Third Time’s A Charm: JP:III and MI:III


Dinosaurs and Spies

Sometimes a film series gets it the most right the third time around. My examples are from two big-budget- B-movie franchises.

I originally had this idea shortly after seeing Peter Jackson’s bloated retelling of “King Kong” (2005). Among other problems, my biggest gripe with Jackson’s version was that it was unreasonably long and that a film about a giant ape tearing up stuff should move quickly and not spend too much time on the little people yammering (or in the case of Jackson’s film there’s too much time spent on everything). The original 1933 film was a very brisk 100 minutes. Whenever Jackson’s Kong came up in conversation I kept pointing to the underrated “Jurassic Park III” (which doesn’t get a lot of moviegoer love) as the example of how a monster movie should be told. What I admire about Jurassic Park III is that its director, Joe Johnston, knows that the film is about dinosaurs and that people aren’t really that interested in lengthy plot set ups or extended character-driven scenes as much as they are interested in seeing the dinosaurs chase the characters and tear up stuff. Clocking in at an efficient 92 minutes (and that’s with credits), “JPIII” gets through the necessary exposition succinctly and then gets down to the action. “Jurassic Park” (1993) and “JP:The Lost World” (1997) (both have running times over 2 hours) have their strengths and weaknesses (and certainly Spielberg’s first entry is a much better movie overall) but in my book they lack the start-to-finish efficiency and punch that “JPIII” achieves. To be clear, I am not claiming that “JPIII” is a great movie; I am merely saying that as films in this genre go, this one is paced almost perfectly and has a properly balanced ratio of exposition/action.

Here’s my favorite scene (It’s missing the first few minutes which builds the tension nicely)

Mission Impossible III

Director J.J. Abrams’ Mission Impossible III (2006) pulled the franchise out of the hole that John Woo’s MI:II (2000) had last left it in. Woo’s action skills did not mesh well with the series; lots of overblown action/melodrama/music (and yet the film is often dull) that all teetered on the edge of parody. Brian DePalma’s first entry (1996) wasn’t much better. That film is uneven, confusing, marred by logic problems (though none of the MI films dare to aspire to John Le Carre) and frequently smothered by DePalma’s none-too-subtle style.  When the third entry arrived in the summer of 2006, the film was considered a disappointment at the box office which is a shame because it was a large improvement in all departments. The action, while not amazing, is highly effective. Exposition is clear and to the point. I like to think that Brad Bird’s “Ghost Protocal” (2011), which was also very good and also very similar to “III”, was influenced to some degree by the straightforward execution of  Abrams’ film.

I really love the effectiveness of the opening scene. The acting, directing and timing of the cuts are perfect; signaling to the viewer that this will be a better movie than they were expecting…

Sometimes, in an effort to up the ante, filmmakers will inflate the various elements of their films for fear of failing the audience’s expectations. The hardest decision to make in these roller-coaster, action films is when to say when. Sometimes, just sticking to the essentials gets you where you want to be. Sometimes 90 minutes says it better than 140. Sometimes dialing back is better than cranking it up. Sometimes the single is better than side two of Dark Side of the Moon.

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FYI Bob Hope was funny


Hope with Gonzo in the late 70’s

Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, Bob Hope was the guy that showed up on t.v. every Christmas telling stale jokes and awkwardly interacting with up and coming talent of the day on his NBC Variety show. Hope was American entertainment royalty by then and so people like my parents (and especially my grandparents) needed no explanation of who he was and why he was revered. To me he was this old man who always seemed to be sticking stiffly to the script. He also starred in dozens of films that ran on television that I always passed on because I assumed I wouldn’t enjoy them.

That all changed when I stumbled on to “My Favorite Brunette” (1947) sometime in high school. Sharply written by Edmund Beloin (who wrote many of Hope’s best films) and Jack Rose and briskly directed by  Elliott Nugent, Brunette is the perfect vehicle for Hope’s masterful coward persona (Woody Allen cites Hope’s cowardice persona as a primary influence for his own). Playing Ronnie Jackson, baby photographer cum private detective, Hope and a terrific supporting cast (Peter Lorre, Lon Chaney jr., Dorothy Lamour, Charles Dingle) skewer the detective movie genre. It remains Hope’s best film. It fell into the public domain long ago so there are a number of low-quality cheap dvds out there and the whole film is on Youtube.

