer, Dennis Hopper the director, Jack Nicholson the third star, and Karen Black plays a hooker in a bit part.  Since my first (1st run) viewing and now, additional viewings and 43 years (good god!) have passed.  I’ve come to accept its role as an icon of a very short, very sad, very lost, very violent phase of American culture.  This is its value.  It’s a Period Piece.  It nails the shift from “Love-In” to “Out of it”.  WOTO

“A Raisin in the Sun” (1961):  Yes, it IS a movie and it IS made of celluloid, but I can’t call it a FILM.  Its script was first a stage play.  Later, it was put flat in front of a camera but it remained a stage play… which is the problem.  ALL the acting, dialog, movements, volume, sets and interactions are as though on a stage.  The acting is exaggerated for the non-existent back row at a play.  The timing, the… … every damned thing about this attempt at a film remained a stage play on celluloid… which shows a total lack of understanding of the medium.  Next, I fully expected this movie to take heaping helping Issues of the Day and force them down our collective throats.  Those times were NOT subtle.  They were desperate and immature, even if necessary.  Looking back, it is now embarrassing due to the self-righteous, sledge hammer preaching, predictable scenarios, and stereotypes.  “Raisin” is a true Period Piece full of timely egotisms and blind hypocrisies, and should be viewed within that context.  Starring Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Lou Gosset, and others.  Their acting is so consistently improper I can’t help but think it had something to do with producer Philip Rose and director Daniel Petrie.  WOTO

 “Lightning Over Water” (1980): If this WERE a film, I’d call it a poor one.  If it were a simple documentary, I’d say it documented very little.  Initiated by Wim Wenders – a director I have both greatly admired AND seriously doubted – and created around his chain-smoking friend dying of cancer, director Nicholas Ray, this is a messy, confused, sad attempt of two people who couldn’t simply visit one another and say their final goodbyes when the time came.  They tried to make each moment another piece of an unplanned, motivationally confused, experimental “art” movie.  It is embarrassing.  If you admire either of these directors, do not see this pile of film strips unless you’re ready to be very understanding and forgiving of their misdirected efforts.  It is a sad testament to artists who do not know where to draw the line.

Just because it’s made of celluloid doesn’t mean it’s a Film.

“The Wright Brothers’ Flying Machine” (2003):  Produced by PBS TV / NOVA, this is a wonderful look at the Wright brothers, their kites and planes, and the people today trying to recreate these inventions with limited data.  It’s nearly like starting over.  If you love inventing and craftsmanship, you’ll love this.  WOTO

 

9.

“Your Suggestions”

 

 

 

No Comments

A BIG QUESTION FOR YOU

January 17, 2012 by , under Films, FILMS - 2006+, Films 2012.

 

 

What films have you seen at least THIRTY times, and, WHY?

 

Leave your answers here!  (Many were originally posted on Facebook):

 

 

  • Dave JoachimBlues Brothers……….. good movie, great music.

    8 hours ago · · 1
  • Stu BechtelNemo…. love the grandbabies & seen it plenty of times.

    8 hours ago · · 1
  • Sonya HarmonJaws. I know, I know … but it’s not about the shark. The cinematography is gorgeous, and I love the relationship between Brody and his wife, as well as his camaraderie with Quint and Hooper. Go ahead. Judge away. LOLAlso? The Color Purple. No explanation necessary.

    8 hours ago · · 3
  • Pat Schoff GraggThe Wizard Of Oz. Brings back childhood memories from when we couldn’t watch it whenever we wanted, it was on once a year (signaling the start of the Christmas season). My sister, brother, and I would get soooo excited! Freshly bathed, in our pj’s, laying on the floor in front of the tv. My family was fond of Brach’s Malted Milk Balls (not the imposter, Whoppers), and as the music started we would hear mom dividing the bag into 5 bowls. Plink, plink, plink, plink, plink, pause, repeat. Goosebumps!