From there, I sought out Hope’s other films. Starting in 1940 with the funny and entertaining “The Ghost Breakers”, Hope had a good run of solid, entertaining films that included the “Road” pictures with Bing Crosby. The “Road” films were a breezy concoction of laughs (Hope), music (Crosby) and Dorothy Lamour (hubba hubba). They are a perfect example of wartime entertainment. The best of the bunch, for me, is “Road to Moracco”. The opening song is a hoot (“like webster’s dictionary we’re Morocco bound”)

The Bob Hope films of the 50’s and 60’s were increasingly uninspired and formulaic (he more or less retired from feature films in 1973) but his output during the 40’s is the best evidence of what a huge talent he was. Of course one can’t discuss Bob Hope without mentioning his lifelong service to our military. Entertaining troops for nearly 6 decades (and logging over 6 million flying miles – more  than any person on the planet!), Hope was given honorary veteran status; the only person to ever be given that honor. He lived to be 100 years old.


Entertaining the troops during WWII

I met Bob Hope once. OK, I didn’t exactly meet him. In the early 90’s I was in a hotel in Colorado Springs and he stepped out of an elevator with a huge entourage. People gathered around him and it got chaotic quickly. I yelled out hello to him. He turned and waved in my direction not really seeing me.

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Trekking Back To 1982: Star Trek Into Darkness

Spock (Zachary Quinto), Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Kirk (Chris Pine)

Spock (Zachary Quinto), Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Kirk (Chris Pine)

J.J. Abrams’ s original re-boot of “Star Trek” in 2009 was an inspired, highly entertaining take on Gene Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train” to the stars. Its main priority was to show the viewer a good time and make the “Trek” world as accessible as possible to moviegoers. I think it thoroughly succeeded in those areas.

Now comes the much anticipated follow up and Abrams (with writers Roberto Orci,
Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof) has decided to liberally connect his film with the best of the original cast’s canon: “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn”(1982). So much so that, in one  instance, a very pivotal section of “Kahn” is re-created almost verbatim and my heart just sank as it unfolded. Why? The whole scene is so key in the original and it is supposed to be key here but it is so flagrantly lifted and carried out that it undermines everything. I saw the film yesterday and I am still bothered by it today as I write this.

Moving on.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” tries earnestly (like the original series) to embrace our current cultural fears; more specifically terrorism and government mistrust. It embraces these ideas only superficially with little to no pathos or repercussions. Actor Benedict Cumberbatch (hot off Sherlock and excellent here) plays a rogue agent of Star Fleet who has blown up a secret facility and killed some high ranking officials. He escapes to the Klingon planet of Kronos. Kirk and crew are sent after him. It’s at this point that the film starts to come together and get interesting. It’s also here that the writers begin fussing with making sure that this new film fits into the story structure of a film made over 30 years ago (see George Lucas).

Now that we are two films in, things that were minor complaints in the first film seem to be amplified. Like, the way that Bones, Scotty and Chekov all seem to be cartoonish versions of the original cast (poor Bones is given the least to do and seems to be in a constant state of crankiness). Spock (solidly played by Zachary Quinto) has had his emotional side purposely pushed further than the original show/films ever did and while it was interesting and tastefully explored the first time around; here it seems positively exploited. The with-only-seconds-to-spare, near-death situations have also lost some of their edge. The whole film suffers from the mechanical decision of studios and filmmakers to incorporate the exact same ingredients of a successful first film. Even Abrams’ s choice of directorial beats (lets show an alien crew member we haven’t seen before in sudden close up during a tense scene) seem recycled. Most discouraging is this idea of being tethered so tightly to the Trek of old (of which I am a die hard fan). Here, it prevents the film from moving foreword with the characters; tying them down further to the past (worst offense: Leonard Nimoy is dragged back out again in a scene that feels positively unnecessary). Unfortunately, the fresh, energized spirit of Abrams first film shows up here intermittently.

I am still hopeful that Abrams will make an exciting Star Wars film. The sensibility that he brings to Star Trek is actually better suited for the Star Wars universe. As for the current state of Star Trek, I hope that the next time around they boldly go where (almost) no sequel has gone before: foreword.

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The Art of Monsters: R.I.P. Ray Harryhausen

I would be remiss if I didn’t say a few words about the great Ray Harryhausen who passed away Tuesday at the age of 92.


Harryhausen touching up the Kraken for Clash of the Titans

Ray Harryhausen’s creatures were all over T.V. in the 1970’s. As a kid, I saw most of the movies that starred these amazing creations and when I say starred that is exactly what I mean. There may have been actors and they may have had their names splashed on the screen with big titles but Ray Harryhausen’s screen credit carried more weight. And while most people would be hard pressed to remember the names of the actors in, for example, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger they would definitely never forget the giant troglodyte, the giant Walrus or the sabre-toothed tiger. As a kid I would patiently wait for the next sighting of a dragon, minotaur or statue (that had come to life). Those scenes of Ray HarryhausenHarryhausen’s work were always so satisfying because they (mostly battles of some kind) would last for several minutes and the camera didn’t shy away from what we the viewer were dying to see. Unlike other films that might have costumes or make up that the filmmakers knew not to dwell too long on for fear of disappointment; Harryhausen’s amazing creatures took center stage and they did not disappoint. Seeing Jason and the Argonauts or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was a monumental event. A circle was made in the t.v. guide. Plans were made. I had the good fortune of having been able to see his last (he went out on a high note!) film, Clash of the Titans(1978) in the theater. I was 8 years old and I still remember how genuinely creeped out I was through the entire Medusa scene; how excited I was when the enormous Kraken made it’s entrance in the final act.

So much has been written about him. He is held in such high regard and it’s so satisfying that is the case. How lovely that this pioneer of cinema has had his work screened, written about and cherished all these years. More importantly, the work holds up. I introduced my two boys to many of his films when they were young and they absolutely loved them. No amount of CGI can diminish the beauty of Harryhausen’s work. There is something magical and universally attractive in the art of stop-motion. Perhaps it’s because we are seeing this real, physical object being manipulated in the camera and brought to life. Whatever it is, it still works and it still fills the viewer with wonder and delight.  Sony’s HD movie channel is currently showing a number of films with Harryhausen’s creations. Check them out now!

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The Future of Superhero Movies: Iron Man 3


A weary Tony Stark (Robert Downy Jr.) sits with his alter ego

After “Die Hard (1988)” was released, the bar was set. Action films from that point foreword had to get to that level of intensity or people would say “Well, it wasn’t no Die Hard”. Last summer, “The Avengers (2012)” kinda did the same thing for Superhero movies. That movie raised the bar. And that thought returned to me several times while I watched “Iron Man 3” unfold. Like The Avengers it has huge set pieces that are infused with all of the craft, artistry and high energy that money can buy. The filmmakers of this third entry find clever, new ways to show people in peril as well as Iron Man’s feats of daring-do (one scene with a piano is a good example). Director/co-screenwriter Shane Black (who was an action screenwriter wunderkind back in the 80’s and has only directed one movie prior to this) is able, for the most part, to keep things moving along briskly and clearly which is a good thing since many of the action scenes are extremely busy in nature. There is one truly amazing scene involving Air Force One that is about as good as it gets. The finale is much longer and far busier but not as exciting.

I read an article earlier this month about how the filmmakers of the upcoming Superman movie spent a lot of time figuring out how to make Superman vulnerable. That idea is certainly at the heart of Iron Man 3. In fact, Tony Stark (Robert Downy Jr. doing his best Robert Downy Jr.) spends a lot more time out of his suit than in it. Well, that’s not entirely true but when you see it you will know what I am getting at. Also, the Stark mansion and all of Tony’s gadgets and toys are no longer at his disposal. Moreover, there are some other personal issues going on that afflict Tony in a way that emphasizes his non-superhero side. In essence, Tony has to start over and think outside of the box. But to be clear, eventually he and the suit get to do some feats of wonder before it’s all said and done.

The film starts out modestly and kinda meanders for a while in way that made me worry. Early on there is a bunch of Tony and Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow smiling a lot and sporting some tight abs later in the film) conflict scenes that don’t really work because they both don’t really seem to be all that upset to begin with. It’s diet cola drama. Tony and Pepper are better at just smiling and saying clever things. Anyway, things eventually start to unfold and the narrative picks up steam and then never stops. For me, the quip-centric Tony Stark is at once a lot of fun and overbearing. As we now have 4 movies with this snarky character, it’s a fine line between love and contempt. But at the end of the day Downy sells it better than anyone else and it’s hard to resist.The trouble here is when the screenwriters try to inject more serious elements only to have Tony undercut them verbally. Again, Tony Stark is better at being light on his feet.