    7 hours ago · · 1
  • Eric HauseI’m with Sonya. Best adventure flick ever made.

    6 hours ago · · 1
  • Nancy Noll KolinskiThe Fifth Element: great writing + acting, so creative, amazing design – so much to look at!

    6 hours ago · · 1
  • FUTURES AntiquesI am LOVING this!! Go go go!!! Now I’ll add one of mine: “Eraserhead” by David Lynch.

    4 hours ago · · 1
  • FUTURES AntiquesOkay, Pat is right about “The Wizard of Oz”, and yes, I’m right there with the malted milk balls, too!

    4 hours ago ·
  • FUTURES AntiquesLet me think… a THIRD would be… “Metropolis” by Fritz Lang.

    4 hours ago ·
  • FUTURES AntiquesA FOURTH would be “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

    4 hours ago ·
  • FUTURES AntiquesA FIFTH would be… “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”.

    4 hours ago ·
  • FUTURES AntiquesSixth, and in NO particular order by the way, “A Christmas Story”.

    4 hours ago · · 1
  • FUTURES Antiques‎”Little Fugitive”.

    4 hours ago ·
  • FUTURES AntiquesI’m working my way towards 3-0 with “Napolean Dynamite” I think…

    4 hours ago ·
  • FUTURES Antiques‎”Lolita” – second version, 1997.

    4 hours ago ·
  • FUTURES Antiques‎”The Last Picture Show”.

    4 hours ago ·
  • FUTURES Antiques‎”Hud”.

    4 hours ago ·
  • FUTURES Antiques‎”Harold and Maude”.

    4 hours ago ·
  • Andrew RobertsGood movies are like great comfort food, evocative of time, place and memories of friends and family.

    3 hours ago · · 1
  • Lisa MerninAnimal House, pure stupid fun!

    2 hours ago · · 1
  • Lisa MerninAlso, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Wizard of Oz

    2 hours ago ·
  • Lisa MerninGroundhog Day – duh!

    2 hours ago ·
  • Lisa MerninThe Sound of Music – yeah, a musical

    2 hours ago ·
  • Lisa MerninThe Shawshank Redemption

    2 hours ago ·
  • Lisa MerninPlatoon

    2 hours ago ·

 Ronn:

Oh yes!  “Animal House”!

Yes!  “Groundhog Day”!

And, “The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser”.

And, “The Long, Long Trailer”.

And, “Fistful of Dollars”.

And, “Annie Hall”.

And, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”,

And, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”,

And, “Lord of the Flies” (1963),

And, “Fail Safe”,

And, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”,

And, “Waiting for Guffman”,

And, “Come Back Little Sheba”,

And, “The Grapes of Wrath”,

And, “Avalon”,

And, “Blow Up”,

And, “The Elephant Man”,

And, “The Life of Brian”,

And, “Anchoress”,

And, “Shane”,

And, “To Kill a Mockingbird”,

And, “Platoon”,

And, “On the Waterfront”,

And, “The Thin Red Line” (1998),

And, “Midnight Cowboy”,

And, “Anchorman – the Legend of Ron Burgandy”,

And, “Apocalypse Now”,

And, “The Miracle Worker” (1962),

And, “Dr. Strangelove”,

And, “Exotica”,

And, “The Secret of Roan Inish”,

And, “Tender Mercies”,

And, “Manhattan”,

And, “Schindler’s List”,

And, “The Last Temptation of Christ”,

And, “Lawrence of Arabia”,

And, “Edward Scissorhands”,

And, “Big Fish”,

And, “Flirting with Disaster”,

And, “Taxi Driver”,

And, “High Fidelity”,

And, “2001: A Space Odyssey”,

And, “Summer of ’42”,

And, …

  • Pat Schoff GraggCool Hand Luke. Cuz Paul Newman was HOT!!!

    8 hours ago ·

 

 

 

 

 

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