Along with it’s basic plot elements that I will not go into here, Iron Man 3 is about Tony Stark coming to the realization that he has reached his limit of pushing the boundaries of technology and his suit. That he has been hiding in his suit too long. There is this reoccurring image/idea of Tony being separated from his suit (best two visual touches are an exhausted tony pulling his suit through the snow and an exhausted Tony sitting next to his suit on the couch). He acknowledges the need to get back to a normal life. Get back to the basics. Perhaps the superhero movies themselves will do the same thing sometime in the future; when audiences become weary of this kind of spectacle. But for now, as spectacles go, Iron Man gives us all the the goods.  Recommended.

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Critical Love: R.I.P. Roger Ebert


Sad news today. After a long battle with cancer, Roger Ebert passed away at age 70. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his film criticism in 1975; one of only three film critics to receive that honor. His multiple tv shows with Gene Siskel were popular and influential. He was arguably the most influential film critic of all time. He was a very gifted writer who was smart but never stuffy. Like Steven Spielberg or Tom Hanks he was hugely accessible and brought critical film analysis to the masses.

I remember becoming fascinated with “Sneak Previews”  in 1980 which ran on PBS channel 48 here in Cincinnati. Hearing Ebert and Siskel discuss films was hugely influential on me. Sometime in the mid-80s I bought my first Roger Ebert book of reviews/essays and I read it cover to cover. His writing style was always entertaining as well as enlightening. He was as eager to sing the praises of a monster movie like Q: the Winged Serpent (1982) as Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973). He had a special fondness for Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) and I remember seeking out and finally watching it when I was in high school; it became one of my favorite films of all time.

Good film critics open our eyes and help us see things we might have missed. They provide insight and context. Movies can be rewarding on so many levels beyond the simple structure of the plot or the pretty faces of the actors. It takes an open mind and critical thinking. Roger Ebert was supremely gifted at helping the viewer notice the less obvious qualities of a given film. He did it in a way that was always informed by enthusiasm and passion. He was not overly-scholarly or pretentious.

A few memories:

I remember passionately disagreeing with him once. He panned Empire of the Sun (1987) and I wrote him a letter. I was 17. I don’t remember what I wrote but I am certain I would be embarrassed if I read it now. I just re-read his original review and I still disagree with him.

He was an avid home-video enthusiast and I remember first hearing about HD television from him in one of his books. He was influential on me buying my first laserdisc player too.

I had the privilege to see him and Martin Scorsese talk movies in Columbus. He was funny and came across as just a fan wanting to talk shop.

Thank you Roger Ebert. To quote the character of Prince Feisal in (another of your favorite films) Lawrence of Arabia (1962): “What I owe you is beyond evaluation”.

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Great Big 70mm: Film Festival highlights from Chicago

Kubrick's vision of the future

Kubrick’s vision of the future

I just spent 3 days in Chicago attending screenings of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Playtime (1967) and West Side Story (1961) in the film format they were photographed in: 70mm (technically the actual film image is 65mm with the rest of the space allotted for the soundtrack). For those of you who are not aware of why you would want to see something in 70mm, look here and here. This weekend was a  rare opportunity to see these films the way they were intended to be seen. It was a great experience, one that I will not soon forget.  70mm has been a discontinued medium for decades and soon all 35mm film is going away for good as well.  The good news is I believe that the current state of high quality digital cinema has several advantages over 35mm and 70mm film (in general) and seeing these films drove that point home to me. More on that later.

I love the town I live in (Cincinnati) but when you are in a city that is almost 10 times larger you are immediately blown away by the sheer numbers of people that show up for events like this. The Music Box Theater in Chicago has a main auditorium that seats about 750 people. On Thursday night, 2001: A Space Odyssey was sold out. This is a film that was made 45 years ago but here it is a weeknight and it’s packed with people. I turned to my friend at some point and expressed my disappointment that this kind of film-fan support is just not present in our wonderful city. 2001 would never sell out 750 seats on a Thursday night. He, rightfully, assessed that the proportion of fans to population is probably similar, Chicago just happens to be the third largest city in the country (Cincy is 64th which surprised me actually- I thought we would have been higher up).

At any rate, it is obviously a genuine treat to be sitting with 700+ people who all want to take the visual journey that Kubrick committed to film all those years ago (note to the Music Box: I love what you guys do and how you do it- you are first rate all the way, but…you guys need to invest in some new, comfortable seats).

First up was, as the 1969 re-issue campaign touted- in an effort to lure the drug culture folks, “The Ultimate Trip” -2001.

What a trip indeed. It still amazes me how well the film holds up. It amazes me how a large studio like MGM allowed Kubrick to make and release a film that had to have confounded more than one executive (certainly audiences were either totally into it or they scratched their heads on the way out). It occurred to me how suited the material is to Kubrick’s meticulous style. Kubrick is H.A.L. in the end. Like the red-eyed super computer we love to hate, Kubrick has total control over all operations of this production and it all works because of his total commitment to every minute detail. Seeing it in a theater this particular time, with practically no distractions, it actually seemed to move quicker than I remember. Love it or hate it, 2001 is not known for it’s swift pace but I was surprised how quickly we get to the Jupiter mission. Douglas Trumball’s special effects are still miraculously convincing. Kubrick spends lengthy stretches of time showing us these visual miracles (e.g.  the landing of the lunar shuttle Aries lb) because, in 1968, Trumball’s special effects were positively groundbreaking. Seeing these scenes on the big screen in optimum resolution still filled me with wonder.

The Aries lb landing

The Aries lb landing

Next was French filmmaker Jacques Tati’s Playtime.

Playtime has no real screenplay or clear narrative; it is 2 hours of droll observation. Observations of people interacting, or trying to anyway, with each other in a modern, physical world that is constantly intruding, diverting and, at times, even harming . We are given only a few “main” characters that wander in and out of scenes (one is the famous Hulot character played by Tati himself). Shot in 70mm, Tati would only allow theaters equipped with the right equipment to run his film. It lost a lot of money (at the time it was the most expensive movie ever made in France) for that reason.

Tati gives us this huge canvas to look at, filled with people who are all doing different things. Everything is shot in medium and long shots. No close ups. Sometimes we are not even sure where to look. Sometimes the soundtrack points us to screen left or screen right. Sometimes, something is only happening in the very back of the frame somewhere and if we blinked we might have missed it. As the film goes on, the more complex these scenarios become; a newly opened restaurant filled to capacity becomes a loud, chaotic dance of mishaps with characters doing things often at the same time. It is such a unique movie going experience. It takes a little bit of time to get used to Tati’s universe but once you do, you become completely immersed.

Hurlot (Tati) looks out over a sea of office cubicles. Environments like this are the enemy in Playtime.

Hurlot (Tati) looks out over a sea of office cubicles. Environments like this are the enemy in Playtime.

Lastly, there was West Side Story; my favorite musical of all time.

Saul Bass' striking opening credits

Saul Bass’ striking opening credits

My passion for this film exists primarily because of Director Robert Wise, Choreographer Jerome Robbins and Composer Leonard Bernstein. For me, these three amazing craftsman/artists are the movie. The casting is uneven (Rita Morino is tops here) and the screenplay is so-so but the music, choreography and direction absolutely lift this film into euphoric places that still dig deep into my heart. Only near the end do the actors get an opportunity to elevate us emotionally the way that the music/dancing/direction does but there are definitely memorable moments: Tony trying to stop the fight, Maria’s disbelief of Chino’s news of her brother’s death, Maria and Anita in Maria’s room after the rumble, Doc telling Tony about Maria, Maria grieving at the end (Natalie Wood yelling “Don’t You Touch him!” is always a tipping point for me).

Natalie Wood grieving at the end

Natalie Wood grieving at the end

For me, however, the film’s most indigenous emotions come out in song and Leonard Bernstein’s legendary music is completely affecting. Lyrics/singing aside, his compositions for WSS are my favorite of all music of all genres.

Seeing Jerome Robbins’ choreography explode on a huge screen, framed and carried visually by Robert Wise’s camera is exactly what pure cinema is all about. The dance at the gym is a prime example. Watch and notice how the editing and the movement of the camera punctuate the dancing (at the 1:40 mark watch how Wise glides the camera to the right- love that)

The out-stretching of arms and legs is a beautiful, reoccurring image in WSS; first occuring in the opening prologue (especially at the 3:30 mark) Here is the entire prologue (in HD!). Imagine getting to see this in 70mm on a huge screen.

And my favorite display of the out-stretched arms and legs (and perhaps my favorite piece of choreography in the whole film) is in “Cool”.

Striking and volleying poses at each other

Striking and volleying poses at each other

At the 3:12 mark, the girls and guys begin striking and volleying poses at each other and, again, Wise moves the camera and cuts in just the right places. 100% visceral.  Sorry the video quality is not that good in this one

It could certainly be argued that Robert Wise was the greatest craftsman to work in Hollywood. All of his films were a thoughtful balance of hard work, craft and restrained, artistic flourishes. West Side Story, like Sound of Music, is rich, rewarding and completely accessible. In other words, a perfect example of what a classic Hollywood film is.

Robert Wise's strategically framed composition of the Jets.

Robert Wise’s strategically framed composition of the Jets.

I saw a handful of 70mm films back in the day. Most of those were just 35mm films that were blown up to 70mm so it was not the real deal. Seeing these films in 70mm was a reminder that, at one time, moviegoers were given a genuinely amazing visual experience when the lights went down. It was a heightened version of the story they came to see. It was like looking into a big window of another world. Bravo to The Music Box Theater and others like it for giving people a rare and wonderful opportunity.

Here’s the thing; As much as I love film it is, in the end, an imperfect medium. Not in terms of how it looks; it is absolutely magical to look it if the print is clean and the projection stable. Pushing light through the actual image is going to be better than a digital representation. But the truth is film gets dirty and it gets scratches and the film image isn’t always stable.  All three of the films I watched this weekend were full of imperfections. Image softness, noticeable wear and tear, image shifting, etc, etc. I still loved it. It still looked great. But when I saw The Master a few months ago in digital 4K resolution it looked completely amazing. The image was rock solid. No dirt and no wear. There was image grain visible. The qualities of film that it was missing were minute compared to the qualities of film it did have. If a theater has a quality digital projector and the print is 4K or better, it will look terrific. I want to reiterate that I love film. I love and cherish the screenings I was able to attend this weekend. But I am at peace with digital cinema. It’s getting better all the time. Now, having said that, I would drive up to Chicago tomorrow to be able to see what I saw this weekend. It was real movie magic folks.

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I Laughed,Cried & Embraced the Mysteries of the Universe: My Lists ~ Part One

My Desert Island Comedies:

I decided to just include the ones that immediately popped in my head. There are films that I may have had more laughs in but for whatever reason I don’t really go back to them. These are the essentials.

Quick Change (1989) Bill Murray’s best comedy before he met Wes Anderson. So many moments. Certainly the whole opening scene is worth the price of admission but other scenes are just as good (e.g. trying to get change at a small market, getting lost and seeing a jousting contest). Here is the first part of the opening scene:

After Hours (1985) Manic and truly strange from start to finish, Scorsese’s post Raging Bull comedy (of all things) is a New York fever dream that drags poor Griffin Dunn to hell and back. Multiple viewings are a must. In this scene, Rosanna Arquette gives you an idea of the kind of characters Dunn encounters during his overnight odyssey.

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Shirley Temple and a host of great character actors breeze right through famed writer Sidney Sheldon’s screenplay which is full of wit and charm. Grant pulls most of the laughs as a middle-aged, high society, bachelor who pretends (with great enthusiasm) to be interested in a high school girl (Temple) to hopefully persuade her to lose the crush she has on him. Great fun

The Blues Brothers (1980) John Landis’ large scale, musical comedy takes the kitchen sink approach and just piles the gags on one after another knowing that if something doesn’t necessarily work it will quickly be forgotten. My favorite gag in the whole movie is when the neo-nazi’s car suddenly takes flight and then drops (inexplicably above the Sears tower!).

It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) The Ben-Hur of comedies. A personal favorite of all time. It is a literal who’s-who of comedy. Just about every big name comedian (of the day) is present and accounted for and they are all given material that played to their strengths (I would argue that Phil Silvers is not even acting). Though it is an all-out tribute to physical comedies of the silent era it also happens to have a smart script by Bill & Tanya Rose that jabs endlessly at the American condition. My Dad loves this movie and shared it with our family when I was young. Every time I watch it I can hear my Dad laughing.

Movies that cause inflammation of my tear glands:

This is also made up of films that I am always willing to return to. Certainly there are films that probably generated more tears or left me in an unshakable state of depression. I picked these because I like where they take me emotionally.

1. How Green Was My Valley (1941) John Ford’s loving, lyrical tribute to the powerful bond of family; vividly showing the role each family member plays in maintaining and edifying that bond.  It’s hard not to get completely caught up in a turn of the century, coal mine-working, family that face brutal hardships and derive their happiness from each other.

2. Running On Empty (1988) One of the best films of the 80’s that I find a lot of people have never seen. This film also focuses on the inner workings of a family; this one happens to also be on the run from the FBI. Poignant and rewarding all the way through. I saw this film for the first time at a girlfriend’s house and the profoundly emotional ending of this film caught me off guard; I sat on the couch awkwardly trying to suppress the water works with no success. A must see.

3. The Color Purple (1986) Spielberg’s style sometimes clashes with the material here resulting in scenes that are tonally uneven. But there is no denying that when the film reaches its finale, the emotional payoff is joyous and overwhelming. There are a number of other scenes that will have you grabbing at the Kleenex box as well, like this one..

4. Fearless (1993) One of the most underrated films of the 90’s and, again, one that I find few people have seen. Amazing film. Director Peter Weir’s strong suit is extended, highly visual, non-verbal scenes that evoke an emotional response. Fearless has a number of these which play out like intimate, emotional dreams.

5. These moments from children’s films:

The Iron Giant (1999) ….”Superman”

Up (2009) The Mr. and Mrs. Fredricksen montage

Monsters Inc (2001) The very last moment (luckily the credits are long so you have time to recover)

Dumbo (1941) The “Baby Mine” scene. I re-watched this movie when my son was a baby. I sat on the end of my bed with him in my arms and as that song played I fell apart.

E.T. (1982) The last 5 minutes of course

Movies that encourage me to embrace the mystery:

There aren’t a whole lot of these kind of movies around. I am always appreciative when a filmmaker takes on the big questions. Whether they are a success or not is always arguable but I admire that they take a stab at it anyway.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) I didn’t see this film until the late 80’s and even though it was made in the late 60’s; somehow it looked and sounded like the future to me and it still does.  Director Kubrick pulled off the impossible and made a film that looked to the future (something that almost always immediately dates it) and somehow it has not lost it’s ability to work the same way it did in 1968. A huge movie that only translates correctly on a huge screen. Also, the special effects are just impressive now as they ever were. In some ways, more so. The ultimate trip.

Tree of Life (2011) For me, the best films are the ones that are purely visual. Movies like Network and Annie Hall are great, primarily, because of the writing.  Movies like Tree of Life rely almost exclusively on the visual experience. And what a poetic, hypnotic experience Terrence Malick’s film is. He boldly commits to using imagery that puts some of the responsibility of narrative structure back on the viewer. In many ways Tree of Life is a companion piece to Kubrick’s 2001.   In this scene, Brad Pitt’s character has lost his job. Instead of filling the scene with dialogue that explains everything we are just given snippets of conversation and thoughts; the rest is conveyed with Malick’s gliding visuals.

A Serious Man (2009) The Coen Brothers’ ode to their 60’s, Jewish, Middle class upbringing is a darkly funny look at one man’s life unraveling around him with no clear reason in sight. Who’s running things? God? Fate? Nothing? The Coens ask but they won’t answer and it doesn’t matter anyway. It’s more fun to ponder why we are here and why bad things happen when the cosmic joke is on someone else.

Bad Movies That Have Great Things In Them:

The truth is there a lot of these to choose from. I picked the first two that came to mind.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) Coppola’s busy, operatic stab at Dracula has serious problems starting with Keanu Reeves and Winoda Ryder who have seemingly wondered on to the wrong movie set and are forced to apply non-convincing accents. They are so clearly miscast that one wonders how this decision was made in the first place. Unfortunately, thespian Anthony Hopkins seems to think that the people in the back of the balcony aren’t able to see or hear him so he cranks up the volume and gestures. Only Gary Oldman gets it right as the Count. Coppola clearly loves working in old school artifice but the end result is hugely uneven. Still, I love certain scenes for their bombastic energy (the opening prologue with the puppets and the blood), genuine scariness (feeding the baby to the female vampires, the standing, bat Dracula), and beautiful visuals (the train ride of Jonathon Harker, the shadow play at the castle). Also, as much as I hate how Dracula looks later in the film (channeling John Lennon), his old incarnation early in the film, with flowing, grey hair meticulously piled upon his head, his body draped in red silk is the best kind of movie imagery. Ultimately, the wrong-headed idea of trying to inject a love story where one didn’t exist fails as does a strong narrative. Everything just gets bogged down by Coppola’s excesses.

Mars Attacks! (1996) A long time ago, Tim Burton made a handful of solid, entertaining movies (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman and Ed Wood). Since then, it has been a steady decline into the world of mediocre/bad/awful. Mars Attacks! was the beginning of this period. It ultimately fails as a movie but it has become a channel-surfing-stop-and-watch favorite for me ever since it was released. What works: Anything with the aliens. What doesn’t: most (but not all) of what the actors are doing. It’s one long joke which is this: it’s funny when aliens disintegrate humans. And that works for me when I am on the couch on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Stay tuned for part two..

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The Apeal of Dignity & Integrity: Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey Series 3

So my wife and I were very late to the whole Downton Abbey thing. Friends were either prompting us to watch or they were asking whether or not we had seen it because they kept hearing about how it good it was. We have finished season one and are three episodes in to season two. How is it? It’s very, very good. It’s wholly addicting. However, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Certainly Upstairs, Downstairs comes to mind. So why is this show so huge? Well, I think it’s always good to start with the current state of our culture. In the massive television landscape what is the void that Downton seems to fill?

I think it all boils down to this: dignity and integrity.

For so many years now, American television has been awash with plenty of shows (fiction and so-called reality) that are made up of characters who are severely lacking in the dignity and integrity department. Shows like The Housewives of (wherever), the brow-beating Master Chef, or anything on MTV thrive on humanity at it’s worst. Even well-healed dramas like Mad Men or Breaking Bad offer up a morally convoluted universe that seem more suited to our current tastes.

Downton Abbey offers the viewer an alternative universe where the overwhelming sense of dignity and integrity catch us off guard and resonate deeply as we are drawn in.

Right from the start, it is clear that the characters we are encouraged to root for have a strong sense of doing the right thing. Time and again, these characters are put in situations where they must choose between their own personal fulfillment and a greater good. We viewers often shake our heads in near-disbelief as they always go for the greater good. The servants are particularly endearing because of their total commitment to their work and, more importantly, the profound dignity in which they go about it. They operate downstairs like a grand military troupe; rising from the table as head Butler Carson enters the room. Immaculately dressed and rigidly formal in all personal exchanges. They may be servants but they possess a nobility that is compelling.  The wealthy and privileged Grantham family offer up a more complex view of dignity and integrity. It becomes apparent that these people are not bad because of their wealth and power. It’s all they have ever known. Amid their aristocratic lifestyle, they struggle to remain honorable. It has been so rewarding to watch the Grantham’s struggle and adapt to a changing England. This is especially true of the three daughters. We are sure that Mary is a rich brat at the start but as her life becomes complicated we see the pull of her conscience and (at least as far as episode 3 of season 2) putting aside her strong feelings for love to spare the feelings of others and avoid scandal. As annoying as Edith is early on, she too finds her calling to a higher ground and our feelings for her shift as well.

Downton has all the cards: rich writing,uniformly terrific performances, splendid use of locations, droll humor throughout; it’s top shelf entertainment. But if I had to speculate as to why this show seems to be resonating so strongly with people it’s that we are not accustomed to seeing people cling so strongly to their moral compass. For us the viewer, it is a reversal of what we would normally consider wish-fulfillment entertainment. In the case of Downton Abbey, we wish we could act with such nobility and grace.

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2012: Wrapping up my first year blogging


I will keep this short. I started this blog on April 3rd of this year. Since that time I have posted 21 reviews/essays. I thought that number would be bigger but I am reasonably happy with what I have been able to get out there. I have learned a number of writing lessons (e.g. proof reading should be done by someone other than just me). I feel I am improving with each piece. My confidence has grown though I still click the post button with anxiety running rampant through my body for fear I have written something lousy or, worse, boring. Thanks to those of you who read and support my little corner of the blogosphere. It has been such an enjoyable excursion for me.

Happy New Year!

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